The city was not what he had expected.
Crumbling facades, neglected for decades overlooked rubbish strewn streets. During the day dogs rummaged in the debris. At night other feral creatures, people with silent scrabbling children, scavenged for morsels of food or trinkets to sell.
“Hey Sir, real Topaz, make good gift, I give you good price.”
He glanced at the broken glass mounted on tin held out in grubby fingers. A tiny image of two dancers was etched onto the glass. The obvious skill of the workmanship and bravery of the sales patter failed to mask the poverty of the materials. His disbelief and pity was reflected in the fear and desperation in the eyes of the boy. He remembered the family sleeping on mattresses on the street outside his apartment and wondered where this boy would sleep tonight.
He carefully peeled a ten dollar note from his inside pocket without revealing the wad of cash. The banking system in this city was prone to periodic collapse, and flashing cash only encouraged robbers and pickpockets already attracted by his obviously foreign appearance.
A moment of silent comprehension passed between them. The boy snatched the note, scooped up the cloth with his trinkets on and ran. He hoped the boy would make it safely to whatever he called home.
He examined the trinket as the boy disappeared. It was certainly unique; the first example of original workmanship he had seen since he arrived in the city a month ago. He had come seeking an authentic experience. So far, all he had experienced was authentic poverty.
He tried not to think about his life before the city. The home, bought with such hope for the future, now sold as part of the salvage operation on the wreck of his marriage.
But the city was partly to blame for his misery and he figured it owed him something.
The city was the origin of the dance, an addictive transcendental experience for its many practitioners, who treated the city as a place of pilgrimage.
The city had grown from a port surrounded by a swamp. New colonial powers, keen to profit from their efforts in subduing the natives had identified the city as an ideal export point.
Realising the full potential of the port, required massive development fast.
Foreign workers were enticed to come with the promise of land and opportunity and youngmen fleeing wars came in their thousands. Instead of wealth they found poverty, loneliness and exploitation in construction gangs. The dance and its music were the expression of their betrayal: their longing for connection became an intimate, mystical partner dance which created an instant emotional connection between the partners.
Prosperity and decorum eventually came to the city and the dance was banned as an uncomfortable reminder of the past. It stayed alive in the poor neighbourhoods until the colonial powers retreated, the economy collapsed, and the people of the city had a reason to dance again.
The mythical qualities of the dance became known outside of the city, and it was soon providing solace to the divorced, dysfunctional and dispossessed of the richest nations on earth. He had learned the dance at a club near his home, and quickly become addicted to its ritualised intimacy. The dance was the perfect salve for emotionally constipated puritans – guaranteed intimacy with a stranger without commitment or condemnation.
For the lonely and the damaged it was a powerful drug. Clubs were springing up in the first world like mushrooms where professors and lawyers claimed to search for hidden meanings in the music, but instead found an honest excuse to touch a beautiful stranger. The dance was compared to a religion, such was the strength of commitment of its adherents, however any attempts to regulate it drew a blank. There were no obvious negative side effects; conversely the dance seemed to be an effective therapy.
His wife claimed the dance destroyed their marriage. The truth was that the marriage was already long dead and it was only the dance that allowed him to feel anything at all.
The dance had become a valuable export for the city. Young couples competed in vicious and corrupt dancing competitions for the opportunity to teach abroad and earn hard currency. Hoteliers and the down at heel middle classes marketed their rooms with pictures of stylised dancing couples. The city sold the dream that the dance, here on its filthy cobbles, was purer, and the connection between the dancers far sweeter than any travesty that could be recreated in an air-conditioned dance hall thousands of miles away.
He had bought the dream and convinced himself that here in the city, at the source, the music would be the sweetest and the connections the most intense. He hoped, like all pilgrims, to experience a revelation. Perhaps he was simply an addict seeking a heavier and heavier hit. Some foreign dancers arrived and never left, remaining permanently blissed out in their own alternative reality.
Parodies of the dance were performed outside cafes by aging couples. Mono versions of classic songs blared into the street from battered speakers. Her scarlet lipstick bled into the lines around her mouth, and his jacket no longer fastened, but their dancing still mesmerised gawping tourists who stood three deep, spilling off the pavement onto the road.
The dance seemed to seep into the very fabric of the city and become its essence. Each class of the city’s inhabitants moved to a distinct and easily recognisable rhythm. Rich foreigners rose late, shopped in the afternoon then returned home to prepare for their evening excursion – a meal at an upmarket restaurant followed by dancing or socialising till the early hours of the morning. The poor rose early, to catch the richest pickings from the trash before collection. The bureaucrats and their house wives kept strict office hours, with an hour for lunch. The café owners knew everyone, and the secret policemen relied on their astute observations.
