‘This should be our starting place,’ I reckon, said Bill to his old friend Jack. ‘Good choice, looks like.’
‘If you say so. You’re the shopper.’
They were in the market square of a small West Country town. It was raining. Few people were about. The men stood by the stall they fancied could be just the one they wanted. They were not interested in the myriad pairs of socks, bulbous shoes and underpants, but they had noticed several rails of jeans, and it was jeans they were after.
The rain stuttered on the sagging canvas roof. The salesman – a large, bearded man, not a local – sat on a wooden stool with a paper cup of tea. Nothing about him conveyed he entertained any hope of a sale.
Jack and Bill had been friends since they were boys: together at school, married to two friends, lived in next-door cottages a mile beyond the town. Jack was a carpenter, constantly employed by locals who preferred hand-made things to the ubiquitous stuff in stores that claim to sell desirable homeware. Bill was something of a musician: he played the organ most Sundays in church, taught singing in the local school, and helped out, seasonally, with jobs on nearby farms. Neither man had ever considered formally retiring. But once they approached seventy-five, they agreed, they should let up just a little, if only to appease their wives.
Not that time on their hands was a problem. They walked most days over the land they had known and loved all their lives. They wrote letters to their MP, and to the Council, concerning their horror at the possibility of proposed wind farms nearby. Their carefully composed objections never received a reply but, undaunted, they sent more letters in stronger language. Once they joined a protest march against the appalling idea of the super-fast train which was said to be coming to bugger up the peace, the wildlife, and the people who had lived there for generations. Several nights a week they went to the pub, had two pints of beer each. Jack paid for the first, Bill for the second: that had always been their unspoken way. They saluted other old friends in the Public Bar, and steadily made their way home again.
It was on one of these evenings, walking home in the twilight, that Jack came up with the idea that perhaps they were succumbing to old age and stiffening joints, and they should make an effort to try new things, keep up a bit, look for the sort of fun they had before they had settled down to marriage.
‘Ooh, I don’t know,’ Bill said.
Jack came to a halt. He bent down and picked up the empty half shell of a robin’s egg.
‘Funny this never got crushed,’ he said, handing it to Bill.
‘Amazing the tractor missed it.’ Bill paused. ‘What sort of thing do you have in mind?’ He threw the shell into the ditch.
‘Not worked it out too clearly.’ Jack frowned. ‘But it came to me that when we were lads, you and me, we used to enjoy dancing.’
‘So we did. We were almost Teddy Boys, one time, weren’t we? Rock ‘n’ Roll. You’re not suggesting we should have another go at all that?’
‘Not exactly. No. But those dances at the Ashley Hall. You must admit we’ve seen pretty girls coming out of there, a Saturday night. We’ve heard good loud music.’
They began to walk again, slowly.
‘Are you thinking we might try our luck?’ Bill had to brace himself for the question.
‘I’m not thinking clearly as that, no. I’m just throwing out an idea. – The idea being we shouldn’t let go of the bit of youth that’s still left in us …’
‘You mean? – Bonnie wouldn’t fancy the idea at all. Nor would your Daisy.’
Both men laughed.
‘Did I mention we should tell the wives? We’ve done a few things in our time that have gone unmentioned, haven’t we? I think it should be one of those.’
‘Only small bets on horses. This dancing lark would be quite a different order.’ Bill sighed deeply. ‘But we haven’t got the clothes,’ he added at last.
‘That’s where an idea has come up,’ Jack punched the air. ‘Jeans. What we need is jeans, like all the young.’
‘Bonnie’s always said Crimplene is best for an easy life.’
‘Crimplene is best for people older than us.’
‘You’re right there. And I don’t want to die never having worn a pair of jeans.’
‘So my idea is we’ll scoot round the market, see what we can find.’
‘We will,’ said Bill, a flicker of anticipation, at last, in his voice.
That was how the two old men came to be prowling through rails of jeans on a wet market morning.
There was certainly variety. Some were pale, some were dark, some ap- peared to have white scratches in their cloth, some had white stitching, some had orange. Some came with heavy belts, some had studs on the pockets. Confusing, really, both men silently thought. But neither suggested they should give up.
