Taffeta And Tinsel
Everyone was looking forward to dressing up for the Christmas dance – except Sonia . . .
SONIA JENKINS stopped daydreaming the moment she heard her headmistress mention the school Christmas dance.
Although yearning after a young man she’d glimpsed near the public library, the prospect of dancing with a strange boy still terrified her.
The girls filed from assembly in step with a brisk piano march. Form captain Denise jabbed Sonia in the ribs as they reached their classroom, its dreary décor adorned by paper chains and tinsel icicles.
“What’s up?” “Nothing,” Sonia said, surprised by the attention. “I forgot my gym kit.”
“You’ll get lines, dozy!” Denise squeezed her hand. “Meet me after lunch and I’ll help you write them.”
She kept her word, hurrying Sonia towards the flight of steps outside their cloakroom.
“Mam says sitting on cold stone brings on piles.” Denise snorted.
“Not when you’re wearing iron knickers like we are. Fruit gum?”
They worked in silence. “Why are you being so nice?” Sonia asked.
“I need help.”
“I want us to dance together.”
“Like Fred and Ginger?” “I’ve got an instruction book so we can practise the waltz and quickstep,” Denise explained. “You’re the same height as this boy who gets on my bus.”
It wasn’t fair. Sonia’s long legs condemned her to being stuck in goal at netball, and now she was supposed to stand in for a man!
“What about those after-school lessons? The head told us they’re allowing the boys to come.”
Denise’s blonde ponytail waggled from side to side. “Daren’t miss my bus.” “What about your mother?”
“We’d need music.” Denise grinned. “Lizzie from the school choir can be the band.”
On her walk home, Sonia wondered how to keep the dance secret from her mum so that she wouldn’t produce a frilly frock.
While she was crossing the town square, two small boys in grey shorts dashed up and snatched her blue beret from her. They darted away, chanting ginger taunts.
“I catch you do that again, I march you back to your houses. Tell your mothers how you are bad.”
The golden-haired stranger who had strolled through Sonia’s dreams glared down at the scallywags.
Sonia’s heart bumped faster. His distinctive accent revealed him as one of the Hungarian refugees recently arrived in the town.
“Here’s our bus!” the bigger lad wailed. “Tell your girlfriend we’re sorry.”
The young man handed Sonia her despised headgear.
“You are OK?”
“I . . . yes, thank you.” She twisted the beret between her hands, praying no teacher or prefect was lurking.
“I must get back,” the Hungarian said. “I work with plumber.”
He gestured towards the municipal bathhouse then held out his hand. “Istvan.” She took it. “Sonia.” “Beautiful name. You visit library Saturday, Sonia?”
“Not till after dinner. I have to help Mum in the morning.”
“I see you, maybe?” “Maybe.”
She hoped she sounded sophisticated. He must be at least nineteen. She tried not to glance back, but failed. He waved, his face softening.
There were grilled kippers with springy white bread for tea.
Afterwards Mrs Jenkins disappeared to the back bedroom, which doubled as a sewing room now Sonia’s brother was doing National Service.
The kitchen reeked of fish and Air Wick, and Sonia could see her breath in the front room, so she went into the living-room.
Her dad glanced up from the evening paper. “Much homework, love?” “French translation and an essay.”
“I just want to say I saw you this afternoon, on the square.”
Sonia froze. Her dad
worked in the council offices next to the library.
“It’s OK, love. I was courting your mam when she was sixteen. But you’re aiming for college. Don’t neglect your studies, that’s my advice.” He began reading again.
She wondered what he’d think if he knew Istvan’s background. Her mother would be furious to see her in school uniform, talking to a boy, whatever his nationality.
Sonia opened her textbook.
On Saturday at two, Istvan waited outside the library, his smile almost erasing the sadness in his eyes.
He’d swapped his dungarees for jeans, flannel shirt with bootlace tie and a shabby tweed jacket. Sonia wore grey slacks and a cream polo neck jumper beneath her school mackintosh.
Drizzle blurred the Bristol Channel so she carried her books in a tan leather bucket bag.
“Can you borrow every book?”
“Not all at once.” Istvan smiled again. “Could I become reader?” “If you fancy a book I’ll borrow it, but you must get it back to me by a fortnight today.”
“Too long. We meet again, next Saturday?”
His voice sent flutters through her body. In a matter of days, she’d earned 100 lines, inherited Fred Astaire’s dancing pumps and acquired a boyfriend.
She smiled shyly and led Istvan to “Fiction A-E”.
Practising steps with Denise kept Sonia busy for several lunch hours.
On the Friday before the dance, she arrived home to receive unwelcome news.
“Good job I met our Doris on the Cardiff bus.”
Sonia gulped. Her mum’s cousin cleaned at the Memorial Hall.