Both the rules and the weather were stultifying. Today he was defying both by walking at noon, sweat soaking through his shirt.
The green spaces that had once existed in the city had gradually been concreted over as corruption and the price of real estate rose together. There was only one place where he could walk and think freely.
At the top of a hill, in the centre of the city, was a place of walled silence. In contrast to the crumbling buildings below stood gleaming white roman pillars. Massive carved wooden gates filled the spaces between the pillars. Pristine white paving lead to the gates which, once inside, turned to a maze of glass cobbled streets leading to a marble piazza. There was no obvious security yet the absence of the city’s ubiquitous panhandlers was notable.
This was the city’s cemetery. Like other cities built on swamp, burial of the dead was not an option: they would not stay buried for long. Cremation was the most expedient disposal method, but the rich, in the belief that wealth granted them immortality, or at least the opportunity to be envied or admired long after their passing, constructed elaborate mausoleums like marble clad beach huts.
Just like the city itself, this city of the dead had its distinct neighbourhoods. The block facing the entrance was the grandest. Vast concrete angels at stood at each corner silently interceding on behalf of the souls which lay within. At this time of day he was alone here aside from the grave workers, the odd disoriented tourist and packs of feral cats lazing on the heated stone caskets.
It was eerily silent here compared to the constant hum of the city. He heard only the sound of his footsteps and the chirps of insects escaping from the sun into the cracks of the tombs.
He walked along the avenues, streets and boulevards, struck by the vast time and expense invested in the exquisite designs. Each was unique with designs ranging from the classic to the modern. Jet black marble boxes endorsed with curious signs and symbols competed for attention next to glass fronted tombs with gold plated ironwork, all screaming “remember me, remember me, remember me…”
He heard a scraping sound. Upon turning the corner he saw a pile of coffins on the path next to a tomb. He tried not to look but could not help himself: the coffins were disintegrating, the wood cracked and falling away. But a good investment had been made, the failing wood exposed only the lead lining rather than stray locks of hair or bony protruding fingers.
He drew level to the tomb and peered inside. It was apparent the tombs were far deeper than he had imaged. The space fell away into the ground further than he could see. He leaned to get a closer look then jumped as he felt a cold touch behind him on his shoulder.
He turned with a start to face a grinning grave worker.
“Be careful my friend, it’s a long way down.”
He exhaled slowly, his shock replaced with annoyance at the worker’s obvious pleasure at his fright. The worker grinned. A prominent gold tooth gleamed out of a swarthy face. A short stocky man he managed to lean on his shovel in a manner both mocking and threatening.
“You’re a long way from home.” The man looked at him more closely. “If you came to dance then go and dance and leave the dead in peace.”
For a moment he felt like a guilty voyeur then remembered this man was piling coffins in the street.
“Their peace ended when you started digging them up!”
The man grinned even wider and leaned harder on his shovel.
“Look around you my friend. This neighbourhood is the most expensive in the city. You rest in peace here for as long as your estate pays for the upkeep. When the money runs out we dig you up and replace you with a wealthier corpse. Many of these plots were leased by prominent families who set aside trusts, but you know about the banks here…and some of their politics are no longer fashionable.”
“What do you do with the bodies?”
The man looked sideways for a moment as if wondering if he should say more, then, deciding that this foreigner was no threat said, “the wasteland outside of the city.”
“But the bodies won’t stay down!”
“People who live here know not to go there. And,” he added grimly, “foreigners have no reason to go there.”
He paused then said,
“You are a dancer, yes?”
He nodded, grateful to replace the image of broken caskets and rotting corpses in his mind.
The worker prodded the top coffin with his shovel.
“She was a dancer too. Although I can’t imagine she is a very attractive partner now.” He laughed.
“The coffin looks new.”
“She was only in a week before the money ran out. In this city no-one has peace without money my friend.”
He looked along the silent avenue shimmering in the heat haze feeling utterly desolate. Had he really been so naïve and deluded to believe that there was something pure and genuine to be found here? Was the whole world simply corrupt by degrees?
At that moment a woman came round the corner. She appeared to be a young wealthy native, possibly visiting family in the tombs, but it was rare for local visitors to be out in the noonday heat. She wore a white linen suit in a modern style, but her face seemed weary and pale despite the sun.
