Swifty Appledoe embarks on a new mission: to become just like the most annoyingly perfect girl in school
This is the first installation of a novella that we will be publishing in three parts in the April, May, and June 2021 issues of Stone Soup.
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
“And that’s exactly why you should try Milky’s chocolate ice cream!” I conclude, bowing as my excited audience showers me in a standing ovation.
It’s Saturday night, and my parents are sitting on our squishy velvet sofa, watching me rehearse for the big advertisement audition coming up in a month-and-a-half’s time.
It’s important that an actress is very prepared because, as they say, the show must go on.
The TV is blaring softly behind me, showering me in a spotlight effect and bathing the living room in a cool glow.
If I look down, I can see the glassy surface of the coffee table covered in a sea of audition papers, a lone clipboard floating at the surface.
You see, when I grow older I want to become a famous actress. I want to go to the Oscars and win incredible awards, go to the Met Gala and wear a spontaneous-but-stunning outfit, pose and give daring looks to the press as they photograph me, live in a massive—
I can suddenly hear the familiar sound of the Candyland theme song. Obviously an ad break.
The actors’ voices start moaning sorrowfully from the TV. I know what they’re going to say. I auditioned for this ad but didn’t get in.
“Oh no!” a woman cries. “My cat ate my pet bird!”
“Come on!” an old man wails. “My walking stick snapped!”
“Whaahhhh!” A stereotypically bratty toddler, wearing one of those caps with propellers on, shrieks like a hawk. “My cart broke!”
“Don’t worry,” a familiarly dainty voice serenely assures. “I’ll take you to Candyland, where all of your dreams will come true.”
In fact, this voice is very familiar. I spin around and stare in utter horror at the TV screen.
A young girl around my age is dressed in a poofy, light-pink fairy costume, a sparkly rainbow belt slapped around her waist. The sleeves of the dress are Cinderella-like, and when you look at her feet, they have been slipped into slim silver high heels. Rainbow ombré fairy wings hide under golden locks of silky hair. She clutches a candy cane wand. But the one thing that stands out to me the most is the rosy, pale complexion of none other than Stella Chichester- Clark.
My mouth hangs open like a door on loose hinges as I gape in envy and anger.
The rest of the ad passes by. The woman adopts a candy bird made out of pink marshmallows. The old man is gifted a candy cane walking stick. Mint-flavored. And the bratty young boy is presented with a candy cart with lollipop wheels. I don’t pay much attention otherwise.
Once it has finished, I slowly turn back around to face my parents. They stare at me with sympathetic grimaces.
I can feel jealousy and hate crackling like fire in the center of my torso. Flames shoot through my veins, heating up my body. My head hurts— it feels like a grand piano has fallen from the sky, landed on top of it, and then exploded. My throat tightens. I can’t breathe normally. Something’s rising up in my throat. What is happening to me? Am I a dragon in disguise?
“AAAAAAAAHHHH!” I scream to whatever deity is listening. Maybe the stupid universe can take yet another hint. “AAAAAAAAAAAHHH!”
Then, without thinking, I slam my right hand down onto the coffee table. A sickening crack from the clipboard startles me, but I continue. I swipe at all my audition papers and they soar into the air, fluttering to the carpeted floor.
“Zendaya Appledoe! Stop right there!” my mother gasps in anger.
I stamp, stamp, stamp at the papers, tearing a few pages into shreds. I don’t care what happens to them. My life is over once again.
I slump to the floor. My breathing is ragged and sharp. It feels like I’m sucking in spears.
Strong arms hold me close. I sob into my dad’s shirt. My mum comes over and joins the hug.
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” my mother’s voice says.
“Listen, you have so many talents that this Stella doesn’t have,” my dad reassures me.
I don’t bother to correct him. Stella is perfect at everything—from appearance and clothes to grades and sports, singing and dancing, acting and making friends. She’s annoyingly amazing.
I once heard a rumor that she said her first word only a few weeks after she was born. Adding onto that, her first word was “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” a word that appears in one of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s probably true because she also won the Year Eight Spelling Bee at the age of three. I didn’t speak until I was four.
My parents guide me upstairs to bed. A sense of calm has somehow overcome me. It was probably my overdramatic tantrum that did it.
The last thing that I see before I drift off to sleep is Stella dressed in a fairy costume, waving a candy cane wand mockingly at my face.
The rest of the weekend passes by in dull form. My mind rages with fury at the ad that Stella appeared in.
