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...


20. 20

I’m lain on my bed, arm folded across my chest like clichéd corpse. It is night time but no sleep comes. Not when my wrist is throbbing within its plaster tomb. It’s strange how disabled it makes me feel – like part of me really has died.
I don’t take the prescribed pain killers because I can’t down the tablets. I panic and they cling in the back of my mouth. So I’m lain awake, considering the magnitude of that messy fracture and seeing the scan on every surface. I hear, with every passing car, the storm of abuse hollowing me out and every internal click of the water piping is the crack of bone. My memory of it is louder than its reality was and it is omnipresent.
The pain has lost its sharpness; the plaster cast has taken away the feeling that knives are pushing, grating, slicing across the wrist joint but it is still there, muted and endless like an expanse of water…

“It don’t hurt at all,” Jason says proudly, brandishing his sling as we bustle around him. “Snapped right in half,” he announces and a few girls let a gasp or a squeal escape them.
 “You’re right brave,” Annabelle says, nudging me significantly.
 “Oh, yeah, brave,” I mutter in agreement but she only scowls at me.
“You can’t say that. I said it first. I like him.” Her voice hisses angrily in my ear.
I try to apologize but she bars my speech with her own;
“Can I sign it?” she asks and suddenly we are a flurry of marker pens.
 “Won’t it hurt if we touch it?” I ask cautiously.
 “Don’t be stupid, it don’t hurt at all,” he says…

But he was wrong or different or a liar because it hurts. It hurts the way that everything hurts; in a way that demands and somehow ruins everything with even a whisper of its presence.
I wonder vaguely if there’s anyone who’ll ask to sign mine. There’ll probably be a few, a few girls who like signing their heart-embellished names on things that aren’t theirs and who don’t know that I’m an outcast. I don’t really crave signatures; perhaps I half want Maddie’s just as proof of what seemed like a friendship. I don’t want people inking themselves on my arm – I don’t want my cast to be like a medal of honour or bravery because it isn’t. It is a ruin.
It’s like when you build a Jenga block and you can pull each piece out one by one and the tower just about stays upright. You keep on removing and making holes until the tower trembles in anticipation of the fall but the fall does actually happen until the key is removed. Then that piece is torn loose and suddenly the realisation comes that it was that block that the tower was built upon – there is no tower without it.
 I had that sheer panic as the tower hung for a split second between x-rays and then it crumpled with the foundation gone.
I’m not idiotic; I know that a broken arm cannot cause utter destruction but I also know that the doctor said no active hobbies and exercise and that that includes dance.
Maybe I’ll be different, I hope blindly and sit up. The pain re-gathers itself with the new position and I untangle my legs from the bed sheets. I deggagé to second and close behind then deggagé derrière and settle myself into a plié in fourth. It’s impossible, half of me says; the cast is unbalancing. But I cannot resist trying and pretending that, maybe, I won’t be a follower of a rule.
 The pirouette writhes like a spinning top that’s been spun too hard and clatters on the floor.
No, you will do it.
I can’t. It hurts; I’ll fall again.
You can. You must.
I prepare again but can’t hold the turn straight and true, this time I collide with the bed post and my breathing turns shallow in response.
I hate many things but the thing I hate the most is the way I hate myself. I can hate so many things but hatred just makes you hate yourself and hating yourself inspires more hatred for your own helplessness. I hate my arm and therefore myself and I hate that the one thing I possess is the subject of hatred. I hate myself for hating myself because I never stop hating and hurting and crying.
I sink back onto the bed and admire the wall I shared with Maddie and the green hand on it. I hate Maddie for being sick of me but I know really that the only reason that I hate Maddie is because I hate that I’m not good enough for her and I hate that I couldn’t try hard enough with her and that I let her walk away across the tennis courts.
I’m beginning to wonder what the upper limit of self-hate is.

