I Hope You Dance, page 31
I felt a push from behind. Mum hissed at me, “Get out there, Ruth! Everybody’s waiting.”
She pushed again, and the momentum carried my shaking legs out onto the stage and up towards Luke, who took one look at me and turned green beneath his fake tan. I bumped into him, allowing him to grab my hands in his, ready for the opening bars of music. As the first beats pumped into the auditorium, he frowned at me. “Pull yourself together, Ruth. You’re a Henderson girl. You can do this.”
No. No. No no no no no no no.
Something in me snapped. I wrenched my hands out of Luke’s grasp, and shoved my way past him, clattering to the far side of the stage where nobody stood except for one of the technical guys. Stumbling, careening off scaffolding and old scenery, ducking my way underneath a clothes rail full of costumes, I slammed into the emergency exit, and fell, tumbling, into the back alley beyond. As I dragged myself back up and began sprinting for the far corner of the building, I heard my mother’s voice behind me, pleading with me to calm down, get back inside, it wasn’t too late.
But it was. It was far too late. As I reached the main street, full of noisy traffic, I glanced back and saw the confused, distressed figures of Mum and Luke. But what made me pause, for the tiniest of moments, was Dad’s face. A mixture of thunderous rage and disgust. I turned and ran.
For the rest of the evening I wandered the streets, ignoring my dance-shoe blisters, eventually ending up at a bus station. Huddling in one corner of a bench I attracted curious glances from the few travellers boarding or leaving buses, and as the night wore on I grew frightened of the groups of men who slowed down to stare at me or make bawdy comments about my outfit. I went into the furthest ladies’ toilet I could find, locked myself in a cubicle, kicked off my stupid shoes and curled up on the sticky, stinking floor until I drifted off to sleep.
A woman with two small children came in to use the facilities that morning, waking me up. Uncurling stiff limbs, I climbed up and squatted on the toilet lid until they left. I washed myself and tidied up my hair as best I could, then marched out into the station as if I had no care in the world.
It was just two minutes before a bus driver, having been informed to keep an eye out for a fifteen-year-old girl in a ballroom dancing outfit, clamped one hand on my shoulder and solved my problem of how to find our hotel.
Needless to say, I spent the rest of the trip in bed hoping I might die while the Henderson family proper enjoyed the sights, along with their adopted dance troupe. Miriam in particular enjoyed the sight of the policeman who had taken the missing girl report, already hatching plans to get herself back to Australia as soon as possible and stay there. My other sisters, without the distraction of a holiday romance, were spitting lava. Mum clucked, patted my head through the bed-sheet and told me to pull myself together.
Not a single word passed between Dad and me until we returned home. The following week, when he asked me to get changed ready for dance class, I told him exactly what I thought about his precious dance school, the Henderson family I considered myself no longer part of, and him.
It did not go down well.
He accepted my unofficial resignation from the family, if not in words, then in action. Years of misunderstandings, rebellion and disappointment reached a crashing crescendo. Dad didn’t know what to do with me, so did nothing. I pretended I hated him, buried the pain of my failure and rejection under slamming doors, scowls and spending every spare moment out of the house. What a pathetic mess.
Ana Luisa, no stranger to family struggles, pursed her lips at me. “Well, it is no surprise you ran off to a strange city and jumped into the arms of the first man who was nice to you.”
Maybe not. Maybe it was no surprise that I stayed with him, clinging to our shambles of a partnership, finding neither the courage to fix it nor the confidence to walk away either.
Harry grabbed me before he left the party. He had managed a whole fifty minutes away from Hope, an impressive forty minutes longer than Rupa.
“Hey, Ruth. How are you doing?” Brimming with emotional energy, he clasped me in a bear hug.
“I’m good, Harry. How are you?”
“Brilliant! Knackered, but brilliant. So, I wanted to thank you again for looking after Rupa that night.”
“It’s okay, Harry. I think the first six thank yous covered it. I didn’t do anything really, apart from not throw her out in the snowstorm.”
He frowned at me. “Rupa mentioned about that doctor pestering you. You asking him to help means a lot.”
We hadn’t told Rupa the discoveries since that night. She had enough to deal with.
“No, it’s fine. Please stop thanking me. It’s getting awkward.” I smiled at him, rolling my eyes a little bit, wondering how grateful he would be when he found out I placed his wife in the hands of a struck-off, disgraced doctor.
“Okay, but I need to tell you something. I didn’t think much of it at the time, with everything going on, but when the guy was examining Rupa, he opened his bag. He had binoculars in there. High tech ones – like night vision goggles.”
I quickly sat down in the nearest chair before I fell down. “Are you sure?” I managed to croak.
“I’m sorry, Ruth. Do you need some of us to pay this guy a visit?”
I shook my head feebly. “No. It’s okay. I’ve spoken to the police. He’s disappeared, anyway. No one’s seen him for months. Thanks for telling me.”
