The Prize – James Heath

Mr Chen smoothed down the hair on the side of his head and looked despairingly at the ever increasing bald spot on the top. He carefully manoeuvred the longer strands in a vain attempt to hide it but he knew it was no good. He gave it one final blast of hairspray and looked at his reflection in the cracked mirror. Not too bad, all things considered, but nobody would ever call him handsome. He picked at a gap between his teeth with his nail and contemplated whether he had time to fix himself some food. He didn’t want to turn up reeking of garlic but then he knew he often got cranky when he was hungry and he needed to make a good impression. He looked at the clock on the shelf and cursed. He’d grab something from the noodle stand later. He didn’t have enough time now to be messing about in the kitchen. Knowing his luck he’d end up spilling something on his clean shirt and that would ruin the evening before it had even started

Mr Chen patted his pockets. House key, cigarettes, lighter and money. Everything in order. If only he could do something about the butterflies in his stomach. A beer would do the trick but then he didn’t want any of those idiots from the factory making bawdy comments about him being drunk. He grabbed his jacket and brushed some ash from the sleeve and left the apartment. He groped the wall in the corridor to find the light switch but found only dust and flaking paint. He slammed his door shut, double locked it and slowly walked down the stairs, struggling as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. His eyesight had become a real concern these last couple of months. He didn’t want to admit it to anyone, least of all his daughters. They’d be booking him in for one of those damned cataract operations that he’d been warned about. Wang from upstairs had never been the same after he’d come back from the hospital after his operation. Better eyesight hadn’t been much use to him, seeing as he had been bedridden for six months.

Finally, Mr Chen stepped out of his building into the street. He slowly looked left and right, as was his habit and casually lit a cigarette for the walk, which was also his habit and had been for nearly fifty years now.

He ambled down towards the junction and started to think about his plan of action. Even as a young man, he had never had the gift of charming the girls in his village and now, at the grand old age of sixty seven, he felt even less comfortable. What was it that fool at the tea shop had told him? Like riding a bike it was, you never forgot. Mr Chen didn’t really understand the image but he supposed there was some truth in it. He was happy to admit to himself that he wasn’t much of cyclist, let alone a charmer of women but being alone these last six months had left him lonely and he needed a companion. He hoped that tonight was the night when this would start to change.

He could hear the music before he could see the others. The bass was loud and repetitive and didn’t move him in any particular way. It was that modern music that he heard all over the city and which he had always complained about to his daughters, especially when it disturbed his afternoon nap. However, he would have to bite his tongue this evening and plaster a fake smile on his face. Especially if he was to engage Miss Lu in conversation.

She was widowed like himself and had always been attractive to him, even when he had been married. She lived in a ground floor apartment across the alley and he often saw her bustling along in the market and gossiping with the other pensioners on the doorstep in the warm summer evenings. She took pride in her appearance and this had convinced him that splashing out on some new shoes would be a good investment. Of course, they were pinching his feet tight and would hinder his attempts at following the dance steps but he would endure the pain for the evening.

As he got closer, he could make out the familiar shapes of the ladies following the steps under the guidance of Miss Lu. She stepped between the dancers offering quiet words of encouragement or a guiding hand to correct someone’s posture. He took his place towards the back of the group and scanned the others quickly. Everybody was shuffling about in the semi-darkness, illuminated only by the neon lights above the now-closed shops. Everyone was trying to follow Miss Lu’s instructions as she called out the steps. He could hear the lady next to him counting quietly as she tried to keep up. Mr Chen took a deep breath, made a quick glance in the direction of Miss Lu and started to dance. He raised his arms when directed, stepped back and forth when required and generally tried to dance without making a fool of himself. This wasn’t as easy as it looked and it required him to concentrate fully. His daughters constantly teased him for his clumsiness and lack of coordination but all of this humiliation would be worth it though if he could just get the attention of Miss Lu.

He felt a hand in the small of his back which startled him. He turned to look and saw the smile of Miss Lu. “Straighten your back, Chen” she whispered. “Everything becomes easier if you stand up straight.”

The intimacy of her whisper had shocked him and he looked carefully at her face to see if it was his imagination playing tricks on him but no, she was smiling warmly with her eyes wrinkling up with pleasure as she laughed. “Mr Chen, there’s no need to be so shy. Perhaps a cup of tea after class will put you at ease. It would be nice to chat without the distraction of all the other students.”Chen no longer cared about following the dance steps. He stopped, placed his hand on Miss Lu’s arm and looked at her warm face. “It would be my pleasure,” he replied and he knew that the hours of practice in his apartment had been worth it. He had won a prize more valuable to him than any foolish dance competition. A cup of tea with Miss Lu and a chance of happiness again.

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