Literary Fiction

The Man Dance

By

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Loved it! 😍

A truly gripping coming-of-age historical drama, tackling everything from the swinging sixties to childhood trauma with very real heart

Synopsis

Betrayed by love, George turns to dance…

In postwar Britain, young George lives with his family by the sea, where his striking looks and talent for dance attract attention. But an abrupt move dumps him into the cruel pit of boarding school. When boundaries are crossed, he must rely on his performing talent or risk falling apart.

His teenaged heart is smitten by Jill, a lonely American wife, who offers stability and friendship…and becomes pivotal in his pursuit of a career.

Yet George is haunted by a past that could derail his growing fame as an actor. He must balance his job, his sanity—while dodging that figure from his past—and keep the affection of his dearest Jill.

Kirkus Review calls The Man Dance, “An unnerving but highly readable historical novel about a troubled teen.”

“The Man Dance is a brave book…a serious yet satisfying read.” –BloodAlleyDiaries.com

“A heartbreaking, fast-paced novel on how one event in your life can lead to a future of uncertain decisions.” –Jackie F., Reviewer

“The boy who becomes a young man, and his quest to live and pursue his passion, will linger with you.” –Jena H., Reviewer

The Man Dance is a richly researched and compelling evocation of 1960s England, from an author who clearly harbours a heartfelt fervour for the culture and spirit of that thrilling age. It is also a powerful exploration of sexuality, abuse, trauma, and identity - an oftentimes discomforting portrayal of one boy's struggle to overcome the very real darkness of his past.


Rollins' central character, George Carveth, is luminous. Having grown up in the idyll of St. Ives, he is suddenly shipped away to a new home in London, then on to boarding school, where he encounters monumental misery and confusion - and is kept afloat only by his life-long passion for music and dance. This passion remains with him through his entire adolescence, ultimately granting him an illustrious showbiz career. George is young, beautiful, talented and adored - all the glittering gorgeousness of the swinging sixties at his cuban-heeled feet. With his success comes a swanky American couple vying to act as George's agent and, with them, the electric agony of first love. And yet, with all his mounting success, George must grapple constantly with the pain of his youth, and the torment of secrets he can never share...


The Man Dance is a wonderful example of truly gripping historical fiction. Rollins' writing conjures a very vivid sense of time and place - be it the dizzying glamour of 1960s London, or the bucolic beauty of the English sea- and countryside - with a very genuine tenderness. (I was genuinely delighted to read Rollins' depiction of my sad little hometown, Blackpool, during its golden age!) It also tackles very harrowing themes, but does so with admirable courage and sensitivity. It is, ultimately, absolutely marvellous to watch George grow through every tribulation. Though he acts with his fair share of volatility and callousness, you can't help but adore his strength, his devotion, his moments of joyful abandon - and his ardent love for melody and movement is simply captivating. This is a very human novel which I would recommend to any admirer of historical or coming-of-age fiction.

Reviewed by

I am a graduate of history and French living in Manchester. I’m mad about books, and have been ever since I was tiny. I'm also a very keen writer, and I use my blog to hone my craft, as well as to share my passion for literature!

Synopsis

Betrayed by love, George turns to dance…

In postwar Britain, young George lives with his family by the sea, where his striking looks and talent for dance attract attention. But an abrupt move dumps him into the cruel pit of boarding school. When boundaries are crossed, he must rely on his performing talent or risk falling apart.

His teenaged heart is smitten by Jill, a lonely American wife, who offers stability and friendship…and becomes pivotal in his pursuit of a career.

Yet George is haunted by a past that could derail his growing fame as an actor. He must balance his job, his sanity—while dodging that figure from his past—and keep the affection of his dearest Jill.

Kirkus Review calls The Man Dance, “An unnerving but highly readable historical novel about a troubled teen.”

“The Man Dance is a brave book…a serious yet satisfying read.” –BloodAlleyDiaries.com

“A heartbreaking, fast-paced novel on how one event in your life can lead to a future of uncertain decisions.” –Jackie F., Reviewer

“The boy who becomes a young man, and his quest to live and pursue his passion, will linger with you.” –Jena H., Reviewer

“Let Yourself Go”

George Carveth realized, too late, that he’d been happy for most of his ten years. His foundation was ripped away on a cloudy Saturday in November with the smoky remains of Bonfire Night scorched on the ridge.

