I Hope You Dance, page 26
I could sense myself becoming jittery, paranoid. I saw flashy black cars everywhere, glimpses of spiky-haired men out of the corner of my eye when I did my shopping, heard footsteps on the pavement only to turn and find no one there. I felt safe nowhere, half out of my mind, doubting myself when I did bump into Carl and he came across as so respectful and pleasant. The worry whittled me back to a bag of bones in only a month. I considered resigning, going back to Liverpool, taking Maggie out of school and visiting Miriam in Australia. But the debt monster still reigned, trapping me in my present circumstances. And besides, I felt terrified that moving job, house or even continent would not be enough to shake this predator off my tail. I was being hunted.
Maggie had failed in her efforts so far to get Hannah “a life”. The excuses for avoiding any sort of group, club or activity aimed at older people ranged from being too tired, too young, too ill, having too many appointments and the meetings being too boring.
It became a personal challenge to find Hannah an activity she couldn’t refuse. “She won’t go to groups involving food because of her dodgy intestines, or anything without men because it reminds her of boarding school. And now she says she won’t go unless I go too, so it can’t be a U3A group or one for retired people. As if anything could be worse than sitting at home all day! It’s like she’s mummified in her own misery.”
I shrugged. “You need to stop thinking of her as a project, and remember she’s a woman under all that stubborn bluster. Once upon a time Hannah Beaumont knew how to be sociable, to let go and have fun. Just because she’s elderly doesn’t mean she suddenly likes knitting or bridge. What did she love when she was younger? What made her feel alive and beautiful? That’s what you need to find. Then, make it so irresistible she can’t refuse.”
“Mum. You’re a genius.”
“So my mother tells me.”
The next Saturday, she had it.
“Where’s Nanny?” She hurtled into the living room, where I sat huddled on the sofa with a book, trying to hide from the world and all its stalkers.
“Shopping. Did it go all right today?”
“Yes,” she yelled back at me, already halfway out of the door. “Pop. POP!”
“He’s out too. Can I help?”
“No. Urgh! This is so annoying. Why are people always in your face bothering you, then when you actually want them they’re out doing shopping or – where’s Pop? Not with Booby Ruby?”
“No. Not on a Saturday. He’s agreed to no one-on-one meeting up with female friends. And you really shouldn’t call her that,” I added, a picture of self-restraint.
“Oh. So that’s why he’s been moping around the house like a kicked cat.”
“Yes. Today he’s fixing Esther’s leaky pipes.” I went back to my book.
“When will he be back?”
“When the pipes are mended.”
“Thanks, that’s really helpful.” Maggie crossed her arms.
I sighed loudly, put my book down and looked up. “So what is it you’re so desperate to tell Nanny and Pop that you can’t tell me?”
“I’ve found an activity Hannah Beaumont cannot refuse,” Maggie said, her face glowing.
“Sky-diving? Pot-holing? No – I know – drag racing.”
I let out a burst of laughter at the thought of grumpy Hannah Beaumont dancing hunched over her Zimmer frame, then quickly swallowed it back at the look on my daughter’s face.
“Not disco dancing. A tea dance. In a fifties style, like Hannah’s heyday. With cakes and sandwiches, and proper, Hannah-standard tea with real leaves and fine china. We can decorate the hall –”
“Oak Hill hall, of course. You work there. You can book it for us for a special price.” She started pacing up and down in front of me. “Anyway, stop interrupting. We’ll have a swing band, hire a proper dance floor – you can do that; Misha did it for her party – and Hannah can wear her coming-out gloves and the pearl necklace her dad gave her on her sweet sixteenth. If she doesn’t want to dance, she can sit and enjoy the music and think about all her happy memories. It’ll be awesome!”
“It sounds like a lot of work for one dance,” I said.
