The Old Rehearsal Rooms
by Clare Weze
Second Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2017
The building is tall, old and stately, like a narrow museum. It stands apart from the others in the row and slightly behind, as if it disapproves. Downstairs is now a wine bar, but the whole place must have been a dance school once, because skinny black letters spelling out THE OLD REHEARSAL ROOMS dangle from a twisted iron bracket. Lottie can see what the sign-makers intended — contorted dancer shapes — but the letters come closer to witchery than Swan Lake. She stands outside with her back to the curved floor-to-ceiling glass, ignoring the Happy Hour suckers inside. Casual. Calm. Almost invisible.
This square is in a quiet part of town, down a nasty alley, but worth it, and Lottie’s ready. She got changed in the bakery loos after scoffing down their cheapest pasty and donut. Only an hour out of school and she’s organised. Energised.
She clocks the inside now. Serene, folded-arm pose, bored expression. Tables are set out on what was probably one of the dance floors; Lottie dreams of it empty and polished and dancey. This is the twenty-ninth time she’s been to look at The Old Rehearsal Rooms, but the first time in the rain. Rain is better. Lottie looks like she’s sheltering under the elegant gothic overhang; tracking everything without looking homeless.
This is it. Today, she goes in.
The building is a perfect fusion of fairy-tale and hip, but the attic floor is what draws her. It’s high above the square. Elegant. Empty, always. She’s watched that top floor window first thing in the morning before school and last thing at night, and it’s never lit up. Emptiness wows her. It’s almost as good as a secret.
It reminds her of the guest house in Gran’s book of poetry, a place that belongs to everyone in the city for one week each, on rotation. Each person leaves a meal or a painting or a poem or a piece of joinery (a door hung properly) or an hour or two of plumbing (a sink fixed), a knitted jumper, a cake, anything; something. The poem says sound travels in ribbons along the walls and under the ledges. After sundown, healing light is trapped in one special room, where time stands still. Gran’s poetry book never leaves her side.
It isn’t just the building or the people inside The Old Rehearsal Rooms. There’s something about the way the light hits the stone, even in the rain. It’s sublime. She writes the word in her notebook, next to the others in her collection.
The wine bar is full of those people from that coffee-sipping, cocktail-swigging world where they do cool work on laptops, wearing Boden with great hair. She’d rather be a dancer. And a poet. And maybe a teacher, or a scientist. Why can’t people be lots of things? And what sort of person could make that guest house happen? An architect? A politician?
She’s listening for clues, straining to hear the conversation of everyone who comes and goes. A tall thin man tells his long-haired mate that the pound is now only worth a quarter of one pillock. Their laughter is high and giggly, and Lottie scribbles everything down, smiling with her head low. Gold dust, even if the notebook is getting wet.
Mum would call her idiotic for ruining the book, but the ink isn’t running, and Mum isn’t going to know. She’s so used to her staying over at Gran’s, she’ll never know anything Lottie does in a million years, and neither will Mum’s stupid boyfriend or his stupid kids. She refuses to call him Levison, and so what if they’re living in his house? So what if she stays nice to his face, like she’s as fake as they are? Fake people living in a fake house.
While she was writing, some of the Bodens inside must have shifted position slightly, as if a camera flashed and someone said, ‘One pace to the left, please.’ That makes her smile again. She checks the time on her phone. She’ll go inside in exactly two minutes.
She’ll go in.
In and up.
She remembers Mum’s cold words last night. ‘This is not your house, so they aren’t your rules.’
That was undermining. Destructive. OK. All right, then. So be it. That’s decisive. And she will repurpose that attic room. It will transform her life.
Go large, it said in the bakery, for only 50p extra.
Next: take the necessary steps and get inside. Slip in behind those girls. No, perhaps not those. Too giggly and turnaround, too jokey-over-shoulders. Another few moments… here are the ones. These three are older, serious, but not too tall; she won’t look small and shown up. And she’s in. Brave as anything. Heart not really thudding horribly. Sweaty face, sticky hairline, but she’s in.
She keeps to the edges. The first room is a tank of noise. There’s glitter and geometric patterns in purple and green from the chandeliers and mirrored bar, but she’s too wired to enjoy them properly. Chatter drowns out most of the music, but it’s jazzy. The air smells of beer, coffee, perfume and wet coats. There are things to be savoured later — the shiny black grand piano, the white leather sofa in the shape of a question mark, the grey tiled floor that glitters like quartz — but she hurries to the back of the room, lips slackening into a scared wobble. She’s trying too hard. Cool can’t be forced. Long, slow breaths. It’s impossible to be relaxed and stressed at the same time — the counsellor keeps saying that. A good thing she let her hair go afro today, to make a screen.
