“I think you’ll be a writer and a teacher, when you grow up,” said my grandmother, when I was about eleven. To this day, I do not know what made her see that in me. Still, when I got divorced, it made perfect sense – as a teacher and weekend scribbler – to scrap my husband’s surname and, not reprise my maiden name but adopt my grandmother’s. It was my way of thanking her for all the stories with which she nurtured me.
Most of them were fairy tales. Russian fairy tales from the country of her birth, and Armenian tales from the land of her forefathers. They were woven with firebirds, loyal grey wolves, Caucasus beauties bearing a star on their foreheads and a moon crescent in their hair, and enchantresses as knowing as the mountains of Central Asia. I was a lazy reader but a voice telling a story could bewitch me into obeying any order, including eating up my dinner. Eventually, I became my grandmother’s apprentice, making up spells and feats of my own, to tell after dinner.
I had to write down my first story because I could find nobody to listen to it. So my school fountain pen became my voice and the notepad, my audience. I was twelve, and the dream I had been nurturing all my life lay shattered on the winding staircase of a 19th Century building in Southern France.
More than anything else, I wanted to be a dancer. As soon as I could draw, I covered sheets of white paper in figures of ballet dancers. I leaned on the kitchen sink, trying to stand on my toes. I pushed drawing pins into the soles of my shoes, to try and tap like Gene Kelly, on the tiled floor. Dancing made me alive. Our frequent house moves and difficult financial situation prevented me from attending ballet school until, at the age of twelve, I was accepted by the Conservatoire in Nice. I could have danced all over the walls and ceiling, like Fred Astaire. I planned to take the title role in Prokofiev’s Cinderella when I grew up. Every Wednesday, I skipped up the wide staircase of the 19th Cetury building to my class. Every Wednesday, I practised turning out my feet. Until the bone in my arch became swollen and painful. Something was out of sync. My back did not arch as far back as the other girls’, my legs could not kick as high, and my hips refused to remain level. My body could not keep up with my longing to dance. Wednesdays became the days when I was told off by the teacher, whose feet were so distorted by years of ballet, she had trouble walking. Until the Wednesday when she told me not to bother coming back. I walked down the winding staircase expecting, hoping to be swallowed up by it, since I could see nothing ahead. There could be not future without dance. There could be no me.
Next, I sat sobbing my heart out at our kitchen table. A twelve year-old who had lost her life’s purpose. “Never mind,” said my mother – or words to that effect. I felt as though I had been slashed across the chest. I might as well have lost my voice, for all impact I made on other people’s ears. So I took out my ink pen, and wrote it all down – my grief, my anger, my despair – and the notepad listened with empathy. I wrote a story about the ghost of a dancer who haunts the Nice Conservatoire every night, the sound of her weeping echoing throughout its corridors.
That is how, whenever my voice failed me, my pen took over as my spokesman, and when I could find no friend, the notebook became my confidant. In time, I discovered that by writing I could create a world where I felt happier than in the so-called real world. In my written world, I could become myself – free of the constricting boundaries of my physical life. I had always been miserable at school but now I had something to look forward to every afternoon. I would rush back home, put on some music, and start scribbling until I entered a world where anything was possible, and where I could have anything I wanted.
Even three decades later, my writing world feels much more real to me, than the so-called real world. It is the world where all the normally scattered pieces of me come together to form a whole Self, and I feel real.
And the dancing ghost of the Nice Conservatoire still pirouettes up and down the winding staircase, her joyous laughter bouncing off the 19th Century walls.