The Mister and the Miss

This is the first instalment of what I hope will be a successful system of weekly updates. The Mister and the Miss originally came into being sometime last year, I think for NaNoWriMo. This is a story set in a city divided into two halves: the Gallery, focused entirely on the arts, and the Garage, focused on the sciences. The perspective flips back and forth between the two main characters, Caspian and Priscilla. Chapter titles will tell you whose voice you’re reading. Enjoy! All feedback is always welcome. ~M

1: Priscilla

As rehearsal ended and the other girls filed out, Priscilla let the chiffon of her skirt float back down, the overextended muscles of her body slowly relaxing and her pounding heart resuming a more natural pace. For a moment she followed them listlessly into the dressing room where, free of Madame’s glare, they gabbed and shrieked and laughed liberally, hair flowing and warm-ups covering their pink tights and bodies that glistened with sweat. Priscilla lounged in the doorway, arms wrapped protectively around her midriff and white-blonde hair remaining in its bun. Kristine and Lyla edged past her without a glance, speeding down the stairs arm in arm. Claire followed, calling for them to wait, and Violet, and one by one they all trickled out until only Penelope still stood there. Bobby pins littered the floor, and the heavy, sticky scent of hairspray clung to the air. Priscilla watched impassively as Penelope fastened the clasp of her pack and slung it over her back. She didn’t move as the other girl straightened and headed for the door, but her eyes lit up when Penelope touched a soft hand to her arm and whispered, “See you tomorrow, Priscilla,” before breezing past her in pursuit of the rest of the company. Only then did Priscilla move, turning to lean over the rail at the top of the spiral staircase, watching Penelope go around and around, until finally, without looking back, she slammed into the opera house’s back door and stepped into the sunlight.

The door swung shut and Priscilla took that as her cue. She turned out the dressing room’s lights as she passed, ignoring their tendency to spark wherever the wires hung exposed in the ceiling. Madame had already turned out the lights in the studio, but the mirrors still sparkled with the natural light bursting in from the open wall to the west. The sun was just beginning its descent, its golden hue giving way to red. Priscilla stepped quietly across the dance floor, spun once, then twice, perfectly balanced on the box of her pointe shoe, and as she gracefully tombéd out of her turn, she slipped through the long gauze curtains, the soft material clinging to her like a cloak, and moved out on to the balcony.

The balcony was a single, solid marble piece, artfully crafted and painstakingly installed. It was off-white, the floor sanded to look soft before giving way to the smoother texture of the walls and columns, and, staring at the ground, Priscilla could make out a huge spiral pattern in the unrefined grain. In this lighting, with the faintest hint of dusk spreading across the sky, the stone glowed a pale pink. The air typically began to cool at this time, especially here, right over the Canal, but the building was releasing the heat it had gathered through the day, and Priscilla loved the warmth. She paused and bent over to untie her pointe shoes, ignoring the deep pressure marks the ribbons left on her ankles. She abandoned her shoes there in the middle of the floor, relishing in the feel of the stone beneath the calloused pads of her feet, and went to lean over the balustrade. She could see the entire city from here; or at the very least, the entire Garage. The Gallery stretched along to her right and left, all safely on the east side of the Canal, but the Garage lay before her, beautiful in its symmetry. The streets were laid out in distinct blocks, with clearly defined intersections and an obvious pattern, the shortest buildings on the outskirts, growing taller and taller as they approached the city’s centre. The Capitol towered over it all, easy to see even from this distance. She watched as the sun caught the edge of the great golden dome, sending its light shimmering in every direction. By night, she knew the streets would all be lit with neon, cutting eerily through the darkness, and the Capitol would still glimmer, but with spotlights the size of the moon lighting it up from below. It seemed a whole other world at night, with the blue sidewalks and the hydropower street lights floating on every corner. It was a world no less bright, but far less transparent. Priscilla preferred it as it was now, with the brick buildings in the inner circles of the city giving way to the white-washed workshops and labs, leading all the way down to the waterfront.