The house telephone rang like an alarm. Grandy Morwen hustled through the halls, importantly, announcing a ring-up from London.

Aunt Sally called from upstairs. “A ring from London? Who for?”

But Grandy bent to an open window. “Gerry, quick! It’s London on the line for you. Get going, man.”

George’s father loped into the house. George and his cousins gathered by the wall telephone. Why would faraway London ring Dad?


Was it Change coming? Had he known it then? Until that phone call, home had been a crowded house on a hill, a run from the school. A climb from the village.

There had even been a day last summer in 1955 when George flooded with a sense of fortune, the sea a jeweled expanse, the billowing land salted with houses. He’d seen an opposite life in newsreels—gray cities where children huddled in damp rooms with empty bellies. The war had stopped a year before his birth. No air raid siren ever sounded.

Dad whistled on that summer day, a typical Saturday for the Carveth clan with the uncles bringing out the bicycles. George climbed onto his dad’s bike, awkwardly in front, bum in the basket, as did the others with their fathers. Only his two eldest cousins manned their own bikes. It was a shaky ride until Dad got up speed. The wind pelted. The cyclists followed the ridge road past the last of the houses and the scatterings of sheep, then slowed to park at a cliff with a divot in the landscape.

From there was a careful descent over rocks and grass shelves. George felt the spray on his legs. Surf roared and washed the sand clean, leaving it baked in sunlight. All garments were tossed. Naked bodies danced through fizzling foam, the cold slap of the surf. George splashed in, then plunged, ducking waves, boring through as if he were a dolphin, all muscle, until he popped out beyond the breakers. Dads and cousins bobbed nearby. All grinned. Then they jostled shoreward in a mad race to ride the waves. George tried not to get a salty mouth or a tumble with water drilling the nose.

At that point, he had been swimming for most of his nine years. He knew the dangers of rocks and riptides and first-aid for swimmers. This part of England, the Cornish coast, was a rocky landscape, which was why the family favored pocketed coves and the slope of the beach. If a wave looked fearful, he was to mind the feeling, Dad saying, “Don’t tell yourself you’re not afraid when you are. Fear comes for a reason.” But George knew not to swim in rough seas. He was a good deal braver than some. His dad could get awfully worried about things for having been a soldier.

His father’s head was a glossy cap in the distance. No children were allowed past him. When he came back in it meant everyone should stay close to shore. The uncles called “Gerren,” and tried to dunk him. Dad sloshed free, body slick as if pulled from a shell, hair black and shiny as he sleeked it, the most handsome of the men. He was tall, but not too tall, not hairy like Uncle Arthur, more strong looking than skinny. Little ones cavorted on the sand as Dad shaded his eyes. George barked like a seal, then paddled outward.

His dad caught up to him. Both flipped into the murky green underworld, their private realm. Dad said a sea goddess “Calypso” lived in the deep. Once, George saw the ripple of her long hair as she fled. Only now he was distracted by the hum of water in his ears. It sounded like a piece of music by WC, the composer with initials. Bubbles gushed out of him. Dad popped, too.

George gasped. “That music…‘Claire of the Moon’…I heard it. D’ye think WC swam underwater? He has all them just-right notes.”

Dad grinned with hair in his eyes. “Just right, are they?”

“They make me dance. They tickle my ears.”

Dad tickled his sides. “Oh, sprite. Don’t be tellin’ your uncles about this music.”

“I needs to dance.”

“Later, boyo. Look at these wrinkly fingers. Out you go.”

Out of the cloak of water into greedy sunshine, notes swirled in his head, and it was hard not to dance a little on the flat, shiny surface of the sand. Uncle Arthur called, “Butterfly Boy. Is that you flitting about?”

Uncle Arthur and Cousin Timmy sneered from a jutting boulder. George ran over hot sand and climbed to a grass shelf. He was an “older lad now,” his uncle reminded. Older lads “oughtn’t to behave like butterflies.”

