Good for you, Cecilia

Exclusive short fiction

Re: Emily.

It was hard to take her seriously. It was hard to take her any other way. It was just plain hard to take her, most of the time.

Her show was going to start soon. It was going to be a big success. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and yet it felt familiar. Everyone in the family knew what to do. We were not part of the show ourselves but we had a script.

The show was based on the soaps we used to watch in the nineties when we were children. The show was about a woman who was not special. The show was about demanding love when you were ordinary. Emily liked to insist upon her ordinariness, which was easy for her, being so extraordinary. It was exhausting, contradictory and irritating, self-aggrandizement through humility. And yet she meant it, she really did.

My mother and I went to see the show together the night it opened. My father and the boys were to go on the closing night. We sat together, me and Bernadette, tense in the best seats. My mother thumbed nervously through the programme. It was printed on shiny paper and I noticed that you could see her fingerprints on it. As the curtain rose, I felt the familiar thump of nervousness I experienced at the beginning of any of Emily’s shows. I always had a horrible fear that something bad was going to happen to her during the performance, that she was going to slip and break her back or twist her spine.

I don’t know why I thought this. I suppose it was to do with the fact I was still haunted by the sense of her body as frail, deprived or about to crumble. I knew she had recovered, I knew it was largely the dance itself that had allowed her do that, and yet I still felt, in my own body, a resistance to the entire project that was her dance career.

Another, smaller part of me felt that due to the extraordinarily lucky timing of our births – we came of age with prosperity, freedom, opportunity, things unknown in our country for people like us, for women like us, for who knew how long –we had to be as successful as we could because there was no reason, no excuse, not to be. To whom we owed all this, I really couldn’t say, but I guess I felt that we owed it to Bernadette, our mother, at the very least. We owed it to her to be brilliant, to be independent, to be rich, to be good. I only wanted to be all of those things, and I only wanted those same things for my sister too. And I wasn’t sure if running a scarcely known dance company in Dublin was the best way to get them.

She thumped the floor with her foot to announce the start of the show. She always did that and it always struck me right to my heart. I felt it reverberate in my own body like an echo, like I was responding to her in a thudded whisper that only we two could hear across the darkened auditorium.

All of these things I felt in the moment the curtain went up, not just this time, but at the beginning of every show I’d ever seen her dance in.

The show began brashly with big, stiff movements, and the dancers – there were six in all – looked as if they were restrained by the ugly green and yellow polyester costumes they all were wearing. The dancer playing the main character was hypnotic from the outset, her face screwed up in a grimace of determination, her movements full of jagged energy. She was wearing a lime-green tweed suit and beige court shoes; a brown handbag hung off the crook of her elbow. I’d seen photos of the lead dancer in this costume online and in the publicity materials; the image showed her standing with her feet turned outwards like a duck, her arms held up on either side of her head. It was an amazing image – a pantomime hieroglyphic – and it surely accounted for the fact that most nights were now sold out. The music was supplied by a brass band and had been written by a new collaborator for Emily, a young Nigerian-Irish man. Emily was taking a smaller role than usual in the performance itself – she wanted to have more energy to direct – and this was the first time in her career that she had felt confident enough to let another dancer carry the burden of the story. But also, Emily was getting older. The lead dancer was almost ten years younger than she was now.

As the story went on and the main character fell in love, her movements became more fluid, more gentle, as if her bones were dissolving. The music changed, the brass band stopped, and a pianist took over. The main dancer moved across the stage in sweeping movements, discarding her stiff clothing until she was dressed in a flimsy tangerine-coloured garment that rippled and clung to her strong, young body.

When the main character was betrayed by her lover, I expected her to exhibit her devastation via a return to the trapped, frenetic movements she’d performed earlier in the show. Instead she slowed right down, the music became sparse and thrumming and she retreated inside herself; she folded over like a bird hiding its face under its wing.

But then there was another act, a final dance which seemed to defy anyone who expected her to stay small or ashamed. The lead dancer took the energy and drama of the movements in the earlier act and combined that with the fluidity of the love scenes to create something controlled, passionate and quite spectacular. Her movements made me feel exuberant and full of resolve, and by the time the lights on the stage went out for the last time, my face was wet with tears.

