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Memoirs of a Dance Hall Romeo
By Jack Higgins
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Jack Higgins
All rights reserved.
Men who do not make advances to women are apt to become victims of women who make advances to them.
... And so I decided to devote myself exclusively to the pursuit of women. For a callow youth of twenty, a momentous decision, breathtaking in its impudence. It took so many things for granted. Not least, that the necessary women would make themselves available.
It's almost impossible to say where anything begins or ends, but Ava, I suspect, would be as good a starting point as any. I never knew her second name. She was just a girl who picked me up on the top deck of a bus in the early autumn of 1949.
It was the second day of my demobilization leave and I had returned home, not from war, but from the Army, an important distinction for one who had run to the recruiting office two years earlier, happy to be conscripted, a refugee from an insurance office. Hungry for adventure, I joined the Intelligence Corps and volunteered for field security work in Palestine, where there was some sort of shooting war going on.
I arrived in time to spend precisely one month in a transit camp in Jaffa, before coming home again along with everyone else as the tide of Empire started to turn. After that little episode, the War Office posted me to Berlin, probably because I couldn't speak German, and I spent the rest of my service working in an office nine till five, processing personnel records, with the acting rank of sergeant (paid) to help my meagre authority.
Suddenly it was all over and I was home again. The same and yet not the same. Desperately wanting everything to have changed and finding that nothing was different. Home to Manningham, the pride of the West Riding, to the Victorian town hall, rattling trams, cobbled streets. A cloth cap society which hadn't changed much since the thirties.
Six weeks' leave and I'd have to go back to work, and it would be as if nothing had happened in between at all. I thought of the Incorporated Insurance Society and my old chair waiting for me by the third-storey window no more than two dozen times a day, and the memory rose like bile to choke me.
Which brings me to Ava. For on the second night, fleeing from the depression which had seized me at the very thought of being back home for good, I took a bus out to a village pub four or five miles from Manningham. It was a place I had frequented regularly during that last year before joining the Army. There wasn't a soul I knew. I spent a wretched couple of hours standing at the bar, drank three pints of light ale and two whiskies, then went and stood at a bus stop on the main road.
A thin rain was falling, which didn't particularly bother me as I had my greatcoat over my shoulder. I pulled it on and waited another five minutes or so until the bus came, morose, bitter, and rather enjoying it for some perverse reason of my own.
When the bus came I paid the conductor on the platform and went straight up to the top deck. About a dozen girls were squeezed together into the three rear seats, all chattering loudly. The voices ceased as I appeared; the uniform, I suppose. They were tarts to the last man, what my Aunt Alice would have called dead common, the headscarves, short skirts and platform heels like a uniform.
Someone said, 'Isn't he lovely?'
There was a general laugh and I moved on hurriedly and sat in an empty seat, across the aisle from two middle-aged couples. There was a naval shore-station at Haxby, three or four miles back along the road, where they trained sick-berth attendants and clerks. The girls would have been to some dance or other there, I supposed. I glanced over my shoulder. They had their heads together, whispering busily, looking towards me at the same time.
Someone called, 'Hello, handsome,' and I turned away and lit a cigarette.
I had never been much good around girls. One or two abortively messy episodes and an overheated imagination had kept me going before the Army. Service in Berlin during the airlift had offered a promise of untold delights. A city of sin where a woman could be had for five cigarettes. As the official Naafi ration was one hundred and twenty-five a week at the time, the prospect had seemed limitless.
I had indulged once, with a blonde lady old enough to be my mother, in a back room at a cellar club. An affair more noted for its extreme briefness than anything else. Some days later I had entered the washroom at the barracks in time to see the lad who had accompanied me, an old Harrovian no less, emerge from the lavatory with a cry of agony, clutching his private parts. He disappeared in the general direction of the medical room where a certain unfortunate social disease was diagnosed without too much trouble.
It was enough. I withdrew from the haunts of the fleshpots, enrolled on a correspondence course for an external degree of the University of London. It was really only continuing something I'd started as a part-time student at the local college back home before joining up. Not much of an alternative for a boy, according to the experts, already three years past his sexual peak, but fear is a great persuader.
I stared out into the night, rain pattering against the window, and in its dark mirror a girl appeared, to sit down beside me. 'Got a fag to spare, Jack?' she asked.
I suppose she was about eighteen, although you could never be sure with girls like her. Frizzy ginger hair poked from beneath the headscarf and she was badly made-up, the mouth a vivid orange smear. And the skirt was a couple of feet too short at a time when the new look was really getting a hold and most girls wore them well below the knee.
She was the kind of girl I'd usually have run a mile to get away from, but those two whiskies on top of the light ale had dulled my senses nicely, and the breasts beneath the oyster-satin blouse, where her cheap raincoat swung open, were round and firm and sharply pointed.
