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The Queen



Originally from Chelmsford UK – grew up in London – later university in Manchester. Spent 15 years teaching in Hong Kong. A 2013 move to Czech Republic enabled a dedicated pursuit in writing and creativity, but teaching pays the bills.


Currently researching a book on changes in Czech culture since 1989. He has three dogs that love to be walked along the Morava River, a cat that enjoys sleeping on the piano, and hosts a healthy respect for Czech beer.


Web: 365 Ways With Words  [One a day for a year]

Richard Peters

“Strange things happen on the crest of a wave,” she began, lighting a cigarette perched on her bottom lip, “and we are like queer dancers on the deck of a ship who think all the pitching is part of the dance.” None of us, not even me, knew that she referred to herself, and that her crest was about to fall.


Her coterie sat or stood around, mostly males—the female hangers-on accepted that they were not only second-class, but also second best. I’ll describe the eyes later; in themselves they were a shocking sight for the uninitiated. From top to toe she was a speciality. Shoeless feet, flat across the toes, were tucked beneath her hips. By her thin but graceful legs and long silky arms that elegantly protruded from her signature cut-off three-quarter length black silk dress, she exuded a magnetic appeal walking, when necessary, in delicate motions that indicated balletic training at some point in the past. “Inasmuch as a woman should not have to care about such things, the way she moves is the indicator of her background, as well as the determiner of her future and the mark of her price.” Small shapeless hips bore the frank but largely unspoken truth that children were as far removed from her body as the mountains of the moon. The sinewy texture of her neck added dynamism to her words, her boxy larynx moving illogically with the alto resonance it generated. Above it an angular jaw, made for weeks by a diamond cutter, thrust into the eye of those that beheld, supporting a dangerously high cheek bone, and a black freshly minted short bob that ended mid-cheek further accented the mouth.


That mouth, boy-oh-boy, could it do damage! Thin, often without an ounce of pity, the slot performed only two functions – to facilitate intake of cigarette smoke (oxygen being a necessary and irritating addition) and as the outflowing conduit for the production—no, not production, but careful formation, like a fort is for the formation of a raiding party—of the words that so entranced listeners. Those were the only tasks, for she did not eat: not even a cocktail olive. The pronouncements, dictates, wisdom, judgements, the necessary take-downs and the Spartan build-ups, the snide comments and (rarest of all) the praise, brought crowds to her chair. On a first encounter, observers would think the same mysterious thought about quite why so many would take to her – who, after all, is this bitch? Then the spell would begin to work. Another evening, another salon, another mixture of cocktails and English cigarettes, and her reign would continue long into another night, the courtiers in attendance delighted word by word.


After brief introductions, she might be heard to announce, “You may stay if you have something interesting to say, show or do. Can you sing?” If the new courtiers were fortunate enough to be talented, and could perform on the spot, they would be permitted to remain. “Your story – are you interesting?” might be another. If there was self-deprecation, floundering or hesitation, her unsheathed wit found a target. But this was far better than being ignored, or relegated to the position of an unknown hanger-on. Falling foul of her meant a falling on one's sword. I took her for lunch one time, with a cold, and was very nearly cut in two for wasting her time being wrapped up with self-pity!


She was Russian, that’s for sure. Or was she Polish? Those that knew thought to test her in these languages, and received perfect responses in both: her enigmatic past  –origins, family and wealth– she kept a secret possibly because of its glamour, or because of its squalor. Had she been born a princess? She privately confirmed it one day, categorically refuted it the next. Had she been born a pauper? She gave street names and details, and then later demanded the repeater of such information take it all back as if the gravest of insults had been paid. Within the necessary perfumes, there was a certain other scent to her – of almonds, perhaps, or even musk closer in. I often sat beside her silently imbibing, each lungful an act of worship. The cachet of her form suggested the inheritance of former pre-revolutionary wealth, her need for defensive strength and decisive action hinted at its irrevocable loss. On this topic alone there had been heated debates across town, ones in which she would never take part, but news of which no doubt delighted her. It was as if she had arrived ready made. No photographs of her prior to the ascendancy to queen of town life could ever be found, at least none that I have been able to find.

Occasionally she touched, mostly a hand on the sleeve, or a short elbow-held embrace after longer absences. Her skin had the smooth texture of Egyptian alabaster, without hair or blemish. At these moments one was reminded that she was indeed a real person, real flesh and real blood, and that her bones were brittle stems of dried grass. But her composure was always such that even if you pinched her hard enough she would not have cried or complained or exuded a single tear. She would have merely given a fearful look into the eyes –the very soul– and that would be enough.


