The first time the man arrives at the ballet studio, the girls ignore him. An embarrassing father come to watch a class, probably, or a friend of Miss Maisie. In the cramped corridor of a changing room, the girls are more interested in staying warm, twisting their hair into tight knots at the base of their neck or searching for hairpins that escape silently across the concrete floor.
Miss Maisie always lets the girls use the first few barre exercises to warm up – pliés, tendus, petit jeté, rond de jambe – before she nods sternly. This is the cue to remove their layers of woollen leg warmers and sweatshirts. She needs to see their legs, their hips, their shoulder blades that slide down their backs as their arms move like swans.
Now the man is there too, watching, legs crossed on the stool by the piano, his foot tapping the air to the minuet. Rosie lets her eyes inch towards him, her gaze falling on his long, thin ankles that stretch out of black trousers.
‘Eyes, Rosie’, Miss Maisie snaps as she walks along the row of dancers. ‘This is epaulment.’
Rosie lifts her gaze and returns her neck to the correct position. She can tell the man is watching her. His flat cap shadows his face, a high roll-neck jumper enclosing the edge of his jaw. Hands resting on his lap, his fingers dance lightly, mimicking the girls’ port de bras reaching down and up as their legs fondu. Rosie used to do the same thing, those many years ago when her mother would bundle her into the corner of the studio, out of the way while she cleaned. Rosie’s mother arrived every day at four o’clock, dragging Rosie behind her, just as the school performed its nightly transition from a primary school into ballet studio. She would move swiftly in and out of the lavatories, classrooms and corridors while the assembly room shone with the light sweat of the dancers and the hard, familiar notes of the piano. When five-year-old Rosie had been unceremoniously dumped into the corner by the dusty box of rosin that left cream stains across her bottom, she hadn’t been able to sit still. This was magic, every dream come alive in front of her big green eyes. Miss Maisie had taken pity on her, and gradually, every week, Rosie had crept closer to the girls, until her little hand reached up to the lower barre, and she’d performed her first ever plié.
In those early years, Rosie’s thoughts would drift longingly back to the ballet studio when they got home each evening. Her mother slopped baked beans onto Rosie’s plate, before turning away to curl up in front of the television, bottles lining up on the beer-stained coffee table. Rosie was left alone to read every story she could find about ballerinas: Paulina, Petrova and Posy were her sisters too as she put her ballet shoes away each evening into the pink cloth bag. She knew they listened to her through the pages of the book, her own story locked inside theirs. And every day, without fail, she turned up at the studio, Miss Maisie letting her join as many classes as she wished, until she became the studio mascot, an eternal sylph, swan, snowflake, entering the kingdom of the shades, prepared to dance to the end. Miss Maisie still terrified her, but the teacher’s severity was a solid beam that would never ignore her.
The man is there again the next day, and the next, his face still hidden amongst grey, blue, black and charcoal wool that creeps up over his neck and chin. A few whispered words to Miss Maisie, and then he settles, watching the girls as they dance patterns on the floor with their feet.
‘Get those heels down,’ Miss Maisie calls out to Rosie as she sautés and jetés and assemblés across the diagonal of the hall, the man’s eyes following her. On the Friday pas de deux class, the boys join them, five young men of different shapes and sizes, shared out amongst the girls. Rosie pirouettes, the boy catching her waist as she turns, and she sees a flash of his curls, then the man, then the boy, then the man as she whips her head around. Her body settles in front of the mirror, arms in first position, one leg bent up in retiré. The mirror is a new addition to the hall and it still surprises Rosie, catching her off balance. Her mind jumps, an uncontrollable jolt, to another vision in another mirror, an early memory perhaps, or something else she can’t understand. She is on the bathroom floor, cold water puddled around her thighs, and there is someone standing at the mirror, a long stream of red pooling down his face, neck, and into the sink. His torso is bare: red and brown streaks pattern his back, bruises blooming out of his ribs.
The boy releases her and she ends the turn in a tight fifth position plié.