The music blew out. Little Ethan taunted, “Butterfly,” so George kicked him, which launched a wail. An uncle snapped, “Shut it!”

Everyone sprawled like biscuits on a rack. George had tanned to his usual honey hue because his mum had “dark blood, half-Asian,” and the blood showed in him, apparently. Cousin Margie propped as he fell in beside her. She was a year older, tough as a lad. He said, “There was music in the water.”

She grinned. “Your eyelashes look like stars. I could kiss ya.”

“Don’t you dare!”

“Nor would I!”

She gave him her grass-stained back. Dad spoke to Arthur at the rocks.


The family lived on the outskirts of St. Ives, in one of the large, detached homes that were high up and overlooking Porthmeor Beach. In the back garden, the grownups poured beer and neighbors climbed the ridge. Sheep clustered along the fence of a nearby farm, a dung scent wafting. Aunt Sally strode past with a tray.

“Get yer clothes on! Folks are comin’.”

The cousins tore naked over the grass too energized to care. George smelled of salt and sun. Air tingled his skin like bristles. Aunt Tiffany flashed by in her wide-brimmed artist hat. He just missed crashing into her.

She said, “The freedom of childhood.”

The sheep farmer raised a beer. “Them little Carveths is brown as berries.”

George lagged. The fiddles were coming out. Sweaty bodies bumped him, but he lost the fantasy. A melody started. The uncles and their mates tried a jig on their fiddles, a lively stepper. The older people clapped along. George’s feet found the rhythm. The kids switched to dancing. Margie flailed her arms like a loon.

He could hide in a group dance. No one would call him “butterfly”. Yet moments in, some adult ruined it with, “Ho-ho, Gerren! Your boy has it down.”

George didn’t stop because the jig had him fast. As the other children fell out, his heart opened like a bird on the wing. Drunk from his swim in the heat of the afternoon, with bees in the air and sweat on his skin, the music directed him. It almost seemed a wire, and he, a high wire artist, though it twanged and swayed, he stayed with it, his footfall light and sure.

Grandy Morwen shouted to a neighbor, “That one always frolicks to music.”

Someone else commented, “A fey child. Lucy in him there.”

“With her Oriental ways—”

Another said, “Such a pretty lad. Too much—”

“Little naked devil! Little wog!”

The tune stopped, and the ground flew up. Dad caught George as cheers erupted. Familiar faces encircled, beaming faces. Mum was radiant. Dad ruffled his hair. Uncle Arthur squeezed his neck but not in the hard, come-look-what-you-did way. He called out, “We got ourselves a Fred Astaire!”

George knew the skinny man of the movies who danced like a bird. Was it good to have danced? He never knew anymore. Who’d called him a devil?

Margie charged like a bull. She yanked him from the crowd of laughing adults and pulled him through a scratching hedge, not mindful of his front bits, down to the rose trellis along the side of the lavvy, and, having donned trainers but nothing else, kicked him in the shin. His leg collapsed in pain.

“Show-off! They were looking at me until you started flipping your willy.” She stalked away, angry buttocks working, her springy hair floating with her stride.

“Cow! Weren’t flipping my…”

He hobbled alongside the stone house to a side door entrance. The kitty mewed from a cement perch. “She’s the show-off.”

The kitty blinked, impartial.

He went into the dark interior past the fishy scullery with its filleting knives, butcher block, and a row of boots on the floor. The large kitchen was fragrant with the baked scent of pies. He switched to his toes on the sticky floor. Grandy Morwen had told him to “stay on his toes,” and that he did whenever possible. Behind him, the door banged open and cousins flooded in, Aunt Sally following.

“Clothes on this instant. No more playin’ until ’ee do.”

George was swept with Cousin Timmy to the bedroom they shared. On the wall was a fisherman’s net artfully arranged by Aunt Tiffany, who had helped the boys attach various prizes: shells, starfish, and coral, pieces of hammered silver, an image of Saint Ia, the patron saint of the town.

The boys pulled on shorts from the dirty clothes pile. Timmy blurted, “Aunt Lucy!”

