The Neptune Ballroom lived up to its name: every effort had been made to make the room look like an undersea kingdom. The décor was blue, green and gold; chandeliers giving the impression of sub-aquatic opulence, an aquarium populated with an assortment of tropical fish. Oranges, reds and electric blues flittering behind the backlit glass in shoals. The stage was set into a grotto that on close inspection was obviously made out of chicken wire and plaster of Paris but from the tables lining the sprung dance floor appeared to be hewn from coral and rock, glittering deep pink and dark green: a sea cave.
Jeannie was very excited; she was barely able to contain herself. She’d spent the morning playing table tennis with two boys from Staines, Joe and Pete. She’d spent the afternoon larking around in the fountain and the shallow end with the same boys. Ruth had been forced to sit through tea as her friend wittered on. It was obvious that Jeannie had her sights set on Joe and was considering Ruth for Pete. Ruth had a deepening sense of uneasiness about this. She never liked being set up, and here there would be no escape. She shifted in her seat. She’d been happy alone in her deckchair, pretending to read but just basking, knowing that Midge was sitting in her life guard’s high chair, making sure everything was safe. Now a cold, tight knot curled in the pit of her stomach at the idea of frolicking in the water with a man she didn’t know.
“O look, there they are!”
From Midge’s vantage point in the wings, Simone figured the girl could see about a third of the ballroom. She was chewing on her bottom lip; this bothered Simone for two reasons: firstly, she was smudging her lipstick, secondly, Midge never got nervous like this. Simone stood a little behind her and followed her sightline: a table with two men and two women, nothing that extraordinary. Midge wasn’t watching the man who thought he looked like Cliff Richard, his sleek black hair combed into an inoffensive quiff; she appeared to be staring at a sandy haired, blandly good-looking man sitting opposite him. Simone was surprised until she noticed the woman sitting next to him and realised what it was that was bothering Midge. The woman had hair the colour of copper beech trees in October, and skin so pale it was almost luminous even from this distance. Whoever she was, Midge was transfixed, and started when Simone put a hand on her shoulder.
“Stop chewing your lip, darling, you’ll get lippy all over your teeth”
Midge turned her head to look at her and Simone fell into eyes that had turned almost black. Midge gave her a weak smile, Simone’s in return was stronger, reassuring.
“You’ll be fine. You always are. You can do this in your sleep”
Lenny Lamont came out onto the stage from the other wing and started to warm up the crowd with the off colour jokes he was famous for, ensuring he’d never have a career on television, but delighting the audience who were shocked and titillated in equal measure. Simone wasn’t keen on his act; it wasn’t that she was a prude but there were things she felt shouldn’t be laughed at. But she had to admit that Lenny softened the punters up and made it much easier for her and Midge. She could hear him winding down and knew that in a couple of minutes he would announce them. She rested an encouraging hand in the small of Midge’s back and waited.
“Ladies and gentlemen, c’mon and put your hands together for Reg Tipper and his Greenacres Orchestra and please give a very big hand for the Greencoat Singers!”
Ruth was politely clapping when she was nudged by Jeannie.
“O my god, Ruth, isn’t that the girl who greeted us yesterday?”
Yes, it was. The breath caught in Ruth’s chest as she stared towards the stage where a barely recognisable Midge was standing next to a woman whose blonde hair had been swept up into a chignon. Midge’s dark hair was tucked behind her ears, her shoulders revealed by her midnight blue taffeta Empire line dress. Ruth wasn’t surprised that the blonde woman looked elegant: she’d seen her around the camp and even in her Greencoat’s uniform she gave the impression of effortless class. Midge, however, was a revelation. This was not the same girl in her shirt and shorts but she commanded the stage every bit as much as she did the pool, and there was no denying she was beautiful. Ruth was stunned when the two women started to sing.
It was a simple song, You are my sunshine, the Greenacres theme song, but the two singers made it beautiful. Their voices were very different: the blonde woman’s had the smoky intimacy of night club cabaret, whereas Midge’s had a purity that would be inhuman were it not for a slight catch, almost a sob, that gave it a heart breaking vulnerability at odds with the confident swimmer Ruth was used to. Together they blended into a breathtaking whole. The blonde carried the main tune, Midge harmonising with ease around her, lifting and dropping the song as she went along. They encouraged the willing audience to join in and finished to thunderous applause.
Everything was a blur. Ruth sat open mouthed as the blonde and Midge sang, some times together, some times solo. The blonde sang a version of Fly me to the moon that promised all manner of things to anyone who could; Midge sang Blue moon and left Ruth with an aching chest and the same feeling of unspecified longing she’d had on the train coming up. She had been unaware of her companions from the moment Midge had taken the stage but something about them was scratching away at her.
Midge had started into the opening bars of Someone to watch over me and Ruth was having difficulty breathing. There was that catch in her voice, pulling at Ruth’s heart in a way she didn’t think was possible from a song. Something tickled her cheek and when she put her fingers to it, she realised it was a tear. She felt the sticky sadness she’d had once before when she’d woken up crying and didn’t know why. Leaning forward she hoped to get a better view of Midge but instead caught a glance and a snigger from Joe to Pete. He cocked his head towards Midge and made a gesture with his tongue that Ruth didn’t completely understand but instinctively knew was mocking.
Her anger was sudden and incandescent. There was no way she was going to sit here have this boy mock the woman who was turning the evening air golden with her voice. She pushed her chair out with such violence that it screeched against the floor. Without a word, she stood up and strode away from the table towards the swing doors; so abruptly did she leave, she didn’t hear Midge’s voice falter on the last verse.
Outside it was still warm enough not to need her cardigan, but a slight onshore breeze cooled her hot face, and ruffled the hairs on her bare arms. Ruth wasn’t sure where to go. She definitely didn’t want to return to the ballroom, nor to the chalet where she might encounter Jeannie; she desperately wanted a gin and tonic but knew that a woman drinking on her own would excite interest and Ruth felt too raw, too exposed to cope with that.
Unaware of where she was going, she was surprised to find herself by the swimming pool and then not surprised at all. The brightly coloured lights from the bar and the snooker hall fell across the smooth surface. The dark of the deep end sent a shudder through Ruth and she quickly walked past it until she came to Midge’s life guard’s chair. She ran the tips of her fingers against the rough wood of the steps, remembering how Midge had sat in the chair, tan legs braced against the steps.
Ruth looked up into a clear sky full of stars and sighed.
Continued in part 3
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[Feel free to email me at Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk]