• LISP Team

And This Is Now, Wendy Buonaventura

LISP 2nd Half 2021 Short Story Finalist "And This Is Now" by Wendy Buonaventura

"AND THIS IS NOW"


Zizi was my first dance teacher. I met her at a festival called Dancers From The East, and after I saw her perform I signed up for the Egyptian dance class she gave in a church hall once a week.

It’s true Zizi was from the East; but it was the East End of London she was from, and when she told people she performed in Arab nightclubs and restaurants they assumed she was a stripper.

‘I was dancing the other night,’ she said over coffee after her class, ‘And this Saudi guy comes up and sticks five hundred quid in me bra. Later on, I’m having a cigarette, and he comes over. “Well” he says, “and what do I get for my money?” “What do you get?” I say. “You can have a receipt if you like.”’

Zizi made me laugh, but she baffled me as well. For I could never quite square her feminism and her combative attitude towards men with the fact that every night she put on a spangly bra and diaphanous skirt and went and danced around tables for tips.

One night she took me on a tour of London’s swanky Arab clubs. It was a time when those clubs were thriving, playing host to oil-rich playboys from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The most celebrated Egyptian dancers regularly flew in for a season, and one of these was Jamilla, who, for many years, had been Cairo’s greatest dance star.

Jamilla started out like the other young Egyptian girls who, before the rise of Fundamentalism, thought they could dance their way out of poverty. And unlike most of them, she managed it. She partied with politicians and high society, and because of the company she kept, because of her fame and the sums she could command as an entertainer, the shame of her profession was politely ignored.

I was excited when I heard that she was performing at one of the smartest Arab clubs, the Queen of Sheba, and begged Zizi to take me to see her. I couldn’t think of anyone else I could go with, for no-one I knew had the money to socialise in those clubs, where a jug of orange juice cost as much as a bottle of champagne would have done in any normal establishment. Nor could I go alone, for the only unaccompanied women welcome at places like that were high-end hookers who bribed the manager to let them in. Dancers came and went freely though, exchanging gossip and checking up on each other’s routines.

Before we arrived at the Queen of Sheba, we did the rounds of the other West End clubs, the less expensive ones that catered to ordinary mortals. We sat with some of the dancers in their dressing rooms as they whiled away the hours sewing sequins and pearls and bugle beads onto their costumes, their padded bras and diaphanous skirts. They had names like little prancing poodles: Fifi and Shushu and Bebee. Names that belied their rivalry, their determination to go up in the world and, as I knew from Zizi, their fierce cunning. Zizi had told me all about the dancers she worked with. How she’d been threatened by rivals and once had her costume deliberately ripped as it lay over a chair in the dressing room. And as I sat in that dressing room, I found myself wondering how Zizi managed it, sitting around night after night, making small talk and waiting for customers to arrive and herald the start of the show.

We arrived at the Queen of Sheba around two in the morning. It smelled of suede and crisp new banknotes. The tables, with their white linen, heavy silverware and vases of white lilies were all empty, though the club had been open for several hours. Zizi and I went and sat at the artists’ table, tucked away at the side of the stage, half hidden behind a pillar. A waiter came and placed little cups of sweet Turkish coffee in front of us, and Zizi asked him what time Jamilla was due on. He shrugged.

‘Jamilla’s sick. She’s not dancing tonight.’

‘How d’you mean she’s sick? I saw her back there with the manager when we came in.’

Leaning across the table, he said scornfully,

‘Who’s she going to dance for? You? Me?’ He used a napkin to flick invisible crumbs off the white cloth and turned away.

So that was it, was it? Jamilla wasn’t going to bother performing unless there were wealthy punters in the audience, prepared to pour money at her feet? I was all for leaving, but Zizi looked at me in surprise.

‘It’s early yet. She’ll dance if they get a big party in. You wait and see.’

And though my eyes were smarting with smoke from the previous clubs we’d been to, and I was thinking longingly of my bed, Zizi was right about waiting. I couldn’t be so pathetic as to leave before seeing the great Jamilla, for she was the point of this excursion, not the second-rate dancers whose acts we’d already sat through.

