Queen Estella's Courtship

The hot spotlight incinerates me into the mere caricature of a woman. A long, swooping sigh sweeps through the stadium as Cory jogs down from the podium. I'm watching as though through someone else's eyes as he strides up the length of the faded, wooden bleachers. I'm listening with someone else's ears as the wave of applause crashes and buries me, and Cory's eyes are locked only on mine. In his sweaty hands he clutches the staff and sceptre of his calling; a trophy and microphone, clutched like twin batons.

The whole campus has been expecting the King's next move for weeks. Now the court watches on smugly, stuffing their faces with popcorn and peanuts. After all, what fitting partner for the King but the Queen?

"Oh my God, oh my God," gasps Mimi, sounding like she's going to asphyxiate. Grasping hold of my sleeve, a dutiful lady in waiting.

As Cory bends down—on one knee! Like the silly brute's proposing—

Like Mimi said, a week previously, getting ready for the Spring Ball. Zipping up my gown with a yank—"He'd never get away with it, if he wasn't so handsome."

On one knee, taking my hand—goodness, kissing it!- As the band, the entire stadium waits for their cue…

"Queen Estella, would you go out with me?"

But O King Cory, King of jocks, ruler of the racing track, was it really Estella you wanted, or the Queen of the Sorority club? Could I have been anyone?

Yeowch! Mimi kicks me under the bleachers. Aren't we supposed to be ladylike, my dear?

"M-My Queen?" Cory inquires, faltering. I'm taking too long.

"Well, if you like."

The band breaks into a crescendo of triumph. The crowd surges around us, and for an instant I feel weightless, as though I've been bounced up like a thirteen-year-old boy at a bar mitzvah. As I'm pulled away by the currents, tugged about like debris in the breakwater, Cory yells across at me, "I'll pick you up at seven."

The girls descend upon me like heaven's army.

We're in the sorority house, and they chatter and twitter away and I'm half a mind to quip like a schoolteacher, Now, now, girls! One at a time. (After all, I am the Sorority Queen, and etiquette must be abided.)

The vision in their mind's eye is so brilliant I can see it myself. The King and Queen's whirlwind romance lasts six months. Six months of Parisian restaurants and a holiday in Rome where he snaps me posed outside the Coliseum with a yellow scarf round my neck, smiling mysteriously into the distance.

The months pass in a blur of bon bons and croissants. He poses the big question with a ring in the red wine—no, on the Eiffel tower! Or even better—he writes it into the sky with fireworks! (Honestly! Romantics, the whole lot of them.)

Then, a hillside wedding. Reception guests sip martini's with olives floating in them as we disappear into the sunset for a month's honeymoon in Cyprus. After winning a few gold medals, he'll settle down to his father's million pound business. And what of the Sorority's Queen? One, two children. No more. Dressed like dolls. The best hostess on the west coast, chieftess of the national débutante association, oh, and maybe her own clothes range too. Everything she's ever wanted.

Girls, the weight of your daydreams is quite wearying.

Mimi touches my arm, and we're gone.

These shifting sands can hide each and every desire. Dig a hole, bury yourself. Maybe by next year, you'll have sprouted.

Mimi's wispy hair is caroused, seduced, and tossed into the air by the wind. She pushes her dress down and blushes, looking like a skinny Marilyn Monroe. She's hugging her arms around her chest and the cold air has bruised her face pink like an overripe peach. Such a slip of a girl, my Mimi. Pale as an albino with hair to match, I worry she might blow away.

"I think Cory overdid it," she says, walking with me across the bay, rolling her sleeves over her hands, folding into herself. "It was kind of…anticlimactic."

"How so?" I ask.

"Well, if he gets down on one knee just for a date, what's he gonna do when he really proposes?"

"Jump out of a helicopter?" I suggest.

"Ha!" When Mimi's laughs, it erupts from her in little bursts. So tiny, she's like a volcanic eruption. "If he does less than serenade you on stage, turn him down."

I go silent. "I think you're getting ahead a bit. I accepted a date; I didn't realise I'd signed away my soul.

She slaps me on the back. "Sign, sealed and delivered!"

Sometimes, I envy the waves. They have no etiquette; they can roll and crash as they wish. They hide nothing.

