Maddy Green was finding it hard to breathe. She lengthened her stride, eager to reach the rehearsal studio. She could almost feel the familiar smoothness of the barre beneath her hand and almost see the glint of bright lights off the mirrors and hear the regular scuff and thump of other dancers leaping and landing and twisting and turning around her.
She needed the comfort of the familiar very badly right now.
The double doors to the Sydney Dance Company’s rehearsal studio A came up on her left. She pushed through them and the familiar scent of warm bodies and clean sweat and a dozen different deodorants and perfumes and aftershaves wrapped itself around her.
Home. She was home.
“Maddy! How did your doctor’s appointment go?” Kendra asked the moment she spotted Maddy.
The rest of the dozen dancers in the studio turned toward her, faces expectant. Maddy forced herself to smile and shrug casually.
“It’s all good,” she said. “No problems.”
She couldn’t bring herself to say the other thing. Saying it out loud would make it real. And for just a few more minutes, she wanted to lose herself in the world that had held her enthralled since she first saw a picture of a ballerina when she was four years old.
Kendra flew across the room to give her a hug, her slender arms strong around Maddy’s back.
“Fantastic. Great news. The best,” she said.
The other woman’s gauzy rehearsal skirt flared around her legs as she returned to her place in the centre of the room. Kendra was only twenty-two. She had her whole career ahead of her. She was a beautiful dancer – strong, delicate, emotional, intense. She would fly high.
Maddy felt someone watching her and lifted her gaze to find Stephen Jones, the choreographer, eyeing her closely.
She turned her shoulder, breaking the contact. Stephen had been watching her a lot lately, checking her range of movement, testing the strength of her injured knee. Had he known, or guessed, what she’d been told today? Had everyone known except her that she was over? That she would never dance again?
Her heart pounded against her ribs and again she couldn’t quite catch her breath. She threw her bag into the corner and slid off her street shoes, bending to tug on a pair of slippers with shaking hands. The ribbons whispered against her fingers as she wrapped them around her ankles and tied them neatly. She shed her skirt to reveal tights and leotard and took a place at the barre to begin warming up. Pliés first, then some rond de jambes, keeping her head high and her arms relaxed. Every time she rose up en pointe, she felt the seamless, fluid glide of her body responding to her will, saw her reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirror, posture perfect, form ideal.
Her heartbeat slowed. She was a dancer. Always had been, always would be.
She tore her eyes from her own reflection to find Andrew McIntyre, the company director, standing behind her. He, too, had been studying her perfect form in the mirror.
“Why don’t you come through to my office?” he said. His voice was gentle, as was the light in his eyes.
He’d spoken to Dr Hanson. Of course he had. Dr Hanson was the company’s doctor, after all. When she’d come on board four years ago she’d signed a contract agreeing that the company could have access to all health matters pertaining to her career.
“After rehearsal,” she said. “I’m warm now. And the rest of them are waiting for me.”
“I think we should do this now, don’t you?” he said.
He was frowning, as though what she’d said pained him in some way. He moved closer, reached out a hand to touch her.
She took a step backward. Rising up en pointe on her bad leg, she lifted her right leg in grand battement, raising her leg to the side and up, up, up, until her toe was pointing toward the ceiling, her straight leg beside her ear.
She held the position in a blatant display of skill and strength, her eyes daring Andrew in the mirror.
He held her gaze, never once looking away. And when her muscles began to scream and shake from the pain of holding such a demanding, strenuous position, he stepped forward and rested his hand on her shoulder.
“Enough, Maddy. Come to my office,” he said.
She let her leg drop down and relaxed onto her flat feet. Her bad knee throbbed, as it always did these days when she demanded too much of it. She hung her head and stared blindly at the polished floorboards.
She felt Andrew slide his arm around her shoulders. Then he led her toward the door. The other dancers stopped mid-rehearsal to watch her. She could feel their silent stares as she and Andrew stepped into the corridor. Andrew didn’t let her go until they were in his office.
