Hennessy Emerging Fiction winner: Dancing, or beginning to Dance by Sara Baume
Sara Baume. Photograph: Dave Meehan
We queue. The door is still locked, so the queue isn’t moving forward. Instead, it moves backward, stealthily growing from the end, person by person. They come on the soles of their shoes from the direction of town, or on horse-powered wheels from the direction of the suburbs. They cross the staff car park to join us. We are standing along the windowless side of the building. The yellowed plasterwork against our backs, a confetti of chewed gum and smoked cigarettes beneath our soles. We chew gum and smoke cigarettes as we queue. We glance impassively around ourselves. To our left, there’s a sorry huddle of shabby bungalows. To our right, there’s a repurposed industrial estate. It consists of a second-hand furniture warehouse, a fireplace showroom, a camping supplies store and a couple of vacant units. In one shuttered window there’s a pink-haired troll holding a tiny placard. BACK IN 10 MINUTES the placard says.
We chew. We smoke. Our impassive glancing rarely reaches upward. We are not used to seeing things above the level of the roof gutter on the windowless side of the building. The business of the sky keeps itself from here, from us and our business. This air space belongs to the pigeons and crows. Aeroplanes veer round it. Helicopters hover elsewhere. Sometimes rain clouds descend to shed their load, but today the sky has obligingly parted so that we might see a misdirected object trailing across the grubby blue. Distant, but coming slowly closer.
We lift our heads. Even the bowed heads lift. The bowed heads belong to those who still queue in fear of being recognised by neighbours, acquaintances, former colleagues, old friends. Faces to the concrete footpath, they’re trying to think of a cryptic explanation as to how they ended up here on this day, queuing. The bowed heads also belong to those wearing blazers instead of tracksuits. Those who arrived in cars with more than two doors and central locking. Those sporting an authentic Iberian suntan. And if these groomed and glowing queuers fail to bow their heads in humiliation, we turn our pasty scowls upon them. We hurl them daggers with our eyes.
We hold our social security cards against our hearts. We hide the numbers from sight as though they are the credit cards we’re no longer allowed to use. We bite a nail, twist a strand of hair around a fingertip, scratch an old insect bite until it itches afresh. We stop short of nose-picking; we are debased enough as it is. We raise palms to shade eyes and squint into the parted sky. Now the flying thing is close enough to see it’s a hot air balloon, and we’ve never seen a hot air balloon before. The enormous envelope is covered in bold coloured bands, and the bold bands appear to be precipitously tilting. We think it looks as though the hot air balloon is crashing, or beginning to crash, but we don’t mention anything to one another. Instead we tell ourselves this is just the ungainly way in which they fly.
We carry bags, keys, mobile phones, rain jackets, books, umbrellas, babies. On the ground, there’s a scattering of children too old to be carried, too young to be sent to school. The loose children fidget and snivel and kick the ground, ball their fists and stamp their soles. We watch and wish we were as free to vent our small volcanoes of impatience without disgrace. S’NOT FAIR! they cry, S’NOT FAIR! S’NOT FAIR! And even though we feel like fidgeting and snivelling and kicking and balling and stamping too, even though we want nothing more than to punch the yellowed plasterwork and cry I KNOW IT ISN’T FAIR! I GOT A GOOD LEAVING CERT! I HAVE TWO DIFFERENT DEGREES! IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THIS! We do no such thing. We swallow our volcanoes, suppress our disappointment. We implore the children to look beyond the level of the roof gutter. We point at the stumbling balloon and tell them it’s a fallen piece of space, the brightest of the stripy planets.
Between our concrete footpath and the tarmac car park, there’s a grassy verge, lush from several consecutive days of drifting drizzle. The front door is still locked, but the natural world refuses to stop and wait with us. The grass of the grassy verge continues to grow. Weeds prod through the fissured tarmac. Wildflowers defiantly bloom. To our left, the closest bungalow has a row of bushes lining the driveway and although they are drab little specimens of treehood, we know that they are growing too. There are net curtains in the bungalow’s front facing windows, angel figurines on the sills. And as we queue, the curtains rustle and twitch. The angels fix us with their dead eyes and stare.
