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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11. 11

“Happy Birthday!” Natasha wakes me up with a sing-song voice which is impressive for her at seven am. I was born on April Fool’s day; does that mean I’m just a practical joke?…
“By rights you should be brilliant at practical jokes,” Dad says gently as we wakes me up on my seventh birthday.
 “But I’m not,” I say anxiously. Am I therefore a failure?
 “No,” he concedes, “but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I’ve got enough grey hair without you fooling me around and adding to it,”
I hug my legs on the camp bed
“But I’m not brilliant at anything,” I worry.
 “Says who? Your teacher seemed to think you were.”
I shrug. “I’m not brilliant at anything that I want to be brilliant at.”
 “Like?”
I shrug again and Dad goes to comfort me, wrapping an arm across my knife-edge shoulders. He attempts to sink gently down next to me but the rickety camp bed up-ends and spits us, laughing, onto the floor. I laugh until I cry and then choke and then give up in exhaustion, I look at Dad and the laugh is reborn until we are shaking against the floor begging the hysterics to stop but unable to control them. We lie and laugh, entwined with my strewn bedding…

I gather my duvet around me like I’m back home but it feels wrong.
Natasha says she hasn’t bought me anything and then shouts “April Fool” as she produces a new pair of converses. They’re green – I suppose she’s trying.
Everyone laughs at her joke; I can’t see why.
I wasn’t meant to be born on the first of April; I was early and the midwives decided it was some sort of sign. Apparently I was destined to be a vivacious, rambunctious trouble-maker but that was nothing more than another empty joke and a group of trained fools.
Humour is something I’ve never quite grasped...
Come on! It’s your birthday and it’s April Fools; you have to do a joke or something” Annabel insists in Literacy.
 “Like what?”
 “Something funny,” she insists; “make someone else look stupid.”
So I tell her that she’s got pen on her face because I have no idea what ‘something funny’ means.
 “Really?” She questions; her fingers searching her cheeks as though she will feel its trace their like an incision.
 “Yes,” I reply. I’m not quite sure how long you’re meant to sustain an April Fools jest for.
 “Oh well,” she shrugs and then grabs the pen. “I don’t mind. I’ll draw on your face and then we’ll match.”
She leans over and spirals the nib against my cheek bone before I can cower away from it. I freeze where I am, beaten by my own forced ‘humour’…

So I was the butt of my own failed gag. It seems that I’m the butt of every experimental joke the world invents. I tried to go to wash off the mark Annabel scrawled on my face at lunchtime but she wouldn’t let me. She said it was our friendship tattoo and so, in removing it, I would be ruining our friendship.

Mrs Davies celebrates my birthday with a spelling test, Maddie with a shared KitKat and Lydia with a few harsh words as we hang up our coats. It is a day like every other.
The real birthday present is arriving at the theatre three days later.
Inhaling the smell of it brings a rush of excitement knotted with fear and trepidation. It is an incredible world; a world consumed with the heavy scent of hairspray and make-up and dust – all dancing under the lights. It wraps me in its arms and carries me somewhere beyond the real world; somewhere dizzying.
There is fierce anticipation in the air which mingles with the heat and heady smells in the semi-darkness. Rows and rows of folding seats stretch into the gloom at the back from which occasional lights flash out. There is a steady throb issuing from the radio controllers connecting the black-shirted men who rove the theatre with such expertise. I could never be bored of this place; its possibilities are too endless to imagine and its intensity too violent to ever tire of. I say nothing to the whispering gaggle of girls around me because I know that words will fail me and my mouth would spew a concoction of wild and uncontrolled excited nonsense and frenzied bubbles of laughter. Besides, there is something awe-inspiring about the place that even the youngest reflect in their soft chattering. It is, in some ways, church-like and I can’t deny an overwhelming sensation of pilgrimage. There is something spiritual here in the shadows of this cavernous room. It earns my reverence inexplicably.
The place is heaving at the seams with all the girls gathered from the corners of Thursdays and Tuesdays and the dance school I thought I knew is clearly little more than the tip of the iceberg under which hoards of students cluster. The auditorium is full of dancers and scattered bags ranging vastly in size.
A deceptively small older woman calls for attention. She doesn’t shout or clap her hands; she merely steps up onto the stage and something about her presence brings us to silence. In that moment I have no doubt that she is somehow in charge and she confirms it when she opens her mouth.
 “I assume most of you know me but for those few who only take Saturday classes and haven’t met me otherwise I am Miss Jennings.” Her eyes search out into the auditorium as though hoping to make eye contact with every single one of us. Her dazzled face sweeps along the rows; she seems to me like someone surveying a kingdom and perhaps she is. Perhaps this is her kingdom.
“We will spend the morning rehearsing. When you are not on stage you can sit in the auditorium to watch but you must keep silent.” Her voice fills the space with a quiet severity. I am thankful that I am taught by Miss Corrine. “When you go backstage this evening you will be told your assigned dressing rooms and chaperones. For now you will keep your bags with you where you are sat. You are expected to be quiet at all times when you are not in your dressing rooms otherwise the audience will hear you. You must also do exactly as your chaperones tell you unless they are overruled by e member of the theatre staff. If the fire alarm goes off this morning, anyone in the audience will leave by the out the back; those on stage will exit through the emergency exit on stage left. This evening and tomorrow, if there is an emergency, you will be escorted outside by your chaperones.” Her voice halts for a minute as though this is the first time she has paused for breath. “We will begin with the first scene; Indian Servants to the wings please.”
I jump from my seat immediately, itching to get to dance, and strip off to my leotard and tights. I fish in my bag for my shoes and a few grips to fasten my hair in place and then run through the seats into the stage’s welcoming arms.
 
