The sun was setting, and the great Victorian glass roof over Glasgow Central station was glowing; washing the marble floors with gold and pink and casting a luminous, dancing light on the station clock, under which a nervous young man stood, fiddling with his pocket square and trying very hard indeed not to touch his painstakingly coiffed duck’s arse hairdo.
“That’s the train fae Ayr in, Tam,” said a friend, elbowing him in the ribs for good measure. “This Mary better no be the ugly pal.”
“I’m sure she’s gorgeous Billy,” Tam muttered. “Sure she won’t be disappointed at all when she keeks at your mug.” Billy was about to elbow him again, when Tam hissed “that’s them! Ower there - Kathleen is the redhead, the blonde must be Mary.”
His heartbeat quickened as he watched Kathleen catch sight of him. She waved; he waved back. “Be nice!” he said through gritted teeth.
“I’m always nice, you prick,” Billy replied smoothly as the girls approached. “Why hullo ladies! You must be the famous Kathleen! Tam’s no shut up about ye for a week!”
“Come on mate,” Tam groaned.
“And you must be Mary,” Billy said, leaning in to give the blonde a kiss on the cheek. “You surpass my expectations. I coudnae huv dreamed a better blind date!”
Mary raised an eyebrow, but smiled.
“Hello Kathleen,” Tam said shyly, giving her a peck on the cheek. “You look lovely.”
“Thanks, Tom,” she said, beaming. “I brought my dancing shoes in a bag, as instructed,” she said, holding up a brown paper bag. “Where are you taking me?”
“It’s a bit of a walk,” he said, “but it’s a nice night for it. We’re going to the Barrowland Ballroom.”
“How exciting,” she said, her soft, West-coast accent sounding strange here, in amongst all the weegie accents creating the cacophony in the station. They’d met the week before when he’d gone with his maw and his wee brothers for a couple of days at the seaside, for their summer holidays. He had seen her at the open air pool at Prestwick beach, practicing her diving and looking every inch like Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid. He’d been smitten, and they’d spent the afternoon strolling the promenade, eating ice creams and chips and avoiding the dive-bombing seagulls. When he’d phoned her up upon his return to the Dennistoun tenement where he lived with his maw, she’d been only too delighted to come for a night in the big city, a turn at the dancing perhaps, or dinner out on the town. She didn’t come to the city much, she’d told him. Just to do some shopping sometimes, or to visit her aunt who lived in Hyndland, with whom she and Mary would be staying tonight - a condition of the trip, according to her mum. He was pleased that she didn’t complain about the long walk east of the city centre - though Billy seemed to have a bit more trouble with Mary, who had refused to bring her dancing shoes in a paper bag, and wore her midnight blue heels all the way from Gordon Street to Gallowgate, and was cursing both the boys, Kathleen, herself and her sore and dusty feet by the time they arrived. “This long a walk down Prestwick Main Street and you’re in Ayr!” she spluttered. “I hate the city! What right does any place have being so big?”
“Wheesht!” Kathleen hissed at her friend. “Look!”
As they inched their way along the long street - which was lined with a mix of new, low shopping arcades, riotous football pubs and crumbling sandstone tenements - the famous neon of the Barrowland Ballroom came into view.
“Biggest neon sign in the world, I reckon,” Tam said to her. “Isn’t it something?”
The sign was enormous, the entire front facade of the building, which was a squat, grey thing, three or four storeys tall. The sign was in constant motion, blinking red, blue and green stars surrounding the name, which blinked into existence one letter at a time: Barrowland, spelled out in glorious, shining red letters. When the whole word was alight, twelve huge shooting stars seemed to explode from the centre, a riot of yellow and white and blue. In the fading light of the crumbling, Victorian city, it was breathtaking; iconic. “It really is something,” Kathleen said. “This is a ballroom?”
“Aye,” Tam said. “Upstairs, above the Barras Market. Come on.”
