When I was thirteen we moved house, and I was sent to boarding school and only home for holidays, so there was little chance of making friends. I mooched about moodily, spending an hour choosing my clothes before walking three miles to the cinema to see Elvis in GI Blues. Someone might see me. Or on Saturdays I’d get the bus into town and summon up the courage to walk nonchalantly into the Flamingo Coffee Bar, and sit alone with my frothy cappuccino in a glass cup and saucer, watching every one else chatting.
I’d just turned fifteen when my Mum, my childhood friend Roberta and I went on holiday together. Dad was too busy working, so Mum had rented a cottage in a little fishing village on the Scottish coast. It was very simple and homely, and the tiny little garden was over run by plaster gnomes, digging, fishing, grinning, and sitting on toadstools. It was owned by Miss Murray, a jolly lady who worked in the bread shop. Having shown us round the cottage, she nodded at us two girls and told Mum about the village dance on Friday.
It was in the Village Hall down by the harbour, and it was beginning to fill up when we arrived. Chairs were ranged round the room and we sat down, watching, and waiting for the DJ to warm up. Clearly everyone else knew each other and we were pretty conspicuous. The music began, no one danced of course, it took about ten tracks and then gradually one or two got up.
Telstar by the Tornados was on the turntable when a boy of about my age in scruffy jeans, and a track suit top ambled over and stood in front of me, hands in pockets. “On your feet, Bird” was all he said. That was what guys called us then, birds. I can’t imagine that approach going down too well with today’s girls, but I was on my feet in a flash, thrilled. He slung one arm round my shoulders and began to walk me round the room without any attempt at dancing. We didn’t have much to say, he lived there, I didn’t, have a nice holiday, that was about it, we did a couple of turns of the room and he dropped me off at my chair. But I’d been asked! After that Roberta and I let rip with Chubby Checker and twisted the night away.
A year later, at sixteen, I had a very different experience. Someone’s mother asked mine if I would go to a hunt ball with her son, a first year college student whom I’d never met. But heck he was at College, a grown man, of course I’d go. Mum was elated, hunt balls were for the upper classes, I’d meet “nice” people. We went shopping, her favourite thing, and when it came to fashion there was no one I’ve met who had a better eye. I came home with a knee length white dress with a bell skirt, scattered with black polka dots and tied at the waist with a black velvet ribbon.
And the shoes, wow. They were mid height stilettos with pointed toes, higher than anything I’d worn before, and made of black tapestry scattered with tiny embroidered gold flowers. I danced in my bedroom every night to get used to them.
The grown man arrived in a tiny car, a medical student wearing a dinner jacket and bow tie, and faultlessly polite. Decidedly old and studious for his age, I understood why his mother had to find him a date. After a long hour’s drive we were ushered into the grand hallway of a huge country house where young people were milling around chatting, and waiters were circulating with drinks.
It didn’t take me long to realise that many of them looked at me, then looked at each other and turned away. And I began to understand why, I was the only female there in a short dress, everyone was wearing long. Neither Mum nor I knew the protocol for balls, and it never occurred to us that a sixteen year old would wear an evening gown. But to everyone else it was clearly obvious. No one came near us.
This didn’t seem to phase my date and we stood alone with our glasses of champagne, talking about spinal injuries. Then our host called us towards a huge room where the dancing was about to begin and explained that the evening would start with an ice breaker. Every girl must take off one shoe and place it in the middle of the floor, and then every boy must choose one, making sure it didn’t belong to his partner.
The boys each found a shoe and amid much laughter began the hunt for the right foot. Couples paired up and the music began, a quickstep. My shoe was still in the middle of the floor, unwanted. I hobbled through the dancers on my one high heel, apologising, trying to reach it as it was kicked a few feet here and there by passing couples. And I was ignored. After what felt like an hour of humiliation I managed to grab it, and rushed to the cloakroom, buried my head in my coat and sobbed. If this was Mum’s idea of “nice” people…
But there was one, a boy I knew, the only one there. He’d seen what happened and came to find me, and of course I cried even more at a familiar face. We’d played together as kids but I hadn’t seen him for a few years. Gradually he made light of it all, who cares, and he reached into my handbag and looking in the mirror, put on my lipstick. Let’s see how they like this! Well I was really laughing by then, and before long we went back to the ball, and he to his partner, minus lipstick.
The rest of it is a blur now, Scottish country dancing, a buffet, the grown man steadily in attendance. I don’t think he enjoyed it much either, but he was too shy to start a conversation with anyone else and far too well mannered to talk about my embarrassment. Neither of us dared suggest going home early. And there was more to come.
Eventually we climbed into the tiny car and set off down the long drive at about two in the morning. It was a cold, wet night and he’d given me his treasured college scarf for the journey home. I felt something tugging at my neck so he stopped the car, I opened the door and flipped the end of the scarf inside, and without looking tossed it round me. But it was weighty enough to travel further, and the wet end, thick in mud and gravel after being dragged along the road, landed squarely across his face with a smack.
I had one of those moments when something so awful has just happened that hysteria takes over, and I laughed, and kept on laughing, knowing it was an appalling thing to do but somehow I just couldn’t stop… And even then he was faultlessly polite, wiping his face with a spotlessly clean handkerchief and assuring me it didn’t matter. It was an even longer journey home. Of course I never heard from him again, and neither did I wear the shoes.
For me this captures the polar opposites of the times. The take me as I am nerve of on “your feet, bird”, was a bit of bravado from a fifteen year old. He probably thought he couldn’t dance, but he wasn’t going to miss out on being seen chatting up a bird. Even though this was the start of the swinging sixties, back then boys still learned from the men that they called the shots, and girls didn’t know it could be any other way.
Hunt balls were the last bastions of the privileged who were still living by the rules and dress code of previous generations. Happily they didn’t survive in such stiff and formal ways much longer. That poor young man was clearly so crushed by constantly having good manners drilled into him it had overwhelmed whatever personality and natural expression he had.
Two things strike me now. Lessons in growing up could be pretty hard, but I needed them. No one can prepare you for every experience and I learned best when I found out for myself how life can throw up the unexpected. In spite of tears and embarrassment it passed, and to a youthful heart, hope returned.
And most important, was learning at first hand how much it matters, noticing someone struggling to fit in or feeling uncomfortable, anywhere at all, always to be kind.