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...


6. 6

I can sum Christmas up in one word: lonely. Yes, the overall feeling of it is of an isolating emptiness that no amount of mince pies can fill. The flat is full of vague friends and family and smells and hot air but I feels like the whole world is echoing in my internal chasm of loss. It’s odd really that my old Christmas, a time of cruel wind, licking fire and inspired jealousy could be so sorely missed when luxury upon luxury is piled on me. I don’t care for most of my presents although I tuck them obediently into my room with quiet “thank you”s because no gift can fill up the hole that’s swallowing me up, inside to out. Natasha and James buy me ballet shoes but I realise that it is not the shoes but the ballet that is special now. And, although I love them and the promise of more classes, no object, or festive trapping, can ever replace the shadows of mum and dad that fall across my history and the grave-shaped hollows they dug in my heart.

To my astonishment, when I return to school after the Christmas break it is to receive back my piece of writing with five ticks at the bottom. Mrs Davies tells me it is wonderful and she reads it out in the class which causes me to melt away in my seat, head ducked to hide behind my hair. I sink into the plastic, trying to mould myself to it like a chameleon.
“…They smile hungrily and swoop in as a pack to pick the flesh from your bones.” She finishes and sets down the paper and says something about metaphors. Then, to my surprise, one of the clever kids starts clapping and then suddenly half the class is clapping. Some fervently, others grudgingly, others uncertain.
 I raise my head only as it dies away, I can feel pride and shock hot on my face, and I prise my spine from the chair.
 “Looks like Mrs Davies is just about as cracked as you,” Maddie says teasingly. “Mental.”
 I know she’s just playing a careless game. I know she’s my best friend and her comment is only 1 part jealousy, 2 parts confusion and 3 parts amusement with 0 parts of anything more spiteful but it still hurts me regardless of whether that was her intention. The disparaging words break me like stones. More than anyone, I wanted her to grasp what I was saying but instead it is the dull, nothingy teacher who’s found my answers. They weren’t hers to find and they certainly weren’t hers to offer around the classroom, to Lydia and her posse. The vultures.
I am exposed but the one person I wanted to see me is blind and my writing has only seemed to broaden the void between our understandings.
Mrs Davies waddles over to our desk and returns the paper with a smiling flourish; “I can’t say I was expecting that Erin,” she says benignly. "I thought your talents stretched to interpretive art,” the ragged edges of her eyebrows draw together to illustrate her distaste for blizzard-smeared doodles. “Would it be alright if I read it out in assembly?”
 “No!” I say with sudden panic; between all 500 odd students and staff my skin will be stripped away until I’m naked and bleeding; no more pretence and no more lies, only gaping vulnerability.
 “Sorry?” She questions, taken back by my abrupt refusal.
 “No,” I repeat simply and making an effort to calm my voice this time.
 “Sorry Miss,” Maddie interrupts, her voice edgy with sarcasm which could either be cruel or funny depending on how you interpret it. “She’s got an overflowing schedule; she only does readings on Mondays and autographs every other Thursday.”
 I force a laugh.

I struggle with an idea for the remains of the charcoal grey day. I grapple and toy and explore its fears but I still can’t decide. Mrs Davies had been impressed by it but whether she fully understood it is not something I’m sure I can answer. If she really understood she might have understood that it was too personal to share like that. On the other hand, if it had made no sense to her it probably wouldn’t have inspired her praise the way it did and she would have dismissed it as the obscure ramblings of a suffering child’s brain. So; would Jon catch it’s meaning?
 That was the big idea.
Sending a piece of writing on an email would be so much easier that trying to explain what my issues look like to his face. Somehow an electronic message carries so much more anonymity than a direct fountain of confession. But if he receives it the way Maddie did, it will seem to simply seem like showing off of some absurd piece of schoolwork.
 “Can I have your laptop for a bit?” I ask Natasha that evening and she tells me to give her a second.
It is a very long second, perhaps stretching to ten minutes in length and I stand, twisting my fingers. “Don’t touch any of the bits I’ve got open and don’t try to guess my passwords for any of my internet accounts… Keely used to always do that…” she passes it to me with a look of crumpled resignation on her face. It sits warm, harsh and heavy across my narrow thighs and, despite the discomfort it brings me, my fingers twitch feverishly across the keyboard.
 I take the paper from my school bag and balance it up against the screen. Natasha watches for a second before going and busying herself with the washing machine and the dishwasher. A huge bubble of gratitude wells in my chest for her respectfully detached attitude to this loan. She hasn’t pried with a “What’s that you’ve got there” or a “What on earth do you want it for?” I don’t know how exactly to show my appreciation of her respect for my privacy so I content my sense of guilt by forcing down the whole piece of jammy toast she brings me.
Dear Jon, I type and then pause, trying to find the right words to hook my fingers through. I had to write this for school but, because you were the one who made me realise that I had something to say about how I feel, I thought I should send it to you. It’s easier to write than speak to you but I thought it might help you to understand me better.
Erin Weir.

