James glanced down at his shoes, polished a few hours before till they shone like his face. A dozen pairs of black wingtip Oxfords and brown leather Brogues rested in chronological order on a shelf, documenting years of dancing with the holes worn in their soles. He stood in front of a full-length mirror, his belly brushing the smudged glass as he tugged his bow tie into place and smoothed the curls of his thinning hair. He smiled at himself, oddly pleased with his portly appearance. Waltzes played in his head as he trotted down the street under the flickering lamplights, whispering, “One, two, three, one, two, three,” in time with the clip of his heels. His heartbeat hastened as he neared the doors flung wide open to the public, beckoning dancers in from the dusky streets. Fingers of light reached out into the night and drew him closer, while strains of music—fast-paced foxtrots and sensuous tangos—melted his shyness, note by note.
Chandeliers glinted from the domed ceiling, collaging the dark floor in shadowy shapes while gossamer skirts muted the light into softness. The women began noticing James halfway through his first dance that night, once his legs were warm and his balance tuned. “Look,” they said in hushed tones, “the old man with the shiny shoes dances wonderfully.”
While their beautiful beaux watched perplexed, James led the chiffon-gowned women, one by one, through a series of masterful spins and perfectly executed steps until their hair, pinned tight and perfect, came loose, wisping around their faces and bare shoulders.
James knew the ache of a life unmarked by love. He began alone in the world, an only child born to an ailing mother. “Hush, hush, don’t wake her,” was all anyone ever said to him in his first years of life. James’ memories of her as she lay dying were edged with the unfocused effect of make-believe. He could not remember her face or the sound of her voice. The solitary child crept unwilling into adolescence during the four years that his father was away in the trenches of France.
A misty London morning seeped cold into James’ clothes as he shuffled to school. Bicycles swerved around automobiles, conducting a chorus of honking in their dusty wake. Children scrambled through the ruins of bombed out buildings, piling half-bricks into forts, and hiding behind heaps of rubble. The Great War was still a raw wound in Britain’s side, and people itched to hurry its healing with new fashions and new ideas. None of that mattered to James as he slouched from math to gym class, laboring under the reluctance of adolescence and introversion. A regular depression descended on his narrow shoulders. He always found that the switch from the comfort of mathematics to the awkward display of his body in gym class left an unpleasant taste in his mouth and tension in his chest.
“Does anyone know where jazz comes from?” the instructor asked her students. “Put away that basketball, we are learning to dance today,” she added, frowning at a boy who was already spinning a ball on his finger. James paled and felt his palms dampen. Instructed to stand in two lines, boys on one side, girls on the other, the students stole furtive glances at each other, searching for signs of acceptance in their partners’ faces. Others feigned boredom, rolling their eyes and scuffing their feet in an act of indifference.
“Hold hands now,” the teacher said as a Dixieland record crackled to life. “Boys with your left foot, girls with your right, and like we just practiced, triple-step and triple step.” The students shuffled one way and then the other, unable to look one another in the eye. James had died a thousand deaths since the beginning of the class. His partner, assigned at random, was one of the prettiest girls he knew, long-lashed and fragrant with lavender soap. Her little pink mouth pursed into what James took to be a smile, and he loved her at once, desperately wiping away the sweat from his palms when she wasn’t watching.
He couldn’t remember how the steps went, but his feet fumbled around obediently. James had never touched a girl’s hands for more than a few accidental seconds before. Now he pressed soft fingertips for minutes on end. He couldn’t help noticing the loveliness of his partner’s slim wrists and the delicate curves of her neck. Straining to hear over the music, he listened to the sound of her breath, panting through parted lips, rhythmic and soft.
The recess bell sent the students scurrying from the gym and out into the pale sunlight. James lingered behind, his hands still damp with unease. He shuffled up to the dance instructor. “Please Miss, I’d like to dance some more, are there any lessons nearby?” he said. Merciful to the unlikely dancer, she suppressed a smile. She drew him near, as if to whisper a wonderful secret in his ear, and gave him directions to an old warehouse where dances took place throughout the week.
Many days stole by after his conversation with the dance instructor. Every Friday evening, sheltered in the shadows across the street, he watched people stream in through the rust-framed doorway of the warehouse. Some were seasoned and grey, bearing themselves with poise, others young and eager, tripping over their brand new shoes bought with a year’s worth of pocket money. James was painfully aware of his shabby clothes. Yet week after week, drawn back like a moth to a flame, he hovered near the threshold of the warehouse. He persisted in this moth-like manner till a sweet-faced woman saw him one night and insisted he come inside.
James stumbled through the first few lessons, his senses staggered by the chaos of people moving about him, saying things to him, and bumping into him when their dance steps collided with his blunderings, offering a kindly “Whoops! Pardon me,” before they continued on their merry way. The steps were impossible at first, but with painstaking progression, the beat of the music began making sense, and his feet found their way through the sequences. James returned to the echoing warehouse to dance every Friday. At first, the other dancers looked at him with charitable half-smiles, encouraging his awkward attempts and guiding him gently. He mumbled his apologies when he trod on someone’s foot or knocked his partner sideways on a spin. There was a mildness in his manner that made the girls comfortable in his arms, unafraid to make mistakes and at ease in their own skin. After a few months of practice, an instructor patted his shoulder, “you’re not a half-bad dancer now my lad.” The burlap-scented warehouse had become his paradise.
