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Saturday, 6 October 2007

Ruth Aldiss

The hall where we had our school dancing lesson



My first experience of girls was at a dancing lesson arranged by the nuns of The Blessed Sacrament and held in a room at Park Lane adjacent to the Church. One dancing lesson would suffice, they thought, to see us through the rest of our lives. Within the hour, we would learn the Fox Trot and perhaps the Waltz.

That evening I was scrubbed and polished. The following day I sat alongside thirty or more other boys, reluctant, afraid but nicely turned out. Facing us were thirty or more girls in long dresses. I was facing the Freeman twins. I didn’t know which one I danced with then, and I don’t know now, but her hands and shoulders were damp with sweat, hers and mine, and we jerked this way and that in a miasma of stale air and soap. Fear and Loathing in Walton Vale would never make it as Film. Flash dancing it wasn’t.

My second experience was Ruth Aldiss, though she didn’t know it, and I never told her. It was lust and love all rolled into one. I put away my Fred Perry Racquet. When I sat next to her I was the Bunsen burner. She had honey blonde hair, the most beautiful lips and I tingled all over whenever she was near. I was only fourteen.

It was an English lesson, presided over by Mr Musker. He was an elegant gentleman who wore green tweed and cavalry twill trousers. His moustache was neatly clipped and so was his voice. He had the appearance of a Hollywood English gentleman, elegant, urbane, and fond of the cane. It was Free Composition, ie write what you like. I was writing a story about a man falling from a plane and discovering his parachute wouldn’t open. I remember the story for only one reason. Ruth Aldiss was bending over me…wanting to know what was going to happen next. Her head was close to mine. From that moment on, I wanted to write. Nothing since has equalled that moment in all my various scribbles, nor will it, whether in terms of financial reward, publishing deal, or general world acclaim. Unless Ruth Aldiss now heads a major publisher…

Nemesis fell like an axe.

“Keyton. You’re talking.”

So was the rest of the class, but examples had to be made. A lesson learnt from World War 11 and every other war, and a fixture now in every school. Mr. Musker took no prisoners. Eight of us were chosen. Two thousand lines to be handed in the following day. I was up until eleven pm and got as far as 1600 when I finally gave up.

“Just hand them in,” my mother said. “He’ll never count them.”

First lesson was Music, which mostly consisted of singing ‘The Ash Tree’ or the occasionally shanty. Mr Brophy was an enthusiastic Yorkshire man with a love of Kathleen Ferrier and English folksongs. He had a red face and a beaky nose, and white hair that rose in the air with his hands as he conducted our singing. Only I couldn’t sing that day. I was thinking of Ruth Aldiss, thinking of the cane. Pleasure and pain.


He’ll never count them. Some words have their own peculiar fragrance of doom. They were counted and found wanting, and I stood in line with the other boys and had six thwacks of the cane on both hands. She was watching and I tried for a swagger. He noticed. His lips tightened. So did mine when the cane came down. My hands were red and tingling so fiercely, I didn’t think of Ruth Aldiss for the rest of the day.

Six weeks later we both left school. I went to a catering college. Someone told me she worked in an office somewhere in Liverpool and got the train from Orrell Station every morning. I took my courage in both hands and carried it as far as Platform 2. I recognised her at once, as beautiful as ever but now sophisticated in a bright pink coat. Girls grow faster than boys, and I knew it was no good. The train came early that day and in a moment she was gone. Life is full of lost chances but you can’t pass that wisdom on.

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