I Hope You Dance, page 19
“I don’t know what to say. I feel a bit bewildered and bulldozed, if I’m being honest.”
“Be honest, Ruth. You know I don’t work any other way. We’ll be advertising for a couple of weeks, so you have time to think it over. Talk to Maggie. But I for one am hoping that no one else applies. Having someone I can work with is just as important as someone who can do the job. I like you, Ruth. You talk my language and hardly ever stare at my eyes. You never once accidently referred to me as male and you make a rollicking good cup of coffee.”
“Thanks. I think.”
“Plus, Dorothy has been on the phone asking if you can attend her next appointment. As a friend, not a counsellor, until you’ve been vetted and trained. It’s next Monday evening. I hope you can make it. You made a big impression the other week. She said she found you a calming presence and you managed to explain things so that they didn’t whizz around her head like a remote control aeroplane piloted by a small boy. Apparently, I didn’t do that.”
“I’ll check my diary, but if I’m free I’d love to help.”
“Good.” Martine left, giving my head a chance to stop spinning while I finished up and fetched my coat and bag from the staffroom. I scanned the job description. Better pay, more hours, stuff I could actually do and enjoyed doing. But. A lot more responsibility. Martine wanting to pray for me every day and insisting on doo-doo free conversations. The weirdness of working full time for Meat Harris. Accepting that I would probably be staying in Southwell for a lot longer than I had originally planned.
The debt monster laughed. I told him to get lost, and scurried back home to a mug of soup, a new pad of drawing paper, sharpened pencils and serious escapism into a world of creatures who care nothing for money, jobs or whether the windows are free of smears.
In the three weeks that Maggie had been mooning about since the bonfire party, glued to her mobile phone and blushing copiously, I heard nothing from school about her behaviour. It appeared that the lovebirds were smart enough to discern that the prize for staying out of trouble was time together. I briefly tried explaining to Maggie that her being allowed a certain measure of freedom when it came to her boyfriend was about trust, not reward… I might as well have told the wood pigeons who roosted in the oak tree behind the shed.
Then one Thursday afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing Mr Hay’s voice on the end of my phone. I was transferring washing to the drier when he called.
“Ruth.” We had started using first names somewhere around half-term.
“Hi, Ken. Long time no speak. I can’t say I’m happy to hear your voice. Unless… are you phoning to let me know how hard Maggie’s been working? She’s won a prize for her exemplary behaviour? Ooh – I know. You want to make her a prefect.”
“I wish I were. And we’re getting there. She’s coming on much better at school – started to hang around with some of Seth Callahan’s new friends. I never thought I’d say this, but that boy is actually becoming something of a positive influence. Matt and Lois Harris are miracle workers.”
“So what’s the problem?”
The headmaster turned grave, using his oh-dear-I-am-very-sorry-for-your-awful-child voice. “Hannah Beaumont has been in touch. Three times. She’s been having some issues with Maggie.”
“Oh dear.” I shut the door of the drier, and slid down onto the tiled floor. I had been half expecting this.
“Apparently, Maggie has been increasingly late for her visits. Last Saturday she didn’t turn up at all. A couple of times she has hung around in the garden talking and, ahem, interacting with Seth for quite some time, instead of being with Mrs Beaumont. She’s –”
“Hang on a minute. Interacting? You mean kissing? And how long is quite some time?”
“Um, yes. Kissing. According to Mrs Beaumont’s records, the first occasion was for thirteen minutes, the second twenty-five.”
“She keeps records? Of two teenagers interacting in her front garden?”
“It was her neighbour’s garden.”
“I don’t know what to say to that. You’d better go on.”
“Mrs Beaumont also complained that Maggie was, and I quote, ‘discourteous, disrespectful, disengaged and dismissive’.”
“Do you think she got stuck on the letter D in her dictionary of insults?”
“I have to ask that you take this seriously, Ms Henderson. Maggie is on probation here. If she fails to complete the placement…”
Whoa. I was back to being Ms Henderson again. Not a great sign.
