George sat on the top deck of the bus. His seat was level with the windows of a pub. A woman in a scarlet dress leant out of the window peering down into the street. He could see the room behind her lit by a bright glow, as if a party was in progress – music played and couples flitted past behind her. Before he could make sense of it, the bus moved on and the incident was over. He slumped back in the seat and rubbed his eyes feeling all of his forty-two years at the end of another workday. Next evening, he took the same route at the same time but the bus went past in a second and the pub window was shut.
He put the scene out of his mind.
When he got home, his mother put the tea on the table as usual and sat down opposite him. She wiped her wrinkled hands on a tea towel and looked across at him.
Here we go he thought, another bleeding lecture.
“Why don’t you go out a bit more Georgie? You’re always under my feet and yet you’re earning a good wage. Enjoy yourself!”
Her voice had a piercing tone and it grated on his nerves.
“Do you think a packer gets a good wage? Working from eight a.m. to half past five in a grimy warehouse? It’s a treadmill, I tell you. I’m fagged out by teatime.”
She rumbled on for a few minutes but he didn’t listen anymore. He read the Evening Standard, and switched on the telly. But when he went up to bed, he found himself thinking back to the mysterious window and the lady in the scarlet dress. What was going on that night?
The following Tuesday, he decided to find out. He jumped off the bus a few yards down the road from the pub. It was the Wheatsheaf, one of the big Victorian pubs with Assembly Rooms upstairs. Outside the Saloon a notice read: “TANGO CLASSES TUESDAY 6 PM”. He climbed the stairs and heard unfamiliar music coming from the room above. It had a slow beat and an accordion played the melody in an extravagant way. Through the swing door, sound poured out from a loudspeaker. Dazed a little by the noise and the swirling couples, he stood in the doorway wrapped in his old mac and holding his cap in his hand.
The music stopped and a little woman came bustling over to him and took him by the arm. Her black hair, obviously dyed, was pulled back into a bun,.. She wore a tight blue dress and very high heels so she tottered as she led him to a table.
“You’re a little bit late, but Gloria will look after you.”
He could see the lines round her mouth wrinkle up like parchment as she smiled. Her body was as fragile as an old china doll in an antique shop. George had no time to explain that he was just curious. Everything moved so fast he couldn’t keep up.
“Hello, I’m Gloria,” said the lady sitting at a desk, a petty cash tin in front of her. “That will be five pound for the first lesson.”
Her mouth was a cherry but the outline of her lips seemed a bit blurred. Her eyes under their long false lashes were lost in dark pools of mascara.
He was too embarrassed to protest; she expected him to pay, so he got out his purse and selected five coins carefully.
“Just sit down, dear. Take off your coat and Doris will be over presently.”
He wondered what his mother would say when he got home late for his tea.
He pushed the thought out of his mind.
The class was reforming for another dance and the little woman in the tight dress clapped her hands and shouted:
“Now change your partners and let’s try a little harder – just glide – glide.” Her thin voice rose high above the chatter.
The beat of the music began again and George watched as the dancers gathered on the floor. The male dancers clasped their partners tightly and it seemed like the women were trying to keep them away. Some of the men gleamed with sweat as they shuffled about. The women struggled along as if pushing a heavy load.
Several untidy old men sat round the room looking on expectantly, their knees spread out as if claiming a space. It reminded him of musical chairs when he was small and everyone waited for the chance to grab a chair when the music stopped. Eyes scanned the women hoping for the slightest hint of approval.
Then his attention was attracted to a younger woman who came over to him. She was the girl in the red dress he had seen the week before. He remembered her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail and her slim figure.
“Have you been here before?” she asked.
“Well no, not inside,” he said.
He realised it wasn’t the right thing to say because she frowned and cocked her head.
“What do you mean?”
He stood up and muttered the first thing that came into his head but she paid no attention and took his hand. He felt the warmth of her soft touch as she guided him onto the corner of the dance floor.
At close quarters he reckoned she was about his age yet had worn well. He was amazed at the way she propelled him about like a parcel.
“One – Two – Slide. One –Two – Slide.”
He moved awkwardly. His partner scarcely reached his shoulder but she kept up the chant as they ploughed through the other couples.
One or two avoided them with a quick change of direction but most suffered the crunch of his foot against their heels or toes as they moved around.
When the music stopped she dropped his hand and wiped her palm against her dress in a furtive way.
“That’ll be enough for one session,” she said firmly and walked away to the other side of the room.
He called after her, “Doris!” She turned and seemed puzzled. He stuttered, “I just want to say thank you.”
She walked back. “For what?”
“For giving me a dance,” he blurted.
She laughed and he noticed for the first time that she had a nice smile.
“You’re a funny one! I dance with all the newcomers.”
“Well I mean…” but he couldn’t say what he meant. So he stopped. She smiled again and her eyes smiled too.
“Maybe I’ll see you next week then.”
