Chicken Dance

That summer of 1986 was my last in single figures. I marked the days off in this diary – a Christmas present – with a sense of disbelief. My fingers instantly remember its heft. This was the first in an unbroken chain of journals. The slim pencil still here, hiding in the spine, this randomised leatherette grain, the impressive gold lettering and inside, yes!, the thrilling superstring of London’s tube map. 1986. I think of that year as the beginning of my consciousness. The birth of a continuing sensible thread connecting me through time in a traceable arc. I wrote faintly in this diary, barely brushing the pages. Using it – using it up – felt wrong.

I squat in their attic next to the suitcase of my old things. The roller skates I’ve been sent to collect temporarily forgotten. This, like all of my diaries, falls open in July. On July 19th I had recorded my earliest foggy memory, the echo of a conversation that had looped in my memory for four years. On this day in 1982, the day before my sixth birthday, my mother was alive:

Me: ‘Is that the Queen’s sister?’

Mother: ‘No, she is a shopkeeper’s daughter. She is also our Prime Minister.’

Me: ‘What about him? Is he the King?’

Mother: ‘No, we don’t have a King. That man was an actor. Now he is the President of the United States.’

Me: ‘They look like King and Queen of the world.’

Mother: ‘They are in a way.’

I close my eyes and flip the page. July 20th. A marker in time. I know it’s blank. I wanted to go to Hyde Park to see the horses. A single IRA nail had pierced her femoral artery. I was six. I didn’t know how to stem the bleeding. Thereafter, in all my diaries, always this – our last remembered conversation on July 19th, and always on the 20th nothing. Writing, not writing. The emptiness, that sacred space had became a totem.

My father became a widower in his thirties. Now, in his sixty-first year he is squarely handsome in a way which sadly skipped a generation. He met Jean a full three years after my mother’s death, time enough for childhood’s conservatism to impress on me its fusty dread. Jean meant change. She would stay sometimes in the summer of 1986. I took an instant dislike.

I’d been chicken dancing before that year, pre-consciousness, in a sense before time, when I was a mere potential, a chaotic collection. If you listen you’ll hear it – that bright, synthetic melody. Mimetic. It invades your brain like a storm. And with its own prescribed dance it was perfect for blocking out the future, for filling myself to the brim; a comfortable, predictable infusion. I did it in secret. The music was self replicating, archetypal, vaguely Austrian. It embedded itself in the temporal lobes. I didn’t need the things other obsessive compulsives required: no soaps with which to scrub, no light switches to flick, no extraneous props at all – though in time I added for the sake of authenticity a tea cosy hat with a glove cockscomb. I needed nothing but the memory of a song and dance. Chicken dancing kept the world at bay. It filled spaces, imposed order.

A memory rising. I flick pages. Yes, here: June 22nd 1986. We watched the disreputable football game between England and Argentina, you know the one. Jean joined us. My preparation was fastidious: my shirt was inside-out as befitting an international game, I wore the correct blue socks with the stripes down the sides, I sat in the appropriate chair. Yet still the gods were against us. In my diary I recorded this: England out of the World Cup. It is my fault. Not the players’ nor manager’s, not even the skilled if fraudulent Diego Maradona’s fault but mine. Bad blood had entered our home. That night, after midnight when the house slept I crept downstairs. The exorcism – I remember it now – was terrifying, exultant, transformational. I put on my chicken dance hat and started the mental music, the gloriously extended five-and-a-half minute club edit. When it stopped I did it again. It was a communion. A consuming flame. Into it I threw every fibre of my soul. It was fuelled by disappointments, by rage and uncertainty, by excoriating injustice. When I was done I collapsed panting on the floor, my cheek pressed into the carpet. For the first time I felt weightless, vacant. I sensed absolution. In the corner of the room I saw her then; Jean. She sat huddled in an armchair, her eyes wide with insomnia and shock. My intestines clenched.

She said: ‘I dance when I’m sad. Can we do it again, together?’

‘All right,’ I squeaked.

We danced until dawn, until we were empty. In the morning I asked my father if Jean could move in.

Downstairs, my children are with Jean, the Grandmother they love impossibly. She clears space for these her seedlings like she did for me, nourishes them, allows them to unfurl. I turn back and read again. This time I see something new, a promise, the possibility of reinvention. Thatcher, Reagan, my father, Jean, even the IRA and Maradona all reinvented themselves to become the kings and queens of their worlds. And now, jobless and unexpectedly alone I know she has sent me up here to learn this lesson afresh, the roller skates are a ruse. I flick the page again to July 20th. There. A small note in Jean’s hand on a page so holy I would allow only her to mark it. It says simply this: vessels must be empty before they can be filled.

I pull out the chicken dance hat from my suitcase and after twenty four years of absence, I find that the music, the movements, come naturally.


