The Last Dance
by Will Gray
There she was, the girl of my dreams, standing with another girl. They were well dressed. In fact, they were so well dressed, I had it in my mind they were a couple of ENSA show girls calling into the dance hall to view the local talent. The amount of interest from the members of the RAF, who were practically groveling at their feet, left little doubt the girls were good-looking.
For some reason, they had little or no interest in being chaperoned by the RAF. Later, a soldier who had the same lapel badges as mine approached the girl I was interested in. He must have asked her to dance with him. For some reason — maybe it was just a ruse to get rid of a drooling RAF sergeant — she accepted.
From what I could see, she was a very good dancer. Not the best I had seen but she would do for me. In fact, the soldier was not so bad, either, but one could hardly give a good opinion because they had only taken two spins around the floor when the dance ended.
I was just nineteen years old and had just been transferred to this regiment. My regiment and many others had been sent to Yorkshire where, it was said, we would be training around the Yorkshire Wolds.
At that time, I was realizing that every day was a day nearer to the time when the regiment would either be sent to the Middle East or be part of the army that would enter France to engage the might of the German army. I was later told that we were here in Yorkshire to rehearse the tactical maneuvers needed to land so many hundreds of thousands of men on the shores of France.
It was such a lovely posting that, since I was going to be stationed in and around this seaside resort, I decided I would enjoy myself. One never knew what the future would hold. I wasn’t a drinker, nor did I smoke, and my pittance of an army allowance was just sufficient to enable me to go to the local dances and occasionally have a tea and a bun at the local NAAFI.
There was one thing for sure: if you were a soldier, you were going to be ordered around from pillar to post by a snotty-nosed lieutenant or an overzealous sergeant. I was in the army now, so I declared to myself that I would submit to all their demands and, at the same time, enjoy my leisure after I had taken the discipline meted out to me during the day.
I liked dancing and, before my enlistment in the forces, I had been attending dancing classes for a couple of years and become a pretty good dancer.
I am a North Country man and had been employed in a furniture shop as a French polisher. Working in the office at the firm were a couple of good lady dancers and, twice a week, I accompanied them to the Oxford Galleries, a dance hall in Newcastle. From them I learned the steps of many of the old-time dances. With that experience behind me, I could dance in most halls around the country and was able to step it out with the locals.
Since leaving school, I had a penchant for liking girls. The two lovely women I was looking at now fitted that bill. Although both beautiful, one of them was more pleasing to my eye. I was quite tall with a full head of wavy hair. I had been told by my sister that I was considered to be quite “dishy” by some of her friends. So I never had any problems in the conquest of the opposite sex.
Since I was on my own, I decided I needed some company. I wanted to meet that girl because I liked what I could see. Actually, I was quite a shy person when it came to meeting girls I didn’t know. It was different at home. Most of the girls I knew had grown up with me.
As I spoke, she looked at me, a little stiffly, I thought. Maybe it was that I was so polite. I think she had refused so many, she didn’t have the heart to refuse me. As soon as I took her in my arms, I could tell she was either a trained dancer or a good amateur.
It was only a modern waltz and, as we spun around, I could see the smile of delight on her face. It appeared that she had found someone who could dance, and that was just how I felt. At the conclusion, I was about to walk away when she grabbed my hand and said, “Don’t you dare leave me.”
I never asked her name and, when the next dance was announced, there was no need for me to ask her to dance. It was a ‘Royal Empress Tango.’ This was a lovely old-time dance with a lot of style and a variation of steps. Well, we had plenty of style and we knew the steps so we had more than plenty to give it. Moving in sinuous unison, she appeared to relish every movement. It made me think that this was the woman for me. She asked, “Where did you learn to dance like that? You dance like a professional.”
“I suppose I could ask you the same question. You are brilliant.” I could see her face blushing at the compliment.
“Look, my name’s Stella and my friend’s name is Betty. We are local girls and, up to last week, we were members of a dance troop that was disbanded because of the war. To tell you the truth, this is the first time we have been out dancing since we came home.”
“That’s funny, because this is the first time I’ve been here. The Regiment arrived only yesterday. What a lovely little town! We’re tank men and not used to being billeted in houses instead of tents or barracks. It’s great.”
