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Authors: Victoria Clayton

Girl's Guide to Kissing Frogs

BOOK: Girl's Guide to Kissing Frogs
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VICTORIA CLAYTON

A Girl’s Guide to Kissing Frogs

To Zachary

Contents

Title Page
Dedication
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty One
Chapter Twenty Two
Chapter Twenty Three
Chapter Twenty Four
Chapter Twenty Five
Chapter Twenty Six
Chapter Twenty Seven
Chapter Twenty Eight
Chapter Twenty Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty One
Chapter Thirty Two
Chapter Thirty Three
Chapter Thirty Four
Chapter Thirty Five
Chapter Thirty Six
Chapter Thirty Seven
Chapter Thirty Eight
Chapter Thirty Nine
Chapter Forty
Chapter Forty One
Chapter Forty Two
Chapter Forty Three
Chapter Forty Four
Chapter Forty Five
Chapter Forty Six
Chapter Forty Seven
Chapter Forty Eight
About the Author
By the Same Author
Copyright
About the Publisher

How did it happen? After my accident Alex told everyone that it was entirely his fault I had broken several bones in my foot, but then, like all dancers, Alex craved attention. Despite his perfect technique and marvellous legs, Nature had cruelly contrived to prevent the spotlight shining on him as much as he would have liked. So, to please him, when people asked me if he had been responsible for the near ruination of my career, I would reply with a lift of my eyebrows and a cryptic smile.

It may have been the studio stove that was to blame. It was sulking on that chilly February morning and though I was wearing legwarmers my muscles might have begun to stiffen. But in fact I was practically certain that I had lost concentration in that crucial second before springing into a third
sissone
, one of several in rapid succession, towards the end of Act II of
Giselle
. The lift is not difficult but it is
épaulée
, which means ‘shouldered’ – high, in other words. Obviously it only works properly if Giselle and Albrecht jump and lift at precisely the same moment. I thought I sprang too late, Alex that he lifted too soon. The result was that the
sissone
was clumsy and I landed heavily amid the dust and rosin on the studio floor with all my weight on the side of my foot.

Madame had an eye as sharp as a knapped flint and usually
it flew inexorably to the tiniest error, but on this occasion she was distracted by temper. Orlando Silverbridge, our chief choreographer, had insisted on reviving an
enchaînement
from the original ballet which had been scrapped – and with good reason – from later productions. It was a complicated series of steps weakening the dramatic impact of the pas de deux and demanding more than was kind from the already exhausted dancers.

‘Stop!’ shouted Madame. ‘Zis will not do!
C’est un joli fouillis
. Orlando, listen to me, you crazy
fou!
’ She struck her chest. ‘Either ze
enchaînement
it goes – or I go!’

‘Be reasonable, Etta!’ pleaded the choreographer. Then, seeing her eyes flash, he paled with anger and he too struck his chest. ‘Go, then! It might be that we can manage without you. Yes, go! It will be a breath of fresh air. A new ballet mistress is exactly what this company needs!’


Bête!

‘Has-been!’


Oh!

‘Oh!’

They both prided themselves on being aesthetes with exquisitely tender susceptibilities but at that moment they reminded me of howling monkeys squabbling over the last banana.

Madame threw back her head and hooted mockingly. ‘I see it! I see it! First you will try to take all ze classes your own self and chaos will be ze result! Zen you seek anozzer
maîtresse
de ballet
. Mimi Lambert, per’aps, or zat fool, Popova –
zut!
tais-toi, imbécile!

This last was directed at the pianist, who had continued to play, her eyes fixed dreamily on the racing clouds beyond the window. The pianist stopped abruptly and picked up her knitting. She was used to these rages. Madame clapped her hands. ‘One ’alf-hour for lunch, everyone,’ she called before returning her attention to Orlando, who stood cupping his elbow with one hand, resting his chin on the other, looking gloomy. I saw his face brighten as his eye fell on the sinewy buttocks of Dicky
Weeks. Dicky, who was from New York, had only recently joined the Lenoir Ballet Company but already his elevations were creating something of a stir.

‘You’re limping,’ said Bella in an accusing tone when I joined her at the barre. ‘You came down too hard on that third
sissone
.’ She looked down at my foot in its grubby pink satin shoe, then up at my face. Sweat poured down our foreheads and cheeks and dripped from our chins. Her hair, pulled back and fastened into place by a wide band, was as wet as seal’s fur. A dark triangle ran from neck to waist of her scarlet leotard. We had been friends, on and off, for twelve years, since the day we had arrived with braces, plaits and flustered mothers at Brackenbury House in Manchester to begin the arduous years of training necessary to become dancers. At this moment the friendship was definitely off.

