I Hope You Dance, page 30
When I told her at dinner that evening, Maggie was thrilled. “I’ve been thinking. We need to liven things up a bit. Make it more exciting. Up the ante. Give the dance class something to work for.”
The colour drained from Dad’s face. He paused, a forkful of rice halfway to his mouth. “Please no. Not a show. Not this lot. It’d take decades to get them up to show standards.”
“No. Even better. A competition.”
Mum threw her arms up in the air, accidentally hurling a chunk of naan bread over one shoulder in alarm. “Compete for what? The creakiest knees? Slowest turn about the floor? How do you expect the geriatric members of the class to stand a chance against your hoody-clad compadres?”
Maggie smiled. “I don’t. That’s the whole point. They aren’t going to be competing against each other. But on the same team. An intergenerational dance competition. One member of each couple has to be at least fifty years older than their partner.”
“All right. Thirty.”
Dad frowned, thoughtfully. “Twenty-five. That’s more like a generation. Do you really think your friends are going to want to dance with the older lot?”
“Depends who it is. And what prize is at stake. And if we can stir up some competition between them, they’ll end up fighting for the best biddies.”
“They might not appreciate being called biddies.” I tried to hide my smile, waiting for my parents to explain to Maggie the foolishness of her idea. But those two loved a competition. And then Maggie made one final suggestion and the deal was sealed.
“I thought I’d dance with you, Pop. If you think I’m good enough.”
Dad widened his eyes in surprise. A smile broke out across his face that was so broad I worried his jaw would dislocate. He suddenly appeared to have something in his eye. Both eyes.
“That… Well. You would be perfect.”
I ignored the stab of pain: something like jealously, something like rejection. It wasn’t as though I wanted to dance with him, was it?
I plodded through most of April, enjoying my job, getting to know a few new people, feeling more comfortable with those I already knew. I stuck a bandage over the big hole in my heart, and counted my blessings.
Three women from Oak Hill phoned. They had seen Hope’s Noah’s ark picture. Could I do one for their niece/granddaughter/son, only with a zebra/giraffe/slow loris? I could. I named each boat the name of the child it was for. Someone asked if I could draw a barge instead of a boat, as her best friend was moving into a house boat. I did, changing the messages accordingly. It all went into my new house fund.
The shadow of Carl receded enough for me to start striding my new, decidedly un-stick-like body along the footpaths that meandered their way through the fields surrounding Southwell. I avoided my childhood haunts – the places David and I would hunt out wildlife in reed-rimmed ponds and murky thickets – instead choosing busier routes through the strawberry fields, along the edge of the golf course or down winding lanes lined with trees dripping with blossom.
I walked and looked and listened to the abundance of life buzzing and bleating and barking all around me, losing myself in the pattern of lichen upon a tree stump, or the dance of a dragonfly, or the smell of a bluebell carpet, heady and lush with the promise of summer. I felt alive, like Sleeping Beauty awoken after a hundred years of slumbering. And glad to be so.
One Sunday afternoon, I climbed the rickety stepladder up to the attic. Digging through the cobwebs and tickly layers of dust and grime, I found a wooden crate. Jimmying the lid off with one of Dad’s screwdrivers, I gazed at the contents with unbridled delight. A carefully ordered, perfectly sharpened set of drawing pencils, three varying sized sketchbooks – a little less crisp than they were, but still useable. A slightly bashed-in tin of charcoal, miniature easel and a clipboard for leaning on in awkward positions (like under a bush, or balancing on a bouncy tree branch). A set of pastels, the green and brown worn down to stubs, and a wooden box, about eight inches square, containing watercolour paint tubes, brushes and a mixing palette. I carefully lifted out the pencils, the smallest sketchbook and clipboard, bashing the box lid back into place before clambering back down onto the landing.
I packed the equipment into a rucksack, along with a picnic blanket, bottle of water and bag of apples, and dug out Mum’s straw hat. Maggie found me fiddling with the angle of the brim in the cloakroom mirror.
