Operation two-step

It was Friday at five when the familiar knock on the front door made Sarah smile to herself. Four short raps followed by two strong taps: Her father had arrived. 

Quickly wiping her hands on a tea towel, she made her way down the hall and opened the door with a wide sweep. 

‘Dad! You’re here,’ she said. 

‘Of course I’m here,’ he replied furrowing his brow, ‘When I say I’m gonna do something, I do it you know.’ 

‘Yes, I know. I know,’ Sarah said, casting her eyes skyward in mock exasperation, ‘C’mon, I’ll put the jug on. We’ve got a bit of time before we’re needed down at the school.’ 

The electric kettle gave a high pitched whistle as a funnel of steam erupted from its spout towards the kitchen ceiling. Sarah poured the piping hot water into two gaudy mugs with bright yellow flowers and matching tea stains on the rims. Plopping a tea bag in each with a splash of milk, she carefully brought them over to the table where her father was sitting. 

Charlie picked up the mug and blew gently on the top before taking a small sip. He grimaced. 

‘Got any sugar, love?’ He asked. 

‘Sorry, Dad!’ Sarah said, jumping up to grab the sugar pot. 

Of course, her mum had always made the tea whenever they’d come to visit. It didn’t matter if Pat had known a person twenty years or twenty minutes, she’d be in the kitchen helping herself to the teacups – she was just that sort of woman. Now though, Sarah was the one left to make the tea and Charlie was adjusting to an unsweetened brew. 

Sarah handed the little pot over to her father and watched as he stirred one and a half teaspoons into the brown liquid. She thought it was half a teaspoon too much but decided not to say anything. 

‘Thanks,’ Charlie said, taking another sip. 

For the next few minutes, they sat in a comfortable silence, the steam curling and rising from their mugs while the clock ticked away on the living room wall. In a habit built across generations, both of them twirled the string of the tea bag around the mug’s handle and then slowly unfurled it. 

‘Where’s Margot then? She’s not still getting ready, is she?’ Charlie asked.

As if on cue, Margot burst through the hallway door and into the room. 

‘Grandad!’ she shouted, her wide grin flashing a few pearly whites between two rows of pink gums. 

‘Margot!’ 

The two embraced, Charlie pulling the girl into a tight hug and ruffling her soft brown hair. Stepping away, Margot stood with her hands on her hips and cocked her head to one side, inspecting her Grandfather’s attire. 

Beneath a soft balmoral cap, Charlie’s usual shock of wispy white hair had been combed neatly to one side and stuck down against his head. Recently buffed, the rows of golden buttons lining his black Argyll jacket shone while his waistcoat sat snugly around his soft, protruding middle. Chequered deep blue against stripes of red, white and green, Charlie’s kilt hung squarely down to his knobbly knees. A brown leather sporran with three twisted tassels dangled on a silver chain, while a pair of heavy, woven kilt hose and black square-toed brogues brought the ensemble smartly together at his feet. Right down to his neatly tied shoelaces, Charlie had dressed for the occasion. 

‘You look flash,’ Margot said with an approving nod.  

Charlie chuckled, ‘Why thank you. You’re not so bad yourself.’ 

Margot beamed and twirled in a big circle, the bright yellow dress she wore swishing around her gangly knees, the hem brushing past with her high cotton socks. Then, all of sudden, she stood still as a stump. 

‘Watch this!’ the young girl said seriously, ‘I’ve been practising.’ 

Obliging his grand-daughter, Charlie leant forward in his chair, giving the girl his full attention. Margot looked at her mum who put her mug down on the table. Sarah’s mouth twitched as she tried to match Margot’s determined expression. 

‘Hope!’ Sarah instructed and Margot’s hands jumped, quick as a flash, to her hips. 

‘Ki raro!’ Margot’s hands dropped once again to her sides. ‘Hope!’ Hands on hips. 

Together, mother and daughter began to count aloud, ‘Tahi, rua, toru, whā.’

On the count of five, Margot started to dance. Her left hand stayed on her hip while her right hand was raised above her head in an arc. With her eyes focused forward, she jumped. Keeping one leg straight with a pointed toe, she bent her other leg at the knee to create a crooked triangle against her calf muscle. On the third jump, the hands and legs switched clumsily in midair, this time bringing the triangle to the right. Next, Margot spun a loose pirouette, making her yellow dress twirl. When the circle completed, she lifted both arms up over her head and tapped her feet, one, two, three, four, before coming to a stop. As the jig ended, Margot took a low bow, her brown hair flopping forward in a cascade that reached her knees. 

Charlie immediately burst into dutiful applause and a delighted giggle escaped Margot’s lips. 

‘Do you think one day I’ll be as good as Grandma was?’ she asked, jumping up and down excitedly. 

Charlie paused for a moment, eyes flashing, before giving his grand-daughter a wink, ‘Of course! You’ve just gotta keep practising.’ 

Sarah glanced at the clock on the wall, picked up the two empty mugs and started towards the kitchen. 

‘Alright you two, we best make a move or we’ll be late,’ she said, ‘There’ll be plenty of time for more dancing down the road.’ 