If any part of the Garage could be called picturesque, and Priscilla admitted that even in this case it was a bit of a stretch, it was the narrow street and narrower sidewalk that bordered the west side of the Canal. The buildings there were all short and squat, many of them mechanics’ shops or plants that oversaw energy generation and distribution. Some of them, she had heard, led to fairly extensive setups underground, but from where she hung on her balcony, she never would have guessed. The street on that side was the same as the one on this side, with white railing along the edge and huge hexagonal blocks fit snugly together. There was a line of flower beds between the sidewalk and the street, displaying early summer blossoms of pale pink and white and red contentedly arching towards the sun. A few people moved here and there, disappearing back into houses or strolling slowly alongside the lazy water, but none of them approached the pristine white bridges that led to the Gallery, in the same way that none of the figures on the sidewalk directly below her perch even motioned towards the Garage. Looking out over that forbidden half of the city, it seemed bizarre that it should be so close and yet occupied by people so different from her that they might as well be aliens. The government propaganda liked to claim that the Garage and the Gallery weren’t so different from each other, that the people were the same, two halves of a whole, mirror images, but everyone left those illusions behind with childhood. How could they be the same, when even the architecture proved their difference? How could they be equal, when all the government funding flowed towards the lab rats, and left the studios to fend for themselves? None of the girls in the company had ever been to the Garage, and it was unlikely that any of them ever would, even though they spent twelve hours of every day not even a block from the border.

Priscilla lost herself in her thoughts as the sky continued to darken, red like wine and rapidly turning purple. The lights across the entire city came on all at once, but she could still see the line between the two halves perfectly— on the Gallery side, the streetlights were yellow, in ornate cases that hovered high above the street, while on the Garage side the lights were blue, balanced on thin metal discs that bobbed slowly up and down. They all came on at eight exactly, though, the Venus hour, and their combined effect reminded Priscilla that she was still gazing out towards the horizon, and had been for the last two hours. Worse, it was time that she was supposed to have taken to work on her variation. Madame Vautour would be back soon to check on her, expecting to find her flitting across the floor like a fairy, but at this point she was so relaxed that she couldn’t bring herself to care. The season hadn’t even begun yet, they were miles ahead on rehearsals, and why should she stay here and continue to practise when the other girls could go home, could see their families and their boyfriends and embrace reality for an evening?
This was her reality, though, she reminded herself. The reality was the ballerina, and Priscilla the person was only a figment of her imagination. She exhaled deeply, noticing the briskness of the night air for the first time, and considered heading back inside, when a light caught her eye.

At first, it wasn’t even the light source itself that caught her attention, but the reflection off the water that still swirled past. It was a cloudy night, and there were no stars out to reflect, but the Canal still spun out light victoriously, a perfect square made muddy by the current. It was a garage, she realised, and scanned the waterfront buildings quickly before realising it was right in front of her. The enormous aluminium door rolled up slowly, each panel a different colour, and Priscilla watched fascinated as it disappeared. There were two figures silhouetted against the light, but they both had their backs to her. She could see them gesticulating at something in the garage, but it wasn’t bright enough to see what. One of them went deeper in, momentarily stepping out of her gaze, and when he returned he was wheeling along a bike, two glowing blue cylinders on either side of its frame. He bent over it for a moment, and then it revved to life, temporarily lighting up the entire street before it settled to a steady hum. She heard the other person’s laughter, his excitement, and she didn’t know why, but she shared it. She could practically feel the energy that the hydrobike was emitting, and she itched to feel it roar underneath her fingers. She’d never seen anything like it before, not this close. In the Gallery, motorised vehicles were only for the upperclass. She’d been in one, once, when she was originally brought to the Meritant Palace, but since then she’d never travelled far enough to warrant such attention. The other girls tended to take tumblers, she knew, huge wheels that could seat nearly fifty people and rolled down the street like unchained Ferris wheels. Other people cycled, and there tended to be an eclectic collection of bicycles, tricycles, and occasionally unicycles weaving through the vast majority that travelled only on foot. A motor, though? It was practically unheard of, and yet across the street she watched as these two men admired the vehicle and shook hands, and eventually she saw the second one pull a cluster of bills from his back pocket, hand them over with another nod of thanks, mount the bike, and shoot off into the alleys. She watched him until he disappeared into the darkness, and then her eyes darted back to the silhouette remaining in front of the garage.

He was looking away from her, so she couldn’t see his face, but he had broad shoulders, slumped at the moment, with his hands in his pockets. He was tall, but his shirt and pants were dark, and she couldn’t make out any detail. He shuffled to the side slightly, and she conjectured that he was contemplating a larger vehicle resting inside, jacked up with its underside exposed. For a moment she imagined that he would go back in to work on it, but instead he turned and started walking towards the Canal.

