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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London is not what I am used to. It could be grey back home; there were grey clouds and grey rocks and grey lakes but London is a different kind of grey. London is the kind of grey so complete that everything seems to be just another shade of it. The station platform is grey, the pigeons are grey, the buildings are grey concrete, the sky is grey but not with any clearly defined clouds; it is just a huge expanse of grey with no breaks, no beginning, no end. Cigarette smoke is grey, and car fumes are grey, and all the smoke chokes you as you walk by. There are people milling everywhere and, maybe because there are so many of us, it becomes hard to breathe. I topple sideways as a surge of French school children hurry past to board a bus that has just pulled up by a crowded bus stop.
My ‘social worker’ and ‘fostering coordinator’ are either side of me and I feel a little safer. I do not mind them much; they are friendly and open people who seem to care a lot about humans in general. Maybe this is because it is their job and they must be prepared to take on anyone who needs them, but I am still grateful that they have been welcoming in this strange, grey land. Maybe within a year, they will have helped so many that I am no more than a foggy memory, maybe I am no more important than anybody else that they have helped but the internal warmth of having them there, like guardian angles, on each shoulder is overpowering.
 My new home is not particularly homely. The front door is painted blue like it was back home, but it’s smoother and shinier because it was painted by someone who was good at painting doors rather than a toddler and her mother.
Jon, my ‘social worker’ turns to a silver box on the wall. There are eight buttons, each with a label stating which floor they belong to. Above the buttons there is a pattern of holes in the metal; like on a telephone. Someone has written in black pen on the box and I lean forward to read it but Jon moves raises his arm to the eighth button, blocking my view.
 There’s a buzzing sound. “Hello, Natasha Fletcher speaking?” A woman’s voice comes crackling out of the holes. Jon leans forward and talks into it.
 “Jon March and Serena Kingsley bringing Erin Weir,” He says, and there’s more crackling and then a click and Serena opens the locked door.
They gesture me inside and I step tentatively through into a small hallway with a door on the left, a door on the right, and a door straight ahead which bears the sign – lift out of order; please use stairs.
 There are new curtains in the windows and pot plants on the balconies, and a dark blue carpet that reminds me of school; but despite all these luxuries there’s no warm sense of welcome and familiarity. This front door that we came through is a front door to everyone who lives in this block, and the balconies are their only gardens. There are no lochs, no mountains, no woods, no open fires or tattered rugs that I associate with home.
 We go through the door on the left, into a stairwell which is lined with the same blue carpet. I lean over the railings looking up and down and I feel like I’m in one of those Travelodges that we stayed in once. It only goes down one level below us but the stairs turn in a boxy spiral making the next floor look further away than it should.
“Come on,” Serena holds out her hand to me but I do not give her mine. I am not six. She realises that I do not wanted to be lead like an infant and turns her out-stretched hand into an awkward beckoning movement to try and hide her mistake. I would laugh but I might pull a muscle in my mouth, they’ve been dead for so long.
 The stairs are endless; lifting one leg and then the other so many times that my thighs and calves start to burn and I contemplate sitting down where I am and refusing to go on. I didn’t realise that seven floors was so much. Back home there was the hillside but it was different; you could see the top right from the start and you watched it get closer and closer as you went on. You felt like you were gaining on it. Here, the only way you can see the top of the stairs is by tipping your head back until your neck seizes up and letting your eyes trace the stairs up the walls that seem to be closing in. That was the other thing about home; there were no walls to your ascent; no confining barriers to box you in. You could walk diagonally up the hill to the blackberry bushes on the edge of the wood and then diagonally back once you’d crammed your hands with those sour, juicy berries that were often so ripe and rain swollen that they collapsed in your hands…
“What’s that on your hands, you haven’t fallen over have you?”
 “Course she hasn’t,” Dad says as I clench my fists to cover the stains. “She’s been stuffing her face with blackberries all afternoon.”
 I stare at him; how did he know?
“I wasn’t born yesterday,” he chuckles and Mum goes back to the cooking. I run into the bathroom and check in the mirror. There’s a dark pink stain around my mouth, like lipstick that’s been half wiped away. I rub it with the back of my hand in irritation. Betrayal…
 My feet have brought me to the top of their own accord, Jon is wheezing a little – he has asthma.
