I Hope You Dance, page 20
Ana Luisa dished up cereal, toast, more cereal, fruit and one last piece of toast while I dug out clean outfits for each of the children, flung duvets back onto beds and cheered them on as they got ready for the morning. Poppy needed more care, but her teammate knew exactly where everything was, and how to persuade her to sit still long enough to take her medication and get cleaned up while Ana Luisa did the rest.
By the time the thirty minutes were up, by some miracle we had five kids with full stomachs and clean faces, and a reasonably tidy house. Once they were assured of an invitation to the party, Freya and Martha disappeared to their bedroom before returning dressed as a lobster and a space alien, respectively. Connor tipped a box containing at least five million pieces of Lego down the stairs and Poppy was sick on “Daddy’s chair”, quite possibly in protest at him abandoning her to these strange women. But when I caught Lois tiptoeing into the shower room at eleven o’clock, I was able to reassure her with a straight face that all was under control.
She was dressed in the light blue dressing gown, her hair a bees’ nest.
“Are you having a nice time? How are you doing?”
A slow smile spread across her face. “‘Nice’ is one word for it. How am I doing? I feel like a melted puddle of chocolate.” She paused to wrap her arms around me in a massive squeeze. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
A crash emanated from the kitchen behind us. Ana Luisa cried, “No, don’t eat it! Or stick it there!”
Lois broke the hug, sticking her hands over both ears. “I didn’t hear that.”
I grinned. “Okay.”
She looked at me pointedly. “But I think you did, Ruth.”
“Oh, right. See you later.”
By seven that evening, the party was on the wane. After a day of blowing up balloons, wiping noses, changing nappies, fetching drinks, clearing up spilt drinks, fetching new drinks, breaking up fights, kissing bumps, reading stories, bouncing babies, tidying up toys, fixing lunch, fetching more drinks… I was so tired my bones felt as though they were full of wet sand. A thirty-four-hour labour had been nothing to this. If Maggie and Seth hadn’t arrived to supervise the games, I think I would have taken Ana Luisa up on her suggestion to hide under the stairs until it was all over.
All the children, particularly Poppy, settled down when Seth was there. They loved him as little siblings love big brothers who let them jump on him, kiss him, paint his nails and ask ten thousand questions, all of which he answered with utter confidence, patience and not a hint of patronization. My opinion of Seth Callahan grew to the size of the CN Tower that afternoon. Especially when, unasked, he brought Ana Luisa and me hot chocolate with giant slabs of coffee cake.
“How old are you, Seth?” Ana Luisa asked, her mouth full of cake.
“Hmm. So nearly old enough to marry me.”
“How old are you, Ana Luisa?”
“That’s a rude question to ask a lady.”
“Not if you’re considering her proposal of marriage.”
“I’m no way near old enough to marry you. But I appreciate the offer.”
She shrugged as he went back to judge the dancing competition.
We finished off the party with “Ruth’s Amazing Art Animals”, covering the entire conservatory with decorating sheets. The children wore my dad’s old shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Ana Luisa and I donned boiler suits from the around-a-pound shop.
We made butterfly paintings, egg carton camels and reindeer with footprint noses and handprint antlers. There were origami jumping frogs painted in rainbow colours, pipe-cleaner snakes and spiders, and a turkey made from pine cones.
When the children were so exhausted their heads began nodding into the paint pots, we called it a night. Cleaning them up and getting them into pyjamas took another hour and a half, including a twenty-minute discussion with Martha about whether or not she could wear a plastic suit of armour to bed. We compromised with a breastplate, a sword tucked in beside her and a promise that if the baddies came we would give her time to get her helmet on.
I tucked Freya and Martha in, side by side in their one pink and one blue beds. “Right, then.” I bent down to give Martha a kiss. “Go to sleep now. Granny and Granddad are coming in the morning, so you need lots of rest. Goodnight.”
I went to switch off the light.
“You haven’t finished!” Freya sat up in bed. I looked at her, steeling myself for another battle. “You haven’t said a prayer.”
Oh. That. I glanced out of the door, hoping to find Ana Luisa. She was still helping Poppy get changed. I could hear Seth reading Connor a bedtime story. I shuffled a couple of steps nearer to the bedroom door.
“Say a prayer, Ruth!” Freya demanded.
“Okay, right. Lie back down then.” One of my parents had prayed with me every single night until I turned thirteen. I could do this. I could cobble something together.
“Thank you, God, for a lovely day. Please help Martha and Freya to sleep well, with lovely dreams. Amen.”
“That was RUBBISH!” Freya sat up again.
“Ubbish!” Martha agreed with her. Sheesh. Having my prayers critiqued by a two-year-old.
“Well, why don’t you pray then instead?”
“Thank you, God, for parties, and animals, and cake and balloons and yurts and slugs and rainbows and bedtime and morning time and dinner time and hammer time. You made a really amazing world full of nice things and I love it. Thank you for making me alive. Please help Mummy and Daddy have lots of fun on their secret holiday. I like holidays if I ever went on one, but I didn’t. Please can I go on holiday one day. I would like to go to the seaside. Please can Martha come too? And thank you for Seth and Maggie and Poppy even though she can’t talk and Connor and Teagan and Mummy and Daddy and Freya. And thank you, God, for Ruth. She is really beautiful and kind and funny and good at animals and I love her. Please help her to talk to you better, because talking to you is nice. Bye.”
