The Tea Dance – a short story

Entered into a short story competition, didn’t win so I can publish it here : )

All I did was try to buy a pint of milk and the Evening Chronicle. It’s the sort of thing I’ve done every day for years and years. But the shopkeeper was hostile with me. Perhaps it was because I didn’t have any money.

I thought I had my handbag with me but when I looked around I couldn’t see it. And then someone told me I was wearing my slippers. Well that didn’t matter too much because at least I’d remembered to put on my coat.

Because I didn’t have my money with me the shopkeeper made a phone call. She kept looking at me in a way I didn’t like. And so did the other people in the shop so that was why I left the shop. I don’t understand why people are so rude and grumpy these days. It used to be different. The shopkeeper used to know my name.

Someone tried to grab my arm when I left the shop. I don’t like people touching me so it was my turn to be rude to them. I’m not proud of myself but you shouldn’t touch people without asking their permission and there’s never a reason to grab my arm like that.

My daughter tells me it was dangerous to be walking in the middle of the road. I was trying to cross it but cars kept coming and I was trapped. My daughter tells me it was lucky my grandson was driving along the road and saw me. She tells me if the cars hadn’t have killed me then the cold would have. But I put my coat over my nightie so I don’t see what the problem is. I did forget my hat but that’s because I couldn’t find it. People are too quick to tell you off these days. I’m always getting told off.

I wasn’t lucky that my grandson was driving along the road and saw me because it meant I was taken back to that place. It’s the place they tell me I live in and they will not listen to me when I say it’s not my home. I know where my home is. It’s 92 West Calfridus Gardens. That’s where I’ve lived since I got married.

All I wanted to do was buy a pint of milk and The Evening Chronicle and then go home again. But people keep interfering and stopping me from doing things. They tell me to stay in that place. I don’t know what it’s called but I do know I don’t like the food there. And the bed isn’t comfortable either. I keep telling my daughter these things but she doesn’t listen to me.

I don’t know why life is complicated these days. I don’t know why I can’t get on with the things I need to do. I can’t remember the last time I fed my cat. I hope someone is feeding him. He likes to eat a boiled fish head on a Friday evening. I hope they remember that.

People say I’m losing my marbles. They say it in hushed voices when they think I can’t hear them. But I’m not losing my marbles because I know my beloved James is no longer with me. I don’t pretend I can still talk to him like some of the other people in that place.

I met James at a tea dance. My friend Lucy and I would go every week. Mainly because we wanted to dance with the GIs. I didn’t have a special outfit but I had managed to acquire a pair of beautiful cream satin court shoes from a friend. My cotton dress was rose coloured with a high neck bow tied neck. It had belonged to my cousin and was no longer at its best but I managed to wash and press it every week for the dance.

Lucy and I spent hours curling and pinning our hair. I think we did a good job on ourselves as we always managed a dance with a few of the servicemen. They were so well turned out with their neatly barbered hair. I loved the rough, slightly unfamiliar feel of their uniform: there was something exhilarating about it.

I don’t remember learning to dance, I just seemed to be able to do it. My favourite was the quickstep: that rush of moving about the floor, catching glimpses of smiling faces and the scent of shaving cream and rose water in the air. Twirling and whirling, I can see colours flashing by me now. Bright colours we didn’t often see during our working week in the library. Colours hidden from us during the blackout and in the muted glow of candlelight. The swirl of dresses, light glinting off a serviceman’s well shined shoe. Laughter. A lot of laughter. It was a release for us all. An escape.

My stomach flipped with excitement when someone I liked asked me to dance. I would want that dance to last forever. I danced with him as well as I could, hoping he wouldn’t want to leave. But you couldn’t hold onto him too tight, because that would scare him away. I actually pretended not to be interested in the ones I really liked and that tactic worked. It made them want to impress me and ask for another dance.

It would get so hot in that hall, we needed a lot of face powder to cover up the shine on our faces. We often had to share our make-up. The band didn’t mind sweating though. I remember one double bass player so lost in the music he didn’t seem to notice the small waterfall of perspiration on his face. Running down his neck and soaking his white scarf. That’s what the music did to you: it made you lose yourself. We always had to dance. If there wasn’t a GI asking us then Lucy and I danced together. We had to keep moving and keep the colour whirling around the dancefloor. It felt impossible to stop.

