Hannelore

It's 1926, and Hannelore Bauer is an English girl of German descent, who must battle through the prejudice and discrimination from the left over tensions of The Great War to fulfill her dream of becoming a dancer and moving to Paris.
This is a story of forbidden love, loss of the things that matter most, holding on to your dreams with a vice-like grip and overcoming everything to dance.

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Clack clack clack.

                My fingers traced the gold embossed upon my machine, leaving a light trail of perspiration that quickly evaporated. I sighed and continued sewing the bodice of the dress to the skirt, a perfect line of golden thread.

                Clack clack clack.

                I must have been working at least nine hours by now, but Mr Peterson had taken the clock away a while ago, said we glanced at it too often.

                Clack clack clack.

                The room rang with the sound, must have been five hundred of us in there, turning the wheels of our machines, furrowing brows as we stitched… and stitched… and stitched.

                Clack clack clack.

                I sighed again, leaning my forehead, just for a moment, against the cool metal of my machine, my extension. I never failed it and It never failed me. I rolled my head so that my cheek was pressed against the relieving cold. The height of summer and it was swelteringly hot on the Peterson & Co. factory floor.

                Clack clack-

                All at once, the noise that rang in my ears hour after hour stopped. I snapped my head up, my too long sandy hair falling from the loose rag that bound it back to entwine in the foot of the machine. I yelped, briefly forgetting about the curious silence, and endeavoured to untangle myself.

                Murmurs were coursing through the giant room, multiplied by the echoes bouncing from the walls, by the time I finally lifted my head. Mr Peterson was standing at the very end, tiny in the distance, looking very red and very shiny. I brushed my hair back beneath my collar, frightened that he’d tell me to cut it off if he saw it. His chest swelled like a bullfrog and he grasped the lapels of his heavy tweed jacket.

                “Right, ladeez,” he drawled. I’d hate to be at the front, where his spit could reach me. “We’ve a very special visitor today, so I will be watching each and every one of you! Best behaviour!”

                “Yes, sir,” we chorused. Mr Peterson hated it when we didn’t yes, sir and no, sir and please, sir. Perhaps to compensate for his thinning hair, cockerel’s chin and squat stature. He puffed a lungful of air before striding away, and once again I felt my fortune of being so far back. A young girl at the front coughed, Mr Peterson’s breath was nauseating.

                I fanned my hand near my face, but it was too humid for any worth, and I had no more layers to remove. My cardigan was already draped on the wooden stool that I was bound to, the one that left me numb at the end of every day. I continued to stitch, following the progress of my thread. I wished my hair was that colour, mine was more like hay. The clacking had begun again, but it soon stopped. I didn’t bother to look up this time, and the sound of my machine was solitary in the silence; I had to finish my quota before I could leave.

                After a second or two there was an explosion of muttering girls and a smattering of gasps that reverberated about the room. I couldn’t help myself; I looked up, having to stand in order to peer above the rows of people, wondering what on earth could have caused such a commotion. We rarely spoke here, we daren’t even breathe too loudly, but here we were, gossiping gleefully, with smiles? Keeping my hands on the sewing machine, I stood on my tiptoes, the soles of my shoes flopping down and brushing the ground even though my heels weren’t.

                “Can you see ‘er?” asked Shannon, the girl on my right. She was young, only fifteen, and her tightly wound blonde hair bounced as she struggled to get a better view.

                “See who?” I said, the clamour had grown and Shannon didn’t hear me, she seemed to catch a glimpse of something and squealed.

                “My stars and garters!” Her voice had reached a high peak, but even then was almost drowned out by the din.

                “What- Is- It?” I asked, a word for every little jump I did.

                “Just you wait, Hannelore, just you wait till you see ‘er!” Shannon cried, a ludicrous smile plastered across her face. “She’s gorgeous!”

                I was just about to ask who was gorgeous, when the booming, furious voice of Mr Peterson climbed above the racket and stomped upon the voices.

                “Did I not say best behaviour!” he bellowed, looking ruffled. We never had visitors and we never acted up like this. “I ought to get rid of you all! Now sit down and stop filling the room with even more hot air!”

                Row after row, the girls sat down, with buns a little off kilter and faces pinked with blush. I stayed standing for as long as I could, desperate to see what had made everyone stir as they never had before; and then I did.

