I was still berating myself for having agreed to it, as the gate of the psychiatric hospital swung shut behind me.
It was the first time that I would line dance in public and I was not sure if my white knuckled grip of the steering wheel was due to fear about forgetting my steps, or the possible reaction of our intended spectators. Our line dancing teachers had agreed to the display as a way of showing thanks for letting us practice in the hospital hall, but as I drove past the beautifully manicured lawns, I was starting to question their good judgement.
I met others from the group in front of the complex and regretted that only a small number had turned up. Even though I knew the dances by heart, I was seriously lacking in confidence and was hoping to hide in the middle. We rang the bell and were let in by a nurse who led us down a corridor.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I had Hollywoodian visions of patients climbing on furniture, before being physically restrained by hulk like orderlies, who could quite happily have moonlighted as bouncers at the local night club. We walked into the common room where we would be dancing and where everyone was assembled, waiting for us. My heart stopped, then kick-started itself up again with difficulty. The walls were painted bright lemon, and huge French windows ran the length of the room. In one corner grew enormous palm trees and the oppressive heat added to the tropical illusion.
A few members of the audience looked up at our arrival, but most just stared into the distance. Rows of wheel chairs and armchairs were arranged in a semi-circle around the room. I suddenly felt like I had eaten a brick wall for lunch and was trying to digest it. These were old folk, who were here for the duration and they sat unmoving, chalky white faces peering incongruously above the multi-coloured blankets that shrouded them.
My only experience of a place like this had been when I was a little girl and I had gone with my parents to visit an elderly aunt. I had been spared hospitals and old people’s homes for much of my adult life and I suddenly felt ill equipped to deal with the human suffering confronting me. I looked round at my fellow dancers to gauge their reactions, some stared at their feet uneasily, but others were picking out people who they recognised.
We started to get into position, but my mind had gone numb and emptied itself of every step I had ever learnt. My hair was plastered against my face from the heat and my cowboy hat felt like a tea cosy which had been designed to keep the pot as warm as possible. I danced so badly that I didn’t recognise myself. My ears were incapable of hearing the beat of the music and my legs were stiff.
The personnel, contrary to my previous thoughts were petite and feminine and they clapped and cheered. Our audience on the other hand remained motionless. Every time I turned, I stared hard round the room with the hope of catching a glimmer of a smile, but most of the faces seemed to show blank indifference.
When we had finished, we were served huge slabs of Black Forest Gateau. Cake was the last thing I could stomach, but I forced it down with large gulps of cider before we were at last free to go. The nurse opened us for us and I left the building, relieved to be out in the cool air and bright sunshine, feeling as though I was seeing the outside world with new eyes.