Natasha notices that I withdraw myself and refuse to engage more than I’ve ever refused to engage before. She sees the way that I suddenly start becoming a shell and the dancer leaks out of my eyes and soaks into the carpet. She sees that I implode and refuse to communicate or even accept the existence of the world around me. She sees that I obey commands, impassively like a robot, and propels me to Jon’s office in the hope that there will be a solution pasted to his walls.
 “Come in.” He says, pretending that he wants to see me.
I sit. For some reason I’m staring at the walls too as if I really might see instructions inscribed upon them: How to Stop Yourself From Drowning.
“How are you?” He asks like this is some tea party or meeting or unemotional encounter.
In many ways I want to tell him; I wonder if he can remember enough to understand the way that my lungs seem to be filled with sand and suffocating themselves. I wonder if he can remember how he emptied them.
“What do you think will help you to feel better?” He takes a new road but this one is equally impassable.
It’s hard to express but I can’t really envisage the existence of a future; all my thoughts are centred irreversibly on the present tense, on surviving each individual day, I can’t imagine myself at a future date. 
I tell him this, in a less coherent way and he nods.
“That’s often how it is.” He says, “as you get better, you start to see further.”
“What if it doesn’t get better?”
“I reject that idea – you know it.”
I can’t explain myself to him; I try but the words only make sense in my head. I’m walking through thick mud: I take steps forward but with each step I sink and with the sinking my paces slow and with the slowing I sink even further. I can take steps forward and feel like I’m making progress but the downwards drag always reminds me that I’m not.
“It’s OK for you – you’re not the one living with it!” I burst. In my anger I forget that he too has lived it and knows better than anyone what it feels like. “And when you are living with you start to realise that there isn’t much point in living with it because that’s all you can ever do: live with it. You don’t get over it, you never get to the other side of the ocean you just keep swimming getting more and more tired. If you’re lucky you drown.” I say it savagely as though this attack on his optimism gives me pleasure even though it doesn’t.
He runs his hands over his face and hair like he doesn’t want to keep looking at me. He doesn’t want to keep giving to this exhausted human when she’ll never get there.
“Has it occurred to you, Erin, that you are approaching this in a way which could be interpreted as selfish?” He says when he has finished smoothing the creases of his forehead.
I don’t ponder his question. I find myself wondering, not for the first time, why he always uses my name when he addresses me. Even though there’s no one else in the room. Is he trying to remind me of myself and my existence?
“It would take an impossibly strong person not to be selfish in your position,” he elaborates when I offer no signs of having heard him. What’s funny is that it is the second time recently that someone has called me selfish and for some reason, maybe because I’ve been waiting to hear it for so long, I find it painful to hear.
“But if you consider your father and how much he would have liked to have an extension on his life – as would thousands of other dying individuals – and you are sort of hinting to me that you want yours shortened. I understand: right now your life is painful in the extreme and you have to struggle through each day and you don’t think it can improve even though it can I understand better than you think… but if you think how many people would value just a little more of life… Erin, I don’t know if God exists and whether all the circumstances of life and death are therefore the way they are laid out in the Bible but I’m certain that life has worth beyond what you’re giving it. Do you think dying was an escape for your dad? Do you Erin?”
“No.” I answer truthfully. Dying was a mistake – not his mistake – just a mistake. A mistake in the design of the car park exit maybe.
 “So why do you think that it’s an escape for you?”
He sounds angry, his voice demands to be heard. I stare at his floor. I know this floor so well now; it’s kind of sad really. When he speaks again it has been softened:
 “You, better than anyone, know the cost of death on the living. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to inflict it on anyone.”
 “Who is there left to care?” I ask viciously.
 “So many people Erin, so many. Why do you insist on discounting us?”
 “You care because you have to. I’m just a job to you, a chore… people wouldn’t have to keep trying to love me.”
“Once again you do yourself an injustice.” He says, pulling a printed sheet of paper from his pocket and forces it before my eyes.
 “Where’s the girl who wrote this?” He half shouts and my eyes slide over the words: Survival in the Wilderness.
 “Where’s the girl with the survival mechanism?” He is pleading but I am sinking.
“She wrote that a long time,” I answer sadly. I don’t want to read it and remind myself.
 “She had a survival mechanism!” He shakes the sheet in my face; “Dance = life,” he reads.
 “Yeah; it was a good survival mechanism,” I admit and then I jerk my head towards my sling. “But, like all mechanisms, it was fallible.”

