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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18. 18

My first day at secondary school falls ironically on the anniversary. It is the 2nd of September and the same day that Mr Jamison took his dog for a walk and found a suicide. It is the same day that a police officer arrived at what had been home, tried to drink from dad’s mug and announced my readmission to hell.
Was it him who threw me into the ocean or mum, or did I just plunge into it of my own accord?
 “Erin,” Natasha calls me from where I am, pressing my back into the wall and hoping I will stop feeling. “Breakfast time! James even made us pancakes before he left.” I can’t stand the idea of eating jumpily and pretending to be both nauseous and excited about school. My palms are pushing the wall so hard that it is stained with their sweat and I start to rise and fall on my toes, my spine scrapping the surface Maddie painted.
 “Erin?” Natasha comes into my room and doesn’t see me at first; I’m standing practically backed on to the door like a picture frame. She looks around in confusion and locates me, searching for a child in the hung face. I huddle between my shoulders as they cry tremulously and beg for my mother’s return.
She is infinitely absent, lost forever in the mountains with my father’s ashes. She doesn’t come back for her daughter.
 “Erin, for God’s sake, your pancakes will get cold!”
I don’t care about pancakes but I go through, my body trembling with memories…
Mum doesn’t seem to see me. she huddles herself, tugging at her sleeves with the pincers that were fingers. Her face is drooped towards the little jug like she’s bending to kiss him.
 “Can we have breakfast?” I ask because Mum always serves me breakfast even when I’m more than capable of it myself. She doesn’t seem to hear me over. I presume that her mouth must have fallen open because she starts to howl along with the Easter winds. Her shoulders don’t shake, her head doesn’t bounce; she is frozen apart from the noise of her cry. It is chilling, like I’m living a ghost story, but I don’t have the emotional strength to be scared. Instead I fall into a lopsided chair and let the fight drain out of the pair of us…

And mum gave up long before her body did; for some reason I started getting breakfast after that. I would lay a place for her at the table, making sure that she had the shinier cutlery and the less coffee stained mug, and all the same she’d never sit there. She’d hug the second pillow and I’d never be able to tell if she was trying to smother it or if it was smothering her.
I wonder, once again, whether she knew from the moment that she woke up to a storm and an empty house that she was going to quit life and walk herself over the edge. Perhaps it was a sudden realisation that the rain and my absence would make it easier for her to let go. Or perhaps she’d been rolling towards the cliff since the crash, momentum snowballing and snowballing until it peaked at the top of a mountain crevice and the force dad’s death created stole her over the edge. Or perhaps she just intended to get away and go for a walk as had become traditional and she reached a point where she wondered why she bothered and why she should go on with the guilt and the longing and the crushing weights. Maybe she wondered why she was still forming routines out of nothingness and why she bothered swimming when drowning took less effort. Maybe she saw and opportunity and poured herself at it until the mountains had pummelled her beyond feeling.
And the conclusion I always come to is that she maybe pretended she was riding a roller-coaster even when it became too dangerous for nausea and that she pretended it was exhilarating so she could forget that it was obliterating.
 “Come on! You’ll be late and you’ll like these pancakes,” Natasha calls wearily. She is so certain – like Sarah – ‘you will like them’, ‘you will dance’, as though it is unquestionable and life has a certainty about it.
I like the way that Adele says that I’m not allowed to try to tag along with her and her year nine friends because it offers a distraction. Of course, the distraction is nowhere near sufficient as a mask for my broken-puzzle world but I like the way that she tries without even knowing. I like the way that she pulls the hair bobbles from the ends of my ‘babyish’ plaits and brushes it loosely to the side with her fingers. They’re rough and her chipped blue nails snag on the rugged tangle but I understand bits of her now. I understand that she does actually care about me more than her phone but struggles with the idea of showing it. I understand that the sharpness of my makeover is meant to be helpful and perhaps it does make my life easier because I feel less like the orphaned Erin Weir with my new hairstyle.
I like the way she’s removed her painted red smile even if it’s only to avoid a first-day-back detention and I like the way that her scalded, poisoned hair is growing away into a dull sort of brown that allows me to pretend that I’m her sister.
Do it like that? No. I don’t know.
I don’t know if I want to move on from Erin Weir and become a younger sister. Sometimes I feel like, if I could recreate myself as a ballerina from London, things would be much easier and the traumatised daughter of a chook farmer  would disappear, taking her depression with her. But I know it doesn’t really work like that because no matter how hard I try I neither want nor am able to remove the truth. It feels like a betrayal to attempt to do so, a betrayal of mum dad and myself even, that blossoms as my accent dwindles. Each word that transfigures on my tongue is a little piece of home that I’m losing. I can’t leave behind Erin Weir because she is me and she is all I have left of myself. Pretending might promise solutions but I have enough self-hate without lying to myself. It would be stupid to sink myself faster with the baggage of dishonesty.
I look at Adele again and suddenly I don’t like her stretching mousy roots.
 “Alright Erin?” Natasha asks as I drop my fork.
 “I’m not hungry,” I lie. I tried finding things to like and I found that there was no certainty in liking any of the features of the scene and lest of all the plate before me. I don’t want to eat pancakes because I want to forever remember their taste by the sickly kitchen and the sizzle of the frying pan and the crisped edges flaking on my tongue. I want pancakes to be preserved forever as the imperfections of bitter excess lemon and sugar frosting my searing fingers and laughter that spewed between our teeth. I want them to always be a room that’s full of my ‘best friend’ and my mum and my dad. If I eat now I’m scared I will replace them.
Adele takes my plate instead and I watch as her discoloured lips devour what looks like mum’s last and finest recipe.