She put her head back on the pillow and was asleep.
I went downstairs, sat on the sofa and wondered why I was crying, yet again. Twenty months and still so leaky!
Mum came round to pick up Maggie and drop Seth back at John’s. She couldn’t stop as she had one hundred mince pies to finish baking for the Oak Hill craft group.
Ana Luisa spent half an hour preparing a meal for Matt and Lois, then dished out the leftovers for us. We ate in front of the television, the faint sound of Teagan’s snores rumbling through the baby monitor.
“Look at us, Ruth. We are like an old married couple.”
“I can’t believe I ever thought one child was hard work. How do they do this every single day?”
“Would you like any more children?”
I pretended to think about it. As if I didn’t know. Took a deep breath. “I wouldn’t want any more children unless I was married. And I can’t see that happening. What about you? Would you like kids?”
Ana Luisa’s eyes filled up. She reached across the sofa and grabbed my hand. “Yes. Yes, I would like kids. I would like at least four. But I have a very big mountain to overcome before that is possible. And I am starting to wonder if it will ever happen.” She shook her head. “I am starting to think that maybe the only way to solve this problem is to go back to Brazil. Or to find a job somewhere else. Maybe Switzerland. Or New Zealand. Or Pluto.”
It felt as though an invisible hippopotamus had climbed onto my chest.
“That sounds like a drastic solution. Do you want to talk about it?”
She smiled. “Thanks, Ruth. It’s not really so bad. All hope is not lost. I’m just tired and we Brazilian women are prone to getting overly emotional about these things.”
She stacked our plates and carried them out into the kitchen. I sank deeper into the sofa, acknowledging the beginnings of a migraine rumbling in the back of my head. Felt a moment’s grief for the brothers
But now, everything had changed. I used to spend Saturday nights sitting in my fancy suburban kitchen wittering over piles of paperwork, the television on to drown out the silence, calculating and recalculating as I tried to find a way to keep us in our home, keep me in my protective bubble, safe in my non-life pretending the gaping hole in my soul was the sudden loss of my partner, rather than the slow, steady drip-drip loss of myself. Now, I had ended up sitting in a ramshackle cottage surrounded by cardboard animals, looking after five children as a surprise for my friend – a friend! –while another friend held my hand and confessed her deepest fears – two friends! My weekends were bonfire parties, and bad dates, and curry nights. I had been offered a good job, on top of my two current jobs. I laughed sometimes. I was growing hips again. I was having an occasional conversation with my dad. He was getting to know his granddaughter. I had not only seen David, I had gone for a walk with him and managed to almost behave like a normal person. I had actually gone whole hours at a time without thinking about him, or fantasizing about life as Mrs Carrington.
I had spent eighteen months trying not to end up back in Southwell. Fifteen years running from here. Expecting it to be a microscope that showed up all my faults, my failings, my worst fears.
What an idiot.
After a frequently disturbed night, finished off with Martha on one side of my airbed and Freya half off the other, I gave up somewhere around five-thirty and put the kettle on. I could hear Ana Luisa upstairs with Teagan fussing, so took up another tea and a bottle of warm milk. We made it through until Matt’s parents arrived, a woman I vaguely remembered from my school days and a man who had been largely absent from his son’s upbringing. A rosy-cheeked, doe-eyed, goofy-smiled Matt and Lois joined us as we began bundling kids into coats, gloves, hats, scarves and, in Martha’s case, a Darth Vader helmet.
“Let’s go then, troops. Apparently there is more of a surprise to come at church.” Matt grinned. “Although I’m not sure I can take much more.”
Freya clung on to my hand. “I’m going to sit with Ruth. Can I go in your car, Ruth? Please? Please? Please?”
“Um, no. I’m actually not coming. I’m staying to tidy up, then going home to get some rest. I’ll see you soon, I’m sure.”
Freya looked at me. Her little brow furrowed. Her cheeks turned purple. “That is unacceptable, young lady!”
She wrapped herself around my leg, clinging on like a koala. “Please come.” Martha jumped up onto the other leg and joined her. “Ruth, come!”
Connor then moved behind me and started trying to push me out of the door. I looked at Matt and Lois, expecting them to step in and tell their kids to knock it off. Matt grinned. “I’m a minister. I’m not going to stop someone inviting you to church.”
Lois waggled her eyebrows at me. “Oh, stop being such a wuss, Henderson. Get in the van.”
The last time I had been to a church service was Fraser’s funeral. A bleak, dark, freezing cold chapel in Scotland, with oppressive ceilings and uncomfortable pews, it suited my mood perfectly. I had huddled on the front row, sandwiched between the stony Scottish Dragon and Maggie, the droning keen of the organ covering up the horrible silence.
