New Scotland Street Chapter 17: A worrying prospect

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With her changed hours, Big Lou was able to collect Finlay at four-thirty from his after-school club and take him directly to his ballet class in St Stephen Street.

This class took place in a converted church, now a yoga and dance studio, where an instructor, a woman in her thirties, who wore her hair tied back, almost painfully so, in the manner of ballet dancers, coached children through the grammar of dance, the ballet positions that they would practise repetitively day after day. A dapper pianist, seated at an old upright, played medleys with the beat of which the pupils synchronised, like marionettes, their movements – their pliés, tendus and so on – at the barre.

Big Lou had expected Finlay to lose interest after a few lessons as his teacher at Flora Stevenson, in her last report, had mentioned a lack of persistence. The novelty of ballet lessons, she felt, with all their demands, would soon pall, particularly since he was the only boy in the class of ten. That this had not happened after five lessons caused her mild surprise; that it had not happened after twelve was even more significant.

“You’re really enjoying ballet, aren’t you, Wee Moupie?” she said one evening as she walked him back to the flat in Canonmills.

Finlay nodded. “Yes, Lou. I really like it.”

“So I see.”

He was silent for a while. They were now rounding the corner at the old St Stephen’s Church, where the road dipped down towards Fettes Row. She looked down at him as he walked beside her. His hand, still damp after the exertions of the lesson, clasped her own hand so tightly. It was so small, and yet he held onto her so – perhaps because he was frightened of losing her, as he had lost other things in his life.

“I’m always going to look after you, Wee Moupie,” she said, her voice lowered, as if she were telling him a secret. She did not know why she should suddenly say that, but she said it nonetheless.

“Thanks.” His voice was almost inaudible, but he said, “Thanks.” Then he went on, “She says I’m really good at it.”

“She?” asked Big Lou. “She who?”

“Her,” said Finlay. “The ballet teacher. Miss Murray.”

“She said that, did she?”

“Yes, she said that she’s going to talk to you about it. She said I can really dance.”

Big Lou smiled. “Well, that’s good to know.”

And the following Friday, when Big Lou went to collect Finlay, Miss Murray indicated that she wanted to speak to her. “You sit down over there, Finlay, while I speak to Mummy about something.”

Big Lou said, “I’m not actually his mother. I’m a foster parent.”

Miss Murray frowned. “I’m sorry. It’s just that …”

“It makes no difference,” said Big Lou. “I just thought you should know.”

“Thanks. And of course it makes no difference.” Miss Murray paused. “Well, maybe it does.”

Big Lou looked surprised. “In what way?” she asked.

Miss Murray led Lou over to the other side of the studio, where there were two bent-pine chairs, both uncomfortable-looking. “I’m sorry we don’t have anything better,” she apologised. “We use as much of the space as possible for the actual classes.”

As she sat down, Big Lou looked at the wall behind her. A framed photograph showed several adults – the studio’s staff, by the look of things – standing to the side of a small group of young girls, one of whom was proudly holding a trophy. Next to that photograph, in a cheap gilt frame, was a black and white photographic studio portrait of a male dancer, wide-eyed, with high cheekbones; a Slavic face, thought Big Lou. At the foot of the photograph was an indecipherable signature, scrawled in fading ink.

“I’ll come straight to the point,” said Miss Murray. “Your wee boy, Finlay, is … Well, I don’t know any other word for it – he’s exceptional.”

Big Lou said nothing. She waited for the teacher to continue.

“No, I mean it,” Miss Murray continued. “I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. He’s the most gifted pupil I’ve ever had. Ever. In eight years of teaching here.”

Big Lou laughed. “Well, who would have thought?”

“Yes, who would have thought? I suppose that’s what everybody says when they come across something that they really weren’t prepared for. And I wasn’t prepared for this. He’s a bit of a prodigy, I think.”

“You mean …”

Miss Murray sounded even more convinced. “Yes, a prodigy. He’s just got it … in him. It’s there, in him. He dances like an angel.”

Big Lou smiled. “He’s a great wee boy.”

“Oh, he’s that all right,” Miss Murray agreed. “But this boy, Mrs …”

“Call me Big Lou. Everybody does.”

Miss Murray blushed. “Lou?”

“If that’s what you want. Other call be Big Lou – it’s my name, you see.”

Miss Murray thought she could never use such a ridiculous name. She could not.

“The point is, Lou,” she said, “is that we need to get Finlay to a ballet school. Or you could consider it. I’d just like to get that possibility onto the table.”

“But he is at ballet school,” said Big Lou. “He comes here – to you.”

Miss Murray shook her head. “No, I don’t mean that. I mean a proper, full-time ballet school. There are places, you know, where they take children and school them while at the same time giving them all the tuition they need to dance.”

Big Lou’s gaze returned to the photograph of the male ballet dancer. “Aye, I’ve heard of those places.”

“Well, I think he could get in. He would have to audition, of course, and he might not get a place, although I’m pretty sure he would.” She paused. “I don’t see how they could refuse somebody like him. He really is …” She searched for the right word, and decided on special.

Big Lou was silent for a few moments. Then she said, “But have we got one of these schools in Edinburgh?”

Miss Murray shook her head. “No, we haven’t – unfortunately. I wish we did.”

“So …”

“No, don’t worry,” said Miss Murray. “These places are boarding schools. The children go and stay there.”

Big Lou averted her gaze. The little boy whom she had at long last found, would be taken away from her. How could she even consider such a proposition?

Miss Murray was staring at her. “Well?”

“I’ll think,” said Big Lou.