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...


5. 5

“I think we’ll carry on with our stories; you should be nearly finished now and hopefully I can take them home to mark over the Christmas holidays.” I’ve noticed that we seem to do an awful lot more of Literacy than anything else and whenever there is some unfortunate issue or mistake which means that we cannot do PE or art or maths, our stories come to the rescue. They are ever-present and ready to save the day by filling the gap.
My story about the wilderness is still a hash of nothingness not yet formulated into sentences and Mrs Davies seems to enjoy commenting on its lack of substance. She has done so ever since that lesson with the snowstorm paper and graphite scribbles when I almost got the better of her.
I take my pencil once more and tap it against my chin. Maddie has written four and a half pages about a girl called Amanda who finds herself in the jungle with a talking tiger and a poisonous frog of malicious intent and who then wakes up several hundred words later to realise it has all been a dream.
My brain sinks back into yesterday and plays my memories of the week backwards like a jumpy film on rewind. I take-in flashes. I remember being sat in Jon’s office, talking about survival and suddenly the answer to my story is obvious. I have been to the wilderness because the wilderness is where I live now. And I am still alive – the question really is whether I’m actually surviving.
I start to write without thinking. It’s funny how the blankness is suddenly punctured and inspiration starts to roar unstoppably through its holes. My mind carries me on the tide of its ideas and my pencil scratches the paper hesitantly at first and then faster until I am flooding the paper.

Surviving in the Wilderness by Erin Weir 
To survive in the wilderness you have to start by building a shelter. You don’t really know which kind of shelter to build so you look around at the shelters that the people who already live in the wilderness have built. You decide to copy a bit of each of the shelters around you and your finished product is a big mess – a compilation of scraps, a compilation of good and bad ideas.
 You crawl inside and out of sight to hide yourself behind the exterior you have created but you can feel the people around you staring at that exterior and thinking. You know that they must think you a freak and they must be bewildered by the thing you have built – they can smell your newness on you like a book straight from the store. It hangs like mist over every inch of you.
You’ve made copies which should liken you to them but you’ve only succeeded in highlighting what an alien you are.
 Then the first storm comes. It could be a sandstorm with little bits of cruel stones which bite holes in everything, or a torrential downpour of misery, or a hurricane of sentiments, a bushfire of anger, a blizzard of fear… Whatever form the disaster comes in it has the same effect: It shatters your shelter into patchy shreds until you sit, unprotected and baring your secrets to the world in the wreckage of your mask.
And the other people did not lose their shelters because theirs were not miss-matched articles of thievery. They all watch you as you huddle in a broken heap – reading the distress on your skin and the hurt of being unveiled and human.
 Some of the spectators are interested, fascinated by the story of the torn-up stranger, others are pitying as they kick at the rubble of your life. ‘What a shame we let it happen. We’d better make amends.’ And in their mocking ‘sorry’ they throw you empty casserole dishes. But the most dangerous members of the audience are vultures; they smile hungrily and swoop in as a pack to pick the flesh from your bones.

I realise that Maddie is reading over my shoulder as I finish. Perhaps she was first drawn in by the fact that my pencil was on paper, and not just on it but skating over it leaving regiment after regiment of letters but now, as I stab in the last full stop, I sense that she is confused by what she is reading. It is certainly far removed from Amanda and her bed-bound fantasies of talking tigers and perhaps she does not grasp the analogy I have made. If she does, then her understanding of it is still as patchy as my shelter.
“It’s a weird story,” she informs me eventually. “I don’t think Mrs Davies will like it, not that it’s bad,” She covers quickly, “Just that she’s hard to please.”
 “To be honest I hadn’t really thought about what she might think – I just wrote it.”
Maddie frowns and bites her lip in a mixture of surprise and confusion.
“I mean,” she begins, “Some of it is good but what’s all the rubbish about casserole dishes. It doesn’t make sense.”
It does make sense, I think to myself, you just don’t understand it.
“And in their mocking ‘sorry’ they throw you empty casserole dishes.” She quotes, her nose scrunched. I just shrug.