                Shannon was right, she was gorgeous. A girl, a woman, I might say. Like the ones you see in the posters for the cabarets that litter the streets of Paris, except even more elegant, with more natural beauty and less rouge, and much, much more sparkle, carefully painting her lips with a crimson brush.

                My right hand slipped forward as I leaned, giving the wheel a full turn even as my left hand grasped the shimmering black fabric for support. The thread bunched up and the material ripped, an ear splitting tear in the silence that had followed Mr Peterson through the door. It might have been missed amongst the clack clack clack, if there had been any, and I could have hidden the ruined garment under my skirts or in the rag bag. Could have.

                As it was, it felt like the world had heard my blunder, and every beady eye was upon me, I wilted beneath them.

                “Who,” Mr Peterson said, in a deathly whisper that shattered my will to lie, “was that?”

                I closed my eyes and tried to breathe, but it came in shuddering gasps. My eyes pricked with tears and I jammed my mouth shut. Perfect, I had started to cry before I had even been scolded.

                “I said who- was- that?” His voice picked up volume until his last word was a full yell.

                I lifted myself off of my stool, leaving the dress in the machine, I would only waste countless embarrassing minutes if I tried to dislodge it and take it with me as proof of my guilt.

                The soles of my shoes slapped against the bare wood floors as I weaved between the lines of garment boxes, tables and girls gazing at me with sad, pitiful eyes. The hem of my overlarge dress caught cuts of fabric and dust from the ground as I walked. I was a trail of debris.

                After an infinite journey, I was at the aisle, so everyone could get a good look at me. Hannelore, the girl who faulted at just the wrong moment.

                “It was me,” I said, my voice weak, my breath short. Mr Peterson advanced until he was standing before me, glaring up into my pale, watery blue eyes. He breathed, I choked. I tried to calm myself, but being so close, being able to see every individual drop of sweat that beaded upon his brow, being able to smell, taste his repulsive scent and count every greying hair on his head, my palms became slick.

                “I gave you a job, a job, in my factory, despite your… shortcomings, and this is how you repay me, Bauer?” he said, so quietly that I knew that the girls would have to strain their ears if they were to hear him.

                “I’m sor-”

                “This is how you repay me!” he barked, and I realised that there was no point in my putting up a fight, I hung my head. “Get OUT, get out you filthy German scum, and if I see you in these walls again you will find yourself on a boat back to where you came from, is that clear?”

                So- that was it, for all the world to hear. Typical of the ‘scum’ to do wrong.

                “Yes,” I whispered, and ran past him, holding my hands over my face so that the girls wouldn’t be able to see me cry. I was born here, I deserved to be here. I didn’t deserve this.

                At the front of the room, I stopped in front of the woman, the one who made me slip. I couldn’t blame her; even with her brow creased in worry and her mouth unattractively agape in shock she still held the beauty of royalty. I couldn’t be near her, knowing the contrast between us was too great to stand, so I swept past her, and her ivory dress brushed against her shins as she turned to watch me go.

*

                For a while, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself. The streets of London were still busy, it being mid-afternoon, and the breeze dragged my hair from my collar so that it played about my face, and I was constantly tucking the flyaway strands behind my ear.

                “Miss Hanna! Wait—” Behind me I heard the scuttling of little feet, Sams catching up to me.

                “I can’t give you any food today, Sams,” I said, turning to look at the doe-eyed child, something that I had tried to avoid as I strode past him without any money to give. Those eyes made me want to cradle him in my arms and mother him healthy. Sams was barely eight years old, homeless, jobless and penniless.

                “What’s up, Miss Hanna?” he said, folding his rough little fingers into mine and leading me back to the doorstep that he frequented around the time I left work.

                “Oh, it’s nothing,” I said, not entirely willing to burden my little friend with my sorrows, he’d had enough for a lifetime. His skinny arm wrapped around my shoulder, and his soft, soot stained hair brushed my neck as he leant on me. “Where’ve you been working?” I asked, trailing my fingers through the fine black particles in his fair hair.

                “Nuthin’ that’ll concern you,” he said, squirming a little.

                “Don’t tell me you’ve been up chimneys…” I said, my fingers halting, “Look at me, Sams.”

                Sammy looked at me, and I shook my head of the emotion that welled seeing his large eyes so close up. His face was splotched black and grey; and his clothes were staining mine. In the corner of the doorstep were a brush and a scraper.

                “You know soot’s bad for your lungs. How’d you even get work, Sams? Kids ain’t allowed up chimneys now.”

