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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8. 8

The following Saturday, Eleanor took me to the movies, arriving at my door with in a burst of red. I couldn’t help but admire the way that she didn’t wrinkle her nose or stop herself from touching any of the furniture, which was faded with age and riddled with inseparable stains. In fact, she sat on the sofa with her hands politely crossed whilst I stumbled about my room, trying to find an appropriate hat. Of the two that I owned it was a surprisingly difficult choice, and in the end I settled for one of my mother’s.

Passing through the living room, I was mildly surprised to see Eleanor and my father speaking intently, with a tone that suggested that the topic was more intelligent that I would have expected of Eleanor. She turned and smiled at me briefly before turning back to father, and the word economy was mentioned.

I had to hand it to her, not many were brave enough to discuss the economy with my father.

In the other bedroom, mother was folding sheets, and she gestured for me to close the door behind me as I entered. I made a beeline for the wardrobe, scouring the upper shelf to find the white hat I was looking for among her small collection. Placing it gently upon my head, I curtsied for mother.

“What do you think?” I asked, but she seemed not to hear me. She had stopped folding clothes, and stood, stooped over the pile with her small hands impressing upon the laundered material. I sidled up close to her and pecked her on the cheek. She smiled at me, then glanced back at the door, a crease in her brow.

“Is that the girl?” she whispered. I raised my eyebrows so that she’d elaborate as I folded a pair of father’s trousers. “The one you’ve been dancing with, Hannelore.”

“The very same.”

“First night you spend with her and you cry like a kind,child. What did she do, darling, that made you so upset as I rarely see?”

“I was being silly, mutter,” I said, she liked it when I spoke in German, she said it made her feel closer to me. “It was nothing she had done.”

I smiled but turned away as the edges of my lips began to falter, to rummage through the wardrobe again even though I found what I had been looking for. “Look at me now though, I’m fine,” I said, turning back and kissing her nose, “I promise.”

Mother grabbed my hand as I stepped away and reached for the door handle, and spoke in rushed, frantic German.

Not long ago, some men came to our door and asked of a murder. Our door, Hannelore.  Tell me, please, does this girl have anything to do with it? Be truthful, do not lie for her.”

Mother had disconcerting way of picking up truths, and she only voiced them when she was as sure as she could ever get. I felt my eyes widen, my jaw drop.

Hannelore, you did not come home that night. Was it her… was it you?”

I could barely push the air out of my throat to say the single word, the only word that I could bring myself to say in this moment.

Nein.”

*

The cart trundled up to the cinema little more than twenty minutes later, and the bright bulbs around its signs made me squint as I clambered off while Eleanor paid the driver. The man wished us a delightful evening, and then slowly drove away into the summer air, stopping to pick up two men in tweed overcoats and matching flat caps as it went.

Eleanor turned towards me, beaming, and it was all I could do not to become as overexcited as I had been upon seeing a real Frenchman at the TopMan. She led me to one side of the building, where a large sign advertised the films that would be showing. We had missed La Bohème by almost an hour, and Eleanor reckoned that Dancing Mothers sounded ‘grown-up and boring’.

“We are grown up, if you ask me,” I said, but in the end we settled on The Great Gatsby, even though I wouldn’t have minded only seeing half of La Bohème, what with its beautiful French name. Once again, Eleanor paid the fee; two pennies, and the box office gentleman ensured us that it was a wonderful film and hoped that we would enjoy it as immensely as he did. I felt awfully taken care of.

“C’mon,” Eleanor said, guiding me through the foyer and into the theatre, which was lit only by a few dim lamps that cascaded down the walls.

“Have you been to the movies before, Hannelore?” she asked, and continued to speak even as I shook my head no, “oh you’ll love it, it’s all scandal and fashion and glamour, and I make sure to see a film every week, even if I’ve seen it before.” Yet again, there was no pause for thought as her sentences started running into each other, “have you read the book, Hannelore? I haven’t the time for reading myself, unless it’s magazines or a particularly good article in the newspaper.”

I tuned out Eleanor’s excitable nonsense as we chose our seats, and thought about how I hadn’t read Gatsby, though I could of if I really tried. Never having been formally educated, I could read and write only as well as my parents, with their limited time, could teach me. Enough to get by is what father called it, and mother, not being able to read nor write a complex sentence, said that it was more. I might have seen The Great Gatsby among father’s small collection of battered novels, he could read and write as well as any scholar as far as I’m concerned.

