I hope you dance, p.10

I Hope You Dance, page 10


I Hope You Dance

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  “Have you finished?”

  I stopped talking.

  “I mean, is the lecture over? Can I go?”

  “We need to talk about this leaflet from Mr Hay.”

  “I’ve got homework to do. Can I look at it later?”

  “I suppose so.”

  She got up and moved to the door into the hall. “You know nothing about my life, how I feel or what I want. And I don’t know what made you think I would like to live somewhere just us.”

  The door banged shut behind her. I cleared away her plate and glass, screwed the lid back on the chocolate spread, cleaning the smears off the side of the jar. Putting it back in the cupboard, I then tucked the slices of bread that had spilled out back into Mum’s homemade baguette bag and returned it to the pantry. I wiped the crumbs up off the table, and the chair where Maggie had been sitting, and flicked them into the bin, rinsing out the empty juice carton before dumping it into the recycling. I dried my eyes, wiped my nose and got on with preparing dinner.

  I drove Maggie to school myself the next morning, determined to get the completed form that went with Mr Hay’s leaflet handed in. Maggie was refusing to participate, but I was counting on finding a way to bribe her into changing her mind. Bribery. That wise and mature parenting technique.

  Dropping her off discreetly in the furthest corner of the car park, I watched her scurry into the building, head down, shoulders up around her ears. My heart swelled up with so much pain, I couldn’t help it: a tiny prayer slipped out before I could think. Oh God, please do something. My girl needs a friend. One friend and all this becomes so much more bearable.

  And I almost heard God reply: What about you, Ruth? Don’t you need a friend?

  The following Friday was girls’ night. This month we were at Emily’s house in the centre of town. Ana Luisa walked with me. Emily’s was not a dry house, and Ana Luisa carried an expensive-looking bottle of wine. She waved it off when I expressed my reservations about bringing a bag of party crisps and flavoured fizzy water.

  “Pah – this is the cheapest wine in Mr Arnold’s cellar. And the girls know I didn’t pay for it myself. Mr David, he is so kind and generous. When I first came to the Big House he told me, ‘Ana Luisa, you are part of this family now. This is your home. And please drink some of that crusty old wine, because my father never will.’ Mr Arnold, he is not so up the front. He pretends not to be nice behind that gruff beard, but you cannot live with a man for two years and not know his heart. And look at how he raised his son alone after Mrs Carrington died. A world famous professor and a great dad? That is a rare type of man, to manage both things so well without a woman to partner with him.”

  I remembered the understated kindness he had shown me when I was a child. “One time he brought back an ancient Babylonian abacus. It was four thousand years old. He handed it over with that little frown he does behind his beard and said he knew I would treasure it with the honour it deserved. I’d just finished joint last in the county ballroom championships and he managed to wipe away every one of my sisters’ smirks in one sentence. He always made me feel proud of myself. That didn’t happen very often when I was growing up.”

  “This is Mr Arnold. He doesn’t say much, but he makes it count.”

  We walked a little further along the road into the town centre, passing my old primary school and the cottage where a whole community of garden gnomes had taken up residence.

  “You should call in sometime, have a coffee with Mr Arnold. I’m sure he would love to see you and hear all your news. Not many people understand what it is like to lose the other half of you and be left looking after a child alone. Mr Arnold knows this.”

  She was right. But how could I look Professor Carrington in the eye and talk about our grief, when the other half of me that I had lost was not the man who had died, and I suspected the woman who invited me was in love with that other half?

  “God, I’m not going to ask you to bless this food. It contains a year’s worth of saturated fat and more unnatural chemicals than a science lab, so that would take a miracle. I know you never intended that yellow colour to be eaten for dinner. But it tastes so darn delicious I thank you for it anyway, and I especially thank you for these five mighty women whose hips and thighs I get to share the zillion calories with. They are awesome. Big hearts and strapping souls. Especially our newest friend, Ruth. What a gracious woman she is, working for Ms Vanessa Jacobs. You know what I mean by that, God. Please bless her with some extra patience.”

