I Hope You Dance, page 27
I nodded my head and picked up a bottle of orange juice from the chiller.
“Not to mention that couple from Fiskerton who were found half frozen to death in the ditch. They were going to the cinema. Taking a fifteen-mile drive in a blizzard! It’s not like there aren’t enough things to watch on the television these days…”
She carried on, decrying the stupidity of the English in bad weather. I listened with half an ear as I helped myself to cutlery and a paper napkin, nodding and murmuring my agreement at appropriate moments, until, as I walked towards a free table, she said something that nearly made me drop my tray.
“It’s all very pretty and all that, nice for the kids to have a day off school to build a snowman, but your fella must be run off his feet, what with the cars crashing and old folks slipping over. Not to mention hypothermia. That drunk man who nearly died.”
I put the tray down carefully on the table and turned back to her.
“Didn’t you hear? The man that used to work at the garage, with the moustache.”
“No,” I continued. “You said something about my fella.”
“Well, it’s a lot of work for him, isn’t it, the snow?”
“I’m not sure who you mean.” Only I did. I knew exactly who she meant.
“Your boyfriend, Dorothy’s lad – he’s a doctor, isn’t he?”
“Yes. But he’s not my boyfriend.”
She coloured slightly, tugging at her cap. “Well, I don’t know what you young people call it these days. That one you’re seeing.”
“No. I don’t mean that. I’m not seeing him. We don’t have any sort of relationship. We aren’t even friends.” I tried to keep the strain from showing in my voice. “Who told you we were seeing each other; that he was my boyfriend?”
I was momentarily speechless.
“I think you’d better put him straight, love. He seemed to think it was pretty serious, from what I gathered.”
“Yes, I will. Thank you.”
I gave my potato to the caretaker. My stomach was full of black-bellied hornets.
At the second tea-dance lesson, things got worse. A total of eighteen students came, including an additional three of Maggie’s friends. The mobility-scooter couple couldn’t manage the snow but had sent four neighbours in their place, along with a message saying they would be back next week. John braved the ice to bring Hannah in his truck, there was a slightly strange young man in a teddy-boy outfit, and me. Oh yes, and one late arrival in a pink anorak, saggy leggings and glittery silver leg-warmers.
Ruby removed her anorak and shook the snow from her hair. Every man in the room’s jaw dropped open at the sight of her leopard print leotard straining to contain that enormous chest. A bra might have helped. Mum practically sprinted over to where Ruby stood, preening, by the doorway.
“How excellent to see you! We were just wondering who Frank here would have as a partner.”
Nobody had been wondering that. By default, I would have danced with the teddy-boy. Now I would have to either partner with Maggie’s friend Misha or stick with Dad. Mum thrust Frank at Ruby, and stormed back across to where Dad fiddled about with the CD player, his face stricken.
“We had an agreement, Gil. You have broken that in the worst possible way!”
Oh dear. Mum whispering. Might as well have used a megaphone.
Ruby called out, “Is there a problem with me being here, Harriet? Gilbert did invite me.”
Mum ignored this. Dad tried to put a calming hand on her arm, but it was swiped off.
“I didn’t invite her, specifically,” he said softly. “I told you I put it up on the U3A website. She must have seen it there.”
“Harriet. Remember you are a professional. We don’t veto members of our classes.”
Mum snorted. She stamped out a pasodoble on the parquet floor.
“I’m not the one who needs to remember, Gilbert.”
Mum wasn’t merely professional, she was sweetness and light, grace and serenity as she guided us through the Viennese waltz, using every male in the room except Dad as a partner. In choosing not to compete with Ruby, but to simply be her very best self – not hard, considering the context – she outshone her in every way. How could a six-foot, elegant swan in a flowing ball gown compare to a jealous, desperately dressed duck out of water?
A tiny bit of my seething rage towards Ruby actually melted into pity as I watched her floundering to elicit anything beyond the minimum courtesy from Dad. Ruby turning up at the tea-dance class might end up being a blessing in disguise.
Two of the new students, Viv and Eddie, expressed their surprise that my nice handsome boyfriend wasn’t there to dance with me.
“Ooh!” Viv winked at me. “I bet he’s got some moves.”
“And he trusts you with all these other men!” Eddie laughed, and then broke into a fit of coughing.
“If you mean Carl Barker –”
“Him with the eyes – the doctor.”
“Yes. Him. He is not my boyfriend. I’m not seeing him. I just know his mum. That’s all.”
“Whatever you say, love.” Viv, absentmindedly patting Eddie on the back, winked at me again.
I swallowed hard, determined not to throw up.
Frazzled, frayed, frustrated and frantic with fear, I was in dire need of a girls’ night. It was my turn, which meant it was Mum’s turn, to cook, clean and bark orders while I mentally counted my tiny stack of new-house savings and willed it to grow faster.
She cooked tapas – “food to share”. She prepared mussels: “all good mussels open when ready, just like good friends – if they refuse to open, chuck ’em away!” and stocked up on fizzy white wine, as “girls’ nights should bubble and sparkle”. Dessert was key lime pie “to add zest and zip”.
