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...


4. 4

It’s raining as I leave the flat two days later, the sort of rain that is fine enough to appear insignificant but somehow soaks you all the same. I pull the parka closer over my shoulders but it slips back again like it’s reluctant to cling too closely to me. It’s Adele’s old coat which Natasha insisted I wore because of the weather. I suppose I could be grateful that Adele eventually agreed to get it out of her wardrobe for me but it is so large that I feel like I’m drowning in it. The sleeves hang annoyingly past my fingertips, rendering my hands useless and the coat sags off my back like a tent on a marquee frame too small. I try to pull the hood up but it lets the wind buffet it back the minute I let go of the faux fur rim.
A car screeches past me; a worn-out body like a crumpled-in drinks’ can, riding on worn-out tires. It cruises raggedly through a patch of brown, city water and sprays up my legs so that the bottoms of my jeans clasp damply to my ankles as I walk.
Amy runs up behind me and shouts hello. She’s one of my sort-of-friends; one of the people who is friends with Maddison and therefore was kind of my friend too until Monday.
“Are you waiting for Maddie to say sorry?” She asks, her bag swinging on her shoulder, her tongue playing with a ball of blue bubble gum. It smells quite nice but I’m very glad it’s not pink.
“What?” I ask in confusion, caught off guard by the question and her enthusiastic, full-fronting attack. “Who’s Maddie?”
 “Maddison, you idiot; I wondered if you were waiting for to say sorry to you because she says she won’t say sorry to you until you’ve said sorry to her.” She says and I shrug lamely. Refusing to forgive until she did had not crossed my mind; I had just presumed that Maddison would not forgive. I presumed that I had lost her permanently; the way that I had permanently lost pretty much everything else.
 “Oh, I don’t know, do you think Maddie still likes me?”
 “Maddison,” she corrects.
 “You have to call her Maddison; you’re not her friend at the moment so you can’t call her Maddie.”
 “Oh.” I say feeling myself sag for some reason, “You can tell her that I’m sorry.”
“You’re scared,” she says jubilantly. “You’re too scared to talk to her.”
I suppose in a way she has got it exactly; I am scared. I’m scared to talk to anyone because everyone has questions, and I’m scared to answer questions because they make me remember and shut me in. And I’m scared of people getting my answers and suddenly deciding that they’ll treat me like I’m porcelain instead of human. And I’m scared to look too closely over my past because I’m scared that a close observation will only highlight the fact that it is my fault
We don’t talk most of the rest of the way because Amy starts popping her gum very loudly and I’m unsure whether to respond derisively to her comment about fear and laugh it off, or whether to accept the truth and let her assume cowardice is my answer.
The school playground is spotty today – polka dotted with puddles and clusters of kids in exclusive groups. Amy rushes on ahead when she sees Maddison without telling me whether I’m supposed to go with her or not. I stand over by the bike racks, pretending to be very interested in the way that the chalk from yesterday’s science lesson (drawing around shadows on the tarmac at three different times of day) has started swimming. The colours are washy brown and streaky like they have been created with trailing, painted fingers across grey paper. Shades of white and peach have bled into the tiny surface cracks – like dirt ingrained into skin. In other places the chalk floats and froths in water spit underneath the drip from the end of the gutter.
I get bored of watching the ground and look up to notice uncomfortably that the whole of Maddison’s group are observing me with an unspoken hostility that seems louder somehow than the chatter of the playground and the fuzz of traffic noise beyond. I break eye contact too late and turn sharply to look at another corner of the cage where four year 3 girls are doing handstands; blissfully ignorant that they present a large area of pink nickers. Not caring that their hands are black with rain-induced filth and that some boys in my class are laughing at their kicking legs and their underwear. I wish I could not care, and that I had three other people to not care with.    