  It was Ellie’s turn to say grace. Her tall frame balanced on Emily’s bean bag in front of the fire as if she belonged here, which I suspected she pretty much did. The rest of us were either seated on armchairs or lounging on massive cushions in the well-ordered living room, clustered around a long, low coffee table covered in Indian take-away dishes and bottles of wine. Ellie was right: the food looked sinful. I could feel my clackety bones disappearing underneath curves of womanly flesh just inhaling it. Yum.

  Everyone wanted to know about my new jobs. It was hard to find much that was nice to say about working at Couture, and this wasn’t the type of girls’ night where whining was indulged, so I kept it brief. They all knew Martine, and found it particularly hilarious that she had introduced herself as a woman.

  “That was Ana Luisa!” Lois snorted fizzy water out of one nostril. “She called her Mr Martin for about two months before Martine finally snapped and spelled it out for her.”

  “Didn’t she show you her boobs to prove it?” Rupa was folded in half, clutching a pillow to her middle as she guffawed. “In the middle of church?”

  “No, no, no! That is not what happened at all. Nothing like that. You Christians are not supposed to bear false witness!”

  “She was trying to set Mr Martin up with Carol Chambers, that piano teacher from the minster.” Streams of tears were plopping onto Ellie’s sweet-potato bhaji. “She thought Carol was so kind she would overlook Mr Martin’s eye shadow.”

  “Only because she thought he was too old for you!” Emily put down her glass on the corner of the table. “Even I can tell Martine is a woman, and I’m practically blind!” She tipped over onto her side on the floor and wailed with laughter.

  “If you could still see her properly then you would not be so sure!” Ana Luisa’s eyes were bright, her hands on her hips, but she couldn’t help smiling. “There is not a woman looking like this in the whole of Brazil. Not under the age of one hundred, anyway. I had never seen anything like it before! Where is her hair? Why is it all over her face and not on top of her head?” She looked over at me and waggled her fingers. “And you have to admit, Ruth, those hands are not a normal size for a woman.”

  “Did she really show you her breasts to prove it?”

  “No! She came into the ladies’ toilet and I politely” – the others let out bigger screams of delight – “POLITELY directed her to the gentleman’s restroom. She then informed me that she did in fact qualify for the ladies’ facilities and, not possessing the required apparatus, would struggle to use the urinals without making a mess.”

  “Tell us what she said then!” Lois cried.

  Ana Luisa straightened her spine and lifted her chin an inch higher. “She said as it was Christmas in two weeks, she didn’t think it fair to give her cleaners extra work to do just because my definition of a lady was a clown face and clothes suited to hanging around on street corners.”

  “She was really mad!” Rupa’s beautiful doe eyes were round.

  “Yes. But I apologized.”

  “Did she apologize?” I asked. “I know you offended her, but she shouldn’t have said you dress like a prostitute. You always look gorgeous.”

  “Now I do. At the time she was right on my money.”

  “And you girls should have apologized too, letting her call Martine Mr Martin for two months and not saying anything. That wasn’t fair to either of them.”

  “We didn’t know!” Lois protested, waving a forkful of rice at me. “Her
English wasn’t as good then; we assumed it was a grammatical error. Or that we’d misheard. At least I did. And I knew nothing about Carol Chambers.”

  “Well, all is well that ends well. I taught her how to cook empanadas and now she loves me.” Ana Luisa winked in my direction. “Everybody loves me in the end. They just can’t help it.”

  The conversation moved on, and I sipped my wine quietly for a few minutes, thinking about Ana Luisa being brought to England by Mr David only two years before. Dressed like a street worker, barely speaking English, with a past that sounded difficult and unpleasant at best, and no doubt dangerous and horrifying. Maybe one day I would be able to ask about that story without it tearing my guts out. I so wanted to hate Ana Luisa, but she was right. I just couldn’t help loving her. And I wouldn’t begrudge her an ounce of happiness.

