I hope you dance, p.21
I Hope You Dance, page 21
“I know. You lived in a different world to me. And that’s how it should have been. Don’t be sorry that you were a child who didn’t contemplate the idea that her friend could be suffering abuse.”
“Oh, Lois.” I didn’t want to cry. It was a party. I was so done with crying.
She patted me on the knee. “Don’t get too upset. It has a happy ending. Enough tears have been shed over it.”
“How did you get past it? Become this incredible person? You’re so strong now, and free and peaceful.”
“I was partnered with Matt for that history coursework on the Cold War. He came round unannounced one time and suspected something was up. I tried everything to push him away. But he wouldn’t give in. Then one Friday night, he called when Dad was drunk. Watched it through the window. So he phoned the police. I thought that was that, but he still wouldn’t leave. It took me six years to accept he could actually love me. Another two before I dared to love him back. Gradually, we unmessed each other up.”
“Wow. So that’s why you foster.”
“That, and Dad battering me until I couldn’t get pregnant.”
“Lois Harris, you are the most amazing woman I have ever met. What are you doing wasting your time being friends with me?”
“Oh, I don’t actually like you. You’re just another loser in need of rescuing. I thought you got that? As soon as you manage to sort your life out, I’m outta here.” She winked at me. “Oh yes, and your mum bribed me to be friends with you. Fifty pence and a bag of lemon bonbons.”
Dorothy Barker’s teacup rattled against the saucer. She hunched on the sagging sofa in her living room, nerves jangling. Martine was trying to explain some of the details regarding Dorothy’s debt repayments, but her client was having a hard time keeping up. We had compiled a list of her paltry outgoings versus the benefits she received. It was grim reading. As Martine discussed consolidation, and the possibility of a debt relief order, I began scanning the bank statements that we had organized into a folder earlier.
“Hang on a minute, Martine. Can I interrupt?”
“It sounds as though you already have.”
“Something isn’t right here.” I looked at Dorothy. “We asked you several times to tell us everything, all your bills and debts, and outgoings. Went over it all carefully. I’m sure Martine explained, Dorothy. We can’t help you if you aren’t honest with us. I know it’s hard, but if you won’t tell the truth, you’re just wasting our time.”
Dorothy paled. She quaked like a frightened mouse, but I wasn’t in the mood to tread softly. This whole meeting was pointless if what I had seen on the statement was correct. And I had a thing about secret debts.
Her teacup rattled harder. Martine took it out of her hand and shoved some papers aside to make room for it on the coffee table. “I think you’d better explain, Ruth.”
“All these bank statements have withdrawals – between twenty and fifty pounds at a time, at least once a week – that you haven’t accounted for in your figures. It averages out at two hundred and sixteen pounds a month. Where’s that money going?”
Dorothy shook her head. “I don’t know. Just what I put on the list. It must be bits and bobs at the corner shop and that.”
“Fifty quid a week? That’s a lot of bits and bobs for a woman living on her own. Please try to think.”
“Sometimes I buy a scratch card. Or one of those magazines: the ones with all the puzzles in. I might get the bus back from the shops if my back is bad. Apart from that, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m scatter-brained, Carl tells me. I lose things and he gets angry at me then because I’ve forgotten where I put my money.”
“Do you ever give Carl money?” Martine asked.
She shrank back further into the cushions. “Only a lend – five pounds every now and again. Ten at the most. He’s too busy to get to the bank machine, see? Usually works such long hours that he runs out of change for the hospital car park.”
“Doctors don’t have to pay for the hospital car park.” Martine frowned, her blue and green eyes nearly disappearing in her suspicion.
“And a five or ten pound note isn’t change.” I tried to keep my voice calm, but the acid in my stomach was beginning to bubble. “Do you give him the money yourself, or does he take it straight out of your purse?”
Dorothy baulked at that. She sat up straighter in her chair. “What are you suggesting? That my own son is stealing from me? He’s a doctor! How dare you!”
I put the bank statement on the table, where Martine could see it. “How soon does he remember to pay you back?”
“Well. I don’t know. We’re family. Families don’t keep records of things like that. It’s only a bit of change every now and then.”
We tried discussing this some more, suggesting that fifty pounds a week was a lot more than a bit of change, especially in her current circumstances, and she must keep a more careful record of where this extra money was going, but Dorothy was hurt and angry, and we were getting nowhere.
Martine suggested meeting up in a week’s time, once she had spoken to some creditors, and asked Dorothy to keep a very close eye on whatever she was spending. Frustrated and disappointed, I was the first to leave. I opened the front door and screamed.
“Woah! Steady on!” The lean frame of Carl Barker, looking every inch the professional in his pea coat and snazzy scarf, stood on the doorstep. He grabbed hold of both my arms, as if to steady me.
“Take a deep breath, Ruth. That’s it. Breathe with me, in… and out.”
I couldn’t meet his piercing eyes, even with the glasses back in place. Stepping back, I tried to wriggle out of his clutches. “I’m fine. Honestly. You can let go of me.”