Finally, but unfortunately, it is Monday. A school day.
When I arrive at school, I can see at least twenty kids outside the main brick building crowding around someone, probably Stella. A few of them walk away every now and then, clutching notebooks and grinning like crazy.
For every one person that leaves, at least three others eagerly join. I gaze in envy.
Soon enough, the large crowd starts heading up the steps to class chattering away, swarming the building like a plague of locusts.
When I walk into class, the bright morning sun is shining through broad windows. Human-shaped silhouettes contrast with the sun’s gaze. I shift my focus and sigh grumpily.
There are about half as many people as there were outside, but there are still many jabbering in front of the dozens of bright art projects haphazardly stapled onto the maroon carpeted walls, each with sets of uniquely untidy colored words to label the sections.
Desks are set up in beige clusters, a few at the front in a row.
“Excuse me,” I grunt, maneuvering myself through the crowd to my desk. I feel squished.
My desk, as karma would have it, is right next to Stella’s. I don’t know what I did wrong to get on its bad side, but whatever it was, it must’ve been pretty dreadful.
A sporty-looking boy who I think is called Taj leans right on the surface of the tabletop; it nearly topples over. One of the thin, cuboid-like legs scrapes against my left leg as it leans over, leaving a pink mark.
“Hey!” I snap, and he quickly stands up straight, hastily brushing the area that he’d planted himself on.
The crowd eventually subsides, but it’s because Stella’s posse has strutted into class.
“OMG!” Karen, Stella’s copycat, squeals. “I totally saw you last night on TV and you were Ah! May! Zing!”
“I agree,” Brooke, her most loyal friend—and also my archnemesis since Year Four—says casually. “I couldn’t take my eyes off you.”
I can’t help but agree with her, although most definitely for a different reason.
Karen fiddles with her short hair, ironically cut into a bob.
Brooke swishes her long black glossy ponytail, millimeters from my eyeballs as Stella gossips to them about all the behind-the-scenes work.
“Excuse me, but your ponytail nearly went into my eyes.” I regretfully notify her. Oh no.
She turns around, slapping Karen with her silky mane. Karen blinks her eyes, stupefied.
“So? Suck it up.” Her eyes pierce into mine. I shyly glance away.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel super happy for Stella, but just very, very, very deep down. And by deep down, I mean deep down.
“Brooke, you hit Karen by accident,” Stella informs Brooke delicately.
“Oh, sorry,” Brooke says thoughtfully.
Hang on. How is it okay that when I tell Brooke the same thing, she gets mad, but when Stella says the same thing, she’s fine with it?
Just as I begin contemplating it, my teacher, Mrs. Mulberry, breezes into the room.
She’s wearing a black T-shirt tucked into a silky skirt with a wave pattern printed on it. Her hazel-brown hair is tied up into a loose bun, secured by a silver scrunchie. A few wisps of hair rest on the edges of her magenta rectangular glasses, framing her deep green eyes.
“Good morning, everyone!” She claps her hands.
“Good morning, Mrs. Mulberry!” the class replies in a hilarious disunity.
“Now,” she says. “Have any of you heard of Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Aniston, or Kristen Bell?” Of course everyone in class raises their hands, including me. I’m not too sure, but I think I know where this is going.
“Good!” Mrs. Mulberry smiles. “As you will all know, they are great actresses, and makers of change. And I do believe that we have a future Lily James on our hands.” Mrs. Mulberry stares each one of us in the eye, holding an extra-long gaze on Stella.
“As you will know, last night Stella was the star character on the newest Candyland advertisement. I would like everyone to come up and shake her hand. Stella, please come up to the front of the classroom.”
Stella swishes up to the front, her golden hair contrasting against the black chalkboard hung up next to the blank whiteboard.
Mrs. Mulberry calls our names, one by one, marking off the roll. I guess she’s killing two birds with one stone.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel super happy for Stella, but just very, very, very deep down. And by deep down, I mean deep down.
Every ad I’ve tried out for, Stella has always beat me to it. Every A I’ve gotten, Stella has topped with A++++’s. She has been handed trophy after trophy every year; she wins at least half of the school awards each year, including Student of the Year. They can’t give her all of them—but the other half go to the other popular kids anyway.
I don’t know when my jealousy of Stella started, but once she started being perfect, the teachers turned a blind eye to her annoyingness. In their eyes, the rest of the class was barely even there anymore.
