“A Song and Dance Proposition, ” a short story by Richard Moore, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 63rd Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.
photo of Morris Dancers via joogleberry.com
A Song and Dance Proposition
by Richard Moore
…..When I was seven, my mum invited Miss Parr to sing for the family at Christmas. My mum played the piano and aunts and uncles, cousins and grand-parents were invited.
….. I believe Miss Parr might have been my mum’s piano teacher when my mum was a child, I don’t know, but what I do know is that Miss Parr was very old (at least to a child), very tall and very thin. She had jet black hair tied in a bun on the top of her head, and a goatee beard. This beard quivered and quavered, dancing in time to her quivering, quavering soprano voice.
….. It was my cousin, Maggie, who started things off, when she couldn’t stifle her laughter any longer and she started squealing. This set me off and most the other children, as dogs might set one another off barking.
….. My dad herded with clouts the squealing children into the kitchen and told us not to come out before firmly closing the door on us, from where, though, we could still hear Miss Parr sing faintly and in our minds see that dancing beard; in return Miss Parr and the other adults no doubt could hear our squeals of muffled laughter.
….. I don’t know if it had anything to do with Miss Parr but by the following Easter, my dad had left. Gone. All of a sudden. Just like that. In those days many parents didn’t feel the need to offer any explanation to their children and when I asked if he was coming back and my mum casually said, ‘No, he’s not’, I started crying.
….. ‘Not coming back! I don’t want him to not come back,’ I bawled.
….. ‘Don’t make such a song and dance about it,’ was all my mum said and gave me a clip round the ear.
….. Soon I had a step-father and my mum took me to see him Morris Dancing on May Day. He looked quite ridiculous in his knee-length black trousers and white socks and shirt, waving a hankie in one hand and a stick in the other which he bashed against other dancers’ sticks, making a rhythmic clacking sound, which was accompanied by the tinkling of bell pads tied around their shins as they pranced around. He looked so ludicrous, they all did, and to think this man had replaced my dad.
….. I rebelled and refused to dance in any shape or form after that, clumping all dance forms together. Two step, tango, jive or Good Golly Miss Molly it was all the same to me.
….. To make matters worse, not long after this, when I was with my ‘new’ family in a department store, I spotted my dad with Miss Parr, arm in arm, near the perfume counter.
….. I felt sick and shortly after, my singing voice — I was a child soprano in both the school and church choirs — was supplanted by something croaky and flat and my music teacher at school and my choirmaster at church told me to mime, which I did, opening and closing my mouth like a goldfish with no sound coming out.
….. So I would neither sing nor dance, though that didn’t seem to bother Janet, my wife-to-be. At the weekly dance nights at our village hall, while I sat on the sidelines with my half-pint of shandy, she would make her way from the dance floor to sit on my lap where she wriggled her own little dance and sang in my ear until finally I married her.
….. I was ashamed of my singing voice and wouldn’t sing throughout my married life, nor dance for that matter, until, well until there were two exceptions. The first was when I found out Janet was having an affair and I got drunk one Saturday dinnertime in the pub. I returned home and lay on the bed in my clothes singing a song that was popular when we were courting: Frankie Laine’s ‘I Believe’. I believe for everyone who goes astray, I caterwauled at the top of my drunken voice until someone slammed the bedroom door on me.
….. The following morning I crept sheepishly about the house but felt a small liberation inside of me.
….. Not long after this, at my eldest son’s wedding reception, with Janet there, accompanied by her new partner, I did a drunken ‘dad’ dance in an act of defiance. The top part of my body swung at the hips, one hand raised as if brandishing a stick, the other dangling as if waving a white hankie of surrender, while below the hips my leaden legs could hardly move, my feet taking it in turns to rise on tiptoe and fall.
….. Something was boiling inside of me and though things soon died down, after a quarter century of being a ‘family’ man, I took to drinking in bars after I’d finished at the office.
….. It was in the bar of the Bull and Bear Hotel, out on a country road a good few miles from my village, that I first clapped eyes on the Song and Dance Man. The bar was a plush throwback to a faded time with a grand piano set in a wooden square amid the lush red carpet and potted palm trees.
….. The pianist was smart in top hat and tails but the song and dance man himself was small in a suit too baggy and too big. He had a pencil moustache and goatee beard, his black hair slicked back over his high domed head and his face was white with make-up and black around the eyes.