“I know. I’ll speak to her. Thanks for giving me the heads up.”
“I’m not sure that will be enough.”
“Mrs Beaumont has asked to be removed from the programme. If it was for any other reason, for example illness, we could transfer Maggie to someone else, but under the circumstances that wouldn’t be appropriate. This will constitute a fail.”
“Can’t it be put down to a personality clash? You said yourself Maggie’s doing much better. I’ve met Hannah Beaumont. She’s a difficult character, putting it politely. Some would say she’s miserable, self-absorbed, crotchety and condescending. She also seems to be seriously deluded about her past – either that or a compulsive liar. I’d struggle to spend four hours a week with her.”
“On two of these occasions it was tonsils clashing, not personalities.”
I leaned my head against the side of the drier, wiped the frustration off my face. “Can you give me a chance to change her mind? I’ll talk to Maggie and go with her to see Hannah, take some flowers or something. Please, Ken. I think it would set Maggie right back to where we were in September if this didn’t work out.”
“I think that too. That’s why I’ve spoken to Mrs Beaumont, and she has agreed to let Maggie try one more session on Saturday, if you stay with her the whole time. But this is her last chance, Ruth. She has no excuse for being late, or for being rude.”
As I continued my chores, vacuuming the downstairs rooms and vigorously attacking the woodwork with my mother’s favourite household item, a damp duster, an idea occurred to me. It was Thursday. I had two theatre tickets. Maggie and I were going to spend some quality mother and daughter time together.
“I knew you would come.”
I jolted in my theatre seat, sending the top dozen toffees in the packet I was holding skittering across the polished floor. Carl Barker laughed. “Steady on, Ruth. I don’t normally have that extreme a reaction on women. Although… I kind of like it. And you can’t deny chemistry.”
I very slowly twisted around to find him leaning his arm on the back of my chair, boring into me with that now disturbingly intense gaze. Pulling back from the blast of hot breath on my face, I risked a glimpse at Maggie. Her expression appeared a smooth canvas, but dark clouds swirled in her eyes.
“Carl. If I’d known you still wanted to come I wouldn’t have accepted the tickets. I thought the play sold out.”
He shrugged. “I know the director. Saved his life once. No biggie.” He winked at Maggie, who dropped her jaw slightly in horror and hurriedly turned away, burying her head in her phone.
“Your daughter’s beautiful. She takes after her mother.”
“Great hair.” He raised one eyebrow at me. “I like a girl with spunk.”
Maggie was still sporting her bonfire colours, having decided to leave her hair alone for a while and let the natural roots grow in. “Because Seth likes the real me – who I am underneath. He hates those fake girls who try too hard and pretend to be someone they’re not. I can be myself with him.” Spine-tingling words to hear from a fourteen-year-old daughter. How much of the real Maggie did he want to see? Being a fifteen-year-old boy, I suspected all of it. How much was she prepared to show him? Gulp.
“So, how are you, Ruth? Have a good week? Any more random incidents of hooliganism on that little cul-de-sac of yours?”
“No. And I’m f
Carl leaned even further forward. I couldn’t imagine how he was still managing to stay on his seat. He moved his mouth about an inch from the back of my neck, sending chills across my skin, and murmured, “I think it was a mistake to wangle a seat right behind you. How will I be able to concentrate on the stage when I can’t take my eyes off the vision in front of me?”
I felt the Veronese risotto Mum had cooked us curdle in my stomach. Carl employed smoother, less obviously rank tactics to my old boss Cramer Spence, but I was starting to suspect they were cut from the same piece of cloth. Cloth that was slippery black nylon with suspicious stains on it. I considered turning around and snapping out the inappropriateness of his comment, ordering him to back off. But I knew it would only engage him in further conversation and make no difference. I thought about asking Maggie if she would come with me to the toilet, so we could sneak out, but I didn’t want to overreact and possibly scare her. Besides, I was frozen to my seat.