When it’s my turn to go shake her hand, I get out of my seat as quickly as possible. Best to get it over and done with.
I go up to her and shake her hand rapidly, staring down at her classy silver shoes, the same ones from the ad last night. I glance quickly into her eyes, channeling as much annoyance as possible. She just smiles like a hyena about to eat its first meal in a week.
I internally shudder and walk back to my seat, slumping so I can barely see Mrs. Mulberry as she spiels about how we should all try tons of new things this year because there are the Student of the Year Awards at the end of it, blah, blah, blah, so we can be just like Stella, and what a great student Stella is and how hard she works and—
Just like Stella?
If I try to be just like Stella, I can be awesome. I can win awards and have loads of friends, do whatever I want and most importantly . . . beat her.
How have I never thought of this before? It’s a genius idea.
If I want to become just like her, I’ll need to start right now. Take small steps to make a big change.
I mean, it can’t be too hard, can it? I can do this.
I know I can.
Stella plays the violin. I know so because she does a solo performance sometimes at the weekly school assemblies.
So at dinner, I ask my parents a question. This is the start of the first stepping-stone.
“Mum, Dad, can I learn to play the violin?” They give each other confused glances.
“Umm, Swifty, remember that one time you wanted to play the tuba? And how that turned out?” My mum smiles uncertainly.
I sigh as I remember what happened. On the night of the school performance, my lips got stuck in the blowhole of the tuba, and as I was trying to get them out with my hands, I nearly severed my pinky finger off. It actually had to be amputated, which is why I have a scarred stump in the place of the tip of that finger.
So . . . I’m accident prone.
But violins are okay. I mean, of course you have to be careful with the strings, but otherwise they should be fine. Right?
“Mum, I’ll be fine with the violin. It doesn’t even have a hole!” I moan.
“Okay . . .” She glances again at my dad.
He shrugs, as if to say, “Don’t look at me.”
“Well, I guess we could sign you up for some classes. How about tomorrow we have a look at places where you can take them?”
“I already know where I want to go!” I reply. “Dux Orchestral Academy!”
I overheard Stella saying that she goes there for classes. The prices are apparently fairly cheap.
“Sure, if you want,” my mum says.
Mr. Cello (yes, that is his actual name) sits uncomfortably close to me on a small stool. He’s guiding my violin bow quite forcefully. I wouldn’t be surprised if the strings snapped. Maybe they could snap him instead of me.
“Now, Swishy—” he mumbles from underneath his tangled Santa Claus beard, which covers his beige tweed suit. It looks like his beard is eating him alive. His beetle-like eyes poke out from underneath thick-rimmed spectacles.
“Swifty,” I correct him, putting extra emphasis on the “fty.”
Mr. Cello gives me a dark stare, his eyes piercing deep into mine.
“Slicky, it’s rude to talk back to an adult. Haven’t your parents taught you that?”
“Yes,” I mutter. It’s obvious I should just agree with whatever he says; me correcting him won’t make a difference.
“Anyway,” he continues. “From what I’ve seen so far, your violin playing is very . . . harsh.” Mr. Cello pauses. I can tell he’s trying to think over carefully what he wants to say. I don’t care how insensitive he sounds as long as I’m better than Stella at this.
“You need to stroke your bow against the strings firmly but gracefully, the way a swan glides through the water. Otherwise you won’t be able to make it to the show.”
My attention snaps into focus.
“What show?” I ask, blinking nervously.
“The annual concerta, of course. It’s only a few weeks away. It is compulsory that all students attend, unless you have appendicitis or something like that.”
“When-when is it?” I stutter. Why am I getting so nervous?
“Three weeks’ time.” Mr. Cello replies.
Barbecued sausages! I have barely any time!
“I don’t normally let my students do this, but the class ends in five minutes. Take the violin home with you and work on this pattern. It’s the foundation for your piece for the night. But for now, play it one more time.”
I grip the bow tight, despite Mr. Cello’s previous advice. Gentle but firm. Gentle but firm. I stroke the bow against the strings, conjuring the feeling of a swan swimming across a shiny, glistening lake. A grating, barbarous sound brings me back to my senses. It sounds like nails on a chalkboard.
I shudder anxiously and close my eyes, slowly lifting one lid only to see Mr. Cello wince. I try again. SHRRRRIIIIEEEKKK.
“Stop!” he yells uproariously, before I can go any further. “Class is dismissed! Now go home and practice. Half an hour every day. I pity your neighbors.”
