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Stella took a swipe at Sadie but it didn’t connect.

‘Now that’s enough, both of you,’ ordered Mrs Raven-scroft, not as loudly as the girls but in an authoritative tone that demanded obedience.

‘Sadie Ravenscroft, I’ll thump you when Mam’s not looking.’

Sadie stuck out a long pink tongue through thin, compressed lips. After returning it to its standard position, she said, ‘It’s true, Mam. She’s in love with Tommy Moran.’ She looked up at her mother, expecting to see her faint.

‘I’m not, Mam, honest I’m not.’ The swelling vein on Stella’s forehead was joined by one on either side of her neck.

Mrs Ravenscroft could see her daughter trying to control her tears of embarrassment and quickly recalled the many events of her own awkward youth.

‘Well,’ she sighed, and both girls looked up to her. ‘I don’t see anything wrong with that. Tommy’s a nice boy, and if I was a young woman again I think I might give him a kiss.’

Sadie’s mouth fell open and Stella at once grew in confidence and stature. ‘In any case,’ said Stella, ‘our Sadie’s in love with Colin Moran, and he’s got a runny nose.’ Sadie began to boil inside. ‘And his nickname’s Sniffer.’ And now Sadie’s eyes nearly left her face with shock.

‘OOH!’ she swooned. ‘Ooh, Mam, I’m not, I’m not. I can’t stand him; he’s ’orrid.’ Her cheeks reddened like highly polished apples.

‘He’s a nice boy as well,’ said their mother, ‘so stop teasing each other.’

‘You like everybody,’ said Sadie in a frustrated voice.

‘Quite right, too,’ she replied. ‘And now that’s all done with we’ll set the table. You do the knives and forks, Sadie, and put a big spoon out for your dad, and you, Stella love, you’re in charge of plates and cups and the jug of water. I’ll do the lights, so pass me a taper, there’s a good girl.’ She glanced at Sadie. ‘Don’t throw the knives and forks on the table, just place them careful like. Any fool can throw ’em down.’

The gas was lit and the fire in the hearth prodded. The green velvet tablecloth had been whisked away, folded, and pushed into the nearest drawer, and the places were set on the bare wooden surface. Hands had been scrubbed and the kettle filled and put on the range to slowly come to the boil.

A firm knock at the door signalled the arrival of the master of the house, Mr Ravenscroft – or so they had thought.

Stella opened the door to see an awkward Tommy Moran filling its entrance. ‘Hello, Mrs Ravenscroft,’ he said, looking beyond Stella. ‘Could you give us right time?’ Tommy’s dark eyes fell briefly on Stella from within his round pasty face. ‘Our clock’s stopped,’ he lied.

Stella, ever the mistress of most situations, snapped, ‘Then why not go and ask Molly Chadwick?’

At this remark Sadie’s heart beat faster at the prospect of war. Mrs Ravenscroft, whose sole job in life seemed to be to defuse everything, did some mental arithmetic on her own clock and said, ‘Ten past five, and close the door, Tommy.’ He did as he was told, with himself on the inside.

Tommy was simply ‘the boy next door’ and lived with his mum and dad and brother Colin. They never had two pennies to grind together because anything spare was spent at the pub. Tommy couldn’t recall the last time he had seen his dad sober, and he had drunk so much through the years he had seemingly grown into a state of continuous unreality, his sense of decision and responsibility permanently blurred by a liquid mind.

Tommy felt a great difference from being in the Raven-scroft home than his own home. There was an undefinable warmth here: more comfortable chairs, a brighter glow from the gas light.

As he subconsciously took in the familiar surroundings the door burst open, striking him between the shoulder blades. It was Jack Ravenscroft, and he sent poor Tommy flying into the arms of Stella.

For the first time in his life, Tommy experienced the softness and scent of a woman. Mr and Mrs Ravenscroft and Sadie were there to witness the growing up of a boy into a boy and a half.

Stella shoved him away, not because she had wanted to but because she thought it was right to. She did, however, delay this action to the last possible second. ‘Hello, everybody. Sorry about your back, Tommy. Mind you, you should never stand in doorways, yer daft bugger.’

Jack moved in and kissed his wife affectionately before giving his daughters a shared hug. Tommy had never seen such a spontaneous show of affection before; this freedom of expression towards loved ones. He had certainly never seen it in his own house, that was for sure. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw his dad kiss his mum when returning from work. The only time he saw them kiss was when they came back from the pub late at night and they were a bit drunk. But then it wasn’t nice kissing, it was desperate kissing, and his mum would always say ‘you dirty little devil’, then whisper in his ear before running up the stairs, pulling her skirt down as she went. He much preferred the Ravenscroft home. He wished he lived there with them.

When the girls went to bed that night Stella dreamt that she and Tommy were walking down the aisle in church. Tommy looked just the same in her dreams as he did in real life, except he was wearing a top hat and tails. She was dressed in a beautiful gown of white, and the vicar, who was Valentino, waltzed her slowly up to her new husband. The organist played ‘Roses Are Blooming in Picardy’.

Dancing-class started at ten-thirty every Saturday morning and Stella and Sadie had been the first there since joining at the beginning of the month. Most of their friends spent Saturday mornings huddled up in a seat at the Odeon cinema, watching Flash Gordon trying to outwit Emperor Ming, and failing to do so until about chapter thirteen or fourteen. But they weren’t envious, they loved their dancing: they loved the whole idea of being in showbusiness.

