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...


7. 7

Maddie makes her long anticipated first visit to the flat the next day and I am told to stop being “so despondent” and that “the world didn’t end” yesterday and that “Maddie is supposed to be a close friend” and I should therefore “make an effort for her.”
I want to regurgitate all of these words back to Natasha when she still hasn’t managed to peel herself from the bed sheets by the time the buzzer rings the next morning but instead I got to let Maddie inside without complaint.
 “I’ll get it,” I say pointlessly because the house is still sluggish and saturated in sleep. Adele is presumably dead judging by the depth of her refusal to wake. Keeley is at some vague friend’s house and is probably currently scratching her intoxicated, hung-over self off their floor. Natasha is smothered in pillows and James is blearily watching something of very little relevance on the TV, his arm occasionally reaching lethargically for his mug of coffee.
 “Sorry.” I say immediately, as she comes inside and surveys the space
 She puts her hands into the pockets of her weird jean type things and grins, “Not a problem. My mum always wakes me up at six with a load of sawing and stuff,” She shrugs and I go and sit on the arm of the sofa feeling uncomfortably shy.
“Yeah, my mum’s a bit of a crazy art/crafty person. I never get to lie in.”
“That’s cool,” I say lamely even though I do genuinely mean it.
 “Sometimes it’s cool,” she corrects. “I wish my parents were like yours,” she says gesturing to James.
The room seems to tighten…
“I bet you wish we were like Annabel’s parents,” Mum says, stroking my hair sadly.
“Not really.” I answer, surprised. Why would I wish not to have Mum and Dad? “Why?”
“Oh, it’s just the way you talk about Annabel like her house is more of a – a shrine…”
 “What’s a shrine?”
 “Never mind.” She pauses. “I’m sorry, Erin. We’re not much good to you, are we?”
I am baffled by her. Her and Dad are the two most essential parts of my universe; why on earth would they not be adequate?...