She stopped by the coffins then seemed to sense to sense his confusion.
“I like to come when it’s quiet.” She raised an eyebrow. “I hope I’m not disturbing your peace?”
He did not respond.
“I hope you don’t believe everything a gravedigger tells you.” She looked at the grave worker pointedly. “It is a macabre job. You can hardly blame him for trying to spook gullible foreigners.”
The grave worker looked at his feet and the man grew angry at the prospect he had been lied to again.
“Come.” She looked at him with sad dark eyes and his anger subsided. They walked together along the avenue towards the gates.
She looked at him curiously. “You are a dancer, no?”
He did not reply.
“That necklace you have is made by the dancers from the port. They are rare and it is almost certainly worth more than you paid for it.”
He pulled out the glass and tin trinket from around his neck in surprise.
She looked at him pityingly. “Perhaps you are looking for happiness in all the wrong places.”
He was silent but she continued,
“The danceclubs you are visiting exist only for foreigners. They pay a few locals to go but the most authentic clubs are not advertised.”
“There is a dance tonight.” There was a silence whilst the she seemed to decide whether she wanted to impart this information.
“In the cemetery?”
“Yes, in the marble piazza. It is the last free open space left in this city and the secret police don’t think to come here. Dress as though you are in mourning and be sure to arrive 30 minutes before sundown.”
He went to the tailors around the corner from his house. At mid-afternoon they were just opening.
“I need a dark suit.”
“For a wedding, a funeral or a court case?” The tailor laughed. “I hope for a wedding.”
He thought better of commenting further.
“Ah. For a dance then.” It was not a question.
“Be careful my friend. Many moths mistake the candle for the moon and die of ecstasy.”
The tailor did not wait for a response but turned and went into the back of the shop leaving him alone amongst the bales of cloth. Most of the tailors in this area specialised in upmarket dance wear for foreigners and the style on the mannequins was characteristically showy; long loose jackets over tapered trousers and an array of brilliantly coloured silk linings.
The tailor returned carrying a dark cotton suit bag.
“I have something for you.” He pulled out a non-descript three piece black suit.
“It is expensive. But I don’t think that is a problem.” It was said without malice.
He looked at the suit. The style was plain and old fashioned, a slim fit unlike the suits in the window, but the quality was obvious.
“This suit is for dancing?”
“This suit is the authentic style.”
He looked at the racks of gaudy suits in the shop.
“We are simply bringing dreams to life,” he smiled. “And who am I to destroy someone’s dream? Sometimes it is all they have.”
“When the dance began do you think the men had fancy suits? If they were lucky they had one good spare suit, but more often all they had was what they were wearing. If they danced well enough women would still want them. When you wear this suit you are asking to be judged on how you dance. You allow yourself to be exposed. This is what the dance is about, not hiding your inadequacies in fancy plumage, or deluding yourself.”
This speech was delivered with surprising ferociousness. He hoped the tailor could be trusted as the suit was expensive. He sighed and handed over the money. If he wanted to find what he was seeking there seemed little option but to trust the people here.
In his apartment he tried the suit. The style seemed to transport him back in time. He swapped his usual dance shoes for brogues which seemed more appropriate. He had hours to wait before sunset, and stood at the window mindlessly watching the shadows move across the buildings opposite.
He was transfixed in his thoughts and nearly missed the moment, dashing out of the apartment just as the sun was lingering like a broken egg on the horizon.
The cemetery gates were locked when he arrived and there was no-one apart from a beggar, oddly out of place sitting cross-legged on the pristine white stones. He waited for a few moments then knocked on the gate. Nothing. He began to panic, wondering what he was missing.
“So impatient.” The cracked voice came from the beggar.
“Do you know if there is a meeting here tonight?”
“Do you have something for me?” The beggar looked at him directly with surprisingly intense eyes.
He held out a ten dollar note.
“Tsk.” The beggar waved it away.
He grew irritated but knew that anger would not help. What else could he have? He remembered the trinket around his neck and drew it out.
“Ah. In the pot.”
The beggar gestured to a crumpled polystyrene cup.
“Don’t trust me? Looks like it could be a long wait in your new suit.” He grinned toothlessly.
The sun had now almost set. In desperation he placed the trinket in the cup.
The beggar slowly retrieved it and stroked it salaciously.
“Just in time.” He staggered to his feet and ran his fingers along the crack of the gate. There was a creak and the gate swung open.
He stepped through and the gate was yanked firmly shut behind him.