It was more a question than a statement. George nodded without speaking. He put on his coat and took his cap and went out into the dark.
During the week he wondered if it was worthwhile turning up the following Tuesday. He felt embarrassed by his clumsiness and the way she had to push him round the floor. Besides, the other men in the class depressed him; it was like joining a queue at the Job Centre. They were a sad bunch and he would be just the same if he went back. But as the weekend arrived, he kept thinking about the woman in the scarlet dress and how she smiled at him.
On Saturday he bought a new shirt in the market and came home with it hidden under his overcoat. He told himself one last go would be OK, if he kept himself away from the general group of old losers.
On Tuesday, he left home with the new shirt still in its wrapper. He put it on as he left the factory at the end of the day.
At six p.m. he was there. The room was empty. He sat for minutes before he heard the sound of high heels tapping their way upstairs. Through the door came Doris and she seemed surprised to see him.
“O hello! Wondered if you would come back.”
She went to put her coat away, not expecting any reply. He stood up but couldn’t think of anything to say, so he sat down again.
As she came back he saw she wore a different frock – a bluish colour but it looked good on her. He stood up again.
“You know it costs seven pound for every session after the first?” He nodded as if he knew.
“Well, you can pay Gloria when she gets here.”
One or two other older men arrived soon afterwards and clustered near the door. One of them nodded to George but he pretended not to see.
The music started and Doris took his hand and led him into the middle of the floor. When he recalled what she’d done last time, he wrapped a handkerchief round his hand which held hers and she seemed surprised. She smiled and he felt a confidence he’d never sensed before as they moved off in the dance.
There was no one to run into as they circled the open space in the centre of the room. She guided him as before but slowly the rhythm made sense and he began to enjoy himself.
By this time the room was filling up with the usual assortment of eager older men and apprehensive women. When the music stopped she dropped his hand and turned away.
“You need to practise more. Ask Alice,” she said over her shoulder as she walked away. He saw her take the hand of a tall man with slicked-back hair and a sharp grey suit who smirked as she led him into the middle of the floor. She paid no attention to George as she whirled around. George bit his lip as he saw the odious man could dance a bit.
He worked out Alice was the little woman he met the previous time and she was dancing with somebody, so he sat down at the side of the hall and waited.
Gloria waved to him and pointed to her table. He went over and handed her a ten-pound note. He saw a glass of gin stood half empty at her elbow. She gave him his change she said, “Enjoyed your dance with Doris did you?”
“What d’you mean?”
She smiled thinly and said nothing but he knew there was something in her smile which was hostile. She didn’t look at him again. When he had sat down nearby, he saw she was using a stick as she limped away
The man sitting next to him leaned over and said, “Poor old Gloria – such a queen.” He chuckled and wiped his mouth with a grubby handkerchief.
“What d’you mean?”
“She was the number one teacher till she had her hip done.” George studied the man. He was bald with long wisps of grey hair brushed back along the sides of his head. The tips of the hair just reached each other at the back. He needed a shave.
George said, “How long have you been coming here then?”
“On-and-off about three years.”
“So you got the hang of this tango thing by now.”
The man pursed his lips and cocked his head to the side, his eyes gleamed and he smirked at George.
“More or less,” he said and turned to watch Doris as she twirled, hugging the figure of the tall man as he moved her round the floor.
The music stopped and before the dancers had moved off the floor, the man was up and walking over to Doris to speak to her.
She stood for a moment and glanced at George. She gave a wan smile and George leapt to his feet pushing the older man aside.
“You said I could have the next lesson,” he lied
“Yes, that’s right. Do you mind, Tom?”
The bald man grunted but George grabbed her hand and stood waiting for the music to start. He forgot about the handkerchief. Then they were away, moving together to the beat.
He held her close, feeling her body moving with him to the rhythm of the dance. The soft warmth of her back and her lithe movements sent a surge of excitement through his body. He couldn’t believe it when the music stopped. It seemed unfair.
“That was much better,” she said letting go of his hand. “You are relaxing more now.”
“It’s only because of you,” he blurted out.
She looked away and didn’t smile.
“Maybe you should dance with Alice next time.”
“No! I want to dance with you!”
His outburst startled her and she drew back a pace.
“You can’t,” she said, “it’s the rules, I only teach the new ones.”
For an instant, he wanted to protest. He wanted to tell her that he had never felt so happy in his life when he danced close to her. Then he saw her turn and smile at the old man she had rejected and take his hand for the next number.
He got his mac and walked to the door. Doris whirled by, turning the greasy old man in time with the music.
“See you again next week?” she asked.
He didn’t reply but pushed through the swing door and went out into the dark. Outside, a drenching rain had begun, seeping inside his mac and soaking the collar of his new shirt. He felt for his cap but he couldn’t find it. He waited at the bus stop and when it arrived, he sat upstairs as usual. He saw his reflection in the glass, a damp figure with his scant hair plastered down across his forehead.
But he was smiling.