In fact she suddenly looked about the most attractive thing on earth. I produced a tin of Benson and Hedges, marked For His Majesty's Forces Only, and offered her one.
She held on to the tin and examined it greedily. 'These look nice. The Navy boys at Haxby only get Woodbines.'
I gave her a light. She blew out smoke expertly and looked me over. 'On leave, are you?'
I tried to sound the tough, devil-may-care soldier. 'That's it, love.'
One of the girls from the rear of the bus called, 'Hey, Ava, what's he in? The Cadet Corps?'
Ava jumped up, turned, and leaned so far over the back of the seat that the raincoat and short skirt lifted together, exposing a generous expanse of stocking top and the bottom half of her rear, which was encased in the tightest pair of red pants I'd ever seen in my life.
'Why don't you get stuffed?' she called.
'Disgusting!' one of the middle-aged ladies on the other side of the aisle muttered. 'You ought to do something, Albert.'
But Albert, as sad a looking specimen of the British working man as I have ever seen, in his old tweed overcoat and cloth cap, could only stare, mesmerized, at Ava's bottom, sweat on his brow, his hands tightly clenched in his lap.
The conductor appeared briefly at the top of the stairs. 'Any more of that and you're all off,' he called sternly.
One of the girls stood up and put her arms around his neck and he retreated in confusion.
Ava sat down, crossed one leg over the other and rubbed it against my thigh. 'Do you live in Manningham, Jack?' she demanded.
Her voice seemed to come from very far away and the light bulb above my head dimmed suddenly as the whisky fumes rose into my brain.
I took a couple of deep breaths and forced myself to my feet. 'You'll have to excuse me. I get off here.'
I brushed past her, stumbled down the stairs and found myself on the platform, mysteriously still in one piece. There was a lot of laughter going on upstairs, but by then I had only one thing in my mind. Fresh air and plenty of it.
The bus slid into the kerb and I dropped off, lurched across the pavement and grabbed at some garden railings to steady myself.
A familiar voice called, 'Hey, Jack, wait for me.'
I turned and saw Ava jump off the platform as the bus pulled away. She stood beneath the streetlamp, legs slightly apart, hands pushed into the pocket of her raincoat, an accusing smile on her face.
'Trying to drop me, were you?'
God knows what had made her come. Probably the jeers of her friends, although at that precise moment in time I didn't much care.
'I just don't feel so good, that's all.'
She produced the tin of Benson and Hedges. 'You forgot your cigs.'
'You can keep them,' I said.
My stomach seemed to turn over. I staggered round the corner into a narrow alley and was thoroughly sick. Rainwater spouted from a broken fall-pipe. I filled my cupped hands, rinsed my mouth and splashed some over my face, which made me feel considerably better although my head still seemed to belong to somebody else.
My chief recollection of the whole affair and of subsequent events is of a total lack of reality. The intense quiet, except for the rushing of the rain, the reflection of the streetlamps flickering on the wet asphalt. I was adrift in a strange dreamlike world where things happened soundlessly and in slow motion, as if under water.
Somehow Ava was very close now, pulling my hands inside her raincoat, leaning against me. 'I know what you need, Jack,' she murmured. 'Just what the doctor ordered.'
She kissed me greedily and at the same time unbuttoned my trousers with a speed and skill that argued long practice. It was enough to make St Anthony himself forget every good resolution he ever made, and I surfaced instantly and started to unfasten her blouse.
She shook her head and pulled away slightly. 'Not here, Jack. I know just the place. Much better than this.'
By then I was so thoroughly aroused that I would have followed her anywhere and I went obediently, my hand in hers, across the road to the playing fields on the far side.
There was a hut over there used as a changing room by various sports clubs. The door banged to and fro in the slight breeze, the lock long since forced by vandals, and when we went inside, light from one of the streetlamps drifted in through the broken window.
She turned and reached for me, a hand inside my trousers again. When we kissed I noticed that she was trembling slightly, yet saw no particular significance in this. The simple fact was that I couldn't believe it was really happening.
'Come on, Jack,' she said urgently. 'Put your coat on the floor.'
I did as I was told, and she lay down in the patch of light from the window and pulled off her pants briskly.
I stood staring down at her, mesmerized, and there was a touch of impatience in her voice when she said, 'Let's be having you then.'
I have described what happened in some detail for the good and sufficient reason that the entire incident and its consequences were of crucial importance as regards my future development, although this fact was hardly plain at the time.
I sprawled across her, trembling like a leaf, pushed my hands inside the blouse, shoved up the bra and reached for those plump, sharply-pointed breasts.
What happened then can still, at a distance of some twenty years, bring me out in a cold sweat, for they came away in my hands, so to speak. It was several seconds before I realized that I was clutching a largish ball of cotton wool in each hand. The unpalatable fact remains that Ava was about as flat as it is possible to be.