At the after party, I stood in a corner with Bernadette, watching Emily accept praise and congratulations. There were another five nights to go so she wasn’t drinking and we had been instructed to spirit her away before it got too late. My mother was quiet. In a newspaper interview the previous weekend, Emily had talked about Bernadette, had paid tribute to her. I was surprised at this, Emily always scorned the way female artists drew so explicitly on their personal biographies in the art they created and then complained that audiences and readers had difficulty separating them from their work. Her aim was to remain invisible, to let her work speak for itself.

For a long time, she also resisted emphasising what she was now calling her working-class background – she didn’t want to play that game, she’d said, why should I let them put me in a box, why should I let them know. The very conceit of the show itself seemed pitched to chime with recent fashions in discussions around gender and class, and I was surprised to find that I actually liked it. I’d thought – I’d feared – that she’d capitulated, that she’d made something with an eye to the crowd, which she had never done before – and even though it would have been so much easier if she had, we were all fiercely proud that she hadn’t.

But it turned out she’d finally figured out how to play it like a game. And she was winning, I could see that. She was finally winning.

I rested my head on my mother’s shoulder. Emily’s black hair shone in the warm light of the pub. She was nodding as a short woman spoke eagerly to her, the woman’s face turned up towards hers like a supplicant. More people hovered around her, waiting for their turn to approach.

‘Good for her,’ Bernadette murmured. ‘Good for her.’

Bernadette and I shared a hotel room in the north inner city that night. The next morning we woke early to the sound of seagulls, their cries hollow and ugly on the wind. We were going to have lunch with Emily before getting the bus home later.

It was a bitterly cold and bright morning in early spring and I shivered at the sight of the homeless people in the doorways of the shops. I hadn’t been in Dublin for a few years and the increase in the number of rough sleepers shocked me. Or at least I said to my mother that it did. But I’d grown used to the same thing in London.

Bernadette didn’t like to talk about this. She was from Dublin originally but had left when she met my dad. She did not talk much about her past and I only had the faintest sense of what her childhood had been like. My only memory of being in this city with Bernadette was during Emily’s illness, which was a long time ago now and was so undiscussed in my family that I often had trouble believing it had ever happened.

I wanted to walk across the river and go into Brown Thomas and I felt irritated in anticipation of Bernadette’s reaction to this idea. She sensed my mood and became bristly herself. We passed a hipster coffee place. I suggested we go in – the coffee at the hotel buffet had been undrinkable. Bernadette sighed but did not object. We sat in the window, whichcaught the sun, and we quickly became too hot in our winter coats. I stripped off my coat and my sweatshirt. Underneath I was wearing a shapeless, spaghetti-strapped vest and I felt childish and unkempt. Bernadette fanned herself primly with the menu. I ordered a flat white, Bernadette a tea.

‘I just have to have proper coffee in the morning,’ I said. My mother nodded. I reached for the stack of newspapers situated at the end of the counter we were sitting at.

‘Here she is,’ I said. At the top of the front page, a small headline and photo indicated a positive review of Emily’s show on the arts pages. I turned to it eagerly. A half-page of coverage, a five-star review alongside two photographs: one of Ailbhe, the main dancer, looking incredible in her tweed costume; the other of Emily, looking tough and mischievous. According to the review, the show was glorious, full of humour, tragedy and pathos. The idea at its heart was “ingenious”. Emily had fused low-art and high-art until no one knew or cared about the difference. Audiences who didn’t even know what contemporary dance was would flock to it,while purists would be thrilled by its energy and “irreverence”.

I was reading the review out loud to my mother when the waiter came with our drinks. ‘That’s my daughter,’ Bernadette said. He looked politely at me and I blushed.

‘She means her,’ I said, pointing at Emily’s photograph.

‘How impressive,’ he said, taking a moment to look. ‘Congratulations to all of you.’ We knew from this direct manner of speaking that this man was not Irish, I thought German or Scandinavian perhaps.

‘What a lovely young man,’ Bernadette said, watching him as he walked back towards the counter. He had a man-bun and tattoos. Bernadette liked such things. She liked people who she would describe as“different”. ‘I’m texting Emily,’ I said. ‘I bet she’s been too nervous to look at the reviews.’

Outside on the pavement, I felt giddy. I also felt wary of the hours we had to kill between now and lunchtime. I worried that the delicate thread of tolerance that bound me and my mother together might erode and snap over the course of all that time.

