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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3. 3

At school, I am told that there are four classes for my age and thirty people in each class. This makes it enormous.
 The school smells of cleaning products and packed lunches which don’t quiet manage to cover the underlying stink of pee and old buildings. I feel somewhat dizzy as I walk the empty corridor on my way from my meeting with the head teacher. You might have thought that I’d be used to hearing my own story by now but somehow it still makes me feel like I’m going to be sick when I hear it talked about because it is very difficult to see how my life ended up so wrong. It still feels as though I am looking at someone else’s life when I see it printed in the school documents on official-looking paper with official-looking words.
The head teacher wanted me to be clear that they had children “from all economic, ethical, and social backgrounds here” and I was not to be worried about having “such an unpleasant past” because the school “would deal with it discretely” and if it “got too much” for me I could show the teacher my red card and walk out. He also wanted me to be clear that “although there are bad things behind us all, what really matters is the future and that is what school is about, constructing our future.” I was not so sure because surely my future would be entirely different if it were not for my past, and I remember being told once before in a lesson about WW2 that the only way that we can learn for the future is by consulting our past. Also “Not worrying over the past” is one of those things that are very easy to tactlessly let out of a mouth which enjoys the sound of its own words, but is a rather challenging task to complete. I wonder if some guy he’d been told loved unconditionally murdered his parents he’d sit back and say “Ahh well, who gives a monkeys? I’ll keep looking forward to my school assembly next week because, of course, that’s what really matters.”
My classroom is at the far end of the third floor corridor. This is because people who are ten are considered more able to climb stairs than people who are seven. My life seems to be a compilation of endless climbs at the moment. Looking out of the window I can see the scrap of school field set sharply against the black tarmac of the playground. There is a PE class out there at the moment, doing star jumps while their teacher riffles through a bucket of tennis balls. Beyond, there is the road along which I watched Natasha disappear, I wonder briefly if she noticed the tension in the head teacher’s office.
 I reach the end of the corridor; there is a green door on my left which gives me a view of my teacher’s back and squeezed-into-trousers bum and, through the gap between her pointing arm and her body, I can see the blank faces of the front-of-the-class kids. I wonder whether to knock, or whether to push my way through. Do I want teacher to like me, or kids?
I push.
The teacher rotates on her heal and studies me, her eyes darting from within her flaccid face.
 “Welcome Erin, everyone.” She instructs slowly, as though unsure what to make of me. The class chorus a lack-lustre welcome and she chivvies me into a seat at the front of the class where a piece of squared paper has been laid out for me. My number one mission must be to get her to transfer me to the back because here I will be subjected to her eternal calculating glances like she wants to peel off my skin and see what’s underneath it.
She returns to an explanation of basic percentages through which I notice her own uncertainty about the subject she is teaching as her arm gesticulates towards the whiteboard wildly. I wonder whether anyone has told her that her arm wobbles embarrassingly when she does so.
Surveying the class I feel, for the first time, (1) glad of the way that Natasha insisted on buying me a Hollister top and (2) glad that I put it on this morning. Several girls are wearing similar, these girls, I notice, are the ones who already wear bras and are undoubtedly the pretty, popular girls of the school. If there is one way to ensure acceptation, it is to wear the clothes that the cool people are wearing and to be able to wear them without looking like a try-hard or a plagiarist.
The maths is easy; I do not put my mind on it at all but it is simply a case of ten questions which she takes far longer to invent than I do to answer. The chair beside me is empty and so when we swap papers I keep mine for myself and tick them all without checking. I do not care whether or not they are right because I do not feel that this is, in any way, “constructing my future”. Neither is it occupying my brain enough to stop me “worrying about the past”.
When the marking is finished she comes round collecting everyone’s books telling us that when our tables are clear we can go to break. I am the last person she visits and she sweeps my sheet of paper quickly onto the pile of books and pushes them onto her desk hurriedly as though she can’t stand to look at them. I leave my pencil case on my desk and prepare myself for the endless stairs but she stops me.
 “Do you mind if we have a little chat?” she asks, and I do mind but I don’t answer because it is not really a question.