“I can’t though. I can’t let go of you.” A tiny murmur, but the icy wind whipped those words across to me, sending an arctic blast right through my bones.
“Hmmm?” He shrugged, feigning incomprehension. The chill burrowed a little deeper. “Shall we step inside? Keep the cold air out of the house?”
“Actually, I’m leaving.”
“Oh, right. Even better, I’ll give you a lift. We can catch up in the car. You never told me what you thought of Romeo and Juliet.”
“No, thanks. I’m getting a lift with my friend Martine. She’s right behind me.”
“Well, we can save her going out of her way, then. Good timing.”
“You aren’t used to people saying no to you, are you?”
He turned up one side of his mouth in a smirk. “I like to think I’m persistent.”
“I wouldn’t want your car to get egged again.”
“I’ll take the risk. Or drop you at the corner. One or the other.”
Eugh. Why couldn’t he tell the difference between playing hard to get and actually not wanting to be got?
“Carl? Is that you?” Dorothy appeared in the corridor behind me. She looked flustered. Martine barrelled out from behind her.
“We’ll see you next week, then. And remember what I told you.” Pushing me out of the door in front of her, so that I bumped uncomfortably into Carl leaning on the door frame like a catalogue model, Martine paused. She stared up at Carl, craning her neck in the confined space of the doorway. “You must be Carl.”
Carl blinked a few times.
“Your mother tells us that you, a doctor, have been borrowing money off her, who is currently out of work.”
His eyes narrowed. “What happens between me and my mother is none of your business. I suggest you stay out of it.”
Martine tipped her head to one side as if considering this. “Possibly. Except that she’s decided to make it my business by engaging my professional services.”
“Oh?” he sneered. “Perhaps I’ll have to speak to her about spending her precious money hiring busybodies to dictate how she lives.”
“Go ahead. Makes no difference to me. She doesn’t pay me a penny.” She beamed, crinkling up her eyes
She held out one hand, as if to shake his, but when the slightly baffled Carl warily returned the gesture, she suddenly pulled her hand back. “Ah! Let me give you my card before I go. Then if you have any questions or concerns you can call me.”
She opened up her briefcase, rummaging through the contents right under Carl’s nose. “Here we go. I knew I had one in here somewhere. So much stuff in here. You never know what might end up being necessary.”
Handing Carl a card, she snapped her case shut and smiled at him again. His eyes glittered like those of a snake in a cage. He appeared to be speechless.
“Is there anything you’d like to ask me now, or is it all perfectly clear?”
To my amazement, instead of grabbing Martine around the throat and throttling her, he simply shook his head and closed the front door on us.
She marched straight past me and beeped open the car parked at the bottom of the drive. “I would laugh if I wasn’t so hopping mad.”
Once we were safely inside the car, with the doors shut, she allowed me a peek into the briefcase. Alongside the case files was a shiny black gun.
“I confiscated it off Jobber Jones at youth group last Thursday.”
“This is no more a real gun than Jobber Jones is a real gangster. It’s not a bad imitation, though, from a distance.”
“I can’t believe you just threatened a client’s son with a fake gun. Is this usual debt counsellor behaviour?”
“Men who steal money from their impoverished mothers do not play by the usual rules. And for the record, I gave him a business card not a threat. But stay away from that man, Ruth. He has a rotting cyst of rancid pus where his heart should be.”
I tried. I tried to stay away.
The following Saturday, another meeting. This time, I accompanied Maggie. I had insisted on a rational mother–daughter conversation before we left in exchange for the money to go ice-skating that weekend. We managed, ooh, a miraculous twenty minutes before she threw a shoe at me. It was just about long enough. I had made some phone calls and prepared my plan of attack.
Hannah Beaumont greeted us as always with a face that could curdle milk. Saying nothing, she shuffled back into the living room on her walker, and lowered her bent body onto the high-backed chair.
“Hello, Mrs Beaumont. How are you?” I forced a smile.
She pursed her mouth, where red lipstick bled into the wrinkles either side. “Do you really want to know?”
Maggie looked at me. See what I have to put up with?
“Not if you don’t want to tell me. Have you been up to much this week?”
“No.” Hannah flicked her hand at Maggie. “Are you going to make tea, or do I have to beg?”
“That was rude.” Maggie’s voice trembled. For all her bravado at home, she was not used to standing up to this grouchy old woman.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You don’t speak to me very nicely. All you have to say is ‘Please could you make some tea.’”
Hannah looked bewildered. “What are you talking about? I did say that. For goodness’ sake, girl. Are you going to stand there all day dithering, or put the kettle on?”
“Her name is Maggie.” I was bristling now.
“Yes, I know that. I’m not senile,” she snapped. My temper snapped too.
“Maggie has given up her free time this afternoon to provide you with some company and a younger pair of hands. And all you have done is bark orders, snap at and insult her. You don’t even refer to her by name! This is a befriending scheme, Mrs Beaumont, but with all due respect you are not being friendly at all. Can you even remember how to be a friend?”
