Everything about Mrs Lily Gladwell was a lyric, from her wardrobe of old dancing outfits to the rhythmical name of her former beau, a M. Eugène Dufresne. Both were natural entertainers: she was a dancer; he a pianist. Conversations between the two maintained this sense of poetry, for M. Dufresne’s broken English came up with turns of phrase such as a lonely whisky to describe his favourite pleasure poured over ice. This suited Mrs Gladwell and her sens d’humeur perfectly, for she enjoyed the musicality of accented voice, and often joked with a cocked-head that she could dance to it if only he corrected himself on fewer occasions.
Balance was struck between the two: she was a blown by the wind type; his life a more serious regimen. Mistakes made Mrs Gladwell the way she was. She would incorporate missteps into her routine and turn them into something beautiful, whilst Dufresne could do no such thing. Frivolity was something he could not countenance, and yet, both of them were a genuine attempt at ironing out those indelible creases which would occasionally come to the surface in the other’s well-dressed personality.
Quincy Emmons, along with his six-year old brother Giro, lived in between Mrs Lily Gladwell on the alley part of the house and Mr Dunwaring Dramel on the stuck side. The other neighbours kept to themselves in a gathering of six semi-detached houses. Of all the neighbours, Dramel was the strangest man: he looked more like a hat stand than a person; his long brown trench coat—which he wore through any season—hung loosely off his stick-like frame, intimating a sartorial toothpick. Of Dramel’s quirks, the oddest was his bird table routine. Each afternoon, when the sunlight cast an arrow somewhere between five and six on his sun clock, he would lace his back-garden bird-table with wild flower seeds, which was no extraordinary thing. Yet watching from his kitchen window, and seeing a bird on arrival, his peculiar tic was to force both hands perpendicular to one another, forcing the air in his palms into a loud clap. Such was the paradox of his hospitality.
Mrs Gladwell, with her wicked sense of humour, once told Quincy and the more gullible Giro that Mr Dramel always rode a bike because he was born on a leap year; “despite approaching the later stages of 60 in normal people years” she told them, “the law won’t allow him to drive a car since he doesn’t touch seventeen”.
In that respect, Mrs Gladwell was similar to Dickens’ Miss Haversham, albeit without a trace of malice; if the clocks in her house were stuck at a particular time in the past, it was purely due to forgetfulness, rather than a bitterness for Dufresne’s departure.
Unlike Dramel, Mrs Gladwell left the back door to her home open to inquisitive visitors in the event that she was not already in her garden, a space which consisted of a small rectangle of lawn interspersed here and there with daisies and other common English meadow flowers—the type she described to her neighbours and friends as her “dainty whimsies”. At the far end of the garden was a squat laburnum tree; in early summer, bright racemes hung from this tree, racing in the wind much like the yellow silk which cascaded from the elbow of Mrs Gladwell’s 1920s dresses.
Shadows cast by the garden fence and delineated by a two-pebble-high drystone wall provided security to damp bluebell clusters.
“Why do they call you the Dancing Bluebell if your first name is Lily, Mrs Gladwell?” Giro asked, casually hopping over the fence.
“You’re not meant to address an esteemed lady by her first name—” Quincy tried to reproach from the other side.
“I was called the Dancing Bluebell” Mrs Gladwell started, “because Lilies don’t respond. . . they are completely unaware of their surroundings. Have you ever seen lilies sway in a breeze? No? In effect, they are emotional illiterates in the plant world”. She let out a raspy, smoker’s laugh—a deep drawl of aristocratic quality—as if hiding dirty, youthful thoughts. She drew on a cigarette smoothly.
From inside, sounds floated of a by-gone age. A tobacco-stained wireless Bakelite radio took pride of place above a bookshelf in Mrs Gladwell’s living room, belting out orchestral pieces from speaker panels which rose and fell on the front of the radio, like simple art-deco skyscrapers on an uncluttered skyline . . . “Pretty eyes, ruby lips, dimpled chin . . . . lovely shape and golden hair” . . . Quincy had once told Giro that the special radio was actually receiving and playing sounds which had been broadcast from the past—how else was Mrs Gladwell able to carry on living in this era, as everyone else moved forward?
Over the music, Mrs Gladwell continued. Her feet shuffled from back to front and back again, her knees bent, then feet turned out diagonally—as if attempting the Charleston:
“ I was the Dancing Bluebell, it was a name given to me by Eugène—‘’
“Who was he?”
“Oh, difficult! you see continental Europeans don’t have wives or girlfriends; they take lovers . . . or so they tell their musing, artistic selves”
Even though neither of them understood, the line of enquiry continued. ‘’Where is he now?”
“Kesqué?” replied Mrs Gladwell, attempting Dufresne’s phrases in reverse, holding a cupped hand to her ear.
