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1985 (Twelve)

It’s his third month at the Royal Ballet School when Billy decides he should write a letter. It’s easier said than done, however. Firstly, he isn’t certain of whom he should address it to. To dad and Tony? But it feels weird, writing to them. He can’t imagine them writing back. To Nana? That would make sense, but her eyesight is rather poor so Tony or dad would have to read it to her anyway. Michael? Debbie? Mrs. Wilkinson?

He decides he’ll write the letter first and then choose a recipient. It’ll be easier that way. He focuses on the paper in front of him, the pen in his hand. He looks around the room, Nathan reading in his bed, crumpled sheets hanging down from the top bunk. He thinks about his classes, the accent of their Russian teacher, the posh boys with embroidered handkerchiefs, the swan and the hawk on the school’s blue-gold emblem. He thinks about the squeaky beds back in Everington, Tony’s record player, the smoky air, the brick walls, the rough and loud laughter of the miners. The gap between these two worlds suddenly glows in front of his eyes, and he can’t think of a single word to bridge across it.

Maybe it’s just because the Elliot men aren’t really known for their writing skills. His father has sent him one card with a picture of a generic field and, ‘Dear son, hope you are well. Remember to study hard. Tony says hi. Dad’ scribbled on the other side. Between the words ‘hi’ and ‘Dad’, there is an empty space, a void where the other things he wanted to say have fallen. They aren’t really letter-writers, the lot of them.

The only letters Billy has received himself in his lifetime are the acceptance letter here and the one his mom left for him – or the eighteen-year-old Billy, rather. He pulls it out from underneath his pillow now and opens it carefully. The paper is almost translucent already. He slowly reads every word, even though he knows them perfectly by heart. He has no idea how to write something like this. Instead, he puts the empty paper back in the drawer and lays on his bed, fingers tracing out his mother’s words. He can almost see her in her blue dress, mending a torn sleeve at the desk.

A month later, he is handed an envelope with his name on it. At first he’s surprised, but then he recognises the slanted, messy handwriting from the margins of his notebooks during particularly dull lessons by particularly strict teachers.

Dear Billy or Dancer Boy rather

It’s Michael, you probably guessed, unless you were waiting for letters from female admirers then I’m sorry it’s just me your old mate and not some swooning girl. Sorry bout that. I thought I should write to you if you want to hear news from home and that. Are you making lots of new friends there? What is London like except really big? Have you seen Big Ben and all those things? Do you think you’ll be a dancer at the Royal Ballet? Eventually I mean, I know you have many years of school still.

Nothing is different here. The miners are angry and they’re talking about strikes but they say it’s not gonna work because it didn’t work the last time either. Dad said people like us are never going to go anywhere or move anywhere but underground and then he drank everything that was left in the kitchen cupboard and was sick all night. School is still rubbish since we don’t do anything fancy like ballet and that it’s just track and football and geography classes like always with the fossil and I’m really bored because everyone’s dull and only talking about who beat who at boxing and who’s got the best kick.

I saw your Nana at the town, she was looking for a pet shop but I don’t think there’s ever been a pet shop in Everington so I walked her to your home and then I thought I’m bored and maybe you are too so I asked for your address in London. Your Nana said she used to write letters to her friends when they got married and moved away and said it had been great. So now I have something to do at the boring classes, if you want to start sending letters that is or else I’ll just have to think of something else to entertain myself with.

Oh you know how your Nana always says she could’ve been a professional dancer, right, if she’d had the training and all that? Well we had tea and she said Our Billy, he’ll be a professional dancer, you know. So if you sometimes feel like London and your School is shite, and feel like taking the next bus to Everington, think of your Nana first. And me too though it’s bollocks that you’re not here but I also think you’ll make a wicked ballet dancer so yeah.

So I wish you all the best with Dancing and I hope you will write you know my address.

Bye.

Your mate Michael.

