I Hope You Dance, page 29
I hoped the few other people on the beach wouldn’t be offended by a fourteen-year-old’s memory of Liverpool and muttered an apology to the ghost of Robin Hood for my daughter’s lack of faith. I liked Liverpool, a lot, but it had never been home.
We allowed the gale to buffet us down the sand parallel to the steel-coloured waves. Every few strides one of us bent down and picked up a stone, hurling it into the water while speaking out a memory of Fraser.
“He was the world’s best tickler,” Maggie grinned.
“He cooked fantastic omelettes.”
“He always came to tuck me in at night, even when it was really late and he thought I was asleep.”
“He worked really hard to give us lovely things.”
“I never saw anyone so bad at dancing the robot.”
“True. But slow dancing? That he could do.”
“I loved your impressions of all my different teachers, Dad!”
“You were the sexiest boy on the maths course!”
“Eew! Keep it clean. You pretty much hardly ever embarrassed me in front of my friends!”
“You put up with my crazy mother!”
“You were an amazing dad.” Maggie spoke this so softly the wind snatched the words away. She stopped walking, and folded herself into me. “I miss you, my daddy. I love you and I wish you were here every day. I miss you.”
Our tears mingled with the Irish Sea spray as we gazed out towards the horizon, and wondered and remembered and held each other tight. I missed him too, the man who had shared my life and my bed and the young woman beside me. Life was safe with Fraser, and oh so dangerously wide open without him.
It was a good day. I watched Maggie on the train journey home reading the latest John Green book and marvelled at the difference between this young woman and the angry, mixed-up girl hiding behind liquid eyeliner and blue hair I had dragged kicking and screaming from the same city only seven months earlier.
She turned the page and, without glancing up, said, “Stop staring at me, please.”
“I’m just thinking how much I love you.”
She rolled her eyes, still reading, if that’s possible.
“Are you happy, Maggie?”
“It’s the anniversary of Dad’s untimely death. I’ve spent half the afternoon crying, or trying not to cry. I’m grounded, on probation at school and my boyfriend is forbidden from seeing me unsupervised after taking me to a crack-house. My mum is being stalked by a madman, my grandparents are on the brink of marital breakdown and my best friend is a bitter, lonely old woman who treats me like a servant. Oh, and I have terrible hair.” She looked up at me, a smile in her eyes. “Yes, I’m pretty happy.”
“Do you still want to move back to Liverpool?”
“Is that ever going to happen?”
“Then I’ll live with it.”
“I’m unbelievably proud of you – you know that?”
“Yes.” She resumed reading for a few more minutes. “Can I go to Sam’s party on Friday?”
“No longer happy.”
“You can live with it.”
I got a phone call from Rupa’s mother-in-law, who lived in Leicester. Could I do three more of the Noah’s ark pictures for her other grandchildren? Only her eldest grandson, Daniel, loved the Bible story about Daniel in the lions’ den. Could I draw lions? And her other granddaughter loved butterflies, so could I do a picture with some butterflies in it? She would pay me, of course.
I ummed and ahhed, doubtful that my amateur artwork was actually worth paying for.
Mistaking my modesty for haggling, she upped the price. One hundred pounds for three pictures.
I shrugged my shoulders, hung up the phone and dug out my pencils. I could almost hear God chuckle as I buried myself in the Bible for the second time that month.
That Friday was girls’ night. Rupa’s turn. We brought lasagne and freshly baked Italian bread from the deli, leafy salad and carrot cake with extra-thick lime and mascarpone icing. Ana Luisa and I arrived an hour early, planning to spend it vacuuming, scrubbing, sorting and ironing while Rupa soaked in the bath.
Instead of being greeted by Rupa’s pretty smile at the door, we found ourselves face to face with Vanessa Jacobs, of all people. She looked us up and down, a faint smirk lurking at the corners of her squishy lips.
“We’re here to see Rupa. She’s expecting us.”
Vanessa crossed her arms defensively. A duster dangled from one hand. Ana Luisa thrust the cake tin she carried in through the doorway until it nearly rammed into Vanessa’s rigid chest.
“Not a problem. We won’t disturb her. We came to do her ironing.”
“I’ve done it.”
“Washing-up? Tidying? Changed her bed? Hah! What about her kitchen cupboards?”
Vanessa rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She stepped back to let us in. “And don’t worry, I won’t be hanging around for your little party. I’ve got better things to do on a Friday night than giggle and gossip like twelve-year-olds at a sleepover.”
“Something better than laughing with your friends? I have to know what that could be,” Ana Luisa asked oh so sweetly. Vanessa dropped the duster on the hall table and yanked on her jacket.
“Let’s put it this way. I’ll be having a sleepover of my own. And there aren’t any girls invited.”
She opened the front door and called over her shoulder as she left, “Say bye to Rups for me. Tell her I’ll bring that shopping over in the morning.”
We stood and watched Vanessa’s sports car screech away.
“My thoughts exactly. I suppose we should clean some cupboards.”
The others arrived an hour later, laden down with groceries, magazines and teeny-tiny baby clothes.
We settled in Rupa’s small living room, packed even tighter now it was filled with bunches of flowers and about a thousand cards.
