ESSINGFORD LANE, an unremarkable, snaking, interminable byway connecting one sprawling outskirt of Elmford to another, marked the point at which the ugliness of the town began to blend with the shabbiness of the surrounding countryside. Tonight cars were edging down the lane; their occupants, those who were looking, caught glimpses of high banks alternating with sullen fields, and here and there a forgettable cluster of houses outlined against a starry sky. Most were not looking, and did not even notice that the lane had crossed a motorway. Their minds were on the pleasures to come.
A sharp turn into a concealed entrance, the unlit drive showing white in their headlights. Although in reality it was only a few hundred yards long this stretch of gravel always seemed to go on for ever, cutting a diagonal line through undulating lawn on either side. The lawn and the dark unevenness of it could somehow be sensed even in darkness, although in reality it was only a few hundred yards. At the end of the driveway they felt nervous, or maybe just eager, as humans have always been, to exchange cold and the dark for warmth and comfort.
They half parked, half abandoned their cars around the prefabricated wooden building known as Elmford Sports & Social Club, heading for that row of bright rectangles and the first few strains of music.
The curtains had not yet been drawn. The DJ’s light machine was revolving in readiness although no one was actually dancing yet. One boy and one girl sat behind a table just inside the door, the boy with a cash box to give change for £10 notes, the girl with a machine to swipe people’s membership cards as they were offered.
They might be planning on spending all night doing pseudo-Latin dances, but there was something reassuringly English about the draughtiness, the twirly pattern of coloured lights measling everyone’s faces, the black plastic cards, the cash box, the routine and the predictability of everything.
As always, men hovered around the bar hugging their drinks, chatting; and as always women clattered over to the tables in their silver heels, keeping their jackets on, for it was February, which ties with November for Nastiest Month of the Year, and the room had not yet warmed up. Later, when the dancing became intense, they would be glad they had worn those thin summer skirts and sleeveless t-shirts, but for the moment, with the night damp still hanging in the air and condensation trickling down the window panes, forming little pools on the windowsills, they shivered.
OUTSIDE, THAT which was always there drew nearer. It began to coalesce, creating a shape from the darkness of which it was a particular element. It registered everything, the flashes of red, indigo and yellow, the loud insistent music, the occasional burst of laughter, but these things meant no more to it than thunder or lightning, screaming, or stars. Its primitive senses were exclusively attuned to human flesh, and it could smell that now. Neither pleasure nor anticipation arose in That which was always there, merely a consciousness of hunger and the knowledge that it would soon be satisfied.
ANNA SMITH sat at a little table near the stage where, in a minute, two of the Crew, one male and one female, would demonstrate tonight’s three beginner moves, in a manner that somehow succeeded in combining extreme vivacity with the utmost boredom. Anna was thirty-seven and only too painfully aware that she was not good looking. She had let her figure slip. It was so hard to keep oneself together; when looking after an invalid there was a tendency to eat for comfort. Her clothes, though clean and pressed, were years out of date. They were wrong, somehow. She sensed this but didn’t quite know how to make them right.
But that was the thing with Ceroc. Whatever your age or appearance there were members of the opposite, and unfortunately sometimes members of the same, sex to dance with and the illusion, if only for an hour or two, that one was having some sort of fun. And she was having fun, of a sort. She was enjoying the music and the lights. At Ceroc she could pretend that she was seventeen again; and on top of that she had taken a bit of a shine to one of the Taxi Dancers, whose name was Kevin.
She knew his name because it was obligatory to introduce yourself to each of your partners in turn as you moved down the line. Taxis were part of the crew, all of whom black t-shirts with Ceroc slogans on the back. They were very, very, as her pupils would have put it, cool. Their function was to dance with lonely ladies like her and be charming about it, basically to make sure that they had a good time and would return to cough up another £7.50 next week.
‘This Time Seven Ladies Down.’
‘This Time Four Ladies Down.’
‘Men, stay where you are. No, not that way, ladies!’
Every time you stopped you had to say, ‘Hello, my name is Anna’. Anna usually added, ‘And I’m new’ in case the stranger expected her to be any good at anything. Deep down, Anna realised that Kevin had almost certainly not taken a shine to her. Why would he? And it wasn’t as if he was handsome, more rugged, battered even, but he danced so well. He managed to jive, whirl and twist her around the floor as if she was light and graceful, which she knew she was not. It sounded silly but he made her feel sort of French, as if she was slim, and wearing a short flounced skirt and higher heels, maybe dangling a Gitane from languid fingers.