Then suddenly Bill came upon a pair that, as later he told Jack, ‘called out to him.’ They were neither too pale nor too dark, nor too thin nor too thick. Stiff, yes: but all of them were stiff. They needed wearing. They needed to fade and soften up.
‘How about these?’ Bill swung his chosen pair in front of Jack.
‘Look good.’ Jack himself could see no particular difference in Bill’s choice of jeans from any of the others. But he did not say so because his friend seemed so pleased. Then he saw Bill move towards the man who owned the tent.
‘I’d like these,’ he said. ‘Think I’ve got the right waist size, but I’d like to try them on.’
The man’s eyebrows rose above his cup of tea.
‘People don’t usually try jeans,’ he said. ‘They know their jeans.’
‘Daresay they do.’ Bill frowned. ‘But I don’t, and I’m not investing in something I’m not sure fits.’ The word investing had suddenly come to him: a word that conjured serious business.
‘Up to you,’ the salesman said with an acute lack of interest in anything that was lumbering through the geriatric customer’s mind. ‘You could go round the back, behind the pile of boxes. No one’ll see you there.’
Bill, jeans over his arm, moved to an opening at the back of the tent and disappeared.
Jack, spurred by his friend’s decisiveness, now flicked through a rail of jeans ignored by Bill. He quickly chose a possible pair, though did not feel it calling to him in the way that Bill’s chosen ones had called to him. They seemed to him to be perfectly average jeans, rather dark, very white stitch- ing. He waved them at the salesman.
‘Mind if I join my friend?’
They left their own trousers (baggy old things of many years service) neatly folded among the rubbish that had gathered on the pavement. Then they returned to the tent, wanting the salesman’s approval. But the man, still sipping his tea, gave them scarcely a glance.
‘They feel a bit stiff around the legs, don’t they?’ Bill was stroking his thighs, trying to tame the denim into something softer.
‘Be all right once they’re worn in,’ Jack said. The rain by now had stopped. The street, and its clutter of plastic roofs sagging over bright stalls, glittered under a sky that had suddenly brightened. Jack glanced at the salesman.
‘Think I’ll just take a few steps outside,’ he said. ‘Make sure.’
‘Don’t mind me,’ said the man, bored by the two old nutters, plainly not big spenders – probably they would find some non-existent fault with the jeans, and not buy anything at all.
Bill, still in the tent, watched his friend take a few cautious steps along the street. He noticed that Jack’s thin legs were bandy – bandy from the thigh down. Funny how all these years he had never noticed the curious bow shape of his friend’s legs. Must be the jeans that showed them up. Bill looked down at his own legs, very strange in blue denim instead of khaki cotton. Rather smart, really. He, too, took a few careful steps in the road, and caught Jack looking at him – puzzled, amazed, what was he?
‘Never knew you had bow legs,’ Jack said, nicely, to indicate that they were no bad thing. He did not see that his own bandiness was different from Bill’s – whose legs beneath the knees were the only parts where the bones were bow shaped. ‘Think we should take them?’
‘Definitely should.’ They returned to the tent, changed back into their own trousers, gave the salesman wads of pound notes. Suddenly so unexpect- edly rich, the owner of the jeans managed a smile and wished them luck, almost as if he knew why they had taken such care over their purchases.
The following Saturday night both Jack and Bill had some trouble leaving their cottages. Their wives immediately spotted the new jeans and quickly remonstrated.
‘What on earth?’ said Daisy to Jack.
‘Are you mad?’ said Bonnie to Bill.
‘Time I had a new pair of trousers,’ said Jack.
‘They were a bargain,’ said Bill.
Bonnie sniffed. ‘What with heating bills gone through the roof …’
‘I thought you were saving for a new mower …’ Daisy sighed.
Both men pointed out that they almost never bought any new clothes, and there both wives had to agree.
