â€œA Time to Danceâ€� is a letter written by a 54-year-old man to the 18-year-old girl he is obsessively in love with. Several shorter letters shorter letters to him from the girl, Bernadette, and from his wife are quoted in full.
The narrator, a bank manager with a month to go until retirement, is a member of a Rotary team judging essays. The unlikely winner in Bernadette Kennedy. The Kennedy family is reputed to be among the roughest in a rough part of town. One of the other two judges predicts that the Kennedy family will spend the prize money on drink, yet Bernadette's essay is clearly the best of the lot.
When Bernadette comes to the banker's home to report on how she intends to spend the money, he falls madly in love with her. She appears to return his love, and they fall into an intense affair. The banker's avocation â€“ walking in the Lakes district of England â€“ provides a perfect cover for their weekend trysts. The banker's wife, Angela, is ill. So obsessed is he with Bernadette that he is unable to see how his absences are hurting her. Still less is he concerned that rumors of his affair must surely get back to her.
The differences in their backgrounds are painful to watch. When Bernadette invites her lover to accompany her to the fair, the noise, crowds, games and animals excite her. He is repelled. When he takes her to a pub where her family spends time, he cannot fathom their rough talk, hard drinking and apparent criminality. Yet, because he loves Bernadette, he accepts it all. Being wealthy, he becomes popular as a buyer of drinks all around more often than he strictly needs to.
The tragedy of their love is in their inability to express their true feelings. While even a simple â€œI love youâ€� is difficult for many people to say, the banker hides his extravagant impressions of Bernadette's beauty, his deep love, and she wonders if he's just using her for sex. He, at the same time, constantly fears she is interested only in his money and an opportunity to escape the poverty of her life.
They break up, they get back together. Then the banker reads Hazlitt's â€œLiber Amoris,â€� a book about the essayist's affair with a teenage girl when he is in his 40s. The account of his love moves the banker because it is so close to his own feelings. Then Hazlitt writes of his love's betrayal, and doubt and jealousy overtake the narrator. He is unable to stop himself from interrogating poor Bernadette about how she spends every hour they are apart. He eventually drives her away with his accusations. Yet, even then, they come together long enough for her to tell him she cannot continue the affair while his wife's illness â€“ finally diagnosed as cancer â€“ requires him to care for her and keep her from hurt.
Shortly after his wife's death, the banker tries to see Bernadette again. She has quit her job and left town. Her family refuses to tell him where she has gone. He rents a cottage in a slum. He begins drinking heavily. He spends his time trying to work out how to see her, and he hunts through neighboring towns and cities. When she returns to his town and he sees her again, she tells him she has had an abortion and that she can never see him again. Yet, he continues to try to make amends, hoping her final word is not, in fact final.
This report prepared by David Gordon