I hope you dance, p.24

I Hope You Dance, page 24

 

I Hope You Dance
 



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  Fast forward a year and Christmas had gulped down six double espressos. A noisy, overstuffed whoosh of family and food and frenzy, clamour and clatter and the clash of all those issues which simmered under the surface for three hundred and sixty-four days of the year but suddenly found the time and the tension to make themselves heard.

  Esther and her family had lunch with us, planning to whizz off to Max’s parents in Derbyshire in time for tea. It was a ridiculous, over-the-top, headache-inducing lunch; including nine different vegetables and six desserts no one had any room for. The whole kitchen felt like an oven, and having washed up four zillion plates and bowls and serving dishes, Dad and Maggie declared that they needed to get changed. Maggie returned in her pyjamas. Dad wore the pink jumper.

  My dad was a ballroom champion. He spent many years in pastels, usually combined with sparkles, satin and occasionally feathers. He could handle pink. So I knew something was up when Mum turned as white as the fake snow sprayed across the living room windows. She sat bolt upright in her chair, eyes round and wild.

  “What is that, Gilbert?” Her voice, crisp and clipped.

  “What?” Dad looked behind him, feigning confusion.

  “Don’t. Play. The fool. With. Me.”

  Everybody froze. Even Timothy stopped bashing his new spaceship into the enemy base.

  Dad looked his wife right in the eyes. “It’s a present. I thought I’d wear my new Christmas jumper on Christmas Day. Do you have a problem with that?”

  Mum let out a bark of hysterical laughter. “Do I have a problem? That you chose to wear a jumper given to you by another woman? In our house, in front of our family, on Christmas Day?” She stood up. “YES, I HAVE A PROBLEM! Why aren’t you wearing the jumper I gave you? You could at least have had the decency to save that one for another day!”

  “I like this one.” Dad narrowed his eyes. He was hopping mad. “You can’t control me, Harriet. I am a grown man. I will wear whatever jumper I like.”

  “Even if it hurts and humiliates me, your wife? Even if it dishonours our marriage?”

  “What are you talking about? It’s a jumper, for pity’s sake!”

  “It is not just a jumper, Gilbert, and you know it!”

  “So? What – I’m not allowed to have any friends now? Or only friends that you’ve picked out for me? Ruby is a lovely woman.”

  “DON’T SAY HER NAME IN THIS HOUSE! She is an intruder. A wedge between us, and a home-wrecker! An ugly old floosy in a pink anorak to match your inappropriate jumper!”

  Dad took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. He shook his head. “That was mean, Harriet, and totally uncalled for. In the fifty years I’ve known you, you have never been mean. Did it cross your mind that I might want to wear a jumper given to me by someone who actually appreciates me and, amazingly, thinks I’m doing all right as I am?”

  He left the room, pulling his coat off the rack before striding out of the house, slamming the front door behind him. Mum collapsed onto the chair behind her, both hands clutching her head. She gasped. “He’s gone to her. We haven’t had the cake yet. What will I say when Lydia phones?” She looked up at us. “What if he doesn’t come back?”

  At some point during the wee small hours, he did come back. The following morning Dad was at the breakfast table, the atmosphere as thick as his cinnamon marmalade. He and Mum set off soon after to visit Lydia for three days, leaving Maggie and me fraught and anxious and hoping desperately that three days together, without pink jumpers or the giver of pink jumpers, might offer the breathing room they needed to remember how much they loved each other.

  Maggie walked round to spend the day with Seth, leaving me to clear up the remaining seasonal detritus and enjoy the luxury of the house to myself. My phone rang, just as I prepared to step into the bath – an unrecognized number. I went into the bedroom to answer it.

  “Hello?”

  “Didn’t you like your present?”

  My insides turned to water. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

  Carl laughed. “It’s all right – I’m joking. I should have checked if Maggie was in. I do respect that you want us to be a secret for now. Anyway, it’s cool, no hard feelings. I’ll keep it safe.”