“But that’s the whole point – it won’t be just one! That’s why I need Nanny and Pop. They can start a group teaching the old people – well, whoever wants to come, they don’t have to be old – to dance. Like, really simple easy dancing if you can’t move very well. Zimmercise! And then when Hannah’s a bit stronger, and her stiffened-up old muscles have remembered how to move again, we’ll have the party. With, like, really slow music that even Hannah can keep up with. She was a brilliant dancer, a proper ballroom one. She’ll love showing off her steps.”
I looked at my daughter, her eyes shining under her spiky, brown, non-creative hair. I remembered a girl who spent her life inside her headphones, head down, face pinched.
“You know, I don’t think you’ve thrown a single object in the whole of this year so far.”
“Mum! What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I think it’s a fabulous idea. I’m proud of you, Maggie. And if you can get Nanny and Pop dancing together again, I think you’ll have stolen the title of family genius.”
“Hah. A Henderson girl’s plan never fails.”
“Amen to that.”
Maggie used all her granddaughter’s charm to persuade Mum and Dad to run an initial tea-dance taster session. She printed out a load of flyers, distributing them around Sherwood Court and the Oak Hill lunch club, Dad posted it as an event on the U3A Facebook page, and Mum badgered a few of her old dancing friends to come along. Hannah agreed to go on the condition that she didn’t have to dance, Maggie made the tea and they played some Fats Domino.
It was a Thursday towards the end of January, and I had hired the smaller hall at Oak Hill. We needed twenty dancers to cover the costs. Five minutes in, the people in the hall consisted of Maggie, Seth and four of their friends, Hannah, Seth’s great-granddad John, another couple from the retirement complex who had both arrived on mobility scooters, and me. Mum made some last-minute calls while Dad talked us through a warm-up. The mobility-scooter couple gave up after two minutes and sat back down on their chairs next to Hannah, wondering out loud when the tea was coming.
We quickly rearranged the programme, serving tea and cakes while three more people, guilt tripped by my mother, dug out their dancing shoes.
By the time they arrived and were served refreshments, we had twenty minutes left to dance. It felt like three hours. My parents, shiny smiles in place, managed to avoid touching or speaking to each other for the whole hour. The teenagers giggled and flopped about and flirted in the corner. Hannah point blank refused to get out of her chair. The mobility-scooter woman started getting chest pains and had to lie down on a sofa in the foyer. Mum’s friends played along, but danced with all the enthusiasm of kids in a school country dancing lesson (we had those in Southwell – holding a boy’s hand while stripping the willow – yuck!).
I danced with John. He was pretty smooth – I could see where Seth got his charm from. I was pretty smooth too. It felt beyond weird, being back in my parents’ dance class. I was rubbish by Henderson standards, but after all those years I could still pull off a merengue.
And at the end, Dad beckoned me over and held out his hands in invitation.
Woah. I swallowed back the boulder in my throat, shook off a hundred screaming arguments that all ended with “I’m never going to dance again. Especially with you – ever!” and danced with my father, trying not to slip in the waterfall of tears that gushed from our pathetic eyes and formed a lake of wasted time and stupid regrets on the wooden floor between our feet.
Sometimes a big moment, a crunch conversation, is not required. Past transgressions aired, apologies offered and forgiveness accepted is not always necessary. As we swayed, twizzled and stepped together, we said it all. I had been a difficult, stubborn
Yes, he had handled it dreadfully. Accepted my rejection, instead of fighting it. Failed to understand his strange, bewildering youngest daughter. Made no room for me to be myself, and still a valued, vital part of his family. But he was only human. Flawed, and proud and stubborn, as so many are.
There was no great reckoning. Just the power of dance, of moving in time to each other, holding hands, locking eyes, sharing that rush of joy and adrenaline as the music takes control. The girl – the Ruth who had sworn never to dance with her dad again – kept her promise. A different Ruth, a whole lot older and wiser and less complicated, danced with him instead. It was a rubbish tea dance. A near-total failure. It was the best hour I had spent since coming home.