We queue. Eighteen to sixty-five, we queue. Pimples to wrinkles through stretch marks to pattern baldness, we queue. T-shirts and sneakers to cardigans and loafers through jeggings and gilets, we queue. And as we queue, we keep a polite distance from those either side of us. We may be comrades but we are not friends. We know we are slightly better than one another. We do not attempt to open a book. We do not plug our ear holes with headphones. We do not play games on our old-fashioned phones. We turn our pasty scowls upon anyone who does, anyone who has yet to understand: you must be alert, you must be sentient. You have to experience every second of this discomfort. You must bear every ounce of this shame.
Now the queue’s growing end snakes as far as the fireplace showroom. As we light new cigarettes and crunch the sugar shells from fresh pellets of gum, we pinpoint people we know or partly know or used to know. Neighbours, acquaintances, former colleagues, old friends. We wonder how they ended up here. We wonder how inscrutable their explanation is.
Now a man raises the shutter of the second-hand furniture warehouse and a pair of athletic youngsters arrive at the camping supplies store for a day’s paid work. They do not appear to notice the hot air balloon. They do not appear to notice us. They hasten past as though we are queuing for a cholera cure. They know that here but for the grace of god queue they.
A Jack Russell with an undocked tail trots from the suburbs, dodges through the traffic, crosses the repurposed industrial estate. He finds a lolly stick in the car park and stops to lick the stained end. He reaches the grassy verge, prostrates himself to roll wildly on the clover. He scratches his back with almost obscene enjoyment. Now we wish we were so free as the Jack Russell instead of the children. We wish we had a Jack Russell’s responsibilities. A Jack Russell’s freedom of expression. A Jack Russell’s stupid enthusiasm for the humble things he finds beyond the wet of his nose.
The front door opens and we begin to shuffle. Shuffling is the only appropriate way for queuers to move, just as slouching is the only appropriate way for queuers to hold themselves. Altogether we stub out cigarettes, gather up children. The queue moves slowly forward. The open door is a rectangle of alluring light. As we shuffle and slouch in faulty unison, a pigeon settles on the gutter’s edge. He preens himself. He kicks tiny pieces of dead moss and dried sludge down on our heads. He taunts us with his chatter as he preens and kicks. Queue queue, he says, queue queue, queue queue. We do our best to ignore the malevolent pigeon. We look past him to where the hot air balloon is close enough now to see a head above the basket’s rim. And maybe arms and maybe hands. And maybe they are waving and maybe they are flailing. We cannot tell. But we do not wave back. We do not flail.
Now the Jack Russell picks himself up from the grassy verge as if to follow us. But he doesn’t follow. He begins to chase his undocked tail and jump and jump and jump. And it seems almost as if he is dancing, or beginning to dance. Now on the road beyond the car park, a VW Polo with a foreign registration plate stops to ask a woman on the footpath for directions. The woman lifts her elbows into the air. She swoops her hands and sways her shoulders. And it seems almost as if she is dancing, or beginning to dance. Now we are certain the hot air balloon is in trouble. It’s low and close enough to hear the roar of the burners and a voice shouting, maybe hello and maybe for help. We cannot tell. But we do not shout back. We do not help.
We queue. And as we queue, the telegraph poles and pylons grow. The tower cranes and chimneys grow. The lift shafts of unfinished apartment blocks grow, as though they don’t need us any more. The wind turbines relentlessly spin, as do the horse-powered wheels of passing cars, as does the world. Our teeth continue to decay. Our cells continue to mutate. We continue to breath. And as we do, particles of floating dirt collect in the fine hair of our nostrils, but we don’t try to touch them; we do not dare. And the pink-haired troll in the vacant shop unit resiliently holds his placard up. BACK IN 10 MINUTES the placard says, but we know now that he will wait forever.
And the hot air balloon, crashing after all, crashes. The enormous envelope crumples into the car park. The propane tanks split and gas spews out. The burner coughs its last and the man in the basket catches fire. He leaps and twirls in yellow flames. He staggers to the verge. He rolls in the grass, just like the Jack Russell. And altogether we think to ourselves how it seems almost as if he is dancing, or beginning to dance.
But still we queue.
We have to queue, we must queue.
We do not dance, we cannot dance.
We have to sign on, we must sign on.
Sara Baume was born in 1984 and lives in Co Cork. Her novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither was published last month by Tramp Press