Mrs Bunting, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Donna, ran the Gaynor School of Dancing for tap, modern and American, ballet, and classical movement. They charged one and six an hour, two and six for private tuition. Understandably, not many of the parents wanted their children to have private tuition.

The dance-hall was large and cold and had a very noticeable echo. The floor they were taught on was hard and lumpy, and left many splinters in as equally many bottoms.

The girls fought their way up the spiral staircase with twenty-eight other anxious legs. On arriving in the dance-hall itself the correct procedure was to go up to Mrs Bunting, curtsey, and say, ‘Good morning, Mrs Bunting.’

Mrs Bunting was a long, thin woman who looked capable of bending into a hundred and one surprising positions, and most probably did. Outside of her work she wore all the same clothes as her idol, Miss Janet Gaynor – hence the name of the dance school – and the woman who made up these clothes for her was allowed to send her son along for lessons free of charge. The boy was destined to grow up to be either a delicate man or a sex maniac.

Also, her hair was dyed to resemble, as closely as possible, that of Janet Gaynor’s. It was some years before Mrs Bunting found a colour photo of Janet Gaynor and discovered to her horror that she didn’t have bright red hair after all. She also discovered at the same time that Miss Gaynor was sixteen years her junior.

With one sharp clap of her large swollen hands she caught the attention of her wild young class. ‘Now, children,’ she whispered, so as to avoid the repetitive pounding of echo, ‘this week we’re going to learn a new variation of the time step.’

She gave her prodigies a hopeful smile, which was duly returned by a sea of blank expressions. She tapped carefully at her crisp red hair as she examined her mothers of tomorrow. They were such a mixed bunch of girls. Some fat, some thin, some short, some tall – and just the one boy.

Their ages ranged from six to fourteen. Some had no idea of dancing and never would, while others showed minor talent but lacked the necessary enthusiasm to make anything of it.

She marched slowly behind the second row, from where she could see all thirty-four stationary legs. Mildred’s caught her eye in particular. She had short, stubby legs that had to support a solid mound of body. Only twelve, she already weighed nearly eight stone. For a moment she thought ‘poor girl’, then consoled herself by thinking ‘money in the bank’.

She clapped her hands twice, the echo making it sound like fading applause. ‘All the girls in the front row go into the far corner of the room with Donna.’ Dutifully, they accompanied her to the selected area. As they moved eagerlessly across the room she knew that there was little hope of the variation on the time step being learnt this week. ‘Now the rest of you stay with me.’ The little boy looked confused as to which group he should be with. He was an enigma, and Sadie always pitied him.

For the Ravenscroft girls the lessons went quickly. They were quite competent and, more importantly, they enjoyed their dancing and the challenge of a new step. For Mrs Bunting and daughter it dragged miserably slowly. The challenge wasn’t there any more; just the money.

Sadie and Stella were always last out of the school, both wanting the thrill of being in showbusiness to last as long as possible, and until they turned professional one day, Mrs Bunting’s dance-school was the sole representative of show-business. ‘Thank you, Mrs Bunting. See you next week.’

‘Okay, girls,’ she replied, with a tired weak smile, the kind she used on her husband when serving up his dinner in the evenings.

Tommy hid under the cover of a shop doorway near the dance-school, waiting for his loved one to come out. The two sisters were now once more traipsing wearily down the crisp, white street, their shoes crunching and imprinting themselves on the ground in a snaking trail. They huddled close together as they went through the city centre, looking like one body with four legs. ‘Hey, bugger off,’ said the shopkeeper as he waved a firm fist at Tommy.

‘It’s all right, mister. I’m just waiting for my friends.’

‘Sod you and your friends. You’re putting customers off, so bugger off.’

‘Misery-guts,’ mumbled Tommy with a grimace.

He dug his hands deep into his pockets and stepped forward into the weather. When the shopkeeper had strutted back inside he scraped up a handful of snow in his gloved hands and tossed it violently at the shop window. ‘Yer little bastard,’ screamed the man, and Tommy ran for all his worth, not stopping until he’d caught up with the girls.

They deliberately ignored him, as it wasn’t the done thing to be seen talking to the male species outside of the school grounds. They increased their pace, but Tommy matched them step for step. They swung left into the arcade, quite often using this route as a short-cut. Tommy gallantly skipped ahead of them to open the large swing-doors, but, although he was strong for his age, the doors were a lot stronger for theirs.

The springs on the doors started, very early on, to establish their superiority and the girls only just managed to squeeze through before they closed.

A little embarrassed, Tommy forced one open to let himself through, the girls now waiting for him on the other side, having decided that, although they wouldn’t talk to him, they would let him accompany them.

Just as Tommy had managed to re-open it a stream of people filed through the arcade, oblivious to the fact that he was holding the door open for his own benefit and not for theirs. Many thank yous were uttered as they barged by him.

Eventually he escaped from his ‘door duty’ and trotted back up to the girls. They stopped outside the Palladium cinema to look at the photographs of the stars. A Janet Gaynor film was now showing. ‘Well, we can guess where Mrs Bunting will be spending her evenings this week,’ said Stella with a chuckle, and her younger sister laughed – as did Tommy, which immediately made the girls go quiet.

‘Oh, come on, give us a break,’ he pleaded as the three of them walked on. ‘I’m only trying to be friendly, like.’

‘So Molly Chadwick tells me,’ said Stella in a most sarcastic tone.
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