Mum, exhilarated by the challenge, bouncing on a flicker of hope sparked by an hour working with her husband again, booked the hall for the following week. Dad, still smiling at me, agreed to give it one more go. The rest of the class mumbled and shuffled their feet; all except for Hannah, who, it turned out, found the whole débâcle hilarious. She booked her place for next time. John agreed to bring her, if she would consider giving him a twirl around the floor. Hannah flapped her gloves in front of her face, coyly ducking her head. “I’ll think about it. As long as you know where to put those hulking great feet. I don’t want any broken toes.”
“Oh yes, Mrs Beaumont. I know what to do.”
“My friends call me Hannah.”
A few days later, the temperature plummeted. We woke up to a town transformed. A thick, crisp layer of snow like royal icing coated every surface. Usual morning sounds of dogs barking and children on their way to school were swallowed up by a strange new world. The willow tree, comically lopsided from the firework damage, bent down even lower under the added weight.
I crunched my way to work and back in old walking boots, the bitter wind whipping my scarf back and forth as I battled through the snowdrifts. Only a couple of cars crawled past, churning up the roads to a dirty grey. My two clients cancelled their debt-advice appointments, and Martine sent me home at four to avoid having to walk the journey in darkness. Halfway home, the hum of a car joined me. I hunkered down into my scarf and kept moving. The car pulled ahead, stopping several yards in front. Carl got out and jogged around the car to the pavement.
I nodded my head and carried on walking.
“I went to pick up Mum, but she’s not been in today. They told me you’d just set off.”
I glanced at him, now only a few yards away, without slowing.
“Come on, it’s freezing. Hop in.”
“No, thanks. I’m enjoying the snow.”
There was a short pause. I held my breath as I walked on.
“Not celebrity enough for you, Ruth?” The words were a sneer, sending my pulse careening. “Not won enough BAFTAs? Ruth the secretary too good to be seen in the car of a small-town doctor? Who do think you are?” He spat this out. I flinched, trying to pick up my pace. “Well, look around you, Ruth. I can’t see your famous boyfriend coming out to make sure you get home safe in the snow, or checking up on you, making sure you’re taking care of yourself: sleeping enough, eating properly. You look scrawny, Ruth. He’s obviously not taking care of you. Because he doesn’t love you, not really. He can have any woman he wants. Be honest, Ruth: why would he pick you? I’m the one here every day, looking out for you, thinking about you. And you have the audacity to throw it back in my face.”
I stumbled, skidding along the packed snow, gasping in air that froze my chest and made my eyes sting. Carl still stood behind me, by his car, but I knew he could catch up with me in a moment if he chose.
“Don’t walk away from me, Ruth!” He shouted now, the words echoing along the snow-muffled street. “Come back and get in the car, you stupid woman! I said I’m giving you a lift home!”
I realized that the strange mewling noises were coming from me. On this stretch of road the houses were far apart and set back behind security gates and privacy fences. It was growing dark beneath the sheet of heavy cloud, and fresh flurries of snowflakes were beginning to fall.
I glanced up from the path in front of me, muttering a faithless prayer that God would get me out of this. But he answered me before I spoke the words. There, in the gloom ahead, I spotted the lithe figure of my father, striding over the treacherous ground as though the snow didn’t exist. He reached me half a minute later. Only then, with my arm safely linked through his, did I turn to see Carl standing in the shadows like something out of a horror movie. He reversed backwards towards his car, and although his face was a mere silhouette, I could feel those laser eyes boring into me. Climbing in, he skidded the car around in a three-point turn and revved away.
Dad frowned. “Some people shouldn’t be allowed a driving licence. Is he a friend of yours, Ruth? He looked familiar.”
“No. He’s not a friend.” We began making our way home again. If Dad noticed how heavily I leaned on his arm, he didn’t say anything. “Were you on your way somewhere, Dad? You don’t have to walk me back.”
“I came to find you. Make sure you got home safe.”