The stairway is filled with people. There’s no space between them whatsoever. Deep breaths can’t help now — she flounders, going neither forward nor back, panic rising in her chest, but then someone moves and she’s able to dart between a big man in a brown spangly shirt and a skinny black girl in a pink tube dress.
The stairs are covered in thick grey carpet. If you fell down them you’d bounce. On the first landing, the only room that’s open is stacked with flattened cardboard boxes. She walks purposefully, like she’s supposed to be there, but stands and listens on the second landing, just in case. Nobody comes. Noise drifts up from downstairs. Top notes of music rise above the voices: plinky notes. She climbs higher. The music and voices fade. Downstairs is going to be nice and far away. Far enough.
She’s here. The attic room is huge, covering the whole of the top floor. A dance room, for sure. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two sides, and parts of a barre along one wall, but it’s being ripped out. They’re in the process, and that feels wrong. Some of the barre is beaten up, but the floor is still lovely old-scuffed-dark-dance-floorboards. A ballet room.
Apart from the mirrors and floors, the room is a whiteout: white walls, high white ceiling. It contains a white pedestal sink with a large basin, two tall arched windows at the front, two square ones at the back and that’s all. Walking to the front window — slowly, carefully — is like strolling through a dream. There’s nobody down there in the wet square, but she peers like a spy in case anyone looks up from another building. This is the tallest place in the whole square. Whatever is to be seen, she’ll see it first.
There’s lots of sky. And a breath of air from outside is getting in from beneath the windowsill; she can feel it against her hand, and smell the cold and damp it carries.
So even posh buildings get cracks in weird places.
Two men move across the square smoothly, as if they’re on wheels. A seagull settles on the opposite roof and stares about. It’s everything she’d hoped for, this view, this room, this elevation. This will be her week in the guest house, and she’ll leave a poem as her contribution. In thanks.
A fly buzzes against the back window and she rushes over to see what’s out there. Rooftops, closer than she’d imagined, and dinginess in the tiny yard below — windows boarded up, lots of concrete — but clouds swell above, huge and grey and excitingly menacing. She tries to let the fly out but the windows have been painted shut.
She takes out the bolt she bought from Wilko’s and screws it to the inside of the door with a screwdriver from Levison’s kitchen drawer. It takes ages and it’s weak, but at least now she’ll hear if anyone comes. When anyone comes.
They will come.
They might not.
Rain lashes the front window. The back window is more sheltered, and she sits on the dusty floor between the two and folds her knees to her chest in the way that Gran always said reminded her of a swan. Gran loved to hear the rain like this. She would turn off the TV and put a finger to her lips and make Lottie just listen, feel it.
The words Gran would, Gran used to, are still alien. One day she was here and the next, she wasn’t — there was no illness — and nobody thought to tell Lottie. The neighbour made a face, as if she couldn’t believe there were families that ignored each other so totally. Afterwards, the rest of what the neighbour said came out far too loud and made no sense. How can a voice do that? ‘Your dad’s mum, wasn’t she? Must be double-sad with your dad not being around.’ Not around. What a quaint, pathetic pair of words. The air in the street had gone strangely still, as if it was a solid mass she had to fight her way through to get home.
The news didn’t sink in properly until the next morning. It hit her as she stepped off the school bus, and suddenly she was far above everything. There was the bus, and there they all were, getting off, and someone was trying to talk to her and she was in the sky. The shock of that was as strong as Gran’s death, even though one shock caused the other. When she’d bawled and fussed and even let out one short scream, someone said, ‘It’s your gran. It’s not as if it’s your Mum!’ Who said that?
She runs a hand over the smooth grain of the floor. One day she might tell Mum about Gran, but Mum not knowing is a kind of natural consequence. Mum hates Dad’s side of the family and they hate her, so of course she’s left out of everything. Natural laws can’t be dodged.
The rain stops. The setting sun shoots through the window in ribbons, sparkling off the fly in emerald facets. The world’s rinsed clean, and so is Lottie’s head. She unfolds herself, takes off her makeup with half a ripped up wet-wipe, then washes her hands in the sink, dries off on her jeans, walks two slow circles around the room and grins. The room’s whiteness is velvety, like a giant marshmallow, and seems to expand and shrink dizzyingly if she squints. It’s like being high.
Space. Silence. Everything she never has at home.
