Here's another short story I wrote earlier in the year. It's for children of all ages - especially those born in the 1940s ...
WITH APOLOGIES TO ENID BLYTON
Drago and Charlie were opposites in every way. Drago was small and thin – wiry, his mother called him. He had big brown eyes like a spaniel, and long floppy dark brown hair to match. Charlie was big and broad; he had short blond hair and he hardly ever smiled. Drago smiled all the time. He could talk his way out of any problem. Charlie could fight his way out. The two boys were always getting into trouble. Always had done, as long as anyone could remember. So when Drago said one hot afternoon at the beginning of the summer holidays,
‘Hey, let’s raid the sweet van!’, Charlie went along with it. More than that – he was up for it. Of course he was.
Mr Jenkins’ sweet van was well known in the village, as was Mr Jenkins himself. The van was a short, stubby, fat sort of vehicle, coloured red, with what looked like steam coming from under its bonnet when it went a bit faster than very slow. And Mr Jenkins looked just the same. Except he wore a khaki overall. He always had a scowling, forbidding expression, and he’d never been known to give any child even the tiniest, cheapest, mouldiest sweet from his van.
Every day he drove up into the valleys surrounding the little village of Penllan, supplying the little shops there with Fry’s chocolate cream bars, bags of boiled sweets, flying saucers, sweet bananas and shrimps, barley sugar twists – yes, all the old-fashioned sweets that were new to the kids of Drago and Charlie’s age. He didn’t stock Mars Bars or Maltesers or Haribos, or any of the sweets they were used to. So his van was a place of mystery and excitement, temptation and delight.
The boys planned it well. They each told their parents that they would be having a sleep-over with the other. Then they hid in the bushes beside the layby where Mr Jenkins kept his van overnight, and waited. And sure enough, here he came, keys jangling, breath wheezing, ready to lock up his fat little van safely for the night. He was just about to lock the van doors when - what was that? That noise? In the bushes across the road? Those brats again, he thought. He marched over to explore – and that was when Drago and Charlie stopped throwing stones into the bushes opposite, and sneaked into the van.
It had been a long night. It wasn’t easy to sleep on the bare metal floor of the van, and when they did, noises from outside would wake them. Scared? Of course not. An owl probably. Or a fox. Or … something bigger, something worse, something scary … morning couldn’t come soon enough.
They didn’t know it was possible to be too full of sweets to eat any more. Too full to even think of eating any, ever again. They had been careful, taking just a couple of bars from each box, a handful of sweets from each jar. Mr Jenkins would never know. Well, not for a day or two anyway.
They heard his footsteps approaching.
‘What now?’ whispered Charlie.
Drago didn’t answer. He really hadn’t thought this through. They held their breath, fingers crossed. But fate was with them. Just as Mr Jenkins turned the key in the van doors, his mobile phone started ringing. They heard him answer it, heard him walk away, heard him climb into the cabin of the van – they were saved.
They jumped out as quietly as they could, and ran until the van was out of sight.
‘Drago, I feel sick’ declared Charlie.
‘Yeah, me too’ Drago said.
‘No, really, I’m going to …’
With that he threw up. All the chocolate, the pink shrimps, the flying saucers, they all came shooting out, spraying into the air, over the ground, over his trainers. Drago jumped back just in time.
‘Yuk Charlie! You could have waited!’
‘Waited for what? Here’s as good a place as any!’ he wiped his mouth with his hand, and wiped his hand on some grass nearby. Some grass that hadn’t been decorated with sick.
‘I feel better now’ he said.
Drago didn’t. His stomach was making alarming noises. He knew it wouldn’t be long before he copied his friend’s performance.
‘Time to go home I think, Charlie!’ he said.
‘Yeah, you’re right. Epic night though!’
Then, with his hand over his mouth, he ran home, just making it to his front door before the contents of his stomach splattered over the doorstep.
‘Kelvin! Oh you poor boy! Whatever has Mrs Price been giving you?’
Drago allowed himself to be ushered in, while his mother fussed over him, laid him on the sofa and covered him with a blanket, a bowl and a towel at his side.
