One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three.

Twenty pairs of feet circling the well-worn floorboards.

Ten couples tentatively navigating their way around each other.

Five injuries so far – the most serious a nosebleed.

Two hands keeping time on the yellowing piano keys.

One solitary figure sitting before them, nodding gently at each one-two-three, one-two-three, one.

She watches the couples with detachment now and again. The music is so familiar she has no need of sheet music or guidance. She sees their hesitation, the occasional smile – most wear expressions of intense concentration; the leaders’ lips moving as they count the steps. Some look down and are scolded, some tread on their partner’s feet and mutter apologies, some are rigid with embarrassment. Even now, in this time of freedom, the feel of an arm around their waists; the proximity of a body so close to theirs makes them blush.

The pianist has seen it all before, of course. This is not the first group she has witnessed taking their first stumbling steps of the waltz. Once she was one of them. She remembers her partner well. A lanky boy, with brown hair that curled into his brown eyes. She had been awkward and shy. No brothers. The only boys she knew were from her class at school and sat across the aisle from the girls. She had been alert to an excitement beneath the nerves. A consciousness in choosing her dress for the class, aware for the first time of that grown-up importance of knowing that eyes will be upon you. She had taken extra care with her hair too, and borrowed her sister’s white gloves. She had seen him immediately. He stood a head taller than the other boys clustered awkwardly across the room as if the schoolroom aisle prevailed here too. As they lined up he had caught her eye and smiled, and she had smiled back, blushing and tongue-tied and self-conscious. Awkwardly she had acquiesced to the dance, given him her hand, watched the teacher anxiously, keen to avoid embarrassment. And he had been as awkward as she, but he sought her hand the second week again, and again the third. She grew to relax into the arm circled about her waist and ceased to worry whether her hands were clammy enough to seep through the cotton of her white gloves. By then the steps were second nature and they were able to talk. She had been surprised to find how easy it was to exchange remarks with a boy. She learnt that he liked to draw, that he had two sisters, that he lived in the next town and wanted to visit Morocco one day.

They waltzed together at her first dance. She was nervous, in a dress that had been made for another girl, but his hand under hers was steady. People remarked on their grace as couple but she was oblivious as they twirled up and down the room. He had kissed her on the cheek as they parted that night and on the lips after another, a month later. He sent her flowers and occasionally his drawings. She still has them now, in a box full of memories, with some of his flowers pressed between the paper.

He took her out twice. Once to the theatre, once the opera. She floated through the evening in a haze of warm lights and music, and when he spoke of their first meeting she glowed inside. She caught herself thinking of him in moments he had no place to be: at church, her bedroom, family walks. She began to see their life spread out before them.

And then one day he marched away, cheered on by crowds and a band and flags a-waving to defend King and Country. He was sent to Morocco and she received one letter from him before he was sent home in a wooden box and buried in the cemetery in the next town, and the letter was placed beside the drawings and pressed flowers and she never spoke of him again.

At the thought, the old woman at the piano stumbles. One –. And for a moment the couples stumbling around the room pause in confusion and glance over before the old autonomy takes over and it’s back to one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three.

One letter, well-worn by now.

Two drawings, in a schoolboys hand.

Three flowers, pressed between them.

One figure at a piano.

Two hands that once held his.

Three words, never spoken.