24 Responses to “Chicken Dance”

  • Laurita Says:

    I love the smooth flow of your work, your use of language. This was an excellent piece of writing. I love how the diary and the dancing tied everything together.

    I am officially a fan.

  • Marisa Birns Says:

    This is wonderful. The narrative pace, the fluidity of lovely language all work together to make this an impressive piece of work.

  • peggy Says:

    I too, became entralled within your lovely language. A quiet story; I keep wanting but have yet to accomplish that. Congratulations on creating one.

  • David Masters Says:

    Lofts and attics are abundant with stories. You’ve found a gem here. Beautifully written, and a wonderful mixture of melancholy and hope – the way of real life.

  • Anne Tyler Lord Says:

    I must repeat the impact of the “lovely language” that is the best way to describe this intriguing story.

    I feel like a just experienced an entire movie reading this story.

    Your writing is amazing, lyrical and descriptive. Your plot and the details are so unique.

    I give you a WOW! Again. I just love your writing.

  • David G Shrock Says:

    Great language and inventive story. Earthy home-style feel.

  • Daniel Bayn Says:

    Nice, fluid piece. Quite affecting by the end. I feel like there should be some allusion to the Chicken Dance and/or OCD in the opening paragraph, since they’re such important elements, but I’d hate to sacrifice any of the flow you’ve created.

    So many narrative elements introduced, developed, and executed in so few words… impressive stuff.


  • marc nash Says:

    “the thrilling superstring of London’s tube map” – I LOVED this line.

    Not even I would dare employ ‘transformational’!

    It’s funny, the sacred material feel of the diary is something I’ve also written about. They are incredibly sensual and intimate things before we even mark them with our lifeblood. I liked your historical milestones – was his mother American? as she says ‘we’ don’t have a king? I’m intrigued as to why you settled on the IRA killing horses? – there were so many outrages – of course a young boy might plump for that memory framed as it is by animals.


  • Melissa Says:

    Wow. Just wow. The language entrances. Haunting, lyrical, flowing. I love The frail vulnerability of life with its quiet triumphs comes through. Touching, the dance with Jean. And wonderful representation of self-consciousness in the narrator. I have to say it again: Wow.

  • Deanna Schrayer Says:

    I guess all that’s left to say is “ditto”. Your work is so beautiful Simon. I hope to some day be able to execute such lyrical prose as well as you do.

  • Tony Noland Says:

    Wow, this was incredibly evocative. The way the narrator blamed him(her?)self for the loss in the World Cup… great work here.

  • ~Tim Says:

    This is really sweet and poignant. Well done!

  • karen from mentor Says:

    From the first I had the chicken dance playing in my head but it got quieter and quieter as the story progressed. This was such a gorgeous read. You have a wondrous way with words.There are so many beautiful lines and images that stand out but this line made the hair on the back of my neck stand up:

    “She clears space for these her seedlings like she did for me, nourishes them, allows them to unfurl”

    so so lovely.
    Karen :0)

  • GP Ching Says:

    You should submit this one for publication. You have a unique and effective voice that I think this story showcases. The story is both gripping and has a subtle humor. Good read!

  • Laura Eno Says:

    Emotional, well-paced, homespun style. Wonderful piece, full of life.

  • shannon esposito Says:

    Oh, wonderful! “The chicken dance kept the world at bay, filled spaces, composed order!” We all need the chicken dance. This made me very happy for some reason, even with so much pain. And “she clears the space for her seedlings” I can just imagine the all consuming love and forgiveness of this woman. We should all have someone like this in our lives. Loved this.

  • Christian Bell Says:

    There is an excellent pacing and narrative voice here, weaving details of the narrator’s life and figures from history. Working in the “Hand of God” game was a masterful stroke to this story. It’s all done seemingly effortlessly. Great job.

  • DJ Kirkby Says:

    Your writing is beautiful. I have to remind myself to breath when I read your stories.

  • mazzz_in_Leeds Says:

    Masterful how you added in *that* game – hand of god indeed.
    Beautiful prose, as we have come to expect of you now!

  • Linda Says:

    I love your writing. Fluid, lyrical, mesmerizing. I read this story early this morning, then interrupted by children, but thought about it all day long. Finally a chance to say thank you for such a gift. Peace, Linda

  • Teresa Says:

    This is a beautiful and whole story, I absoloutely loved it from start to finish. You feel so much for the character and the cultural references blend rather than jar with the rest of the narrative. Stunning.

  • Chance Says:

    Very smooth narrative, also has a nice voyeuristic feel to it

    good stuff

  • CJ Says:

    This is exceptional. Really, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Brinda Says:

    The quiet unassuming and elegant voice still conveys so much and evokes that breathless ‘what will happen next’ anticipation. I loved this.

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