‘No.’ I seized the foot that was beginning to throb and stretched up the adjoining leg so that my knee was close to my ear, just to show her that everything was still in working order.

Bella hooked one heel over the barre and leaned forward to put her chin on her leg so that I could not see the hunger in her eyes. ‘You’d better get some ice on it.’

‘Good luck for this evening, Marigold
dar
ling.’ Lizzie, who had remained a staunch friend despite a stalling of her career due to a wobbly technique and the refusal of her insteps to be sufficiently pliant, put her arms gracefully round my neck. Her fair hair, which escaped her headband to spring into tight ringlets, tickled my cheek. Unlike everyone else in the company, she was not desperately ambitious and was content to remain in the corps de ballet. ‘I’ll hold my thumbs for you. I know you’ll be wonderful.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I’m going to need it.’

‘Bella’s a bitch,’ she whispered in my ear. Lizzie was as violent in her hates as in her loves. ‘Don’t let her jinx things for you.’

‘It’s only a workshop,’ put in Bella, who had no doubt heard the whispering though not what had been said.

‘Ah, tonight, maybe, but on Friday it’s the real thing.’ Lizzie executed a hasty
entrechat quatre
to express her excitement, ‘and I for one can’t wait to see Marigold’s name in lights.’

The workshop was in the nature of a dress rehearsal before an invited audience. Had Lizzie and Bella known it, a very great deal rested on this evening’s performance and now, when I thought about it, my stomach did a
jeté battu
followed by a
ballotté
.

‘Marigold!
Venez ici!
’ Madame was beckoning imperiously. ‘Lizzie! Zat was an
entrechat quatre comme un
poor old cripple woman wiz ze ’ob-nailed boots. Alex, come ’ere also.’

Alex and I skipped across to the spot designated by her pointing finger. I was conscious of pain rippling up from my foot into my ankle.

‘We ’ave decided. At last ze agreement!’ Madame spread her fingers and looked heavenward. From the slam of the studio door as Orlando went out, I guessed that agreement had little to do with it. ‘
Ze enchaînement
we cut!’ She made a slicing movement with her hand. ‘Instead for five bars we ’ave a pause – when you two act like crazy wiz your eyes. It will be
un moment
of consequence ze most dramatic. You express to ze audience all ze love, all ze regret, all ze sorrow …’

Alex’s face obediently mirrored these emotions while Madame talked. I tried not to think about my foot and instead envisaged the apple, cheese and yoghurt that awaited me. I was absolutely starving. After Madame had decided to her own satisfaction how our limbs should be disposed during this pregnant moment of eye-acting, we were free to go.

‘Fancy coming down the Pink Parrot after the performance tonight?’ asked Alex as we made our way down the corridor towards the canteen. ‘It’s Dicky’s birthday and he’s promised to stand us drinks for as long as his grandmother’s cheque holds out.’

‘How kind of him. Yes, I’d love to if—’

A hand gripped my shoulder. ‘Sorry, Alex, but I’ve already
made plans for Marigold.’ Sebastian Lenoir slipped his arm through mine so that he was walking between us. ‘And I’m in a hurry.’

Alex slid away up the stairs to the canteen.

Sebastian was the director of the Lenoir Ballet Company, or the LBC as it was generally called. What he decreed, no one even thought of contradicting. Madame was the only person who from time to time stood up to him, but she always had to admit defeat in the end. Sebastian never raised his voice, but he saw no reason to make concessions to anyone. He would wait patiently, impassive faced, while Madame argued, pleaded and occasionally raved, before lifting and dropping his shoulders – a gesture which seemed to say ‘tiresomely a ballet company
must
have people in it’ – and replying, ‘All right. Now we do as I say.’

In many ways Sebastian was an ideal director. He had trained as a dancer, then worked for ten years as a choreographer, so he had a thorough knowledge of the business. It was largely thanks to Sebastian that we were, in the opinions of those who counted, the third most successful company in England. It was not impossible that we might one day improve our rating. His hair, black with a silver streak, was swept straight back from a high brow that looked noble until you came to know him better. Often people suspected him of dyeing it in emulation of the great Diaghilev but, having had frequent opportunities to examine it close to, I thought it was probably natural, since it never showed signs of growing out. On his handsome sardonic face was usually an expression that could scare you half to death. He certainly frightened me, even though I was beginning to know him quite well. For the last twelve months we had been lovers.