"Y'know that fad Cory mentioned?" Mimi says. She looks out at the sea, sweeps her head back to me, swishes her hair back and smiles. "This is where they do it."

"Where they do what?"

"Don't be coy, Estella! You know what I mean."

Of course I do, but, "I've no idea what you're talking about."

"You know…" he leans her head closer to mine and raises her eyebrows suggestively. "Indulge in… illicit passions."

We cannot help it. It starts with a giggle, and I'm trying to cover it up behind my hands but that just makes it worse and Mimi laughs at me, and then we're giggling like schoolgirls, etiquette aside, over 'illicit passions.'

When we've finished clutching at one another and I've maintained my cool, I look over my shoulder and say, quite blasé, "And they call it, what? Homosexuality?"

"When I was at school they had yo-yo's," Mimi says, whistling.

"Well," I shrug. "I try to stay out of fads. Usually by the time you've bought all the kit and wasted your cash, everyone's into something else."

The wind is roaring now, and it's getting difficult for us to hear one another. The wind whips up the sand and, though perhaps I'm imagining it, I swear I can spy an elbow, a foot, a naked waist in the dunes. A mirage, maybe. Writhing like a sea anemone, a trembling hand snaking down a lifted leg. I close my eyes, and the mirage is gone.

Sometimes, I feel as though I could blow away too. She a slip of a girl, I a slip of a girl, how easy it would be just to slip… slide into the sky as freely and easily as a piece of paper.

We can't hold ourselves down, can we Mimi?

Have you found

True Love?

The billboards outside the university advertised Sampson suitcases, Lion matches, and true love. Or should that be, True Love? Like a person, or a place. Could you visit True Love? Did they have a water park? Could you ride the Love Mountain? Standing with my handbag swinging off my arm, I stared.

Cory jogged up to my side. Even when he's not practising for his big race, he's running. Perhaps he thinks I'll forget who he is if I don't see him chasing me like I'm the finishing post.

"Here you are," he says, flashing me a dazzling smile.

"Ready to go?"

In reply, I look back up the billboard. He grins knowingly.

"You fancy it?" he asks. I look at him in bewilderment. "I've heard it's not too shabby. We could try it."

Was this it? The moment I'd been waiting for all my life?

"But apparently the ending's kind of crummy."

Wait.

"What are you talking about?"

"True Love. It's showing at the Royal. You know; the new movie."

"Oh. Of course." Maybe it really is just a thing of movies.

I offered Cory my arm. "For now, dinner. I'll think about True Love."

A dinner date is much like a chess game. The two participants sit opposite one another trying to gain the upper hand on the other.

"As beautiful as ever tonight Estella. Is that a new dress?"

"You've done your research. I bought it on a trip Mimi and I took to Amsterdam end of last semester."

"And Mimi is the little dark eyed girl who follows her Queen round so attentively?"

"Now Cory; you should never ask a date about her girlfriends. It's rule number one. You'll make me think you've eyes elsewhere."

"You know I've only eyes for you, Stel." He reaches over the table for my hand. I pull it back.

"Call me Estella." He reaches again. This time, I fold my hands across my lap.

"But Stel is so much cuter."

"Then you ought to find a girl with a shorter, cuter name," I say sweetly. "Perhaps it will be easier to remember too. Hm?"

And also; in a chess game, the Queen is one of the most heavily guarded, hardest pieces to take. Just because she spends most of her time horizontal in a box doesn't mean she's easy.

"I was just teasing," Cory says, trying to play it cool. It doesn't work. He looks unnerved. The silence between us is heavy, and awkward.

The waiter is spinning dishes of caviar on sticks. Balancing five plates on each toe, there's a flash of silk scarves and suddenly they're whizzing around on his fingertips. He sets my down like a spinning top. "Gammon for the lady," he says. Flick. "Eel for the gentleman. Bon apetit."

My plate is still spinning; I stop it before it spins off the edge of the table. "What did you say this is called?" I ask.

"Fast food," says Cory.

Sometimes, the wind whips so hard into our faces that it can be hard to hear what Mimi is saying. Her lips move, but no sound comes out. The wind and water roar in our ears; sand is hurled high into the sky. My eyes are burning; I cover them. But Mimi plies my hands away. She's shouting. Her cheeks are blazing and she's shouting but I cannot hear a single word.