Billy digs through the drawer for the paper he once pushed away, and starts to write. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel so strange and difficult anymore. It’s kind of like when he was asked about dancing during the auditions. The abstracts feel difficult and he has no words for them, but the thing itself is clear as day. Whether it’s bouncing on his bed to Tony’s records or doing pas de chat to Tchaikovsky in the rehearsal hall, dancing is electric, it’s as simple as that. It occurs to him now that this is the same thing. Whether it’s running along the cobblestone streets with him or writing down the things they want to say, this is still his best mate, and having a bit of him here, like this, suddenly makes the big still-strange room feel a lot less lonely.

This is how it begins. It’s peculiar, at first, because they’ve always relied on the unspoken, in a way. They understand each other in the kind of way where you can glance at the other person across a crowded room and you’ll both smile and know, yeah, you’ll look out for me. But now there can be none of that, no curses masking the serious things, no rows dissolving into hysterical laughter, no running breathlessly side by side. Now it’s simply white paper and smudged ink, but somehow all those other things are there, too, right there between the lines.


1986 (Thirteen)

Billy gets into the habit of carrying a pen in his pocket wherever he goes. They send letters nearly every week, and gradually those letters grow longer, the last pages barely legible as their fingers start to cramp from exertion. London is starting to feel like a home, or at least the school is, and the electricity in Billy’s limbs is starting to take new forms, ones more precise and graceful than ever before. He makes friends even with the kids who made him wary at first, the ones with neatly pressed clothes and piles of books on their nightstands. There are days when he hates dancing, when his ankles hurt and he cannot keep up with the music and everything feels hopeless, but then every now and then, there’s a moment when he knows he’s flying higher than ever before and this helps him to he grit his teeth and think, I’m going to make it. There is no way he’s giving up now, he knows this. He could replace his old life with this, let go of his past as though it were a kite, but he chooses not to. He likes this mingling of two worlds, the weight of Michael’s letters in his pocket, carrying the scent of coal dust and grease. It is not just a past he finds in those letters, either. It’s also a world that is still in his backbone, and it’s another life, Michael’s life, struggling to the light just like his.


1987 (Fourteen)

That summer is exceptionally cool and wet, and it’s strange to be back in Everington. Billy spend a lot of time indoors with Nana, showing her what he’s learnt and making sure she doesn’t stumble when she closes her eyes and sways to the music in her mind, from decades ago, moved to tears by all those distant dreams whose embodiment Billy now is.

Tony mocks Billy for his softening accent and Billy keeps the fact that being home is actually giving him a thicker accent than he’s had for over a year now to himself. The weather makes everything slow and causes the colours to fade.

He’s been there for barely a week when he first sees Michael, but it feels a lot longer. He’s going to the store. Someone calls out behind him, but he doesn’t recognise the voice and doesn’t look.

‘Oi, Billy!’ He feels a pull at his sleeve and turns.

Michael stands there in the street, slightly flushed from running, drizzle falling over them, taller than ever even though Billy, too, has grown. (He’s a head taller than his dad, now.) Still, Michael’s the same, dark hair falling into his awfully bright eyes, limbs too long and slightly awkward.

‘Forgotten me, have you, you bugger,’ he says and grins and Billy understands why he didn’t turn right away; Michael’s voice has broken. (Billy’s, on the other hand, is still on that awkward rollercoaster of bird-like whistles and chain smoker’s growls.) ‘Or are you too posh now for us small town folk?’

Billy laughs. ‘Yeah, I only hang with millionaires now.’

‘You do, do you? And celebrated artists, too, I reckon?’

‘But of course,’ he says in the best Queen’s English he can manage. ‘I wouldn’t settle for any less.’

‘Come on, then, I’ll show you around, you ponce.’

They grin at each other and then start running at the same moment. It’s a strange summer, drizzly and cool, and time seems to stand still. So many little things have changed that haven’t shown up in the letters, tiny transformations that have been gradual enough to nearly go unnoticed. Even so, they comfortably fall into this old life, its shades changed, but its core still bittersweetly familiar.


1988 (Fifteen)

When the first rays of the spring sun shatter the constant greyness like the thin ice on the surface of a puddle, everyone comes to life. Billy has never experienced such a spring before. Suddenly, his limbs tingle in a strange new way, he throws himself into every dance without an ounce of hesitation, he gets into fights over stupid little things and for the first time really sees the people around him.