“Thanks. It’s Nanny’s.”
“I was joking. You look embarrassing.”
“You’re fourteen – I always look embarrassing. In about five years’ time, that will miraculously change. It’s a law of nature.”
“Where are you going?”
“Out into the middle of nowhere, where my terrible taste in headwear can’t offend anybody.”
“Irritating! Can you answer my question?”
“I’m going to a tiny clearing in the woods about a mile down the old railway line. I may be some time.”
“There’s the most incredible cluster of wood anemone. I’m going to draw it.”
“Have you got your phone?” Maggie frowned.
“Is there a decent reception out there?”
“Yes. Reception, and dog walkers, and ramblers, and kids racing up and down on bikes. I’ll be fine. If I see a creepy ex-doctor with weird, toilet cleaner coloured eyes, I’ll make a run for it.”
“It’s not funny, Mum.”
“No. He is not funny. But what’s even less funny is letting him control where I go and what I do, and making me afraid to walk in the countryside where I spent about ninety per cent of my childhood. I refuse to allow him any power over me. He’s gone.”
If I said it enough, it might even be true. I left her working on some maths revision with Dad, and hiked along the trail, pushing myself hard until I outran the grey shadow of foreboding that Maggie’s anxiety had cast.
The rest of the afternoon was bliss. Me, the occasional passer-by, the gentle scratch of graphite on thick, lovely paper and the rich splendour of creation: birds, butterflies, two rabbits and glorious spring sunshine. The pencils settled in my fingers like old friends. My hand flowed over the paper. I stayed until the light began to dim, whole and happy. And for those precious hours, the sharp, empty ache inside lessened a little, the air in my lungs found enough room, my head cleared and my spirit sat at peace.
Five days later, on my way to work, humming the latest tune from Maggie’s favourite band, I saw a black car creeping down one of the side-streets.
It’s nothing. There are tons of black cars in Southwell. It’s moving slowly because it’s looking for a house number.
I shot my eyes forward, away from the street, picked up my pace and tried to shut off the siren clanging in my ears. A discreet enquiry later on reassured me that Dorothy, still confused and in partial denial, had heard nothing from her son.
I didn’t feel like walking that weekend. I drew the fat, drunken bees clambering over the honeysuckle in the garden instead.
That Wednesday, while alone in the house, the phone rang. The caller display said withheld number. As soon as I picked it up, the line clicked dead. I wrote it down in the logbook the police officer had advised me to keep, then ate a piece of Mum’s fudge cake to squish the dread in my stomach. He was gone.
The first week in May, baby Hope came home. Due to her vulnerable immune system, she wasn’t allowed out of the house yet, or to see too many visitors, but the many well-wishers and quilt-knitters and meal-providers needed to celebrate, so we gave her a Skype party.
On the May Day holiday, over a hundred of us gathered in the sunny back hall at Oak Hill. Afternoon tea was served: an assortment of dainty sandwiches cut into fingers; raisin, coconut or cinnamon scones with cream and locally produced jams, and every type of cake known to man, including pink and blue miniature macaroons, cupcakes decorated with baby booties, and cookies in the sh
When she conveniently fell asleep, which premature babies are inclined to do for about twenty-three and a half hours of the day, they handed her over to her enchanted grandma, swapped the Skype for a Hope-themed slide-show and sped around to personally thank everyone for all their support over the past three months. Vanessa Jacobs hovered a little sheepishly at the top of the list. I girded up my loins and made an effort.
“Ruth.” She flicked her hair over one shoulder. For the first time I detected a whiff of bravado in the gesture. It was amazing what you spotted when looking properly.
“It’s a lovely party, isn’t it?”
“Not bad. Someone certainly likes bubblegum pink.”
“How’s the shop? Busy?”
“Yes, thanks. I’ve hired a new assistant. A fashion graduate from Nottingham Trent. She practically runs the place; the customers love her.”
