The Bridge of Aspiration

"I’m an addict.
Ballet is my morphine."

Six months after the death of her father, Erin Weir's mother commits suicide. Orphaned, she is taken to London in a bid to escape the guilt-ridden village of her childhood.
There seems to be no way out of the cycle of depression she's plunged into but then she discovers ballet, a gift that may be powerful beyond anything...


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10. 10

The fourth and fifth of April become magic dates in my head and March cannot pass fast enough for me. I wish it away along with February’s lingering remains in my thoughtless anticipation for the show. On the fourth and fifth of April I will be an Indian servant and a snowflake and a lily and I will sit restless in the time-machine theatre waiting to be ‘love.’ I will spend two whole days surrounding myself with music and dance and exhilaration and, to me, that is what heaven must consist of.
There is only one problem.
Something stands between me and those dates; something larger and more hurtful than any other obstacle.
The 23rd of March.

I wake up suddenly, as though from a nightmare, but without any recollection of a haunting fantasy. I wake into my bad dream rather than out of it. The ceiling is vast and somehow empty above me like it knows what day it is too. Maddie wanted to paint clouds on it so it would be “like sleeping outside” but I refused. I’d rather watch a ceiling than a ceiling pretending to be the sky.
The room is cold and light like the plaster above me and the weather has somehow cleared to a mocking replica of the day a year previously, the day that stole my dad.
Annabel always said it was stupid that we had a car because “You’ve got no garage and no driveway,” but that wasn’t the point. Maybe we did have to leave it at the end of the lane, just past the church, ramped-up onto the grassy verge. Maybe the car could never take us right to our door and maybe it barely went further than the local bus but it was what owning a car symbolised that mattered.
Owning a car was freedom; it was the opportunity to seize the day and do what we wanted with it. It meant happy drives, it meant passes and glens and the solace of an empty grey road. To me, the car meant ice-cream and rain sloshing comfortingly across the windows.
To dad, I realise now, it must have meant something more. It must have symbolised power, hope, liberty; it was a token of pretence against our otherwise apparent poverty. A car meant pride; it meant we were not beggars. I suppose it must have been what enabled him to walk into the shop without hanging his head in inadequacy. I only realise these things now, sandwiched between clean sheets, looking back on my life as it plays out on the ceiling…
“Money eating monster,” Dad complains, hooking the petrol pump back up and fishing for his wallet.
But even I can see that he is not really angry.
 “Why do you keep feeding it then?” I ask, trotting behind him as he goes to pay.
 “Because it’s a price worth paying for what it gives me – it’s worth it.”
 “What?”
 “A full tank and my daughter,” he jokes, “what more could I ask for?”
And his eyes gleam as though it’s the life of a millionaire; paying for petrol with the last of his salary so that we can find a loch we’ve not yet explored…

And the ironic thing is that it was those two things that he died for.
I sit up in bed, finding myself unexpectedly thirsty. My mouth is dry with longing.
 I cross the room.
This time last year I woke up early, fed the chooks and ate dry cereal – there was nothing remarkable about the 23rd March back then. I don’t even remember what I did with my morning; I know the day was grey and pale like today because I remember wondering whether it was storm-grey or just cold-grey. I remember deliberating over a raincoat and taking it for safety when I went to meet dad at the shop…
 “Finished!” Dad signs jubilantly as though he has completed a marathon. He pulls his old jersey over his shop T-shirt and takes my hand. He is released from the confines of his work-place and nothing can stop us from driving off into nowhere.
 “Wait a second,” He says as I’m halfway through the car door. “I need to fill up. I haven’t got the nerve to try to make it all the way there when it’s this empty.”
 “Where?” I ask in excitement.
“You’ll see…”

