And The Band Plays On by Carole Bugge
Katherine stood on the second floor landing of the Boston town house, gazing down on the wedding guests below. She was attending her friend Molly's wedding, and the reception hive swarmed beneath her on the first floor of the splendid Victorian house, which belonged to Molly's brother-in-law. Katherine leaned against the circular railing, watching the guests orbit each other like planets, constellations of couples moving in the universe of the dance floor. Her second glass of champagne seemed to make everything clearer – outlines were sharper, colors brighter; whites were more pristine and reds were infused with a heroic passion. She watched the bride's father dance with his daughter. His white hair, swept off his forehead in a curve like a roller coaster track, remained still despite the curls of sweat on his scarlet forehead. The room was hot, and the odor of sweat from the dancers' bodies mingled with the scent of freesia from the bridesmaids' bouquets.
The groom was talking in the corner with a small, elderly woman in a bright green dress with white polka dots. She held his hand in hers, her blue veins thrusting out through her paper white skin like mole tunnels in a neglected lawn. She gripped his hand, pulling him nearer, as though she were trying to absorb his youth through her translucent skin. What a pity we only appreciate our youth when we begin to see it fade before our eyes, thought Katherine, whose preoccupation with the evidence of her own aging annoyed her more than the symptoms themselves. Though only twenty-eight, at every bath she scoured her legs for sight of another varicose vein, pushing through her skin like worms out of the ground in a heavy rain.
The old woman pulled Doug to her eagerly, and Katherine was reminded of a Greek myth, in which the young Hercules had to carry an old hag on his back. She loved Greek mythology – full of story line, violence and passion.
The lead trumpeter in the band blared out a long, wailing note. At the end of the note the band joined in a snappy swing melody, and the floor writhed with dancers. The candles on the gilded candelabras flickered in the breeze created by the moving bodies. Doug had disengaged himself from the energetic old lady, who then attached herself to a white-haired gentleman with a nose like a butternut squash. His whole face was as red as the candles that danced on the sideboard, and one glaring nostril shot out like a tree fungus from its bumpy center. The old lady didn't seem to mind this disfigurement, though, and danced serenely with her head tilted back, her body arched as though receiving sea spray on the prow of a yacht. The old gentleman propelled her through the promenading couples with assurance, and Katherine decided they made a good couple. They certainly looked at ease compared to the younger people at the party, whose shiny, self-conscious faces looked garish next to the old couple's powdered dignity.
Doug had found his bride now and was guiding her through the thicket of bodies tenderly, gazing rapturously into her eyes, covered though they were with those ridiculous scholar's glasses, thick-lensed and frameless. Katherine sighed. She had done such a good job on Molly's makeup, and then, to her horror, Molly donned those ubiquitous spectacles, covering her work and ruining the effect. Katherine prided herself on her skill with makeup, but she tried to mask her distress for Molly's sake. A bride must be beautiful, or at least think she is, and Katherine did not have the heart to tell Molly that the glasses ruined everything. The cream lace Victorian dress, the freesia in her hair, the delicate gold necklace around her throat – all upstaged by those dismal spectacles. But Katherine's mother's words rang in her ears: "If you can't find anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," so Katherine had clamped her mouth around a safety pin and set to arranging Molly's train.
Now, sipping her third glass of champagne as she peered down from the balcony, she decided that the glasses displayed a becoming lack of vanity on Molly's part. Katherine would never be caught dead in a pair of glasses – they had always horrified her as a child, not so much for their dowdiness as for their glaring pronouncement of a physical defect: "Look here. This person wearing me is near-sighted. Shun them at all cost." Katherine had even cheated on the eye examinations in grade school; when the kindly, white-haired nurse asked if she could read the last line without squinting, she would squint violently in the darkness and read the letters haltingly, but for the most part correctly.
They finally caught up with her in the seventh grade, though, when she could not read the algebraic equations scribbled on the blackboard by Mr. Watson, a feisty little man with rust-colored hair and a face to match. Mr. Watson had perfect vision – he had been in the air force in World War II – so what did he understand of those who suffered the humiliation of a vision defect? He had sent Katherine down to the clinic with a note, and she was given a special eye test which resulted in the disgrace of eyeglasses, horrible blue-rimmed cat's eye glasses, which made her look like Atom Ant. She whisked them off whenever possible, chewed on the frames and dropped them often, as if trying to destroy them through neglect.
Now, looking down on the crowd through her soft contact lenses, Katherine felt a surge of warmth toward the pioneers of technology who made things like contact lenses a possibility. The dance floor was empty now; the band was on a break, and the band members crowded around the food table, eating voraciously. Actors and musicians, she thought. You could always pick them out at a party, circling the food like birds of prey. Some of her actor friends back in New York did movie extra work mostly for the lavishly catered meals, which they spoke of with reverence. Her husband Peter was a scientist, and this was one of the things about actors which made him feel superior to them.
He and Katherine had traveled together to England, and then she returned alone to Boston while he stayed on with his parents. Katherine had fled, glad to leave the tidy, spotless flat with its smell of apples and loudly ticking grandfather clock. Peter's parents exhausted her, with their numbing devotion to routine, the pre-dinner sherry, the after-dinner dish washing. It was all dead, dead, dead, like the vanquished empire they so cherished. Once, after washing her hands in the bathroom, Katherine returned to retrieve a hair beret to find the towel she had used neatly refolded on the rack. She shuddered at the thought of hollow lives with nothing more pressing than the refolding of guest towels.
And so she had gratefully taken the red-eye flight from Gatwick Airport, which had arrived in Boston that morning. The champagne soothed her tingling nerve ends, raw from exhaustion. She had been awake now for twenty hours, and champagne on top of jet lag had nudged her into a stately sort of calm, a dreamlike fog of alcohol and weariness. Without her husband Katherine felt exhilarated, adventuresome. With a pang of guilt and sadness she remembered when seeing him had made her feel that way. What had changed? She was too tired to think deeply about it, and didn’t want to disturb her peaceful mood.
She turned and walked down the hall towards the library, with its enormous pool table and leather paneled walls. The house really was incredible: three stories of Victorian opulence, beautifully furnished by Doug's brother Phillip. Antiques were his trade, and he was very successful. There was talk that he was not well, that he would have to sell the house soon, but Katherine hoped the rumors were untrue. She had met Phillip on her arrival earlier in the day and he struck her as a taciturn, remote man. But still, to live in such a splendid house just off the Charles River – it all seemed like a dream to her, and she liked to think that someone she knew could live this way. As she entered the library, the afternoon sun, streaming through the cream lace curtains, blinded her momentarily. To her surprise, there, in the corner of the room, was Phillip. He was on his knees beside a rabbit hutch which contained a large black and white rabbit. He looked up briefly when Katherine entered, muttering a single syllable greeting which might have been "Hi" or "Ho". Katherine hesitated by the door, unsure of her reception.
Phillip swung around to face her.
"Do you know anything about rabbits?" he asked in a tight voice. Katherine saw his face in detail for the first time, the hollow cheek bones and pinched flesh. Without waiting for her answer, he went on. "The vet told me to give her these pills but I don't know how. I can't seem to get her mouth open."
"What are they?"
"What's wrong with her?"
"She has pneumonia."
Katherine looked down at the rabbit. She was huddled in the corner of her cage, breathing heavily.
"If I can't give these to her tonight she might die." Phillip's face looked stricken, and Katherine suddenly felt sorry for this aloof man. He looked so forlorn, standing here in his immense, drafty library holding a bottle of pills for his sick pet.
"I used to be pretty good at giving pills to my dog,” she said. “How different can a rabbit be?"
She knelt down beside the cage and stroked the rabbit's fur. Its eyes were glazed, half closed. Breathing seemed to take up all of its energy. Carefully, she lifted the animal and held it out to Phillip.
"If you hold her still I'll try to give her the pill."
"Come on, Connie, come to Papa," Phillip murmured, stroking her ears. Katherine took the bottle of pills from him.
Katherine shook a pill out onto her hand, a small white oblong capsule. She held it between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand; with her left hand she grasped the rabbit under the chin, feeling for the jaw joint.
"Okay – ready?" Phillip nodded. "She may kick."
"I've got her."
Quickly and firmly, Katherine pulled the animal's mouth open, slipping her fingers around its flat back teeth. At the same time she pushed the pill down its throat, pushing it all the way down with her forefinger before the rabbit could react by gagging or biting. Then she let go. Connie recoiled slightly, then, with a look of surprise, blinked and swallowed. Katherine stood up and wiped her hand with a tissue. Phillip lifted the rabbit and placed her carefully in the hutch. He turned to Katherine, and she noticed he was sweating, though the room was quite cool.
"I really can't thank you enough for this! I just – well, I didn't realize it would be so difficult. Where did you say you learned to do this?"
"Oh, I used to have some bulldogs and they were always on medication of some kind or other. I never did a rabbit before, though."
Phillip looked at Connie, who had moved once again to the warmest corner of her hutch, trembling. Phillip fished a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead, and Katherine saw the handkerchief was soaked with sweat. Both he and the rabbit looked worn out.
"I think she'll be all right now," he said. "The vet said to give her these and keep her warm."
"It's kind of drafty in here," said Katherine.
"I know. I'm taking her to my bedroom for the night."
They stood there for a moment, listening to the sounds of the wedding below them. The band was playing Dixieland, and the pounding of feet below made the floorboards vibrate.
"This is a great party you're giving," Katherine said, to close the gap of silence between them.
