Ellen Stewart had stood thunderstruck on first hearing the news. Fourteen people had sponsored her husband to complete the Edinburgh Salsa Challenge. Rufus had over a thousand friends on Facebook but when these children’s trading cards were converted back into the useable currency of living people, there were only fourteen left? Thirteen, properly speaking, once she was discounted.
It was several months since the Stewarts had returned from Borneo. Ellen remembered this country with gratitude – for one thing, it had been all left behind in Borneo. On the few occasions when she chose to retrieve her memories of the holiday, their sting was still acute. Even the balmy days in Pontianak after their rescue from the national park were far from pleasant to recall.
A procession of envoys and delegations had appeared before her in her hospital bed. There had been an exquisitely dainty elephantine man in military uniform, who from his age and size could have been nothing less than a general. He had made her acquaintance with a delicate friendliness – was she comfortable in this hospital?, he had pressed shyly. She had obediently upheld the charade that the head of the army was visiting to see to it personally that she was sleeping well. Next a bishop in a claret-coloured smock had visited, to sit giggling at her with glittering eyes. Her room had been tidied in a stampede of doctors and nurses, before a careworn little man in pinstripes had trotted in to peer at her. A cabinet minister, the matron had later told Ellen encouragingly. If only one of these visitors had screamed and stamped his feet and then she could have finally relaxed. If only one of them had raged: what selfishness, what irresponsibility! What were you doing out there?
She knew, of course, that the national park police had not really rescued her of their own volition. Her life was now no longer her own, or rather she had purchased her life back for herself by devoting it, and all of it, to her master. “There is a young man called Marcin Podkowinski,” he had stipulated. “You must find all information about Marcin. Whether he is alive or dead.”
He had not said by when he wanted this information, Ellen reflected wryly. But the gap between the hearing and the obeying had been probably stretched past all decency by now. The setback was this: she could not get to work without the help of her crony, Beatrix Barton, but Beatrix had just been widowed and she was still grieving.
There had been a mildly spectacular quality to Tom Barton’s death, a tacit razzmatazz. The fitness enthusiast, some years retired, who looks so healthy at sixty-three and by sixty-four is gone. Tom had spoken as if he was just visiting the dentist to have his tumour taken out. Ellen had only glimpsed him once after his majestic, late-summer ruddiness had become alert to the swoop of winter. They had sipped brandy together in the ECA’s Wee Red Bar after Tom had modelled for his last life-drawing class. With his powerful rhinoceros’s frame, he had been invited to masquerade naked before generations of students, from punks to safe-spacers, over a spread of decades. He had recounted the futility of his surgery with bemused indignation; he had still looked intrigued by the novelty of his own death. Later he had seemed timid and strangely kindly.
Beatrix had not phoned – she had instead sent an apologetic email cancelling all upcoming teas, drinks, luncheons and, presumably, their own sessions. Aside from the funeral, at which Beatrix had presented a purely ceremonial display, like a brittle statuette atop a cake, Ellen had heard nothing. She knew that Beatrix’s thoroughly inhuman children would be rejoicing in their mother’s forsakenness. Every evening would have been rapidly booked up with childminding – this would, so the bargain would run, keep Tom from preying on her mind. Having thus wriggled off their own parental hook, Beatrix’s children would be now living their youth all over again, invading Cowgate nightclubs and startling the students, nostalgically bingeing on cocaine, nostalgically outrageous and free.
Perhaps Ellen would not have worried so fulsomely about Rufus’s salsa dancing had Beatrix been available to her. After suffering a heart attack two years ago, Rufus had recently decided that he had worried about it enough, as though a heart attack was a stage of life that everybody grows out of. He ate compulsively and then tried to make amends through violent exercise. The Edinburgh Salsa Challenge was not obviously part of any structured fitness programme. It was instead a canny investment which would yield weeks of secretive but guilt-free doughnut munching as a return.
“So you dance for three nights…?” Ellen had at first searched for something sensible within her husband’s wild description of the event.
“Three nights and two days. But you don’t ever stop.”
“Rufus, this is insane! If this dance was a run… I mean, it would be like eight marathons in a row!”
“It’s not the distance, it’s the time. It will break a world record.”
“This is not the wisest…” but Ellen trailed off. The heart attack always waited dutifully around the corner but she could never bring herself to summon it. Rufus was now reciting his enthusiasm, like someone who was reading information from off the back of a box. Ellen had been annoyed by the strangeness in her own voice – the flatness, the lack of amusement. If she had had children, she would have no doubt ended up talking like this all the time.
She drove him to the venue. If he took his own car, he would be in no position to drive after sixty hours of continual dancing. The dance was being held at the conference centre in the Pollock Halls of Residence. Security men were waving in car after car and it was so tight in the car park that the cars seemed to shuffle around each other like agitated bees.
There must have been over a hundred people coming to this dance. They were bearing down upon the dancehall in a huge fan, reminding Ellen of a scene from a movie of townspeople approaching a spaceship. Most of them were immensely portly. The salsa club had been originally called “Tums and Bums” and everybody had danced for the exercise. The salsa’s caressing hands were meant to smooth away the flopping tums and drooping bums.