I attach the Word Document that contains my scrap-heap heart and all its baggage and then click send before I can talk myself out of it. I delete the email from Natasha’s sent box, and the Word Document as well although it seems that Word is somewhere she rarely ventures. I just have to ensure that I keep the door to my sentiments shut and guarded under lock and key.
 Then I pass back the laptop and carry myself to the bedroom that I still can’t think of as mine.

“I liked your writing Erin,” Jon says that Thursday. “Most adults couldn’t write like that.” I look awkwardly over my shoulder to where Natasha’s back can be seen, distorted by the frosted glass in the door. I wonder how sound-proof this room is – enough to hold the shouting of my secrets?
I nod to let him know that I’ve understood and vaguely appreciate his comment. “You should finish it,” he continues. “It needs finishing”
 “It is finished.”
“No it’s not – it’s only half way. Where’s the happy ending?”
“What happy ending? Does life have happy endings? It stopped where it needed to stop and so that point became the end.”
 “But it’s not the end of the whole story.”
 “If you wanted the whole story you’d need a thousand sheets of paper to come before as well.”
 “Perhaps. It’s a story, Erin; it’s allowed a good ending.”
 “It’s a story about real life.” I argue resolutely, my voice rises and chokes on its own irritation.
 “It deserves a happier ending.”
 Suddenly I’m angry and my face feels hot as I stand up and clench my fists into my thighs. “MY DAD DESERVED A HAPPIER ENDING! MY MUM DESERVED A HAPPIER ENDING! AND THEY GOT SMASHED TO A BLOODY MESS.” I shout so much I think I see his glasses wobble but that could just be the way I’m shaking. The room seems to be rocking and roaring in the storm of my angst. “So don’t try to tell me that happy endings get handed out to people who should have them. Happy endings don’t happen; people just like to kid themselves that they do so that they can deal with living in reality.”
 “How do you know?”
 “What?” I stop breathlessly as my words expire themselves.
 “How do you know that happy endings don’t happen?”
 “Show me one. I’ve never seen any.” I’m angry, so angry: I want the world to fall apart so that it at least feels some of my pain. I want the office to shatter at my voice, I want everyone to reel in my agony….
“YOU BROKE IT!” I scream at Dad. He’s leaning against the doorframe and every inch of him leaks with ‘sorry’ but I’m too young and too irate to hand him forgiveness like that. I can only see one thing: the painted clay heart that was swept carelessly off the table by a trailing cuff.
 “I know Erin. It was beautiful. I’m sorry,” he says. I had spent hours getting a perfect heart from my reluctant grey blob and then scratching our three faces into it. I don’t want his pleas for forgiveness; I want to hate him.
“IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!” the floor is strewn with shards; Dad’s face is mangled, Mum’s is shattered so badly that she appears crystallised.  I am split clean in half – ripped right through my core…

 “Maybe that’s because you’ve seen sad endings and you’re refusing to write a happy one for yourself.”
 We observe each other, each feeling a strange combination of cool fear and desperate hope.
 I sit back down and Jon smiles at me sadly like this is a sight he’s seen too many times and he’s not sure why he still goes on with it. “Erin,” he says. “I want to read more. I want to know how you really survive, how you keep going once the storm’s gone through. I want to see that the vultures are human too and that you know how to ride out the next storm-”
 I cut him off mid flow. “That’s what I want too, but it doesn’t happen.”
 “Maybe you need to make it happen.”
“How?” I demand and he does his sad smile again. I wonder how many times this week he’s used it whether intentionally or not and whether he even know what it looks like. You can wonder strange things sometimes.
 “You’d be surprised what can be accomplished by simply believing that it could be.” He plunges into a speech; perhaps he’s given it before but not enough times for it to have lost its ruggedness and to feel rehearsed. “You know Erin, sometimes, when a new kind of medicine is developed, they take a sample of people to test it out and half of them are given a fake. Half get the medicine and the other half only think they do but still almost everyone gets better. Why? Because they believed. They believed that they had a cure and, because they believed it, it became true. If you believe that you’re always going to be unhappy, you’re unlikely to ever feel anything but depression.”
 “So now we’re back to fairy stories.” I answer coolly; my crumpled face is turned down towards the papers between us on the desk. “It’s just people believing in a lie. Don’t they all get angry that they’ve been lied to?”
 Jon sighs and looks back at the paper and an uncomfortable silence settles itself in the office as I run out of anger.
 “Where’s Maddie, your friend Maddie, in the audience? Which of the three sets is she?” He asks eventually.
“Good interested or bad interested?” I look at him in surprise. I’m strangely pleased that he made that subtle distinction.
 “Good interested.”

