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...


16. 16

We are paraded on the tube the next morning in a crocodile of pairs while the woman who fitted our costumes drives them over to our first venue. I pair with Gina; she says she feels sick.
I feel sick too, not with nerves, but with the jangling of the train careering beneath the streets and the sweaty closeness of being packed into to businessmen’s armpits and sandwiched in leather briefcases. My fingers clench to the support rail and I rock around it in the churning darkness; I want to escape and breathe in something other than the heat of the underground but we continue rattling towards our destination. My body is itchy in the compressive heat, already wearing my nude leotard as a base layer for my quick changes, but I can’t remove my hands from the pole in order to adjust my sticky clothing. And the train just forces deeper into the blackness, racing my heartbeat with its chugging and shifting.
I just want to be there instead of teetering between the blurring stations, unable to distinguish between fear and excitement. I hate being underground like this – it feels so permanent, as though we’re being buried.
Then there is a rush of commotion and Gina is grabbing my arm to lead me out. Limbs flap, buns flash; we swarm out of London’s intestines flanked by Joseph and Sarah.
I notice that Sarah is a punctual sort of person and being with a horde of noisy, scrabbling kids annoys her. She keeps checking her watch, making tutting noises and with each check her pace hurries and she snaps at us to keep moving. She wrings her hands when half of the group gets left behind at the traffic lights. Surely she doesn’t have to put herself through this, surely it’s a matter of choice to be in charge of the touring company and she could withdraw at whatever point she chose. So why is she here, snarling at our hurrying feet, as we plunge towards something both incredible and terrifying?

It is disarming to see the place that we are to dance. It is a mental health unit for elderly people and it shows even in the plastic corridors. A sharp, sterilised sort of smell mingles with breakfast and various things beep at us from all directions. The corridors are wide, wide enough – I predict – to fit two wheelchairs alongside each other and from elsewhere there is the slur of angry, damaged speech.
I hug myself as though scared that I might start to fall apart if I don’t as we bunch through the sliding doors and press ourselves along the wall.
 “You will be dancing just through here,” Sarah points through an open doorway into a crushed sort of lounge that is dominated by a TV.
 “What?” Somebody asks and, although it sounds rude, we all think the same. “But that’s tiny!”
 “We told you that you were going to have to restrict yourselves to adapt to whatever space.” Sarah says tersely. “It’s a challenge and, if you want to stand a chance in the dancing world, it is one you need to get over.”
 We are silenced once more and he all draw back into the wall as a nurse pushes a wheelchair past. It is not that there would not have been enough room for them; it is just the instinctive reaction to draw back from the ugliness of the sight. The man’s head droops sideways despite the way he’s been propped up – it’s like he doesn’t want the support so is purposefully working against it. Saliva stains his chin and words trickle out. Someone coughs uncomfortably as he begins to shout hurt but meaningless words at the ceiling.
 “Sorry,” the nurse apologises for him like he’s a naughty child who’s said something rude.
“Right,” Sarah says once they have passed and girls begin to peel themselves from the wall. “We’ve come here every year since I’ve been in charge and, as you can imagine, it can be a difficult audience. I have to warn you now that someone may make involuntary noises – they may shout out – in the middle of a dance but you must not let this distract you.” She pauses a little for a rumble of discomfort to die down; “In many ways it is also a very rewarding audience when you see how far you can restore someone with the beauty of ballet.”
A few try to nod but most are dumbstruck. I don’t quite know why but I am reeling, still clutching the wall for support. I didn’t think it would be so difficult to see ruined human beings for me but, for some reason, I seem to be struggling the most.
 “When we have finished the ballet you will get a chance to meet and greet them. You will talk to your audience; they will be happy that you spoke to them.” She says it firmly like her certainty can make it true.
“We will get changed through here,” Sarah continues and we are led into a side room with an assortment of chairs. The costume woman and the costume rail are already waiting for us. “If you need to do a quick change, it will be done in the corridor which we were just standing in. Your costumes should all be on the rail.”
We rush over and locate our hangers, running our hands through the fabrics in search of something familiar, something that feels like we are dancers. It will be easier if we can pretend that we have a stage and that our audience are not destroyed.
I climb into my ink and silver star costume. We are not dressed as stars but as pieces of midnight sky; bedecked with strewn jewels to create the illusion of starlight.
 “It would look better on stage,” The American girl sighs. “The lights would catch on the silver bits and make us come alight.”
She’s right but I don’t want to admit it.
Instead I busy myself with laying out the brown tunic that I wear as Tiger Lilly. It is stitched with red thread patterns and is actually sown into shorts on the bottom half although it looks like a skirt.
 “Culottes,” Gina says wisely and I don’t question it as I help her with the hidden zip of her white dress.
 “I’m going to stick to the floor,” She angsts.
 “You’ll be fine,” I say, setting my feathered Indian headdress beside the tunic.
 “No I won’t – have you seen the floor? My bare feet will get sweaty and stick when I’m meant to turn.”
 “None of them are stupid – they wouldn’t have given you a costume that you couldn’t dance in.” I say, feeling certain of that at least.
 “Sorry,” she says automatically. “I’m just panicking.”
I start to rise up and down through my feet. I don’t really want to talk to anyone. I just keep seeing that man cursing incoherently at the cheap ceiling tiles and I can’t work out why it bothers me so much.

