I hope you dance, p.25

I Hope You Dance, page 25

 

I Hope You Dance
 



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  “And then he walked me home, and we talked and talked, and he held my hand the whole way. A man has never, ever held my hand before. It made me feel like that old, degraded, cheapened husk of Ana Luisa was finally, really dead. She has been dying for two years now, getting weaker and fainter, but last night she breathed her last.” She resumed snipping, no doubt itching to get finished and back to her new man.

  “And this morning, when I got up, there were flowers on the kitchen table. We made breakfast together and watched the sunrise, and the whole time he never let go of my hand. I tell you, Ruth, you need to get yourself a man like this someday.”

  “Maybe someday.”

  Maybe not.

  “Ta-da!”

  Maggie was finished. Gone were her red, orange and yellow autumn streaks. Left behind was a head covered in one-inch spikes of mid-brown.

  I tried to mumble something about how it made her eyes look bigger.

  “Chill, Mum. I look like I sold my hair to pay for the upkeep of my secret love child. It’ll grow. And it’ll get better. It’s time to embrace my new start. No more hiding, or wishing I was somewhere else or someone else. No more crying in the bathroom because I’m so sick and tired of being me.”

  She did that?

  “Sometimes we have bad hair days. Or bad days. Or bad years. But hair grows again. I’m over it. Bad hair won’t decide my life. Or stop me deciding that I’m going to be happy. And it could be worse.”

  Could it? And, incidentally, who was this wise woman and what had she done with my daughter?

  “Some people don’t have hair,” Maggie continued.

  “That’s true,” I nodded.

  Ana Luisa frowned. “Do you hate my haircut, Maggie?”

  “It’s not pretty, Ana Luisa. But that’s the whole point. I love it. You can go back to the Big House and hold hands with your new boyfriend now.”

  I spent the next few days as a robot: wading through piles of information on debt advice and administration, helping Mum help everybody else, watching endless repeats of cheesy American sitcoms. Anything to stop thinking about the romance unfolding next door. I avoided windows, stayed inside, took my animal posters off the bedroom wall and replaced them with photographs of Maggie.

  The first Saturday of the New Year, I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of my phone ringing. Lurching out of bed, knocking the lamp on my chest of drawers to the floor, I fumbled through the pockets of discarded clothes until I found it. A ringing phone at three o’clock in the morning was one of two possibilities. Either my sister Miriam calling from Australia, who after twelve years is still seemingly incapable of working out the time difference, or an emergency.

  “Hello?”

  No answer.

  “Hello? Miriam?”

  I waited another few seconds; was about to hang up when I heard a rustle down the line.

  “Hello?”

  I hung up. Registered that the caller had blocked their number. Sat on my bed for a few minutes as the coil of dread in my stomach uncurled itself a little, stretched and settled back down again.

  I added a third possibility to the list of middle-of-the-night callers. A sick, scary man who did not take rejection well.

  The next night, my phone rang at one-thirty, three-fifteen, three-twenty and five. I should have turned it off, but I needed to know.

  Monday, Tuesday – I lay in bed awake for hours waiting, but no more calls.

  Wednesday afternoon, the day before I started my new job, someone knocked at the door. I answered it in holey jeans and a saggy sweater. David stood grinning on the doorstep.

  “Hi.”

  “Hi, David,” I answered, forcing myself to look at him.

  “I’m off again in a couple of days, so I need to store up some calories and reckoned a few slices of your mum’s cake should do it. Are you busy?”

  “Um… I’m trying to slog through a six-inch file on church procedure and policy before tomorrow.”

  What are you doing here?

  “Sounds like you could do with a break, then.”

  This can’t be a good idea. Where’s Ana Luisa?

  He ran his hands over his hair – neatly cropped. I hated that it stabbed me in the gut to know who had carefully cut it.

  “Okay. The truth is, I needed to get out of the love nest for a few hours. It’s driving me crazy.”

  “What?”

  “Way too much holding hands and soppy grins and darling and sweetheart and I love yous. It’s all very nice, don’t get me wrong, but I’m beginning to feel slightly nauseous.”

