Annie jumped off the tram at her stop in Williamstown. Autumn was well on its way and the gusty wind blew leaves into her face as she turned towards Perry Street. Uncle Edgar’s house was narrow and long. It stood, detached, in a row of similar small houses, each with a picket fence neatly removing it from the street. Off the hallway were three bedrooms, one for Uncle Edgar and Aunty Harriet, one for their son Edgar and one for her.
Opening the front gate Annie entered the house, dumped her bag on her bed and walked into the kitchen. The stove was alight and she held her hands in front of the heat and shivered.
“Cold already and it’s only April,” she commented.
“Your blood’s thinned being up there in that hot Queensland weather,” said Aunt Harriet. “You wait until winter arrives. You won’t know what hit you. Those winds come straight off the ocean and they are vicious.”
“I’ll need a winter coat. Haven’t needed one of those for a long time. Although it does get cold in Charleville in winter but not like Melbourne.”
“How’s the work going at Lucy Secor?”
Aunt Harriet asked this every day and Annie struggled to find something interesting to say.
“Well I’ve been promoted to collars. They told me I would have to do seams for a year but I showed them what I was capable of and so I skipped the first year. It should be a bit more interesting from now on.”
Annie didn’t say that the work bored her stupid or that the other girls seemed so shallow. Their lives revolved around their families and the young men they hoped to marry. Annie hadn’t met any young men except her cousin Edgar, who didn’t count. Her aunt and uncle were kind but she felt no excitement at the prospect of working her way up the Lucy Secor ladder while spending her free time in a tiny dark bedroom. Still she planned to stick it out for one year at least while the sunny skies of Queensland where her mother lived and worked pulled continually at her heart.
It was some time later that Annie was able to answer Aunt Harriet’s questions with some enthusiasm. The girls at work had been full of the much anticipated dance in Williamstown. They were all making their own dresses and excitedly comparing notes. Annie looked at her aunt eagerly as she gave her the details.
“Goodness, Annie, you are only sixteen. Far too young to be going out dancing. What would your mother think?”
“She was dancing at sixteen. She was the Belle of the Ball she told me.”
“Look where that got her. An unhappy marriage and a child to support.”
Annie answered quickly, “She didn’t marry until she was twenty, so you can’t blame the dancing.”
“Always needed a man, that woman did.” Aunt Harriet sighed. “She was too young and too high spirited for our Walter. He seemed to lose all his get up and go when his first wife died and got stuck into the gambling. We all hoped that Ruby would bring him back to his senses but it wasn’t to be. I heard she found another man in Sydney, when you were in Glebe?”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Annie said. Secrets were secrets and if her mother had taught her anything it was to keep your mouth shut when it came to one’s private business.
“Getting back to the dance. May I go?” Annie wasn’t going to plead but she decided to press her point a little further.
Aunt Harriet considered for a moment. “I have an idea. Eddie could go with you, as a chaperone. He hates dancing but he could make sure that you don’t mix with the wrong type or be forced to do something you don’t want to do. Yes, it would be good for him to get out. He’s getting very set in his ways for a boy of 26.”
Annie couldn’t help but agree. Edgar junior was a clerk at an insurance company. His adoring parents considered he had come up in the world from his father’s occupation of tinsmith at the Shell Company. He seemed far older than his years and had settled into a contented life more suited to a man twice his age.
His reaction to his mother’s suggestion was one of horror.
“I don’t dance. I don’t want to go out on Saturday night. I just want to stay home with a good book.”
Harriet knew how to win her son over. “You know the job you hate, cleaning out the grease trap? Well if you take Annie to the dance I’ll get someone else to do it. It’s due to be done this weekend so there are your options.”
Edgar had to think about the proposition, carefully weighing the pros and cons, in his usual serious manner. The awfulness of the grease trap with its foul smell and slimy contents spoilt his plans for a restful weekend. What harm could there be in going to a dance, sitting on the side and watching young Annie prance around the room. He could be home and in bed by ten o’clock.