Speak up, Mimi. I can't quite hear you. Hold on, let me adjust the frequency—

-"And you run the club yourself?" Cory leans forward, imposingly, both elbows on the table.

"Yes. Flower arranging, embroidery and both Maria and I run the etiquette. The Sorority doesn't have anything for hair and makeup, so I've handed in my proposal to the Chair last week. I thought it might be useful to teach the girls a few simple do-ups. The Harvest Ball is coming up, and—"

Cory's eyes have glazed over.

"And the homecoming match is next week, isn't it?" I say.

"Oh yes," he says with recanted enthusiasm. "Against the Dolphins too—"

Now it is my turn to doze. Listening, being listened to. Back and forth like a seesaw, as waiters spin plates and a seal hoists itself onto the table between us, cutlery crashing, desert balanced on its nose.

"—It'll be a tough match, but if Walliams is all recovered, then—"

The only thing we have in common is our insincerity.

"Estella? Something wrong?" Cory pokes his head round the bulk of the seal, doing backflips with a meringue.

"Nothing," I say. "Only…" I point at the seal, "this can't be very hygienic, can it?"

Down the twilight boulevards, I stop dead. There are more of them now. Billboards, stretching all the way down the roadside. Lit with neon lights, winking at me;

Try

True Love

Shampoo

You'll fall head over heels for it!

And further down;

The New fragrance by Juan Clare

TRUE LOVE

Smell the scent of romance…

Taking the biscuit completely;

TRUE LOVE

Kitty Treats

For people who love pets

Further and further I go, but the billboards don't stop; they curve down the street, disappear into a pinprick on the horizon. A zeppelin, chugging overhead advertising LoveLoveLove, at half price! A stunt plane, spelling out SaleSaleSale in smoky letters, over at Marty's Love Emporium. It's dizzying. I clutch hold of the wall for support. And then, the sound of sneakers, and arms hoist me back to my feet.

"So," Cory whispers into my ear, "Fancy heading out for some true love later?"

No! The wind is whistling in my ears. Love doesn't work like that. Love can't be bought or sold. It can't be advertised in a window. It can't be bartered for, over dinner. Love is something that just… happens.

"Do you think it's wrong?" I ask abruptly.

Cory's mouth is full of eel; "Mnnn?" he says.

"The people who follow that fad. The men and the women. Do you think it's wrong?"

Cory gulps down his eel; chokes; drinks. "Well of course," he says, weakly, as his desert is flown in by miniature helicopter, knife and fork parachuting down like toy commandos to rendezvous in the bread dish. "It's not natural!"

"Cory?"

"Yes dear?"

"Is this some kind of clown convention?"

We are the only real people in this restaurant. Twisting in my seat, we're surrounded by mimes with sad painted faces. They eat imaginary food with imaginary cutlery. They are chatting about imaginary things. They're living imaginary lives. I look back at Cory, and my God!—he is a mime too. His handsome lips are painted with a pout, and he leans over an elbow to talk with no words coming out.

"Cory?" I ask.

Cory reprimands me with a look as though I am shouting. He leans over for a kiss, puckering his lips absurdly.

I'm overwhelmed with sadness. Sadness, and weariness. These poor people; most of all, poor Cory. He doesn't even understand what love is. I kiss him on the cheek, and as Cory sits bemused, stroking an invisible goatee, I walk from the restaurant. Night is falling like a glittering shroud; stars coming out in the sky and on the sea. The city is silent; only one man up a ladder with a paintbrush, painting over the billboards, slowly. He's whistling a Johnny Cash number, and the only other sound is the soft roar of waves. The cool night air creeps up into my clothes, and every step I take echoes.

She's there; Mimi stands on the sand, smiling, her hands behind her back. She's wearing a fresh print dress and her lips are as red as wine. She's been waiting for me. She's been waiting for me my entire life.

"How was the fast food?" she asks, holding out her hand.

I take it. "It's just a silly fad. It'll pass soon enough."

But some things won't ever change. The wind picks up; it howls. It wants to blow us away. We are only women. Only the scraps and slips of silk tossed and thrown by the intensity of the storm. But, perhaps if we hold on tight enough to each other, we'll make it through.