We go through a door into another little hallway like the one through which we entered. To my left there is another door bearing the same sign as the one seven floors below: Lift out of order, please use stairs. Someone, possibly the same someone who wrote on the silver box outside, has scrawled F U underneath the writing on the sign.
I’m clearly not the only one who doesn’t like stairs.

There is a lot of talking that follows; talking and signing pages and drinking tea out of pink mugs. They do not talk to me very much other than to assure me that this is a necessary procedure and will be over soon and then I can start to settle in. However, the talk all seems to be about me and there seems to be at least one pair of eyes latched on to me at any one time which is uncomfortable to say the least. I stare very hard at the Ikea coffee table and the coasters with not-funny jokes on them and try to ignore every word they say. It’s very real hearing my story told; it brings it more alive than the nightmare I want to believe it is.
“So, Erin, this is just a trial; it doesn’t have to be permanent, we’re just a phone call away and if it’s not working out we need to know.” Jon says eventually once all the ‘necessary procedures’ are out the way. “You’ll see me every Thursday afterschool, is that OK?”
I pretend that I’m not listening because I don’t know how to answer. Is it OK? Of course it’s not but what choice do I have?
“Erin?”
I’m too busy looking around myself at the open-plan flat. It is small but thoughtfully furnished so that it looks spacious. The floor is gloriously smooth; a polished wood affect that slips under my socks like the surface of a mirror. It is unnatural but I like it for that; it would be even better than the church floor for dancing. I long to run and fill it; to let myself move and flow like water into every corner. I yearn to take up the floor and to sweep around it, gliding like a Skua on the wind and to steal away with the dance into that surreal bliss of forgetfulness.
 But no; I won’t dance again because the dance is guilty and that blissful state is deadly. Somehow my brain has forced a connection between mum and the dance; if it were not for the dance I would have been home earlier that morning and mum would not have had time to leave. I will blame the dance because blaming myself is too difficult. I will blame the dance and refuse to let it lure me back with its magical promises because it took mum away and will never return her.
 “You alright?” Natasha puts her arm around me in a vaguely concerned kind of way. I don’t really know why I’m nodding.
 “You want to see your bedroom I suppose?” James says and he picks up my shoulder bag easily as though it is empty. I nod and follow him; my ‘yeses’ are beginning to lose meaning.
I follow him through, my socks sliding underneath me in a nice, free kind of way, to a boxy room that is clearly in the process of becoming a bedroom but has not quite reached it. There is more polished wood on the floor and blinds across the frosted window and the walls are painted pink, a glaring, harsh pink that makes me feel slightly dizzy. The bed takes up about half of the space, the rest littered with boxes set down carelessly like a cardboard obstacle course. There’s an Ikea flat-pack chest of drawers still in its packaging in the corner and a desk lamp perched on the end of the bed. The covers on the bed are pink too – soft, girlish pink that I used to dream about.
I look around me while Jon puts my bag down next to the desk lamp and smiles at me with this big smile like he either cannot see how difficult I am finding it to stay silently content or is encouraging me to make the best of it. I can feel a howl in my throat, desperately fighting to emerge, my jaw is clenched to keep my lips from parting and turning down at the corners. My face is working to prevent the escape of tears and I curl my fingers into fists, digging my nails into the skin in an attempt to displace the hurt inside with physical pain. I can’t quite understand the grief; I can’t quite understand missing a room that was as badly kept as the old bedroom, I can’t quite understand how I can’t be grateful for the cleanness the newness. I have a space that is all mine without having to share it and, perhaps it is only very small, but it is more than I ever had back home. Yet it is not mine; it has been given to me but it does not belong to me the way my old camp bed did…
“Careful Erin, don’t jump on your bed”
“Why not Mummy?”
“It’s a camp bed; it’s not very stable, you could overturn it”
“It’s not a camp bed it’s a stage and I’m a famous person.”
“It’s a stage now is it?” Daddy says coming in with his arms full of logs for the fire. “I could have sworn it was a raft half an hour ago.” He ruffles my hair and I squirm away…

It belonged to me – it had been such a stable feature of my life, a reliable playmate that had acted whatever role I had bestowed upon it; been everything from horse, to banquet table, to Mr Jamison’s combine harvester.
It must have been sent to the dump by now.
My body longs to cry but my pride refuses to allow it. My pride forces me to pretend that I delight in pink and flat-packed furniture and London apartments.
