I Hope You Dance, page 14
“Seth wasn’t there, then.”
“What?” Maggie screwed up her face and squinted her eyes at me, as if I had spoken to her in Martian.
I raised my eyebrows, completely innocent. “Nothing. I meant absolutely nothing by that whatsoever. I have not noticed at all that you come home from Hannah’s singing with a secretive smile on your face on occasion. Or that on these occasions you happen to mention Seth, ooh, about twenty-seven times – how he happened to be around with John and maybe, coincidentally, you were walking home together at the same time or he knocked on the door with a random question about the supervisor or needed an extra pair of hands to move some furniture for his great-granddad. I had not noticed that at all. I am sure Seth being there has absolutely no reflection on your mood whatsoever.”
She picked up a mug and banged it hard on the countertop. “What are you talking about? You are so embarrassing! This is why I never tell you anything. You want me to settle down here and make some friends, and when I do you go on about it like it’s some big teenage romance. I can be friends with a guy without drooling over him and having a stupid crush.”
“Who said anything about romance or a crush?” I widened my eyes and shrugged my shoulders.
“Shut up, Mum.”
“Sorry. I’m in a bad mood, and no, it has nothing to do with Seth.”
“What then?” I resumed chopping the cabbage.
“Nanny?” I couldn’t believe my ears. Had the perfect Nanny finally managed to annoy my daughter?
“Yes.” She yanked open a cupboard door, and started forcefully searching for the jar of hot chocolate.
“Are you going to tell me what she did?”
“She drove me to Sherwood Court, pretending to be all kind and like she was doing me a favour. Then she insisted on coming to the door with me, and invited Hannah to the party.” Maggie pulled out the jar, slamming the cupboard door shut.
“Oh. And you don’t want Hannah to come.”
“Hello?” She grabbed a spoon before chucking about three too many spoonfuls of chocolate powder into her mug. “And stand behind me pointing out how I hold my sparkler wrong, or the correct way a lady should squirt ketchup on her hotdog? It’s bad enough I have to spend four hours a week with her. I shouldn’t have to spend my free time with the old bag as well.”
“Maggie!” I pointed my finger at her over the top of the knife.
“Well, she is an old bag. She’s not even that old. She just acts all weak and frail. I hate her. I hate having to go to her house and I hate the way she talks to me like I’m a piece of chewing gum stuck on her shoe and how she moves so slowly, shuffling that walker, and thinks I’m some sort of poor, deprived simpleton girl who doesn’t know anything and can’t do anything. She makes my skin itch and Nanny should have asked me before inviting her to the party!”
“Is she coming?”
Maggie turned on the cold water tap to fill up the kettle, so forcefully the water squirted back out and all over her top. “Look! I can’t even fill a kettle properly. I’m obviously never going to amount to anything, destined to end up husbandless, flailing around in my own filth somewhere, alone. Oh no, that’s not me, that’s Hannah Beaumont. How dare she judge me?”
I removed the kettle, ushering her over to the table while I made her drink.
“You didn’t answer my question,” I prompted.
“I don’t know if she’s coming. As far as I can tell she never leaves the house. That doesn’t make it all right though. Her or Nanny.”
“No. It doesn’t. I’ll talk to Nanny. She’s just got into a spin about the party.”
I gave her the hot chocolate. Maggie blew on it a couple of times before replying, her eyes on the drink. “About the party, or about a fat, scary seductress chasing her man?”
“How do you know about that?”
“I’m not stupid. Despite what Hannah might think. He’s with her today, isn’t he?”
I nodded. “A trip to a museum or something. He’ll be back later on.”
“If he brings her with him, I’m going to burn a hole in the back of her anorak with my sparkler.”
“Have you seen the guy Nanny made?”
Maggie looked at me. “No!” The clouds lifted and her face shone – one of those instantaneous mood changes unique to teenagers. “She didn’t! I need a photo of this to show Seth.”
