The Bridge of Aspiration

"I’m an addict.
Ballet is my morphine."

Six months after the death of her father, Erin Weir's mother commits suicide. Orphaned, she is taken to London in a bid to escape the guilt-ridden village of her childhood.
There seems to be no way out of the cycle of depression she's plunged into but then she discovers ballet, a gift that may be powerful beyond anything...


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9. 9

One of the first things I learn from the show is that Elodie and Marzena are too difficult to hate. It would be very easy if I could sit at lunch and tell Maddie about those stuck-up conceited brats from ballet. Neither can I say that they’re not even that good, I mean, the teacher is just really favouritist and is, like, in love with them, even though they’re only average really. Or who do they think they are? They’re just little rich girls whose parents can pump money into their training; they’re not even nice people. It does not take long to realise that I can say nothing of the sort. They may be lead snowflakes, and I, just a snowflake in the background but the fact that we have the trio dance in the second half means that they treat me as an equal. During the hour and a half break between our rehearsal sessions we sit together and eat our packed lunches. When not in dance shoes, and surrounded by music, they lose their absorption and seem unassuming and modest, almost surprised by any praise of their dancing. They are friendly and chatty and we find ourselves laughing a lot as we wait. I’m desperate to impress them with funny stories, desperate to be liked because then, maybe, I’ll be classed as being one of them. Mostly, though, I find myself making the stories up because, although there are funny things at school, laughter doesn’t last in my head the way grief does, and I rarely finish my imaginative stories because I lose interest and momentum as I tell them. They do not seem to mind much.
 Another thing that I am pleased to notice is that, on the contrary to what James always says, their packed lunches are far less restrained than mine. James says: ‘it’s not healthy being a ballerina; you have to starve yourself – dancers live off lettuce.’ These dancers live off peanut m&ms and salt and vinegar McCoys, which they share out with me in compensation for my lunch of marmite sandwiches and grapes; they are clearly experts when it comes to energy food because, fuelled by junk, we keep going all day on a blurred kind of high.
The afternoon session with just the three of us far outshines the morning of standing at the back watching the teacher taking acute interest in the four leads and barely noticing anything other than mistakes from anyone else. I trail a little way behind the other two but manage to, just about, save myself from looking stupid in comparison. The dance is nice to fill; it is full of feeling and the music stretches and slackens changing from moments of stillness, to soft floating, to an excited crescendo which culminates in an overwhelmingly hopeful way. It is hard work but I enjoy myself too much to notice until the end of the lesson when I have to balance on one leg to pull my jeans on and I realise that my leg is wobbling too much to hold me upright.
“Make sure you remember that for next week” the teacher says as we leave. The other two do not stay behind today; we walk out together, and it feels good.

Maddie and I roam the streets the next day, doing “what young people do” without really being able to find a purpose for ourselves. We kick beer cans out of the gutter and toss them between our feet. I talk about yesterday’s triumph and tomorrows pitfalls; she talks about TV and when she will get a mobile phone. Our lives are at opposite ends of whatever spectrum lives are measured on but they’ve somehow jumbled together; ballet shoes and paintbrushes whiling away a Sunday together.
It’s a water-colour day; the sky is washy and the sun is an implacable mass of bright grey. The streets are half-empty and our world is a de-frosting fridge.
We buy candyfloss from a food van that’s been parked up on the roadside. We don’t buy it because the idea appeals to me, not even because I am particularly hungry but because I’ve never had the opportunity to try it and it is, according to Maddie, good value at £1 per pink cloud.
 Sugar spangles my nose as I try to duck-in to it and fluffy clings across my skin. I grapple for a bite and swallow some; it burns scratchy sweet on my tongue. Maddie laughs at me as she tears cotton buds from her own and tosses them up into her mouth. She catches them on her tongue like a dextrous dog nabbing a ball from mid-flight.
 “Don’t they have candyfloss in Scotland? Or rolos?” she asks, linking my arm and pulling me over to sit on a low wall that borders a youth club car park.
 “They probably did, I just never had them,” I answer pensively. We wouldn’t have spent money on such a frivolous delight, even at £1 a stick. “Mum says – I mean, m-mum would have said ‘No Erin. That money will be a fifth of a bag of chook feed.’ It was always dad who bought treats. Always ice-cream.”
I start to choke, not on my candyfloss but on the bittersweet memories of long-ago ice-cream. It’s filling my throat with vanilla and freezing my jaw.
 “What are chooks?” Maddie asks, swinging her legs so that her chunky boots clatter on the street sign.
 “Chickens.”
 “Oh, did you have a farm then?”
 “Once.”
 “The countryside is beautiful. Isn’t it?”
 “Haven’t you ever been there?” I ask in surprise. It seems strange that a place that’s home to me is a foreign concept to her.
 “No,” she replies. “I know it’s meant to be beautiful.”
 I think before answering; trying to find the right way to phrase it without exposing myself too much and without sounding too much like a poem.
 “It can be harsh and dangerous and hateable but yes, it’s always beautiful. Even when it’s killing you… There are colours, so many colours. You could take one patch of sky and never count all the shades.”
I pull up my knees so I’m balanced awkwardly on the wall, hugging myself as I dream into my past.
 “I love colours,” Maddie says simply.
And in that moment we find what makes us friends. We sit; two strangers on a wall, connected by grey and purple and green. For her it is on a paintbrush, for me it is in the past that haunts me or perhaps it is in the internal explosions that streak my sky when I dance. It fails to matter; we have found a medium through which we understand each other.
“There’s not many here,” I break the silence eventually.
 “It depends how you look at it,” she replies with a wisdom I am not accustomed to hearing from a ten-year-old mouth. We feel very old suddenly as she continues; “I see thousands.”

