FICTION: Encounter by Annabella Krol

It was the eve of my last performance as Tanzanite at Arabian Nights, a Turkish fusion restaurant in the heart of central London. They featured belly dancers there every Friday night and I had been one of them for almost three years. As I waited backstage I felt the familiar frisson of adrenaline descend, coupled with the usual pre-performance butterflies. I’d done this more than a hundred times but the feeling was always the same before I went out – excitement and nerves in similar proportions. I loved it. I heard the music begin (one of my favourite songs) and my performance anxiety butterflies trembled away. I was in my element, especially once the first cheers swelled as I emerged into the centre of the restaurant, my sparkly blue veil floating through the air like a well-guided feather. Surrendering to the music, I travelled further into the throng of tables and eager audience, my veil a familiar dance partner. I identified my first “victim” with a practiced eye; a tall, elfin teenager celebrating a birthday at a large table to my right. She was on the edge of her seat, already moving to the rhythm of the song, obviously itching to join me. Slinking my veil around my neck, I shimmied over to her, winking, and extended my hand. As predicted, she took it without hesitation and I led her a little way onto the floor before turning to face her. Away from her table she seemed less sure of herself, so we started with some gentle shoulder hits. She mirrored my movements eagerly if inelegantly, reminding me of my first attempts in a drop-in class over eight years ago. I smiled encouragingly, and demonstrated some hip lifts once she appeared more comfortable. My protégé copied, grinning broadly as she picked up the feel of the movement. To finish off her initiation, we shimmied in unison; a wild, cathartic shimmy that made her smile widen all the more. I shoo-shoo’d back to the centre of the stage, blowing my now-ecstatic participant a kiss as she took her seat again.

I’d started my performance perfectly, I reflected as I languidly unravelled the veil from around my neck. I lived for nights like these – dancing to songs I loved and bringing joy to a smiling, happy audience. It hadn’t always been this way. As a child I’d hated performing, but belly dance had changed me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It had brought out my Inner Goddess and given me a new love of the stage and spotlight. It made me feel powerful and feminine, and I cherished the opportunity to share that feeling with others, like the young girl I’d just been dancing with. My veil joining me in the dance once more, I turned sinuously, scanning the crowd surreptitiously for my next willing target. Sweeping my gaze around the room, I settled it on the small crowd at the bar and… my heart stopped. On the bar stools sat three of my old Tormentors from Sixth Form, casually sipping bottles of Turkish beer and observing the show.

In an instant my world froze solid as I felt myself transported in time. The restaurant vanished, replaced by drab school halls, and my sparkling blue costume morphed into the ugly Brompton Abbey girls’ uniform – black-and-white pin-striped blazer with grey A-line skirt that had the unfortunate effect of making me look like a lampshade. Some girls managed to make the uniform look vaguely elegant, even sexy, but sadly I’d never been one of them. The Abbey was not a pleasant environment for 16-year-old me. I was reserved and quiet, but worse than that, unattractive. A notoriously fussy eater in my youth, I was too skinny to have any curves and my mousy-brown, un-styled hair did little to impress the schoolboys fed on a diet of media and porno mags with no “real-life”girls to interact with until sixth form. Early on they decided I had to be punished for not conforming to their ideal of beauty. Once again I heard the taunts and jeers of the younger boys in the school who bullied me on an almost daily basis. None of it was ever physical. I was never thrown in a dumpster or had drinks spilled on me like is often shown on American TV shows, but that didn’t make it easier to tolerate.

The torture started soon after I joined the sixth form in the autumn of 2001. My crime, additionally to not upholding the high standards of beauty required to be left in peace (or lusted after), was choosing to date Jason within a month of starting school. Unbeknown to me he was not simply unpopular but actively disliked, and it was my pairing with him that put me squarely on the radar of the school’s bullies. The boys in my Year mostly had the decency to leave me alone, or tease me to my face at a minor level during classes, but those in the lower school; particularly the year below mine; were not so accommodating. For most of my time at the school I felt like the majority of them found me hideous. Jason broke up with me a month after we got together and I eventually found out he did it because his friends teased him for dating someone so ugly. What made it worse was that he didn’t stand up for me when I was being insulted while we were together or afterwards when we were “friends”. It made me question if he’d even found me attractive himself or liked me at all.