Jack and Bill met in the lane outside their gardens. They paused. Their eyes ran up and down each other – the long thick cardigans, special offers from the agricultural mail order firm that provided most of their clothes: the flan- nel shirts, the dull knitted ties. In their pristine jeans both men felt a flash of new hope and excitement, though neither could have envisaged, exactly, in which direction these sensations pointed.
‘Reckon we’ve brushed up pretty smart,’ said Bill.
‘How about we abort the ties?’ Jack undid his tie, pulled it off, undid the top two buttons of his shirt. Bill could see a V of rumpled skin drooping from his friend’s neck. But he, too, discarded his tie and undid his shirt. The sight of Jack’s neck had alerted him to the possible state of his own, and he was aware of Jack’s glance at the aged skin now visible in the open neck.
They walked in silence to the Ashley Rooms, each pondering on how the evening might turn out. Neither felt the thrill of expectation. Both were conscious of a slight dread, a slight doubt that they could not articulate.
There was a queue at the door. Plainly, since the word Memorial Hall had been replaced on the building’s dour façade by the posh sounding Ashley Rooms, business was looking up. Also, The Beanos, a group of some re- pute from Swindon, was to be the live band. Bill had heard the group was quite something. He wondered if they would be anything like the Stones.
The hall was crowded. The men made their way to the bar, bought two pints of beer, and found a couple of spare places on a bench. Their eyes quivered around the young things who had come to drink and dance. They did not look at each other.
‘Fair bit of youth, here,’ said Bill, after a while.
‘Not exactly our age group, but who cares?’ Jack looked in the direction of a blonde woman, not in her first youth, who was holding hands with a man he recognised as a part time helper in the chemist. ‘That one looks like she needs cheering up. She seems to be the only one over twenty. Daresay she’d be flattered if I asked her to dance.’ He stood up.
‘Go easy, now,’ said Bill. It had occurred to him, too, that the blonde was the best bet, though he would have preferred to partner one of the saucy young ones who he reckoned were contemporaries of his grand daughter.
Bill remained on the bench, watching his friend’s progress. The Beanos, three very thin young men with enough hair between them for a fireside mat, suddenly swarmed on to the stage. There was a great plonking chord. It re- verberated through his body, and hurt his ears. He kept his eyes on Jack.
He noticed that as his friend pushed his way through the crowd, people made way for him, as if he was a Duke on a royal visit. Some of them laughed – and it was not very friendly laughter – Bill could tell that, even under the blaring music. One of the show-off young dancers slapped Jack on the back, and shouted something Bill could not hear. For a moment Jack tottered, as if lightly soldered to the floor. Then he carried on towards his blonde goal, arms outstretched. By now the dancers were flinging themselves about, not touch- ing a partner but swivelling to face a dozen different dancers.
Jack, shaken but undeterred, pushed on. Suddenly blue eyelids and scarlet lips, which had attracted him from a distance, were inches from his face. Somehow, this close, they were too big and too bright.
‘Hello, old man,’ shouted the blonde. ‘What are you doing here?’ Jack pulled at one of his ears.
‘Would you like to dance?’ he asked.
‘I don’t mind if I do.’
‘Go on Rube, go for it.’ The man from the chemist, still close to her, nudged her in the ribs.
Jack held out his arms, as he had been taught many years ago, He put one hand round the blonde’s large waist, and clutched her free hand. A power- ful smell of tubor rose made him catch his breath. They moved sluggishly away from the boyfriend, who was doubled up with laughter, towards the middle of the dance floor.
‘You’re not a modern dancer, then?’ the blonde observed, almost at once – at least, that’s what Jack thought she said. The blasted music made it dif- ficult to hear. ‘See, younger ones don’t dance like this.’
‘Still, if that’s what you want.’ Suddenly her body pushed heavily against Jack: it was all he could do to keep his balance. Then a waft of gin came to his nostrils, and wet lips pressed against his cheek. He knew they must have left an imprint, but was too confused to search for his handkerchief to try to rub it off. ‘Anyways, we’re giving Roger a good laugh.’ She glanced over to where the man from the chemist was laughing so hard, now, that veins were swelling up all over his mean little face.
