I Hope You Dance, page 13
“She’s going to King’s Mill hospital. They think it’s her heart. I’ve called Matt. He’s heading straight there.”
“Is there anyone else we should contact? Any family?”
“She’s got a sister living in Nottingham, I think. Matt’ll know. Are you all right if I go with her? I don’t have any keys or anything.”
“You go. I’ll lock up.” I glanced over to the sofa, where Dorothy still sat staring at the wall. “I can look after Dorothy; it’s fine. Go. And give her my love when she wakes up.” I smiled, ignoring the tears at the back of my eyes. “Tell her I prayed. She’ll like that.”
I made us both a fresh cup of tea, this time from the kitchen, once the ambulance had left. The sound of the kettle, the spoon rattling against the cups as I stirred in dollops of sugar, rang hollow and eerie in the near empty building. I often worked in the building alone, at least for part of my shift, but this evening it felt different. I hurried round closing blinds against the black windows, muffling the drumming of the rain, and shutting doors, blocking out the shadows from vacant rooms. I hastily emptied the mop bucket and tidied my work tools away, disturbing a thick, black spider that scuttled across the dark floor of the cupboard.
I called Mum, hoping for a lift, but Dad had driven to the theatre.
Back in the foyer, I said to Dorothy: “I really don’t think you should walk home. Are you sure there’s no one you could call?” The wind had picked up, and I feared a storm was breaking.
“I could call my son.” Her brow furrowed. “But Carl’s very busy. He’s a doctor. I don’t want to trouble him.”
“If he’s a doctor, then he’ll agree you shouldn’t be walking home.”
Dorothy looked unsure.
“Shall I phone him? I can explain what happened.”
In the end, Dorothy reluctantly muttered Carl’s number as I reached for my phone.
“But you mustn’t tell him why I’m here! He doesn’t know. I don’t want him to worry.”
“Of course not.”
Carl answered on my second try. “Yes?”
I explained what had happened, missing out the reasons for the meeting.
“Blast. I’m up to my eyeballs here. Is there no one else that can take her?”
“She could get a taxi, I suppose, but she’s very shaken up. I don’t really want to send her home alone at this time of night.”
The doctor sighed. “I’ll finish up here, then try and get over. But I’m on call, so if something urgent comes up, it might be a while. Maybe an hour.”
“Sorry, if I had a car myself…”
“No, it’s fine.”
Ending the call, I said to Dorothy: “He’ll be here when he can. I know it’s none of my business, but don’t you think you ought to tell Carl you’re struggling? If he’s a doctor, he must be able to help you out.”
“No. He’s had enough problems lately. And this is my mess. I got myself into it. I have to get myself out.”
“Debt is a big, scary thing to deal with alone.”
Dorothy wiped her hands over her eyes, and bent her head. There were two inches of grey roots topping the cheap red hair. “That’s why I called the centre. One of the girls I used to work with came here. She said they were dead nice.”
“But keeping it a secret from your family?”
“I don’t want him to be disappointed in me.” She began to cry. “I can’t bear the shame of it.”
I shuffled over on the sofa to put my arm around her, taking the cup of tea gently out of her hand and putting it on the table. We cried together, two women carrying the heavy burden of debt and disgrace, weak and tired from shouldering it alone. I told her my story, more than I had been willing to share with anyone, about the anguish of choosing between three meals a day or paying for my daughter’s phone so she could maintain something of a normal life in the wake of her grief. I spoke of how the fear and despair had writhed in my guts like an angry emperor scorpion.
She explained about losing her temporary job at the leisure centre, only three days after paying for new windows because the old ones were rotten and splintered. Then her brother had died, and there was no one else to pay for the funeral or the headstone. So she took out a loan, and then another loan to cover the first one when she couldn’t find a job. She became ill then, with depression, and couldn’t face leaving the house for days at a time. The letters kept coming, and the phone calls. They took her benefits straight out of her bank account, leaving nothing with which to pay the gas bill. And now her cupboards were empty except for a few tins and a packet of soup.