The euphoria of being involved in a show only fills my weekends however and I have to drag myself through school with internal promises of ballet when I return home. As soon as the six hours of battered desks and pencil cases are complete I can run home, fly up the stairs and dance myself into oblivion. My feet know their way around the flat like they know how to fit into shoes; they know it like my lungs know how to breathe. There seems no way to express the elation that it brings me except by letting it unravel my insides – it just makes me know I couldn’t survive without it.
I do pliés and tendues at the window sill and I break away and let my body weave shapes until they all get sick of me. I can never be sick of it somehow; it’s too caressing, too loyal and too essential.
 “You dance once a week, don’t you?” Jon ponders and I shake my head at him.
 “No,” I correct; “I dance all the time – I just have classes every Saturday.”
 “So you practice?”
 “Sort of. I dance. It just happens – it’s not like training or homework.”
 “Do you love it that much?” He quizzes; his eyebrows rising above the frames of his glasses.
 “Yes.” There is no other possible answer; my response is unquestionable and he probes no further into my love of dance. He can’t really because there are no more words for it.
 “Was it your parents who bought you to dance?” he questions gently. “Do you think that this compulsion to dance could be just a desperation to feel closer to them?”
“No.” He doesn’t understand. I don’t dance to because of them because dance was never anything to do with them. I dance because I can escape them, or at least, I can escape their absence.  “Definitely not. I dance because of me and because of the dance not because of them;” it sounds horribly selfish but I can’t deny it.
 “So it’s not a psychological link? Dance isn’t a metaphor for them?”
His questions are baffling and I frown at him…
What does it all mean; what are all these symbols presenting themselves to me on the whiteboard?
I tilt my head to the side for an answer and try to understand sideways. This is important; this is the key to knowing… stuff… I have to be able to make sense of them but they are just pen marks – nothing more.
 “These are letters children,”
 “Letters,” we chorus.
 “And groups of letters make words”
 “Words,” I repeat without understanding.
 It’s so confusing being grown up and at school. The ‘letters’ tease me from their place on the board, refusing to tell me their secrets. I want to understand them but they evade me. I can’t see how they are ‘letters’ – I can’t see how they are anything – but I know that this is the language with which all grown-ups can communicate and knowing this means being old and being old seems a nice prospect…

I don’t know what he wants me to say; I don’t know what he’s getting at. I shake my head – trying to make my childhood fall out of me like water from my ear holes. I wish, in a way, that I had no memories. I wish that I could look at things I’ve looked at before or experience emotions I’ve experienced before without being plunged through waves of nostalgia to a time when I wasn’t parentless. If there were no memories then maybe there would be no pain. If I couldn’t remember happiness, I would not recognise what I’m feeling now as being its opposite.