Today I sat on a cushioned chair, a four-year-old leaning on one shoulder, her two-year-old sister playing with my hair on the other side. I had failed in my primary objective; that is, avoiding my mother. She had skipped over, clucking with glee, and given Lois the biggest hug. “Look what you dragged in! How was the weekend? Marvellous, if the bloom on your cheeks is anything to go by. Oh, Ruth, darling, you look like an introvert at a singles party. Stop huddling.”
The best way to describe the next hour and a half was like a giant family gathering where most of the family actually not only loved but liked and treasured each other. The family were loud, fun, unrestrained, a bit mischievous, honest, serious, and boy did they know how to celebrate. I may have huddled a tiny bit less. I still felt like the black sheep of the family, but maybe slightly more grey than black.
After the last song had finished and the eight-piece band took their seats, the assistant minister, a Nigerian woman called Catherine with one of those deep, honey voices that can soothe all ills, took the stage. She called up Pastor Matt and Lois and each of the kids by name, including Seth, who was sat somewhere near the back with Maggie, and lined them up.
“Church, can I ask you to show your love and appreciation to our leader and his family?”
I had once watched a Liverpool football game, when Fraser was given some tickets by a grateful client. The noise when they scored was something like the sound that erupted across the hall for the next five minutes.
Catherine then shushed the congregation. “Can I also ask Ellie, Emily, Ana Luisa, Rupa and Ruth to come forward, please?”
The people cheered and clapped again. I tried to disappear under the seat, but it wasn’t happening. The rest of the girls were making their way up. If I slid down low enough and let my hair flop in front of my face, perhaps no one would spot me.
“Ruth?” Catherine scanned the crowd. “Is she here? Can anybody see her?”
Mum stood up, from her position near the front, and waggled her long finger straight at me. “She’s there, Catherine. Hiding.”
Four hundred heads swivelled to stare at me. Now I was a thousand times more embarrassed than if I had just gone up there in the first place. I pictured clamping my hands over my mother’s mouth until she actually stopped talking. She of all people, knowing what had happened the last time I stood on a stage, should have come to my rescue, not thrown me to the lions.
“Come on then, child.” Catherine smiled at me. “There is nothing to be afraid of. This is not a place to hide.”
I had been hiding from God, his church, the world, David, myself for a very long time. The last three months had been a gradual, inch-by-inch attempt to poke my nose out of my hidey-hole. Now, Oak Hill had taken a stick of dynamite and blown the roof right off it. I couldn’t move. I felt naked. All I could think about was that I didn’t belong here any more. I had failed. The shame I had carried for all those years was a manacle, chaining me to the floor. A weight too great to shift. I stared at my feet. Wanted to die. Angry at myself for even being here.
A warm bunch of tiny fingers grasped mine. Another hand pressed softly against my cheek. “Come on, Ruth. It’s this way. Don’t be scared. You can come with me.”
I looked up and saw Freya’s age old, ocean deep eyes on mine. Remembered stories about how two years ago she had come to Bramley House a stone underweight, covered in scabs and bruises. Lost, wrecked, too numb to make a sound. The first time she cried, Lois and Matt had wept with joy. And I found I could. I could go with this girl whose life was a testimony to new starts, to hope and faith and courage. I held her hand, or rather she held mine, and walked with her to the stage, the debris of my shame falling off in glorious chunks behind me with every step. I didn’t hear the applause, or Catherine’s presentation speech, or the family’s thanks. I couldn’t see the faces of the people in
The yurt was due to stay for one more night. That evening, the doors opened up for a party, although we closed them tight once everyone squeezed in, as it was close to freezing outside. Someone ordered a dozen pizzas, and we drank fizzy grape juice and lounged about on cushions and rugs, listening to a couple of the men play guitars while the kids gradually dozed off, cuddled on the bed or in random guests’ laps.
I had squished onto a giant beanbag with Lois. The warmth of all those bodies in the confined space caused my eyelids to droop. I felt a moment’s gratitude that I had arranged to clean a couple of hours later than usual in the morning.
“How do you do it, Lois?”
She rolled her eyes over to me lazily and smiled. “You know, it’s always far more exhausting looking after other people’s children than your own. I don’t attempt animal parties very often. And I have school, and nursery, and Matt. Honestly? I do a lot of closing my eyes and counting to ten, keep reminding myself that once a week I can go swimming for two hours by myself, and pray. Sometimes through clenched teeth into a pillow. I also pretend to need a lot more time in the toilet than I actually do. And I remember.”
“I have a picture in my head of how every one of those kids looked the day I became their mother.” She shook her head in exasperation. “I know it’s fostering. They aren’t legally mine. But that’s a technicality my heart chooses to ignore. I remember how they were when they came to me. What life had done to them. And I remember what it feels like. To be a child who has no one to talk to, to turn to, when life is terrifying, and ugly, and wrong. What it’s like when home is not a safe place, but a nightmare. To experience pain, and fear, and danger, and despair every single day.”
“Lois, I never…”
“I know. I worked very hard at making sure you never suspected. I was good at being invisible, remember?”
“You were a ghost. I thought you were shy, or a bit strange.”