I feel a burning shame creep into my head, even though I thought earlier that I didn’t care how he delivered his advice. I hurriedly pack up the rented violin, bow, and my new music book and place them into my case, gently slipping that deep into my backpack.
I dolefully open the door, only to be met with the sympathetic face of Stella Chichester-Clark. She’s wearing an ironed white blouse tucked into a knee-length black pencil skirt. Her shoes are the kind a child princess would wear: polished black leather with thin buckles. I spot her mother— who surprisingly looks like an older version of Stella—leaning against a burgundy wall wearing running shorts and a very stylish cream-colored fluffy jumper.
“Hey, Swifty!” Stella grins pityingly. “Sounds like you had a rough first class.”
Okay, Swifty. Just breathe. Make small talk. Very small talk. And then leave. Fast.
“Umm. Hi, Stella. Fancy seeing you here,” I say bashfully.
“I take classes here, silly!” she replies jovially.
Well, yeah. I knew that. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
“Anyway, some advice: don’t take what Mr. Cello says too seriously. For example, when I started taking classes here, I sucked. And now look at me!” she smiles, flicking her golden hair, tied up in a ponytail and held up by a navy blue scrunchie. I smile awkwardly. Does she mean that I suck?
Go, go, go, my mind whispers. Now, Swifty. Make the excuse.
“Umm, got to go, my mum’s waiting. Bye,” I mumble shyly.
I tear down the elegant hallway, stripes of gold and red racing through my peripheral vision.
I glance up quickly, only to notice a painting done on the ceiling that looks like it could belong in the Sistine Chapel. Yikes, this place is posh.
My foot catches on some loose carpet, and I faceplant into the soft floor. It still hurts, though. My nose feels like it just got KO’d in a boxing match.
I can faintly hear Stella’s mum calling, “Are you okay, dear?”
I don’t have time to answer. This is so embarrassing. I pick myself up and open the grand wood doors. I can feel something warm and sticky dribbling down my chin.
“Hi, Mum!” I shout as I run out through the grand building. My mum glances up from her phone, then stares in shock.
“Swifty, what have you done to yourself? You’ve got a bloody nose!”
“So, other than the bloody nose, how did your first lesson go?” my dad asks cheekily as we sit around the dinner table eating my favorite food: sushi.
“It was okay, I guess. The teacher kept on getting my name wrong and . . . my violin playing sounded like a constipated train, if that’s even a thing.”
My dad laughs and shakes his head. “Hah! What did the teacher call you?”
“‘Swishy.’” I groan. “Oh, and then ‘Slicky.’”
That does it for my dad. He howls with laughter, even though it isn’t really that funny. “I have to meet this guy,” he wheezes happily.
“Umm, actually, Dad, there’s a concert in three weeks’ time,” I say, stabbing at my food.
“Wow,” he replies. “Are you prepared? How many people will be there?”
“The thing is, I’m not sure,” I nervously say. “And I’m not even that good yet.”
“Hmm,” my dad says thoughtfully. “After dinner, why don’t you play what you learned today for your mum and me, and we can look at what you can work on. I played the violin back in high school, and I still remember some things.”
“But first,” my mum says, “we have some exciting news.” She glances at Dad anxiously and then bursts, “You’re going to have a baby brother!”
I choke on my food.
It feels like my brain has been lifted from my head. I must be watching a movie; this is all too surreal. My parents and I are the actors, and at the same time I’m watching the whole scene play out from my figurative movie cinema.
I attempt to process what has happened. This isn’t real. How is it even possible? I don’t want a baby brother. Sure, maybe when I was four and I didn’t understand the downsides of having a sibling—but now?
This little brother of mine is going to get in my way heaps. I’ve overheard my classmates’ conversations when they complain about their little brothers, and it doesn’t seem fun.
Why would my parents do this to me? Are they bored of me? Do they want to have someone else to hang with when I’m not around? Do family traditions without me?
I only have a few months left with just me and them. That’s not a lot if you think about it. Didn’t they consider me when making this drastic decision? What if—
“Sweetie, you look a bit shocked,” my mum says comfortingly.
“Who wouldn’t be?” I mutter, still in a daze.
I stumble off to my room and gently close the door. My mind is racing with thoughts and questions. Deep breaths, Swifty. Deep breaths.
“But first,” my mum says, “we have some exciting news.” She glances at Dad anxiously and then bursts, “You’re going to have a baby brother!”