The door is loud as it shuts behind me and I realise just how big the noise of my voice must have been from outside. In a way it made no difference that I asked Natasha to wait outside today because she heard it all anyway. The boy with a long, dark fringe who goes in after me is sitting awkwardly sucking on his lip piercing like he is embarrassed to have inadvertently helped-himself to my life. His fingers are knotted among each other, his legs jogging without having anywhere to run to. I see him like a reflection of myself.
 “Sorry,” I mutter to the clumsy silence of the room. His gaze continues to burn into the lino flooring.
 “What for?” Natasha asks, helping me put on my coat as though I have not yet learned how.
 “It must have been loud,” is all I say and I can’t think of any more words or explanations. I’ve exhausted them in Jon’s office and all that’s left is a cold, clawing angst that sits in me like gravel on a river bed. An emotion beyond vocal expression. I half hear all of Natasha’s empty consolations that it’s good to get angry and release everything you’re feeling but her speech bounces off me. It doesn’t feel good to have been angry; I just feel spiteful and empty.
 “I’ve heard louder,” says the boy as we leave and neither of us speaks the whole way back as though we are compensating for my previous obscene volume. I wonder how many times the boy has sat and overheard snatches of grief as he waits for his own to be drawn out of him and I wonder how you can look at someone who looks nothing like you and recognise yourself in them…
“We should be twins” Annabel announces as we watch our trussed-up selves in her mirror.
 “That’s stupid; we have different parents and your birthday is after mine.”
 “I mean, we could be twins.”
 “No we couldn’t,” I argue resolutely; “We don’t look like each other.”
 “Yes we do,” she insists. “We have brown hair and brown eyes and your nose goes like mine.” She runs a sticky finger down it. “See it goes up at the end…
And you’re almost as tall as me, we both have the same eyebrows, you just have a pointier chin.”
And pointier knees and pointier elbows, I think to myself. My skin is pressed closer to my framework as a whole – stretched tightly between the rungs of my ribs. I am angles and she is rounded by puppy fat. I have none.
I suppose her inspection of our physicality is very nearly right but she is wrong as a whole. We don’t look alike, in many ways we are polar opposites united by pink crayons and three-legged races and you can read that on our faces.
You can see in her eyes that she is cushioned by all her luxuries whereas I belong on all fours scratching the dirt in search of a coin.
She takes my hand, sensing the sudden seriousness about me, and drags me outside, skipping her way down the stairs. It’s in the way she moves as well she hasn’t got that resigned apologetic tone to everything she does. Her palm is soft and hot against mine. Mine is frosted granite...

I jitter my way nervously about the flat that Saturday, my nerves are not extreme but they are energetic enough to drive me through a routine of hopping and weaving around the flat in an expression of excitement and apprehension.
 “Can’t you stand still for one minute?” Adele complains. “You’re making my eyes hurt.”
 Personally I think it’s far more likely that the screen glued into her palm is responsible for this irritation but I grind to a silent halt, suddenly finding myself breathless.
 “Good girl,” Natasha says in a detached sort of tone which indicated that she is actually more interested in the tacky romance novel she’s reading. “You’ll wear yourself out before you’ve started. You’ve already had one hour of ballet and you’ve got another coming up. Isn’t that enough?”
 I push myself up onto the kitchen sideboard and swing my legs against the cupboards. I’m not tired; I’m alive with electric urges to dance.
 “That’s the problem,” I explain, my frenzied breaths are ragged in my throat. “What if I’m not good enough in grade 5? What if I can’t do it?”
 “If it’s a question of stamina, there won’t be any stopping you.” James says dryly. “Will you be ready to go in half an hour?”
I nod like some sort of mechanic toy that’s been set going too fast and I try to establish the exact nature of what I’m feeling. It’s a weird sensation; having concerns that are lighter than those which have swamped my life this past year and it seems my reaction is frenetic exuberance. I don’t exactly expect or even want anyone else to understand it, especially not when I don’t myself. The swells and troughs of desire that dance installs within me are far too instinctively and complexly wired to be picked up by a makeshift family of kind misunderstanding. A family of screen addicts, trashy novel readers, office bound cooks and promise breakers. I can’t quite understand where my passion for dance came from because, now that I have discovered it, it seems that it must always have been there and now that I am using it, I wonder how I could have failed to do so for a whole decade. I can’t quite understand how I have received this inherent love of ballet because my parents never showed any signs of being anything but farmers. I never saw ballet or learned it; my closest encounter with it was the occasion in the shop when I watched a girl buy satin shoes and my parents probably never realised that I even knew the dancing world existed. Now it seems that the only thing that props-up my entire world is the heady and surreal experience of moving beyond human limitations. Did mum and dad, therefore, ever really know me at all?

