Tuesday 22 February 2022

Down the Rabbit Hole


by Jane Spirit

afternoon tea 

Freya was aware that she was still fidgeting on her hard backed seat. As the main lights in the school hall were turned off one by one, she forced herself to focus on the production to come, despite her usual nervousness. She felt grateful that at least she was seated next to the father of one of her daughter’s friends who was also a single parent. John was shy too and clearly had been comfortable not to engage in light conversation when she had taken one of the remaining empty seats next to his. She could almost sense him relaxing into the welcome anonymity of darkness as a hush fell over the audience and there was only the background rustling of photocopied paper programmes with their rabbit and mad hatter cartoon images printed alongside the cast list.

Freya enjoyed the anonymity too. Not that she had ever thought of herself as being particularly noticeable to others. As a child her gregarious and artistic parents had always canvassed recognition for her: ‘Yes, I’m sure Freya would love to come to the party’; ‘Oh I’m sure that Freya would love to join the choir’. The odd thing was that the more her parents had encouraged her to become the centre of attention, the more she had had felt herself collapsing inwards under the weight of their expectations.

The worst thing had been knowing that she would inevitably disappoint them. She had none of their charisma and did not easily attract others to her. As a teenager she had taken consolation in non-human worlds and become fixated with the arrangement of the night sky and the massive, impersonal processes represented in the movement and luminescence of the stars and planets. The notion of black holes gave her a frisson of fear, but also a comforting sense of familiarity. To be drawn closer to them would be to destroy yourself by inevitably succumbing to their irresistible pull, but it would also allow you to become one with them as they crumpled into invisibility.

In the end she had sought an inconspicuous life. She had not chosen even to pursue her passion for the stars, settling for accountancy instead, much to her parents’ unspoken disappointment. Then she had met Tom at work and felt momentarily accepted, enough to make a life with him, have his child and bring her up when he left them. Looking back, she wondered if she had ever really believed he would stay. She could remember an early walk with him on a blue-sky day when they had come across an old mine and abandoned village on a valley side. They had peered together into the gloom behind the rusty red grille that had been welded across the disused entrance. Tom had been fascinated by estimating the scope of the tunnels. She had thought only of the burrowed earth that underlay the once solidly built cottages and of how time had inevitably subsumed all the human aspirations they represented back into its blackness. She had not shared those thoughts with Tom. He had not liked to see her feeling sad.

Now though, as she saw Amy come on to the stage alongside her friends for the tirelessly rehearsed and carefully choreographed opening sequence with all the class, Freya felt a surge of happiness. She had her daughter, and she had this moment to share with her.

Amy was to be one of the roses in the second half. It was a small part, but Amy had taken her role so seriously, eagerly demonstrating to Freya how she could bob up and down in time to the music whilst raising her arms upwards to imitate the sinuous branches of a growing bush. She would have petal-shaped pieces of card attached to each sleeve of her brown costume ready to be ‘painted’ by a taller child playing the part of the Queen’s gardener. Freya had been thrilled by Amy’s excitement and her new-found sense of self-importance in taking part.

The opening ensemble gave way to the first scene of the play. Everyone laughed as the little girl playing Alice comically chased the little boy playing the rabbit round the stage. They skirted around all sorts of obstacles formed by artfully- positioned other children before Alice eventually followed the rabbit through the tissue covered ‘hole’ at the back to loud applause. Freya relaxed fully now, sensing the anticipation of pleasure all around her. The hall was warming up.  Glancing at John she noticed that he too was smiling and savouring the moment.

Freya still had a vague memory of watching her parents perform in a pantomime version of Alice put on by their local drama group when she had been very small indeed. As an adult she had read the story to Amy and found that Alice’s disappearance into the earth’s depths had still disturbed her. Now Freya found herself laughing with the audience. The garish costumes, bizarre characters, and unpredictable plot suddenly delighted her for the fantasy of escape they represented. After all, here was Alice having adventures of her own and, odd though they were, perhaps that was the point. The child might have become invisible to the real world, but she had stepped into another where this did not matter, where the only thing that mattered was to meet all kinds of others and simply to relish finding out about them in all their strangeness.

Immediately after the tea party scene which elicited more applause, the hall lights were turned on again to signal the interval. A buzz of conversation began around Freya as the audience members stretched and began to reach for bags and into pockets for their phones or purses. She found herself looking forward to the rest of the show and to Amy’s next appearance on the stage. When John turned and suggested they grab a cup of tea and a biscuit from the refreshment table at the back of the hall, she even found herself smiling and agreeing that yes, they should.

About the author

Jane Spirit lives in Suffolk and has written academic articles and edited academic books from time to time, but has only recently ventured into writing fiction.



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