‘Thanks Mum’ he mumbled, trying hard to hide his grin. What a night! Epic!
The holidays had only just started, but Drago and Charlie were bored already. There was just nothing to do. Five more weeks of this! September, and their new school, was ages away. Miles. Years. It was too hot, too dusty. The only bit of fun they’d had was the night in Mr Jenkins’ sweet van. And of course the throwing up afterwards. That had been pretty impressive. And very colourful.
That was nearly a week ago. For a few days, they’d thought they might have heard something about it, that the police may have come knocking on their doors – after all, they were supposed to be the naughty boys of the village. But no. Nothing. So the fear that they didn’t admit to turned into boastful bravado, and they stopped worrying.
But what now? What could top that?
They lay on their backs on the grass, looking down at the houses in the village below, pulling up pieces of grass and pretending to smoke them.
‘What we need is a new adventure. Something exciting. Risky. Crazy’ Charlie drawled, his mouth full of grass.
‘Yeah. But what? This is such a boring place. Nothing ever happens.’
‘Well, let’s make it happen.’
Charlie sat up.
‘A gang! Let’s form a gang!’
Drago sat up too.
‘What sort of a gang? What would we do?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Who’d be in it?’
‘Just us, I suppose.’
Drago lay down again.
‘That’s not a gang. That’s just us, isn’t it?’
They lay in silence for a while. Then,
‘We could, though’ said Drago, sitting up again. ‘We could make a gang. We could get some others to join us. As long as they’re – you know – cool. And not scared.’
Charlie sat up too.
‘Ok. So who? What about Psycho Dan? Or Brush-head?’
‘Nah. Too much like us’ said Drago. ‘They’d want to take over. What we need is someone who’s got something that we haven’t got. Now you – you’ve got the muscles.’
Charlie grinned and raised his arm, elbow bent, to demonstrate.
‘Me,’ Drago continued, ‘I’ve got the gift of the gab, so everyone says. Charm, my Mum calls it. Oy!’ and he threw a lump of earth at his friend who was laughing fit to burst.
They both lay back again, laughing.
‘We need someone clever’ said Charlie.
‘I’m clever!’ said Drago, indignant.
‘Yeah, I know, but I mean – knowing stuff.’
‘I know stuff!’
‘I mean …’ Charlie struggled for the words. ‘We need someone who knows proper stuff. You know – someone who listens in lessons.’
‘Someone who goes to school, you mean?’
The both laughed, savouring the excitement they’d felt the last time they’d bunked off school and went fishing in the canal.
‘Yeah, someone like that.’
They lay there, deep in thought, chewing grass. Then,
‘Lily Pie-dish!’ shouted Drago, sitting bolt upright.
‘What? Pie-dish? She’d never join our gang. She’s too stuck-up.’
‘But she’s clever. And she goes to school. And she listens. And she’s ok, really. I saw her pocket a few pens from the store cupboard once.’
‘Ok, it was in the infants …’
‘That was ages ago!’
‘Never mind. She could be a good gang member. As long as she follows the rules.’
‘What are the rules?’
‘Don’t know yet.’
Lily was doubtful. She liked Drago of course. Didn’t everyone? Charlie was okay too. But – a gang? She thought about it as she walked home. It would mean keeping secrets. Telling lies. Her father would not approve. No – he’d be furious.
‘I have my position to think of!’ he’d say in that pompous way of his. ‘People look up to me! Since I was made Sergeant …’
And that’s the point at which she decided she’d do it.
‘So, Lily. You’re in? In the gang? Even with your dad being a policeman?’ asked Charlie.
He was sitting in his dad’s garden shed, on an upturned crate in true Secret Seven style, even though there was a perfectly usable garden chair at hand. He was taking this gang culture very seriously. Drago clearly had no such reservations. He stretched out on a padded lounger, a can of fizzy drink on the floor next to him. Lily, though, sat upright on a wooden stool, blonde hair neatly tied in a pony-tail, hands folded on the exercise book on her lap.
‘Yes I am’ she said calmly. ‘Although I have some question.’