Our ‘morning’ lasts until 3pm and it is relentless. We dance trying to simultaneously please three parties: Firstly and “most importantly” we are at the command of the theatre technicians. They require our undivided attention as they flash lights in our faces and incessantly haul curtains and partitions up and down behind us. Secondly we have to try to fulfil everything Miss Corrine and Miss Jennings are asking of us. I understand that it must be frustrating for them, having put weeks into creating a piece of artwork only to have it massacred by those they made it for, but I can’t help feeling that we could make a much better attempt at it if they did not stop us and make us repeat so frequently “like a broken record” Elodie says.
 “No, no, no! What is happening here? This was fine last week; why are you so incapable of keeping the formation? You’re a complete mess. Again.”
So we recommence and get a few steps further until we are stopped because of someone’s poor posture. Nothing slips past them. On one occasion I get so sick of the repetition that I just stand where I am, surrounded by a hash of blurred bodies, and Miss Corrine comes on stage and forces me to do the whole thing by myself as a punishment.
The final person we dance for is a photographer. The camera clicking is like and endless rattle of machine gun fire and after each dance is finished we are required to go back to certain places and hold certain positions so that she can get a shot in which everybody is in line.
It feels so fake.
When we are not on stage we settle ourselves into the plush seats and dream of the evening to come. We stuff down carbohydrates and observe those on stage with cool calculation. Among the excitement I sense raw jealousy and rivalry from the older girls. They too are enjoying themselves but are only too happy to pull faces when someone messes up. Perhaps they find it empowering to recognise failure in those who beat them.
The world is full of vultures.
‘Jasminda Williams’ is an overall disappointment as Mary and the general consensus is that, at age 17, maybe it is nice of the school to cast her as such for her last show but, despite being prettily petite, she ultimately struggles to carry the show as an obstinate ten year old. It is not that she is bad at dancing but she does not possess the quality the Elodie and Bronya do or the implacable beauty in their lines and I can’t really understand why they are reduced to being lead snowflakes when they could dance the main role so much better.
 Chattering girls come to the conclusion that she must have been chosen out of ‘fairness’ because it’s her last chance but that doesn’t seem a particularly just system for casting a show. Surely it would be fairer to give parts to the best dancers.
 ‘Ella Murrell’ as the Robin, however, carries the older girls into transports of delight as she skitters about the stage, hopping and flitting. A few others are scornful, critiquing her six-year-old spring-points but I notice that despite being erratic and painfully beyond the music’s control, they are turned-out, pointed and full of conviction. The whispering girls, in their jealousy, choose to overlook the fact that she is only six and her head is still too big for her body somehow and that she is beyond the average expectation for a child who lives in a world of adult’s legs, simple sums and playhouses.
I can envisage her being Marzena’s replacement once she has gained the results of a few years laborious drilling.

