Many Happy Returns by Gillian Williams

       It was her birthday. Sadie had already opened a bottle of Sauterne. Before going into the garden she had raised a glass in a toast to her reflection in the mirror above the kitchen sink. Then, wine glass in hand she had settled on her patio, lounging among the cushions of the chaise longue. Rays of a warm September late afternoon sun filtered through the foliage of the oak tree at the side of the house, dappling the tartan blanket placed across her knees.
      
       She had set her favourite CD to play. Through the open window, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice purred huskily in the air around her. “Every time we say goodbye, I cry a little”, the singer crooned. Sadie surrendered herself to Cole Porter’s music; music from college days; from fifty years ago. She and her roommates had played their vinyl edition of the same Song Book until its groove had taken on a dull grey hue, the sound had developed a strange gravelly hiss, and they all knew the lyrics by heart. As she listened she longed not only to sing but also to be able to glide across a dance floor again. Ella’s voice was urging her to dance the slow foxtrot. But Sadie knew as she hummed along with the melody, that her clear soprano voice had sadly faded years ago and these days her elderly body would not be capable of any vigorous movement, no matter how slow the fox trot was.

       She reminded herself that she had discovered an enjoyment of ballroom dancing when she was eighteen years old, not long before she started college in the university city of Bristol. At the beginning of the first term, in an attempt to meet new friends she had spent several Friday evenings in a long low rather shabby dance hall at the top of Black Boy Hill. At that time, knowing nobody in the city apart from her new roommates, she had chosen to be brave and had walked alone into the crowd that had gathered for the weekly dance. Beneath cigarette smoke that swirled lazily around subdued lights hanging in the dust of a shadowy ceiling, eager dancers had shuffled, waiting for the young man in charge of the sound system to welcome them, introduce the first record and signal their move onto the dance floor.

       That evening Elvis was the DJ’s first choice; his ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ guaranteed to set the dancers jiving wildly. Periodically he slowed the pace by inserting a waltz, quick step, fox trot or even a cha, cha, cha so that the dancers could catch their breath.

       It was during one of those lulls that Sadie had met the tall, slim, dark haired man. Appearing slightly older than most of the dancers on the floor, he had approached her. He was smiling as he graciously held out his hand.

       “Could I have this dance please?’ he had asked.

       Trying not to appear flustered, and hoping desperately that she could remember the dancing lessons she had taken before leaving for college, she had smiled demurely and taken his hand.

       Nat King Cole was singing, “Fascination”; a slow fox trot.

       The tall stranger had guided her onto the floor. She had placed her left hand on his right shoulder as elegantly as she could. Gazing in a pseudo professionally haughty manner over her own left shoulder, as dancers on television had demonstrated, she had rested her other hand lightly in the palm of his left hand. In one quick movement, holding her firmly in the small of her back, her partner had held her body tightly against his and propelled them around the dance floor as one. At the time it had been a most startling yet thrilling experience. In fact after half a century she could still recall details of those sensations. As the product of a sheltered boarding school, she could not recall ever being that close to a male. Her feet had followed every swooping step. Thigh to thigh, pelvis to pelvis they had swirled and pivoted dramatically. At the end of the dance he had thanked her and returned her calmly to the spot where she had been standing. Both were breathless. Later on, when it was again time for the dancers to unwind, he had returned and together they had danced a quick step to Judy Garland’s frantic rendition of “Putting on the Ritz”. Once more his lead had been powerful; their feet precise, nimble and quick. Again she was very aware of their closeness.

       For the next four Fridays, Sadie had returned, scanning the room expectantly for her dark young man. Each time she had not been disappointed. Her mysterious partner had chosen to ask her for a waltz or quick step or a fox trot; sometimes all three. As usual she was exhilarated. But not once did they hold a conversation. Each did not ask the other’s name. Their silence bothered her but she was too shy to address him. She had wondered whether his enjoyment had been as great as hers. Had he been as conscious of their physical closeness as she? What was she supposed to do? How naïve she had been.

       She was not to know that her questions would never be answered. At the beginning of the sixth week, one of Sadie’s roommates had invited her on a double date. It had been planned for Friday evening. There, in a pub, she had met Don, her late, beloved husband. They had made arrangements to meet again, and again and again. She had never returned to the dance hall. Her mysterious dark-haired partner had slipped into the background. He had become an exciting memory.

       Her Don was a complete contrast. He would never become a ballroom dancer. Instead Sadie had enthusiastically taken up fishing. She had learned to like trekking in the rain across local hillsides and to go camping. She had learned almost enough about Rugby to consider herself an authority on that game; although Don would have argued otherwise when he was alive.

       Chuckling at that thought, she had picked up her glass from the concrete beneath her chair and sipped the wine. She grimaced. It was warm.

       Gathering her blanket, she turned to walk back into the house. Suddenly the side gate to the garden flew open. Two tousled young men, sweating profusely, dropped their bicycles on the grass and hurried towards her.

       “Hi Gran. Happy Birthday! Mom and Dad here yet?” shouted the taller one.

       With that, her younger daughter’s face had appeared in her kitchen window.

       “Hi Mom! Many Happy Returns! I’ve brought the burgers and Bob will come out and light the BBQ.”

       The first members of her family had arrived. Ella Fitzgerald in Repeat mode, was still singing of another era. Thoughts of dancing with her dark haired partner had receded but memories were held just below the surface. She could retrieve them whenever she felt an urge to dance.

       For the moment life in the present was fine.

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