“You were worried about me.” I gripped his arm a little tighter.
“I’ve been worrying about you since the day you were born.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I felt the breath coming back to me, my pulse slowing.
“You’re very welcome. Are you going to tell me now or when we get home what he did to make you tremble like this?”
“I’m fine,” I lied. “In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s freezing.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, this is your dad you’re talking to. I know the difference between my girl being cold and being terrified.”
I stopped there, at the corner of our little cul-de-sac, as snowflakes settled on our eyelashes and sprinkled our coats like lace, and threw my arms around him.
“I missed you, Dad,” I breathed into his damp chest.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you. And I am freezing.”
“Come on. Your mother’s got the kettle on.”
Over steaming mugs of tea I gave Mum and Dad a watery, half-hearted, sanitized version of the situation with Carl, omitting the gift, the phone calls and the hair-sniffing. Mum launched herself up from the table and began bashing pans about as she channelled her anxious anger into a “heart-warming, soul-strengthening, snowy stew”.
“Do you want me to speak to him?” Dad was papa bear, brow furrowed, knuckles white. “Or knock some sense into him?” he murmured under his breath, causing me to shake my head and place one hand over his.
“No, I can handle it for now. He’s got a horrible temper. I don’t want to provoke him if we can help it. He’ll get the hint, eventually. I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
“Well!” Mum started hacking at a pile of potatoes with noisy thunks. “It’s understandable, Ruth. You are completely gorgeous. I’m sure the only reason more men aren’t following you about, half crazy, is because you intimidate them. If Dr Carl feels the need to make every last effort to win you over, who can blame him?” She scooped up the potato chunks and tossed them in a pan. “The problem is, he’s quite clearly punching well above his weight. He thinks he can change your mind by prowling about the town after you, gunning his engines and ordering you into his leather man-lair. How utterly tiresome and ridiculous! Men like that need to be flicked off and squished like a mosquito.”
Dad glanced across at her, a rueful half-grin on his face, saying to me, “I always said I was just another one of her stalkers. But she happened to love me back, so nobody realized
“Gilbert Henderson! You never beat your chest at me like those prehistoric gorillas. You courted me. With style and panache!”
If I had even an ounce of the Henderson grace, I would have snuck away, slipping out of the room like a dandelion puff without breaking the moment. However, I have never once entered or exited a room silently, so I kept still, kept quiet and watched what might have been, quite possibly, another tiny flutter of life in my parents’ critically ill marriage.
Over the next few days, it kept on snowing. Along with the rest of the county, Southwell ground to a halt. Schools were cancelled as buses failed to bring in the kids from the villages, and most of the teachers were snowed in. The shops began to run out of basic essentials like bread and milk as panicked buyers stockpiled and lorries failed to deliver fresh supplies. A couple of main roads were cleared by the snowplough, but the council, as always, focused on the larger towns, and within hours fresh flurries wiped out all their efforts.
I spent the mornings at work, enjoying the atmosphere of camaraderie as the staff and volunteers rallied round to keep things running as smoothly as possible. A rota was organized to deliver groceries, medicines and other help to those who might struggle to get out in the bad weather, and most afternoons I took my turn dragging a sledge loaded with goodies to various elderly or otherwise housebound members of the town.
One advantage of this was that we visited in pairs, and I could move through the streets with relative confidence. The roads were completely empty of vehicles, so I was fairly sure Carl wouldn’t be able to trail me in his car. However, if he chose to “run into” me on foot, I felt happier with the reassurance of Catherine, Oak Hill’s formidable assistant pastor, beside me.
Wednesday lunchtime, as I chose a jacket potato from the café’s increasingly sparse menu, the woman behind the counter chatted to me about the weather.
“Still,” she said, “you get some fools who think their job is so important they insist on trying to drive, despite the fact the roads are an ice-rink. My cousin, the one who works for the police, says they’ve had ten times the usual number of traffic accidents. Four fatalities. Just trying to get to work!”