Because we are running so late, Miss Jennings requests that we learn the “finale” before finishing the ballet so that the dancers who are not needed in the final few dances can go backstage. For something that consists of so little it seems to be remarkably challenging to coordinate and it takes us dangerously long to process the planned structure of running on and curtseying before filing into rows.
The stage is filled with disorientated small children and running feet. I don’t really understand why it matters; it’s the dancing that seems important to me, not the way we receive our applause. That does not, however, stop me from feeling a small rush of excitement when I am instructed to run on and curtsey between Marzena and Elodie as we “will all be in our lovely matching dresses” having just danced the dance of my dreams.
Jasminda gets to curtsey last and then we all, following her lead, give one final curtsey behind her.
The majority of the girls around me are chivvied to dressing rooms and I stand, strewn among the whirl of bodies, where I am in my shorts and leotard. Once the tide has dispersed the end of the ballet is run and it is run far more hastily than all the proceeding dances.
Marzena and Elodie stretch for the splits and I make a feeble attempt to join them, unable to get further than ten centimetres off the floor while they use the folding seats to work on their “over splits” which look painful but awe inspiring at the same time.
We are finally allowed back on stage for our trio and I realise that my whole body is beating with a pulse of longing. The music begins and I am fulfilled.
An inspired silence settles over the rest of the room while we dance – as though the whole theatre has been plunged underwater. The lights make everything feel ethereal and I’m overcome by the rush that the music gives me.
We dance like our lives depend upon it. I feel it for the first time. I’ve always loved it; I’ve danced it and I’ve understood its language but never before has it engulfed me; never before have I become the dance and the music and had them merge into me.
It ends and I sway on my feet; my lungs bursting and clawing at the air.
Applause smatters from the darkness. The elation is dizzying. I want to live this moment for the rest of my life.
 “Good. That will do.” Miss Corrine says, stepping up onto the stage followed by Miss Jennings who walks right up to me.
“So you’re Erin Weir,” she says to me with a calculating glance. It makes me sound like my name is famous and I can’t help wondering what I’m famous for. I can imagine her and Miss Corinne sitting up straight together in a coffee shop talking about a helpless new girl who couldn’t do arabesques right.
I feel like I’m undergoing some sort of grave examination – like I’m at the dentist. Her eyes trace the lines of my legs and the shape of my shoulders and I force myself to stand neatly the way Miss Corrine always does. Bottom in and turn-out squeezed. Stomach zipped, chin lifted, ribs relaxed. Her stare has no warmth but I feel myself shrivel under it. Am I really that intriguing to look at – I’m just a roughly assembled set of limbs and bones with a skinniness that is awkward and unbecoming.
Eventually she drags her eyes off me. “Get back stage; you’re already late,” she orders, presumably forgetting that she is the main reason for my lateness.

We hover among the stacks of hair grips and foundation in the heated embrace of our dressing room. The entire grade 5 class is paced into one narrow room and it stinks of “true love” body spray. The clothes rail is bedecked with dresses in varying pastel shades. In contrast, the costumes we are pulling on are vibrant and exotic. We wear puffed-out trousers which end just below our knees and cropped tops spangled with fake jems. We are a mass of warm colours – like a spice rack – and girls play anxiously with their crusty hair.
The day has seemed endless but too short somehow; it’s afternoon gulped away by queues for make-up and carrying costumes up and down the backstage corridors. Miss Corrine produced almost all of them from the seemingly magically-enlarged boot of her car and it was only upon seeing the magnitude of fabric, all individually fitted, that I realised how much the fourth and fifth of April mean to her. It falls into place as I finger the fabric of my ‘lily’ dress; the leotard bodice has been stitched with milky fabric petals and I run my hands over it. I feel the tokens of dedication under my fingers; each one sown in thread by thread.
 “She must be a saint,” our chaperone says fervently as she admires the items on the rack.
 “I’ve never heard of a saint that taught ballet,” Elodie says with a grin.
Through the tannoy system the impatient hum of our first audience can be heard. It mounts steadily as the seats fill and I imagine being sat there, clutching a programme and craning my neck for the first signs of light and colour on stage. I imagine sitting there and burning in my own jealousy as I watch others have their freedom, their salvation, while I’m shut out on the wrong side of the glass. From the audience looking in you get a glimpse, as though through a shop window, of the best bits, the gold wrapping, but the glass is there between you, preventing you from entering the exclusive world.
“Ready girls?” The chaperone asks; checking her watch. “It’s five to six now.”
Marzena suddenly freezes in the middle of the chaos of flustered limbs.
 “What?” I ask; watching a strange sadness creep across her face.
 “It’s nearly over,” she breathes in a choked-up sort of voice.
 “Don’t be silly,” The chaperone comes over and straightens out her crop top. “You haven’t even started the first show yet.
 “I know but this is it,” Marzena begins miserably. “This is all there is – all it comes to… Two months of always having more left and now there’s nothing.”
 “Stop fussing; there’ll be other shows,” the woman says in exasperated tones but my blonde-haired idol just shakes her head.  “Now follow me – we’re going to wait in the corridor until you’re told you can go into the wings. Come on; you’ve still got tomorrow.”

