I Hope You Dance, page 3
“Relax. I’m going to get a job. I’ll chip in what I can towards the bills. And as soon as possible we’ll be out of here.”
“STOP TALKING!” Mum stood up from the table so quickly her chair toppled over. “I will not hear any more. Not another word!” She pointed one long finger at me, steady enough to perform brain surgery. Her voice quietened to previously unheard of levels of hushness.
“You are our daughter. I carried you, bore you and cared for you. And you tell me to relax while you cry yourself to sleep at night and drift about the house a shadow of the girl I raised, trying to gather up all the broken dreams and scattered fragments of your life and wondering how to start putting them back together? Relax? You must let us help you! I cannot mend your broken heart, as much as it near kills me, but I can do this. You have to let me take care of the money situation.”
I sighed. How could I explain that Fraser taking care of the money situation meant Fraser controlling it, lying about it and messing it all up? How could I explain that rejecting their offer didn’t mean I didn’t trust them, but that I needed to know I could take care of things myself for the first time in my life?
“What if it was Maggie?”
“What?” I looked at my dad. His head was turned, staring out of the window. The evening sun reflected off the silver in his hair.
“If this was Maggie, and you could help.”
I would rip off my own arm to ensure Maggie’s happiness. Any mother would.
“Okay, I get it. But understand that if I let you help me, take care of it, it won’t really be helping me. I relied on Fraser the whole time we were together.” I couldn’t say the truth. I had become a token girlfriend to Fraser, a pleasant accessory to complete his fantasy lifestyle.
Mum nodded her head. “I understand. You feel childlike, vulnerable and useless, and you need to earn your keep in order to become empowered. Right. That’s settled then.”
Is it? How? When? What?
“Stay here as long as you need, and once you are working contribute as and when you can. If you happen to drive our car and it’s low on petrol, fill it up. If you use the last of the mayonnaise, buy a new jar. If you notice the bathroom is a mess, clean it up. Any spare money after paying for Maggie’s hairdressing fees you can use to pay off your debts. Good. Now, I don’t wish to be rude but I have to take this clean washing over to Camilla Mattersey.”
Dad and I finished our tea, both staring out of the window now. We knew the truth. The car would always be full of petrol and a new jar of mayonnaise would appear in the cupboard before the old one was half empty. The bathroom, however, would be frequently allowed to fall into a state of disarray. I was going to be spending a lot of time in rubber gloves.
Later that evening, while Mum walked a spaniel whose owner had a broken ankle, I sat in the garden and watched the sun set over the crest of trees on the ridge behind our house. Dad waited until the garden lay cast in shadow before coming out and standing next to the wicker chair I had dragged onto the patio.
He handed me an envelope.
Dad coughed. “A birthday present.”
“Dad, my birthday is in November. Lydia’s is August.”
“No.” His eyes flickered on the flagstones, the pots full of tumbling flowers, the fence posts, the compost bin. “The other birthdays.”
“Didn’t you already give me something?”
“Your mother gave you something. I didn’t argue with her about it.”
“Shall I open it now?”
He shrugged at the rose trellis. The trellis didn’t know either. I carefully opened the envelope. Inside was a cheque. For five thousand pounds.
“Dad. Thank you. But I can’t accept this.”
“Right. Well. Keep hold of it. You might change your mind.”
He shuffled his feet. I said nothing more, just tucked the cheque back inside the envelope and tried to breathe through the giant lump constricting my throat. He went inside.
I clutched the envelope until the last breath of summer heat faded away, night chills raising goosebumps on my bare skin. Nearer to the house, glints of golden light peeked through the cracks at the edges of the windows and French doors. The pipistrelle bats that roosted in the eaves of our neighbour’s summer house swooped above my head. The scent of warm earth mingled with the honeysuckle growing on the back fence and the faint whiff of a barbecue from a distant yard.
The night brought with it the memories of a thousand nights before: childhood campouts, my sisters sending me, the wild one, out of the tent to check on a strange noise. Sneaking through the shadows to go badger spotting in the Spinney with David. That one July night, when I squeezed myself into the dusty hole beside the shed, buried my head into the shiny satin party dress covering my knees, and cried until my dad found me, gently tugged me out of the hole and carried me up to bed.
I remembered that I had been looked for, held, treasured, once. I clutched the envelope carrying the promise that despite a bridge burnt fourteen years ago, I could know that love again. This evening had been the longest conversation Dad had allowed me since, still a child myself, more terrified than I had ever been and desperately needful of a father’s reassurance and protection, I confessed my pregnancy by a boy I had met only weeks previously – and with it my wanton transformation into one of those girls. In doing so, I had also slammed a hammer onto the final nail in the coffin of my relationship with my father. The death certificate read “Cause of death: disappointment”.
Feelings squashed away in a battered old filing cabinet deep in the recesses of my brain surfaced. The filing cabinet, labelled “broken lumps of heart”, existed long before Fraser’s death. The truth is, I couldn’t blame my partner for loving me so half-heartedly. I had only had half a heart with which to love him back. I heaved my leaden body out of the wicker chair and went to bed. And stayed there.
