ONE MORE DANCE
By Stuart S. Laing
Word count: 1780
Summary: An old lady remembers younger, happier days.
“Where’s that blimming cat got tae now?” Jinty sighed as she stared around the edge of her door, peering out into the darkness of Fishmarket Close as the snow continued to fall like feathers from angel’s wings on this dark Christmas Eve. The several inches already carpeting the narrow lane hid the grime covering the flagstones, and made the normally filthy close seem fresh and new.
“If you’re no’ home in ten minutes, you can ha’e a night on the tiles,” she warned the absent feline, but her words were warmed with a smile.
Closing the door against the cold air, she slowly shuffled back across the tiny room which constituted her home. With a weary sigh at the dull pain in her chest and legs, reminders of every one of her eighty-three years, she gently lowered herself into an armchair almost as old as herself. Nestling back into the mass of cushions which bolstered her thin, bone-weary body, she gazed into the low-burning flames of a handful of coals in the fireplace. The flickering glow from the fire provided scant heat and the sole illumination in the room. Dancing shadows hid the dust and dirt which gathered on every surface and in ignored corners, no matter how much she cleaned. Not that she did that as often as she had in the past. That was back in the days when her husband Josiah had still lived. He had been gone now for almost twenty years, leaving her heartbroken and still missing him every day. The fruits of their union, two fine, strapping sons had attempted to help her around the house at one time. Their wives had also tried to ease her burden, but as time rolled by, their visits became fewer and fewer. Now she would struggle to recall exactly when she had last seen hide nor hair of them. Her sole company these days was a feline philanderer she had named, with no real thought, simply Cat. Like most males, she had discovered, he could not be relied upon to be dependable. Only her husband, Josiah, had shown himself to be faithful and true. But Cat? He was a different story. She had sat long into the night more times than she cared to count, here in front of a dying fire, waiting for the scratching at the door, or his impatient yowl which usually signified his return.
For a moment she considered stirring herself to place another lump of coal on the fire, but instead shook her head. Coal cost money, and she had little enough of that these days. No, let it burn down. If Cat had still not returned by the time the last embers winked out into oblivion, he would have to find his own bed elsewhere for the night. It may be December, but she had an inkling that Cat would know how to keep himself out of the cold. Her only concern was that some starving, half-naked deserter from the Highland army, currently retreating after their advance into England, would see Cat and think him a fine, fat portion for his cooking pot. Their commander-in-chief, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, may have held grand parties and balls at the Palace of Holyrood House less than half a mile from where Jinty sat, but she was content to sit in her tiny room before a waning fire and concern herself over the fate of a flea-bitten, mangy mog whose own sole worry was where his next meal was coming from.
Her contemplation on the whereabouts of her absent companion was interrupted by the sound of sudden laughter and voices raised in bawdy song somewhere out on Fishmarket Close. With another sigh that sounded as though it had been summoned up from the soles of her feet, Jinty pulled a thin shawl around her frail shoulders with a weary shake of her head.
“Och, but it’s fine tae be young.” She smiled into the flames, still dancing, though their movement now seemed as tired as she felt. “A’ that life and energy spilling oot o’ them! Oh, just for one more night tae escape this decrepit auld body and be the lassie I was then…”
She closed rheumy eyes as the dinginess of her surroundings were replaced by visions of secret dances held far from prying eyes. Back then in the late 1670’s, before she was married, dancing and any displays of public enjoyment were frowned upon. To avoid the disapproving stare of Kirk and parents, parties were held in secret locations, normally the deepest oyster cellars beneath the taverns and alehouses on the wynds and closes running down from the High Street towards the Nor’Loch or the Cowgate. There, by the smoky light of cruisie lamps, candles, and torches, the young would gather in hot, smoky caverns and lose themselves in loud music and wild dancing until the sweat dripped from the roof. Their behaviour would have seen them branded as having loose morals and earn them public shame on the Penitents Stool below the pulpit in church, had they been caught. There, before the congregation, their sins would have been laid bare for all to know. It was a risk young Jinty had embraced as warmly as she had once embraced her dancing partners.