Invisible. That’s what she’ll be. She lays out all the words for her poem beside her sleeping bag, each on a single page ripped from her notebook: Enlightened. Liberating. Sublime. Undermining. Destructive. Decisive. Repurpose. Go large. Elevation. Invisible.
Paper is adorable. New paper with a strong new smell is best of all. She leaves out the line about the pound and the pillock; old-school word, one of Mum’s favourites. She could take that word home and present it to Mum with a flotilla of little cousin words and she’d smile slowly, her face would light up — or not. You can second-guess, but sometimes, that’ll see you roasted. Toasted. Broken into unbearably small pieces.
Pillock belongs in a different piece of work. Knowing when to stop is half the battle. Physicality is the other half. A poem must be constructed in the real world where it can be moved around in 3D. This space is perfect. Already, this is the most time she’s had to spread out without somebody poking in and sniggering.
Soar is the next word. Lottie adds it. She sees it now, the poem. She smiles. It’s a ballet, to be performed on this dance floor by a single, soaring, sublime male dancer, undermining all destructive people with decisive, liberating steps. She puts all this on a new sheet. Stanzas can come later. The leftover words will make sense in the morning. Even Go large.
She folds a piece of cream A5 into a staircase and sets it next to the pages. Up one half of the page and down the other. Stable. After she’s slept on it, if the poem survives the night, she’ll write each line on the uprights of the staircase.
Something skitters inside the far wall. That’s where she’d hide too, if only she could be that small. Then the guardians of this place could never turf her out.
Lottie snuggles into the mountain-strength sleeping bag she stole from Mum’s ex-boyfriend last year. A rich woody smell rises from the floorboards. There’s dust mixed in with it, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the wood and how the smell might take her back to where it grew. She could die here, and die happy. She won’t, but she could. She plugs in earbuds, chooses tunes, sets Gran’s book next to the words on the floor, and sighs.
She’s dressed, watching seagulls wheel in an empty grey sky and thinking about unpacking the fruit and cereal bar in her bag when the footsteps begin.
Before there’s time for any action beyond freezing to the spot, the door is tried. The bolt snaps off and clatters to the floor. The noise is obscene.
A man appears. He has grey hair with scraps of blonde and he’s looking at her as if she’s a terror he’s never even imagined. He jerks into a corralling position, legs apart, arms wide, like he’s come across a wild animal when he didn’t even know he was hunting. He’s a tall, bendy man, so the effect is both threatening and funny. Lottie’s heart thumps hard in her chest and loud in her ears. She feels the reality of him in her watery guts.
‘OK — out.’ His voice echoes, adding shock to shock. The marshmallow whiteness fails to absorb it, and Lottie nods, galvanised, and bends to her stuff, which has spread in the night. The air is chill and tastes of paint.
‘Health and safety, apart from anything else,’ he says, still in the doorway but straightening up, arms in, legs slowly unbending as if he never really intended to be in that position. ‘Fire risk.’ Apologetic, now. Softening. He’s probably got kids her age. Or grandkids. He’s that age where you can’t tell.
Lottie snaps her things, together, flat-out shaky-quick. She can see him in the corner of her eye, watching the poem dismantle, scatter. It’s very early in the morning, but there are faint chinking noises coming from somewhere far below.
‘Why?’ he asks. ‘Haven’t you got a home to go to?’
Perhaps he isn’t going to report her. And he looks as if he really wants to know.
There’s a moment when she could tell him everything.
That moment is now.
Her mouth doesn’t open and her eyes can’t meet his, because images fly through her mind, not words. Gran’s face; Mum’s skirt and brown sandals; her bedroom with someone else in it; the racist on the bus this morning. She can’t even shrug.
The moment passes. He’s staring at her, like he never expected an answer anyway. Like he has kids and knows what it’s like.
He can’t possibly know what this is like.
But he thinks he does. That’s annoying. She uses a wave of fury from that to stride past him, bag swinging wildly and bumping her back, and picks up a scent of coffee and soap — maybe a little tobacco too, perhaps there’s a rollie or three in his top pocket — and he doesn’t grab her and he doesn’t call the police.
Lottie turns at the top of the stairs and takes one last look at the attic.
‘It’s lovely,’ she says. ‘Lots of people would love it.’
He shakes his head. Frowns. Half-smiles. It’s only a moment, but Lottie gathers what she sees in his face — disapproval, regret, awe, suspicion, puzzlement, admiration — and loops the words around a string of others in her head, tucks them deep down for later.
The Old Rehearsal Rooms won Second Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2017, as chosen by Adam O’Riordan. This short story was first published in Bare Fiction Magazine Issue 11 – July 2018.