Spring 2017

2018

2017

‘Wings’

By Di Starrenburg

My father offered to drive me to the Interschool Cultural Festival where I had been semi-coerced into performing as a ‘Riverdancer’. This was not the sort of duty Dad usually took time off for. The last time he attended anything school-related was a soccer game back in fourth form when Mum was recovering from a slipped disk. He cheered too loudly and, after we lost, whispered to the team, behind the other parent’s backs, about how it was okay because now we could go and drink it off like he used to at our age.

I hadn’t seen him for months while my life had shuffled forwards without me. This dance group, like the recent funeral, was pain dressed up as healing––everyone had urged me to participate in both. We’d all watched the real, rolling-green Riverdancers on television, and then Louise’s second-cousin, an ex-Riverdancer called Damian—legit—had flown over from Ireland and was making an illegal pittance as a step dance instructor. Louise begged, the guidance counsellor nudged, and my mother looked at me with tortured eyes until I said yes.

We missed steps, the beat, and Damian’s seething instructions from the wings, but the novelty factor—or our glitzy borrowed costumes––saw us selected to represent our school alongside the Niue takalo group. They were all slick limbs and drumbeats, with flax fireworks bursting from their heads and ankles. Our inclusion was an unfortunate joke that I wasn’t anticipating. Like the funeral. No matter what the doctors tell you, however long you have to prepare, you don’t see death coming until it comes.

In my father’s car one sweaty hour from the festival, I tried not to panic. I tried to ignore the sensation of falling, and my worried thoughts about what the bottom might feel like once I hit it. After waiting too long with my hair-sprayed ringlets crunching against the headrest, Dad dove into the driver’s seat and clipped his door shut. A hint of aftershave and woollen cardigan blew in with him. It was an embarrassing chunky knit cardigan—burnt-orange with wooden toggles—and I was convinced he had owned it my entire life. If I pulled out baby photos from the box in the hallway cupboard, I could prove it.

‘You look very Irish dancer,’ he said.

My costume was a velveteen dress provided by Damian—emerald, pinched at the waist, and embroidered with glittering Celtic symbols. The spirals in my hair, formed overnight by rags, were now crispy-stiff as baked chicken skin.

‘This’ll be good,’ Dad said. ‘I’m looking forward to this.’

I was about to differ, but he wasn’t referring to my dancing. He was waving a finger at the notice on the dashboard. The festival venue was Dad’s former secondary School, Avondale College. ‘I can show you around my old stomping ground, Peanut, class of nineteen sixty-eight.’

I didn’t respond.

Light reflected off the frames of Dad’s glasses and bounced around the dashboard. His eyes were peppy, like whippets. ‘Think we’ve got time for a driving lesson, on the way?’ He jangled the keys. ‘It’s not going to drive itself.’

I flattened my dress underneath my thighs and pushed the emerald sleeves to my elbows. The indicator clicked a ten-second count, and I checked two mirrors and my blind spot, before pulling into Saturday afternoon traffic. I stalled at an intersection and wiped slippery palms onto velveteen ruffles. At a busy roundabout, Dad told me to just do it, to hit the gas.

The wheels squealed. A car drove right up to my bumper and honked.

‘Not too bad, kid,’ Dad said. ‘Not too bad.’

I wound down the window and let my hair quiver, like browning leaves, in the breeze. Oblivious as usual, Dad couldn’t sense my descent. His presence was the air that fluttered around me as I fell. His head rested back on the seat and he whistled to a song about skies of blue and clouds of white.

When I shut down the engine a few cars idled in the car park and a small group of people gathered beside prefabs.

‘Looks like we’re early,’ Dad said.

Wind was shaking up the leaves overhead until they sounded like rain. A cluster of shirtless boys in lavalavas came tumbling from the office, ribbing each other. I ducked behind the car and tightened a non-existent shoelace.

‘Come on, I know where to go.’ Dad led me past the office and we skidded through narrow alleys between classrooms, passing girls with woven flax belts and hands that flicked like the ocean. A pair in kimonos snapped open fans bright as moth-wings. Dad slipped through a door and I followed. Chairs were set out in rows and a few students pushed items across the stage. There was a sign above the windows: INTERSCHOOL CULTURAL FESTIVAL—WESTERN SUBURBS.

