When she came out of the bathroom, the man was standing at the top of the stairs, holding a stocking stretched between both hands.
Sheila and her friend Brenda had been Mecca dancing. It had been a good evening. Sheila had worn a close-fitting dress of black and gold. Her long hair, tinted to a coppery auburn, was piled on top of her head, with Grecian-like tresses at the sides, and a heavy fringe. She wore black, seamless stockings, and black stiletto-heeled shoes. Brenda wore a blue dress with a tight-fitting bodice and a full skirt. Her short curly hair accentuated her round full face, and she carried a white bag to match her shoes. At nineteen, she was two years older than Sheila. It had been fun getting ready together in the bathroom of Sheila’s parents’ house. It was a large room, the cast-iron bath now panelled in, but the large washbasin easily recognisable as Victorian. The enormous marble-topped washstand had been used for their array of cosmetics.
“I wonder if there’ll be anyone there worth getting off with,” Brenda had said.
“There isn’t usually,” responded Sheila, “but tonight could be our lucky night ! Can I put on some of your ‘Evening in Paris’?”
“ ‘Course. I wonder if your mum will phone again. She hasn’t rung since Wednesday, so she might.”
“She’ll leave it till tomorrow. They’ll be too busy tonight. That hotel always has a ‘do’ on a Saturday night.”
“I bet it’s dead boring,” Brenda said.
“Well, they are forty-odd, so what can you expect? Your left seam is crooked. I don’t know why you don’t wear these seamless ones. They’re a lot easier.”
“Because,” said Brenda, “because boys like to imagine going up the seam to the top!”
The girls collapsed with giggles.
“Stop it, Brenda. You’re making my mascara run.”
That had been the last time Sheila had been in the bathroom – until now.
At the dance hall, Brenda and Sheila had left their duster coats with the cloakroom attendant, and put their numbered tickets in their bras, getting their hands covered in scented talcum powder in the process. They had jostled for position in front of the gilt-framed mirrors, pushed about by other girls, all eager to make last-minute adjustments, which might make all the difference between getting off, or being a failure.
The two girls had teetered out towards the dance floor, absorbing the charged atmosphere which made their weekend worthwhile, and the anticipation of it the one thing getting them through the dreary week. Around the edge of the ballroom stood various young men, some of them alone, some in groups; some of them in a state of inebriation, some not; all of them with their eyes fixed on the gyrating mass of young women that filled the dance-floor. The girls danced in pairs, rocking and rolling, shaking their hips and bottoms, twirling round to show more leg than was decent, with a glimpse of stocking-tops and suspenders if the boys were lucky, and the skirts very full. Overhead, the many-faceted witch-ball rotated, the coloured lights bouncing back off it; and higher still the balloons were contained in nets, ready to be dropped onto the dancers at the end of the evening’s entertainment. The band, which comprised six dinner-jacketed men and their conductor, was on the stage, playing the strict tempo rhythms for the excited crowds.
Brenda and Sheila pushed through to the dance-floor, and started to dance together.
“Let’s dance round the edge, and see if we can see any talent,” Sheila yelled at the top of her voice. Brenda could hardly hear above the noise from the band and from the people. Experience, though, indicated to her what was required. Gradually, the two worked their way round the room, never faltering in their well-rehearsed steps. Brenda, taller as well as older, danced ‘man’, which gave her more chance to scrutinise the watchers. Sheila had to concentrate on keeping her balance as she swirled and twirled on her four-inch heels.
“Stop here,” yelled Brenda; and the two girls ceased their progression, and danced on the spot, thrusting out their breasts and exaggerating their hip movements. The recipients of their bounty were two young men of about twenty-three. They were lounging either side of one of the pseudo-Grecian pillars which stood at twelve-foot intervals round the edge of the floor, supporting the balcony. These two young men were unusual in that Brenda and Sheila had never seen them before. They were sure they’d have remembered had they done so.
The taller one, immediately earmarked for Brenda, had dark floppy hair, a lanky build, and no spots – always a bonus. He was ordinary-but-pleasant looking, and wore a tweed sports jacket, grey flannel trousers, and a dark striped tie.
“Yours is a bit of all-right, really handsome,” said Sheila to Brenda, in a ten-second pause between numbers.
“Isn’t he just! But yours is dead good-looking too,” Brenda replied loyally, as was expected.
Sheila secretly thought ‘hers’ was the better bargain. He was very dark, almost Mediterranean looking, with short straight dark hair, brown eyes, and full lips. He was smartly dressed in a dark grey ‘office’ sort of suit, with a plain tie. Secretly, Sheila was relieved to have found someone so ‘respectable’. Both she and Brenda were aware, though they never spoke of it, that they were ‘slumming’ it, coming here. Their parents thought the two girls went to church socials or the Town Hall dances on Saturday nights. Sheila’s had objected when she’d wanted to go to the Young Conservatives’ Ball at the Mecca, but had relented in the end. It was that occasion which had given her the taste for it. She had loved the heady atmosphere. Now on a touring holiday in Scotland, her parents had left her at home with her older friend Brenda, with strict instructions not to get into any mischief, and only go to social events they would approve of. Brenda had promised faithfully to look after her. Brenda’s parents, away in Scarborough for a fortnight, had been happy for their daughter to stay with Sheila. Their views and those of Sheila’s parents were interchangeable.