  Once we had moved on to home-made ice-cream, courtesy of Lucie, Emily’s eldest daughter, Lois showed us an identical leaflet to the one Mr Hay had given me.

  “This is the latest buzz-technique to get kids to behave. Someone has decided suspending children gives them more opportunities to get into trouble, and less time to actually take in some education and self-worth, and apparently we aren’t allowed to wallop kids any more. So this is the alternative. And with a foster son who’s used up all his chances, we’ve got no option but to go along with it.” She summed it up for us. “It’s a befriending scheme. Kids have to spend four hours a week with an elderly person who could do with some support or company. They only choose adults who have something to offer, so the scheme works both ways.”

  “I’ve signed Maggie up, but she’s refusing to consider it. Is Seth really going to give it a go?”

  Lois grimaced. “It’s either that or he doesn’t get to finish the year. And now he’s finally figured out what he wants to do with his life, he needs to get some decent exam results.”

  “What’s that then?” Emily asked, with interest. Her twenty-year-old son still hadn’t a clue.

  “He wants to be a lawyer.”

  “Of course.” Ana Luisa nodded her head, scraping the remaining ice-cream off her bowl with her finger. “He wants to put right the wrong that has been done to him. To defend the other little Seths.”

  “Actually, he wants to work for capitalist conglomerates, drive an Aston Martin, wear suits made out of hundred pound notes and shout a big ‘so there’ to his birth parents. But we’re working on that. No child of mine is going to live their adult life trying to prove something to somebody else. I’m hoping his great-granddad, John, will sign up now he’s sorted his life out a bit. Seth could do with spending some time with a family member who isn’t a career criminal.”

  “I love Seth. Thank God he brought him to you and Matt. Have you managed to spend some decent time together yet?” Emily lazily flicked her shoulder length hair out of her eyes, which was difficult as her head was hanging upside down over the back of one of the chair arms.

  “Without giving away any details that would make my husband blush – although he is pretty cute when he blushes, for a man called Meat – nothing anywhere close to what I’m dreaming about. But such is the life I have chosen. It would be easier if he wasn’t so darn gorgeous.”

  “God uses handsome men to get women to go to church,” Rupa mused. “I only went to Oak Hill because Harry invited me. I didn’t want to go, I knew my mother would be furious, but I couldn’t resist those teeth.”

  “That is ridiculous!” Ellie managed to find enough indignant rage to heave herself out of the beanbag. “Normal, intelligent women do not make life-committing decisions of faith based on a man’s teeth! Or his eyes! Or his backside! There are, believe it or not, single women who are not actually desperate, hopeful or even bothered about finding a man, because we are far too busy enjoying life. Why do you feeble creatures always have to be defined by men? That’s it! I’m so frustrated I have to go to the loo.”

  Emily stretched out her hand to meet Rupa’s in a perfect high five. “Gets her every time.”

  “Just wind her up and watch her go.”

  I didn’t know if God used handsome men to get women along to church. I had certainly made a life-altering decision under the influence of a charming man. But I reckoned a scowly, brooding guy in a battered black jacket might just get my daughter along to the Sherwood Court assisted living complex.

  Ellie returned five minutes later, deliberately stepping on Rupa’s foot as she sauntered past.

  “Hey, Ellie. You could qualify for the adopt-a-granny scheme. You don’t have to be a granny – just old and lonely and in need of help.” Emily grinned in Ellie’s direction.

  “Hey, Emily. Your clothes don’t match and they make your thighs look chunky.”

  “I love you, you mad old bat.”

  “Love you too, you wardrobe disaster.”

  Once we settled down with coffee and chilli flavoured chocolates, the spotlight swung back in my direction. Those girls were nosy, and after two girls’ nights, they were no longer polite about it.

  “Tell us about Fraser.”

  “Fraser?” I blew on my coffee, stalled for time, wondered if I could keep stalling until I had drunk it all and could go home.

  “What do you want to know?”

  “How did you meet? Was it romantic? You must have been young,” Rupa answered.