Both boys groaned.
‘For instance’ she went on, ignoring them, ‘When you interviewed me, you said there are rules. I’d like to know what they are. And our name – what are we called? You wouldn’t tell me. I can understand that. We were in the park and there were lots of people around, but I’d like to know now. Please.’
Charlie looked at Drago. He’d like to know these things too. Drago took a breath and sat up, nodding wisely.
‘Good questions. The thing is, Lily, the thing is …’ He picked up his can and gulped down some fizz. ‘The thing is – we wanted you to be involved in deciding these things.’ He lay back down, pleased with himself.
Charlie nodded enthusiastically.
‘Yeah, that’s right. It’s only fair’ he said.
She laughed. She wasn’t fooled.
‘Okay, so let’s come up with a name’ she said.
Twenty minutes later they had rejected every suggestion, sometimes unanimously, sometimes by a majority. Drago’s Gang, Charlie’s Choppers, and Pie-Dish and the Boys were the last to be up for discussion, and each made a case for their preference, but there was no agreement.
‘It’s no good’ said Charlie. ‘We’ll never find one we all like. And even if we did, who’d use the name anyway? We’re supposed to be a secret, aren’t we?’
‘That’s a really good point, Charlie’ said Lily.
‘Well I was just going to …’ began Drago.
‘Yeah, good point, Charlie boy’ he said reluctantly.
‘So, it’s just the rules then’ said Lily.
‘That’s easy.’ Drago was back on form. ‘We make stuff happen. We start things. We get some excitement going. And we lie low!’
‘Those aren’t rules, Kelvin. I mean – Drago’ Lily hastily corrected herself. ‘That’s just a list of things you want us to do. Although how you think …’
‘Alright Einstein, you come up with some rules then. And what we’re going to do.’
So she did. They would make up stories about people in the village and see how many believed them. They would report the loss of imaginary pets and get their friends to hunt for them. And they would invent a crime they had witnessed. This last one Lily said with a particularly wicked grin. They all laughed at their cleverness, and agreed that the only important rule was not to tell anyone else about their plans.
The summer was passing quickly, and their schemes were working out better than they could have hoped. Who would have thought that virtually the whole of year six would believe that their headteacher had been chosen to star in a Hollywood film? Or that nice Miss Howells who ran the newsagents was actually working undercover for the government? Or – most bizarrely of all – that Charlie had won a scholarship to the rugby academy at Ysgol Glantaf, one of the most famous rugby schools in Wales?
But they did! It was incredible! The three of them became so involved, so caught up their stories, that they almost believed them themselves. They were very convincing; not over-the-top, as they had agreed. Just serious, intense. Then time to move on to the lost pets. This was harder. Everyone in the village knew all the pets who lived there, so it was going to be difficult to invent one. It was going to be tricky. They decided to focus on just one, and Drago came up with the answer.
‘A pet tortoise! We’ll say I had a pet tortoise from my cousin, when we went to visit my Auntie last week. And now he’s gone!’
The tortoise would be called Plonker, and they would lose it in the big field above the school. And sure enough, nearly all their friends turned out to help search for it. Drago explained that they would have to crawl low down in order to spot the runaway. He thought he might be pushing it a bit when he told them that Plonker knew his name, but they seemed to swallow it hook line and sinker.
So it was that on a warm afternoon in late August, eighteen eleven-year-olds could be seen crawling slowly through the grass, backsides in the air, calling ‘Plonker! Plonker!’
It was too much for the three of them. They rolled around behind a tree stump, stuffing their hands in their mouths to stop the laughter reaching their poor hoodwinked classmates. And that’s where Lily’s father found them. He stood over them as they stopped, frozen, silent now. The police officer said nothing. Charlie took it upon himself to break the ice.
‘Hello Sergeant Pie-Dish. We’re just looking for …’
Well, they’d had a good run. It had gone better than they could have hoped, even if it had been stopped so abruptly. Drago had a feeling that Lily’s dad may not have taken things so far if Charlie hadn’t called him that. Whatever was he thinking?