She sloshed the remains of her drink in the sink, dumped her mug on the side and began to hurry out of the kitchen.
I called after her: “If you wait another hour he can see it for himself.”
“What?” She turned back. “Seth’s coming tonight?”
“Yes. Matt and Lois are bringing all the kids.”
“Argh!” She spun round and barrelled out of the other door, thundering up the stairs. “You could have told me! How am I supposed to get ready in less than an hour?”
I picked up the empty mug and put it in the dishwasher, then wiped up the spray of hot chocolate drops splattered around the sink, relishing this moment of normal life with a grin. “I didn’t think you were interested.”
One of the reasons I spent most of the afternoon outside hauling wood, apart from the fact that once upon a time I was an outdoorsy, wood-chopping, fire-building type of gal, was because it kept me well away from the front door of the Big House. I hadn’t been inside since the day of the school leavers’ dance, afraid the memories it contained would be too potent, too vivid, too raw. That stepping over the threshold into the house would peel away another layer of the armour I had carefully constructed to protect my heart from the reminders of what I had loved, and who I had lost.
However, when Esther ordered me to carry a tray of spare cutlery over there, I wasn’t about to explain that I was petrified the Big House would reduce me to a blob of weeping jelly. I saw no free hands to pass the tray on to on my way over. Even Lydia was occupied wiping her boys’ runny noses. With great trepidation and a thumping heart, I entered the front door, the knives and forks rattling on the tray in time to my trembling hands.
Standing for a moment in the hallway, I let out the breath I had been holding with a whoosh. This was not the house from my childhood. The home where I’d spent hours at the dining room table whizzing through my homework before helping David with his trigonometry; where I’d lounged on the swirly rug in the drawing room sketching pictures while my best friend added notes underneath. I could find no trace of the place I had escaped to when the busyness, the sparkle and the dance-obsessed conversations all became too much.
For as long as I could remember, the Big House had been a museum. A mausoleum. A place where time had stopped, warmth and laughter had largely disappeared, and life went on in hushed tones and muted colours. When David’s mother died, the professor retreated to his study, to the safety of books and history and theories. He hired a housekeeper to see to the basics: providing meals, cleaning, keeping an eye on David. But she was as cold and rigid as the antique dressers lining the rooms and the oil paintings hung upon the walls. I had never minded the Big House being gloomy, full of shadows and furniture that seemed imposing and dour. I felt soothed by the silence, and enchanted by the mystery of closed doors, dusty cupboards and strange ornaments from faraway places. I loved feeling welcome in a house that was gruff and severe. It gave me hope of a big world out there where I would fit in and find my place, and not feel judged or weird or like an alien.
But that house had gone.
I wandered through to the kitchen, taking in the bright, clean paint on the walls – white and duck-egg blue and buttercup yellow. The heavy drapes had been swapped for stripy curtains in red, green and navy, pulled back wide from the window frames, allowing the afternoon sunlight to shine through. The dark, oversized furniture had been largely replaced with light oak pieces, dotted with vases of colourful flowers and modern lamps. The depressing paintings were gone too. Instead, photograp
I found one small photograph of a young girl, maybe five or six, standing beside a boy of a similar age. They wore matching camouflage outfits with streaks of mud painted across their faces and foreheads. The boy held up an enormous frog in one hand, the girl leaned towards him, all her attention on her companion, eyes bright and cheeks flushed. In an instant, I was back there. The day David Carrington said he would marry me.
Growing up, I had loved David with the pure, uncomplicated love of a girl for her best friend, and he loved me. At six years old we claimed the willow tree for our den. It had been a long, hot summer, and the untamed branches hung low enough to form a circular canopy underneath which we swore our unfailing loyalty.
I had brought a blanket. David had brought chocolate.
“My mum died.”
Stretched out on the blanket, I watched the sun glinting through the top leaves of the willow. “I know.”
“That means she can’t come back ever.”
