I hope you dance, p.28

I Hope You Dance, page 28

 

I Hope You Dance
 



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  Dorothy claimed to know nothing about Carl having been struck off and subsequently deported. She thought he had returned to the UK to be nearer his family, and work at a private hospital in Sheffield. Matt asked her the name of the hospital, the name of any colleagues we could speak to, any friends. She knew nothing. I asked her where he lived. She confessed that four months ago he moved back in with her, as his place was being remodelled, but had asked her not to tell anyone, as it didn’t look good for a doctor of his status to be bunking at his mum’s. She had never seen his house.

  Yes, she knew Carl and I were seeing each other, but had promised to keep it a secret, as Maggie hadn’t been told.

  We had several questions. What did he do all day when he went off to work? How did he pay for petrol, phone calls, swanky meals out and diamond bracelets, especially now Dorothy guarded her purse more carefully? Where was he now?

  Dorothy fell apart when she saw the articles describing the scandal in America. Bewildered by his behaviour over the past few months, too upset to be humiliated, she sat bent over an untouched bowl of red pepper soup and wondered what on earth to do when Carl picked her up that evening.

  The police were wonderful. A serious young officer came to the house, listened, made detailed notes, got straight on to my phone company to trace my call records and promised to pay Carl a visit.

  Except that Carl Barker, ex-Dr Carl Coombes, had disappeared.

  The phone calls stopped.

  A weak February sun appeared, and the snow began to melt.

  I went to work, administrated, filed, sorted, visited desperate clients in dire straits, wrangled with debt companies and whizzed through important, life-saving numbers with the calculator inside my brain. I spoke to Rupa, dropped round my mother’s fortifying fish pie and joined with several other women (and three men) in knitting a square for a patchwork quilt that we sewed together in hope, for baby Hope. Enough knitters joined in to give all the premature babies in the two Nottingham hospitals Hope blankets. The craft shop in Southwell ran out of wool.

  One Saturday, my fingers feeling itchy, I dug out a pencil and a piece of Mum’s best writing paper, thick and slightly coarse in texture, and I sketched a boat, riding on a choppy ocean. I gave the boat two storeys, depicted by two rows of round windows, and a sloping roof. Peeking through the windows I added two elephants, two monkeys, two racoons, a pair of lizards, some stripy snakes, a sheep, a reindeer and several smaller animals like rabbits and hedgehogs. Crawling up the side of the roof were snails, ants, a pair of chameleons with curly tongues and some furry caterpillars. Bats hung under the eaves of the roof, and a toucan and a wood pigeon nested on the top. In the central window I drew a man and his wife. They looked like Harry and Rupa. I drew in the name of the boat. It was “Hope”. I then dug out a Bible from Dad’s study. It took me two hours to find the words I wanted to say to Harry and Rupa – and to Hope. I inscribed them in tiny letters on the side of the boat, along the rooftop, around the portals. I wrote them in the rainclouds and weaved them in between the fish swimming under the sea: I have made you and will care for you. I will carry you along and save you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will strengthen you and help you. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.

  I heard those words as I wrote them. They prodded and poked at my soul. I had been in deep waters – drowning, flailing, up to my neck, no land in sight. Had he been with me – God? That question felt uncomfortable and comfortable at the same time.

  I gave Rupa and Harry the picture, having spent another morning adding some bright colours and a few final flourishes. They cried. I blushed. Then I cried too.

  I went to tea-dance classes with Maggie and a growing bunch of older and younger members, wondering how long my parents could run the group together without actually dancing with each other. Wondering how long Ruby would keep coming, and at what point she would concede defeat. Wondering if Hannah Beaumont would ever get up and dance.

  I scuttled through the town, head down, ignoring the urgent need to scan the roads for black cars or bright-eyed men, trying to believe Carl had gone, and that if he hadn’t, somebody else would spot him before I had to. Determined to carry on life as normal, having tasted freedom on the tip of my tongue, I did everything I could to find it again. I watched my tiny pile of saved pennies grow and my humongous pile of debts shrink, laughed with my friends, ate with my fractured family, tried, tried, tried to breathe deeply and enjoy my surprising new life.