  “There is no us.”

  “It’s okay, Ruth. I’m a patient man. I can wait.”

  “Don’t. I don’t want you to wait. I don’t want to have a relationship with you, Carl. Not now, not ever. Please stop calling, and buying me presents.”

  Silence.

  “Do you understand? This has nothing to do with Maggie. There is never going to be anything between us. I want to be clear.” All I heard was the blood thundering in my ears. It seemed easier standing up to him on the phone, but I still had to grit my teeth to prevent them from clacking together in time to my fear.

  “Perfectly.” He hung up.

  I stared at my phone, unable to move. The bath water went tepid.

  New Year’s Eve. My parents had returned from Lydia’s in a state of uneasy truce, involving pointed, polite comments and frosty glances. So, when Mum asked me to accompany them to “Southwell’s Got Talent” I saw the anguish behind her eyes and said yes. We walked down to the Minster school building with Arnold, Ana Luisa and David. Maggie spent the whole time peppering David with questions about the fantastical celebrity lifestyle she was convinced he led, despite the fact that all his time off had clearly been spent in Southwell, hanging out with his dad and old school friends. This allowed Ana Luisa to scuttle up beside me, her eyes gleaming, cheeks glowing in the snap of the winter air.

  “I have made my decision, Ruth.” She glanced backwards at the rest of the party before clutching my arm with her stripy mitten. “I cannot endure to set one foot into another year without telling him how I feel.”

  “Wow. You’re going to say something?”

  “I am going to sing something. I have entered the competition. It is time! One way or another, tonight I will know if my feelings are requited.”

  “That’s incredibly brave. Are you sure you want to do it like this – in front of all those people?”

  “It is the perfect opportunity. I cannot change my mind or back out at the last second. And I refuse to any longer be ashamed of my love!”

  I pressed my hand on top of hers, where it still gripped my arm. “Well, I wish you all the luck in the world, Ana. I really hope it goes well.”

  The school hall was buzzing. Fifteen round banqueting tables dressed in green and gold surrounded a square dance floor. A huge pine tree twinkled in the corner, fairy lights crisscrossing the walls and ceiling. Four judges’ chairs and a table sat waiting to one side of the stage, and over a hundred festive men, women and children topped up their drinks and bagsied the best seats in preparation to discover if Southwell did in fact possess any talent.

  My parents, brittle smiles in place, chose a table near the back, gesturing for me to take the empty seat between them. The lights dimmed, the introductory music started and our hosts for the evening, two young teachers I hadn’t seen before, bounded onto the stage. We welcomed the judges, who ranged in age from eleven to eighty, and the show got underway.

  Did Southwell have talent? Some did. Some not so much, but what they lacked in skill they made up for in enthusiasm. After an hour of dance groups, singers and musicians, a hilarious stand-up comedian and a magic trick that nearly ended up in A&E, Ana Luisa took her place centre stage.

  All eyes were fixed on this gorgeous woman wearing a figure-hugging purple dress, as she scanned the audience. “My name is Ana Luisa, and I am going to perform a love song.” She stuck her chin in the air and spread her arms wide. It was time.

  “And what made you choose this particular song, Ana Luisa?” the youngest judge asked.

  “It was inspired by a very special person. A person who gave me a new start when I was not doing so good. I am choosing this song because it tells how I am really feeling, deep inside me.”

  Half the heads in the
room swivelled over to the table where David sat. The other half, who may not have known Ana Luisa or the man who saved her but still thought this was the most exciting thing to happen so far, tried to figure out who they were looking at. I was too far back to see David’s face, but I did see him take a long drink from his beer bottle as the music began to play.

  Ana Luisa did not have a great singing voice. But – wow. She sang Bob Dylan’s “Feel My Love”, and not a single person listening doubted the fact that she would crawl down the avenue and go to the ends of the earth for you, whoever “you” was. We did, indeed, feel her love. Nobody cared that she was crying by the end of the first line. By the end of the song we all cried with her.

