Short Fiction

Keep Dancing by Antony Osgood

‘I’m so sorry, I really wasn’t paying attention,’ the middle-aged man was told by an older woman. They were the same height. George, being six foot three, had found the novelty of not looking down for their conversation quite refreshing, though he suspected in the morning he’d discover a plethora of aching muscles he never once suspected he possessed. Her attention was fixed on undexterous fingers shaking an empty not-quite-glass, a bubbly flute of clouded plastic. It was as if, George imagined, the last drop of wine had proven impossible for her to access, and for the life of her she had found no way to solve the puzzle. She kept holding the flute up to the noisy strip-light, seemingly either looking for fingerprints or a miracle. She appeared forensic in her analysis of unobtainable alcohol. George was reminded of a video he’d once seen on YouTube, of a goldfish obsessed with its image in a mirror. The poor fish had been unable to free itself from the mistaken belief it was threatened by itself. It was the saddest thing George had seen.

‘I simply shan’t forgive you if you think me rude,’ the woman said, leaning in as George lent back. He thought: wind-tunnel; cheap-wine breath; creamed garlic crostini. He pretended to blink rapidly.

‘My husband’s an optician,’ the woman said, a little crease trenching her forehead, semaphoring forged concern. ‘If it helps.’

George thought: snipers, whizz-bangs, no-man’s land. He crossed his eyes, muttered, ‘Catch sight of any beams, has he?’

‘Be kind to me,’ she said, channelling, George thought, the late Jan Morris, though the woman’s receiver clearly needed tuning.

Which put George in an impossible situation. Or a farce of awful manners. The woman’s emphasis seemed odd as her disinterested manner. Strange as her extravagant hairstyle so at odds with her crimped face. George thought: a hot iron would smooth you out; a steam press.

Being familiar with juggling such social situations, and believing himself to be a sort of variety performer from a bygone age – ventriloquism! sing-alongs! handstands! pantomime dame! off-colour jokes a speciality! any act shall be attempted to earn a crust or a burst of applause – George had decided this evening to not retain himself at all, but rather become a chameleon for the night. Forgoing his name to fit the preferences of his guests, who might perhaps see it as the peace offering it was, clearly had proven unsuccessful. So as the scowling woman said, ‘me’, George planted a flag on the shore of himself and claimed himself a protectorate. At that moment he rediscovered his own cosy culture.

His hopes for a familial armistice died with her breaking their cease fire. George girded what he assumed was his iron, set out to act as if the man he was had become invisible – which in point of fact he was – and for one night only be whomever the guests preferred. He would not allow their dourness to colonise him. Let their ignorance wash over him. Doing so might prove both fun and unfamiliar. He could always take a shower when he got home. Tonight would be an adventure on low seas, trawling for silver stories with a net of tungsten steel – the best of the catch he’d weave into anecdotes for his friends and antidotes for his Georgeness.

He’d say, ‘You think you’ve got it bad, listen to this’, which had always proven an effective strategy to enlighten black-dog pals down in their dumps.None of whom, he noted, loved him enough to endure the party. Not their scene, indeed.

And so it was George adopted equanimity, which on occasions felt like a dowdy costume two sizes too big, but at least allows a little breathing room to secretly twirl and reel. Best not to scare the normal folk, after all. In George’s head the little gathering in the tired hall became the Blackpool Tower Ballroom, the wrinkled balloons were mirror balls, and the prosecco from Lidl transformed into champagne. The clocks may not have been approaching midnight but George felt Prince Charming begin to crumple. Nevertheless –

‘Can I refresh your glass? What’ll you have?’ he volunteered, clearing his throat of frog, bitterness, sarcasm, while bobbing in front of her in an attempt to gain her attention.

She was busy fixing her lipstick, gurning into a mother of pearl compact. ‘White,’ she said, not looking. ‘Bubbles,’ she gasped, waving him the glass. Paused, tongue to lip, a frown appearing, crevassing her somewhat orange face. ‘It’s free, isn’t it? Gratis? On the house?’