Those wild, carefree days when she, like most of the others present, had been less than twenty years of age, now seemed as distant as the moon. The laughter, music, and dancing had given way within a few brief months to the Killing Times. Those were dark days, when they who saw themselves as God’s Chosen had done all in their power to exterminate men and women who were seen as heretics. The victims, Presbyterians in the main, were just as devout in their faith as their Episcopalian oppressors; they all worshipped the one true God, but had dared to do so in a different manner.
The crushing grimness of those years had snuffed out the light of laughter, silenced the music, and the only dancing was done at the end of a rope hanging from the Grassmarket gallows.
“No!” Jinty said with a shake of her grey head. “We’ll no’ think o’ that! This is a time for happier memories.” She turned her thoughts away from the cruel deaths of the martyrs and all the tears she had shed over the loss of friends. “Tonight lass, we’ll think only o’ happier times, or we shall think o’ nothing at all.”
Behind the screen of closed eyes, time shifted. The room on Fishmarket Close faded into the mists and snow of Christmas Eve, and sweeter memories seemed to become real. The room where she sat slowly vanished from thought. Now it was replaced by the warm, close confines of an oyster cellar. The music once again played with that familiar wild abandon. Couples whirled and leapt, laughed and danced, loved and sang, sending their shadows soaring around the walls and vaulted ceiling while she stood, happily astounded to find herself in their midst.
A sudden crashing, sharp pain erupted in her chest, making her gasp, but she kept her eyes shut. Tonight she wanted to be eighteen again. And tonight, whatever it cost her, she would be eighteen again.
Faces slowly came into focus before her, their smiles and hands beckoning her to join them on the crowded dance floor as one darkly handsome figure came towards her through the happy throng. The dancers parted, allowing him to stand before her with his hand held out for hers.
“Aye, it’s me, lassie. Will you give me this dance?”
A fleeting sense of alarm flowed through her, briefly reminding her of the strangely distant, burning pain in her chest that she grew less aware of every passing moment, but that sense of alarm dimmed as quickly as it had come.
“But Josiah, you were never at the dances! I never met you until later. How are you here?”
The youthful face of the man she had married smiled lovingly at her confusion. “Och lassie, dinnae fash yourself none about the whys and wherefores. You wanted to be eighteen again. Aye? Well, now you are! And eighteen you will remain.” He offered her his hand again, as he smiled once more. “We’ll dance and sing and laugh together—from now until Judgement Day, if you’ll but take my hand and join the dance.”
The crushing pain in her chest had all but gone now, along with the sounds of drunken revelry from the narrow street beyond her door. The weight of years fell away as easily as a cast-off shawl as she reached out a hand tentatively towards Josiah. His hand was warm to the touch, and she noticed with a wistful smile that her own hand was white and smooth. The wrinkles, kidney spots, and scars of time were gone. Looking at those hands, as their fingers entwined, swept away the last sixty-plus years. The aches and pains of old age faded and were gone. Her body was as firm, strong, and healthy as it had once been, as she got to her feet with the easy grace of a young woman.
“Dance, lassie,” Josiah urged her gently with a loving smile.
As the music played on, Jinty allowed herself to settle into his arms and fill her senses with the familiar scent of his body against hers, and then they danced. Tonight the dance, and their love, would last forever.
* * *
From his favoured spot on the window ledge outside the room, Cat sat gingerly amid the snow and cocked his head to one side as he looked through the glass at the scene within. The old woman who fed him and provided him with a warm bed sat motionless in her familiar place, with a hand raised before her. For a moment she seemed to be looking at the faint shade his feline eyes saw before her, and then, as the hand slowly sank to her side, her head lolled backwards into a cushion.
Invisible to the eyes of man, but plain as day to Cat, her soul lifted itself from the now-empty shell which had housed it since birth. Jinty had no further need for it now. Another shade awaited her, a shade which welcomed her with a love that transcended Time itself. Her soul reached out and together they joined to become as one as they slowly spun around the room in a reel, before fading from this world as they danced into eternity.
Stuart S. Laing is the author of the Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries set in Georgian Edinburgh during the 1740s.