I remembered walking towards the school gates on many mornings as if I were marching to the gallows. At least with those I would have only had to do it once and die instead of enduring the same torture daily like Prometheus having his liver eaten over and over again. Walking through the playground I’d often have boys pointing and yelling “eurgh!” It was bad enough I did that to myself far too often when I looked in the mirror, but having it externalised made it a million times worse. I knew I wasn’t amazingly attractive like the popular girls walking around as if they owned the place and swishing their shiny blonde hair around to dazzle everyone in their path, but I made an effort to convince myself of my own unique charm and self-worth. Repeatedly I told myself that I had inner beauty, intelligence, personality and that there was more to me than my outer shell. But this was cold comfort when the bullies dismissed me as unworthy without even cracking open my cover to take a peek at what was within. At least the boys in the Sixth Form had “earned” the privilege to write me off for my looks since most of them had done so after a semblance of conversation first. It hurt a lot less when someone decided they didn’t like me because we didn’t get on instead of simply because they didn’t fancy me.

Knowing that what felt like hundreds of boys thought I was the ugliest girl in school sapped much of my confidence and the three I’d spotted at the bar were by far the worst offenders. I’d long since forgotten their names, if I had ever known them, but their faces were painfully and accurately etched in my memory. The ringleader was the tallest, with dark spiked hair, brown eyes, a big, unattractive nose and cruel, sardonic smile. His second in command was an inch shorter; ginger with freckles, but it suited him. He seemed softer than his “Alpha” and less likely to make any nasty remarks if I encountered him alone. The last one was smaller by a head than the other two, with a brown pudding-haircut and round, generic face which I always saw distorted with disgust.  It grated on me that none of them were particularly attractive; not ugly but simply average, and I wondered what had made them feel entitled to pronounce judgement on those they felt were inferior or different. Between them they made me afraid to walk through the school hallways, especially if I was alone and had to walk past a class of Fifth Formers queuing for their next lesson. I perfected the Walk of Indifference by the time I got to Upper Sixth – head held high, my face a mask of aloofness, eyes straight ahead as if they were the irrelevant ones and anything they had to say was so beneath me that I wouldn’t even deign to consider it. I never cracked, refusing to let them see that they’d got to me, even as I stepped over the tall one’s feet when he tried unsuccessfully to trip me up.

But despite my bravado and mental armour, they had chipped away at my very soul and when out of their sight I’d let myself crumble into depression. Even a glimpse of an Abbey uniform in the distance would be enough to have me hyperventilating slightly, wondering what fresh torment I’d have to endure. I hated all of them so completely for making me that miserable. In the depths of my despair I fantasised about their violent deaths and torture, vowing to spit in their faces as they lay moaning in the gutter or burned to death on a rack. Other times I’d imagine meeting them when I was rich, famous and beautiful, discarding their grovelling apologies at my feet like yesterday’s paper. None of that made me feel any better. When I started dating Grant in the summer of Lower Sixth things did improve. Unlike Jason, he was my defender and champion, banishing a good proportion of the bullying (although nothing deterred the three at the bar).  He mended some of my shattered soul with his love and support, finally making me feel attractive on the outside as well as within. This made the remainder of my time at The Abbey less painful, although the bullying continued to follow me like a dark cloud, raining abuse on me at frequent intervals. The healing only truly began when I graduated and realised that my civilian clothes made me invisible to Abbey schoolboys on a tube to Wimbledon after 3:30pm. Being irrelevant was the most wonderful gift I could have received at the time and moving through my life unnoticed, un-hassled was incredibly freeing. Meeting decent, mature guys at university helped me to continue putting myself back together.I started seeing a dietician and gained some weight so I was no longer so painfully skinny. Discovering belly dancing in 2008 boosted my confidence to new heights, instilling a love of performing and making me proud of what my body could do instead of constantly focussing on its appearance.

Seeing the faces of the bullies from my former life again was terrifying. I considered for a moment fleeing from the stage before they recognised me, but they had ruined enough days in my life and I would not let them destroy another second. I was no longer the bookish, shy, unassuming girl these boys (men?) had once tortured. I was a Belly Dancer – exotic, mysterious and seductive; the last thing they’d expect the “me” they’d known to be. Shrugging off the remnants of my ex-Abbey-girl persona as a snake sheds outgrown skin I wrapped my Tanzanite alter-ego closer around me like armour and continued the performance as if I hadn’t noticed them. To make it easier on myself I decided to avoid the bar area and focus on the tables for more audience participation. I let the effects of the next mood-boosting song carry me back into my dancing and tossed the ex-bullies out of my thoughts. I spied my next targets – a hen party of women around my age. It took little effort to coax the bride to be and her two bridesmaids out of their seats and into a circle with me. They picked up the moves quickly, clearly not strangers to varieties of dance, and enthusiastically followed my chest circles, shimmies and hip drops. After depositing them back at their table and treating the audience to some higher-grade moves for the rest of the song the time had come to locate my third and final volunteer. As the first bars of a delicious Greek song courtesy of my wonderful teacher sounded through the speakers I travelled the outer centre of the “stage”, moving quickly but confidently as I scanned the crowd. This time the participant practically threw herself at me as I passed her table. Our eyes met and she’d stood up before I’d even had a chance to extend my hand. She was a short, curvaceous brunette in her mid-twenties who seemed to relish the attention of being on stage. Her male friends at the table wolf-whistled her energetic, well-executed shimmy as she mirrored me in perfect time to the music. I grinned widely at her and winked, recognising a fellow belly dancer in training. I led her into some more complex moves since she wasn’t a novice and delighted when she matched them confidently. As the song faded I took her hand and we bowed together before she sat back down, the audience cheering loudly.