‘Come into my office.’ He steered me through a door into a room that was as elegantly shabby as the rest of the building. The LBC was housed in a row of unrestored Georgian houses in Blackheath. It lacked central heating, but the dancers warmed
themselves by their exertions, and in Sebastian’s office there was a grate where logs burned through the winter. He had hung drawings by Gainsborough, Lawrence and other eighteenth-century luminaries, lent him by an art-dealer friend, on the flaking walls. Curtains of faded green silk hung at the windows. There was about his quarters a rich beauty which was reflected in all his tastes.

Money was the end to which all Sebastian’s efforts were directed. He needed it to entice gifted dancers, choreographers, designers and costumiers. He had to find money for travelling expenses for the touring part of the company, for publicity, for bribes, for paying people off. The acquisition of money was germane to all his decisions. I imagined that he thought of little else by day and probably dreamed about it at night. Yet no one could have accused him of personal extravagance. He wore his father’s old Savile Row suits and ate sparingly unless someone else was paying for it. As he seated himself languidly behind his desk and picked up the mother-of-pearl penknife he used to open letters, he had the negligent air of a country gentleman with comfortable estates and an agent to see to the horrid necessities. He tapped on the mahogany surface before him with the closed knife.

‘I hear Miko Lubikoff is coming to the workshop tonight.’

‘Is he?’ I aimed for something between mild interest and surprise in my tone to disguise the apprehension that seized my innermost parts. Miko Lubikoff was director of the English Ballet, the company whose reputation stood higher than the LBC’s and lower than the Royal Ballet’s. ‘Goodness!’

‘You didn’t know? Everyone else in the company seems well acquainted with the fact. Why should you be an exception, I wonder?’

‘Now I think of it, perhaps Alex did mention …’ I sort of hummed the rest of the sentence away.

‘Alex?’ A slight frown appeared between dark symmetrical brows. ‘Don’t pretend you think Miko is interested in
him
.’

‘Oh,
no!
’ In my eagerness to exonerate Alex I was perhaps too emphatic. ‘I-I mean, perhaps Miko just wants to see what we’re doing – there hasn’t been a new production of
Giselle
for ages … I expect he gets awfully bored with seeing the same old dancers—’

‘Miko does not allow himself to be bored. Nor –’ he sent me a glance that was distinctly unfriendly – ‘do I.’

I folded my hands in my lap and tried to look insouciant, though I was certain that the rapid pulse in the hollow of my throat must be visible from a hundred yards.

He stroked the smooth handle of the knife with long fingers. ‘I suspect he’s coming,’ he put his thumbnail into the slot provided for the purpose and brought out the blade, ‘because of you.’


Me?
I don’t suppose he even knows who I am. I’ve never actually spoken to him.’

‘Oh? Yet Etta tells me that last week there was a letter from Miko in your pigeonhole.’

Damn and blast and hell! It was well-known that Madame, who would have allowed herself to be chopped to atoms for the good of the company, had extraordinary powers of divination and could detect a disloyal thought the moment it sprang newborn, damp with amniotic fluid, into a person’s mind. But presumably she did not have X-ray eyes that could penetrate layers of Basildon Bond.

‘Oh, no! That’s impossible.’

Sebastian speared a paper polo – one those little rings for reinforcing punch holes – with the blade of his knife. ‘Miko’s hand is distinctive. And the green ink, regrettably jejune, is a trademark.’

‘I remember now,’ I blurted out. ‘It was a letter from my aunt!’

I realized at once this was a mistake.

‘Oh? Your aunt?’ He did not bother to hide his scepticism.

I was thoroughly rattled. ‘Yes … she’s a terrific correspondent … she writes every week, sometimes twice … she lives in
the Highlands of Scotland and is awfully lonely, poor old thing … no one to talk to but her old blind collie … you see, she’s in a wheelchair and can’t get out …’ I was supplying too much detail, the common mistake of liars.

‘In that case her letters are unlikely to be franked with an NW3 postmark.’

I felt myself grow cold. Everyone knew the English Ballet had their headquarters in Belsize Park. He smiled, much as a torturer might smile on hearing a bone crack. My entire body tensed in a silent scream, but acting is an important part of a dancer’s bag of tricks, so outwardly I smiled back. He continued to watch my face. The effort required to look innocent and unconcerned was agony. I was on the point of confessing everything and throwing myself on his mercy, if he had any, when he said, ‘Lock the door.’

I leaped up to do his bidding. I had been so distracted by the latent menace in the interview that I was unprepared for the pain that shot from the sole of my foot to my knee. The door fastened with an old-fashioned brass rim lock. It took a little while to persuade the key to turn, which gave me a chance to compose my face. As I walked back to the desk I was relieved to see that a lightning change had taken place. His eyes had lost their coldness, his smile was almost affectionate.

BOOK: Girl's Guide to Kissing Frogs
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