The spherical woman sat at a table adjacent to and just below the raised wooden platform at the end of the village hall. Constructed to make a stage for visiting acts, it was now all but redundant. Acts rarely visited. The village was too remotely placed and so removed from decent roads that entertainers seldom gave any thought to performing there. The stage standing so sturdily across the far wall had simply become an accommodation space and was usually employed by the dance club as a platform for its sound system.
The woman, Adele, sat alone. Her husband Arthur Evans, aged seventy-one, previously married and divorced three times, father to a precious and eclectic collection of some seven offspring, stood in the seductive half-light talking to a newly arrived younger woman. He stood languidly by her side and leaned nonchalantly to speak quietly into her ear. The timbre of his voice was well-seasoned, reassuringly smooth. For Arthur was a serial ladies’ man and a succession of failed marriages had not cured him of his predilection.
Adele too was divorced, her past equally far from untarnished. She had married Arthur soon after receiving her decree nisi and as quickly as perceived decency would allow, glad of the chance to re-invent herself with another man and terrified by the thought of a life that would otherwise be lived alone. Adele needed to care and be cared for.
What exactly Arthur had found so irresistible in her was unfathomable to all who knew him. She was not the most physically attractive woman one might expect to meet. Adele was grossly overweight and shaped rather like a child’s spinning top. Her legs were anything but shapely although by contrast her feet were pretty. At this moment she was sliding them into silver sequinned dance shoes.
Arthur, still wearing his outdoor jacket, was about to rejoin his latest wife at their table but his attention was unexpectedly diverted by the opening of the hall door. It caused an angular wedge of solid white light to fall across the floor and illuminate the blonde head of another woman of Arthur’s acquaintance. He rushed towards her, tripping over his own feet in his haste, and kissed her cheek enthusiastically.
Adele, dance shoes now secure on her feet, sat back in her chair and looked furtively about, feeling insecure, frightened by her isolation in this dimly lit and desolate part of the hall. Did they not know, these others, that she was not alone, that she was here with a man tonight? But she sensed that they too had noticed Arthur’s secretive conversations with the other women conducted so flagrantly week after tedious week.
But was it only small talk and nothing of any consequence? It seemed more like opportunistic seduction to her. Was he trying to ingratiate himself with them in the way that he had done with her during the prelude to their romance? Were the women sat at the next table, the ones appearing so smug, slim and demure in their slinky evening dresses, smiling with her or smirking at her? Did they possess some secrets perhaps, things that Arthur, her husband, had shared with them but not with her?
‘Shall we waltz, love?’
So engrossed in her own dark and self-poisoning thoughts, Adele had failed to see that he had returned to their table. She had not even been aware that the music had restarted.
‘Two waltzes,’ Stan, the dance club announcer, declared over the public-address system, his voice crackling through the cheap microphone.
‘Why not,’ she mewed.
Adele struggled to her feet and, placing one hand loosely like a limp paper tissue in Arthur’s own, she extracted her massive rear from the profiled seat base. They strutted together across the old parquet flooring into the centre of the dance floor, one peacock and one round domestic hen, and assumed a stiff ballroom pose. Quickly they picked out the musical beat and began to synchronise the movements of their feet within it, and from a standing start it sent them whirling around the room, turning in elegant and expansive artistic circles. Just after they had completed their first movements, Arthur felt it necessary to lean in to the couple next to them, a shapely, very striking brunette and her rather nondescript partner, and with flashing eyes slyly whisper words of encouragement to the woman. He stopped abruptly and began explaining to the bemused duo how their interpretation of the dance was flawed. With polite indifference the young couple listened and watched his explanatory movements, closely feigning an interest but in truth only respectfully deferring to the wisdom of their ancient instructor out of courtesy.
Adele now disengaged from her husband’s embrace and stood like a lonely skittle next to him, trying her best to sidestep the circling couples and avoid being trodden on or smashed into as a result of their energetic gyrations.
This familiar routine continued throughout the dance and the next waltz too, this periodic suspension of Adele’s enjoyment, as Arthur felt it incumbent upon him to point out the errors in the other dancer’s routines and correct their steps accordingly. Sometimes Adele was commandeered to help him demonstrate: the promenade, the weave and so on, but mostly she was left alone, cast adrift like some superfluous mooring buoy in a busy shipping lane.
At last they returned to their table, content to sit through the party samba and the endless foxtrots. Adele reached into her shoe bag and withdrew her plastic fan, a souvenir of their Cretan holiday, and began beating at the air, trying to induce a refreshing breeze. She had always referred to their Cretan week dreamily as her honeymoon, but in fact it was just a holiday taken rather conveniently close to her marriage.
With tight-shut eyes she beat the heat away until her wrist ached with the effort. When she opened them again she found that she was once more alone. But her natural female curiosity led her eyes towards the glow emanating from the open serving hatch of the small annexe where the dancers could get drinks. She noticed that Arthur was standing inside and muttering to two women, a friendly arm around the waist of each. Sisters, Adele knew them to be. Both blonde and both attractive, as the quickened beating of her jealous heart reminded her.
The blank-faced women at the next table looked at Adele, their painted lips clearly playing with unasked questions.
Were they mocking her? Were they? Was that how it was? Was Arthur’s integrity being re-examined yet again? There had been scurrilous mutterings concerning the completeness of their relationship heard at the club throughout the year. Things had been said, hurtful things, concerning Arthur’s steadfastness, spoken mischievously and seasoned with a little malevolence. Just as women often do in their private conversations, conducted just loud enough to be overheard, the effect searched for in Adele’s face, the slow erosion of her self-esteem eagerly sought out.
