I met John at the dance summer school. He was standing at the lower set of doors towards the bottom of the hall, half-in, half-out, as if he was hoping to be missed. Cherri was sitting on the empty stage. The other girls had left half an hour ago. When she saw her father, Cherri picked up her yellow rucksack and walked towards us, her chunky pink trainers squeaking on the old lino. The building had once been a theatre and now served as a community centre. As she walked across the hall, I turned to him. Mr Smithley, I said, unable to finish my sentence. I wanted to say that he should have been there earlier. It did something to a child, always waiting for their parents. But he smiled, as though he had been expecting me, not the other way around. I fingered my pendant, readjusted my neckline. I could not tell what he wanted exactly: men were often baffled by my fantastical appearance in a banal environment.
He peered at the name badge pinned on my dress. Vashti, he said. Call me John. He held out his hand and, after a second, I had to withdraw mine because it started burning. So, he said, looking around me but not focusing on anything. What will my daughter learn in the next few months? Barbara’s Premier Touring Dance School Makes Winners in the Essex Region, he read aloud from the promo poster tacked on the wall. Cherri waited, rubbing her itchy-looking ankles together. She looked nothing like John, with her red skin and fuzzy blonde hair. He frowned at her, like she was a fossil in a museum or something else that had once been interesting. The girls learn to dance and sing, I replied. And even if they don’t go on to a career, they leave with our ethos to guide them through life. What’s the ethos? he asked, baring small white teeth. Confidence, composure and commitment, I said. His confrontational manner implied great self-assurance or deep insecurity. I could not yet tell them apart.
Have you had a good time? he asked Cherri. I pretended to inspect my clipboard. Her bobbled ponytail bounced up and down in my peripheral vision. I’d noticed her straight away, with her white eczema gloves and thick glasses. She stood not so far from the other girls that it looked odd, but not so close that it was obvious they were ignoring her. During the breaks, she sat on the stage, looking at her flip phone. None of the other girls had phones. It gave her an air of privilege, along with her expensive professional dance clothes. But the clothes didn’t quite fit, or match, in the same way that her skewed pigtails seemed to have been done absent-mindedly.
Before she could say anything, I put my hand on her shoulder. Cherri is a promising student, I said. I could feel her squinting up at me. John rubbed his neck, in the same way that she did. Well, I told you, he said. Didn’t I say so? For a few seconds we were all connected, with his hand on her other shoulder, Cherri in the middle.
Over the following weeks, I introduced the girls to aspects of my spiritual practice. I drew them into a circle, made them link arms. Shut your eyes, I said. Visualising helps you achieve your innermost desires. I examined each face like a tarot card. There are no longer many respectable jobs where women get paid to dance semi-adequately – time runs out quickly! I said. Where do you want to be when you’re eleven? Think, think! Sometimes a girl whispered, I just want my mum and dad to enjoy it. Is that all? I asked, trying not to look disappointed. Come up with better answers during break. I set the alarm clock on the empty stage, watched them clump into their corners. The hall began to smell of carbonated drinks and beefy crisps, which I had long come to associate with summer afternoons.
My interest in Cherri had grown, but she was suspicious of attention. She had not made any friends since the summer school had started. Even the shy, quiet pupils who were drawn to each other didn’t speak to Cherri. Her selfstyled outfits suggested neither parental devotion nor a compensatory burgeoning teenage sophistication. I was not one of those teachers who oversaw the classroom like an indifferent god. I had derived most of my teaching skills from a self-parenting book. When I looked at a troubled, lonely child, I assumed they had a hidden talent, that they were waiting to be called, just as dancing had called to me. I would like to see you dance, I said to Cherri, whenever she stood apart, shuffling her feet. I emphasised you. Once, she looked at me blankly. I am dancing, she had replied.
I had divided the girls into houses named after inspirational cultural icons. Cherri was in Britney House with Taylor, Manda and Emily, three girls who had been the town’s carnival princesses in successive years. They wore matching dolphin charms which they liked to raise in the air and jangle at the same time. You should be in a different group, I heard Taylor telling Cherri and two other girls, twins with chunky glasses. She made circles around her eyes with her fingers. Taylor was ten, but looked thirteen. She wore belly tops and liked to beat her round, rubbery-looking stomach for her friends’ amusement.
In the third week, each house performed a short sequence that they had devised themselves. Cherri ran on after Taylor and Manda, the pigtails she was too old for beating on either side. She moved like someone in the late stages of needing to pee, flexing her lower half urgently, bent over, her legs stiff as a column. She was unable to keep up with the others, so she had started improvising. The rest of the class were laughing. She carried on, without looking at them. When the twins ran on, Cherri slowed down, her limbs heavy, her face occupied.
I came up behind Cherri while the other girls were changing. Her back twitched but she didn’t turn around. She was sitting on her own, already dressed, her rucksack next to her. It was tough today, wasn’t it? I said. She didn’t reply. I sat down. It took me years to get where I am. And I’m not even qualified yet! Would speaking to your father help? We could all get together, talk about your confidence. She shrugged. You could try. She said it in a disembodied way, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, repeating it with an exaggerated slump of her shoulders.
I had often seen Mr Smithley – or John, as he said to call him – waiting in his car for Cherri. He had never looked across to see me staring. But calling would feel like we were carrying on a conversation, because he had been on my mind since I had first spoken to him, his smile with its even white incisors, and the way my hand burned. After class, I scrolled through the emergency contacts list on my phone. My heart beat faster. My nerves were unexpected. I had to swallow several times for fear that I would run out of air when he answered.
The ringing stopped. John, he said, as though he was going to be the subject of the conversation. It’s Vashti, Cherri’s teacher? Don’t worry, nothing has happened. I feel we need to talk about Cherri’s confidence. Obstinance, he said. Confidence, I repeated. Maybe her mum would want to come along. She died when Cherri was five. I’m so sorry. Is there anyone she might have for feminine guidance? I waited, cupping my mouth. Fiona, my wife. Of four years. But let’s say there are many ways in which a marriage can be over. It’s hard to be on your own, I said, before he had to explain further. You’re very supportive, Vashti. Sometimes the most potentially able students are the least self-assured, I replied. He murmured yes, maybe we could talk about that over dinner. I laughed, because I didn’t want him to think that I was naive. It would be deeply unprofessional of me, I said, thinking of how I had never been so compromised as to say those words before and how I might never be again.