Later that afternoon I ask if I can go to the toilet and Mrs Davies says I can if I come straight back because she is explaining something of utmost importance about the ancient Egyptians.
 I do not go straight there or come straight back; I walk there slowly, considering what my actions are to be and I pass the noticeboard with the dance poster and stare at the photographed shoes for a while in contemplation.
 The truth is that Natasha has assured me that she will call the magic number and get me a dance class for after Christmas but I’m not sure if I can bank on that really happening. Natasha is very good at forgetting to do the things she’s said she will do especially if they are as far away as mid-January. She gives herself a long deadline to fulfil her promises and still cannot manage to do so. It’s strange how a week ago I would have forbidden myself but I am now suddenly desperate to learn to dance properly. In a way it was perhaps Natasha who changed my mind by making the decision that I should go to ballet and so I can cope with the shattered promise because it was not me who broke it.
 I plan what to do as I take my time with my hands under the dying breaths of the hand dryer. I have never stolen anything before and I am not entirely certain whether removing a piece of shiny paper from a noticeboard counts as robbery. Is it wrong to take a poster that is meant to be read by everyone? So far I have seen no one read it and the Christmas fair poster has been replaced by one about a football club which will be starting after school on Mondays after the Christmas break. The football poster could easily be moved a little to cover the blank space. I gather my nerves and leave the toilets, the dryer still groaning behind me.
My fingers are numb with strange excitement as I remove the drawing pins from the corners and rearrange that section of board so that there are no visible gaps. To me it seems obvious that something is missing but that is just the guilt of knowing that I have taken it. It is the knowledge of responsibility and the confusing mixture of bad conscience and reckless pleasure that makes the board look empty in my eyes. No one else would bother noticing.
 Mrs Davies’ explanation of ‘utmost importance’ has progressed very little in the time I’ve been away and she is still talking about how they came up with a number system and the whiteboard is filling with squiggles that are digits. It appears that Maddie may be able to get away with mathematical doodles after all.
I barely notice the rest of the school day. I only feel the bump of paper against my ribcage, warm with secret anticipation as my crime hides beneath layer after layer of jersey.

Natasha doesn’t realise that I am watching her at 22:30 when her eyes focus on the crumpled poster by the telephone. And that between the door and its frame is a little crack through which I see the way she stops and smiles uncertainly at it before sighing and raking her hair. She doesn’t know that I hear her fingers punch the numbers and the words she mutters to herself as she waits for someone to pick up:
 “It’s probably too late in the day to ring now but, God knows, there’s got to be something I can do for the kid.”

London in the morning; it’s a slightly eerie and mystical place. The yellow smog hangs low in the streets and through it a weak kind of sunlight filters, illuminating the paving stones and the traffic cones and the grey river. From up here you can see the river snaking among the grey teeth of the sleeping monster that lounges, scarred, ugly and fatigued across the once-green earth.  From up here you can see the frequent early trains that rattle across the river, eating up the orange tinted air and you can see the slumbering offices gradually wake up. From up here you can feel the smog wrap around you with its cold arms and you can feel totally alone and alienated, a lonely girl at a lonely window at the top of a lonely block of flats on a cold, lonely morning. You wouldn’t think that it was possible to feel alone in London but you can, desperately sometimes. You can feel alone even when you are caught up in the crowds at the underground and no amount of sweaty, cigarette-smoke bodies pressing down on you can ease that grey feeling of being alone on a sea of tears.
I have not danced since the day of the storm back at home but today I have a dance lesson to go to. Today is my “Free trial lesson.” Today I can once more let my movements free and, although I swore to mum’s dead body that I would never dance again, the thought fills me with unjustifiable excitement so complete that I cannot tell whether I am nervous or not. My feet, of their own accord, slide themselves across the balcony and carry me in a dizzying swirl to the rail around which a plant has worked its clinging way. I shut my eyes, and the breeze seems to lift me in a way that is strangely reminiscent of the mountain gusts at home as though I’m still standing among the yellowed, scuffed patches of grass and lichen stained rocks, carved by the hands of the wind itself. The setting is totally different but the lonely, cool sensation of flight and freedom is the same as I am elevated above the grey filters of the city. I miss the majestic view of the mountains and the sweeping green of the glens and the freshness of home. I miss the cool, forgotten lochs and hillsides rimmed with trees; a world that could be thousands of years old, a world that breathed before London was even thought of. I miss the familiarity of those isolated places where the wind felt alive and the undulation of the land felt endless, where I didn’t know about the violent business of cities.
 “Erin!” I open my eyes
 “Coming.” I shout back and let myself back inside, firmly shutting the door behind me on the ethereal smog prising its way into the flat.
I leave the balcony behind me walking past the sofa and the TV without seeing any of it because my head is still chasing scudded clouds on the mountain tops of home. The kitchen area comes back to me with a sharp kick of reality and I take in the square table and the square chairs and I suddenly realise that nothing was square back home.
James is dishing up bacon, he is in his element because it is Saturday and this means no work, and this means cooked breakfast, and this means a day of flopping. Farmers don’t have flop days because if they do then the chooks starve and then they starve.
“Good girl.” He says when he notices that I’m sitting down. “I’ll drive you over when you’ve finished, the others are still in bed.” He sets a couple of bacon and toast plates on his arm and sweeps in pretending to be a waiter and I smile to be polite. James likes cooking, and he is far better at it than Natasha with her microwave dinners. I guess I like James but Natasha is more often there, being the one who looks after me. And James was the one who picked up my shoes that day.
We eat in a half silence, where the breaks in the halting conversation are long and awkward.
 “Have you got everything you need? Got your leotard on?”
I nod and blow on my breakfast.

