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Chapter 17
The ball was on a Friday evening at a reception centre on theriver. For efficiency, I had brought my costume to work, andpractised the cha-cha and rhumba with my skeleton while Iwaited to leave. When I went to the lab to get a beer, I felt astrong twinge of emotion. I was missing the stimulation of theFather Project.
The morning suit, with its tails and tall hat, was totallyimpractical for cycling, so I took a taxi and arrived at exactly7.55 p.m., as planned.
Behind me, another taxi pulled up and a tall, dark-hairedwoman stepped out. She was wearing the world’s mostamazing dress: multiple bright colours – red, blue, yellow, green– with a complex structure including a split up one side. I hadnever seen anyone so spectacular. Estimated age thirty-five,BMI twenty-two, consistent with the questionnaire responses.
Neither a little early nor a little late. Was I looking at myfuture wife? It was almost unbelievable.
As I stepped out of the taxi, she looked at me for a momentthen turned and walked towards the door. I took a deepbreath and followed. She stepped inside and looked around.
She saw me again, and139/290looked more carefully this time. I approached her, close enoughto speak, being careful not to invade her personal space. Ilooked into her eyes. I counted one, two. Then I lowered myeyes a little, downwards, but only a tiny distance.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m Don.’
She looked at me for a while before extending her hand toshake with low pressure.
‘I’m Bianca. You’ve … really dressed up.’
‘Of course, the invitation specified formal.’
After approximately two seconds she burst into laughter. ‘Youhad me for a minute there. So deadpan. You know, you write“good sense of humour” on the list of things you’re lookingfor, but you never expect to get a real comedian. I think youand I are going to have fun.’
Things were going extremely well.
The ballroom was huge – dozens of tables with formallydressed academics. Everyone turned to look at us, and it wasobvious that we had made an impression. At first I thought itmust be Bianca’s spectacular dress, but there were numerousother interestingly dressed women. Then I noticed that the menwere almost without exception dressed in black suits with whiteshirts and bowties. None wore tails or a hat. It accounted forBianca’s initial reaction. It was annoying, but not a situation Iwas unfamiliar with. I doffed my hat to the crowd and theyshouted greetings. Bianca seemed to enjoy the attention.
We were at table twelve, according to the seating index, righton the edge of the dance floor. A band was tuning up.
Observing their instru-ments, it seemed that my skills atcha-cha, samba, rhumba, foxtrot, waltz, tango and lambadawould not be required. I would need to draw on the work ofthe second day of the dancing project – rock ’n’ roll.
Gene’s recommendation to arrive thirty minutes after the officialstart time meant that all but three of the seats at the tablewere already140/290occupied. One of these belonged to Gene, who was walkingaround, pouring Champagne. Claudia was not present.
I identified Laszlo Hevesi from Physics, who was dressed totallyinappropriately in combat trousers and a hiking shirt, sittingnext to a woman whom I recognised with surprise as Francesfrom the speed-dating night. On Laszlo’s other side was TheBeautiful Helena. There was also a dark-haired man of aboutthirty (BMI approximately twenty) who appeared not to haveshaved for several days, and, beside him, the most beautifulwoman I had ever seen. In contrast to the complexity ofBianca’s costume, she was wearing a green dress with zerodecoration, so minimal that it did not even have straps to holdit in place. It took me a moment to realise that its wearer wasRosie.
Bianca and I took the two vacant seats between Stubble Manand Frances, following the alternating male-female pattern thathad been established. Rosie began the introductions, and Irecognised the protocol that I had learned for conferences andnever actually used.
‘Don, this is Stefan.’ She was referring to Stubble Man. Iextended my hand, and shook, matching his pressure, which Ijudged as excessive. I had an immediate negative reaction tohim. I am generally not competent at assessing other humans,except through the content of their conversation or writtencommunication. But I am reasonably astute at identifyingstudents who are likely to be disruptive.
‘Your reputation precedes you,’ Stefan said.
Perhaps my assessment was too hasty.
‘You’re familiar with my work?’
‘You might say that.’ He laughed.
I realised that I could not pursue the conversation until Iintroduced Bianca.
‘Rosie, Stefan, allow me to present Bianca Rivera.’
Rosie extended her hand and said, ‘Delighted to meet you.’
They smiled hard at each other and Stefan shook Bianca’shand also.
141/290My duty done, I turned to Laszlo, whom I had not spoken tofor some time. Laszlo is the only person I know with poorersocial skills than mine, and it was reassuring to have himnearby for contrast.
‘Greetings, Laszlo,’ I said, assessing that formality would not beappropriate in his case. ‘Greetings, Frances. You found apartner. How many encounters were required?’
‘Gene introduced us,’ said Laszlo. He was staringinappropriately at Rosie. Gene gave a ‘thumbs up’ signal toLaszlo, then moved between Bianca and me with theChampagne bottle. Bianca immediately upen-ded her glass. ‘Donand I don’t drink,’ she said, turning mine down as well. Genegave me a huge smile. It was an odd response to an annoyingversion-control oversight on my part – Bianca had apparentlyresponded to the original questionnaire.