Halfway through this rant, Maggie vanished into the kitchen. Hannah Beaumont and I sat there, in the aftermath of my speech, and blinked at the wall in surprise. After a long, stunned silence, Maggie crept back in with the tea tray. She placed it onto the table, poured out milk and hot tea into three fine bone china cups and used a pair of silver tweezers to plop a sugar cube into one of the cups. Stirring it, she sat it carefully on top of a doily on the edge of the table.
Hannah lifted the cup, took a slurp, and set it back down again. She looked at me and said, “I don’t know if I do.”
She heaved herself up then, and limped out of the room. We heard the slow thump-shuffle of her walker down the hall corridor, followed by the slamming of a bedroom door.
“What have you done?” Maggie whispered.
I gnawed my lip. “Has she disappeared before? Do you think she’s coming back?”
She shook her head. We sat there for a few minutes, sipping our tea.
“This tea is really good.”
“Why are you talking about tea? Go and speak to her, Mum! You were really harsh. If I get dumped off the scheme now, it’ll be your fault.”
“I’ll go in a few minutes, if she hasn’t come back.”
I had finished my tea and was dallying at the end of the corridor when Hannah reopened her bedroom door.
“Fetch the box off my bed. Bring it in… please.”
I lifted it, a hexagonal hat box in faded cream and gold stripes. It was the weight of a small child, and I couldn’t think how Hannah had got it onto the bed in the first place. She indicated that I should put the box onto the table in front of her.
“Maggie, go ahead,” she said, gesturing at the box.
Maggie opened up the lid to reveal an interior squashed full of papers, thick brown envelopes and smaller containers. Glancing at Hannah, who nodded in confirmation, Maggie carefully lifted out the uppermost packet.
Inside, it contained photographs. Five black and white shots of a bride on her wedding day. In two of them she was alone. The other three also contained her groom, a slender man with thick, dark hair and a confident smile. The bride was radiant, her dress exquisite, her countenance pure grace.
“Hannah, is this you? You were enchanting. Simply beautiful.” I picked up a photograph and took a closer look.
She nodded. “We were a handsome couple. The match of the county. It was in all the papers and society magazines. Five hundred guests. And a honeymoon in Europe.”
“What was your husband’s name? He looks charming.”
“Charles,” she snickered. “Yes. Charming. That’s one way to put it.”
“How long were you married for?” I handed the photo to Maggie, picking up another picture of Hannah gazing into her groom’s eyes.
“You must miss him.”
“Hah! I must not.” She paused, fists clenched in her lap. “I didn’t miss him when he ran off with the housekeeper, or when he turned my children against me. I certainly didn’t pine for him when he squirrelled all his money away in secret foreign investments and screwed me out of my divorce settlement. I laughed when he died. Laughed even louder when I heard he left that traitorous floosy with nothing either. If I knew where he was buried I’d tap dance on his grave.”
Beneath the bitter bravado Hannah’s words were wracked with pain. Maggie stared, mouth hanging open.
I tried to ease the tension. “You have children?”
“Two. Two sons. But they don’t bother with me. Followed the money to their father. Started calling that tramp ‘Mother’. I was disowned.” She sniffed. “I’m better off without them.”
“When was the last time you had contact with them?”
“A blinking long time ago. So you’re right. I have forgotten how to be nice. What’s the point when they all end up betraying you anyway?”
What could I say to that? There is nothing sorrier or more pitiful than a human being who has lost hope. I looked at Maggie, her face stricken. She was staring at the wedding pictures of that bride, resplendent in her loveliness, glowing with the certainty that the world and all its wonders were he
I was itching to grab my daughter’s hand, fling wide the doors and sprint out into the sunshine before a single drop of this oppression could mark a stain on either of us. To shake it off like water from a dog’s coat. But we had another twenty minutes before our time was up. I did the next best thing – changed the subject.
“This is a beautiful box. May I open it?”
Hannah nodded, and I picked out the slender velvet case, maybe eight inches by four. Inside was a pair of silk gloves, in the palest pink, three tiny pearls dotted along each trim.
“The pearls are real,” Hannah said.
“Wow,” I remarked, fingering the delicate material.
“I wore them for my presentation at court. I was a debutante.”
“Really? I didn’t think they still did that.” I passed a glove to Maggie.
“I was one of the last.”
“One of the last what?” Maggie asked. “Why were you in court?”
“To be presented to the queen!” Hannah unbent herself by about two inches in the chair. “The finest, most desirable young women in the country were presented to the monarch at the start of the season.”
“The coming out season.”
“Coming out? Are you trying to wind me up?” Maggie looked up momentarily, her eyes wide.
“Certainly not!” Hannah huffed.
“It was a young woman’s introduction to the social season,” I interjected, hiding my smile at Maggie’s confusion. “Like a debutante’s ball. A chance for them to meet suitable husbands.”
“The ignorance of young ladies today is staggering.” Hannah reached out and took the gloves back from me and Maggie, then snapped the lid shut on the velvet case. “When you come back on Wednesday I will instruct you in the procedures and etiquette of coming out.”
Maggie shrugged. “Can’t really see me needing to know those anytime soon, but whatever.”
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