He had been speaking in what he considered an amusing tone, depreciating the sparse gathering, and guests as old as mined-out hills. He’d acknowledged the damp smell of the hall, the economy of the place, and the childhood photographs made large and blurred. A celebration for someone she hardly knew, he said, full of people who should know better. He’d been rather pleased with the line but the woman, in a purple dress and cream shawl – who clearly believed punk had never happened, and that Abigail’s Party withstood the test of time – had seem distracted. One might even say bored.

‘Then when you come back you can carry on talking about–’ her attention now on the distant drinks table, squinting, ‘whatever it was,’ she gazed about the hall, wished perhaps for the varifocals fashion denied her, ‘you were – oh,’ she sighed, ‘something or other.’

He walked slowly through the half-empty hall – toe to heel, toe to heel, work it – a highwire aerialist for the night – strolling as if the dance floor were crowded. At the fold-out table covered in a paper cloth he poured cheap wine into her almost-glass. Thought: to spit or not to spit? Was overcome by valour. Did what was right. Listening to the sparse conversations taking place about him, George wondered who on earth the people at the party were discussing. He chewed his mouth at the sight of the ‘Fifty Years Young!’ banner attached with Sellotape to the fire exit. Given the average age of this crowd, they’d struggle to break out in an emergency. If only he’d thought to bring firelighters. Thought: a commentary on an unlived life is much like an unofficial biography. This thought bubbled as he watched the fake glass fill, his hand surprisingly steady. Thank God for internet meds.

‘Don’t I know you?’ the woman asked, when he returned. She took the flute, humouring it more than the man. ‘Haven’t we met?’

‘I’ve been around–’ George said, raising an eyebrow, waiting.

‘You remind me of a lonely boy I knew, lots of pals, each waiting for an opportunity to sneer at him, so quite alone–’

‘Do try the Greek pastries–’ he waved a hand vaguely to her left.

‘Grief, no!’ she laughed, staring right. ‘On Corfu once, I crawled from the sea with an octopus sucking my thigh–’

Poor mollusc, George mused, to be so poisoned. He felt, despite his intention, George begin to flounder. Some flat fish or other. Said, ‘No seafood tonight – rest assured–’

The first few guests had clearly conspired to turn up early – arriving before the DJ had finished setting up her system. Come soonest to nibble the best of the buffet, stalk the more expensive wine before taking a pot shot at a plastic flute, if only, their duty done, to have an excuse to tap their glaikit watches, utter regrets about the long drive north, the distance, you wouldn’t believe, and make mention of their pressing bladders, bedtime medications, the early mornings. George suspected by nine he’d be the only one remaining: him and the DJ crooning and gyrating to Diana Ross. Thought George: Diana, Diana, would you were here tonight, dear diva.

He stared at the table full of nibbles. Chances are he’d be eating Greek pastries and cheap salmon sandwiches for the next several days. He’d take a platter in to the council offices tomorrow, share them amongst his colleagues from Planning who, he noticed, hadn’t been able to make it, either. Risk of rain over the boarder one-hundred-and-thirty-eight miles away in Dumfries had no doubt dissuaded them: the blustery November weather always rolled south, as if England were Scotland’s gutter.

‘What’s your name? I’ve a head like a sieve–’ the woman was saying.

‘Cephalopod injury?’

‘Don’t be absurd. Thigh, not skull. When do you think–’ she said, waving her empty flute at the photographs on the walls, ‘the recipient will bother to turn up?’

‘You know what he’s like–’

‘Don’t I just. My husband made me come. Otherwise – frankly – I’m empty! – there is so little joy in a ruined life, that Bake Off truly matters. I’m loath to miss it, even if I can’t stand Paul Hollyrood­–’


‘Wouldn’t trust him in a broom cupboard–’

‘An offender, then? Against bushes or brushes?’