Gatsby must have been over an hour long, and halfway through I found myself thoroughly confused and stretching my legs beneath the seat in front of me, only trying my hardest to figure out all of the characters so that my mind might become filled and push away thoughts of my perceptive mother. Eleanor, for all her ooing and cooing over Warner Baxter, didn’t seem the least bit interested in the scenes that he wasn’t in, and was far more concerned during the Warner-less parts in a couple squabbling in the back of the theatre.

A man turned around and shushed them and Eleanor turned to me, delight evident on her face.

“You haven’t lived till you’ve seen someone get told off in the theatre. Yeah, you shush!” she shouted, to which she received an irate symphony of her own, which sent her giggling. Next thing, the couple were running out of the cinema, covering their hands with their mouths as they laughed. The glint of a hip flask splashed light into our row, and as the doors swung shut after them Eleanor rose a little from her seat as if meaning to join them.

“Let’s go,” she said, slipping the strap of her bag over her head and onto her shoulder, “the party scenes aren’t long enough anyway.”

So we became the second laughing couple to run out of the cinema, under the gaze of T.J Eckleburg.

*

“Where are we going?” I asked, once we were back onto the street. A group, about to pay for their tickets at the box office had just asked for Gatsby, and Eleanor raised her chin and slowly dragged her finger across her throat as she passed.

And so The Great Gatsby turned into “The Great Dancing Mothers, please.”

“Seriously, where are we going?” I asked, pulling to a stop. Eleanor nodded in the direction of a couple hurrying up the street. Silver glinted from the pocket of the man, and his arm was wrapped around the woman.

“They look like they’re having fun,” she said, but I was sceptical.

They are probably going back to their own flat. I doubt we should be following them.”

“The night is young, Hannelore! No way they’re going home at this time, this is the era of wonderful nonsense, let’s go and do something wonderful and ridiculous!”

“You mean nonsensical.” Eleanor winked at me before hurrying after the couple to keep them in her sights.

“No, silly!” she shouted back, “fun, bizarre, outlandish, exciting.”

*

It wasn’t much later that we realised we had lost the couple. Eleanor had been having such an animated discussion about how she had managed to fool my father into believing that she knew a thing or two about the economy (a magazine article had related the whole thing to shoes) that we hadn’t noticed them slip into a hall that was often booked for local dances.

Searching the doorway of every building for them, it wasn’t long till we found the hall and the fun we had been looking for. Eleanor would have taken me into that building whether the couple had gone in or not, because a dozen posters pasted on its front all had the words ‘Marathon Dancing – TONIGHT!’ slapped front and centre.

“What on earth is a marathon dance?” Eleanor asked as we joined the queue for tickets, and I was happy to be able to tell her about something, instead of the other way around.

“You’ll love it. Couples pay to dance for as long as they can, and the pair who can keep themselves dancing for the longest win a prize. Spectators can pop in and out for a farthing or two.”

“Do you think we could?” she asked, her eyes falling out of focus. I clicked my fingers in front of her.

“’Fraid not, these dancers can last for days without a break, plus,” I leaned in close to whisper in her ear, “they’re rigged half the time, but they’re fun to watch.”

Having a few coins on me, I insisted on paying the two farthings needed for entry. Inside, the room was buzzing, with dancers lined up on one side and spectators crowding on the other. ‘Come on, join in!’ a poster beckoned, ‘you could be the winner of one hundred pounds!’ Beneath this, there was a silhouette of two ballroom dancers, ensconced by a cloud of billowing white cash confetti.

A man strode to the centre of the dance floor carrying a black suitcase and a glittering microphone. Music began to play from behind him.

“Evening all! Now I’ve come all the way from the US of A to bring you this, the proudest tradition of the pretty girl and the guy that her daddy won’t let her have,” he said rapidly into the mic with a prominent American twang. “In case you didn’t know, here’s the info, including some rules: Contestants must dance for at least fourty-five minutes of every hour; that means picking up one foot then the other, folks. You’ll get plenty food and water to keep you good and strong, but one knee on that floor and bam!” The man’s heel kicked the ground, “yer out!

“You can try anything and everything to keep your partners up and dancing, tie them to you while they sleep, hang a mirror round their neck while you shave, heck- if you’ve got knitting needles with you then you could even make Sonny a hat while you jive!

“Spectators on this side, can I get a hey?”

The crowd roared and stamped and clapped.