“You have to tell your son. You have to let him help you.”
“I can’t, Ruth. I just can’t.”
I listened to the broken woman beside me. I felt her ribs through the flimsy cardigan she wore, saw the lines etched into her face, the desolation in her eyes, and I couldn’t do nothing.
“Then you must let me.”
I was no debt counsellor. Had no certificate, like the ten hung proudly on the back office wall, and no training. But I had experience, and a horribly first-hand knowledge of dealing with debt, and creditors, and the slimy snakes who slither about snapping at your heels for money you haven’t got, have no way of getting, and they have no moral right to demand off you in the first place. And I had a heart, which could not walk away from this woman.
We moved into the office, much warmer than the foyer now the heating had clicked off for the night. I topped up our tea – the remedy for any and every ill – and got to work.
It was nearly ten by the time Carl arrived. I had worked through a fair wodge of the paperwork – mostly unopened letters – that Dorothy had brought, forming some sort of order into urgent, important and pointless. It was too late to make many calls, but I promised to pass on our progress to Gregory in the morning, and had done my best to offer what she needed most – reassurance, hope and a ten pound note to buy some essentials. I also gave her my phone number in case she wanted to talk about it another time. We were back on the sofa, exhausted but calm, when the door pushed open.
Carl wore a navy blue coat over grey trousers. He had spiky light brown hair and carefully managed stubble. Trendy glasses framed brilliant blue eyes. He was tall, well over six foot, and broad shouldered, but his mouth was full and wide, softening an otherwise imposing presence.
He held out one hand to shake mine. “Carl Barker. So sorry to keep you waiting. I hope Mum hasn’t put you out too much.”
“Not at all. It’s been nice getting to know her. She saved me from a pile of ironing and rubbish on the telly.”
He looked me up and down, deliberately, with those bright blue eyes. “Really? A woman like you has nowhere to be on a Friday night? I find that very hard to believe.”
“Well…” I blushed. I couldn’t help it. His gaze was piercing. He probably only wore the glasses to protect women he stared at from swooning. “I was planning on seeing some friends for a girls’ night in, but two of them were ill, so…”
“You missed out on your evening with your friends?”
“Well.” I shrugged, and rolled my eyes goofily. Was I flirting? I hoped I wasn’t flirting.
“And instead you ended up stuck here waiting for me.” He frowned. “I feel terrible. Let me make it up to you – and thank you for taking care of Mum. How about next Saturday? I’ll repay you with an evening out.”
“Urr. I’m not sure. You really don’t need to do that.”
Carl lowered his head, his face intent. “Please, Ruth. I’m not very good at being in someone’s debt. Allow us to buy you dinner. You could bring your husband, or boyfriend? If you have one. Which would be gutting, but understandable.”
I glanced at Dorothy, who was picking at a loose thread on her coat. She smiled at me tentatively and gave a tiny shrug.
“Come on, just say yes.” He broke out into a grin, and his face transformed in an instant. “You can trust me, I’m a doctor.”
Those eyes were making me in
“I’ll think about it.”
“Excellent! You’ve got my number.” He briskly left with Dorothy, and I set the alarm and locked up the building. The rain plopped in fat splodges onto my coat and seeped through my hat. I had to lean into the wind as it tried to buffet me back through the empty streets. As I waited to cross the road in the centre of the town, a lorry rushed past, soaking me with dirty puddle water. I barely noticed. I was thinking about Martine, and Dorothy, and seeing the tiny flicker of relief in her eyes, and her powerful son, who scared me, and made my insides wobble, and might be taking me out for dinner.
I was thirty-three years old and single. Okay looking, if a little scrawny. I had swishy hair and remained in control of all my faculties. I wasn’t a weirdo, or a shrew, or desperate. Yes, I lived with my parents, had a delinquent daughter and a pile of non-money. But that wouldn’t be forever. And he had proposed dinner, not marriage. With his mother present. My conclusion to all this stormy late-night thinking? I might just say yes to that invitation from Carl Barker.