I should have done that. I should have left. Should have taken those silky, squirmy words more seriously.
The curtain rose and I pretended to lose myself in the star-crossed lovers, but all I could focus on was the unpleasant prickle that felt like a head louse clinging on to the hairs at the back of my neck.
How strange that bonding over a smarmy man who can’t take a hint would allow me to persuade Maggie to give Hannah Beaumont one more try.
The following day was Lois and Matt’s Surprising Sexy Yurt Adventure. Once the older kids were at school, and Lois had taken Martha and Teagan on the conveniently arranged toddlers’ day trip to a nearby farm park, Rupa, Ana Luisa and Ellie broke into Bramley House using a key Rupa had pinched a few days earlier. Emily, who was at work counselling bereaved parents, planned on joining them that evening. By the time I managed to get away from the shop, the interior of the house had been transformed with manic cleaning, tidying, sorting and straightening. Ana Luisa was preparing two romantic dinners in the kitchen, one for each evening, and I found Ellie tossing various outside toys and clutter into a big pile behind the greenhouse.
In the far corner of the rambling garden, two men put the finishing touches to the construction of the yurt. Another couple ferried the various rugs and cushions, the bed and other pieces of furniture from the van. I helped Ellie tidy up the rest of the toys before sticking a path of garden lights into the lawn, leading up to the tent. By the time I then made the workmen the requisite cups of strong, sugary tea, they had put everything inside and in its proper place.
I nearly dropped the tray of tea.
It was stunning.
A bedchamber for a desert princess. Warm and cosy, and exotic and sumptuous all at once.
I left the men with their drinks and went to fetch the others. We gasped, and oohed and aahed a bit more, and waited for the men to drive away before bouncing on the bed a few times, rummaging through the food hampers and trying out our sultry Moroccan seduction dances. My phone whistled.
It was a text from Martine:
PRINCE OF PERSIA ON THE MOVE EST TIME OF ARRIVAL AT RENDEZVOUS 16 MINUTES
“So Matt’s on his way home?” Rupa looked at her watch. “Eek! It’s nearly three. Lois will be back soon. Ellie! Unwrap yourself from those drapes and help me unload the car.”
While they carried in several vases of pink roses, Lois’s favourites, and spread them around the tent, Ana Luisa and I quickly unpackaged the clothes we had bought, and slipped a Dean Martin CD into the portable player. Matt arrived three seconds later.
“What? Why? Has Lawrence of Arabia moved into my back garden?” He stood in the doorway to the yurt, wearing a scruffy fleece with stains on it, faded jeans and a patchy beard. The word that came to mind was “scraggly”.
“You have fourteen minutes until Lois is home!” Ana Luisa flapped her hands in frustration. “Argh! No offence, Pastor Matt, but look at you! Oak Hill have bought you forty-eight uninterrupted hours with your gorgeous wife and you are going to ruin it all by looking like a man who cleans skips for a living. And – oh my golly – you smell like one too.”
Matt looked at the rest of us. Ellie tried to adopt a casual position where she was sprawled on the bed. “Can someone please tell me what’s going on, preferably without including any personal insults?”
“No time!” Ana Luisa grabbed Matt’s arm and tried to muscle him out of the tent. “All will be explained once you are clean and presentable. Go, go, go! And wear that blue shirt with the green leaves on it. And your best suit. And smart shoes. And for all our sakes, get rid of that facial fluff – it is the worst passion assassin I have ever seen! Go!”
“Okay!” He held up his arms in surrender. “I’ll trust you wild and crazy ladies and go and make myself irresistible. I wouldn’t want to spoil whatever bonkers plan you’ve come up with this time. As long as someone makes me a cup of coffee and brings me a piece of that cake on the kitchen table.”
By the time Lois arrived, Matt had been scrubbed up, revitalized with a cup of Brazilian strength coffee and filled in on the plan. Then Ana Luisa had to shout at him all over again. “What woman wants to step into that magnificent boudoir and see a blotchy man? Pull yourself together and remove those tears!”