“I said can I get a he-ey?”

We were wild, screaming and whistling. Eleanor looked like she was having a revelation, but also that someone had slapped her in the face as she was having it. She was the only silent one, stunned into it.

“The big question of the evening folks, is How Long Can They Last?”

Two young boys, one either end of a glittering banner, ran onto the empty space that had become a stage, unfurling the roll of fabric and stringing the ends to poles at the side so that the question was strung up for all to see.

“Now, don’t forget that this ain’t just dancin’, this is a test of endurance far less humdrum than sittin’ top a flagpole while your behind gets numb. Plus, there’s less chance of getting’ blown away!”

“Ain’t been in Britain long ‘ave yah?” shouted a man from somewhere behind, to raucous laughter.

“I’ll give you that sir, no doubt, but ‘nless this here roof comes off, we’re safe and sound!” The man turned around to the judges, who had finished pinning up the last of the contestants with paper numbers.

“Wanna bet who the professionals are?” I asked, eyeing a man with particularly wide shoulders and his partner, who stood with the posture of a ballet dancer.

“Professionals?”

“Oh yeah, that’s how they rig it. The professionals work for the guys who run it, and when they win the money just goes straight back. All profit.”

“No-”

“Oh yeah. I heard from Shannon at Peterson’s place that last year, somewhere up north, one of those professional couples when they won took the money and bolted on the spot, right in front of the crowd. Course, the judges couldn’t do nothing about it, what with not wanting the whole town to know that they’d set the whole thing up.”

“Are they always rigged? Don’t people know?”

“Course people know! They still reckon they can win though, if they try hard enough and have the luck of being one that’s not rigged, cause they aren’t always, it’s all chance. Some people really need that money. Most are just in for the thrill though, I get it.”

“Ever tried?”

I snorted, but had no time to reply as the couples lined up in the middle of the hall.

“They’re start- bloody hell, that’s Gloria! Gloria!” I shouted. Gloria looked at me, and I waved until she found my face, but as soon as she did she grimaced and suddenly had eyes only for her partner, a tall, wiry man with a wide smile and floppy chestnut hair. His thumbs tugged at the cords of his braces as he kissed Gloria’s forehead.

“Who’s that?” Eleanor asked, as the American man started working his way down the row of people so that they could say their names loud and clear in the microphone. Each couple had a cluster of friends and family willing to cheer, and when he reached Gloria a kept my mouth firmly shut.

“An old friend.”

Eleanor sussed my meaning and folded her arms, glaring stonily at Gloria until she cared to look back at us. Her stunned reaction to Eleanor was so funny that we had to bend our heads into each other’s shoulders as we shook with laughter.

The man with the microphone shook his left sleeve up and checked his watch, then looked towards the spectators, raising one thick black eyebrow and tapping the face of his timepiece. The dancers were almost a single living entity, tapping and quaking and fidgeting as a whole. The pair that I had thought to be the professionals were the only calm ones, and it was only when the petite woman rose up onto her toes to whisper in her partner’s ear that they both began to shuffle and drop their gazes now and then.

“You see that?” I asked Eleanor, nudging her, but she didn’t notice and continued to stare forwards, at Gloria. Gloria had her partner’s wrist clamped with a vice-like grip, and though she smiled up at him, the thin film of perspiration on her neck shone like a beacon of her nerves.

The Microphone Man strode back towards the centre of the hall, peering again at his watch, this time somewhat more theatrically, and biting his lip. Tucking the mic in his back pocket, he ducked his head and lifted his arms as if in surrender. The realisation that The Microphone Man’s fingers were splayed, all ten, struck us simultaneously, and we all shouted, pumping our fists into the air as we did.

“Ten!”

One finger down.

“Nine!”

Second finger.

“Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two!”

The music got louder and faster and the women were spun across the dance floor, skirts sent flying in an orbit around their hips. The men trotted towards them, grinning as they tipped their hats and took a firm hold of their partner.

“They’re always like this for the first half hour or so,” I explained, leaning closer to Eleanor, “but after that they’re pretty much struggling to hold each other up. They hold on close and just walk across the floor together. That’s why it’s best to come on the opening night, after that it’s a bit dull.”

“Mm,” Eleanor muttered, she was staring again at Gloria, whose skin was positively radiant with all of the energy and attention she had. Her dress was a little tatty and faded, but so was everyone’s. Dance Marathon’s weren’t meant to attract the rich population, in fact, most steered well clear of the wealthier areas, who had a habit of condemning them.