“Aunt Lucy?” George repeated.

His mum crowded in, kissing Tim, then pinching George’s ear. “Who am I?”

George winced. “You’re Mum.”

But everyone called her Aunt Lucy. Alone, she hugged him, her blouse warm and damp. She said, “You smell divine. Ocean boy.”

Black hairs clung to his cheek, as they pulled apart. He liked her long hair. His was a curly mop, like most of the others. He’d been told he had her sly “cat eyes” and her sunny smile. He’d seen that his mother could dazzle. She was often catching people, though some weren’t friendly about it.

He said, “Some’un called me ‘wog,’” and her brow creased in a troubled way.

“I swear we’ll get you out of this small town.”

There were shouts outdoors. She snagged his arm before he could flee. “You will rise above them all. You’ve a spark, crumpet. All they see is Darjeeling.”

That was his other grandmother’s home. She was dead. He liked the name of the place, though it was too far to visit. He’d been to Truro, Penzance, Plymouth, even all the way to London, briefly, where he’d seen broken buildings, scattered rubble and gray dust, and no one to give a smile. None of those places were nicer than here.

* * *

When he was happy, it was music filling his head. George couldn’t remember when he’d come to love it so much. It just seemed a part of him, like being able to swim. Certain memories stood out, of course. As a young tyke, he used to hang around well after bedtime staring moony-eyed from a doorway as the adults laughed and played records on the gramophone. Someone always noticed and shooed him back to bed.

He’d been the first to take to certain children’s songs—that is, until the day he couldn’t stand another minute, so often did they repeat in his head. He held his ears and screamed to make them stop. He did it when Aunt Sally led a sing-along with the cousins, and most voices veered off key. He did it at school where they sang even worse than at home. The matron sent a note to his parents about his “fussing.” Early on, he could only say, “The songs sound bad. They has to stop.”

The singing kept on, and George spent an hour in the headmaster’s office while his class did their distant hoots along with the piano, the timing off. It was decided he had a “tin ear.” At home, his family kept quiet.

Then his father started playing South Pacific at night on the gramophone. George was tantalized straightaway with “Bali Ha’i” from the Overture. Come away, it entreated, piercing his sleep, and he would rise from his bed past sleeping cousins and stop in the darkened hallway nearest his dad, where he slid to the floor and listened to the world that unfolded: the sailors, Nellie, the children, and the scary low voice of Emile.

Then his dad played a woman singing “Skylark” every night. The tune made his heart feel huge. He loved the Fred Astaire records and sang the song about joining the navy to see the sea.

Aunt Sally faltered at the piano when he wandered near. But Dad egged her on. “Play Irving Berlin. Try Gershwin.” She played warily. These were wonderful tunes that kept him in their company.

Dad said, “Tin ear, my eye.”

His cousins were mad for “Happy Talk” from South Pacific and played the song daily until he cried, “No more, no more!” 

He was sent to bed for spoiling everyone’s fun and wailed when the ditty resumed in the distance. Mum thumped up the stairs looking cross. He told her, “It don’t stop playin’ in me head.”

He gave into singing it, knowing each word, even the singer’s accent, as tears poured down his cheeks. Mum’s mouth fell open, nearly smiling. After, he heard her tell the others, “We’ll give that song a rest now, children.”

Timmy shouted, “He’s a loony!”

There was much debate on whether he should be allowed to see South Pacific at the local cinema. Aunt Tiffany said she’d take him out during the “Happy Talk” sequence, which she did, and confessed in the lobby that she didn’t care for the song, either. George had been willing to stay after seeing Mitzi Gaynor. He’d never seen such a marvelous looking, golden-haired lady.

Music was played openly again. George skipped and twirled—he supposed his first tries at dancing—to a song about a swan and another one about biscuits: “Swanee” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” They were great tunes even if he couldn’t figure the words. One record was nearly all drums and had the daft title “Sing Sing Sing.” He wiggled the moment it started, which made his parents laugh. They called him “wiggling monkey.”