I pad along the carpeted corridor with apprehensive excitement, catching sight of my pale reflection in the glass of the swing doors. There is music coming from further down the hallway, perhaps the class has already started.
‘No outdoor footwear please.’ I note and have a silent debate before making my decision: I will be a rebel today. And even though there is no one to see my rebellious action, I feel a warped sense of pleasure which I cannot understand as being a result of disobedience to a paper sign.
 On my left, a wide, greyish painted door is propped open by a plastic chair. I pause before entering and observe, wanting to learn as much as I can before entering this strangely reversed world where pink delicateness and femininity hides athleticism and stamina.
Several small girls in pink leotards like my own are bending and stretching irregularly with the music with focused expressions as they roll in on their turned-out feet. I don’t see how it can be so difficult; maybe going to lessons will be like returning to infant school to relearn the things you believe you have far surpassed. But learning to do them right I remind myself. This ‘Grade 2’ class, I notice as I watch, is a group of scabby-legged seven-year-olds whose hair has been ruthlessly twisted up into little buns like Mickey Mouse ears.
The teacher hears my footsteps and whirls delicately; the very depiction of gracefulness. She smiles and I notice that she looks far younger than I can remember any teacher ever looking before, indeed, her petite frame and brand-name clothing could pass her off as 14.
 “Hello!” she says brightly “You must be Erin, is your mum or dad here?”
The polished boards beneath my shoes suddenly seem to rock as though I have found myself unexpectedly on a boat, alone and lost in aeons of grey, tipping water.
“My parents are dea-” I realise too late that she means Natasha and James and close my half-open mouth before the whole of that icy, evil word can fall out.
 “He’s in the car park. I can get him to talk to you after.” I say quietly, wondering if she will need a full explanation of my shadowy past, the way they did at school.
“Have you got something to wear?” she asks and I nod in response, hoping that she will understand that talking is, right now, impossible.
She waves me over a corner of the light, airy space and recommences the bending stretching music while I peel off my new jeans, surrounded by the brash pinkness of the children’s ballet bags. I shiver as I remove my hoody and stand awkwardly in my newly bought leotard. I have no ballet shoes yet so I leave my socks on hoping that I will not slip and slide too much in them.
 The mirror throws back my reflection coarsely at me. The leotard sags in a way it is surely not meant to and wrinkles around my waist. I am too small for it yet next to the other children I look gangling and awkward. My legs look too long for themselves as they poke, stick-like, from the bottom of my uniform. My elbows, knees and shoulders are sharp and angular from hunger and I wonder if my lifted arms will ever smooth into gentle curves. I join at the back of the bar as directed by the teacher who walks up and down calling instructions while the music plays. She pauses, demonstrates and adjusts the leg of one girl before continuing marking the arms out alongside us. I am lost in the footwork with which the others are fully familiar and follow tentatively, my legs jolting in and out at the wrong times. When I think I have caught the pattern it changes. Perhaps I was wrong to pass this work off as easy. The teacher reaches me and looks at me with interest, I try to ignore this inspection and gaze intently at the backs of the girl-in-front-of-me’s knees. They bend and stretch without warning and I copy hastily. The music closes in one final chord of frivolous, fairground-style music and I close my feet the way the other girls have.