She seemed completely oblivious to all this, her body trembling violently as she spread her legs. The moment I entered her, breasts or no breasts, I discharged.
It was a tremendous disappointment, the whole thing so instantly accomplished. I went slack and so did she, but only for a moment. She pushed me violently to one side and sat up.
'Thanks for nothing,' she said.
She stood up and pulled on her pants. Believe it or not, but I was so naive in such matters at the time as to be utterly mystified by her conduct.
'Call yourself a man,' she said, then slapped me solidly across the face, turned and marched into the night.
I stood in the small porch of the changing hut and watched her go. I was back in that unreal world again where nothing seemed to make much sense. Except some instinct for self-preservation which reminded me to button my trousers before leaving to walk sadly home through the rain.
When I was in the first form at grammar school, Jake O'Reilly was in the Lower Sixth and waiting to go into the Forces. This meant that we were hardly bosom friends, in spite of the fact that he only lived round the corner, in the same quiet backwater of Victorian houses next to Ladywood Park.
But all that changed after my first leave. At a loose end one night, I attended a meeting of a local literary society and found Jake, who had just been demobbed. Over the coffee, we discovered a mutual interest in writing.
He had produced a considerable number of short stories without selling a thing and I had churned out three-quarters of a novel that could only be described as a parody of Hemingway at his worst.
Jake was a Yorkshire Irishman, a bad mixture, especially when he had been drinking, but there was little doubt that he was the wisest man I knew. Very definitely what Aunt Alice, who was greatly interested in such matters as spiritualism and the occult, would have termed an old soul. When I reached home after my experience with Ava, I went round the corner to see if his light was on.
His house, like ours, had been built on the high tide of Victorian prosperity, for affluent woollen merchants and solicitors. It had pointed Gothic towers at each corner and substantial outbuildings. His mother, who was a widow, had split the place into two large flats and several bedsitters.
Jake himself had a sort of studio-bedroom over the garage at the rear, and the light was on. I went up the fire escape, leaned over the landing rail and peered inside. He was sitting at the desk by the window, busily making notes from a book propped up before him. This was how I was to find him on most evenings during the year that followed, for he was trying to make up for the years lost to the Navy by passing his Law Society examinations at one fell swoop.
I poked my head round the door. 'Can I come in?'
He swung round in the chair, probably the most engagingly ugly man I have ever known, in spite of the blue eyes and flaxen hair of an S.S. officer in a Hollywood movie. His nose, which didn't help, had been broken in some fracas or other, for Jake had enjoyed what is known as a hard war, courtesy of the Royal Navy, as a member of the crew of a torpedo boat working the Channel out of Falmouth.
He examined me gravely. 'You look terrible. Would you like a beer?'
'Never again,' I said and made for the couch by the fire.
He didn't say a word. Simply plugged in the electric kettle, went into the bathroom and came back with something fizzing merrily away in a glass of water. I got it down and he sprawled in the chair opposite and lit a cigarette.
'What happened to you?'
I told him about Ava in some detail. By the time I had finished the kettle was steaming and he got up and made some tea.
'So what's your problem?' he demanded. 'Most blokes I know would think they'd had a reasonably satisfactory night of it.'
'Ava didn't,' I said.
'All right, so you were a bit quick off the mark. Women like to experience the big bang, too, you know.'
I sat there sipping scalding tea, an expression, I suspect, of settled gloom on my face. Jake went into the bathroom. He returned with his face well-lathered and shaved in the mirror above the fire.
I was somewhat mystified by these proceedings but contented myself by saying, 'It's all right for you.'
'If it is, it's been a long, hard road. Did I ever tell you where I spent the morning of my eighteenth birthday? Drifting around the middle of the English Channel in a life jacket. We hit a mine on my third patrol.'
'Nothing very much. It was bloody cold. I thought I was going to die, and I'd never have known what it was like to sleep with a woman. That thought circled endlessly in my brain.'
'One of life's great experiences missed?'
'Exactly.' He paused, wiping lather from his face. 'I remember coming into Falmouth in the lifeboat, wrapped in blankets, with a crowd watching from the quay. It made me feel very satisfyingly like a veteran.'
'And the other business?' I asked. 'What about that?'
'Found myself a lady of the town that very night. Two quid down the drain.' He smiled that slow, gentle, wry smile of his. 'It was over in a moment, just like you and your Ava. But it changed me, I must confess.'
'In what way?'
'I became convinced that I was going to die. Some sort of delayed anxiety reaction to being blown out of the sea.'
I found difficulty in taking the remark seriously, and I suppose it showed for he held up his hand and added, 'I used to lie awake at night waiting for my heart to stop, which seemed a significant waste of the time one spent in bed. You could say I turned to women in desperation.'
Excerpted from Memoirs of a Dance Hall Romeo by Jack Higgins. Copyright © 1989 Jack Higgins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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