Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Memories of Lilian

Lilian was supermodel thin, with porcelain skin, stunning clothes sense and a filthy mind. Lilian never missed a class. Or a party. Lilian was 87.

A former competition ballroom dancer, whose dancing partner died in her arms of a heart attack, she's had her fair share of troubles. But she always arrived at her weekly bellydance class looking like a Vogue fashion spread circa 1952. Sparkling white coiffed hair, white swing coat, pillar box red hat, gloves and shoes. And her make up perfect. The lips just the right shade of matching red and not a smudge or cracked line anywhere.

The lift of Lilian's head when she danced was a lesson to us all. She danced with drama and elan, ready to fly off in the arms of some latin lover, or perform a tango in front of an adoring crowd. She was in her element with a veil; one minute swirling it as if in a paso doble, the next posing, draped like a Greek statue.

She was also deaf as a post and unable to remember a step of choreography.

We girls used to worry about Lilian. We didn't let her know - she wouldn't allow any of that sort of rubbish. But one evening a couple of years ago, I was momentarily terrified I'd killed her.

In bellydance we have a move called an arabesque. Evolved from classical ballet, it consists of two or three steps followed by a rise onto one leg as the other lifts in the air. The Egyptians, being a relaxed people with a dislike of too much energy usage, keep it pretty grounded, even desultory. But not our Lilian. This was a chance to fly!

And fly she did. She launched herself off from the side of the room in her pink chiffon skirt and pink satin ballet shoes. And as she rose onto one leg those shiny pink satin slippers betrayed her, and off she went, like a skater on an icy lake. Accelerating across the room, one leg in the air.

And then down she went, skirts, knickers and teeth everywhere.

I saw the look of horror frozen onto every face and knew they were reflections of mine. This was an 87 year-old woman. Eighty-seven year-old women die from falls. And not many of them fall from the top of their toes. On one leg. Whilst traveling at speed.

That terrible, still moment, when I asked myself what on earth I thought I was playing at, allowing an elderly lady to do something so dangerous, was followed by an almighty 'whoosh' as everyone ran to her.

As we gathered around her, she sat absolutely still. Totally silent. Head down. And then she looked up and shrieked: "Ooo, did you all see my knickers?"

Many arms reached out to lift her up. Many relieved sighs were breathed. Lilian was dusted off and hugged and fussed over. But she brushed away our concerns as if we were over-indulgent mothers who hadn't realized she'd grown up.

And at the end of the evening, as always, she walked me to my car "to make sure I was safe" and then disappeared off to catch the bus back home. Refusing, as ever, all offers of lifts, in her pride and her refusal to give in to her age.

Yesterday I received a letter from Lilian. She had finally accepted she was never going to dance again. She'd parceled up all her bellydance clothes and wanted to know if anyone might like them. I'll go and see her at her home - I feel guilty I haven't visited for over a year. She gave me so much and I miss her terribly.

It was one of those strange co-incidences life throws up, that her letter arrived the day one of our newest students celebrated her 90th birthday. Jo Holden reminds me uncannily of Lilian. Hollywood beautiful, the TV crew that came to film her for the evening news called her 'One Take Jo.' My husband, taking photographs for the local paper, noted how as soon as he pointed a camera at her, she lifted her head and tilted it slightly, knowing just how to make the very best of herself.

My mother-in-law died recently, aged 93 and, seeing her unhappy decline, I told myself I didn't want to live to be 90. Now I'm really not so sure...