‘We have to do something to celebrate,’ I said. I wanted to run by the sea, to take off my clothes and get in the water, to do something physical, to put all of these feelings somewhere beyond me.

My mother suggested we go visit a church. She said we should light a candle, to celebrate Emily’s success, to pray that it might continue. I disapproved of this kind of thing, but it was cold and I didn’t have any better ideas.

In the church, after lighting the candle, Bernadette spread herself out on the pew, putting put her coat and handbag on either side of her. She breathed deeply and I felt guilty for forgetting she was older, that she was often unwell, that she was a stone or two beyond what her small frame could comfortably accommodate.

There was no-one in the church. A few rows of candles flickered underneath a statue of some female saint I did not recognize. I knew next to nothing about my religion, it did not ever occur to me that I should know about it.

The air in the church was cool and pleasing on my cheeks. I scrolled through Twitter on my phone searching for every mention of the show, hearting every positive comment. I enjoyed being insouciant in the church like this, my mother’s devotions often embarrassed me, and I wanted to show her I would not be subject to them. Bernadette sat in silence with her eyes closed.

Emily wasn’t on Twitter so I felt it was my duty to keep her informed about what was going on there. I screen-shotted the most over-the-top comments, the most fawning praise. I couldn’t find a single negative thing, but I knew it was only a matter of time. I wondered what she would be brought down for, in the end. Emily was too scathing, too opinionated, too distrustful of consensus to last long in the limelight, and her absence from social media could only protect her so much if her star continued to rise.

My mother emitted some sort of squeak. I looked up. My vision was blurry. I blinked and saw twitter hearts in the scummy colour behind my eyelids.

‘Look,’ she said. The statue of the saint was wobbling in front of us. Bernadette grabbed my hand.

The statue continued to shake. It was about four foot tall and I noticed that it held some kind of musical instrument close to its chest. The face was beautiful and unperturbed. Bernadette was shaking beside me and I realised she was afraid. I felt annoyed with her. What was there to be afraid of? But I was unsure what to do.

The statue toppled forward. It fell face down onto the rows of candles. Several lit candles fell onto the floor. Now we could be legitimately alarmed. Perhaps there would be a fire.

We gathered up our stuff and scrambled up the aisle. A priest came dashing in.

‘We didn’t do anything,’ I said. ‘It just fell.’ I felt annoyed at myself for acting as if we might be guilty.

The priest ignored me and charged down the aisle towards the statue. He stamped on the candles that were on the floor, his loose trouser leg flapping. We hurried out of the church, eager to escape this undignified scene.

At the entrance to the church, Bernadette dipped her hand in the holy water font and blessed herself. I did the same, minus the blessing, feeling the cool water drip on my hot cheek. I looked at my mother. She was the kind of person who got the giggles in dramatic situations. She was the kind of person who loved to tell stories of her own misadventures. I expected her to be amused by this incident – the priest stomping on the innocent candles, the mad dash up the aisle – already relishing how she was going to tell it and re-tell it.

Instead she looked pale and troubled. Her shoulders were slumped, her head bowed towards the floor. I asked her was she was okay, she said, fine, in a clipped voice. I sighed. She was going to be in one of her moods now for the day.

I wanted to find out what had happened but Bernadette didn’t want to go back in. We walked out of the church into the small grassy churchyard. The day was getting warmer and the low thorn-filled bushes were starting to bud. We walked around for a few minutes, breathing in the suddenly spring-like air. At the back of the church we found the priest, leaning against what looked like an old tool-shed, smoking a cigarette. He was in early middle age and had a thick head of shaggy grey hair.

‘Are you all right?’ he said. ‘That must have given you some fright.’

‘We’re fine,’ Bernadette said. ‘How’s Cecilia?’

‘She’s seen worse.’ He stubbed his cigarette out in a small ashtray which was secreted in a gap in the wall behind the shed.

‘Cecilia?’ I asked. I figured she meant the saint, but I was impressed my mother knew which one it was. I was always surprised when she knew things that I did not.

‘Young people,’ Bernadette said to the priest, with an exaggerated roll of her eyes.

‘I’m thirty-two,’ I said.

‘It’s the tramline,’ the priest said. ‘It’s shaken everything up. This church has been here for over a hundred and fifty years, built just after Emancipation. It’s survived the famine, nineteen-sixteen, the whole lot.’

