Introductions were minimal and casual. She was an ofay; but then she was used to people taking her for a gypsy, an outsider.

"She's OK," he told the other men.

There was a grin, perhaps a smirk.

"Nothing happened," she might have said.  Yet a lot happened, just nothing 'like that'.

Someone put on the gramophone. Music. The music! There was an aroma about it, like that around the thick, strange, scalding real coffee he handed her.

As she closed her eyes, she caught again the aromas that emanated from the new coffee shop in the lower High Street back home. Outside, in the pavement cracks, lay a fine brown dust. The laced curtain was too thick to peer through, but once, the door having been left ajar, Rose glimpsed unfamiliar dull metal machinery with wooden handles, and drifts of coffee beans in different shades, some ready-bagged in blue sugar paper. The smell of roasting coffee wafted out through the rotating fan encased in the top brown corner of the window. When she dared be seen so, Rose would stand outside, chin raised, eyes closed, inhaling the aroma, tender, passionate, swathed in a cloud. One heady day, she saw a couple against the wall in the dark narrow alleyway that led to the churchyard, the young woman pressed by insistent hips against the aromatic brick.

She opened her eyes: a dormitory, a curved ceiling, single beds with metal frames and neatly folded blankets; negro men in smart uniforms standing around in twos and threes, others leaning on their beds, some smoking, all listening closely, a few nodding seriously.

Cream now into her coffee: a white swirl on the deep black, then stirred in, brown. Cookies: huge thick biscuits, only crumblier in shades of brown. Black, brown and beige. They are talking about black, brown and beige.

Rose listened to the music. There were phrases that might have been a trudging march, a call-and-response hymn, a yearning violin. She heard a woman singing of a dark cloud marking time. These she found almost familiar. The accent in the rhythm changed abruptly to the noisiest, brassiest, loosest, tin can and rattling jubilation. Then a wistful, incomplete melody gave way to a grave silence among the men.

Someone said, "Warm Valley." Then Rose heard the most beautiful sound that had ever graced her senses. He invited her to dance and they glided together, right there between the rows of men's beds, on the tidy, shiny, clean floor. She closed her eyes again and let her feet, her hips, follow, as she had learned. She had been instructed weekly at her mother's Monday-night ladies' club in the splintery church hall. Only this time it was not a carefully counted old-tyme waltz with a portly aunt as her partner, women dancing with women, at once funny and serious, to a scratchy strict-tempo; it might have been a fox-trot, only this time she was swaying and slide stepping, following a man who swept her on her feet this way and that, gently, firmly, with such style and grace. In later years, that last phrase made her smile. 'Ballin' the Jack'. That came later with other dancing partners. At this time, she and he danced with an easy grace to Duke Ellington's piano, Johnny Hodges' alto saxophone, briefly to Cootie Williams' muted trumpet and to the smooth texture of the ensemble: a melody. This melody was the first that Rose had listened to fully, had felt with all her senses - 'Warm Valley.'

"You like that tune."

She nodded. They played it again.

 

 

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