When I start to dance the room seems to dissolve. Of course I am aware of it. I am aware that the bulk of wheelchairs have taken up most of the space and that the television confines my dancing and that I cannot simply pas de chat through the wall when it gets in my way but I am aware of it merely on a practical and physical level as opposed to an emotional one.
It is not a perfect building and it is not a perfect audience but the music and the choreography combine efforts to comfort me. Efforts that are only punctured by one member of the audience who starts moaning loudly and another who tries to stand and says:
 “They told me there was tap dancing. I was lured here under false pretences.” And he doesn’t stop trying to stand or trying to say it even though his voice is tearing up at the edges.
Then I am ‘off stage’ again and shedding my skin in the corridor. I pull on my tunic and become something else. It is just me and the peeping lift in the corridor and my heart hammers under the clothing like it wants to be heard. I don’t want to hear anything but the music. I don’t want to hear his fading pleas: “They brought me here… false pretences” or the stifled cries of someone upstairs who has not become an audience. I want to hear Neverland and its voices and I want to just be Tiger Lily. I want to fight pirates and see it all as an adventure with a happy ending. I want Jon’s fairy tales even though this place only disproves several more; I want the happily-ever-after that lived in dad’s car.
I hear my musical cue and I enter, padding and parting invisible creepers with the palms of my hands.
I am not Erin. I am not a crying girl in a plastic corridor; I am Tiger Lily and I have no parents to miss. Neverland is just a playground for the young and it carefully avoids the things that an innocent imagination would. In Tiger Lily’s world, only the bad and the ugly die.
Her character floods my head; she takes me over and drives my feet. My feet can’t feel the way I can so they’re easy to capture. When I finish I do not remember what I have done, aside from nearly slipping right into the television screen, the majority is blurred happiness but I know that I at least did right steps even if I didn’t do them right.

As we finish, I notice that some of our audience look happy. It is mostly the nurses, perhaps this is their relief as much as it was intended to relive the patients. Some of the patients are clapping, mouths agape and smiling toothlessly but I find myself inexplicably drawn to the ones who aren’t. When we are told to ‘meet and greet’ them, I approach a thin man who seems too tall for his wheelchair.
“Where’s Angela? Where’s Angela?” He panics; his shrivelled fingers reaching and snatching at the air beside him. My stomach cringes and my breathing shallows. I wish I could stop feeling sick but the whole idea of touring has become more difficult today. Now I know the reality, I wonder why I wanted it so much. “Where’s Angela?” he demands and I shake my head mutely. I don’t know if he even sees.
“It’s OK Ernie,” a nurse says in that soft and intentionally caring voice which is more like a feather stroking a wound.
“Where am I? Where’s Angela?”
“You’re with me,” the nurse replies although she was not spoken to. He was asking the blank air beside his face. “You’ve just watched the lovely children dancing and now a nice girl is talking to you.”
 “Where am I?” His voice is lower now and its desperation is in its weakness and confusion rather than in frenzy. He sounds so defeated and his voice is too quiet for the world to care. She signals that I should move on to someone else but all I can see for the remainder of the morning is a rake of a man, trying to grab memories out of thin air.