Whilst guests declined to use the name he called himself, too many of the memories they described dimly echoed his own experiences. He supposed that after a while lives blur, merge into a dissatisfied sameness. Naturally, one’s stories are held in photographs and tall tales told by families. George felt like a guest star ousted from his own sit-com. Or, putting things more glamorously, he came to form the distinct impression that his technicoloured story had been rendered into a black and white print by a drunk and somewhat bored film editor who hadn’t read the script nor paid heed to advice from the continuity people. If one doesn’t take control of one’s own life, others will write your story, George told himself. In which case, George braced himself, it was time to assert his true self, only for –

‘What are you supposed to be?’

‘Why, myself. What have you come as?’

‘What’s with the glitter? The gaudy make-up by Marcel Marceau? The wabbit dress?’

‘I buy my heels from a specialist,’ he said, ‘before you ask.’

‘Spare me.’ She stared at him. ‘Haven’t we met?’

‘You do seem familiar,’ he confessed, watching Uncle Charlie across the hall balance on a garden chair. Aunt Violet choking on tuna vol-au-vent. Cousin Samantha pocketing a cider. People gazing at his school photographs, turning their eyes on George. A ten-year-old on a rugby pitch, at thirteen on stage, awful school photographs fringed with bad hair – ages seven to seventeen. And wasn’t it cold in here? Chilly? In which case why was he sweating? The smell of damp wood broiling from electric bar heaters, too many paper plates askew, spider webs flagging, too few bottles open, unemptied – the sheer heart-stop horror of George’s thankless party, the same as last year, and the year before, and –

‘Weren’t you once my mother?’ he asked abruptly.

‘Weren’t you once thin?’ she snapped.

‘Kiki Rouge,’ he said, offering her his gloved hand. ‘Nice to meet yah, lady!’ He saw her gaze travel from his costume jewellery along his waxed arm, take in the full glory of his satin gloves. ‘From a little shop in Manchester. They reach all the way down to my–’

‘Are you?’

‘Am I?’


Never on a first date. Buy me a brandy to see if I’m–’ then George gave up. Why be flippant in the face of overwhelming hostility? He’d been prepared to turn state evidence, begin negotiations for a plea bargain. He’d sue for peace, he’d sworn, until she had opened the barndoor of her mouth, let the cow come forth. Choke the cud, Kiki told George. Slap the bitch.

‘Good gracious, look at the time,’ the woman barked, turned a tanned limb to stare at an empty wrist. Looked about to see if anyone had bothered to notice her error. Flicked the other wrist adorned by a delicate yet vulgar watch too shiny for George’s taste, and managed to pour the dregs of her wine down her dress, soak her hand with sticky cheapness.

‘Nine already?’ he asked.

‘Quarter, to. Where’s my husband? I just know he’s outside with my sister–’

‘Here he comes–’

‘She probably turned him down. Roger? Come. We’ve a way to go. We’ve outstayed his welcome.’

An elderly man trod carefully around invisible dancers, circled the woman and George, struggled to approach their exclusion zone, as if repelled by a magnet, until the woman reached out, wiped her damp hand on his jacket, gripped and pulled him to her as if he were a spider crab being drawn from rough seas. He’s still her life-raft, thought George. She remains his millstone.

‘Say goodbye, Roger,’ the woman instructed.

‘Goodbye, Roger,’ the old man said on cue, performed a little salute then patted down his hair. Nodded, steepled his fingers, shy-smiled at his son, said, ‘Kiki.’

‘See you next year, father,’ Kiki said.

‘I say, son, love your shoes–’

‘Dickson Road–’

‘Roger, don’t encourage him–’

‘Very well, dear–’

‘Back to Dumfries in one run?’ he asked.