As soon as the familiar fairy-tale music begins I become something else. I loose myself but, simultaneously, am completed as my body weaves its spectrum of dance. This is what I was born to do; this is what I live for.
It is like I live two parallel lives; like I am two girls at once and the normal, depressed, insecure version is like a cocoon. She smothers me and sticks to me and traps everything inside me. The other version is the butterfly that is liberated when it finds the strength to escape her chrysalis. Of course; the chrysalis always returns and sometimes she has hardened in her absence but when the second girl is nourished with ballet and lights and music she is strong enough to break out, unhindered. She can run for a while but the memories always catch up with her and force her to retreat again. She is beaten into submission by the torture of being a human and by the mortality of others but she is growing.

Marzena is nearly in tears when we finish the ‘reconciliation dance’ even though she’s smiling. I see the tear tracks illuminated on her face as we take our curtsey to the surge of applause.
“You’ve still got tomorrow,” I remind both of us.

But tomorrow expires itself in a fit of colours and stretched feet and leaves us empty handed.

I howl into my pillows. I understand Marzena now: two months of work and love and attention to detail has all been incinerated in the glow of two feverish days. It feels like an era has ended. The era of being one of a praised trio and of clingy anticipation is cut off with the downwards slice of a curtain.
But my howls are not only for recent times I wished away but for all the valuable gifts that I took for granted. They are for being and child and being someone’s daughter and being able to depend on the arms of my home and family. They are for a village I once called home and an empty vase full of ashes.
I hope I made my past proud today…
 “You’re so grown up Erin sometimes,” Mum tells me. “You’ll make us all proud one day. We’ll realise you have more to you than we’ve ever seen…”
They never got a proper introduction. They never met the dancer in me; they’ll never know that I danced for them today.
But mum and dad’s deaths gave me the gift of dance. It was only out of my grief that the dancer was born. Ballet is the vital ingredient which was never necessary while they were there to shelter me. Without it I’d be empty but I’d have a mother.
It seems that I can either have one gift or another; the two cannot be possessed simultaneously. They are independent; they cannot co-exist because they belong only where the other is absent. They are mutually exclusive.
 I want to have them both, desperately I want them, just so that I can prove mum right. I wanted them tonight. I wanted to be certain that I was not using dance as a replacement. I want to be certain that nothing replaces them and that dance is not an alternative to them; it is merely a coping strategy.
But is it? It seems so much more.
I cry into my bed covers until I feel sick and breathless. I begged for more than my fair share of happiness and now it has run itself out in the rivulets of mascara that streak my cheeks.