Jack dropped his arms by his side. He stood quite still, shaking in the noise and movement all round him. He had to get away from this woman, return to Bill on the bench. Though how he was to get through the crowd he could not imagine.
‘Dear, dear, poor granddad,’ the blonde cooed. ‘Sorry I’m a disappoint- ment. What made you come here? Wanting to get back to your friend, are you?’ Her sympathy was purely mocking, Jack could tell. – ‘OK, I’ll – ’
She turned her back on Jack and gave a very loud shriek.
‘Lissen here,’ she shouted, ‘this old boy’s come to the wrong place, wants to get back to his friend. Please make way, everyone.’
Astonishingly, her voice was heard. Dancers looked round, took in the sight of the old man with pink lips on his cheek, saw his agony, saw their chance for a bit of fun. As if orchestrated by an invisible conductor, they began to part, making pathways between themselves, laughing all the while, cat call- ing, whistling. As Jack chose one of the paths, and began to stumble down it towards where he hoped Bill was still on the bench, he was punched on the back many times. There were obscene shouts of encouragement.
Rocked from side to side, terrified he would lose his balance, he told him- self the blows were meant to be friendly. But they hurt.
Bill, still on the bench, looked round. There was Jack tottering towards him, loose neck swaying in the open V of his shirt, tie hanging from a pocket, huge pink lips on his cheek. There was a slick of blood on his dark cheek. Bill clenched his hands. Bloody hell. What had happened? He had not seen Jack dancing, though he had faintly heard the screeched an- nouncement about making way for granddad.
He started to move uncertainly towards his friend who looked as if he could do with some support. But as he held out his hand, he felt himself suddenly closed in on all sides. He was whirled into a dense circle of writhing young things – pushed, jostled, punched. The channels of escape had closed up. He caught a last glimpse of Jack’s stricken face: then he was on his own, trying to keep his balance, wondering what was happening.
In a short moment of clear thinking Bill decided to smile. Ought to show he was up for whatever this horrible ritual was. Ought to show he was enjoy- ing the fun. He felt his lips slither in various directions across his teeth, then give up. Several times he lost his balance, but the circle of excited young things made sure he did not fall. Their fun was to push him, laugh at him, shout encouragement, though he could not understand what they were try- ing to encourage. The music roared like a wild animal, tearing at his head. The faces and hands of his tormentors had suddenly all turned to chaff: no good trying to grab one of them. He had no idea where he was, why he was here, or what was wanted of him. He could not see Jack. He felt a vicious thump between his shoulders.
Jack, buffeted and dizzy himself, was determined to reach the bench, and from there keep a lookout for Bill.
He did reach it. He sat down. Vaguely he noticed the young bullies had not followed him. The music seemed ever louder, battering his head and the depths of his body. His eyes moved cautiously about: the sight in one
of them was blurred. He stood up. Now he could see Bill over by the stage being punched, he thought, by a couple of savage young men, cheered on by several nubile girls. It occurred to him he should try to reach his friend, help him. But nah, he thought. Stupid idea. He would be knocked down before he got there.
The young men, tired of their attacking Bill at last, had disappeared back into the crowd. He was now imprisoned in a circle of girls, arms linked. They were high-kicking their legs, like a chorus line, in his direction. Some of the kicks landed on various parts of his body – thigh, arm and stomach. But he tried to smile – typical, thought Jack, as guiltily he stumbled to rescue his friend: Bill was always one for making the best of things.
The music stopped suddenly. The girls moved in on Bill. Two of them began to kiss him – cheeks, ears, head. He jerked his head from side to side which made them laugh. Slashes of various lipsticks scored his face. Some- where deep within him he knew he looked ridiculous. Perhaps that had been their aim, to make an old man look foolish. Then the kissing stopped suddenly as the music. Bored by their tormenting, the girls moved away. One of them gave a farewell thump between Bill’s shoulders. He cried out in pain and fell to the floor.
Jack, sickened by his lack of help for his friend, at last reached Bill. He lay in a curled position, arms crossed over his chest. The dancers had moved to the bar. Unconcerned. Not so much as a glance towards their prey.