Before, it was just about becoming like Stella. Now I also have to impress my parents as well.
I gaze around my lapis-blue room, piles of books and clothing stacked or dumped on any surface I could find, including on the end of my unmade bed. Teddies line my pillow, arms around each other like they’re singing a song.
I need to distract myself. I unlatch my violin case and gently take out my bow and violin. I set my music book up on my desk so I can clearly see the notes. I press my bow against the strings and start playing. I don’t bother to tune; I don’t even know how.
My eardrums feel like they’re about to burst, kind of like a pin is popping the center of each stretched bit of skin.
I grit my teeth and try again. Softer this time. SSSSSSCCRREEEEE.
I pause halfway. This isn’t going to work. How am I ever going to beat Stella?
I hear my dad bounding up the steps to my room before slamming open the door.
“SWIFTY!” he yells. He probably thinks I’m mad at him and mum, which I kind of am, but right now I’m mainly in shock.
I give him an innocent but truthful glance. “Dad, I’m just trying to play the violin. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was terrible at it.”
He softens a bit. “Sorry, Swifty, I thought—never mind. And you’re not terrible at the violin, you’re just—how do I put this?”
“I’m terrible at the violin?”
My dad gives a small nod and bursts out laughing. “Kiddo, let me help. Hand me the violin.”
I pass him the instrument and the bow. He grabs a block with powdery stuff on it that I hadn’t noticed before and rubs it gently against the bow HAIR, then puts it away. In one slow, steady motion, he gracefully pulls the bow across the strings. It’s not too bad.
“You try and copy what I just did,” he says, passing the instrument back over to me. I pull the bow over the strings, sitting my chin on the cool rest. A scratchy, high-pitched sound whines in my ears. I stop playing.
“Ok, so what I can see going wrong is that your fingers are locked against the bow. You need to be flexible with it, like this.”
I hand him the bow and he starts waggling it around crazily. I giggle, brushing away frustrated tears I didn’t even know I had.
He makes his face go all teacher-like and serious. “As you can see here, only my pinky finger and thumb are bent, not all my fingers. What you were doing was bending all of your fingers and pressing on all the strings quite hard, even though you only needed to press on half of them. Try again, but remember to press on only these strings.” He points to a few strings on one side of the violin, then claps his hands in a posh manner. “Now play,” my dad says, jokingly sincere.
I do what he asks, and gently stroke the bow against the violin strings. A soft, feathery sound rings out.
OH. MY. GOSH. I did it!
It sounds amazing! My dad is even better than Mr. Cello!
I hear a rustle, and I can see my mum standing at the doorway holding her phone. She grins gleefully. Now that I know, her tummy does look a bit big.
“Mum, you were filming me?!” I gasp.
She nods approvingly. “You’re sounding so much better than earlier today,” she smiles. “Now show Mr. Cello what you’ve got.”
Three weeks have passed so quickly, I think to myself as I wait backstage, twisting my knee-length skirt into tight circles around my index finger.
My tummy feels as though thousands of fish are thrashing around inside, having just been caught by a boat lost in a chaotic storm, and my hands are icy cold.
I take a small sip of water from my water bottle, rolling the liquid around on my sapped tongue, and join some kids who are peeking through a small slit in the curtains.
I wish I hadn’t. The theater is dim, like backstage, but you can see hundreds of figures moving around in the shadows. I squint my eyes and try to spot my parents, but there are too many people.
I walk away and sit down on an empty crate by some of the amplification gear, clutching the edge of it. I open my violin case and take out my violin, quickly rosining the bow.
I suddenly remember, I need to get it tuned! I glance at the clock hanging on the wall in front of me. The show starts at seven—in only ten minutes.
I still have no idea how to tune a violin for some reason, so I head over to a large crowd of small kids cramming around two of the Dux Orchestral teachers, who are assiduously tuning violins, violas, double basses, and cellos.
I join the edge of the crowd and again glance at the time. Five minutes. “Hurry up!” I breathe.
The crowd isn’t subsiding, so I head over to another group of teachers, who (surprise surprise) are chatting to Stella. I wait anxiously, tapping my foot in fast beats. But it’s too late.
The host, Mr. Cello of course, steps out onto the stage. A bright light shines from under the curtains. The teachers conclude their discussion. One of them spots me.
“Hurry! Go over there so you can line up.”
“But—” I stutter.
