She stopped in at the bakery most mornings. Always the same: ice-skates around her neck, her face flush, her hair tied loosely back. She was too distant to say much more than a mumbled thank you as she took her bag from the counter. Some days she’d forget her change and I’d keep it, returning it to her the following day. She was that kind. Absent. Head in the clouds and skies. I’d try not to draw attention to the change, but when she bowed, her cheeks even redder than usual, I thought I saw her vowing never to come back. Eventually she never did.
Occasionally I saw her in the town, but we never spoke. I looked, but she did not see me. Out of my uniform, I was no one to her. Without the hat, the flour on my hands and cheek. What would I have said anyway? I used to serve you in my bakery? Do you remember when you used to forget your change? How is the skating going? I would not have asked that. There was no need. When I saw her, she was always looking at the ground, as though the skates were still around her neck, forcing a slope to her shoulders.
By coincidence, Hyun-Sup got talking to her sister. Our town is small and such things are bound to happen. He told me in a bar the following night: her sister had told him that she’d got married to an older man, an older man with good teeth and real prospects.
‘Does she still skate?’ I asked.
‘How should I know?’ Hyun-Sup said. ‘Why would I ask a question like that?’
Hyun-Sup laughed and lit his cigarette, motioned for another drink from the waitress.
‘Thankfully her sister has other things on her mind than skating,’ he said.
* * *
It was perhaps six months later when I saw her struggling with shopping bags. Fruit and vegetables spilling from the sacks, dizzying the asphalt. I picked up some of the escaped tangerines and apples and passed them to her without saying anything. She took them and looked at me, the fruit in my hands.
‘You’re the baker,’ she said.
She said it as though recalling a memory, the words a mnemonic. I nodded and she took the fruit.
‘I miss your rolls,’ she said. ‘I was going to stop by and get some for the ride home, but I didn’t realise how late it was.’
She looked at her watch, a thin gold strap and a delicate dial. I did the same thing though there was no watch there.
She grouped the bags in her arms.
‘Do you still skate?’ I said.
She looked confused for a moment, then picked up the bags. She laughed, not at me. I was sure of that. Not at me.
‘I haven’t skated in years,’ she said. ‘I don’t have the time . . . I have a husband now,’ she said. I nodded. She looked at her watch again.
‘I’m late,’ she said, not late at all. ‘But the next time I’m back from the city, I’ll come and buy some rolls.’
She headed off up the road. I said goodbye but she didn’t look back.
* * *
‘You know,’ she said. ‘Skating was all I ever thought about. I thought about it every second of every day. I know people say that about things, but it’s true. There wasn’t time for anything else. Skating, nothing else.’
Her mother had been taken ill so she was back in town more frequently. I had started to close the shop at lunchtime, which is when she would arrive. We’d sit in the back room with the fan whirring, drinking tea and just passing the time. She did most of the talking, telling me about the restaurants she’d visited and film stars she’d briefly glimpsed at parties. Her name was Dominica. It was the first time that she’d mentioned the skating. I don’t know what provoked it.
‘You always seemed very dedicated,’ I said. ‘Sometimes you’d leave without your change, you remember?’
She laughed. Some people have music in their laughter, hers was made of flat notes, played out of key.
‘Did I really?’ she said. ‘I don’t remember that at all. I don’t remember much of, well I don’t remember much but the skating. Which I know sounds stupid, but it’s true. I was at a party just recently and a woman started talking to me as though I knew her. She knew me all right, my name, which classes we were in together, even what I’d worn to the school dance. But I had no idea who she was. She talked of others too, what they were doing. And I nodded, the way you’re supposed to, of course, but these people were strangers to me. As I was, I suppose, to them. I could tell you every routine I ever skated, tell you the difference between every pair of skates I’ve ever worn, but I wouldn’t be able to pick out one of my maths teachers or the class president or the first boy to ask me on a date. I had a dream, and that was it. Nothing more could compete.’
She sipped her tea. ‘Does that sound stupid?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’m a baker. Our dreams are cut short by lack of sleep.’ I smiled at that. She blew on her tea.
‘Did it come true,’ I said. ‘The dream, I mean?’
She looked up at me, and for a moment I had no idea how old she really was, and how many years had passed since she used to come to my bakery. It could have been a decade. She looked comfortably adult, no hint of the child. She must have been in her late-twenties. How old that would make me.
‘What a funny question to ask,’ she said. That sad little laugh again. We sat in ticking silence for a time. I glanced at the oven timer; the buns would be ready soon.
‘No, actually it didn’t,’ she said eventually. ‘It didn’t quite. It was close, don’t get me wrong, but it never quite happened. A slight slip on a triple-axel, that’s all it took. Landed that and yes, it would have happened. It wasn’t much. All I wanted was to perform at the big state rink, you know the one in the city? I see it every day now. I pass it on the way to shop or have lunch or whatever. And I look at it through the window of the car and it means nothing. It’s just a big ugly building. When I was a child, I couldn’t imagine being so close to it and now . . .’
‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Nothing at all.’
* * *
My savings were small, but adequate for the bribe. I sweated in Hyun-Sup’s car, the windows all down, the music he liked pumping from a small cassette player positioned on his lap. He drove me to a friend of a friend of a friend of his, the guy who worked security at the rink and I handed him the money. He told me to be there at 7am, no later. There would be no refund.
Hyun-Sup pulled up outside her building. It was modern and stylish, the stucco walls scrubbed clean. There were two cars and I watched her husband get into the larger one and drive away, his teeth flashing as he manoeuvred it out onto the street. I gave it a few minutes and Hyun-Sup patted me on the leg.
‘Time’s ticking, bro,’ he said. ‘Remember, no refunds.’
I rang the doorbell and Dominica answered. She did not seem especially surprised to see me.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry to bother you so early in the morning, but I’m just in the city for one day and I wanted to show you something. It’s important.’
She was still, her hand on the door, but I could see her dancing; alone in the stadium, her graceful arms bending, the muscles of her thighs and the way her blades cut through the ice, the slight sheen of the air, the chill, the delicate colouring of her cheeks. I could see her dancing the way she had always dreamed, flawlessly, beautifully. I saw it all in an instant, and in an instant saw it fade as she looked at me: my crooked teeth, my still floury hair.
‘I’m sorry Mr. Shing. It’s very nice of you to come by, but I really am too busy. You should have called.’
Hyun-Sup beeped the horn. I looked over to him and he pointed to where his watch should be.
When I looked back, she looked uncomfortable.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Yes, of course, I should have called first.’
I passed her the bag I was holding.
‘I brought you some of your favourites. I baked them this morning.’
She took the bag and opened it, steam lifting from the paper.
‘Mr. Shing,’ Dominica said, ‘you are the kindest person I know.’
I bowed and smiled. She smiled too. There was a moment when I honestly thought she would kiss me; but she instead said sorry one last time and closed the door.
I stood by the door and saw her motionless at the state rink. I was on my feet, applauding her. She had come to a perfect standstill and was looking up to the heavens, imagining the sound of the crowd as they slowly came to a standing ovation. I could hear them too. All of them. But she was only looking at me. Just at me, and me alone.
© Stuart Evers