Exactly when the dance, or “socials” (as it was called within the hostel) began, Amara found it hard to say. Perhaps it began when she started dressing up, her white frock with the beautifully embroidered hem so different from the dreary brown school uniform she had to wear all the time as a boarder in her school up in the hills near Ikenne. It bothered her, though. She put it on and squirmed in front of her friend’s mirror. Was the frock too short? Did it show too much of her knees? Perhaps she should wear something else—the large blue gown her uncle Donatus bought her last Christmas? And oh! the powder on her face. This was too much!
It was early October and the annual event—”Founders Day” as it was called—of her school. It was a co-educational. All the boys and girls above the age of fourteen and automatically above Class 3 could attend the “socials”. She had just crossed fourteen and it was the biggest event of her life. For the past two months, all her friends were discussing nothing but the “socials”. What would they wear? How could they get a perfume? What if Juwon, the sweet boy with curly hair who always blushed when she looked at him, ignored her in the “socials”? It was all so different and so exciting.
Amara smiled a nervous little smile. Her parents would be at the “socials”, too. Her wonderful parents. And her father was a Colonel in the Army and her mother a local government administrator. They knew the principal’s first name. And they came every Founders’ Day ostensibly to celebrate with the school but really, to be with their darling daughter. They were such rapturous persons. She had to be at her best, look her best and behave her best. This was her first. She couldn’t be shy or withdrawn. Her father would laugh.
There was no time. They were all at the dance hall already, boarding students and hostel staff alike. Dancing had not yet begun, but the hired band had started tuning, and the noise was so great that it seemed when it did finally begin to play, it would never be heard. The wooden floor gleamed. She clutched her handkerchief and gazed at the rhododendrons, the lights, the stage at one end with its gilt chairs and the band in a corner. She thought, breathlessly, “This is just heavenly, simply heavenly.”
All the girls stood grouped together at one side of the hall, the boys at the other. And the chaperones on dark dresses, looking fake, smiling rather foolishly, walked with little careful steps over the polished floor towards the stage. She saw her father, tall and slim, looking dashing as ever, talking and laughing to a Brigadier colleague. Her mother stood alone in a resplendent white boubou.
Familiar faces smiled at Amara—sweetly, vaguely. Familiar voices answered, “Of course, my dear.” But Amara felt the girls didn’t really see her. They were looking towards the boys. Why didn’t the boys begin? What were they waiting for? Quite suddenly, as if they had only just made up their minds, the boys came gliding over the floor, looking dapper in their white shirts and black jackets. There was a joyful flutter among the girls. A tall, fair boy flew up to Lotanna, who stood shaking her bumbum to the rising beats. “May I have the pleasure?”
Soon, the stage filled with men and women, carefree people wriggling on the wooden floor, gliding to the music. As Amara stood watching, her white dress suddenly feeling a little too tight around the chest, an old fat man, with a big bald patch on his head came to her and murmured, “Do I remember this copacetic, pretty, little face? Is it known to me of yore? Is my mind playing tricks on me?” Amara rolled her eyes and giggled. Her Literature-in-English teacher would never stop amazing her. At that moment the band began playing hard; the fat man disappeared. He was tossed away on a great wave of music that broke the groups into couples, scattering them, sending them dancing closer and closer.
Amara wondered why she was not dancing. All her friends were out there—even Ebere who they all called “Hedgehog” because of her legendary shyness, was on the dance floor, digging it with a colourful boy in Class 5. Amara often considered herself a lucky child. Attending a school like this, where procedures were handled British-style, she couldn’t be more privileged. She had learned to dance at the boarding school. Every Saturday afternoon, she along with the other girls would hurry off to a little hall where Ms Adaeze held her classes. But the difference between that dusty smelling hall with a cold piano—Ms Adaeze poking the girls’ socked feet with her long white wand—and this was so tremendous that Amara was sure if her partner didn’t come, and she had to listen only to the music and to watch the others, she would die, or faint.
“Ours, I think.” Someone bowed, smiled, and offered her his arm; she didn’t need to die after all. Someone’s hand pressed her waist, and she floated away, like a flower that is tossed into a pool.
“Quite a good floor, isn’t it?” drawled the warm voice close to her ear.
“I think it’s most beautifully slippery,” Amara said.
“Pardon!” The faint voice sounded amused; thin laughter veiled the words. Amara said it again. And there was a tiny pause before the voice echoed, “Oh, sure!”, and she was swung around again.
He steered her so beautifully. That was the great difference between dancing with girls and men, Amara decided. Girls banged into each other and stamped on each other’s feet; the one who was a gentleman always clutched you.
