One, two, three, one, two, three…
Oh, excuse me, caught mid-promenade. How embarrassing. I can’t resist it though, whenever I hear this song. ‘Que Sera Sera’. Don’t you just adore Doris Day? If only I could’ve danced with her.
This kettle’s on the way out, it takes an age to come to the boil now.
Mother and I take tea about this time every afternoon. She takes Earl Grey with one sugar and a shortbread biscuit. Mine’s English breakfast with three sugars and just a splash of Glenmorangie.
Mother can’t get about the way she used to. She misses the car. Neither of us ever managed to decipher the hieroglyphics of the Highway Code. So, since Daddy left we’ve been at the mercy of Edinburgh’s public transport system. We get by.
I know the kitchen could do with a facelift. The entire house, actually, but somehow I can’t bring myself to make a start. No, not idleness. Perish the thought. I suppose it’s just that I’m not good with change; I mean, this has been my world for fifty-eight years.
Ah, there’s another favourite. ‘Secret Love’. That’s more of a foxtrot, of course. ‘Even told the golden daffodils’. Oh dear. Excuse the voice; that was never really my forte.
I’ve always loved dancing. Terpsichore has been my muse since I was able to stand. Even before, perhaps. You know when a child in the womb starts to kick, the usual line is, ‘Ah, he’s going to be a footballer’. Not I. Mother says that the kicks I delivered were delicate, regular, timed to the second.
My earliest memory is of this room. Mother cooking the Sunday lunch, Two-Way Family Favourites on the wireless; that’s where I first heard Doris. There I’d be, pirouetting across the floor, arms ‘akimbo’, whilst Mother wove a careful path about me with a hot baking tray. The merest whiff of roast potatoes and I’m right back there.
Daddy was very much what they call a ‘man’s man’. I ask you, what does that even mean? I don’t think he ever mentally left the army. Mother and he met at a NAAFI social at the fag-end of the war. It was the ladies’ excuse me, a two-step, according to her. As far as I’m aware, the last time he ever took to the floor was on their wedding day.
I’m not sure precisely when I became a crushing disappointment to Daddy. I’d catch him looking at me with a quaint mixture of fascination and disgust, as if I’d been left on the doorstep by alien fly tippers.
He made efforts to kindle my interest in more masculine pursuits; football, boxing, what have you. Sadly, jazz hands do not a goalkeeper make, and as for boxing, well…that’s like dancing, but with added violence. And, call me picky, but I preferred my hobbies to be less…life threatening. Although I quite enjoyed the skipping.
To curtail a rather long story, after various painful and/or embarrassing occasions, Daddy was forced to admit defeat. This came as a huge relief to me, if not to him.
Formal education brought a succession of experiences. Very few of these were positive, until, one day, when I was about nine or ten, I discovered Mrs. Elspeth Colquhoun’s Academie de Danse. I’d heard some of the girls in my class talking about going to ‘lessons’ there. Naturally I was intrigued, so one afternoon, I tagged along. At first it wasn’t too promising; I was led down a dingy side street to what looked to be a warehouse. I began to suspect that it might be yet another of the practical ‘jokes’ that some of my classmates appeared to enjoy so much.
Then the doors opened and I was transported. What was this… this wonderland of music and light and movement? You’re dreaming, I thought. No, you’re not. This was created just for you…why has nobody ever said? I walked through those doors and for the first time in my life, I felt… real.
Mother said we needn’t let Daddy know. Working the lessons around his shifts at the paper mill wasn’t easy but we managed it. For a while, life was good. Mrs Colquhoun said I was a natural; there was talk of a national competition, maybe even a scholarship.
Then, one afternoon, Daddy came home unexpectedly to an empty house. We came home later, to an angry one. Daddy wasn’t the sort of person you could lie to convincingly, so of course, it all came out.
I’d experienced a few…chastisements at Daddy’s hands, but nothing quite that spectacular. I remember clearly, each blow coinciding with a word. ‘No – son – of – mine – is – going – to – be – a – fairy’. Obviously, that is the abridged version. There would have been about ten wallops in that sentence alone. I have to say, his rhythm was really quite impressive.
When he felt he’d adequately made his point, Mother persuaded him to take me to the infirmary. Those were the days before doctors had become white-coated extensions of the social services, so naturally they accepted Daddy’s explanation. He told them I’d come second in a fight with a bigger boy. Which in a way, I suppose, was perfectly true.
If you watch closely, you’ll notice I still have a slight limp.
Life rather plateaued after that. I went to school, I came home from school, I left school. I started a job, then another. Just couldn’t seem to persevere. ‘Temperamentally unsuited to manual labour’, I told myself. ‘Sensitive’, Mother insisted. ‘Lazy toerag,’ said Daddy, but luckily he mostly just ignored me.