 “I am Mrs Davies, I am the teacher of 6d.” I already know this because this is something that I learnt when I was sitting in the stifling office downstairs. “I will teach all your lessons except for French which you will have every other Thursday.” I also already know this. “We have a set of class rules which are on the wall,” she points vaguely behind her, “if you cannot follow these you will be sent out. You, as I have been told, are a special student, in that you have a red help card; there are three others in this class who have one, however, if you do not show me your card I will assume that you are not suffering any discomfort and I will treat you as I would treat any member of the class. Does that sound fair?” I don’t think it matters whether I find it “fair” or not, because fairness is really a very insignificant thing. Life occurs regardless of fairness, she will treat us how she chooses, regardless of fairness. Is it really fair to give anyone a “red help card”? Because everybody has moments when they feel like they need to escape the classroom and if that privilege is only given to me and three others, then it doesn’t seem very fair at all.
I nod because there is very little else I can do.
“Your previous school records are good, although, as you have not attended school for several months, you will have a lot of catching up to do. I have put you at the front of the class on your own so that I can help you whenever you need it.”
I would rather she helped me make friends than isolate me so that she can assist me on finding 10% of 100. Life isn’t fair so perhaps I can use injustice to my advantage.
“Thank you for your concern Mrs Davies” I say quietly “but I don’t like being watched too much, it makes me feel uncomfortable. I’d feel safer sitting at the back.” I mumble it as though in the pit of embarrassment and maybe my nose is now meant to extend because I have just told a lie that no one will have the guts to contradict in case they upset or offend me.
“Well, I suppose that that could be arranged if that would help you settle in.” I nod and leave the classroom.
I am grateful, of course, that she is so easily mislead, but unsure whether I like her. She is afraid to tread, like so many other adults are, and scared to counter the way she would counter any other student. I do not mind the freedom that this gives me, but neither do I like the sense of being singled-out by this treatment. Mrs Davies seems to me, a harmless, nothingy, over-weight woman who has found herself floundering in things she knows nothing of.
The stairs are not so bad going down, partly because that is a fact, and partly because I do not feel so sick anymore, and partly because I know that, if I am not fast enough, I will not have a chance to make any friends.
The playground seems far smaller now, full to the brim with noise and children, than it did traipsing across it with Natasha this morning. I recognise a couple of the Hollister-Top-Girls from class 6d and sidle over, hoping that they will be friendly. I cannot really remember much about making friends; when you are four it seems to be something that just happens, adults mostly arrange it for you, your parents send you over to other four-year-olds’ houses, and your teachers assign you friends to sit next to. Then as you grow up, among these people who you have known since you were four – or even before that – you start to find that you like some of them and you don’t like others and the ones you like become your friends. That is how it worked at my old school, but now, aged ten, this is a different game; even the teacher has failed to pair me up with a “buddy” to show me round. I have to find my own way of making friends and I do not know where to start because I know a lot about how to lose friends and no idea how to get them back.
I hover on the edge of their group looking like the socially awkward girl I have become – if I am so good at losing friends maybe the best way of making them is to do the opposite. To be a brash, intellectually challenged, extrovert, who has two living parents and is not helplessly poor, but somehow it doesn’t seem to be a recipe for success.
 “Are you gonna say something, or are you just going to stand there?” Asks one of the group of girls, popping the bubble of gum she has just blown professionally and gathering it back up in her mouth with expertise. It’s weird how it catches me off guard, the London accent. I’ve heard it for a while now but not from people my age and I guess in one moment of stupidity I forgot that not all the kids I’ll ever know will be comfortingly Scottish.
 I have no idea what to say because really I have nothing to say but lots to say at the same time.
“Where’s the toilet?” I ask eventually.
“God, it can talk.” Says one of the girls I do not recognise in mock surprise. I can feel my cheeks heating with shame. I wanted to look likeable and I’ve made myself look like a freak, a freak who can’t even find her way to the toilet unaided. I guess I deserve the instructions that they give me.
“The girls’ toilet’s shut; you’ll have to use the boys.” One says and they all smirk.
“Thanks for the help guys but I’m not that desperate.” I say, hoping that my dry tone will make them like me. They laugh to each other and turn their backs on me.
“You can’t just walk in and try and join them at the top.” I look around, there is a tall girl with long blonde hair who is wearing some sort of baggy shorts and a knitted jumper that she shouldn’t be able to pull off but can.
“You have to start at the bottom and work your way up. Those girls are the queens of our year; you have to earn your royalty.” She says deadly serious. “Me, I’m Maddison, and I’m about two thirds of the way up, we won’t shove you down to the serving maid stage; we’re not so cocky at this level.”
“I’m Erin.”
“I know, I’m in your class; second from left, third row.”
