Scarlett’s Aunt

A Visitor To The House

 

Scarlett Page seemed to glide rather than walk, her feet barely making a sound on the gravel driveway as she stepped from the taxi. Perhaps it was because I was more used to my mother’s quick shuffle, or Mary’s unsteady gait, that Scarlett’s long and graceful strides caught my attention.

‘Oh darling!’ Mary Coldwell said, in a booming theatrical voice. ‘It’s been too long. How was the journey from town? Not too boring I hope.’

Mary embraced her niece’s slender shoulders in an awkward hug, which took Scarlett by surprise. Scarlett was several inches taller than her aunt, and so had to bend to kiss her on the cheek, as she did so her red set curls caught the sunlight and glowed like a bonfire. She was wearing a crisp white short-sleeved shirt tucked into a cherry red billowing skirt that brushed her shins. She looked like she could be Audrey Hepburn’s younger sister.

‘Oh no, it was lovely. It’s so nice to be back in the country again,’ said Scarlett, as she pulled out of the hug.

‘Can it really have been so long?’ Mary said, with a sad little shake of the head. Mary still possessed the upright posture of a dancer, but her movements were stilted and old-fashioned in comparison to her young and vibrant niece’s, while her old heavy tweed suit was from a stuffier and more anxious inter-war era. Mary beckoned me to take care of the cases with a flick of the wrist, but as I rushed forward, Scarlett protested.

‘I’m perfectly capable auntie,’ said Scarlett.

‘Oh nonsense,’ said Mary, waving away her niece’s protests as if they were a bothersome fly at a picnic. ‘It’s what I pay Jack for!’

Mary guided Scarlett across the threshold of the Gothic Revival house and into the entrance hall. Scarlett glanced a pitying smile as she passed, but thankfully did not see me blush, as she’d turned away to admire the many black and white photographs of Mary captured in an arabesque position or suspended in an eternal leap. I was surprised when Mary also paused to study the yellowed photographs. I heard they’d been an accident. There were stories, of course, but no one really knew the truth, and I wouldn’t dare ask Mary.

 

A Strange Noise Before Bedtime

 

I didn’t see much of Scarlett around Madwick House those first few days, as she was busy rehearsing at the theatre in town. One evening, as I was about to head home, I heard a noise that sounded like someone taking a tumble upstairs. I didn’t think much of it at first, but as there’d been a spate of burglaries in the area, I decided to double-check all of the doors and windows were secure. I headed upstairs, my steps muffled by the half-carpeted treads. Upon reaching the first floor, I was surprised to discover a strip of light illuminating the flowery pattern on the carpet. The ajar door was the source of the mysterious movements, which I could now make out as being footsteps deadened by a plush carpet. But there was also another noise now: the tinkling of a music box. Peering through the crack, I saw a tiny ballerina twirling round and round. Her axis was off centre, and so her rotations were crooked and faltering. A shadow passed across my face. It was from one of Scarlett’s long limbs, as it made a graceful swoop around her lean body, which was draped in a negligee. I was mesmerised by the abandon with which Scarlett whirled about. Her eyes were closed and she seemed lost in the movements her body was making, which, I noticed, were perfectly in sync with the music box. Suddenly Scarlett’s eyes snapped open and she screamed at the eye staring at her through the doorway.

Needless to say, I had a bit of explaining to do, but to my relief, Scarlett quickly forgave me, and we ended up talking for hours.

‘How is your mother?’ she said, warmly. ‘I suppose she’s retired now?’

‘Well, not completely, she still helps out if Mary’s entertaining, but she rarely has lots of visitors these days.’

‘Yes, what a shame, I hear her dinner parties were legendary back before the war.’

‘I guess people didn’t feel up to partying after all that business.’

‘Yes, quite,’ said Scarlett.

I felt bad for keeping Scarlett up late, but every time I tried to leave, she would ask me more questions and I would stay another half hour. The longer we talked, the more obvious it became that something was weighing on Scarlett’s mind.

‘It’s nothing really,’ she said, tentatively. ‘It’s probably just tiredness from all the shows, but since arriving here, I’ve been, well, overcome by… ,’ she wrapped the cord from her nightgown around her fingers, ‘strange sensations.’

She uttered the last two words in barely a whisper.

‘Strange sensations?’ I said, also whispering.

‘Yes. Just before you came in this evening, I felt as if I was rather lost in the music. It’s not uncommon for a dancer to find it hard to switch off after the high of a show, but this was… ’ Scarlett’s eyes darted about the room, as if she was looking for an explanation. ‘Different. As if I wasn’t quite in control of my own body.’

‘I’m sure it’s just tiredness, like you said. I often feel out of sorts after a long day at work.’

‘But that’s just it. I didn’t feel out of sorts. I still felt exactly like myself, only I just couldn’t – ’

Scarlett pulled the cord taut between her hands and looked away towards the dressing table. The music box was still open, but the music had stopped, and the tiny dancer was stationary and at an odd angle that made her seem as if she was about to topple off the edge of something.

