By Eva Marloes
The mud splashes on her white tights as she hurries down the path. She trips over and makes a big thump. ‘That’ll teach me,’ Tess remarks, now with mud on her skirt. She thinks of the comments she’ll get at school, the stares, the giggles. ‘Why is it funny? Why is it ok to laugh at someone? … It’s just the way things are.’ Good job she didn’t say any of that aloud. Two of her classmates walk past her, turn their heads, but make no comment. They don’t say ‘hello,’ they don’t ask if she needs help. They look and walk past. She feels relieved. Relieved that she didn’t have to hear any comment, not even false pleasantries, not that she’s ever heard any of those, but no pleasantry would have been pleasant. Tess stands awkwardly watching the classmates disappear behind the bushes. Hitting the ground has not been enough to shake off her dreams. It’s the walking. That rhythmic swinging of the arms, the shifting of her weight from her left leg to her right leg and back again. It lulls her into another world. Tess sees her school and is well awake. Gone are the green bushes, the smell of the grass after the rain, the burbling of the stream. The building stands menacing before her, ready to devour her. She lowers her head as to avert its gaze. Tess rushes in. It’s Monday, when they change places so that pupils don’t seat next to the same person. She dreads Mondays. She glances at the classroom filled with double desks. She can’t find one empty. She will have to pick one. That means picking a neighbor for an entire week instead of getting an empty desk early and letting others resign to pick her as a desk-neighbor. She walks to a free space and sits next to a boy, who grunts and turns away from her. She dares not move. The lesson begins and her mind wanders off. ‘Tess,’ thunders the teacher. ‘Are we in our dream world?’ The class giggles. The teacher marches towards Tess, grabs her by the hair, and pulls her closer. She yells with furious eyes fixed on a terrified Tess. One can never tell how long it’ll last. Tess feels as if suspended in air, ‘Could the teachers’ eyes pop out in anger? She can hear everything I whisper, like the time when she chose someone to read from the book and I, very quietly, remonstrated that it was always someone else. She heard that and made a scene. What kind of hearing! Is that human hearing?’
Released from the teacher’s hand, Tess turns to one side and meets the eyes of the new girl. She looks proud and tough. The bell rings. Tess walks home alone and plunges back into her world. She forgets her large and clumsy figure and hooked nose, and talks to her invisible companions: ‘It was the most delightful evening, nothing too ostentatious.’ Tess smiles. She is invested by the shout ‘Two-Ton Tess,’ blasted out by one of her classmates. Sucked back into reality, she puts a hand on her stomach to stop the shame from rippling through her body. Home, quickly. It’s safer, well, not really, but she can be in her room, although she can’t close the door. It’s just not done.
She slips into her room,leaves the door ajar. This is allowed. She undresses, tidies up her shoes and clothes with care. Her father bellows insults from the kitchen. She feels the cold floor with her feet, so that the chill would take her away from it. The voice grows louder and finds its way to Tess’s room. The words melt into one indistinguishable groan, as if under water. Her senses are dulled. She sits cross-legged in front of her standing mirror turning slowly the pages of a book on Klimt’s art. She stops at Hygieia, who looks back at her in defiance. Her world is breached by the odd sound of her parents’ arguing, which is distorted like an old recording. Tess gets up and rushes to put music into her ears to banish other sounds.
The house is quiet now. Tess can hear her mother moving in the kitchen. She runs the water from the sink, turns it off, then takes out some plates. It’s dinner, again. Her mother knocks on the half-opened door, can she please come and help set the table? Tess follows her mother into the kitchen, washes her hands at the sink and sets the table without saying a word. Her mother smiles and passes her hand gently on her daughter’s shoulder. Thom comes in,‘What’s for supper?’ Mother lifts her head, ‘Darling, wash your hands and put the potatoes on the table.’ Thom snorts at the sanitary demand and domestic chore. Mother, Thom, and Tess are sat at the table waiting. In turn, each looks at the clock-hand wishing for a signal that they can eat. Father is not back. Thom breaks the silence, ‘I’m hungry.’ Mother replies without looking at him, ‘We need to wait for Dad.’
‘But I’m hungry.’
‘Have some potatoes.’ Mother tells Thom. Tess interjects, ‘It’ll all be cold by the time he’s back.’ Mother rests her head on her hand. It’s the usual wait.
