I Hope You Dance, page 16
“You can have ten per cent if you tell me who you’re going out with.” She peered over my shoulder at the box, picking up a dark scarf wrapped in plastic.
“His name is Carl. He’s a doctor. Enough information?”
“Is he fat?” She pretended to be engrossed in examining the scarf.
“Hideously disfigured? Goatee? Freakily short?”
“What are you talking about?”
She sniffed, tossing the scarf back into the box before walking away. “Just wondering.”
I waited until the last minute to get changed that evening. Mum dropped Maggie round at Seth’s to watch a DVD. I had spoken at length to Lois about the wisdom of our respective children embarking on a relationship. Lois was pragmatic.
“They’re both good kids at heart, Ruth. They have issues, sure, but who doesn’t? At least throwing stuff and getting into trouble is in plain sight. In my experience, if two teenagers decide they want to spend time together there is little anyone can do to stop them. Matt is pretty open with Seth about relationships. As long as they operate within our boundaries, that’s fine. We’ll take it one day at a time, and if we can provide them with healthy ways to spend time together, it might help keep things from getting too intense.”
Lois and Matt’s boundaries were necessarily strict, given the nature of some of the children they had to deal with. Seth and Maggie were allowed to meet, for now, in the house as long as an adult was present somewhere in the building. Bearing in mind the relaxed, spontaneous nature of modern relationships, Seth and Maggie’s first evening together was the cringiest, most awkward and embarrassing possible. A DVD with foster siblings and parents hanging around, arranged by his parents. That two teenagers were prepared to put up with these rules said a lot about how much they wanted to get together. I felt petrified about where this was leading. I so missed Fraser and his overprotective dad-ness to help me out here. I barely had time to worry about my own imminent foray into the world of Saturday nights out, so when Carl’s black Audi pulled up outside I felt woefully unprepared.
One final quick look in the mirror. Simple navy blue dress zipped up and untucked from knickers – check. Subtle make-up covering black rings under eyes – check. Tights unladdered – check. Spare tights, comb, tissues, phone, money in blue clutch bag borrowed from my mother – check. List of normal, intelligent, not-too-serious questions to ask – check. Racing heart, sweaty hands and expression of desperate panic – check. Massive guilt – definitely check.
Anything else? The doorbell rang. I would have to do.
Carl greeted me with white roses, a kiss on the cheek and no Dorothy. She was in bed with a migraine. Apparently. It would have been a shame to cancel, wouldn’t it? We could still have fun, couldn’t we? I responded with an awkwardness he seemed to find amusingly endearing. During the thirty-minute drive to the restaurant I realized one thing with absolute certainty: I was not ready. Not ready for dinner, for conversation, for sitting alone in a car with a man I barely knew. The car felt disconcertingly intimate speeding through the darkness, warm and sleek, the faint sound of classical music covering up the hum of the engine. I was used to expensive cars, but ones that were large and loud and littered with old water bottles, forgotten hair clips and Maggie’s discarded food wrappers. The skin prickled on the back of my legs. I felt trapped.
This is a mistake. I finally admitted it to myself just after the starters arrived. It had been a mistake to go out with this man. One I had spoken to for a grand total of three minutes before I agreed to waste an evening of my time with him.
What the heck were you thinking, Ruth?
The first indication that Dr Carl was not the man for me was that our table was seated for two, not three. Yes, he could have phoned ahead and let them know we would be one person short, but I didn’t ask because I suspected something different.
The second indication was this:
When the waiter arrived to take our order, Carl said, “We’ll have the crab to begin with.” He winked at me. “Trust me, you’ll love it. Then we’ll have the veal, a dressed salad and a bottle of Barolo for the lady. Oh, and olives and bread for now.”
I held back until the waiter had moved away.
“You’re right, I do love crab. But I was going to order the aubergine.”
He shook his head, the amused smile back. “In a restaurant of this quality, the crab is going to be better.”
“Carl, my current circumstances may not be great, but I have dined in restaurants like this before.”
He gazed at me with those blue eyes, which without his glasses now appeared slightly less sexy and possibly a tiny bit creepy, and said nothing. He continued to smile.
“And I really don’t want more than a glass of wine. I’m not a big drinker.” Not tonight, I’m not. I also want someone to check whether I mind eating veal, and for that someone not to refer to me as “the lady”.
Carl snapped his fingers. Without taking his eyes off me, he called out to the waiter, who was currently at another table, “Scrap the crab. We’ll have the aubergine, and a half-bottle of the wine.”
“Excuse me, sir. One moment while I serve this table.”
It took less than a minute for the waiter to come over. “I’m sorry, sir. How can I help you?”
“You can help me by listening the first time, so I don’t have to keep repeating myself.”
“Would it be possible for me to change my starter from the crab to the aubergine? We had a slight misunderstanding earlier. And if it’s not too late, we’d like to cancel the wine, please. I’ll just have a mineral water, thanks. Sorry about this.” I grimaced at the young man, one customer service worker to another.
“No problem, madam. I’ll inform the chef and be back with your mineral water in just a moment.”
“And while you’re at it, we ordered olives and bread.”