I sit down blankly on the bed and stare at my interlocked fingers twisting them back and forth so much that they hurt.
“You do like pink, don’t you?” Natasha says eventually. Perhaps she was expecting a rapturous sigh of adoration as I sunk down on the duvet and a look of delight and undying gratitude for such wonderful provision as this. Am I selfish?
 “Yes, pink’s lovely, really nice, my favourite colour actually.” I say through gritted teeth. I do not lift my eye line; perhaps I remember how easily dad could see through my lies when I did. “It’s just, it’s just… it’s a little overpowering,” I say it very quickly as though they might not be so disappointed if I let them down hurriedly. I didn’t used to mind pink very much but suddenly I want the room to be any colour but it, suddenly it is too sickly, girlish, and innocent. Perhaps that’s why I used to like it, because it was such a sweet colour. I always thought it was subtle like satin ballet shoes but now it seems garish and careless.
“I agree,” she says very kindly. “Pink doesn’t always match my mood. How about green; it’s a nice calming colour, isn’t it?”
I shrug. I don’t really know what I want any more; besides the obvious – the impossible.
 “Yes,” I say in a level tone and she comes and pats me awkwardly on the shoulder.
 “We’ll sort it out soon – obviously there’s still work to do.”
I wriggle from under the touch of her hand; it feels wrong to let someone who is such a stranger comfort me with a gentle arm. “Sorry,” she says and withdraws. “We’ll give you a chance to get unpacked and sort yourself out and then we’ll have some lunch. OK?”
I nod but the moment that they are all out of the room I throw myself face-down into the duvet and smother my screwed-up face in the pink fabric. It feels wrong; too smooth, too clean to be comforting – sterile and crisp like the hospital. It spreads out, enormous around me I feel like I’m getting lost in it, a little blotch on its wrinkled pink skin. I press my face into it so hard that my nose hurts and the colours all darken in their shadowed proximity. I will wake up in this bed from now on in this airless box of a room, surrounded by the brashly painted walls and all its newness and unfamiliarity…
“I’m cold.”
“Put on your coat.”
“Indoors?”
“Why not?”
“Annabel doesn’t; it’s never cold at her house.” I moan at them.
“Annabel doesn’t have holes in her walls, does she?” Dad says quietly in an odd, pensive tone that I have not heard before. I think it alarms me a little; it’s the first time I’ve noticed that he looks old and care-worn, fraying around the edges like the sleeves of my school jersey. And then he smiles and it’s like that moment of sunrise when the sun finally pushes free of the mountains and illuminates the valley with a beautiful and heart-stopping suddenness. “Poor girl.”
“Why?” I ask tentatively. I want to know why she is unlucky when she so often seems like she has everything but at the same time perhaps I am missing it, perhaps it is obvious and to not know would be to look stupid.
“People give a lot to taste the fresh mountain air.” He says knowingly, “Think how lucky we are having it free and available all the time.” Mum who is stirring soup nods and I inhale deeply. I think I know what he means…

I breathe heavily but the air is the same thick and hot and stuffy, trapped between my face and the bed going in and out of me in circles. There’s no freshness or tang, not even the choking thickness of the haze that smokers trail behind them. The air is just air, hot and tired from over-use.
I want to go home.
Really? To an empty house with holes and harsh memories? To a mouldering bathroom and a rickety camp bed? When I was there I wanted nothing more to do with it and the way it taunted me with the ghosts of laughter trapped within the swaying walls. Now that return is impossible, it’s seems to be the only escape.
My fingers clench for a hold on the fabric but it yields too much, I can’t scrunch it under my angry fists. They had all been wrong, all those teachers and preachers and important people. They had all told me that God loved me always and held me tight in his hand.
He’d dropped me now.
He’d dropped me and snatched all the other things that were parts of me up so that I could not keep hold of them. God couldn’t love me; he couldn’t if this was what he did to me. I gasp heavily, grief and claustrophobia wrapping their hands around my lungs like iron bands. The room is like a cell, the bed like a hole, the anguish like chains locking me there; buried in a hole that I hate but am too scared to be parted from.
I open my mouth for air but there doesn’t seem to be any left, the ceiling like a cap, the door pulled to, the walls formidably solid – no cracks, no gaps in the plaster and the brick work, no holes bored in the lid for me to breathe through.