  Oh no. Poor Ana Luisa. He felt nauseous?

  “Oh. Right, well I suppose…”

  “And my dad? I know we’re both adults and all that, but it’s still weird.” David shook his head.

  “Yes. It must be.”

  “Still, forty-eight hours and they can have the place to themselves, run about playing kiss-chase as much as they like.”

  “Sorry?” I was now slightly confused. “Who can play kiss-chase?”

  David furrowed his brow. “Ana and Dad. Who else would I be talking about?”

  “Ana and Arnold? Ana and Arnold!”

  Leaning onto the doorframe in order to remain upright, I tried to catch my breath, but the clanging in my ears got in the way. As I fought to regain control of my vital functions, David stood and watched me, hands in back pockets, his face neutral. Standing up straight again, I decided that, in these exceptional circumstances, dishonesty was the best policy.

  “Sorry. I haven’t eaten yet today. I came over all dizzy for a moment.” I tried a quirky, duh-what-a-silly-mare-I-am smile. He didn’t return it.

  “Coffee then, and cake. I’ll make it, you sit down.” He strode past me into the kitchen, providing a much needed minute to pull myself together. Ana Luisa and Arnold! It was Arnold! Arnold loved Ana Luisa! David was nauseous!

  We sipped our coffee at the table, accompanied by white chocolate and hazelnut brownies.

  “So, where are you off to this time?” I couldn’t stop smiling. It was all I could do not to burst into song.

  “South Africa. For eight weeks. Then possibly a stop-off in Egypt. I’ll be back by Easter.”

  “Plenty of time for the honeymoon period to have cooled down in the Big House.” Arnold!

  He nodded. “You’ve lost weight again.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “What’s up?”

  I pondered the flower pattern on the tablecloth for a moment. Figured out whether to feign offence, outrage or denial. If anybody else had asked, I might have given it a go. But David knew me. He knew the classic symptoms of me being stressed out. And besides, I was basking in the soft glow of him having noticed.

  “Apart from the joy of living with my parents and having front row seats to the floundering of their marriage, my – shall we say challenging – daughter and tenuous financial circumstances?”

  “You had all those problems a month ago. Since then, you’ve got a new job and Maggie is doing much better. What’s really up?”

  I picked at the last few crumbs on my plate. “Carl Barker.”

  David went very still. I saw the muscles tense in his forearm as he gripped the mug.

  “He’s still bothering you?”

  “I don’t know.” I told him, briefly, about the present on the doorstep, the kerb-crawling and the phone calls. David swore under his breath.

  “I have no proof the calls are from him. And really, buying me a gift and making sure I get home safe are hardly crimes.”

  “He’s stalking you, Ruth. Why are you making excuses for him?”

  “Uh – because I’m terrified?” My jaw began trembling uncontrollably, my eyes filling with tears.

  “Okay, it’s all right.” David reached over and took hold of my hand. “You’re taking this seriously. That’s good. Have you told your parents?”

  I shook my head.

  “You need to do that. In case they see him lurking around. Keep
a record of any hang-up phone calls, or other contact. And for goodness’ sake, Ruth, try not to go walking about by yourself after dark, will you?”

  He pushed the chair back and reached over, wrapping me up inside his big, broad chest as I cried. I clutched on to the folds of his T-shirt and inhaled great lungfuls of his earthy, woody, almond smell. He stroked my hair, resting his chin on the top of my head, and I was seventeen again. Full of secret yearnings and whizzing hormones. Was it wrong to pretend to cry a bit longer and prolong the hug?

  A door slammed above us, and Maggie’s Dr Marten boots thudded down the stairs. She crashed into the kitchen just as I pulled myself up out of David’s arms. She stopped for a moment, then laughed with relief.

  “For a hideous second there I thought you were with a bloke! Hi, David.”

  “Duly noted: Maggie does not consider me a bloke.”