The place I have been dreading since I first saw the list of tour venues falls on the afternoon of day three. Day three; the day I thought I was getting used to seeing disabled children and imprisoned adults and thought that I was finding I actually enjoyed the way members of the audience would be smiling by the end. I thought I had found that it wasn’t so bad now that I had distinguished that this tour wasn’t about mockery of the less able but involving their minds despite the limitations of their bodies. I thought all of this only because we had not yet stepped foot into a hospital; my emotional casualty zone.
 “Obviously you won’t be dancing for those in immediate danger or an extreme condition,” Sarah snaps when I ask but, as we arrive, a mangled body is rushed past us in a bared bed. I stop dead as though I’ve crashed once more into the door of that Spar. The boy behind me trips on my heel.
 “What the hell do you think you’re doing, retard?” He fumes but I don’t care. I just see the mangled face, the shattered joints and want to un-see it.
I turn sideways, trying to escape but I only receive a mouthful of hair and shoulder blades. My hands raise to my face, wanting to blot it out, but they can’t plug my ears or prevent the sickening sanitary smell from entering my nose…
“Come on love,” a vague person at my side says. He hands are red and shiny from washing and she tries to take mine with them. I retreat from her tough, grasping hazily from her uniform that she is another nurse. I don’t study her face; my world has condensed radically in the last few hours so that I am too stunned to really notice other people. I only care about one person.
 “You can’t sit here on this chair all night,” she tells me.
 “Why not?” My voice is hollow like it’s been drained. The hospital smell is still tanging unpleasantly on my throat as the waiting room clock flashes to 22:58. I can’t cut it out…

I try to choke the taste out of me. I continue to walk subconsciously, dragged unwittingly in the tide like driftwood. I wonder if that nurse remembers our little exchange and how she lied that I’d see him tomorrow just to be rid of me and how she had to half carry me away from the seats outside his ward because I was too paralysed to function.
No one seems to have noticed that I am reeling in my recollections; we are just delving deeper into the maze of corridors. The hand sanitizer dispensers blur and I lose count of the number of dying fathers we must have passed…
“What do you think you are going to achieve for your daddy by sitting here?” She asks, sinking into the plastic beside me.
 “I have to,” I say. I don’t really know why because I know what she said was true, my presence is entirely irrelevant – I say it because I have this certainty that, as long as I’m within calling distance, it will all manage to hold together. My logic is non-existent. I don’t know why it is me who must be near to him but I’m too irrationally certain of it to pay attention to my selfishness. If he called me, what would I even do?
 “You want to be here for him, huh?” She asks and I clench my fingers into the backs of my knees. I notice with detached surprise that I’m still wearing the clothes I put on this morning, the clothes dad saw me in, the clothes that collided with the door of the Spar.
 Of course I am.
“You can be here again tomorrow but he’d want you to rest for now,” she tells me…

Maybe she didn’t know that she was lying and maybe I finally accepted because I didn’t want her to be.
We reach our destination, a large airy ward which has been partitioned around the edges by blue curtains.
As if privacy matters when you’ve already been stripped of your dignity.
The curtains are pulled back to reveal people like they are window displays. They are in those beds that fold you up into an artificial sitting position. I imagine vandalised dolls in a toy store window – my tongue practically licking the glass as I observe them.
The gaps between beds have been temporarily filled with other patients in varying degrees of dying. Or of living; I find myself struggling to distinguish. Some seem dead already with sallow poisoned skin and bones that protrude painfully from their stretched skin. They are sustained by the pipe work lacing up their noses, arms and stomachs.
 “Right, you’ll be changing over there,” Sarah dictates, as always. Josephs reign is apparently over.
 “Did you see that woman?” Someone is whispering.
 “She looked well creepy,” another agrees.
 “What the one on the left? – I know right!” They begin to forget to whisper.
 “And that guy who got wheeled past.”
“Oh my God, yeah – was it a guy? I couldn’t even tell.”
 “Yeah – the face was too messed up.”
Yeah, I saw too. I saw that butchered human; yet another fatality on the production line. I bet there’s someone crying for the genderless thing they just discussed. I bet there’s someone who’s numb instead of being both awed and horrified by him. I bet there’s someone who’s collapsing internally…
 “You said your mummy was in the entrance?”
“She didn’t want to see him.”
“That’s understandable,” she says.
 They wouldn’t let me see him, Mum tried to draw me away earlier but I think she’s stopped caring, to be honest. They were too nauseated by the broken puppet that they decided he was censored when it came to his daughter.
 “I just mean,” she corrects herself, “it’s difficult to see someone you love hurt,” but that’s obviously just a prettier version of the truth. The real truth is blood-stained and it has the lorry’s tooth marks all over it.
She prises me from the chair with promises…