“Sit,” he said.
He crossed to the timber storage unit that spanned one wall of his office and opened a cupboard. She heard the clink of glass on glass as he poured something.
Brandy fumes caught her nose as he lifted a glass to her lips.
“No,” she said, turning her head away.
Andrew held the glass there, waiting. Finally she turned back and took a token mouthful.
“And again,” he said.
She took a bigger mouthful this time. The brandy burned all the way down her throat to her belly. She shook her head firmly when he lifted the glass a third time.
He took her at her word and placed the glass down on the coffee table in front of her. Then he took the armchair opposite her.
In his late fifties, he was a former dancer, his body slim and whippet strong even after years away from the stage. His tanned skin was stretched tightly across high cheekbones, and thin lines surrounded his mouth from smoking. His eyes were kind as he studied her, a rarity from a man who was known throughout the dance world as a perfectionist first and a human being second.
“We will look after you, Maddy. Please know that. Retirement pay, any teaching work you want – you name it, you can have it. You’ve been one of our greatest dancers, and we won’t forget you.”
Maddy could feel the sweat cooling on her body in the air-conditioned chill of Andrew’s office.
“I want to keep dancing,” she said. “That’s what I want.”
He shook his head decisively.
“You can’t. Not for us. Not professionally. Your spirit might be willing, but your body is not. Dr Hanson was very clear about that. We always knew that complete recovery from such a bad tear to your cruciate ligament was going to be a long shot. It’s time to hang up your slippers, Maddy.”
She stared at him, a storm of words closing her throat. Anger, grief, resentment, denial – she didn’t know which was the stronger, what to say, how to react.
Andrew’s face went slack for a moment, and he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his hand. He looked defeated, sad.
“Maddy. I know how hard it is to give it up. Believe me. It nearly killed me. But I made a second chance for myself.” He paused a moment to let his words sink in.
“You’re a beautiful, smart, resourceful woman. There’s another life out there waiting for you. You just have to find it.”
don’t want to find it.
She almost said it out loud, but some of the numbness and shock were leaving her now as the brandy burned its way into her system.
The doctor had handed down his decision, and Andrew had made his, too. She was broken, old. They had no use for her any more.
“We’ll throw you a party. A real send-off. And we’ll help you anyway we can. Re-training, or, as I said earlier, if you want to teach…?”
The thought of a party, of standing in front of her peers while people made toasts to her former talent made bile rise up the back of her throat.
“No. No party,” she said.
Suddenly she didn’t want to be there any more. When the doctor had handed down his verdict an hour ago, the company had felt like home, like a safe place to be. But now she knew it would never be her home again.
“People will want to say their goodbyes, pay their due respects,” he said.
”I’m not dead,” she said, standing abruptly.
She strode for the door. She hesitated for a beat outside the rehearsal studio door, then braced herself to duck in and collect her bag. Head down, she did just that, not responding when Kendra called out to ask if she was okay.
They would hear soon enough. Another dancer would be promoted into her role in the latest production. Maybe Kendra. Maybe one of the other soloists. Life would go on.
Outside in the warm summer air, she took deep breaths and fought back tears.
She had never felt more alone and scared in her life. Her entire world had just crumbled around her – the discipline and passion that had formed the boundaries of her days and nights had just dissolved into nothingness. She had no future, and her past was irrelevant. She was the owner of a broken body and broken dreams and precious little else.
She found her car keys in her hand bag, but she had nowhere to go. No current lover to offer his shoulder, and no former lovers to call on, because her affairs never ended well. Her mother was miles away in America, enjoying the fruits of her third marriage. She’d never known her father. All her friends were dancers, and the thought of their ready sympathy had the bile rising in her throat again.
Where to go?
Where to go?
Out of the depths of her subconscious, a face rose up. Clear grey eyes, dark hair, a smile that offered mischief and fun and comfort and understanding in equal measure.