He’s danced with Elise before, but she seems like a stranger to him. All the details of the world have suddenly become sharp. Like the way she pulls her red hair off a chignon, her flawless arabesque, the soft fuzz at the nape of her neck and the way she laughs when he messes up a lift.

It’s awful and wonderful all at once. It’s different with the guys, too. Everyone laughs louder, their jokes get cruder and the smallest spark can send them flying into each other. Even the richest, most well-mannered boys get split lips and bruised knuckles. The teachers sigh, shake their heads and make them train harder than ever before, well aware of the dirty looks they get for this, but never bending.

Their bodies ache and tingle, slowly transform into something unknown. It’s frightening; ballet dancers are creatures fond of being in control. It’s lovely; they’re able to move like they never have before.

Billy stares Elise’s pink, translucent earlobe on a break and then, annoyed with himself, tears his eyes away, pulls the latest letter out of his pocket. He’s written to Michael, if not quite about her, then about that weird new fire scorching him. He’s not surprised to find that Michael is able to find her outlines there, anyhow.

Have you said anything to her, then? You should ask her out, I’m sure she’ll say yes. (And don’t you say there’s no her, okay. Your old mate’s no fool, even about girls.)

I, for my part, haven’t been looking much, either lasses or lads, this being Everington and all. Which makes it even more surprising, that I’m not on my way to becoming a poor spinster lad, either.

There’s this bloke called Archie who moved here a little while ago. I don’t think there’s a single person in Everington who thinks he’s a poof. After all, he’s ace at boxing and pretty good at football and tall and buff. Girls swoon over him. The miners give him good, hard pats on the back. That kind of a fellow.

As I said, no one thinks he’s a poof and I certainly didn’t either, until there was this little brawl and… Well, let’s just say that things ended up with yours truly getting bit of a snog, quite unexpectedly. Of course I can’t ask him what the hell it was all about or anything like that, with him being the way he is, but it sure was a welcome change.

So you go talk to that lass of yours, and tell me what it’s like to kiss one, alright?

Billy’s annoyance has evaporated, and he laughs softly to himself and glances at the arch of Elise’s neck again.

(In the end, she’s not his first kiss. He’s always thought Lucy as another one of his mates, until one evening she tells him that she likes his stupid jokes and his sincerity and kisses him right before it starts to rain.)


1989 (Sixteen)

It’s the night of their end-of-year performances and Billy is wiping the heavy make-up off his face hurriedly. He wants to get out of the dressing room where the air is heavy with the smell of sweat and powder and flowers. (Garishly bright mixed bouquets, the kind you get from supermarket, and ridiculously huge roses, their out-of-proportion stalks threatening to snap.) He wants to go outside, have the chilly night air cool his cheeks, burn his throat like the vodka from Lee’s engraved hip flask which he will undoubtedly pass around. He wants the cold air, the rising chatter as the general giddiness overcomes them, flooding in the empty place left behind by weeks’ worth of frustration and nerves over endlessly drilled movements and strained limbs. He wants the rush of freedom as they make their way through the streets as a loud, laughing gang, light-headed, their bodies still pleasantly aching.

Pulling his coat on, Billy notices a pair of earrings someone’s left on the dressing table. He thinks he should see if he can find their owner, but as he picks one up, he realises they’re a part of a costume, plastic clip-on earrings, their rhinestones almost like the real thing in the dim light. He’s about to leave, but then a faint idea crosses his mind and he drops the earrings in his coat pocket and heads out.

The next day, sitting in the quiet dining hall, he digs through his bag for a pen. Andrew walks over with deceitfully soft steps (he’s known for the fluidity of his movements) and peers over Billy’s shoulder at the clear envelope and the earrings next to it.

‘Elliot, you’ve got a lass back home and you haven’t told us?’ Andrew says and whistles, the delight of having stumbled across an unexpected secret evident in his voice.