He passed under a streetlamp briefly, and his face lit up. He had brown hair and eyes set wide in his face under dark eyebrows, a straight nose and a telltale scruff to his cheeks that showed he hadn’t shaved in a few days. Priscilla stalked him with her eyes, like a cat intent on her prey, willing him to come closer. For an instant a vision of meeting him in the middle of the bridge, looking past him to a foreign city and looking behind her to the fragile familiarity of home, flashed past her eyes. In that moment, she longed to become intimately familiar, but she wasn’t sure with what, and she shifted uneasily, her hands clenching down on the railing. And then he waved.

He waved, and she froze, thoughts grinding to a halt. The one-way mirror that she’d set up in her mind shattered, and it occurred to her that he might’ve been watching her the entire time she was watching him. She waved back, her hand just darting out to taste the air, and then she leaned forward farther, trying to make out his expression.

She realised that she was cold, that she was still wearing her white leotard and skirt from earlier, and she wondered if she looked bald to him, since her hair was so pale and pulled back, emphasising all the harsh angles of her face that she tried to disguise whenever she could. She looked down at herself, at the body that she paid so little attention to despite her dependence on it, and she folded her arms over her meagre chest. When she looked back up at him, he was leaning against the railing, a cigarette hanging loosely from his fingertips with its spark falling slowly down into the Canal. So he smokes, she mused, and wondered if it made his teeth yellow, and if she would be able to smell it on his breath.

He didn’t seem so far away, as just another boy who smoked and leaned and waved. The other girls talked about boys, and she imagined that this one couldn’t be all that different. In another few moments she almost forgot about him, even though her eyes still lingered on his hands, drawing the cigarette to his lips and then letting it fall. She let her shoulders loosen a little, and her weight melted into the thick stone supporting her, mind spiriting away with the current. She hadn’t been downstream since her mother had sent her away, and when she looked north she wondered about her father and her older brother in the back workroom, with the sun roof and the clutter all over the floor, the cracked screens piling up in the bin to be worked on in “spare time” and page designs taped up to the walls. They were always backed up on work, with deadlines to meet and clientele paging in, but she had a few memories still living of her, bouncing into the room and giggling, grabbing her father’s hands and asking him to dance with her, and her brother laughing and watching bemused from the corner. The room was always stuffy, too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, but her father kept blankets to fight the frigidity and a cooler stocked with juices to beat the heat, and the work that went on in the room was matched only by the indulgence, the unrecognised desire for comfort, the light that her father so cheerfully embraced despite the orders piling up on his shoulders.

He had never minded his banishment to the Dirge, or the fact that outside his well-kept home the streets were filthy. He had never had the same desire as her mother to move south, and Priscilla couldn’t tell for herself anymore whether or not she wanted to be here, either. It had seemed like the only choice to make, when her mother took her aside and told her that she could dance on a stage instead of in the living room, that she would have a beautiful bedroom in a palace. She hadn’t understood, then, that she wasn’t the princess of the palace— she was just the entertainment. She hadn’t understood that she would dance because she was told to, and while she didn’t mind, she sometimes wondered what would have happened if instead she had run to the workroom, if she had asked her father to stop them from taking her away.

Sparks fell again from the cigarette and she watched them disappear into the Canal, for a moment burning like the lost flares of fireworks, and then melting into the patterns of blue and gold that coloured the water’s surface.

The light came on behind her, and for a moment she couldn’t see because the whole world lit up brilliantly, the brightness behind her rendering the darkness in front of her absolute. She spun around, and there stood Madame, holding back the curtains and breaking through into the bubble of perfect isolation that she’d created. The silhouette had her hand on her hip, her hair pulled up to the crown of her head and vicious heels stabbing into the ground, and, as Priscilla’s eyes adjusted, had a deep scowl burning on her face.

Priscilla averted her eyes out of habit, straightened her shoulders and stared at the ground, at the long shadow stretching towards her. “Bonjour, Madame,” she said, knowing that the longer the silence wore on, the longer she’d spend in the studio tonight. Then she remembered that her shoes were still in the middle of the floor, and she drew her feet back, trying to make them less conspicuous.

“Priscilla,” her mistress replied, ice in her tone. “Have you already finished your work on the variation for L’Prince?”

