Lilian and her fair-haired partner had moved away from the boy’s friends at last. They were dancing a tipsy Argentine tango, their cheeks pressed together, Lilian every now and then breaking off to complain that the boy’s chin was too rough against hers, or his steps too clumsy; but always letting herself be pulled back into the clinch.
‘What do you say?’ Ewart asked again.
‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Frances spoke without looking at him, still with the glass at her lips. ‘I’m so busy.’ And then, ludicrously, groping for an excuse and catching at a well-tried one from her youth: ‘My mother’s awfully old-fashioned about that sort of thing.’
He laughed, and nudged her. ‘You don’t need your mum’s permission, do you?’
She began to laugh too. ‘No, not really.’
‘Anyhow, I could call for you, do it properly, let your mum see what a steady chap I am. I bet she’d like me.’
Frances nodded, still smiling, still not quite looking at him. ‘Well, she would and she wouldn’t.’
‘Go on! She’ll like me all right.’
He spoke as if everything were settled. His jacket had opened with the lifting of his arm and she was conscious of his blazing torso, of the hot hard buttons of his waistcoat. As before, something about the scorching length and bulk of him was oddly persuasive: she knew that if she turned her face to his he would kiss her. Watching Lilian moving in her supple, muscular way in the grip of her fair-haired partner, she was almost ready to do it. She could simply think of no reason in the world why she should not. She took another warm sip from her glass, and closed her eyes. Ewart’s breath came against her ear again, beery, but beyond the beer sweet as a boy’s.
She felt a foot knocking at hers. Opening her eyes, she saw Lilian. The music was changing and she had left her partner: she wanted Frances to dance with her instead. Frances lifted a hand to say, Oh, no. Lilian caught hold of it and tried to pull her to her feet.
‘No,’ said Frances aloud, her drink spilling. She hastily put the glass down.
‘Yes,’ said Lilian, still tugging. ‘Come on.’
She set her jaw in that stubborn way she had, only pulling the harder the more Frances resisted—using two hands now, and hauling almost painfully at the flesh of Frances’s wrist. So Frances rose and, reluctantly, let herself be drawn into a dancer’s embrace, while Ewart, shifting into her empty seat, and grinning like a good sport, looked on.
The music started up: another tango. Their arms collided. ‘Who’s leading?’ ‘I don’t know!’ They tried a few steps and nearly stumbled, tried a few more and stumbled again, and finally hit on something like a slow two-step, going sedately back and forth while the other couples lunged and dipped around them. But even then they danced badly, their feet tangling, their hands sweaty. Sometimes, in avoiding a more boisterous couple, they were pushed more closely together: their thighs or bosoms would meet, and, instantly, with a grimace, they’d attempt to move apart. Frances’s smile grew fixed and painful. Lilian laughed as if she couldn’t stop, saying, ‘Oops!’ ‘Oh, dear!’ ‘My fault.’
The record was endless. They danced on, without rhythm, without a trace of delight. And yet, when the music died they stood among the other couples in their dancers’ pose, with their hands still joined. And when they finally separated, it seemed to Frances that the space between them was alive and elastic, as if wanting to draw itself closed.
Still with fixed, forced smiles on their faces they moved to stand with the boys and girls who had gathered around the gramophone and were noisily debating which record ought to be played next. But they took no part in the discussion. Lilian glanced over her shoulder and spoke in the shadow of the other voices.
‘He’s waiting for you, that chap. What’s his name?’ Her tone was bright, with a quiver to it. ‘You’ve made a conquest there, haven’t you? He’s taken a real shine to you.’
Frances hesitated. Then, ‘It’s your shine,’ she said. Lilian looked at her. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘He’s only taken a shine to me because I’ve taken a shine to you. It’s your shine, Lilian.’ Lilian’s expression changed. She dropped her gaze, parted her lips. Her heart beat harder, jumping in the hollow at the base of her throat in that percussive way that Frances had seen once before. And when it had jumped six times, seven times, eight, nine, she looked up into Frances’s eyes and said, ‘Take me home, will you?’
Excerpted from The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Copyright © 2014 Sarah Waters. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.