I walk to school alone, like always. I quite like it really; there’s something about walking in peace which allows your brain to organise things and weed out all the unhelpful junk that has accumulated there. Catharsis of the mind.
But my mind only goes as far as sorting its more mundane content; it does not dare to touch the raw, angry wounds hiding at the back. There’s always a sense of caution and repulsion evoked by broken skin so why would a broken heart be any different.
My hands are in my pockets, clinging to the tops of my legs and the linings for warmth. It’s not even that cold; back home days in April would often be colder than this but I suppose my body must have adjusted at some point in a way my mind is incapable of. Jon says to Natasha “give it time” whenever we’ve had a particularly devastating session and I have streamed out of the room without explanation. I wonder how much time he I waiting for; how long he’ll continue to keep the faith that I’ll improve. Months have not been nearly long enough and the idea any time will be enough is difficult to grasp. There are only so many times that a man can make the same uncertain promise.
Time is enormous and tiny simultaneously; it is crippling and pitiless but somehow fascinating. You “give” time without being able to hold, control or understand it but you “give” time to flesh wounds, not heart wounds. Heart wounds just seem to gape metaphorically out at the world, collecting the grit of every day, until so much time has been “given” that we fall off the ends of our conveyor belts.
We’ll “give” time, and we’ll wait but we might as well be waiting for mum and dad to come home to our cottage on the murderous Scottish mountainside.
 A violent base-line hammers from a coke-can car that’s over-spilling with bodies. It is a hive of sound as it screams to a jumpy stop with black clouds coughing out the back.
 “Get out, Useless.”
 “Yeah, get out Useless – are you stupid? This is your school, we don’t want you.”
A group of older teens are shoving at a seemingly pathetic girl on the back seat. They maul her with words, battering her towards the car door. She’s got dark hair, denim shorts and a T-shirt printed with the letters C.U.T.E.
“For God’s sake Lydia. Get out the car now, Useless.”
“You can’t even find the door.”
“Want us to help you?” The boy driving the car blows smoke in her tightened face. She’s so rigid that she doesn’t even screw-up her nose as he taps the steering wheel to knock the ash off.
I hang back in the shadows of my own cowardice; I’m scared of her and I’m scared for her and so I root myself between the bins at the back of the kebab shop. I gag on fermenting food waste but make no attempt to move.
The aggressors in the car start swearing at her and tossing her pencil case between them to use as an ash tray. Someone opens the door and between them they force her, ragdoll, out on to the curb.
 There is a sick sort of laughter, a mocking royal wave and an abused pencil case thrown out of the window. I am sickened by their cruelty but still unable to move as she peels herself from the ground. The pavement has raked her hands and she spits on them in an attempt to wash away the blood. Is it possible that I feel sorry for my tormentor?
She tips out the pencil case and grey flakes scud away on the wind while broken crayons bounce on the pavement and tears ball in her eyes. Her fingers fumble on the paving slabs for her strewn possessions. I want to do something; I hate myself for just watching dumbly but I can’t bring myself to approach her. I know that, at her most injured, she’ll be at her most dangerous and a spectator will be far from welcome.
 This is why she is such a hurtful bully; she’s learnt from the experts.

I’m given a sheet to work from in maths. Mrs Davies claims that it’s because I’ve still got catching up to do from my long period of ‘home schooling’ but I’m not fooled, especially not when Maddie leans over and asks me what the hell ‘equations’ are.
 “Like this,” I point; “2x + 4 = 8”
I realise too late that I was meant to shrug, pull a face and say “God knows – something about ‘unknowns’ apparently,” through my grimace but I’m too stupid to remember. I realise too late that vague carelessness is cool and cleverness isn’t. Her faces crunches in distaste as I talk and immediately I regret even opening my mouth.
“I wasn’t really asking; I was making a point.” She mutters with a hastily disguised frustration. “I was doing one of those things, you know, Mrs Davies said yesterday – a question that doesn’t need answering.”
 “A rhetorical question,” I suggest and she looks at me with a pained expression.
“Can’t you do something bad? Just once?”
 “I do, all the time,” I answer in confusion because my life is scattered with bad things: Being late home one Sunday morning in early autumn, shouting at people who try to help, saying the wrong things to a friend who misunderstands me, watching girls be slammed out of cars like I’m watching a bad film… And all my mistakes seem to come at a cost.
 “You could at least make them obvious then,” she complains with such glaring misunderstanding that it almost seems intentional.

