Authors: Lyn Gardner
Eel looked nervously around the great pearly-hued marble hall with its sweeping staircase that was like something out of a 1930s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. The windows on the staircase had small panes of coloured blue glass separated by dark leading. Everything at the Imperial was on a grand scale and the imposing surroundings made Eel feel very small, like Alice after she drank the shrinking potion. She began to think this might not have been such a good idea after all.
It was a Saturday morning and she had told Alicia that she had been invited to spend the day with Emmy and her family. There had been a tricky moment when Alicia had said that she would walk her round, but Eel
told her that Olivia had already offered. She hated lying to her gran. It made her feel like a criminal. She thought she had been so clever: arranging her own audition, filling in all the forms and creeping around getting to the post before her dad or Gran saw it. Not that it had been difficult with Jack. He had been out in the morning long before the post came and only got back after dark, so she had had plenty of time to snaffle anything addressed to him from the Imperial. Fortunately, the Imperial letters came in distinctive thick cream envelopes with “Imperial Ballet School” clearly marked on them so she knew what to look for. But now she was here she wished she had a grown-up to support her. Maybe it had all been a big mistake. Maybe she should just go home.
She looked up at the great domed ceiling and the dark wooden boards on which the names of the graduating pupils who had won the annual Imperial prize were etched in fine gold lettering. Eel wondered whether her name might be there one day and a little girl coming for an audition would recognise it and say to her parents, “Look! The greatest ballerina of them all studied at the Imperial!”
Eel gave a little shiver of excitement and fear. She felt that she was taking a step into the unknown. In the distance, she could hear some music that made her feet want to dance. The sensation settled her stomach and she stopped hopping nervously from foot to foot in front of the registrar’s dark wooden desk, which had clearly been set up in the hallway for the audition day.
The registrar peered over her glasses at Eel and frowned. “Alicia Ophelia Rosalind Marvell? You’re definitely on the list but it’s all most irregular. I don’t think we’ve ever had a child turn up for an audition without at least one adult with them. Have you really nobody with you?”
Eel shook her chestnut curls so she looked like an eager spaniel. “My mum’s dead, and my dad is spending thirty days and nights on a high-wire above the Thames, so he couldn’t come.” Eel leaned forward confidentially. “You can’t get time off work if doing that kind of thing is your job.”
The registrar looked interested and considered Eel more closely. “I’ve read about that in the papers. It sounds mad. So are you
Jack Marvell’s daughter?”
Eel nodded again. “I’ve always thought he was rather dashing,” said the registrar.
Eel wrinkled her nose. “I suppose he might be to some people, but to me he’s just my dad. I know he would be here if he could, and he did sign the form.” She pointed at the paper that the registrar had in front of her. “And,” added Eel, “my grandmother, Alicia Swan, spoke to Miss Popova and explained I’d have to come on my own because she’s busy today and I don’t really have any other relatives except for my uncle and cousin and they live in Edinburgh, which is miles away.”
“Oh,” said the registrar. “So Alicia Swan is your grandmother? I’ll just give Miss Popova a call, maybe she can shed some light on the situation.” She picked up her phone. “Why don’t you sit over there for a moment, Alicia.”
“Actually, nobody calls me Alicia, everyone calls me Eel,” said Eel, and then she added helpfully, “because I wriggle a lot.”
The registrar raised her eyebrows and murmured, “Even more irregular,” but her amused smile was kind.
Eel sat on a chair swinging her feet, clasping her vanity case and watching as more and more girls arrived, their voices echoing around the great hall. The boys’ auditions had been held on a different day. Eel felt worried. She had never imagined that there would be so many other children at the audition.
After a few minutes, a graceful woman with her hair scraped back from her face in a bun glided down the stairs. She said something to the registrar who nodded at Eel. The woman walked over to Eel, who stood up. She wondered if she ought to curtsey, but instead found her hand being grasped warmly.
“I am Anna Popova,” said the woman, with the faintest trace of a Russian accent. “So you are Eel Marvell. Your grandmother mentioned you to me a few months ago when we were together at a reception for the Russian Ballet. She has great faith in your gift.”
“Does she?” said Eel. If Alicia rated her enough to talk to the great Anna Popova about her, she must think she had real talent. Maybe she did have what it takes to be a prima ballerina?
“Today we will test that gift,” said Anna Popova. “I will take you through to the changing
room with the others where you can get ready. Your grandmother rang me to say that you would be unaccompanied, and although it is not usually the way we do things at the Imperial I am happy to make an exception in your case. I know from past experience that Swan pupils are always mature and professional.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Eel, in a small voice.
“Good, I’d expect nothing less from a Swan,” said Anna Popova. “By the way, I hope your grandmother is better.”
“Better?” said Eel, confused. She didn’t know that Alicia had been ill.
“The terrible laryngitis. When she called me, I said that she didn’t sound quite like herself, and she said her throat had been bad for a week and that’s why she couldn’t talk long.”
“Oh, yes,” said Eel quickly. “Her throat. It’s much better, thank you.”
She followed Anna Popova into the changing rooms, which smelled comfortingly familiar to Eel; the odour of antiseptic and sweaty feet also characterised the Swan changing rooms, and Eel thought it was probably a feature of dance-school changing rooms the world over.
She had come out in a cold sweat when Anna Popova had mentioned laryngitis. The trouble with deception was that you had to keep on top of all the lies. It was exhausting, and made Eel feel a bit grubby, as if she hadn’t washed properly that morning.
