Mornings are grey in this terraced house. They're always cold too, unless it's the depths of summer in which case it's sticky hot and the walls seem like they're going to melt with the heat and the sweat. But it's not the depths of summer at the moment, it's November, and one of the greyest and coldest days I can remember. Then again, that might just be because I'm experiencing it right now, stood out on the threadbare landing carpet in my holey pyjama bottoms.
"Hurry up!" I yell through the door of the bathroom, bashing on it with one hand. The other hand is preoccupied with the first cigarette of the day and I jam it between my lips in order to intensify my banging with both hands. A string of muffled expletives comes out of the bathroom. It's Alex, my best friend. A few seconds later, a high pitched giggle floats through the scratched white door as well. I scrunch my nose up in disgust. That's not Alex.
"He's got a girl in there!" I exclaim incredulously around my cigarette to whoever is in the vicinity, which is Harriet. She peers at me over the top of her steaming coffee mug and rolls her eyes, clearly not as incensed as I am. As if to prove my point, another giggle comes from inside the bathroom.
"He's going to be late." I add petulantly, flicking ash onto the carpet. A brief look of disproval flickers across Harriet's face then disappears.
"I'll have a word with him later, Abbie," she placates me half-heartedly, and continues down the stairs to our tiny kitchen. I slam on the door one more time with both raw hands, swear as my cigarette reaches the filter and burns my lips, and follow her down the stairs sulkily.
"Toast?" she asks.
"No." I reply shortly, stubbing my cigarette out in the plate that serves as an ashtray and throwing myself into one of the cheap wooden chairs. The dirty washing pile has grown too big for the side and has extended onto the table. I angrily shove a pile of plates away from me and put my elbows on the table where they were, my head in my hands. Harriet picks up the plates and starts to wash up while she waits for her toast. A silence falls over us and I can still heat that infuriating giggling, which quickly escalates to shrieking.
"You should just get dressed and go," Harriet tells me gently as it becomes apparent that I'm in the kitchen for no other reason but to sulk.
I shouldn't have smoked so early; my head is aching and my throat feels dry. I don't feel up to moving to I just shrug at Harriet. I want to apologise for my mood, I really do, but it feels like irritation has taken the form of a ball of cotton wool, blocking my throat and rendering me incapable of saying anything pleasant. She is, luckily, more than used to my moods and ignores me, continuing with her neat toast making procedure.
Eventually I hear Alex and his slag leave the bathroom and I hastily head to my downstairs room so I don't have to see them come through the kitchen into the room opposite mine. The giggling still hasn't stopped and it's not helping my headache. I change from my scruffy pyjamas into a leotard and a pair of trackies. I'm pretty sure they belong to Alex by the way they hang off my hips, so I pull the drawstrings as tight as they will go and knot them fiercely. They're cutting into me now, but it's nothing compared to the aching in my head and throat, and judging by the size of the dirty washing pile in the corner I don't have anything clean anyway. I shove my hair up in a bun only just neat enough to be passable and pull a thick hoodie over my head, also Alex's.
As I'm heading out the door Harriet shouts after me and shoves a Co-op plastic bag into my hand. She's made me lunch, and I try to force my face into a softer expression as I mutter a thank-you. I know I haven't succeeded when she cracks a resigned smile and retreats back into the house. Guilt twists in my stomach as I jam the bag into my big rehearsal bag that cuts into my shoulder. Harriet is the embodiment of goodness, always calm, always pleasant, always looking out for us. It makes it even worse that she's injured right now, and must resent us all for being able to dance, but she would never show it. She also accepts mine and Alex's complicated relationship at face value, making the most of the times when we're talking and never asking questions after the fights which everyone in the house can hear. It's more respect than we deserve.
When I reach the studios, they are bustling. Today is castings for the new ballet, so the whole company will be here. As I enter the building and pass reception to head up a set of stairs towards the big studio reserved for warm ups, I hear a familiar voice behind me calling my name and a second later, Eddie falls into step with me. His hair is so blatantly all over the place that I figure he must have fixed it like that on purpose, and his t-shirt is crumpled and grubby. Dots of blonde stubble stick out on his square jaw and he grins at me with tired, slightly blood-shot blue eyes. He is the fourth person I live with.
"You look terrible." I tell him truthfully. His grin widens as if that's exactly what he wanted to hear.
"Well, I didn't get much sleep last night, did I? That Maria is a tiger when it comes to the bedroom, honestly-,"
"Shut up." I cut him off flatly, realising now that he actually did want someone to notice how bad he looks so he can bore them with stories about his sex life. Eddie rarely spends his nights alone. We enter the studio and I follow Ed across to the far corner, slinging my bag down. He retrieves a 2 litre bottle of water from his drawstring bag and gulps from it uninhibitedly whilst I try to decide whether to bring up the morning's events with him.
