Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story


Niven Govinden

The show started three hours late because they couldn’t stop crying. Hair and make-up, stylists, models, all in floods. There was no dissent from the waiting audience because they were crying too. He was missed. 

She would have cried with them but there were no tears. A black hole had sprung from her gut, stopp-ing all function, blood flow, and breath. Instead, their lamentation knotted around her, in weaves as thick as the ones being sewn on to their heads. 

Better to make herself useful than sit there. She pulled out tissues and made tea. She hugged the older girls who were finding it harder because they’d been with him since the beginning and loved him like a brother. She consoled those consumed with guilt. And from the shelter of the bog, some were offered a different kind of solace. 

There was something of the Temple in their collective display, she thought, picturing from footage she’d seen on the news: the aftermath of stampedes that sometimes occurred at religious festivals; of those pilgrimages to the Ganges, Mecca, and Jerusalem.

She walked the full length of the catwalk several times for the technical rehearsal because no one else would. As she did so, she searched for a disparaging link to separate that holy rawness against this, the cruel inevitability of his sudden death, but could find none. If you were made of flesh and blood you were fair game, and guaranteed to feel a deep, inexplicable hurt. 

Her grief was no match for theirs, having only worked with him a handful of times. He wasn’t an unbeliever but he was very specific about when he needed girls like her: dark and wounded. He’d shown her small kindnesses which she knew could be cherished later, but for all her usefulness, herbal teabags and Pay As You Go numbers for dealers, she was an outsider who couldn’t truly understand. 

Only the show producers expected more from her. She was of an indispensable type: those models breaking out of emerging markets with densely freckled, unreadable faces, able to galvanise the bereaved and work-shy by example. 

What they wanted once the house lights dimmed to black, ethereal poise, was giving them what she carried inside her normally: an absence of everything else. She’d been booked for the show because he’d recognised a quality of tacit stoicism in her; a stag able to lead a herd of puffy-eyed gazelles along a slaughterhouse runway. 

If he was still here she would have found a way to acknowledge the gesture; sprinkling some tina on a cupcake to relieve his anxiety, or as she’d done for a girl in the cubicle earlier, bowing her head and reciting prayer. 

Instead, she focused, sat at the make-up table awaiting the trembling hand of a professional.

‘Do like her,’ the producers said to the huddle, not caring whether that made her unpopular. They just wanted the clothes to go out. 

‘Copy what the Amish model does.’

Slowly, the empty chairs on either side became occupied as others pulled themselves together. There was a congregational spirit in their posture: backs straight, shoulders back, chins raised towards the head of the beauty squad expectantly, as if he were a minister.

She remembered the benches that lined the kitchen table in her father’s house and of the gentle faces of her mother and sisters as they listened to him give his customary sermon before each meal. Sitting among the girls, at last silent and open, gave her a feeling of warmth. She hoped that perhaps they were thinking of similar circumstances in their own home. That she had managed to broker something between them that was outside of beauty, but still familiar and understood. 

But modernity crept back once champagne had washed their upset away. They were sailors in a submarine rattling down towards the sea bed. To expect simple courtesy from them was too much on top of the pressure of the impending show; pulses drumming hard against the base of their necks. 

They resumed old tricks. They were bitches. Someone hid her rucksack. Another wedged sashimi into her shoes. The girl she’d prayed with made a thing of not understanding her accent. When her rucksack was finally discovered, wedged under the portaloo, her brown poplin dress, a visual link to her background, more constant and comforting than anything else she owned, was soiled; both the front and back smeared with hummus from the buffet table. She looked to the older models for support but they were too absorbed in hiding the strain on their faces, as unwanted tear fall continued to cling on to amber-studded lashes. 

There was no time for one last prayer before the show started. The producers weren’t having it. Even in the circumstances the lateness of the production was epic. They were moments away from heart attacks and screamed at her to get into line, a humiliation that amused everyone else. She understood their reasoning while remaining unsettled. The request, of five minutes of silence and darkness, head bowed, was part of her preparation and usually mentioned in her contract. To go without this was unknown to her. 

Out from backstage she felt herself forced open, in readiness for a torture she didn’t yet understand. The lights, supernaturally bright, flashed from within like mini-supernovas. Every head had been crowned with his final signature: polished ebony antlers two feet tall. In her reflection she saw divining rods, as if he’d been hoping to beat his depression all along by dispersing it safely amongst his sisters. 

The designer’s presence filled the cavernous space, pushing against her cheek, and hard on the shoulders as if to force her on to her knees. It felt like both God’s judgement for avoiding prayer, and his own anger at what he’d done to himself. She did her best to ignore both. Kept her head and shoulders high, and served. 

Though she carried a childhood incantation under her breath, psalms learnt at the kitchen table, it wasn’t enough. With every step she couldn’t help but think of his deterioration. The carcass, and rot; of his muscles relaxing at the act’s very apex, last gasps of air pushing through his chest; a loosening of the bowels; a spurt of piss soaking his crotch. 

She marched, thinking of his dying energy being realised from tissue fibres; of wax in the ears hardening to stone before eroding into soil. How she knew all that awaited him: the cycle of the husk; to decay and then disappear altogether. 

The whiteness of flashbulbs, so pure they became gold, became dark, uncoiled her knotted muscles. She felt herself being plumped back into shape, of softness taking over. Only one thing could undo the blackness of her thoughts and her murderous intentions towards the girls who, sourness erased, were now presenting purity on the catwalk as if it had always been their motor. 

Discipline continued to command over the wetness on her face, still a slave to her training. But without spiritual fortification she felt weak and was unable to predict what would follow: that once she reached the top of the catwalk, she would fall to her knees and bow her head. 

All she knew was that it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Felt holy strength flooding through her clenched hands. She was back in her kitchen looking over the dinner her mother had prepared and thanking God for his grace.

Ignoring the blood in her mouth from teeth biting into her lower lip, the crunch of her heel, the roar from the seats, everything, she remained immobile. Nor did her eyes flicker from their earthed position as she felt a similar occupancy of space behind her: models young and old, sacred and profane, also kneeling in silent tribute; a herd of passive gazelles united in contemplation. 

The girls themselves weren’t aware of why they were doing it. They were simply following her. 

She stayed prone until she’d finished. Her horns, like those of the others, pointed to the dark edging above where his logo loomed large.