                “There’re rich folks in London,” he said, leaning up close and whispering like he was telling me his deepest, darkest secret, “who have a dozen chimneys in their mansions and figure I’m luckier than a four-leafed clover.” He smiled, his teeth a burning white in contrast to his face, “They call me SamYooEll.”

                “Just be careful, alright? My dad’s told me horror stories about kids getting trapped up those things.”

                “Don’t worry about me, Miss Hanna, I’m tough.”

                He must have been, to be able to live through the accident and come out unscathed. Not just physically, but inside inside.

                “Now why don’t you tell me what’s troublin’ you?” he said, leaning on me again, but then I remembered what was troubling me, and I didn’t quite want to think about it yet.

                “Maybe tomorrow, Sams,” I said, standing up.

                “Will you have bread for me then?” he asked, sounding painfully hopeful and looking up at me he looked so small, and I felt so big, but not in a good way.

                “One day, Sams, I’ll have a shilling for you.”

                Half an hour later and my world felt as if it had caved in upon me again, and I was trapped in some crevice, alive but left for dead. Maybe Sammy was like a medicine, and I shouldn’t have left so soon. Now it was either walk, and walk, and walk, or lay down in the middle of the road, catatonic with shock and misery.

My fingers trembled around the bunched up cloth of my skirt, and I clenched them so that they wouldn’t tumble down and trail on the ground. Now a passer-by would not stop and offer help, or pity, or anything. They’d ask me my name, I’d tell them, and they’d politely –or not– think of a reason to leave me be.

                Hannelore Bauer, so typically German.

                I seemed to see the world through an impenetrable mist, so that the streets and the people that crowded them were blurred. I only recognised the tiny café that I used to spend mornings in when I was standing right beneath the sign, and my sight caught up to my muddled mind, and I went inside.

                A waitress bustled up towards me, and I blinked so that I could see her. It was Gloria; we had been friends when I was little, because we had lived on the same street. One of the few happy memories that I retained were of us skipping hopscotch on a deserted path, midsummer.

                “You can’t be here!” she whispered, urgent, ignoring my surely red, swollen eyes and tearstained cheeks.

                “What?” I asked, barely having heard her. My throat was dry and my voice weak.

                “I said, you can’t be here, you know how Miss Margaret gets, she’d let me go if I gave you a table.”

                “But—”

                “I say, she’s coming! Quick- out- out!” Gloria pushed my shoulders, nudging me out of the quaint shop, and I was alone on the streets again, wondering how on earth things had come to this.

                I’d never been accepted into society easily, but I suppose I’d simply always endeavoured to ignore the anger and upset that being constantly pushed away brought. This time, things were different, as if the force of it was physically turning my stomach, I felt nauseous and livid that my oldest friend had shoved me away without so much of a ‘what’s wrong?’

                I would have told her everything, and I would have felt better.

                As it was, my organs seemed to have rearranged themselves and I felt ill. I found myself a cool, empty alley to sit in and leant against the wall, curling my legs so that my knees were up to my chest and the black folds of my dress draped across me like a blanket. I closed my eyes; it had been a long day. Images of Mr Peterson swirled in my mind, intertwined with pictures of Shannon squealing, Gloria pushing and shoving and hitting, Sams staring with wide, empty eyes and then there was Her. That beautiful girl who made me slip, who made me lose my job, but somehow, the very same one who had made my day.

                I woke and glanced around, bemused, and forgetting for a few blissful seconds how dreadful my situation was. My parents were perpetually between employment, getting sacked every time business fell and it was attributed to their heritage, so I was our family’s only steady source of income, and they would be wondering where I was. I sighed, peering above, between the two brick walls, laden with chimneys that enclosed me, and saw the pinpoint of a single star.

                I smiled and made a wish. Surely this had some higher meaning, I had hated that job. I mourned the loss of my trusted sewing machine, but using it had become an effort, and was no longer enjoyable. It’s best to let things go when you can no longer find happiness in them.

                A bright red poster caught my eye, pasted to the wall in front of me, a single decoration on an otherwise blank slate. I hauled myself up, there was no one else about at this hour. The poster read:

THIS WAY
FOR THE CRIMSON CABARET


 

                A hand pointed to my left, and looking through the darkness I saw a source of light. Intrigued, I tiptoed over. A basement window at the height of my ankles was emitting a pinkish glow, and jazz music was trickling through the gap.

