I Hope You Dance, page 12
“She must have liked you if she asked when you were coming back.”
“She liked having a servant! She called me ‘girl’, like I was her slave.”
“She probably couldn’t remember your name. And if the place isn’t clean it’s because she can’t see the dirt. Or can’t get down to clean it. Does she have any help? A carer or something?” I got up and placed my empty mug in the dishwasher, turning round to lean on the counter top.
“She said the district nurse was coming on Thursday. About five times.” Maggie rolled her eyes.
“Sometimes when people spend a lot of time by themselves they forget how to talk to people. She sounds very lonely.”
“Very selfish and stuck-up. And delusional.”
“Maybe. But also lonely and afraid, and I bet she hates the fact she’s out of control and can’t take care of herself. It must be pretty humiliating having a fourteen-year-old girl come round as a punishment, to wash up because you can’t manage it properly any more. She might feel very awkward. And if she’s ill and in pain, think how irritable that makes you.”
Maggie picked at the corner of the coaster. “I don’t care. I’m not going back. I’ll get some hideous disease.”
“I want you to try one more session. It’s all right to be assertive, as long as you’re respectful. Tell her you don’t like tea, and gently remind her your name is Maggie. If we talk to Mr Hay he’s going to say you need to stick at it for longer before giving up.”
“I knew you’d take her side. I hate this!” Maggie kicked back from the table, sending her chair screeching across the tiles. She slammed the kitchen door behind her. A photograph rattled so hard it fell off the wall, cracking the glass on the hard floor. I picked it up and looked at the picture of the two of us, standing on the beach in Spain, arms around each other in a big squeeze, laughing and waving at the camera. The crack split right across the top of our chests. I pressed out the broken glass and dumped it in the bin, then hung the picture back up.
That evening, we ate my mother’s homemade minced beef enchiladas, to celebrate Maggie surviving “two hours with an old boot who doesn’t mince her words but should”. We had wraps, as a symbol of how we should embrace our lives, and sour cream, to remind us that some people are sour, but there’s always guacamole instead. And salsa! Of course. Which needed no explanation, as the magnificence of salsa had been drummed into me before I could walk.
Maggie had a question. “How old are you, Nanny?”
“I am sixty-nine, darling. Too old to give a monkey’s tail what anybody else thinks of me or what I get up to. Old enough to have eight splendid grandchildren, young enough that they still want to ask me questions and eat my enchiladas and whip me at computer games. Too young to give up, too old to give in! I plan on reaching one hundred and eight.” She stood up and picked up a serving dish to take back into the kitchen.
As Maggie moved to help clear up I could see her thinking about Hannah Beaumont, seven years older than her nanny yet in a retirement complex, with a walker and a smelly house and no one to talk to for days on end, nothing to do, nothing to live for.
“Life is what you make of it, Maggie. But some people get dealt a much harder blow than others. Don’t judge too harshly on first appearances.”
She was still not speaking to me. “You officially rock, Nanny.”
Mum grabbed another plate and jitterbugged out of the room, calling back, “Stick with me, kid, and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
I picked up Maggie from school that Wednesday and drove her round to Sherwood Court. She kept up her angry protests the whole way there. I ignored her, choosing instead to concentrate on not crashing my parents’ car. As we pulled up in front of Hannah’s flat, Maggie stopped talking. She flipped down the passenger’s sunshield and quickly fussed at her hair in the mirror.
I smiled. “Trying to impress Mrs Beaumont?”
“Shut up, Mum.”
Maggie couldn’t care less about impressing Hannah Beaumont. She was thinking about the young man in black jeans and a white T-shirt, pushing a lawnmower up and down the grass next door to Hannah’s flat. His black jacket was hanging off a rake propped up against a tree. Maggie opened the car door and climbed out. Seth glanced up and flicked the floppy black fringe out of his eyes with a jerk of his head. His muscles tightened almost imperceptibly as he gripped the lawnmower handle and brought it to a stop. One corner of his mouth curled up in a hint of a smile.
