Dancing with the Devil

(Again one inspired by the writers group word of the week which was ‘dancing’.  It was fun to write and I hope it at least makes you smile. You can dance like Fred Astaire. But there’s a price to be paid, of course.)

‘Can’t you count Mr Graham?  I would have thought it something of a prerequisite.  You being an accountant.’  Mrs Higgins glared at me, arms folded under her ample bosom.  It needed all the support it could get.

I smiled in return, or at least my mouth  turned up at the corners.  More of an apology of a smile. ‘Yes, Mrs Higgins, I can count.  But you see, it’s my head that’s good with numbers and it’s my feet that are having the problem.’  There was a snigger from the other side of the hall.  A glare from Mrs Higgins lazered across the room.  The sniggerer was all but reduced to a smouldering heap where he stood.  Last week it had been one, two, three, one, two, three.  This week it was one, two, cha, cha, cha, one, two, cha, cha, cha.   Or if you were Mrs Higgins une, deux, cha, cha, cha.  I call her Mrs Higgins, although of course she prefers you pronounce  it Madame ‘Hag – an’.  At least the Hag part has some resonance.  She purports to come from an undisclosed suburb of Paris.  Although, occasionally, when the accent slips it appears Paris must have a suburb called ‘Boot – elle’.

I blame my pal Charlie for that patent shoed torture.  I should have known better than to listen to him.  He and several of my friends were growing ever more concerned at my single status, or perhaps it was jealousy.  Although, not having had a partner for a good number of years, part of me had to agree with them.  And, as they kept saying, I was not getting any younger.  Forty eight, isn’t old though, is it?  I accept that I wasn’t quite the Adonis I used to be.  It was not that I’d put on much weight, more that it was redistributing itself.  And yes my hair was in slow, but I hasten to add, dignified retreat.  Hopefully, to take up an entrenched position, further back on my skull, rather than resorting to waving the white flag altogether.  Anyway, it was Charlie who suggested the dancing lessons. ‘They’ll be stuffed with women,’ he said. ‘Women only too grateful to be wrestled round the floor, by some aging stud.’  Personally, I think he needed to meet Madame ‘Hag-an’.

Eventually, ten o’clock announced itself with a bong of the church hall clock.  I was only slightly more grateful than the four women whose feet I had trodden on, on every other ‘cha’.  I don’t think I have ever apologised quite so much in so short a time.  I grabbed my jacket mumbling a further round of apologies, even to women I hadn’t danced with.  I thought I might build up a store of good will for the future.  I then shuffled and dodged round the edge of hall, avoiding being cut to ribbons by old lazer eyes.  It was the neatest foot work I’d managed all evening.

Outside it was a miserable November evening.  The drizzle hung in the air as if reluctant to hit the pavement, a web of wet clinging to your face.  The street lights were doing little to penetrate the gloom.  As I hurried along, head hunching as far down into my collar as my neck would allow, I was joined by a small man.  I’m about five feet nine and he was a good head shorter than me.  He wore a red beany hat and had a peculiar smell about him.  I tried to ignore him as only we Brits can.  When that didn’t work I quickened my pace.  But he just bounced along a little faster.  Eventually I had to look at him.  He grinned back.  Oh God I thought, not a nutter.  Not tonight, please.

‘You been to them dance classes,’ he said.  A statement rather a question.  I glanced at him, but said nothing.  Don’t engage them.  If you start a conversation it’s limpet time.  ‘Mrs Higgins, or is it still Hag-an, giving you a hard time.  Two left feet eh.’  I glanced down at him again.  Mistake, he took this as encouragement.  ‘I can help,’ he said.

This time I couldn’t help myself.  ‘Oh sure,’ I said.  ‘Don’t tell me, you’re really Fred Astaire?’  The sarcasm was lost on him.

‘No,’ he said, still grinning, and I noticed, revealing remarkably sharp teeth.  ‘but you could be.  Or at least you could dance like him.’

‘What, if I take the funny pills, like you, you mean?’

He refused to be put off.  ‘No, no.  Nothing like that.  Let me explain.  I work for this geezer.  Well he’s the Devil really.’

I stopped, one foot poised in the air, like you see in the cartoons.  It was then that I noticed the other few people around me were frozen in mid walk and the cars had stopped.  Well not stopped, just not moving.  Nothing was.  Not even the rain drops.  I put a hand out and cleared a hole in the damp air.  I also recognised the smell drifting up from the little man, sulphur.

‘Am I dead,’ I said.  I didn’t feel dead.  But then I also didn’t know what dead felt like.

