She would’ve been a ballerina
In spite of everything they told themselves, from the day of her funeral to their final hours of old age, she never would have been a ballerina. Her life wouldn’t have worked out like that. It wasn’t who she was.
It’s true, there was grace in those limbs, such elegant grace. When she danced she was like blossom on the breeze. Twenty-five kilos going on weightless. And so delicate in her motion. Every gesture soft as silk.
Of all the bodies to be smashed by a truck.
But what they couldn’t possibly have known is that this body was destroyed in its absolute prime, its season of greatest beauty. Puberty would have been unkind, you see, hardening her frame, thickening its movement. Caged its fluidity. No more would those muscles melt into music.
It’s true that she’d always loved to dance, and this love would not have left her. A thousand times she dreamed of dancing the ballet with poise and abandon. But she never could have made it. She lacked the character, the blinkered discipline required for someone to break their body like that and turn it into art. She was just too happy to dominate herself, too sunny and laid back and in love with her friends. She never would’ve sacrificed the pleasures of her teenage years.
And if she’d lived to see those years she would have rebelled soon enough. Recoiled at the mean constant pressure, at her mother’s crazed dream of realising her own failed dream, and at her father’s dumb consent. She would have broken with their wishes sooner or later. One day the first crack would have appeared – a drag on a cigarette, maybe, or a mouthful of cider or a kiss with a boy – and the whole facade would have come crashing down. There’d have been more cigarettes and a lot more cider, then vodka, and wine; in time there’d have been joints and pills, perhaps cocaine; and there’d have always been boys, a constant plague of boys throughout her teenage years, some treating her well, but most misusing her. Nothing too unlike any other teenage rebel, all told, but her parents’ upset and admonishment and rage would have seethed and swollen, it would have festered until it became a rearing, unsleeping despair that would have antagonised her wildness still further. And by the time she’d have reconciled with her folks, years later, the dream of the ballet would have long been forgotten. All she’d retain from those teenage years would be a memory of failure and self-loathing that would haunt her for the rest of her days.
But of course she died before any of this played out, killed one sunny morning on the way to school by an exhausted man driving a truck. Gone like that. Ten years old.
Nothing can make sense of how she died, of course, but people can’t live with nothing. They need something to go on with. Some kind of story to tell. At her funeral they were already groping for one, her relatives and friends and teachers. They ate buffet food and drank tea and looked at each other out of sore eyes and hoped that something would come catch their falling souls. And though there were no words to explain her death, they found they could at least dream on about the life she might have had, about where she might have studied and where she might have lived.
As they talked over ham and cheese sandwiches and slices of quiche, their speculation over what might have been gradually condensed into a communal vision of what would have been. The tale they were telling reverberated between them with growing conviction, hardening until at last it became a kind of truth, a description of who she really was. So that, in a certain sense, she was reborn on that day of her burial, reborn into a narrow perfection she could never have embodied in waking life.
She would have been a ballerina, you see, that’s what they all concluded that day of her funeral and then repeated to themselves again and again throughout the years.
In time it even came to console her parents. It’s what they always wanted, after all, what they’d dreamed of, though on the day of the funeral her they weren’t at all ready for this talk. The abyss was too deep. They couldn’t bear to take their eyes off the girl they’d kissed goodbye only a few mornings earlier. As if she wouldn’t really be gone so long as they didn’t forget a single detail about her. It was too soon to think about the future she’d lost.
Over time, however, that shattering, faithful image of their little girl became subsumed by something they could actually live with. In those first weeks and months after her death, months of raw loss, a fragment of time would come rushing back to them, resurrecting her before their eyes as if from nowhere, and with tears they’d recall some glad moment of her life. That’s when they began to say it to themselves, as the moment receded and they remembered she was dead. She would’ve been a ballerina.
And for years afterwards, when her mother or father were alone, and they’d find themselves sobbing without provocation, suddenly weeping at the sink or on the toilet or in the shower, they’d think about the ballerina she would have been. They’d daydream about it going home on the bus.
And above all it was something they said when they were all together, her parents and all of her family and friends. They invoked it whenever her memory was conjured at a wedding or a christening or some other reunion, when a mention of her name lodged itself in the space between them so that silence followed and their hearts shivered at her presence.
She was a lovely dancer, someone would say. What a wonderful ballerina she would have been.
And as her parents’ unconquerable sadness only grew with age, lining a million tiny folds inside their heavy hearts, and as their minds flooded with memory as they approached their death, the crutch of those saving words became relied on more and more. They repeated them to each other night by night before the TV and, after her father died, her mother muttered them to herself as she lay awake in bed, she said them to every visitor she had, no matter how many times they’d heard it all before. And when her own death drew near and she was moved to the hospice, she told all of the nurses there, too, she told them they reminded her of her daughter, Did you know I had a daughter? she’d say. Only she wouldn’t have been a nurse, my Jane, she would’ve been a ballerina.
Only the truth is, she wouldn’t have. Her story was never going to turn out like that, which I guess is another way of saying that the story I’ve told isn’t hers at all. Really it’s the story of how her true self was covered over and lost, how that deluded tale about the ballet came to conceal the person she was. Although on the other hand maybe it tells you all you need to know about her. About how she made people feel and what she meant to them. And above all the love and levity she infused in them when they saw her dance, and the devastation they felt after she was gone. And if the fantasy of the ballet helped them cope with her death, well, she would have been the last to want to deprive them of that. She wasn’t that sort of person, you see.
Christopher Branson was shortlisted for the 2016 Impress Prize for New Writers and has stories published in The Ham and The Writing Disorder. He is close to completingFool, a comic novel about a young man trying to recover from a profound love affair that never happened. Prior to focusing on fiction, he wrote a doctoral thesis on Nietzsche. He lives in London. @tarkovskysdog