When Skies Have Fallen
Chapter One: January, 1944
Although the winter had been milder than usual, for a couple of weeks now the temperature had rarely exceeded ten degrees, and several inches of compact snow made for treacherous excursions. Yet the good people of Buckinghamshire refused to be beaten by the cold spell, and the Palais Dance Hall was as crowded as ever, with not one man in civvies. Many of the women were also in uniform, creating the illusion of a dull sea of blue, green and tan upon which floated the vibrant lemon, rose and turquoise hues of the few girls old enough to go dancing, yet too young for service.
From the standing area at one end of the hall, Corporal Robert Thomas Clarke—Arty to those who knew him—and his fellow RAF servicemen watched the swirling couples ebb and flow in their gentle waltz to the air of the three-piece band onstage. A brazen young woman in flimsy crimson, lips painted to match, spun close, granting the men a flash of stocking-top; some whistled their appreciation, but Arty's attention was elsewhere.
"The WO looks like he's got sticks up his trouser legs," Leading Aircraftman Charlie Tomkins remarked to the group at large and they all laughed in agreement. Arty shook himself out of his daze and turned to see their warrant officer and his dance partner pass by, both of them so stiff it was a wonder they were able to move at all. Most of the couples danced without sophistication, although perhaps with a greater sense of rhythm and more freedom to their movement.
The WO and his girl waltzed out of sight and the men returned to their conversations—except Arty, who scanned the dance floor, looking for the American airman he had been watching for most of the evening. The American was broad-shouldered and handsome, with his well-fitting, brown serge tunic and thick, blonde hair, his angular features softened by the relaxed, crooked smile he had offered to the young woman he'd been leading in the waltz. He had moved with such elegance that Arty could have watched him dance forever. Alas now he was nowhere in sight, so Arty settled for watching everyone else. He found it a truly moving experience, almost as wonderful as when he was dancing himself.
"Are you getting out there this evening, Art?" Charlie asked.
"Maybe." Arty kept his focus on the dancers. "If I had someone to dance with."
Charlie acknowledged Arty's words with a nod. He scanned the settees, where those women who were not dancing were seated with their friends, waiting for someone to make the offer. Some didn't bother to wait and instead danced with each other, taking turns to lead, but how it usually worked was the man would politely approach the woman—may I have this dance?—and with outstretched arm she would politely accept and allow him to lead her in the next dance.
"Shan't be long," Charlie said. Before Arty had a chance to respond, Charlie was edging his way around the dance floor towards a slender woman in WAAF uniform: a sergeant. Arty watched the two interact, with Charlie wearing his winning smile, which rarely failed to woo the women he dazzled with it. He pointed Arty's way; the WAAF sergeant glanced over and Arty's cheeks warmed. He loved dancing, and he was very accomplished, but when it came to asking he was terribly shy. His friends—Charlie in particular—always insisted on finding a graceful young woman to be the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. Once he was on the dance floor he'd forget about all those eyes on him, and that they were at war, and how unmoved he was by the closeness of the woman in his arms.
After a couple of minutes spent chatting with the WAAF sergeant, Charlie beckoned for Arty to go over; he quickly smoothed his uniform and set off, attempting a confident stride.
"This is Sergeant Jean McDowell," Charlie introduced. Arty offered her a smile and she blinked up at him with big brown eyes, her tiny pink mouth forming a tiny smile. Charlie raised his hands in a flourish to signal that he was handing over, and departed, leaving the two of them to become acquainted.
"I'm Arty. Would you care for this dance?"
Jean nodded swiftly and with assertiveness matching the three stripes on her arm, but at odds with her seemingly meek demeanour, she took Arty's hand and led him onto the dance floor. They found a space in the middle of the room, and the music did the rest. In an instant all of Arty's fears diminished, his right arm confidently found Jean's waist and, with her right hand in his left, they stepped off together, joining the throng in their swaying, flowing waltz.