The cemetery appeared to be silent and empty apart from multiple stray cats watching him with gleaming green eyes from their perches on the tombs. His footsteps echoed off the stone surfaces as he walked along the main avenue towards the piazza. He expected to hear music but could hear nothing. Had he been tricked?
He came finally to the piazza. Moonlight reflected off the marble tiled floor, which he could see was laid out as a labyrinth. The scene was now rendered in black and white, a startling contrast to the brilliantly coloured heat haze of the day. A thick silence settled around him as he stood in the centre.
The cats had followed him and now appeared from between the tombs, sitting and staring at him in apparent mocking curiosity.
The air shimmered slightly. A release of heat from the day?
Was that music? Or just his imagination? Did he want to hear music so badly that his mind was now playing it inside his head?
Time passed. The moon rose higher and the pattern underneath him glistened and swirled, like the movement of dancers around a dance floor.
He began to walk around the labyrinth imagining himself amongst dancers. As he walked the air stirred and the music in his head grew louder. He speeded up, twisting and turning with an imaginary partner. She was so beautiful. He closed his eyes for a moment then, pop. He was in the centre of the labyrinth and the dancers were all around him.
Was he imagining this? The couples were focused on each other but in place of the cats people waved to him from the edge of the piazza. He made his way between the couples.
“We thought you would never make it!”
“You were watching me?”
“Of course. From the moment you came in here.”
Their eyes sparkled. Their clothes were plain but everything about them seemed to glow.
“People will find us easily enough if they look in the right places. But people spend so long looking in the wrong places.” A girl explained then sighed. “And often they aren’t truly looking at all. Or they live their lives in fear of truly finding what they want, in case it’s not what they expected.”
The dancers laughed together then, and even their laugh was musical.
“But enough. You must dance now that you are here.”
The dances he had experienced to date were a pale shadow of this. He wanted to laugh or cry out loud with each turn of the music. When the women held him it was not merely dancing with another it was as though they became one creature, thinking, feeling, moving, breathing together as one being. The music washed in and out of his mind like a tide sweeping away all the pain and anxiety. Suddenly he saw the world with such precocious clarity, each new dance a precious jewel, a blooming flower.
In his ecstasy he had forgotten the woman he had met earlier. Suddenly he remembered and looked around for her. He saw her then at the edge of the dance floor watching him. She wore the most astounding red silk dress, a red flower in the side of her dark hair, glossy and pulled back. She advanced towards him through the dancers and across the dance floor.
Was he imagining that the other dancers were becoming less distinct? Ephemeral? Their voices sounded further away. She was with him now and he clutched her tightly as they began to dance, afraid to lose her. The movement of her body under his hands was like warm waves, pulsing and retreating. He never wanted to let go and leave this place. His dreams had been realised and his doubts silenced. They moved perfectly together, their bodies sinking into one another.
He had a sense of lightness. A vague hazy cloud like seeing the world through gauze.
Morning. Was it morning already? He started to feel warmer. Should he leave? Surely the dance should finish now and they should all sleep? What would be the point of ever dancing again since any other dance would be but a pale reflection of this feeling?
He looked over her shoulder but the other dancers were indistinct as though out of focus, their movements leaving images trailing in time. He realised he could hardly feel her and was suddenly afraid to look down.
He looked instead to his hand holding hers in the embrace. Instead of a warm hand there were only bare fingerbones spidered across his hand.
He tried to pull away but she gripped him tightly and pulled him further into her.
He looked down then. Her dark hair still flowed down from her head and he felt brief relief.
He must have been imagining things! But then her head fell back and he looked into the empty eye sockets of a skull, as the hair slid back and fell in clumps from her head.
“You wanted the truth. An authentic experience. And now you have it.” The jawbone did not move, the skull just grinned up at him. Did she say it or were these just words in his head?
An admonition to himself? He threw the skeleton back in disgust and tried to run, but the cemetery was misty in the dawn.
He ran frantically then, searching for the gate but he could see very little. The mist seemed to be pulling him back. Tombs reared up out of the mist and called to him to stay.
“Join us. Dance with us and be happy forever.”
He tripped on the cobbles. His bundle of foreign currency fell from his jacket and felt himself falling, or being pulled downwards into the dark.
Later that afternoon two tourists stopped by one of the tombs in cemetery. A grave worker was standing next to a pile of coffins.
“A recent death?” They were searching on their plan for this tomb.
“Yes and no,” said the worker, and grinned enigmatically. He was lowering the coffins into the hole.
“Let’s just say the rent has been paid.”