‘Don’t look at me like that,’ Dad said. ‘That’s your mother’s look. Relax.’

For as long as I could remember, Mum and I rubbed stress into each other’s skin, but Dad was different. Indifferent. His undiplomatic attempts to calm her––a whistled song like It’s the Hard Knock Life––made her want to smack him across the head. But his more serious attempts also backfired: the outdoor furniture he bought her, which was insensitive because he should have known she wanted to choose. He forced her to feel like a bad person; the sort of person who returned her own gifts.

I know it was more complicated than it seemed, but looking over at him now, I found it hard to imagine how he knotted her up like that. He seemed too orange-cardiganed, too big and snug. His hands were clasped behind his back as he scanned rows of old photographs along the hall walls. I was like Mum but I wasn’t because, sometimes, Dad’s presence unravelled the knots inside of me.

A month ago, I wrote him a letter that told him so, but I don’t know whether he ever read it. He always was appearing and disappearing. When I was twelve I hadn’t seen him in a fortnight and he swooped in after school—tail-wagging, shaking drips of rain, tangled up in a damp corduroy jacket—and said he wanted to take his Peanut on a date. We picked out stinky clown shoes and slipped down bowling lanes, and scoffed fries, tomato sauce and Cokes at the dairy beside the quarry. We sent our bottles spinning over the fence and they shattered on mounds of crushed rock. It was an alternate universe where all my coils loosened and popped like springs. I left them dangling, could care less. Then he dropped me home and screeched off into the night.

Once, I opened the front door and found Mum slumped over the dining table with red-rimmed eyes. Her hair was dark and greasy at the back, as if she’d left in a lump of un-rinsed shampoo. There was an empty cup of tea beneath her palms.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.

‘You’re so happy to be with your father,’ she said. ‘All I hear from you is where’s my hairbrush, what’s for dinner?

I was frozen in the dining room hallway. Her words were a little slurred and her eyes were glassy. Maybe she’d mixed medications or had started taking something new?

‘He just flounces in for two minutes and you give him all the love. I do everything.

I stared at her, not sure whether to hug her, or apologise. She put her head down on her arms and closed her eyes like an un-wound doll. I ran for my bed and lay, staring up at the ceiling, and from then on, I tried not to act too happy when Dad offered to take me out. He started glancing between my mother and I before he spoke, so as not to end up with an eye roll from me or a muttered insult from her.

I saw more of him this past year, but things had changed so much. It was by phone that he told me about the aberrations that spread in dark places from organ to organ. From then on, I bit the inside of my cheek so that I wouldn’t cry when he told his jokes. I’d spent the past year as tightly coiled as the ringlets in my hair, we all had.

I wouldn’t think about the ‘Riverdance’ group, and where they were, and how they would be panicking to have lost me. I perched at the end of a row of chairs and tugged a gold thread that was peeling from the embroidery of my dress. Flags from every country lined the hall walls beneath the gabled ceiling. More people were gathering outside: girls in yellow saris, a kapa haka group who were painting the finishing touches to each other’s moko, and a white-haired old woman who sat on the grass while the toddler next to her spun circles around a metal pole.

I watched more people arrive, alert for sightings of emerald green.

‘Here I am.’ Dad pointed at a framed photo. It was a black-and-white rugby team with striped jerseys and knuckles to knees. The occasional loose smile or stray curl were cracks in a staunch façade. There was teenaged-Dad, centre front, with his hair parted and slicked sideways, and a frown that pretended to be solemn. ‘Captain of the first fifteen, right there,’ he said. ‘They made me head prefect because I scored the tries.’ His fingernail, white and cracked, squashed against the picture, and he put his other arm around my shoulder. The wool itched my cheek.

‘Excuse, me.’ A woman with a black bob walked up to me. ‘I’m sorry but you’re not supposed to be in here.’

‘I’m waiting for the concert,’ I said.