Rosie is old enough to walk home alone now. She has been doing so for years, but now she is sixteen no one finds it strange anymore. Packing her pink pointe shoes into her bag and letting her hair fall around her shoulders, the kink from her bun lined across her neck, she waves goodbye to the others. The walk isn’t far, just a few minutes along the main road up to Summertown; she always takes the short cut through the alleyway to the flat where she lives alone with her mother. Her father left them before she can remember, a traitor her mother repeatedly hisses, giving them up to seek dirty money in the big city. Rosie vaguely remembers a train journey with her mother to find him, but they had returned home alone, no father collected from the shining lights of London.
It is very dark on the road tonight and Rosie’s muscles ache from the cold. She walks quickly because she knows the man is following her. She doesn’t need to turn to look. She can sense him there, speeding up when she does, slowing to match her steps. He walks lightly, his head perfectly level, his shoulders held back above his proud, straight spine. When Rosie gets to the flat, she has her keys ready. But when she pauses at the door and turns back towards the black air, there is no one there. He has gone, vanishing into the night.
Every evening now, Rosie plans her escape from this place. She has a list of dance schools that could save her. She wants to fly to them, a pink swan ready to take her place amongst the others. Tonight, she tries again to ask her mother. In all previous attempts, she has been ignored, her mother locked in a hazy-eyed trance that gives no space to her daughter’s needs. Her mother stopped cleaning the school several years ago, now only vaguely aware that Rosie still spends her hours at the studio, dancing, her talent spreading wide wings every day, ready to fly. Anything to get Rosie out of the way while she drinks and smokes out sweet cloud-rings from a pipe.
This evening she is listening but will have nothing to do with it.
‘If you want to ruin your life with some disgusting queens prancing around in their underwear, don’t expect me to help you.’
And then something else, a new slice of knowledge, a whisper of the past that makes Rosie’s heart beat a little faster.
‘If you want to end up like your father, don’t come crying to me.’
‘Like your father’, Rosie repeats to herself as she brushes her teeth. Behind her, in the mirror, she can see the face again, a red rip from his hair line to his eyebrow. She closes her eyes: when she opens them, he has gone.
Saturday classes are in the morning which always gives the studio a fresh, clean look, light pooling in around the shadow of the oak tree that watches outside the window. The man is there again. There is something different this time. They all notice a change in the room, Miss Maisie laughing by the piano, the man smiling. The girls have started gossiping about him now: he is Miss Maisie’s lover; he is an MI6 spy come to recruit new agents; he is a casting agent for a London show; he wants to make them all famous. But then the class starts as normal, the pianist pressing the notes of the waltz with firm joviality.
Rosie is aware of him watching her, making no attempt to hide the direction of his interest. The others start to notice, and they prod and poke her teasingly as they line up in the corner for grand allegro. Rosie steps out into the room: grand jeté, pas de bourée, assemblé en tournant. A spot of light meets her halfway. He is smiling today, an open smile no longer hidden by the rolls of his jumper. He wears a tight white t-shirt, his long arms strong and tanned, his wash-board flat stomach clearly visible. He taps his foot to the rhythm of the dance. In the bright light of the morning, he cannot sit still.
The class ends and Rosie starts to leave with the others, but Miss Maisie calls her back. She turns and walks over to her teacher, little beads of sweat running down the back of her pink leotard.
‘There is someone I want you to meet, Rosie,’ Miss Maisie says softly, drawing her towards the stool where the man waits, still watching. Her teacher looks a little nervous, uncertain, anxiously turning her long thin neck from Rosie to the man.
He nods at Miss Maisie and she smiles a small smile, stage fright over. ‘Mr Croft is director of a ballet school in London. He would like to invite you to join the school, from September.’
Rosie blinks at them both. Something else is lurking behind Miss Maisie’s words.
‘Why?’ Rosie finds herself asking, before she can think of something else to say.
He stands up and raises his hand a little. He is going to speak. Before he does so, he reaches up and removes his cap. A scar line, mottled dark pink, runs from his hair line across his forehead to his left eyebrow.
He twists his cap in his hands, his long thin fingers winding the fabric.
Rosie sees through him into the wide mirror; the shattering of glass opens her memory. Her mother holding a kitchen knife. The blood is fast, a dancing firebird.