  Valentine’s Day came and went, I held my breath, barely slept. No card, no flowers, no Carl. I breathed a little easier.

  The last day of February an envelope addressed to me landed on the doorstep. The handwriting stirred up delicious, forbidden treacly feelings in my stomach. I closed my bedroom door and read the postcard inside.

  Ruth

  Still thinking about you… counting the hours Yours (when you want me)

  D

  I used the postcard to fan my burning face a few times before hiding it in my underwear drawer. I tried to get cross about my wayward feelings, to focus on Maggie, who had enough to deal with watching out for a potential crazy stalker after her mum, let alone the man who lived next door. I couldn’t. I couldn’t get cross about them. I felt ridiculously happy just at the thought that David would be back soon, that he thought about me, that I could pass him on the road and say good morning, or walk down a country lane with him, or share a pot of tea. A pot of tea! Together!

  I would count my blessings, be grateful for what I had, refuse to hope or dream of more. Well, I would try.

  Three days later, my old friend Mr Hay the headmaster called to ask why Maggie had not turned up for registration. It wasn’t school policy for the head to follow up on every absent child, but given the concurrent non-attendance of Seth, and Maggie’s history, he was taking a personal interest.

  “Oh dear.” I managed not to swear.

  “So you thought she was in school?”

  “Yes. She left at the usual time in her uniform. I’ll try her mobile.”

  “I’d appreciate that. Let the receptionist know when you hear anything, please. I’ll speak to Mrs Harris.”

  Maggie’s phone went straight to voicemail. I wracked my brain trying to recall any suspicious behaviour. She’d been out the night before, supposedly watching a film at Seth’s house. He had walked her home in time for her ten o’clock curfew and she had gone straight to bed. That morning she got up late, rushed about, grunted when spoken to and slammed the front door so hard the hinges rattled when she left. A typical Monday morning. A tendril of Carl-fear began coiling around my neck. I rang Lois.

  “Ruth. I’ve just spoken to Ken Hay. I’m furious, disappointed and baffled enough to feel slightly anxious. They’ve done such a good job of earning our trust – I can’t believe they’d chuck that away without good reason.”

  “Maggie was an expert skiver in Liverpool. If she’d wanted to sneak a day off, she would have been a lot cleverer than this about it.”

  “So it was spur of the moment. Or else she wanted you to find out.”

  “Why would she want that?”

  “In my vast experience of kids bunking off, because she’s either mad at you or has a problem and wants you to find out but can’t tell you.”

  Some scary thoughts rattled around my head like a pinball machine. Pregnant. Being bullied. Flunking her exams. Pregnant. Carl.

  “What about Carl?” I asked, near frantic with fear.

  “What – you think he’s kidnapped them? It would be a big stretch to imagine he’d done something to Maggie – but Seth? That boy has learned the hard way how to protect himself.”

  Lois had a point. “What do you think then? Has Seth given any clues?”

  “No. He seemed fine this morning when he left. Even smiled a couple of times. I’m flummoxed. We might have to sit tight, remember how well they’ve been doing, and try not to burst a blood vessel when they come home.”

  “I’m not tha
t bothered about the skipping school. It’s the reason why that fills me with dread.”

  There was a crash followed by a howl on the end of the phone. “Sorry. That’s Martha. I have to go.”

  “I’ll speak to you later.”

  “Stay cool, Ruth.”

  “You too,” I replied, feeling anything but.

  As the clock crept past four and on towards evening, I did not stay cool. I left another message on Maggie’s phone, tried a couple of her friends to ask if they knew where she was, paced up and down the living room and fretted about how long I could leave it before contacting the police, bearing in mind that I had discovered her missing backpack and toothbrush.

  Sometime around nine, Lois phoned. “Don’t freak out.”

  “Okay, that has me freaking.”