“These aren’t my parents,” I say very stiffly and James seems finally to awaken because he rises from his seat, drains his coffee and starts banging around with cereal bowls and cardboard co-co pops boxes.
 “I bet you’re hungry Erin,” he is almost shouting but his voice is too small to smooth-over the tension. “Want something Maddie?” He holds out a bowl to her so forcefully that she looks taken back.
“Erm, I’ve already had breakfast but ok,” she nods and James goes to fill a kettle – turning the tap onto full to try to obscure the silence with its frothy roar.
Our spoons scrape painfully across the bottom of our bowls like they are a metaphor for the scraping of unspoken words that resounds in the flat. It is difficult to envisage a worse way to begin what was meant to be a special day. I realise that Maddie is watching me with a sort of concerned interest.
Look at the co-co pops, I force myself. Look at the milk with its creamy brown streaks and stains and be interested the taste of nothingness. I refuse to allow her to burrow under my skin with glances; I refuse to let her hear the words I’m holding in. You would never wish you had my parents. Two incinerated, empty carcasses. The lorry killed dad and then I killed mum. No, Erin; we all killed mum.
I look at Maddie: You’d never wish for that.
I drown in milk that’s laced in bled chocolate. James switches on the radio even though the presenters that Natasha likes annoy him.
“I mean, I know that Natasha and James aren’t your blood parents, but they’re kind of your parents now, aren’t they?” Maddie flounders, her voice is somehow like the fire of a broken car engine. I wonder why she’s in my house and why we’ve tried to build this friendship to anything more than grudging tolerance of each other. I wonder why I thought I could deal with inviting someone this far in and why I thought Maddie could help me restart the process that went so wrong last time. I stand up violently and the whole table shakes. Co-co pops dance, milk sloshes, their faces come loose, and my world contracts like an angry fist.
I slice from the room and barricade my grief in the closeted safety of my pink prison cell. I try to throw myself onto the bed for comfort but it gives back nothing in return to my desperation. I want to stop feeling. I want to stop being human if this is what human means.
I breathe in my smell from the sheet covers and feel my heart bump in my throat. From my cocoon of suffering there seems to be two escape routes. One is to die. To somehow find a way to break what was so easy for dad to break and to permanently cease being anything. Because, surely, the fact that I am someone is what is hurting me so much.
The second is to dance. There is no permanence to that pain-killer but the prospect is so much more welcoming. It whispers through my body, enticing me towards it and, when I welcome it’s calling, it elevates me beyond the hurt that a human can feel because there is something beyond human about ballet that I can quite grasp.
I pull myself to my feet.
I know that when I stop it will come back with vengeance and that I cannot postpone what I feel forever but I need something now.
I’m an addict.
Ballet is my morphine.
I rest my fingers on the window sill and kick my legs into some furious grands battments. Then I come away from the stand-in barre and force my body to co-operate; I force my legs to remember their humiliation yesterday and to arrange themselves into their decreed place. I still have no mirror in the bathroom/bedroom to investigate whether I actually look like the teacher did but perhaps that is a good thing because with a mirror I would teach to my body what looks right but with mere awareness of myself I can ingrain into my dance instincts what I know is right.
When my incensed grief has expired, I force myself to hold an arabesque line the like an endless snapshot of the posé ton levé that defeated me yesterday.
I remember the term despondent. I realise that Natasha’s word was too extreme for my reaction to the way my one loyal friend failed to serve me at the class. Really it depicts my everyday attitude of hopelessness rather than the sensation of a comparatively small failure. But it is far easier to express insignificant miseries like that one than the swimming pool of unshed tears that forms life.
Maddie finds me, still holding myself up on muscles that are screaming for release, still holding my hip square and my knee straight and my leg turned out and I feel her stop breathlessly in the doorway.
I turn grant my muscles their wish and spin around immediately, Maddie’s eyes are wide.
 “Woah!” She breathes slowly. “I didn’t even know.”
 “Know what?” I question, suddenly shrinking in on myself in self-defence.
 “You’re a ballerina,” She says like it is obvious and then she moves on to a profuse apology that only succeeds in making me feel more uncomfortable.
 “It’s fine,” I forgive her. I just want the past thirty minutes to be undone. No, actually, I want the past year to be untied, scrap by scrap by scrap until I’m nine and whole and certain of myself…
I am holding my obligatory flowers, it’s Mothering Sunday and that is the done thing at church. It is also dad’s funeral and flowers and death go hand in hand. It seems that we must all observe the tradition of recognising death with flowers destined to die from the day they are picked. But aren’t we all? Aren’t we all destined to die from the moment we’re born? The world is just a factory, an endless production line: it churns us out, stirs us around, and then tips us off the end into its furnaces. Oh, and it does it cruelly, I shouldn’t forget that. It produces and destroys humans and douses us all in its brutality along the way...
“No it’s not,” Maddie argues. “I’m a moron.”
 No, I want to respond, you’re just another part of a production line and are doing your best to ignore it.
“And I’m a waste of time,” I say instead.
“You’re a liar,” She says, “You’re a liar because you’re not a waste of time you’re just saying it for the sake of saying it.”
Really? I ask in my head. If I wasn’t so trashed inside I wouldn’t want to bother with an angry, grieving, self-isolated girl who spends most of her time lying to herself about her responsibility towards her mum’s death.
 “Do you like pink?” She asks unexpectedly. She has shifted her gaze from me to the walls and has put her head on one side as is exploring whether or not this makes the colour any less overpowering.
 “Then why are you living in it?”
I shrug. “Natasha promises that I can paint it green, but she always… sort of… forgets to buy the paint.”
 “I can help you paint it if you want. I’ve got loads left over from when we did my room.”
 “I can bring the paint over next weekend.”
 “OK.” I am grateful, I really am; I just don’t seem to be capable of sounding that way.
“Or you could come round after school sometime to choose colours first.”
“Won’t your parents mind?” I ask tentatively.
 “Mum is insane,” Maddie says fervently, “and Dad lives in America now so I don’t think it’s really up to him.”
Her voice saddens a little and I realise that I need to stop pre-judging people. People are generally more genuine and more hurt than I allow myself to realise when I meet them.
How selfish am I to believe that I’m the only one who is tortured by my production line? Would I rather have a dad who left without choice, or a dad who abandoned me because America was better?
 “But it’ll be OK with her?”
 “The question is more likely to be whether you’ll be OK with her,” Maddie rolls her eyes. “She’ll probably start talking to you about some little-known modern pottery artist and she won’t let you go until she’s explained the ins and outs of their craft technique.”
She starts to giggle. Laughter, like gloom, is infectious.