The little man looked horrified.  ‘No, of course not.  What do think we are?’

‘You said you worked for the Devil!’

‘Yes, and don’t we get all the bad press.  I keep saying we should use some of those PR companies we own, get ourselves a better image.  Look, let’s get back to the dancing.  You interested?’

‘At what cost?’

‘Oh, just the usual,’  the little man said, tap dancing around me.  ‘Gene Kelly, Singing in the Rain,’ he added when he’d completed the circuit.  I had to admit he was rather good.

‘My soul you mean.’

‘Look, I know what you’re thinking.  But it’s not that bad.  We’ve had to move with the times.  Think less fire and brimstone, more bad Easy Jet holiday to Ibiza.  And anyway, believe me, heaven’s not all it’s cracked up to be.  In the mean time think of it, twinkle toes.  The look on Madame Hag-an’s face.  The women begging to be your partner and who knows what else, if you get my drift.  Fame and fortune my boy, fame and fortune. ’  The little man had produced a pair of red clogs and was now river dancing in front of me.

‘For my soul,’ I said.

‘Yeah, but we don’t have to decide straight away,’  he said high kicking while turning on the spot.  In my head I could hear the diddly-dee music . ‘That’s the beauty of it,’ he continued.  ‘We do a 28 day, no quibble, free trial.’

‘No quibble,’ I repeated.

‘None what-so-ever.  Sign and you can salsa your way to the future of your dreams.’   In his right hand had appeared a form and in his left a pen.

‘Do you want me to fill it in?’

‘No need,’ he said, elbowing me in the ribs and eyebrows bobbing up and down.  ‘We have all your details on file.’  Without realising it the pen was now in my hand.  ‘Just sign here,…and here,…and here.  That’s right.  Oh ,and I shouldn’t tell you this, but you might want to tick that box.  Then we won’t send you details of any other offers we think you might be interested in.’

I ticked the box and the little man disappeared, leaving only a fading sulpherous odour.  The man behind, cannoned into me.  ‘Sorry,’ he mumbled.  I ignored him.  I tried a couple of steps, une, deux, cha, cha, cha.

The next four weeks were a dancing dream.  I waltzed like a prince.  My Paso Doble struck sparks from my heels and smoke from the floor.  My posture would have shamed a catwalk model.  The elegance of my lines drew tears from those watching.  My flicks and kicks were to die for, darling and I tangoed Mrs Higgin’s until she fainted.  After the first week the ladies were fighting to be my partner, and the little man was right, much more besides.   The only drawback was the tendency to wear gold spandex, sequins and Cuban heels to the office.  It did raise a few eyebrows, but who cares.

And so 28 days later, after an evening  of fox trotting like a ravenous wolf I was walking down the street on yet another dank misty night, when I noticed the world had stopped.  There he was, complete with red beany hat.  I was ready for him.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘It’s been great.  No better than great, fantastic.  The best month of my life.  You wouldn’t believe what some of those ladies would do for a trip round the floor with me.’

The little man grinned, smoke drifting from between his pointy teeth.  ‘What did I tell you.’

I Looked down at him.  ‘Yes, you were right, but I’ve decided not to continue.’  The grin on that impish face faded, replaced by open mouthed shock .  It was my turn to grin.

His eyes widened and a hand covered his mouth.  He paused for a few seconds before peeling away one finger at a time to reveal a broad smile.  ‘Sorry, twinkle toes.  It’s not that simple.’

‘But,…the 28 day no quibble trial,’ I stammered.

‘I said, we didn’t have to decide for 28 days.  Well the 28 days are up and we’ve decided to keep you.’

‘But you implied…’

The little man was doing a soft shoe shuffle on the spot.  ‘Implied, implied?  I work for the Devil, what did you expect?  Didn’t you read the contract?’

‘You said I didn’t have to.’

He did a little heal kick.  ‘Is that what you tell your clients?  Oh, you don’t need to read it, trust me.’  My shoulders sagged.  ‘Cheer up,’ he said taking my hand and twirling under my arm.  ‘Think of the fun you’ll have.’

That was all five years ago.  I sit here now, one of three judges, as the lights fade.  There’s a couple in the middle of the floor in tears, hugging and swaying in time to the closing music.  Am I the only one wondering what it’s all about?   The audience is cheering encouraged by the floor manager waving his arms.  In the middle of the front row is a little man in a red hat waving, pointing and giving me the thumbs up.  The credits roll and another season of ‘Strictly’ is over.

Ian Martyn – October 2012

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