The first dance was scheduled. The band, now calling itself Fairford Swing, was excused regular duty and began rehearsing seriously. And gradually, the noise coming out of the emergency hanger, grew smoother and richer. The musicians played swing and Sergeant Ronnie Dean delivered R&B and a kind of country boogie-woogie. Somehow, it worked.
February 25th was a hangover sort of a day for the population outside the base. The restrained enthusiasm generated by the general election was over. Atlee was back with a working majority of five. The optimism of four years ago had dissipated. And the weather was doing its utmost to enhance the mood. The early morning mist clamped itself around the Cotswolds and refused to let go.
Inside Hanger 5, Fairford Swing opened with Bugle Call Rag. Grover had listened to it in rehearsal and thought it a tad ambitious. But the five piece made it through the number and the evening got under way. Ronnie stepped up to the mic and knocked out a version of Let’s Face the Music and Dance. By which time, the crowd was on the floor and doing just that.
Two black corporals from Easy Company – Harvey Coggins and Walton Mills – were the 21st lindy hop kings. The real deal. Natural, fluid, their moves connecting seamlessly, flowing like a quart of Havoline. Poetry in motion.
By 9.30, there was not much poetry about Private First Class Leo Vanderbilt. He had been drinking steadily all night. Recently passed over for promotion again, he loathed his one stripe; like it was an arm tattoo with his ex-wife’s name on it. Big, burly and miserable, disgruntled and as bored as it was possible to be with England, he wanted to be home – even though home was a grubby trailer park in Canton, Mississippi. Tonight, he was pissed out of his mind and pissed off at the world.
He watched Coggins and Mills dancing with the two best looking women in the room. He knew that the lindy hop was merely the preliminary to getting laid. That was the mission and the two niggers were seventy-five percent of the way there. Exotic, that’s what they were to the local broads. Black sweat-backs were all they were at home.
The man sitting next to him, Private Larry Toomes, had matched Vanderbilt drink for drink. He was a shorter than his buddy, but considerably wider. He was less interested in the coons than Vanderbilt, but he could not take his eyes off the shaking female hips and the thighs exposed as the skirts swirled. He stood up to get a better look and swayed on his feet.
Out on the dance floor, the crowd had bowed to the brilliance of the two couples and moved back to form a circle, which ringed the virtuoso performances. The two girls were now matching the skill of their partners. Moving in close, swinging away and whirling back, to be caught and lifted, swung through the air then down to the floor again, hitting the beat dead centre. The audience on the floor clapped and cheered.
At the bar, Grover and Whelan saw Vanderbilt get to his feet. Watched him kick back the chair he had been sitting on and fall over the table in front of him. Toomes helped him up again. People sitting at tables around them shifted in their seats. Grover nodded at Whelan. The two men left the bar.
Vanderbilt stumbled on to the dance floor, hauled himself upright and stared point blank into Whelan’s black face. His eyes rolled and popped, as recognition dawned. He swung his right arm in a wide arc, aiming for the left side of Whelan’s jaw. Whelan would have seen the hook coming wearing sunglasses in the dark. He simply lifted his left arm and blocked the swing, then balled his right fist, dipped his right shoulder and drove straight and hard into the space underneath Vanderbilt’s ribcage.
At which point, there was bellow of pain from behind him. He swivelled the upper half of his body and looked back over his left shoulder. Toomes was falling to his knees, Grover hanging on to the right arm he had just dislocated from Toomes’ shoulder. Grover released the arm and Toomes yelled again. Whelan turned back to Vanderbilt, who was now bent double and throwing up onto the floor. He placed the palm of his right hand on Vanderbilt’s neck and pushed down hard. All the way to the floor and the pool of vomit, which Vanderbilt met with his forehead.
The dancers on the floor could not fail to see what was going on. They simply ignored it. The quartet in the centre was the entertainment, two drunks collapsing and getting dragged away was a minimal distraction.
Whelan hauled the unconscious Vanderbilt to his feet, put his right arm through the guy’s legs and swung his torso up over his shoulders into a fireman’s lift. Toomes, breathing hard and wheezing in pain and trying to support his right shoulder, simply did as Grover ordered. People still at their tables cleared a pathway in the direction of the hanger’s wicket gate.
The band played the refrain again, followed it with one more chorus and brought the dancing display to a breathless halt. The crowd ringing the dance floor, applauded and yelled and whistled.
Whelan dumped the comatose Vanderbilt on the floor by the wicket gate. Went out into the rain and called the Snowdrops. Grover offered to re-set Toomes’ shoulder. The response was a roar of protest. He roared again, when one of the Snowdrops accidentally on purpose thumped his shoulder as he was escorted out to the jeep.
Grover watched the jeep speed away from the hanger.