The matter settled Harriet wanted to know if Annie could dance. Annie mournfully admitted she couldn’t. What a different life she had led to her mother. Tales of admirers, balls and gorgeous gowns made her mother’s early life sound exotic and desirable. Maybe she too would be admired by all the young men and in demand for every dance. But, she thought bitterly, she was so different to her outgoing mother. She was reserved and only spoke when she had something to say.
“I’ll teach you with the mop!” Harriet excitedly raced out to the laundry, coming back with a long stick topped with grey woolly hair. “This is Mr Mop and he is your dancing partner.”
Over the next few days Annie learned the Barn Dance, the Gypsy Tap, the Pride of Erin, the Waltz and the Polka. She was astonished that Harriet knew so much and found it hard to imagine the short dumpy housewife as a young woman, swirling around the dance floor with Uncle Edgar.
“Oh no, my dear, not with Uncle Edgar. My dancing days were over once I met him.” Was that a hint of regret on her face? If she was unhappy with her lot she never let on. After all she was much better off than “poor Ruby”, as she often reminded Annie.
Eddie watched the afternoon dancing lessons with fascination. He announced that it only confirmed what he knew all along. Dancing was not for him.
Annie, however, found she was good at it. All weekend she sewed on her aunt’s machine until her dress was finished. In a blue that matched her eyes, it fitted her slim tall body closely until the swirl of skirt frothed down around her calves. Even Aunt Harriet approved, saying at least it didn’t show too much flesh.
The new Williamstown Town Hall was the venue for the Palais de Danse. Eddie and Annie were able to walk there easily from Perry Street. Crowds of people milled around the entrance doors. A fee of two shillings had to be paid before entry. Inside the building Annie was almost too excited to admire the dark panelling, the stained-glass windows, the black and white marble floor. On the stage the band was tuning up, the brass and stringed instruments emitting strange honks and squeaks. Annie and Eddie stood against the wall watching as the couples moved to the dance floor. To Annie’s horror she didn’t recognise the dance.
She whispered to a young woman beside her. ”What are they dancing?”
“It’s called the Rumba. It’s the latest craze. Easy to pick up.”
To Annie’s relief she recognised the next dance, a Pride of Erin Waltz. It seemed the band was alternating modern and old-time dances. Of course, Harriet wouldn’t have known about the new dances. The familiar sound of Alexander’s Ragtime Band accompanied the one step which looked quite simple to do. Then there was a change of pace for the Canadian Three Step. Annie was quite happy to watch and wasn’t expecting to be asked to dance so was quite shocked when a smartly dressed young man asked her to the floor. It was a waltz to the Blue Danube so she happily accepted as she recited 1,2,3 in her head.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” said the young man. “What’s your name?”
“Annie.” What else could she say? Her mind was a blank. They completed the dance in silence and he guided her back to Eddie.
“Thank you for the dance,” he said politely and moved away.
“Well, look at you!” said Eddie. “Quite the dancer you are. Well taught by Ma.”
Annie felt vaguely dissatisfied. How would she ever get to know about men if she spoke in one-word sentences. She looked around the room at the other girls. They all seemed to be talking to men. The men, on the whole were silent, listening to the excited babble with patience, planning their next move perhaps. Who knew what they were thinking?
Annie had one more dance. It was a progressive barn dance so she happily moved on from the sweaty boy who asked her and gazed timidly into the eyes of each man or boy as she moved around the room. There wasn’t really time to say much so each time she smiled and said hello before the next partner appeared.
There was a demonstration of the Tango by a very agile couple and a few tried the Charleston accompanied by much laughter, although Annie was told it was now out of vogue.
It was time for a refreshment break. Eddie surprisingly fetched two glasses of cordial and a plate with two butterfly cakes. He admitted to having a good time watching but consulted his pocket watch and exclaimed over the hour. They had arrived at eight and now it was half past ten. He had planned to be asleep half an hour ago.
“Just one more?” Annie’s eyes pleaded.
They watched as couples danced the fox-trot and then quietly slipped through the doors into the cold dark night. Annie realised she had left her coat behind at the check in so back they went inside. She cast one last look at the dancers, wondering if she would ever feel at home with all those happy people. If she had her own fellow it would be different. Still it was a start. As Mother always said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”