I hope you dance, p.32

I Hope You Dance, page 32

 

I Hope You Dance
 



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  “You’ve given her something to live for. She’s standing tall because she’s happier. And she’s wobbling less because she’s starting to feel strong.”

  “Well, whatever the reason, I wish she’d admit it so she can iron her own face cloths.”

  “Nobody irons their face cloths!” I exclaimed.

  “No. They just get child slaves to do it for them as punishment instead.”

  “The befriending scheme wasn’t a punishment.”

  “Really? You try ironing someone else’s unmentionables in a dark, dirty flat while your friends are all out sunbathing.”

  “Are you out with Seth this afternoon?” Seth and Maggie were now on probation. One evening and one weekend date per week, with a ten o’clock curfew.

  “Hello? I’m at Hannah’s. She’s showing me how to make napkin swans.”

  “Don’t be rude. I meant afterwards.”

  “No.”

  “No? Are you seeing him this evening instead?”

  “I’m revising.”

  “You used to revise together.”

  “What is this? An interrogation? I didn’t think you wanted me spending time with him anyway.” She flung herself off the sofa and left the room. I followed her into the kitchen – I couldn’t help it. I’m her mum; it’s what I do.

  “The two of you spent months trying to convince me you can be trusted to go out together. It’s understandable I’d be curious when you aren’t making the most of it.”

  “He’s busy. All right?”

  I raised my eyebrows. Had Seth Callahan had the audacity to brush off my daughter? Where was a shotgun when you wanted one?

  “As long as you’re sure that’s all it is.”

  “I told you, I trust him! When are you going to accept that we actually love each other?”

  “I’m sorry. I just want you to be careful.” I made a mental note to speak to Lois.

  Maggie stared at her half-made sandwich for a minute.

  “Why didn’t you and Dad get married?”

  I could have fobbed this question off as I’d done a thousand times before. Or pretended I didn’t know. Pretended I hadn’t really thought about it. Did I tell the truth? Maybe a selective, filtered version.

  “That’s not an easy question to answer. If you’d asked Dad, he probably would’ve given you a different reason.”

  “Didn’t you even talk about it?”

  “We had a conversation when I found out I was pregnant. But, honey, we were students. We weren’t ready, we barely knew each other. It was scary enough trying to figure out how to be parents. Husband and wife felt too much right then.”

  “But what about later on? When you were older, and knew you loved each other?”

  Oh, boy. I could not tell the whole truth here.

  “I don’t know – we honestly never really discussed it. I used to wonder, when you were little, if at Christmas or Valentine’s Day Dad would surprise me with a ring, but he was never really into all that. There was always something – a house move, or looking for a new job, a different car. And you know Grandma Margaret would have hated it. She’d have turned our wedding day into a nightmare. It didn’t really matter that much. We were a family, weren’t we?”

  What a big, fat lie. Some women, and fair play to them, don’t give a fig about a wedding, a white dress, a first dance. A man who is prepared to commit himself legally to one woman, making public vows to honour, care for her and all the rest of it for as long as they both shall live.

  I had never been one of those women.

  I still thought about Maggie’s marriage question an hour later, staring at the half-completed Oak Hill newsletter on my laptop. That’s not quite true. My daydreams about marriage did not include Fraser. Shutting the computer down I sighed and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. In every imagined wedding scenario, I tried to picture gliding down the aisle in my antique-lace dress towards an anonymous husband to be – one I had met at some unspecified time in the distant future. So why did he stand at the front of Oak Hill church with his hands in his back pockets, a grin that warmed me down to my toes and eyes like pools of silver?

  David had gone from my life again. But the brief time we spent together confirmed what I knew all along: I would always love him. Not as a friend or a brother, or because he happened to want me. I didn’t primarily love the way he made me feel, or the memories he stirred, or the idea of being truly loved. I loved him. That man. Everything about him. So, how he felt, or where he was, or even if –

  The kitchen door swung open.

  “Hello, Ruth.”

  The coffee cup slid out of my grasp and smashed onto the tiles at my feet.

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  “What are you doing here?” I could hear the tremor in my voice. Time stopped as I tried to recall where my phone was. Think, Ruth. In the living room? No. Not had it this afternoon. Still by my bed? Don’t think so. In my bag? Maybe. Think!

  Carl Barker carefully closed the door behind him, turned the key and pocketed it. Ignoring the broken cup, he smiled at me. “Looking for this?” He held up my phone then, never taking his eerie blue eyes off mine, dropped it onto the floor and crunched it underfoot.

  “There you go, Ruth. I know you like to buy yourself new phones.”

  I darted towards the hallway, but Carl anticipated me, slamming the door before I reached it and blocking the exit. His presence seemed to fill the kitchen – with horror and dark, demented insanity.