‘There’s still,’ she looked at her wristwatch, bracelets jingling, ‘a four-minute wait until we open the hall to the audience. This is officials only right now.’

‘She’s an official,’ I heard Dad say as he pointed to me. ‘She’s a dancer.’

I mumbled something.

The woman glanced from my dress to my jazz shoes until her chin had folded itself away. I grabbed Dad’s hand and pulled, while he asked her to check her watch again, in case we had three minutes now, or two.

Outside the hall more people were gathering and I bumped past shoulders and squinted in sunlight that made the gold thread of my dress flash. He was gazing up at the school building, hand across his forehead to shield the sun. He paced through a maze of prefabs to the other side of the hall. I thought there was a good chance I might lose him again, but he stopped up ahead and waved me over.

‘Come this way.’ His voice echoed down the alleyway. ‘I want to show you something.’ He opened a blue door, and glanced behind me as if expecting someone to stop us. I stepped inside and could hear people entering the hall in a collision of voices and scraping chairs. We stood in a dim corner, backstage. Someone tapped and blew scratching wind into a microphone.

‘This way.’ Dad jogged up wooden steps towards the wings, then pulled me behind a heavy black curtain. We slipped into the narrow alley between brick wall and stage backdrop.

Dad,’ I whispered. ‘What are you doing?’

He put a finger to his lips. A welcome speech was screeching and crackling through the speakers. More black curtains enclosed dark spaces, ropes, pulleys, and wide wooden ladders bolted to the wall.

‘I want to show you something,’ he said into my ear. ‘Want to see something I did when I was your age?’ He started to climb up a ladder. I could hear the whispers of people approaching the wings, so I trailed up the ladder behind my father. We climbed into a crow’s-nest that held a spotlight. ‘The followspot booth,’ Dad whispered. Before us, light rigging stretched out in metal arms the length of the stage.

A waiata finished and the speaker introduced an item. I shuffled into the booth, out of sight as performers began to cluster together in the wings below.

‘Hah, they’re still there. You see those?’ Dad pointed at the ceiling, centre stage, where two old pulleys were jammed into a wooden beam. ‘I put them in there for the war memorial gala, 1965, so we could lower and raise the various flags. Had to climb out on that rigging and balance off it to reach the ceiling. Sort of thing they’d never let kids do nowadays.’

I found it hard to believe it was the sort of thing they let kids do back then, either. We could see most of the stage from here, but the wings below were obscured from view unless I pressed my face to the cracks in the railing, or peeked over the edge of the booth.

‘Not the sort of thing I’d suggest you do, of course,’ Dad was saying.

At the base of the ladder, waiting in the second wing, was Louise. She peeked out at the stage and tugged on her shoulder straps. The others joined her, their glittery dresses sparkling like ocean algae in the dark.

I crawled back from the edge and sat upright.

‘Are you okay?’ Dad said.

I was supposed to meet them at school. We were going to catch the minibus together, but I drove myself and left them waiting. It was rebellious and insensitive of me.

‘Let’s go back down,’ Dad was saying.

In my panic, my lips formed a question I was desperate for the answer to. ‘Did you get my letter?’

Dad stopped speaking. He watched me with that sad expression he’d adopted recently. The truth was, I didn’t know if he had. I’d left the letter on his bedside table the day before my whole world closed its eyes and I saw it there, a few days later, still folded beside his alarm clock. I’d paced his room then laid on his bed for an hour or so, smelling his leaf patterned pillow cover, and staring at the drawers beside his bed that held cassette tapes, throat lozenges and handkerchiefs.

‘The one,’ I continued, ‘where I told you that you can wear all the ugly cardigans you want and they’ll never embarrass me again.’

He laughed. ‘It looks good on you.’

I’d grabbed it from the back of the car. It was wrapped around my torso to mid-thigh––burnt orange wool hiding the dress. I bunched the cardigan tighter.

Horn pipes started to blow, and the music picked up into a jig. My dance group skipped from underneath us, and out onto the stage. They were three girls, instead of four—one and a half partners. Louise’s steps were delayed and panicked.

