Kevin Bacon has a lot to answer for.
If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in this predicament right now, and I have no idea how I’m going to get out of it.
I’ll explain. Let me rewind a bit.
I love Footloose. I mean I really love Footloose. I must have seen it like fifty times or more – I stopped counting when I got to about ten times. I know every minute of it and I can quote the whole film, verbatim.
I must have been five or six when I remember my mum and dad watching me dancing around to some music on the radio – I forget which song it was. Mum said “Do you like dancing Sean?” and I just nodded but even then, I was aware of her taking a very close interest in my childish, clumsy, whirling about. A year or two later when I was old enough I saw Footloose for the first time. Mum hired it on DVD and we cuddled up on the sofa with a massive bowl of popcorn. We stayed up really late while my dad was working night-shift. From that first viewing, I just loved it. Immediately afterwards I tried to copy the dancing on the kitchen floor, much to Mum’s delight. I still remember her laughing. She seemed so happy that day.
The next day, Mum just let me enjoy the film again instead of making me do my usual Saturday chores. It was due back at the video shop that evening so she must have wanted her money’s worth. Of course, I went out and bought a copy for myself as soon as I got my pocket money the next Friday! My Playstation saw more action from that DVD than it did from any of the games.
I began dancing lessons when I was ten. I wanted to be like my hero, Ren. I got good. Really good. I won competitions – and Mum was always there cheering me on.
Not Dad though.
I can only remember a handful of times he came to watch me. I got the feeling he didn’t approve. He was always trying to get me to do other stuff – football, hiking, golf – and I did them to spend the time with him but nothing ever felt quite as good as when I was on a dancefloor. I’m pretty sure it’s what caused my folks to split up. Even when I was old enough to take myself to practice or events, Mum would always choose me over him. And that made me feel terrible.
It happened slowly over several months. It was amicable enough, as divorces go, I guess. There was some shouting, but not a lot. It was more the awkward silences which got to me. It got to a point where Dad would take me for a day out one weekend, just the two of us, and my mum would do the same the next. They never spoke badly about each other or tried to turn me against the other. They just kind of drifted apart, slowly. With me and my dancing right in the eye of the storm.
I turned to Footloose for solace, watching it up in my room just to think about something, anything but the cold atmosphere downstairs. Now and again, like Ren, I’d ride my bike out to a bit of wasteland just to dance away my frustrations. It helped for a while, but then I’d get home and be reminded of it all again.
Sometimes I think I would have preferred a big bust-up, with Mum or Dad packing their bags after shouting match and leaving in the middle of the night. But one day out of the blue Mum quietly told me she was moving back to Cornwall, where she grew up, and soon. She asked me if I wanted to go with her. I looked to Dad but he just hung his head and didn’t meet my gaze.
I didn’t want to have to choose either of them. Eventually, after a lot of soul searching, I came to the difficult decision to up sticks and go with Mum. The deciding factor was that she wanted to support my dancing, which was important to me, and Dad didn’t.
“You can come and stay any time you like,” Dad said as he hugged me more tightly than I remember him doing for a long while. “Just hop on a train. It’s not so far from Cornwall to here to keep you from seeing your old dad is it?”
“I will Dad, I promise.” Over his shoulder I could see Mum waiting by the car, doing her best not to appear impatient, but I could tell she was eager to get off.
“Come on Sean,” she said. “It’ll be midnight before we get to Trelemain Syncythraul.”
Trelemain Syncythraul – such a weird name. I wondered if I would ever get my tongue around it. I had to break it up into separate words to remember how to pronounce it. Trell-Er-Main, Sink-Er-Thrall. That was not quite right, but close enough. I’ve always wondered what it actually means. Mum says she’s no idea.
Dad released me from the hug, patting me on the back as he did. “Off you go son, do as your mum says. And Sean…” I turned back to him. “There’s more to life than dancing, son. Remember that.” I just nodded. I couldn’t believe the last thing he said seemed to be a pop at Mum. But how I wish I’d listened.
I threw my bag on the back seat and climbed in beside Mum. Wordlessly, she started the car and reversed off the drive. I’ll always remember the last time I saw my dad as we turned the corner off the street. He stood in the doorway, one hand raised, looking like he was doing a pretty bad job of holding it together.
It was late on a Monday night when we arrived. Even though it was the summer holidays and was still light out, we were both ready for bed. Once we’d got the key from Mrs Reid, the landlady, we just went to our respective rooms and threw our bags down. Mine had just a bed, wardrobe and desk, but it was enough to get some kip and the bed was very comfy! I’d only brought a week’s worth of stuff in my backpack: clothes, some toiletries, my iPad and phone with the appropriate charging cables, and some headphones. The rest of my stuff was coming next week. Six days felt like forever but I was sure I’d find something to do!
