Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


personal 6 min read

I had an average childhood. So did you. Because that’s how it works, isn’t it?

Whatever you grew up with, by definition, was ordinary. It takes years for awareness to set in, when you start to realise that maybe some parts of your experience differed from the average. It takes years more until you get enough perspective to see things objectively.

Let me tell you a little bit about my ordinary.

Above all, no matter what else was going on, there was music. Sometimes the piano, and sometimes recordings. Classical pieces, musical numbers, pop and rock songs, and even nursery rhymes. One after another, for hours each day. The soundtrack of our lives was a literal one.

It was from the school.

Ever since she was a little girl, my mother was a dancer. Ballet, tap, jazz, and more. It was always her one true passion. She danced for the Royal Ballet in London as a girl. I remember seeing the large, framed black-and-white photograph of her, on the wall in my grandmother’s house.

When my mother was sixteen, she opened her own school of dance. Her pupils ranged from three-years-olds right up to adults, and by the time I arrived thirteen years later, the school had found the premises it still occupies today: a part of the house I grew up in.

The pupils have their own entrance, leading into the dressing rooms, and at class time they come up through the house to the dance studio. The only physical intrusion of the school into the rest of the house is about three metres of the corridor leading to the kitchen, which the girls cross to reach the studio, after coming out at the top of the stairs from the dressing rooms. I knew even as a young boy which times to avoid visiting the kitchen, so I wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet of getting past dozens of pupils.

My mother teaches in the evenings, of course, since most of her pupils are at regular school during the day. The earliest classes are at around 3PM on Fridays, for the very youngest children. The last classes finish at 10PM or even later, and the school has always been open four or five nights a week, with various extra classes at the weekend – especially during examinations.

It was all unremarkable to me. I’d be playing, on quiet Saturday afternoons, and would perhaps wander through the house to fetch some toy or other. One of the doors to the dance studio would be ajar, and I’d see my mother in there, reflected infinitely in walls of mirrors, gracefully moving around the space as she choreographed a routine.

She’d pause to cross to her desk and make notes with a pencil in a jotter, then resume movement as if she’d never stopped. Sometimes en pointe, sometimes at one of the barres that ran the length of the room. Shoulders back, eyes lifted, and smile fixed, for an audience that wasn’t there. Sequences of music were played, stopped, rewound and repeated again and again, until the routine was perfect.

She has a teacher’s voice. Loud, sharp, and effortlessly filling any room. Demanding attention, and respect. While she taught, we could hear her from everywhere in the house.

Step, ball-change! Lift your head! Smile!

Her authority was absolute. From the day the school was founded, she was always Miss Ridley. The title didn’t change during her marriage to my father. The school had its own black leotards with her initials monogrammed in pink cursive letters on the left chest. When the day of the annual photo arrived, the entire school would turn out and be lined up on the front steps leading up from the street, to smile for the photographer standing down on the pavement.

Everyone knew her. Any trip to the supermarket involved dozens of brief conversations. And there was always someone that she knew, for any eventuality. Towns are like that anyway, and teaching all of its daughters has a way of connecting you to the social threads of a place. “You’re Miss Ridley’s son” was a common refrain, and I duly smiled and nodded.

She was an examiner, too. Every few weekends she’d get into the car early on a Saturday, and drive somewhere in Scotland to another dance school, to watch their performances and award suitable grades. Merits and Distinctions. She’d usually be back home by dinnertime, and I’d overhear her phone conversations about it with her older sister. More often than not, the central topic was whether the lunch was up to scratch.

Then there were the days when her own pupils were to be examined, and it was another woman who was the exalted Examiner. I got to know them all, over the years. The lunches my mother served to these visiting dignitaries were always excellent. You’d think that all of the teachers would have caught onto that trick.

On those days, the kitchen was out of bounds, because it was used as a makeshift additional dressing room. Hairspray was omnipresent. Girls I knew well, usually confident and giggling about any old thing, were now seized with nervousness; sitting quietly and with large eyes as someone else tucked their hair carefully into a net. The atmosphere must have been highly flammable.