“No time!” they hiss. “Go and line up!”
I sigh and head over to where all the strings kids are. Stella is at the front, chatting to some snobby-looking girls.
Another teacher calls out names and points to spots in the line. I end up somewhere in the middle.
Time passes slowly yet quickly. The line gradually thins as the scarily sharp voice of Mr. Cello announces new acts. It feels like ages, but the performances seem to last a few seconds at a time in my mixed-up mind. Each time I have to take a step forward in the queue, my anxiety grows.
More terrible thoughts enter my mind. I try to imagine them quickly floating away on clouds, but it’s no use. I’m too nervous.
Finally, it’s my turn to walk onstage. Mr. Cello announces my name, then walks off. My stomach does a flip. I take small steps to the center of the stage then sit down on a plastic chair. A microphone sits on a stand in front of me.
I stare down at my violin. This is too real.
Way too real.
The sounds I hear from the audience seem to be way louder than normal, and the spotlight shining on the stage is so bright.
Gosh gosh gosh gosh gosh, I think nervously, as pins stab at my core. Just do it.
And then I start to play.
SCRRREEEEEEEEE! the violin shrieks. I hear a gasp from some of the audience members. I stop playing and stare down at my violin. The strings are way too tight, but why? Wouldn’t they be loose if I hadn’t tuned them yet? I glance to the side of the stage, but no one is there.
Fear creeps up my spine, a cold wave of sorrow and terror wrapping itself around my head.
Oh. My. Gosh. If this were a nightmare, it would have to be the worst I’ve experienced. I try to play again, pressing gently on the strings with my bow. Snaps suddenly pierce the air, and I jerk my head back. All of the strings have snapped, leaving harsh pink lines on the back of my hand. I wince. Still, no one comes to help.
I can’t just leave the audience awkwardly sitting there, though. I brush away the tears in my eyes, and stare at the violin. It’s hollow. Maybe I could tap out a drum beat?
I turn the violin over and start tapping, a beat quickly forming out in my head. I am completely and utterly destroying this beautiful instrument. The wood must be so delicate, but right now it doesn’t matter.
I think of the criticizing violin teachers and shudder, but I continue anyway.
The mic amplifies it, giving it an ASMR effect. Hey. This is actually kind of nice. I close my eyes and continue tapping. My beats are loose and free. I like it.
I hear a wolf whistle, and then . . . clapping.
Quiet at first, and then louder. A few more cheers. I keep on improvising for a few more minutes, and then conclude.
An uproarious wave of clapping takes me aback. I smile and wave, and then head offstage. Was all that for me?
All I know is that for the rest of the night, I can’t stop grinning.
After the concerta, my parents find me backstage and wrap me in a big hug.
“You were absolutely stupendous!” my dad beams proudly.
My mum scoops me up into another hug, her bump, my baby brother, squishing me extra. “I love you,” she mumbles underneath tangles of my long hair. I nestle into her soft arms.
“Swifty, someone wants to talk to you,” my dad interrupts.
I stare at a middle-aged man wearing a white ironed shirt and flat black trousers. He has black, rectangular-framed glasses and short, curly brown hair.
“Hello, Swifty. My name is Peter Walker. I am a journalist for the New Zealand Herald, and my son actually takes double bass classes here.” He shakes my hand. “I saw your violin performance, or should I say drum performance, and it was by far the most unique performance of the night. Could I possibly interview you for an article?”
And that was how I ended up in the news.
The Little Drummer Girl
By Peter Walker
Pure talent was unleashed at Dux Orchestral Academy’s annual concerta last week when a beginning violinist improvised after the strings on her violin snapped.
Swifty Appledoe, age 10, said that after being unable to get someone to help her tune her violin, she decided to go with it, despite extreme nerves and little knowledge of the instrument.
She recalls: “When the violin strings snapped, there was this overwhelming wave of shock and confusion that hit me really hard. I was looking around, and no one was there to help me. I thought it would be really awkward if I walked offstage without having played anything, so I decided to see what I could do with the [broken] instrument. Somehow, it came naturally to me to just tap along to a beat in my head. I definitely didn’t expect the reaction I got!”
Every time I look at the article, it feels like a weight has been lifted off my head and a smile is painted on my face. I feel like I can do anything.
There were compliments for Swifty that night from many audience members. Pamela Wong, whose daughter plays the viola, said, “Young Swifty was the star of the show! Such bravery to persist in front of a very large audience. I couldn’t have done it myself.”