“Hey, red card,” Lydia grabs my elbow roughly and spins me against the wall.
 “How’s mummy?”
She taunts me with scalding, tear-less eyes. I knew she would come for me today; I’ve been expecting it, but that still doesn’t make it any easier now that the moment has come.
 “Oh, sorry, I forgot,” she fake-smiles at me with careless malice...
“You have to remember that people only hurt other people if they’re hurt or angry about something else,” Dad cups my chin in his hand and wipes away my tears. “Annabel didn’t mean anything by it.” I nod bravely and he smiles. “And I’m here, aren’t I? You can always come to tell me, can’t you? And I’ll always have a tissue for you,” he delves into his pocket to produce it and holds it out to me…
Except he wasn’t always there; he’d lied without knowing it. I wonder if it crossed his mind; I wonder if, as the airbag bellowed in his face, he realised just how many promises he was breaking in that final heartbeat.
Lydia clamps my shoulder against the bricks and smirks at my face. I want dad. I want his hand under my chin and his tissues that were somehow comforting even if they were just paper.
 “How did she do it? Was the funeral nice? Did anyone come? I can’t imagine how sad it must be to have your mum give up on you.”
“Shut up,” I say quickly, my hands are tensing by my thighs. I’m letting her get to me and she knows it but I can’t find a way to shield myself. I want escape, I want pain relief, I just want to be seven years old. There’s such spite in her words and she’s finding all the harshest ones by chance.
 “What about daddy?”
 “SHUT. UP.” The words burst from my mouth and I can feel my memories tearing me apart inside.
 “Red card,” she croons with a flickering tongue. Sick satisfaction blossoms between her lips.
 “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.” I repeat the words until they have no meaning and my knuckles are bloody from her nose without me knowing what I’ve done.
A thin trail of maroon leaks down the groove between her nose and lips, her teeth are bared in a furious and pained snarl, her eyes take slices out of me.
What have I done?
The blood trickles down her chin and splats the playground; what have I done? Our eyes connect, one pair incensed, the other terrified but we both see that underneath that we are one and the same. We understand each other at heart but refuse to at face.
I expect her to talk, to threaten me and to shout. I even tense myself like a spring, ready to catch whatever punch she throws at me but she just keeps that biting glare trained on my face as she carefully collects her blood in her palm. Her lips twitch into a sadistic smile and she streaks her hand down my face like she’s applying warm face paint. The metallic smell scalds me as I inhale it – I feel like a murderer with her blood on me.
She turns and leaves and I follow her with my eyes, unable to move fully. I am stunned by what I have just done; by the pain I inflicted with my knuckles and by the way in which I lost control. Am I going insane?
She stops strutting when she thinks I’m no longer watching and she crumples, cupping her nose. I feel sick.
Even though she can torture me with a mere question and even though she exploits this thoughtlessly I realise she is just a child craving power. I can still picture her crying on the paving slabs, as she manoeuvres the corpses of her pencils and I begin to wonder: At what age did we all start pretending?

“Can I have your laptop?” I ask Natasha tentatively. Words have been settling into place all afternoon and I’m scared that I will lose them if I do not let them out soon.
“Homework?” She asks without raising her eyes.
“Sort of.”
I suppose it could be called homework, I suppose you could say that Jon had set me an extra piece of work to do at home and therefore it was no different to school. If I was looking for excuses I would say that.
She doesn’t question it, merely clicking the exit buttons for all her open tabs until it’s just her desktop. There are two girls on the screen in their pre-cheese string and pre-snogging days. They look happy in their sundresses; naïve sort of happy like they know no more of life than the lollies in their mouths and the sun hanging like a coin above them.
I drum my fingers lightly on the touch pad and wait for words to drown me.
Dear Jon,
It is finished.
Erin Weir

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.
But really, what you come to see, is that the shelters rarely mean anything. They are little more than acts on everyone’s part and, although they are clung to for security, they aren’t what help you survive.
Because to survive you need to find a survival tactic that you come to rely on no matter of let-downs and failures.
For the vultures this survival tactic is simply being vultures; it is the empowerment of circling above a carcass and watching it fester in its problems. It is the empowerment of being able to laugh at another with their raucous cries and so forget that they are also victims of bigger monsters. They survive by being predators and picking off the weak until they feel strong enough to conquer their wilderness.
For some survival means a rainbow spectrum dripping, toxic, off a brush. It means finding shades in a pencil drawing and distinguishing vibrancy between shades of grey. It means toying pink candyfloss and selecting blue tins and wearing purple jumpers.
Other people survive in green cars and by plaiting a sad girl’s hair. They keep themselves alive by making jammy toast and dreaming of new furniture so that they can both remember and forget children who have grown.
For me, survival means aching legs and sweat and being flawed time and time again because the pain and toil is so valuable it cannot be left alone. I can’t really express my survival tactic in words; I don’t even fully comprehend it myself. It’s somewhat other-worldly, ethereal perhaps and, when I allow it to engulf me, I’m not quite human.
But words can’t do it justice – it’s their detriment; they cannot express that which is bigger than themselves. So I have to call upon a simple equation to grasp how I survive the wilderness. I don’t know where it came from or even if it can be solved because both sides of the equals sign are ‘unknowns’ but I know that it is mine:
Dance = life.

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