I spent five days clarifying to myself that, yes, I was the useless appendix of the family, by sleeping, crying, staring at the wall, sleeping, eating cheesy crisps, sleeping, drinking cold coffee. One day the doorbell rang as I shuffled back to bed having emptied my bladder. A young woman pushing triplets in a three-seater buggy greeted me, having come to return Mum’s casserole dish. Her husband had left two weeks earlier to serve in Sierra Leone. She looked fresher, more energized, happier and like she was taking better care of herself than me.
Ugh. I had to pull myself together.
I just needed to sleep for a few more years first.
On the seventh day, Mum woke me up by yanking off my duvet and smacking my fuzzy pyjama-clad bottom with a hair brush.
“Wake up! Maggie comes home this afternoon! I will not let her come home to a useless pile of soggy dishrags for a mother. I will not let her find you looking and smelling like a week-old omelette!”
“Well, it’s true and if I can’t say it, who will?”
“I’m not a teenager any more. This is never going to work if you keep telling me what to do.”
“I will treat you like a teenager if you act like one. And I’ll tell you what to do until you decide for yourself to make your own decisions.”
“Fine. I decide to continue my emotional breakdown. Now don’t you have some blind, lame leper with sixteen children and a husband on death row to make soup for?”
She did go. And came back a minute later with a broom. A broom. And began trying to sweep me off the bed.
I swore, a lot, and clambered over to the far side of the room, beside the window seat.
“What are you doing?” I growled like a polecat.
Mum grabbed one of the suitcases dumped with the rest of my stuff in the corner of the room and unzipped it. She began tossing the contents all over the honey-coloured carpet.
“Do you want to be here for the rest of your life?”
“I don’t want to be here at all.”
“I have given you seven days to feel sorry for yourself. Now it is time to woman up! To drag yourself out of the mire of pity and start learning how to live again. Yes – you are grieving. Yes – you have some huge, mountainous money problems. Yes – you have no job, no social life and overgrown eyebrows. But! But… You have you, and me, and for mercy’s sake, Ruth, you must have hope. You cannot live without it. I’ve made you a pot of tea. Don’t let it stew.”
She waited until I had sipped my slightly stewed tea, slumped in a pair of faded jogging bottoms and a ratty T-shirt, before telling me the real reason she wanted me to woman up.
“Esther’s coming over today to see Maggie. And you, of course.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
Esther was the eldest, and most sistery, of my three sisters. Sistery, not sisterly. It would be wrong to call them the three witches – no pointy hats or warts to speak of – but they had a sixth sense when it came to pushing my buttons.
“I’m sure I must have mentioned it. Perhaps you couldn’t hear me over the rustle of your crisp packet.”
“What time is she coming?”
“Her last Zumba class ends at two-thirty. She will be here by three, I should imagine.”
“Just her, then?”
“She’s bringing Arianna and Timothy. Max is on a stag weekend in Blackpool.”
The thought of Maximilian Brownstone-Pilkington tramping the streets of Blackpool in a T-shirt bearing a crude message heartened my spirits enough to go and have a shower.
My sisters weren’t terrible people, but the truth was, they had never got me. When I tramped mud on their sequinned skirts, or left my stuff on the floor, tripping them up during a Lindy Hop routine, they hissed and called me “The accident”. When younger I would run crying to Mum, who hushed me before rapping her wooden spoon on the kitchen table and announcing that God does not make accidents, and an unexpected gift is better than those asked for. When I realized what my sisters really meant I stopped running to Mum. At ten years old, clumsy, usually filthy, certainly graceless, I felt like the family accident. If God had planned me, why did he put me with a family of dancing angels? He could at least have made me a boy. Not that I wanted to be a boy.
I wanted to be a kick-butt girl. Who kicked boy’s butts when they laughed at her for wanting to climb trees, build dens and shoot bows and arrows with them. The glitz and glamour of the ballroom that so entranced my sisters bore no comparison for me to the allure of a day spent exploring nature’s playground, with the only boy who didn’t laugh me away.
Hair brushed but not styled, face clean of both dirt and make-up, I was unpacking in my room when the tinkling sound of Esther’s family burst up the stairs. Allowing myself one long, deep sigh, I went to say hello.
I hadn’t seen my sister since Fraser’s funeral. She wore a few new wrinkles, but her hair was the same shade of platinum, still noticeably lighter than her skin. A pair of skinny jeans and a silk vest top showed off her Zumba-teacher’s body. Taking after Mum, she stood six foot one in her heels, and didn’t we know it.
“Ruth!” She stooped, slightly further than was necessary, and kissed me on both cheeks. “It’s good to see you, although” – she stepped back and pulled a sorrowful smile – “look at you. You must be feeling dreadful. Oh, darling. What can I do?”
“I’m fine, thanks. You look lovely, too.” I grinned. Part of me enjoyed playing up to Esther’s belief that I was a scruffy, boorish, hopeless baby sister. The other part wanted to use my overgrown nails to pluck that patronizing look off her face.