If I screamed the sound would stay in the room; bouncing angrily off the painted surfaces, searching for an escape until it ran out of energy and gave up. Perhaps it would rattle the glass of the window in infuriation.
The window.
I stand up so fast that my head reels and I stagger sideways into one of the boxes. It topples and spills sideways onto another. A few old clothes and soft toys spill out; they’re things that Annabel had which made me jealous. They’ve been boxed up for a few years given by the slightly neglected, previously-used smell and I wonder if I will have to wear them and hug them and pretend that I adore them when they are really just strange intruders who don’t deserve a place in my life. They belonged to someone else and were forgotten by someone else. I remember the other two dolls. I’m the third doll, the small one who gets all the bits and pieces that have been tossed aside by the first two.
The window.
I right myself again and weave between the stacks of things inhabiting the small amount of existing floor space. The window is cold and I throw myself against it; my fingers working clumsily in their desperation to work out the lock system. The blind is crackling awkwardly around my head, refusing to cooperate and I pin it up with one hand. The handle jams. I twist it a little more and it resists so I strike down hard. It shifts this time but not before I feel the crack of it across my finger bones.
I push it open and lean out, the pain is ignored in my delighted moment of freedom and, although there is some safety device on it which would no doubt prevent me from jumping, there is an opening wide enough for me to stick my head through and drink the fumes like a child dying of thirst.
 “Erin.” James calls from the next room. “Are you OK? I’ll be dishing up any second. Keeley and Adele are here.”
Keeley and Adele – doll one and doll two.
I withdraw from the window feeling steadier. The iron bands have loosened their grip and sense seems to be returning. The sort of sense which enables me to walk around and breathe and talk and function like a normal human being. I’m like a machine that’s gone wrong – there’s a fault in the system – and my lungs and limbs and head no long fit together in cooperation. They have forgotten how they once worked thoughtlessly, tirelessly, meticulously, and have refused to serve me any longer. Or perhaps that’s the wrong way round. Perhaps I gave up and my body decided to gradually shutdown to match me.
 I leave the room with the window open.
They are both sat at the table when I enter. One texting as though her life depends on it, the other hurling abuse at her parents. I clench my hands behind my back and my feet find themselves rising and falling like a stupid, trotting pony. How can she speak to such valuable people like that, tell them that she hates them, that they are controlling puppeteers? How can she be so ungrateful for parents who wrap their arms around her and hold on – parents who don’t let don’t let themselves be carried away. She storms out of the house and the door swings shut behind her with a terrible finality.
I want to hit her for her stupidity.
 “Ah Erin, you unpacked now?”
I nod, lies are easy when you don’t open your mouth.
“We’ll sort out the boxes this afternoon and then it will be a proper room. I’m not exactly the bees knees at DIY but it can’t be that difficult, can it?”
Doll two rolls her eyes as though he is being particularly pathetic. I can’t see how it can be very hard to put together that flat-packed chest of drawers but I have no wish to act like her so I don’t respond. I think they must think I’m stupid.
Natasha and James introduce me to her as she sits at the table, she looks up briefly at me in a way which suggests that she is not very bothered about whether I exist or not, in fact, the only thing of any real importance is the cracked screen cradled in her palm. She says hi in a flat, un-interested tone and then turns back to it with an annoyed flick of her eyes which suggest that she believes that meeting me was an irritation.
Keeley or Adele?
“looks like we don’t need that extra chair then,” Natasha says pushing one of the five back into a corner. “Seeing as Keeley can’t bear to live in this house with us.” Her voice is heavy with resentment and gloom and perhaps she catches me watching her because she switches on a smile and says. “Not that it’s a big problem really. It’s a thing that 16 year olds do.”
Do they? Did mum and dad expect me to treat them like that one day?
I don’t suppose it really matters now because whatever I am aged 16, they won’t be a part of it.
James sets a plate down in front of me and I look at it without feeling hungry. All those days of being starved and now my plate is full and steaming and I can’t even bring myself to lift my fork. Mum used to make me omelettes once upon a time; omelettes with mushrooms and spinach and cheese. Just like this.

That afternoon we put my room together. Nobody seems surprised that I had not, in fact, unpacked before lunch and they put my things away for me, allocating drawers for each of my belongings to be shut away in. I can’t help noticing that my shoes fit perfectly into the gap at the bottom of the chest of drawers as though the two were made for each other. I don’t want them to look like they belong but they do.