Bill was making all the right gestures to rise from the ground, but there was not an ounce of spring within him. He stayed where he was, unmoving. He wanted to be at home, with Bonnie. But it occurred to him he would prob- ably die here, on the floor of the Ashley Rooms, and never see her again.
He felt two hands on his shoulders, pulling.
‘Come on, Bill.’ Jack’s attempts at helping his friend to his feet were not good enough. What was going on? Why wasn’t Jack pulling harder? – Then he felt another pair of hands. In a brief twist of his head he saw it was the blonde’s friend from the chemist. He was not laughing now, but exerting incredible strength. In a moment Bill was back on his feet. He was helped to the bench by the man, and Jack. All three of them sat down.
‘Like me to call an ambulance?’ The blonde’s boyfriend gave a professional frown.
‘I bloody wouldn’t,’ said Bill. ‘I’m fine.’ In truth he was in a lot of pain: shoulders, back, legs – all hammered. ‘Think our time is probably up,’ he added.
‘But we haven’t danced,’ said Jack. The music had started up again and the young were flinging themselves about with more of their careless, frightening energy.
‘And we’re not bloody going to. Perhaps next time.’
Bill dabbed at a swollen cheek with his handkerchief. The man from the chemist man got up and slipped away with no farewell. The blonde had disappeared. For a few moments the friends sat without speaking, wonder- ing what they should do, how they had come to be here. They did not look at each other’s faces, but Jack gave a shy pat to Bill’s knee. In response, Bill tried for lightness.
‘What was all that about?’ he asked.
‘Don’t ask me. Just bloody bullies. Showing off. High as kites.’
‘We never did that, did we? Attack old people?’
‘Never. But we’re not going to give them the satisfaction of thinking they hurt us.’
‘Course not. Let’s go.’
‘You take my arm. We’ll push our way out somehow.’
The two old men in jeans stood up and made their hesitant way round the edge of the hall to the door. The music raged on, jeering.
Outside, it was dark. The moon was precisely chiselled, its edges sharp. It seemed to be in charge of the sky, threatening any cloud that came too close. Its light ruffled a rim of darkness.
‘I still say it’s a pity we didn’t get to dance,’ said Jack. ‘Perhaps next time.’
‘You’re the optimist. – What do you mean, next time?’
Jack did not answer. They began slowly to walk, each one hampered by pain. Bill had always thought that relief was one of the most underrated sen- sations. Now, it was the relief of having escaped from the Ashley bloody Rooms that soothed him.
They reached their front gates. Each put a hand on the fence that bordered their gardens. Jack drew himself up, confident now of support.
‘Wonder what we’re going to tell the wives,’ he said.
‘The truth, Jack. We tripped, we fell …’
There was a long silence while each considered this plan. Then Jack said:
‘I don’t think we should leave it like this. Beaten by ruffians.’
‘You really do mean we should go again, do you?’
Jack scratched his head, rubbed at a slash of blood on his cardigan.
‘See, sometimes you imagine things,’ he said. ‘You have a good clear picture of things. You know exactly how it’s going to be. – But turns out you get it wrong. We got it wrong tonight. So what do we do? We try again.’ ‘God Almighty, Jack.’
‘So, next Saturday? We won’t be a novelty any more. They won’t be interested in us. We’ll just be two old codgers. They’ll leave us alone.’
‘If you say so.’ Bill looked towards the drawn curtains of his cottage windows, flushed by the quiet lights within. ‘Bonnie must be wondering. Goodness knows how I’m going to explain …’ He touched a cheek with one finger.
‘Tell her there was a bit of a punch up, but we were the victors.’
Jack opened his gate, went through. Bill did the same. Each moved slowly towards his own front door, stood for a moment in his own porch, trying to believe that next week would be different.
‘Same time, then, Saturday night. – I like the jeans.’
‘They’re good jeans. Brought us a bit of youth. – You all right, Jack?’ ‘I’m all right, Bill. See you.’
Each man opened his own front door, and different kinds of light came from the lamps in their different hallways, and spilt onto their neatly mown front lawns.