My gaze drifted over to Eleanor every once in a while, as her stare had become distant. I worried that she was missing the most enjoyable part of the marathon. Then I noticed it. The change in her face was instant, the way that it went instantaneously from vacant to resolute, I knew that she was planning something, plotting. Her lips split into a wide smile and she turned to me, laughing almost.

“What did Gloria do to you?”

“She- why?”

“Curiosity. Go on.”

“She- well, the day I met you, I ran into the café she works in and she chucked me right out. Said her boss wouldn’t like my being in there because, well, you know.”

The music rose, the dancers moved faster.

“Sounds like a total-”

“Whatever you’re thinking, I agree. She’s my oldest friend, and now it’s like she wishes I was never in her life, because she’s old enough now to understand the-” I couldn’t finish my sentence, I was too worked up, too angry. The words I could have said consumed my thoughts; prejudice, bigotry, discrimination… the list went on.

Eleanor laughed even louder and the dancers danced faster, “watch this,” she said, and licked her lips.

Gloria was performing and elegant pirouette that ended in a graceful leap. As she bent to jump, Eleanor slipped the shoulder off of her jacket, revealing a bright red arm, instantly catching her partner’s eye. As soon as she had, she winked, leaving her mouth open in that beautiful, wide smile.

The floppy haired man stumbled and didn’t stretch his arms out far enough to be able to catch Gloria, who fell to the floor with an almighty thud.

A smatter of sympathetic oof’s, aw’s and ouches emanated from the crowd, and Gloria screamed, her face turning a mottled puce as she picked herself up and shoved her partner’s chest, beating him all over with her tiny fists until the Microphone Man came to escort her off. Her partner stood looking fairly dumbstruck as she was taken away, grinning lopsidedly at Eleanor.

“How the hell?” I asked, my eyes tracking Gloria as she wrestled out of the Mic Man’s grip and stalked out of the hall, her hair unpinned and wild, fists clenched.

Eleanor shrugged, not peeling her eyes from the man, who was walking himself off the dancing area, holding her gaze.

“What can I say?” she said, “It’s a gift.”

The next twenty minutes, as the dancers grew more and more tired, held my attention firmly until the Mic Man waltzed up again, intercepting dances here and there to spin women under his arm or cha cha beside them.

“That’s half an hour folks, half an hour gone! One unfortunate couple didn’t make it, but luckily, for the rest of you it’s all to play for!”

I turned to Eleanor to ask her if she thought, too, that it was about time we left, but she was nowhere in sight. Though I looked for her, circling the hall perhaps half a dozen times, I knew before I started roaming that she had left with the floppy-haired man. I imagined them, running out hand in hand, almost like we had, beneath T.J Eckleburg, and felt helpless and spent.

Rummaging through my purse in desperation I found two extra pennies that Eleanor must have slipped in there for me to be able to get home. I held them tight in my fists as I left the hall, lips pursed.

A lonely figure sat on the top step, head in hands, and I went and sat next to her, as there were no cabs or carts around for me to hail.

“Long night,” I said to my mystery companion.

“You don’t know the half of it,” she said, and as she looked up I recognised Gloria’s tearstained face, puffy under the eyes as if she’d had a mild allergic reaction.

“That girl you were with ran off with my boyfriend. You probably didn’t notice, but she also ruined the only chance I had of putting food on my kid’s plate for the next year,” she said, and spat on the path in disgust.

“Kid?” I whispered, a little disgusted too. A sickness was welling in my stomach.

“I would have told you but,” she shrugged, “never found the right moment I guess.”

I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed, I knew that there had been periods of time where I just hadn’t seen her, but I didn’t think they’d been that long.

“How old?”

“Almost two.” Fresh tears leaked from her eyes and she pressed her face into the sleeve of her cardigan, her next words were muffled, “I can’t even feed my own child.”

I wrapped an arm around her, forgetting the way that we had drifted apart. “Who’s the father, can’t he help you out?”

Gloria’s slim body rattled with tears anew, and she shook her head, “you would think horribly of me.”

“No, no I wouldn’t.”

Gloria raised her head and stared at me as though fascinated, her eyes glistening. Then she shook her head and smiled.

“You’re wonderful,” she said, “I hope you know that.”

I wrapped my other arm around her and hugged her tight. We were there for a while, sat on that step, watching the world go by.

She never told me who the father was.

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