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Command Performance

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“Now children, we’re going to be plants growing in the meadow. Start off as a teeny tiny seed, as small as you can, and then grow with the music until you are a beautiful flower swaying in the breeze. Thank you Mrs Watson” The wooden floor smelt of polish and plimsolls as Queenie curled up as small and flat as she could. She could hear the muffled giggles around her, and wrinkled her tiny nose in disgust. Dancing was serious, and they were very silly not to know this. She thought about the flowers on the mountains in Switzerland where they had spent the summer for Mummy’s health. She would be one of those little blue things Mummy loved. Slowly uncurl a little bit at a time, just like the seeds they grew on blotting paper. The music was like sunlight beckoning to her and she grew – grew – grew until she was on her toes and twisting her arms in the mountain air.

“Now the wind is getting stronger…” the music sped up “… and in a moment you are going to be blown loose and up in the air. Now!” Queenie’s feet slowly pulled free of the soil as she started to drift in little eddies and flurries. She blocked out the giggles as Jennifer and Rachel collided, and the thump as Kelly ran into the wall and started to wail. Sunshine and the thick tough grass underfoot, and Mummy laughing, and… The music stopped and she was back in the classroom with a bump, blinking at the others in their cheerful cotton frocks.

“That was very nice children, see you next week. Queenie dear, could you ask your mummy to come and see me please?” Scarlet faced, and ignoring the glances of the other children, she changed back into her sandals and ran to catch her mother’s hand. Miss Taylor patted her on the head and started to talk in the grown up voice, with lots of long words and gestures. Mummy’s voice was pleased though, and she caught Queenie’s hand with more than usual swing in her step.

They stopped in the little café on the way home, and Queenie sipped her orange juice while her mother looked at her thoughtfully.

“Darling, Miss Taylor would like you to have more lessons next term.” Queenie dropped her bun and looked up in alarm, but her mother was smiling. “It’s because you are so very good, better than all the other little girls. You could be a ballerina just like Mummy. It would mean you wouldn’t have time to join the Brownies with Rachel and the rest, but you wouldn’t mind that, would you darling, not for dancing.” And Queenie nodded, seeing her mother’s face alight with pride and happiness.

When Queenie was six years old she wanted to please her mother.

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“And point and turn and back – back – back – small steps Janice - and up! Very nice Cynthia. No Catherine, look at Queenie. Stop a minute everyone. Now Queenie, repeat that sequence. That’s what you should be aiming for. Once more, girls.” She could feel the daggers from the others eyes and wished she had one friend in the class to give her a smile of congratulation or to give her a friendly push and tell her she was clever. They might have given her a chance once, but she never had time to linger and chat after class, she had to run home to her mother.

Queenie was a very special dancer. That’s what Mother told her, told everyone. Soon, maybe in the spring she would audition for one of the big schools, and she would be well on her way to her career. Talking about dancing was the only thing that made her mother happy these days. When she had the particular frown on her face, Queenie knew to beg to look through the big album, to pull out the box of programmes, to gently lift the white tutu from the box. Most of the costumes belonged to the Company, but this had been her very own, and Queenie longed for a chance to wear it. Listening to the descriptions of backstage laughter and happy classes, of tours to sunny places and stage door exits surrounded by autograph hunters, Queenie would sigh and look starry eyed at the evidence of the charmed life cut short. It was better when her mother was happy and laughing, full of stories and sunshine. Better than the days when she turned her face away and stared at the wall, concentrating on something distant. She had a responsibility to be the dancer her mother was meant to be.

When Queenie was ten years old she wanted to be her mother.

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Chalk and sweat and dust and magic. Queenie stood backstage waiting for her cue, breathing in the odours of the theatre. She felt very old and experienced, almost a senior student now, and certainly one of the better dancers in the group. She was starting to realise that the theatre days described by her mother were considerably rose tinted, with no mention of bruises and bleeding toes, of blisters and chilblains caused by chilly dressing rooms. These discomforts drove her onwards; she was determined to succeed in spite of them. Her mother had fallen and she would not. One day she would get the roles Beryl Bertram had never reached. One day she would be first billed, topping even Drina Adams who seemed to live the charmed life of the childhood stories. One day the juniors would give her the admiring glances and balletomanes would crowd around her with autograph books. She would achieve. She would conquer. She would star.