James’s father owned a convenience store on a cobbled alley not far from the Wimbledon Courts. Locals frequented the place for penny stamps and sweets and a limited selection of household goods. Now that James was sixteen, his father asked him to do errands on a regular basis, sometimes meeting sugar suppliers on the Thames to increase the next week’s order, or balancing the books and recording profit margins. Often he came to work at the shop after school let out, even more since his father hired Sophie to work behind the counter. She was the same age as James and had just finished her last year of schooling in Barns Green, a countryside village south of London. Seeking employment, she made her way closer and closer to London’s smog-cloaked middle, until she chanced upon the shop.
Sophie was plain, but James only saw the smoothness of her skin and the blue of her eyes, a blue like the sky on a windy day. Upon introduction, her slight fingers reached out from a threadbare sleeve to grasp his hand in an earnest handshake, while her face, animated with trepidation for the booming city, betrayed her need for a companion. A few days later, while James sat in the corner, shuffling bills into order, a movement in the store caught his eye. He saw Sophie leaning close to a woman who was stooped over and gnarled with age. As the old lady croaked out a list, “bread, milk, tea, scones,” Sophie spun around the shop, reaching on tiptoe to whisk something off a shelf one moment, then bowing low to the ground to fetch something else the next. As James watched her slender frame weaving through the store, he felt that she was dancing, bearing loaves of rye in a box step and bottles of milk in a promenade.
Many people James knew treated him with a condescension he had come to loathe. He knew that in their minds he was a motherless child raised without proper etiquette. He was a bashful nobody, an oddity, who would never make much of himself. But Sophie, dear Sophie, was not a local. She treated James just like she treated everyone else.
“How do you do today, Master James?” Sophie asked whenever he visited the store. At first, James could only manage a small nod or the faintest of smiles. With time, he managed to form, “Very well, thank you,” and then, with great effort, “Very well, thank you, and yourself?” to which Sophie would respond with news of the day until James rushed away to regain control of his pounding heart. Once, he had watched a young neighborhood lad walk into the store and ask Sophie if she wanted to go to the pub for a pint later that evening. She accepted, and James felt like he had been punched in the gut. The warm glow that suffused her pale skin after the youth left filled James with an emotion he had never felt before and his gentle hands closed into tight fists.
Later that evening, James danced in the warehouse as usual, but his mind was circling far above the clouds, in the heartrending sphere of first love and envy. “Where are you tonight, James?” a plump woman squinted up at him through her spectacles. Perceiving the dilemma behind his flushed cheeks and far off eyes, she chuckled and pressed his fingers between her own matronly hands when they finished a waltz. “It’ll be alright, laddy. There is always a way to a young woman’s heart. Ask her to a dance, why don’t you?”
James brightened at the prospect. Yes, perhaps Sophie would spin into his world, skirt twirling around her ankles, and dance with him all night if only he had the gumption to ask. The next moment his stomach began churning and boiling with fear. Sophie would reject him, he was sure of it. She would be polite, but inside she would scoff at his audacity and pity him all the more for it. Dark shadows of distress flitted across his face, and he drew away from the warehouse throng to watch their joy from the musty sidelines, feeling lonelier than ever before.
James lay awake at night, thinking of Sophie, trying not to think of Sophie. He was unable to banish visions of taking her hands in his own and floating around the dance floor, twirling her again and again, her eyes glittering with laughter. Then something would go wrong, he would tread on her foot, or she would decide she didn’t like dancing, or worst yet, she’d leave him to dance with one of the better-looking boys in the room. Cold sweat plastered his skin to the sheets. He was afraid to see Sophie now, terribly afraid that those sky blue eyes would never look at him as he looked at her.
Though James had been dreading it for days, the moment finally came when his father asked him to look over the books again. Unable to disobey him, James crept into the shop with downcast eyes later that afternoon. Customers were gossiping with Sophie about the latest neighborhood scandal; she greeted James with a nod of acknowledgment before carrying on with her conversation. Business was booming, and the books were a mess. As he set to work with agitated determination, he caught a reflection of himself in the shop’s window. The window, so cold and impartial, was a cruel mirror. His undefined jawline and crooked nose seemed unbearably ugly. He trembled as he organized receipts, casting furtive glances in Sophie’s direction while she busied herself with closing up shop. She caught him looking at her and smiled at him with all the sweetness James loved her for. An unwelcome heat flushed his freckled skin; there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape.
Sophie drew the shutters down over the window and stepped towards the door to leave. As she turned to bid him goodnight, James looked at her and saw a question in her eyes, a gentle raising of eyebrows that soothed his fluttering heart. The question died away as James stood before her, mute and rigid, and she turned her gaze towards the floor, mumbling goodnight. James knew he had but a single moment to act before she would move away from him forever and remember him but dimly, with little affection. “Will you dance with me tonight?” he asked.
It was the bravest moment of his life.