Ellie called to say she couldn’t make it. Although she would happily have braved the two-mile slog through the snow, she didn’t want to risk leaving her horses, in case she couldn’t get back. The others all walked together, accompanied by Rupa’s husband Harry, terrified she would slip on the ice and hurt herself or the baby. We didn’t let Harry stay.
The tapas ready, Mum dragged Dad off to babysit for Esther and Max. It was Ana Luisa’s turn to say grace.
“Thank you, God, for bringing us safely here. We are a little bit cross with you about all this snow, to be honest. It was fun to begin with, having snowball fights and sledging down the school field. We even liked the way it brought everybody together and made a, what do you call it, war time feeling everywhere. But we think it is enough now. Especially because Ellie can’t be here. We miss her. Please bless her and those horses. And bless this evening and Harriet, who so kindly made this feast when all the take-aways cannot be taking anything away in this terrible snow. She rocks. Thank you for my wonderful girls. They kept me sane in all my romantic suffering, and never told me to shut up and get over it. They gave me the courage to share my heart, and now my dream has come true. May all their dreams come true too, God. And please make the snow melt. Seriously – enough already! Amen.”
We dug in. I asked them if they knew of any rumours about me and Carl. Lois and Emily had heard a couple, but quashed them as best they could. I described a little of what had been happening, but those women were such good listeners that before I knew it I was blubbering the whole story.
Emily leaned over and put her arm around me – strong, like a fortress. “We’ve got your back, sister. However you want to play this, we’re with you.”
“As long as it’s legal,” Lois added, with a shaky smile.
“Speak for yourself! I’m not a pastor’s wife.”
“Thanks.” I looked at my friends and felt the colossal weight I carried shift and settle more comfortably across my shoulders. “I don’t know what to do. I haven’t seen him all week, though. Maybe he’s getting bored or goi
Emily frowned. “This isn’t about what he feels for you any more. It’s about power and winning. I don’t think he’s going to give up until he gets what he wants. Or somebody stops him.”
I took a big sip of my sparkling wine. “What does he want?”
“To control you? To have you do whatever he says? Or to love him? He’s crazy. Who can guess what he really wants from you?”
“You’re not really making me feel better here, Emily.”
“I’m not trying to make you feel better. I want you to be safe and happy. I want you to take this seriously, and deal with it, not learn to live with it.”
She was right. I had spent long enough living with situations I should have dealt with.
Ana Luisa tossed back her hair. “In Brazil, my brothers would shoot him for you. But in this country we have a police force that actually works every day and listens to normal people, and you don’t even have to bribe them first or anything like that. Can’t you call the police?”
“And say what? That a man stopped me a couple of times to offer me a lift, and told a few people we’re going out? That’s not a crime.”
“The phone calls are,” Lois said. “Matt and I’ve had to deal with all sorts of rubbish like that, Ruth. It’s horrible. It lurks over you like a hideous black cloud of acid rain, and you watch for it to burst all the time, like a nervous wreck. If you contact the police they’ll get a trace put on the calls.”
Right on cue, my phone rang. Withheld number. I rejected the call.
There were three more calls before we finished eating. It was hard to talk about anything else. I could see worry and anger in my friends’ faces, but I didn’t want to ruin the whole evening.
“How are you feeling, Rupa? You don’t seem yourself.” That was an understatement. She had hardly eaten, or said a word, all night.
“I’m not great, to be honest. Sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’m twenty-six weeks now. All the books say I should be blooming.”
“It’ll be worth it, Rups.” Emily patted her knee in sympathy. “Hang on in there.”
“Thanks, Emily. Help me up, would you? My bladder’s uncontrollable. Literally.”
She left to go to the bathroom, and we chatted about ways we could help her out a bit, until she staggered back in, her face grey like the dirty snow lining the gutters.
“I think my waters broke.” Her knees gave way as Ana Luisa, who was nearest, jumped up to catch her. We carefully lowered her onto the sofa, and hurriedly cleared some of the food out of the way. And then the nightmare started.
Rupa began to keen, like a lost kitten, her arms wrapping around her stomach as she felt her first contractions. Lois called for an ambulance, but another fierce blizzard raged outside and half the roads were blocked. We wrapped Rupa up in a blanket. She gripped on to Emily’s hand tight, crying for Harry, who battled through the storm as fast as he could.
Her entire body shook. There was nothing we could do save offer her painkillers, and pray as if her life depended on it, while wondering if the life of the precious child she carried might.
We called the emergency services back, begged them to hurry. They promised to be there as soon as they could.
The surreal calm that accompanies such moments soon settled, our minds in survival mode, temporarily numb to the tumbling emotions that would drown us if we took our focus off the here and now. I made tea. Emily and Lois let their families know they would be late home, if at all, that night. We called Ellie. Maggie came downstairs and helped us clear away the dinner as quietly as possible – as if noise would somehow make Rupa’s condition worse.
Harry arrived. Still no sign of the ambulance.
In the midst of all this, our hushed vigil, my phone rang. Withheld number. Before I could think twice, I answered it.
“Carl, you don’t have to say anything, but please listen for a minute. I really, really need your help. My friend’s in trouble and the ambulance is taking forever. If you’re anywhere nearby, please come. Please help.”