 I let my eyes roam the rectangle, taking care to steer them nowhere within a ten metre radius of Maddison.
 One boy is on his own with a punctured football; battered, greying and wilting like a plant. He kicks it up in frustration and it spins flaccidly off to the side before flopping on the ground, unmoving. Its lumbered flight makes me think of Mrs Davies, for some reason.
The bell goes and I know the drill by now. Shut up and stand still. It’s not really as if I was doing anything else before it rang.
When my class gets called in I shuffle behind everyone – head down.
 “Hey, red card,” One of the popular girls calls at me, turning back to see me. “Is it true your mum topped herself?”
How did I let anyone come so close to knowing the words under the book cover?
 It’s the same girl that told me the girls’ toilet was out of order on the first day. She’s wearing a different top today – it’s white with black letters printed on it: C U T E. I scrutinise her face for a trace of cuteness but there are only sneers written across every inch of her paper skin. Her denim shorts are dry. I find myself wondering how when it’s been raining so hard – science is easier to wonder about than people.
“C’mon, spill the beans; she took one look at you and thought ‘that’s it’, did she?” the world seems to be a blur of mockery and faces. Words start to fill my head, words I’ve been taught by listening to Keeley’s arguments, but I don’t say any of them. My fingers rush against the laminated red paper in my pocket. Escape. But there’s no escape from questions. I could break out of the school and tear away out of the gates but wherever I ended up I’d still have people clawing their way into my fears, tearing open wounds with words and making my whole body bleed tears.
Do you want me to send your dad’s car spinning into a delivery lorry and let you watch it crush in on itself, and shatter, and mangle, and splatter red? Do you want to watch the air bags burst out like hideous marshmallows, sticky and streaky with maroonish liquid? Do you want to see him – a twisted skeleton, a puppet tangled in its strings – as they carry him permanently away in a haze of flashing blue lights? Do you want me to burn your money, your happiness, your hope – send smoke dancing up into the clouds with all your love? Shall I hollow your stomach like empty casserole dishes? Shall I ostracise you from all your Hollister-top friends and cut your heart on empty memories until there’s nothing you can do but bleed? Then you’d know. Then you’d know why I’m an orphan, a loser, a red card girl.
I think to myself, my hurt churning viciously somewhere in my throat.
There are so many words but none I can say. Wasn’t there meant to be some instinct that said you either run or fight when you feel threatened? But there’s nothing. Eternal emptiness in my response. No fight to have, no place to run can destroy the threat of my own memories.
“Leave her Lydia,” another girl says. “She’s just an idiot, as waste of time.”
And they leave me – the waste of time – just like that.
 I find my way to the toilets just to check that you can’t read the unsaid words on my face. The girl in the mirror stares back at me – clueless to suffering except from the shake of her hands and her bottom lip. She has a thin face, long nothingy hair, big glazed eyes and a sharp crest of a chin. Is she an idiot?
Annabel called me an idiot once, back when we were six and still argued about who got to have the pink crayon when we coloured in…
 “It’s my turn today,” I grab at the chunky implement in her hand.
 “You had it on Monday.”
 “Exactly, it’s Wednesday now so yesterday was your turn,” I say, trying once more to take it by force.
 “But we didn’t do colouring yesterday so it’s still my turn today,”
“You’re horrible”
“You’re an idiot, a poo idiot…”