The morning after a dance I often helped on my Grandfather’s smallholding, my untidy morning-after hair wrapped in a light headscarf. Grandpa’s back was bad so I would hoe for him between the rows of cabbages, onions, lettuce and carrots. You name it, he grew it. And we all ate it. The beautiful smell of sweet peas hung warm in the air when the sun shone on them. I picked the edible peas and shelled them into a large tin bowl. Running my thumb along the silky inside of the pod and marvelling at being the first person to see those small peas as they bounced down into the bowl. It sounds like nothing really, but it always struck me as a miracle and a blessing that nature could provide for us so well.

Lucy’s baby was a blessing too. Despite the circumstances being considered sinful at the time. Fortunately for Lucy her mother and father hushed everything up and took in the baby as their own. There was no chance of Lucy marrying the father as he was sent back to America. Lucy’s baby was her baby brother to everyone else.

We walked with the baby in his pram down to the stream with the rope swing over it. As the baby slept we took turns to see who could swing the furthest on the rope and tried to avoid falling in the water. It happened but our shoes and stockings dried quickly in the sunshine while we sat on the itchy woollen blanket and ate our picnic. Usually bread and boiled eggs from the smallholding. Sometimes we got chicken.

Lucy wasn’t allowed to the dances after her baby was born. So I went with other friends and met James. I fell in love instantly. It was everything about him that I loved: those dark eyes, the heavy brow, the brown wavy hair he tried to control with Brylcreem. It was the way he stumbled with his words and the way he was less sure of himself than some other men which made him attractive. He seemed bashful and shy but very determined I should like him.

The first daytime air raid came when I was in Grandpa’s garden. I’d taken a break for a moment when a sickening droning noise started to fill the air. I looked up to see the planes approaching like a group of nasty, hideous, diseased flies. As they came nearer I knew it was time to run. The family hid under my Grandparents’ kitchen table until the bombing passed. We suffered a number of day and night time raids for a while after then.

I’ll never forget the deafening thud of the bomb which landed at the end of our street. It sounded like someone slamming an enormous door and left my ears half deaf. When daylight came we ran down the street to see what had happened and Lucy’s house was gone. It had been reduced to smouldering rubble with a burnt odour which made my stomach churn. I picked up a piece of fabric which was fluttering down the brick strewn road. It had been torn from the curtains in Lucy’s front room. The material was half charred but I could still see the peach coloured floral design I remembered so well. I put it in my pocket and walked away. It was three days before I could cry.

After then I tried to live life for Lucy and her child as well as for myself. At times I felt guilty for being happy but I knew she wouldn’t have wanted me to feel like that. James and I spent over forty years together. We worked, we travelled, we had children, we did everything we wanted to do. Shortly before James died he told me his life was complete and that I’d helped make it complete. It’s the most wonderful thing anyone can hear: to know you’ve been that special to someone else. There’s little more I can ask for in life.

My family don’t understand me these days. My three children who I spent so much of my time nurturing now look at me as if I’m half mad. They make excuses for me, they pretend things are different to how they really are. They don’t listen to me any more. Nobody listens to me any more. I don’t really remember who my grandchildren are. I pretend I do because I don’t want to offend anyone. But if I’m honest I don’t remember their names. Sometimes I forget my children’s names. I know a mother should never do that but I know I’m a little bit forgetful now I’m older.

Life seems a little bit muddled now. I try to do the things I used to but there’s always someone stopping me. I don’t understand it. My daughter told me I can’t look after myself any more. I was very offended. I may be old but I still feel like a young woman inside, I still want to do the things I did. And I could do most of them if only people would let me.

Being in this place they’ve put me is like being in a prison. I can’t go out and do what I want. And if I do manage to get out I get told off. It makes me feel like a child again. People speak to me like I’m a child when they haven’t even lived half the life I have. I can’t have a proper conversation with anyone any more.

I don’t know what’s happened to this world. James and my friends have gone and I don’t recognise my family these days. I’ve lost control of my life. Maybe that’s what happens when people grow old: they are punished.

I suppose I’ll have to stay in this place until I die. But I know part of me has died already.


About Emily

Freelance writer and author. And eater of chocolate.
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