Here’s a story.
A few years ago I decided the way I should earn my living was by making tarts and selling them at markets. I know. I even booked a morning of lessons about pastry-making at Divertimenti, that’s how serious I was about it, although I’d changed my mind by the day of the class. I still went.
There were twelve of us. Two young couples doing something together, but mostly the middle-aged, mostly women. We paired up and I shared a table with a woman about my age called Caroline. There was more conversation than pastry-making and she was easy to talk to. Her sons, both at uni, had bought her two mornings of cookery lessons for her fiftieth birthday. The day before her friend had invited her and her husband to dinner and asked her to make dessert so she’d made four. She loved, I mean loved, the Barefoot Contessa and I could see the connection; suburban, generous, sociable, clever, nice. Caroline looked like a blonder version of Ina Garten, too. For some years she’d volunteered for the Samaritans and had, more than once, listened to someone dying on the phone. She thought it a privilege. It was a very comfortable conversation and it was easy to see how people who call the Samaritans would be helped by talking to her. She was kind and kindness is sometimes what we most crave, what we most need when we feel most desperate. I enjoyed Caroline’s company far more than I learned about pastry.
The morning ended. We said goodbye, may even have kissed on the cheek, and I left to walk up Marylebone High Street with a bag of cheese straws and a chard tart. A thought came into my head: I was sure I’d met Caroline before. The further away I got the surer I became. I struggled to remember from where. I ran back but she’d left. How did I know her? It came to me too late.
Thirty five years earlier I’d gone to a youth club every Wednesday evening. Do they still exist? Would youths still go to them if they did? Still, in 1975 I did, as did Caroline. One night a dance had been organised. At the end of the evening, around 10pm, I slow-danced with a girl. I remember the song we danced to. It was Sad Sweet Dreamer, which may well have been written for romantic teenage girls. We were sad sweet dreamers. We never went out together, just that one slow dance to a sad song. She may have had hopes for me and I have a memory of her crying. If I caused that I am forever sorry. It could never have gone anywhere. We wanted the same thing: a boyfriend. I don’t blame myself for dancing with girls when I really wanted to dance with boys. There was no opportunity for that. Not until a couple of years later, anyway. And I wanted to dance. I still enjoy it. I’m still terrible at it. Worse than I was at sixteen, probably. (I’ll go into my crushes on Davids Soul and Essex another time. Cassidy left me cold, though).
Slow dancing is great, isn’t it. Do they still play a slow song at the end of the evening to let you know it’s about to finish? I guess clubs go on all night now, so maybe not. 10 o’clock was late enough, really. Your last chance to catch someone’s eye. Maybe snog someone you’ve spent twenty minutes with. Glorious.
We need to touch people and have them touch us. I don’t mean in a sexy way, although sometimes that is what I mean and that’s lovely, too. But we need to put our hands on other peoples’ arms and pat them on the back and feel close to them. As an Englishman, maybe just because I’m a man, maybe because I’m a bit uptight, it doesn’t come easily. It wasn’t how I learned to be. My family don’t touch. Or dance. We are undemonstrative and hold our distance and we are missing out. But I’m trying. I’m teaching myself. I hug friends when I meet them. I touch acquaintances on the arm when we’re talking. It works; I feel closer to them. We need to feel part of the world in that way and it happens less and less as you get older. And when you’re a teenage boy yearning for the touch of other teenage boys you need it, too.
We need to dance, too, don’t we. I need three glasses of wine before I do it, and I know I’m terrible at it but why should that stop me? So I dance sometimes, most often in my living room. Joy trumps feeling a bit silly. Happiness abounds. Happiness abounds a lot. And one more slow dance would be nice. Lights floating above. Holding someone close. Nuzzling, if that’s what the moment calls for. Warm breath on your neck. Moving our feet in time with nothing but each other. Sad, sweet dreamers, again. And that’s why I love slow dancing.
The beautiful photo at the top was taken in Paris, in the 1930s, by Brassai.
Sad, Sweet Dreamer by Sweet Sensation, who believed in snazzy shirts, smooth shimmies and words beginning with S.