New Fiction: ‘Queen’ by Diana Powell
Layla’s walking down the hill again. I watch her every day. Marching down, then up, then down again, a relic from some childhood rhyme. Until. She turns and goes back up, past the iron gates, kept open just for her; gates that hide the halfway house she’s supposed to call ‘home’; up, on, up to the mountains, higher and higher. Later, she’ll have to go back, she’s got to go in – it’s the rules, luv, it’s the rules – but not yet. First, she’ll climb right to the top, where she’ll pause awhile, sunk to her knees. Until… suddenly, with one movement she rises up, her head thrown back, her arms flung wide. And Layla begins to dance.
Her dance is her own creation, it’s a quiet affair. There’s no frantic dervish whirl. Nor the supplicant wandering that makes you think of Cathy on the wuthering moors. It’s a simple dance. Just a floating on the breeze, just a lilting in the wind, a spiral drawn in space. Free.
She’s a black woman on the Black Mountains. As she twists in the ether, the tendrils of her jet locks swirl with her. Her kohl-black eyes close in a personal dream-time. Her flowing nightshade gown lifts on the air-currents, ballooning outwards, upwards. Lifting suddenly to reveal the shock of her unclad feet. Bare, always bare.
She’s shoeless, rain or shine, cold or damp. Even through last December, when a handful of snow was carelessly tossed on the ground for days, still Layla wore no shoes. She never wears any shoes. But she doesn’t seem to care.
It’s as if she has to come up here, no matter how blood-boiled or bone-chilled she’ll be. All that matters is to dance, in a place where she can pretend to be free. Somewhere she can cry if she wants to, forget if she wants to. Somewhere she can look down on everything and everyone. Or she can look up to nothingness. And in this place, she is queen of all she surveys. She can think that nobody is watching her.
Nobody watches her. Almost nobody.
It’s hard not to think about Layla, once you’ve watched that cobweb dance. She creeps into your thoughts and dallies there, more than any of the other broken people, whose damaged souls wander about here, waiting to be mended. More than the man with the balloons. More than the man who asked to be hugged – though he lingered a while (should I have let him? Should I?). But mostly it’s all about Layla. Why? It’s not the bare feet. There’s a girl with a backwards Nike baseball-cap who never wears shoes, or a skirt, but you don’t think much about her. So what is it about Layla?
Of course, her name’s not Layla. That’s another difference – she’s the only one I’ve named. It’s just something that came to me one day, seeing her on her knees. The snatch of an old Eric Clapton song snapping into my head, Layla … got me on my knees. So she became Layla; it seemed to fit. Before that, she was ‘the Black Woman’; a label, like the others have labels. Balloon Man. Nike cap. She was Black Woman, named for her clothes.
For Layla wears black every day. Different clothes on different days, but always black. The colour never changes. Not like the Mountains, who flaunt themselves in patchwork, fashioned by flora and weather. Green, brown; purple with the heather. Red with the dying sun, white in the heat of the day. Only when the rain clouds slink over the Bluff do they turn dark as blankets. But still they call them Black.
Layla’s consistent. Black clothes, black hair. Long, floppy skirts, worn with black polo-necks in t-shirt material, no shape, no body. Black Indian cotton smocks, over matching Indian skirts. Oxfam stuff. Black, all black, like her hair, hanging half way down her back, confusing itself with whatever she wears. Bruised, goth make-up, eye-shadow, lipstick. What else could she be but the Black Woman, even though the pathetic flashes of her skin shine ghostly pale?
I used to dress like that, in some other life. Perhaps that’s what makes her special. But, really, it’s because of the dance, that dance, up on the mountains, where, once upon another time, I used to like to go. It’s a place where the pain, like her dress in the breeze, can lift up from her for a while. It can happen – sometimes. When you think nobody is watching. Where Layla thinks nobody is watching. Nobody watches her. Almost nobody…
Down there, down in the village it’s different. There, she’s watched all the time. Men slow their cars, sound their horns. Nets twitch in the houses as she passes. Children point and laugh. Some cross the road to avoid her.
Down in the village, she’s different.
