Freedom tastes like sponge cake: light, rare, and oh so delicious. The evening air kisses my cheeks as I stroll down the street, safe with the knowledge that tonight, finally, will be different; a break in the routine that threatens its relentless onwards march to drain an entire generation of life before their time has even truly begun.
As the bulky outline of the tram stop comes into focus ahead, it strikes me just how peculiar an event war really is. To turn the ordinary into the extraordinary is quite a feat, yet overnight war does exactly that: food shopping requires meticulous planning thanks to rationing; extra space must be found in the schoolbag for the in-case-of-emergencies gas mask; much to the frustration of myself and my cooped-up friends, leaving the house on an evening for anything other than an air-raid becomes unthinkable. But tonight is different; tonight I am free; tonight I plan to dance dance dance until my feet beg for relief.
“Hello,” Mollie smiles, “are you ready?”
I nod, returning her grin but not the question: the excitement shining through her clear blue eyes is indicator enough that she has been waiting for this night just as eagerly as I have. Her enthusiasm is infectious, though, as we soon begin gossiping like giggling schoolgirls:
“Do you think the dance hall will have changed much? It’s been ages since I was last there…a month, perhaps.”
“I’m not sure…I think Lydia said that Elizabeth Mitchell and James Stone were going to be there tonight, wouldn’t that be fantastic!”
“Oh, I wish I could dance half as beautifully as Elizabeth…she’s just so graceful…”
The tram rattles to a grim and clanking halt before us, drowning out any further conversation. We pay the conductor before filing past rows of sparsely occupied seats towards the back. A shiver creeps down my spine as I register the furrowed brows and preoccupied expressions of the few people seated, whose thoughts clearly mirror those of my mother: only the mad and downright foolish venture from their homes in what have become known as the ‘air raid hours’. Just for a moment, I consider turning back, demanding to be excused from the tram and racing back down the street to the relative safety of home: my parents, my siblings and our haphazard yet thus far reliable Anderson shelter – just in case. But then that dull sense of the familiar sets in – safety, yes, but also a suffocating monotony that so often these days threatens to envelop and swallow me whole. No. I have yearned for this one night of release, finally wrangled the permission of my reluctant yet conceding parents…I refuse to allow a moment of hesitation to ruin this.
The tram pulls off as we settle ourselves, trundling past a host of familiar landmarks: to the left, the red-brick primary school where Mollie and I spent our early years; on the outskirts of town, the spitfire and tank factories now heaving with the constant effort of wartime production; on the usually bustling Main Street, the small but precious library where I work as a receptionist. Balsall Heath Library, a haven amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I must confess that, unlike Mollie, who has grown to detest working as a domestic cleaner, I adore my job. Sorting books, breathing life into their often tired and dusty pages…one year of employment there has passed faster than I could have predicted.
The gentle squeeze of Mollie’s hand pulls me from my reverie: as we descend from the tram, my eager ears detect the spangled song of the foxtrot, a saxophone playing out its sweet melody. We rush across the street and into the welcoming arms of the YWCA, the white-washed walls of which comfortingly show no signs of change in the weeks since our last visit. In the dressing room, a hasty change of shoes into dance slippers and we are ready, anticipation fluttering in our stomachs like the wings of a startled butterfly.
“Come on!” Mollie urges as the music dapples out into a softer, smoother rhythm, “the waltz is my favourite!”
We file out into the spacious dance hall, the clacking of our shoes against the polished wooden floorboards drowning in the sea of a hundred other footsteps. Two lines have formed at opposite sides of the room: boys on the left, girls to the right. Recognising several old school friends, Mollie and I squeeze into the girls’ group, glancing around as the music picks up its pace to see who will be the first to break ranks and begin the pairing up process.
“It’s Elizabeth Mitchell!” hisses a voice by my side.
“And look, there’s James Stone!”