  “Seth texted.”

  I stood up quickly from the sofa. “What did he say?”

  “‘Sorry, but Maggie had to get away. Don’t worry.’”

  “Did you reply?” I pressed one hand to my forehead, trying to steady the pounding.

  “I rang and texted but he’s turned his phone off. Then I got smart.”

  “And?”

  “I rang his half-sister, Cheryl. The one in Mansfield.”

  “The one who works as a lap-dancer to fund her drug habit?” My hand slipped down over my eyes.

  “Yeah, that one. Anyway, they turned up there a couple of hours ago. She’s going to let them stay tonight and Matt’ll go and fetch them in the morning. We figured racing over to Mansfield at this time probably wouldn’t help the situation, whatever that is.”

  “So they’re spending the night together. At a lap-dancer’s house. With drugs. And Maggie is too mad at me to let me know.”

  Lois blew out a sigh. “If you want to go and haul her out, we can drive you over. But, for the record, we trust Seth not to do anything stupid.”

  “Like bunk off school with his girlfriend and take her to Cheryl’s house?” My voice had gone supersonic.

  Lois, who had spent eight years dealing with troubled teens and their associated adventures, remained calm. “It’ll be fine, Ruth. One night in that house and Maggie’ll be itching to come home.”

  “She’s fourteen, Lois. I don’t want her staying there. I don’t understand why she’s gone. We’ve been getting on so much better. I’m terrified she’s in trouble.”

  “She’s a good kid, Ruth. You’re a great mum. Whatever it is, we’ll get through it.”

  When I dragged myself up to bed, having driven my parents half crazy with my wittering and worry, I discovered in my underwear drawer a postcard ripped into quarters. Ah. I called Maggie’s phone. As expected, it went straight to voicemail, but I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist listening to her messages at some point.

  “Maggie. It’s not what you think. There is nothing going on between me and David. Nothing. I’ve kept my promise. There is nothing going on. It’s just a postcard. Please be careful. I love you. Bye.”

  Did she sleep that night thinking her mother had betrayed her? Or did she lie awake, like me, feeling sick, empty, like a human pile of refuse? Guilt, my old friend, slunk back into bed with me. I gazed at where the pictures of Maggie hung shadowed on my bedroom wall. I did not think about David.

  I don’t know who was more angry: me or my daughter.

  Matt picked up the kids straight after breakfast. I waited on the front step, a bag of jumbling emotions, as Maggie slowly heaved herself out of the back seat of Matt’s car and stomped up the drive towards me. Pushing past, she flung open the door and went inside, running up the stairs with me three steps behind her.

  I had pre-emptively wedged open her bedroom door with a flip-flop, thwarting her attempt to slam it in my face. This did not ease her temper.

  “Get lost!” she screamed at me, the tremble in her voice betraying her. “I have nothing to say to you.”

  “Well, maybe I have something to say to you.”

  “I don’t care what you have to say! It’s all lies!”

  Deep breath. Count to ten. Remember I am the adult.

  “Are you all right? It was okay at Cheryl’s?”

  “What do you care?”

  “Can we talk about the postcard?”

  “Ungh!” She took off her boot and threw it at me. “Go. Away!”

  “I’m not going away until we’ve talked about what happened. I understand you’re mad at me, Maggie, but skipping school, running off to that dangerous house and refusing to let me even try to explain is not an acceptable way to deal with this. If I found something of yours – something private, a letter – and read it, then jumped to conclusions and refused to talk to you about it, you would consider that hugely unfair. I’ve done my best to be open and honest with you since we moved here. To respect you with the truth, and trust you in return. Don’t you trust me enough to at least hear my explanation?”

  Maggie was still, holding the other boot down by her side, her shoulders hunched up to her ears and her face glowing red. She stared at the floor for a long time.

  “I need a shower. My hair stinks of weed. And some breakfast. But if we’re being honest, I can’t think of a single explanation that excuses you keeping a postcard like that from David.”