  The applause was rapturous. Most of the room were on their feet. I looked for David. His seat was empty. I hoped this was not what it looked like. Ana Luisa bowed, and punched the air, before running off the stage. I went to find her, but seeing Lois hurrying on in front of me, took a detour to the ladies’ instead, hoping to gather my wits and calm down a little.

  I splashed cold water on my face a few times, and blotted it with a towel. The door swung open and Mum walked in. In the harsh strip lighting she looked older, her eyes rimmed with purple shadow, her skin dry and dull.

  “Are you all right, Mum?”

  She rummaged through her clutch-bag for a lipstick. “This is the first year your father and I haven’t danced.”

  I moved two steps closer to give her a hug. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could help.”

  “I feel blue, Ruth. Blue like a tiny boat bobbing around in the middle of a vast, empty ocean. All I can see is blue.” She let out a long, shuddering sigh. “And Dad has sailed away and left me here.”

  “You have to remember, Dad is not the enemy,” I said, with all the conviction I could muster. “The ocean between you is.” My tone softened and I reached out for my mum. “Your anger is only pushing him further and further away, and you know where he’ll end up going.”

  “I know that,” she said, pressing her hand over her eyes. “But I am so very cross and sore I can barely control myself. I never expected this. I never for one second imagined we could end up like this. Maybe that’s the problem. We should have seen the signs, protected our love better.”

  “You haven’t ended up anywhere yet. You can still get through this if you work together.”

  We held each other for a long time, my mum and me. For the first time in forever, I gave her comfort, words of wisdom; offered strength and hope. Mother and daughter switched roles inside that embrace.

  “I love you, Mum. You are amazing.”

  “I love you too, Ruth. Will you take me home?”

  “No. I think Dad should do it. Go and see in the New Year with your man.”

  I struggled to regain my party spirit after watching them shuffle out of the door. Once the last act had finished, the winner was announced and the dancing began, I decided to walk home. I bumped into Ana Luisa and Lois in the car-park.

  Not a good sign.

  “What’s happened?”

  Ana Luisa shook her fist at the sky. “Pah! Nothing happened – that’s what! He…he…he…”

  Lois grimaced. “He told her what a lovely song, and whoever it was for was a very lucky man.”

  “What?” I didn’t believe this. There was no way in a zillion years, in any way, shape or form, that David would not have known who that song was for. Even if he did not, after all, feel – or want to feel – Ana Luisa’s love, he should have told her, with as much kindness, grace and tact as the situation deserved. Why wasn’t he out here, in the car-park, with the woman who had just bared her soul before him so publicly? I felt a rustle of anger, confusion and frustration that this wasn’t all sewn up and sorted.

  “You have to confront him then,” I said. “Be even more obvious. Tell it to his face. Give him no option to misunderstand.”

  “Exactly what I said.” Lois clutched Ana Luisa’s hand. “It will be unbearable to leave things like this – it’s worse than before. Go for it, girl. I’m right behind you.”

  “Are you coming, Ruth? I need as many friends as possible to catch me when I fall on my face.”

  I shook my head. “Lois’ll be more than enough for you. I’m not feeling great. I’m going to walk home, clear my head. Lois, can you bring Maggie home later?”

  “No problem. Feel better, Ruth. And Happy New Year!”

  I walked up Nottingham Road, turning the long way home onto Westgate. Passing the glow of floodlights illuminating the striking Minster, I reached the centre of town. Here the pub on the corner thumped out seventies disco as various revellers swayed along the pavements. As I waited to cross the road onto Queen Street, a slick, sleek, sinister black car pulled up alongside me. Before it had reached a complete stop, I began hurrying down the main road in the opposite direction. Despite being the town centre, it was a narrow road with no room to park, and the car already held up a taxi behind it. The driver had no choice but to keep on moving away from me. I waited until it disappeared around the corner, and ran across the road up an alleyway that led into a car-park. Sprinting, grateful for the strength produced during four months’ hard graft with a mop and bucket, I ducked between the rows of cars, making for the footpath at the far side. That would lead me up past the primary school field and to the top of the hill only two streets away from home.