“You OK?” Maddie asks. I know that’s a standard piece of small talk but it seems like a ridiculously stupid question, especially today. Not that she has any reason to know that.
I nod a lie.
 “I know, it’s kind of scary, isn’t it?”
I make a non-committal grunt and remember real fear; the fear of an unknown face on the doorstep in mum’s place.
 “Like, we’ve been the big kids and now we’re the small kids. I hope we’re in class together.”
 “Yeah,” I say genuinely. I need her because without her I am friendless and marooned. I think she knows that I’m being sincere although my voice is brittle and empty because she nods sombrely and we both notice Lydia in a skirt that is too short, looking both angry and terrified.
What chance do I have when my vulture has its own predator?
She pretends not to see us when we pass and Maddie drags me over to Amy who has a new school bag and new shoes which make her look like she’s stepped from a back-to-school advert.
 “Good summer?” She asks me out of politeness but Maddie responds before I’ve even registered the question;
 “She went on tour,” she boasts, more proud of it than I am.
 “What? Like One Direction?”
 “You’re such an idiot Amy,” Maddie responds, “She’s a ballerina she went on tour with a ballet company.”
She says it like it is some glamorous pop star sort of thing and Amy looks at me in a new light with shining eyes.
 “Whoah,” She says and offers me her bubble gum. I shake my head, unsure whether I should reveal that, in honesty, there was no glamour. Should I reveal that we got changed in reeking toilets and performed in constricted spaces for and audience who had a combined life expectancy of another year between them?
“That’s cool, you have to buy me tickets when you’re famous,” she says.
“Did you have a good summer?” I ask in return because people tend to ask questions like that only if they want someone to ask it back to them. She nods excitedly; it becomes clear that she has been bursting to announce something to us and has been waiting to reveal it dramatically.
“I saw One Direction.”
I pretend that I find that piece of news both interesting and exciting the way it clearly is for her.
“I think Harry Looked at me!” She squeals and I glance at Maddie to check whether this is something that I should also start squealing about. Maddie rolls her eyes ever so slightly and I smile quickly while Amy is too distracted to notice.
A sharp, prolonged bell rings. Not like the primary school bell that seemed almost Victorian and had to be rung by hand but a shrill automated sound that is so loud it seems to make my head vibrate. It cuts right through Amy’s giggling and silences us.
“I guess this is when school starts?” Maddie says uncertainly.
 “I guess.”
I say and step through the doors into my new school.
Each lesson is, in essence, the same at first. It consists of welcomes and apologies about forgetting names, lists of classroom laws and unrealistically dire warnings of what will happen if we break them. Our first day and the few that follow seem to all merge into one; one exhausting introduction to a new world. The school is a labyrinth and each year ten and eleven is a Minotaur – inexplicably threatening.
The homework is excessive but essentially the same for each lesson. It involves covering books and writing classroom’s legal system on to their first pages. School is perplexingly flexible in its use of rooms but rigid in its timing. There is no chance of over spilling on literacy (now rechristened as English) and cramping into Maths. It should be easy to get my head around but somehow the certainty of its schedule is yet another unknown quantity for me to flounder in. At least we are not really expected to work much. The first lesson that requires brain power is my English class. We are issued with thread-bare copies of The Boy in Striped Pyjamas to read and the teacher leads us through some grisly contextualisation before giving us a sheet of homework questions and a chapter to read.
Bettina, a tall girl in my class whose blonde-hair-blue-eye stereotype betrays her, spends the rest of the day being molested with insensitive words and people lob occasional, mocking ‘Heil Hitler’s at her. I don’t think she realises that they also walk behind her to the locker rooms, frog marching and saluting extravagantly.
I’m already sick of secondary school.