 “Perfect fit;” Natasha says with a pitying smile in my direction. “Like a puzzle piece.”
 Like a puzzle piece they fit all too readily; too well for my liking. They look so settled-in in a way which I feel I never will be able to again. It would be easier to be homeless if my own shoes didn’t betray me.
We all stare at the shoes.
“Are they fakes?” Adele asks randomly.
“What?”
“The shoes – they’re fake converses, aren’t they?”
I don’t know and I’m not quite sure whether it matters so I stare at her blandly until she shrugs and rolls her eyes. “Just asking,” she says huffily and pulls her phone out of her pocket, slouching sideways onto one hip for optimum comfort.
 “Of course, we’ll have to buy you some new shoes anyway.” James says anxious to break the tension, “We can’t have you wandering around in those shredded old things. Anyone would think we weren’t looking after you properly.” He laughs somewhat nervously and goes to pick them up. “See – holes right through the soles and-”
 I move faster than I expect myself to.
“No!” I say, snatching at them in an unsettling moment of violent anger. “You can’t take them – they’re mine.” One of the few things I own, fake or not, broken or not, traitors or not, they’re mine and they came with me from home. They cannot simply be replaced because they are not good enough. I suppose James didn’t realise what he was saying about being properly looked after. “They did,” I choke. “They did look after me properly, they just didn’t – I mean; we didn’t – there wasn’t any mon- they were too busy to buy new…” The words fall out like chook feed from a split sack; dancing among each other in a routine so complex that they make no coherent sense. I resort to my arms; trying to tear the broken shoes from his fingers, my nails scratching unintentionally at the backs of his hands.
“Wow,” Adele says softly. “Now we know exactly what kind of abandoned freak we’ve been lumbered with I can see exactly why we wanted to transform the bathroom into a bedroom for her.” I watch the piercing on her tongue flash menacingly between her teeth; it glitters cruelly with the sarcasm in her tone.
“Adele!” Natasha exclaims, leaping as though wounded. “How dare you? What did I tell you about Erin…?”
Here we go again: poor little Erin’s suffered a lot so we have to act nice around her even if we hate her. It’s like post-dad Annabel all over again.
“You can have your bathroom back.” I say coldly. I’ve got the shoes cradled in my arms and I start to pull them on.
“Erin? Are you alright? What are you doing?”
“YOU CAN HAVE YOUR BATHROOM BACK!”  I shout in the hope that my voice will tear the sympathy from their faces. But it doesn’t; it bounces around, filling the room with its anguish as though water is flooding in. I start to tie my laces violently.
 “Chill.” Adele says. “I’m leaving.”
“So am I.” I say and stand up – the bows are sloppy but my fingers too shaky to produce better…
“Always remember Erin; the laces are the most important part of the shoe. They thread through and hold it all together.”
“What about the bottoms?” I ask, turning my face up towards hers.
“Well, they’re important to but they’d be useless without laces to keep them on your feet.”
“But shoes wouldn’t be shoes with no bottoms,” I say indignantly as she ties a bow in the laces, tight and secure.
“What about the sides?” Asks Dad, coming in, “What would the laces and the bottoms do without the sides?”
“So all three parts need the others?” I say, proud that I have managed to establish that.
“That is exactly right Erin,” He smiles at me and brushes me under the chin.
“Allen,” Mum says a little impatiently, “I was trying to teach her to tie her shoes.”
“I don’t need to – you always tie them just right.” I say but she looks serious. “Not for always,” she says…

“Erin? You can’t; you’re here now with us and we’ll look after you. Adele didn’t mean it.” Natasha pleads. I stand up and push over to the door past her and she looks suddenly close to tears.
I sag.
I realise the truth; the truth that I can’t go back now; it’s too late and too far and too hard. The truth is that, by leaving, I am hurting Natasha and James; I am ripping my second chance at a family into thoughtless shreds.
I stop at the door and turn back, my lip wobbles.
“I – I’m sorry – I can’t – I – I don’t want – want – need – home.”
“Shhhh, it’s OK” Natasha comes over and enfolds me in her perfume hug. Whatever it is; I’m not sure how it can be ‘OK’ but I let her hold me regardless. I need someone to hold me up and stop me from sagging; a cardboard figure under the weight of the rain.
“I want to go back.” I cry but the shoulder I confide in isn’t listening.

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