"Thirty-five women and five men? That cant be bad," said Sammy Wilson to himself when he decided to take up country dancing at the age of seventy-two, little knowing that his past would catch up with him.
His ex-school secretary first suggested the idea. They were both now retired from school and had become firm friends. No longer "Mr. Wilson" and "Mrs. Clarke," they were now "Sammy" and "Cynthia."
"Come along. Im sure youll enjoy it," said Cynthia. "Pat Drakes a marvellous teacher. And were short of men!"
So Sammy found himself standing in the doorway of a school hall, together with Cynthia and her husband Harry (one of the "Magnificent Five"), wondering, not for the first time, what hed let himself in for. It was bedlam! Groups of elderly ladies, chattering away fifteen to the dozen and obviously having a whale of a time. Sammy looked around for the men and eventually spotted all four of them, widely dispersed, two with their wives (or was it lady friends?), the other two sitting together, deep in seemly conversation.
At that moment there was an authoritarian cry from one end of the hall, and Sammy saw Mrs. Drake for the first time: a large lady with a pleasant smile and a no-nonsense air about her. She was dressed in a knitted twin set and low-heeled shoes, and her calves were massive!
"Come along now, ladies," she called. "Jacks Maggot. Sets of four!"
Sammy refused to visualise a tin of smelly, wriggling fish bait and watched, fascinated at the transformation. Still chattering away like mad, the ladies each grabbed a partner and formed themselves into orderly lines, facing each other. Sammy noticed that the four men had been snatched up and realised that the correct proportions of ladies were acting as men.
Suddenly there was a loud chord of music, and Sammy saw the pianist for the first time. Hands poised above the piano keys, an intense lady, sparse hair scraped back into a bun, looked expectantly at the teacher through half-spectacles. She and Mrs. Drake were obviously very used to working together.
"Well sit this one out," said Cynthia, "and youll get some idea what its all about." And with that, she commandeered three of the chairs spaced round the walls of the hall.
"I know weve done this before," said Mrs. Drake to the lines of ladies, " but as we have a newcomer--and a man at that--Ill call you through it. Im sure that Mr. Wilson will find it interesting." And with that she smiled a toothy smile at Sammy. There was something about the smile that struck a chord in Sammy; indeed, there was something about Mrs. Drake herself that seemed familiar.
And then the gobbledegook started!
"Right, ladies! Sets of four, men improper. Set to your partner. Set to your corner. Turn single. Hole in the wall. Star right, full circle. Half figure of eight. Ones cast."
Sammy sat entranced as he watched the dancers follow Mrs. Drakes instructions with evident enjoyment and a great deal of levity. Intricate patterns were formed as people circled, advanced, retreated, and changed places until Sammys head was in a whirl.
Mrs. Drake then clapped her hands with authority. "Right! Back to your places. Now with the music! Thank you, Joyce!"
The pianists hands came down, and she started to play a most attractive lilting, skipping tune that soon had Sammys feet tapping. The dancers moved to the tutors instructions and weaved their intricate way through "Jacks Maggot." After a while Sammy realised that the music repeated itself, as did the dancers patterns, and what at first had seemed chaotic was, in fact, carefully structured. Sammy was most impressed. The dance appealed to his sense of order and was beautiful to watch.
The dance came to an end amidst a renewed burst of enthusiastic chatter, and Sammy realised that it was to be repeated. Suddenly he felt his hand grasped and was pulled out of his chair by a diminutive old lady with twinkling eyes who dragged him into position with tremendous vigour.
"We heard you were to join us," she said happily. "My names Sybil. Youre going to love this. Thats it. Stand there. Youre improper."
Sammy felt almost impelled to check his flies. Improper? In what way? And then he realised that the word had something to do with his position in the set of four.
A cry came from the top of the hall: "Good for you, Sybil!" called Pat Drake. "Are we all ready?"
The music started again, and Sammys brain went into top gear. Following his partners example, he bowed to her as Mrs. Drake ordered them to "Set!" and then he was away. Pushed and chivvied by the other three members of his group, he backed and filled and gyrated, his mind in a whirl. After a while he began to get the hang of things and relaxed slightly, trying to put some grace into his actions.
All too soon the dance was finished. Little Sybil pulled Sammy towards her impulsively and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, much to Sammys surprise and secret delight.
Sammy hardly had time to re-seat himself before he was approached again, this time by a willowy lady with a languid air and large feet who chaperoned him through another set of musical figures, following Mrs. Drakes shouted instructions.
As the dancing progressed, Sammy came to the conclusion that Pat Drake was a genius. How she could remember so many dances with so many figures was completely beyond him. And in spite of her bulk she was as light as a feather on her feet, sometimes joining in a dance while still calling out crystal-clear instructions.
In the middle of the evening, everything except the chatter stopped for tea. Mrs. Drake joined Sammy and his two companions round a small green baize table. Again she gave him that slightly amused look. "You dont remember me, do you?" accused the teacher with a smile. "You know, I wouldnt be here now if it wasnt for you."
Sammy felt unaccountably guilty, "I know you from somewhere," he confessed. "Ive been trying to place you all evening. I must be getting old. My memory!"
"Well, its not surprising, really. Its almost thirty years ago. Im Patty Greaves, that was. You were my teacher at Willow Lane. Im sure you remember the Black and White Minstrel Show. I was the little girl that cried. Well, big girl really, I suppose."
Sammys mind flashed back over the years. The School's Musical Festival held in the towns lovely theatre, now long gone. And one of Sammys minor musical triumphs. Following the appearance of the professional company, Sammy had devised a minstrel show of his own as his schools contribution to the festival.
And yes, he remembered Patty Greaves, the big girl that cried. He also remembered Pattys mother and the painful interview that followed his refusal to let Patty join the chorus line. But she was so very clumsy! And big! Luckily the headmaster had backed him up.
But Pat Drake was explaining. "That was when my mum let me enrol for Peggy Suttons School of Dancing. Id been asking her for years. So you see, you did me a good turn."
Sammy felt crestfallen, but Mrs. Drake laughed and said. "Dont worry. It was a long time ago. And Ill get my own back. Im the teacher now. And Ill forgive you on one condition. That youll let me call you Sammy. We did at school, you know, behind your back. Strict Sammy!" Then she leaned forward with a smile and pinched his cheek!
Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.