Authors: Olive Senior
Tags: #Dancing Lessons
Â Â Â Â Â Lessons
Â Â Â Â Â Lessons
a novel by
The ladies, in particular, ought to dance with a sort of amiable circumspection and a becoming grace, which, indeed, add to their charms, and heighten their attractions. Gentlemen ought always to be attentive to their partners, and they should all of them move in unison in every step and attitude.
The Ball-Room Bijou, and Art of Dancing â¦
with Rules for Polite Behaviour
To Earl Senior and Fay Harrison,
who were there from the start
Â Â Â Â Â Lessons
HOW WAS I TO
know he had a bad heart? All I wanted was to dance one more time in my life. I heard the music playing in his room that was right across from mine and something came over me, a joyous feeling that I had had in my life only once before, so I went over and asked him to dance. What's so wrong with that? It's true he had just moved in and we hadn't been properly introduced. But I didn't “drag him around and assault him and cause him to freak out and have an attack,” as Matron told Celia in this overly dramatic mimsey-mamsey way of hers, all hands and eyebrows and jangling earrings and shoulders working.
She believed it, of course. Not that she said anything, in that lawyer-ish way of hers. Nothing showing on her face. I sat there like a schoolgirl in Matron's most uncomfortable chair trying to look comfortable. My arms and legs crossed. I didn't say a word. I never do. One thing I've learnt in life is to hold my tongue. Which is why She knows nothing. Though O how I cringe every time that scene pops up before my eyes, the most embarrassing moment of my life, a momentâI might addâtotally and absolutely out of character. I truly, truly do not know what made me do it, me, the shyest person on earth. But how will they know that, since I have no intention of confessing?
It was madness! But once that raucous music bounced through his open door across the hallway and snaked into mine, my shoulders started to twist, my hips started to shake, my feet started to beat a staccato across the polished mahogany floor.
“Come, come,” I remember saying to him, arms outstretched as I belted out the words that came back to me after all those years:
If you wanna go crazy and act the clown
Be the laughing stock all over town
That's YOUR RED WAGON â¦
I certainly didn't drag him around, as Matron claims, though I did try on one of my spins to clasp his hands in mine. But I could see he was an unwilling partner and I continued to dance and sing by myself:
That's YOUR RED WAGON
So just keep dragging YOUR RED WAGON along â¦
The music swooped to a sudden stop and I found myself standing in this strange man's room, with him looking as frightened as a little brown mouse and me hot and red as a pomegranate. He gaped at me, his mouth opening and closing, but what he said I do not know, for I fled to my room and slammed the door. O my Lord!
Maybe I did frighten him, for he's built on the compact side and I'm a bit taller, but Matron doesn't have to make me out to be such a clodhopping giant. To be honest, I am a teeny bit bigger than I was before I came here, for I've been eating and eating ever since. Am I going to turn down good food prepared and served by someone else at exactly the same time every day? I spend my day waiting for my meals. I don't understand all these people here complaining and picking at what they are served, but I ignore them and wipe my plate clean. Let them skin up their noses all they want, especially those three who share a table with me.
We sit at these little round tables with lovely china and real linen napkins that remind me of the only thing that was nice about my childhood. It's like heaven to me. But of course I don't let them know that, those three Pancake Sisters From Hell. Names of Ruby, Babe, and Birdie, if you can believe it. They are not really sisters, but have been friends all their lives. Killed off their husbands I'm sure so they could end up here together at Ellesmere Lodge gossiping and betting on the races and drinking martinis and playing bridge. They are as alike as gungo peas in a pod. They look like dried gungo peas too, their skin yellow and speckled with brown splotches all over and their hair pulled off their foreheads and puffed up and dyed this wishy-washy brownish blonde like their skin so that their heads look round like pancakes flat on the plate before the maple syrup.
It's funny, I had never had pancakes before, but it was the very first breakfast that was served to me here at Ellesmere Lodge. I gazed down at my plate that morning and was so struck by the resemblance I nearly died laughing inside. I could tell they noticed the little smile on my face, for they couldn't take their eyes off me. I'm good at taking in everything, even when I have my head down. But I just kept on eating and ignoring them. Who are they fooling anyway, thinking they're so elegant and aristocratic, always on about Daddy and School and Sister-This and Sister-That as if they are still seven years old, not ten times that (at least!), but let's not bother with them. It's She I am concerned about. She is now so thin she is almost at vanishing point, and if she vanished, what would I do? I poke that thought down every time it comes to the surface for I don't even know where the others are anymore, Junior and Lise. I know Shirley is in a cemetery in Brooklyn I'll never see. Never a word from the others. The odd Christmas or birthday card. A hundred-dollar bill enclosed. She is the only one who cares. Well, not cares really, I don't think she cares, but she shames easily and so she wouldn't want anyone to know I'm living on the street, would she?
