I hope you dance, p.18

I Hope You Dance, page 18

 

I Hope You Dance
 



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“No, I wasn’t. I was heartbroken. I needed time to get over myself and figure out how to be friends with you without it killing me. I had waited twelve years for you to realize I was more than just a frog counter in holey jeans and wellies. My dad had practically disowned me, and now my best friend had chosen a horrible, shallow tart with fake tan and fake nails to match her personality instead of me. I’d seen the films, read the books. That night was when everything was supposed to turn out all right at the last minute. The happy ever after. You see me in my blue dress, my hair all done up, the hours of make-up, and realize you want to be more than just friends.”

  Angry I could still feel so worked up about it after all this time, I swiped at the tears on my face. “I didn’t know how to say it in a letter. Or on the phone. And by the time I came home from Lydia’s, you’d gone. I thought if I waited until the Christmas break, I could pretend it was fine. We could go back to how we were. But by then everything had changed.”

  David took three quick strides over to where I was standing. He leaned forward, his eyes boring deep into mine. I could feel the contained power in his body and backed away, hitting the trunk of the tree behind me.

  “How could you be so stupid?”

  “What?” That stopped my tears.

  “The lights, the blanket, the champagne, the picnic hamper full of cheese sandwiches, the CD of that song you liked from Dawson’s Creek? They were all for you, Ruth. I had been waiting for you for three hours underneath the willow tree. They were all for you. It was always you.”

  He span around and walked away, making it about fifty yards before turning back and marching right up to me again.

  “I didn’t think anything could hurt as much as not being able to talk to you, to see you any more, make you smile. Then I heard you’d moved in with some bloke you’d known for five minutes, in Liverpool. That you were pregnant. And I found out I was wrong.”

  I couldn’t speak. His words were a cannonball fired straight through my middle.

  David let out a long, shuddering sigh. He ran his hands through his hair, tarnished gold in the deepening dusk. “You should have answered my calls, Ruth.”

  A long moment passed. I steadied my breathing and wiped my nose.

  “You’re right. I should have. I’m sorry. But I was eighteen, and messed up, and then I was slightly distracted by the whole teenage mother thing. That and throwing up every day for thirteen weeks straight. It’s hard to write a nice letter when everything ends up splattered in vomit.”

  He picked up the rucksack, zipping it up and throwing it onto one shoulder.

  “I’m sorry too. My plan was not to lure you up here and then interrogate you about something that happened when we were kids. Honestly, I just wanted some conkers, and to catch up with an old friend.”

  “Well, it’s probably good to get it out in the open.”

  “It’s nice to know we were equal in our romantic patheticness, at least.”

  “Were? I think last night proved I’m still as equally pathetic when it comes to the opposite sex.”

  “Hey, at least you managed a long-term relationship. You’re still the only girl I’ve ever loved.”

  His voice was light, the ever present humour downplaying the potential of those words. But nevertheless my heart stuttered, threatened to stall altogether.

  Oh, David. If only you knew.

  We ended our walk as we had set out: in silence. I thought about Maggie, and knew that in the end I could regret nothing – neither the years with David lost, nor forgoing any chance to be with him now. I would do it all again, for her, no contest.

  But boy, it didn’t seem to soften the sting when David left, innocently explaining that Ana Luisa was cooking a surprise for him that evening, as in the morning he would be back on a plane.

  Chapter Fifteen

  Vanessa Jacobs was a cornered rat. Fangs bared, claws out, she did not respond well to the invasion of Couture.

  It was impressive quite to what extent the addition of four confident, powerful women on a mission could fill the boutique. Vanessa found Ellie’s cowboy hat particularly challenging.

  “Can I help you?” she snarled.

  “No, thanks,” Emily barked back. “Not sure you’d quite grasp the look we’re aiming for.”

  “I’m not sure we stock the look you’re aiming for.”

  “Stop it,” Ana Luisa bellowed. “Ladies, we should be championing each other, not using our words to scratch the other’s eyes out.” She smiled her full on, brilliant white smile at Vanessa. “But Ruth knows the person we are here to buy for this morning, and what it is for, so if you don’t mind, perhaps she could assist us?”