The food was cold. Father came back as the children are off to bed. Father is complaining in the kitchen. In her room, Tess lifts her duvet, has a leg up, then she realizes she forgot something. She walks to her mirror. ‘Terribly sorry. I hadn’t noticed…’ Run out of things to say too soon, Tess pauses to collect her thoughts, then starts again. ‘I am terribly sorry. I must admit I had not noticed you were there, Mr Mirror. You must think me so rude.’ She pauses again, it’s ridiculous to talk to a mirror. She continues, ‘So long we have known each other and yet we haven’t really spoken…’ She bows slightly to the mirror with affectation. ‘I trust the journey was not too tiresome. You must tell us some time of all your travels, the far away lands and mysterious ladies.’ She giggles and covers her blush with a hand. She looks at a poster of a Klimt’s painting on her wall and turns to the mirror again. ‘You must forgive my companions. They are very curious. Most unbecoming, perhaps…’ Suddenly, the affectation slips down like a towel from the body. ‘Perhaps I can come with you. Next time. Can I? The land of lions and panthers, of dragons and fairies! … God, I’m an idiot.’ Tess looks at the mirror, she settles for half a bow, it’d be rude not to. She gets to bed and searches with her hand for the light switch. A faint light from the moon shines through the curtains and is reflected on the mirror. The rest of the room is in darkness.
‘Miss?’ Tess stops breathing, turns the light on. She listens, the room is silent. She turns the light off. ‘Miss?’ Tess turns her light back on. She is frightened. Nothing. She snorts and turns the light off again plunging her head into the pillow in protest for the wasted time and effort. ‘You really need to hurry up if you want to take the next flight.’ Tess jumps off the bed, ‘What flight? Where?’ She goes to the mirror. She’s sure is the mirror, who else? Nothing happens. She sighs and hears a sigh in response. She knocks on the glass of the mirror. ‘Let me in. Let me in, I tell you.’ She knocks and knocks.
The light has changed. It’s not the faint moon from her window but red and green lights. She turns around. She’s not in her room. She is in a low-lit corridor. She follows a distant music. The light moves and changes the shadows and shapes on the walls. It’s not the light. The light is fixed. It’s the walls that change. Like waves in the sea, little mounds move across the walls. Tess looks ahead and keeps walking, heart in her throat. The music gets louder as she reaches a ballroom. She makes her way through the sea of people. All around her, they dance, laugh, and blow smoke rings. She turns at the clinking of glasses and meets the eye of a beautiful woman in a red velvet dress with golden tassels. The woman smiles. Tess returns the smile awkwardly and then her attention goes to the performers on the mezzanine, at the back of the ballroom. She’s mesmerized by the supple bodies. She feels a hand on her and turns. She is offered absinthe by two women who are locked in a sensual embrace. Tess blushes and shakes her head. Absinthe is not for her, or maybe it is, but she doesn’t know what it is. It’s green. It’ll probably taste of spinach. She meets again the gaze of the woman in the red and golden dress. She is sure she has seen the woman before, before that night. She follows her. She’s stopped in her track by a golden snake held by a man in a green dress and a turban. Her eyes fixed on the snake, she takes a step back away and brushes on someone’s back. She turns to apologize. The man turns to her, pouts, and smiles. She goes back on her search. She spots the train of the velvet gown.
It’s dark all around. A spotlight shines on a circus ringmaster with long mustaches. Drums roll. ‘Mesdames et messieurs, meine Damen und Herren … You all have been personally invited to experience the theatre of wonders. We welcome you to our world of dreams and beauty.’ The ringmaster takes backward steps leaving the centre of the stage and letting his stretched arm introduce the first act. The spotlight searches the ground and finds a clown playing a violin. It’s a melancholic tune that turns into a fast strumming until the violin flies away from the clown. The clown looks for the lost violin making twists and jumps. Then he gets an idea. He picks up a bicycle to ride in search of the violin. He rides into the darkness. Enter two twins in short black and white striped dresses. They walk slowly and mournfully to the centre of the stage. They dance, dangle on an aerial hoop, and rush up and down a rope. Tess is hypnotized. She squeezes through the crowd towards the stage. The woman in the red dress walks on stage and looks at Tess. She calls her motioning her finger. Tess is pulled to the stage by long veils that twist around her waist like snakes. Once on stage, the veils disappear. The woman takes her hand and dances with her. Tess spins around in a whirlpool of lights and music.