But I never saw. The secret destination of our journey was a secret that was demolished when the windscreen shattered and the world gave way. I never knew. I never got to explore all of dad’s promises; they died with him. They festered in the corpse of a treasured car that is rooted in my mind forever, crushed on the tarmac like road kill.
I lean on the kitchen sink and clench the handle so tightly that the bumps on its surface bruise my hand. I want something to break – something to give way – and I don’t care if it’s my hand or the tap.
I don’t turn it on; I just attempt to pound it in my palm, enforcing its pain on me.
 In some twisted way it feels wrong, sinful even, to be thirsty when dad is so very dead. How can I dare to carry on with the process of being alive when he refuses?
I want to drink but I don’t.
I want to live but I don’t. Especially not today; an average Sunday which reeks of death. Not today when I feel the absence of a father so acutely. Not just any father but dad; the man I relied upon for life…
 “I’ll just drive up into the village for a tank,” he says and hands me a couple of pounds. “Buy me a sandwich, won’t you?” he jerks his head back to the Spar from which he has just emerged…
I’m still gripping the handle like it’s dad’s hand in that car park and holding it will prevent him from climbing into his car and setting out on and endless five-minute journey. I wonder briefly whether he knew somehow that he would never find the petrol pump and that was why he sent me elsewhere. I wonder whether he had some pre-empting idea of his fate and attempted to deliver me from it with two coins.
But if he did know anything then he was wrong to think he could save me from it. Surely it killed me more to watch it than to be in it. To die would have been pain, lights, noise for a few fragmented seconds and then black-out. To live is pain, guilt, grief for a fragmented eternity…
I let the shop door jingle behind me and trace the isles, almost skipping in my anticipation for the afternoon. My hands locate a BLT on default and I queue up at the counter, facing the window.
I watch Dad pull the compilation of blue metal in a circle and splutter it to the exit gap in the car park wall.
It’s a narrow gap and ‘blind’ according to Dad but he’s done it so many times…

I fall on the floor like the lorry has hit me and ball myself into a foetal position. I feel the incensing audacity of my heart as it beats loudly in my closeted ears...
I chink the coins in my hand and hear the beep of the till and the rustle of plastic bags.
Then, suddenly, the lorry is there. It roars into my vision in that one wrenching second as Dad pulls forwards.
I scream soundlessly.
The car snaps, blue metal wrenches, dad mangles. The lorry attempts to stop but it is too late and it only skids across the road, budging further into dad’s car.
The engine burns beneath the smeary airbags…

I howl, feeling the weight of everything crushing me against the crockery cupboard. I can still feel that same desolation like I’m still stood in the queue at the counter watching a lorry ruin my life.
I remember running and smashing into the door so hard that my body jack-knifed. I didn’t feel the whiplash for hours. The sandwich slipped from my hands and bacon splattered across the parking spaces with tomato pips. Someone had to grab me to stop me running straight after him into the wreckage and their hand clenched around the shoulder of the coat I’d decided to wear.
It ripped clean in half and I felt that man’s hands desecrate my torn-down-the-middle heart.
People have philosophical last words and angry last words and ridiculous last words but dad’s last words beat through me with no meaning. His last breath had asked me for a sandwich he never got to eat. His last breaths saved my life and yet ended it; it depends how you look at it.
James finds me, still rocking myself in the corner, when he goes to buy milk. His eyes catch on the fishhooks of my anguish; I ensnare his interest.
 “Erin?”
I don’t want interest; I want to be left alone to rot. I don’t want people to intrude and look after me like a daughter because I don’t want to be anyone to be my parents other than the two corpses incinerated in a Scottish crematorium.
“Go away.” I tell him.
“Shush, shush it’s ok,” His arm strokes my back in a gesture of comfort but I break from it, scalded.
“NO! Stop it. Stop it! YOU CAN’T BE THEM. STOP REPLACING THEM.”
It’s not that I want to be ignored or abused; I just think that there is a distinction between sensitivity and pity and I want people to recognise that. I want people to recognise that I appreciate them being aware and sensitive of my pain without feeling a need to be cloyingly ‘sympathetic’ about it; eternally apologizing for things they don’t understand and telling me to ‘cry it out’ as though my parents were just specs of grit that got in my eye.
I need the comfort of a benignly understanding person in the background, not intrusive hands pretending that they can hold my heart together. Especially today.
 “I’m sorry,” he says quietly, rocking back on his heals and almost overbalancing.
“STOP APOLOGIZING!” The word sorry could be spoken for and eternity and offer no comfort. Not unless ‘sorry’ can somehow rewind the past. “YOU’RE NOT DAD.”
 “No,” he breathes, “No; I know I’m not.” The washing machine gurgles to patch the holes in our conversation. “What would you like me to say instead?”
“I don’t know,” I mumble at my knees, letting my nose rub on the denim. “Nothing… just be there.” I direct the last words to him and, in response, he sits down, head bumping on the oven door, just being there.
Sometimes it’s nice to know that I’m more important than a pint of milk.

