Frustratingly, my eagerness for adventure was no measure of my ability to keep pace with the high spirits of the rest. Dr. Jennings had forbidden me to dance. At Christmas, I danced solo in the pantomime we put on for our patrons and almsgivers and a lady from the audience was so taken with my performance she offered to arrange proper tuition. Nadia, her name was, a gamin creature in red fox fur up to her ears, a real ballerina, Reverend Mother had emphasised, and a member of the Rambert company. “Such an honour, Angel. You are blessed.”
It was a fairytale come true. Little had I thought to become what I most longed to be! Undaunted by the discipline, I practised my steps morning and night. Madame Minoret at the ballet school was amazed by my progress. A natural, she had confirmed to Nadia, an empathetic dancer, whatever that meant. And Nadia had twinkled. “We shall see what we shall see,” she said.
But Dr. Jennings had come along and put a cold stopper upon my ribs and squinted down his aquiline nose and warned that the dancing must cease. All strenuous activity was to be avoided.
“A slight heart murmur,” he confided to Sister Agnes, relaxing his stethoscope. “Nothing to be unduly concerned about at this stage. However, we had better play safe. Eh, young lady?”
During the night, I went down with a fever. Dr. Jennings was summoned and diagnosed a severe attack of ‘flu. Alarm grew when I failed to respond to treatment. For two days and nights my condition did not abate and even in delirium my toes formed points under the covers. On the third day, the crisis passed. I surfaced, clearer-eyed, to a new world of textures, tastes and sounds. The acuity of my perception was startling. It was as though I had been recast in another mould. The calm relationship of objects, after the storm which had imparted a sinister meaning to them, moved within me a remote happiness. I found myself in the sick bay, in a large bed high off the disinfected linoleum, with Felicity Rag-Doll ailing beside me and a painted Tau Cross on one wall and the Sacred Heart of Jesus on another, inflamed and bleeding, and the Michelangelo Pietà on a third. Down the corridor, Mildred Semple was practising her piano pieces. I sat up and flung the blankets aside. But the second the floor touched cold to my foot, I remembered. How I pined for my lost freedom! It was torture not to be able to take flight and dance, like being a bird and having your wings clipped.
Life was never the same again. All I did involved undue effort. I tried not to give in but tired quickly. What I hated most of all was being left behind like the lame boy in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, forever shut out of the enchanted kingdom inside the mountain because he couldn’t keep pace.
In the garden, I looked on dispirited, while the hole dilated at my feet and my companions alighted on the rewards of their industry. Several blue glass beads were found, an old clay pipe, its bowl still intact, a tortoiseshell comb and a bun penny. As the afternoon wore on, we lost all track of time and place until we heard Sister Agnes calling us across the snow.
Thomas hitched his spectacles up to the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and consulted the position of the sun. “Right men! Pocket the booty! It’s a long trek back to base. Look lively, Novak, or you’ll be spending the night in an eighteen foot drift. Wolf-fodder, that’s what you’ll be!”
We followed him, our Wellington boots cutting a swathe through the smudged lawn. Already the snow on the terrace had melted. A thrush sang in the apple tree stippled with green. The conservatory threw back a pale sky splashed with flame. It was warm. The air smelled of spring and of picnics postponed, of an outing to the sea if we were lucky. Tomorrow all trace of snow would be gone.
It was as we were stamping our boots, about to file in, that a resounding thud drew our attention. A young blackbird had collided with the window and lay, a tumbled heap of feathers, on the path. I darted to his rescue, but it was too late! He fixed me meekly with his beady eye and lapsed, quivering, into stillness. I stretched out a finger and stroked his soft wings. He was as warm as my own flesh and blood, poor scrap, so deceived by the reflected universe. I couldn’t take it in. I fell on my knees and moaned and rocked to and fro and refused to be comforted. How could I bear such passive obedience to order?
That night, I had a nightmare about the hole in the garden and how it could be made good before Simms found out. I awoke, sobbing, to the recollection of yesterday and that precocious silence about which I could never speak.
Image courtesy of Carl Bovis