Another, Dagsworth Nickleberry, stated, “Completely different from anything that night. I think she was the most talented one there.”
Mr. Darius Cello, Swifty’s violin teacher, had less positive things to say: “Swishy should have known how to tune the violin, and her performance was unacceptable.”
But Swifty has reacted to that comment, saying that Mr. Cello “had never taught [her] how to do so.”
Many other compliments followed, including head teacher and renowned double bassist Martha Charity, who said that Swifty “had displayed courage and musicality in a tricky time.”
Swifty has now quit playing the violin and has decided to take up drumming lessons, which she will start soon.
* * *
Mrs. Mulberry concludes reading the article and grins at the class, especially me. “Well done, Swifty!” she exclaims.
I feel great about appearing in an article. Incredible, in fact. Every time I look at the article, it feels like a weight has been lifted off my head and a smile is painted on my face. I feel like I can do anything.
But it’s time to take the next stepping-stone. I feel like I could do more, especially with my new achievement! Every time I think about it, my mind flaps away happily.
Anyway, I recently found out that Stella does ballet. This is great, firstly because it takes skill and secondly because I need to impress my parents—and what parent doesn’t like their daughter dancing?
But I don’t know where Stella takes her classes, so at lunchtime, I reluctantly head over to her clique and stand awkwardly at the edge of the trio. Brooke spies me and sneers. “What do you want, Swishy?”
I grimace at my new nickname. Ever since Mr. Cello called me Swishy in the news article, people have been nicknaming me that. But I don’t really care. Swifty isn’t even my real name. My real name is Zendaya, but once when I was seven, I ran a race and beat all the fastest boys in my class. Boys being faster than girls is just a stereotype. Still, the name Swifty stuck like superglue.
“I said, what do you want?!” Brooke sneers again.
I snap back to attention. “Just—c-could I t-t-talk to Stella?” I stammer.
“No, you’re not—” Brooke is interrupted by Stella, who says, “Sure!”
She takes me away from her group and says, “Sorry about Brooke. But what do you want?”
Now, Swifty. I stare deep into her ocean-blue eyes and ask, “W-w-where do you t-take ballet c-classes?”
Peak Stone Ballet Academy is located on what is, in my opinion, a very posh country road. It’s a three-story building, which looks similar to the White House, if it were downgraded a fraction, size-wise.
The windows are small and arched like those you would find on a fairytale castle, appearing every meter or so. Wide cobblestone steps lead up to the grand entrance doors, which are painted a soft sky blue. The spherical doorknobs look like they’ve been coated in gold leaf. I clutch my left hand around the cool doorknob, and, with my mother following behind, step inside.
I’m taking a tryout class here, which is free. It’s a good thing, too, because my dad had a look at the prices last night for weekly classes and they’re freaky expensive.
I have no idea how rich Stella is, but she must be pretty wealthy to be able to come here. That’s why I’m aiming for a beginner’s scholarship.
We walk inside the building, which is very classy. The floor is a marble chessboard with faint grey veins running on each tile, and from the ceiling hangs a rather large chandelier.
We make our way to the reception desk, which is also a very white marble, with swirls of gold, grey, and black patterned throughout.
A thin woman, who almost looks like she’s been printed onto some kind of card, stands behind it, her face gaunt and pointed, a hawklike nose protruding from the center of it. Her hair has been pulled into an extremely tight black bun, so tight that you can almost hear it screaming in protest. You can see her skin stretching at her eyes and cheeks because of how suffocating it is.
“Name,” she states. It sounds like she’s got a blocked nose.
“Umm, this is my daughter, Zendaya Appledoe, but she likes to be called Swifty,” my mother replies anxiously.
“We don’t call our students by nicknames,” Hawk Lady sneers as she types into a big computer and scrolls down the screen using a golden mouse. “Ah! Zendaya, it looks like you’re in my class. My name is Anita Poof, with a silent ‘f.’ You may call me Mrs. Poof.”
I almost burst out laughing. Anita Poo? The way she said it, it sounded like “I need to poo.”
“Follow me.” She smiles falsely, and I grab my backpack from my mum, say goodbye to her, and follow Mrs. Poof up a spiral staircase to my first ballet class ever.
She opens a set of polished wooden doors, and we walk into a spacious room.