I swallowed the last piece of my chocolate bar. “Do you miss her?”
David nodded. I closed my eyes because I thought he might cry and boys don’t like girls to see them cry.
“My dad doesn’t know how to cook Friday pasta or do the right voices for Fantastic Mr Fox. He didn’t put the flannel on my forehead and the shampoo stung my eyes.”
I thought about that. About what it would be like if my mum wasn’t there, and it was left to Dad to cook dinner and tuck me in at night and find where my wellies were or make it better when I scraped my knee.
“If you like, I could be your mum. Not yet. But when I’m bigger I could make you Friday pasta.”
David said nothing. I opened my eyes and looked at him. “Don’t you want me to be your mum?”
He squinted at me, the shadows of the long, thin leaves flickering over his freckles. “Mrs Morris said you can’t marry your mum, and we’re going to get married and live in the house with the wonky dog.”
“Okay. Do you want to go to the pond and look for frogs?”
If anything could stop David missing his mum, it was looking for frogs. “I’ll catch, you count?”
Of course. David always caught, I always counted. The perfect team. Isn’t that the stuff lifelong friendships are made of?
I found Ana Luisa in the kitchen, dipping apples in toffee. Her hair was wound up on top of her head, a ray of sunshine glinting off the few wispy strands escaping the knot.
“Ruth, how good to see you. You can put the tray over there.”
The old pine table, pushed up against the far wall, was covered in a vinyl cloth printed with autumn leaves. On the two back corners were vases filled with dried flowers. In front stood a grand pyramid of burger buns and finger rolls surrounded by three giant bottles of ketchup, mustard and barbecue sauce. A token salad bowl teetered on the edge.
“The house looks amazing, Ana Luisa. I’m guessing you’re responsible.”
She smiled, eyes focused on the apple dipping. “Mr David helped me paint the cupboards in here, but yes, I did the rest. I don’t want to sound rude, but I couldn’t breathe in this house before.”
“You made a home.”
“That was the plan. I have to earn my keep, you know?”
I wanted to ask her. To ask how she ended up here, in the Big House. Had love brought her here? Or did that come later? Where did the lines blur between her work and her relationship with David, and what dwelt on the other side of that line?
At that moment, the professor stepped in through the back door, his grey hair sticking on end like a cockerel’s comb, one pair of glasses perched in the centre of it, another poking out of the pocket of his frayed shirt.
“Have we left any receptacles behind for a man on the brink of dehydration to trouble himself with a cup of water, Ana Luisa?”
Ana Luisa grinned, the sun bursting out from behind a cloud, and pointed her head towards me. Arnold furrowed his brow, deliberately taking the glasses from his pocket and putting them on.
He pulled his head back. “Well, I’ll be pickled in perchloric acid. Here you are at last.” He stepped forward and held out one hand to shake mine. He gripped me tightly, pumping my fist up and down. “Yes. Yes. Very good. Very good to see you, Ruth.” Letting go of my hand, he pointed one finger up. “One moment, if you would be so kind.”
He disappeared into the hallway. Ana Luisa had a strand of toffee running like a spider’s thread from the apple in her hand to her hair. She pressed her free hand to her chest and let out a long, gentle sigh.
“Look at that. You have made him very happy. It is so good that you are here, Ruth.”
Arnold came back into the room, carrying what looked to be an ancient protractor. “I thought you would, um, appreciate it.”
“It’s beautiful.” I took the tool. It was made of brass, with careful engraved markings to depict the degrees. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to see it sooner.”
He shrugged. “Well. When you’re six hundred years old, time is relative. What about that water then, Ana Luisa? Any tumblers, goblets, beakers revealed themselves?”
“Of course, Mr Arnold. Here you are. Would you like an apple?”
Ana Luisa handed over a glass filled with water, ice and lemon. She smiled, ducking her head at the same time, the strand of toffee nowhere to be seen. Her eyes glanced at her boss, dark pools of melted chocolate, and I wondered how any man could stand a chance.
