Do Butterflies Dance in Spring?
By Rebecca Levick
I was 15 years old at the time of finishing my first day of work experience. This, my teacher said, would provide me with insight into the real world. For me, cleaning without pay in a pretentious hotel was merely awareness of a life I did not want. But now that the day was over it was time to catch the 15.42 to Carlisle.
The train was packed; I was hustled by the surging crowd into an aisle seat. As I sank down I looked to the weary eyes of the traveller beside me. I searched for some kind of acknowledgement or shared pain that we were both miserable on this overstuffed train, but she gave me nothing besides a cold stare. I assumed she was self-assured by the way she made no attempt to move her bag, choosing instead to ignore that I could not sit fully on the seat.
The train pulled forward. I began my journey perched on the seat, longing to breathe air that wasn't infused with lavender. Looking at the woman, I could tell she was stout in stature. A bonnet of tight curls drawn in neatly around her crown revealed a scalp the colour of a chicken's carcass. Buried within her pale grey curls were unhealthy quantities of brown spots I assumed to be moles. My biggest mistake was looking at the woman. Her eye flickered in my direction; she had clocked me. I moved my head away like a shot, but it was too late.
"Where have you been, young lady?"
My insides flinched. Her accusing words sounded exactly like my father's. "Appleby," I replied, like a well-mannered girl should.
She parted reedy lips to reveal a smile. "I know that," she said. "I watched you get on, dear. Where in Appleby?"
"The Majestic," she repeated, leaning forward in her seat. "I know it well. Beautiful place. Fantastic-looking lobby. What was a young person such as yourself doing there?"
"I see." She sat back in her seat and wrapped her camel-coloured coat round her leg. "I suppose someone's got to do it."
"Yes." The train had slowed, eventually stopping in an area surrounded by fields. I looked beyond the woman's nose and at spring's offerings on the other side of the window. It was a beautiful scene: daffodils popping under the sun's temperate heat, the grass had a vinyl gleam. Fresh buds, just visible, poked their noses out of the ground and guarded a family of ducks wobbling towards a river at the end of the field.
The ducks reached the water and one by one jumped in. I tried to watch, but the sun's light reflecting over the river had turned from angelic to sickly sweet. It sent me into a blinding head rush, forcing my eyes back inside the train. I closed my eyes to ease the nausea. Once my head had calmed a little I looked at a shaded patch in the corner of the field. The dark light had a pleasant cooling affect on my eyes. The carriage shook as another train whooshed passed on the other side of the track.
The train set off once more. I focused on the patch of shade; a concentrated beam of light burned like a laser against the dark, emphasising butterflies unwittingly condemned to the joys of spring. I heard the woman's voice say something, but I couldn't take my eyes from the butterflies. I had no idea what breed they were or what features they carried; in truth, to most people they probably looked nothing more than dancing silhouettes, but to me the creatures were captivating. They fluttered with no apparent purpose, consumed by a lazy spring haze. Wavering up and down and then side-to-side, they repeated the same hypnotic pattern again and again. My eyes remained focused. I barely blinked. I was scared they might disappear if I removed my eyes from the scene for a millisecond. And then almost immediately everything in the train disappeared from view. I sat cross-legged in the meadow among the butterflies. Small gusts blew against my face and moved the fine, loose hairs gathered around my hairline. It was the butterflies, all black; their wings beat slower now, as though stuck in slow motion. Although the black colour of the butterflies disguised any superficial detail, I could see every imperfection in-between the flapping wings. I could see every protruding vein pulse under the strain of movement.
As the train changed position and the butterflies began to disappear from view, I was pulled from my obscure surroundings and back inside the train. I moved in my seat to watch them, but eventually as the train gathered momentum – much like the fleeting seasons – I blinked and the creatures were gone. I looked at the woman, blinking back at me. "Sorry, did you say something?"
"Yes, dear, I asked what your mother makes of you work."
"My work." I wanted to say all kinds of things to her. I could have got up and left the old bag to her cynical thoughts, but there were people stood crammed in the aisles, and besides something kept me rooted (albeit half-rooted) to the seat. "My mother's dead," I said.
Tears instantly welled in her eyes; I watched as they spread to form a thin glaze. She looked at me with eyes now softened, and the lines in her face relaxed and seemed almost to disappear. I realised then that the woman must have been carrying a lot of tension around in that face of hers. But I was not fooled. I knew her perplexed expression did not come from sadness. She was hungry for gossip and did not know where to begin. I scanned her face; it was as though great, confused tears might tumble at any moment. I guessed she was fearful I was going to depart at the next platform. There were too many questions, too much despair to absorb and too little time. She placed her wrinkled hand on my leg close to my knee. It was so cold I kicked out. She removed her hand immediately and placed it on her lap. She looked down, her deflated expression reminding me of a scolded child. Then she slowly brought her eyes up to meet mine, "How?"
"Cancer," I replied, plainly.
She drew breath, paused then said, "How long ago?"
"About three years."
Her eyes quivered with each new piece of information.
I had never experienced such a reaction. I rearranged my position and placed one hand on the seat in front. I felt a pain shoot from my left buttock up to my lower back as I did so. The woman still refused to move her bag or even acknowledge that it blocked the seat.
We sat in silence for 15 minutes.
The woman pulled herself upright and turned to look at me, "Cancer is a terrible, painful way to go."
I paused, turning her words in my mind, unsure of what to say.
"It's slow, you know. Very slow," she added.
"Yes, I know."
"It makes you very tired, as though you can't do anything. Then there's the chemo. You see things. Weird things. If you're not into drugs, hallucinogenic and the likes, well, it's just terrible."
I wondered if I should ignore the woman. I couldn't. "I imagine it's terrible either way. It's not the same as taking a recreational hallucinogenic drug."
"I wouldn't wish it on anyone."
"Who would?" I muttered.
"You lose your hair as well. Did you know that?"
"All that to cope with and normal life and children too. You must have been very young."
"I was 12."
"Tell me, do you have brothers and sisters?"
I snapped round to face the woman in one flash of movement. "What would you know?" I snarled. "You sit there without even moving your bag, in your own fucking world, without care or consideration for others." My voice wavered. I felt a familiar pain form in the top of my throat; it was as though all lubrication had drained away and I was left with a useless dry mouth. "You don't know anything!" I gasped. I waited in fight mode for her retort, ears roaring with blood. Hot tears pricked the backs of my eyes, but I would not let them fall. Anything was better than crying.
The woman said nothing.
The people stood crammed in the aisles said nothing.
I became painfully aware of my chest moving up and down. The woman looked at me. I hated her for not saying anything.
I sat back and withstood the rest of the silent journey. We remained in the same position, unmoved, until the train pulled into Carlisle station. I wanted to make her feel the awkwardness of my presence, but I was desperate for the journey to end. I searched once more beyond the woman's nose for the dancing butterflies. I could not see them. The train was moving too quickly to focus on such a rare and brief sight. I sat back and pictured them dancing, along with flecks of dust, in a pure light of the sun's creation.
I shot up when the train stopped and pushed myself into the crowd. I glanced back once at the woman patiently waiting to leave her seat. She remained perfectly still. All the while the crowd surged, a continuous movement of colours flowing through the train doors.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014