  As I ducked back he grabbed me from behind, wrapping both his arms around me in a vice-like grip. He reeked – of stale sweat and evil.

  “We’re going upstairs. You’re going to show me how much you missed me.”

  “The police know everything.”

  He laughed. “Oh, I doubt that.”

  “They know about that other woman – in the States – and the phone calls, and you following me about.”

  “Phone calls? Following you? Sounds like wishful thinking to me. Sounds like you’ve been dreaming about me. You never got over me, did you, Ruth? Couldn’t handle the fact we broke up?”

  I said nothing, desperately scanning the kitchen for some way to get him off me, anticipating the moment he might relax his grip, hoping I would be strong enough to get away. I wished I had shoes on so I could kick. Or a pen in my hand to jab him with.

  He began to stroke one hand up and down my cheek.

  “I heard Tarzan left. Couldn’t handle you being with me. Sending me secret messages. Encouraging me. Begging me to come back. So here I am. I forgive you, Ruth. I’m prepared to give us another chance. But you have to show me I can trust you again. How committed you are.”

  Blood pounding through my veins, I assessed my options. Bending my head as far forward as possible, I slammed it back as hard as I could into his face. But I was too short, and only succeeded in smacking into the hard bone of his chin. He didn’t even loosen his grip.

  “Your choice. We can do this the easy way. Or my way.”

  He flipped me around to face the door as though I was a cardboard cut-out, grabbing the back of my neck and bashing my skull into the wood a couple of times, until my head span and my knees began to give way. As I stumbled to catch my balance, he reached into his dishevelled coat pocket with his free hand and pulled out a syringe.

  “This is what I prescribe for troublesome women who don’t know any manners and need to learn respect.” He pinned me to the door and I felt the sharp stab of the needle in my bare shoulder. That was the last thing I remembered.

  I awoke in a heap of nausea and cramping muscles on my bed, slowly remembering the horrifying situation. Realizing that something had jolted me out of unconsciousness. The crashing of the front door. Beyond the thick haze I heard the random banging of cupboards in the kitchen below. One frantic, despairing thought pushed through the fog in my brain: Maggie.

  As quickly as I could manage, which was about the same speed as wading through mud, I rolled off my bed, tumbling o
nto the carpet. Frantically, feverishly, I manoeuvred myself onto my front and used the side of the bed to heave to a kneeling position. I crawled through the fog and the pain and the mallet in my head towards the open bedroom door. Panic flooded my system as I heard the sound of feet thumping up the stairs. Collapsing in the doorway, I saw Carl step out of the bathroom, caught a flash of silver glinting in his hand. Maggie reached the top stair and paused, confused and angry. Before she could speak, Carl leaned forward. He smiled. “Hello, brat. I was hoping you might show up.”

  He kicked her down the stairs. I heard her bones bounce off every step. With the warrior strength of a mother I stumbled to my feet and out onto the landing as Carl, who had sprung down after her, jumped off the last step with both feet, landing beside her crooked legs.

  He roared with laughter. The silver glinted in his hand again. A scalpel. My beautiful daughter, a twisted, lifeless rag doll, lay there at the mercy of a monster and I couldn’t reach her. For the first time in my life, I knew what genuine fear felt like.

  I must have moaned or wailed, or something. Carl glanced up at me and raised his eyebrows in delight. “Ruth! You’re awake.”

  He kicked Maggie again, hard, and bounded up the stairs two at a time. I fell back towards the bedroom, half blind with rage and despair, my head still fighting whatever poison he had pumped into my bloodstream. Towering over me, he licked at the spittle in the corners of his lips. He carefully removed his glasses, placing them on the bedside table. Untied the laces of his grimy shoes, and lined them neatly by the side of the bed. Attacked by another wave of dizziness, I sank onto the carpet.

  “Get on the bed.”

  I shook my head, no. He bent down, and I feebly batted a hand at his face. Giving me no more mind than he would a moth, he picked me up and tossed me onto the covers. I sprawled there, in the place where I had said my little girl goodnight prayers, read secret stories under the bedclothes, pinched myself to stay awake until Santa came.

  Carl breathed heavily, licked his lips again, reached down and stroked the hair off my face. “You have no idea how much I’ve been looking forward to this.”

  I struggled to sit up, and he struck me across the side of my head, still smiling. “Come on now, Ruth. Play nice. The easy way, or my way.”

  I shook my head again, too messed up to speak. I would play nice. I couldn’t take any more of that drug. I had to stay awake for Maggie. She needed me. I must get to Maggie. If it meant killing this evil monster, I would get to her.

  I think I prayed. Is it ever okay to pray for a chance to kill someone?