Mum intervened with afternoon tea in the garden. Arianna and Timothy, now six and eight respectively, nibbled on roasted pepper sandwiches and chatted to their grandma about cello lessons and their new mandarin Chinese tutor. They didn’t want any cake, asking for dried fruit instead. Both my sister and mother seemed to think this was normal.
“Soooo. What are your plans, Ruth? I suppose you’ll be needing a job, what with Fraser’s” – here her voice lowered – “secret debt problem.”
“Whispering doesn’t make it any less of a problem. Or a secret.”
“Oh yes, of course. But really, Ruth, you are thirty-four years old –”
“You can’t just pack in your job, come home and expect to sponge off Mummy and Daddy. No one’s denying you’ve been through an awful time, but grief isn’t an excuse to slob around in cheap leggings for the rest of your life watching scripted reality shows.”
“Esther.” Mum’s tone stopped me tipping my scalding hot drink over the top of my sibling’s artfully messed-up bun.
“Sorry, Ruth. I didn’t mean it. I’m just worried about you.” She reached a hand across the table and squeezed mine.
“Don’t be. I’m fine,” I replied, pulling it away.
“Oh, darling.” Mum shook her head. “That is precisely the problem! We don’t want you to be fine. No Henderson has ever settled for fine. We want you to be fabulous! To shoot for the stars and catch them. To follow your heart, come up fighting, savour every moment, explore the mysteries of the universe, let life take your breath away, live passionately and fearlessly and with wide open arms…”
“Mum! Cliché overload! For goodness’ sake, give me a break.”
Timothy piped up: “Grandma, do you have any quinoa salad, and why is there a witch in your garden?”
At that point, Arianna, upon sighting the witch, screamed and fell off her chair, dragging the blue and red striped tablecloth with her. The three-tiered cake-stand toppled over the edge, carrying with it like carbohydrate lemmings four pieces of lemon sponge, two lavishly creamed scones and more vegetable sandwiches than even the most organically minded, health-crazed, additive-free kids could stomach. Fortunately, my great-grandmother’s tea set didn’t join them.
Esther scooped up her distraught daughter, now covered in evil cake. To see the way the two of them, mother and daughter, daintily handled each crumb of sponge, meticulously picking off every last morsel with napkin after napkin, squealing with disgust, it was as though centipedes crawled on them. I couldn’t resist scooping up a finger-full of cream from Arianna’s knee and eating it with a louder than necessary smack of the lips. The tiniest ghost of a smile hinted at the corner of Timothy’s pale mouth.
I turned to the witch and took in her electric blue hair and the thick, black eyeliner rimming her pale green eyes. With a baggy grey dress hanging over red and black striped tights, a scowl as deep and dark as a cauldron, I could quite easily see how the visitor had been mistaken for someone who muttered dark spells under the full moon.
I rose to give my daughter a stiff hug (making a mental note that Maggie was still angry with me) and spied the towering frame of the Scottish Dragon behind her. Mum, who had been scooping up the cake-ridden napkins, wiped her fingers clean and daintily kissed the dragon’s cheek. I did not do this. My kiss would not have been so graciously received.
Instead, I sat back down, assuming the fake all-is-well-and-my-daughter-doesn’t-hate-me-and-I-don’t-care-what-Fraser’s-mother-thinks smile. Experience had taught me the best way to deal with the Scottish Dragon was to sit up, shut up, and sing “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship in my head.
By the way, if calling the mother of my deceased partner, and grandmother of my only child, the Scottish Dragon sounds disrespectful, I agree, it probably is. But after multiple disastrous, hideous, esteem-crushing visits to her castle in Scotland, I needed some mechanism of survival that would enable me to withstand her bullying without hyperventilating, screaming or requiring medication. To reduce her from a terrifying, mean old woman to a funny, slightly silly caricature I could feel sorry for helped. A bit.
Or, the kind of person who demands a christening for her granddaughter at the family chapel, invites a hundred guests, ninety-nine of whom you don’t know, none of whom include your own family and friends, and then turns up in black and spends the day dabbing her eyes with a lace handkerchief at the disgrace of it all?
Was it terrible that I considered an upside of Fraser’s death that this woman no longer had any control over me, my child or my life? Any guilt I may have felt at the dreadful state of our relationship evaporated when I asked Margaret (yes, I was also steamrollered into naming my daughter after her) to help us out financially after Fraser died, leaving us broke and in danger of losing our home.
I was not her family, she had coolly replied down the phone. I had ensnared her son, dragged him down to my low level of existence, kept him miles away from his own mother, gleefully spent all his hard-earned wages and now had the cheek to expect her to fund my shallow, self-indulgent lifestyle instead. All that, after bringing shame on her family name.
I hung up, reminded myself she was an old woman grieving her only son, poured myself a very large glass of wine and breathed a sigh of relief that I never officially became her daughter-in-law. Some people are fire-breathing dragons. They burn to a frazzle anyone and anything around them. We are better off keeping these people out of our lives.
Except, here she was.
She hobbled, scraping her black stick across the paving slabs, over to where Mum had pulled out a chair. “Please, do take a seat, Margaret. We had no idea you would be coming all this way, too. You must be exhausted.”