The music ends and the dance is over. I snap out of my private world and notice my reflection in the mirror. I can’t help noticing that it looks good where I stand with my right foot tucked behind me, my arms extended into a graceful fifth. I notice the way that most of the class’ arms are either floppy or too rigid and lots of them are slightly slumped into the position with their hips sunk and their foot bending into the floor. To my right, the two girls who had been talking to the teacher at the start of the lesson are holding it perfectly. Their arched feet resting lightly behind them in a turned out curve, their heads poised to perfection so that they look beautiful to the last detail. I sigh heavily and try to lean my head slightly the way they are but I just look like a bird, cocking my head to one side. We step out of the position and relax as the teacher turns to pick up the syllabus book. I become aware of feeling hot and my heart bouncing excitedly and nervously and I start to run the dance again slowly in my head, allowing my arms to act it out but out of the corner of my eye I can see the two perfect girls chattering and pirouetting. I observe them with interest; although no taller than me they somehow give the illusion of being long limbed despite the way that their arms, legs and bodies are packed with muscle that should make  them heavily built. They move with such speed that their moves should look careless but they somehow remain soft, flowing and unhurried. I wonder if I will learn to be like them one day.
“One more time,” calls the teacher looking up and catching the neat finish of one of the girls’ turns. She smiles as though she is all part of this game of being clever and graceful.
She flicks her wrist towards the speakers and the music comes back. I count myself in, trying to steady my breathing, forcing my leg that is tucked behind me to turn out. The ‘possay ton levay in arabesck’ the words sound nice in my head, like a charm, a special language for dancers only. I allow myself fly into it because it feels right that it should be big, not a scared little jump, too timid to oppose gravity. I look up along my left arm, opening my shoulders so that my arms make a sort of diagonal line. It feels good to allow my body to be so free but perhaps it is a bad jump because the teacher says “Hold your turn out” I’m not used to having voices interrupting my dance, especially not loud ones which break harshly through the music and the movement. I stumble and stop, feeling nervous and suddenly embarrassed and she calls at me to keep going. I skid and stumble along behind the others, unable to regain the time I’ve lost, my movements jerking one step behind theirs’ and no matter how fast I go and how quickly I force myself to stumble on, I am always behind them. I am relieved when the dance is over for once and I cut quickly into the finishing position hoping that nobody noticed how messily I danced. The teacher scans over the class giving compliments and corrections to the others before turning to me. My face is bright red and I am trembling with embarrassment and out of the corner of my eye I can see the two little ballerinas now flicking their legs gently up to their ears. I decide to focus on their reflections instead of looking at the teacher. The blonde one stands on tiptoes and unfolds her leg behind her; she falls out of it but manages to still make it look graceful, like it was meant to happen.
 “When you hold an arabesque line you need to keep your hips in line, you opened them out too much.” She demonstrates and my face burns and I try and laugh to cover how stupid I really feel because when she does it, it looks rubbish. “You need to rotate your hips and hold them forwards instead of letting them swing open.” I stand there blankly for a minute before realising that she wants me to do it. The class is watching. I jump with one leg extended behind me, focusing everything I have into keeping my hips facing forwards.
“Better, now you need to turn your leg out.” She lifts my leg up behind me and holds it “Now turn it out, use the muscles at the tops of your legs.” I clench them and my leg feels tighter. “Good now straighten your knee” She says touching the back of my knee “You need to feel like someone is pulling your leg out straight behind you. She lowers my leg, it falls to the ground heavily and I feel myself almost on the verge of tears. “Good, now do the jump properly” I do it furiously working at all the pointers she has just given me. She makes me do it again and again and by the time she is satisfied that I will never forget how to do it my legs and my pride hurt. I scuttle behind the rest of the staring class, humiliated.
 For the rest of the lesson I am unfocused and jumpy. My brain and my heart are only half in the dancing and I follow blearily at the back knowing that I won’t remember a single copied step by next week. I’m used to just dancing, without being corrected or pulled around. I’m used to just dancing how I feel, not dancing the right way.
