Alvin’s Dancehall – looking back – James Woolf

This too has been one of the more romantic places in town. Handily placed near the car park, the architect took advantage of the high street corner location to incorporate a boastful curve into its frontage. Built as an ice rink in the ‘30s, it morphed seamlessly into Alvin’s Dancehall on the day Chubby Checker released The Twist, and over the years the people flocked to its new incarnation. How they’ve visited this quintessence of dance, this pit-stop in the race for romance, this mass-manufacturer of memories!

And when they are here, be it for Saturday Night Partners or Weekday Singles – laughing as they hand over their £1 entrance fees, wolfing down their chicken and chips in the basket, jiving to Jerry and the Pacemakers, copping of with a fella or a girl when they get lucky – they inhabit the place, as if the business of being here is the only business that’s ever mattered.

There’s a huge wrecking ball swinging on a chain. Suspended from a crane, it’s slamming into the curvature of the building.

In their twenties or their eighties, they steam through the front door and head for the cloakrooms. And with tables on three sides of the dance floor you can always see what’s happening. No one even complains about the lads on apprentice wages who wait for the floor to fill before mining the tables for free drinks. After all, the booze isn’t expensive and the bar’s a friendly place.

Trevor and Tania; Si and gangly Debbie; Judith and Danny the postman; Jacqui and Alan (who later ran off with an Italian waiter); Dominick and Monica, yes, her with the dyed black hair – just a few of the couples who met at Alvin’s.

The ball slams into the building again and a piece of jagged masonry detaches itself.

And look at the joint now! They’re all “doing the locomotion” – clockwork dancers wound up and strutting their stuff. Except for Ian the gas fitter, over on that table; in his fifties now, a regular at Alvin’s for four decades and the driving force in the fight to keep the place open. Maybe he’s thinking of the time he asked an older lass to dance, and was swiftly joined on the floor by his dad who not only took the girl by the hands but ended up marrying her! Or maybe his mind’s on the local golf club, also battling closure (but their members pushed the right buttons and have achieved a stay of execution). Now back with the beers is Ian’s younger brother Sam; Sam who used to win prizes for his Paso Doble at Sunday Night Ballroom; Sam the ultimate lady’s man; Sam who will collapse and die from a pulmonary embolism in two months time. For now, the unmarried brothers are happy drinking their pints, trading a stream of stripped back memories; for what are memories if not careful acts of compression?

And on this special but sad night, Ian looks up to see Valerie Dolan – can that really be her? – Valerie who he stepped out with for a while in the ’90s, Valerie who never took him seriously and then dumped him before heading off to God knows where to study Lord knows what? Ian imagines his memories being contained in boxes that periodically get moved to lower shelves. Some memories can fall to the floor in transition, only to trip you up when you’re least expecting it.

A piece of jagged masonry detaches itself. Freakishly, and as if in slow motion, it takes flight.

Which is exactly what happens now to Valerie, and she stops in her tracks. She was on her way to chat to Enid, they’d said they might see each other tonight. But she immediately recognises Ian. She remembers having great times with him but became so tired of waiting for a marriage proposal that she called it quits and got a job in Derby.

They smile and she mentions that she just saw Alan and Marco, the waiter. Yes, at this last hurrah for Alvin’s, everyone has turned out. But what a shame about the Council having finally called time. And did she hear what the spokesperson said, “an amenity that’s gone beyond its economic life cycle?” It would have been wrong, apparently, to pour good money into repairs and roof restoration with so many other worthy local causes struggling. Then Valerie brings him up to date with her life: divorced from an uncommunicative loser; now back in Mansfield with her teenage daughters.

We can see that in between them coming to Alvin’s Dancehall, there is movement, they have been getting on with the task of living, which is just as well Ian says, what with this place being in its death throes. He’s worried, he tells Valerie, not for the people their age, but for the older folk who still come to the ballroom night who wouldn’t go out otherwise. If Alvin’s is lost to them they’ll be alone, isolated. Isn’t that what we’re trying to avoid? he asks, realising that he’s becoming too heavy too fast – and Valerie does indeed smile vaguely before heading off to find Enid.

Freakishly, and as if in slow motion, the large shard takes flight, projecting itself towards the pavement. Towards the small crowd.

You wouldn’t want to gloss over the darker side of Alvin’s though. Like in the ‘70s when there were genuine problems, some heavy punch ups, and one night a lad got stabbed in the chest outside the cloakrooms, though if you ask five different people who were there that night you’ll get five different versions of what happened.

Because memories, as you’ll appreciate, have been known to bend, like corrugated steel.

One thing you’ll notice tonight is that the place has taken a serious tumble downhill. Peeling flock wallpaper, parquet flooring that looks in places like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle; you could call it chronic underinvestment or a health and safety nightmare.

Like a malevolent insect floating towards a group of children.

For the final hour or so, Ian and Sam return to the floor for a bit of a boogie, and bump into Dominick but not Monica, and then Valerie again, and Ian asks her for a dance for old time’s sake and, before leaving, she gives him her number. The final song is the Beach Boys’ Do you Wanna Dance? – appropriate, but strangely anti-climactic. And afterwards the announcer thanks everyone for supporting Alvin’s over the years, and requests that they please make sure they have a safe journey home. Then they’re spilling out onto the pavement just like they used to, but this time they can’t quite believe it’s all over.

He must be feeling sorry for himself. It’s a week after Sam’s funeral and he’s back on the high street having heard that the work to demolish it has begun.

Not once since the closure did they even advertise it as a business, Ian says, to no one in particular. They always wanted to bulldoze it, for sure, despite all that bullshit about understanding how deeply attached the Mansfield residents feel to the place.

There’s a huge wrecking ball swinging on a chain. Suspended from a crane it’s slamming into the curvature of the building. More pear or old style bathtub, it is nevertheless an act of wanton vandalism. Each time it bashes the frontage, it feels like a physical blow to Ian’s chest. The noise alone is unbearable.

You never called, a female voice says. It’s Valerie, perhaps here for the same reason.

Ian tells her that he didn’t know she wanted him to call.

You’re a soppy date, she says. Why else would she have given him her number?

She inclines her head towards an article in the local paper lying on the pavement, right there in front of him, curious that he hadn’t seen it before.

GOLFERS WIN FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL.

The golf club has finally been saved. It’s actively recruiting members once again.

So we discover that memories have become political currency. Depending on who you are, and how much money you have in the bank, your memories are likely to be worth a whole lot more than those of the next person.

The ball slams into the building again and a piece of jagged masonry detaches itself. Freakishly, and as if in slow motion, it takes flight projecting itself towards the pavement. Towards the small crowd of interested spectators, like a malevolent insect floating towards a group of children.

A warning shout goes up from the pavement. Ian bends to pick up the newspaper.

And the large masonry shard swoops down, misses him fractionally and engaging the foot of a lamppost, leaves it leaning to a sharp angle – traumatised.

Minutes later, when they’re feeling more composed, and having sardonically acknowledged that they too have been saved by the Council, Ian and Valerie walk down the road together. And the sound of the wrecking ball finally recedes into the distance.

 

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James Woolf writes prose scripts and adverts. He has been published twice in Ambit magazine, both in 2017, and shortlisted for the Bridport short story prize, the Exeter short story prize and highly commended in the London short story prize. Various other stories have been published or short listed. Website: woolf.biz

 

Image: By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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