I Hope You Dance, page 15
“Oh, come off it, Ruth. That was twenty years ago. You are such a drama queen.”
I bit my tongue. We were heading off into old ground that was churned up enough.
“Maybe you could talk to them?” I looked at each of my sisters. Esther was still stricken. “Lydia?”
She snorted. “Well, somebody’s got to. Not here, though. I’ll check my diary with Marcia when I get back. In the meantime, Ruth, try not to let this family disintegrate any further. If you can’t help, the least you can do is not make things any worse.”
The fireworks began at eight. Some of the smaller children went inside to watch from the upstairs window of the Big House. Arianna stayed at ours, alone with her book. I spotted my daughter sitting in the crook of a silver birch tree in the garden of the house opposite, the shadowy shape of a young man on one of the branches above her. I saw a few whizzes and bangs, oohed and aahed with the rest of the crowd, but my gaze kept drifting off to that tree. I couldn’t see Maggie’s left hand, and I suspected it was nicely enclosed in the larger, stronger, hormone-riddled hand of the boy-man with her.
I knew what happened to lonely girls with self-esteem issues in the hands of charming boys. I went to find Lois.
Matt stood watching the show, Freya straddling his shoulders, Martha in one arm and baby Teagan in a pram by his side. He informed me that Lois had taken Poppy into the Big House away from the bangs. I used the front door, following the sound of women’s voices towards the snug at the back. Pausing by the door for the briefest of seconds, I heard Ana Luisa. My hand hovered, still an inch away from the door handle.
“I don’t know how much longer I can bear this, Lois. He has been so, so kind. Far kinder than I deserved. And in the beginning that was enough. You know how I was when he found me. I was a wreck. And for such a long time I burned with this shame. But his kindness… his patience and his compassion to me. I am whole again. I am ready now. I love to clean, and to cook for him, to make sure he has everything he needs and do my best to make him happy. But I think I need more than that now.” Her voice broke. “Lois, I love him so much. I don’t want to be his housekeeper any more. I want to be more than that. I want to do all this for free, from the love that is in my heart. To stand by his side, not in his kitchen. To go with him on his working travels. I am beside myself. I think my heart is really breaking!”
“You must tell him.”
Oh, how I hated my treacherous, wicked feet that wouldn’t move away from the door. My prying, jealous ears that listened to this confidence shared with someone far better than me. I darn well deserved to hear what Lois said next.
“Anyone can see he loves you, Ana. He just doesn’t know how to show it. Given the circumstances of how you met, it would be very easy to seem like he was taking advantage. He’s a proud man, and a good one. How can he tell you how he feels without putting you in an impossible situation if you don’t feel the same, which I’m sure he would never imagine you did? At best, you leave, and he loses you. At worst, you stay out of fear, or pity, or obligation, and everybody loses.”
“You really think he loves me?” Her voice trembled and cracked with a tiny thread of hope.
“I know he loves you. But you have to remember – it’s been a heck of a long time since he had any romance in his life. And his heart was sorely broken then. He’s probably as terrified as you are. I’m going to keep giving you the same advice, girl. Put on your best dress, light some candles, block all the escape routes, cook him a fabulous Brazilian dinner, and make it so bleepin’ obvious that you want him he can’t refuse.”
They laughed, as the old, deep, deep wounds that riddled the surface of my heart burst open, and fresh pain and loss and longing gushed out. I gingerly turned around and crept back down the hallway of the beautiful house that Ana Luisa had brought to life, filling it with her warmth and her spirit and her radiant colours. She belonged here. This place was hers, not mine any longer. I had had my chance, and lost it. I was happy for her. Or at least I would be once I could breathe without feeling as though a wrench had been clamped around my vital organs and was squeezing so hard I thought I might die.