The intro to the last song in my set began. My performance high gave me the confidence to conquer my fears and show my old Tormentors what I could do up close. My veil and I worked up a conspiracy to cover most of my face before I made my way over, a move I knew as “desert eyes”. Folding the veil in half around me and draping it over my head, I peeked through the small opening I’d made with my fingers. It gave me a mysterious appearance, similar to how Muslim women look in a burka. Now confident that they wouldn’t be able to recognise me I hagallah’d towards them with purpose. I made no indication to invite them to participate. Instead I pulled out my most impressive, provocative moves. Leaning back slightly alongside them I showed off my belly rolls and flowed effortlessly into sinuous snake camels. Their faces were a picture of fascinated awe and I was in my element. Emboldened, I turned, unravelling the veil from around me to reveal my face and gliding it over my head. It caressed my body like a gentle lover as it went, flowing over my hair and back. I winked and shimmied wildly in their stupefied faces, before returning to the centre of the stage with a couple of graceful turns. A final chest drop and energetic head-flick took me to the end of the song. I bowed, elated and gracefully left the stage. I couldn’t have asked for a better final performance and I was pleased that I hadn’t shied away from dancing for the guys who had once petrified me. It felt like I’d finally started putting some of those old ghosts to rest for good.

After a short breather I returned to the main restaurant to say goodbye to some of my regulars and mingle with the audience. I made my rounds, still wearing my Elsa-from-Frozen Belly Dance Goddess outfit. I received a few hugs and even some tears from my most ardent fans, and thank-yous from tonight’s participants. I’d mentally decided to stay away from the bar and the three orchestrators of my teenage misery when they sent a drink over. It seemed rude to accept it without thanking them, so reluctantly I made my way over, certain they had recognised me from my close-up performance.I was apprehensive as I approached, already imagining what they might say this time to bring me down. But I was on such a high that even if they tried to demolish me completely I knew they wouldn’t succeed. Additionally, I was armed with the knowledge that one tiny nod from me would have Bradley and Jake, our bouncers, unceremoniously throwing the offenders off the premises.

As I neared the three, vodka-and-orange in hand, they started up a flustered flurry of activity. The ginger one offered up his barstool while the other two jostled each other to greet me. I shook each of their hands, smothering my involuntary shudder as I felt their skin contact mine, and took their names – Ashley the ringleader, ginger Mark and finally Phil. I introduced myself as Tanzanite, and it became clear that they had no clue about my true identity when they made no attempt to unmask me. Taking my seat elegantly, and surreptitiously breathing deeply to soothe my unnerved psyche, I studied them. They hadn’t changed much in the twelve or so years since I’d last seen them. Ashley and Mark no longer wore their hair spiky, and Phil had grown taller. Perhaps they were broader, their voices deeper, but their faces were the just same if you ignored the stubble.If they swapped their sharp work suits (all black) for the Abbey blazers I would have felt like no time had passed at all, aside from one major difference. Their eyes and the way they looked at me tonight were worlds apart from those cruel, flinty glares I’d been on the receiving end of at school. I sipped my drink and casually crossed my legs, exposing one of my slender (but now in a good way) thighs through the long slit in my shimmering skirt. Their greedy eyes followed the motion, drinking in my dazzling Tanzanite persona with fascination and desire. I couldn’t help recall the fantasy that had stopped me from sinking into complete misery at school, aware that it was now possible to make it a reality.

