It was Julie who taught me how to foxtrot, at Maidsend, early in the war. I don’t remember how she got a free moment: all the pilots always wanted to dance with her (all the men pilots, I mean; though I would have liked to dance with her too). But halfway through the evening she materialized by my side, her long fair hair falling in curls around her flushed face, almost dancing as she walked.
Photographs of Julie never capture how beautiful she really was. It’s like looking at a photograph of a loaf of bread: it will still look delicious, but it doesn’t have that magnetic fresh-bread smell that makes it irresistible.
“Maddie!” she said, twisting in a little pirouette. “Come dance!”
“I can’t,” I said.
“Of course you can!” Julie said. “I shall run up reams of pilots for us both, and we’ll dance till dawn.” She grabbed my hands. “Come dance, Maddie, do,” she said, and gave me her beseeching doe eyes.
Who could resist Julie when she looked like that? She tugged me toward the dance floor, and she’d got me to the edge of it before I recalled that I couldn't dance. “I’d love to, but I don’t know how to foxtrot,” I protested.
“Don’t know how to foxtrot!” She’d had a little too much to drink, I think: her voice was a little too loud, all her sentences ending in exclamation points. She was a bubbly drunk, like it brought out all the joy in her. “I’ll teach you,” she said, and swung me into her arms: one hand between my shoulder blades, the other holding my hand tight.
As if that was a cue, the band started up again: “Let There Be Love.” It made me uncomfortable, dancing with Julie for a romantic song like that, but Julie pronounced it perfect. “Slow enough so you can find your feet,” she said, guiding me gently with her hand on my back.
“Hand on my arm, now,” she said, and I tried to put my hand on her forearm, like the women did with their pilot partners. But she was so much shorter than me that it made the geometry awkward, and I ended up elbowing one of the pilots in the back. He arched away in surprise, like a cat, and Julie started laughing and we rather fell apart, doubled over giggling in the middle of the dance floor.
That was when Douglas found us. I think his name was Douglas, but the pilots buzzing around Julie blended together after a while. He was rather better looking than the general run of them, and rather hopelessly in love with Julie. “Can I have this dance?” he asked her.
“I’m busy,” Julie said breezily, grasping my hands again. “I’m teaching Maddie to foxtrot.”
Douglas barely glanced at me. “Do it later.”
Julie set her hand on my back. I remember her profile as she smiled at him, chin and nose lifted, hair curled at the side of her face, this curious mixture of imperious and pert. “No,” she said, smiling, and swung me so swiftly into the dance that I almost fell. I caught a glimpse of his face: mouth a little open, just astonished.
“Julie!” he said. Julie swirled us away through the cloud of other dancers.
Douglas was one of the better dancers, one of the ones she liked to dance with. I was so happy that she was still dancing with me, would rather teach me to foxtrot than dance with anyone else. I was always happier with her than with anyone else. Oh, Julie -
No no no. I am not going to let - everything that’s happened - spoil the good memories, Julie’s brashness and jubilation and confidence. She was like a firecracker: she lit everything up, she made everything more exciting, and I'm remembering that.
She attempted some kind of spin. Of course it was too complicated for a beginner - Julie was a “chuck them in the water and see if they swim” sort of teacher - and somehow we ended up with our legs all tangled together, and toppled into the couple next to us.
We both had a little too much to drink that night, I think, because we lay on the floor hooting with laughter, me half sprawled over Julie. She pushed at me, ineffectually, giggling, and eventually I stumbled to my feet and dragged her after me. “Come on!” I said, taking her hand
“Where are we going, then?” Julie asked as we wove across the dance floor: not protesting, but bright-eyed, hoping for an adventure.
I found a staircase and we pounded up it, our feet loud on the wood. “Somewhere we can’t create any casualties!”