On Saturday morning, a rehearsal for
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
was underway on the Campion’s stage. Ella Campion, who owned the beautiful old Victorian music hall, and her friend, Arthur Tuttons, were delighted to have the Swans back again, even though this production was not on nearly such a lavish scale as
“It is beautiful, though,” said Ella, watching Olivia and Georgia sit side by side on the two garlanded swings in the middle of the stage. Behind them, fairies peeped out from a bower of roses entwined with tiny glittering fairy lights. The girls were wearing 1930s-style costumes. Olivia had a calf-length dove-grey skirt and jacket, offset by a vivid green blouse
and she was wearing button boots and a jaunty little hat with a feather on its side. Georgia was wearing a floaty floral dress and two strings of pearls. As the play continued, both girls would become more and more dishevelled as the night in the forest transformed them physically and emotionally.
“It’s not so much an Athenian forest as an English garden,” said Ella.
Sebastian nodded. “That’s the idea.”
“I love the swings,” said Ella.
“Not entirely original, I’m afraid,” said Sebastian ruefully. “I rather stole the idea from a famous 1960s production by Peter Brook.”
“Oh, I’ve seen pictures of the one you mean,” said Ella. “But that’s quite austere. This looks so much prettier. You haven’t stolen, you’ve been inspired to make something new out of it.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself,” said Sebastian. He clapped his hands together. “Everybody to their places, please.”
The rehearsal began, occasionally stopping for Sebastian to give a note or make a slight change to the blocking.
Olivia watched from the wings as Alex, as
Demetrius, walked on to the stage followed by Georgia, as Helena, stumbling after him.
Demetrius began to speak:
“I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told’st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wood within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.”
Georgia’s eyes flashed with passion:
“You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.”
“Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or, rather, do I not in plainest truth
Tell you, I do not, nor I cannot love you?”
Georgia’s eyes filled with tears as she launched into her next speech. Olivia thought she had never seen Georgia act so well; the
tension between her and Alex was electric.
Olivia had been putting off the dreaded moment when she had to tell Alex that she had no interest in him and he should stop pursuing her. The idea of talking to him about it made her stomach churn. What if Eel was wrong? What if she had got completely the wrong end of the stick and Alex wasn’t interested in her at all? She’d feel like a complete idiot. She could imagine him sneering as he said patronisingly that, sorry, but she just wasn’t the kind of girl he’d be interested in. She was certain he was the kind of boy to make sure the whole school heard what had taken place. But she couldn’t go any longer seeing Georgia unhappy, even if it was doing wonders for her acting. The scene came to an end.
“Fabulous,” said Sebastian Shaw. “It’s been a good morning’s work. Thank you very much for your time, everyone, and please say thanks to Ella and Arthur for putting up with us.”
Everyone said thank you and went to pick up their bags. Olivia knew that Georgia was being collected by her dad and going to spend the rest of the weekend with him, his new wife, Leonie, and their new baby, Rosie. She hung
back a little until Georgia had left, keeping an eye on Alex who appeared to be in no hurry either. She picked up her things and wandered out into Hangman’s Alley, where most of the buildings were still derelict and boarded up. She heard Alex following her and walked slowly down the alleyway to give him time to fall into step beside her.
“Hey, Olivia,” said Alex, casually. “Fancy coming down to the river to take a look at what your dad is up to?”
Olivia shook her head. “I’m going down later when he’s due one of his bathroom breaks so we’ll get a few minutes together.”
“I could come down then,” said Alex, hopefully.
Suddenly Olivia felt sorry for him. “Alex,” she said very seriously. “I think we’ve got to get something sorted out between us. I’m … I’m…”
“I’ve always thought you were really gorgeous, Livy Marvell, from the first moment I saw you,” said Alex softly.
Olivia cringed inside. This wasn’t going the way she had hoped. “Look Alex, I’m really flattered, of course I am, but I’m just not interested. I don’t know how to put it more
kindly, but you and me, nothing is ever going to happen between us.”
“It’s the high-wire, isn’t it?” said Alex. “I’m just not good enough at it for you.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Olivia. “Of course it’s not that. In fact, you’re getting better. You should keep it up.”
“I will,” said Alex. “I’ll never give up. Not on the wire or on you.”
“Oh, Alex,” said Olivia, exasperated. “Haven’t you heard a word I’ve been saying?”
“I have, but I don’t believe you,” said Alex, with his lazy smile. “You’re just playing hard to get.”
Olivia’s eyes widened in irritation. “You’re so arrogant, Alex Parks! I wouldn’t go out with you if you were the last boy left at the Swan.” She stalked off, fuming.
Alex stared after her. No girl had ever spoken to him like that before. Even when he’d been in primary school, he’d always been confident that girls liked him. He felt angry and humiliated. He looked around quickly to check that nobody had witnessed what had happened and was relieved to see that nobody from the Swan was near. It would have been so
embarrassing. Anyway, who was Olivia Marvell to think she was so special? It wasn’t even as if she was obviously pretty like Georgia, Katie and lots of the other girls at the Swan. She should be grateful that he’d taken notice of her. He wanted to hurt her for making him feel small.
“You’ll regret it, Olivia Marvell. Just you wait and see,” called Alex, staring hard after her. Olivia didn’t reply, she didn’t even turn round but just kept walking fast. She couldn’t see his face so she couldn’t work out whether his words were a plea or a threat. Either way, they made her feel shaky. She hurried her step, eager to put some distance between herself and Alex in case he decided to come after her.
“Well, Olivia Marvell,” she said to herself, “you handled that really well, I don’t think.”
Alex watched her go, his anger rising. He felt in his pocket for his phone and pressed a button.
“Dad,” he said. “You know that thing you asked me to help you with if I could?” He paused. “Well, I’m up for it after all.”