So the next morning I put on my headphones and went out exploring. As I ambled down the main street past the thatched cottages, the first interesting sight was a pub called The Dancers Arms. The sign hanging over the door depicted thirteen large stones arranged in a circle. The word ‘dancer’ in the pub’s name made me smile. I chuckled to myself. “Maybe I’ll like this place after all.”
But the smile was quickly wiped from my face when I noticed that the happy chattering of folk in the beer garden had stopped. Although I had my music on I could feel the sudden silence and for what felt like ages the drinkers and I just stared at each other.
Until an old man stood up and walked towards me solemnly. I lowered my headphones around my neck as he approached. “You’re the Penhallow boy, aren’t you?” he said, his stolid face suddenly breaking into a friendly smile. He held his hand out which I took and shook tentatively. The crowd observed carefully.
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “Well, kind of. I’m Sean Butler, from Badgers Crossing. Penhallow is my mum’s maiden name.”
“Well it’s nice to meet you Sean Butler from Badgers Crossing,” said the man. The crowd, satisfied with this, turned back to their drinks. “I’m Reverend Polglass, Cedric, but everyone calls me Rick. I knew your grandparents, God be with them wherever they are now, and your mother of course when she was growing up.”
I smiled back, not knowing how to respond to what he’d just said about my grandparents. They’d just walked out of the house one night, when Mum was about my age, and never came back.
Rick changed the subject when he picked up on my discomfort. “Perhaps we’ll see you on Sunday morning.” he said hopefully.
“Er. I suppose, Reverend. I mean Rick,” I said, giving him a sheepish green.
“Well master Penhallow,” I didn’t correct him a second time. “I can see you’re busy, so I’ll let you get on with your day.” Rick released my hand. “Just out of interest… what are you going to do with your time? It’s not exactly, er, the shopping mall, around here.” He made air quotes with his fingers and laughed at his own joke.
“Oh, a bit of hiking, mostly to find a quiet spot to read and practice my dancing.”
At that Rick gave me a serious look and took hold of my hand again, tighter this time. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…”
“A time to mourn and there IS a time to dance,” I finished. “Ecclesiastes.”
Rick continued to grip my hand and scrutinised me. The crowd were silent again and watching us. “You know your scripture.”
No. I knew my Footloose. But I wasn’t going to say that with all those eyes on me.
“You want to be careful young Penhallow. Yes, this may be a Christian country now, but folks around here don’t forget the old ways quickly. Dancing is a sacred, powerful art and not to be taken lightly. Maybe this is not that time or place to dance.” I gave him a puzzled look. “As the hymn says, ‘It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back’. But if you do insist on it, I would recommend finding somewhere quiet, out of the village where you won’t…” He turned to look at the crowd for a moment and then turned back to me in a whisper “upset the delicate sensibilities of some of the folks around here.” With that, he released my hand and returned to his table. The conversations began again as if nothing had happened.
That was odd. But Holy Cow, I thought. A priest warning me not to dance? I’m in Footloose!
As cool as that was, the encounter with Rick had shaken me more than I wanted to admit. As I made my way out of the village, I took a right and circled back around behind the pub to point me back in the direction of home without having to pass that gawping crowd again.
“Don’t you want to get out and dance in this wonderful country air?” Mum asked when I came home but I just told her that I was still tired from yesterday’s journey. I sat in the garden reading comics on my iPad for the rest of the day but those words kept going round and round in my head.
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.
Over the next few days, I hiked all over the area. I must have covered every inch between Porthtowan and Falmouth. It wasn’t dancing, but I was missing my dad and the hill-walking reminded me of when we used to do it together. I felt closer to him somehow, even though he was hundreds of miles away. She didn’t say anything but I could tell Mum was getting frustrated at me not “doing what I was born to do” as she often called it.
It was on the Saturday during one of my walks when I finally found a spot which made me want to dance again. So far I’d avoided walking up Carn Anwyn, the hill overlooking the village. As I left the house late that morning I happened to look up to the mist-shrouded peak and I was reminded of my dad.
“Avoid taking on the difficult terrain too early if you can help it, and start slow,” he’d say when I’d rush ahead. “You’re in it for the long haul. You might not get a break for two, maybe three hours. The last thing you want is to tire yourself out before you hit your stride. Literally.” That cheesy joke always made me laugh.