“You here to see her?” He gestured with his chin towards Hannah’s house.
Maggie nodded. “Yeah.”
He raised one eyebrow and shook his head. “Good luck with that.”
I didn’t hear Maggie’s reply, as the mower powered up again, but my stomach broke out into swallowtail butterflies. That boy scared me. I didn’t know if I was more scared of him rejecting my precious daughter, or deciding he wanted her.
Maggie chose to carry on with the programme after all.
Life settled into something of a routine for us over the next couple of weeks. I worked most days, either at the shop or Oak Hill Centre, and spent any spare time reading or watching television, going for the odd walk if I could find the energy. I searched the job sites, counted my pennies, worried about the growing interest on my debts, gradually began to chip away at the scary numbers.
Maggie went to school, and Hannah’s, and in between she ate and slept and played on her phone. Her head of year called a couple of times to discuss how she was getting on, which was not great. She had detentions for various offences, including, among other things, lateness, rudeness, disrupting lessons, throwing stuff, breaking stuff, forgetting stuff and tipping her chicken curry over the head of a boy who called her skanky. But she was going to school and getting some decent grades, and beginning to make friends with a few girls who seemed okay, so I had something to hold on to.
She also spent more and more time in Dad’s study. He had offered her the use of his computer, which he rarely needed any more, and she couldn’t seem to live more than a few hours without. It was a man cave, Dad’s study. Shadowy, crammed full of dark, old furniture, a brown swivel chair made of cracked leather and rows and rows of books about manly things like battles, the history of cricket and boat building. On the wall hung a photograph of Dad as a young man, with wild dark hair and a grin that split his face in two, having just been crowned the cross-country county champion. Along the back of his desk, and crammed in between the books, were his souvenirs – a piece of shrapnel from the First World War, an old rugby ball, a box of nails and screws, dance trophies, sports medals, a compass, a decanter of whisky and an old metronome.
But what surprised me more as the days went on, was that instead of scurrying off when Dad arrived home, Maggie lingered in the study with him. They did bits of homework together or discussed the news. Dad lent Maggie some of his less boring books, and she showed him how to load pictures onto the computer and Skype Miriam. In the end, Dad brought a chair through from the kitchen and would sit and sort paperwork and read the newspaper while Maggie flicked through her social networking sites or read blogs. I realized she had been deprived of adult male company, save for a few teachers, for eighteen months. And, if I was honest, even prior to that the man in her life had been frequently absent, often distracted, and prone to replacing quality time with expensive gifts and occasional grand gestures.
When was the last time Maggie had enjoyed the quiet company of a male relative? I couldn’t remember. This was an unexpected bonus of moving back home – a hole in Maggie’s life I hadn’t known existed now being filled. I wanted her to make positive choices when it came to welcoming men into her life. To recognize a real man, a good man, a man worth committing to and sacrificing for and sharing your heart with. And, underneath the hurt and rejection, I knew that despite making a gigantic mistake regarding his youngest daughter, my dad was a man worth spending some time with. I was pleased. Relieved. Jealous. Agonized. Baffled. Hopef
November began with a snap of cold weather, causing my breath to puff in clouds of steam as I tramped along the crispy paths to work and back. The bushes were draped with frozen spider webs that hung like the finest Nottingham lace. The leaves of the willow tree turned yellow and crisp before tumbling to the ground in a thick carpet across the Big House garden. By the time I walked home in the early evenings, grass verges were covered in children digging through the detritus of autumn, on the hunt for conkers. The air grew lusty with the scent of bonfires and rotting vegetation. I wrapped up in my old gloves, hat and furry boots, walking the long way round town, revelling in the freshness and the bright burst of colours. I had forgotten, living in a city for so long, how invigorating the vibrant reminders of the changing seasons are; how the berries and the starlings, the frosty pavements and bare branches stir a buoyant anticipation I find irresistible.
