“He was a good dancer”: New Zealand, in the time of the supper waltz
The girl stood in the doorway for a second, saw what she was looking for, then slipped inside the hall doors to the corner where shadows were not quelled by the bright electric light bulbs hanging on black cords from the ceiling. She was wearing the old sandshoes and the faded blue dress so she was thankful for the shadows. The rubber soles might stink in the hot weather but here on a cool Autumn night, they were exactly what she needed. They made no sound as she tip-toed to the seat. It was awkward and the muscles at the back of her lower legs hurt after four steps but once she got to the corner and sat down in the shadows, she was thankful she’d ignored the sting. She had thought of nothing else all week, had worked everything out, and here she was safe. No-one had noticed.
When the man in the navy-blue suit, said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your partners for the supper waltz,” she relaxed, a tentative smile appeared. She had done it. She would hear Bluey play.
The MC stood to introduce the band. Why did he do that? Everyone knew who they were. “Pianist Mr Paddy O’Rourke,” and Mr O’Rourke stood up, “Mrs O’Rourke on the fiddle,” and Mrs O’Rourke smiled and nodded, “and on mouth organ, Mr Bluey Jenkins,” and Bluey stood up, waved his mouth organ at the crowd and sat down again. Bluey’s real name was Charles, but he had red hair.
The girl smiled and sat up straight. Bluey was her friend. Her only friend. He was old, her mother’s age, but he was her friend. He didn’t mind the sandshoes, the old dresses and what was better, her mother said it was okay to hang around with Bluey when she was at the beach. “Good bloke, Bluey,” her mother said. Bluey gave them fish sometimes and occasionally a bag of apples. “Fell off the tree,” he said to Mum as he handed them over. He said that every time. On the girl’s ninth birthday, two weeks ago, he’d given her a peach and an orange. Her mother had made her a cake and given her a book. The book wasn’t new but that didn’t matter, it was a book. And it was hers. And she liked Agatha Christie.
“Sorry it’s not a mouth organ,” Mum said, “but maybe Christmas”.
Maybe usually meant it would happen. She knew mouth organs were dear. Bluey said he was keeping his eyes skinned for one.
She was glad Bluey had told her he’d be playing at the social. She had not asked her mother if she could go because she knew what the answer would be.
Bluey had not wanted to do it. “Lotta rot,” he told her as they sat on two upturned wooden crates outside his hut near the beach. “He’s not the sort of chap who likes a fuss,” he said, “must get sick of everyone fawnin’ around. Lotta rot. But,” he added, “Michael Joseph likes dancing. Bound to have one.”
She’d met Bluey one day a couple of years ago when she was seven. She’d been standing staring at the sea and he’d come over and said, “Now girl, you’re Rima’s kid?”
She nodded and prepared to run.
“No, no,” he said, “you’re not in trouble. Just saying you be careful of that Harry Preston, you hear me? Stop hanging around with him, he’s bad news with kids.”
“He gave me a piece of fish in batter,” she said.
“Knew your dad,” he said, “telling you. Harry’s trouble. You listening?”
“Yes Mr Jenkins.”
“Bluey’s the name,” he said. “You hear what I’m saying?”
“Yes – Bluey,” she said.
He nodded. “Good girl.”
He went to move away and quickly, before she could second think it, she said, “Mister-ah-Bluey, would you teach me to play the mouth organ?”
“You got one?”
“No. Mum said maybe Christmas. Depends on the work.”
“She still weeding for old Bill Price?”
He nodded, said, “See what I can do.” And then he walked off.
Sitting here in this corner, she started to feel safe. It was a feeling she didn’t get very often. Here, though, where everyone’s attention was on the man standing at the stage end of the hall, talking to Mr Salter, President of the Broadmeadows Branch, all eyes were on him, no-one was taking any notice of her. She relaxed.
Women were quietly putting plates of food on the starched white tablecloths covering the tables set up down the middle of the hall. That day kids had been given rags and bits of blanket, and allowed to skate up and down the hall, which had been scattered with white powder, to help make it shiny and good for dancing. The Prime Minister liked dancing and it was hoped he would dance at least one. Probably with the President’s wife, but who knew?
Women had been baking all week except for fruit cakes. Fruit cakes had been baked three or four weeks before because they tasted better for keeping and as long as your safe was flyproof, you could keep them for weeks. Everyone knew the longer you kept a fruit cake the better it tasted. Half a cup of sherry or even a full cup sprinkled over it guaranteed a full, rich flavour. You had to keep it in the air too. Not shut it away in a tin because when the weather was hot like this, a tin encouraged mould so you kept it in the safe and every day you scattered a few more drops of sherry or if you could afford it, brandy, over the top. The idea seemed to be, her mother said, to weight it so heavily with booze that after a couple of bites you’d be so shickered you wouldn’t know if it was good or bad.