Large mirrors cover two walls of the room, a barre cutting through one of them. The ground is made of polished wood planks, and at the back of the room are several girls wearing pink-and-black leotards with soft pink tights. They are busily putting on tiny ballet shoes and eagerly chattering away to each other, getting last sips of water and starting to warm up at the same time.
I notice a slim older boy with dark brown hair in thin black clothes sitting in one corner and tapping something into his phone. He looks lonely.
Mrs. Poof grabs a ruler from a stationary tray right by her and raps it against the door. If I look closely, I can see small dents scattered along it.
“Ladies!” She announces sharply. It sounds like she got rid of whatever was stuck up her hawk nose. “And Pablo.” She glances disdainfully at the boy, saying his name like it’s a bad word.
The girls stop what they were doing and race over to the barre, Pablo reluctantly following behind.
Pablo earns a spot at the back.
“Move over, Picasso.”
“I can’t see! Can you go to the back?”
“No! I want to talk to Christina.”
“You’re squashing me!”
Mrs. Poof raps the door again.
“Ladies! And Pablo. We have a new student joining us. Her name is Zendaya, and she is trying out a class today.” Mrs. Poof gestures to me like I’m a doggy dropping. Nice.
At the front of the line, I can see Stella, with Brooke, and Karen right behind her. They glance at me deridingly and then whisper to Stella, who giggles. I feel my face heat up like I’ve stuck it in an oven.
“Zendaya! I would like you to run a few laps of the studio to warm yourself up. Then you may join the other girls, and Pablo, at the back of the line.”
I look down and drop my bag by the others, then proceed to do a lap of humiliation.
All the other girls seem so slim and perfect; I’m not like that. And being singled out isn’t something I like, especially when I’m as visible as the Sky Tower.
Once I’ve done that, I head over to the barre and join in with the exercises the other girls are already doing.
We start off with pliés.
They look easy, but then I try it.
While the other girls and Pablo sink deep down into a grand plié, I can barely do a demi without lifting my heels up and sticking my back out like a frog about to jump.
“Zendaya! Heels down!” cries Mrs. Poof as she scuttles over and kneels on the hardwood floor. She grips her clawlike fingers around my ankles and starts pushing. It feels like nails are being impaled into my feet.
“Sink lower, lower—that’s it!” she exclaims, grunting with exasperation. “Ow” is all I have to say.
It feels like my Achilles tendons are about to snap, and my back is cramping up. Yikes. I can’t even believe I’m this stiff.
Finally, Mrs. Poof lets go of my ankles. I sigh with relief. Next, we work on positions.
It’s a short conversation, but one phrase does stand out to me: “Zendaya simply does not have the ability to continue with ballet.”
The other girls can make a 180-degree line with their feet, but if I try to attempt that I’ll probably fall over. Or strain something. Mrs. Poof, once again, corrects my legs, and I feel an excruciatingly tight stretch on the insides of my feet. We do a couple more exercises, both on the barre and on the floor, and then move on to leaps.
Stella goes first. She is graceful and light. Brooke is strong and powerful. Karen is . . . eager.
The rest of the girls, and Pablo, follow. Now it’s my turn. Why do I have to be last?
“Remember: stretch your legs!” Mrs. Poof cajoles snobbily. I take a deep breath and then go for it.
My leap is kind of like a large, weighted step. Thump.
I land and present.
I smile somewhat confidently, but inside I’m cringing. I think I sounded like an elephant.
The rest of the class continues. We do little routines across the studio floor, pas de deux with Pablo, and some more intricate footwork.
While the other girls go en pointe, Pablo helps me with my technique, and at long last, it’s the end of my first ballet class.
As I’m packing up my things, my mum walks into the studio. Mrs. Poof brings her to a corner of the class. It’s a short conversation, but one phrase does stand out to me: “Zendaya simply does not have the ability to continue with ballet.”
I feel a rush of shame, but I have to agree: ballet is not meant for me. There are so many rules, like how your feet have to sit in different positions, how you can only do things a certain way, and how you have to hold yourself.
I like some rules, but not a lot. Ballet, for me, has a bit too many.
Once my mum has finished talking to Mrs. Poof, I wave to her and we slowly head home.
That night, we are watching the news when a piece on a hip-hop group comes on.
My attention snaps to the TV screen. All of the dancers’ body movements are jagged, but at the same time, flowing. The style is free, and I kind of like it.
So that night I ask my parents, “Can I do hip-hop?”
. . . to be continued in the May 2021 issue of Stone Soup.