I missed him. I missed our hikes together.
I made my way to the usual footpath out of the village but as I neared the gate, I noticed a man hammering a sign to the gatepost. I’d seen him before. Drinking in the beer garden that first day. He stopped hammering when he heard the gravel crunching under my feet.
“What’s going on?” I said as I stopped to examine the sign. It said Footpath Closed For Repairs.
“Sorry lad,” the man said. “Can’t let you go up there today.”
The man screwed up his free hand into a fist. “Bloody vandals again!” he said. “They come here from the town, ride their motorcycles up and down, day in day out, letting off their fireworks. This time they’ve gone too far. If I get my hands on them…” he was trembling with anger.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” I replied, not sure what else to say. “Could you just let me through? I promise to be careful, and not cause any more damage.”
“Afraid not sonny,” he said, placing himself between me and the gate, tapping the head of his hammer on the sign as he did so. “Too dangerous. They’ve churned up the path good and proper. Could cause a landslide. We’re going to need you to go that way today.” He pointed towards the trail leading up the slope of Carn Anwyn.
“Oh, right,” I muttered, eyeing up the ascent. “Steep innit?”
“Do a growing lad like you good, so it will,” he laughed, although there was very little humour in his voice. “Off you pop now.”
I said goodbye to him and traipsed over to the trail at the base of the hill. “Sorry Dad,” I whispered to myself. “I’m breaking your rule today.” As the angle began to increase and I could feel the lactic acid burn in my calves, I looked back to the gate out of Trelemain (I soon learned to stop calling it by its full name). The man was still stood there, watching me. I waved to him but he just continued to stare. “Freak,” I said under my breath as I turned back to the task ahead of me.
The climb was hard, but it began to level out and became much easier quite a while before the top. Eventually, the slope gave way to a large flat area. By the time I reached the peak, the mist had been chased away by the afternoon sun and the view was amazing. I could see our house, the church, the pub, most of Trelemain. I saw the occasional glint of sunlight reflecting off the Atlantic Ocean to the north and I think I could just about make out the top of Godrevy lighthouse, protruding out of St. Ives Bay.
At the centre of the plateau was a stone circle. These must be The Dancers they named the pub after, I thought. I noticed that there were only twelve pillars here but on the pub sign, there had been thirteen. There was a larger gap between two of the stones with bare earth and yellowed grass. Deep motorcycle tracks and scorch marks scarred the grass and soil around where presumably another Dancer had once stood. I suddenly I felt very defensive of my new home and its relics and traditions.
“Bloody vandals,” I whispered, echoing the man’s words, remembering my conversation earlier that day.
In the centre of the circle was a large moss-coated stone area with some unusual symbols carved into it. I knew it was wrong – it could have been a mass grave or a war memorial or an ancient pagan altar or something – but it looked like the perfect makeshift dance floor to practice on and I knew I wasn’t going to damage it, so I tiptoed out into the middle of the tablet, checking over my shoulder to make sure there was no-one else up here.
I did my usual warm-up stretches, put some music on my phone, popped my headphones on, and began. I can’t tell you how good it felt to be dancing again. The cool breeze up here sent wind whipping through my fingers and I felt like I was floating on air. I can’t explain how but it felt like I had come home. I don’t think I’ve ever danced better. I wish Mum could have seen it. I even wish Dad could have seen it.
After half an hour or so I felt a little twinge of pain in my left knee. I was beginning to feel a little stiff. It’d been almost a week since we moved here and as this was my first dancing session since I was obviously a little rusty – and the climb up the hill had sapped most of my energy. I looked at my watch. It was later than I thought so I decided to call it a night and head home.
I did some extra cool down exercises and started to make my way across the stone circle towards the trail back down to the village. Again, a stiffness engulfed my legs and I found my steps becoming slow and laboured. Maybe I really had hurt myself. Pulled a muscle, perhaps. Mum would kill me. The ache spread up my back and across my shoulders. I rubbed the back of my head as the discomfort crept slowly up my neck.
I stopped in the larger gap where the missing stone had been to compose myself for a moment. By this point, I felt really unwell. Every movement was, well, not exactly painful, but, I suppose difficult would be the best way to describe my discomfort. I needed to call for help. I’d never make it back down before dark feeling like this.
My stiffening fingers fumbled the phone and it clattered to the floor before I could open the Contacts page. It fell behind me and bounced back into the circle so I turned to grab it but I was too slow. I couldn’t even bend down to pick it up. The headphones slid out of the rigid fingers of my other hand and landed gently in the grass beside the phone. I knew I was already in real trouble but the extent of my plight really hit home when I tried to call out for help and no sound came. By now the stiffness had spread up through my torso, creeping into my neck and head. I couldn’t turn my head. I couldn’t look down. I was stuck fast, staring into the centre of the circle.