“The world’s losing it,” Natasha announces when she sees my prescribed reading material. “They shouldn’t be making children read this sort of thing – it’s such a grim book.”
I shrug and, in a vulgar attempt at wisdom, I answer back; “But it’s true. It’s grim but it’s honest.”
She shakes her head and lifts the book up from under my eyes in order to lay down a table cloth.
I do not doubt the grimness of life, whether in prejudice or other forms. The thing about grimness is that people are good at detecting it when they’re suffering from it but not when they are inflicting it on others. If you wanted proof you’d only have to see that a modern German girl was punished for being German directly after a lesson about how Jews were murdered for being Jewish. Mrs Cox told us it was important that nothing like that should ever happen again, not realising that it was happening – on a far smaller scale – before her very eyes.
 “It’s literature Natasha,” James reminds her. “When I was thirteen we studied things fall apart and were expected not to laugh at mentions of impregnation. They give kids adult books and expect them to react as adults in order for them to become intelligent and analytical adults.”
A brief silence follows his little speech and then Adele snorts.
 “Since when did you become head of curriculum?” she asks her dad and he just rolls his eyes back at her.
Perhaps he doesn’t realise that he has hit the nail on the head as far as my English teacher is concerned. Greying Mrs Cox told us: “It’s a difficult topic and some of you may find it emotionally challenging…” At this point most of my class looked around themselves nonchalantly – desperate to prove that they would not be the ones to cry about the holocaust “…But the evocative nature of the novel makes for interesting analytical reading and careful exploration into how the author evokes empathy in us.”
A few people pretended that they understood what she just meant but really it was little more than a collection of long words to describe a terms-worth of work. She paused her monologue to blink rapidly and rub her throat as though trying to soothe an irritation.
 “I have taught this novel six times now and I have read it at least twice that number of times but Bruno’s innocence never fails to break my heart. That’s the mark of a good writer; Bruno never fails to make me feel.”
A few people sniggered, someone asked Bettina how many Jews she’d killed so far and Mrs Cox tried not to hear – rubbing her neck even harder.
Bruno might break her heart but he only aggravated mine. His innocence feels painfully like ignorance and I can’t stand his youthful disillusions; they are such obvious lies. I need a character who’s cynicism matches mine’ a character who understands the grimness of life. I want to shake Bruno until he grows up and I want to tell him all about the dead people who don’t factor in his playground of childhood. I want to force him to look and see; to stop half seeing with his blinded eyes. I want to make him look at Shmuel and understand the way I looked at a car crash and understood.
 “We have a German girl in our class,” I tell no one in particular.
 “Poor kid,” says James.
 “Do you reckon her parents teach her the salute?” Adele asks and I crack at the sound of her like she’s carving grooves in my skin with her tongue. I don’t understand how I can love her some days and hate her on others.
I vomit violently and unexpectedly onto the newly laid table and the threadbare boy in threadbare striped pyjamas.
 

“First week, hey? Good or bad?” Jon wants to know as we arrive, next time I see him.
 “Bad,” I reply without hesitation and Natasha tenses at my shoulder.
 “Always the voice of optimism,” she jokes in the brittle way which makes it not funny at all.
Jon doesn’t say anything; he leads me inside and Natasha waits outside like always.
“So, what was bad about it?” He asks once we’re seated in our traditional places.
“Everything.”
“OK, what was good?”
“I sit next to Maddie for some lessons. She bought me pizza from the canteen at break time. I won some stupid maths challenge.”
“Stupid?” He queries but I don’t bother answering. The little pieces of ‘good’ were swamped by the bad and they have little meaning. I keep myself going with cross-classroom exchanges of smiles and the prospect of going home.
At primary school there seemed to be a lot of kids but now I realise that there wasn’t really and even then I never really learned to adapt and fit in with them. I never learned to make friends and tell the truth without breaking myself. Now there are thousands of faces who want to know and want to see – people who ask innocent questions that somehow become so much more than that because mum and dad were so much more than that. Everything is inexplicably linked.
People want to know why I shut myself, sniffling, in the toilets on the first day. People want me to be easy to understand and easy to access but I’m not because I don’t even understand myself. I want to be left alone to dance but people insist on choking me with themselves and their questions.
“You found it hard?” He asks and, when I don’t answer, he continues; “How much of that was to do with your mum and how much was to do with you?”
 “Of course it was to do with mum; mum and dad. EVERYTHING IS HARD BECAUSE OF THEM!” I breathe hard and run my teeth along my bottom lip like a knife. What good is a knife which can never cut deep enough to slice out the internal pain? “I wouldn’t find things hard, life would be easy, if it wasn’t for them.”
 “Forgive me Erin, that was tactlessly badly voiced. I meant did you find starting hard because it was on that particular day that you lost your mum or would it have been no different for example if you’d started sometime in December?”
 “I don’t think it would be much different, probably a little because I would be starting from a little higher up but really, the date wouldn’t change much because the problem is much more than anniversaries.”
I clasp my fingers into handcuffs around my wrists, crushing and crushing.
“It’s OK, I get it, I just wondered.” I look at him; he really does get it, I think.

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