….. His performance was one that seemed to be on the wane too. His singing was high and quavery and his tap dancing painfully slow. He used a stick to help tap out the beat on the wooden boards and the songs he sang drooped from a bygone time — Dancing in the Dark, Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me) and Life’s A Funny Proposition After all.
….. There was something so melancholic about the performance that I felt like crying in my beer. There weren’t many in the audience in the first place and most of those that were drifted away during the performance. I was drunk at the bar by the time he finished and was about to phone for a taxi to take me home, when to my surprise, the little song and dance man clambered up on to the stool next to mine and the barman said to him, ‘The usual, Iris?’
….. Glancing across at him, I said, ‘Unusual name for a man, Iris?’
….. ‘I’m not a man,’ he said, turning to look at me and, looking at him close, getting a whiff of his perfume, registering that high voice, it was obvious he wasn’t. ‘Does it bother you?’ he said.
….. ‘No. Mind you, I fancied you when I thought you were a man,’ I said.
….. ‘And what about now?’ she said and ripped her moustache and beard off and then slid her wig off and plonked it on the counter to reveal her head wasn’t domed but much flatter as her real red hair fell in ringlets down to her shoulders. She shook her head, perhaps to get it to fall in place without having to comb it. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘what do you think?’
….. ‘Even better,’ I said.
….. The bartender brought her gin and tonic and we moved from the high stools to more comfortable low leather soft chairs.
….. She told me she had a residency for the summer at the hotel, five nights a week, courtesy of the manager who was an old friend of hers.
….. Then she told me she was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. ‘I want to keep going as long as I can,’ she said. ‘It’s been my life. It’s who I am.’
….. We looked at each other closer. In the dim light of that hotel bar, I guessed she was a bit younger than me. ‘Wasn’t it a bit before your time, song and dance men?’
….. ‘I suppose so, but when I was a kid my parents took me to the pictures to see those old musicals with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and I knew since I was six, wedged between them in the cinema, that that was what I wanted to do, if just to get away from them. I mean, what kind of parents take a six-year old to see films like that? And I’ve been all over the world,’ she said. ‘I’ve done cruise ships, the States, the Caribbean, the Med. What about you? Did you have childhood dreams?’
….. I told her about my no sing, no dance life.
….. ‘Sad,’ she said.
….. ‘Are you with anyone?’ I said.
….. ‘No. I mean, who’s going to take on someone with multiple sclerosis? But if you fancy it, I’ve got a room here tonight.’
….. I was drunk and up in her room she told me that the room was part of the deal, that the manager had been her lover many moons ago, before she set sail, that, like a sailor she’d had lovers of all colours and genders in different ports, but she’d never settled down because she’d been married to her life on the stage.
….. ‘I hadn’t been expecting this, though, this MS thing,’ she said. ‘I imagined dying on stage when I was dead old and my corpse being dragged off by the feet. Ha ha!’
….. ‘And I imagined growing really old with Janet,’ I said, ‘with lots of little grandchildren.’
….. Then I told her my youngest had just flown the coop saying I was a drunk, and she was ashamed of me and wouldn’t be seeing me again any time soon, so now I lived alone.
….. That summer I went to see Iris regularly and one night, up in her room, she said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do when this gig finishes come September.’
….. So come September she was shacked up with me at my place where she still danced in private with an audience of one — me. But in the years that followed, as her condition got worse, her dances became slower with smaller steps, her knees barely bending, the toes of her feet not leaving the floor, and she usually looked as if she was about to fall and sometimes she did.
….. ‘I do it because one day I won’t be able to,’ she said as I was picking her up one time.
….. She invited me several times to dance with her.
….. ‘Drop your inhibitions,’ she said, ‘and dance!’
….. ‘I like being your spectator,’ I replied and Iris didn’t push me but gave me space.
….. Years passed and when she was in a wheelchair, she said to me, ‘You know what, now I can’t dance, I think you should dance for me to compensate.’
….. Images of Morris dancers and ‘dad’ dancing flashed through my mind and it took a few months for the idea to filter through to action. It was May Day and we were relaxing in the garden after our barbecue, the smell of burnt beef burgers in the air, enjoying the evening sunshine and smoking cannabis, something which Iris had introduced me to. It relieved her pain and got us both high.