My plan was to go home, crawl into the back of my wardrobe and stay there until Ana Luisa and David were married and had at least ten children. But, dang and blast, I knew far too many people in this town, and they were all so chipper and friendly, wanting to chat and resurrect old stories and jokes, tell me how I hadn’t changed a bit, but my, hadn’t I grown up and what was I doing with myself these days? I was congratulated many times for having made the utterly sensible decision in coming back home, recognizing what everybody else in this town had known all along: that Southwell was just about the best place to live in the solar system. As the huge stock of fireworks gradually wore down, the flurries of sparks whizzing over our heads, I settled on a bench in a corner, found a sleepy nephew to snuggle on my lap, and scanned the crowd through the smoke and the flashing lights for any sign of my love-struck daughter.
It was the mulled wine. Or too much smoke inhalation. Maybe it was my snippy sisters entwined with their rich husbands. Or because a stray rocket landed in the middle of the willow tree and set it on fire, burning half of it to the ground before someone found a hose and saved the rest. Somewhere in all of this, my sorrow fizzled out. And from the ashes arose an angry, flippant, belligerent phoenix. The little boy in my lap roused himself and squiggled away. I may have squeezed him too hard. And at that point, oh dear, my phone rang.
It was Carl.
He hoped I didn’t mind him ringing. Had I thought about his dinner offer? He’d managed to get hold of a table at Maggio’s, a new Italian restaurant in Newark, for next Saturday. No strings, just a fantastic meal, and a chance for Dorothy and him to say thanks. What did I say?
I said, Stuff it! I’m going out for dinner with a handsome doctor if I feel like it. I’m young, free and single, and bored half out of my brains with my own pathetic self. Somebody was offering to do something nice for me, would probably even be nice to me; we would talk about normal things like culture and the news and travel, and I might even give him a goodnight kiss if I felt like it and his mother wasn’t looking.
I said yes.
Next Friday was the rescheduled girls’ night. I had hardly slept, and considered cancelling the Sort of Date about every three minutes since the party. But whenever I picked up the phone, I remembered Arianna, sat on the sofa inside while the rockets whizzed and popped, the Catherine wheel careened and the rest of the children squealed and hopped about, their faces pink and ruddy in the glow of the fire. It was one dinner. I wasn’t hoping for or expecting a second one, but it was time to get over myself, get over my fear and dip my toe in the river.
It took Emily – that awesome woman who sees the things most people don’t – ooh, about twelve seconds to figure it out.
We were in Ellie’s farmhouse, a short drive outside town, down a long, bumpy mud road and surrounded by sleek, state-of-the-art stables that only emphasized the neglected house slumped in the middle. Inside, the house was what one might kindly call practical. The rest of the girls, who weren’t known for their flattery, called it stark.
“Like a robot’s house,” Ana Luisa told me as I drove her there.
Emily, Rupa and Lois were seated around a fold-up plastic camping table in what served as the dining room. As soon as I joined them, perching on a metal office chair, Emily said, “What’s his name then, Ruth?”
“What’s his name?”
“Urr… Whose name?”
“Wrong answer.” Emily pointed at me, her nose wrinkled. “Spill.”
“Please tell her something, otherwise she’ll keep going on about it all night. I would like a chance to tell you my news.” Rupa pressed her hands together like a prayer. “Besides, her women’s intuition is never wrong. I’m curious now.”
“I don’t know what…”
Emily huffed. “Your vo
“All right, Sherlock. If you must know –”
“Oh, we must.”
“I’m going out for dinner.”
There was a collective sucking in of breath.
“Don’t say anything else.”
Emily called out to Ellie, who was clattering about in the kitchen trying to find six plates that were for human beings rather than horses. “Get back here, Rodeo Jane. Ruth’s got herself a date.”
Ellie poked her head through the serving hatch. “Will paper do? It’s only pizza and some bread. Is paper better than plastic?” She looked at us. Nobody said anything. “All right! I’m coming.”
