Short Story: Duets of Dust and Peonies

BY Rona von Stein

She believed the soft breeze, the rising sun’s rays, and the worn curtains were conspiring against her. This trio of unlikely co-conspirators were determined to bring light into a room in which its sole inhabitant desired only darkness.  

The breeze rose from the harbour, circulating towards the half-opened window of her bedroom. It swept up the old curtains, parting them by a few centimetres. A beam of light immediately illuminated the first object it encountered: a pair of shoes discarded on the floor. It paused and briefly shrank, but not before revealing the shabbiness of the shoes. The shoes had been an expensive impulse purchase, costing more than the average worker’s weekly wage. Their label spoke of first nights, red carpets and front rows at fashion shows, but the worn red soles contradicted that provenance. The light advanced inwards.  


It was a winter’s morning, so the movement of the city and its occupants had started before dawn. Ferries carried commuters to and from wharves that stretched into the harbour, and the sound of marine engines parting choppy waters reached into the sleeping woman’s bedroom. The noise was carried in on the forays made by the light and breeze, but even with this reinforcement the woman’s sleep went undisturbed. No one on the ferries that morning would ever contemplate, nor care, what was unfolding in the room above the harbour in the art-deco block of flats. No one except a young man sitting inside shivering against the raw winter sunrise, hoping the ancient marine heaters would soon manage to raise the cabin temperature.  

He’d rushed out this morning to make the early ferry and had forgotten his overcoat. The sun was more inclined than the heaters to ease his discomfort as it sent light and a meagre warmth into the passenger cabin. His shivering subsided and he lifted his head up from his smart phone. He would eventually pass the harbour-side building in which his aunt lived. He had been named after her, with one of those gender-ambiguous names, before it had become a popular affectation adopted by some modern parents. He’d grown fond of the name they shared. When he was old enough to realise how it connected him to this woman whose talent had made her somewhat revered by his father he even took pride in it.  

The nephew had been born twenty-seven years ago, the year his aunt had won a scholarship to continue her training as an opera singer in London. As he grew to understand such things, he was constantly reminded of her coming fame; how the world would know and celebrate her. The name they shared promised him a part of her stardom. He had felt excitement and anticipation for his aunt, but this eventually dissipated as starring roles were never offered. She worked regularly but had never stepped on stage as the prima donna.  

His aunt had lovingly indulged her nephew, saying their matching monikers made them an inseparable duo, always seeking out adventures that bonded them beyond their names. She regularly invited him to spend school holidays with her in glamorous cities she briefly called home, such as London and New York. The destinations promised a cachet of excitement. Even though rehearsals and performances kept her busy, she never failed to find time to take him exploring the more exotic and bohemian sections of whatever city she was based in. She showed him a life he began to dream he might emulate. Reality returned when he took the long flight home, back to his ordinary life carefully managed by his parents, sharply contrasting with his aunt’s. He had remained intensely close to his namesake, and he thought about her sleeping in the bedroom above the harbour. As he thought about his aunt, the rising sun’s glare caught him unexpectedly. It reminded him of how much she resented and resisted the sun’s demands that all pay homage to its daily arrival. She often spoke about how the only light she wanted to be bathed in was the one that shone on stage, presenting just her to the audience. As starring roles eluded her, that spotlight was never hers, until last night, her final performance, when the spotlight held her and no one else, at her farewell. He thought he should text her and discuss the night’s performance, hoping she would still feel the luminosity that surrounded her in that final moment. A text was an easy way to start. He positioned the phone between his hands, and his thumbs tapped out a non-committal “All good? J x.” SEND. This important conversation should begin matter-of-factly. He opened up his phone again and went online to order flowers. On this auspicious day he wanted her apartment filled with the flower they both adored. Was a delivery of ten bunches of peonies too much? The memories evoked by peonies momentarily caught his breath. No. Twenty bunches. 


In the woman’s apartment the light became fortified. More of the contents surrendered to the invading light revealing objects discarded without concern about the room. An expensive designer coat was thoughtlessly tossed on a chair. The coat’s hand-stitched silk lining had become ripped and frayed over wears too numerous to count. 