I linger for as long as appears reasonable after my next ballet class but it seems that leaving with the two stars is over with the production no matter how equal I felt. There are only so many times that it is acceptable to adjust my jeans or tighten my laces. I finally turn and leave, my bag pinching my shoulder as I throw my thanks to Miss Corrine over an indifferent shoulder.
Except that indifference is yet another front, yet another shelter to hide behind.
I don’t want anyone to know how much I miss feeling valued and involved because it would only expose what a sad, lonely person I truly am. I don’t want anyone to realise that I cherish a desire to be like them because awkward, untrained, unmoulded girls have no right to that desire. I’m not good enough to have dreams that big. I have no justification for them besides my love of dance so it feels safer to pretend that ballet class is a hobby rather than a life support machine.
 “Are they coming soon?” An aging woman asks me. She is standing outside trying to peer in.
 “Erm, I don’t know,” I stutter but she smiles benignly. “I suppose you could just walk in and see?” I suggest but she shrugs away my suggestion with a smile. There’s a sense of warmth about her that I’m not accustomed to receiving from strangers.
 “No,” she decides, “I think I’d better not disturb them. I’m Marzena’s gran, by the way.”
 I hover awkwardly. I had intended to walk right out of the hall that holds my heart but this unmistakable token of friendship make me wonder whether I should wait a little while to return the favour. Or am I just making excuses so that I can continue to drift on the fringes of a dancing world.
 “Are you doing this audition thing?” She asks, perhaps sensing my dilemma.
 “What audition thing?” I ask back with genuine interest.
 “Oh, it’s some London thing… London Burroughs Young People’s Ballet, or something like that.”
She surveys my blank face for a trace of recognition but I’ve never heard of it before.
 “Sorry; Marzena wants to go but my son in law – her dad – would rather she left her dancing shoes and picked up a pen, if you get what I mean.” I nod. “Apparently Elodie’s auditioning – I’m sorry – I just assumed all three of you girls had been told about it.”
I savour the words silently ‘All three of you’ I wonder if she knows she has made my day with 13 letters.
 “I don’t understand,” I say once I have managed to focus myself enough on the rest of her speech. “Why doesn’t her dad want her to dance?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she shakes her peppered head sadly. “He thinks she should put her efforts into something more… sensible. Something ‘serious and academic’… I don’t know.”
She searches the air for the right words and I remember a collection of Polish words reminding Marzena of homework and the issue of her dad not coming to the show…
 “But ballet is serious, it is for her, anyway,” I say, stricken, “She’s the best dancer I’ve ever seen!” I’m desperate to make her understand and for her dad to somehow hear my plea. It is ludicrous that someone with my desired talent might not be allowed to follow it when I’d celebrate it so much. It seems to be such a waste of beautiful dancing.
 “I know,” she says gently. “Perhaps you should try getting him to listen.”
The following silence has a distinct helplessness to it.
 “You’re very generous with the compliments for someone so talented,” she observes after a while and I screw my nose in confusion.
 “I mean,” she elaborates, “I can’t give you a decent critique because, despite my granddaughter’s best attempts to educate me, I remain woefully ignorant when it comes to ballet technique but I can tell you that, to a clueless old woman, you were one of the highlights of that show.”
“I was?”
“You needn’t be so surprised. You just danced with this natural breath to everything – it was so refreshing to watch you. You stood out in those group dances; I mean, maybe you were a lily but you were the most interesting, elegant and expressive lily I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t train my eyes of you; you were just so beautifully watchable.”
I am stunned motionless by her compliment; no one has ever offered me words of such magnitude before. I have never been told that I am ‘beautifully watchable’ – the majority of the world’s inhabitants do their best to avoid looking at me. They are afraid that they might graze either me or themselves with their glances.
My main aim in the shows was to attempt to blend in rather than being sorely obvious as the beginner, the fledgling. It never occurred to me that I had the capacity to stand out in a good way.
 “Um, thanks.” I smile.
I know that my response is hardly a worthy gesture of gratitude for such a beautiful appraisal but I can manage little else. I’m not very good at ‘thank you’s.
 Natasha’s eyes sometimes beg silently for a grudging smile from me and I rarely grant wishes so, although it doesn’t seem that way, I’m paying this near-stranger metaphorical gold. Someone who knew the sullen version of myself that I’ve slipped into would realise how greatly appreciative I am.
If smiles could be bought then the rarity I’ve just produced would have rampaged her wallet and ravaged her bank account. It’s a good thing for both of us that my happiness only costs a few kind words.
 “No need to thank me for being honest,” she says with an odd gruffness to her speech. I realise she must have recognised the enormity of my gratitude in my inadequate word.
“Sorry; I’ve kept you waiting here,” she apologises and I want to reassure her of many things: that Natasha will not mind, that I refuse to class a conversation as waiting, that I would not exchange this short exchange for a few minutes in Natasha’s car…
“Thank you.” I repeat and I exit without feeling rude. I don’t know how I find the way out from my seat up in the clouds. I leave the place feeling high above its ceiling.

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