Cec had learned to dance before he’d gone to war. There’d been a girl on his street, Imogen, who’d insisted that he accompany her to every hotel ballroom waltz and church fete with a phonograph, practically from childhood. It had to be him, she’d said, because no other boy she knew was tall enough for her not to look like a giant beside them.
He’d been sure that he was too tall; he never seemed to know what to do with his broad shoulders and lanky limbs, other than get in people’s way. The first time Imogen had dragged him out onto a dancefloor, he’d been sure it was going to end in disaster.Instead, for the first time in his life, Cec had felt graceful instead of gangly. He hadn’t felt like he’d taken up too much space, or like he’d have been better off standing on the sidelines. All he’d had to do was take Imogen’s hand, let the music carry him along, and it was like he was flying.
His mum and hers had smiled knowingly and winked at each other in church, but there’d never been anything except dancing between Imogen and him. Once, breathless and exhilarated after a foxtrot, feeling impossibly fond of her, he’d tried to kiss her, and she’d laughed right in his face.
“Not a chance, Cec,” she’d chuckled, ducking out of his clumsy embrace. There was a charitable sort of kindness in her eyes when she said, “I’m not that sort of girl, you know that. And I don’t think you’re really that sort of fella.”
“What sort of fella am I, then?” he asked. He knew the answer to that, but his heart raced to think that someone else could tell. But if anyone would know, it would be Imogen, with her sharp eyes and brilliant mind, who he as close to loved as he had any girl.
She’d smirked, and patted him on the cheek. “Just about my favorite sort of fella, really; the kind who never tries to look down my dress.”
It was euphemistic, but there was no need to be obvious when they both knew just what she meant. Cec had swallowed hard against the lump of anxiety in his throat, & reminded himself that if anyone understood, she would, though she was coming at it from the opposite direction.
“Y’know,” she’d said, nudging his shoulder, “I hear that Billy Owens bloke who lives over on Elwood Street, he might be—”
“What, that scrawny bloke with the little mustache?” He’d laughed, then, forcing his posture to relax and his voice to stay light. “Thanks, Im, but can’t say I think much of your matchmaking.”
“Well, men aren’t my expertise, are they?”
Then the band had struck up a tango, and she’d pulled him back out to the floor, the attempted kiss forgotten forever. Neither of them had known the steps, exactly, but half the fun was in learning them together.
Just a few weeks after that, they’d both shipped off to serve king and country; him as a soldier, and her as a nurse. It never seemed fair that, of the two of them, she was the one who never came home.
He got the news from his mum, while they were in Egypt. He didn’t cry, because he’d been at war for a year already, and if he started crying then he wasn’t sure when he’d ever be able to stop. So he just folded the letter back along its precise creases, and sat staring into the campire, thinking about music, and sharp eyes, and someone who’d understood him.
Ronnie and Thommo were busy arguing about a footie match from years before, which neither of them had seen and both claimed to remember perfectly. Bert, though, noticed Cec’s silence. Cec was often silent, always had been, but Bert was good at catching what his quiet meant. It had caught Cec off-guard frequently, in the months since they’d met at Gallipoli. He wasn’t used to people noticing him, really, and Bert’s attention made him feel all wrong-footed.
“Bad news, Cec?” Bert asked, around the roll-up between his lips. He looked down at the letter in Cec’s hand, knowingly.
“Girl I knew.” Cec blinked smoke out of his eyes. “Died in France, my mum says.”
He’d said it low, but it still caught the attention of the other two. They frowned sympathetically, with more resignation than surprise. It was practically rote, now. “Your girl?” asked Ronnie.
“No. Not like that.”
“Too good for you, eh?” Thommo swatted at his knee, trying for a little levity. You’d cry if you weren’t laughing, and all that.
She had been. Cec forced a smile. “Too good by half. Best dancer in Victoria.”
“I didn’t know you danced,” Bert remarked. The others were avoiding Cec’s eyes, like they were afraid of intruding on his grief, but Bert’s gaze was unflinching. Bert really didn’t flinch from much at all.