“My apologies, sir. I will fetch that for you now,” the waiter replied, with only the tiniest hint of annoyance. He nodded slightly before walking away.
Carl shook his head. “You just can’t get decent service these days. So, Ruth. You said you have a daughter. How old is she?”
I didn’t want to tell him about Maggie. Or living with my parents. Or my work, or Liverpool, or anything that involved sharing a part of my life with this man. I brushed off the question and asked him about his job. As we waited for the starters I heard about his incompetent colleagues, his dim-witted patients and the many times that he had saved the day at the hospital where he worked. I still had no clue where that was, or what he actually did.
I returned from the ladies’ room to find two crabs on the table. No aubergine.
Carl grinned. “Don’t throw a hissy fit. I know you lot can be jumpy about fish if it isn’t in batter, but I really wanted you to try it. You’ll love it if you take a chance. Go on, I dare you.”
“Did you change my order back?”
He winked at me again. I gripped my dress under the table to stop myself from throwing the plate at him.
“And who do you mean by ‘you lot’?”
He paused for a moment, then shrugged. “I didn’t mean anything. Sorry. I talk drivel when I’m nervous. Beautiful women make me nervous. I apologize.”
“Please excuse me.” I got up and walked, in as dignified a manner as I could manage in Ana Luisa’s heels, back to the ladies’. Lois answered her phone after two rings.
“Ruth? How’s it going?”
“Are the kids okay?”
“Fine, fine. The others have gone to bed, so we’re giving the lovebirds a few minutes alone. But what about you? Are you managing to keep your hands off Dr Sexy?”
I paced up and down in front of the row of sleek sinks. “Only just. But not in the way you think. I’m debating between slapping him in the face and kicking him in the shin.”
“Oh dear. That bad?”
“Worse. His mum didn’t c
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Yes. Even if I was ready to date, which I discovered after about three seconds that I’m categorically not, it would not be with him. He’s awful. Rude and chauvinistic and a total slime-ball.” I clenched my hair with my free hand. “What do I do?”
“I don’t know, Ruth. I’m not exactly experienced in the dating world either. Tell him you suddenly remembered you had somewhere better to be, like watching The X Factor. Or you don’t feel very well. Make an excuse and leave.”
“I came in his car.”
“WHAT? You really haven’t done this before, have you?”
“No. Please help!”
“Can you fit out the bathroom window? Or escape through the kitchen and call a taxi?”
I glanced over at the tiny window, set right into the top of the wall. “He’s got my number, Lois. And knows where I live. I don’t think he’s the type to let that go without a follow-up. I think I might have to brazen it out.”
I didn’t know that two hours could last so long. I declined dessert, or coffee, but Carl had both, trying to tempt me with tiny morsels off his spoon. I was pretty sure you needed brains to be a doctor. How could this one be so clueless?
The drive back was quiet, at least. Carl pulled up a short distance away from the house. He switched on the interior light of the car, to maximize the impact of his stare.
“I had a wonderful time, Ruth. I’m actually pleased Mum couldn’t be there, if you know what I mean. I really enjoyed introducing you to the high life.”
I gritted my teeth, scrabbling with the seatbelt to get out.
“Well, thanks for dinner. The food was lovely.” How could such an expensive car have such a rubbish seatbelt mechanism? Had Carl modified it to prevent poverty-stricken women from escaping his clutches?
“Especially the crab!” He laughed at our in-joke. “Here, let me get that.”
He leaned across, his face coming about two feet closer to me than was necessary to click open the belt. I stiffened, not bothering to restrain my grimace. Without moving away, he murmured, “You don’t have to be afraid of me, Ruth.” He eased back, then reached one finger up to stroke my cheek. I flinched, groping to find the door handle. Carl chuckled, quietly this time. “So skittish.”
No, Carl. Not skittish. Try repulsed. Insulted. Hacked off. Fuming. Disgusted at myself.
“I’m not afraid of you.”
I found the handle, opened the door and tumbled out. Just in time to see a figure in thermal checked pyjama bottoms and a Liverpool hockey club sweatshirt with the hood pulled down over their face, hurl an egg at Carl’s window. Was there some sort of condition that made you throw things? Was it called Angry and Fourteen?
As Carl shot out of the car, the perpetrator launched another egg, diving into the shadows before it landed with a wet, scrunching sound on the side of my head.
Carl scanned the darkness but failed to spot Maggie before she had slipped behind the side gate leading into our back garden. Champion thrower and sprinter. Forget the befriending scheme; I should get this girl into an athletics club.
I froze, still in the middle of the road. A blob of raw egg plopped off my hair onto the tarmac. Another gloop slipped down inside the collar of my dress.
Carl turned towards the sound of the banging back gate, but in the darkness seemed disorientated and unsure of where it had come from. “Did you see them? You must have seen where they went. Where did they go? I’m going to kill them!” He then began swearing profusely as egg dripped down his open car door.
“I’ll get a cloth and some water.” I hurried into the house, leaving Carl dodging up and down the road overturning wheelie bins and kicking bushes out of the way in an attempt to find whoever had egged his precious car.