That was a six-year-old response to injustice, when insults were still hard to formulate and most revolved around toilets. Idiot isn’t such a bad thing to be called; just a childish term which is more often than not applied laughingly. I’d probably got more ticks in my maths books than anyone else anyway. But ‘Waste of Time’ was a different sort of title and one that stung far deeper with its adulthood…
“Am I an idiot Daddy?” I ask, deeply concerned – the question has been burning on my tongue all day and I have to know.
“Perhaps; we’re all stupid in our own ways but only an idiot would believe someone who told them that they were an idiot.” He answers pensively but I’m too young and too upset to grasp his philosophy.
“But am I?”
“Not as much of an idiot as the person who told you that you were.”
“Is Annabel a bigger idiot then?”
“For today.”
His smile is sad but my relief puts hands over my eyes so that I don’t see it. I see myself telling Annabel the next day that she is the biggest poo idiot in the world…

I want to feel that six-year-old relief and I search my insides for it but it is playing hide and seek under piles of other junk and the seeker has forgotten how to play. I look away from my reflection and finger the toilet door handle unsure whether happy or sad memories are the hardest to hold.

“I’m sorry.” I say and a silence stretches to fill the hole in the conversation like tarpaulin pulled taught across a gap in the rafters. She doesn’t say anything back so I start to wonder whether I ought to add something; something to explain myself.
“I’m sorry that I got annoyed with you on Monday but I don’t want to talk about myself much. I mean,” I say, my voice petering out as I absorb the eyes of the crowd and a sick, scared feeling forms in my stomach. “I – I don’t mind talking about colours, and – and animals and what food I like and that… I just don’t want to talk about family. Never about family.” She looks at me carefully and then nods. “I’m sorry Maddison.”
“Maddie – my name’s Maddie – and I’m sorry too.” She smiles. “My favourite colours are purple and green, I like dogs because they always play with you, and my favourite food is Pizza and Rolos, but not together, and we won’t talk about family, never.”
“Er,” I say awkwardly – why is everyone so forward? I like green too but not light green; dark green like pine trees and I like inky purple like the bottoms of the lochs. I like dogs – Annabel was going to give me one but not because she liked me and I think, maybe, I stopped liking dogs so much then. I think I’ve had pizza before, in a café with dad… There’s so much more to colours and animals and foods than I thought. Maybe they’re not so safe to talk about.
“Me too,” I say. “But I’ve never had Rolos, what’s a Rolo?”
“You’ve never had a Rolo?”She says incredulously and Amy and Hannah exchange a look of quizzical shock. I shake my head and smile in an apologetic embarrassed way as all three of them continue to goggle.
“They’re the best.” Maddie says, “I’ll give you some next time I have a packet.”
“Do you want to come round today?” I say quickly and regret the words as soon as I’ve spouted them. What if she doesn’t want to? What if she doesn’t like me enough to come to Natasha and James’ flat? “I mean, you have to go up seven flights of stairs, and Keely and Adele will be being idiots but it’s alright, you get used to it…” I trail off because she is looking at me sadly, almost like how Natasha looks when she feels sorry for me.
 “I’m really sorry Erin, I can’t. I’ve got craft club.”

 We have another lesson of writing our Survival in the Wilderness stories which, for me, means a lesson of twisting strands of hair around my pencil and letting the graphite tip skate on the rink of white page and working my shoes, wriggling, off my feet without using my fingers to undo the laces.
 “Erin, let me see what you’ve done this lesson,” Mrs Davies requests, leaning over my desk into the middle of a thought. Part way through the tricky manoeuvre of working my heal from its canvas cage.
 “OK,” I say – she’s staring right at it. An expanse of blank with winding, shaky, grey lines embroidered on its surface.
 “Can you show me?” She says somewhat irritably.
 “I am showing you.” I wait for her to shout but I’m startled and impressed by her control.
 “This is it?” She inquires in an over-polite, formal tone which suggests that she is winding up to the top of a volcano.
 “Yeah,” I nod. “See the Antarctic is a sort of wilderness,” I think quickly to prevent the lava from raining. “And this page is the Antarctic, and that there,” I point at a squiggle. “Is a shelter, but it’s not a proper drawing because you can’t see it properly through the blizzard and they’ve also disguised it well so that it blends in so that this polar bear,” I point out another squiggle “can’t find them and eat them.” I let my hands trace the paper and feel the stabs where I peppered it with my wooden sword. “And here they’ve stabbed holes in the ice to catch seals and fish through. And that’s how they survive in the wilderness.”
 I look up at her expectantly – her face seems to be struggling with something which, I find, pleases me far too much.  
“It’s meant to be creative writing, not creative drawing.” She says eventually. “Write about surviving in the wilderness.”
But Maddie turns to me with impressed incredulousness. “That was brilliant! Next time I don’t feel like doing maths I’ll doodle and tell her the pictures are some Stone Age number system.” Her smile is wider than I’ve ever seen it. “I don’t have craft club tomorrow,” she offers. I smile in a half-hearted reflection of her face and return my focus to my shoe challenge.
I’ve never been to the wilderness, wherever it is.