In many ways I think Maddie is probably more excited than I am about the painting of my bedroom and ideas for it bubble through our week until I can’t help being a little sick of pain tin talk. For the girl who sits beside me in bizarre but somehow flattering fashion it is, however, an inexhaustible subject.
 “If you’re painting straight from the wall you need a primer but your walls are already painted so we should just be able to paint straight on to them. Except… it depends what colours you choose but they’re likely to be lighter colours than what you’ve already got so we’ll have to a white coat first…” I let her words continue to pour across my unfocused ears. I am filtering between two layers of speech; Maddie’s incessant whisperings and Mrs Davies’ explanation of properties of a rhombus and not really achieving any sense of understanding from either…
“Why do you always go up there?” I ask Dad, running to grab his hand and lead him inside as he returns from one of his visits to the waterfall.
“It’s beautiful.”
“I know but how can it still be beautiful after this many times of seeing the same thing.”
 “I rarely see the same thing; it changes constantly. Besides, sometimes I need to get away.”
 “From us?” I ask, deeply concerned.
“No, of course not,” he reassures me, “from the world.” He pauses for thought. “Sometimes it feels like the whole world is shouting things at me all at once and I can’t hear anything they’re saying because they’re all pouring words on top of each other. Up there, they can’t follow me or at least I can’t hear them. The only voice is the water. And when I come back down they don’t seem to shout so loud.”
I nod gravely in pretence of understanding but really his words fall on deaf ears…

I have no waterfall to help me escape from being word-drowned but suddenly I realise that mum must have been going to the waterfall all those times. When she went for walks with ashes in her palms she must have been trying to extinguish all her shouting pain by finding that beautiful, lonely and constantly changing place. I doubt whether she found any solace in the place where dad once did but I never thought to ask her when I still had a chance.
 “…it depends on the make of paint; Mum might be able to advise us…”
 “…so the diagonals in a rhombus…”
 “…she’s brilliant when it comes to painting; you should see some of her stuff…”
 “… are perpendicular, do you know what that means? It means they cross at right angles, how much is that Tyler? How many degrees?”
I won’t ever be able to ask her anything again. I push back my chair with a clatter and the noise drains from the room suddenly.
 My hands can barely contain themselves as they jitter through my pockets searching for that stupid piece of laminated card. Anywhere. I have to escape; I need my own waterfall to boil over everything. My own little, red, ugly, obvious waterfall.
I’m biting down on my lip so hard I’m going to start a red waterfall in my mouth soon. It hurts but I have to stop it from trembling the way it wants to. I have to bite back on my surging anguish so that it can’t escape the bindings of my tongue.
My fingers collide with something flat and shiny and they tear it from my jeans pocket. I’m waving my red card but I’m disqualifying myself from the class not being thrown out as a trouble-maker. They want to trap me in not force me out but I have an eternally recyclable escape ticket that I can’t foresee being independent of.
The corridor is long, draughty and bleakly unsympathetic.

Maddie’s whole house is alive with paint smells and is bristling with brushes and canvases which are dotted around like flowers all over its surfaces. It’s like being inside someone’s head, surrounded by varying unfinished thoughts that have splashed themselves across the blank pages of an imaginative mind. A woman with straggly blonde hair which is holding itself in a rough twist on the back of her head is bent over a sketchbook. Her stained fingers are leading a pencil across a sheet decorated with coffee rings and other grey smears. The graphite is thick and dark on the paper, soft and crumbly like it’s been charred.  Her art is streaky, bleak and somehow alive with colour although it’s only black and white. It’s a slice of the night-time Thames and I can see the orange lights bobbing on the shattered sheen of water although it’s nothing but greys and creamy paper.
Even her chipped nails are artistic.
“Hello Erin,” She says without looking up, “Excuse the house, it’ not always this messy… well,” she scratches a few more tones into her book, “actually it is… but it seems obligatory to present a more fastidious façade to guests.”
 “See what I mean,” Maddie says, rolling her eyes significantly, “Insane.”
Their cupboards contain a whole spectrum of tins organised for a variety of different purposes from wood staining to watercolours. It is clear that hopes of an ordinary-type flat have been compromised to make room for her and her mother’s love for art and the rooms resound with it. Not the kind of art that is large and cold and museum-bound but the kind that is creative, unique, experimental almost. Maddie’s room hits me with its exuberance and reignites my excitement for project re-decoration. It is clear that she possesses some considerable expertise with a paint brush having adorned her walls with Dulux-based London snapshots so that it is like being inside a bizarre, slightly hand-made stimulator.
 She lines up the wall paints on sheet od newspaper and we pick and choose very slowly, very carefully until we set aside a white, a fragile china blue, a dampened turquoise and a misty-valley green. She suggests we go over to mine and start straight away but I have to decline.
 “We need more time – tonight won’t be enough.”
 “We could camp over at yours and stay up to midnight eating Doritos” She suggests, eyes shining with unshackled delight.
 “Natasha would shoot me,” I argue simply.
 “Where’s her gun?”
 “Behind her bed,” I play along, “It’s a well-kept secret but I know she uses it to get Adele and Keeley out of bed in the mornings.”
Maddie laughs loudly.
 “She hasn’t had to pull the trigger yet.”
I stop talking; the triggers contract in my mind and bullets blast: pain, death and ashes all ricochet like war debris and their shrapnel lodges with permanence. There’s an endless ringing like shots and like a church bell simultaneously, a volley of fire: triggers and nozzles and metal peril. You can’t joke about death. It’s too real.

