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Authors: Lloyd Jones

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BOOK: Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance
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Rosa was also a wicked gossip. She loved to hear descriptions of the women I danced with. Her eyes gleamed when I mentioned the bossy ‘Dutch woman' who, tired of my preoccupied eyes, had stopped while we were dancing and detached herself to ask, ‘Are you dancing with me or the wall behind?' Rosa liked that. It was her choice to scoff or take sides. Naturally, she saw the Dutch woman's point of view. She said, ‘A woman does not want to feel like she is a lamppost heaved from one place to the other.' Another woman with sour breath ticked me off for always looking down at my feet. Halfway through my account she interrupted me. ‘As you know, as I have told you already, that is vulgar, Lionel. But then so is sour breath. So it is difficult for me to have an opinion.' She was curious all the same. ‘What exactly did her breath smell of?' I recalled, ‘Kind of metallic, like she hadn't opened her mouth for a month.' She was delighted.
Too
delighted. That only encouraged me more.

There was one woman who after we managed a smooth transition out of a forward
ocho
hooted like she might have at a well-taken goal.

There was Glenda who apologised in advance. She pointed to a man with a tousled beard, her husband. ‘He's the dancer,' she said. It was ‘Bob' from Somerset. Once when there was a shortage of women I'd danced with him. We'd practised the rocking motion together. ‘So who's wearing the shirt?' he asked. Obviously they didn't dance together much. The toe of my advancing foot kept banging into hers. The more we collided the more she swore in a panicky way. ‘Shit, shit,' and with mounting panic, ‘Shit, shit, shit!' and as I kept marching her backwards: ‘Shit. Shit. Shit.'

As far as Rosa went I must have given the impression of an enthusiast, a regular attendee at classes,
practica,
and dances stacked throughout the week. In truth, I had strayed. Study was taking up more and more of my time. I didn't mention this to Rosa. Whenever she asked after the lessons and I gave my stock answer she raised her eyebrow. There are many ways of saying, ‘I don't believe you,' and Rosa seemed to know them all.

I didn't want to fail her, so in need of a new step to report back with, I turned up to one of Mr Hecht's workshops at the tramping club in Moncrief Street.

Everyone looked so competent. Many of the faces were familiar. I was pleased to see a large woman to whom I caused some anxiety smiling at her partner, a slim man in a white shirt and black tie. I'd seen him before, a Czech poet taxi driver who'd written a script for a dance film about a man and a woman who meet under a clothesline while hanging out their clothes (at least, that's what I'd been told). I'd seen him sitting in his taxi outside various venues across town, waiting for the lesson to start; once he was in a black leather jacket licking a vanilla ice cream, and I'd thought, isn't that like a Czech poet. I switched my attention to Mr Hecht. He was demonstrating a step that was new to me. He switched on the music and everyone managed to remember what they'd been shown, except me. I seemed to be the only one incapable of remembering the pattern. I gazed back at the end wall. A pair of wooden skis were nailed up there in the shape of a crucifix. I decided to sit down.

I was reading the list of names on the tramping club's honours board when Mr Hecht crept up on me.

‘Lionel, this is Brenda. Brenda, Lionel.'

I stood up and apologised in advance of the coming disaster.

‘I'm sure you will be fine,' said Brenda.

She thought I was being bashful. But as we walked out to rejoin the others on the dance floor she began to have misgivings. She said, ‘You have danced the
milonga
before, haven't you?' The
milonga
is a faster dance than the tango. More complex. Before she could turn and run for the doors the music started. ‘Buenos Aires Conoce'
.
She was built so delicately it was like holding a twig. With the others I'd managed a few confident steps before the wheels fell off. With Brenda we stopped, we started, we stopped. I said I was sorry. She said it was her. It was really me, though. I couldn't lead. She tried to blame herself. ‘No, I'm leading and shouldn't be.'

Brenda was my last dance in the tramping club. In fact, she was my last paid dance.

There was one other memorable moment which I told Rosa about. It came as the music stopped and Mr Hecht told everyone to keep dancing. Then you heard the shuffling and scraping sound of soles on floorboards. If you listened carefully you heard the shape and rhythm of dance. It is the sound of a hand crushing rice paper.