Yes. She needed Max. Even though it had been years. Even though their friendship had been reduced to occasional emails and Christmas cards. He would understand. He always had. He’d hold her in his big, strong arms, and she’d feel safe, the way she always had with him.
And then maybe she could think. Imagine a world without dance. Construct a way forward.
Max shut the flap on the box and held it down with his forearm. He reached for the packing tape and used his thumbnail to find the leading edge of the tape.
“I’m all done in here. How about you?” a voice asked from the doorway.
He glanced up at his sister Charlotte, taking in her smug expression and the way she’d planted her hands on her hips.
“Don’t even think it,” he said, tearing off a piece of tape and sticking the flap down.
“My room’s finished. Technically, that means my work here is done,” Charlotte said.
Max tossed her the spare roll of packing tape.
So far, he’d only managed to pack away half of the books in his late father’s extensive collection.
“The sooner you start helping, the sooner we can both get out of here,” he said.
Charlotte propped herself against the doorframe.
“Should have picked an easier room, Max,” she teased.
“I was being gallant. In case you hadn’t noticed. Giving you the kitchen and taking on this Herculean task to save you hours of hard labor.”
Charlotte’s smile faded a little and she shrugged away from the doorframe.
Where do you want me to start?” she asked
“Where do you want me to start?” she asked. ined unpacked.=
Max glanced at the solid wall of books that remained unpacked.=
Charlotte busied herself assembling another box as he started stacking books into a carton he’d taped together earlier.
Dust hung in the air, dancing in the weak winter sunlight filtering through the dirty windows of his father’s apartment.
Dust hung in the air, dancing in the weak winter sunlight filtering through the dirty windows of his father’s apartment.
His father was dead.
He still couldn’t quite believe it. Ten weeks ago, Alain Laurent had succumbed to a bout of pneumonia, a constant hazard for quadriplegics. After a week long battle, he’d died quietly in his sleep. Max had been out of the room, taking a phone call at the time. After eight years of constant care and devotion, after being there for so many of the major crises of his father’s illness, Max had missed the most important moment of all.
Had his father known that he was alone? Or, as his sister contended, had his father chosen that moment to slip away for good, sparing his son the anguish of witnessing his final moments?
“Stop giving yourself a hard time,” Charlotte said from across the room.
He shook his head slightly and frowned.
“You heard me. Don’t pretend you weren’t sitting there, thinking about Dad again. You did everything you could. We both did,” Charlotte said firmly.
He shrugged and stacked more books into the carton.
“It’s true, you know, what you just said. You are gallant. Which is charming on one level but bloody infuriating on another.”
He smiled at his sister’s choice of words. Like himself, she was half-Australian, half-French, but he always thought of her as being essentially European, with her dark hair and elegant fashion sense. Then, out of the blue, she’d throw a bit of Aussie slang into her speech and remind him that they’d spent their teen years growing up in Sydney, Australia, swimming and surfing and swatting flies away from backyard barbeques.
“I’m serious, Max,” she said. “You’re always riding to the rescue, thinking of everyone else except yourself. You need to learn to be selfish.”
He made a rude noise and kept on packing.
“The day you think of yourself first, I’ll give it a go.”
Charlotte pushed her hair behind her ear, frowning.
“That’s different. I have a family. I gave up the right to be selfish when I became a parent.”
Max dropped the book he was holding and pressed a hand to his heart. Moving with a quarter of his former grace and skill, he half-staggered, half-danced to the side wall, playing self-sacrifice and martyrdom for all he was worth.
“Very funny,” his sister said.
He dodged a small book on poetry that she flung his way.
He tossed the book back and she shook her head at him. They both worked in silence for a few beats, busy with their own thoughts.