I had been bedazzled by those sharp, sapphire eyes. Blinded to the fact that they had looked so long at me and ignored the mother in distress. I should have worn sunglasses. I should have blinked. I should have turned away.
Fed by Mum’s frenzied compulsion to distract herself, the bonfire party had taken on a life of its own, growing out of all proportion. She had extended the invitation well beyond the realms of family, resulting in a blazing row with Dad that involved him carrying out several chairs from the house into the garden in order to demonstrate that half the guests would have to sit on the bonfire. Mum made an emergency run to the Big House.
She arrived back, breathless, half an hour later.
“Right. That’s settled. We’ll use the front gardens to observe the fireworks, and locate the bonfire at the side of the Big House, in the old fire pit. Tables of drinks on our drive, barbecue on the front pavement, other food warmed and served in the Big House kitchen. Bathroom facilities available to use in both houses, downstairs only, same goes for inner seating areas. Fabulous! What are you waiting for, Ruth? We have half a ton of firewood to shift before five o’clock.”
I spent the afternoon following orders, teeth gritted, temper on edge. I was seventeen again, the naughty youngest daughter, requiring, it would seem, constant supervision and bossing about.
Mum, I could just about put up with. Once I saw the effigy she had made for the bonfire, with its grey curly hair, enormous breasts, pink anorak and saggy leggings, I would have gladly carried ten thousand twigs in my teeth in order to make her feel better. But Lydia – my closest sister in age, and furthest away in likeability – had swanned in from her mansion in Surrey straight after lunch, dragging her husband Grayson, twin boys and seven large suitcases of attitude with her.
Lydia was a minor celebrity. She had not necessarily been the most talented of the dancing Henderson sisters, but she had certainly been the most ambitious. Which translated into obsessively hardworking, self-promoting and cut-throat. She had left home at nineteen to pursue fame and fortune in the big city, then spent a decade accepting bit parts in music videos before taking a short cut and marrying a television producer. For three years she danced professionally on a prime time, top ratings ballroom dance show, until becoming pregnant with the twins, who were now four. I had seen my nephews only a couple of times, when Maggie and I visited them for uncomfortable weekends of showing off and passive aggression. Lydia had been in Portugal filming an advert when Fraser died, so this was the first time in nearly two years that I’d seen her.
I didn’t hate my sister. I pitied her shallow, self-serving lifestyle, her constant chasing after popularity, and that she valued everyone and everything by such a pathetic set of criteria. She was lost and, I suspected, very lonely. Yes, I did see the irony in me pitying someone else’s lost, lonely, pointless life. And this only made her dismissive condescension even more irritating.
I finished wheeling the last barrow load of firewood from our garden over to the Big House, and went back to our kitchen to grab a glass of water. Lydia was draped artfully over the butcher’s block, watching Esther wash potatoes at the sink.
She burst out laughing when she saw me. “That’s hilarious! I just had a flashback to 1990!”
Grabbing Esther, she gleefully pointed out my filthy jeans and baggy jumper covered in bits of twig and other debris. I knew I had dirt on my face, my hands were covered in scratches and there were the makings of a sparrow’s nest caught in my hair.
“I would hug you, Ruth, but this outfit cost more than your car.”
“You haven’t changed either, Lyd. Except, is that a grey hair? I don’t remember seeing that in 1990.”
“She doesn’t have a car. She’s scrounging Mum and Dad’s.” Esther turned back to the potatoes.
Lydia smiled her fake magazine smile. “Well, underneath the rustic charm your body looks amazing. I know celebrities who would kill for that figure.” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “But if you ever want a good man to sort your face, let me know. I’d swear by mine. All the stars use him.”
“Ruth is a cleaner, Lyd. She can’t afford Botox.”