  “Suit yourself. Just don’t let the cowgirl touch anything.” She retreated behind the glass counter and started flicking through a magazine.

  “Hi, Ruth.” Rupa waved at me. “How was Saturday?”

  “Hideous. I’ll tell you about it another time. How are you doing, Rupa?”

  “Sick as a dog,” she beamed. “Exhausted, weepy and my ankles are swollen already.”

  “Great.”

  Ellie was standing in the middle of the shop, arms hanging awkwardly by her sides. Her six foot two inch frame, broad shoulders and pained expression gave her the appearance of a giant in a fairy castle. She looked as though she was trying not to breathe too hard.

  “Let’s get on with it. I’ve set some things aside in the back room I thought might suit Lois. See what you think.”

  I had learned something in my few weeks in the world of high-class fashion. Vanessa’s business thrived despite her scornful attitude (although some women seemed to find haughtiness reassuring). This was simply down to one thing. She knew fashion, and she knew women. And she was able to put the two together in ways that worked. I had been watching how she matched shapes, colours and styles to the different customers who came in the shop, and, having taken note of Lois’s tiny frame, her pale complexion and the weekend of romance we were hoping to dress her up for, I had chosen some outfits I thought the girls would approve of.

  After twenty minutes of bickering over whether we chose comfort (Ellie’s choice: who can relax in itchy clothes you can’t sit down in properly?) or texture (Emily declared that we needed something worth running your hands over), prettiness (Rupa loved a swirly, lacy buttoned dress) versus passion (Ana Luisa insisted that Lois required a slithery zip, not fiddly buttons), Vanessa was near screaming point.

  “Here.” She stomped out to the back and whipped through a rack of new arrivals waiting to be sorted before bringing out two dresses. “First night. Second night. Get the blue and the red shoes, Ruth.”

  “I’m not sure she’ll be needing shoes,” Ellie said.

  Vanessa shot a withering look that told us what she thought about a woman who would buy a new dress and not bother to coordinate shoes with it. “Here, Ruth. Ring these up.”

  She added underwear, a pale blue chemise with matching robe and a cashmere shawl.

  “Ruth gets ten per cent off, staff discount.” Rupa pointed at the prices appearing on the till.

  “They aren’t for Ruth.”

  “Ruth is buying them. As a present! Do you check with all your customers if they’re buying something for themselves or as a gift?”

  “The rest of my customers don’t get a staff discount. Only my paid members of staff. And that’s always subject to change. Where does it end? Is she going to start buying the rest of you clothes and knocking ten per cent off? What about her mad mother? Or her gaggle of sisters? I haven’t built up the most successful shop in the town by offering freebies to my employee’s friends.”

  Emily moved over to the counter. Leaning down low across it she stuck her face right up close to Vanessa. “How about offering a discount as a gesture of kindness to a woman who spends her life serving other people, saving the lives of broken children and giving selflessly to the hundreds of people in this town who have the privilege of knowing her? Hundreds of people. All with friends and fa
milies. Who donated a lot of money to give Matt and Lois this gift. Who, I’m sure, would love to hear about how generous the owner of Couture was in her contribution to the special occasion.”

  “People don’t spend money in my shop because I’m generous,” Vanessa growled.

  “No, but you might actually find those who do, think you’re a tiny bit less of a cow.”

  “Hah! Do you think I care what the yokey-cokey, backward, inbred people in this nothing town think?”

  Emily was steel. She had babysat Vanessa once upon a time. “Yes.”

  There was a long silence. Rupa, whose hormones were running riot through her bloodstream, let out a tiny squeak. Ellie stuck her hands on her hips, knocking a hat stand draped with Italian scarves with her elbow. Ana Luisa held up one of the more expensive necklaces to her chest, and checked it out in the mirror. My finger hovered over the computerized till button, waiting to see if Vanessa would break.

  “Fine. Whatever.” She rolled her eyeballs, flicking her hair over one shoulder. “Just make sure it’s worth my while.”