I followed her gaze towards the box. ‘Is it broken?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘She’s just stuck.’

Scarlett let the cord fall from her hands and closed the music box. ‘I think maybe you’re right. It must be tiredness.’

‘You do have a hectic schedule. And all that twirling about, it can’t be good for your brain.’

Scarlett laughed a little.

‘I’m not surprised you feel strange. It must be odd travelling about all the time. Always sleeping in a strange bed and living out of suitcases.’

‘It’s funny. You kind of get used it, really. It’s so nice to stay in a house instead of a hotel though. Auntie has been so nice offering her home to me. She’s treated me like a daughter: showering me with gifts, like this music box, and then only yesterday she took me to a gorgeous restaurant and told me to order whatever I wanted. She’s been so generous.’

‘Mmm,’ I said, forcing a smile.

 

A Night At The Ballet

 

‘Stop fiddling with that!’ mother said, smacking my hand away from my tight collar.

‘I don’t see why we have to dress up anyway.’

Mother tugged my arm to encourage me to move along the street faster.

‘Because this is culture, Jack. It’s not like going to the pictures. The theatre’s special. I hope you thanked Scarlett for me.’

‘I did.’

‘Did you give her the flowers and the card?’

‘Yes!’ I said, more forcefully than I’d intended, but mother was so excited, she didn’t hear.

‘To think little Scarlett is a ballerina now,’ she said, dreamily.

I was intrigued to see the show, but if truth were told, I was reluctant to share Scarlett with an audience. The last few days I’d often replayed our encounter. If I closed my eyes, I could still see her body twirling about her bedroom, just for me.

 

The Gilded Auditorium

 

The ornately decorated auditorium inspired a sense of awe in my mother.

‘Oh look, Jack!’

Scarlett had furnished us with tickets beyond our price range. We were in a lavishly decorated box just to the left of the stage. Red velvet curtains with a gold fringe were draped along the box’s edge, gilded lamps hung from the walls, and intricate wood carvings and plaster mouldings adorned every surface, even the chairs we sat on were gilded, unlike the regular red folding chairs in the stools.

‘Are you sure this is right?’ Mother whispered, even though there was barely anyone in the auditorium to hear us.

‘This is where the usher pointed.’

‘I bet you’re glad you dressed up now?’

I hated to admit it, but I was glad. The last thing I wanted was Scarlett to think I was a slob.

The Show

 

I waited on tenterhooks for Scarlett to appear. The orchestra swelled and then suddenly there she was rushing onto the stage before me. She was wearing a brilliantly white tutu, white tights, and a white feather headdress that covered most of her red hair. I was disappointed. She looked washed out, no doubt it was just the make up and the harsh lights that made her seem that way. But when she began to dance, she was as beautiful as I remembered. I watched with a rising envy as the Prince laid his hands on Scarlett’s body. He twirled and lifted her about as if she weighed no more than the feathers on her costume.

I followed Scarlett’s every brisk movement until she disappeared into the wings, and I felt bereft. My mind leapt into action, replacing the real Scarlett for an imagined one. Although the show continued on without her, I saw Scarlett spinning around me in her bedroom. She stopped a few inches from my face, and I stared into her dark brown eyes. She reached for my trembling hands, which had been down by my sides, and guided them onto her narrow waist. I heard her gasp, although her mouth didn’t move. Scarlett’s breath was on my face, and I felt a tugging at my arm, which I took to mean only one thing. I boldly caressed her slender shoulder. She leaned into my neck and whispered something I couldn’t make out. But I didn’t care what she said, as my hands were now slipping the straps of her negligee from her shoulders. I was about to kiss her pink lips when Scarlett’s face contorted into a look of panic.

‘I can’t!’ said Scarlett.

She broke away from me and danced around the bedroom.

‘Look at her go!’ said my mother, excitedly.

I snapped out of my daydream and saw the real Scarlett at the front of the stage spinning en pointe. She spun round and round and round. Her turns were so fast and sharp that her red hair came loose and whipped about her head and shoulders. But there was something odd about her I couldn’t quite place. Her lithe limbs enthralled the audience as they whirled through the air. She rushed across the stage, coming within a few feet of our box. It was only then that I saw the look of terror on her face and the struggle she was waging with her own body.

‘I can’t stop!’ she said, though her words were drowned out by the orchestra, I read them on her trembling lips.

Scarlett spun off to the other side of the stage, her arms and legs wildly jerking about her body as she furiously fought them. I didn’t understand what she meant. How could she not stop? In the twin of our own box, sat Scarlett’s aunt. As Scarlett’s spotlight moved across her face, Mary’s mouth seemed to curl into a cruel grin, but then the light receded and her face fell into the shadows once more. When it reappeared moments later, the grin was gone, making me doubt if it had ever been there at all.

 

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