“Have you been to a dance before?” the voice came again. He was young and tall. Not a boy of the school. His words lacked the pretentious guardedness she was so used to. Definitely not a boy of the school.
“No, this is my first dance,” she said.
He gave a little gasping laugh. “Oh, I see.”
“Yes, it is really the first deliberate dance I’ve ever been to.” Amara was most fervent. It was a relief to finally be able to tell somebody.
At that moment the music stopped, and they went to sit on two chairs against the wall. Amara tucked her feet under the chair and gazed at the other couples passing and talking to each other.
“I’m Hassan,” the boy said, hand on chest. “May I meet you?”
She stared at him; she liked the stance of his nose. “My name is Amara. Amarachukwu.”
“Enjoying yourself, Amara?” Seun, one of her roommates, asked, walking past, nodding her head.
“Yes, thoroughly,” Amara replied, a little too happily.
Fatima, another roommate, passed and gave her the faintest little wink; it made Amara wonder for a moment whether she was quite grown up after all.
“Care for some Chapman?” Hassan said. And they went through the door, down the passage, to the indoor buttery. Her cheeks burned, she was fearfully thirsty; and when they came back to the hall, there was the fat man waiting for her by the door. It gave her quite a shock again to see how old he was; he looked shabby. His coat was creased; it looked as if it was dusty with chalk. He ought to have been on the stage with the fathers and mothers; it shouldn’t matter whether he taught or not. And he was old enough, and just as irritating a presence. Amara did something wild: she compared her fat teacher with her partner. She found the imagination so funny that she couldn’t help a loud laugh.
“Let me in on it, ” Hassan pleaded.
“Trust me, you don’t want to know,” she said, vestiges of her mirth still collected around her lips.
Hassan smiled, too.
“Come along, little lady,” said the fat man. He scarcely troubled to clasp her, and they moved away so gently; it was more like walking than dancing. “Your first dance, isn’t it?” he murmured.
Amara felt like she was in a dream. A really funny dream. “How did you know?”
“Ah,” said the fat man, “that’s what it is to be old!” He wheezed faintly as he steered her past an awkward couple. “You, see, I’ve been doing this kind of thing for the last thirty years!”
“Thirty years!” Amara shook her head. That was sixteen years before she was born.
“It hardly bears thinking about, does it?” said the fat man. Gloomily. Amara looked at his bald head, and she felt quite sorry for him.
“I think it’s marvellous to still be going on,” she said.
“Of course,” he said. “You can’t hope that anything like this will last forever. Long before that you’ll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in a nice coloured boubou. These pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones.” The fat teacher seemed to shudder. “And you’ll smile away like the poor old persons up there, and point to your daughter, and tell the elderly lady next to you how marriage proposals are already coming for her. Then your heart will ache.” The fat man squeezed her closer, as if he really was sorry for that poor heart. “And you’ll say how unpleasant these polished floors are to walk on, how dangerous they are. Eh, little girl?”
Amara gave a light little laugh, but she did not feel like laughing at all. Was it—could it all be true? It sounded terribly true. Was this first “socials” only the beginning of her last “socials” after all? At that moment the music seemed to change; it sounded sad; it rose upon a great sigh. Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn’t happiness last forever?
“I want to stop,” she said, breathlessly. The fat man led her to a chair.
“No,” she said, “I won’t sit down. I’ll just stand here. Thank you.” She leaned against the wall, tapping with her foot, and trying to smile. But deep inside her, a little girl was sad and sobbing. Why had he spoiled it all? And where was Hassan by the way? These boys!
“Come on, love,” said the fat man, “you mustn’t take me seriously.”
“As if I should,” Amara murmured, tossing her small dark head and sucking her underlip. She didn’t want to dance anymore.
But, presently, a soft, melting, ravishing tune began, and Juwon bowed before her. Things that happened in the novels she read happened. Her heart skipped. Blood flowed freely to her face. Goosebumps, like wet raw rice, rose on her skin. She looked up at the stage to see if her parents were looking. What if they see her walking to the dance floor with her “heart-throb”? No, thank God, they were not on the stage. She did not want her fidgeting to give everything away.
Very stiffly, she walked into the middle; very haughtily, she put her hands on his shoulders. But in one minute, in one turn, her feet began gliding. The lights, the rhodendrons, the dresses, the faces, the chairs all became one beautiful flying wheel.
Pressing her closely to his waist, he whispered in her ear, “You dance beautifully, Amara.”
“Serendipity is the new spell,” she replied radiantly.
And when Juwon bumped her into the fat man and said, “Pardon,” she smiled at the teacher more radiantly than ever. She didn’t even recognize him.
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-AKINSANYA ADENIYI AYOSOJUMI