WE WERE fifty-something, Janet and I, and under no illusion. Our figures had migrated southwards and outwards and our morning faces surprised us, as if someone had slipped a Halloween mask over the top of them in the night. Rules are rules, however, and single and fifty-something equals no one to dance with. And so on Tuesday evenings at the Railway Club adjacent to Elmford Junction, we sat, or stood, at the side of the room, watching other people dance. Outside it was always black, and usually tipping it down. Even in here, just below the perfume and perspiration, there was a trace of the cold, dank oiliness of trains.
Proper ballroom dancers have silver shoes, with silver heels of a particular ballroom shape and straps that loop under the foot or up around the ankle. You can buy them on various websites, but they cost money. Neither Janet nor I had money so we waited, in our flat, black office shoes, twitching discreetly to Shania Twain singing ‘That don’ impressa me much.’
We secretly longed to be shimmering, whirling, gliding in and out of the light beneath the Christmas decorations that should have been taken down weeks ago, oh how we did; but we were careful to keep our faces blank, or faintly amused-looking. Nobody must know about this secret lust of ours. At most, if Shania became too much for us, we could practice the steps on our own, mirroring the couples.
‘Back left side close side. Forward right forward left side close side.’
I am short-sighted even with my glasses on, and so it wasn’t until week three that I could be sure that the print on the far wall as one of Joseph’s. Seven years older than me, my brother Joseph is an artist. He was popular in the late seventies and early eighties, especially with steam fans, because many of his pictures are of steam trains.
An old woman in black is walking towards the end of the platform of an otherwise deserted railway platform. She seems to carry with her an aura of coal steam, night mist, and the beginnings of frostfall. She appears to be shawled, or hooded, and as she disappears into the edge of the frame you cannot make out her face. Behind her, almost incidentally, stands a train in green and gold livery, half obscuring the station sign. You can almost hear that metal creature panting to be away, eager for more important places.
Janet and I did at least have Clive for the first couple of weeks. We shared him equally between us. Clive must have been forty-something. He always arrived on his own. He didn’t wear a ring but there clung to him shreds of that hangdog, domesticated aura married men never entirely manage to shake off. We decided the poor devil was divorced.
‘In ballroom, ladies,’ Robbie the Instructor informed us, ‘the gentleman still rules the roost. Your partner can insert a lockstep at any time and if he chooses to insert a lockstep you will do a lockstep.’ It was my turn to have him, so Clive and I laboured around the floor, from the Light End to the Dark End and back again, watching our feet with fierce concentration. Clive was also breathing hard and counting. Though he didn’t seem to have much personality he was a vigorous taker of corners, and each wrenching turn made me feel like a GroBag. I could see myself being dumped in the boot of someone’s car and the hatch slammed down on me.
Clive had another drawback as far as I was concerned, which was that he hadn’t yet mastered the lockstep, and so was unable to exercise his masculine right to insert one. I, on the other hand, had mastered the lockstep in week one and would have loved to show it off.
This week Clive hadn’t turned up at all, and it seemed unlikely that he ever would again, which meant that Janet and I were likely to be wallflowers until Easter. Robbie the Instructor sashayed over to us once or twice to treat us to a twirl, but of course that didn’t count. Robbie wiggled an awful lot, like a professional, in fact. Narrow-hipped, clad all in black, he possessed an enormous set of perfectly white teeth. He loved to dance and he loved his teeth. Unfortunately, after you had been watching him for a while everything else about him seemed to fade. You were left with just those perfect teeth, jiving or waltzing or whatever.
‘Do you think they’re real?’
‘They must be. I mean, you wouldn’t actually set out to construct a set like that.’
‘Perhaps they’re his special Dancing Teeth?’
‘He’ll keep them in a box, tied with a red ribbon, and only bring them out for Tuesdays.’
Through the glass panel door you could see through into the Railway Club bar where silent off-duty railwaymen stared into their beer.
‘Do you think our Clive was a railwayman,’ Janet remarked. ‘I mean, he could have been sitting out there in the bar one evening, wondering about the froth.’
‘Whether it circles anti-clockwise in Australia?’
‘Yes. And then, maybe he glanced up, observed the couples going round and round in here and thought –’
‘That might be more fun than this!’
‘It isn’t, though, is it?’
The music started up again. They had decided to spring a jive on us. And that was when they finally condescended to get up, the couple I’d christened the Birds of Paradise.
They’d been here since the start of the evening but it seemed they felt themselves to be more ornamental than participatory. One, a dirty blonde with a somewhat doughy face, was tapping things into her mobile. Her face was lit by the yellow glow from the screen, and she was having to squint a bit because their table was at the Dark End. Her friend, of a similar basic shape but sleeker, with bigger breasts, was more effectively harnessed, wearing tight black trousers and the right sort of heels; she had silver highlights in her long, mousy hair, and a silver belt looped around her hips. Tacky, it was, but effective.