“Waste of time anyway,” her mother had added, “he doesn’t drink. He’ll take one mouthful and that’ll be it.”
But she admitted that it was right to keep the cake in the safe uncovered. Nothing to lose because ants had no trouble getting inside a tin, covered or not. And if one ant was seen on the cake you could guarantee a million of its friends had already been there so a lid was a waste of time. Yes, ants were bad, blowflies worse, but if there were no holes in the netting and as long as everyone who opened the safe remembered to shut it, all would be well. There had been a hideous incident once at some other public gathering in honour of someone else nearly as important as tonight’s guest of honour and as he lifted a piece of fruitcake to his lips one of the ladies on the committee had seen some flyblow and had to run to the outside dunny and be sick. Everyone held their breath for a week but the man didn’t die so they all relaxed. That was in summer though. Autumn now so it should be all right.
There were some tuning noises from the stage. All show Bluey said. They knew their instruments were in tune, would have checked them before the show opened and even if one slipped a little it was quickly adjusted. “Mary’s top class,” he said.
“You’re pretty good, too,” the girl told him.
Bluey had just grinned. “Pass with a push,” he said.
The room waited. The two men stopped talking and the visitor nodded to the Mayor. He wasn’t as tall as Mr Walker but he had a nice face. His eyes swept round the room. He wouldn’t know because he wasn’t local but there had been a lot of talk about who he would ask to dance. Viola Walker, the Mayor’s wife was obvious but there was also the wife of the local Chair of the local branch. Mum had said the poor bugger might even be conned into asking Florrie Smith for a dance. She’d been secretary long enough and Mum could see she deserved it but the woman weighed a ton and couldn’t dance anyway, and one thing for sure, Michael Joseph was a good dancer so it was only fair he should get a decent dance partner.
“You’re a good dancer,” the girl said.
Her mother’s face had softened and she’d said, “Once maybe.”
Three chords sounded from the piano.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” said the MC, Mr Laidlaw, “please take your partners for the Supper Waltz.” Mr Laidlaw had the grocery.
“Likes the sound of his own voice,” Mum said. “Like all men.”
“Not Bluey,” the girl said.
“No,” Mum agreed, “not Bluey.”
In the hall couples stood together and waited. Paddy O’Rourke tinkled the keys, Mary O’Rourke smiled, snuggled the fiddle into her neck, waited. Bluey sat, the harmonica held in his hand, tuned and ready to go.
The visitor glanced around, realised they were all waiting on him. He smiled at the band, nodded and they began to play. Red Sails in the Sunset. The girl’s absolute favourite.
Red Sails in the Sunset
Way out on the sea
Oh carry my loved one
Home safely to me.
The Honoured Guest looked briefly up at the stage, smiled at the players, then turned and began walking. He wasn’t very tall but you knew he was someone. Strong looking shoulders too. Mum said he’d been a hard worker, a labourer, which was why he spoke the same language. “Knows what it is to be hard up,” her mother said.
He walked down the hall. Everyone watched and waited. The girl sank as far back in the shadows as she could and watched Bluey. He was playing and he looked happy. He had that same look of concentration when he was waiting for a fish to bite. He’d said she could sit and wait beside him but only if she didn’t talk. The fish were put off by talkers and so was Bluey. When she’d asked him who taught him to play the mouth organ, he looked at her like she was crazy. “Taught meself,” he said, “no bugger was going to teach me for nothing so if I wanted to play I had to teach meself.”
She’d wondered and it took a couple of weeks before she said, “Are you saying I should teach myself, Bluey?”
He was silent for a minute, maybe longer, then he said, “Nah. Different times, Girl, different times.” He looked out over the water. “Your Mum used to live next door. Knew your Dad too.”
The visitor in the suit continued down the hall. It looked to the girl like he knew where he was going.
Then he veered over towards the corner where the girl sat and she knew who he’d chosen now. Kitty Dallow. The prettiest girl in town. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Slim figure and what was best of all, a great dancer. There’d been bets placed whether it would be Kitty, Barbara, the Chair’s wife, or Joan, the Mayor’s wife. The odds were on Joan, but Kitty had quite a respectable number.
“May I have the pleasure?”
The girl heard the words but had already turned to watch Kitty so she would see them start to dance. But Kitty was looking at her. Everyone was looking towards her corner. Bugger, she thought. They’ve seen me. She wasn’t allowed to swear but no-one could hear a thought.