NOT LIVING ON THE
street exactly, but I would have been perfectly happy staying down there in the country with the old wooden house collapsing around me, battered and torn apart by the hurricane. It's what I'm used to, isn't it? Hardship. Hardship and lies. A pummelling from life every way I turn. O, I'm nicely set up here, everyone would say, Ellesmere Lodge, ha! The Best Retirement Home in the city, in the whole of Jamaica, in the British West Indies, the World! Though from the way Matron treats some of us, well, one of us exactly, you'd think we were in boarding school. It's certainly the most expensive, the one where all the rich people park their parents. And that's the trouble, isn't it? They're not used to someone like me. From the time I came, I could hear them sniggering behind my back, eyeing my work-hardened hands, my large awkward feet, my brown calico skin coarse as a grater. Inviting me to their stupid teas just to watch my hands tremble as I handle the delicate china cup. Though She tried, I have to give her that, she tried her best to get me fixed up for this place. Threw out all my old clothes and bought me lots of new ones. Everything new: suitcase, underwear, toothbrush, the lot. Not allowed to bring a single thing from my old life. Okay, a lot of it was rain-soaked, but it was she who made me throw it all out. Nothing old to be brought here. Except myself. And that's the trouble, for it's really myself she doesn't want.
She took me to the hairdresser for a smart cut, and this woman, herself sharp as glass plastered with makeup, is going snip-snip and feeding her all the shards of gossip and all the time under her hands I feel her contempt as if she would snip-snip my head off too for someone as unfashionable as me daring to come into her place. I'm not beautiful, don't think I don't know it, which is why She also took me to this place to have them give me facials and rub my skin with all kinds of oily gobs and do my nails and put lipstick and eyebrow pencil on. Ha, me, who has never used more than Pond's Vanishing Cream, well, Jergens maybe, and a little dab of face powder.
Now you see all this expensive stuff She keeps buying me, perfumes and such that I don't touch littering my dressing table, but it comes in useful when I want to curry favour with one of the girls who works here. Or even Winston, the miserable gardener, who will take the fancy box of soap or the perfume for his daughter, he says, though everyone knows it's for some young girl he is chasing. But what do I care, if he doesn't tell about my picking the Bombay mangoes off Matron's very own tree. She only claims it's hers because it is by her little cottage, which is on the Ellesmere Lodge grounds. I think she talks to those mangoes at night they grow so fat and beautiful and inviting! For what else does she have to do once she has finished terrorizing us (well, one of us). Winston tells her anyway, the old goat, to save his skin, but by that time I've ripened them in brown paper inside the shoebox at the top of my clothes cupboard and they are well and truly eaten. Vanished evidence. It does pay to say nothing. Even when caught in a stickup.
I nearly died laughing inside at the scene played out later right by the mango tree. Me and Matron. The mango caught my eye and she caught me! I admit I was lurking, but what right had she to be going into her cottage at that hour of the day when she is supposed to be at work? There I was, gazing up at the shiny ripe mango right at the top of the tree. A red-gold sun that waved at me as I went for my morning walk. It pulled my feet in that direction. I picked up the crook-stick that was conveniently lying there on the ground and was positioning it properly in relation to the mango when a banshee wail sliced the morning and a fury in acid colours barged into my angle of vision.
The stick could have been a snake, I dropped it so fast. My heart fell clear to my foot-bottom but I kept my head; I stood up straight and looked innocently around as if searching for a lost sheep. To buy myself time. This couldn't be me, caught in the act.
“Mrs. Samphire â¦ ask you â¦” I was forced to focus on Matron, who was now waving her arms around and screwing up her face. “â¦ leave my mangoes alone.” Orange-coloured sandals (bronze metallic toenails!) came to a halt inches away from my own feet, which had suddenly attracted my scrutiny. I hoped I looked contrite. Matron paused then, as if she expected me to say something, but I didn't. Such a long pause took the wind out of the sleeves of her caftan and she finished rather lamely, dropping her hands to her side. “And stop. Asking Winston. Think I don't know. What's going on.” Long pause until she managed to fill her sails again and wave her finger at me, but I could tell she was trapped between annoyance and the consciousness that when all was said and done, I was still a Resident. With a capital R, for that's how the rest of them acted. She ended rather sulkily: “My private space. No right. Out of bounds. Must I put up a sign?”