  “Oh – you know what I mean. You don’t count. You’re not after my mum.” She grabbed a bag of crisps and an apple, and stuffed them into her rucksack. “I’m off to Hannah’s. We’re going to sort through the rest of the jewellery in her box, see if anything’s worth donating to a museum. Bye. Bye, David. Bring me something mysterious back from Africa.”

  She left, and David swigged back the rest of his coffee. Maggie’s entrance had been a sharp slap back to reality. I was not seventeen; I was a mother with a damaged child. Two months without David suddenly seemed like a very good idea. Maybe he would come home married to a stunning South African naturalist. Maybe by then a miracle would have occurred and I would be living on the other side of town. Maybe. I hoped so. I tried to hope so, anyway.

  We said goodbye on the doorstep. David looked carefully at me. “So you thought Ana Luisa and me, then?”

  “What?” A big, juicy blush flooded my face.

  “You thought Ana Luisa and I had got together. And when you realized the truth you nearly fell over.”

  “No. That’s not what happened! I was surprised. Arnold must be twice her age, at least.”

  He leaned in close to me. I felt the warmth of his gentle breath on my burning cheek. “Because I care about both you and your daughter, I am not after you, Ruth Henderson, right at this very moment. I have been waiting for you most of my life, and I can wait a little longer. However, know this: I will think about you every hour of every day for the next two months, and picturing your face when you realized I was not in love with Ana Luisa will bring me back here as fast as is humanly possible. I’m going to be here the second you are ready. I’m not messing it up this time.”

  With that, he turned and walked back down the path. I sat on my doorstep, too stunned to do anything but laugh and tremble and marvel and pinch myself until I saw Mum’s car skidding around the corner of the cul-de-sac.

  Things were beginning to turn a very gradual corner between Maggie and Hannah. The hat box had proved to be a treasure trove of a life that Maggie found fascinating and hideous at the same time. Boarding school, polo matches, winter balls. The hat-box world had revolved around catching the right husband. Hannah had never worked, even after the count left her, instead spending all her time managing the household, organizing social events and trying to keep herself as attractive as possible.

  Maggie, horrified that someone actually still thought a woman belonged in the home, resolved to prove that she could hold her own with any male. I could not have dreamt up a better way to get her head in her books, homework done, if I tried.

  That Wednesday, she came home and stomped into the living room, plonking herself on the sofa next to me.

  “I can’t stand it!”

  Oh dear. I closed the document I was reading and straightened my spine.

  “I thought things were going better.”

  “Not that!”

  I raised my eyebrows.

  Maggie waved her hands about. “The whole thing. Hannah. Her awful life. She does nothing, Mum. And I mean nothing. Her life is pointless, and unbelievably boring and sad. All she does is watch TV and read the paper and wait for the district nurse or home help to come, or sit and feel depressed about her past. She has no friends. One of her sons phoned her up at Christmas and she told me the entire conversation about six times. I can’t stand it!” She got up and began pacing around, waving her hands about some more. “Look at Nanny and Pop! Look at the difference. It’s like Hannah has given up on life and is waiting for it to end. Her whole existence has been so meaningless and shallow she doesn’t even know how bad it is.” She stopped prowling and looked at me.

  “And what will they say at her funeral? Stories about when she was a teenager and went to some posh parties? Or won a beauty competition? How she snagged an impressive husband? You could sum up her last fifty years in one sentence: husband left, got old and ill. We have to do something!”

  Maggie wanted Hannah to join U3A like Dad. I could see why, and agreed it could benefit Hannah tremendously, but getting her along to anything involving people, activities, going outside… it would take some doing. And I wasn’t sure if U3A could handle Hannah Beaumont.

  “What about the lunch club at Oak Hill? That might be a better place to start. I’ll see if I’m free to pick her up. If not, I’m sure Nanny would give her a lift.”

  “I’ll ask her on Saturday. It’s not like she’s going to have anything better to do.”

  That Friday was the first girls’ night of the new year, postponed a week due to the holidays. It was the Big House’s turn to host, and the huge old dining-room table groaned under the weight of Ana Luisa’s Mexican take-away.