‘Well what was I supposed to call him?’ Charlie retorted when he and Drago managed to escape from their respective homes at last, both thankful it was only a tongue-lashing they’d received from their mothers and nothing more physical.
‘Sergeant Pie-Dish? Sergeant Pie-Dish?’ Drago started to laugh, and Charlie joined in.
‘It’s not funny though’ Drago said at last. ‘Lily’s in real trouble. Her dad was furious with her. You could see what he was thinking – he expected it of us, but not his own daughter!’
‘But how did he know we’d done anything wrong?’ Charlie was puzzled. ‘It was only a bit of fun.’
‘Well, maybe he thought the whole class was calling him a plonker. You know? Cos that’s what he’s known as?’
Charlie looked bewildered.
‘His name is Plunker, Charlie. Sergeant Plunker.’
‘Aah! I see! Bit of a coincidence then, you choosing to call your tortoise Plonker, wasn’t it?’
‘There was no tortoise, Charlie. Remember?’ said Drago. ‘And maybe it wasn’t a complete coincidence.’
‘Well fancy Lily not realising that!’
‘Of course she realised it! She went along with it!’ said Drago, a note of exasperation in his voice now. He sighed.
‘Anyway, I think it was the way we were laughing at the others, too’ Drago went on. ‘And the fact that there were cow pats all over the field didn’t help. And then when he heard about our other – umm – stories …’
‘The rest of the class – they weren’t happy either. Especially with the cow pats.’
‘No, they weren’t’ Charlie agreed.
‘Well we’ve had a great summer. And that’s the end of Drago’s Gang, or Charlie’s Choppers, or Pie-Dish and the Boys, or whatever we didn’t call ourselves.’
But Drago was wrong. He and Charlie were walking home very slowly when Lily ran up to them. She was red-faced, panting, her hair flying.
‘We have to stop them, boys. We just have to!’
And she told them what she had overheard as she had sat, angry and humiliated, on the wooden seat behind the layby where Mr Jenkins’ sweet van was parked up for the night. She hadn’t noticed the men at first; they were hidden out of sight behind the van, and her own thoughts were filling her head. But slowly she became aware of what they were saying, and what they were planning.
‘They’re going to break into the newsagents tonight!’ she told her fellow gang-members now, out of breath.
‘Yeah right!’ sneered Charlie, kicking at a stone. ‘We believe you, don’t we Drago?’ he laughed, looking at his friend.
‘Hey, Charlie, it’s not Lily’s fault her dad caught us’ said Drago. ‘We were all messing about. But honest, Lil,’ he turned to her. ‘That’s a pretty feeble story. You could do better than that!’
Lily caught him by the shoulders and turned him to face her.
‘What did you call me?’ asked Drago in what he hoped was a deadly calm voice.
‘Kelvin!’ she said. ‘Kelvin! That’s your name isn’t it?’
They stood there, in silence. Then,
‘Lily, you don’t use that name’ said Charlie in a hushed voice. ‘He’s Drago. Has been since infants.’
‘Then LISTEN TO ME!’ she shouted. ‘I said listen to me – Alex!’
The boys gasped. This was too much. She must have gone crazy! Or she was really, really angry. Or … maybe … just maybe …
Drago came to a decision.
‘Okay. We believe you. Tell us everything.’
She told them exactly what she had heard. And the boys listened. They asked questions. Who were they? She didn’t know, but one of them sounded like Mr Jenkins. What time are they going to break in? Eleven o’clock.
‘But - newspapers?’ said Charlie. ‘Why would anyone want to steal newspapers?’
‘No Charlie’ she said patiently. ‘The newsagent’s is a post office too, remember.’
‘Did they see you, Lil?’ Drago sounded worried. ‘Do they know you heard them?’
‘No, I don’t think so. But what shall we do?’
‘Do?’ said Charlie. ‘Do? I think it’s pretty obvious what we do! We go and tell your dad! I’m all for a bit of adventure, but not something like this!’
‘He’s right, Lily’ said Drago. ‘This doesn’t sound like a lot of fun!’