Billy opens his mouth to say no, but thinks better of it, and shrugs, grinning. (He could try to explain, but it will do no good. He’ll only get a, ‘Oh, I thought you didn’t fancy blokes.’ and it’s no use saying that it’s not like that, that they’re friends, their friendship being the kind where letting your mate try on a tutu or sending him a pair of rhinestone earrings won’t carry those usual sex-dripping implications of adolescent communication. So he doesn’t try.)

‘Full of surprises, aren’t you, Billy boy?’

Billy swiftly writes M. Caffrey on the envelope, and then the address (as always, he feels a sharp sting in his ribcage, the memory of those brick-walled streets somehow still trumping the magnificence of London, Everington’s raw, modest beauty much like that of the word home). He doesn’t write a note, just slips the earrings in and closes the envelope. There’s no need to explain, he knows.


1990 (Seventeen)

Billy writes two letters, one long one and a second shorter, a month later. There is no reply and eventually the letters are returned. He digs up the last letter Michael’s sent him, looking for clues for this radio silence. There are none. He writes about his sister’s fiancé, a failed bank robbery, his part-time job at the drugstore and his drunkard of a boss. It certainly doesn’t seem like a goodbye. Billy doesn’t know what to think. He knows it’s quite surprising that their correspondence has lasted as long as it has, and of course, they both have their separate lives, but he never thought it would end this abruptly, without a reason. (He didn’t think it would ever end, to be quite truthful.) He knows it’s no use coming up with reasons, but sometimes he feels the dull ache of a phantom limb.


1991 (Eighteen)

It’s Tony on the phone.

‘How are things going?’ He pauses his words oddly, sounds like his throat is sore. ‘With your dancing and stuff?’

‘Fine,’ Billy says and feels uneasy, his body feels like it’s filling with cold water. Tony’s hardly called just to ask about his dancing. It has to be something else. This can’t be more than the second time Tony’s ever called him, and he sounds odd, distant and muffled. Billy braces himself, his muscles tensing.

‘We thought if you could take bit of a break, come back for a bit,’ Tony breathes. It’s clear then.

‘Nana’s died,’ Billy forces the words out and feels the tears burning his throat, underneath his closed lids.

‘Yeah,’ Tony says and inhales sharply to keep his voice from wavering.

On the bus, Billy gently opens the yellowed, nearly translucent letter his mother sent him all those years ago. Finally, it’s for him, as he is now, instead of some future Billy with fuzzy outlines.

But please know, I was always there with you through everything, and I always will be.

It’s the first time in years, but Billy sees his mother sitting across the aisle in her blue dress, watching the fields whizz by. She slowly turns to look at him, and he cannot quite recall her face anymore, it looks younger now, softer.

‘It’ll be alright, Billy. You know that, don’t you?’

And then she’s no longer there, but it’s enough. He knows.

(A suitcase in one hand, on his way to the bus station, Billy pauses by a familiar house and rings the doorbell. Mr. Caffrey opens the door, blinking at the bright light. Billy thinks he can see a faint smudge of red at the corner of his mouth. ‘Billy Elliot, is that you?’ Billy asks for Michael and for a moment, Mr. Caffrey just stares at him, or perhaps past him, eyes clouded. ‘He’s gone off, you know. To London. Too small place for his kind, this, he said. Might be right, too.’ Billy thanks him and then he has to run to catch his bus.)


1992 (Nineteen)

It’s rather unforgivable that he’s distracted by something like that, but there is a brief moment in Billy’s graduation performance where he isn’t thinking about the next movement, the next step, but instead his attention is in the audience. In the near-darkness he can only vaguely discern the features of the young man sitting on the second row near the aisle. Despite the poor visibility, Billy could swear that he knows that face, or at least new its younger form, but he snaps out of his trance now, getting a dirty look from his partner, even though they both know that the audience won’t have noticed anything being off.

Afterwards, he dresses quickly and is about to leave until someone points out he hasn’t even looked at his flowers. There are a few single roses from his friends, but on the corner of the dressing table, there’s a small bouquet. It’s not roses or lilies, but tulips, and there’s a small envelope attached to them. Billy opens it and pulls out a simple note, ‘Dear Dancer Boy, In case you aren’t too busy being praised and celebrated, I’d love to say hi. I’ll be by the coat check. Oh and I’ve heard rumours about the Royal Ballet. So congratulations, you brilliant bastard. M.

