About 20 couples are gliding around the room, executing complicated dance steps with agility and ease. There is a rustle of velvet and lace petticoats, a dash of diamante and false pearls; eyes sparkle, cheeks are flushed, and lingering tantalisingly in the air is a hint of glamour and romance. It's 2.30 in the afternoon at the weekly Tea Dance at Hove Methodist Church Hall. The average age of the dancing couples is at least 70.
It was at just such an event - formal, with a delicate etiquette resonant of a bygone age - in nearby Haywards Heath that 68-year-old Edward Martin met divorcee June Cuxson, in January 1994.
A newcomer to the Chair Hall weekly tea dance, Cuxson, a mousey 52-year- old who was separated from her husband, was introduced to Martin and joined him at his regular table. He invited her to dance, taught her to waltz and quickstep. Their afternoon ended with a kiss on the cheek.
Meeting at the dance again the following week, the couple struck up an intimate friendship. The goodbye kiss moved from the cheek to the lips and gave rise to a caress.
But the romance was not to last. It was, allegedly, poisoned by jealousy and ended in violent tragedy.
Seven months on from the waltz during which their pulses first quickened, Martin was charged with the murder of 80-year-old Warwick Batchelor, the new man in June Cuxson's life, whom she had met at a bridge evening. Lewes Crown Court, where Martin is being tried, has been told that Batchelor was killed in a frenzied, brutal attack. The jury is expected to hear the closing arguments today.
Dubbed the "OAP Love Triangle Murder" by the local press, the case has thrown new light on the smouldering passions that throb unexpectedly at geriatric social events.
"Why are people so surprised?" asks Alfred, the 80-year-old master of ceremonies at the Hove tea dance. As the sprightly, elegant and dapper retirees twirl around him, he confides that he himself found love on this very dance floor, with Eileen, the platinum-haired beauty who now takes the admissions money and serves the intermission teas.
At least 10 other regulars at the Hove tea dance have become romantically entwined, including Daphne and Ron, aged 68 and 70, who "palled up" here five years ago, shortly after they were both widowed.
"We're not engaged or anything, but we go together," explains Daphne with a smile. "We don't want to get married, there's no need to," adds mellow Ron. "We each have our own place and we go out together in the evening."
Flora Simpson, a trim 80-year-old, attends the dance each week with her third husband, George, a stickler for smartness who only ever leaves the house without a tie in extremely hot weather. Taking a breather after a quick rumba, the couple explain that although they didn't meet here, Flora brought George here for a thorough dance trial before setting a definite wedding date. "I couldn't possibly have married a man who couldn't dance."
Single women outnumber single men, but widows Alice and Edith, seated on the wooden chairs arranged around the edge of the dance floor, have hardly a moment to chat as the mellifluous sound of Hugo Strasser and his Dance Orchestra hits the tape deck. Snapping at their heels are gallant Frank, a tall, sinuous dancer, and mysterious Joe, an Italian newcomer who seems to have walked straight out of the classic film La Dolce Vita into Hove Methodist Hall.
Wearing tinted spectacles, he offers to drive Edith down to Italy for Christmas and retreats, muttering darkly when he is rebuffed.
"When you've been single for as long as I have, you're not going to want to give up your freedom that easily," she explains.
But if she were looking for a man, this would certainly be a prime hunting ground.
Many of the tea-dancers would have met their first partners at similar events in the 1940s. They are now reliving the courtship rituals of their youth. Several of the Hove Methodist Hall dancers recalled being among the thousands who filled the magnificent ballroom at the Regent, which stood on Brighton's sea-front.
"The queue stretched half a mile down the front," sighs Frank, who, to this day, cavorts around mid-Sussex attending five different tea dances a week. "They had a big band on either side of the room, so the sound came from all around, and the whole thing was broadcast live on the Light Programme."
Fit and lively, unencumbered by children or work, the South Coast foxtrotters have the whole of the rest of their lives to dedicate to leisure and love. But something was to go tragically wrong for the latterday romancers of mid-Sussex.
Soon after Martin, a retired mechanic who was left by his first wife and widowed by his second, met June Cuxson, he started quick-stepping with Doris Dennington, another lady tea dancer. For two months he was seeing both women, until June Cuxson was no longer "prepared to be the second woman in his life", Lewes Crown Court heard last week.
Partly as a result, June joined the University of the Third Age in Burgess Hill, where she met Warwick Batchelor during a bridge evening.
Margaret Coppard, the membership secretary who met her own husband through the 'U-3-A', is eager to stress that the organisation is not a "pick-up- joint" for the over-fifties.
"It was extraordinary, very unusual that these two people had an underlying relationship," she says quickly. "The Mid-Sussex Divorced and Separated Club has had so many marriages it's incredible. Some of these places are like grab-a-granny clubs. But the U-3-A is different. Our 250 members have enrolled to study, and under those circumstances you just don't let your hair down to the same extent."
Nevertheless, romance flourished between Cuxson and Batchelor: "When I realised he was 80, I tried not to like him, but I felt so much for him and couldn't stop feeling the way I did," a tearful June Cuxson told the court. Before long, she was considering Batchelor's invitation to move in with him. Martin felt intensely jealous when he learnt the pair were going to France with the U-3-A's travel group, the court was told.
On the eve of the French trip, Martin allegedly lay in wait in the garages beneath Batchelor's flat and stabbed his love rival 20 times with a sharpened screwdriver. Martin pleaded not guilty, claiming he acted in self-defence.
So, was this an isolated incident, or do violent jealousies seethe beneath the surface among the Hove tea dancers?
Well, some of the women are a bit possessive and won't let their husbands do the mixed partner dances, explains Alfred, but the general feeling is that life is really too short for OAP love triangles. "As they say, you're a long time dead," says Ron before whisking off into the distance with Daphne in a brisk waltz.Reuse content