We have ‘wet-break’ for my first time since starting in 6d and I discover that this means that we sit in our classroom to eat rather than the hall and the noise gets bigger and bigger until the walls can’t contain our rowdiness and we spill out in excess; too big for the room somehow.
We float in the corridor aimlessly, wavering between one end and the other. The Hollister-top girls have staked the stairs so we stake the sill of the stretching glass front to our fish tank and watch some idiots jumping around on tubes of squeezy yoghurt. Peachy paint splatters the walls, the legs, my canvas shoes as they dangle somewhere between the ledge and the plastic-coated floor.
Still the broken, old canvas shoes.
It filters through the inky sieve and I feel it start to lick between my toes.
“You’re a moron!” Maddie shouts at one of the boys but not loud enough for it to call Mrs Davies out of our classroom and not loud enough for it to hit him very hard. I can see half of Mrs Davies through the door as she stirs a mug of something with a smeary Kit Kat. I wonder whether she would mind if Maddie called one of those boys a moron; she often seems as though she is close to doing the same thing herself.
Maddie leads me squelching to the toilet for a handful of bitty tissues that fall apart soggily in hands – saturated in mess.
As we walk past the noticeboard my eyes are drawn automatically to the flier pinned onto the bottom left corner. Perhaps it is because it is new and therefore unfamiliar as it masks half the green poster about the Christmas Fair that my eyes have become accustomed to seeing, or perhaps it is purely the fact that the majority of it is taken up with a pair of pearly ballet shoes. I can’t help stopping, it reels me in magnetically, a hook around my secretive desires.
My heart seems to stop and then race almost simultaneously, like it can’t quite decide whether dance is beautiful or deadly or both. It’s addictive, enthralling, toxic, exhilarating, dangerous but somehow I can’t care enough about its dark side to deter me from it. 02074926637 I run through the numbers over and over, engraving them one by one into the lining of my skull. I can’t stop myself – it’s like a survival instinct – no matter how I remind myself that I forbade it, it insists on tugging through my heart like the lonely and beautiful words of a lonely and beautiful song. An old friend that refuses to give up on holding my hand. Perhaps I should be grateful for its unfailing loyalty but do you thank the one who kidnaps you? It is my captor; weaving my hopes and dreams into a net of glorious movement and holding me as a hostage within it.

The jam lounges in uncooperative globs across the charred gritty surface. I try to eat but it clogs up my mouth and makes me choke on the blackened, bristly crumbs. I put it aside taking frantic gulps of water to clear my airways, contemplating the possibility of finding words for the question that has been gnawing my voice all day.
“There’s a poster in the corridor at school for a dance place and you can get a trial lesson free.” Not quite the right words but they tumble out without awaiting clearance and fall awkwardly onto the stripy plate. My voice seems small and rusted as though the grated lining of my throat has clamped down around it.
“Lovely baby” Natasha says softly, plucking at the gemmed casing of her expensive phone. I don’t think she even heard me.
“There’s a poster for a dance place; can I go?”
“What’s that baby?”
“Can I go?”
“If you’ve finished your toast.” I look at her; she is looking at her reflected face in a pink hand mirror. Her hair is grizzled bronze under her blonde highlights and she runs her hand through it and picks up one of the many furniture magazines on the table which she regards with something close to reverence. I wonder if she will listen later.
“I’ll put my plate in the dishwasher.” I say, hastily scraping the toast into the bin before she has time to look up.
“You are sweet.” She ruffles my hair when I return “Whaddya think? We might get a new sofa this weekend, I’ll pick up some green paint after so we can repaint your room.”
I nod vaguely; she has been promising me a green room since I got here.