Arthur did not return to their table right away. He had taken one of the sisters out onto the dance floor and was performing an exuberant jive with her to the music of Elvis Presley. His flailing arms and legs were everywhere at once, engendering an illusion of complete detachment from his body or perhaps a tipsy marionette. Adele could only watch sullenly as a unity appeared to be developing between the couple, one more intimate than the strictures of the dance dictated.
The woman released a small chain of squeals as Arthur twisted and spun her violently, first one way and then another, encouraging her limbs into even more expansive contortions. He had never danced so wildly, so enthusiastically, with Adele, his own wife.
At last they left the floor behind them and Arthur collapsed like a thrown rag doll into his chair. A vast area of sweat-sodden cotton clung to his back like loose skin and his over-heated head burned beacon bright above it. Adele poured him out a glass of tepid water.
The music began again. It was another jive.
‘Shall we do this one?’ he asked, but Adele was not really built for jiving. Her size made such movements inelegant, her weight a contributing element to her bouts of agonising breathlessness which would inevitably follow such extreme exertions. She shook her head, all too aware of the consequence.
‘Suit yourself, then.’
With a smile and an outstretched hand, he gently raised the other sister from her seat and escorted her up onto the floor where they waited expectantly for the music to begin again. This time it seemed louder than before with the beat more defined. This made for a furious dance, one that necessitated its execution in triple-step time.
Arthur was struggling. This nightmarish pace and the devilish twists were too fast for him. This was a dance for a much younger man, one for the lean and fit whom such actions would not leave panting for breath, nonplussed, dizzy. But Arthur would not listen to the murmurings of his body nor give in to his advancing years. He would never give up. After all, the ladies would expect nothing less of him, and he would continue in the dance, executing these twirls and whirls like a Dervish despite the ever-deepening pain in his lungs, the corrosive burning in his heart, the aching in his calves and the cramping of certain of his toes. There were rivulets of salty sweat tumbling through his white hair, gumming the thinning strands to his head, rolling from his brow into his eyes and almost blinding him in the process. But still he flew and leapt about the floor like an earth-bound sprite, throwing his legs wildly about, first to one side and then the other, his free hand whipping at the air and turning in it like some diabolical windmill.
Adele watched him from her table, wondering why she had ever married him. She knew why but she did not truly love him, not in the physical sense nor in any cerebral sense either. Love would have been a bonus. They were company for each other but nothing more. Just two dogs sharing a kennel. He had come to her after a life lived and with all passion spent. That much at least was true.
There were things about him that she admired, but there was also so much that she did not.
She had so desperately needed a man to cling too, any man if she was being honest; a man to help define her as a woman. Adele could not be alone, a Ying without a Yang. She had always needed someone to belong to. It was imperative. Someone to nest with, happy to extend to the world a pretence that here was a couple so deeply in love, even though she knew that the reality was obvious. Their marriage was a convenience, a carefully contrived act to fool fools, an illusion of a late love affair and nothing more. Arthur had needed a home and she could certainly provide that, whilst he would reciprocate by offering his masculine strength and emotional support to her. Yes, and perhaps a small measure of affection too. Everyone has needs there, though some more than others perhaps.
Marriage for everyone is a compromise. Adele was all too aware of that. So why then did her own marriage feel more like a total capitulation? She was giving so much of herself – everything, in fact – and yet Arthur treated her simply as an extension of himself, something acquired to bring stability and order into his erratic life.
She could no longer see him. The dancers had thrown a palisade of bodies around the couple, shielding them from the general view, clapping rhythmically like ecstatic sea lions and shouting encouragements to the now cocooned jiving pair. And Adele now knew for certain that their marriage had been a mistake. The unending adoration of women was vital to Arthur. Even more so now that age was withering his body, stripping him of his looks and strength.
She was aware that companionship was the only glue holding them together, and tenuously at that, but even so she should have been enough for him – more than enough. He had nothing to prove any more. But Adele knew that he would never give it up. No one woman could ever be enough for him.
But what was to be done? Surely at this late stage in life she must live with the consequences or face a very uncertain future alone. That was a state that she had never before experienced and she did not delight in the thought of it now. But loneliness is only a state of mind, surely, and she knew that now with her daughters and grandchildren nearby she would only ever be truly alone if she chose to be.
Her eldest had advised against the marriage from the start but it would not bring her any comfort to know that she had been right all along. Adele could manage without Arthur, she knew that, and given time she might learn to enjoy her single life, find her true identity and the strengths commensurate with age and maturity. And anyway, it is never too late in life to discover new friendships.
Suddenly a volley of feminine screams, terrifyingly loud, cut through the curtain of noise and heat. Some of the encircling crowd had wrenched their phones open and were frantically stabbing at the keys with sticky fingers as they corkscrewed about the hall, searching in the space for a usable signal. The knot of watchers standing by, astonished and confused, had quickly unravelled and in the midst of them Arthur lay inert on the floor. A contorted, twisted heap. A pile of ancient bones wrapped in a parchment hide. The wild dance had proved too much for his heart.
The dancers looked frantically about them, investigating the shadows, looking for poor Adele. But she was not to be found. For she had collected her raincoat and left the hall quite some time ago.
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