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
There was a grin, perhaps a
"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
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