“I’m so sorry I had to cancel last week. It really wasn’t convenient timing for you – the first week is the most important – but I really couldn’t sit up without feeling light headed.”
 “Well,” Natasha says amiably, “Not to worry, there’s a lot of that going around at the moment, always is at this time of year.”
He turns away from his desk to cough into a tissue and then returns his gaze to me with an inspecting smile.
“How are things?” He probes gently and, to my relief, Natasha answers before I have to.
 “I think she’s settled in quite well. The first day was a bit difficult” Jon leans forward in his chair at this but Natasha ploughs on. “But I think we’ve sorted that out and Erin’s made a nice friend at school, haven’t you Erin?”
“Is that right Erin? You’ve been OK”
I scan the office floor for an escape but there are only polished boards and a small bin in the corner. “Yes,” I lie almost inaudibly.
“Sorry, while I remember, can I just remind you Erin that this only works if we’re honest with each other.”
Coincidence or unwanted understanding?
My fingers are clenching underneath my knees; I’m cold but they’re damply sweaty and my shoulders are tensing in a scared, angry way. My toes are switching pointed, flexed, pointed, flexed inside their shoes like they are squirming fish caught in a net.
 “Erin? Are you OK?” Jon repeats. I look up at him as he sits, forward in his chair, finger tips pressing together so that the skin looks yellow and stretched
 “Erin,” Natasha begins reproachfully. “I thought you told me things were fine. You should have said something.” She looks disappointed, betrayed almost but I’ve learned not to trust grown-ups too much; they leave you behind too often, just after they stolen your secrets, and force you to get by alone.
 “I broke up with my friend Maddie because she wanted me to talk to her about mum and dad and then all her friends didn’t like me and then we made up again but all the kids think I’m weird and discuss why I might get special treatment. I’m like a little freak on show for them – it’s intriguing having another messed-up kid in the class.” My voice is tightening involuntarily and Lydia’s cruelty and other peoples’ insensitivity and ignorance are churning in my throat like the unshed tears.
“And how does that make you feel?”
 “Oh you know,” I say my voice loud in its sarcasm. “That makes me feel really wonderful.”
“OK, OK,” He says gently as I sag in the aftermath of my short-lived anger. He searches my face, the desk, the walls for the right words. “So what happens when you feel like that? What’s your reaction, what helps? How do you survive the issues you’ve had to go through?”
 I shrug blandly; sick of words and questions.
 “It’s far easier to ignore the problems we have and if I thought that ignoring them would help you I’d be happy to let you not answer but saying nothing is not a solution, I’m afraid, Erin.”
 I shrug again to show him that I have at least heard him but I wade in his concern and the mud clinging to my feet and the words rushing over me, bubbling.
I try to make myself think but I can’t.
 “What is your natural, instinctive reaction to being angry, or sad, or scared?”
I remember the church – shouting at Jesus and then dancing, then rising against the bedroom wall when the policeman came, the way I wanted to dance when I arrived, then rising and falling again on my toes when Keely was shouting, and now, here, my feet pointing and flexing in their shoes.
 “I…” I begin hesitantly and Jon leans even further forward in his chair.
 “Yes?” He questions eagerly.
 “I think I… I dance.”
 “Sorry?” He stops, his encouraging smile merging to confusion. Of all the words he expected me to say ‘dance’ was probably the last one he would have thought of. I wonder whether anyone’s ever told him the same thing. My hunger and passion for movement seems so personal that I cannot, selfishly, picture anyone else loving it the same way.  I can’t imagine it having the same relationship with anyone else; it’s how I imagine the relationship between a cigarette and the smoker to be.
“So er… you dance?” I nod in confirmation. “And does this dance… er… does it help? Does it relieve the stress or help you get things out?”
I shrug again “I suppose. I mean,” I gather my thoughts; the impulse to dance is instinctive like the flinch instinct when something hits you. “I guess it helps while I dance. Everything sort of fades out and I feel like I’m above all of it and I kind of forget the whole world except what I’m doing. And then I stop and… and it all floods back in and I’m angry that I let myself forget…”
I know he is thinking deeply. I can tell even though my eyes are on the smudged laces of my shoes because the room seems to hold itself while he explores his brain’s Help Manual…
 The room is so quiet. Dad is not facing me; he is holding some money in one hand and staring at it so deeply that the room seems frozen like a snapshot on a camera.
“Daddy?” I begin tentatively. The silence alarms me – Dad laughs, Dad talks, Dad sings and sometimes he even sits and reflects like when we’re sat by a loch together but never does he loose his aliveness and become a statue. He never stares in such unswerving contemplation that he ceases to be real.
 I shake his arm to make him wake up but even sleep is more alive than this…

I almost hold my breath so that I don’t break the stillness that seems to mute even my sense of time.
 “So what you’re saying is that you dance because it gives your brain something else to think about and it lets you become so totally involved that you don’t have time or room for your problems? So what helps is engaging your brain?”
 “Sort of,” I agree but his explanation doesn’t contain how deeply passionate I am about it. It describes dance as merely a distraction.
“So do you find things easier in school, when you’ve got things to focus on and apply yourself to.”
 “Not really. It’s easy and anyway, it doesn’t work like that.” Dance is so absorbing that nothing else exists; no matter how complicated a maths question is it can never have the same effect.
“How does it work then?”
“I don’t know.”