The party came to an end early evening, with one last ogle at Hope via the big screen. I had taken six more orders for pictures: three for new babies, two for wedding presents and one for a woman who simply liked animal pictures. I stayed to help clear up along with a bunch of other people, Lois and Matt included. Bumping into Lois by the outside bin, I hurriedly relayed what Harry had told me.
“Eew. That’s horrible.”
“I feel so bad for letting him near Rupa. What if the ambulance hadn’t got there so quickly? Who knows what he might have done to her.”
“Woah, Ruth. Calm down. Carl was struck off for an inappropriate relationship, not incompetence. And the ambulance did get there. Let it go.”
“Binoculars. Night vision goggles!” I yanked at my hair in frustration.
“He was watching me! I knew he was – the whole Christmas present thing and how he kept turning up all the time. He watched me. In my own house. It makes me want to throw up.”
“Me too. And it didn’t even happen to me. But he’s gone, Ruth. You calling on him to help Rupa turned out to be a good thing. You scared him off.”
Maybe. But I had an ugly feeling Carl Barker could not be scared off so easily. There were five cars remaining in the car-park when I left. None of them black. I ducked my head and marched the twenty-minute journey home, eyes down, heart pounding, fear nipping at my heels.
Later on that week, another withheld number. I disconnected without answering, got up and closed every blind and curtain in the house despite the fact the sun blazed outside.
On a drizzly morning near the end of the month, I picked up Lois in the car and set off towards the motorway. She had armoured up in a pair of elegant brown trousers and white top trimmed with lace. Her hair freshly styled, nails brown to match her trousers, Lois hid behind her classy exterior.
“Okay?” I flicked down the radio a notch, glancing over at her chewing on a nail.
“I’ll do. It means a lot to me, you doing this.”
“No problem. I have to use my holidays up sometime. I told Martine we were having a day out.”
Lois grimaced. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“So how are you really feeling about this?”
She stared out of the passenger window for a moment, hands knotting and unknotting in her lap. “Apprehensive. Guilty. Sort of numb. It beats how I used to feel.”
“Terrified. And filthy. Worthless and broken beyond repair. Resentful. And the anger? It ate at me like I was knocking bac
“You don’t feel angry any more?”
“Not about him. Virtually never. I have more important things to channel my anger into. You know – justice, fighting the flaws in our social care system, people who insist on making bad choices on behalf of my kids… evil drug lords, the slave trade, the poverty crises, my continuing lack of a romantic life. I’m not sure quite when or how it happened, but I forgave my dad. Not for his benefit, if I’m honest, but for mine. And Matt’s. I just needed to be done with it.”
“And this is the final step,” I added.
“More like the beginning of the end. You know how messy the aftermath can get.”
“Well, if it’s any help, I’m pretty good at sorting through all that complicated stuff.”
We drove in silence for a few miles. The truth was, I felt nervous on Lois’s behalf. She had called the day before, uncharacteristically fretful, and asked if I would go with her to visit her dad in hospital in Birmingham. Having not seen him for more than a decade, during which time he’d gone into prison and come out again, he’d named Lois as next of kin and asked the hospital to get in touch. He had liver failure. He wanted to see his daughter before he died.
She asked if it could wait a few days – her husband was in bed with stomach flu. Apparently there were no days to wait. So, here we were.
“Will your mum want to see him?”
Lois shook her head. Her mum had remarried sixth months after her divorce came through. She now lived in Spain with her husband and his children. “No. She barely sees me because it reminds her of her old life.”
“That must be hard.”
“Yep. But Matt’s parents fill in some of the gap.” She looked across at me and grinned. “And I have some awesome friends. And a massive Oak Hill family who do stuff like send my kids to Paris. I have more blessings than I can count. I’m at peace with it. Mum’s doing her best to survive. I get that.”
We drove some more.
“Do you still feel angry, Ruth? About losing Fraser?”
I considered that. “No. I’m not angry he died. I felt angry he left with no will, no life insurance and a pile of secret debts. Furious I had to uproot Maggie from her home and her school and come back to Southwell and cope with my parents. I really didn’t want to have to face those memories. But if I’m still angry, it’s at myself. Looking back, I can’t believe my laziness. I had given up. I had no friends, Lois. No hopes, no plans, no energy, no confidence. I refuse to feel sorry for myself any longer. This is my life now, and all I can do is choose to make the most of it.”
“I’m proud of you, sister. Amen to that.”
“You know, when you pretend to be a pastor’s wife I get an overwhelming urge to tell a dirty joke.”
“You don’t know any dirty jokes.”
“I could probably make one up if I tried.”
We parked the car and made our way through the hospital corridors to the ward. A nurse buzzed us in, and directed us to the right bed. Lois gripped tight to my arm as we made our way along the bays.
My memories of Rupert Finch were of a powerfully built man with a red face, who used to clap people on the back a lot, point his finger and make loud jokes that weren’t funny but people laughed anyway. Looking back there was nothing to distinguish him as a monster. Even less so now.