With its proximity to the harbour her apartment building’s foundations reached the water, and there it stood like a tired, ageing sentinel. In her bedroom another intruder announced its arrival with the ping of an incoming message. The light from the screen showed her sleeping face, as she let out an almost imperceptible moan. Still she slept; her face showed a network of fine creases and other markers of age claiming dominance over the human form, despite what medical procedures had attempted to erase. Residual stage makeup from the previous evening remained in place, having triumphed over her exhaustion and efforts to wash it off.  

Last night’s performance at the Opera House had, as usual, drained the woman emotionally and physically. This was the last performance of the season, and three days ago she’d given notice to the company that this was also her final appearance. Her throat had reached its limit. Unexpectedly the manager had called her back on stage, announced her retirement to the audience, and presented her with a huge bunch of peonies, her favourite flower. It was the first time in her life she’d received a standing ovation, or any ovation for that matter. She was touched and tearful, but her career was now over. She was comforted by the fact her beloved nephew had come to support her. For once in her career she sang to someone in the audience, focusing on his face when the lights shone in his direction. Constantly through the performance their eyes met, from his position in the front row and hers above him on the stage which would soon be left in her past. She discreetly teared up as she thought of him as her future, taking her name with him, as his life unfolded in whatever way he chose. She wondered if he’d had a part in the choice of the peonies. They had always gone to flower markets to buy bunches of peonies to fill her apartment. It was a ritual they shared, loving the life and fragrance of the delicate flowers. Brought back to the performance, she looked up at the spotlight which withdrew as the curtains closed.  

Arriving home she’d fallen exhausted onto her bed. Despite it being winter, she lay on top of her thick duvet. After contemplating the week’s events, she had one last chore before giving in to what her body demanded. She rolled halfway over towards her nightstand and reached for the items she’d placed there as she left late in the afternoon. This was a ritual she carried out before each performance, putting what she needed closest to her for the coming night. Now, never again. She sighed and wondered what the light would discover first, as she knew her curtains could no longer hold back the morning glare. They were old and threadbare. Her final task complete, she rolled onto her back. Another sigh was released from her lips. Sleep overcame her before the chill of the room was fully felt. “Yes” was her final thought, “no matter who is here to bear witness, the sun will rise tomorrow.”  

Emboldened by a lack of resistance, the sunlight drifted in past the curtains. It meandered past a small, empty dog bed, residual fur indicating it had been the resting place for many years of its now forever absent owner. The light moved on to surround a delicate antique desk, which displayed a number of framed photographs. In one large, tarnished silver frame, the sleeping woman’s image beamed out, and in her arms was a little Pug dog, its tongue hanging at what would seem a length impossible to return to so small a mouth. A fine leather collar had been placed on the corner of the frame as a memento. Hanging from the collar, a bell tinkled feebly in the strengthening breeze. Undisturbed, she slept on, her breathing soft and rhythmical as the light occupied more of her bedroom.  


As the ferry crossed the harbour, the nephew liked to gather his thoughts. He wondered when he had first contemplated working as an accountant would fulfil him. He considered the work mind-numbing but had been heavily encouraged by his father to pursue a career that set him up financially. His father had held up his aunt as an example of following a profession that was not always reliable and left little to retire on, a possibly disappointed reaction to early expectations of her career. What his father would never know nor understand was that he coveted his aunt’s career. Her freedom, passion and devotion to her craft was what inspired him. He wanted that same passion in his life. He had always known he had a talent for singing. As a teenager, he could sing in pitch-perfect tandem with the tenors on his aunt’s opera CDs. He had kept the fact well hidden that her ability had passed to him, like a precious family heirloom. Being in awe of her and seeing how her life seemed to centre around her voice, this all-consuming commitment intimidated him into suppressing his gift for most of his life. But after keeping this secret for so long, he was ready to tell her he had started taking singing lessons from an opera specialist. In pursuing this passion his voice was now a focus that terrified and excited him in equal measure. His teacher was urging him to audition she was so in awe of his gift. 