‘It is also the sound of the tide moving in and out.'

I stopped. I wasn't sure I had heard correctly. I looked back at Rosa. Her expression was that of someone who has let out an indiscretion. A light colouring entered her face. She was reflecting on what she'd just said, and for the moment she appeared to teeter between backtracking and disowning the remark or explaining further. Her movements became very deliberate. After a suck on her cigarette she ground it out.

‘The tide. You were about to say,' I said.

Her gaze was still aimed away from me. I had never seen Rosa like this before, defensive and indecisive. When she looked up and met my eye I realised that she still hadn't quite made up her mind about me.

‘Well,' she said. ‘To properly explain I will need to introduce you to some people.'

For a moment I thought she meant more colleagues, like Hecht. But, no. She drew herself up from her booth and signalled me to follow.

We crossed the restaurant to the wall of photos displayed behind the cash register. I had seen them before but only in passing.

This was the first time I heard the names of Louise Cunningham and Paul Schmidt.

We looked up at an older Buenos Aires, sepia coloured, stained with age, full of swept courtyards and flowering balconies. Rosa pointed to a woman astride a bike, her feet planted firmly on the ground.‘This is Louise,' she said. In that photo she was a woman in her thirties. Sunglasses; a jersey tied casually around her neck. Her blonde hair swept back in a scarf. In another, taken outside a café, she appears so much older it was hard to believe they were the same person. A cardigan is draped lightly about her shoulders. The photo is half in shadow. The light is drawn to her chin, and on closer inspection she is smiling up from under the brim of her hat. This photo was retrieved from Schmidt's suit pocket following his death.

‘And this is my grandfather, Paul Schmidt.'

A bulky, handsome man, he had some kind of gel in his dark hair. I recognised Rosa's own blazing dark eyes, and as he lent forward from a park bench as if to make my acquaintance I thought the likeness was striking.

‘So, I will tell you how they met.'

And perhaps because I didn't respond she stopped and looked back over her shoulder. ‘It is a famously tragic story in my family but perhaps it is tedious to anyone else.'

‘No. No, I want to hear,' I said, and that set her on her way again.

I followed Rosa back to her booth. Her hips gently swayed; it was though she was composing what she would say. She picked up the wine glass next to the adding machine and turned it around in her fingers as though it were an unfathomable object.

‘Lionel, be a sweet and fill it up for me, please.'

As I went to take it from her she regarded me over a folded arm, not fondly, but with an exactitude that recalled another similar time, and said, ‘Why don't you have something yourself.'

It had taken more than seven weeks from that first invitation to this second one. And more than a dozen dancing lessons. I took a wine glass from another table and slipped into the booth opposite her.

Rosa leant back. A smoke ring spiralled up to the ceiling while she thought where to begin.

What follows is the story she heard in El Imperio all those years ago. This is the Pacific end of the story. In tango, there are no wrong turns. But every dance begins with a backward step. This is where Louise and Schmidt's story begins, with a backward step.

7

In the Little River Cemetery, pig fern covers the older graves. But in one respect, this cemetery is no different from
el cementerio
at La Chacarita. The histories of both places are recorded on their tombstones. Story travels along the same branches as genes, and the current inhabitants of Little River are only two beats away from the events of Louise's day.

Of the differences, the key one: death in Little River is a more organic process. The bush fern inherits everything. Bronzed inscriptions run to an oxidised green. There is not the same vigilance of death that makes La Chacarita the whitewashed splendour it is today.

The grave of Louise's father, James Cunningham, is marked by a river boulder. The inscription reads: ‘James Cunningham. Fisherman. God Bless. Born 1878. Drowned 1911.' Simple. No fuss. That's the way people prefer to sign out in this part of the world.

His boat broke up on the river bar in a storm. Matchsticks and muddy foaming water is what people remember. And that it was another two days before his body turned up.The night slops man saw Jamie Cunningham float on the tide past the dark sleeping houses. He was headed for the mountains, barefoot, with just his trousers on, and a gold wedding band on his finger.

Louise's mother did what widows did in those days and opened her house to boarders and travellers. Two years after they laid the river boulder at her husband's grave she ‘succumbed' to the flu and was buried in a grave next to her husband.