“I will never be finished working on it, Madame,” Priscilla replied mechanically. “Our art strives towards the most unattainable standard of perfection.”

“The most unattainable standard of perfection,” Vautour repeated, the displeasure in her eyes softened just slightly with her disbelief. “Well,” she continued, “then let’s see what we can do about attaining it. Go set the track.”

“Yes Madame,” Priscilla breathed as she rushed past, scooping up her shoes on the way and all but running into the studio, thankful that she hadn’t gone so far as to let her hair down. She didn’t notice how Madame watched her as she passed, critically, analytically, eyes running up and down her body, and narrowing on her feet as she sat and pulled her shoes on hurriedly.

“Priscilla, what’s wrong with your feet?” she asked calmly, her heels tapping out a staccato pattern on the resined floor, and Priscilla paused in her flurried movements, one set of ribbons tied and one set hanging loosely in her hands. She looked up at the Madame, who hovered over her with arms folded.

“Madame?” she asked questioningly, wondering what the mistress expected besides the callouses and blisters characteristic of all the girls.

Madame Vautour squatted next to her, her long skirt, falling open at its slit to reveal one powerfully toned leg, evidence of the life of dance that Vautour had never truly left behind. She grabbed at Priscilla’s left foot and pulled the shoe off of it, turning it over in her hands. “Look,” she commanded, and Priscilla looked, but did not see, which must have been apparent on her face, because the Madame scowled her irritation. “The ball of your foot is growing too wide; you’re putting too much pressure on it. And look at your toes, how far spread out they are. We want a perfect foot, no? And how are we to attain it if the pointe shoe cannot move in one slender line? What is the width?”

“An E, Madame,” Priscilla replied quietly, because she’d realised where this was going. She had hoped that if she didn’t mention her choice to change her shoe size that it would go unnoticed, but she should have realised that she wouldn’t be able to conceal it for long.

“An E,” the Madame repeated, brow furrowed, and then shook her head decisively. “No, that is not acceptable. I will speak to the Doctor.” And with that she stood again, going to begin the record. Priscilla hastily grabbed up the offending shoes and pulled them on, bending the box experimentally. It would probably break before the night was over.

“Ready?” Madame called, and in response Priscilla ran to the corner of the room, reciting stage left, upstage in her head, settling into her tendu, arms in a relaxed second, head turned downstage. Her body found the rhythm of the waltz before the needle even scratched the surface, and when the music began she stepped into centre stage without shame, with a smile on her lips and arms begging the audience to share her story.

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2 thoughts on “The Mister and the Miss

  1. My initial comment is that if I keep reading this on my lunchbreak I’m going to forget to go back to work! Astounding first impression!
    More on this later!

    (P.S. I’d love to chat with you more freely about this. You can email me at eic@rokkyuu.com if you like.)

    Like

  2. (cont.)
    Wow. I’m not sure where to begin. I only read the very beginnings of the story in the little time I had during lunch but I had the strange experience of the critical parts of my brain simply curling up and going to sleep. It was very relaxing!

    I love your style in this story. It’s very detailed and smooth with just enough hints to be engaging without getting boring or feeling like exposition.

    I really could go on and on about everything I love about this just from the little that I have read so far but I feel it wouldn’t be the most helpful of feedback. Suffice it to say, I think it would be perfectly acceptable to publish as is.

    That said, there is always room for improvement somewhere, so I worked hard to turn my mind to searching for what I might be able to provide insight on.

    The one piece of feedback that consistently came to mind as I read was the title. It didn’t feel cliché until I started reading but when I did, it felt all wrong. I think this is because, while your story has a very period feel to it (which is what comes to mind from your title), there’s nothing cliché about it. I would never expect to find this kind of world under the cover… so I probably wouldn’t pick it up. That said, I love the juxtaposition of “the Garage and the Gallery”. Now, I’m not suggesting you make this the title! As I said, I’ve only read a small portion so far but I think there’s a much more unique and expressive title for this story if you’re willing to reconsider it.

    As to the rest of my feedback, I think the best thing I could offer would be to look at this in a word file and go into “editing mode.” With the level of your writing, I think the best way to provide suggestions and feedback would be through comments and the occasional tracked edit so you could easily see for yourself how those might play out and decide whether those changes are necessary or not.

    Now, I’m tapping out this review from memory, having returned to work, and will need to get on with that annoying W word but I am looking forward to reading more, soon.

    Like

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