 “Good.” The teacher says thoughtfully and asks me to tendue. I stare at her blankly and she demonstrates sticking her leg out in front of her the way we have for the last couple of minutes only the way she does it, it looks like a dance move, not a kind of strange, mechanical slide. I copy her instead of trying to recreate the movements of the younger girls and I notice as I catch my reflection that the bony legs and baggy costume no longer matter because my leg is taught, extended, ending with a proud arch.
“Good” she says again and I smile in a strained, embarrassed way. “You haven’t taken classes before, have you?” I shake my head and she turns back to the speakers, flicking through snatches of music.
The dance lesson that follows goes quickly; it is a hurried class which is simple enough to follow once I have stopped panicking enough to take in what the teacher is saying. The only things that rupture my bubble of air are the frequent scrutinising glances that I earn myself from the teacher. When I notice her looking at me I lose my confidence and the blissful peace that enters my head is chased away, I often wobble and forget the entire, copied sequence. I wonder if everyone undergoes such a close examination on their first lesson and hope that she is less interested in me next time. It is not that I dislike attention, but simply that I am so afraid of doing something wrong in front of her, that some slip or mind-blank is bound to occur. My leg is sure to turn in, my foot sure to sickle because I am so worried about keeping them perfect.
When I can stop worrying and lose myself in what I am doing it is OK, and there is no room to think anything but how right it feels. I do not exactly forget mum, dad, and everything I lost, but dance makes them somehow less painful, it numbs the pain without taking them further away, it makes them closer, like they are sitting somewhere in the airy dance studio watching my every move.
The class finishes and I find that I am lighter than I was before. I find that I do not care about fetching Natasha from the car park and getting her to explain me to the teacher. I find that I can cope with them talking about me while I dress and pull my hair out of its ponytail. I find that I do not mind walking out with Natasha now because I suddenly realise that she is doing her best; she barely knows me and she does not know how raw the past is and what things make it worse; she is simply trying to be the best mum she can to me and I am far too hard to please.
 “Erin, can you come over here for a second?”
I stand up and go to join Natasha who gives me one of her sparkly smiles and clamps me to her side like she is trying to look like a proud, ballet-wise mother. I shrug my shoulders and she loosens her hold a little.
“Your teacher would like you to move to a more difficult class, isn’t that great?” I wonder whether she really thinks that it’s great or whether she is just pretending for my sake and her own. Her fake fingernails are stabbing into my arm.
“Really?” I ask, turning to the teacher, feeling a strange bubble of excitement somewhere down in my stomach.
“You may not have learned ballet before but you have a beautiful quality to your movements which cannot be taught, I think you would learn more in a class of children who are more your own age and in a more challenging environment. I’m thinking of putting you straight in to grade 5 as well as this class but, if you struggle too much, you can always move you to Grade 3 or 4, we’ll keep experimenting until we’ve found what works best. You’ve got a lower grade leotard, so you’ll stand out a bit,” my heart sinks; I am sick of standing out for the wrong reasons, “but there’s no need to get a new one, it’s only important for doing exams.” She reads the delight on my face, she is unveiling a stepping stone up from the endless pointing of feet and bending and stretching of knees; I would be mad if I didn’t accept.
“Would you like to go ahead with that after Christmas? I think it would be important for you to still attend these classes as well, to give you a good grounding in technique.” I am nodding so hard I think my head could fall off.
I scarcely notice the drive home because I am too busy chattering in that nonsensey, annoying, and excited way.

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