People said they hadn't been especially close.

The other headstones in the cemetery record the names of the kids Louise went to school with.These are more ‘memory stones'. The graves are empty since the bones of the boys she sat with in class at the Little River School are scattered in fields across Northern France.

In 1915, two years after her mother's death, Louise stood on the road leading out of Little River to watch the boys from her childhood ride out to the war in Europe. They all looked so pleased to be on their way.

Boyd Robertson broke ranks to ride over to her. He bent down from his saddle to receive her kiss.

‘Thank you, Louise. I won't forget you,' he said.

When news of Boyd's death came back, Louise liked to think of him reviving that kiss and taking it with him to his last breath. She hoped that when his moment came Boyd gave a sigh of satisfaction as though at the end of a meal and simply closed his eyes.

She saw Royden Jackson searching for some fitting gesture. At the last moment he thought to take off his neck chain and hand it to his mother for safe-keeping. The hell-raising McCracken boys made themselves popular by handing their childhood toys— fishing tackle, a wooden boat on wheels, a teddy bear—to the small boys lining the road out of town. There were others she'd known to cry from a cut knee, or down at the beach to run from the jaws of a shore break with a look of white terror. Boys who believed in the undertow troll and who sweated in their beds at night when the wind in the eaves grew shrill.

Davy McLoughlin's tripod went with him to Europe and returned without him. The attached brown tag read: ‘This is the property of…' The last Louise saw of him his face was filled with technical considerations to do with light and shadow. He looked like an angel.

She saw the Nial twins ride out side by side. One pale eye each. One corner of a lipless mouth met the other. Limp brown hair held the package together. The face of their mother Audrey appeared flat and spread out.

Everyone worried about the boys. Some more than others. For example, the McCracken boys were given every chance of surviving, even of taking over the world inside six months, while Bunny Sinclair, with his buttoned-up collar and red cheeks, might as well have worn a target on his chest. No one could see how he would get on away from his pigeons.

Boyd was first to be killed. Louise stood in a group of people at the top of the street to see at which house the officer with his envelope of regrets would stop. Seeing it was Hilary Robertson's, Boyd's mother, people breathed out their relief and, silent and remorseful, stared down at the ground in their shame.

A Quaker friend of Louise's, Billy Pohl, was asked to locate Roydon's father in the public bar. He walked up to Jackson and whispered that he had a visitor who wanted a word with him outside. ‘Well bring him in here!' boomed Jackson. Billy leant closer to whisper, ‘The man is in uniform.' Jackson went quietly after that. By the time he reached the door his face had sectioned off and different parts were trembling. Those he passed on the way to the door either closed their eyes or looked away. Billy stayed back. He thought he'd wait in the bar—though he didn't drink in those days. The publican came out from behind the bar to close the curtains. Everyone braced themselves. Those who heard Jackson's weeping never forgot the ‘sound of creaking ruin'.

So these days Louise had company in the cemetery. She would sit by her parents' stone and over there Jackson would crouch by his boy's cross. Audrey Nial would pile blue geraniums between two white crosses. If she had leftovers Louise got those. Mrs McLoughlin was always good for a piece of fruit cake. Often it was Jackson with a bag of sweets; Jackson holding out his white paper bag to Joy or Audrey or whoever else happened to be visiting. That was grief 's good side.

It was Billy Pohl who caught her crying at the cemetery one afternoon. Billy told her he wasn't pushing anything at her—but she might think about coming and sitting with his Quakers.

‘And do what, Billy?'

‘Nothing. You just sit and be quiet.'

Quiet had a roof and it had walls around it, and you could sit inside of it. She had never thought of silence as a place. One of the Friends, Tom Williams, told her, ‘The place is in your heart, Louise. Everything else is just clutter.'

By November 1916 there were only two boys of enlistment age left in the district. Billy Pohl and Henry Graham. No one wanted them dead. On the other hand, those who had lost boys were heard to mumble…People wondered how the Quakers could pray for those foreign boys that their own boys had gone halfway around the world to shoot. It didn't make much sense when you thought about it—especially to those who had already lost their own.

BOOK: Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance
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