“It’s about time this sleepy old town came to life,” Betty chimed in.
I asked, “When is the next dance going to be held? Because I would like to see you again.”
“We both work in the best clothes shop in town, so we have every night off. There is a smaller dance hall called the Pavilion and it’s open every night, I think. This one is only open on Saturday nights.”
“Great! I’ll be there, providing I’m not on guard or on duty elsewhere.” I paused and it was announced, ‘A quickstep.’
Betty had looked a trifle crestfallen because she had not found anyone to suit her. I looked at Stella and, since they were good friends, I asked Betty to dance. Stella smiled her approval and went to sit down where she was immediately pounced on by a regimental colleague.
Betty was just as brilliant on the dance floor as Stella was. We floated around like a couple of professionals and, to my surprise, when I introduced her to the running steps they were no problem to her. Although she was a good dancer, I detected that she had a tendency to try and take the lead. Good naturedly, I pointed this out to her as we walked from the floor. She smiled and replied, “It’s because me and Stella have danced a lot together and I always took the lead.”
The dances in the town never lasted much after 10:30 pm and, after the last waltz, I asked to take Stella home. I was refused and told that she and Betty always went home together.
That didn’t worry me; I had to be up early to take a tank to the workshops and would be away for two days. I think I had been given the job because I was a new boy to the regiment. To my sorrow, I was away for seven days, stuck in some workshop.
During that time, I began to wonder if Stella had thought that I had given her the elbow and had found another girl to dance with. On my return Stella and her friend were not there that night. However, there was always another pretty girl around the corner and I found her. She was not as good a dancer as Stella but just as pretty. She was only available at certain periods because she worked away on war duties. However I always made it a point to dance with her whenever I could.
* * *
As the months went by, I saw Stella again and got to know her very well. We were in such close contact so many times, to be honest, I was beginning to fall in love with her. I used to take her and Betty home regularly and, after some time, I enlisted the help of my friend who would commandeer Betty at the dances. He, in fact, was feeling the same about Betty as I was about Stella. We spoke often of their attitudes after we had accompanied them home.
My friend was a radio operator in another troop. Nonetheless, we had become good friends and went about together.
“What do you think, Bill?”
“What do you mean?”
“Stella and Betty, do you think they are having us on?”
Eric was a bit a comic. He just laughed. He didn’t take things as seriously as I did. “They’re the marrying kind. Somehow I don’t think we’re good enough for them and they’re using us to keep off others who may have designs on them. I’m not bothered. I have a young lady at home who wants me.”
“Well I haven’t, and I have no thoughts about going back to my home town. There’s nothing there for me.”
How time had flown! The both of us had survived two years as chaperones and dancing partners to Stella and Betty. Now it was the night before the regiment was leaving to move down south for the imminent D-Day landings.
“Stella, if I survive the invasion would you wait for me? You know I am very much in love with you.”
“I know you love me. You have been very patient with me. I have become very fond of you and I am sure I love you. If you want me to wait, I will. I have not tried to love you because being in love with a soldier going to war is very risky. What if you get killed?”
“That’s the risk of every soldier who’s in the front line, and that’s where I will be.”
“I know, but I suppose I must take that chance. Why aren’t you like Eric? He’s made no commitments to Betty.”
“I love you, not Betty. And I have to leave in fifteen minutes and this is the last dance I will have with you until.. and you know what that means.”
She gasped. “Oh!”
This was the last dance. We danced the last waltz and, with a tender parting kiss on the cheek, I left. I had to get back to my billet to collect my gear and get on parade for twelve o’clock that night.
And who do you think was waiting to see me leave? Stella? No, my “stand-by” girl, to whom I had given little thought, a local girl who had been sent away to work by the War Office. I used to meet her on Saturday nights — before Stella. Now after seeing my “stand-by girl,” I began to ask myself: is it worth it to wait and see if Stella waits for me? I had my doubts.
During my years away, the only letters I received were from my “stand-by girl.” Yes, on my return, we were married.
Over the years, I have returned to the seaside resort where I was stationed for two years. I have seen Stella. Yes, she was in love with me, but certain things at her home had prevented her from contacting me. What they were, she never told me. During this last month, I met her and her husband. She kissed me and whispered, “I still love you.”
Copyright © 2009 by Will Gray