Eighty Words A Minute

It was February and the wind was bitter, the municipal park

Empty apart from us, who’d come to honour

Cynthia’s redundancy. I’ve got my skills, was all she had to say,

Eighty words a minute, girls, they can’t take those away.

 

It’s not the end of the world, she said.

So we slopped the wine into the paper cups

And drank to the world not having ended, quite,

And the cold wind blew away

 

The perfume she always called Anay Anay.

Those long nails curled around her cigarette,

Those narrowed eyes, that mouth made smaller still

To drag the smoke inside.

 

She clattered up and down on spiked heels

And every now and then she’d pause to stare

Hard down into the patent leather,

As if to read her future clearer there.

 

She’s got her skills, they can’t take those away.

They take your face and your fertility,

The bloom of youth, your sexuality,

Your hope, your laughter and your dignity,

But eighty words a minute – no, they won’t take those away.

The Hunger

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.

Before I get my gorgeous wings

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!’

‘Exactly.’

‘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.