‘Don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think I tried?’ She was close to tears now, angry tears. ‘Do you know what he said? He said he’d had enough of my silly stories, that it’s time I grew up. And he said …’ She grinned.
‘He said I should stop hanging around with you pair of losers!’
Their initial indignation soon turned to laughter, but it was short-lived.
‘So – what then?’ asked Drago. ‘We can’t just ignore it! Little Miss Howells lives on top of the shop. She’ll be terrified!’
‘Yeah, specially as she’s a government spy!’ added Charlie, grinning. More hilarity. But Charlie’s words had given Drago an idea.
It wasn’t easy, getting twenty-five eleven-year-olds out of their beds and their houses late at night without their parents’ knowing. It hadn’t been easy to get them to agree to it, either. They had all met up in the playground, the word having been spread across their haunts in that magical way only children can master. Drago was persuasive, his wit and charm managed to sway some. Charlie was the bruiser, and the fact that he was going along with the plan influenced others. But it was the appearance of Lily Plunker that did it. Lily Pie-Dish, the quiet one, the clever one, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes. Lily was urging them to do this too.
Okay, so it wasn’t strictly the truth. Not the whole truth. After all, Miss Howells wasn’t really a government spy. And the men weren’t actually foreign agents, planning to steal top secret documents. Well, probably not. It was enough that they had convinced their friends to help them. They had fended off awkward questions, the main one being – why weren’t the police dealing with this? Lily handled that.
‘This can’t go any further’ she whispered. They gathered round, hushed and intrigued.
‘The fact is, there’s someone in the local station – the police station – we think is a mole.’
‘Shhh! Yes, a mole. An undercover agent, working for the other side. Don’t ask me how I know’ she said quickly as several mouths opened. ‘I can’t say. But …’ her voice dropped even lower. ‘My dad’s name has been mentioned.’
How did she manage to produce that tear? Drago wondered in admiration, as muted gasps were heard all around. That one single tear? It was a spectacular performance! And no more needed to be said.
All but three of their classmates managed to escape their homes that night. And twenty-two determined, loyal, fiercely protective young people made their way to the park behind the little cluster of shops. Some were in pyjamas. Some in combat gear. One wore a tutu. But they were here. They had turned out for Miss Howells. They had turned out for the government. But mostly they had turned out for Lily, and the gang. The gang with no name, the gang they didn’t know existed. The three lead conspirators looked at each other. It was quite a moment.
The burglars didn’t stand a chance. At eleven on the dot, muffled sounds were heard, careful footsteps walking towards the front of the newsagents shop. No-one went shopping at this time of night. Especially when the shops were closed. The vigilantes waited for the signal from Drago. And when it came, that piercing whistle, suddenly there was uproar. Saucepan lids and metal spoons, toy drums, trumpets, klaxons, football clackers, anything that made a noise, all came rushing out of nowhere, or so it seemed. Hordes of people – albeit smallish people – were bearing down on the two men who now stood stock still in front of the shop, incriminating tools in hand. The noise woke the neighbours of course, many of whom promptly called the police, some of whom ran out to see what was going on. And while at first glance it seemed that the peace of the village had been rudely disturbed by a crown of delinquents, it soon became clear who the real baddies were.
What a night! And what an adventure to end the summer holidays with! Lily’s dad was the first officer on the scene, and was later praised by his superiors for acting so promptly. He gave Lily a look that was almost an apology, and almost a thank-you, and that was enough for her. The part played by the children was not officially recognised, but everyone in the village, including Miss Howells, knew who they had to thank.
Drago, Charlie and Lily lay on the grass, looking down at the houses in the village below, pulling up pieces of grass and pretending to smoke them.
‘So. New school tomorrow then’ stated Drago.
‘Good summer though’ said Charlie.
Charlie sat up.
‘Hey, Lil, why Pie-Dish?’
‘Why Pie-Dish? It’s a funny sort of name.’
Lily considered this. Then,
‘Well, why Charlie? Why Drago?’
No-one ever asked that!
‘That’s different’ said Charlie. ‘We’re …’
‘Because you’re boys, right?’ Lily was sitting up now, too.