Ten minutes later, the three of them strapped into the car and drove the short distance down to the school. On the third lap of the car park, Sarah finally saw a free spot and manoeuvred the vehicle expertly into the gap. Switching off the ignition, the trio disembarked to join the steady stream of other children and parents making their way to the hall. 

The hall was softly lit and already filled with students who had paired off into small groups. Margot’s eyes widened as she took in the decorated room. Craning her neck towards the roof, she moved out from behind Charlie to get a better look. Like a circus tent, tumbles of bunting and fairy lights billowed from a central plafond, making the space feel taller than it actually was. Streams of twirled ribbon criss-crossed over the room while collages of autumn leaves made by the students decorated the walls. Dangling in the middle was a multicoloured disco ball, the spinning sphere creating a moving pattern of polka dots that glided across the polished wooden floor. Across the stage, someone had taped a handmade sign with curling paper edges that welcomed students to the Wairua Primary School Dance

The other children were a nervous fizz and Margot’s earlier living room confidence had wavered. She gripped her grandfather’s hand, trailing half a step behind his tall comforting presence. Charlie gave her a reassuring squeeze, along with another wink as Sarah moved off to chat with another parent. 

Eventually, the huddles of young ones moved out onto the floor to take up their positions for a line dance they’d all been practising. Everyone that is, except Margot, who’d ducked once again behind her Grandfather’s kilt. 

An affable looking man walked out towards the head of the room, in front of the waiting pupils. Charlie guessed the man was the teacher in charge tonight. Clearing his throat, he straightened his tie before turning to look at the two rows of children – most of whom were shuffling their feet or picking at their clothes. 

‘Welcome everyone,’ the man said in a loud cheerful voice, ‘Thank you for attending tonight’s dance! The kids have all been practising hard, and I’m sure they’ll put on a wonderful show for us tonight.’ 

Several children blushed and giggled. A couple of the boys groaned and rolled their eyes. 

‘Please give the kids a round of applause and we’ll kick things off!’ 

Everyone in the hall started to clap as instructed while the man strode over to an old looking stereo, fiddling with the buttons. Margot stayed put in her hiding spot. 

Charlie leaned down and whispered, ‘Aren’t you going to get out there?’  

Margot stared at him and shook her head, her eyes wide and scared. Charlie frowned but didn’t say anything. 

An acoustic melody started to play over the hall speakers and the kids formed two neat lines across the hall. Facing one another, they began a simple country line dance. Moving in one direction and then the other, the two lines came together in the middle where the kids gave each other a high-five before sashaying backwards to their starting points. A step to the left, the other to the right, the children turned on the spot and hopped from one foot to the next before raising their hands above their heads to wave at one another. 

Charlie tapped his foot along with the rhythm as the steps repeated a full three times. The song ended and the audience gave a scattered applause. The children smiled and, gaining confidence, started to assemble quickly for the next tune. Margot though, didn’t move and Charlie frowned again. 

He was about to say something when the music started to play for the second song. Margot gasped and tugged hard on Charlie’s black coat sleeve. 

Bending down, Margot whispered loudly in his ear, ‘Grandad, this is the one I’ve been practising!’ 

‘Well then, we better get out there!’ Charlie said, taking her hand and leading Margot out onto the floor before she could stop him. 

A few adults murmured as they saw the old man and young girl walking out together. Keeping his head high, Charlie told Margot to join the end of the line. Reluctant and shy, Margot stared at her feet, watching as the disco ball polka dots swirled over her shoes and socks. Charlie took up his spot in front of her. 

Waiting for the music to count in, Charlie cleared his throat and said in a loud whisper just for Margot, ‘Hope!’

Margot’s hands flew instinctively to her hips. Her face lifted and she turned to Charlie in surprise, a slow smile spread across her face. 

Charlie winked, ‘Ki raro!’ 

‘Hope!’ Margot responded. 

‘Tahi, rua, toru, whā!’  They counted together.

And with that, the highland dancer and the little girl raised their hands and started to dance. 

In mirror images, their arms and legs hopped and tapped. Then came the midair switch and Charlie’s kilt flew above his knees while Margot’s dress twirled around her. A pirouette followed and they tapped their feet, one, two, three, four before coming to a stop.

The other children in the lines stopped their dancing and started to watch as Grandfather and granddaughter completed the sequence of moves a second time. The parents who had murmured and looked askance at the pair moments before were now all smiling. The music lifted its final crescendo building tension in the room. Charlie reached over, and taking Margot by the wrists, led her into a grand twirl around the room. As the closing notes fell, he dipped Margot and her brown hair tumbled all the way down to the hardwood floor.

The audience burst into applause and that same giggle from earlier sounded from Margot’s lips.

The pair turned to their admiring crowd and took a low bow together. Margot beamed up at Charlie, her pink gums well and truly on show. Sarah watched on from the sidelines, clapping enthusiastically.

Charlie’s eyes flashed and he gave Margot’s hand another squeeze.

‘Better than Grandma!’ He winked.


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