Mum met me in the hallway with a bucket of warm soapy water. “Take this and clean up the mess. Whatever you do, don’t tell him it was Maggie while he’s like this. Honestly, Ruth. You have chosen to go on a date with a most bad-tempered man. You’d think a doctor would have learned to control his emotions a little better. Most undignified!”
“Where is she?”
“Locked in the bathroom. Don’t be too hard on her.”
“After the night I’ve had, I’m more tempted to give her a kiss than a punishment.”
I tottered back down the drive, slopping water onto Ana Luisa’s strappy shoes, and started wiping at the mess on the window. Carl quickly gave up his search and strode back over. “I’ll do that.”
“No, it’s fine. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.”
“I said I’ll do it.” He reached forward and grabbed the cloth off me, tipping the bucket over so that the contents sprayed across the lower half of my dress. I stood there, wringing my hands, while he meticulously removed every last trace of raw egg from the side of the car, his teeth clenched in fury.
“Can I get you a drink or something to warm you up?”
“No.” He stood up and stuck his chest out, lowered his chin like a bull preparing to charge.
“What are you going to do?”
Carl turned his head slowly to look at me. His eyes glittered like a laser gun. “I’m going to knock on every door in this street until I find the weasel who did this. And then I’m going to teach them what happens to overgrown rodents who mess up my car.”
My stomach dropped out of the bottom of my dress and splattered onto the ground between my feet. “It’s a bit late to be knocking on people’s doors.”
His face was a stiff mask. He paused for a moment. “If it makes you feel better I’ll come back tomorrow. Thanks for a great night, Ruth. I’ll call you.”
He picked up the empty bucket and smashed it against the nearest lamppost, cursing the weasel as the handle broke off, cracking the plastic sides. He then drop kicked the remains into the garden of one of the houses opposite and flung back his head. “I’m coming for you, weasel! You can run but you can’t hide!”
Yanking open his car door, my very first date ever slammed it shut and revved away into the night. Speechless, egged, dripping wet from the waist down, numb from a lot more than the cold, I turned to go and find Maggie.
“Sounds like someone’s had a bad night.”
I stopped in my tracks. That voice. It was cinnamon and honey. A long, hot shower at the end of an exhausting journey. A light flicking on after fifteen years of shadow. I turned around. Now I had come home.
David stepped out from beneath the shadows of the willow tree. He nodded with his head towards the charred trunk. “Inspecting the damage. I just got back.” He looked at me sideways and narrowed his eyes. “It wasn’t you, was it?”
I shook my head. My legs were water, my chest so tight I couldn’t breathe. My body ice, my face on fire. He took a few steps closer towards me, only six feet away now, and my hands fumbled in the dark for something to clutch hold of, finding nothing but the chill night air. I wanted to run to him. To run away. To tell him everything that had ever happened to me. All the secrets in my heart. To beat him with my fists until my fingers broke.
He looked at me for a long, long time. His face serious, eyes in shadow. So much was different – the stubble on his jaw, the creases around his eyes and lining his forehead beneath the tangled fringe. The softer edges of youth had been replaced with sharp angles and high, strong cheekbones. His shoulders and chest had broadened, the lanky awkwardness gone, strength and surety in its place.
Yet everything was the same. The way he tilted his chin as he assessed me, every muscle in his body still. His hands tucked into the back pockets of worn jeans. Posture straight, feet slightly apart. That indefinable something – call it charisma, or the X-factor – that drew people in, got him noticed by the producers of Whole Wild World, and had me smitten before I even knew what love was.
I tried to swallow the pineapple shaped lump that had lodged itself in my throat.
I nodded. Light years. An age. Millennia.
“How are you?”
Darn it, David. Don’t ask me that. Don’t ask me.
I took a deep breath. Blinked away the ache pressing at the back of my eyeballs.
“I’m wet. And sticky. And so cold I can’t feel my legs.” I paused. “How are you?”
“Right now, this very second? I’m pretty much perfect.”
We stood there, in the dark, the faint rumble of cars from the main road a few hundred yards away the only sound. I could sense the warmth of him; feel the strong, steady beating of his heart. Me too. Right now, this very second. Me too.
“Well, you’re probably exhausted. I’ll let you get in.”
“Come and have a drink with me. You can clean the egg up and dry out by the fire.”
“I ought to get back. Maggie… my daughter. She… did you see who threw them?”
David grinned. The sun rose, birds sang and a symphony of whales leapt from the ocean and dived through a rainbow. “An excellent shot. Shame the window wasn’t open.”
“I think things are bad enough as it is.”
“Please tell me you aren’t in some sort of relationship with that Steroidasaurus.”
“No.” I shook my head. “It’s a long story. I don’t plan on seeing him again.”
“Good to know.”
I said nothing, still in shock that I stood on the pavement talking to David about me and Carl Barker. About anything.
“You’d better get back to her then.”
“Yes.” I started walking towards the house.
David called after me. “And don’t worry. If the dinosaur comes knocking I’ll tell him it was a wandering vagrant with an irrational hatred of successful men. Maggie’s secret is safe with me.”
I looked back over my shoulder. He was still standing there, unmoving. I lifted one hand in acknowledgment and he nodded.