“Excuse me,” said a voice and she swivelled round, looked up. The Guest of Honour was standing in front of her.
He was standing in front of her?
Not Kitty, not the Mayor’s wife, but her. Did he mean her?
He smiled and nodded, held out a hand.
So she stood up.
Her mother had said, “You stand up and smile, no matter who it is. Poor, rich, well-dressed, badly dressed. You give everyone one chance. If they can’t dance then you know and you don’t bother with them again.”
He placed his left arm around her shoulders and took her right hand in his, stood still for a moment, then they began to waltz. She knew how to waltz. Mum had taught her when the music came on the radio. Her mother liked to dance and didn’t mind taking the man’s part. She’d said that the girl was her safest choice of partner and besides all girls should know how to dance.
Swift wings you must borrow
Head straight for the shore
We Marry tomorrow
And you’ll go sailing no more
Red Sails in the sunset…
The Guest of Honour danced well. Her mother had said. “You give everyone one go. If they’re any good, you dance with them again. If they’re not, then you don’t.” Then her mother had smiled. “Unless you like them of course.”
The Guest of Honour moved well. Mum said men who went to dances could be divided into clodfoots and men who knew what they were doing. “The world is full of clodfoots,” she said.
Mum would have liked dancing with this one. He knew what he was doing.
“You like dancing?” said the Guest of Honour.
“Yes,” said the girl.
They were near the stage by now and when she looked up Bluey was looking. He winked at her and, right there and then it was like it was her birthday, or Dad had come back, or her mother had found enough money for a mouth organ. That wink meant Bluey was pleased about something. Maybe he’d found a mouth organ for her or perhaps he’d decided to teach her to play the mouth organ? Yes. She smiled up at the Guest of Honour and he smiled back. She felt like she could dance forever. It didn’t matter about the awful sandshoes, or the old dress, or the way people looked at her. Nothing mattered except the music, the dance, and that Bluey would teach her to play. She couldn’t help it, she smiled again at the Guest of Honour and said, “You’re a good dancer.”
He smiled back. “I had a good teacher,” he said.
The mouth organ played on. Bluey sounded wonderful. Mrs O’Rourke played like an angel and Mr O’Rourke’s piano melded its notes between, both leading and supporting them like Mum said, a good partner should. “Not many around,” her mother said, “most of them want to lead”.
“Was Dad a good dancer?” the girl asked.
Her mother had smiled. “Not bad,” she said, which was high praise from Mum.
The music wound up for the end of the dance. Three or four more turns and it stopped. They were back in the corner.
“Thank you,” said the Guest of Honour. “Give my regards to your mother.”
She smiled, nodded, dropped her head. She did not know what to say. Mum had not said she knew him. She sat with her head down and waited until everyone began moving to the supper table, then she stood up, eased her way around those who were waiting to see whose cake he chose, and just as she was going out the door she looked back.
Bluey was standing beside the Guest of Honour. They were shaking hands. Then they both turned towards the table and as the girl slipped out she saw Bluey had grabbed a sausage roll.
When she got home the lights were on in her bedroom so it was no good trying to sneak in. She opened the back door and her mother said, “Well? Did you hear him play? Hope you think it was worth it when you’ve done all the dishes on your own for a week. Now get to bed.” She picked up the kettle and filled it at the sink.
“Mum, the Guest of Honour said to give you his regards.”
“Did he just,” said her mother, and smiled as she carried the kettle to the stove. She picked up the poker and wriggled it round among the wood, the flames leapt up. She shut the little door and turned.
“He’s a good dancer,” the girl said.
“Mmn.” Her mother got out her tobacco and papers. “Might have one last smoke,” she said, and sat on the couch, “you get washed and clean your teeth, then off to bed”.
Her mother sat on the couch, smoked and stared into the distance. There was a slight curve to her lips though so whatever she was thinking about wasn’t a worry.
In the bathroom the girl looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were shining. She smiled at the girl in the mirror. “Bluey will teach me to play”, she whispered. The girl in the mirror smiled back.
The girl walked back into the kitchen. “He was a good dancer,” she said.
“He was, was he,” her mother blew smoke through her lips.
“Said he had a good teacher.”
“Is that right,” her mother said and smiled into the distance.
“Goodnight Mum,” said the girl.
She got into her nightie and got into bed. She didn’t care about the dishes all week, although she hated doing the meat dish, but what did that matter? She had done it. She’d heard Bluey play. And she was pretty sure he would teach her to play too which meant he must have found a mouth organ for her.
Next week’s short story is “The Difficult Art” by Anthony Lapwood, from his newly published collection of short stories Home Theatre, published by Te Herenga Waka University Press.