Muswell Hill, North London. Late October, 1972

At 10, I was a late starter to ballet.  My persuasive mother had found Miss Grayston, of Miss Grayston’s Dance Academy, established 1964, who had agreed to take me for a provisional term, and if, and only if, I tried hard to catch up with other girls, and performed well in the Christmas show, would I be allowed back in the new year.

My mother usually dropped me at my class at 5.30 on a Tuesday afternoon, slid off to the pub or library for an hour of peace and quiet and then came back to collect me.  But this day she was busy; she headed out sometime during the day with the one family car.  I arrived home from school to be told, by my grandmother, that our friend Anne, would drop me off and pick me up. Anne often stepped into the breach.

As I waited for Anne, already in my ballet outfit (leotard, salmon tights, secondhand ballet shoes, with newly attached pink satin ribbons, a new handknitted cross over ballet cardigan, this and the ribbons courtesy of my grandmother) I was reminded, by granny, about how cold it was outside, now it was autumn. I should really take a raincoat and some shoes to change into just in case something happened and I had to walk.  What could possibly happen?  Anne would be there. All I had to do was brave the dark and the rain for the two seconds it took to get from the back door to her Dorma Van and then at the other end, six minutes later, run from the van to the student entrance of Miss Grayston’s. Granny always worried.

I heard the beep beep of Anne’s van as it pulled up outside and I braved the rain. No coat or shoes.

At the end of the lesson Miss Grayston complimented me.  I felt so proud; maybe something I was good at?  I pushed past the girls coming in for the next lesson.  All the girls in my class left.  I waited.  Miss Grayston’s head appeared around the door of the waiting room, ‘You still here?’   She returned to her classroom.

Shamed, I left the building.  I would wait outside.  Maybe I should walk home?  I knew the way, but what if Anne turned up before I got home? What if we missed each other? And then there was the ballet shoes. The damp had already penetrated the soft pink leather.  I could take them off and walk in my tights but that would wreck the tights.  I set off up the hill.

As I approached St James’ Church the narrow path did not allow for me to escape the waves of water, leaves and condensed crud, coming from the gutter as each car and bus passed.  As I crossed St James’ Lane into The Broadway, I could see the bright lights of the Barracuda Fish and Chip Shop as a cheery spot in front of me.  The door opened; smell and music spilled out. Fish and chips and doner kebabs and Build me Up Buttercup with all its warm yellowness.  I sang along.  I would be home soon.

At the Midland Bank I had to cross again.  Stopping on the island in the middle to wait for the 134 bus to go past as it raced to get onto the roundabout, (that doubled as a bus depot) before the W7 bus cut it off.  I missed my step, my right foot plunging into a murky puddle.  The seeping moved up my tights, now grey with London grime.

Across Queen’s Ave and past the throng of people crammed under the bus shelter for the 43.  I heard one woman tut as I passed.  My grandmother’s words and the song merged in my head: “You need shoes, You need shoes, more than anything darling/ You know that you have from the start..”

Back across the Broadway at the Post Office by means of the pelican crossing. Turn right into our street.  I ran the remaining three blocks. The vignettes of family life shining out from each living room window.  I snuck in the back door not wanting to see anyone and up to my bedroom with my sleeping younger sister.  My PJs were warm and dry.  I bundled the wet things into a ball with the destroyed shoes tightly bound in the middle.  I stuffed them down the side of my bed. I was never going back to ballet.

My father, in front of the TV watching Nationwide with my brothers, did not turn around as I entered the living room.  “You’re back then, all ready for bed?  Goodnight, see you in the morning.” I was dismissed.

The following Tuesday, after school, I found a clean and shiny ballet outfit laid out on my bed.  New ribbons attached to the cleaned old shoes.  Next to the outfit was my raincoat and a new pair of black plimsols, the kind you get from FW Woolworths for a couple of quid, and a note in my grandmother’s even cursive script: “Just in case.”

Footage from 1980s British TV show The Unforgettables.

Stereo Story # 597


Victoria Wells is a Kyneton-based writer, who runs a not for profit in her other time. She has contributed to The London Journal and one of the For Dummies books. She is a sucker for 1980s music of all kinds.