 The majority of the class are about 12 years old and when the teacher’s attention is not on them they chat in groups in a way that accidently excludes me. They are mostly OK at ballet; they know what they are meant to be doing at least. They are not particularly graceful or expressive, some of them almost seem bored, but they do the right steps. Occasionally one of them will do something wrong and they fall about laughing with the others like it really doesn’t matter and even the teacher smiles a bit as she corrects them. The two ballerina girls are possibly a year younger than the others and their bodies are lean but muscle-packed. The blonde one is more muscular than the girl with red hair and so springy that she could be on a trampoline. The red-head is supple like a piece of elastic with a strange softness to all her movements. I try and copy them but I look like a child and when I attempt to talk to them or ask them how they do it they seem too wrapped up in their own cleverness to notice me. They are, in some way, self-obsessed; absorbed with themselves and each other, but it is not purposefully unpleasant or conceited. They seem simply to be so fascinated by their own bodies and what they can make them do that they are unable to take in anything else. This fascination extends to everyone in the room, like enraptured children our gaze somehow cannot resist finding them and they draw us in. They are like magnets, attracting wistful glances and admiring stares. The teacher is seemingly just as much a prisoner to their spell as she talks to them and praises them and when the lesson finally finishes they stay behind and they and their parents talk with her like friends. As I put my clothes back on I can see through the door that they are demonstrating something for her and then she is watching and smiling some of the time her feet are marking it alongside theirs.
I swing my bag over my shoulder and try not to look at them. I wonder whether, if I stare hard, enough, my jealousy will burn their pretty feet. Slipping my own feet into my old shoes I step outside into the drizzle. The car park is empty aside from four cars and my eyes locate the green humped car which Natasha drives everywhere. I don’t understand how you can love a car so much that you will drive it everywhere, even when you don’t need it. It is nice to see it again after so much unfamiliarity and slipping into the front seat and plugging in the seatbelt feels normal and safe.
 “How was it?” If she was my real family she wouldn’t need to ask, she would pick up on my silence and the heaviness about my movements and know not to say anything. If I was allowed to just let it pass until the memory of the unintended mockery has lost its edge then I would not cry. But her question brings the shame bubbling back to the surface and I start crying.
 “Shh, shh.” This is her second mistake, telling me to shush, because the tears have started now and there’s no chance in stopping them. When I dance it feels right, it feels like it is meant to happen and I cannot imagine what I would live off if it was forbidden, yet when I danced today I was told I was wrong, I saw that I am not the girl who will grow up to be a great ballerina who dances for an enraptured crowd every night. I have seen now that there are people far better suited to that job that I desire so deeply. Inside I feel dad giving me a hug, telling me to keep my chin up – I’ll catch with them one day and maybe even overtake them – The flowers that blossom last are always the most beautiful, but the absence of him from reality just makes me cry harder.
“It’s OK,” Natasha says softly, with 90% focus on the road in front of her. “You don’t have go back.”
“Of course I’ll go back” I say fiercely, jolting upright so fast that the seatbelt catches painfully across my neck and refuses to let me go. I cannot quite place what makes me so certain, other than an enormous desire to prove everyone wrong.  I must go back because I need to be better, I must be better so that I can be like those two perfect girls. I must go back because I must not run away from what hurts me, I must run towards it otherwise I will never learn to deal with the pain. I must go back because I must show the teacher and the class that I am not worthless, that I am not clueless, hopeless, rubbish. I must show them because if I cannot show them, how will I ever believe in myself again?
The car swerves round a corner and through the splattered windscreen I see a blurred green light; distorted with tears and rain water. The movement of the car is somehow lulling and comfortable, it drains away the unhappiness somehow and I find myself focusing more on the sounds of the car and the various street sounds beyond more than the carnage of my ballet lesson. Perhaps I will go back to grade 2 now, now that she has seen that I cannot dance. She never said grade 5 was permanent; just a trial. I know my place now; scabby kneed seven-year-olds, endless plies, ruthless ballet buns… That’s the only place I fit.

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