TOM’S STORY (4)
Tom hadn’t wanted to be a footy player. What he had really wanted was to dance. His friends had teased him mercilessly, but he had shrugged off the claims that all male ballet dancers were gay, and that dancing was effeminate. He didn’t care what people thought. He knew he was straight. He had been a good dancer, and when he auditioned for the Victorian College of the Arts, he fully expected to be accepted. The rejection when it came hurt the more.
Ballet is a odd obsession for a Western Suburbs boy. It was a case of love at first sight. The school had an English teacher who felt it his duty to try and broaden the horizons of his charges. Every teacher knows that three-quarters of those they teach are impermeable to knowledge and perhaps also wisdom, and waste their time (and society’s money) at school. It’s the one quarter, or perhaps one tenth, who are affected by their new experiences, whose eyes are opened to the magic of the world. These few make teaching worth it – no teacher could stand their profession otherwise. So although Mr. Martin knew that his little excursions were a waste of time for many of the boys and girls in his English class, he went on having them anyway. He took them to Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, opera, art exhibitions. And ballet.
Tom had been entranced. He had not believed that anything so beautiful had existed in the world, and he told everyone what he thought in the bus on the way back to the school. Even in his early teens, Tom was one of those people who are completely nonconformist but appear to others and themselves as quite conventional. Whatever he did seemed right to others and they followed him. He was a natural leader. But ballet was going too far. Men in tights, their padded dance g-strings making them threateningly well endowed for teenage boys already sick with worry about their sexual natures. Tom had no worries about his sexuality, or about what he was doing. He simply did it.
He took up ballet with enthusiasm. His mother was proud of him, and secretly hoped that he would escape the Western suburbs and get a nice house on the eastern side of the city. She hadn’t managed it, and she wanted her son to. His father, a brickie, thought it a nancy thing, but the boy seemed otherwise reassuringly normal, and Tom begged him with such determination that he agreed, and paid for the lessons.
The second fortuitous event was that Tom found a perfect teacher, a very old Ukrainian.
Olga Nikolaevna Glanova had been born in Kiev in the last golden years before the revolution, at the very end of the fall of the Romanovs, the family that had ruled and misruled Russia for four hundred years. At ten she was accepted into the Bolshoi. In 1927, when she was just seventeen, only a few months before the Stalinist terror began, her parents, seeing how things were likely to end, had quietly and without fuss left Moscow for Paris. Like most of the former aristocracy, they spoke French fluently, though with a slight but unmistakable accent. Paris was the obvious destination.
She was such a brilliant dancer that she was invited to join Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. She had only two years with the company, though they were to influence her style for the rest of her life. Diaghilev died in 1929, and with him died the Ballets Russes, though his ideas lived on through new ballet companies in France, Britain and the US.
As the great crash of October 1929 swept away the brittle successes and excesses of the 1920s, and ushered in two decades of economic and political catastrophe, rôles became harder to find. Her parents died shortly after each other in the early 30s, when she was still in her twenties, at the peak of her dancing career. They left her no money, for there was none. Despite the Great Depression, she still found employment, and she continued to travel the world, and for a while she was principal with Ninette de Valois’ Vic-Wells Ballet, and also with Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. She saw the world – London, Paris, New York, Budapest, Buenos Aires before modern architecture had spoiled it, Australia while it was still white and British and thunderously dull. During the war, she visited South America again, triumphantly toured the US and Canada.
Then, to her own surprise and his, she and an Australian dancer, John Simmonds, fell deeply in love. It was a surprise for John because he hadn’t loved women before. Something about her exotic beauty, the steel underneath her feminine exterior, her charming accent, her unconventionality, captivated him. To her dying day, Olga never knew why she fell in love with John. He was handsome, but so were many dancers, and there were plenty of other men—rich men, industrialists and bankers, counts and dukes—who admired her. He was from a dull country, without much culture, and far, so very far, from Europe. Perhaps it was the fact that he loved her so unreservedly, surprising even himself. Perhaps it was because she knew that she would never be in danger of losing his affections to any other woman. She didn’t mind the occasional man. She had, after all, been in Diaghilev’s old company. To everyone’s astonishment, they went to live in post-war Australia, just starting to be made interesting by the wave of Continental immigrants and refugees, and started to teach ballet. Olga grew to love Australia passionately, to love the sound of the cockatoos and the magpies, the flat vowels of Ozzie diction, the easy-going democratic camaraderie.