At first, they made small, tentative steps, waiting for openings so they could move around, but then other people started to pay attention and moved out of their way. Arty became bolder and spun Jean, whose skirt should have restricted such graceful kicks yet did not. They danced as if they had been dancing together for many years, matching each other's stride, anticipating next steps and never losing time. By then, the floor had cleared, leaving Arty and Jean to do just as they pleased. They pivoted and spun, hesitated and reversed—they had extraordinary grace. Jean was as natural as Arty, her feminine curves complementing his strong, lithe physique.
The waltz came to an end and many of those around them applauded. Arty grinned, glancing down at Jean to find that she was grinning too. After a count of four a quickstep began, and Arty saw, over Jean's shoulder, the American airman, standing with two others, his head cocked to one side to better hear his associate. Arty and Jean danced on, the rest now joining them. On each spin where Arty found he was facing that direction, he'd glimpse the American, uncertain if he was imagining the fleeting seconds when their eyes met before other dancers blocked his view.
Following the quickstep, the band leader gave an even quicker count of four, and the three Americans were immediately surrounded by girls, clamouring to be their partners for the jitterbug. Arty and Jean stayed where they were, soon picking up their pace. Arty swung around and pushed Jean away from him, keeping a tight grip on her hand as she spun and sprung back. They slipped and they slid into chassis and spins, for the most part unaware of the rest of the dancers. Aside from a certain American airman, no one else stood a chance of keeping up with them, although by the end of their jive they, like most, were in need of a breather. The music stopped, and Jean looked up to Arty, her lips spread in a wide smile, her breaths puffing against his chin and neck.
"I need fresh air," she told him. He tilted his head towards the balcony, and Jean nodded in agreement. Some of the other dancers voiced disappointment at their departing stars, who paused to bashfully bow and curtsey before dashing hand-in-hand, up the stairs, along the balcony and out onto the dark terrace, to the far end where there were fewer people. They stopped and leaned on the iron railing, exhilarated and breathless, and for the moment appreciating the cold air on their clammy skin.
"You're quite a dancer," Arty complimented Jean sincerely.
"Thank you for saying so. As are you." It was the first time Arty had properly heard Jean talk and she was very well-spoken, almost aristocratic. "Who taught you, Arty?" she asked.
"To dance? My aunt—my mother's sister, that is."
"You attended a dance school, surely?"
"No. Did you?"
"Yes." Jean traced her fingers along the railing. "Dancing, deportment and elocution. I hated it when I was a gal, though I'm glad now. When the war is over, I'm going to open a dance school. I'm on the lookout for a dance partner so I can enter competitions and make a name for myself." She laughed as she pondered a thought before adding, "I don't think that's quite what my mother has in mind. She wants her only daughter to marry into high society, but I have no interest in finding a husband." She turned to face Arty, although it was too dark for each to make out the other's features. "Have you ever considered dancing in competitions?"
It would have been far less of a surprise had she asked Arty if he were hoping to find a wife, because it seemed a more pertinent consideration. How could one afford the frivolity of dance in wartime?
"I've never given it any thought," he answered, and it was the truth, though he'd considered the other at length, and realised with some misgivings that he, likewise, would be expected to marry at some point in time.
"Would you consider it?" Jean asked. "Dancing with me, I mean?"
Arty scratched his ear, delaying his response. "After the war?"
"No. I've just transferred from Gaskell to Minton. I'm taking over the wages office for both bases."
Jean paused meaningfully, but Arty wasn't sure why. He could see her in profile now, against the clear night sky, her breath creating a transient cloud. She shivered, and in his mind he formed the suggestion that they return inside, but that was not what left his mouth. "If you were to find a husband, I imagine he would not take kindly to you dancing with another man."
"You're right, of course," Jean agreed, "and if you're trying to let me down gently…"
"Well, you are very beautiful, Jean. I just don't think war is a good reason for rushing into marriage, that's all."
Jean laughed, but not to mock. "Arty, this is not a flirtation. You are absolutely right. One should wait for the right person, and if that person never appears, then what of it? I am content the way I am. I'm not looking for a husband, just a man who can dance. So what do you say?"
Arty delayed a few seconds longer and then nodded. "Yes. I would very much like that."
Buy When Skies Have Fallen