Strange, isn’t it? Those small things that get listed in the memo pad of the mind. Brief, inconsequential in their setting, and outcome, yet noted, sharp and clear as any major incidents that give our lives direction. A lifetime ago, drawn by the music, I briefly lived in the thrall of Laura. The music lives on, rarely heard today, yet, when it is heard, it becomes slyly evocative.
Laura—and Benny Goodman giving out with ‘Sing. Sing. Sing.’
Laura—and the thudding rhythm of Gene Krupa’s drums.
Laura—and Tommy Dorsey’s ‘ Getting Sentimental.’
Laura—and Harry James ‘Don’t Blame Me.’
All the music, the records, were the domain of Andy Mills, Laura’s husband. They had been neighbours, for seven months. They were two doors down in Vallum Road, but winter over, I got to see more of Andy, out and about.
Andy, a smiling pasty face under thinning sandy hair, always seemed to move very slowly, worked in a bank, and was a big band fanatic. At weekends, swinging rhythms swelling from their back door attracted me, barely sixteen years old, growth spurt over, eager to establish a foothold on a hitherto dull life.
Adjacent back gardens meant I could encroach near enough to listen. Seeing this, and keen to share his obsession with the wonders of swing bands, Andy proudly invited me into their tidy little downstairs flat one evening. Initially uncomfortable, I was quickly enthused by wailing clarinets of Goodman or Artie Shaw. Or the shivering glissando of the Tommy Dorsey trombone and always the rhythms, those rhythms, stirring my bloodstream.
But, from the moment she swayed into the room, overlaying everything else was the sight of Laura, dancing along to those rhythms. I was immediately captivated by her, so slender, elegant, enchanting, as delicate as a rain kissed rose. Those blue eyes didn’t just smile at me, they poured additive into my veins. No shy rising of emotion this. I was in love, instantly, irrepressibly.
The electrified jelly sensation deep inside me exploded outwards into my limbs, rendering them clumsy; invaded my mouth, leaving it speechless. Laura swayed with the sinuous grace of a slender poplar in a summer breeze to Dorsey’s ‘Sunny Side of the Street.’ Then came—
‘—somewhere there’s heaven. That’s where you are—’
“Anita O’Day—with Krupa,” Andy’s voice broke into the fantasies already bursting in my head, as he explained, “It’s ‘How high the moon?’” How high, indeed. As my head spun along with the vinyl.
After that first time, my visits were frequent. Andy delighted in my musical enthusiasm. And the music was great, Goodman, Shaw, James crept into my consciousness to stay there forever, but they were secondary to those, I assumed, innocent body undulations before my eyes in that small flat. I was shameless in my deception as my fantasies expanded.
Fantasies are limitless. They have wings. Dispense wishes. And my wish was to be with Laura, to bathe in the charm of her. One day Andy would fail to come home. And I’d be her consolation. Out in the countryside somewhere, her cool smooth fingers in mine—just strolling—that’s what people in love did, wasn’t it?---They strolled, hand in hand. Yes, all of that. And I’d be free to gaze on her without inhibition and to talk of some unknown future.
Came that day when she found me lingering near her garden. Coincidence? Of course not. In a simple yellow summer dress, she smiled and greeted me, uplifted me, before she said, “Andy’s visiting a southern bank and won’t be back until tomorrow. But you can come and listen to the music this evening---if you want.”
If I want? Oh, if only I’d been able to read the intent in her pouting smile. Overjoyed, I heard Harry James ‘Carnival in Venice’ trilling in my head.
Bathed and sprayed, I arrived promptly. I can still see the dress she wore. Dark blue, floral, button-up, leaving a shallow V neckline. “You smell so sweet,” she said, with a wide welcoming smile.
“So do you,” my answer sounded childish. The delicacy of her aroma was delicious, her smile was devastating, as she pointed for me to sit on the sofa.
She glided to the record player and within seconds Benny Goodman’s clarinet oozed ‘The Man I Love’ into the room. On cue, Laura went into a rhythmic shimmy right in front me. But after a couple of spins, she dropped onto the sofa, beside me. Close. Too close. Her lavender perfume filled my head, intoxicating as any alcohol. Breathing became ever more difficult. My hands clasped on my knees.
She began talking quietly, but in my nervous condition, I was only picking up fragmented pieces of what she said.
“—married too early—”
“—worry about Andy—”
“—no positive strength—" Was her pause deliberate?—“physically.”
At that point, Laura’s eyes turned on to me, her cool fingers settled on my trembling hand. “Tell me about your girlfriends,” Laura said gently, mouth close to my ear.
My exaggerated reply of much experience was just plain stupid. I so wanted to impress her. Feeling dull and useless, I could tell by the tilt of her mouth as she smiled that she had seen through my subterfuge. But she whispered, “I thought a handsome lad like you would be popular.”
Did she really think that about me? A furnace started on my face.
“You like being near me?”
I nodded, dumb as a donkey, as her face moved even closer to her. Scented breath bathed over me. The lush slide of Tommy Dorsey’s trombone caressed ‘Embraceable You.’ Was I supposed to do something now?
Confusion and uncertainty mixed. Her fingers over my hand, clenched around it, lifted it, placing it on her dress, just below her shoulder. That seemed deliberately provocative, and my eyes had to look. Choking shock! The top two buttons of her dress were undone. It gaped open.
I looked away, my worried eyes taking in the sideboard across the room. My mind was a maelstrom as I tried to talk about the music. Pure gibberish. With my confusion came the lusty throb of Harry James ‘Trumpet Blues and Cantabile,’ pouring its urgent beat deep into my troubled heart.
Turning my eyes to her lovely face, I wondered if I imagined the mistiness in those blue eyes. She murmured my name, her fingers moved on my knee. Laura shrugged her body so that my hand resting below her shoulder, slid downwards.
No. No. No. This wasn’t it. This wasn’t my fantasy. No revealing dress, no fingers drifting over my trembling knee, no touching. None of that. This would be like the grit that giggling sixth formers showed in their dirty magazines. Not for Laura—this stuff. Fragrance of lavender gave way to something more cloying, sickly, musky, and thick—disturbing. Ice crawled along my arms, and my body heat chilled rapidly.
Blindly, I was on my feet, heart thudding along with Krupa’s drums. “I have to go,” I blurted, as her arms raised as though to stop me. Blue eyes imploring.
I was away, out of there like a rabbit with a ferret on its tail. A single plaintive call of my name followed me as I hit the cool evening air, all my fantasies fragmented.
Behind me, Benny Goodman’s singers mockingly launched into, ‘To you, my heart cries out Perfidia.’ I was panting like a marathon runner. Love became a dirty word.
After only six weeks, Andy was appointed to another branch, and they moved out. Over the next months, experiences came to me, quite naturally, and I slowly began to understand the truth about misplaced romanticism. Nine years later, on the eve of my wedding, I learned that Laura had passed away aged thirty-seven, mourned by her third husband.
The music, the living, throbbing rhythms of the big bands will always be there, to remind me of my days of woeful innocence