They treat me gently all morning. I don’t know if they actually know what today is or whether James has just told them quietly of his morning discovery but they walk around me with care; like I’m a fragile parcel or a bomb… yes, a bomb. And as the clock ticks down to one O’clock I come closer and closer to exploding.
“What would you like for lunch?”
“A BLT” I say subconsciously.
“What was that baby?”
“Bacon, lettuce and tomato,” I elaborate although I want nothing of the sort. I’m ordering dad’s lunch for him like I’m still in the Spar back home.
James doesn’t even question it; he just starts making it. I do ronds de jambe staring at the clock. Each miniature jolt of the minute hand is a beep of the timer.
James serves me my requested meal and I pick it up – it is heavy somehow; my limbs don’t want to function.
1:03 pm
365 days ago a man’s work shift finished three minutes late and he made a broken promise; a car crashed, a truck crushed a life with its unseeing face and a sandwich slapped the earth…
The bread slips through my shaking fingers. Butter smears on the wood-effect floor and tomato pips dance among the grease. Adele salvages half of it.
 “Three second rule,” she says, returning it to my stunned hand but I can only state a fact in return.
 “It’s dad’s.”
The phone rings loudly – louder than usual – and Natasha busies herself with it:
“It’s Marzena, or something, from ballet,” she stage-whispers at me. I nod and take the receiver nervously. I’ll take anything to replace a ghost sandwich.
 I cradle it against my face, hearing fuzzy silence.
 “Hi?” she says a little awkwardly.
 Phones make communication difficult.
 “Are you alright?” she asks.
 “Fine,” I lie.
 “Do you want to come round to practise? I don’t think I can remember that new bit from yesterday.”
It seems bizarre that she is asking me for help when she has always seemed so far ahead of me and I fidget in my slippery socks.
I don’t want to see anyone today but it would seem extraordinarily rude to turn down an invitation without a legitimate excuse. Marzena’s house means talking and pretending and lying but it also promises dance and that is enough of a lure for me.
“Ok. What time?”

Her dad answers the door for me. He welcomes me with courteous formalities. Bronya and her mother speak perfect English but her father is polish, as I discover, and speaks it only haltingly.
He nods at me and then retreats upstairs with a foreign sentence thrown at his daughter over his shoulder. She provides a translation: “You still have homework to do.”
Marzena’s mother rolls her eyes. “She’s a dancer,” she says in return but not loud enough for it to be heard.
We dance, and talk a little, and dance more. We eat mini-rolls and Pączek off a tray and discuss the shape of our feet. It is all easy, somehow, perhaps because we understand each other in a way that is deeper than mine and Maddie’s friendship. And because her father does not reappear to mock me with his presence. And because we have dance, and dance is far simpler than any other form of expression.
She searches up something on Google images and shows me a picture of a spiralling bridge, projected against the sky, that strings together two buildings.
“Look,” She breathes, awed by it.
“What about it?”
 “That’s where all the ballerina’s cross,” she continues in a half-whisper. It’s like magic; if we raise our voices we’ll break it. “When they, you know, ‘make it’ that’s where they cross into the Royal Opera House.”
We stare at it and dream, both overcome by the surging urge to stand on it, hung between the street and the sky.
“Be pretty cool to stand on it, don’t you think?” she asks eventually when my starving eyes have leeched all the goodness from the screen. Of course she doesn’t mean that, she means that it would be incredible to stand on it but words have a way of diminishing things like that.
I nod in response, neither of us needs to confess because we both know the same pull, the same desperation to be there.
“We’ll cross it one day,” she says without looking convinced.
 “You might,” I say doubtfully.
 “So might you.”
It is easy.
Perhaps what makes it easy is that they do not know. To them I am ordinary and today is a regular day and everything falls out as such within their house. There is no pity; just sugar and ballet.
 “Is dad going to come?” Marzena asks her mum tentatively as we finish. She clasps her hands together as though she’s scared to receive and answer.
“I hope so. Maybe if he came to watch he’d drop his… never mind…” she replies heavily, reaching to touch her shoulder.
 “What mum?”
 “No, nothing, never mind… This isn’t the time to discuss it.” I silence settles; I wonder if it would be rude to go and turn the music back on for one final run-through to dispel the discomfort. She turns to me and I suddenly know what’s coming; “What about you Erin?” she asks. I knew it was coming. I knew I could only be allowed to pretend for so long and that being ‘normal’ brings ‘normal’ questions which are hard to answer when ‘normal’ is a lie. I knew that hiding behind a mask was too good to be true; there had to be a crack in that mask somewhere and a slip-up on the stage.
I brace myself.
“Will your parents be coming?”
 “No, I don’t think they’ll be able to make it,” I say in a small constricted voice.
 “Oh no! that’s terrible!” She looks vaguely horror struck.
Is it? Is it really terrible? It’s almost funny that she’s here thinking that she’s pitying me for not having an audience. It’s funny that she sees that as a tragedy when really; the real issue is far removed from what she understands.
The real issue is a tragedy.

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