‘Is that your dance?’

I gripped the booth railing and nodded.

‘Shit,’ Dad said. ‘Shit shit shit. Let’s get you down there.’

We both knew that he would get the blame for my absence. Dad blamed himself too; I could see it in the soft pull of wrinkles around his mouth. His skin looked grey in the shadows. But it was my decision to drive here. I wanted to see where he had once been, imagine him beneath the pine beams along the ceiling and the corroded fifties window frames. I wanted to find his name engraved on a shield somewhere. He’d talked about this stomping ground.

‘It’s not your fault,’ I said to Dad. ‘If she gets mad.’

He brushed his hair down, either side, out of habit. It was still parted like the rugby photo, just silvery at the temples. ‘Ah, you let me deal with all that.’ He rubbed a thumb across my cheek in a way he hadn’t since I was small. ‘Be kind to her, Peanut.’

I wanted to cry, but something changed in Dad’s eyes, as if the worry had gone. ‘I know a way out. But it’s not for the faint of heart.’

Dad shuffled towards the exposed metal light rigging. He swung himself over the edge of the booth and bounced his weight on it, assessing. It ran the width of the stage towards another spotlight booth, in the opposite wings—the wings with the fire exit.

‘This is the sturdy sort of light-rigging,’ Dad was saying. ‘It’s supported by those ceiling poles, and see the metal bars? They help to hold it up, couldn’t be more sturdy. You’ve just got to hold on tight, and don’t look down. I’ve got you from behind.’ He nodded me on. ‘You’ll be fine.’

What I needed right now was to avoid all human confrontation, all interaction. Whether with peers, dance instructors, teachers, or the guidance counsellor who called too often and glanced at me with a knowing expression while I ate my lunch outside the music room. I had already fallen, so the choice was an easy one. Balancing on the rigging, I lowered down so that my legs dangled either side, and I bum-shuffled forwards, inch by inch.

‘Just don’t drop your feet down past the lights,’ Dad whispered behind me. ‘You don’t want the audience to see your feet swinging in the air.’

My palms were slippery on the metal poles, and the rigging wobbled with our combined weight. The Irish jig was blaring, swirling in my head, and making me dizzy. I tried to focus on the solid metal beneath me, not the four-meter drop to the stage floor. With shaking arms, I pulled myself forwards, not thinking, and not thinking again, about tipping sideways.

Below, the glitzy ‘Riverdancers’ were mis-stepping to the background music of my life. The forced jauntiness of it. Trance-like, I had spun and spun to tunes like this one.

At the half-way point, I lay flat on my stomach.

Dad grunted behind me. ‘You okay, Peanut?’

If I made a noise they might look up, or my jazz shoe could slip and fall. Dad tapped my ankle, and when I glanced behind me he was perched upwards on the rigging—no hands—admiring the pulleys he’d stuck into the ceiling all those years ago. His hair fell forwards, out of place, and his expression was one of solemn pride like the black and white rugby photo—a cracking façade.

Then he grinned.

Half-hearted applause rattled in my ears, Dad rattled the rigging, and a speaker squealed. As the dancers scrambled from the stage and the noise in the hall fell to murmurs, I covered my mouth to hold back a laugh.

Dad spread his arms until the sleeves of his cardigan were burnt-orange wings.

‘See you outside,’ he said.

I nodded, and lifted a hand to wave. His feet slipped from the metal beams, but he didn’t fall––he flew.

Dizzy with adrenaline, I shuffled to the end of the rigging and mounted the railing of the opposite booth. The way I hit the ground was of my own choosing—I scurried down the ladder, leapt off it with a squeal to rival the microphone, and sprinted out the fire exit into daylight.

About Di Starrenburg

Di Starrenburg is a fiction writer from Auckland. She has worked as a teacher and a designer and she recently completed a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Auckland. She won New Zealand's richest prize for a creative writing student—the Sir James Wallace Prize—for her master's thesis, a collection of short stories. Her work has been published in Takahe Magazine and Headland Journal, and is forthcoming in Hayden's Ferry Review. Di works as co-editor of Geometry.