….. Birds tweeted from nearby trees, clouds drifted, the sky changed from blue to pink, the sun from yellow to orange, when we were startled out of our reverie by music blasted out from next door: a disco version of Singing in the Rain by Sheila & B. Devotion, and, as if someone had prodded a wild animal with a stick, I leapt up and abandoned myself to a wild dance, drooping with hands crossed on knees before bursting into a star shape, hands waving free, spinning across the grass.
….. Iris was laughing, and at the end of the dance, clapped and shouted ‘Bravo!’. And when she stopped the sound of clapping still echoed in the air, until I looked up and saw Bobby and Billy, next door’s teenagers, leaning out their bedroom window, clapping, and when they saw me looking their way, Bobby shouted, ‘Nice one, pops!’
….. After this, I often danced for Iris and sometimes with her, tipping her wheelchair backwards and spinning her around, pushing and pulling her this way and that, changing the tempo — slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Push, push, pull, pull, push. Or, with me standing on her footrest, one arm on each of her armrests and Iris grabbing me round the waist, resting her cheek against my midriff, we did our own wheelchair tango.
….. During one mad and delirious dance, fueled by one too many cannabis cookies, both of us bonkers, I tipped her out the wheelchair and all out of breath I lay down beside her on the carpet, panting, looking up at the ceiling.
….. When she stopped giggling, she looked across at me and said, ‘You know what’s sad? We’ve been together now for years and I’ve never heard you sing?’
….. ‘I can’t sing,’ I said. ‘I haven’t sang since I was seven.’
….. ‘I’d love to hear you sing,’ she said.
….. ‘You wouldn’t if you heard me.’
….. I looked across at her, belly down on the carpet, rolled her over, then hauled her up to a sitting position with her back to the sofa.
….. ‘Never mind all that,’ she said. ‘Just sing! Sing! You repressed person.’
….. I went over to the record player and put Gene Kelly on, Singing in the Rain.
….. ‘My favourite,’ she said, sounding all soothed. ‘I first heard this when I was about six.’
….. And then I started singing along and to my surprise I wondered if I didn’t sound too bad after all.
….. ‘Hark at you,’ Iris said. ‘The crooner that filled a lacuna.’
….. And so now, I often sing with Iris in my crooner’s voice and she’s often told me, ‘It wouldn’t matter to me if you sing in tune or not. I just want to hear you sing.’
….. So we sing together and we sing for each other, two pariahs from our own families. Iris’s parents had disowned her many moons ago despite the fact that they were the ones who took her to the musicals that inspired her. But they were old school and they didn’t like what they considered her wanton behaviour and the shame they thought it brought on their family.
….. I’d phoned my children to let them know about Iris not long after she’d moved in with me. Only I told them Iris was a man.
….. My youngest, Amy, the one who’d said that I was a drunk and was ashamed of me, said, ‘Dad, that’s disgusting. No wonder Mum left you.’
….. Still, it brought her ’round, with her boyfriend, out of curiosity I should think. Iris was in full male impersonator costume but it didn’t fool Amy, who, when Iris was in the bathroom, whispered to me, ‘Are you sure it’s a man?’ and I burst out laughing.
….. ‘Does it matter?’ I said.
….. ‘It’s embarrassing.’
….. ‘Your grandad married a woman with a beard,’ I said.
….. Amy looked at me non-plussed and finally said, ‘She hasn’t got a beard.’
….. ‘She did have,’ I said, ‘When I first clapped eyes on her. And it danced!’
….. When Iris returned, I said ‘The game’s up,’ and she peeled her moustache and beard and wig off.
….. My eldest came ’round too with his wife and two children. The general opinion among the family was that it was very noble of me to shack up with someone with multiple sclerosis but that Iris was weird and so was I, and they kept their distance.
….. But we have each other to sing to, Iris and me, and from time to time one of her old showbizzy friends turns up and they’ll reminisce about life on stage and how life did indeed turn out to be a funny proposition after all; and then we might sing a few songs together round the gas fire if it’s winter, or out in the garden with the barbecue if it’s summer, like old-timers round a camp fire.
Richard Moore is a writer of short stories, novellas and poetry. His work has featured or is upcoming in Passager Journal, Last Stanza Poetry Journal and inScribe Journal. He lives in Nottingham, UK, likes books, music and film (and, he writes, “loves Jerry Jazz Musician”).
Listen to Gene Kelly “Singin’ in the Rain,” from the 1952 film of the same name [Water Tower Music]
Click here to read “Company,” Anastasia Jill’s winning story in the 63rd Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
Click here for details about the upcoming 65th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
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