The final event of the year – right around the closing of the academic year, in late June – was the annual dance display. The proceeds have always gone entirely to charity, and the two nights of the show marked the start of the Summer holidays.

So many rituals there, too. Driving to the venue, which changed every few years. Unloading everything: scenery, extra mirrors for dressing rooms, props. Sometimes a plywood palm tree, or an old fashioned wooden washing bucket. A shimmering, gauzy sheet of material to serve as the ocean, or a papier mâché mermaid’s tail.

Canes and top hats. Serving trays with plastic cocktail glasses glued to the the surface. Parasols, or a pram, or an outfit for Santa Claus or even the lion from The Wizard of Oz.

All normal.

Then there were the crates of snacks and soft drinks, for the concession stand that operated during the intervals. I was its shopkeeper for many years, sometimes doing my homework during quiet periods, then putting my books away when the intermission approached. Or sometimes I’d be in the wings at the side of the stage, helping out with something or other; my brother alongside me. Curtains, lights, quick changes of stage scenery – or just making sure that mum had her cups of tea.

This June, she held her 49th consecutive annual show. My wife and I sat in the audience on the final night, and I was transported back to all of those years of my youth. I almost never got to actually watch the recital back then – too much else to do – but it was all just the same as I remember.

The youngest classes, adorably uncoordinated, conspicuously following directions from the side of the stage, with my mother’s voice almost audible over the music. The younger girls – some budding divas and some painfully shy – oh so conscious of the audience. And then the older classes, every bit the athletes and performers under the lights, with a strength and fluid grace that’s otherworldly.

Some of them are the same age as my wife now, and I’ve known them since they were three years old. The same names and faces; old friends from this shared, bizarre enterprise. To them, I’m still Matthew, and though we meet very rarely, there’s an immediate camaraderie, as if we fought some war together, years ago.

My mother taught them all. My mother made them into dancers.

The school has an adult tap class of middle-aged (and older) women now. My mother’s elder sister is part of it, and she performed in several numbers. She’s in her seventies, but other than her hair being fully white, she’s just as she’s always been.

At the climactic segment of a particular – and gentle, of course – routine, my mother came on stage herself this time, and danced for an audience again. It’s not something that she ever did before; the show was always just the pupils. Apparently the adult tap class dared her to make a cameo appearance at her own display, and here during its 49th incarnation, she did. She still has all of the poise and grace that I remember, and the raised eyebrow of stage presence that I can still hear echoing through that house.

She still dances. Classes resume, as ever, in late August, as the school moves into its fiftieth year. She’s been making noises about retirement, but I wonder whether she could really leave it behind. Perhaps take a step back, and let one of the many younger teachers that she’s trained over the years (including my cousin, who qualified just this month) take the reins – but I can’t see her letting it go entirely.

It’s been her life, since long before I existed. She has been, and remains, Miss Ridley – and the school goes on.

I no longer live there, but during term time in the weekday evenings, it’s the same as it ever was. A thunder of feet; shrill laughter; the sharp note of her voice cutting through; a moment of silence… and the music begins.

It was the environment and the life that I was born into – one of leotards and tutus, hair grips and hairspray, floorboards and mirrors and sweat and ballet shoes – and though I’ve never taken a dance class in my life, it remains a part of my identity.

My mother, moving with rhythm and purpose around an endless room, stopping only to jot down a brief note of choreography. Commanding absolute attention and obedience, as she turned awkward, unbalanced, self-conscious young women into creatures whose poise and movement were beautiful to behold. Or indeed standing on stage, microphone in hand, at the end of the final night of a show, thanking a community that knows her well.

It is strange. It’s not what most other people’s mothers do. It’s not the average childhood.

But for my brother and I on the periphery, and for all of the generations of girls who have passed through the school’s doors, there was nothing unusual about it.