There was a small, querulous student protest displayed rather in the manner of an art installation to one side of the main entrance. After Rufus had swept ahead, Ellen stayed behind to chat with the protestors. It turned out that it was exam season and that sixty hours of non-stop congas and cowbells in the middle of the halls of residence would not be advantageous to stress-free study. With the inevitability of the student mind, the protestors all thought that the university’s commercial interests had been prioritised over their own welfare.
Inside, the first thing that Ellen saw was a waving arm and then Beatrix Barton had unexpectedly pounced on her.
She looked normal and undramatic. Ellen had unthinkingly assumed that Beatrix would have resembled a vision of theatrical distress, with her hair torn out in clumps and her clothing dishevelled.
Beatrix was a rangy woman, taller than most men and as dry to look at as old chopped wood. She was always improbably stylish. Today, she had a boy’s haircut and designer glasses which were so chunkily-framed that they might have belonged on a cartoon boffin.
Each hand ended in an awed-looking tot. Her grandsons were two and four.
“Ellen!” she crooned. “My children are here.” Her children were both daughters. “Angelina told me that Rufus has promised to be her partner.”
Ellen was bewildered. “But why?”
“Look around – he’s practically the only man here! You have to claw a dozen women’s eyes out before you get to twirl with anything even remotely male!”
“Beatrix, let’s talk somewhere before you go away. It concerns things which are…” her eyes flickered mischievously at the salsa dancers around them, “serious.”
“Goodness, let’s. We’ll have to bring the kiddie-winks with us though. I’m naturally lumbered with the little beasts. You can drive me please, so then we don’t have to wait for the bus.”
Both ladies waved goodbye to their relatives, who were already in position on the dance floor. Some of the dancers had pompously commenced warm up exercises. Ellen wondered how long it would take to warm up for a sixty hour dance.
Her car was now soaring down the bypass, as fast as a zip down a coat. Both ladies had looked up at exactly the same time, without an utterance, to register a slow, swelling river of birds which was washing across the sky, at a river’s pace, towards the Pentlands. From their numbers, these birds could only be starlings. Luke, the oldest boy, and reading already, had a picture book that he and his brother could sing along to. When you turned the plastic page, a farmer’s gnarled voice struck up bumptiously over nautical accordion music:
“Higgledy-piggledy, my black hen,
She lays eggs for gentlemen,
Sometimes nine and sometimes ten,
Higgledy-piggledy, my black hen.”
“You know,” Beatrix observed, as if to herself, “if that boy isn’t dead, we will be dangerously exposed.”
“If you want to contact Tom…” Ellen ventured. She knew that she should extend this offer in some way, however clumsily, but Beatrix bit her lip and shook her head involuntarily at Tom’s name.
Half a mile down the bypass, Beatrix resumed. “We’ll do it on Sunday, the night before we collect them again. Once the bairns are abed.”
Ellen nodded. The unflappable farmer had been joined by the chanting boys in listing Old MacDonald’s livestock and pets. Here a bow, there a wow, everywhere a bow-wow. “Your music’s making me seasick,” Beatrix complained over her shoulder.
Rufus and his partner, Angelina Barton-MacLean, had been dancing for nine and a half hours.
Angelina was possibly even taller than her mother, but with none of Beatrix’s instant, authentic friendliness. She wore a merciless scowl which those who first met her would, after some time, uneasily conclude did not mean anything. On Angelina’s face, this scowl was as blank as the expression on a corpse. She flared her nostrils so frequently that they pumped like tiny backup lungs. She was a bold direct woman and this was how Rufus had agreed to be her partner. She had in some unstated way, through a couple of quick blinks, commanded it.
They were clearly mismatched. Angelina danced strikingly, with unnecessary power, as if in defiance of hurricane winds. Rufus padded about happily beneath her sweeping branches. He often looked like a teapot, with one fat arm trailing limply in a spout.
The band was still buoyant and their music, as usual, sounded fantastically silly. All around the dancefloor each dancer was performing their smooth, brisk waddle and mechanically flashing those salsa-dancers’ smiles which always seem to click into place. Back and forth, twirling and unfurling, with each couple fluctuating like that restless optical illusion which can never settle down for good as a vase or two faces.
Rufus felt content. Periodically each pair would dance over to a long table from which they would take a puny disposable cup of a herb-flavoured drink. The energy would flow through Rufus like a million microscopic swimmers carrying their love and kindliness along the canals in his arms, swimming down to his very fingertips. He could literally feel the radiance spreading across his body, though it did not, as a secondary impression, feel quite real. It was as if he was only the ghost of an energised person.
The event coordinator prepared these drinks. A noble-looking, leonine man in a velvet suit, with a stricken histrionic face and eyebrows which flashed supreme contempt, he leaned furtively over the drinks trays, absorbed in his concoctions.
At some point, Angelina was annoyed and alarmed to realise that Rufus was talking to her. She knew that she could not conceal her distaste at this common little man beyond the first few seconds of a conversation.
“I’m starting to need to urinate,” Rufus confided miserably. “I remember he said that we would not be disqualified from the world record if we went to the toilet, but what is the procedure?”
The he was the histrionic coordinator.
Angelina laughed. “I think that we both dance into the men’s and we have to keep dancing while you relieve yourself. The master watches us.”
Rufus laughed and then the laugh hardened on his face. Angelina went back to ignoring him, congratulating herself at the politeness of her rebuke. On the band played and on the dancers danced.