Vanessa frowned. “She’s useless at maths, though. The accounts are a mess.”
I let slip a grin, accepting the compliment. “Rupa told us you’ve been brilliant.”
“Yes, well. You and the sobriety sisters don’t have the monopoly on friendship, you know.”
An awkward silence strolled up and inserted itself into the gap between us. It whispered to me out of the corner of its mouth: go on then. Invite her to the tea dance. What’s the worst that can happen?
“So. There’s this tea dance Maggie’s organizing.”
“Rupa probably won’t be able to make it, but Lois and Ana Luisa are definitely coming. And Emily. If you fancied it. I mean, coming along.”
She tossed her hair again, like a very shiny, irritated horse. “Sounds… interesting. I could drop in I suppose, if I’ve nothing else on. I’m pretty busy at the moment.”
I took a deep breath. “That would be fantastic. I really hope you can make it.”
Startled, Vanessa shot a look at me, checking for sarcasm.
I put on my best friendly smile.
“Right.” She marched away, swanky heels clicking.
I turned around to see Ana Luisa and Arnold on the far side of the room, heads bent close to one another. Arthur laid his hand on Ana Luisa’s arm, and she smiled, brushing the cake crumbs from his jumper. Maybe the Big House would soon be filled with pink or blue balloons.
Having avoided the Big House since David had left for his new job, I wandered over to say hello.
“Ruth! It is so good to see you – your mother tells me you are working all the time, too tired to come and visit. This is no good.”
“What can I say? For the first time ever I like my job. I haven’t just been working, though. I’m helping Maggie plan her tea dance, which includes dance lessons once a week. Despite the fact I vowed never to set foot in a ballroom after the last time. It’s like being a kid again; I’m being sucked back into this world of streamers and sequins and high heels.”
“You vowed never to dance again? Ruth! What terrible thing could make you do that? Tell me!”
“It’s a long story.”
Arnold coughed. “I’ll go and fetch some more tea. You take your time. Would you like another scone, Ana?”
“No, thank you, darling. But tea would be lovely.”
Ana Luisa watched Arnold walk across to the refreshments table, her eyes glazing over. She let out a delicate sigh, sinking her chin onto one hand.
“Whew, Ana. You’ve got it bad.”
Shaking out her long hair, she straightened up again, one side of her mouth curling into a smile. “Oh no, Ruth. I’ve finally got it good.”
“It’s going well?”
“It is more than I ever dreamt of. Once he got over his nerves!” She laughed. “He is attentive, and patient, and kind. He doesn’t only take care of me, and remember all these thoughtful little things like picking me a flower from the garden, or noticing a new dress. He talks to me and asks my opinion. Like I am his equal, not a pet or a piece of meat or a thing to be ogled and used and tossed away. He makes me feel I can do anything, like I am treasure. Like he is honoured to be my boyfriend! I never knew this before!”
“Stop. You’re making me cry. I am so happy for you. You deserve it. And you are treasure. He should be honoured. I’d kick his butt if he wasn’t.”
“Yes, yes. But you are changing the subject. You were telling me why you vowed never to dance the ballroom ever again.”
“Do I have to?”
“Hmm. I suppose I could ask your mother. Or – hang on – didn’t I see your sister over there?”
“Why? What dreadful things will they tell me?”
“Um – the truth?”
“I like the truth.”
Preferring my version of the truth to my mother’s – or, please no, my sister’s – I took a fortifying bite of smoked salmon sandwich and told Ana Luisa the whole story.
When I was fifteen, my parents entered a team from the dance school into an exclusive, highly prestigious dance competition in Australia. We fundraised for nearly a year to raise the money to take the team of six girls and four boys on the trip. Cake sales, sponsored bike rides, and a plethora of raffles and ticketed shows eventually enabled us to reach our target. One of the girls’ dads owned a construction company that agreed to sponsor us, providing the funds we needed for costumes. For a whole year, the Henderson household ate, slept and breathed the Australian Dancesport Open. As the trip drew closer, rehearsal time tripled to every night after school and four hours every Saturday. Lifts were perfected, music chosen and discarded and re-chosen; Mum spent hours embellishing our outfits.