The stage was composed of coloured glass blocks. The musicians sat all in a line along the back row, where the glass blocks were coloured green. It was an unfortunate placing, for the pale green light filtering up through the glass cast a ghoulish glow over the musicians’ impassive faces as they sat there playing to the empty tables.

I watched the waiters come and go. They adjusted the table settings, rearranged the lilies in their vases, and every time the doors swung open they turned their heads hopefully. But it was only ever the cloakroom attendant, or the cigarette girl, or the occasional performer, strolling in from another West End night spot. I was beginning to lose heart when a couple of customers arrived. They stopped short when they saw the empty tables.

‘Oh!’ the woman had an American accent, ‘Are we too late?’

‘Not at all.’ The manager was already at her side. Then, as she hesitated, he took her elbow. ‘Someone has to be the first.’

Shortly after that, a group of young men came in. One of them wore white Saudi robes. The others were immaculate in designer wear. Two tough guys in dark glasses and padded jackets followed them in and went and sat at a table close by.

Zizi nodded in their direction.

‘Looks like we got royalty in. That’s their bodyguards. She’ll dance now.’

Sure enough, it wasn’t long after this that the band struck up Jamilla’s music.

And there she was: a majestic woman in her thirties with a well-fed body packed into a shiny blue dress. She swept around the stage, tossing back her chestnut hair with one hand. There was a mocking quality in her movements, as if she knew her craft so well, had danced so many times and on so many stages she didn’t even have to think about what to do. Beside this strutting Amazon the musicians looked tiny, a row of black crows lined up behind her with the sickly light on their faces.

Jamilla went and positioned herself right at the front of the stage and planted her feet on a rosy pink glass square. She looked one of the men in Saudi robes right in the eye and sent a shimmy like an electric current shuddering through her torso. The man called out to her and a ripple of laughter went round his table. He stretched out his arms to Jamilla and called out to her in Arabic.

Zizi’s mouth twisted in a smile.

‘He said, “If you only knew what I’m thinking! How you make me suffer!”’

Jamilla rewarded these comments with a smile that was also a sneer. Another man from the Saudi table climbed the steps to the stage, clutching a wad of banknotes in his hand, and proceeded to go along the line of musicians, peeling off a note for each of them. Then he took out several more and waggled them between his fingers at Jamilla, teasing her with the money. When she ignored him, he went over and reached out to tuck them in her costume, but Jamilla shook her finger at him and indicated a golden bowl at the front of the stage. Accepting defeat with good grace, he tossed the money in the bowl, kissed the tips of his fingers at her and returned to his table.

The club was filling up now. Jamilla swayed and shimmeyed and undulated at every customer, turning first one way then the other to give every table the benefit of her art. Someone ordered a bottle of champagne, and the waiter ostentatiously displayed the label for Jamilla before popping the cork and pouring the contents at her feet.

They’d all agreed to be part of this game and they were playing in earnest now. For who was Jamilla going to choose? And even if she didn’t choose any of them, what did it matter? It was the game itself and how you played it that mattered.

I looked across at the Saudi table, which was covered with silver platters of rice and lamb and big bowls of diced fruit. The men were intent on watching Jamilla and did no more than pick at the food. But I saw that the bottles of whisky and vodka and gin on their table were nearly empty.

Another man decided to try his luck. He went and held a bundle of banknotes above Jamilla’s head, then opened his hand and let them flutter over her shoulders onto the pink glass. His offering didn’t even merit a smile from the diva, who danced on for nearly an hour before she tired of toying with her audience. When she left the stage it was littered with notes and the golden bowl contained thousands of pounds worth of tips.

‘That’s it.’ Zizi picked up her bag. ‘Come on.’

It was dawn when we pulled up in front of my house. My throat was so dry with the smoke I’d been breathing in all night I could hardly swallow and I felt wretched after sitting around for hours in all-but darkness. I waved Zizi goodbye and slipped out of my crippling shoes, sighing with relief as I felt the moist grass beneath my feet. That was better. A solitary paperboy was doing the rounds on his bike and, sailing past, he stood up on his pedals and trilled his bell at me in a casual salute.