Kevin was lovely even if, as she suspected, with a name like Kevin he was likely to be a gas fitter or AA man in everyday life. His hands were warm and, subtly, he managed to convey the feeling that he at least didn’t dislike her, without any off-putting tinge of desperation. And she liked the feeling of being looked after; being led by a man, even though she knew she probably shouldn’t, what with Women’s Lib and everything.
She survived the Beginners class, though hot and out of breath. More Crew came and dragged the concertina doors across, dividing the hall into two unequal portions. The Intermediates were about to ‘get down with it’ in the main section, whilst those beginners who felt they needed Extra Tuition straggled to the smaller section of the bar. Better still, Kevin was on Extra Tuition tonight. What was going on inside his head, she wondered. Probably nothing except the music, as one perspiring woman after another threw herself into his arms, repeated the three move sequence – this week YoYo, Manspin and Armjive – and ricocheted off.
What did he think of her? She had so little experience with men. It was only recently, since her mother died, that she had begun to think of finding love and romance. Surely it must happen sometimes in real life too? Of course, one wouldn’t expect it to be exactly like it was in the Woman’s Realms mother had devoured one after another and which Anna had read in her turn, when they were slightly crumpled, adorned with butter-spots and the crossword had mostly, and wrongly, been done. No knight on a white charger heading her way, she suspected. But an ordinary man, a kind and gentle sort of chap, was that too much to hope for?
KEVIN HAD noticed the woman looking at him. Ann or Anya or something, it wasn’t easy to catch their names above the music. She obviously fancied the pants off him, but that was nothing new. Put on a black Crew tee-shirt and they all seemed to fall at your feet, especially the pathetic, middle aged ones. Rock on, that’s what he thought, as long as they were the right side of forty; and this one might be worth a try. She had that atmosphere about her, lonely, naïve, but up for it, yes, definitely up for it. He might give her a bit of a whirl. Let’s face it, there wasn’t much else about tonight.
He pondered the best approach. Ann or Anya seemed an old-fashioned sort. Clicking through his pick-up lines, he selected ‘Can I help you on with your coat, my dear?’ as opposed to ‘Buy you a drink, sweetheart?’ Not a complete dog, this Ann or Anya. Faint suggestion of a moustache, perhaps, and a bit on the porky side, but he was not averse to a spare tyre or two; felt you’d got your money’s worth, your pound of flesh without, of course, actually having to pay any money. That was the beauty of Ceroc, the infallible magic of the black t-shirt. Yes, Ann or Anya would do a turn for tonight; in fact, he might almost be looking forward to it.
OUTSIDE, IN the darkness, That which was always there had sensed the communal increase in body heat. Soon, very soon, its hunger would be assuaged.
ANNA HAD stationed herself by the open french doors to cool off, surrounded by piles of coats, handbags and water-bottles, abandoned on the floor and tables, and heaped on chairs. Outside she could make out the ghostly outlines of benches, the cumbersome, awkward to get into kind you found in woodland picnic spots, and some rusty, industrial-sized tin cans for people to stub out their cigarettes in. She had noticed Kevin’s scrutiny of her and felt her heart beating faster. Maybe he did see something in her after all. He was brooding, maybe, biding his time. Heroes tended to do a lot of that, didn’t they? He might even come over and speak to her before she left. Her face, already hot, became a little hotter in anticipation.
Unconsciously she took one small step back, crossing the boundary between the lighted room and the darkness beyond. Cool silence, and then Something Else, engulfed her. She gave one, small gasp.
Kevin had temporarily turned his back on Ann or Anya. There was no great rush; the woman was nicely on the hook and wouldn’t be off home just yet, time to get another beer down him. And yet when, some minutes later, he glanced across, just checking, he found that she had vanished. The french doors stood open as before, but Ann or Anya wasn’t stationed in them. However, her handbag, a brown patent one with an overlarge gilt buckle, remained on the chair next to where she had been.
Ah well, he thought, women of that age are wedded to their handbags. She’ll be back for it sooner or later.