“So, have you been here since year 3?” I ask, hoping that somebody will refill my stock of questions.
“Yep, it’s taken me three years to get this far – I don’t think I’ll make the top but, let’s be honest, I don’t care. The only people who care about their status are the ones who have never got off the bottom step and the ones who are scared of falling off the top. I’m happy enough where I am, at least I can say I’ve got friends, which is more than people at either end can. The queens of the year don’t do friends, they just have a group for popular people and if they break the rules of the popular group then – well, they’d better run while they still can.” It’s weird hearing it out of her mouth. It sounds like it belongs in one of those Disney Chanel teenage things on Annabel’s TV so I sort of stand and look at her and wait for her to say something else. Of course, there was a hierarchy at my old school but it wasn’t spoken of in the same way. In fact, we never talked about it at all; we just knew it. We just knew that poor kids with no dad who can’t even keep a chook farm running are the bottom of the heap.
Someone walks onto the playground and rings one of those old bells. An expectant silence falls. “Better go face the staircase of doom” I say, heading for the doors of the building. She grabs my arm with a strange sort of amusement dancing on her face.
“You have to freeze and shut-up when the bell goes.” she says, and it carries across the dampened playground.
“Oh” I say “Come to think of it, I remember someone saying that.” And we both laugh. And that is how I end up spending my first lunchtime sitting on The Wall.

My new sort-of-family fills in the breaks between school with a surreal unpleasantness. Naively, I had once believed that all families worked together like the pieces of the shoe, now I know that I must be wrong. Neither had I even stopped to consider what might happen when I got to the stage of questioning what mum and dad told me and going against them. Now I see that that must have been an expectation.
Adele is only two years older than me but could it be three times that. She looks at least 15 and she has streaky orange and yellow hair. She looks like a cheese-string and her brains are apparently similarly comparative. Keeley wears spike-healed boots which make her tower over me even further. She seems permanently attached at the mouth to some boy or another and she spends any time that she isn’t snogging someone, shouting at her parents. I think maybe that Natasha and James are relieved that I am still ten. They pet me like an animal and Natasha does my hair for me every morning as though I am a baby. It seems, perhaps, that she is one who has been starved of anyone to pamper for too long and therefore throws herself into the task of looking after me with unpleasant eagerness. The policeman said that these people were ideal; that was why I was going all the way to London. They don’t seem very ideal to me – perhaps  that was just a way of getting rid of me; finding ‘ideal’ people miles and miles away so that he never had to look at my prematurely troubled face again.

Over the next week I learn 6d, in fact I learn a fair amount about the whole school. Year 6 is divided into several groups. The popular girls who are not very clever, but not trolls like some of the kids are; the trolls who use up their entire brain space on picking their nose; the smart kids who get the answers right and whose quivering hands can be seen dancing above the class far too often; the group of girls who wear hijabs and who talk among each other in an inclusive, foreign language; the popular boys who are crazy about football that nothing else seems to register on their radar; the cutesy, girly girls who giggle and wear pink and seem to have somehow lost themselves in infanthood and been unable to get free, and finally, the middle ground who fit nowhere but fit everywhere at the same time. That is where I sit. 
The other ‘red help card’ people are Koreena, who refuses to talk, even to answer a question, because (as Maddison tells me) her brother committed suicide over the summer. I want to talk to her because I guess we must be kind of the same, but she doesn’t talk and I don’t reveal the story behind the piece of red paper on my desk to anyone. There is an autistic boy who uses it a lot because he gets angry and storms out, and there is a girl who only comes in once all week because her mum is severely disabled and she has a three year old sister who must be looked after. The first time I use my red card is the event of the week for everyone else; I suddenly become interesting and I am no longer “the new girl”, but “the new girl with a screwed up past”. People with tragedies and hidden secrets are far more exciting than normal people and I wonder what kind of twisted logic made it that way. Mrs Davies is talking to us, just talking, at the start of the day about nothing much and I suddenly wonder what I am doing there. Because a year ago I would never have doubted my life, I would never have doubted that I would spend the rest of my childhood at the village school and I would always have parents, and home would always be home. I had never even considered the absence of any of these everyday factors of life. And here I am, parentless, in a huge new school, with home just a distant memory of crumbling buildings that I abandoned without the goodbye it deserved. Maybe it was a dump, a mangled mess that looked more chewed up each day, but it was home. I just left it. I wonder whether it has been dismantled now and whether they chucked all the old furniture and all the memories of the happy little family that lived there. Will it perhaps remain there mouldering forever, rotting from the inside out as it is neglected further and someday a group of walkers will come down past it on a guide book walk and wonder why there are still ragged, rain-blurred curtains at the windows? And I remember me and dad, in the car one time…
“Dad, what will we do when our house falls apart?”