  We paid for Lois’s Surprising Sexy Yurt Adventure outfits ourselves, having covered all the other costs from the Oak Hill collection. My share was enough to make my eyes water, with or without staff discount. But I was glad to pay it. Lois deserved every beautiful, hand-sewn stitch.

  Ana Luisa was planting tulip bulbs underneath the ruin of the willow tree when I got back from work. I wandered over to join her. Even though I knew David had returned overseas, I couldn’t seem to stop my eyes from jumping over to the front of the house anyway.

  “Hi, Ruth. Did Vanessa make the rest of your day a misery?”

  “No worse than usual. Well, a little bit worse, but I can handle it. How are you?”

  “Oh, you know. I’m doing fine, thanks. Nothing to complain about. How can we not feel joy when the sun is shining and the sky is blue?”

  Ana Luisa did not sound joyful. Her white smile was tinged with sorrow. I wondered if her sadness was because she hadn’t told Mr David how she felt about him before he left. I tried not to linger on the thought that maybe she had, and he didn’t return those feelings. I wanted David to be happy; to have someone to love, to come home to. That couldn’t be me, not for a long time. Probably not ever. And I refused to stand in his way, everywhere but in the secret recesses of my wild imaginings.

  Another letter arrived, forwarded to me from Fraser’s office. It informed me about the rising interest on my debt. Unless I paid off the minimum amount in the next thirty days, scary things would happen involving debt recovery agents, courts, even bigger fines and possibly handcuffs (the letter didn’t mention that one, but the image was stuck in my frantic mind). If I wrote a cheque, which would surely then bounce anyway, would that be seen as acknowledging the debt as really mine? If I stuffed the letter in the back of my wardrobe, or burnt it in the stove, would the problem disappear up the chimney with a puff of smoke? Would showing the letter to my mother cause my stress levels to rise to the point where I had a stroke? Did I have any ideas that didn’t make my insides clench up like a fist?

  Yes, I had one. I made an appointment with the now fiercely healthy Martine before my shift started.

  “Ruth.” She bowed in the doorway to her office and beckoned me in. “Take a seat. What do you want to drink?”

  “Whisky? Tequila?”

  “Even better: extra thick and creamy hot chocolate. And if you promise to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, I’ll throw in a fondant fancy.”

  She deftly prepared me the drink before taking a seat on the sofa opposite me. “How are you, Ruth? I’ve been praying for you.”

  Every single time I saw Martine, which was at least twice a week depending on her schedule and mine, she asked if she could pray for me. Since our moment together on the debt centre office floor, she considered me fair game. I knew my polite refusals were pointless, that she prayed for me anyway, but at least for now she didn’t do it within earshot.

  “I appreciate your offer, as always. But my mother has prayed for me every single day of my life, Martine. Look where that got me.”

  Martine looked around. Her blue eye twinkled like the sky in springtime. Her green eye sparkled like a leaf in the summer breeze. “Looks like it worked!”

  I told Martine about the credit card Fraser had taken out in my name. She confirmed what I already knew – call it fraud or identity theft, he had broken the law.

  Here was my dilemma: Fraser had committed himself to providing for me and our unborn child from the age of nineteen. He worked part-time jobs while studying for his degree, then paid for pretty much every single penny we had spent as a family since. As he crept up the career ladder, he took me on luxury holidays, bought me designer clothes, jewellery and a cool car. He had never once checked up on my spending, or complained, or told me I needed to make more of a contribution to the family bank balance.

  Whatever had gone awry in Fraser’s financial life over the past few years, however wrong it was for him to keep me in the dark about the reality of our situation, I knew that when it came down to hard cash, I owed Fraser a whole lot more than the twenty-one thousand pounds he had spent using my name. Add to this the role I played in the deterioration of our relationship by holding back that part of my heart I secretly kept for another man, and the pain and the shock it would cause Maggie to know I was pursuing criminal proceedings against her late father, and my decision was made.

  “I’m going to pay the debt.”

