Ella sits on a long bench in the dressing room, using a towel to wipe away the sweat that trickles down her neck. She curls and uncurls her toes, stretching them out as far as they will go, counteracting the compression of recent hours spent crammed into pink ballet shoes which lie, ribbons trailing, on the wooden floor.
Raising her left leg, she rests it on her right knee, massages her foot. As her fingers brush against her second toe, she gasps.
The nail is bruised black where pressure has built up as she practised en pointe, carrying out the same routine, time and time again.
Her mobile beeps. Another text from Sonya.
Come out with us tonight? Please? We miss you :-(. Xx
Placing her phone face down on the bench, Ella leans back against the coolness of the plaster wall. She lowers her aching foot to the ground, shuts her eyes, tries to remember how many weeks it is since she saw her friends or paid a visit to the pub.
Her stomach grumbles. Licking her lips, in her sweat she tastes the saltiness of the last fish supper that she ate. Finlay brought it with him when he came to see her after practice months ago. They’d sat on the red-brick wall outside the studio in the evening sunshine, shooting the breeze, eating cod and chips. She’d been 18. She’s 19 now, still practising her plié, leaping, turning, spinning, and Finlay is long gone.
Changing out of her leotard and tights, Ella reaches up behind her, undoes her bun, lets her mousy locks fall free. Slipping on her jeans, edging them over her blackened nail, she zips them up, covers her top half with a wide-necked, sloppy jumper.
Her face contorts as she pulls on her boots, boots with cotton wool rammed deep inside them, cushioning damaged toes from the impact of stiff leather.
She gathers up her kit and stuffs it in her rucksack, slips her shoes into the netting on her bag.
She looks about her. Last to leave. Again.
Nothing if not determined, Ella. So said Jenna Swann, head of dance school.
Opening the studio door, trying not to limp, Ella walks into the jaded, faded light of an October evening.
Dancers don’t let others see their pain.
Jenna’s words pirouetted into Ella’s brain years ago and they dance there now, as if they’ve always had the right to centre stage.
As she walks home across the park, her mobile rings. Sonya’s face lights up on screen. Ella slides her finger, left to right, across the phone.
‘Hi,’ she says. ‘How’s things?’
‘Great! Tell me you’re joining us tonight at Jackson’s Bar. You are, aren’t you, Ella?’
‘I can’t, Sonya. My feet are killing me. I need to soak them.’
In her mind’s eye, Ella pictures puncturing her damaged nail with a needle, squeezing the blood from under it to relieve her pain.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, hearing Sonya’s silent disappointment.
It’s at that moment that she sees them. Red wellies, toddler-sized, all on their ownsome, standing side-by-side, at the edge of the path. There’s no-one else around. Just her. Just her and the welly boots. She picks one up. It has a note inside it.
‘Got to go, Sonya,’ she says. ‘Have fun.’
Pulling out the paper, she unfolds it.
Outgrown by Jonathan, she reads. Yours for the taking.
Ella swings her backpack from her shoulder, frees her dance shoes from the netting. She studies them for one short moment, sets them down beside the welly boots. Smiling, she turns round, heads to Jackson’s Bar.
The next morning, in low sunshine, Ella hurries down the parkland path. The boots have disappeared but her shoes are where she left them. Her body casts long shadows across their soft pink satin sheen.
She bends down. Reclaims her footwear. To the studio. She continues on her way.
Gina Headden is a writer based in Scotland. You can find her on Twitter here.