Thumping into the room, she tossed four mismatched china plates, a saucer, a heavily chipped cereal bowl and two plastic picnic plates on the table. “That’s the best I can do. Last time I checked, pizza tastes the same irrespective of the plate it’s eaten off. If you object to the cracks, you can finish off the crisps and use a crisp bowl. Either that or I’ve got a pie dish somewhere in the garage.”
Emily sighed. “Are they clean?”
“Then we can get back to Ruth’s new boyfriend. To save us all a bunch of time, here is what we need to know, Ruth: who, what, why, where, when, how. Go.”
I surrendered, secretly thrilled to have someone to tell this to apart from my mother. “It’s not a date, not really. You know last week when Martine collapsed?”
“Martine!” Rupa squeaked. “I’d forgotten. How is she doing, Lois? I heard she was coming out on Tuesday.”
“Yes, she had the test results back. She’s going to be fine – nothing that the right medication can’t sort out, apparently.”
“Yes, yes, time for that later!” Emily barked. “Please continue, Ruth,” she said with a smile like syrup.
“Well, this woman was at Oak Hill at the time, and I ended up sitting with her while she waited for a lift home. It was the night we had that big storm and she hadn’t got a car.” I glanced at Lois, aware that the debt centre was confidential regarding its clients.
“Anyway, her son came to pick her up. He asked me to go to dinner with them to say thanks. I thought about it, and decided why not? So we’re going out tomorrow evening. But I haven’t told Maggie yet. So please don’t say anything.”
“Ruth, darling. You know what’s uttered on girls’ night stays on girls’ night,” Emily replied. “What about the rest? Where, why, who, what does he look like? More details!”
“His name’s Carl. He’s a doctor. He’s tall, quite trendy looking. Blue eyes. Glasses.”
“Ooh – she noticed his eyes. She must like him,” Rupa gushed.
“We’re going to Maggio’s.”
“Maggio’s?” Lois raised her eyebrows. “He’s really trying to impress you. Unless that’s where all the cool doctors eat these days. So where does he work? I don’t know any Carls at the surgery.”
“We didn’t get on to that. But he worked Friday night, so it might be at one of the hospitals. His mum will be there. It isn’t really a date.”
“So what’s the why?” Emily asked. “Last question, I promise. Then Rupa can tell us why she’s wriggling about like a toddler with a secret.”
At that point there was a knock on the door, heralding the arrival of the pizza. I had a good few minutes to think as we divvied up slices, helped ourselves to warm bread with dips and olives and topped up our glasses. It was Emily’s turn to say grace.
“God. Thanks for take-away pizza. It may be slightly stodgy and have too much garlic, but it’s a whole lot better than what my beloved friend Ellie would cook up. You gave her a lot of wonderful gifts, God, but you know better than anyone that cooking is not one of them. So cheers for the pizza, and the sharing, and the fact that even though I am a crotchety old cabbage, for reasons I cannot fathom, these incredible, magnificent, beautiful women have invited me to share in their food, and their friendship, and their lives. And please help Ruth, who is understandably still nervous of us all, as we can be unnerving at times, if not downright bizarre. Ta.”
She paused long enough to wave at me. “Ruth? I don’t think you got a chance to answer the question earlier. It would be rude not to let you finish. You were telling us why you said yes to a date with the hunky doctor.”
“Honestly? Because he asked me. And I was vaguely attracted to him, which says a lot considering how long it’s been. And… and… I haven’t been out for dinner with a man in over four years. Unless you count a couple of Fraser’s work dos, which I don’t. I’ve never been out with anyone apart from him, either. I thought it might be nice to have done it just once. Why not? What’s the worst that can happen? His mum’ll be there.”
I laughed, awkwardly.
“I am very pleased for you.” Ana Luisa, who had been uncharacteristically quiet so far, raised her glass. “You deserve some happiness. And if you want to know what the worst that can happen is, ask Ellie to tell you about her date with Michael Hood.”
We all swivelled round to face Ellie. The rest of the girls were grinning.