Promises that were broken before the night was out.
We are changing in the hospital toilets; just opposite our ‘stage’. The walls scream poster slogans at me and I fumble with my star costume. It all feels so futile suddenly, so stupid to pretend that everything is fine. The chintz-and-glitz dream of a theatre is flushing itself down with the toilet water.
 Toilet water and tears. They come in multitudes and, for the first time, I am noticed.
 “Erin, what’s up?”
“Are you OK?”
 “What’s wrong?”
But how do I explain that each broken face here is my father’s and that each blue wrapped nurse is the one who separated us permanently? The whole roomful of girls turns its pity on me. hairspray cans wilt in their hands as they divert their attention from the mirror to me. they all ask the same unanswerable question.
I do the only thing that I think of – I try to escape by diving blindly for the door and searching for dad in this sterile monster. I ski in my ballet shoes with my costume rippling across my back – a little piece of the night sky. I imagine, somehow, stumbling back into that waiting room with its red plastic chairs and its nine-year-old girl.  For some reason I am certain that I will fall into it, back through time.
Logic evades me once more.
I’m not thinking, I’m feeling and reacting instinctively. Behind me, pity and confusion are chasing and I feel the gain of concerned ballerina’s at my heels.
Sarah is yelling at her slice of midnight as I pelt between the constellations of empty humans flooding my path.
 “Erin Weir!” She bellows. “Stop right now, you are being completely un-professional and if you cannot remember how to conduct yourself you can consider yourself automatically excluded from the remainder of the tour.”
 Somehow, through all the webs of confused desires, I remember that the tour is important and I both want and need to be Tiger Lily. I stop, feeling my flush rising and my tears falling to water the plastic.
I let myself be caught.
 “What do you think you are doing?” She hisses, her voice dampened now to satisfy the disgruntled corridor but it is no less dangerous.
 “Nothing, I repeat nothing, gives you the right to go off alone, exploring any of these venues.” Her voice rings although it is little more than a whisper and it wrings me out like a dishcloth. I don’t see how my crazed running could be interpreted as exploring.
 “Your acting like a hooligan has probably disturbed a large number of patients who require recovery rest. Potentially it could have jeopardised an urgent cause. You simply cannot behave like this, especially not in a hospital where doctors do not want to be dealing with runaways because they are trying, every minute to save lives.”
 As if I don’t know. I guess they couldn’t try hard enough for dad; he was long gone once the lorry hit its mark.
“Why are you crying?” she demands although she cannot have only just seen the flood planes on my face.
 I’m trying to save a life, I think to myself, but I don’t know what I mean by it. My thoughts are so confused, so dysfunctional. I just know I’m thinking back; I’m re-living my adulthood.
 “Answer me, what on earth compelled you to act so rashly and ridiculously?”
Fellow stars and pirates are skidding to a stop around me; once more I hold their attention. I raise my arm to my face in an act of drying my eyes but really I’m trying to shield my nakedness. My shelter is beyond repair; I wait for the vultures to flock.
 “I was running away,” I say flatly, or was I, wasn’t I running towards?
“This is outrageous,” she exclaims. “What from?”
She stares at me deeply like she’s prising my face away and exploring the mess underneath. Silently, almost imperceptibly, she nods and rounds up the other dancers with a sharp flick of her arm. We retrace and she leads from the back where she trails with me.
“You’re adopted aren’t you?” She asks, “I saw on your information form.”
I nod because I have no words to lie with.
“And your real parents?”
She asks it quietly. I feel that she is uncertain whether she has asked too much but I don’t see the point in denying the truth. She seems to already understand anyway; what difference can the truth make? I open my mouth and try to form words:
“They died. My dad died in some place like this.”
“Erin,” I look at her properly when she uses my name, the harshness has melted out of her. She is not suddenly sympathetic and sentimental but she stops being the enemy. “This tour is more difficult for you than the others but you have to isolate this from your dancing. This place affects you emotionally but all this must be put aside if you want to dance. A dancer can be told in the wings that their mother has died and go on stage to dance Clara – an excited child at Christmas. She might have argued with the male principal but when she dances she must be in love with him. She must put all her faith in him because the audience want to see it like that.”
I nod again. I half understand although, for me, it is about myself. It is not the audience that drives me, it is Joseph’s final incentive – me. I should care more about what the audience want but I don’t because as soon as I dance I am too absorbed to care.
“You cannot jeopardise your dancing with your emotions – let today be a lesson. You must learn to separate them. It is hard when you are so young and so hurt but it is essential. Today you must be a star, you must be Tiger Lily. I think you already know how. I’ve seen, sometimes I’ve wondered if dancing is the only time you’re alive. You must separate the two.”
 “They’re separate anyway,” I admit.
 “What was that?”
 “When I dance it falls back anyway – I forget without forgetting.”
 “Then you will dance,” She says it like it is simple.