When Queenie was fifteen she wanted to be better than her mother

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All of her days off were spent visiting her mother, who had retreated to a convalescent home on the south coast. It took an hour and a half by train from Victoria, and after a long week of dancing the last thing Queenie wanted to do was pull herself across London and into the rattling train, but soon they would be off on tour and it could be months before she could visit regularly.

The residents were sitting in rows on the glassed in veranda, wrapped up against the autumn chill. Some read or slept, but several were chatting cheerfully to the person next to them. Her mother was in her usual spot at the end, staring into the distance. She greeted her daughter in a querulous tone, disappointed that she was so late – could Queenie not have caught the earlier train? It was almost eleven and she had barely slept. They believed in fresh air here, and it could be so draughty at night… Her face fixed into a sympathetic expression, Queenie let her mind drift, trying to think of suitable topics of conversation. She told tales of the current production, but it was a new ballet without a story and minimal scenery. She produced the latest programme and admitted that her headshot was not as large as some of the other dancers. Suggestions of a walk along the seafront were met with disdain – of course she couldn’t manage, despite what the doctors said. What did they know about her condition anyway? Always trying to push her to go out.

In the end she fell back on asking for stories of her mother’s dancing days, but now all she could hear were the holes. If Beryl Bertram had been such a star, so adored by the principles, why had she only ever danced minor roles? Why was she no longer in touch with any of the old company? She knew that most dancers who left the school early were still in touch with their particular friends, although Christine Gifford had vanished into the mist. Daphne Dainty wrote a few times a year, deep in her life working at a concert hall in the North, and they planned to meet next time the company toured up there. She was aware that the jagged friendship they had shared as students had softened now there was no competition and Daphne had adjusted to a different career. Queenie was determined that her voice would never develop the permanent whine, and that she would keep her friends around her. She would not be trapped by ill health and unhappiness. She was learning to relax into friendships and to cast away jealousy, and never wanted to become a painful, lonely husk with only her memories.

When Queenie was twenty she wanted to be nothing like her mother

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The smell of the flowers hit her as she ran to the centre of the stage for her final curtsy, two of the newest members of the corps gathering them up from where they landed on the stage to present to her until her arms were loaded. Her back was damp with exertion and she was desperate to adjust her tights, but all of that vanished as she smiled and cast a final eye across the crowd, but it was too dark to spot the familiar face – no matter, they had planned to meet backstage. This was for her – for both of them. She must remember it always.

Back in her dressing room she picked up the little pile of post and flicked through it with one hand as she applied cold cream to her face with the other. There was a note in the porter’s handwriting and she opened it without thinking. A request to meet at the stage door perhaps? She had a slightly creepy admirer who had contacted her a couple of times… But no. Her hands were stilled. “Your mother telephoned. She is not well enough to attend tonight but hopes you are a success.”

Oh. She had planned it all so carefully. The taxi booked and paid for to collect and return, one of the front of house staff primed to escort her to the seat, the glass of champagne ordered for the interval to be delivered to the box. All for nothing. Years before this would have sent her into a panic, but now she just felt the resignation sink through her. She had so wanted to share this day with her mother, but no, it was not to be.

Then there was laughter in the corridor and a knock at the door before Ilonka and Drina burst in, words tumbling over each other as they congratulated their friend. Drina turned up the little fire in the corner and rummaged round for Queenie’s street clothes while Ilonka urged on her tidying up with cotton wool and hair pins. Soon they were ready, and Queenie was being urged to celebrate her triumph in a with them all in restaurant which was a particular favourite of the company. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ilonka wince slightly and show the note to Drina, before turning to admire the flowers and cards. Soon the three dancers were pushing past the lingerers at the stage door, scribbling a few signatures before disappearing off into the night. It was almost as she had imagined it would be, and yet…

When Queenie was twenty five she just wanted her mother.