The family enjoyed an evening sing at the piano, songs started with a quick look at him. George was surprised by their bungled lyrics. After a struggle with “Skylark,” and Dad saying, “That’s not right,” George took over, imitating the record. 

He finished to cheers. Dad scooped him against a damp cheek. “What a sprite you are.”

Sometimes, Dad plunked the keys, usually hitting wrong notes. George was bad on piano. He recoiled at the noise he made, his two hands like mallets. He couldn’t focus on his fingers and the dense markings of sheet music at the same time. Aunt Sally was called the “penis” of the family, amazing how that word could also mean “good at the piano!” He winced when anyone called her that. She played the grand in the main room, working pieces far longer and more haunting than songs. George would linger under her piano to catch the resonance above. Even outside, his keen ears would note the start of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” She played a concerto from a fellow named Grieg. Or a lullaby from Brahms. Or pieces from Chopin, and recently, WC.

It seemed to George that he, his dad, and his aunt understood a language that the other family members did not. He nearly floated to and from school, so much did this longer music live inside him.

Uncle Arthur said, “Gerry, that boy of yours is going to get thrashed. Can you not teach him to climb or build things?”

Uncle Arthur nattered about rock climbing right before ballet class and frowned at George putting on dance gear.

Quite amazingly, after the dance on the lawn in front of all the family and neighbors, Mum enrolled George in a ballet school to attend after regular school. No one was to say anything, she announced to the family, her cat gaze sparking.

No one said a word, not at first, anyway. Even George didn’t know what to say about it. He was the only boy in the class. Grandy said, “Him with his bedroom eyes in a room full of lassies. I bet you’re the star there, boy, are ye?”

“They hate me.”

Though they teased him in a girly way. Not like the football gang, who kept his face in the grass. As in that situation, Margie sidled close, “Who are they? Shall I go after ’em?” Which only made things worse. It was bad enough she threatened girls he talked to in the schoolyard. “Margaret Susan! You’ve chores in the kitchen.” Aunt Sally snapped whenever Margie tried following him to the ballet school.

George didn’t want her seeing him clumsy. He was used to moving any way he liked. It was hard to do certain steps and always be on one leg. The teacher, Mrs. Treadwell, chided the giggling students. He was a big laugh at this place all right.

Then Mrs. T played “Swan Lake” on the gramophone. George was riveted. Afterwards, he danced with wings on his feet. None of the girls teased him.

He grew better at paying attention. He learned how to slow his surging body and stretch it loose. The advice on balance was spot on. He stopped wobbling and lifted his leg higher than the young misses. He learned how to spin and not get dizzy.

By winter, everyone in his family had an opinion. The uncles said, “It weren’t good for a boy to be whirling and pointing his feet.”

It upset his cousins: George got to be special. Anyone could dance! They teased him in his tights, told him he had a fat bum and fat calves.

Mum said, “Pay them no mind. You have the strong calves and buttocks of your father.” Which sounded awful. Was that why his shorts were tight, and his knee socks never stayed up?

Then Dad grew doubtful. Perhaps the school wasn’t a proper place. Strange he was the only male child there. Some of the boys in the neighborhood didn’t want George playing football anymore, which was batty. He eluded tackles better and scored goals. The adults decided this “Frenchy dancing” had gone far enough.

“I never trust them French,” grumbled an uncle, “aligning themselves with Hitler.”

George burst out, “Hitler’s dead.”

Cousins glared at him, as Uncle Arthur reared. “And you’d best be thankful for that, my lad! We rid the world of evil.” And off his uncle went on the usual harangue.

But George couldn’t see what the war had to do with dancing. After that, his pleas came to nothing. Even Mrs. Treadwell coming to say he was the best student she’d seen in years didn’t help. Mum was furious for him, Dad awkward. Grandy Morwen advised he look ahead. His cousins were glad all the fuss was over.

* * *

But everything changed in his tenth year. George tallied his enjoyments—chasing Cloud, his favorite lamb, as she ran bleating around the farmer’s pen; darting up steep, cobbled roads as the summer tourists panted, fish-white and crowding the town, though Dad said they brought in money. He’d been happy on Uncle Dan’s fishing boat jostling the salt-flecked sea, going out to where the gray seals speared water off Godrevy Lighthouse. He’d even been happy in Aunt Tiffany’s art studio in the Warren where she painted her pears and empty bottles.