“As soon as you’ve changed you can start going through to talk to them,” Sara tells us as we strip down to our nude leotards and hang our costumes back up for tomorrow.
I am still trying to unwind the head-dress which has managed to tangle itself through my bun but those who have finished hover anxiously. Age and illness are inexplicably repulsive and no one wants to involve themselves with the drooling, incapacitated bodies that formed our audience. For the most part their minds won’t remember what they just watched.
I guess, if you were and optimistic sort of person, you could say that one good thing about mum and dad is that I won’t have to watch them suffer the natural human process of breaking down and failing. I won’t be faced with parents that fall apart more the longer I try to hold onto them.
But I struggle with optimism; I can’t help feeling cheated when our audience members have each had twice the time mum or dad got.
“Go on.” Sarah instructs and they slip through the partitioning door at her command. I manage to work the head dress free of my hair and return it to its place on my hanger before following. The group has not dispersed into the room, preferring instead to clump in the doorway, waiting for someone else to make the first move. I imagine how devaluing it must be to have a group staring at you, too pitying to want to talk to you – well, perhaps there is little imagination involved – and decide to lead. I pick out a face at random and head for it, not really sure of myself but certain that I do not want to become part of a distant and patronising crowd.
 “Hello?” I venture to the woman who is huddled in her chair and, to my surprise, she comes alive. Her eyes seek mine and they are lit with enthusiasm. Her hands reach for mine and press them together.
 “You were beautiful,” she breathes; “All of you.” her voice is starved and wheezy but the passion in it is unmistakable. I realise, in that moment, that it has been a long time since anyone or anything moved me and this woman’s desperate hands seem to have achieved the impossible.
“You made me so happy. Today is a happy day.” She declares, her eyes brimming with joyous tears and my chest feels oddly constricted. I can’t quite work out whether I’m happy or sad; I only know that this is so different from the soaking depression that normally claims ownership of me.
 “You must dance, always; never stop dancing. I am happy today because of you.” Her fingers are skeletal and they cling to mine with some sort of ardency. The bony grip and dig of her joints is painful but her words are worth it. There is something fulfilling about the whole situation.
“You have a chance, you must always dance. When I was a girl my mother said I had to stay in the kitchen – there were no chances. You have this chance and it is yours and no one can confine you to a kitchen. You will make people happy – we should all spread happiness. You must dance.”
I’m kind of crying without knowing why, really.
I wonder if she knows that she is the happiness-spreader, not me. She is the one who holds happiness on her tongue and gives it to me in abundance. All she has are the words she’s giving to me and I can give nothing in return.
“Thank you,” I say finally with salt tears racing down my cheek-bones.
 “Thank you,” she replies and releases my hands. I step back from her and fall into the hubbub of the room. I had forgotten that the place was filled and that it had that unpleasant smell and that painful silence. Other kids are attempting awkward conversation with the greyed, worn inhabitants of the Peach Tree Nursing Home. They’re praying for some sort of miraculous deliverance from their stalling exchanges without knowing that my exchange has felt like a small and beautiful miracle.
It is not the kind of miracle I wanted in an empty Scottish church but a dawning certainty that I belong in ballet shoes. I wonder if someone else saw it – the old human holding the young – and I hope that they didn’t because it feels intrusive somehow. They are trespassers into my private encounter.
I promise myself that when I dance I will dance for her, a shrivelled woman I will never again set eyes on, as though I owe her a debt that can only be repaid if I follow the dreams she had for me. To me I’m just a faulty work-in-progress but to her I was a dancer. Maybe all dancers are works-in-progress to themselves.
I don’t want to talk to anyone else because I want to treasure her voice for as long as possible. To the other children this was another day of tour, another rough-edged venue, and they are itching to leave their discomfort behind. I intend to preserve the day.
When I’m eighty-something, if I’m still around, I’d like to think that I’d remember how an eighty-something-year-old inspired an eleven-year-old.
 “Erin, are you going to talk to someone?” Sarah asks sharply and I jump. “How do you think you’d feel if a visitor was too pretentious to talk to you?”
 “I have talked to someone.”
 “You’re meant to integrate with the sufferers here not just dip in to a brief conversation,” she tells me and each word stings with its ignorance. She sees my face and its tear-stains and her eyebrows raise. “Don’t tell me you’ve been crying again?” She says sounding angry and I turn away shaking my head.
I hate the way she calls them ‘sufferers’ as though all they’ve done is suffer when really they’re people, people with the capacity to inspire. I hate the way she tries to tell me what I already know and the way she assumes me to be ostentatious and an attention-seeker.
I stumble in the direction of a wheelchair-bound man. My moment of perfection has been brought to an abrupt end.
 “Hello.” I say, making an attempt to appear friendly and the woman behind him smiles tensely at me.
 “Can you sign?” She asks.
 “What; sorry?” I ask back; not grasping the question.
 “Do you know sign language – my husband’s deaf?”
 “Oh, sorry, no,” I apologise, stalling over my words. I move on suddenly as a flush rises in my face and find myself, once more, reminded of my humaness.

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