Sure enough, my gaze flickers upwards and locks onto the swishing yellow skirts and flying flame-red ringlets of Elizabeth Mitchell, whose electric energy and superb skill easily earn her the reputation of Balsall Heath’s greatest dancer. Not for the first time, a whoosh of envy fills my chest as I watch her meet her partner before the two melt off into a perfect waltz, seemingly oblivious to the many pairs of eyes following their graceful swirls across the dance floor. As always, they begin a domino effect: up and down the dance hall, brave boys sidle up to coquettish girls, until the floor is soon a myriad of coloured dresses interspersed with block black suits, united in the identical movements of a wonderful waltz. Until I see her rising and falling beside me, rotating in the arms of a boy, I had not registered Mollie’s absence; a smile plays at my lips as I recognise her clear elation.
Just as I turn away, rouged cheeks glowing with the embarrassment of being without a partner, a soft hand closes around my wrist:
“Excuse me, Miss, but may I have this dance?”
I gasp as I take in the dark eyes, the shock of sandy brown hair and lightly freckled face of the boy standing before me.
“Joseph Browning! Why, I haven’t seen you since…”
“Mrs Hemmel’s English class, two years ago,” he interrupts, a playful grin igniting his soft features. “Lily Heslop…how have you been?”
“I thought they’d called you up?”
A slight shadow passes across his face.
“I’m not yet old enough – 18 in three months time. I’ve been working though, everyday down at the docks. It’s quite a hike to get there, but anything I can do to help the war effort…” he trails off, embarrassment much stronger than my own clear in his downcast gaze. I smile, laying an encouraging hand on his arm.
“I think working on the docks is extremely important, especially at times like these. Come on – let’s dance.”
We twirl into the tornado of spinning couples; a wink from Mollie as we pass her and a boy I now recognise as George Norburry, a young railway worker whose fascination with the steam engines often sees him frequent the library, scouring the shelves for information on the latest models. With his tall, wiry frame placing him a good head above Mollie’s petite figure, the two make a perfect pair, he guiding her seamlessly through the whispered webs of the waltz and then, as the music becomes swiftly more upbeat, through the fast-paced jumps of the jive.
Hearts pounding and breathless, Joseph and I choose to sit out the quickstep as its dizzying beat floods the dance hall. As he joins the drinks queue, I take a seat, allowing my thoughts to wander back to my moment of hesitation on the tram: how glad I am that I did not allow a second’s weakness to ruin what has turned into a fantastic night! Glancing around, I see that this feeling of escapist happiness is mutual: not a single frown lines the faces of any of the hundred or so dancers present. It is almost as if, for but a few hours, we can fool ourselves into believing that outside in the blackened streets and star-scattered skies, war is not raging: here in this dance hall, we are living purely for the moment.
The rest of the night passes in a heady blur of ecstasy: we waltz, jive and jitterbug until our aching feet can take no more. As the final strains of Glen Miller fade out, and couples begin to peel away from the hall and out into the still spring night, Mollie and I make for the dressing room, chattering and giggling in reflection of a fabulous evening.
It is not until we are exchanging our shoes that it becomes clear that something is wrong. Very wrong. Exchanges of laughter and leisurely exits from the dance hall have morphed into urgent shouts and hurried footsteps; a booming blast shakes the ground; a relentless scream shatters the night. All illusions of a peaceful normality forgotten, Mollie and I clasp hands and join the crowd jostling out onto the stone steps; Joseph grasps my arm just as we reach the door.
“It’s the tank factory on Grainger Street – went up in flames about five minutes ago.”
Sure enough, beyond the concrete pillars framing the doorway, thick billows of acrid smoke are visible from five miles away, its black arms coiling into terrible turrets that slash at the burning night sky. Eyes transfixed by this terrible sight and ears pounding from the ongoing shriek of the air raid siren, it takes seconds before I notice that Mollie’s hand has slipped from my grip. I turn, panicked, to find her curled on the floor, George’s pale face inches from hers as he attempts to help her to her feet. I grab her free arm and together we pull: she hobbles upwards, pain clear in her expression as she bites down on her lip.
“Are you okay?” I call, straining to be heard over the siren’s screeching blare and flustered stampede that surrounds us. Somewhere in the commotion, I register that Joseph’s hand is still gripped around my wrist. She nods bravely.
“C’mon, let’s get out of here – if we’re lucky the last tram may still be running.”
(To be continued)