Why would faraway London ring Dad?

Dad shouted and grinned throughout his telephone call that went on for a while and soon everyone grew bored. The adults drifted off. Ethan and the young ones went outside to play. Mum rolled yarn, her attention sharp on Dad. Grandy sewed in a chair. Cousin Margie had been roped into darning, a task she hated. George had somehow escaped doing anything.

The phone pinged as Dad rang off. “A mate from the war.”

Grandy said, “He must be a rich mate to talk to ye that long.”

“Aye, he’s that. A peer.”

Dad gaped like a half-wit. “Lucy, he still says I saved his life and now he wants to help our family. He’s offered me a…job…in London.” Mum squealed! “I told him I had to talk to you—”

Mum cried, “Say yes, say yes!”

Incredibly, his parents bounced like baby goats. George crouched behind a chair to escape the sight. Margie joined him. They gripped arms and regarded each other with worried eyes.

Dad said, “Ma, it’s a great opportunity. I’d be a fool not to consider. There’d be more pay.”

Grandy said, “You ought to consider all aspects, though.”

But George only heard giggling and feet thumping upstairs. He rose. Grandy stared at him with upset eyes.

His parents didn’t come down. Aunts and uncles went up. Outside, the temperature dropped. Clouds rushed in from the ocean blowing away the smoky remnants from the ridge. The boys played jacks on the step. George couldn’t focus and banged the doorjamb going back inside, where he heard Margie wailing from the kitchen. “But they wouldn’t move, would they?”

His dad was in love with the sea. He’d never leave their home to go to a broken-down city. Would they be poor there?

Uncles Dan and Arthur thumped downstairs. “I’ll miss her witchin’ eyes.”

“Indian Princess. She’s always wanted out of here—Hey now, what are you doing, young George? They’re waiting upstairs.”

George bolted outside. He flew down granite steps then leapt to the grass, nearly tumbling down to the path and the switchback, and the next level down, and two more switchbacks, until he was staggering on dry sand and catching his breath on the hard, wet surface of Porthmeor Beach. Out to sea, darkness gathered. Cold water rushed his ankles and skated his feet. He didn’t care.

A woman’s voice, surprised, “Laddie, look out!”

He was smacked by a wave, sputtering. The surf jerked him fast. He scrabbled to right himself, to spit salt, to breathe. Another wave smashed. He floundered beneath the fizzing water, his body losing its sense of direction. He broke the surface again, coughing, hair blind. Salt rimed in his mouth. His eyes stung. The woman danced in the distance.

He fought to keep his head above water. Around him waves crested, the water nearly opaque. A wall was coming! He nudged off the impediment of his shoes and swam hard, then bodysurfed a thrilling ride. The world flipped. Water knifed his sinuses.

When the deluge released him, he gulped air like drinking it. The snot glopped out. The ground was back and rolling. There was nothing to grab. Surf barreled him as if he were seaweed. His shoulder burned. He was hoisted into the air. He climbed this grownup who had him, his lungs expanding noisily.

His two uncles ran across the sand. The woman sloshed out and dodged them. “Such a helpless little seal in the waves.”

Uncle Dan said, “We’ve got him, miss. We’re his uncles, you can let go.”

Arthur said, “He knows how to swim, miss.”

She shouted, “He nearly drowned!”

“Help!” George screamed to stop everyone pulling him apart, and with that, the woman let go.

Uncle Dan carried him like a sack, which hurt his ribs and stomach. “Put me down,” he squeaked. Then his uncle stopped, but George fell over his knee and got his backside swatted, the smacks stinging.

“That’s what ’ee gets for doing a crazy thing like that!”

Uncle Arthur said, “Easy, Dan-o. The lad won’t be running off again.”

George panted, the blood burning his face. He tried walking with them, but his legs gave out.

Uncle Dan held him, soothing now, his big body keeping the shivers at bay. In the distance, the woman still watched.


