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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My hands fiddled with the sturdy brass buttons of my mother’s coat as the dainty clip clop of Eleanor’s heeled boots approached the door. My trepidation was palpable, like an aura that condensed the air around me. My heart thrummed as the buttons smeared with sweat.

“Not yet,” I muttered to myself, bouncing lightly on the cushioned sofa, “not quite yet.”

“She is here, isn’t she?” asked Eleanor, her voice a little muffled. She was standing right outside the door, and the handle turned halfway.

“Right through zat door, mademoiselle,” the Frenchman said, and I felt my cheeks glow a little. My breathing sped up as the handle twisted another half turn and the door was thrown open to reveal a vision in emerald.

A chain of green gems wrapped thrice around her neck, a collar, and velvet gloves climbed from her fingers to her elbows, painting her arms a sheer forest green. The dress wavered about her, the unembellished fabric catching the dim blue light and throwing it back across the room.

Hastily, I slid the last of the brass half-spheres through the slit in the fabric and allowed the coat to fall from my shoulders with a thump about my ankles. Flecks of silver light swarmed my arms, shifting and shimmering with every movement I made. I fingered the makeshift curls piled atop my head nervously, checking that none of the pins had fallen out whilst I waited for Eleanor’s dropped jaw to form words.

“What have you done, Hannelore?” she breathed, taking a measured pace towards me. At that, I let my lifted arms fall to my side, my shoulders droop when I hadn’t realised they’d tensed, and my face unwillingly adopt a crestfallen expression.

“Don’t you like it?” I whispered, at which Eleanor exhaled a shocked burst of laughter before crossing the remaining space between us and grasping my shoulders.

It reminded me of that night, how she’d shaken the screams from my throat.

I blinked away the memory, it was not the time for looking back. I was looking forwards, the future I’d been dreaming of in my sights, perhaps close enough to touch if I reached far enough, strained long enough, ran towards it fast enough.

Eleanor was speaking.

“Did you hear me? I said you look beautiful. I was actually planning on lending you some clothes, I have plenty that you would love, I think.” She lifted a leather satchel sheepishly. “I hadn’t anticipated this.”

“You bought me clothes?” I asked, and I imagine that my eyes had twinkled a little, and perhaps my lips had curved into an open-mouthed smile because it was such a shock that I honestly can’t remember it too well.

“Of course I did! What- did you think I’d have you dancing in rags?” she asked, “sorry, I didn’t think there.”

It was then that I realised how rapidly Eleanor was speaking, the way that her mossy fingers clenched and relaxed compulsively, the sheen on the bridge of her nose and the droplets of sweat that studded her temples. Her hair reminded me of a painting that was once paraded around the factory floor; from a distance, it was lawless, but close up it was blotchy and ugly.

Eleanor’s perfect hair was frayed and frizzed, a muted version of the evening she had found me outside work. Remembering her face, crazed in a way, made my eyes drift down to meet hers.

Wide and glittering, if it was more so than normal I couldn’t tell.

“S’fine,” I smiled, hoping to settle her, “Really. Why don’t you tell me about why your evening has been so disastrous?”

Eleanor smiled as though grateful and perched on the edge of the sofa, looking ready to take flight at any moment, before launching into a tiresome description of her evening, which consisted of a rude man, bad weather and worry.  I hoped that the sweat and hair were a result of that. When she had finished, she stood and stepped closer to me.

Slowly, Eleanor reached forward and took my hand in hers, smoothing her thumb against the protruding bones pushing against the skin. I don’t know what prompted it, because I hadn’t said a word since she’d begun her story. I stared and our hands nervously as a blush sprang to my cheeks then crawled down my neck and smudged my ears with red. Eleanor, who was also looking down, had small creases indenting the skin between her thin eyebrows. Her mouth widened a little and she said nothing. Feeling heat creep under my arms, I gently pulled my hand from hers, finding that the sound of brushing skin was the most prominent.

Far away, I thought, the boiler rumbled and Eleanor started, then brushed her fingers through her hair as if she’d meant to raise that arm, and it hadn’t been out of fright.

“My mother is far worse,” I said, picking up the brass-buttoned coat and folding it over my arm. Eleanor peered at me bemusedly, but I knew she knew what I meant. “With the-” I raised my hand and wiggled the thin fingers.