Ellie sighed, lowering her head onto the tabletop. From there, she stuffed another bite of pizza into her sideways mouth. “It was a roller disco.”
There was another half an hour of bad date stories, accompanied by banter and gut-wrenching gales of laughter, before we finally got around to hearing Rupa’s news. She began weeping even before she could get the words out, but the glow on her cheeks and the joy shining out of every pore said it all.
“You’re pregnant!” we cried, smothering her with hugs and kisses and several toasts about how good old-fashioned sex had got there in the end. Lois cried out, “Tell us everything! Who, what, why, where, when and how!”
That Thursday, Maggie got invited to the cinema. After much poking, needling and downright nagging, I discovered she was going with another girl from school, the girl’s boyfriend, and Seth.
“So, what’s the situation here? Are you two going out? Is it a date?”
“Mum. I’m fourteen. I don’t go on dates.” She sliced off a tiny slither of the apple Mum had pressed into her hand, and nibbled it.
“Answer the first question, please.”
“No, we aren’t going out.”
“He’s not your boyfriend.”
“You aren’t sort of seeing him.”
“Mum! We’re friends. What about that don’t you get?”
“I don’t get that when a couple go to the cinema, and another girl and boy go with them, the girl isn’t smart enough to figure out that maybe some setting up is going on.”
Maggie’s eyes rolled so far I was surprised they came back. She sliced off another piece of apple.
“I’m so sorry, Maggie, that I happen, for some weird reason, to care about you, and your life, and who your friends are. I know it is bizarre that I might be interested in these things, but there you are. I am. So I’m going to ask you about them.”
“How come if I’m sarcastic I get told off but you can do it whenever you like?”
“I don’t know. That’s just how it works. Have you decided what to do if Seth wants to be more than friends? He’s had a pretty tough time of it lately. I want you to think carefully about whether a boyfriend would be a good idea right now before you give him the wrong impression.” I knew this was as pointless as talking to the apple. But at least, for the record, I had said it.
“Okay then, I promise not to do it with him on the back row. Satisfied? Can I go now?”
“Um, actually. I had something I wanted to tell you. Speaking of dates.”
“What?” Maggie went pale. She stared at me with huge round eyes, suddenly a child again. “I’m actually sort of hoping you’re going to tell me Pop is going on a date with Booby Ruby rather than what I think you’re going to say.” She stuck her hands over he
I sucked in a big, deep breath and told her what she did not want to know, emphasizing the Dorothy part, the “saying thanks” part, and trying to disguise this as being no more than a friendly dinner.
Maggie threw her half-eaten apple in the direction of the compost bin, hurled the knife after it, where it clanged onto the work surface, and slammed out of the room. I put the apple in the bin, placed the knife in the dishwasher and wiped the splatter off the countertop. Taking out my phone, I began to dial Carl’s number. Mum burst in, brandishing a rolled-up magazine like a scimitar.
“Don’t you dare cancel that dinner. It’s been over eighteen months! You are allowed to let a man buy you a nice meal if you feel ready for it. It could be twenty years and Maggie would still object. I’ll talk to her, remind her she doesn’t want a shrivelled-up prune for a mother. Goodness me. Don’t you dare cancel that dinner! Eighteen months since a man treated you as special and you want to turn one down!”
Eighteen months? Oh, Mum. It’s been far, far longer than that.
I asked Vanessa if I could have a staff discount to buy a dress. She routinely helped herself to stock, so I didn’t think she would be too outraged.
“Really? I didn’t think single mothers had that many opportunities to go out on the town. Not dressing up for one of the weird nights you have with those religious women, are you? What are you going to do – sacrifice a goat?”
“No. I’m not seeing my friends. I’m going out to dinner. To Maggio’s.” I used a pair of scissors to carefully slice open a box of accessories before ripping off the parcel tape.
“Ooh, la la! Maggio’s! Very swanky. I’ve heard it’s a rip off, but each to their own.”
“So, can I have a staff discount?”