The foursome made their way inside, to the wood panelled interior with its gleaming red floors and funny, blinking red wagon wheel, rendered in neon and hung from the ceiling like a strange chandelier. They could hear the music already; the band was warming up the dance floor with their version of the twist, and Mary was so excited about getting to the dancing that she almost forgot how sore her feet already were. They went to the ladies for a touch up while the lads got the drinks in, and Mary, following the example of some of the other gals who’d been dancing awhile already, pulled off her stockings, sat on the row of sinks and ran her red and aching feet under the cold water tap. Kathleen was giddy, drunk before a single sip; so excited for her date with the shy boy with the funny hair that she couldn’t help but imagine their future together, even if Mary scoffed and splashed water at her for looking so doe eyed.
They checked in their coats - and Kathleen’s sensible shoes - and found the lads again, who had cups of room temperature beer for everyone. They entered the ballroom proper and Kathleen gasped at the scale of it - the soaring, vaulted ceiling was dark blue with a pattern of gold tiles spread across it like diamonds, with stars in between. The sprung floor was polished parquet and filled with hundreds of sharply dressed Glaswegian youths. Tam blended well with the crowd, his black polo neck and brown suit seeming to be almost the uniform in this place - not to mention his rock-solid hair, combed and shined to perfection. Mary and Kathleen both wore old fashioned A-line dresses - Kathleen’s was her very favourite blue polkadot - but some of the city girls on the dancefloor sported Mary Quant style babydoll dresses in loud floral prints, and Mary in particular was sizing them up from the moment they walked in.
“Who is the band?” Kathleen asked Tam, as they hovered near the edge of the dancefloor to finish their drinks.
“The Gaybirds,” Tam replied. “They’re the resident band. Want me to request a song for you? I’d ask the drummer but he’d just tell me to beat it!” He burst into a peal of laughter and Kathleen, more amused at him than the stupid joke, shook her head.
“No,” Kathleen said. “They’re already playing one of my favourites!”
“Aye? What is it?” Tam asked, cocking his head to the side, as if to listen better.
“No idea,” Kathleen said. “I’m just having a great time.”
Tam laughed, but Billy appeared behind Kathleen and exclaimed ‘it’s The Everly Brothers! Come on Mary!” Without waiting for a response, Billy pulled Mary away into the crowd, and soon all Kathleen could hear of her pal was the occasional shriek of laughter over the buzz of the crowd and the music and the clattering of heels on wood.
“Are ye dancin’?” Tam asked Kathleen.
“Are you askin’?” she replied with a smile.
“Ah’m askin’,” he said, chuckling.
“Well ah’m dancin’.”
The sun was setting on Gallowgate, bathing the sometimes dismal looking street with soft, golden light as the taxi driver hopped out of his seat and bounded round the side of his car to open the door for his passengers. “Have a guid night, you two,” he said, helping the lady down the steps. “Mind and behave yourselves. I’ll be back here for you at eleven.”
“Thanks, son.” As the taxi drove away, Tam gripped Kathleen’s arm as they both looked up at the blinking, flashing neon sign above them. “Still as bright as ever,” she said, smiling up at him.
“Not as bright as you, my dear,” Tam said, smiling back down at her.
They walked slowly, clutching each other for support - Tam had had a hip replaced last year. They ignored the queue and went straight for the door, where the bouncer waved them in with a grin - much to the exasperated cries of the line of youths who stood under the blinking light, waiting for the doors to open to them.
“Mr and Mrs MacGregor!” they were greeted as they stood in the foyer - just as red, just as sticky as the first day they came, and with the same red neon wagon wheel suspended overhead. “Happy anniversary!” It was the manager, who was expecting them - who had met them every year for a decade.
“Thank you,” Tam said.
“How far out are we from the actual date this year?” the manager asked, smiling as she helped the elderly couple climb the steps. Each one was decorated with a song lyric from a band Kathleen had never heard of - though that didn’t mean she hadn’t seen them play here before.
“It’s next weekend,” Tam said. “This was the closest gig.”
“It’s such a lovely tradition,” the manager gushed. “I hope you enjoy the concert tonight. I’ve actually told the band all about you.”
“Aye?” Tam said. “What’d you tell them?”