“It’s not just old folk who forget things.” Mrs Jenkins chuckled. “You’re lucky there’s still time to make a dress for that dance. I bought a pattern in Howell’s. Cut on the bias, shawl neckline, and the skirt will flare nicely when you twirl.”
She unloaded her basket. “You do the dishes tonight and I’ll get started.”
Sonia gazed at her mother in horror.
“You look a bit peaky, love. We’ll have a jug of cocoa later. Now, how about this?”
She pulled away brown paper to reveal a swathe of fabric. Instead of the baby blue or pink she’d dreaded, Sonia saw a sapphire taffeta waterfall.
“It’s lovely, Mam, but I can’t dance. Couldn’t it wait till I go to college?”
“I’ll soon show you some steps, love. Not now, ’cause your dad’ll be in soon. Take it upstairs, there’s a good girl, and switch on one bar of the fire so my fingers don’t seize up.”
Sonia refastened the package. If only the boy she danced with in her dreams could take her in his arms in real life.
Next day, Istvan gave Sonia good news.
“I take second job. Moving furniture and clearing rubbish at Memorial Hall. After Christmas I ask you to pictures.”
Sonia glowed with pleasure, but dreaded him witnessing her wallflower status in the ballroom.
If he regarded her as his girlfriend and she danced with a boy, wouldn’t he be jealous? Maybe decide not to see her again?
“My mother insists I go to the Christmas dance, Istvan. Just so you know.” He squeezed her hand. “For sure. You should enjoy life’s opportunities.”
“There, Dad. Isn’t she a sight for sore eyes?”
Sonia’s father stood in the hallway, jingling his car keys as she descended the stairs.
“My word, our Sonia, you’ll be the belle of the ball. Top marks to your mam, eh?”
The exquisite dress had silenced even his daughter.
Sonia wore ten denier stockings with seams that took ten minutes to straighten. Her gold pumps came from the best shoe shop in town and she carried a 1920s sequinned purse borrowed from her gran. She’d dabbed Californian Poppy scent behind each ear.
Bunches of holly and fairy lights festooned the ballroom. A fir tree gleaming with tinsel and gaudy baubles stood in one corner and a laden buffet table held plates of sandwiches, mince-pies and jugs of fruit punch.
Prefects were attaching a label to each boy and girl’s back, because everyone attending made one half of a famous pair.
Denise arrived. When she read Sonia’s label, she laughed.
Sonia checked Denise’s and sighed.
“Am I royal? Please say I’m a film star! A Shakespearean heroine?”
Denise headed towards some fifth-form boys, one of whom, Sonia suspected, was her real-life Romeo.
The MC’S voice boomed and crackled.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We begin with a Paul Jones.”
She almost made a run for the cloakroom, but the prefects chivvied everyone on to the floor.
The band began a South Pacific medley, the music propelling Sonia into the arms of a reluctant lad whose mother, like hers, had probably forced him to attend.
Later, Denise joined her in the refreshments queue.
After the interval the MC, clipboard in hand, tapped the microphone.
“Listen carefully, everyone, I shall now announce the pairs. Please step forward when you hear your character.”
Several more pairs were united before the MC called out again.
“Romeo, where art thou? Somewhere, Juliet awaits.”
A tall, broad-shouldered boy stepped forward. The girl standing behind Sonia gave her a shove.
“Go on, Juliet, you’ve nabbed the head boy. Isn’t he lush?”
Lads clapped and whistled as Romeo placed an arm around his Juliet’s waist.
Everything became a blur, but Sonia spotted a figure in white shirt and dark trousers, stacking crockery. Istvan glanced up. Their gazes locked.
The band played “Magic Moments”.
She felt Istvan’s eyes following her as she concentrated on not crushing Romeo’s toes.
At the end of the evening, Sonia stood outside, huddled into her mum’s velvet and swansdown coat, looking out for her dad. He was nowhere to be seen. “Sonia.”
She whirled round. “You are a snow princess in that white coat,” Istvan said. “Please, I walk you home?”
At her corner, Istvan waltzed her around the lamppost. They stood for a moment, hugging each other.
“May I kiss you, my Christmas angel?”
She closed her eyes, the warm pressure of his lips on hers surprising and delighting her.
“Sorry, love.” Her dad cleared his throat.
Sonia gasped. Istvan stood to attention.
“The pair of us dropped off in front of the fire.”
“Sir, I hope you not mind I escort Sonia back?” She held her breath. Her dad offered Istvan his hand.
“You coming in for a nice mug of cocoa, son?
“And Sonia’s mam and me were wondering whether you’d like to have your Christmas dinner with us?” ■
“My word, our Sonia, you’ll be the belle of the ball”
Set in the 1950s