"Oh, well, you only get married once, I guess, and I – " He stopped, and Katherine was relieved. She did not want to trade intimacies with this man, though she had already guessed everything he might tell her. She’d had enough of it in New York already, lost too many friends, read and heard too much, and she didn't want any more.
Phillip was tucking a terrycloth towel around Connie.
"Now you just sleep, baby, and I'll be up later to check on you," he murmured.
Katherine looked at the built-in book shelves, which reached from floor to ceiling. On one shelf was a photograph of a smiling young man, his blond hair backlit by sunlight. Underneath "Venice '84" was written in magic marker. Phillip stood up started toward the door.
"I guess we should go down and mingle with the happy guests," he said. Light from the hall fell on his face and Katherine saw the sharp bones underneath, protruding as though they wanted to break through the skin. She took a step and put her hand on his arm.
"Connie's going to be fine," she said. To her surprise, he took her hand in his and squeezed it.
"I know," he said, and walked out into the hall.
As they walked down the broad curving staircase together, Katherine saw that the party had swelled to a mood of raucous abandon. Many of the women had discarded their shoes and were dancing barefoot to the reggae song the band was playing. On the far side of the room, Molly had hiked up the train of her dress and was dancing with the butternut squash-nosed man, her blond hair clinging in wet strands to her neck. Katherine saw Doug striding toward her, and noticed for the first time the strong resemblance there must have been between Doug and Phillip at one time. In contrast to Phillip's neat and carefully conserved energy, though, Doug was in robust disarray. His hair was rumpled, his cummerbund askew, and a red flush covered his whole face.
"Thank you for helping my brother with Connie," he said warmly, touching Katherine lightly on the shoulder.
"Oh, I was glad to do it," she answered, hoping he was not going to pour his heart out to her, but he just stood beside her for a moment watching the wedding guests.
"He really loves that rabbit, you know," he said.
"I could see that."
"Well, thanks again. Guess I better go find my blushing bride." He shouldered his way through the crowd, and Katherine stood alone once again.
She was enjoying the feeling of being slightly outside the party, an onlooker. If Peter were there he would be playing Life of the Party. Without him she felt free to deal with the party on her own terms. She looked at Molly and Doug, dancing close, their heated faces touching. She wished them happiness, if partially because she wanted to believe it was possible. Many people (until recently herself among them) would have described her marriage as happy, but they could not see the great hole in the center of it. Sometimes she thought she was imagining it, but in the middle of the night she could feel it, separating her and Peter as if there was a crater in the bed between them.
She felt foolish at times, afraid she was exaggerating it in her own mind. After all, what was happiness in marriage? Who could tell her finally and completely that her marriage was not happy? Only she and Peter really knew what the marriage was, and she was sure they each experienced it differently, a kind of "his" and "hers" version. Peter was neither cruel nor indifferent – he was in fact thoughtful and loving, and sometime she couldn’t imagine what insufficiency in her own soul prevented her from appreciating him. But she sometimes felt lonelier when she was with him than when she was alone – and more than anything she feared that as he aged he would come to resemble his father more and more.
She pictured that kindly, slightly addled man, puttering about in the flat smelling of apples, fussing about hand towels while the deep, exciting world of ideas circled outside his door, unseen and unfelt. She thought about Peter, his good-natured, cheerful ways hiding the demons she was sure raged inside of him. She feared he would never let them out, never make peace with them, but, like his father, live a half-life, only vaguely aware of what was missing. She looked at Molly and Doug, dancing with their eyes closed, her cheek on his shoulder, and wished them Godspeed on their journey.
Katherine suddenly felt drained and exhausted, as the lack of sleep finally caught up with her. She was thinking of getting some more champagne when a hand brushed her elbow lightly. She turned to see Phillip standing behind her.
"Care to dance?"
He took her in his arms and swept her with surprising energy onto the dance floor. The couples parted for them as he moved her through intricate geometric patterns.
"Where did you learn to dance like this?" she asked.
"I used to teach it, actually."
She looked at his pale, drawn face, hit by a sudden realization of all he had lost. How much time did he have – or, for that matter, how much time did any of them have?
"How's Connie doing?" she asked.
"Much better - her breathing is less labored. I think she'll be all right. Thank you again for your help."
"I was happy to do it. I'm glad she's better."
After that neither of them spoke again. Across the floor Katherine could see the old lady in the green polka dot dress, swaying dreamily to the tempo of a waltz as the band played on.
© Carole Bugge, 2013
Carole Bugge (C. E. Lawrence) is the author of ten published novels, award-winning plays, musicals, poetry and short fiction. A two time Pushcart Prize nominee, her fourth Lee Campbell thriller is Silent Slaughter. The fifth book in the series is the novella Silent Stalker, available as an ebook. Titan Press in the UK has recently reissued her first Sherlock Holmes novel, The Star of India. www.CELawrence.com
And The Band Plays On was read by Amber Bogdewiecz on 4th December 2013