Cec nodded. Would he still dance when he got home—if he got home? He didn’t know. Finding someone to dance with wouldn’t be difficult, but finding a partner to replace Imogen didn’t seem likely.
Thommo snorted. “Sure, must look like a newborn foal, wobbling about.”
“Like an organ grinder’s monkey,” Ronnie suggested, nudging Thommo’s shoulder with his own. Probably the two of them could come up with a whole zoo of animals Cec looked like dancing, but before they could think of another, Bert stood up.
“Well, come on,” he said, tossing the end of his cig into the fire. He held out his hand expectantly. “Teach us, then.”
That set Ronnie and Thommo off laughing, and Cec expected that Bert would join in, because of course he was joking. He did smile some, one side of his mouth ticking upwards, but he also kept his hand held out to Cec. In the firelight, his eyes were soft and warm, and Cec wondered what, exactly, he was asking for.
His heart beginning to pound, Cec rose. He wiped his suddenly sweaty palms on his trousers, and took Bert’s hand.
“Fancy yourself a ballerina, Bert?” asked Thommo, grinning. Again, Cec thought Bert would step back, laugh it all off, make sure to keep space between him and Cec in the morning. But Bert’s hand stayed in his.
He’d start with a waltz, Cec though, with a strange lightheadedness; easier than a foxtrot, and he wasn’t brave enough to try to get Bert to tango. Bert had offered his right hand. Cec didn’t know if he’d meant to give Cec the lead, but it would be easier to teach this way anyway. Almost afraid to breathe, Cec laid his hand flat between Bert’s shoulder blades.
“Put your hand on my shoulder,” he instructed quietly. Bert did so. Thommo whistled, loud enough to turn heads and make Cec flinch, just slightly.
“Don’t mind him. What do I do with my feet?”
Slowly, Cec stepped forward with his left foot; Bert instinctively stepped back with his right to maintain the distance between them. Then Cec’s right foot move forward, and Bert’s left moved back, less smoothly but roughly correct. Cec slid his left foot towards his right, kicking up a little dust, and murmured, “Other side” when Bert’s left foot began to move, too. If he just focused on Bert’s movements, he could almost forget that people were watching, and how thin a line they were walking.
Right foot back, left foot back, right foot over. Bert, stumbling, followed.
There were a lot of things allowed during war, that wouldn’t be permitted anywhere else. Especially out here, where the nearest English-speaking women were in the field hospital twenty miles away, a man could get with a lot. Two men could get away with a lot. If any of them might be dead in a week, who was going to give a damn about two diggers dancing under the African sky?
Left foot forward, right foot forward, left foot over.
“Good, but quit looking at your feet.”
“Shouldn’t you have music playing?” asked Ronnie, laying back so that he could look up at the stars. There were so many more of them here than in Melbourne, blinking down on every army alike.
“You gonna sing us something?” Bert retorted. He tried to step back with the wrong foot, tripped, and tightened his grip on Cec’s shoulder to stop them both falling over. His hand in Cec’s was callused and rough, and fit like it belonged there.
Thommo groaned dramatically. “If he starts singing, I’m praying for the Turks to come put me out of my misery.” Ronnie replied with something sharp, and Thommo retorted, but it was all so familiar to Cec that he didn’t pay them any attention at all.
“Stop looking at your feet,” he reminded Bert, and received a glare for correcting him. Still, Bert set his jaw and resolutely kept his head raised. Cec almost wished he hadn’t listened, because this close, with so much of his attention on Bert and Bert’s attention on him, it was becoming much too easy to forget where they were. They could get away with a lot, here, but they couldn’t get away with everything.
Bert’s steps were coming smoother now, without his feet distracting him. He was holding himself less stiffly, relaxing into the dance. It seemed like every step, they swayed just a little closer. Bert’s thumb, on Cec’s shoulder, swept over Cec’s collar to brush his neck, and stayed there. It was the smallest point of contact, but for a beat, it became Cec’s entire world.
“So what was your girl’s name?” Bert asked. Cec almost stumbled, stricken by the fact that he’d forgotten about her so completely for a few moments, but Bert remained steady.