Though it wasn’t a bath night, George was in the tin tub by the kitchen fire. The others were gathered in the main room, his madness forgotten. A wireless program sounded faintly. He didn’t care about missing it. His shoulder was sore. His head felt addled by water.

Mum was being extra nice. She mixed shampoo from a packet. Not that he needed cleaning. The sea had scoured him. He swore he could still hear the roar of it. Dad always said, “The Sea can turn on you. Don’t think she won’t.”

Mum shocked him with a stream of hot water from the kettle. George slid to the side, swishing his feet. “Hot, hot,” he chanted like a little one as he mixed the water well. He didn’t protest when she started on his hair.

She said, “London is one of the great cities of the world. You’ll get to know your Uncle James, my brother. You should know the Hartley side of your family. We’re not all Carveth here.”

He wanted to know the Hartley side, yet didn’t want her London talk. Should he tell her the uncles called her “princess” and spoke of her “witchy eyes”? Why wasn’t she angry about his missing shoes?

He still felt the pitch of waves and gripped the tub. It was odd how the land didn’t sway, not even in sympathy.

He told her, “It’s war-torn there. No one is happy.”

She stopped. “Crumpet. How can you remember? That was long ago. It’s been rebuilt. You should be out in the world. The blood of many lands runs inside you. Don’t forget my mother was part Tibetan. We have her good bones.”

She doused his head with water. He blinked, the soap stinging. “Dad is in me, too.”

“He most certainly is. You have his curls and his amazing eyelashes. And his sweetness.”

He squirmed from her nuzzling. She handed him the soap. “Finish up.”

“Doesn’t Dad care about leaving Mr. Clemo’s store or keeping his books?”

“He’ll be keeping books for his friend now for greater pay. It’s a chance Daddy and I never thought we’d have.”

“But can’t you like it here?”

She wiped her hands on a tea towel. “Lovey. It’s hard to be away from a cultured life. I was having a gay time in London before the war.”

Here was a precipice: her old life. Sometimes she’d barely speak for hours. He thrust his chest and pitched his voice like Uncle Arthur:

“I’s a fit fellow in the war, mate. I showed them mountaineers a thing or two about scrambling up a cliff, no lie I did.”

She hooted. “Wicked thing. You’re too good at that. You ought to be on the radio.” She held a towel at the ready. “It won’t happen soon. Dad will see his chum. There’s time yet.”

That was all George needed to hear. He would put this muddle out of his mind. Though the grownups insisted on talking about it. His cousins cornered him demanding to know why his parents were keen to leave.

“They’re not,” he said. “Dad’s going to talk to his mate, is all. It may not happen.”

Life went back to normal, sort of.

Margie became fun again. When he happened to talk to a somewhat cowering girl from his class, Margie drifted off, allowing it to happen. Mum cleaned out her and Dad’s bedroom and began packing things in a trunk, “summer things” they didn’t need now. She did the same in his and Timmy’s room, “making space,” she said.

She proposed a project for George, saying he should write an essay, which didn’t sound fun at all. She insisted he teach her about a favorite subject. Of course, she rejected some of his favorite subjects, but approved one, which was how he came to labor over a paper called “What to Listen for in Music.” She corrected it, and Dad made it longer by saying, “Explain this more.”

Grandy thought it awfully clever. A part of him was proud he’d done it, as if putting words on paper eased the torment in his head, bedeviling songs from the wireless, adverts repeating. He wouldn’t have minded reading the essay aloud in school. But Mum posted it somewhere!

The essay project had no sooner ended when he was told he’d be sitting a special exam—on a Saturday, no less. The schoolmistress met with him weeks in advance, saying he needn’t be perfect at it, just to do well enough. His grandy would never have approved such lax advice. Still, it was surprising to be the only child in the room on examination day. The schoolmistress started a timer, then quizzed him on arithmetic, writing and problem solving, none of it easy.

At home, Mum asked how he had done on the Eleven Plus, the dreaded national exam. George scoffed. “Those are at the end of the year.”

“Dream boy, what do you think you just did?”

“Some tests? But I’m not…eleven yet.”