  Martine clicked the end of her pen in and out a few times. “This is not your debt. You don’t have to pay it, you shouldn’t pay it and you can’t pay it. How and why are you going to pay it?”

  “I’ll use some of the money I was saving to buy a house. I can stay with Mum and Dad a bit longer. It’s not so bad.”

  Hah! Grand total saved so far: fifty-three pounds and six pence.

  “I could probably find a few more hours’ work now I’ve got a bit of experience. Southwell’s full of rich commuters who need a cleaner.”

  “Ruth. As a cleaner you earn eight pounds fifty an hour. Your debt is twenty-one thousand, eight hundred and ninety-seven pounds. This month. At your current rate of interest, you’ll need to work, let me see now…” She started clicking on her calculator. I didn’t need a calculator. I had one implanted in my head.

  “Eighteen and a half hours.”

  “Hang on a moment.” Click, click. “Just need to divide by the… add in the interest rate…” Click click. “Eighteen and a half hours every single week just to make the minimum payment.”

  Martine looked at me. Her brained click clicked like the calculator.

  “POW! You worked that out in your head. In about zero point five seconds. You are a genius, Ruth Henderson! What are you doing wasting a brain the size of a barn scrubbing my toilets?! It is a sin, and in my opinion should be a crime, to squander and squish the unique and amazing gifts you have been blessed with. If I had known this information, I never would have given you a job.”

  “If you remember, when you offered me a job I was recovering from an extremely stressful financial meltdown and a minor emotional one. I did carefully and honestly explain my reasons for taking the job.”

  “Well, praise the Lord that you are now firmly fixed on the road to recovery. I know a lot of people in this town, Ruth, who know a lot of other people. Surely one of them must be looking for a numerical whizz to be the solution to their problems! My mission is to find that prosperous yet mathematically challenged tycoon and then fire you as my cleaner. Let’s pray!”

  I was tidying my brushes and mops back into the store cupboard when Martine barrelled out of her office and yelled at me.

  “Well, it looks as though Jesus has got your back, Ruth Henderson. How many nappy bins are you going to have to empty before you accept there is a wonderful life waiting for you if you have the courage and good sense to grab it?”

  I leaned the broom against the back wall of the store roo
m, briefly considering whether or not I should join it and close the door. “What are you talking about, Martine?” Could heart medication affect someone’s brain?

  “Answer one question and I’ll tell you what I’m talking about. Take a look around, Ruth. Do you like what you see?”

  I looked around, as instructed. I saw through the crack in a door a bunch of toddlers banging instruments and trying to sing along to a nursery rhyme. Half of the mums, the one dad and the child-minders who were with them were singing too, bouncing the babies on their knees. The other half were chatting, laughing, sharing and in one case crying while one of the toddler team gave her a bear hug.

  Through the glass doors into the café, I saw the staff getting ready to serve hot meals to over sixty pensioners who would gather for the lunch club later on. The team leader, an eighty-six-year-old woman who had buried her daughter six months previously, stopped to give a word of encouragement and a pat on the back to her newest recruit: a man who had spent twelve years living on the streets overcome with drug and alcohol addiction.

  I saw the animal pictures I helped the children do at the holiday club up on one wall. The late morning sunlight burst in through the large windows, bouncing around off the different shiny surfaces, creating tiny rainbows. I saw open arms and big hearts, and honest to goodness, genuine, nitty-gritty, in-for-the-long-haul love.

  Martine scrutinized me with her blue and green eyes squinched up in their twin circles of make-up.

  “Yes. I like it.”

  She waited, knowing there was more.

  “I love what you do here, all right?”

  “Yes. It is one hundred per cent all right. Gregory is leaving us to go and fight human trafficking in Eastern Europe. I’ve spoken to Matt. The mega-rich employer looking for a willing assistant appears to be the Lord himself, Ruth. He’s a lot better at maths than you, but for some reason he likes using messed up, lily-livered, puny human beings to do his work. Gregory worked three days a week in the office, mainly doing finance stuff, and the other two as a debt advisor for the centre. Thirty-five hours a week. Here’s an application form. What do you say?”

 
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