School has become more repulsive over the weekend. In a way I know that they will be equally afraid of seeing me as I am afraid of seeing them but this knowledge cannot lessen the fear I have of them. Fear amplifies other emotions and draws them into anger – an explosion of terror.
The physical pain has sieved out; I don’t quite know when it went away. Like a bout of hiccups; I didn’t notice the goodbye, just the relief of finding them gone. The emotional pain lingers in awkward lumps that can’t drain out. The emotional pain is of cruelty and exposure, the pain of not having Maddie and not having ballet and therefore not having hope. The only thing more intoxicating than hope is hopelessness.
There was always some sort of hope as long as I could dance. The two month ban seems an eternity when I’ve barely survived these two days. I know that it’s a not-forever kind of destruction but the dance it prevents was the only thing that saved me from mum and dad’s forever kind of destruction. Two months can be forever sometimes, an impossible thirsty forever. I wanted to explain that to Natasha when she said “it’ll be over in no time,” because that was a lie and I can’t help myself from counting it in milliseconds.
“You’re being so melodramatic,” she says when I mope over breakfast. She might not see my reluctance to go to school as drama if she knew the truth. I told her that I slipped over and that Maddie had had to stay for detention and that’s why she wasn’t with me.
How could I confess the truth when I can’t even bring myself to be honest with myself about it? Bullied. Just the word makes me seem weak. I cringe, imagining telling her, my skin crawls and I draw my limbs around myself like a shroud.
“Sit properly at the table,” Adele says – mocking Natasha’s voice and reaching to check her phone.
I imagine the shame of saying it to them; admitting that Maddie ditched me, or I ditched Maddie, or maybe we ditched each other simultaneously. Then I’d also have to admit that I’ve done nothing to try to reconcile it and that it feels easier to let us fall apart. Our lives are two separate circles, scraping and overlapping for a few months before plunging apart once more. I imagine the way that they’ll be all fussy about the ‘bullying’ and the way that they’ll make an even bigger deal out of something that is already too upsetting for me to honestly handle.
I want to hide what happened from them so that I can have a go at hiding myself from it. I want to lose the evidence so I can play pretend but the evidence will hang around for two months. I want to dance but the evidence prevents it.
“It’ll be OK Erin, just try not to get too pushed around in the crowds. I’m sure you could ask to leave lesson just before everyone so you have time.” Natasha tries to console me but she doesn’t realise that that would mark me out as alien and damaged as much as my old red card. I’m sick of being me.
Perhaps it is then that I realise I can no more face school than I could face an atomic bomb and perhaps it is then that I come upon the idea of leaving ahead of Adele for school but not getting there. Or maybe it comes clear only when I am walking briskly towards school, so frantic I’m almost running.
Either way, I can’t help myself from turning in the opposite direction at the junction and hurtling myself towards the tube station instead. I keep looking back, I check for people who might report me even though I know that all the furtive glances and my jerking head and twitching fingers only display my crime. I look guilty by the way I walk.
The good thing about not having a school uniform is that people can assume that my school is closed for today. I only collect 50% of the disconcerted looks I would if I was wearing my school on my chest. I like the ambiguity of jeans. The good thing about having a children’s oyster card is that there is no opportunity for awkward and incriminating conversations with the ticket seller who would wonder why I was alone. I like the antisocial swipe of a card against the ticket barrier. The good thing about the crushing pressure I hate is that I can be buried. I am submerged in rush-hour’s trouser suits and nobody has the time to look at me, let alone question my presence.
This time, for the first time, the grating growl of the trains is vaguely soothing. It blocks out anything else I might hear. It almost blocks out the voices in my head. My head bobbles against the laptop case of the man jammed against the sliding doors and, for a minute, I have no room for panic. I only feel the pulse and the screech and the ricochet; my violent lullaby.
When we stop and the doors slice open, we pour out in excess – I have no control over my direction and I have no purpose, I merely let myself be swept by the crowd into another train. I don’t know where on earth I’m going but I decide that’s a good thing. I decide that I do not really care where I eventually come to because the one place I really want to be is not a physical place but a point in time, a past era.
I want to see how far London can take me from Natasha and James and Maddie and Erin Weir. If I never got off these trains I suppose she’d cease to exist and then she could stop hurting me. Except, there wouldn’t be any ‘me’ left to hurt. I wonder if I could lose myself down here, let the roars take me to a pitchy grey oblivion. I don’t really care if I can ever find my way back.
I disembark, embark, disembark, embark.
Perhaps I’m going in circles.
The crowd thins, everything slowly dilutes while the trains keep screaming. I ponder the idea that maybe I am like a train; writing in constant circle to escape the people who run me in them and crying noise that no one can understand or bear to hear.
We blast through several stations and I read place names that mean nothing to me. I haven’t bothered to familiarise myself with London’s geography aside from the roads around the flat and so the tube maps above the seats only confuse me.
Russell square,
Covent Garden.