“That’s not what I was looking at.”

I smiled, tried to break the tension that had inflated like a balloon the moment she’d touched me.

“Come on,” she said, smiling back, “I’ll take you to the main room.”

Eleanor reached out as if to take my hand again, then thought better of it and instead beckoned me with her finger, raising an eyebrow before waltzing away from me. After she had exited, I stood for a moment, feeling the need to think, but my brain hadn’t quite caught up with the rest of me, and so I stood, feeling somewhat empty and thoughtless before skittering out of the door to catch up to Eleanor.

As I turned the first corner, I saw a swish of matte black in the corner of my eye and snapped my neck away from the monotonous clack of heels towards what I was sure had been a figure. But there was no one there.

“Are you coming, Hanna?” Eleanor shouted, not sounding as if she was about to turn back, her voice high with rising excitement, “You’ll love this, I promise.”

But still my hungry eyes hunted for the figure, and so I trotted a few steps backwards and glanced back around the corner. There was no one there, yet the door to the lounge swung shut with a shuddering creak.

I blinked and shook my head loose of any paranoid thoughts, refusing to become plagued by such things. I knew that if I allowed that to happen I’d end up just like Eleanor had been on the night that she had returned. Broken- and I wasn’t sure if she had yet been fixed, or if it was merely a façade.

The sound of heels was steadily fading, so I turned around and found myself not faced with the hallway ahead, but a chest clad in black and white.

My first thought was of Jonny, and his immediate and unwanted existence in my life sent my head reeling, my mouth unable to form even the most basic of calls, help, and my body tipped towards the hardwood floors.

Two large hands caught me, one holding my back, the other supporting my head, and I was looking into the eyes of the Frenchman. My lips quivered and I said the first words that came to mind whenever I was taken by surprise.

“Bloody hell.”

“Are you alright, madam?” the Frenchman asked, lifting me so that I was not quite as vertically challenged. “I am sorry to ‘ave scared you, but I vos only vondering if I might be able to take your coat from you. Guests tend to leave them in the lounge, even if they aren’t as awfully heavy as yours appears to be.”

 “Oh God- gosh, take it, please, thank you I mean.”

Taking a hasty step away from the kind Frenchman, I unwrapped the coat from my arm, which seemed to suddenly have been knotted to me by clever Mariner’s hands, and pressed it into the chest that I had knocked into. The Frenchman stared at me with kind brown eyes until I withered beneath them as if he were glaring and sidestepped around him, having completely forgotten about the wisp of a deep black cloak.

It was the stairs that next took me by surprise. I had assumed, in the back of my mind, that we would either be travelling upwards, or continue on the same floor until we came to the right room. But as I ran, holding my skirt in chunks so that the beads wouldn’t knot so easily, a bannister is what saved my life as I almost fell down a staircase, chasing the now silent heels.

Another staircase, going up, stood solid on my right, and I couldn’t understand how I could have possibly missed it. Now, I was faced with the two doors in a dungeon decision.

“Um, Eleanor? Up or down?” I shouted, because sometimes life doesn’t have to be a guessing game.

“Down! Isn’t this fun, Hanna?”

I wanted to reply, but I didn’t know if I should beg to differ or squeal with poorly contained excitement, so I followed the instructions and ventured down the staircase until a purple glow caught my eye. I raced towards it with the merriment of someone much more youthful than myself, and found the cabaret that was more theatre. It was absolutely huge.

Eleanor had already climbed upon the stage and raised her arms, curving her neck back as she had in the park.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked, beaming, the light swimming all around her making her more perfect than I knew that she was on this evening. I said nothing, because it was, it was exquisite, unusually so, because the outside didn’t warrant it. Not at all. “Speechless are we?” Eleanor trilled, “I was too, when I was first brought here, it’s a slightly ridiculous concept, but doesn’t the plain ridiculousness make it all the more spectacular?”

I didn’t understand, and I said so.

“Well, it’s an underground cabaret, not really what you would call, you know, classy, and yet it is. One the classiest establishments in the whole of London I say,” she grinned, gesturing to the room about her.

“I still don’t get it, how?” There were two blocks of seats on this floor, and above us there was a balcony where a couple of dozen more people could perch and enjoy the show, and above even this there were boxes, maybe four, poking out of the walls. How this had been so elegantly crammed behind the dilapidated door I had found the will to open earlier in the evening was beyond me.