“Houses last longer than people Erin; that’s why old houses are so interesting because each person who lives there leaves behind a little imprint of themselves, a little memory on the building that lives on with the house…”

 And, after a while the village will forget the Weir family and dad’s singing in the church will slip out of human memory until nothing more than the old stone that can still feel the buried vibrations of the ghost of his voice. And I am wondering what happened to the chooks and that swollen bag of feed. And I am looking at the table and someone wrote on it T.B 4ever and I am trying to scribble it out because nothing is forever, and Mrs Davies is still saying something about living out our potential and I realise that the last thing I ever said to mum was “dad wouldn’t have done”. And then I am throwing back my chair and the class room is swimming and I can barely find my way to the door, chucking my card at her face and crying hard without making a sound.
I return shortly before break because I realise that I am too cold out in the corridor in just my t-shirt. The class are labelling mountain ranges on a map of the world but when I walk back in they all watch me with newly-found captivation and I become aware that the whole class is whispering about me, wondering why I have the right to throw a card in Mrs Davies’ face. I do not like being the subject of the whispering and, if my card were not still on Mrs Davies’ desk, I would use it again to escape. When we are sent outside and I stand on my own in the playground and watch some boys I do not know play basketball. The rhythmic bounce of the ball is comforting to the tumult in my head.
Maddison tries to talk to me but I shake her off because I can’t find any use for words; no words can bring back the things I lost. She becomes sulky and annoyed at my unresponsiveness and accuses me of being “Just as bad as Koreena.”  Anger and grief are things that lie very close to each other and when one is violently aroused the other normally gets tumbled up with it. Her response to my grief tugs at the strings of anger that are caught in the mess and pulls it out of my mouth.
 “Well, maybe,” I shout wheeling round, “that’s because my life is twice as bad as Koreena’s.” The playground holds its breath and I realise in that second, how many unwanted ears are listening in on my emotions in their interest into this new development of my character. The whole of year 6 will discuss me, dissect and digest my words and will come to a conclusion about my red card. I return my attention to the basketball that is currently bouncing at speed across the far side of the court and regret my outburst.
“Fine.” Maddison tells me, her hard voice not quite betraying the sunken hope at its centre “I don’t see why I should bother ‘getting to know you’ if you’re never going to talk to me about who you are.” And I sense her stalk off without looking around.
I wonder if my life really is twice as bad as Koreena’s. Her brother committed suicide, so did my mum. My dad died; I had to live with it, keep going without any help or support from mum. I had to suffer being intensely hungry, intensely lonely, intensely yearning for my lost dad. Does the number of deaths being twice as high mean that my life is twice as bad? Somehow I don’t think it comes down to numbers, but to the pain those numbers leave behind. I wonder how bad the pain has to be to actually freeze your lips with its horror.
Or perhaps silence is just another unsatisfactory solution to the same problem.

Natasha seems to enjoy me telling her about my school day every evening because she gives me jammy toast and sits me down at the kitchen table while she paints her nails. I think maybe she likes me talking about my day because she misses her daughters being at primary school and so she tries her best to make me into the daughters she is missing. Maybe they used to like jammy toast, maybe they liked their hair being done in little French plaits the way Natasha likes to do mine. I do not like jam; jam belongs with Dad so jam hurts every time I swallow.
“So what did you do today then?” she says seating herself with a bottle of diet coke.
I got upset, hurled my red card at my teacher, walked out, shouted at Maddison, and lost my only friend. I sat on my own at lunch and tried to talk to a girl who has isolated herself beyond communication, I started writing a story in Literacy about Surviving in the Wilderness and realised that I knew nothing, nothing at all about building shelters and hunting animals.
“I learnt to count to ten in French and we wrote stories.”
“That sounds nice; did you have fun at playtime.”
“I watched basketball.” I say truthfully.
“Do you like Basketball? Maybe you should join in.”
“I don’t know.”
“What about Madison, did she watch the basketball too?”
“No, I don’t think she likes sports.”
“Why don’t you invite her over sometime after school?”
“She stays for craft club.” I say and pour myself a glass of water; Natasha forgets to try and make conversation for a while. 

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