And so that brings us right up to speed, and my predicament. I’ve been standing here all bloody night. It’s freezing up here but the weather has been the least of my worries. I suffered some pretty frightening hallucinations in the night. I swear I saw the stone tablet in the centre of the circle slide open like a door on a spaceship in a film, and a man dressed all in black come up through it. He walked right up to me, leaned in until his face was an inch from mine. I could feel his hot breath on my cheeks as he examined me. He laid a hand on my shoulder and slowly scraped a long fingernail down my arm. It made a sound like a piece of wood being dragged across concrete. When he finished his rough caress, the man stroked his chin as his eyes, black as, no, infinitely blacker than, the night sky, peered right into mine. And I couldn’t blink or close my eyes to avoid that icy, malevolent stare.
Then he spoke with a voice which sounded more like several people talking all at once. “Well, well, well,” he said and tilted his head. “This is a fascinating, if slightly vexing development.” He gently lifted his ‘claw’ away from my arm and clenched it in a tight fist. I’d say he was more than slightly vexed at my presence. He was shaking with barely contained anger. He took a few steps away from me, paused for a second, took a deep breath and then turned back to me, his composure regained. As he approached again he stepped off to my left and out of my field of vision
As I continued to stare straight ahead in the centre of the stone circle I realised that the one thing more disconcerting than seeing this freaky guy was knowing he was there but not being able to see him. Somewhere beside me, I could hear him grunting with effort, like he was trying to lift, or maybe push something too heavy for him.
He cried out in frustration and stepped back into my view. He was visibly upset once more, trembling with fury, his face distorted with what looked more like pain than anger. His shoulders were hunched, his tie hung loosely around his neck, his formerly neatly groomed hair was now dishevelled and limp with sweat. His breathing was heavy.
“After all the precious energy I expended, the trouble I went to, to inspire those dull-witted thugs with their pathetic machines.” He bowed his head and sighed, taking a moment to get his breath back. He slicked back his hair, retied his tie and drew himself back up to his original stature – he swelled with terrible confidence. He looked at me and smiled the most joyful, terrible smile I’ve ever seen, wagging his finger as he loomed closer again. Now I knew who he reminded me of. That guy from that film, the one with the Huey Lewis song, where he cheerfully chops his mate up with an axe.
“Who’s going to save you, Sean?”
How did he know my name? Then I realised that if my mind was making this up, of course, he’d know!
“No Mummy to cry for you? To hold your hand? To save you?” He made a fake blubbering sound, rubbed his eyes with his fists and pushed his bottom lip out in an exaggerated pout.
“Here’s a valuable lesson from me to you, my Tiny Dancer,” he exclaimed theatrically, poking me gently on the end of my nose with his nail, giving off a high pitched “Boop!” which made him chuckle.
He didn’t stare into my eyes this time as he leaned in close, for which I was grateful. Instead, he put his arms around me in an embrace until I could feel his clammy breath on the side of my face. He whispered, “You can’t trust anyone these days” into my ear. “Anyone” he repeated.
The man then patted my back, released his grip on me, turned away and slowly strolled back to his portal, muttering to himself about trying again next time, and thirty years not being all that long in the grand scheme of things. “Be seein’ ya!” he said winking and pointing a finger and thumb at me like a cocked pistol before vanishing back into the heart of Carn Anwyn whistling a tune I remembered from school assembly – Lord Of The Dance. One particular lyric came back to me in an instant and I shuddered:
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.
As the stone tablet, altar, whatever it was, slid shut the red glow receded until all that was left was what little light the stars gave off. I hadn’t noticed until now how much of space you could actually see from Trelemain. Amazing how much the lights of even a small town ruin the night sky. And with that innocuous thought I suddenly I knew what I’d experienced hadn’t been real. It can’t have been. It seemed like a distant memory now, silly even. But I’d never been more scared in my life. And I was still stuck fast.
So now it’s Sunday morning and I’m still stuck here. My mum must be going out of her mind. The church bells in the village are ringing. I guess Reverend Rick will be disappointed when I don’t turn up.
I hear a noise behind me. Dogs barking, and shouting. Lots of shouting – my name.
Oh, thank God!
The church bells must have been to gather people for a search, not for the service! I hear footsteps now. They sound only feet away so why are they still calling my name? A woman I recognise from the village bursts into the circle with a dog, which immediately begins snuffling around my feet. I’m so relieved I could almost cry.
