There are about fifty armchairs arranged in a circle, about forty women and only five or six men. Dad, Mini and I hesitate at the door. It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday night, it’s Homecove court’s monthly meet up in the communal lounge and it’s Dad’s first time which is why I’m accompanying him. The sign in the foyer said to bring drink and nibbles. Dad’s contribution to the party is a half bottle of flat lemonade. I am relieved he hasn’t attempted nibbles. I have brought along a box of Milk Tray which reminds me of men in balaclavas. I hope the ladies will love Milk Tray. In his flat, before we came, Dad had said, “Gawd, blimey, Milk Tray? That’s too much!”
There is one small sofa in the room unoccupied and I throw Mini on it and grab the adjacent armchair for Dad. A man behind a massive organ/keyboard/CD-deck thing is playing war-time songs really loud. He is one of Homecove court’s three managers and resident Dee-Jay. I am glad I have Mini for my entertainment. I make her take around the Milk Tray. I promise she can have one herself after. I hope people are thinking she is cute and not, what are these people doing here? They are not over 55!
“Is it someone’s birthday?” One lady asks kindly. She has a big, gummy smile.
“My Dad has just moved in.”
“Wonderful!” She tells her friends and they nod at each other and laugh.
I prod Mini to keep going. “Offer them around. To everyone. Yes, him too.”
One lady drops her chocolate. I wait for her to pick it up, and then notice her hands are shaking too much and she can’t bend. The chocolate has rolled under her chair though. I can’t get down there. I say, “Oh dear,” and when she refuses a replacement, I shove Mini to the next person.
We’ll meet again is playing. Dad says to me, “I bet you don’t know this.”
“Course I do,” I snap. He starts talking to his neighbours. Then he turns back to me. “This is Joan and Harry.”
“Hello Joan, Hello Harry,” I say.
When they turn away, he whispers, “They are not a couple though.”
“Oh, ok,” I say, “and?”
Mini loops the room once again with our chocolate ice-breakers to sounds from the 1950’s. The same people say yes. The same people say no. The same people ignore us.
One woman asks me. “Where’s your dads flat?”
“Seventh floor,” I say. Am I expected to say the number?
“At the front or at the back?” she asks, her hand on my wrist.
“The back.” She loses interest. I think it’s because Dad has no sea-views.
One of the men takes a chocolate. He says to Mini. “Look!” A quick sleight of the hand and the chocolate disappears. Mini and I are spell bound. Wow! Then he produces it from her ear. She is so young that she almost doesn’t know how odd that is.
I say, “that’s great!” and he winks. “Thank you.”
The dee-jay puts on some 60’s music: Like a bouncing ball, I’ll come bouncing back to you.
A group of four women get up and to my surprise, they start dancing. Not in my wildest dreams, did I imagine there would be dancing. Mini gets up and starts twirling around too.
The woman next to me chats. As Dad would say, “boy, she can chat!’ She is an outsider too. Her sister though, has lived here for 17 years – since she was 60. I want to say she doesn’t look a day over 75.
Dad grins at me. “I’m going to dance.”
“Really?” I say incredulously, I mean what about me?
“Are you coming?”
The idea of dancing fills me with horror. I am back, thirteen, at the school disco and wanting to cry.
“What about your knee?” I hiss. Don’t abandon me.
He says, “it’s only shuffling.” Sheesh.
He gets up and joins the ladies but just as he does so, a six foot tall smart Grandad comes in to the room, and there is a veritable frisson among the dancers as he takes to the floor. Alpha Grandad has working knees and hips and he knows all the steps. I worry for Dad – he has never looked smaller – but what Dad lacks in height he makes up for in thick skin – he shuffles away happily unaware of the Adonis in his midst. Then, Mini joins them and I am scared she is going to trip people over, although if she trips over Alpha Grandad that won’t be so bad. She does roly polys in the centre of the floor. I feel too self-conscious to move and wonder what’s the matter with me – the only middle-ager in the room – I am both too old and too young to join in.
At the end of the song, Dad sits, a bit puffed: “Did you see? They loved dancing with me.”
“With the other fella, you mean!” I say, but he claims he didn’t notice him. Mr Dee-Jay puts on some music, from the 70s now, and a few more ladies take to the floor. Alpha Grandad busts some moves. He looks like a pudding in a plum, plum, plum.
Harry and Jean have fallen asleep in their armchairs and Harry is snoring gently. (They are not a couple though) It is 8.30 pm.
My neighbour, however is neither dancer, nor sleeper, and she is talking again. She has to shout for me to hear her and I have to shout back. I think she says she loves whist and bingo nights. Or maybe she wishes there were more rubbish collections. I bellow, “this is great fun, isn’t it!” I watch Mini cavort around unselfconsciously. It is a gift to be that uninhibited. Even so, I wish I hadn’t let her dress herself today. In her brown trousers and bulky cardigan, she looks like a spherical something from the Milk Tray box.
“And everyone here is very nice?” I enquire loudly as the music moves on to the 1980’s. What an original dee-jay!
“Oh yes. See that woman,” my neighbour shouts, pointing to the loveliest lady of all, the one who pulled her friend with the shaky hands out her chair when she couldn’t lever herself up. I think she looks like my mum might have done.”When she first came here, she cried all day long and wouldn’t even leave her room. Her husband had just died and she missed her family so much. Now look at her.”
I do. Suddenly, I find the sight of this smiling woman who after so much pain is dancing her heart out to Abba, so beautiful that momentarily I am lost for words.