  Half an hour later, we were in the living room. It felt more like a courtroom.

  “So.” Maggie shrugged her shoulders, angry. “Explain.”

  “There is nothing going on between me and David, like I said. We were best friends for a long time. Just before he left, David indicated that he had, um, feelings for me. But he knows I’ve made you a promise not to get romantically involved with anyone, and he respects that.”

  She snorted. “Yours when you want me. Thinking about you. How is that respecting your promise? Tell me exactly what he said.”

  “He said he’ll wait until you’re ready.”

  “So, what, he assumes you like him back?”

  “I suppose he might.” I shifted position on the armchair.

  “Why would he think that? What did you say to make him think that?”

  “Nothing!”

  “So why would he think that then?” She continued to glare at me, arms crossed.

  “I don’t know, Maggie. It was a brief conversation. I was very uncomfortable,” I said.

  “So?”

  “So what?”

  “Do you like him back?” she asked through gritted teeth.

  “You know I like David, Maggie. He’s my oldest friend.”

  “You know what I mean! Do you have feelings for him?”

  What could I say? I had a thousand, million, squillion feelings for David Carrington. None of them welcome, or wanted.

  “How I feel about David is irrelevant. I made you a promise and will keep it. I’m not going to enter into any sort of relationship with a man until you’re ready.”

  She just stared at me, eyes narrowed, until I answered her question.

  “Yes.” I looked down, hugged a cushion to my knees.

  “Are you in love with him?”

  “Maybe. Possibly. I don’t know. But it makes no difference. I will always, always love you more.”

  A concrete statue sat in my daughter’s place. “You can’t be friends with him then. Not if you feel like that about each other. Can you?”

  The statue’s face cracked, and I saw the hurt and the loss and the confusion inside. I got up and moved across to sit beside her on the sofa, wrapping my arms around her.

  “Oh Maggie, I’m so glad you’re safe. Promise you’ll talk to me next time before running away with a boy to an exotic dancer’s drug den.”

  “She offered me a job.”

  “What?”

  Maggie burst out in a shaky laugh. “Relax, Mum. I said no. And before you ask, we didn’t have sex.”

  “Good to hear.”

  “No way I’m losing my virginity on a dodgy stained mattress with a load of stoners in the next room.” She leaned her head onto my shoulder and I rested mine on hers
.

  “Like I said, good to hear. Now go and get changed. You’ve got an appointment with Mr Hay.”

  “Good to hear.”

  “And by the way, you’re grounded. Indefinitely.”

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  The meeting included much grovelling, many apologies and warnings, and a liberal sprinkling of the fact that it was a tricky time of year for Maggie and me, being only four days before the anniversary of Fraser’s car crash. Although little had been said, the date still hovered in our minds. I had been dreaming about the night a policeman knocked on my door, weird twists of my imagination involving Fraser’s mother, bailiffs and the weighty feeling of blackness that shrouded our family for a season. We both found ourselves mournful, more fragile than usual. On the day itself, we caught the train to Liverpool.

  We didn’t visit Fraser’s grave – that lay in Scotland, alongside his father’s. Instead, we went to the places that reminded us of him the most, where our family had been happiest, and we could celebrate having known him, rather than grieve his loss. We didn’t go anywhere near our old house – that would have been pointlessly painful – but we walked in Croxteth park, took the bus into town and strolled along the regenerated docks, splashed out more money than was sensible at Fraser’s favourite restaurant, and eventually ended up being blown about Wallasey beach.

  Maggie flung back the hood of her parka, letting the salt spray and biting wind whip her hair about and turn her cheeks pink. “Liverpool!” she squealed. “I love you! I miss you and your freezing coldness and your awesome accent and big, tall buildings and old drunk Irish guys and abundance of tracksuits! I yearn for massive bridges and the smell of the sea and the superlambanana and a way less creepy number of trees! Yay Beatles! You are far better than Robin Hood. And you actually existed. You’ll never walk alone!”

 
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