“So it seems you’re secretly a dancer then?” Natasha says twenty minutes later as we drive home. She is wearing a slipping smile as she drums the steering wheel in time to something on the radio.
It’s never been a secret, you just didn’t ask, I answer internally but instead of saying anything I just make a vague noise in agreement. I turn in the seat and watch the watercolour cars, grey among the folds of London’s Christmas costume.
 “I’ve never seen you dance at all, back home, I didn’t know.”
 “No,” I answer although there was never really a question. I dance for myself and for the dance, not for other people who might happen to be interested.
 “I guess it was embarrassment, wasn’t it?”
Her speech is lightly conversational but I can sense how awkwardly forced it is, like the broken smile that flickers on her face like dying candlelight. I know she is trying to cover her disappointment but is, at the same time, hoping that I will notice the way that she has been hurt by my lies. She believed the fairy-tale happy endings that I spun for her and it has upset her to know that they were only stories.
 Not dancing has nothing to do with embarrassment but there is no real way that Natasha can tell that because she doesn’t understand the relationship between me and dance. I’d dance in the middle of Trafalgar square if I felt it was necessary and if it were not for my death-bound promises holding me back. I don’t dance because of a rule I feel I have to self-enforce.
“I’m not embarrassed, I just…” my tongue falters. “I just don’t know whether – whether mum would want me to.” London blurs before my eyes, lights go streaky, streetlamps cry.
 “Oh Love!” Natasha exclaims, her voice immediately losing it imposed smile and brimming with concern. “Of course she would!”
 “You didn’t know her,” I rebuke Natasha; the concern of others makes me feel fragile so I have to stop them from coming close. “You can’t speak for dead strangers.”
 “No… well… I suppose not but, listen to me Erin, any mother would rather her daughter was happy and safe than chronically depressed.” She moves one arm from the wheel and onto my shoulder.
 “How do you know?” My voice is whiney, like an exhausted toddler arguing against bed-time.
 “I am one,” she replies simply and I can’t think of any way to respond. The car heater hums to fill the silence and I pull Keeley’s Christmas jumper down over my hands…
You must promise me, Erin,” Mum catches my hands and forces me to look at her. “Promise me you’ll walk straight home from school. You won’t stop, or go somewhere else.” She is very serious so I nod without considering anything. I go to leave but then I remember:
 “What if I see a little girl who is sick and crying because she is hungry and she has no home and no medicine and one of her legs has been chopped off?” Perhaps I am remembering  the Christmas charity appeal on Annabelle’s TV and the sick skeletons who haunted them.
Mum looks startled at my question but not so much so that she is unable to find an answer.
 “Well,” She says giving me a hug, “I doubt they’ll be a regular occurrence around here but yes, I suppose, sometimes you have to break a promise for something really important.”…

Is dance really important? It might be to me but not to anyone else. Could it count as one of mum’s ‘really important’ things? Probably not.
 But when I try to find something that might be important enough there are no answers. I don’t seem to have a clear concept of ‘important’ anymore. It had been squashed right out of proportion by the events of the last 11 months.
 “How do you think you mum would like to see you? Like this?” Natasha asks, sounding more genuinely moved than I have ever heard her.
I look at myself as best as I can in the car mirror. I can see what she means; my eyes look tired and bruised like the near corpses in the charity appeal – my face looks so taught there seems to be no way that it could be trained to smile.
 “I think we’d better find you a dance class,” she says as we pull up by our block.
“02074926637” I say, unplugging my seat belt and jumping out of the car.
 “02074926637, ring 02074926637.”
Each stair has one of those magic digits assigned to them as I take it at a run.

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