The Gypsy Girl

by Erika Byrne-Ludwig

The girls had gathered in the hall. Carefully dressed and made up, they appeared as rows of variegated artworks in front of the audience. In their eyes the lights flickered like small luminous petals. Celia sat in the middle row. The spirit was exactly right. Her decision to come had definitely been wise. She nodded as a sign of gratitude even though she couldn't say who was the receiver of her thanks.

When the singing began she discreetly swayed and hummed with lips closed. Her stare was sliding over the girls' serious, almost pious, faces, their candied teeth, their vibrating necklines, till it lost itself beyond the walls, into another hall where choir girls were wearing black pleated uniforms with white collars slanting primly on their shoulders. She was there, singing in the front row with petals flickering in her eyes.

A shoulder against a beam, completely relaxed, Celia let the music permeate her. Her own humming only throbbed within the boundaries of her heart now. One night her soprano voice had sprung up in the middle of the night but had suddenly stopped. She had had a nervous breakdown. Now, squatting in the hollow of her lungs, her voice seemed hesitant, shy and reclusive. Making her wonder whether she could and would ever sing again and for whom.

From one row of girls to another, through the scaffold of moussed ringlets and gelled waves, Celia met the cracked rosette beyond which straight-laced faces circulated in chilly dormitories when she herself was twelve. She had waited for an answer one whole night. When the moon was visible, she had looked at its shadows. In the middle of the night she had told the moon of growth, of stirs and trickles. That same night she had discovered her voice.

In the hall balloons and crepe streamers drifted on wandering draughts. The notes crystallised. Celia could almost taste melting sugar in her mouth. Vibrations passed from the beam to her body. She was only twelve then when she had opened her window to the moon. Her dazzle had moulded dimples in her cheeks. One day she might again lift the veil from before her eyes and wait for the encounter just to experience a minute transformation.

Droplets of sweat had grouped on her forehead. The hot weather had gathered moist aromas and was now sending spirited waves into the hall. Their faces warming up, the girls went on letting out their message, reshaping the word love. In the hollow of her lungs Celia's soprano voice reminded her of love's strange magnetism.

Parting with her inner shelter, Celia caught herself looking at one of the girls. She was standing in the front row, slim and short. Her gaze was not a penetrating one; rather it was contemplative, directed inwards or beyond. Yet the girl might have perceived some genuine insistance, that is if she hadn't been following it from the start. With a few awakening quivers Celia reset her gaze. Although drawn to her in particular, she returned her focus to the entire group. And to make sure of her anonymity, she put her fingers on her forehead.

The singers closed their books and took in the applause before melting away through the backdoor. Celia could hear their hubbub one floor above as she walked along the corridor. She could also hear steps behind. She was not alone. She turned round, knew who was following her.

“Hi Ludmilla.” She faced her big bohemian eyes.

“Hi Celia.” The hands sagging in her pockets were wriggling like trapped rodents. A toy clicked.

“I enjoyed your singing and the song.” The girl stood still, staring at the tips of her plated shoes. Her dark gypsy eyes blinked and her thin mouth ruffled over her clenched teeth. “You've followed me here ... “ Celia went on. The toy clicked several times. She stepped back. Celia could see Ludmilla's initial bravery wearing out. “I come here once a month or so. I'm on the committee. Did you enjoy Mrs Ware's farewell? I heard you all wanted it to be special.” Celia tried to come to the rescue with a flight of words.

“The flowers ... I arranged them,” Ludmilla said awkwardly.

“At the entrance ... Yes, I saw them. It's a bit like walking into a garden, isn't it?” The girl clicked her toy and stared at her shoes.

“How about we go and have an icecream over there in that cafeteria? What do you say? After all that singing.”

Ludmilla sat down while Celia ordered two icecreams. She turned her head to look at the silhouette sitting on the chair, waiting in her small vulnerable envelope. Their eyes met across the short distance. In the girl's gaze there was a disorienting intensity. Celia tried to smile.

“Here, let's enjoy them,” she said cheerfully, sticking a spoon into the icecream.

“Are you ... are you feeling better? Dad said youare ...” Ludmilla asked bravely. She clicked her toy.

“Yes, I'm following the treatment carefully. Doctor said I should be right now. I'm back to work. I kept in touch with your dad.”

“He's at work today. He wanted to come ...”

“I'm sure he would've.”

Celia preferred to divert the conversation. She talked about her experiences at school, her choir, her teachers, the way things were in her days, their sober uniforms, the good times and the difficult times. Ludmilla listened. Her toy had stopped its erratic clicking.

She blended her own thoughts with Celia's memories of her past. She remembered their outings, their trip to Bali before her break down and her freaky behaviour.

“It's all brightness from now on.” Celia reassured her, noticing Ludmilla's worried frown. “I know it wasn't easy for you and I'm sorry about the pain I caused you and your disappointment in me. We must forget this sad episode or at least put it behind us. Illness is like a big bad wolf. It's so scary. It seems to have a lawless mind. Can we try to move on?”

“Will the wolf come back?” Ludmilla asked with a very faint smile.

“No, I'll chase him away,” she replied, her smile meeting Ludmilla's. “Let's enjoy what we both like doing and look ahead. You know I give private piano and singing tuition. Would you like to come and learn? Of course we'll have to ask your dad first.”

“Do you think so?” She asked timidly.

“Yes, why not? I'll ring him and talk to him, if you like. I'm sure we can arrange something. My evenings are usually free.” She scooped up some icrecream. “Lovely and sweet this lime and nut, isn't it?”

She felt encouraged. She had managed to extricate herself out of a long entrapment. Something she'd wanted for so long but couldn't see happen now looked promising. To reconnect with the loved ones. A year earlier her mental state had alienated her from her partner and her stepdaughter. Creating a rift between them and losing them both. Now she was confident she could help Ludmilla with her music classes, guide her through her studies, and accompany her singing.

“That makes me so happy, Ludmilla. Here ... let's try ... let's sing ... just the way we used to.”

In the cafeteria people were in a festive mood, chatting, eating and sipping. Celia wanted to be part of their chorus, free her voice again, let it out, let it encounter Ludmilla's. Slowly it emerged from its long sleep, reshaping itself in a child's song.

“Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques ...” she started off.

“Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? ...” Ludmilla timidly joined in.

“Ding dang dong, ding dang dong,” the narrator joins them for the final notes.