  Okay. I could handle that. I could squish back the automatic prick of grief and anger that still accompanied my memories of the last few years. How we met was manageable.

  “We were on the same course at uni. There were hardly any girls and only three of us showed up to this party. Fraser wore a leather jacket and faded Levis. He looked like Leonardo DiCaprio but tougher. When he asked me to dance I nearly fell off my chair. Then he persuaded me to drink four vodkas and I really did fall off. He walked me home, to ‘sober me up’, and then proceeded to charm the pants off me. Typical student seduction: a cheesy CD, lying on top of my single bed and playing with my hair, pretending to find my teddy cute and asking me about home.”

  Ana Luisa sighed. “You were young and crazy and in love.”

  “I was drunk, lonely, ridiculously flattered and feeling homesick because it was my birthday. He told me that when he saw me at the party every other person in the room disappeared. That his mates had been taking the mick because he couldn’t stop staring at me in lectures and had to borrow their notes to fill in the bits he missed. I’d never had a boyfriend – how could I resist?”

  “Aaah – but then you fell in love. The bad boy turned good!”

  “Aaah – but then I fell pregnant. The bad boy turned responsible, at least.” I stopped there, uncomfortable. The wine had loosened my tongue. I wouldn’t usually be so flippant about Maggie’s dad, or the man I had shared fifteen years with.

  “He did an amazing thing, sticking with me. He never pressured me not to have the baby, and it was incredible how he put up with my swollen ankles and continual morning sickness when surrounded by non-pregnant eighteen-year-old girls who were constantly after him. He sacrificed as much as me to make it work – nights out, all that money, freedom. And his mother is a whole other story. I think that’s why…”

  I think that’s why, and staggeringly this was the first time I had thought it, Fraser went on to spend so much time chasing fun, and freedom, and money. He was trying to reclaim those years when he should have been up all night painting the town, not winding a fractious baby. Something clicked into place in that moment lying on Emily’s stripy cushion. Another level of forgiveness, of sorrow. Neither of us would have traded Maggie for the world. She was our joy, our song. A different adventure to the one we were expecting, but a better one. But maybe neither of us had ever felt safe enough to grieve with one another for what we had lost in becoming parents so unexpectedly and so young. Things were too fragile, too uncertain. Maybe that had become part of the thorny thicket growing between us. I knew Fraser made countless sacrifices for his daughter, for me. Not least of these being the approval of h
is mother.

  We both shared the wounds of parental disappointment, but as I hid my wounds under a hard shell of bluster and indifference, I never realized Fraser was trying to earn that approval back with the heights of his success.

  “Well” – Rupa swiped a tear from her cheek – “he sounds incredible. You must miss him so much.”

  I couldn’t reply. Because there it was, that lump of guilt that blocked up my chest and made it hard to breathe. I had missed him. I still did miss him. We shared something of a life for a decade and a half. But not so much. No, not so much.

  Lois was giving Rupa a lift home, so we had to snatch a few fleeting seconds during the evening to catch up on the Surprising Sexy Yurt Adventure plans. Ellie had been researching yurt hire, and it looked as though it could work. A basic tent with carpets and a heater cost around five hundred pounds for the minimum three-night hire. For a thousand, we could get an “all-in” honeymoon package, including sumptuous Asian interior design, a wood-burning stove, lighting, a bed and loads of goodies like chocolates, strawberries and a breakfast kit.

  “A thousand pounds?” Rupa shook her head, whispering in case Lois was on her way back from topping up the crisp bowls. We had sent Emily’s son, Jackson, to wander into the kitchen and distract her by asking if she thought women with large families should stay at home instead of going out to work. We could hear the rant through the wall, so had a few more moments.

  “They do look amazing, but that’s two hundred pounds each.” She kept her eyes on the picture, but we could see she was worried. “Maybe we could get the basic one, and add the extras ourselves?”

  “Or we could pay two pounds fifty each.”

  Ellie looked at me. “We don’t have time for you to be cryptic.”

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