I pad my way along the Town Hall corridor with a sense of shame. She must regret telling me that I was ever anything but ordinary now and I don’t really want to have to face that. I don’t want to hear her tell me that she made a mistake because it meant so much that she offered me a chance. The hall is almost empty but steadily filling as the others arrive with their pink satchel bags and excessive hairspray. I fidget my body out of my clothes and then play with the sagginess of my leotard until I pluck up the courage to speak to the teacher who is reading a syllabus book.
“I’m sorry,” I say eventually.
 “For what?”
 “Grade 5,” I reply miserably. “I think I should just stay in this class.”
 “I’m sorry,” I repeat, unsure what she’s trying to get out of me.
 “I’m not going to force you; if you don’t want to come later then you don’t have to but I think you’d only be throwing yourself away. Don’t underestimate yourself, Erin, don’t sell yourself short. If the one thing you do right later is that it’ll have been worth coming. Start with small steps and gradually they’ll get bigger.” She gives me the firm sort of smile which does not allow for argument. Her face is very youthful and clear-cut with a gentle openness about it despite her flashes of severity. Her warmth crisps over and she turns to the whole class, clapping her hands sharply.
 “Plies at the barre please. Take your T-shirt of Emily, it’s not that cold.”
 I scurry with the others to the barre and the mirror and take my designated place at the back.
 “Turn-out muscles squeezed, tummies zipped, chins lifted, shoulders down – down Isabelle – ribs relaxed, heads turned, weight forward…”
 I adjust each touch of my body at her instruction, like a camera clicking into focus.

So I return four hours later, unable to detach myself from the world of beating legs and stretched feet. I return to the hall with the grey-painted door and the sprung but un-helpful floor that is somewhat sticky with grime and chewed up in places from over-zealous shoes. Its surface is scuffed and has lines streaking across its surface from outdoor shoes and dragged chairs. They are like scars on its soiled face.
The class is similarly humiliating and excluding as we move on to “the free movement study” which seems to be about breath and expression. They have all done it before and “for the girls who might take their exam” I am required to simply follow while they work on the meticulous details of it.
“Lift, lift Elodie! There needs to be a sense of buoyancy, of floating – yes, that’s better, can you feel the difference?” She is deeply interested in every inch of the ginger, elastic girl’s performance. She turns to the blonde one. “That was looking really nice Marzena, no, don’t worry, you’ve time to sort the ending out. You know what it is?”
I hover and half watch them, half watch myself as the talking ebbs and flows and she pushes their bodies beyond where the others’ could reach.
I decide I like Marzena’s dancing more. You get the feeling that it means more to her.
“We’ll run the classical study once more before we go,” She says checking the clock. I hadn’t realised how quickly the hour slipped through our hands.
I don’t quite know what happens except that I fall into the arms of the music and let the moves enfold me and when I posé ton levé no words are shouted at me. It is like dreaming and when I awaken with the post-dance silence I cannot quite place what I experienced or how I ended where I am or even at which point I fell asleep. The teacher gives me a sideways smile with a pinched corner as though she has been proved right.
“It was better today wasn’t it? See how much you’ve learnt in two weeks! There’s no point putting you in a class that doesn’t test you. I’m aware that I’m stretching you and, if you want, I can move you down, but what would be the point in coming to classes if you were already perfect?” She says as the older girls slip back into their everyday t-shirts as though returning to their comfort zones. For me it works in the opposite direction: in the real world I am stranded, in dance I can breathe. She quietens her voice a little. “In terms of time, you are at least six years behind everyone else and you are holding your own in a class with them. It’s not going to be easy but if I thought that making life easy for you would teach you anything I would get everyone sitting on the floor pointing and stretching your toes. You have to step out of your comfort zone otherwise you end up going nowhere.”
I nod and look at the floor, Dad would have said the same thing and I wish he could be the one telling me now. The boards seem to be swirling as though they are a rained-on painting.

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