‘And now it’s all crumbling down,’ Bernadette said.

‘About time,’ I said. I didn’t care what happened to the church one way or the other. But that felt like the line I was supposed to say.

‘You’ll miss us when we’re gone,’ the priest said, cheerfully. He flashed a smile at Bernadette, who blushed, and then strolled back up towards the church. 

The priest incident melted away the tension between myself and Bernadette, and we walked across the city in companionable silence to meet Emily. Over lunch in a dark wood-paneled pub, I scrolled through Twitter again, reading the best compliments out loud. Emily seemed glassy-eyed and fragile. I felt nervous and I sensed Bernadette did too. Emily picked up on our nervousness. It did not irritate her, I could sense her absorbing it, understanding it. This was a strange thing for us. Usually, everything we did or said irritated Emily, especially anything to do with our fears around her success, or her lack of success.

But this time, we were all a little afraid, including Emily herself. It was as if her success was becoming its own separate thing, independent of her, independent of us. It had put us all on the same side. We were all afraid of it, together. It was reminiscent of her illness and I felt a stab of pain at that recollection.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked her.

‘Tell her about the statue,’ Bernadette said.

I recounted the incident. Bernadette started laughing when I described how we had both legged it up the aisle. I then described and exaggerated Bernadette’s flirting with the priest in the churchyard. Bernadette tried to defend herself but she couldn’t talk because of how much she was laughing.

Emily started laughing as well.

‘What happened to the statue?’ Emily asked, after we’d all calmed down. Bernadette waved her hands front of her face to indicate she couldn’t speak. I handed her a tissue.

‘We don’t know,’ I said. ‘Maybe she broke her lyre, or whatever it’s called.’

‘Cecilia is a beautiful name,’ Emily said.

‘You could make a show about her,’ Bernadette said, suddenly recovering her breath. ‘The saints as women before their time. They’d only love that. Those theatre types would only love that.’ 

She would have started giggling uncontrollably again only for the way Emily sighed, as if suddenly exhausted.

‘They would,’ she said.

Emily had to go then to get ready for that evening’s performance. It didn’t seem like she wanted to. That was unusual. Even though I was the one flying back to London later that week, it always felt like Emily was the one who was leaving, the one who wanted to leave.

She gathered her coat and her bag. I hugged her. Her body felt tough and dense in my arms. She needed this success, she needed it so badly. I wanted it so much for her. I wished I could tell her how much I wanted her to be alright.

In the airport a few days later on my way back to London, I saw the priest from the church. He was waiting in line for the same Ryanair flight as me, wearing a leather jacket and carrying a small lap-top bag. I tapped him on the shoulder.

‘How is she?’ I asked.

His eyes widened in brief confusion but it only took him a second to place me. Without saying anything, he removed his phone from his pocket, unlocked it and started scrolling through the photos. After a moment, he held the phone up to show me the screen.

On it was a photo of the statue of Cecilia. She was lying on her back like a corpse. A crack ran down the side of her head but otherwise everything looked okay. It looked like she was in a workshop filled with light. Her musical instrument was still intact.

‘We brought her to a sculptor to get her fixed. He usually works with big blocks of granite,’ the priest said. ‘He doesn’t usually do saints.’

He handed me the phone so I could get a better look.

‘It’s just a crack. A fracture. He’s going to fix it with some kind of filler.’

‘Like a Kardashian,’ I said, handing him back the phone.

‘Exactly,’ the priest said.

After the incident, I had read about St Cecilia online. The most interesting thing about her was the story of the discovery of her body in the 1500s, still apparently intact after her death more than a thousand years before. A beautiful sculpture had been made to imitate the way her body lay in its crypt. It did not look at all like the pose of a corpse, it looked like the pose of a beautiful woman pretending to sleep, the kind of fake slumber a model would do in an advertisement for perfume.

It was all untrue – that the body had not decomposed in the crypt, that a dead woman would lie like that, that a real woman would sleep like that – but the sculpture was so beautiful that it didn’t matter. Or it didn’t matter now, another five hundred years later. Maybe it had mattered at the time.

Bernadette, Emily and I had a group chat and I texted to tell them that Cecilia was going to be okay. Emily didn’t reply, she often left her phone switched off when she was busy. Bernadette texted back just as I was getting on the plane. ‘Good for her,’ she said. 


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