  The evening was, of course, dominated by talk of the new romance. Ana Luisa floated about on a cloud of dreamy rapture, and it took a severe reprimand from Emily to stop her making excuses to knock on the study door.

  We didn’t mind. We were thrilled for her.

  The Big House felt strangely empty. I stole secret peeks at the photographs of David and let my heart flutter. He was thinking of me. I thought about him too.

  I started to settle into my new job – completing a day’s formal debt counselling training and getting stuck into a new software package designed to simplify the church finances. However, Monday morning Martine asked if I would show the replacement cleaner the ropes.

  “Dorothy!”

  “Hello, Ruth.” Dorothy looked like a different woman. The boulder of shame and worry had fallen off her shoulders. She was still wan and worn, but there was a steel in her eye that surprised me.

  “How fantastic to see you! How are things?”

  “Things are going good, thanks, Ruth. Not great, but good. I’ve got my budget sorted and all those bills and letters – Martine took them away and fixed them. I’ll be debt free in two years! And what with all the stress gone, I started to feel so much better Martine asked me to apply for this job. And I got it! I can’t tell you how good it feels to be working again.”

  “I’m so pleased for you, Dorothy. You look great.” I meant it. I was thrilled for her. But it felt as though a baby crocodile had hatched in my guts when I considered what unpleasant opportunities this might present to her son.

  I was on my lunch break, eating apple and parsnip soup in the café, when she came to find me again.

  “I’m done then, Ruth. I’ll stick this lot in the outside bin and I’m off.”

  “Okay, see you soon.”

  She disappeared down the back corridor just before the glass door to the café opened and Carl swung in. His eyes scanned the half-empty room, and short of scrambling under the table, there was no way to avoid them landing on me. He grinned, and ambled over.

  “Ruth. Fancy seeing you here. Happy New Year.” Mr Normal.

  “Hi, Carl.” I pretended to study the sheet of paper in front of me, hoping he couldn’t hear the hammering in my chest.

  “I heard about the new job. Congratulations! You’re moving up in the world.”

  “Thanks.” I didn’t look up.

  “So, how’s it going? How are you? Seems like ages since we’v
e talked.”

  Really? Is that because all your phone calls are silent ones?

  “I have to get back to work.”

  I cleared the half-finished soup over to the serving hatch, and shoved the paper and my water bottle into my bag with quaking fingers, my appetite vanished. I felt discomfited being rude to what appeared to be a polite man making friendly conversation. But as I hurried out of the door into the foyer, he moved right behind me.

  “What a happy coincidence, Mum getting a job at the same place as you. I’ll be picking her up most days from now on – you know, supporting her efforts to get back on her feet. So we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other. It’ll be like we’re dating again.”

  I couldn’t help it. Running into the office I slammed the door shut behind me and leaned against it, scrunching my eyes closed, trying to shake off the prickly feeling that squirmed across my skin like a plated millipede. And now he had invaded my wonderful new job – tainted it with his poisonous promise. I would have been angry, if only I wasn’t so darn afraid.

  Over the next few weeks, a pattern began to emerge. Dorothy worked Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On those mornings, my blood pressure would start to rise as the clock ticked towards lunchtime. I hid in my office, found errands to run, took extended toilet breaks. But Carl was an expert stalker. He would show up early to “grab a drink”, or be “held up at work” and turn up late. He popped in at the end of the day, as Dorothy had mislaid her purse again, or to double check the date of an event he’d spotted on the notice-board. Most of the other people in the building were bowled over by this charming, thoughtful young man. Only Martine kept a dubious distance. Perhaps in memory of the fake gun, Carl made no effort to convince her to do otherwise.

  Maybe three or four times a week, the silent calls returned. There could be six calls one after the other in the middle of the day, or three staggered at hourly intervals through the night. I changed my number after the first week, but two days later they started again. I turned my phone off during the night, but the daytime calls intensified as a result, and it didn’t stop the number of missed calls showing up in the morning when I switched it on again.

 
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