He was waiting in the front garden when Lois pulled the minivan into the driveway, looking pretty darn hot for a priest-type person. He opened the car door and held out one hand to help his wife, handing her one of the roses. Meanwhile the rest of us had snuck over to the passenger side of the van, eased open the sliding door and were kidnapping the children out the other side. By the time Lois turned around to start sorting out Teagan, Martha, Freya and Connor, they had disappeared into the shadows.
We watched Matt lead a gobsmacked Lois round the side of the house, and then herded the kids in through the front door.
I left once Poppy had also arrived, dropped off by her school bus. Rupa and Ellie were manning the first shift, until Saturday mid-morning, along with Emily. Ana Luisa and I would then take over, carrying on until Sunday, when Matt’s parents would arrive to help us get the kids ready for church.
At that point, we would tell the Harrises about the rest of the present, the trip to Disneyland. Providing, of course, they were all still in one piece, us included.
When I returned at ten the following day and saw the state of the babysitters, I wasn’t sure about the likelihood of that outcome.
“How’s it going?” I said, yelling to be heard above the combined noise of Teagan’s wails, Poppy’s toy harmonica, some cartoon about an evil supervillain Freya was watching, Connor’s lightsaber war with Emily (who was using the Force), Martha repeating over and over “Where Mummy Daddy? Where Mummy Daddy?” and the washing machine, drier and dishwasher all rumbling simultaneously.
Ellie lifted her head off the kitchen table. A corner of toast was stuck to her cheek. She managed to crack open one bloodshot eye, briefly, before closing it and letting her head drop back down again.
Rupa jiggled Teagan up and down in front of the living room window, making desperate cooing noises, intermingled with what sounded dangerously close to sobs.
“Give her to me.” I gently took the baby from her hands, increasing the volume of the wails by several decibels.
Rupa stared out of the window, her hair sticking out in a hundred different directions, her caramel complexion tinged with grey. “I’ve actually been trying to make myself one of those for the past four years. Like, spending all my life savings and jabbing myself in the backside on a regular basis. I let that greasy doctor examine me. For one of those.” She shook her head, and peered directly into my eyes. “What the Jiminy Cricket have I done?”
“Go and make yourself a cup of tea. She won’t stop crying while you’re stressing her out.”
“I can’t drink tea. It makes me barf because I’ve got one of those crying things inside me.”
I took Teagan upstairs and found her cot in Lois and Matt’s bedroom. There was a well-worn comfort blanket in there, which I wrapped around her, tucking her firmly against my chest. I had a delicious fifteen minutes where Teagan decided that maybe I would do after all, before gradually reducing her cries to tired whimpers and then falling asleep. I gingerly laid her in the cot, and checked the baby monitor was on before creeping back downstairs to the chaos.
“RIGHT!” Growing up the youngest of four daughters, I had learned to make myself heard when necessary. “EVERYBODY STOP!”
Everybody stopped, except for the evil supervillain, but then what can you expect from someone whose sole mission in life is world annihilation? “What is Lois going to think if she comes in here to check on things and sees this going on?”
Nobody knew what Lois would think. The villain cackled.
Connor looked at me for a minute. “She’s going to think you’re rubbish babysitters.”
“Is she going to think you deserve the party we’ve planned for you later on?”
Connor thought about that. Freya paused the TV. “I like parties. Wanna go to the party.”
“You have thirty minutes to tidy up this mess, eat breakfast, get dressed and brush your teeth and hair. Everyone who is ready before the alarm goes off on my phone gets to come to the party. Wait! There are two teams. Connor and Martha are team one. Poppy and Freya are team two.”
“What about me?” Emily asked.
“You’re making things worse. You have five minutes to get your stuff together and go. Now, team one – are you ready?”
“YES!” Team one were ready.
“Team two, are you steady?”
“YES!” Team two were steady.