                I kneeled down and swayed to the soft music, letting it envelope me. I reached towards the tiny window. God knows why and what I would have done when my fingers touched the warm glass, because they never did.

                “Hey, get over here!”

                My head snapped around to suss the source of the deep male voice. I recoiled a little, was he calling for me? The darkness was denser than I thought, and it took a while for my eyes to adjust to find the man, dapper in black and white. His creamy bow tie was undone and flapping in the wind as he chased down the girl in the pretty dress. Barely twenty yards ahead his red, contorted face was clear now.

                “I said get over here!” The man caught up to the girl in the pretty, sparkling red dress and his hand clamped around her arm like a vice.

                “Get off me, Jonny!” the girl shouted, staring down the man. She was perhaps an inch taller, the glittering ruby heels working greatly to her advantage. Jonny’s grasp seemed to tighten, because the girl’s arm writhed and tugged.

                “What are you going to do, eh? Run to daddy? Oh wait, you ran away from daddy, didn’t you? If you don’t stay with me no one will ever—”

                A whip of pale white and the girl’s free hand struck Jonny’s face with a crack! In his surprise, Jonny loosened his hand. The girl wrenched her arm free and backed away, breathing heavily and rubbing her surely bruising arm. I watched in horror as she didn’t run, but took a single step back, and continued to stare at Jonny. He must have taken quite a hit, his left cheek was turning a mottled puce and his eye flickered, as if he couldn’t quite raise the eyelid.

                “I’ve always been out of your league, Jonny,” the girl said, and I slipped a little further forward to hear as her voice dropped to a deadly whisper. “I’ll be snapped up in a heartbeat. Haven’t you seen the posters, the publicity? I’m the star, not you, and you can keep your bloody dirty money.”

                The girl dug into her sequin studded purse and drew out a handful of something, before throwing the coins and notes in Jonny’s face.

                Notes.

                Jonny, who must make a lot of money and do something very dirty to get it, laughed hysterically as he was showered with metal and paper, barely flinching as he was struck with the cold, hard metal of shillings and pennies. The girl shot him a withering glare, though her eyes glanced at the money on the ground every couple of seconds as though she was already regretting throwing it.

                “How are you going to—” Jonny held up his hands, as if lifting a flute to his mouth, and sucked in a long, languorous breath of the warm night air, “now?” he finished, puffing his held in air towards the girl.

                The girl turned on the heels of her shoes, probably scuffing them, then stalked away, turning back for a second to shout at him with an acid tongue.

                “I’m not.”

                As soon as she had turned her back again, Jonny’s hands clenched at his side and he turned purple from his collar to his hairline, then he pounced. He leapt forward like a predator on the hunt and sprinted towards her with a stealth and silence that was only shattered by his ragged, heavy breathing.

                Then, one hand was wrapped around her slim, perfect neck, and the other was tugging on her curled, perfect hair. The girl had turned only for Jonny to slam in to her, the wind had been knocked out of her lungs, and she gasped for air as if her throat had been clogged with cement. It just didn’t seem to be going in.

                “Stop,” she wheezed, clawing at Jonny’s back with blood red nails, “stop.”

                I could see the energy slipping from her, the momentary trenches that she furrowed in Jonny’s blazer back became shallower, and her kicks slower. Jonny shuddered with the effort of ripping the life from the girl.

                “Stop!”

                This time, the words came from me. Without thinking, I ran towards the man and the monster inside him. The monster reared its ugly head, beetle black eyes widening for a second in surprise as they tried to find me, and I thought that perhaps this would be easier if I hadn’t shouted.

                Even so, I ran into the serpent with all my strength, thrusting my shoulder into his side so that his grasp on the girl unfurled and he tumbled onto the road face first. Jonny cried out as he crashed into the ground, and moaned as he raised his bloody head, clutching a nose spewing blood.

                “What-”

                I never got to find out what he was going to ask, it could have been what’s happening, or what are you doing or what are you looking at?

                I never found out because in that moment, a streak of grey sliced across my vision and collided with Jonny’s head with a dull crunch. He twitched and was still.

                I didn’t scream, I didn’t even gasp or move. Some things are so unexpected that you simply cannot react.

                The girl, the perfect girl in the glittering red dress, dropped the crowbar on the road, and it clattered loud enough for everyone in the surrounding streets to hear, to wake and ask what the sound was. Then she knelt down in utter silence and pressed her fingers to Jonny’s neck.

                “He’s dead.”

                And then I screamed.

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