“How are you doing, Mum?” Emily asked Rupa, curled up on the sofa in her pyjamas.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“I’ll ask again. How are you, Rupa?”
She sighed, allowing her chin to tremble. “Wrung out. Like an empty sack. When Hope got that infection last week – I honestly didn’t know how I would bear it. But I did. And she’s okay, and I know I have to choose between feeling angry this happened, my whole life becoming hospitals and tubes and waiting and worrying, and feeling so very grateful she’s made it this far, and is doing well, and everyone’s been so wonderful… it’s like the worst, horrible, scariest times only give more opportunities for people to show love and kindness. Honestly, every time I think I can’t do another day, like when I hear mums with their big, fat, healthy babies complaining about them crying all night, or having sore boobs from breastfeeding, when I feel like that, I look at Hope’s blanket and I think about all those people who are standing with us. And I, I don’t know, I feel strong. I feel carried. I feel blessed.”
Ana Luisa asked the question we were both thinking: “So, speaking of people being kind – Vanessa Jacobs?”
Rupa smiled, and wagged her finger at Ana. “Vanessa has been amazing. I will not hear a bad word said about her in this house. I’ve cried on her shoulder so many times in the past few weeks she could have charged me rent.”
The girls bristled. What was wrong with their nice, soft, friendly, less fashionable shoulders?
Ellie shook her head in wonderment. “I don’t understand. Since when did you and her become best buddies?” She gasped. “Is that who drove you to the doctor’s last week when you turned down my offer of a lift? Did Vanessa Jacobs take you?”
Rupa sighed. “I can’t believe you’re jealous.”
“We’re not jealous!”
We were, a teensy bit. Vanessa had long, silken ringlets, a blemish-free complexion, a killer
“Vanessa gets it. And it’s, I don’t know, soothing, to be with a person you don’t have to explain it to; they just understand what to do and what not to say and all that.”
“Oh.” Ellie was taking this hard.
“Can you remember when Vanessa moved away for a couple of years? About a month before I met Harry? Well, she left Southwell to get married. They had a baby, twelve weeks prem. He didn’t make it; her marriage fell apart a few months later. It’s not a secret, but it isn’t common knowledge either. She might come across as abrasive and mean, but really underneath Vanessa’s just wounded. She lashes out because she’s terrified that someone’ll see beneath her stylish exterior and find a worthless reject inside. I don’t think she has any real friends.”
Emily raised her eyebrows. “Sounds like she needs to come to the clinic for a few sessions. I knew about her marriage, but not the baby.”
“Actually” – Rupa wriggled on her seat and mustered up a surprisingly determined look on her face for someone so sweet-natured – “I wanted to ask her along to girls’ night next time.”
“I mean, she’s not Ruth’s boss any more, so there’s no conflict there. And really, if you get to know her, then, well…” Rupa petered out, shrugging her shoulders at the floor.
“I think it’s great that you’re friends and she’s been there for you. But the rest of us have some catching up to do. I’m not sure we’re ready to trust Vanessa yet at a girls’ night.” Lois smiled to soften her words. “How about we invite her along to some other stuff, get to know her a bit better first? Give Ruth a bit of distance – Vanessa wasn’t exactly a pleasant boss. Does that sound okay?” She looked around, gauging our opinion.
We shrugged, mumbled, fiddled with our cups. No, it was not really okay, but hey-ho, these Christian women didn’t half go in for giving people fresh starts.
It was my turn to say grace. I had been stressing all day, trying to wangle my way out of it, remembering Freya and Martha’s withering assessment of my praying abilities on the yurt weekend.
The girls were having none of it. “Don’t be an idiot, Ruth. It’s just talking.”
I sighed. “You women have no idea how incredible you are, do you? And that it might actually be intimidating for people like me.”
“People like you?” Emily scoffed. “What – brave, beautiful, compassionate, wise, artistic, funny people?”
“I was thinking of messed-up, clueless, guilt-ridden, broke, homeless people, actually.”
Ana Luisa was horrified. “Is this how you see yourself, still?”
I thought about it. “Okay. I’ll say grace. No teasing.”
“Get on with it then! The lasagne’ll go cold.”
“Right. God. Hello. Um. Thanks for tonight; that we can be together. Thanks for friends who see us differently to how we see ourselves, and aren’t afraid to tell us when we’re being pitiful. Thanks for love in dark places, for hope – and Hope – and for keeping her safe so far. Please help Rupa to relax this evening; may our love and laughter recharge her batteries, restore her strength and refresh her soul. Help us keep girls’ night real. It is a rare thing to find people you can be utterly honest with. I can’t believe these women call me their friend. And that carrot cake looks like it came straight from heaven. Thank you. Amen.”
We toasted friendship, and being excellent women, and Hope. Then Lois told us a story about how Martha had tried to set a roast chicken free in the garden, and we laughed so hard we almost felt our ribs crack.
David was back. I could feel it in my bones. The atmosphere had shifted. I felt restless, scatter-brained. The crocuses under the wreck of the willow tree were blossoming; the branches above that had escaped the fire sprouted tiny, fisted-up leaves, reminding me of baby Hope.