Billy laughs.

Michael’s face lights up when he sees Billy. ‘It’s been a while, eh?’

‘It has! What the hell was up with that disappearing act? I thought you’d either fallen off the face of the earth, or had been somehow unforgivably insulted by me.’

‘Ah, yeah, sorry about that. I wasn’t really confident about this whole London thing myself, so I thought there was no point telling about it if I’d just run straight back home to dear ol’ Everington. But then it’s actually been pretty good. Though I’ve surely had my share of shite, too. But still, overall – well, I’m still here, aren’t I?’

They talk late into the evening and before Michael makes his way to the nearest Tube station, he scribbles his address on the flipside of the note. With Billy starting at the Royal Ballet and Michael working ever-changing hours, it’s quite rare that they’re able to arrange time to see each other. But after six years of correspondence, it’s like second nature to them, and it feels easy to slide back into the routine, share their lives in words.


1993 (Twenty)

Billy is sitting on a wide windowsill, feet resting against the faintly warm radiator. He fiddles with the envelope, its edges bent and smudged. They’re supposed to be rehearsing, but the choreographer keeps having meltdowns and storming off, and so they are forced to wait around even more than they should, languidly stretching their legs in the hallway, doing half-hearted pirouettes and playing cards.

He thought he’d read the letter with his evening tea, but now he knows he’ll just fall to bed when he makes it home, so he carefully rips the envelope open. He reads quickly, but every now and then, he has to stop to decipher unclear words. Even after all these years over which Michael’s peculiar, slanted handwriting has become more familiar to Billy than his voice, there are loops and swirls that require his full attention.

Michael writes about his new apartment, its beautiful high windows which however let the cold in, about sleeping with mittens and a woollen hat on, about a fantastic play rehearsal he saw, one with angels and Ethel Rosenberg and imaginary Eskimos in Antarctica. He asks about Billy’s new part, about their costumes, what the girl he’s dancing with is like and when the premiere will be. Then, a simple sentence:

You must’ve heard they’re closing down the mine.

Billy nearly misses it; it’s in the last paragraph and there is nothing more about it. He stops there, his breath catching. They’re both as far away from Everington now, Michael and he, but this kind of news are still important, maybe more now than ever. That’s why he hasn’t written anything more about it. That one sentence tells Billy all he needs to know.

This is the first time he hears about it. But suddenly he understands that phone call a week ago, first silence and then his dad’s voice, too loud, accent heavier than ever. ‘Billy, Billy, Billy, we are so lucky with you, so lucky, Royal Ballet, imagine that, a miner’s son, so lucky that…’ and then a sound that might have been laughter or a wail or an attempt at singing.

‘What’s wrong, dad?’ Billy asked and it felt like standing at the entrance of the kitchen that awfully early morning when dad hit Tony, both of them so full of fire and despair, and there was nothing he could do. It was like cold water at the pit of his belly now. ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’

There was just rattling on the line, he thought he must have been disconnected. But then he heard Tony’s voice, a little hoarse, ‘Dad’s had a few too many, I’ll put him to bed. Good luck and that.’

Billy heard ‘lucky lucky lucky’ in the background and before he was able to say a word, the beeping of the call having been disconnected filled his ears. He tried to call the next day, but no one was in.

This is why dad had called: the mine. Despite the warmth of the radiator, cold fills Billy’s body, spreading from his belly to his limbs and his chest. He looks around him, the dancers in their leotards and leg warmers, stretching long, slender limbs like some sleek animals. He feels very foreign, all of a sudden. Surrounded by these young men and women who speak of French novels and Chopin, mythologies and sparkling wine, it’s like he’s an alien. They couldn’t even begin to imagine a place where people live from something that looks like dirt to them, where they spend as much time underground as looking at the chimney-populated skyline, where the stench of rotten eggs thrown at the scabs becomes an integral part of your childhood. These people live on a higher plane, some fairy world untainted by such things.

