Taffeta And Tin­sel

Every­one was look­ing for­ward to dress­ing up for the Christ­mas dance – ex­cept So­nia . . .

The People's Friend - - News - by Jill Barry

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.”

“What with?”

“I want us to dance to­gether.”

So­nia gig­gled.

“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?”

“Too titchy.”

“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.”

He nod­ded.

“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.”

He nod­ded.

“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

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