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Two Rooms by Derbhile Graham

Article by Derbhile Graham ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: ).
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In the ballet studio, there were two rooms. The blue room, where we ticked a box. And the brown room, which made me pray for my mother to be late.

Every Wednesday, I paid a visit to the two rooms, at the top of a set of creaking wooden steps. Wednesday was blue leotard day, the midpoint in my weekly whirl of activities.

The Growing Up in Ireland study made the breathless discovery that today’s nine year olds do a lot of after school activities. But growing up in the 1980s, my own after-school hours were just as action packed.

The blue room claimed most of our time. We formed straggled, shivering lines, as cold air swirled through cracks in the high windows. White tights masked our mottled legs, offering a thin layer of protection. The arched blue ceiling framed the darker blue of our leotards, with their self-conscious frills at the end. Our hair burrowed under thick hairnets; wide blue bands puckered the skin on our foreheads. Our soft black shoes went phat, phat, phat on the scored wooden floor. Miss Quinn, our teacher, reigned supreme at the top of the room. She was encased in black, her corkscrew curls lacquered into place. A piece of invisible elastic pulled her upwards. Her whip-straight mouth rapped out commands, Good Feet, Bad Feet. Plie. Demi Plie. Her Cork origins were submerged under layers of blinis and borscht.Read More

As we gurned through the exercises, a wispy figure plonked out an accompaniment on the black piano in the corner, the thumping beats a world away from Tchaikovsky’s delicate melodies. I stood among the little sprites at the front, trying to coax my lumpen limbs to follow Miss Quinn’s commands. Behind me were rows of tall girls with hair made for buns, a sea of Clarissas and Hydes. Their long legs formed graceful shapes, mini-Pavlovas in the making. At last, it was time to utter the magic words that secured our release, ThankyouMissQuinn, ThankyouMrsCarroll. The brown room waited with open arms and I dived into its warm embrace, breathing in the smell of skin and damp wool. A scrum of bodies gathered around the coat rack which formed a pyramid in the centre of the room. It sucked up all the space around it, its black legs spread-eagled across the chapped floor.

I took my usual spot by the door and yanked off my clothes, greedy for whatever morsels of time I could salvage. It was hard to know what colour the brown room’s walls actually were; it was the scratched wooden shelves that gave it the feeling of brown. The shelves were laden with boxes, which bulged with unidentified treasures. Behind me, a stack of girls’ comics beckoned. For a few blissful seconds, they drowned out the clamour of high-pitched voices.

Three ladies wafted through the room, parting the crowds. Their soft voices swaddled us. They patted away tears, shared a joke, smoothed stubborn clothing into submission. They swathed themselves in mauve and brown, walked with an air of tweed and pearls. Mrs Asame, Mrs Fleming, Mrs Brown, a holy Trinity of gentility.

After my quick read, I plunged back into the throng, drawn by the magnetic pull of the table in the corner. The table was a pleasure dome, with colouring books, paper for drawing and a rainbow of markers and colouring pencils. Beside me, a girl filled in the sky. I was mesmerised at her ability to keep the marker.

The table also served as a homework station, letting me snatch time from the jaws of the homework monster. I took out my Irish book. ‘That’s the same one as ours,’ said a girl beside me. ‘But we’re way ahead of you.’ I didn’t care. I was entranced by the idea that we were fellow soldiers, enduring the same dreary dirges about Niamh and Pol.

The blue room strove to mould us. It was a place where we followed rules and we did what we were told. In the brown room, we were free to laugh, to yell, to read, to draw. It held us in its womb, giving us space to grow. Little wonder then, that I prayed for my mother to be late.

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(c) Derbhile Graham October 2012

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