“Here! Over here!” the woman cries. She holds aloft what the dog had been so interested in. “It’s a phone!”
More people burst into the circle. Rick is one of them. He picks up my headphones and turns them over in his hands “He was wearing these on the first day.”
“Er. Hello?” I say. Or don’t – because nothing comes out.
“Get these to the police. We all know the story. Make sure you stick to it,” says Rick and others nod. The sign man from yesterday morning is one of them.
“I’M RIGHT HERE!” I try to scream, but fail to make even a whimper.
To my utter dismay, the villagers turn to leave. After a while, I hear Rick say to someone out of my line of sight “No need to worry. He’s here. We’ll put the police off the scent for a while and in time he’ll be written off as a runaway, maybe tried to hike all the way back to his father, got into trouble along the way, fell in with a bad crowd, perhaps. Don’t worry, I’ll be watching him closely. I won’t let those thugs do to him what they did to your parents, Tegan.”
Tegan? Mum? I try to cry out to her but can’t. She enters the stone circle and turns directly to me. She lets out a small gasp when she sees me and covers her mouth with her hand as tears well in her eyes.
Mum. Help me.
And then I realise, she’s not upset. She’s smiling. Beaming from ear to ear. And not a creepy smile like my imaginary friend, but a proper joyful grin.
Oh, thank goodness Mum! I thought I’d never see you again.
“When I heard that the council had taken the damaged Dancer away – health and safety, they said – I had to do whatever I could to get you here in time for last night.”
Wait. Can you even hear me? Mum? MUM!?
“I love your dad, Sean. I really do, but he didn’t believe the Penhallow legend. He thought I was just trying to turn you against him, and to get custody. But I promise I wasn’t. He just didn’t understand that this was for the greater good.”
The greater good!? What are you saying Mum? What legend?
“Footloose, the dancing, the lessons… they were all just a precaution. I never actually thought it would come to this. I never imagined your gran wouldn’t be here last night, where she’s always been since I was your age, preparing for this day.”
Gran? What’s she got to do with it? Her and Grampa disappeared before I was born. Mum, you’re scaring me.
“You enjoyed it didn’t you? The dancing I mean.” I nod. Well, in my head I nod. “But the thing is, there MUST always be thirteen dancers up here because every thirty years, on Lughnasadh he tries to get out. And if there’s ever one missing, it could mean disaster for Trelemain, all of England, maybe even the world.
“Your grandparents joined the Dancers two years after the hurricane in ’87 caused a landslide and a couple of the old stones slid down into the village and smashed on the road. I begged them not to go. I followed them up here, I tried to stop them dancing but they changed anyway. I stayed up here all night crying at their feet. And then I saw him and he saw me. When I looked into those black eyes,” I shuddered inwardly at the memory of that deep well of malevolent nothingness I had gazed into, “I understood. And I knew I had to be ready to do the same. Rick took me in, answered my questions, and looked after me until I met your dad.”
This is crazy!
“It was supposed to be me. And I’d give anything to trade places with you…”
Then do it, you miserable…
“…but you see, I just didn’t have the gift. Two left feet. You know I’m always dropping stuff, bumping into things, right? I tried. I really did, but I just wasn’t Dancer material.” She walks over to another pillar and lays a hand on it. “I’m sorry I let you down Dad. So sorry. Perhaps this makes up for it,” she says to the ancient stone before walking back to me. “But you Sean, you inherited our family’s birthright and when I saw you that day, dancing to the TV, I couldn’t have been prouder.
You’ve been planning this since I was six bloody years old!?
“I know you’re scared and hurting, and probably angry right now but in time you’ll learn to accept and even celebrate your role. The Penhallows, The Dancers some call us, have been guarding Trelemain Syncythraul for thousands of years. You know it means The Place Where The Dance Holds Back The Opposer? You’re privileged to stand beside your ancestors as one of those Dancers.”
Oh, so that’s what it means! I did wonder.
“You’re a hero Sean. A legend. You love to dance, and now you’ll be doing it forever. Those few in the village who know our secret and support our cause, like Rick, will pass your story down for generations.” Mum places her hand on my, well, it’s not a chest anymore… on my… “surface” and whispers “Goodbye Sean” before walking out of the stone circle and out of my sight, humming a tune I recognise. A tune from a film I won’t be watching ever again. A tune from Footloose.
Let’s Hear It For The Boy? You can’t be serious, Mum!
Kevin Bacon has a lot to answer for.