When Tom first went to see Olga, John was long dead. But she was very much alive, and ruled the dancing school with the same black walking stick she’d used for nearly forty years. She had raven black hair, with only a few iron streaks in it, and green cat-like eyes, which would switch from spiteful to humorous in a blink. She was a demanding perfectionist, yet her pupils put up with her because she so obviously passionately loved dancing. They were afraid of her, because she was hard to please, but when she did praise, which was rare, they knew that it was merited.
“Well,” she said, haughty and imperious, “and why do you wish to learn ballet?” Even after forty years in Australia, she had an accent, a mixture of her native Ukrainian and her teenage French.
Tom stared at her for a moment. He had read about her, in books from the library. He had wanted her as his teacher. He had chosen her, and made his mother drive them over to this side of the city to see her.
“Will you teach me to dance as beautifully as you did? Like you did with Ninette de Valois?” (He pronounced it wrongly, because he didn’t know any better, and he knew no one who could correct his pronunciation.)
“You haven’t answered my question.” she said, her green eyes sharp, her hands drawing themselves into claws.
“It’s so beautiful,” he said, “It makes me tremble inside.” He looked at her, and his charm, so much more attractive because it was unconscious, made him smile at her, as he asked again, “Will you teach me? You were the world’s greatest dancer. And I want to be too.”
She accepted him, and his tuition began. She was harder on him than the others, because she liked him more. She taught a variation of the Cecchetti method, with strong Russian influences, and within three years he had passed the first six exams with honors.
She expected him to be accepted into the VCA, though secretly she believed she was the superior teacher, and disliked the Royal Academy of Dance techniques that they favored, preferring the more fluid and expressive Russian style. She could not believe it when he was turned down. She was as angry as he, and had an irate phone conversation with the director of the school which ended with her calling him something unforgivable in Ukrainian and French and slamming the phone down.
When Tom came to see her to tell her that he was giving up ballet, she railed against him, her accent stronger than usual. “Why do you give up? They are not the only school!”
“There is no money for another school, Madame. And I will not beg.”
After he left, kissing her on the cheek in farewell, she had a good cry. Despite his grim determination not to, so did he. She kept a scrapbook of all his footy photos and articles till she died.
Tom didn’t dance, or even attend a ballet performance, for more than ten years.
Tom was the classic all rounder, good at everything, sports, academic subjects, arts. When he finished school he got a final score in the top 10% of the population. He could probably have done anything. What he wanted to do was dance. To him, dance seemed to be the solidification, the making physical of what he felt music should look like. When he was rejected by the VCA, he abruptly gave up ballet, and concentrated on footy. Though he never admitted it even to himself, it was the closest thing to ballet he knew of.
By the time he’d finished his first year of uni, he had a contract. Before he knew it, he was rich, and because he still doubted that anything would last, he was careful with money, saving most of his earnings, still driving his old 4-liter 1973 Holden Kingswood, affectionately named “Queen of the Road”, and living in a scrappy flat above a shop in Brunswick. He was a star, and was paid accordingly. He signed lucrative endorsement contracts for undies and swimwear and toothpaste and financial services. He was adored and admired, hero-worshipped by small, and not-so-small boys, propositioned by men and women and girls, eager to share in whatever magic they thought he possessed. He politely rebuffed everybody, convinced that anyone who wanted him had to be flawed in some way.