‘Are we asleep?’ Tess winced. The teacher looks straight into her eyes; long enough to send a chill down Tess’s spine, but too short for any clumsy response. As Tess opens her mouth, the teacher turns to another girl, ‘Lisa, can you please read the poem?’ ‘Yes, Miss.’ Never missing an opportunity to please, Lisa rises to the noble task of reading to the class. Humiliated Tess tries her best to keep her head down and not to move, but she can’t help it. Like pulled by a supernatural force, she turns to find the new girl, Judy, looking at her. The bell rings. It’s recess. Tess goes outside, to her usual tree, and lies down behind it. She takes off her shoes, and takes out her notebook from her bag. She lays her head on her arm and draws. ‘Are we asleep?’ a boy blasts in a derisive tone, followed by pretended snoring. Judy looks sternly at Tess while the others laugh. The laughter of her classmates merges with that of her brother Thom at home. He laughs heartily and points at her. Tess has spilled some sauce on the table, hardly a noteworthy feat for someone as consistently clumsy as Tess. The sound of laughter now competes with the rising voice of father and the TV news. Tess is impatient. Dinner is over. Tess asks her mum if she needs help, hoping for a ‘no, thanks,’ which comes as always. This time Tess does not insist and goes to her room. She takes off her shoes quickly, leaving them untidy, and walks to the mirror. She knocks. ‘Mr Mirror? Mr Mirror? Let me in.’ Nothing. She knocks hard. She feels the mirror shaking under her hand. It falls down, and breaks. Tess looks at the pieces of glass on the floor. Mother calls from the kitchen after the conflagration: ‘Tess? What happened?’ She comes to her room, ‘What have you done? You broke the mirror. It was grandmother’s mirror. … Why?’ Tess picks up a piece of glass in her hand with a timid ‘Sorry’ on her lips. ‘I’ll clean up here,’ mother tells her, ‘Just go.’ Tess has blood on her finger. She watches the drop of blood run down her hand.
The teacher, the classmates, the hours passing slowly, and Tess still feeling guilty about breaking the mirror. After school, Tess walks by the river. In the green she forgets all. She glances at the water. There is something in it, she’s sure, something colourful. It can’t be. It’s the woman from her dream. She fluctuates in the water. Tess turns around to see if it’s just a reflection, but there’s no one behind her. She takes off her shoes and tidies them up on the grass. She puts her feet in the water standing unsteady on a rock, stretches her arm towards the woman, slips, and falls into the water. She’s dragged down by the current. She can’t move. She is drowning. The water turns dark. Tess feels pulled out of the water and lands on the grass.
Lying on the river bank, Tess looks at the water, quiet and non-threatening. ‘If you wanna be a fish, you’d better learn how to swim.’ It’s Judy. Tess murmurs a ‘Thank you.’ Judy asks, ‘Why do you let them pick on you?’ Tess rummages in her mind. Judy continues, ‘They are weak, cowardly, and thick,’ No response from Tess. ‘They need to look down on someone else to feel better about themselves.’ Tess wants to know what she could do to make them stop, but only manages to ask, ‘You think?’ Judy stands up and says ‘I know,’ then leaves. Tess gets up slowly and walks home dripping water along the way. At home, at the sight of Tess soaked wet, mother asks what happened. Tess replies, ‘I swam.’
Andy is another of those who get picked by the teacher. Teacher makes her usual melodramatic scene blaming Andy for picking his nose. She feigns faint and nausea with great effect reaching for the window to be restored to health by fresh air. That won’t do. She must be excused. She needs to take her medicine. Tess feels all the humiliation inside her body. It’s as if she were a shield for Andy. A lump in her throat. Walking will shake it off. On the school grounds, she hears Judy saying to a boy ‘I ain’t taking no shit from you.’ Can you really say that? The boys say it. They say it in films. She can’t, but Judy can. ‘Some lobotomized troglodyte you are!’ Judy’s words are strange and wonderful. It’s an insult. Tess is sure it’s an insult, but it sounds good. The boy hits back with ‘You need translating.’ The other boys laugh, not heartily, but uneasily. Their friend is in for a put-down. Judy resumes, ‘You ain’t popular cos you’re special. You’re popular cos you’re just like the rest and it ain’t a good rest.’ The boy lost for words pushes Judy, who makes him trip and fall to the ground. ‘Judy!’ barks the teacher, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’
‘Standing up to a bully.’ Suspended. Judy looks at Tess as she leaves school. Tess walks to the school gate, crosses the invisible line between the school and the world. She’s out. She runs after Judy. She stops. She’s breathing fast. It’s not the run. She can’t go on.