Change was a-comin’. And I sucked in great lungfuls of cold, clear air and suspected that it might not be all bad. After the past two years, things couldn’t get much worse. Could they?
November girls’ night had been pushed back a week, as both Emily and Rupa had fallen ill with autumn colds, but Ellie texted to say she’d booked the yurt for the first weekend in December. Two weeks earlier, when Matt had been invited to speak at another church, taking the family with him, Ellie had grasped the microphone in the middle of the morning service at Oak Hill and told the congregation to get their backsides moving and their wallets open. “Our minister and his wife give nearly all they’ve got to serve the lot of you, listening and preaching and setting up and organizing and trying to show you the grace of God in every which way they can. They’ve run themselves ragged rescuing six neglected children and loving them back to life, and on top of that they have to listen to you whining and criticizing while your fat bottoms grow even fatter. Not all of you. Most of you are actually pretty amazing. But enough of you. When was the last time you stopped Matt and thanked him for running Oak Hill with integrity and wisdom? Have you sent Lois a card this year to tell her ‘Good job, thank you for noticing me, for encouraging me and smiling at me when you’re so tired you could weep’? Dropped round some flowers? Took a few of the children out to give them a chance to have a meal together uninterrupted?
“I know lots of you do that. I know you look for ways to support and encourage our leaders. I know you don’t want them to get burnt-out looking after you, or get ill, or run away to work in a sweat shop in India where they would probably do less work for better pay and more thanks. I know you want to bless them like they bless us. To help them keep being the best leaders they can be. So – a few of us are organizing a surprise for our minister and his wife. I’m not going to tell you what the surprise is because the sin of gossiping hasn’t quite been eradicated in this church yet, and I don’t want any of you to feel bad for blowing the secret. But the secret costs a bit of money. Which is a great opportunity for you to think about how much you love Matt and Lois and those six kids, and to give something accordingly. Give whatever you feel like, and are able to. That might be nothing, or a whole lot. But God loves a joyful giver, so make sure you only give what you want to. No pressure. There are baskets coming round now. We will accept IOUs. Thank you.”
It took about five minutes for the baskets to be passed along the rows of chairs, Ellie told me. By the time they were all piled up at the front, the crowd finally stopped clapping. Every basket overflowed. Not with coins, but with notes and cheques. We made enough money for the romantic, all-in wedding yurt. And to send Matt, Lois, Seth, Poppy, Connor, Freya, Martha and baby Teagan to Disneyland Paris, with Matt’s parents along for the ride to help them out. There were a lot of people in Southwell who had changed their minds about Meat Harris. Me included.
Mum organized a family bonfire party for the first Saturday of November. The subsequent list of jobs reflected her usual extravagance, and as she expected me to complete a large chunk of that list, I arranged to do my cleaning the Friday night before, on what would have been the girls’ night before it was postponed.
Martine was in the office when I arrived. She strode out to meet me.
“Ruth. Good to see you. Just the usual today. Oh – and one of the toddlers missed her potty and hit the carpet in the small hall this morning. The team tried to clean it up, but you might want to check if it needs another go. And you can leave the back office. The money advice centre is open tonight, and there’s a new client coming in to see me and Gregory. You’ll be gone by the time we’re finished, so I’ll lock up.”
“No problem. I can do the office on Monday.”
Martine didn’t reply.
“Martine? Are you all right?”
She didn’t look all right. Her face was the colour of a dirty dishcloth, and she frowned at the wooden floor as if it wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
“Martine?” I went over and stared into her blue and green eyes, placing one hand on her shoulder. She jerked her head up.
“You don’t seem yourself. Are you okay?”
“Yes, yes. Just a bit peaky. I think I ate a dodgy sausage at breakfast. I’ll grab a glass of water and a biscuit, and I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure! This client has been waiting for nearly a month to see a debt counsellor. I will not allow a rancid chipolata to besiege the meeting. However bad I feel, she will be a whole lot worse. She’d be grateful if a battle in the bowels was her biggest problem. Gregory can take the lead. I’ll sit back and try not to embarrass myself.”