“Beats me,” Eleanor said, shrugging. She rested her hands on her hips and sighed, the kind of sigh that is not tired, but content, and gazed around her. I cast my own eyes once again upon the theatre, dragging them from the purple fabric on the chairs to the bright gold that cornered the boxes and the balcony. “I’ll tell you this though, there’s no reason for the charade other than a bit of fun. The kind of people that don’t know what this really is, who come for the kind of thing that the police think we have to offer, they’re turned away by the doorman, he tells them there’s nothing on, it’s closed.” Eleanor stifled a giggle behind a feather boa that she had pulled from somewhere.

I was speechless, though I hated being so, as I turned back to Eleanor, whose arms were now crossed. “Are we going to dance or what?” she asked, before running fast as she could in those shoes down the stage stairs to grab my hands and pull me after her. “I guarantee you, Miss Bauer, you will thank me always for this, you’ll love it love it love it.”

I raised my eyebrows to tease, as if to say will I, will I really? Eleanor began walking backwards, knees bent, clicking a steady beat, before disappearing behind the curtains.

The music started then, a simple piano tune, one that I could have played had I had ten minutes to learn it, and Eleanor reappeared, still clicking.

“You don’t know a thing about dancing if you think that two girls can’t dance together, Miss Bauer,” Eleanor said sweetly, “not the first thing.”

Suddenly, that simple piano was joined by a veritable orchestra. Eleanor jumped into a pose, arching her back, throwing one arm skywards and the other to her hip, and just as the music slowed for a few beats, the extended arm was dragged across her body to her other hip, and she lunged, pounced and popped in synch with the impossible tune. Each instrument seemed to be clambering for top spot, to be the loudest and the clearest as though there was a prize waiting for them at the end of the song.

Eleanor was in the swing of it now, and I longed for my heart to burn like hers, to dance until my limbs ached and my breath was quick, and so I did.

“No time like the present, Hannelore!” Eleanor shouted as I stalked towards her, the theatricality of it making me giddy, brushed her shoulder away and posed, dipping and diving and twisting, Eleanor occasionally rushing over to reposition me a little till she was satisfied.

Eleanor pulled a chair from behind the curtain and I stopped it dead as it skidded towards me. I sat down on it backwards, like father did sometimes, except I pouted and tucked my head towards my collarbone and threw it back, judging the rises and falls of the song as they came and went. As I did, the few slides in my hair, which must have been loosening for some time, slipped out and my sandy tresses rushed backwards, whipping my back.

As my eyes rose, I caught sight of a figure, looming in one of the highest boxes, staring down at us. I couldn’t decipher any features, only that he was tall and wearing dark clothes, dark enough for me to barely be able to discern the edges of him in the dim light beyond the stage.

I looked away but a second, to see if Eleanor had noticed the stranger; too tall to be the Frenchman, but she hadn’t, and next I looked, he was gone.

Paranoia. I wasn’t going to let it trap me in its sticky web. I ignored the spectre and threw my head back again, this time with sweat beading at my brow.

“You’re a natural!” Eleanor shouted above the clamour, and just as I turned around to say that really, I wasn’t, the curtains were tugged back, first revealing a dark man with bright white teeth playing the piano, then a whole band of men, smiling and dancing and playing.

Eleanor spun towards me, her short hair flying out at all angles. “I wanted to make your first time special,” she said, briefly touching my cheek with her fingertips before spinning away and engaging in some sort of crazy, dizzy Charleston with one of the saxophonists.

“You are something!” I shouted, rising from my seat and skidding it to the edge of the stage, “I’ll give you that!”

“Oh you are just too nice to me Miss Bauer,” she said, kicking a leg backwards as the saxophonist released a high pitched, out of tune note. The other men carried on playing, and it seemed that only I and the man whose saxophone was now limp against his thigh knew what was wrong. I stopped dancing and stared at the man as Eleanor jumped upon the piano, singing a song that I didn’t know for the man with the silky jet skin.

I shook my head minutely. This couldn’t happen. Not here, not now, not with all these people to turn against me if they knew. The man mouthed a single word, and his teeth were not bright and clean like the pianist’s, but yellow, crooked and disgusting.

Bauer.