She looks different, startling, when you see her up close for the first time. She’s blacker – inked black. The bottle-blue hair spills in rat tails down onto the baggy jumble smock, second-third-fourth-hand, unwashed, dye-drawn. Her mascara seeps down her cheeks to meet the painted vampire gash of her mouth.
And Layla has to act differently, too. Here, she must fold in on herself, hold herself tight. She can’t stretch, she can’t reach for the sky. She can’t dance.
But she had to come. They made her. You have to go down the Mace to get some things. It’s good for you. It will do you good. Go on, now. Aw’right, luv? Self-help, they call it. But the entrance to the shop is blocked by gossiping crones in macks, who stare at her, whisper about her, loudly, behind their hands.
She needs to go through them, to reach the door. She folds herself tighter, head down into her chest, hair pulled forward over her face, but blown scraps of their words still catch up with Layla as she moves forward.
‘You’d think they’d put shoes on them.’
‘……why they let them out.’
‘….at the state of her!’
‘What’s she in there for….?’
God knows, god knows.
Only God knows.
She’ll try to shut her ears, but it’s too late. The words will reach inside, and lodge in a secret place. They’ll stay there until she can go up the mountain again. Until she can dance. It’s all you can do.
Inside the shop, it’s hard for her to see what she wants with her head down, her hair shielding her eyes. She moves around the shelves, picking at this, touching that, but only what she can see, beneath her, through the tunnel of her hair.
‘Can I get something for you?’
Someone’s speaking to her, demanding something of her, trying to break through her defences. Intruding, interfering in things that don’t concern. Her hands go up to her face. She shakes her head further into her neck, and rushes away.
Layla grabs some things, and darts to the till, but two of the crones are in front of her. She lays her purchases on the conveyor belt in a careful edifice. Shampoo, soap, toothpaste, washing powder. Tampax. Products of personal hygiene, all designed to combat the animal secretions of bodily orifices. None of which, in Layla’s case, seems to work. Because she’s different again when you’re right next to her, tight behind her in a queue.
She’s older – not the lithe young dancing-girl of the mountain. And blacker still. Her face is runneled with grime, not just make-up. She fusses with her arrangement, with chewed finger tips and dirty nails. And she smells, a sharp intaking of breath type of smell, that you try to ignore, that the old women don’t ignore, squeezing themselves pointedly forward, leaving ‘space’ in front of her.
The till-girl jolts the conveyor-belt, toppling Layla’s precise handiwork. She rushes to correct it, her hands trembling. She wants the washing-powder on its side, to hide the Tampax. As if they embarrass her, as if she does not want her menstrual condition announced to the world. The till-girl does nothing to help, and pulls the powder flat again, then stops to chat with her neighbour. With other women, she’ll deal with the sanitary goods first, ringing them up quickly, wrapping them straight away in their own bag, even if there’s no-one else in the queue. But not with Layla. It’s different for Layla. She’s from ‘up there’. The hospital. The loony-bin. The nut-house. Layla wears a label, another label, not just Black Woman. She bears a stigma. Or is it just her smell?
As she goes out, pushing through the women who still hug the shop-door, words slip through the air towards her again. They reach through the tangled, greasy locks, finding a way in.
‘…heard something about… Maggie, who cooks up there…’
‘…they say… baby…dead baby’
‘Shouldn’t be allowed…’
‘….not right…it’s not right…’
Layla’s trudging up the hill to the hospital. She walks in the middle of the road, even though the pavement is wide enough here. No wonder the men in the cars look at her, and sound their horns – they have to swerve out to avoid her. They screech their brakes and gesture. But Layla doesn’t care, doesn’t seem to see them. It’s only inward she looks, trying to fold ever closer.
She’s carrying her shopping clutched to her chest, American style. The way to carry six-packs, cereal cartons, pop-corn, bulging out over the top. Not the way to carry the few purchases she made in a village shop.
