‘Five minutes Miss Walden, five minutes Mr Brendan…’ Jeremy’s voice rings in unison with his knuckles. The urgency dissipates as he sashays down the corridor. I brush biscuit crumbs from my lap and annoyingly leave cigar ash in their wake; I’m the only dancer in the troupe who smokes. Short nicotine drags interlace with the taste of buttery coffee and I press the remains of my feet into the shoes. This is my last performance, my last exhibition as Valerie Walden, my last ballet. The rich tar smell of tobacco mingles with the pasty perfume of stage make-up and taints the languid air in the dressing room.
‘Hold your hands so,’ Miss Catherine said as we formed a line in the ballroom. The red velvet covered chairs, head height, surrounded us like uniformed soldiers. Her relaxed bare arms lifted away from her hips, her palms turned upward towards us. ‘Then point your toes.’
The big girls ignored me; at five years old I was nothing, a minuscule impediment. I practised every position until I could show it off in exchange for praise. And my little body grew. It developed into the ideal shape. Out-turned feet, straight back, head balanced on a thin neck. Strength accumulated in stretches and strains and it was all achieved in expressionless concentration.
By the time I was sixteen my determination dominated the feline competition. A talent scout picked me out at a rehearsal of Giselle, which led to an audition by a touring company. At the beginning I was content to work minor roles while understudying the prima ballerina. The chance, when it came, was deserved, hard-earned. As principal dancer I starred in performances at some of the country’s iconic venues: the Hippodrome Birmingham, the Theatre Royal Brighton, and even London’s Opera House.
‘Twenty years’, I whisper as I tie the lonely ribbons of my shoes. My life has been dedicated to the ballet, to this short punishing career. I feel cheated by time. ‘What will I do now?’
Tonight Richard is my leading man, he’s the perfect height for me. From the wings we travel to centre stage and fall into the routine. His wide hands circle my waist firmly but briefly. Our bodies correspond, then the music takes us into the air. I defy gravity. The sensation of flight is momentary but it’s real. The boards bounce as we land from the jumps and aftershocks track up to my hips but there’s no time to flinch. The sequence moves us on, the spins get faster and faster, and with a final flourish I come to a dead stop. Exactly on the spot. The audience is on their feet.
‘Bravo’, they shout, ‘bravo!’ Now I can smile. I smile into the darkness. I smile graciously as I take a deep curtsey and look up at Richard. He responds with satisfaction. Drops of sweat trickle between my breasts and disappear down inside my costume. The lights feel hot on my stationary body. With deliberation I lift myself and we move backwards taking exaggerated steps away from the apron. The curtains close. I am free to snatch furious breaths and open my compressed lungs.
‘Well done, ol’ girl,’ he says quietly, respectfully. Tonight I cannot brush the words away with a grateful look, I stare at my shoes. Blood has seeped between the crushed marbles of my toes. The curtain lifts, we clasp hands with a flourish, and we walk forward to take our bows.
‘Speech. Speech.’ Suddenly I feel vulnerable, frightened. A dancer from the chorus skips towards us, all skin and bone, tutu and shoes; her arm stretches forward offering a microphone. The house lights are up. I see thousands of eyes, tiny darts of light that point and pierce my frame. Stage make-up drags at my eyelids and cheeks.
‘Thank you, thank you. What lovely flowers… I haven’t prepared… oh dear.’ People rotate and bend in time with each other as they take their seats; a collection of bodies turning on spindles, as if belonging to a theatrical machine. They settle, ready to listen. An extraordinary and powerful calm rises from the floor and surrounds me. In the heat of the spotlight it is cooling.
‘Ballet breaks your bones.’ My emancipated voice reverberates around the cavernous theatre. ‘It syphons life out of you and separates you from your family. It blocks out daylight, fractures friendships and denies babies. It’s a gaoler, a jealous lover, an over-protective mother. I’ve sacrificed a normal life. I’ve punished my body. Today I am a ballerina. Tomorrow I am not. I leave it all behind, with you. How many more lives will you see wrecked, wracked with pain?’ Soft mutters fly like a cloud of moths. A few people get up, embarrassed, stooping like cripples. My lungs inflate, ‘you pay peak prices for your tickets. Who gets rich? I retire with little more than a month’s pay in the bank.’ Richard’s body shifts, he steals the microphone from my hand. I give it up without a struggle. His fingers prod my back as we walk to the wings together then he disappears silently into the darkness. With him goes my dignity but not my pride. Justice flushes my veins.
In the unhappy proportions of my dressing room the emptiness is merciless. The make-up, impotent. The water in a glass jug, luke-warm. The lid of the biscuit tin faintly trembles in anticipation of a movement that will send it clanking to the concrete floor. I sit absorbing the left-over odours of a past life wasted. Street clothes cling to my limbs with nicotine and grubby unappetising memories. Time to go. I unfurl my arms, the tin lid tries to resist, it argues for space, then begins its descent.
The original version of Finale won third prize in the Fosseway Writers Competition. The judge was author Alex Davis (Twitter, AlexDavis 1981). He commented, Finale is ‘a story that very much took me by surprise, and said something really impactful for me about the life and times of a performer and artist. The lead character’s final speech was really rousing, the words very well chosen and all brought back to earth with a very everyday motif at the beginning and end. Striking stuff.’ (https://fossewaywriters.wordpress.com/2017/11/05/the-winning-entries/) November 2017.
(Image: Paper Collective Essence of Ballet 03. Dedar Butterfly revival fabric in Sakura.)