Although they would never admit it, the two girls were glad to have spotted two possible partners who would conform to what was expected in their world. They would not have been at ease with the teddy-boy types who hung around chewing gum, and talking like Tommy Steele. Dirk Bogarde was more what they wanted.
Around ten o’clock, the lights dimmed, and the band changed its tune. En masse, the waiting males heaved themselves forward, and slouched into the arena to accost the maidens of their choice, some removing their gum first, some not.
“Are you dancing?” might seem a silly question to the recently gyrating horde; but it was charged with significance. If you were fortunate, another question later might be, “Can I walk you home?”, and she’d have struck lucky, and could look her friends in the eye, triumphant for the night.
Brenda and Sheila were not disappointed. Their chosen swains approached them, the taller to Brenda as desired, and next minute they were separated, Brenda waltzing with Alan, and Sheila with Stephen. Conversation of a sort went on, and Brenda learned that Alan was a draughtsman – at the bottom end of what her parents would think acceptable, but scraping in, nonetheless. Sheila’s new boyfriend claimed to be at University, but Sheila reserved judgment on that, as she herself frequently told the same story when she said she was nineteen. Not many young men of twenty-three, her preferred age in a man, wanted to go out with a schoolgirl of seventeen. It was all right for Brenda. She was at teacher-training college, and could therefore tell the truth.
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The surprising thing, both girls found, was that Alan and Stephen had not known each other, were, in fact, standing by each other purely by chance. It had certainly been a stroke of luck.
In the cloakroom at the end the two girls hatched their plans.
“Look, why don’t I go back home tonight?” said Brenda, “Then we’ll each have a house to ourselves.”
“All right,” said Sheila. The thought of being alone in the house with a boy was so exciting she felt almost sick with anticipation. Perhaps this would be the person she’d marry; someone who’d love her forever. There was a fluttery sensation in the pit of her stomach, and her legs felt peculiar. “I wish I’d got some other shoes with me, my feet are killing me,” was all she said, though.
“I’ll come back round tomorrow before ten,” said Brenda in her practical fashion, “so that if your mum rings up I’ll be there and can speak to her. But if she rings before that, tell her I’ve just gone back home to check everything’s OK, and I’m meeting you at church.”
“Oh, Brenda, you think of everything, thank goodness. Isn’t this exciting? I hope none of the neighbours see us, going in with lads.”
“They’ll have their curtains drawn, most of them will be in bed, or else they’ll be watching ‘Seventy-Seven, Sunset Strip’, said Brenda.
And so it proved. No-one was looking out. No-one saw anything.
Back at home, Sheila had made some coffee, and she and Stephen had sat in the kitchen to drink it. The cat had glared balefully at Stephen, who had commandeered its chair, but then had stalked off somewhere, so they were alone.
Sheila wasn’t sure if being alone in the house with Stephen was as exciting as she’d anticipated. He seemed quieter, less self-assured, nervous even, now no-one else was there.
However, they’d spent some time kissing and fumbling around in the hallway before he went, and he’d asked her to go to the pictures with him on Tuesday, to see ‘A Night to Remember.’ She had said she would, and they arranged to meet in front of the main post office in the town centre.
After a last lingering kiss, Stephen went down the path, and turned into the road. The cat shot past Sheila’s legs as she stood in the doorway, watching him go.
“Bother. Come here, Spot. Spot, Spot, Spot!” she called, quietly so as not to disturb anyone. This was really annoying. Spot had skin trouble, and had to be kept in.
Sheila noticed it was starting to rain. Good. It meant Spot would not want to be outside long. She wondered if Stephen might come back to borrow an umbrella. He wasn’t wearing a coat, and he wouldn’t want to spoil his good suit. She stood in the doorway and waited for a few minutes, but neither Spot nor Stephen appeared.
She decided to go to the bathroom before calling the cat again. She put the outside door on the catch.
Next morning, Brenda was awakened by the phone ringing. It went on and on. Bleary-eyed, she stumbled out of bed and looked at her clock. Oh no! Eleven o’clock! This would be Sheila, wondering what had happened, and where she was. Well, it had been a wonderful evening. She really thought this might be it. She knew she had fallen in love, and thought Alan might feel the same about her. It had been three o’clock before he’d gone, they’d had so much to talk about. She hugged her happiness to her as she made her way downstairs to the phone, which was still ringing shrilly.
“Brenda!” said the voice at the other end. It took her a few seconds to realise it wasn’t Sheila, but Sheila’s mother.
“Thank goodness you’re there. I’ve been trying to contact Sheila. You’d better break the news to her gently. Her father’s had a heart attack. He’s in Ayr General Hospital, but I think he’s over the worst. I rang and rang our house earlier, but there’s no answer, so I thought perhaps you’d gone to the early morning service, so I rang the vicar to try to get hold of Sheila there. When he said he hadn’t seen you, I decided to try your house. Oh, I’m so relieved you’re both there!”
Sheila’s mother began to cry. “I was beginning to think something awful might have happened. Thank goodness you’re both safe.”