*

Zizi went to live in Cairo, and from time to time I heard about her on the grapevine. Heard she’d found work dancing in one of the big tourist hotels, heard she’d married a drummer called Momo. Then, one day, she was back in London and phoned me. We arranged to meet at a Lebanese juice bar on the Edgware Road.

She walked through the door and stood there, looking round. She was wearing a shapeless, floor length grey galabia, with a grey scarf over her hair, tied neatly beneath the chin, and I have to say I wasn’t prepared for this. Odd how a little thing like a headscarf can turn someone into a stranger.

‘Zizi!’ I waved, and she came towards me with a look of annoyance on her face.

‘I told you I’d changed my name. I’m not Zizi any more. I’m Semira.’

‘What? Not even when you’re performing.’

She ordered a mint tea, and said she’d given up performing.

‘I still dance at parties. But not for a living, no. I dance with the women in their homes.’ She explained that there was a lot of pressure on dancers from religious groups in Egypt. She told me these groups were trying to stop women performing in public, even at weddings, where it was unthinkable not to engage a dancer to animate the celebrations. Some dancers, she said, had been threatened and beaten up.

‘They’ve been scared off. Even the big stars are giving up. They tell you they’ve got religion, they regret the life they’ve lived. Course, you could look at it this way: they’ve reached an age when they want to retire anyway. They’ve made their money, they’re getting on a bit. It’s not an easy life, believe me, dancing in hotels, even for the best of them. You have to put up with the morality police turning up all the time, checking your costume’s respectable, checking on your licence. You can’t cheek them either. You’d lose your job, just like that. You have to pretend you respect them.’

Abruptly she changed the subject and began reminiscing about her old London life.

‘I always preferred dancing in restaurants. It was straightforward. The clubs in London. What a pain. Those Saudis…’ she trailed off. Then, looking thoughtful, she said, ‘Do you remember Jamilla?’

‘How could I forget her?’

‘She was a good friend of mine when I moved to Cairo. Sad, what happened to her.’

‘How d’you mean?’

‘She married a famous musician. He drank, got into coke. Died of a heart attack. They had a son, and he told Jamilla to stop dancing. He said, how could he hope to make a good marriage with a mother who went round flaunting her body on stage. He told her she should marry one of the Saudis who were always proposing to her. But she didn’t like the idea of being cooped up in Saudi in some gilded cage. She didn’t want to leave Egypt. Then for some reason she married a poor man, a butcher I think he was. Religious nut. Course, he told her she had to give up dancing. She started wearing hijab, then she went for the lot – covered her face, wore gloves.’

She paused, and we sat there in silence while she gazed into the distance.

‘One day I’m with Momo and we’re walking down the street and we see this woman sitting on the ground. She’s selling vegetables. Got them all laid out in front of her. She’s completely covered but, I dunno, there’s something about her, and when we go past I look at her. You can only see her eyes, but I think to myself, Christ! That’s Jamilla! She looks at me. Then she looks at Momo. And I see in her eyes she knows us. Quick as a flash she looks away. So we walk on, and I can’t help looking back and I say to Momo, I could swear that was Jamilla. Yeah, he says, that’s what I thought. So I say, Well, shall we go back and talk to her? No, he says, No. If she wants to be known, she’ll show us.’

I pictured Jamilla sitting on the dirty ground with her robes spread out all around her. Patiently waiting for a customer to come along and give her a pittance for a few vegetables. Why on earth had she married the man? And what about her family? Her son? How could they have let such a thing happen to her?

I tried to conjure her up as she’d been that night, an Amazon towering over the super-wealthy riffraff at the Queen of Sheba. But I couldn’t see her anymore. That image had fled, killed by the image of her sitting on the ground, selling vegetables. I said,

‘She was the best dancer I ever saw. How could her family let that happen to her?’

Zizi avoided my eyes. She turned to stare out of the window.

‘Times have changed,’ she said. ‘That was then.’

Yes. And this is now.












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