The smile froze in place. “What?”
“I am a part-time cleaner for the Oak Hill Centre. I also work three days a week as a dogsbody in Vanessa Jacobs’ shop. You may not have picked this up, but I don’t have a partner to support me any more, Lydia. He died. Did anyone mention that? And, before you ask, as I know you are just about to, I’m doing pretty good, thanks, all things considered. Life was seriously rough for a while. I dabbled in a minor emotional breakdown due to crippling debts, losing my home and my job, trying to raise my grief-stricken daughter alone, but hey-ho, the unfailing support of my wonderful family got me through it.”
I walked out, forgetting the water. This was why I did not see my sisters more than once every two years. When I had regained my self-control and no longer hated the person I was when I was with them, that might change. I hid under the bare branches of the willow tree until I’d calmed down.
The family spent the rest of the afternoon tidying up and setting out chairs in little clusters around the gardens. Other neighbours joined us sweeping the leaves off the pavements and lawns, carrying tables and lining them up along the Big House driveway. My brothers-in-law, Grayson and Max, hung bunting Mum had made with orange, red and yellow flags between the treetops and the side of the houses. Lanterns were dotted around the flowerbeds, and Christmas lights strung over the larger bushes. More barbecues were brought out, and plastic plates and cups and cutlery stacked up beside a growing collection of various drinks bottles and cans.
My three nephews joined the other children on the street jumping in piles of swept-up leaves, picking up huge handfuls and throwing them like confetti, making leaf dens and leaf beds, and having leaf wars. Arianna sat in the kitchen and painstakingly decorated eighty cupcakes with stars and sprinkles to appear like fireworks.
“Are you looking forward to the fireworks, Arianna?” I asked, during a three-minute tea break (yes, I was being timed).
“No. I don’t like the bang or the noise or the scary fire bits that go up in the sky and then come down again. I’m going to stay inside and read my book.”
“You could watch out of the window.”
“No. All the colours make my head wobble. I want to read instead.”
“That’s a shame. I’m sure if your daddy held your hand you would feel safe enough.”
She shook her head, determined. “Being scared is yucky. I don’t like it. It’s stupid.”
“I know what you mean. But some things are good scared – like excited scared, when it makes you
“No. I don’t like them. I just want to stay inside so I don’t get hurt.”
I finished my tea. I had lived for thirteen years trying not to get hurt again. Staying inside. Hoping to be safe. If I had learned anything in the past eighteen months, it was that you can try and be as careful as you want, but as long as there are other people in your life, you run the risk of a rogue firework whizzing down the chimney and setting the house on fire. I pulled out my phone and scrolled through the numbers to find Carl’s. If life was going to bring its share of pain anyway, then I might as well go outside and watch some fireworks.
“Ruth! Stop skiving! Mum’s looking for you. She needs someone to tie the Catherine wheels to the fence,” Lydia bellowed through the back door.
“And why can’t you do it, lovely sister?”
“I’ve just spent more than your entire wardrobe cost on these nails. My contribution to the party is the sparkle of my personality and kudos of my presence. Get to work.”
I put the phone away.
Maggie stomped home just after four. Her hair was flame red, burnt orange and yellow, her expression black. She found me chopping up vegetables for a coleslaw.
“Hi, Maggie. How’d it go today?”
“What did you and Hannah get up to?”
“I made us tea, which took about half an hour; did three days’ washing up while she stood there breathing at me. Then I cleaned her windows. Except that, of course, I did them wrong, as my neglectful mother hasn’t bothered to teach me the correct procedure for cleaning windows. Apparently opening the front door and handing a man with a ladder seven pounds fifty isn’t good enough. I had a lovely time standing in the freezing cold slopping water over myself and using newspaper and an old pair of Hannah’s knickers to wipe her windows while she rambled on with more fantasy stories from her pretend life as a countess. So, yes, it was a great afternoon.”