‘Well – yeah, sort of. We’ve all got nicknames. You know - Psycho Dan, Brush-head, Tommy Tutt – but the other girls haven’t. Just you.’
Lily thought about this too.
‘Fair enough’ she said, lying back again and pulling up a fresh blade of grass.
Charlie lay back down too.
‘The thing is, my granddad was called Bert Pie-Dish’ she said.
‘Ah!’ said Charlie.
‘Ah!’ said Drago.
And all was well with the world.
Here is a short story I wrote fairly recently. I was delighted to find that I received a 'highly commended' from the King Lear short story competition.
There was no waking, because there had been no sleeping. Not really. Eyes closed, breathing shallow, but not really sleeping. Was it the noise? The constant beeping of monitors, the soft but firm footsteps, the occasional cry from another bed? Maybe. But sometimes, all these sounds would dim, fade away, and there was still no sleep.
Betsy didn’t mind. She wasn’t tired. How could she be? You needed to have done something, moved somewhere, to be tired. And she hadn’t done either for such a long, long time. Or perhaps it was just a week. Or a few days. Time meant nothing to her as she lay there. Except – was it visiting time? It must be, because here she was. Betsy smiled as she felt the warm hand, still plump from childhood but reassuring as a parent, grasp her own.
‘How are you, Nana?’ Ellie said.
How was she? Betsy gave it some thought. Well, she was alive. Against all the odds. Her heart had continued to beat, albeit reluctantly, spasmodically, sometimes with a little help, but beating nonetheless. Her lungs continued to inflate, deflate; wheezing and rattling, but working. Her kidneys – maybe not so good, but hey, machines could do their work when needed. Tubes in various places, some in private places, some leading to collecting bags, some to the machines that told others she was still in this world. And one inserted in her hand, the hand that Ellie held now. She looked down at it. Ellie’s, so pink and smooth, fingers dimpled, one proudly sporting her engagement ring. And her own – skeletal, fleshless, loose in too much skin.
‘I’m fine sweetheart’ she said, her strong voice now diminished, reduced to a half-whisper.
‘You’re an old con-woman, Nana! You can’t fool me. You’re as tough as old boots!’
Betsy smiled. She would have laughed if she could. This was why she liked Ellie the best – she didn’t make allowances. She didn’t speak in hushed tones like the others. She didn’t seem to be mentally adding up the assets while sitting glum-faced at her bedside. She was pleased to be here, to chat, make jokes, tease her. The fact that tears sometimes swam in her young eyes, or that her voice sometimes cracked before a determined clearing of the throat, didn’t lessen the cheer she brought each evening.
‘Mum sends her love. And Dad too of course. Phoebe would have come if she could, but you know what her shifts are like. And Auntie Gaynor says she’ll pop in as soon as she can.’
And so they chatted. It might have seemed a slightly one-sided chat to anyone watching, but not to them. Yes, Ellie did most of the talking, but Betsy was fully engaged in the conversation, her face coming alive, her smiles and frowns and slight nods sparing her the energy of speaking, but the communication was definitely two-way.
The bell rang. Visiting was over for today. Ellie rose, reluctant to leave, but only too aware of the ward rules. She leant over and kissed her grandmother.
‘See you tomorrow Nana. And no wild parties tonight, okay?’
Betsy took a breath.
‘We never danced, you know’ she said.
‘Danced? Who? You and Grampa?’
‘He told me he could dance, but we never did.’
She took another breath, a shaky one this time. Ellie looked down at the frail old lady and swallowed hard.
‘I want to hear about this Nana! I can’t believe you never danced! You, the children of the fifties? The sixties? Not dancing?’
She kissed her again.
‘I have to go now. Will you tell me about it tomorrow?’
There was no shortage of dance partners that evening. A shortage of boys perhaps, but it was just as good to dance with her friends. Not too many boys could master the jive, let alone the far more boisterous rock and roll steps and throws. It was with her friends from school, an all-girls school, that she’d learned the steps, and now they were happy to showcase their talents. The music from the live band vibrated through the wooden floor, and she allowed herself to be whirled and twirled by her friend Shirley. It was exhilarating.