By six o’clock, the party was in full swing and every chair occupied. The night hung loaded with the scent of cooking meat, fried onions and wood smoke. Children flitted in and out of the shadows, waving sparklers; glasses chinked, neighbours laughed and the fire crackled. Mum came up behind me where I stood huddled against the cold, my fingers wrapped around a mug of mulled wine, and hissed into my neck, “It’s time! Come and help me move the guy.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea? Do you really want to do this?” I muttered out of the side of my mouth.
“I don’t know what you are talking about, my brainiac child. Every bonfire party needs a guy. Preferably a wily, treasonous, appallingly attired loser. À la Guy Fawkes.” She began dragging me over to where the guy had been propped up against the Big House’s shed. “And if it is someone you think actually deserves a good roasting, so much the better. Come on, I’ll take the legs, you grab the boobs. I’d ask your dad to help, but he’s only just getting back from his busy day. I’m sure he’ll be exhausted!”
Sure enough, to my horror, Dad pulled up into our driveway. To make things a million times worse, he wasn’t alone. He opened the passenger door and offered his hand to the person inside. Out clambered a grey-haired, pink-anorak-clad woman with a smirk on her face and fluttering eyelashes.
I froze halfway across the Big House lawn. Some of the guests who had been watching us carry the guy now turned and looked at Ruby, then back at the guy again. Nobody uttered a sound. Esther and Lydia sidled over to block some of the view between Dad and where we stood. A few of Mum’s oldest friends wandered over to join them.
Mum’s eyes blazed hotter than the bonfire. Her jaw was clenched, her body poised for battle. “Is there a problem, Ruth? Shall I ask someone else to help me?”
I shook my head, careful that my pounding heart didn’t pop out of my mouth, and moved with Mum across to the fire. Max and Grayson were waiting. They reached to help Mum toss the effigy onto the flames, but she had none of it.
“I’ll do the honours, boys, if you don’t mind. Although I very much appreciate your support.”
Summoning all the passion and strength of a ballroom queen scorned, she heaved the guy onto the blaze. A cheer w
It took a full minute before Dad managed to close his mouth. By some miracle, Ruby trotted over to the dessert table, seemingly oblivious to the whole thing.
Boy, did that anorak burn.
Lydia and Esther cornered me a few minutes later by the drinks.
“What on earth is going on?” Lydia said, a tiny piece of spittle flying out from the corner of her mouth. “Who is that woman? Is Dad having an affair?”
“Her name’s Ruby. I don’t know what’s going on. She’s clearly after him, but I don’t know how far it’s gone.”
“Ruth! You live here! How can you just let some strumped-up old frump come and steal Dad from under Mum’s nose? What are you playing at?”
I turned to my sister, curled lip ready to fire my usual weapons of sarcasm and caustic comments. But then I saw the look in her eyes. The tear creeping down her cheek. Esther looked equally stunned. My own eyes, so leaky these days, filled up in sympathy.
“I’ve only met her a few times. I promise you, I made it clear Dad’s married. He’s with her all the time at these groups he goes to now. And when he speaks to her on the phone…” I let out a stifled sob. “He used to speak to Mum like that. It’s the only time I’ve seen him smile since I came back.”
“How could Mum let this happen?”
We shook our heads in mutual bewilderment. Mum: the toughest, craftiest, most loving, joyous, passionate woman any of us knew.
“She’s terrified. She doesn’t know how to fix this, so she’s trying to fix everything else. And she feels so out of control, she’s become a control freak. It all just moves her further and further away from him. They barely speak any more.”
“Haven’t you tried talking to them?”
“Have I tried having a conversation with Mum she doesn’t want to have? How do you think that went? And you expect me to sit down and talk to Dad about this? Hello? Do you remember a minor Australian family incident? The one that ended up with me promising never to dance again and Dad disowning me?”