Rosie asked Bianca, ‘How do you and Don know each other?’
‘We share an interest in dancing,’ Bianca said.
I thought this was an excellent reply, not referring to the WifeProject, but Rosie gave me a strange look.
‘How nice,’ she said. ‘I’m a bit too busy with my PhD to havetime for dancing.’
‘You have to be organised,’ said Bianca. ‘I believe in being veryorganised.’
‘Yes,’ said Rosie, ‘I –’
‘The first time I made the final of the nationals was in themiddle of my PhD. I thought about dropping the triathlon orthe Japanese cook-ery course, but …’
Rosie smiled, but not in the way she usually did. ‘No, thatwould have been silly. Men love a woman who can cook.’
‘I like to think we’ve moved beyond that sort of stereo-typing,’
said Bianca. ‘Don’s quite a cook himself.’
142/290Claudia’s suggestion that I mention my competence in cookingon the questionnaire had obviously been effective. Rosieprovided some evidence.
‘He’s fabulous. We had the most amazing lobster on hisbalcony.’
‘Oh, really?’
It was helpful that Rosie was recommending me to Bianca, butStefan was displaying the disruptive-student expression again. Iapplied my lecture technique of asking him a question first.
‘Are you Rosie’s boyfriend?’
Stefan did not have a ready answer, and in a lecture thatwould have been my cue to continue, with the student nowhealthily wary of me.
But Rosie answered for him.
‘Stefan is doing his PhD with me.’
‘I believe the term is partner,’ said Stefan.
‘For this evening,’ said Rosie.
Stefan smiled. ‘First date.’
It was odd that they did not seem to have agreed on thenature of their relationship. Rosie turned back to Bianca.
‘And yours and Don’s first date too?’
‘That’s right, Rosie.’
‘How did you find the questionnaire?’
Bianca looked quickly at me, then turned back to Rosie.
‘Wonderful.
Most men only want to talk about themselves. It was so niceto have someone focusing on me.’
‘I can see how that would work for you,’ said Rosie.
‘And a dancer,’ Bianca said. ‘I couldn’t believe my luck. Butyou know what they say: the harder I work, the luckier I get.’
Rosie picked up her Champagne glass, and Stefan said, ‘Howlong have you been dancing, Don? Won any prizes?’
I was saved from answering by the arrival of the Dean.
143/290She was wearing a complex pink dress, the lower part ofwhich spread out widely, and was accompanied by a woman ofapproximately the same age dressed in the standard male ballcostume of black suit and bowtie. The reaction of the ball-goerswas similar to that at my entrance, without the friendlygreetings at the end.
‘Oh dear,’ said Bianca. I had a low opinion of the Dean, butthe comment made me uncomfortable.
‘You have a problem with gay women?’ said Rosie, slightlyaggressively.
‘Not at all,’ said Bianca. ‘My problem’s with her dress sense.’
‘You’ll have fun with Don, then,’ said Rosie.
‘I think Don looks fabulous,’ said Bianca. ‘It takes flair to pulloff something a little different. Anyone can wear a dinner suitor a plain frock. Don’t you think so, Don?’
I nodded in polite agreement. Bianca was exhibiting exactly thecharacteristics I was looking for. There was every chance shewould be perfect. But for some reason my instincts wererebelling. Perhaps it was the no-drinking rule. My underlyingaddiction to alcohol was causing my subconscious to send asignal to reject someone who stopped me drinking. I needed toovercome it.
We finished our entrées and the band played a few loudchords. Stefan walked over to them and took the microphonefrom the singer.
‘Good evening, everyone,’ he said. ‘I thought you should knowthat we have a former finalist in the national dancingchampionships with us this evening. You may have seen heron television. Bianca Rivera.
Let’s give Bianca and her partner Don a few minutes toentertain us.’
I had not expected my first performance to be so public, butthere was the advantage of an unobstructed dance floor. Ihave given lectures to larger audiences, and participated inmartial-arts bouts in front of crowds. There was no reason tobe nervous. Bianca and I stepped onto the dance floor.
144/290I took her in the standard jive hold that I had practised onthe skeleton, and immediately felt the awkwardness, approachingrevulsion, that I feel when forced into intimate contact withanother human. I had mentally prepared for this, but not for amore serious problem. I had not practised with music. I amsure I executed the steps accurately, but not at precisely thecorrect speed, and not at the same time as the beat. We wereimmediately tripping over each other and the net effect was adisaster. Bianca tried to lead, but I had no experience with aliving partner, let alone one who was trying to be in control.
People began laughing. I am an expert at being laughed atand, as Bianca pulled away from me, I scanned the audienceto see who was not laughing, an excellent means of identifyingfriends. Gene and Rosie and, surprisingly, the Dean and herpartner were my friends tonight. Stefan was definitely not.
Something major was required to save the situation. In mydancing research, I had noted some specialised moves that Ihad not intended to use but remembered because they wereso interesting. They had the advantage of not being highlydependent on synchronised timing or body contact. Now wasthe time to deploy them.
I performed the running man, milking the cow, and the fishingimit-ation, reeling Bianca............
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