The wrought iron fence still ringed the grounds of the ballroom as it had all those years ago. Back then even a half decent ballroom had been worth travelling a fair distance for and this one had been the best. Now, at 86 years old, Tom found little reason to travel, little reason to venture far from home and few enough places to venture to. Yet he had travelled today, a whole three buses and five hours’ worth of travelling. Now it was time to see if it had been worth the effort. It was still here at any rate, still standing, he hadn’t been at all sure that it would. Still here but time had exacted its cruel price. One time this ballroom had stood proud, shining and bright in the night, now it lay dark and derelict in the daylight.
Tom walked along the fence, rust had claimed it some time ago but flakes of black paint still clung on in places, pieces of better days. He ignored the warnings of the battered signs proclaiming ‘KEEP OUT’ in faded letters, and turned into the old car park. Each step he took with care, mindful of the tufts of grass, the weeds, and the cracked tarmac that they sprouted through. It saddened him seeing the place like this, years of neglect plain to the eye, the once grand entrance now boarded up, littered with beer cans and marred by graffiti. He didn’t bother even trying to mount the steps there. The plywood nailed across the double doors, worn and weathered as it was, looked far too sturdy for old arms to tackle. Instead he headed towards the back of the building.
The rear of the building proved even more overgrown than the front had. His feet found a roughly beaten path through the undergrowth. It led him to a back door, also barred with plywood. He tapped at the plywood with his walking stick, saw that it rattled a little against the doorjamb. In the gap between the doorframe and the wood he wedged the tip of his cane. Gripping tight to the cane with both hands, he mustered all of his strength and leaned in towards the wall. With a low groan the sheet of wood broke loose and fell to the ground beside him. He slipped the flat cap from his head and shook it at the air around him, trying to shoo away the dust that he was coughing out. When the air settled somewhat he stepped through into a small room and on again, through to the corridor beyond. The passage was dim, dusty and marked with more graffiti. His left hand he kept on one wall to steady himself and used his cane to push the rubbish at his feet out of his path. The passage brought him to a doorway that opened out into the ballroom. Breathing deep, he stepped inside.
Overhead the few missing slates let the sun shine through in spots of light. Long gone were the couples spinning in each other’s arms, replaced now with empty bottles spun round by the wind. The wooden floors that had once sounded out with taps and beats of happy feet now lay warped and twisted. No graffiti here, thanks be. The kids had left this part alone at least. He walked straight to the middle of the dance floor. His footsteps echoed softly but clearly in the still room. It was an empty room, any small thing of interest having been scavenged long before, empty now save for Tom and the memories he brought back. On the walls faded squares gently reminded where pictures had once hung. If any of those pictures had still remained he might have been able to find an image of the boy he’d once been or maybe the girl who’d taken that boy by the hand and taught him to dance in step with the beat of her heart.
On this dance floor Sheila had first slipped and swayed into his arms, into his life. This had been the stage for so many of their firsts: first words, first laugh, first fight, first tears, first dance, first kiss. He turned slowly in a circle taking it all in through half closed eyes, rocking his head from side to side as they had rocked their hips all those years before, side by side, in time to the music. He remembered when he’d looked into her eyes for the first time, not knowing that this girl would become the woman that became his life. A lifetime hiding behind a smiling pair of eyes, all the joy and all the sorrow, and neither one could’ve guessed it.
Sheila had been sharp in every way; sharp dressed, sharp minded and with a sharp tongue when she’d wanted. Not anymore though, those were all just memories. Memories were all that Tom had left and Sheila had none. Not fair. Her mind was clouded and getting more so every day. She held no memory of Tom, no memory of them and little recall of much of her own self. The past lay atop Tom’s present like dust, covering everything, and the future was dark, closed and ever shorter. For Sheila all three held no meaning, for her there was only confusion. She might not remember the life that had started here all those countless moments ago but Tom did, and this old dance hall still stood, battered and tattered by the years as it was. It still stood. A silent shrine to the songs of their summer days. The silence was suddenly shattered by the sound of heavy footsteps approaching.
“Don’t even thinking of running.” An authorative voice shouted. Tom turned to see a middle-aged Garda step into the ballroom. “I mean it now, if you kids make me… Oh!”
“Jaysus, now you I wasn’t expecting. Who’d we have there now, Billy White, is it?” The guard asked, as he walked over. “No, not Billy White. You’re not from around here, are you, old timer?”
“No, I travelled a ways to get here. We used to do that when we were young, all pile into a car on a Saturday evening, heading off in search of a dance. This hall,” he said, gesturing around them with his cane. “This was my favourite. It was where… Well, it’s really sort of special to me and I just wanted to see it again.”
“Here now, we can’t have you in here, it’s bloody dangerous is what it is. Whole place is liable to come down on your ears if you sneeze too loud.” The guard’s eyes settled on the liver spotted hand that held the cane in a shaky grip. He sighed. “Look, I’ll tell you what, let me take you down to Hogan’s Pub and buy you some lunch. My Uncle used to work here, I’ll give him a ring, see if he’ll meet us. He might have an old photo or two of the place that you can take home with you. Okay?”
“He used to work here? Maybe, maybe I knew him once so.”
“Yeah, you never know, maybe you did at that. Now how about we get out of this place and grab some lunch?”
“Hmm…Huh? Oh, yes! Lunch, yes, and the photos.”
“Yeah, and the photos, of course.” The guard said, gently taking a hold of Tom’s elbow and guiding him out. “I tell you, it’ll be a lot safer and a lot nicer now to be looking at some lovely photos over a quiet pint than poking around here in this dusty old death trap.”
“That’s true.” Tom said, throwing his eyes about for one last look. “Maybe sometimes it’s best to remember things the way that they were instead of how they are.”