“Oh where? One could say he took a dive into a lonely whisky—we turned to electricity after that”.
Mrs Gladwell sat down on a garden chair underneath her laburnum tree whilst Giro attempted a handstand on the messy lawn. A stream of light filtered through the flowers, highlighting motes of pollen which flitted like a crowd of tipsy moths guided by Piaf on the radio. . . Et perdue parmi ces gens qui me bousculent . . .
“Our dancing troupe was called The Dancing Bluebells, but that was mainly in reference to me . . . Eugène would start playing the piano slowly, and would speed up—once the crowd was baying like mad geese he would shout to a rapid-fire drum roll Les Jacinthes des Bois dansent!
“First up was Felicity . . .’’ she continued, lowering her chin yet looking up to both distracted brothers from her chair.
“The crowds loved her—oh how she could dance! She was called the flickering flame not because she was quick but her movements flowed . . . just, imperceptibly.”
“Felicity the Flickering Flame . . .” she said to herself with a murmur, and then shouting unexpectedly, working herself from melancholic nostalgia “How felicitous!” Rolling a blade of long grass between her thumb and middle finger, she let out roaring, carefree laughter.
A sheltered beach across the way provided further sanctuary to both Quincy and Giro. Along the western-most side of the bay, a curved pier unfolded half-way across the bay, creating a silent space within: a reclining man, arm stretched over the pillow, cradling the golden hair of a naked lover. Wide-tread granite stairs led down from the end of the pier, curving around the side of the structure like bas-relief olive branches choking the neck of a Greek vase. Several of these steps plunged into the water below, until they could no longer be seen.
“What’s the point in having those steps go underwater?” Giro asked Quincy.
“I heard someone say that it’s for the souls of drowned sailors to come back on land; you know like witches’ stones. They were put on chimneys to make sure that tired witches had somewhere to rest—otherwise the witches would curse the houses they landed on.”
The side of the pier was pock-marked with missing stones. These were not drainage holes, but instead marked the positions in which wooden scaffold poles were placed during the pier’s construction. Having long since rotted away, these cantilever points were now occupied with nests. Both brothers observed a pigeon flapping her wings to protect her clutch from the rising spring-tide.
“You can learn a lot from old people”, Quincy stated “they always have so many stories to tell. Like Mrs Gladwell remembers when the Titanic sunk, or the time er-jen du-fren went looking for his keys in the oven” enunciating each letter in describing the last ponderable event.
“They must go somewhere, though, when they get old,” Quincy thought, no-matter how strange that place could be.
On the way home, the boys saw Mr Dramel riding his bike, alighting near his front door. Dramel then stole down the private alley on the opposite side of the boys’ house, a less neighbourly thoroughfare. He then took the bike into his back garden where he kept it in the shed next to his bird table.
Quincy decided to look in on Mrs Gladwell by trying the front door; as usual, even the front door was unlocked. Familiar effects were present: a series of curly wigs resting upon cream mannequin heads; an empty champagne coupe on a stack of yellowing broadsheets; a hand-written note on bourbon cocktails. All trivial objects, yet each item a story.
Quincy and Giro, whom in their common childish fashion gave themselves over to curiosity, made their way through the front room to the kitchen in one stage of a mock military manoeuvre. Via the open back door, silly, playful steps led them to the garden. The grandmother clock rising with its carved swirls chimed half past five as they passed Mrs Gladwell’s larder door: cooling temperatures during dusk’s first hours meant finer things in early summer, where it was possible to smell flowers at a distance without the distraction of heat or cold. One could also enjoy watching trees rustle with unusual leaves: the birds after their final feed in an attempt to roost.
Chronic frailty rarely affects youth, but there is a cruelty about growing old to a dancer. Old age implies weakness, and with weakness the dazzling brilliance of the dancer’s craft diminishes: a plucked petal crinkling around its periphery. A slight breeze had caused Mrs Gladwell to sway delicately from her place underneath the laburnum tree. The boys felt for the first time a calming benevolence in watching her move, the same feeling of the kindness that she had always shown them. But they also felt sadness. Her dainty whimsies also moved, some prostrate, as if in deference to a more natural thing; the white-lipped Zantedeschia and chrysanthemum were portentously still. A leaf-lipped prayer.
Nearby, the gentle air blew through a waterfall of wind-chimes, creating a twinkling of sounds as if Eugène was exploring the whites and blacks of Shostakovich’s Tahiti Trot. To this ditty, the Dancing Bluebell swayed. Mrs Lily Gladwell had long been thrust from a public platform to her current, shy and intimate stage, yet from this arena she slipped into an antechamber last graced when she was born. Still swaying, she danced the last of a lifelong routine; the hem of her burgundy nightgown lightly billowing, her slippers stilled, curlers in her hair.
Mr Dunwaring Dramel clapped.