He got me a room at the Swan Lake Guesthouse. The carpets were blue and the bedspreads and curtains were green. There was an ensuite bathroom and a small sink in the bedroom too, with a long white neck and black and gold taps. The water only ran burning hot. He would visit me two or three times a week, never more. He would take me out to dinner, and stay the night. In the morning, he would eat breakfast, and leave.

I used to dance at a cabaret, the Green Balloon, which he and his friends frequented, and when I developed my illness and could no longer work, he took pity on me and gave me a room and an allowance. He was a very charitable man, he said. For Christmas and birthdays his family donated to charities instead of buying presents for each other. 

He would bring a copy of the Financial Times, malt cakes, gummy bears, sausages and bottles of milk as he knew I could not go out during the day because of my condition. None of it was food I liked to eat. Usually by the time he arrived, I was recovered except for a few spare feathers he took great pleasure in removing from my body, as a sort of sebum leaked out of the holes. 

Often the room was still a mess from my day and he complained. There were feathers and faeces on the carpet, and sometimes he could not find my daily egg, or I had accidentally crushed it, the raw smell filling the room. 

The illness started, I swear, when after a dance at the cabaret I made love to him in a backroom, him snorting above me, a freckly mass, with my arms pinned down, saying he always wanted to screw a dancer. He held me tenderly for several minutes afterwards, before disappearing. He hadn’t used a condom, and when I went to clean myself with some tissue, I found sticky white feathers in his seminal fluid. He didn’t know this and I did not tell him because I did not want to make him feel guilty or be called a liar. He told me I had short legs and a long neck like a swan, and a funny, wobbly gait. 

In the Swan Lake Guesthouse room, he had a hot plate, a tin of salt and a pan to boil my egg. The first time I laid an egg, I wrapped it in the duvet, and excitedly told him. He looked at it and said he would be back. I thought he went to get a cradle, but it was a pot to cook it in. 

Because the egg was so large, he used a purple and red jardinière as an egg cup. He ate it soft boiled with English mustard and Warburtons white bread cut into soldiers, reading an old copy of the Financial Times. I never read the Financial Times, though I didn’t have much else to do, because the colour of the paper reminded me of tender female flesh. 

With the allowance he gave me, I bought a record player and some of my favourite records. Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Ultravox, Kino, Prokofiev. He grumbled when he saw it, half that I had spent the money he gave me and half because it meant I went out in the early evening, before the shops closed, and might have made a scene—shat on the floor of the shop, or squawked loudly somewhere, even hissed. I told him the music would drown out the sound of our lovemaking—he put his hand over my mouth and told me shhhh. He came without a sound, never using condoms. I cleaned the semen away with a towel and hot water from the bedroom sink. 

The record shop wasn’t on the list he gave of places I could not go in case his fiancée saw me (a pub, a wineshop, a greengrocers). I asked how would she know what I looked like, and he said she and the wives and girlfriends of his friends went to the Green Balloon themselves to see the girls their men ogled at. I remembered the few times we saw women in the audience from the stage, their jewellery shining in the dark like a city on a distant shore we could never reach—engagement rings, birthday pearls, bracelets from their fathers and uncles. A flash of light between sets would reveal their faces like morbid sea creatures up from the deep—the narrow heads and tiny eyes of eels and sardines, elongated sharp teeth, the long noses of seahorses. They drank champagne, some too much, their vomit on the bathroom floor clear foam, free of food. They laughed at our red dancing boots, saying they looked like chicken’s feet, and they laughed at our thick Russian and Romanian thighs. 

He took me for dinners in half-empty fancy restaurants he knew his fiancée wouldn’t go to. These were always melancholy affairs, as I had never eaten such exquisite food, and he treated it as ordinary—though he still ate with greed. I liked to order mussels, baskets of bread, creamed spinach. He ordered duck, chicken, turkey and compared their juicy breasts to mine. 

For these dates out, he bought me a large green military coat with a high collar, which half obscured my face and dragged along the ground. 

Sometimes my fingertips were still black and slightly webbed, and he told me to go wash them in the restaurant bathroom. I needed to manage it all better, he said. Sometimes he plucked a bit of white feather from my hair, frowning, but I told him the other few customers would just think I had a broken pillow. 

One evening, he brought a plastic bag with a dead pheasant in it and said he needed to hide it there because he shot it illegally out of season. He put it on the outer windowsill. It smelled like death and lead. Its tail feather stuck out of the bag. I sometimes took it out, and examined it, felt its feet and wings. I wasn’t sure how I looked when I had a bout of my illness, only that there were plenty of white feathers, webbed black feet and hands, and the daily egg the size of a small melon. I didn’t look in the mirror: I hated seeing myself in the bathroom mirrors after dancing at the Green Balloon, my makeup dripping from sweat, a red heat rash across my breasts. This would be worse. 

If he had a weekend day free, he would come when I was ill, to take the egg out of me himself, to make sure I didn’t accidentally break it. He would pull it from my vagina and rush to the sink to clean it before the blood and discharge hardened. Sometimes we made love then, but he did not kiss me, saying my mouth smelled sulphurous. 

The last egg he took from me, before he said he could no longer see me because he was getting married, had a half-developed grey bird foetus in it. He was furious because he was hungry and did not have his soft boiled yolk. He threw the cracked egg against the wall where it splattered all red and yellow. He said of course he could not continue to rent the room or give me an allowance, but I was a clever girl wasn’t I, and would be fine. When he left, I turned on my record player, and danced, bumping into the walls and furniture. I took the pheasant out of its bag, and danced with it, though clumps of it, so rotten, fell out of my hands. 

Camilla Grudova

Camilla Grudova is the author of The Doll’s Alphabet and Children of Paradise. Her essay ‘A Boat to Bilbao’ appeared in our Summer 2020 issue. In 2023, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

About The Swan Lake Guesthouse: The first time I saw Swan Lake performed in my life was this past spring, when the Birmingham Royal Ballet came to Edinburgh. The person I had asked to go with me shrugged it off, saying Swan Lake and The Nutcracker played all the time. I went by myself, sitting in the Gods, from where you can see the perfect synchronisation of the dancers and hear less of their stomping feet, so that they appear like fairies from another realm.

I have always listened to Tchaikovsky, indeed The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, while writing stories, and this story formed as I sat in the theatre, along with the realisation that the person who didn’t go with me would never understand the beauty of a Jean Rhys novel about chorus girls, or Moira Shearer dancing to a broken gramophone in The Red Shoes. In fact, they did not understand beauty at all.

As the curtains opened and the dancers moved through a mist of dry ice, there was a collective gasp of awe from the audience, and I knew I was among friends.