“Imogen. But she wasn’t my girl.” Firstly, because she wasn’t anyone’s, but also because neither of them could ever have been what the other was looking for. Cec hoped she would have liked Bert.
“You went dancing?”
“Nearly every week.” She’d written him a letter, months ago, to say she was learning all sorts of new dances in France, and she’d show him once they got home. It didn’t make sense that she wouldn’t be the one to keep that appointment.
Bert nodded thoughtfully. His eyes flicked over to Ronnie and Thommo, arguing companionably, then to the other side. Probably there were some other diggers watching them, wondering, waiting to see if they crossed one of the lines that still existed in a war, but no one really seemed to care. Even Cec had stopped feeling like every eye was on them.
“When we get back,” Bert said, slowly and very deliberately, “you ought to take me dancing.”
Alice didn’t care much for dancing. She’d stand up with him, if music started playing and he couldn’t stop tapping his feet, but she said it just made her feel awkward to do it. She didn’t like to go out to the dance clubs that had grown up all over Melbourne after the war, even just for the music. Too loud, too crowded; she’d rather have a quiet night in, or go to the pictures with Dottie.
(She didn’t even know about some of the clubs Cec danced at, the ones where two diggers waltzing under the stars would be old news.)
That wasn’t the reason he called it off, not by a long shot. But he thought about it, as he returned to his lodgings with his head bowed and a guilty sense of relief weighing on him. It wasn’t because she didn’t like dancing, but maybe, if she had, he might’ve been able to stick with it.
Bert was in the parlor when Cec got in, fiddling with their landlady’s radio. “Mrs. Kilkenny get off to see her sister alright?” asked Cec, as he hung up his coat and cap. One of the half-dozen cats they had around the place wound herself around his shins while he tried to walk past her into the parlor. The front door was locked, and the curtains were drawn. It was just them in the house.
“Right as rain. Says she’ll be back Tuesday.” Bert looked up, with his face carefully blank except for a crease between his eyebrows, which Cec had so long ago learned to read. “How’d things go with Alice, then?”
Cec shrugged, and sighed, and bent down to scratch behind the cat’s ears. “I called it off. Wasn’t fair to her. Shouldn’t have waited as long as I did.”
“Could’ve told you that,” Bert muttered, turning back to the radio dials. Cec watched his back, and sighed again.
Bert was right, had been from the beginning. Alice was a sweet girl, and she hadn’t seemed to want what other girls might’ve asked for in a husband; she didn’t know if she could have children, now, & wouldn’t want them in any case. She was shy of being touched. She hadn’t even been after romance, not really. But even what she had wanted—what she had every right to ask of a husband—had been more than Cec could have given her. Cec had fooled himself into thinking what he could give was enough, but he’d had to see sense.
At first, Bert hadn’t seen any harm in it—Cec taking her to the pictures, or to the park. She’d had a rough time of it, after all, and Cec was always rescuing stray pups or mending birds’ wings. All it had been to Cec had been friendship.
But then, as Alice grew more attached to him, and started talking about wedding dresses, Cec had been...tempted. Tempted to live a life where he didn’t have to look over his shoulder all the time, where he could hold hands in public, where he could dance with someone he loved where everyone could see, where he didn’t have to always be afraid. He’d wanted that so badly that he’d almost been selfish enough to go through with it.
It hadn’t been fair to her, or to himself. And it hadn’t been fair to Bert, who’d been holding himself off at a distance since they’d announced their engagement in Miss Fisher’s kitchen.
No, he wouldn’t have been able to stick it out, even if she had liked dancing.
Finally managing to find a station that was playing something musical, Bert rose to his feet with a tired groan. They were neither of them as young as they’d been, back in Egypt. But Bert still looked at him just as soft, and just as warm, as the night Cec had taught him to dance.
“Well, that’s done with,” said Bert, not unkindly. Cec was forgiven, at least by him. The song on the radio ended, and a new one kicked in, a much livelier jazz piece. Bert held out a hand to Cec. “Teach me this one?”