A withered, yellowed, unkempt old man wearing a hospital gown and several days of grey stubble cowered in the bed furthest along the bay. He slowly rolled jaundiced eyes over to see who approached, and growled out, “Nurse?”
Lois clutched my arm tighter. I felt her take in a deep breath, hold it for a second before slowly exhaling. I touched her hand and stepped back. She responded with a tiny nod, and walked across to stand a couple of paces from the bed.
“Dad. It’s me. It’s Lois.”
I found a nook set out for visitors with a couple of comfy chairs and a rack of magazines. Still only halfway through discovering the style bloops of the recent red carpet event, as described by a publication whose copy read like that of a jealous school girl, I looked up to see Lois waiting for me.
She looked tired, but her shoulders were straight and her mascara was intact.
“How was it?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t need the tissues. Shall we get a sandwich or something before you drive back?”
“I’m happy to do whatever you want.”
“Honestly, I just want to go home and hug my children, then my husband, and blob on the sofa with a box set of something brainless and cheesy.”
“I didn’t think you got any blobbing time in your house.”
“I’m making time. We can survive on fish and chips for once. And if the kids have no ironed uniform for school tomorrow, boo hoo. They’ll get over it.”
I stood up, reaching to give her a hug, but she held up her hands to block me.
“Don’t. Not here. I’m a whisker away from causing a scene.”
Her chin wobbled, and I took hold of her hand instead. “I knew it was all a show. Underneath you’re a total wimp. Come on, I wouldn’t want you to embarrass me in public with an overly dramatic display of emotion.”
I took my strong friend home, back to the guilt-free, resentment-free, self-pity-free, incredible life she had created despite every excuse not to.
That afternoon I walked down to the bank and deposited the most recent cheque for five thousand pounds that Dad had given me following my failure to cash the first two. A punch in the face of the debt monster. Pow! On my way back, in an empty alleyway, I danced a little rhumba and then a few steps of the tango. I was a Henderson girl. Well, look at that. I was dancing after all.
That is, until I sashayed out of the alleyway. Just down the road in front of me crouched a sleek black car. I stumbled to a halt, and the car slowly accelerated away from the side of the road. As it turned the corner, I swear its lights flashed. Either that or it was a vein exploding behind my eyes.
I stomped home on quaking legs, furious I hadn’t kept enough presence of mind to read the number plate, frustrated I had no idea whether I was being paranoid or not. I drew the blinds in the living room and the kitchen, and got out the evil-stalker logbook, all the time listening for the sound of an expensive engine crawling down the cul-de-sac.
My head said not to panic at the calls, the sightings, the white rose I found on the doormat the following morning. There could be any number of rational non-Carl related explanations. My guts, my instincts, my womanly intuition agreed – no need to panic, but don’t for a second try to convince yourself this is anything other than ex-Dr Carl Coombes-Barker. Mum or Dad started giving me a lift to work. I finally gave in and bought another phone, telling no one but Maggie and my parents the number. Nobody complained when I drew the curtains any more. He was winning. The fear was winning. But I was darned if I was going to let him see it.
Lois’s father died a few days later. There were half a dozen mourners at the crematorium. After the brief ceremony, I went with Lois and Matt to visit his old flat. We stood, appalled, in the skeleton of one man’s life. A couple of shabby, mismatched pieces of furniture, empty cupboards, bare beige walls. A few worn out items of clothing in the wardrobe. Nothing in the bathroom except a used-up toilet roll. Dirt, dust, grime. Too many empty bottles of gin to count.
Matt called a company who would clear everything out and clean it up. We locked up and left, driving home through bright sunshine, each with the same thought stark in our minds: there wasn’t a single person on the planet who would miss Rupert Finch, one-time property entrepreneur, husband and father. What a terrible, shocking, heartbreaking waste of a life. What a sharp reminder to get up, get out, love, laugh and live while we can. To take life by the hand and, by golly, to dance every step.
By June I was beside myself. The silent calls had transferred to the landline. Whether it was once a week or five times in one afternoon, what scared me most was that they only happened when I w
Something had to give. This couldn’t go on much longer.
Carl Barker agreed with me on that, if nothing else.
It was a sunny Saturday lunchtime. I found Maggie mooching about in cut-off shorts and a T-shirt, killing time until her visit to Hannah’s. Things had improved somewhat as the befriending scheme came towards its end. With one of the sessions now taking place at the dance class, it had the added bonus of giving them something to talk about during the Saturday session too. Hannah had been helping Maggie plan decorations, digging out faded recipes for cakes, compiling a list of her favourite songs from the fifties. They had even, on a few occasions, ventured out into the garden. Instead of barking gardening-related orders from the window, Hannah had taken to sitting on a plastic sun lounger borrowed from John next door, underneath a saggy brimmed hat. Maggie even caught her walking unaided a couple of times.
“I reckon she’s grown a good four inches. It’s because she doesn’t stoop over that frame any more, unless someone’s looking. She’s stopped wobbling so much too. I knew she couldn’t really be that frail.”