And now for those eyes. I have seen many over the years, of different hue and density that belonged to the smoky and insincere, the dashing and charming, the perilously disarming, the stupidly naïve and menacingly damaging, but hers were matchless. Their strange, strong beauty caught the eye beyond anything ever seen. Cold at first glance, their pale blue was cut from crushed icicles sharper than any barman could grind for a daiquiri. They flickered intelligently from subject to object as the tasting tongue of a rattlesnake. At once the object of attention would knew it had been seized, assessed and comprehended. For to remain in her glance for longer than a moment risked spontaneous combustion. Those thin eyelashes spiked into sundew radiance, catching the lazy flies who leered: “They give nothing, but take all.” Pencilled eyebrows, the quality of a fine water-coloured brush stroke, broke the broad monotony of a pale forehead. Not one wrinkle appeared in all the time I knew her. It was as if she had perfect control of her emotions, and refused to display surprise or alarm, disapproval or distain, although the colour and vehemence of her invectives declared that she certainly carried fully on each and every state. And yet it was not at all clear where the attraction resided. Some thought it the intense colour, others the sharpness, still others the keenness of their acuity. I for one have an opinion that it was somewhere behind the eyes. For as much as eyes are the windows of the soul, her innermost anima, in this particular instance one of a brooding, unfathomable and fierce beast, was cast far and wide by these powerful channels. And yet I once saw, or thought I saw, the child. It was near the end, when I told her I'd heard that Germany had withdrawn from the World Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations, and I saw a lost schoolgirl momentarily return my glance before she resumed her composure and sallied forth on Hitler and National Socialism; it was both beguiling and terrifying.


“I always leave before the end of a party, to leave time for the real discussion.” She meant about herself, of course. And it was invariably true. Her stay, even until the beginnings of morning, cemented guests to the venue and ensured the event’s life was fecund and vital, but her departure, seemingly timed to the second, meant a sudden evacuation of élan and passion, as if all the air had escaped from a balloon. Nevertheless, the topics of her conversation were reminisced—her opinion of performance poets and their work, of dancers seen that week, of singers who held sway and artists in vogue, current architects and designers and anyone with an ounce of verve were mulled and argued over. And one did not, one simply could not, do this in front of her.


It was never agreed exactly how old she might be. Her cigarette-fed body held no clues. When not held in a bob, her bold head supported a trailing headscarf, but none could see an escaped grey. It could be safely said that amongst her failings vanity was chief. It was celebrated. She’d had lovers, mostly young and mostly foreign, used once and disused thereafter. She’d somehow managed to find time to take them in between her daytime activities (gallery openings and writing for periodicals) and evening commitments (gala performances and salon appearances). By some means she could afford to live on Fifth, but none had ever been to her apartment, other than those wrapped in the silken webs spun for such occasions. “They come and they go as they are told.” I once heard her whisper on the matter. A vulgar notion, I know, but I simply adored her, yet if she would have ever regarded me with tenderness, I don't think I could have borne it: not for a minute.


And then it all ended. Some say she left and headed west, to California, but she didn’t put in an appearance from the Hudson River Bridge to San Diego. Others thought she’d returned to Europe, or that a sudden trip to northern Mexico had gone awry. All of my enquiries led to naught. I have my opinion, based on one line alone: “To keep age and death at bay, one must play with a full deck in your hands and a loaded pistol on your lap.” It is my opinion she will never be found. Her armour, crystalline-formed as it was over decades of society life, had neither faded nor been tarnished. But such indefinite things are not eternal. Perhaps she perceived that an agonising decline—that slow descent into frailty that inevitably awaits us—could not be endured. She certainly viewed many of those in advanced years with suspicion, if not downright hostility. “Youth is fire; one cannot exist without the other.” I have generally kept my opinions to myself about such matters. There was nothing discernable afterwards at the fully furnished apartment, the rent of which was paid for more than ten years thereafter.


She said to me once, “If one is to live as one should, if one is to take from it all it has to offer and love as if there is no tomorrow, then it is essential to know where the nearest exit is.”  She believed the crest was descending, or that her ship was already in full pitch. The dancers continued a little longer without her, and not one eye of the deck party saw her leave; instead of a grand farewell, there remains forever in the heart the divine trace of smoky almonds and within faint bitter musk.

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