Billy is somewhere in between, his accent growing softer day by day, the map of the underground slowly forming in his head, his ballet slippers like a second skin, and yet right now, he feels all his unsmoothed edges, the coal dust buried deep in his skin.

The next morning he calls his dad and asks him about the mine. There are long silences, incomplete sentences. However, one thing becomes clear: the closure is inevitable; almost 1,500 people will lose their jobs.

‘Maybe this is the time to see a bit more of the country. Outside of Durham and that,’ his dad finally says, and sounds lost and empty.

Briefly, Billy imagines a life where his dad and Tony will take the bus and come with what little they’ve got, stand at Victoria Station without knowing what to do or to say when he goes to greet them, dad bewildered, Tony irritated. How they’ll eventually find some little flat and do odd jobs for a while and get into brawls at the local pub and eventually find their place. (Of course, it never happens. Everington is like a ship for them, and they’ll face whatever storm it’s heading to. Billy sends them money sometimes, even if it’s rather embarrassing for all of them. Eventually Tony gets a job at a garage and a wife and two kids. Everington never quite copes, nor do its inhabitants, but somehow, they manage.)

‘It’s good you got out of here.’

It comes unexpectedly, his dad’s solemn voice, cracking with swallowed tears. It feels like fire and ice all at once, and Billy doesn’t know what to say.

That day, he dances as though something was burning him alive, and at night, unable to sleep, he writes to Michael.

Remember how I once asked you if you thought it’d be better being a ballet dancer than being a miner? I still don’t know. All I knew back then was that I had this need to dance, and I’d never felt that way about anything before. I hadn’t ever really dreamt of being a professional dancer. It was Everington, after all, we were all bound to end up in the mine, sooner or later. Dancing is tough and you need to dedicate yourself to it completely. Even so, oftentimes I can’t quite comprehend that it’s what I do for a living. The idea that you can only feed yourself with hard manual labour is still somewhere in my backbone.

Back then, all I knew was that I needed to dance. Back when you first came here, all you knew was that you needed to get out. Only now I see that behind our simple desires were our parents’ fervent wishes of a better life for us. No one ever told us that we should try and run from our fate, because it would be far too painful, did we not succeed. And yet we did. Without even understanding what we were doing, we made it.


1994 (Twenty-one)

Sometime before our break-up, John and I had a huge argument about these letters. He was jealous. I kept insisting that it wasn’t like that. ‘What’s it like, then?’ he shouted. And I didn’t know what to say.

What I wanted to say was that it was something you couldn’t really explain, but that would have hardly helped. Yet it’s true. The easiest answer is that it’s a friendship. It’s perfectly true. But even so, I don’t think that quite explains it. For one, there’s the fact that you were my first love. There are times when I wonder if this is just me still carrying the torch for you, if I’m still hung up on that idea. I want to say no, though.

Of course there’s still a part of me that causes my breath to catch when I see you float across the stage like some enchanted bird of prey, my heart to beat fast. However, I’ve wondered quite often what I’d do if you one day said, ‘Oi, Michael, you old fairy, you’ve a chance with me now!’ Of course, I would never expect such a thing. Ever since I was eleven, I’ve known I’d never be that person who’d rise as high as your beloved Dance in your heart. But what if you said that to me? Just in theory? If I was still fifteen, I wouldn’t even give it a second thought. I’d go for it. But now? The answer is no. I’ve come to prefer this odd friendship of ours, the one where your handwriting has become more familiar to me than anyone else’s.

There’s a safety in letters. You can think about your words. No one will see you blush or tremble at the truths. I imagine if we’d just stayed friends the regular way, we’d have drifted apart by now. Our lives are separate, apart from those times when I sit in the audience, and even then there’s that border of light and dark between us. Even so, I know you better than anyone.

These aren’t exactly love letters we’re writing. But they’re not the kind of letters that mates send each other, either. It’s been almost nine years now. Nine years’ worth of smudged words keeping us from falling under the definition of ‘childhood friends’.

Don’t mind my sappiness, good fellow. Old poofs like me can get this way sometime, when they’ve reached the ripe old age of twenty-one.