Neither girl smiled. Suspended in their formal embrace, one looking to the left and one to the right, they waited for the down-beat.
‘Do you think they, you know, are?’ asked Janet. Somehow I didn’t think they, you know, were. Usually you get some sort of atmosphere from lesbian ladies, just as you do from gay men; you might call it a plus-something from the women and a minus something from the men. Rather, they produced in me one of my visions, akin to the GroBag, boot-slamming one, but astonishingly detailed. I saw them together in some front room on Pittleigh Estate, sofas and chairs pushed aside, practising and practising their dance moves on Sunday afternoons.
It would be one of the semis, I thought, a Council house. There would be a CD-player sitting in the crook of a pushed-aside armchair, and the curtains would not have been drawn. Outside, dusk would be blanketing the overflowing wheelie-bins, the dog dirt smeared on the pavement, the fireweed forcing its way up through the cracks in the paving slabs.
The beat at last arrived, and they started to dance. The fat one failed to be elegant; she could hardly have been so, the shape she was, and in her supermarket jeans, but she was fast and accurate. At exactly the right moment her hand reached out to guide the other girl round or twirl her under. She danced without any apparent physical effort, wearing exactly the same expression as she’d been wearing for the yellow texting.
The sleek one, however: you couldn’t look away. She was transformed by the act dancing, translucent, transcendent. With movements sure and sharp, she flamed, she flickered, pointing and un-pointing her feet in their silver shoes. She made scrolls and curlicues with her arms; furling and unfurling her hands; she described a cat’s claw, a peacock’s fan, a cockatoo’s crest. How elegant and avian she was, how fiery and how cold.
These are odd words to use, but I can’t think of any others: she inspired me, somehow. She reminded me of the birds you see in those watercolours by long-extinct artists, faded hoopoes and pelicans, parrots, lyre birds and bower birds: stylised; birds and yet not birds, just as what this pair were doing was ballroom and yet not ballroom.
Around the room, conversations sputtered and died. The perambulating couples faltered, missed steps and quietly collided. At last the music stopped and the Birds of Paradise sat down. The fat one reached for her mobile to recommence her texting, the sleek one tossed her silver highlights over her shoulders and perched on the edge of her chair, straight-backed, like an automaton deactivated.
Janet had felt it too. ‘I wanted to applaud,’ she sighed.
A brief silence hung between us as we separately considered, and rejected, the obvious solution to our problem. For the Birds of Paradise it had been a triumph but for Janet and me it would have been embarrassing, no more than sad.
Janet was my best friend and yet I could not have begun to tell her how I was grieving, having seen that display. Something had sprung to life in me as I watched those girls, and whatever that was, it was dying now.
Maybe it was hope. Maybe it was the dream everyone whips up for themselves when they are young, that great, glorious, wedding cake of a future they are going to have. Then the bits with the cream in get eaten by other people; one or two bits at the edges get knocked off and other bits go mouldy. In the end there’s nothing left on your plate but marzipan crumbs and a currant or two. I was never going to point my toes in silver shoes or furl and unfurl my fingernails, just so. I had missed my moment to sashay and shimmer, drawing all eyes to myself.
Joseph has never particularly rated that painting, though in fact it was one of his best, which was of course why it was turned into prints and continues to sell well even now. And he never would tell me who the old woman was on the platform, what exactly she meant. He has probably long since forgotten the actual painting of that painting. I suspect the mysterious old woman was just a happy accident, a stray blob of paint he sort of decided to turn into something. Joseph is such a practical man; never an Artist with a capital A, and never much into symbolism. He told me once that painting is as much a craft as an art.
I visited him only yesterday at the Florence Nightingale. So very, very clean it all was; all that laundered whiteness, all those tubes. Poor Joseph. In his dying I suspect he is pining for the last of the steam trains, for the grease and grime and chaos he sketched during every spare moment of his youth, and which he spent the remainder of his years translating into oils. How he must despise this interminable process of fading away in the Florence, an alien fallen to earth, a tattered old misogynist going Un-gently Into That Good Night.
In the briefest of pauses between Shania Twain and Englebert Humperdinck I imagined I heard across all those accidental, random, messed up, squandered and totally meaningless years of Joseph’s, Janet’s and mine, the high, weird voice of Joni Mitchell singing that song about Richard; Richard, who had once been a dreamer:
‘Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away.’
Maybe after all there would be some kind of a rising. If only that could be so. Then we might have them, all of us.
Our gorgeous wings.