She wouldve been a ballerina
by Christopher Branson
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 wouldnt have worked out like that. It wasnt who she was.
Its 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 couldnt 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.
Its true that shed 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 wouldve sacrificed the pleasures of her teenage years.
And if shed lived to see those years she would have rebelled soon enough. Recoiled at the mean constant pressure, at her mothers crazed dream of realising her own failed dream, and at her fathers 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. Thered have been more cigarettes and a lot more cider, then vodka, and wine; in time thered have been joints and pills, perhaps cocaine; and thered 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 shed have reconciled with her folks, years later, the dream of the ballet would have long been forgotten. All shed 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 cant 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 and 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, thats 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. Its what they always wanted, after all, what theyd dreamed of, though on the day of the funeral her they werent at all ready for this talk. The abyss was too deep. They couldnt bear to take their eyes off the girl theyd kissed goodbye only a few mornings earlier. As if she wouldnt really be gone so long as they didnt forget a single detail about her. It was too soon to think about the future shed 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 theyd recall some glad moment of her life. Thats when they began to say it to themselves, as the moment receded and they remembered she was dead. She wouldve been a ballerina.
And for years afterwards, when her mother or father were alone, and theyd find themselves sobbing without provocation, suddenly weeping at the sink or on the toilet or in the shower, theyd think about the ballerina she would have been. Theyd 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 theyd 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? shed say. Only she wouldnt have been a nurse, my Jane, she wouldve been a ballerina.
Only the truth is, she wouldnt have. Her story was never going to turn out like that, which I guess is another way of saying that the story Ive told isnt hers at all. Really its 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 wasnt that sort of person, you see.
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