All I could do was mouth please over and over as the rest of the band continued to play and stamp and dance and Eleanor continued to serenade the pianist, playing with the curls of her hair and the tassels of her dress.

Please.

Eleanor was looking up, glancing from the saxophonist to myself, her chin raising and her mouth opening to speak.

The saxophonist rushed forward to grab my hand, and I screamed as he didn’t drag me before his band mates to ridicule me as I thought he would, but spun me beneath his arm and slip his it behind my back to hold me close.

“We all have our hamartia,” he whispered, leering. His breath was moist against my neck. He smelled of whiskey and tobacco.

“Hamartia?” I questioned, as he spun me again, and I let him, the move flowing freely.

“Tragic flaw,” he said once close again, then spun me but this time let me go so I stumbled across the stage.

Honestly, I never imagined that my tragic flaw would be the country that my parents were born in. Angry and upset, I let my hair flip in front of my eyes to hide the angry tears welling as I walked up to the saxophonist and curled my fingers tightly around his tie, my knuckles turning white.

“And what might yours be?” I asked breathlessly, trying not to let the tears spill. The skin around the man’s neck folded and wrinkled as I pulled him closer. My lips pursed.

“Oh honey,” he sneered, “that would be telling.”

I gasped and let go of the man and he eyed me as he drew the instrument back to his lips and continued his song. I wanted to run my fingers through my hair, but knowing that Eleanor and the rest of the band would be able to see my tearstained cheeks, I allowed it to curtain my face as I pirouetted across the stage.

*

As soon as Eleanor and I exited the TopMan, coats and bags in hand, the last wisps of laughter from our conversation were taken with the breeze and we fell into stiff silence. I had never been fond of the dark, and now it seemed to stifle us as we exited the alleyway and entered the broad, open square. I looked towards Eleanor, hoping that some spark would help me to think of a conversation topic, but all I could see was her now ragged features, and the way that her eyes darted back and forth with impossible speed, searching every patch of darkness for what- Jonny?

Perhaps it was only the dancing and the theatre that made her less afraid, perhaps she wasn’t better after all.

As we trod back to my flat in silence, I couldn’t help but feel as though we were being followed, like the breath of a stranger was once again on my neck. A frightened shiver wracked my spine and I glanced behind us covertly, not wanting Eleanor to catch on to my suspicions.

A dark figure walked less than fifty yards behind, tall, hands tucked deep within his trouser pockets.

My breath caught and I turned back around, trying to convince myself that this didn’t mean anything. We had passed plenty of people already, it wasn’t too late. This man could be anyone, he could have a wife and children; he could be on his way home to a ruddy flat near my own.

And yet my head spun, my breath quickened.

Outside my door, Eleanor reached out and combed through my hair with her fingers.

“If we’re to be an act, you should probably cut this.”

“Oh- you really think so?” I asked. My hair may not have been golden, but I’d always thought its length to be one of my redeeming features.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, misconstruing my hesitation, “I know someone who would do it for half off if I asked. I’ll send you a letter soon, I can’t wait to dance with you again... Hannelore.” With that, she bestowed upon my cheek a quick kiss that made my ears rather hot and took a step back. That was goodbye and the matter about my hair, to her, was closed.

One hand curled firmly around a length of my hair, with the other I opened the door and waved a shy goodbye. A figure stood still in the background, and yet I shut the door on them both, a little hastily.

I rushed up the stairs, kicking off my shoes on the landing.

“Home for tea!” my mother cried, smiling at me as she stirred a pot of stew in the kitchen, “never thought I’d see the day.”

But I ignored her and made for her’s and father’s room, where I would have a clear view of the street. Eleanor was still standing out there, tapping her toes and looking about her, searching for something again. Her eyes, for the first time, snatched the man, who immediately began running towards her, arms outstretched, and my cry for her was silent as he crashed into her, arms wrapping round her like Jonny’s had done.

Eleanor was not fighting, and I had to open the window, wide as it went, and stretch out to see what was happening below. Her arms were around him too, but not in defence, but in embrace.

I closed the window. I couldn’t understand, Eleanor had a man, one that she wasn’t willing to let be known by me.

My throat clogged and I choked, tears prickling my eyes for some absurd reason, and my knees collapsed. I slid down the wall into a heap, sobbing into the arm of my mother’s coat. 

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