  I didn’t make it. The last car in the row sat idling, engine on, weird jazz music blaring. As I scurried past, the window hummed open. I tried to ignore it, head down, moving forward. Behind me, I heard the door close. Too frightened to turn left onto the footpath, where I would be flanked by overgrown trees and the empty field, I instead moved right, back onto the main road. It felt like only a second before the car pulled up beside me again. Carl crawled along, keeping pace with my frantic strides.

  “Ruth, it’s me. Didn’t you recognize the car?”

  I said nothing. Kept moving. It was a five-minute brisk walk back home. Thank goodness Mum and Dad would be waiting for me.

  “Ruth? Get in. I’ll give you a lift.”

  He wasn’t going to go away. Against my better judgment, I looked across at him. “I’d rather walk.”

  “I can’t let you walk home alone. Let me give you a lift.”

  “No. Thanks.”

  My eyes were back on the road, but I could hear the smile in his voice. “Suit yourself. But I’m not leaving you out here on your own.”

  The window hummed back up, but Carl continued crawling along at walking pace next to me. If I sped up, he increased his speed to match mine. I knew if I turned around, he would loop back again and find me. Three minutes to home. If I tried something else – running off, hiding somewhere – he might get out of the car and come after me. I kept walking, head down, lungs heaving, mind racing. It didn’t feel like a coincidence that he had spotted me walking home. Even though, as I hurried into the cul-de-sac, already fishing in my pocket for my key, he beeped his horn twice and sped away, I knew something for certain, with a cold dread that wrapped around my windpipe and stole my breath.

  Carl Barker was not going anywhere.

  Chapter Twenty

  New Year’s Day, Ana Luisa came round to cut Maggie’s hair. A strange day to do it, but Maggie had a statement to make, and when fourteen-year-old girls have something to say, it’s now, yesterday or never, and the world had better stop what they’re doing and listen.

  I found them in the kitchen. One glance and I knew.

  “You told him.”

  “I did.” She looked up from her snipping, and I swear a thousand peacock butterflies flew out of her smile and did a lap around the kitchen.

  “At the party?”

  “Yes. At the party, walking home from the party, after the party. We brought the party home with us!”

  I filled the kettle and switched it on. Took three mugs out of the cupboard and carefully measured out scoops of coffee into the cafetiere. Lifted Mum’s best jug off the dresser and poure
d milk into it. Found the sugar bowl and a spoon. Sucked in a deep breath. Patted the top of my chest a few times.

  “So? Tell us everything.”

  “It was nearly midnight, and I knew it was now or never. I asked him to dance. He said no, about four times, but I was a woman on a mission! I dragged him onto that dance floor. I could not be stopped. And, Ruth, I danced. As if my life depended on it, which I think it almost did. The last time I danced for a man, hmmm, my life depended on it that time also. But in a different way. I have danced many times for oily men with sweaty hair, bad breath and worse morals. I tell you, many times I thought I would never want to dance with a man again.

  “But this time, girls, I was not dancing for my life, my livelihood. I danced for love! And I told him that when he found me I did not know what a woman was. But he gave me a safe place to heal and to forget, and he makes me happy to be a woman for the first time. To be a woman who is loved by a man.”

  Maggie’s eyes were wide. “You told him that?”

  “I did.”

  “What did he say?”

  “Not a lot. He was very shocked, I think. And a little intimidated by my sexy moves. But then the clock struck midnight, and while everybody cheered and hugged, I grabbed his face between my two hands and kissed him.”

  “And he kissed you back.”

  “Oh, yes, Maggie. Once he had remembered what to do, he kissed me back.”

  Ana Luisa had to stop cutting to twirl about the kitchen in rapturous delight.

 
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