Just as we reached the first landing, the orchestra wound up “Let There Be Love,” and started in on “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” “Oh, this is my favorite,” gasped Julie. I don’t know if it really was; it might have been her favorite just for that moment. She put her hand on my waist again, and I put mine on hers - it just worked better that way - and we danced, in the darkness, to the muffled jazzy strains of “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
There had been a window on that staircase once, and long draping curtains still hung over it; but those were just leftovers from before the war: the windows had been nailed over by then. This was still early, early in the war. By the end those velvet curtains had disappeared, gone on the black market somewhere. I saw a woman wearing a dress I was sure came from that same fabric in early ‘44. I nearly blubbed in the street, and I didn’t even know why till now. Of course it took hardly anything to make me cry then.
Certainly “Dream a Little Dream of Me” did it, every time. We got halfway through the song, I remember, stars fading, but I linger on, when a giggling couple slipped through the door below, all the pins falling out of her hair and half his jacket buttons already undone. He hoisted her up on the stair rail, and she wrapped her legs around him.
Julie whisked us behind those long draping curtains. I don’t know why we were hiding, but it seemed absolutely necessary at the time, and at the same time quite hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing - I can’t believe they didn’t hear me, but they were pretty wrapped up in each other. Julie pressed two fingers to my mouth, but it wasn’t any good: I couldn’t stop laughing. “Oh, hush,” she said, because she was starting to giggle too: we were trying to stop laughing and doing such a bad job of it we had to hold each other up.
“Hush!” she said. "Oh, I'll shut you up." And she stood up on tiptoe and kissed me.
And then I understood how that couple below could be so oblivious to the giggle fit just above, because the whole world sank down to a pinpoint, just Julie’s lips on mine, the taste of the champagne she’d had - we’d both had - the taste of Julie beneath it. Her hands in my hair, running down my back, and her hair in my hands, against my face, in my mouth even. I pushed her away a little, pulled the hair out, laughing a little. Her breath on my face like a south wind. Kissing her again.
So soft, her hair. It smelled like sunlight. Everything about Julie was so bright.
The song ended. Dream a little dream of me wavered in the air. We pulled apart. I wish I could have seen her face, bright with moonlight or glowing with candles, but of course it was dead dark with the blackout. I lifted my hand to her face, though, tracing the lines: the eyebrows, the little nose, the big smile. She kissed my palm.
“Do you think they’re gone?” she asked, her breath warm against my hand.
I peeked out from behind the curtain. “The coast is clear,” I whispered, dramatically, and Julie started to laugh again. I grabbed her hand - her hand was sweaty, small in mine - and we dashed down the stairs, back onto the dance floor.
It seemed so bright and so loud and full of people, as if they’d multiplied while we were on the stairs. It made me feel dazed and dizzy, watching them swirl around us, and I think I would have fallen if Julie hadn’t squeezed my hand. It grounded me: I got my feet again.
“Uh oh,” Julie muttered, and I looked at her in surprise as she spit in her handkerchief and started swiping at her lips. Her lipstick was smeared. I did that, I thought, and it gave me a little thrill, thinking I’d mussed her up like that: Julie, always so put together we called her Queenie. She was putting her hair back up, her hands moving so fast on the pins she had it in a chignon again in about three seconds.
“You too,” she told me.
“But I’m not wearing lipstick,” I protested.
“You are now,” she said wryly, and I blushed all over my face and wiped my mouth. The lipstick smudges across the back of my hand, bright red. I did that, I thought again, and felt the thrill again - stronger now, so strong it frightened me a little.
“Julie?” It was Douglas, again. “Will you dance with me now?”
Julie looked at me. She looked at him, and I knew she was going to put him off again: and I said, “Oh go on. Spare some time on your other pilots.”
Julie flashed a grin at me. She knew, maybe, that I needed some space. “May I have this dance?” she asked, and bowed at Douglas, hand outstretched, like a man talking to a girl. He looked startled, but put his hand in hers anyway, and they spun away into the melee. Julie twisted her head, looking at me over his shoulder. “Keep dancing without me, Maddie!” she called. And then they disappeared in the crush of RAF uniforms and swirling skirts.
And I am: or anyway I’m trying.