Had he really sat for the important, future-deciding exam already? He’d been told not to mention it to his classmates who would be doing it later on. How odd to be ahead of others. He could feel puffed up about it, especially when he learned he had passed and the schoolmistress called him a smart lad.

But he suspected it was to do with London and moving.

The adults had discussions in low voices about “the boy.” Grandy prepared his favorite meals, like ray fish with boiled taties and butter. Worried, he hid inside the kitchen pantry as the women washed dishes.

Mum burst out, “You must be joking. Not on your life.”

Grandy said, “It’s an option, Lucy. He may be happier.”

“We’d never do that. You know we have plans for him.”

Silence followed but for the clink of plates.

Too soon, Dad’s job was secured and a London house found. George kept remembering the city as a huge, broken-down place. He asked if Farmer Hale would let Cloud come to London. Mum laughed.

“Cloud stays with her mother as you stay with yours.”

Dad said, “You don’t separate sheep, son.”

“But you separate children?”

Dad blinked his soft eyes. Mum snapped, “Enough! The world is not coming to an end.”

George called her “Aunt Lucy.” It had the right effect.

She flapped her arms at Dad. “Do you see? This is why.”

His last day came in early February when he left the schoolhouse forever, everyone knowing about it and acting as if it were a grand thing. He walked home with a pair of lassies and did his imitation of the master. They laughed and enjoyed a real conversation. Maybe one of them would be his girlfriend. If only he weren’t leaving.

“George Carveth, you sorry toad!”

Margie ran at him like fury. The idiot girls screamed and clung to each other. He bolted. Then he lagged in case she was going for them. But Margie dug in for him. He was a better fence climber than his cousin and went for the shortcut. He veered through back gardens, upsetting a cow in one (fortunately tied), and nearly crashed into an old-timer coming from the privy. But what Margie lacked in speed came out in bull-headedness. Just when he thought he’d lost her and was nearly home, he met her fist in surprise. Then she was pummeling. “You talk to others when you’re leaving me? You’ll take a black eye to them girls in London!”


On a chilly morning, a lorry was loaded with trunks, his parents’ bed, and other pieces of furniture from the big house. Neighbors stood outside, watching. His vision was partly blurred. Margie scowled nearby, the wind blowing her curls. George asked for the fisherman’s net from the wall of his room. Timmy declared it his net, too. Dad said perhaps his auntie would make him a new one.

Aunt Sally gripped his shoulder. “Well, child. You’re going to have an adventure.”

“London is a nice place all built up,” added Aunt Tiffany, blinking.

“There’s music in London. Your pa will take you to concerts.”

“There’s so much to do! We’re all envious.”

He clutched his aunties. The uncles came over to tousle his hair and thump his back. Uncle Dan said, “Those in London will look at your shiner and know you’re not to be trifled with.”

George grimaced. His cousins hung in a group and gawped as if he’d become strange. “Say goodbye to your cousin now,” Grandy spoke in a hoarse voice, “Tell ’im you’ll write.”

The children dutifully repeated her words. How wrong this was! Grandy squashed him to her bosom, rocked him and used his Cornish name. “Ah, we’ll miss you, Jory-love. You’ve always a place here.”

Tears shot in, painful in the one eye; grief clotted his throat. But Uncle Arthur signaled him to silence.

Uncle Dan, Timmy, and Margie joined them on the short, cliff-side train ride from St. Ives to St. Erth, where one caught the London train. Margie took his hand. George jerked it away. Shocked by her look of utter dejection, he gave it back. Besides, he had more important things to do, like memorizing the retreating view of his seaside home…a green spit of land jutting into blue like a promise. No longer would he greet the sea. I’ll not leave you, said his heart. 

But leaving home wasn’t nearly the worst part.

About the author

Author Leslie M. Rollins has completed two novels, managed her own graphic design business, traveled, and put her big toe on the path to enlightenment via several Buddhist retreats. She survived marriage and widowhood, and the loss of some lovely dogs, and currently reside with cats in Virginia. view profile

Published on January 30, 2020

Published by

120000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Literary Fiction

Reviewed by

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