It was my idea of hell.
Years of enforced lessons had moulded me into a competent dancer. I could pick up steps and was fearless when lifted, flung and thrown about by Luke, my dance partner. But I was not Australian Dancesport Open material. And everybody except for my doting dad knew it, said it and – in the case of my sisters – screamed it.
If only I spent my time practising, instead of plotting ways to disappear off into the woods with David Carrington, I might stand a chance, my mother told me. If I only concentrated, put more effort in, got my head out of the clouds, worked harder, ate better, behaved more like my sisters.
They had lost all perspective, all reason, all sensibility. I soon lost the bedraggled remains of my self-confidence, self-respect and any belief that my family actually wanted, loved or liked me.
The month of the trip arrived, and it became apparent nothing was going to make Dad drop me from the team. (I considered jumping off a wall to break my leg, but then someone would have had to stay behind to look after me, and whoever it ended up being might literally have killed me.) I couldn’t sleep, my appetite vanished, I couldn’t focus at school. And as I boarded the plane along with the excited, hopeful gaggle of fellow dancers, I had never felt so alone.
Lying on my lumpy hotel mattress the night before the show, I stared at the blackness and begged God to give me food poisoning, or send a freak tornado. Unable to sleep, I eventually got up, pulled on my jeans and a jumper, and tiptoed past Lydia in the bed next to mine out into the corridor to see if I could find anyone else awake.
When the unmistakable boom of Mum’s voice rose up the hotel staircase, no doubt the rest of her following straight after, I scampered back to a discarded room-service trolley and hid behind it. Her words soon drifted into earshot.
“Well, Gilbert. It’s too late now! You should have listened to us months ago.”
I held my breath, trying to catch Dad’s mumble.
Now, I knew my mother meant the Henderson dancing genes weren’t there – the ones including grace, rhythm, style. And I knew I could dance perfectly adequately for most situations. It was the Australian Dancesport Open that reached beyond me.
But, oh boy, at fifteen, stressed out and lonely, those words ripped through me like the claws of a spiny cheek crayfish.
Dad coughed, drawing level with the trolley. I pressed one hand over my mouth to try to quiet my heaving lungs.
“If she tries hard enough, manages to keep it together and lets Luke do the work, it might not be a complete disaster.”
“Well, that’s what we were hoping for when we raised thousands of pounds to bring our brightest students halfway round the world on the trip of a lifetime. As long as it’s not a complete disaster, it’ll all have been worth it!”
I heard them pause outside their room, Mum unzipping her bag.
“She had to be a part of this,” said Dad. “Dancing is what the Hendersons do. Who my girls are.”
A metallic clunk, and the door creaked open. I caught my mother’s last words as she stepped inside. “You can’t make her something she’s not, Gilbert. And she is not a dancer.”
So I was not a dancer. And not a Henderson, apparently. Not one of Dad’s girls. Fine. I would dance in the stupid competition tomorrow, because poor Luke had been forced to practise with me forever and I owed it to him. And that would be it. Stuff the dance school, the ridiculous costumes and the echoey floors and shows and tedious old music and applause. Stuff the Hendersons. After tomorrow night, I wasn’t going to dance another choreographed step. And if that meant I was no longer a Henderson girl, so be it.
Bluff and bluster is easy enough when sneaking back to a darkened room in the middle of the night. About to walk out in front of five thousand strangers, your family and teammates staring anxiously at you, knowing you are going to humiliate yourself and let everyone down, is another matter. Jet-lagged, seriously sleep-deprived, the apple juice I forced down for breakfast sloshing in my stomach, I stood there in the wings of the Australian Dancesport Open stage. Sweat dripped down my forehead as I waited for the judge to call my name. Head spinning, paralysed with fear, all I could hear was my father’s words from the night before.