“Oh, just that you came every year to the dancing for your anniversary,” she said, showing them into the ballroom, which still always took Kathleen’s breath away. The ceiling was still filled with stars and diamonds, the floor still polished parquet. Only the stage had changed; raised high and laden with heavy equipment and lighting rigs, instead of the low, curving platform the Gaybirds had once performed on. “And that when it changed into a gig venue you started coming to the gigs.”
“Don’t forget that spell it was a roller rink,” Kathleen added.
“Aye,” Tam said. “That was pish. Fell on ma arse. We’ve seen all sorts of rubbish in here, so we have.”
The manager laughed. “Who’s been your favourite?”
“That Iggy Pop wisnae fur me,” Kathleen said decisively.
“The Cure, they wurnae bad,” Tam said. “Kathleen liked Jamiroquai.”
“Oh aye, ‘acid jazz,’ eh? Aye, I did quite like them. Right enough. And Bowie! David Bowie was something else. Is it true he pinched wan o the stars fae the ceiling?”
“As the story goes, it fell off the ceiling and he caught it in mid air!” the manager replied with a grin.
“Brilliant, course it did for the Star Man.”
“He started a trend, you know. Every act that came after him nicked a star!” she laughed.
“Who’s oan the night then?” asked Tam.
“Local band called Admiral Fallow,” the manager replied as they reached the bar. “We’ve got a bottle of champagne on the house all ready for you,” she said, as the bartender pulled two plastic flutes out from under the bar. “There’s a wee table right back here, we’ll keep it empty for you in case you want a wee seat any time, alright?”
Tam and Kathleen took a seat at the little table, roped off in the corner near the bar, and watched as the crowd trickled in, then swelled, as the low chatter of conversation became a dull roar, as drinks were poured and swallowed, as feet got sore just standing around. Tam and Kathleen held hands under the table and said not very much, but smiled, smiled as the bar staff brought them a bowl of crisps, and a little candle stub, which lit their warm, papery faces with a gentle, dancing glow.
It wasn’t a massive crowd, not like the time they’d come to see David Bowie, or when they’d seen Blondie or the Smashing Pumpkins - Admiral Fallow were a local band with a young, devoted following, and after some of the raucous nights they’d spent pressed against the back wall of this place, eyeing up the exits and laughing at some of the truly dreadful music they’d heard, it was a blessed relief for there to just be a nice, medium sized crowd who knew all the words to the songs - lovely, poetic lyrics they were too, though there was a bit too much shouting for Kathleen’s taste. The band wished them a happy 50th anniversary and dedicated their last song to them, a number called ‘Isn’t this world enough??’ which began with the line “Love your husband and love your wife” and that was pretty much the only romantic thing about it, but Tam and Kathleen were touched all the same, and held hands the whole song through. When the song ended, the band had the whole room cheer for them, and Kathleen and Tam were a bit overwhelmed by the feeling of it all, this room filled with teenagers, drunk and emotional, wishing them another fifty years at the top of their lungs and with all the love in their racing little hearts.
“Fifty years ago you got up on that stage right in the middle of the Gaybirds’ set and asked me to marry you,” Kathleen reminded Tam, as the band exited the stage and the youths started to disperse. “No such romantic display tonight?”
“Fight my way through that crowd?” Tam laughed. “Nae danger.”
“Well it’s been a lovely evening, Tom, dear.”
“It’s no over yet,” Tam said, nodding towards the manager, who was making her way towards them with a slim black box in her hand. “Mind I thought of this long before you said anything about it, eh? This is original content from your husband.”
Kathleen opened the box the manager handed her, and found her very own Barras star looking back at her.
“A star for a star,” Tam said fondly.
“Thanks, love,” she said, blinking back a tear. “I didn’t get you anything.”
“Aye you did,” Tam said, putting his arm around her. “You could’ve danced wae Billy on our first date instead ae me. You could’ve run aff wae David Bowie.”
“Aye I could and all,” she smiled, and nestled into his embrace. The ballroom was nearly empty now. “Shall we get going?” Kathleen asked.
“Aye,” Tam replied. “Want tae dance first?”
“Are ye askin’?”
“Then ah’m dancin’.”