He’d met Anita at one of the sponsorship cocktail parties. She was a famous model, exquisitely beautiful, an ice maiden, ash blonde, cold blue eyes, perfect body, cool indifference. The indifference had attracted him to her, and her enthusiasm and proficiency in bed had tightened the links. She’d introduced him to dope, then speed and finally coke. They laughed a lot when they were stoned, but sometimes she would lose her temper for no reason, or go into black depressions. She persuaded him to spend some of the hundreds of thousands he’d accumulated, and he bought a house in Melbourne’s most expensive suburb, Toorak, at the bottom of the market in the early nineties. Even after a substantial deposit, he still had half a mill over. The famous Merchant Bank Sehnburgs invested his money well, and it trebled during the share bull market, while the house more than trebled in value in the great boom of the nineties. They bought matching BMW convertibles, for cash.
Yet he wasn’t happy.
Despite all the people they knew, he seemed to have no real friends any more. The guys from school, who had teased him about ballet, dropped away. His new friends came for the parties and the drugs and the sex. As a community icon, Thomas had to be discreet, but that wasn’t too hard. No one really wanted to know about what went on behind closed doors in the Siedentrops’ Toorak mansion. The club and the AFL had media departments to keep bad things out of the news. Rape victims were compensated, provided they dropped charges. Drug use was hidden. Superb players went on playing, no matter how heinous their actions.
It was years before Tom found out that Anita was being unfaithful with a more than couple of the other players on his team. Then it all came out: her schizophrenia had been irreparably worsened by all the drugs. She tried to kill herself twice. There were rumors, but the publicity people from the club kept it as quiet as they could. In the end, the committee called him in for a chat, and his trainer told him obliquely to keep the drugs down. He knew he had been warned, and that if anything went wrong, he would get the push. He was getting old. He was no longer indispensable.
After the grand final win, a tabloid reporter had sneaked his way into the celebratory party and exposed everything in a full page ‘exclusive’ – the drugs, the sex, Anita’s group fuck with two team members other than her husband, the debauchery, the decadence. The scandal caused by this exposé was short-lived. Tom was too popular. But the committee made it clear to Tom that his time with the club was over. It was an easy decision – he would soon be getting too old, anyway. Neither side wanted the public embarrassment and poor publicity, not to mention the financial costs, of a public sacking, so it was discreetly bruited abroad that Tom and Anita had found religion and were starting a family, and that Tom wanted to retire while he was ahead.
In truth, Anita was in a ‘home’, her brain fried by too many drugs taken too often, and Tom was divorcing her. The mansion was up for sale (‘They were moving to a house in the suburbs more suitable for a family’). Half the proceeds were going to her, but he was keeping the share portfolio. The club’s lawyer, who had a soft spot for Tom, had pointed out to Anita that Tom had never been unfaithful to her, while she had slept with half the team, and that she might lose any court battle and end up with nothing. She was in no fit state to argue anyway.
In a way, the knowledge that his team mates had all known about her lusts, and no one had told him, was almost the worst aspect of the whole sordid affair. Every time the team had kissed or hugged each other after a victory, they had known. One of them had probably fucked her that morning, or the night before. Tom had thought that they were his friends. The sudden realization had come to him that he had no friends any more, just hangers-on, groupies, parasites, acquaintances.
Tom had gotten a job at an advertising/PR firm. To his despair, he had no idea what to do, and suspected that it was only a matter of time before he was quietly let go. The last ten years had been footy, fanatically footy, and he had no links outside the sport and its hangers-on, no way to live in the changed world outside his obsession. He felt that he was a failure, that everywhere he went people were either despising him as a drugged up cuckold, or irrationally worshipping him as the greatest footballer ever.
Yet it seemed to him that his achievements were irrelevant now, trophies of a pointless culture, meretricious gewgaws as worthwhile as the plastic trinkets in Christmas crackers. He was a nothing, without a single person who cared for him. He grieved and was angry. But most of all he was depressed.
When his salvation eventually came, it was from a most unlikely source.