For some reason, that name is familiar but I can’t place it anywhere. I don’t know why I get off the train there, perhaps because there is a hint of recognition in the name that there isn’t in any other. Perhaps because I want to discover the little glimpse of familiarity it holds and to locate whatever ‘Covent Garden’ means to me.
It’s weird to re-emerge, especially finding that the day is now heavy and sultry, too lazy to gather a breeze and shift its grey ceiling. When I submerged myself earlier it had a still, stale sort of morning-ness to it – like waking up without being fully rested. I suppose I’d half forgotten that the world does not wait for me while I am underground and that time must have passed as time always insists on doing. I feel like I’ve spat myself out into a new world – or at least country – all the same.
‘Covent Garden’ has no time for the thick, stuffy air pressing on it. People bustle between market stalls and restaurants, all up-market but with a few school groups splattered here and there. It all feels different; there is no recognition only emptiness as the place tries to be ‘continental’.
I loop the square, tracing street names. I search for a key but I’m not sure what I think I’ll unlock. Henrietta Street, King Street, Floral Street.
Suddenly it is there and I register; Covent Garden is a place of dreams.
There is no real warning or welcome sign for the Bridge of Aspiration which seems unfair somehow. It’s just a side street and a hanging bridge of impossibilities and possibilities. It is so surreal to stand beneath it and yet it is un-momentous. There should be some sort of fanfare to announce it, confetti and bright lights – a big revelation. There is nothing, it is simply there; being so much more than a bridge but with no crowd to appreciate it.
One moment I was reaching blindly and now I have arrived, arrived everywhere and nowhere. It seems ridiculous that a few metres away, with only a brick building between, there are crowds of wealthy British, snipping with their knives and forks. It seems ridiculous that they can be permitted to be so close and yet be so unseeing.
Maybe, though, it’s best like this. It’s just me and nobody can tarnish it with words and camera flicks. No one can invade and see me stand and stare; eyes magnetised to the assembly of spiralling frames. It is best that only a few see it because even fewer will ever cross it. It is best that I get to explore the moment unhindered and uninterrupted. I own the street for a few minutes but I don’t; it can only be ruled from the bridge, I realise.
I watch it, hungry, as though it will get up and run. It can only continue to dangle before my nose. It is closeted and enclosed and it seems fitting that it is enclosed in more ways than one. It shuts me out. I want to cross it, no, I long to cross it and be able to look down on the heads that pass and laugh because they’ve been defeated and don’t know it.
I long to be there, tutued and pointe-shoed and feeling the flutter of being a performer. I long to be able to dance, just dance, and to be set free from patterns of school and homework. I long to be paid to dance; people paying me to make myself happy, living a painful ecstasy every day.
I long.
No – I need. I need to cross the bridge because I realise that nothing else will offer the same satisfaction. Without crossing above my head, I will be incomplete, partially absent forever. I have seen, now I must do. I need to dance.
I can’t dance. It’s like a questionnaire and, right now, there are two options but I’m begging desperately for the third.
Somehow, I appear to have subconsciously stored Mrs Davies’ Living Out Your Potential speech in my unused brain space. Is this what I’m doing? Am I now realising my ambition and deciding that I will aim for it regardless of all that might stop me? Or am I just losing my mind to an ardent wish and a bridge of dreams?
I turn suddenly at the sound of voices. Like a child caught doing something forbidden, I jump and scurry backwards away from my magnetic, impossible aspiration. A small group of girls are walking towards me. I say girls because they seem young; slender and petite but as they draw nearer, talking in another language, I realise that they have old faces. They have the face of a parent; crinkled with concerns and prayers and exhausting effort. They seem generally old actually; like their fairylike bodies have been ground and hammered with the war of a lifetime, without losing their shape.
They are oddly dressed in tracksuits and lights. One girl in small shorts with a legwarmer pulled up to the top of her thigh on one leg and bunched around the calf on the other. They wear shirts that are hung loosely over leotards and another is carrying a practise tutu over one arm. Their hair is twisted like wire into plaited crowns and their hands are full of bags. I don’t care how obscure they must look to the crowds in the square; I only see the coronets and know that they are princesses to me.
They notice me and smile. The flash of teeth jars me; I can’t believe the smile – how could I win a smile from people so magical?
They seem magical to me because they are everything I desire but I suppose that it is the ballet the dance that is the genuine magic.
 “You like to ballet?” One asks kindly and it takes me a long time to register that she has deigned to speak to a mere earth-bound human like me.
I’m such a failed human; internally broken, angry about words and the world, self-isolating, skiving school, physically broken… The list goes on and still I dare to dream. I want to tell them this; I want to answer ‘no, I live for ballet,’ but I can’t open my mouth properly and gather together the seams. The dancers and the icon have robbed me of coherency. Instead I nod, stunned stupid, and feel both overwhelmed and underwhelmed.
They are so simple, so real, so equally human and yet they are so inexplicably other. They are closeted and revered – so inclusive – like the bridge they are free to cross.
They enter through the Royal Ballet School logo doors and I stare until the door sets shut on them, and on me.

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