1995 (Twenty-two)

That year there are no letters as such. Michael’s differences with his landlord show no sign of improving, so one day Billy suggests that they could be flatmates. After a brief consideration, he agrees. It’s rather pleasant. They’re quite familiar with each other’s habits from childhood, and there’s a great comfort about not having to be too careful with anything. They settle easily into that life, this effortless companionship. Their schedules are very different and there are times when days can go by without them seeing each other. Those times, they often leave little notes to each other, a habit born from years of letter-writing. Finally that November, Michael moves in with his boyfriend James, and Billy finds a new place. Without any verbal agreement, they start to write letters once more. It seems like the natural thing to do.


1996 (Twenty-three)

‘You’ve been quite an artistic influence on our dear Michael, you know,’ James says with a sly smile one night at the bar, ‘or should I say Michelle.’

Michael gives him a dirty look but there’s a faint blush rising to his cheeks, ‘Aw fuck off.’

‘I’m not quite following…?’ Billy looks at Michael questioningly but he won’t look him in the eye.

‘It’s this drag show at—‘ James starts, but Michael cuts him off.

‘Oh come on, Billy’s a professional ballet dancer, it’s not exactly his cup of tea. Besides, I’m not even sure if I’ll go on with it.’

When they’re leaving, James slips Billy the address. ‘Go see it,’ he says quickly, ‘I reckon he’s better than he thinks.’

The next night Billy looks up the address. It’s not too far from his flat, so he figures he might as well check it out. The place is small and quite comfortable, the seats are worn blue velvet and there’s constantly theatre smoke in the air. He gets himself a whisky and finds a good seat.

He doesn’t recognise Michael right away. He’s dressed in a long black, partly sequined dress and he’s wearing a dark brown wig, curls falling down his back. There’s a live band playing. Michael moves with unexpected grace, his gangly tall body suddenly transformed into that of a slender woman, his movements soft and fluid like a feline’s. It’s strange for Billy to be on this side, for him to be the one in the dark, watching the other’s transformation. There is something painful about it, those unfamiliar expressions crossing the face of someone he claims to know so well. He wonders if it’s the same with him when the music enters his bloodstream and he forgets himself and the world. He watches Michael as the light falls on his face, and he looks foreign and familiar all at once.


1997 & 1998 (Twenty-four & twenty-five)

Little by little, it becomes evident that they’re becoming adults. Michael and James get a bigger place without a leaking ceiling, and Michael is promoted to a sous-chef. Billy has a steady stream of decent parts coming his way, although he doesn’t quite make it big. They still write letters, though more infrequently. Every now and then, Michael comes to see Billy’s performance or Billy has dinner at the restaurant where Michael works, and quite often, the three of them spend evenings at a bar or go see some celebrated West End play. Billy has a few girlfriends, but nothing serious. When Michael asks him about it, he admits that the thought of a steady girlfriend is rather appealing, but he knows that for the time being, ballet is still too all-consuming part of his life for there to be any point in looking. ‘Nothing wrong with that,’ Michael says, ‘it’s your first love, after all. There will be time, later.’

The year 1997 is drawing to a close when Billy gets hit by a car and hurts his leg. The injury isn’t a terribly serious one, but getting back to the way he was before the accident still takes several months of gruelling work. It’s not all bad, however. It turns out that this accident lights a new fire inside him, a brighter bolt of electricity than ever before. Even when he’s back in shape, he doesn’t stop working. He goes beyond what he thought he could do. He is noticed more and more; the audience can’t take their eyes off of him. ‘It won’t be long now,’ Michael predicts after a particularly breathtaking performance. He’s right.


1999 (Twenty-six)

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.

Billy checks the tickets one more time before putting them in the envelope. It feels impossible, still. His name printed on the poster, his picture on the walls of Tube stations. Suddenly he feels like he did at eleven when he was told that he could be a dancer, for real. It never really hit him until now.

I think I’ve made it,’ he scribbles on a piece of paper and slips that in before closing the envelope. ‘I think this is what I dreamt of, back when we were eleven.’

Billy presses his hand against his pounding heart. Somehow he’s made it here.