It was nearly eight. I was mopping the floor in the foyer when there was a shout, and a man I assumed must be Gregory burst out of the back office.
“Martine’s collapsed. I’ve called for an ambulance, but they’re coming from Mansfield. Do you know if we’ve got any blankets anywhere?”
I dropped the mop. “In the kids’ club. I’ll go.”
I ran up the stairs to where the youngest children’s group met, and grabbed both the blankets that they sat on during story time.
She lay on the floor in the office. Gregory tried to straighten out her limbs, to make her comfortable, but she flopped like a doll. Her breathing rasped, frighteningly rapid.
“Is she conscious?” I knelt down and tucked the blanket around her torso and legs. I had no idea what to do.
“She seems to be in and out. I’ve tried to take her pulse but can’t find one. Do you know any first aid?”
I shook my head. “We should probably put her in the recovery position. On her side, at least. I don’t know. I don’t know anything. How long until the paramedics get here?”
Gregory glanced at his watch. “Seventeen minutes.” His hand shook, and sweat glistened on his forehead. He looked barely out of his teens and totally out of his depth.
“Sit down, Gregory. Have a drink of water. I don’t want you fainting too.” I glanced over at the other person in the room, a middle-aged woman cowering on a chair in the corner. “Are you all right? I’m Ruth. I clean here. Do you want a glass of water?”
She shook her head. “No. I… I’ll just stay out of the way.”
“Gregory, why don’t you take your client – I’m sorry, I don’t know your name – into the foyer, and get yourselves something from the machine? I can stay with Martine.”
Gregory led the woman, Dorothy, out of the room, and the door swung shut. The only sounds were Martine’s hoarse, uneven gasps and the pounding of my blood bashing through my arteries. For the first five endless minutes, I wished Martine would wake up and tell me to stop making a fuss and get back to my mopping.
When her eyes did begin to flutter open, and I felt the faintest squeeze where her hand lay in mine, I wished she would go back to sleep. She tossed her head fretfully, eyes open but unseeing, unearthly groans rumbling from her throat, legs twitching underneath the blanket. I stroked her hair and muttered half-hearted promises that it was all right, the ambulance would be here soon, she
She mumbled something, causing a dribble of saliva to run down her cheek. I bent my face closer and asked her to say it again.
Pray? I can’t remember how. I don’t know what I’m praying to. I don’t think he listens to me any more.
Martine tugged feebly at my hand. I looked at the streak of blue, the streak of green, smudged around each eye, and I prayed.
“God, I don’t have the right to ask you for anything. But this isn’t about me; it’s about Martine. Please help her. Don’t let this be anything bad. Oh, please help. And get those paramedics here quick.”
Before I had a chance to utter an “amen”, the door opened, and a man and woman in green uniforms stepped in. Within moments, they had equipment set up and were working on Martine. I didn’t know the answers to most of their questions about her details or what had happened, so I switched places with Gregory and joined Dorothy on one of the sofas. She sat motionless, clutching her handbag and staring at the wall opposite, her tea cold on the table in front of us. I wondered if she was in shock.
“Do you know Martine?”
“I spoke to her on the phone to make the appointment.”
“Did you drive here?”
“I don’t drive. I only live up past the Burgage. I can walk back.”
The Burgage is Southwell’s village green. From Oak Hill this was a brisk twenty-five-minute walk through the town centre. In the dark, and the rain, by herself after a horrible shock. It was too far.
“I would give you a lift, but I’ve walked too. Can I call someone to pick you up?”
She shook her head. “No, you’re all right. I’ll be fine.”
We sat for a few more minutes. Dorothy’s hands trembled as she gripped on to her bag. After a while the paramedics wheeled Martine out on a stretcher. She lay wrapped in a blanket, an oxygen mask over her face. I got up to hold the outside door open for them. Gregory held the door on the other side.