My mother’s daughter, I busied myself with work and motherhood and nail biting and stomach clenching and smacking myself about the head in frustration at my deep and desperate feelings.
I found him sitting on the kerb at the bottom of my drive when I returned home from work one Tuesday evening. His hair was lighter, and long again, the beginnings of a beard emphasizing his exquisite jaw-line. He wore a grey-blue cotton sweater, with the sleeves pushed up above his elbows. Even his forearms were gorgeous.
“Hi.” I paused, unable to meet his smiling eyes.
“Want to join me?”
My shoulders sagged. I closed my eyes momentarily, and when I opened them again, prepared to speak, David had risen to stand beside me.
“Did you get my postcard?”
“Yes.” I flicked my gaze to the house, hoping Maggie wasn’t watching.
“And. And nothing, David. Nothing’s changed. Please stop pressuring me.”
He nodded. “Okay. Sorry, no pressure. I’ll behave myself. And try to be content with us being friends. For now.” He grinned, and it cut through me like a scalpel.
I shook my head tightly. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
He pulled his head back – the grin had vanished. “You can’t be friends? Why not?”
“Maggie found the postcard. Right before the anniversary of the car crash. She didn’t take it well. I’m sorry.”
“So she decides who you can be friends with as well as your love life?”
“No! It’s not like that. But you have to see she wouldn’t want me hanging around with someone who’s got feelings for me. She’d be constantly wondering what’s really going on.”
“Doesn’t she trust you?”
“Yes, but –”
“But what? You can’t have a male friend in case he finds you attractive? What about Matt or my dad? There are a lot of men in this world who probably find you attractive, Ruth, but, unbelievably, can actually manage to control themselves.”
“It’s not that!”
“What, then? Why are you letting her decide who your friends are, instead of asking her to trust you?”
“Because I don’t trust me!” I turned away, angry and riddled with pain. “I don’t trust me to be friends with you, David!” I lowered my voice, aware that we were standing in the open. “And, quite frankly, it hurts too much to think about you, let alone spend time with you. Can you imagine how much it kills me to know I never loved Maggie’s dad as I should have – as she and he deserved – because my heart was still stuck with you under that willow tree? I gave Maggie a pathetic, sub-standard, lifeless example of what it is to love a man, because the only way to stop thinking about you every hour of every day was to stop thinking altogether. I was half mad with love for you, David. Reckless. Foolish. Untrustworthy. But I blew it. We blew it. And life happened anyway. I made a promise to my daughter, and the only way I can be certain I keep that is to stay away.”
David stared at me, his body completely still.
I tried to pull myself together, to get out what I needed to say.
“So, I’m asking you, please don’t call round, or send letters, or wait for me to come home from work. Don’t wait for me at all.”
“Ruth –” He reached one hand out towards me, and I did the only thing I could do. I ran away from David Carrington for the second time – not as far, but an ocean, a desert, a galaxy away nevertheless.
Three days later, he flouted my request, and was once again sitting on the pavement outside my house when I came home. I pretended to ignore him, as I had been trying to ignore the gaping wound in my chest, and strode past him up the drive.
“I’ve been offered another job. With an open-ended contract. The producers want to make Whole Wild World into a show marketed for adults as well as kids. It’ll mean staying away indefinitely.”
I paused by the front door, half turned away, head down.
“Last week I told them I wasn’t interested. I had no reason to leave Southwell and a very good rea
My heart hammered in my chest, pounding out the reason with every beat. All the moisture had left my mouth, but my voice sounded loud and clear as I replied, “I think you should take the job.”
I got all the way up the stairs and into my room, closed the door and shattered into a million pieces.
By the time the rest of the family returned home, I had stuck myself back together again. Cracked, probably a little bit wonky, but without looking closely it would be hard to tell the difference.
Thankfully, talk at the dinner table was all about the dance classes. Maggie was keen to book a date for the big party, to get things moving. My parents, those pinnacles of perfection, shuddered at the prospect of releasing their fledgling dancers on the general public. Hannah still hadn’t even got out of her chair to try the warm-up. Maggie, smirking at me over her stir-fry, had a whale of a time listening to her grandparents united in their views for once.
Things had temporarily plateaued regarding the state of their relationship. Yes, Dad had cut down the number of U3A groups he attended to two or three a week, and as far as we knew he hadn’t seen Ruby again on a social basis. Mum had also kept her promise to slow down her rescue-the-downtrodden-of Southwell campaign, and consequently they brushed shoulders from time to time in the house, as well as at the dance class. But. It was a mere peephole in the towering wall between them; the barricade still stood strong. The wild, deep-spirited, beautiful lovers they had once been – bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh – remained elusive. Maggie and I, my sisters, their oldest and wisest friends suggested counselling, a second honeymoon, date-nights; at the very least a good long hard conversation or a bunch of flowers.
But so far, pride won out, the path of least resistance beckoned, and Ruby hovered hopefully in the wings.
The Oak Hill administrator – Ms Ruth Henderson – found a convenient space in the diary for the tea dance during the first week in July. Did the fact that the date coincided with her parents’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary have anything to do with the availability of the hall? Absolutely.