He looked out the ferry window, back towards the east. The sun still hung low but its intensity dominated the horizon. He felt a slight release as the sunlight swept the last of the shadows and chill from the ferry cabin. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and looked down at his phone. His aunt would be the first in the family to learn of his dream of an operatic career. He had nearly revealed his plans last night in the dressing room she shared with others in the company, but the time was not right. It was obvious the love and respect everyone had for his aunt, and he stood back, drinking in what he felt might be his future, but for one last night was her present. He would suggest they meet up tonight for dinner to celebrate her retirement, and reflect on her last performance. He had never seen her perform with such strength and clarity. Even in a supporting role he felt she had been the prima donna. He hoped to witness her delighted reaction when he declared his plans and revealed the talent they shared. He would tell her that her name may live on in the world of opera, if his teacher’s beliefs were correct. He typed the second message this morning to his aunt. SEND. He could imagine the “ping” on her phone, in her darkened bedroom, high above the harbour. He felt a shiver go through his body that was not from the cold. He couldn’t quite distinguish if it was a sense of foreboding or perhaps a thrill at anticipating spending time with his much-loved aunt. He shook off the feeling and looked back towards the sun. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. There would be much emotion to deal with in the coming day.  


The second message announced its arrival on the woman’s phone with another loud “ping.” It went unacknowledged. The light expanded. The woman slept on, undisturbed. The regular intake and release of breath was her body’s only movement.  

The light held much of the room’s contents captive to its invading forces. Standing tall, a beautiful bunch of peonies in full but wilting bloom was propped up inside a small rubbish bin. Their fragrance mixed with the light in filling the space, speaking to the woman’s senses, taking her back to foreign cities and flower markets being explored with her exuberant nephew as a young boy. The light spread towards the dressing table next to the bin. There was a large amount of dust under the dressing table, on the narrow strip of wooden floor bordering an exotically patterned Persian rug. It lay there partly hidden, having grown over time to form small, loose spheres. The dust slightly vibrated in the light and breeze, anxious to develop motion. The light extended, revealing the items scattered across the dressing table. The make-up left strewn about was at the point its usefulness was spent. The expensive brushes were well-worn and the contents of the blush and eyeshadow containers were almost gone, exposing their metal interiors. A new sound rose from the bed. The woman’s breathing had become a slightly gurgling snore.  


The ferry was about to pass his aunt’s building. He pulled out his phone again. Sharing this news with her was important, and he wanted to do it that night, the first day of her retirement. He wanted her to know that her career and life inspired him and they both could continue through him. Even so, he knew her well. She often found it easy to decline invitations that came by text, and would respond in kind, begging off. He just had time to call before the ferry docked. She would not refuse when she heard the excitement in his voice.

Her phone rang. Its intermittent tone rang in tandem with each audible breath she took, forming a strange duet. The phone rang incessantly, pleading urgency.  

On the nightstand there was a newly-purchased bottle of vodka lying on its side. The last contents had been poured into a heavy crystal glass, and the remaining drops that were exposed to the air slowly evaporated. Underneath the glass was a partly-obscured letter. Strewn about were empty packets of medication. She had, throughout her life and career, largely eschewed the use of alcohol and consciousness-altering medications. Focus and clarity had always been paramount in giving of herself to an audience. She had thought succumbing to the very things she previously believed would hold her back, were, paradoxically, now her only way of moving forward. 

Although not entirely visible, enough of the letter’s contents could be seen to understand what fate had bestowed on the woman and brought her to this point. Dated just five days ago, a doctor’s name was prominent at the top, followed by the speciality: oncology. Despite the ink running in places from condensation on the glass, certain words refused to disappear. “Primary tumour: throat,” “stage four, metastasised to lungs and spine,” “inoperable.” The alcohol and barbiturates were succeeding in stopping the pain, the sadness, the unendurable future. The unlikely duet ended; the phone stopped ringing and, in unison, the woman’s slowing, rattling snores ceased, with one long, loud, final exhalation. Her body was still. Her life, and the pain it harboured, had been extinguished. This phone call went to voicemail and would be the final moment her nephew heard her voice.  

The last fragment of her life to find a passage through her unconsciousness was not the light; nor the sound of the phone. Her dog’s tiny bell had gone unheard. The breeze stroking her body had not been felt. The final sense her mind acknowledged then released as life withdrew, was the rich fragrance of the dying peonies, discarded in the bin.  

Duets of Dust and Peonies was shortlisted for the UNSWeetened Literary Journal 2021.