‘Looks like it,’ Kiki’s father groaned. He grabbed his son with unexpected heat, which he hadn’t done in twenty years, and held tight, almost shouted in his ear, ‘Stay safe, Kiki. I miss you. We all–’

‘Thanks, dad–’

‘Goodbye, George,’ Kiki’s mother drawled. ‘See you next Christmas.’

‘Not if I see you–’

‘Yes, yes, very good, very funny, very lonely my son, always the comedian–’

‘Comedienne?’ wondered Roger.

‘I’m never lonely–’ stated as a fact, as if reading the budget, or the shipping forecast.

‘Don’t encourage him, Roger.’

‘Yes,’ Kiki chided. ‘Remember the family motto, father: no encouragement.’

They did not back away as if he were the Queen of Sweden, and neither did they look over their shoulders as they left. As if this were their cue, other family members picked up dull coats, black bags bought cheap in markets, raised hands in distant farewell. Just before Kiki began to clear paper plates, the music began, the DJ whooped and hollered, said over Diana Ross, ‘Better late than never, eh?’

Kiki’s father danced in, did a careful shimmy, found the cap he had intentionally left on a chair, then tried the twist, hurt his back, managed to turn his son in Blackpool circles, held him tight, attempted a foxtrot that turned into a tarantella, shouted above Diana Ross, ‘Your mum, Kiki, she isn’t well–’ then told them both – Kiki and George – of the reality of caring for someone who did not care for themselves. Told Kiki to keep the handkerchief, encouraged George to keep dancing, too. Held his son at arms-length, so he could take-in the whole of him, said, ‘You were always beautiful, lad. But she’s waiting in the car. She’s still your mum. Still my wife,’ as the two danced slow, pulled into one another, danced cheek to cheek, despite Diana’s best efforts, before breaking from love’s orbit slowly like escaping comets. Kiki handed back the handkerchief after wiping make-up from his father’s face.

Despite the January gale blowing the Illuminations to hell, rocking street signs, dampening pavements, rattling the hall door as noise galloped from the sea through sad side streets, Kiki wondered whether his hot flush was due to being fifty-eight – a pseudo menopause he might only aspire to – or whether it was simply wind-burn given time and himself felt speeded, or due to the abrasion of rediscovering a father who loved him more than he could ever express without making himself feel daft. The stories told by others about George, the whispers concerning Kiki, much like the ironic photographs he had stapled to the walls, did not belong to him. George’s childhood was the property of another. All the hopes his mother had invested in him had lost their value. The compensation she sought left George breathless and penniless. He would never be clear of the debt he had never sought. His mother had long ago stolen his identity. And this is why, George thought, people leave home to travel to the bright lights down south or perhaps to live in doorways. At least the cold declines to judge you, and winter is never disappointed with a shiver. At least on Blackpool streets you are free to write your own happy ending, rename yourself.

Family gatherings arrive too often, and too cruelly. Kiki understood tonight would hardly count as the peace negotiations he’d envisaged, that had grown, inevitably, to be more of a strategic retreat, a preparing for the next big push. Kiki took off his heels as the DJ played Diana Ross. The cold hall was finally emptied of opinions that did not matter. The place had warmed as his mother left. The space blossomed with a delighted dance. George’s make-up rippled from a gale of vibrant tears as his hair extensions trembled.

Antony Osgood


4 thoughts on “Keep Dancing by Antony Osgood”

  1. Hi Tony,
    The control you show is exceptional.
    You reveal a bit at a time until we finally get the whole picture.
    This was sad, funny and touching all at once.


  2. Antony

    Your perfect prose creates a visual. It begins with what I’ve heard called a Sergio Leone Close-up then withdraws slowly, allowing the details to assimilate in due time. There are many fancy ways to say something is good, this is damn good.


  3. The joy of Kiki and father dancing and sharing a tight embrace surpasses the pain of life for a little while, with Kiki surviving best as possible on an evening spent in a lion’s den. Reflections and descriptions all the way down to the cheap wine are amazing. Reading this beautiful story comes with tears.

    Liked by 1 person

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