The line went dead. I looked up to see the others staring at me, their expressions inscrutable.
Five minutes later – five minutes! In a blizzard! – the doorbell rang. Dr Carl, bag in hand. I nearly wept with relief. What a difference a day makes.
He shooed us out, deftly striding over towards Rupa. Harry stayed, refusing to move further away from his wife and unborn child than absolutely necessary. We hovered outside the living room door, too overwhelmed to do anything but grip each other’s hands and wait. There were murmurings, a brief moan from Rupa, and – at last – the distant wail of a siren. We dashed out to greet it.
As the ambulance chugged up the cul-de-sac, half skidding to a stop on a fresh patch of snow, the front door opened and Carl stepped out, shrugging back into his coat. He paused by me, his face grave, gaze steady. “I’m sorry to rush off; I’ve had another call. A child’s gone through the ice at the park pond. Don’t worry, though. The paramedics will soon have everything under control. Their van has a lot more equipment than my bag. I’m sure she’ll be fine. Thank you for trusting me with this, Ruth. It means a lot. I’ll call you to see how she’s getting on.”
He slipped and slid down the drive, jogging towards his car. In the silver moonlight, the whole world gleaming white, for a second I almost believed again that he was merely a handsome young doctor, trying to save the world – and me. Lois soon put me right.
“Where on earth is he going?”
“Another emergency. Said a child fell into a pond.”
Lois peered at me. “At ten o’clock at night?”
I shrugged. Stranger things happened.
“And he couldn’t wait five minutes to fill in the paramedics, tell them the situation?” she added, her voice incredulous.
“That does seem a bit unprofessional.”
“He didn’t even say hello to them.”
In what seemed like seconds the amazing paramedics had loaded Rupa into the ambulance, hooked up a drip and done numerous other medical-type things I knew nothing about. They eased off into the darkness, blue light flashing through the straggly remains of the blizzard. We fell back into the warmth of the living room. Waited. Hoped. Wept. Prayed. It was a long night.
Five o’clock that morning baby Hope was born. She weighed two pounds, one ounce. It had been touch and go, but she was fighting. The doctors were fighting with her. Girls’ night officially ended with bacon sandwiches and strong black coffee. I called Dorothy and asked her to pass on the news to Carl. She didn’t ask why I hadn’t called him myself.
Monday, Lois caught up with me at the centre.
“Hi, Ruth. You look like I feel.”
“Tell me about it. Are you going to the hospital later?”
“Not today. Rupa’s parents have driven down from Manchester. But I wanted to talk to you about Carl.”
I let out a long sigh. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Now he knows I know it was him making the silent calls, I’m not sure what that means – if he might stop. Unless, of course, I’ve just pushed him into being stalker Carl all the time. But I had to do it. Do you think it was stupid? Have I made things loads worse?”
Lois put her hand on my shoulder. “Stop.”
I managed to stop.
Lois said, “I’ve been making some enquiries about Dr Carl Barker. Or should I say ex-Dr Carl Barker.”
“What?” A feeling of dread pulsed through my body, crashing into every organ as it went.
“Let’s go into your office.”
We closed the door, shutting out the noisy chatter of the craft group. I collapsed into my desk chair. Lois sat on the sofa.
“I spent most of yesterday afternoon searching for Dr Carl Barker on the internet.”
“And?” A chill crept up my spine.
“I found a few, but none of them were him. So I asked Dorothy if he ever used another name. Barker is Doroth
“So you tried Coombes?”
“Yes.” Lois looked at me, her eyes grave. “A Dr Carl Coombes had his medical licence taken away two years ago. In the States.”
“Why?” The chill had spread to my lungs. I couldn’t breathe properly.
“He began an inappropriate relationship with one of his patients.”
“I don’t want to hear this.”
“Apparently, they dated for a few weeks. She claimed that when she broke it off, he started to pursue her. Aggressively. Follow her to work, bombard her with phone calls, send her things in the post, turn up at her gym, stuff like that. He always kept things just inside the border of the law, but when she complained, there was an investigation and the relationship on its own was enough to get him fired.”
“What happened? Did he leave her alone after that?”
Lois took a deep breath. She looked me straight in the eye. “She committed suicide three months later.”
The buzzing in my head increased. I couldn’t think, let alone say anything.
“But – listen to me, Ruth. Moira Bourdin had been suffering from depression long before Carl came along. She had chronic health problems, including crippling arthritis. That’s how they met. She lived alone, had no family to speak of and couldn’t work. Carl may have been the final straw, but he didn’t drive her to suicide. She was a very troubled woman.”
“That’s why he picked her.” My voice sounded as though it was the other side of a pane of glass. “He likes troubled women. Weak women. Hopeless screw-ups he can control and manipulate and eventually break.”
“Yes. But you aren’t one of those women any more, Ruth.”
Then why did I feel like one?
I showed my parents the information Lois had found online. I also had a very difficult conversation with Maggie. I didn’t want her to be afraid, but I did want her to be aware of the situation, so she could be careful. Lois spoke to Martine, and Matt arranged a meeting with Dorothy. I absolutely insisted on being present.