He didn’t ignore Mother though. Oh no. Most nights, when he came home from the pub, she provided a convenient focus for his anger. She begged me to make allowances. ‘He couldn’t help himself’. ‘He’s a good man really’. ‘The war, you know’.
I was leafing through the local paper one morning in the early seventies, when a couple of paragraphs stopped me dead in my tracks. Dame Margot Fonteyn was to give a gala performance with the Scottish Ballet, at the Kings Hall. Well, I ask you. I ran and showed it to Mother. I told her I simply had to go. She said she’d be able to salt away some of the housekeeping to pay for it. Daddy rarely questioned how she managed the money, as long as there was something edible on the table at five-thirty sharp.
I will never forget the feeling of holding that ticket in my hand. To my mind, the greatest ballerina of all time was about to dance in my home city, and I would be there. Actually there, just yards away from her.
I recall that night as a dream. Have you ever had that experience? Knowing that you’re somewhere, but feeling that you’re not? It was the most wonderful dream I’ve ever had.
There was no signing of autographs afterwards, but I wrote Dame Margot a long letter, trying to explain how much seeing her performance had meant to me. To my amazement, I received a reply; typed, but Dame Margot herself had written her name at the bottom. It definitely wasn’t printed. I know, because I dampened one letter of the signature very slightly, to see if the ink smudged. I immediately went out and bought a frame for it. I hung it on the wall facing my bed, so that it was always the last thing I saw at night, and the first thing I saw in the morning.
After a time though, I began to think how isolated it looked on that wall – which was otherwise quite bare – so I thought I’d look for things to keep it company. I scanned the classifieds and kept my eyes peeled for second-hand sales. I started to notice junk shops. Anything dance-related I could find. I was prepared to face down or battle anyone for a must-have. The old leg muscles might have softened, but as you’ll have noticed, I’m still quite robust. Hefty, even.
Over the next few years I transformed my bedroom into a gallery, a shrine to the hoofer, the soft-shoe shuffler, the light fantastic tripper. Fandango to free-form, Gay Gordon to gavotte. Every square inch of wall was covered with pictures, photographs, signed programmes, all manner of memorabilia. It was remarkably eclectic. I can see it now: there’s Vaslav Nijinsky, rubbing shoulders with Paula Abdul. Over here, Anna Pavlova trading moves with Bob Fosse. And Twyla Tharp, with one of her impossibly-high kicks, just managing to clear the top of Gene Kelly’s head. Just as well. Would have taken his toupee clean off.
I took to spending more and more time alone in my room. What had always been to me like an open prison cell had become a sanctuary.
One Tuesday, after a strenuous day’s rummaging, I came home to find Mother looking distinctly anxious. I went upstairs and found Daddy sat on the side of my bed. He was ankle-deep in tiny, torn scraps of paper. The frame I’d put Dame Margot’s letter in was on the floor, smashed and empty.
He didn’t look at me. ‘It’s about time you did something with this room,’ he said. ‘There’s emulsion and brushes in the garden shed. I’ll put this rubbish out for the binmen.’
I shrugged. ‘Ok,’ I said. Then I went down and we had supper. Mother attempted to lighten the atmosphere, puncturing the silence with shards of trivia. A ‘look’ from Daddy sealed it back up.
I painted the walls. As far as I recall, they were the most ghastly shade of eau de nil.
One November night, a couple of months later, Daddy went out for a drink and never came back. Mother called the police the next day, but they weren’t that concerned. He wasn’t terribly old, not particularly vulnerable. He was a grown man who had chosen not to go home. Quite common, apparently. I distinctly remember the day because it was the next evening that Princess Diana gave that interview on Panorama. Gorgeous woman. Danced like an angel with Travolta. So very sad.
Mother and I have settled down nicely together over the years, we have our little routine. Coronation Street’s always been a highlight. And of course, Strictly is sacrosanct. It’s a shame there’s such a long wait between series.
But I am nothing, if not patient.
Ah, boiling at last. I’m absolutely parched. Are you sure you wouldn’t like one?
I’ve rebuilt my collection, by the way. Sadly sans Dame Margot’s letter. She was well gone by then, poor love. The internet is an absolute godsend. You can get practically anything. Do you know, I managed to acquire the very scarf that throttled Isadora Duncan? So the vendor swears on his old granny’s life. Mind you, he’s about seventy himself…
Resentment? Oh my dear, what’s the use in that? I’m quite sure Daddy had his regrets and wherever he is now, I hope he has achieved a kind of peace.
I know I have.
Every now and then, on a summer evening, I’ll go down to the park, the one that’s quite close to Daddy’s favourite hostelry. It’s very serene there, out of the way, unobserved. I like to sit and contemplate nature: the birds, the dragonflies, an occasional waggle-dancing bee.
There’s one particular space I’m drawn to. It’s a wee patch, about six by four, where the grass grows just that little bit longer, just that little bit …greener.
Sometimes, I dance on it.
One two three, one two three, one…
Teresa Martin asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work