Rows of boys sat along one wall, girls who couldn’t or wouldn’t dance sat along the opposite one. The church hall was full, the music was loud, the lemonade on sale was sweet, and Betsy was flushed with excitement as the music finished with a crash. Time to take a breath before the next song started. The local band had picked their numbers with care – mainly those being made famous by Bill Haley and Carl Perkins, and the newcomer Elvis Presley. Ones with a beat, defying tradition, made for youngsters like herself.
‘Want a drink?’
A boy was standing next to her at the trestle table which was creaking under the weight of china cups filled with lemonade. Betsy looked him up and down. Yes, she knew who he was. Howie Lewis from the boys’ school at the other end of town. The girls had a way of finding out these things as they stood waiting, pictures of innocent, at the bus station after school each day. The only place where the sexes mingled. Apart from here.
‘Yes, okay, thanks’ she said, determined to sound cool, hoping the heat she felt creeping up her cheeks wasn’t visible. This was Howie Lewis. Howie Lewis! All the girls liked him. And it seemed that he had liked quite a few girls too.
‘I like the way you dance’ he said.
How to respond to this? A compliment? Or was he teasing her? Was he making fun of her? She decided to ignore it.
‘You’re not dancing then?’
‘Nah. Not tonight. I prefer proper dancing anyway, not this stuff.’
‘What – waltzes and stuff?’
‘Yeah. I’m good at those. What about you?’
‘Uhh – no, I can’t do those. We learn the Valeta and the Gay Gordons at school, but not proper dancing.’
‘I’ll show you one day. Promise’
And there it was. Betsy and Howie were a couple, inseparable, meant for each other. And he’d made her a promise. But he never did dance. Whether it was a get-together at the church hall, like the one where they’d met, or, as they got older, a more formal dance, he didn’t feel like it. He encouraged her to dance though. He liked watching her, he said. When they got married, Betsy had been looking forward to being swung around the dancefloor at their reception, but no. Howie stood in the centre of the floor, arms held aloft like a Spanish flamenco dancer, clicking his fingers, while she gyrated around him, laughing at his exhortations of ‘Go on girl!’ while the guests clapped, delighted at his humour and his charm, happy for the young couple.
It became accepted, normal, the way things were. She danced, he didn’t. Just as he took the bins out, she didn’t. She would dance around the kitchen with their daughters, he watched appreciatively. It never became an issue, never a problem. Now and then, she’d remind him of his promise.
‘I’ll show you how to dance one day, Bets!’ he’d say.
And she’d laugh and kiss him.
Was it the machines that woke her? Was their beeping and buzzing louder than usual? Had their tone changed? Betsy didn’t know, but when she opened her eyes, there he was, standing at the side of her bed. Handsome as he’d ever been, ageless. Not the thin, sick man she’d bid farewell to just six months ago. Not the man she’d sat with, talked to, laughed with, holding his hand as he slipped peacefully away. She’d been well then, fit, healthy. Or so she’d thought. Funny how things can hide away, be pushed away, when there are more important things to do. But here he was. Not sick now, not wasting away, but upright, beautiful. He smiled at her, his face crinkling, his eyes twinkling, and held out his hand.
She was mildly surprised that she could sit up, that she was unhampered by wires and needles and tubes, that she could swing her legs out of the bed like she used to. It felt good. She slipped her feet into her slippers, and stood, straight and tall, all the while holding his lovely, precious face with her eyes.
‘I promised you, Bets’ he said.
And he took her hand, pulled her to him, slid an arm around her waist. She felt the strength of his body as he held her close, his breath on her neck, his fingers as they squeezed hers. Where was the music coming from? Had someone turned on a radio? He was moving now, his feet assured, guiding her, leading her. They were dancing.
She laughed in delight. She followed his every footstep as they moved as one now, twirling, gliding, floating. The room was changing as they covered the floor. They danced towards the doors, the music following them as they spun into another space, and the only sound left behind them was the long high-pitched sustained beeping of a machine, dimming to a drone, a whisper, then lost in the music as they danced on.