"Alex brought a girl home last night." I blurt suddenly, turning to him. I expect he already knows and the smirk on his face confirms this.
"Yeah. Man, she was hot. I don't know how he does it. He's not on the hunt all that often but when he is he never fails to bring home a good catch."
I roll my eyes, but press on. "They were in the shower together this morning. This morning, when I was trying to clean my teeth! That's unacceptable, isn't it? You would never do that."
I know I'm talking to the wrong person about this, but it makes me even angrier when Eddie bursts out laughing, startlingly loudly. People are staring. Eventually he gets control of himself.
"Oh Abbie. If I could ever convince a girl that the first thing she wants in the morning is a shower with me I would not hesitate. Believe you me."
I growl an expletive at him and turn my back, becoming fascinated with organising my bag, too annoyed to care how childish I look. I can almost hear Harriet telling me I was stupid for telling Eddie about this in the first place. I can actually hear Eddie muttering under his breath in amusement about showers and sex. He is still chuckling to himself when head teachers, Phil and Caroline enter the room, followed by two strangers. An immediate hush falls over the assembled dancers.
"Morning everyone," Caroline begins, surveying us all with her cold, grey eyes. She is tiny and blonde, but not in a good way; she's all sharp edges and hard muscle. She doesn't like any of us, but especially dislikes young chorus dancers that haven't had a chance to prove themselves yet. I fall well into this category.
"This is Steven Rivers and this is his assistant Jay Slocombe. As you're all probably aware, Mr Rivers is choreographing our next show." I vaguely recognise Rivers now, as a face I've seen in a program when I was at school and in a position to go to the theatre. I hear the words 'best contemporary choreographer in Europe' amongst the ripple of interest that spreads around the room. I keep my eyes firmly turned away from Ed so he won't try to talk to me. Phil clears his throat and silence falls again.
"The drill is the same as usual ladies and gents. Everything you do today will be observed by us and our guests. We will warm up and run exercises this morning, and this afternoon Mikael and Jay will be teaching you an extract from the show, and we'll make our decisions from there."
Everyone slopes into the middle of the room, hanging back. We all know there's no point wearing yourself out in the morning, when you need to be able to consistently learn and perform to a high standard in the afternoon. The aches in my limbs disappear slowly as Phil begins the warm-up, and my body goes through the motions that it's so used to doing. I am able, for the first time this morning, to overcome my irritation at Alex and sort through my thoughts rationally.
Alex had a girl back last night, from where I don't know. He'd gone out for a few drinks with his mates and must have picked her up from some bar in town. This morning they had evidently got carried away in the bathroom and now he's absent, presumably still messing around with his catch. I wasn't jealous. Me and Alex are many things to each other, but we most definitely aren't lovers. At this point Caroline breaks my thought process. She has been working her way down the line, correcting and admonishing.
"Come on, Stokes, remember your hands!" She scolds, thankfully only loud enough for those immediately next to me to hear. Despite this I feel myself flush slightly; straightening my fingers out from the ugly claws they mould themselves into when I don't concentrate. Caroline nods in satisfaction and moves on.
It's not until we're doing stretches that Alex arrives, and I'm sat with my legs straight out in front of me and my body laid over them so I don't notice until Caroline kicks off.
"And what have you two been doing until this hour?" she asks icily, her voice laced with sarcasm. My head snaps up. Two? Something inside me twists with irritation when I see Alex stood there with a petite blonde girl, presumably the one that was giggling away in my shower this morning. She's called Lily, a chorus member with poor prospects for ever progressing, but that's all I know about her. At least she has the grace to look embarrassed. Alex looks livid, and I know that he's angry at himself. This will look terrible on castings day.
"Late night was it? Or early morning?" Caroline continues. Behaviour like this isn't tolerated and Caroline can't let it go without making an issue of it. "In fact, you know what, I don't care. I get paid the same whether you two rabbits are at my class or not. But I'll tell you who will care. Mr Simmons will probably care a whole lot that two of his dancers aren't attending classes. You'd better go explain to him why you were late."
Eddie catches my eye, his eyebrows raised in an expression of surprise. Although it seems good karma that me not being able to clean my teeth has equated to them being sent to the director's office, I agree with Ed that it's a little harsh. People are late all the time.
Alex and Lily leave the room and the murmurings of talk begin amongst everyone. No one is stretching anymore. Eddie opens his mouth to whisper something to me, but Caroline gets there first.
"Enough talking! Why aren't you stretching? You're not here to sit and gawp, are you?"
Admittedly, we're not, so everyone gets on with it. I stretch extra hard to try and forget about what's happening to Alex in the director's office.