The conversation flowed easily, most of it centred on my belly dancing. The guys asked me all the common questions: how long had I been dancing, how did I start, was it difficult, how did I do that thing with my belly, did it make a difference in the bedroom? I answered all but the latter, at which I simply arched an eyebrow and smiled enigmatically. Naturally they interpreted it the way I intended and their efforts to flirt and impress me redoubled. The offers of drinks continued, although I accepted only non-alcoholic ones after the first one (I wasn’t supposed to drink while working, I explained). Once their curiosity about my dancing had been sated, the inevitable request for me to teach them some moves followed. I was more than happy to dole out some gentle humiliation. I slid off the barstool to indulge them and they crowded closer. We tried a shimmy first. Their rendition looked akin to an epileptic fit. I chuckled and demonstrated some shoulder hits, which they managed slightly better, jerking their shoulders stiffly in an attempt to copy me. Finally, of course, they asked me to show them a belly roll. I warned them that it had taken me four years to master and their efforts to reproduce the move were gratifyingly entertaining. They seemed to think they could do it by breathing in and out instead of muscle control, but listened attentively as I explained belly rolls in greater detail. I broke down the move into the three groups of muscles, demonstrating each with a contraction of my stomach. Oh, the superlatives they showered me with! I was so knowledgeable, so intelligent, witty, talented… the list went on. Attractive wasn’t mentioned directly, but implied constantly with their body language and hungry glances. It was no surprise when Ashley invited me to join them on their night out, suggesting I come with them to “party”. I knew what “partying” would undoubtedly entail and, suppressing my revulsion, declined politely. “Sorry guys, so sweet of you to offer but I’m incredibly spoken for,” I said, waving the fingers of my left hand in their faces to draw their attention to the beautiful bespoke engagement ring that my fiancé had designed. Their faces fell.
“Wow, you’re engaged? Aren’t you a bit young for that?” Ashley asked, looking crestfallen.
“Well, at 31 I wouldn’t have thought so!” I laughed.
“31?! No WAY! I had you pegged for about 25 at most,” Mark chimed in.
I thanked them graciously, understanding now why they wouldn’t have associated me with someone who was a year above them in school. As a teenager I’d hated looking so young, usually at least four years younger than I was, but in my thirties it was paying off. Their questions became more personal now, so I steered the conversation towards them and their lives. I was curious to know what they were doing since school, the not-so-pleasant side of me hoping they all flipped burgers at McDonald’s, although that was unlikely given their attire. Ashley was an investment banker in training, Mark a law associate and Phil worked as a support analyst for a faceless IT conglomerate.

As the conversation continued, Ashley suddenly shot me peculiar look as he studied my expression. “You know, I’ve just noticed that you look somewhat familiar. Have I met you somewhere before?” he asked.
I smiled an enigmatic smile and shook my head. “I don’t think so. This is the only restaurant I dance in.”
“No, I mean outside of that,” he clarified. I shrugged noncommittally as all three of them now regarded me intently, flickers of recognition on their faces.
“What’s your name?” asked Phil.
“Tanzanite,” I smiled again.
“Not your stage name, your real name,” Markinsisted. I demurred, explaining that while in costume, I was Tanzanite and any other aspects of my identity were irrelevant. It was clear they were frustrated, but I distracted them easily with stories of my belly dancing adventures, like briefly appearing on TV. Eventually their presence began to wear thin, so I excused myself, thanking them for their custom and company. They seemed disappointed but didn’t try to delay me. Each one gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, which I endured grudgingly. Just before I made my escape, Ashley took my shoulder and said, “Are you sure you won’t tell us your name? I’m sure I know you from somewhere else, but I just can’t place it.”
“It’s still Tanzanite,” I replied, smiling. “But if you’re so certainyou know me I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” And with a well-practiced flick of my long, dark hair, I flounced away into the heart of the restaurant, through the throng of people now crowding the dance floor, a self-satisfied smirk on my face. From across the room I glimpsed them still staring after me, puzzled and confused. They hadn’t placed me yet.

I could have told them who I was and made them eat their past words like I’d fantasised. Perhaps they would have apologised or told me that I’d “got hot”. I would definitely have enjoyed hearing them scrape and grovel and tell me how wrong they’d been. But what would be the point? The lesson would have been completely empty. The only reason for their new attitude would be because they liked the look of the cover now, just as they hadn’t back then. But they still hadn’t read the book within so their reaction would be equally superficial.I would never know whether I would have received that same apology if I still looked like I did in school (I suspected not). Being positively objectified may have been more pleasant, but it didn’t change the fact that I was being objectified. The realisation that I no longer required their approval was much sweeter than the opportunity to finally receive it. I liked myself and who I was now, something more valuable than the shallow ministrations of some random mean guys I once knew. I went home happy that night. Life is good.

annabella-krol-profile-pic

Annabella was born in London in the year of Orwell’s dystopian future. She started her long-standing love affair with creative writing in her early childhood, almost as soon as she could hold a pen. She has always dreamed of becoming a published author.

She enjoys writing poetry and fiction in both English and Polish. While at university she dabbled in editing for a youth magazine. She is now ensconced in snowy Scandinavia with her fiancé and three adorable dogs, and taking a career break to focus on her writing. She is currently working on her first book and co-creating a text adventure game.

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