He wondered who was looking after Eloise and Marcel today, Charlotte’s children with her busy merchant banker husband, Richard. He knew Charlotte was between baby-sitters at the moment. It was always hard finding people competent to deal with Eloise’s special needs, but it hadn’t really been possible to have them here with them today. Any disruption to Eloise’s routine was too disorienting and inevitably led to distress.
“I never really thanked you, did I?” Charlotte said into the silence.
He pushed the flaps shut on another full box of books. The second-hand dealer was going to have a field-day with their father’s collection. Everything from sixties dime-store novels to Proust and Dante.
“That’s because there’s nothing to thank me for.”
“Do you miss it? Dancing?” Charlotte asked quietly.
He started assembling another box.
“Sometimes. Not so much any more. It’s a long time ago now.”
“Only eight years. Perhaps you could –“
“No,” he said, more sharply than he’d intended. “Eight years is a lifetime in dance, Charlie. I’m too old now. Lost my flexibility, my edge.”
And he’d moved on, too. When the call had come through eight years ago that his father had been in a car accident, he’d flown straight from Sydney to Paris in the hope that he’d have a chance to say goodbye to his terribly injured parent before nature took its course. As it turned out, he’d had eight years to say his goodbyes.
As soon as it became apparent that their father would survive his injuries but be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his days, Max had made the changes necessary to ensure his father’s future comfort. He’d resigned from the avante garde Danceworks dance company where he’d been earning himself a name in Australia and arranged to have his belongings packed up and sent to Paris. Then he had moved into his father’s apartment in the genteel, refined Paris arrondissement of St Germain and started the renovations that had made it possible for him to care for his father at home for the last eight years.
It hadn’t been an easy decision and there had been moments – especially at the very beginning when he and his father had been getting accustomed to their new roles – when Max had bitterly regretted his choices. He’d left so much behind. His career, his dreams, his friends. The woman he loved.
But Alain Laurent had been a generous and loving parent. When their mother had died when Max was ten and Charlotte just eight, Alain had done everything in his power to ensure they never felt the lack of a mother’s love. He had been a man in a million, and for Max there had never really been any doubt that he and Charlotte would do whatever was necessary to make the remainder of his life as comfortable and rewarding as possible.
“You could have left it to me. Thousands of men would have,” Charlotte said.
“On behalf of my sex, I thank you for your high opinion of us,” he said dryly.
“You know what I mean.”
He stopped what he was doing and turned to face his sister.
“Let’s put this to bed, once and for all. I did what I wanted to do, okay? He was my father, too. I loved him. I wanted to care for him. I couldn’t have lived with it being any other way. Just as you couldn’t have lived with having to choose between Richard and your children and Dad. End of story.”
Charlotte opened her mouth then shut it again without saying anything.
He nodded. “Good. Can we move on now?”
Charlotte shrugged. Then, slowly, she smiled.“I’d forgotten how bossy you can be. It’s been a while since you read me the riot act.”
“Admit it, you miss it,” he said, glad she’d dropped the whole gratitude thing. He’d meant what he said – he couldn’t have lived with it being any other way, and in that sense, he would forever be at peace with his decision.
Of course, that didn’t stop the what-ifs from leaking out of his subconscious in the unguarded moments before falling asleep at night.
What if he’d been able to follow his dream and dance in London, New York, Moscow, Paris? Would he have made it, achieved soloist status and his name in lights?
And what would have happened with Maddy? Would he ever have told her how he felt? How much he loved her – and not just as her reliable friend and sometime dancing partner?
As always when he thought of Maddy, he pictured her on stage, standing in a circle of light, her small, elegant body arched into a perfect arabesque.
Then, second, came the memories of her as a woman, laughing with him on the ratty couch in the dump of a house they’d shared with two other dancers, or drowsing in the hot evening air on the back porch.
All of them false memories, he knew. Gilded by time and distance. Maddy couldn’t possibly be as funny, as warm and beautiful and sensual as he remembered her. He’d turned her into a symbol of everything he’d given up.
Not that he’d ever had her to be in a position to give her up, of course.