Yet it’s as if she’s carrying a weight in that bag. Is it the weight of the words of the women? The weight of her suffering? A weight that drags her down, as she makes her way up, her steps getting heavier, her shoulders drooping lower, her chin tucking tighter. And the bag slides down, sinking lower and lower, dragging Layla with it, loosening the fibres that hold her together, until finally her legs give way and she’s on the floor. She hasn’t fallen, just collapsed in on herself, making you think of those Christmas-stocking toys – small wooden creatures, standing on hollow tubs. Dogs, horses, caricatures, their limbs hollow pipes, joined by taut string. Press underneath and the string loosens, the creature collapses. That’s Layla – a de-pressed wooden toy, a deflated self. That’s how she kneels on the road up the hill. That’s how you see her. That’s when she begins to cry.
So it’s hard not to think about Layla – harder than ever, seeing her crying on the floor, remembering the Chinese whispers outside the Mace. It doesn’t matter she’s not quite the person of your distant watchfulness. You still have to care and to wonder about her depression – the weight in her bag that brought her to this place. It’s something to do with a baby. She must have lost a baby. It’s easily done; it happens all the time. It can happen to anyone – that’s what they say. It’s not your fault. It’s not Layla’s fault. So many ways to lose it. How was it with Layla? How did she lose her baby?
Perhaps it wasn’t really a baby. That’s another of their consoling platitudes, when the filaments float away in the toilet bowl, taking your hope with them. A foetus – not really a baby at all. Hardly worth thinking about. Move on; try again.
Or was it born, but was dead, so didn’t really live? Still not really a baby, not to them. Only to you. A child, a proper child to you.
And was there a time when it lived for a while, just a little while, so that there was more hope, and even a name? Before weakening, and dying, and getting lost again. And again. Another lost baby. So many lost babies.
So what happened to Layla’s baby? What happened to Layla? What grief weighs her down so much that she finds it hard to get up again?
Poor, poor Layla.
Layla’s gone now. There’s no march or dance to watch any more. Not down, not up, nor down again. In the village, through the iron gates, up on the mountain – there’s no sign. No more dancing on the hill-tops, no more reaching for the clouds. No more falling to the floor. You hope it’s because she’s better, that they found a way to lift the weight from her. Though she should know that the pain never really goes; she’ll have to carry it always. That’s just the way it is.
Layla’s gone, but she stays in your thoughts, dancing round and round, with her how/what/why? Until… at last her tale gets told. One of the women in the village was talking about it, one of the ones who works, part-time, ‘up there’. It was in the papers, even, she said. You thought it was a baby; of course, it was a baby – what else could it be? Yes, Layla had a baby, a beautiful, healthy boy. She didn’t lose it in the carrying, it didn’t die in the delivery. It lived to laugh and smile. And cry. Because all babies cry – it’s just what they do. Only… Layla’s boyfriend didn’t like the crying, couldn’t stand the screaming, wanted to make it stop. So he shook the baby, to make it stop, but it cried some more, so he shook it again. And again, and again. And Layla stood and watched him and didn’t think to stop him. She thought he must be doing the right thing, because he was such a great guy, because she loved him so much. And finally the baby was quiet so they could go back to bed and get some sleep – after sex, of course. And the baby was quiet because it was dead.
Layla was here, because she tried to slit her wrists when they sentenced her lover to prison. She didn’t think she could live without him. Layla fell to the floor and cried because she missed him so much. Layla danced on the mountain, because she always danced for him. That’s how they met – in an open-air rave, on top of some other hills. They both love dancing, free, formless, stretching for the sky, dancing. They both love drugs, they both love sex. Sex, which sometimes makes babies. Layla’s gone now, because his sentence has finished. She feels so much better. She’s gone to be with him again, to dance for him again, to have sex again. To make more babies.
Her name’s not Layla. Layla never existed. You made her up. Her name’s Sharon, plain, ordinary Sharon. Poor, deluded, foolish Sharon.
Poor deluded foolish you.
Copyright © Diana Powell, 2015.
Diana Powell lives in Pembrokeshire, where the lure of the coast and the demands of her woodland garden conspire to keep her away from her desk.
When she manages to resist, she writes short-stories and novels, and has won several competitions for the former, including the last PenFro Festival, and the previous Allen Raine Award.
She is currently working on a collection of stories and a Young Adult book.
She is married, and has two sons.