  I closed my eyes, tried to find a dark corner of my head where I could wait it out until all this was over, when suddenly I felt the shadow of Carl move away from me. Heard the sound of pounding flesh. A grunt. Turning to look, I saw in my semi-delirium what must have been an angel pinning Carl to the far wall, before throwing a punch to his head so hard he sagged to the ground, unconscious. The angel talked on a mobile phone. He took a roll of masking tape out of the doctor’s bag sitting on my dressing table chair and deftly taped the monster’s hands and feet behind his back. Moving to my bedside, he placed his strong, rough hands gently either side of my face. I knew those hands.

  “Are you all right? Ruth? Are you hurt?”

  My body, not so much. My heart, soul and spirit? Crushed. I managed one whispered word. “Maggie.”

  The angel nodded, bending down to kiss my wrist, my forehead, my mouth, before quickly leaving the room. I sank back down into the murky blackness.

  I remember vague snatches from what happened next. The bump of the wheeled stretcher as it slid into the ambulance. My mother’s stern instructions to keep calm, don’t worry, hang on! A cool hand slipping on an oxygen mask. Drifting in and out of befuddled dreams to find myself in a different room in the hospital every time. One pervading thought clawed its way through the malevolent, agonizing mist that writhed inside my head, until I thought it would explode. Maggie.

  In the end, after managing to keep my eyes open for more than a few seconds, sip an inch of water and cough it back up again, when I had confirmed that I did indeed know my name and the prime minister’s, they gave in to my frantic protests and took me to her.

  My parents sat either side of her bleeping, wire-encased, machine-controlled hospital bed. Buried under a tiny mound of blankets, sleeping, she looked about seven years old.

  Mum stirred. “She’s all right, Ruth. She will be all right.”

  Guilt, shame and excruciating remorse bubbled up from somewhere deep down inside me. I let out a cry that pierced the air with its sharpness. Mum looked right at me, her face granite, and took my fluttering hands in hers. “This is not your fault, Ruth. You did not do this. A wicked, damaged, dangerous man hurt your girl, and you could not have stopped him. He stuck you with enough sedative to fell a rhinoceros. Do not feel guilty about this! Feel angry, and sad and frustrated, and as if it was your heart that was kicked down the stairs, not Maggie. But do not take the blame! Not one speck! Now. Your father is wheeling you back to your bed before you collapse. Don’t worry, I’m staying right here.”

  Dad wheeled me back through the maze of antiseptic-scented corridors to my ward. He helped me shuffle back into bed, then straightened the sheet.

  “I won’t tuck you in. I know you hate tight sheets.”

  My eyelids felt weighted down. I couldn’t keep them open much longer.

  “Your mum’s right. Try not to feel too bad about what happened.” The last thing I saw was Dad’s shoulders slumping with sorrow. The last thing I heard, his broken words. “I’m sorry, Ruth. I’m so sorry.”

  Maggie had a broken ankle, a fractured pelvis, a thousand bumps and bruises, shattered innocence, haunted dreams, but – and I found myself thanking God for this – strength, determination and courage. She would recover. We would recover. I forgot to ask what happened to the person who did this. I found out later it involved lawyers, no bail, no lenience and a trail of damning evidence including a stash of stalker photographs, secret video footage that I cringe to think the police and lawyers watched, and a cache of illegal drugs.

  My angel came to visit me. He didn’t stay for long because I asked him not to. I didn’t trust myself in my weakened, befuddled state not to grab him by the lapels and snog the oxygen out of him. He had seen Carl’s car in a neighbour’s driveway. Knowing they were away, he grew suspicious and came to check on me. He left a bunch of freesias, my favourite flowers. He didn’t say much. Just stared at me, smiled and cried a little bit in a sexy, manly way, then kissed me on the forehead again before leaving. Oh yes – and he left a card. Inside it said:

  I ripped up my new contract. Turns out everything I wanted in the Whole Wild World is here.

  By the next afternoon I was ready to transfer my aching bones to Maggie’s bedside, relieving Mum to go home and shower and bake enough cookies for the entire hospital before returning with a bag of essentials to see us through the next few days. For the two weeks Maggie stayed in hospital, I lost count of the number of friends that came to visit. My sister Esther came three times with Arianna and painted everybody’s nails. Hannah brought a pile of napkins and they sat and made swans until their fingers grew tired (about six minutes). Vanessa Jacobs brought an Italian scarf to decorate her cast with. Of course Seth. He arrived every day ten minutes before visiting hours started, blatantly flaunting the terms of the probation. I watched him with my daughter, patient when she snapped and grumbled, thoughtful when she grew tired or emotional. He made her laugh. He made her feel strong. He made her shine. I considered removing the probation. Then the nurses told me that twice he had hidden under Maggie’s bed, once more behind a curtain, then snuck out after visiting hours were over and crept into bed with her. My growing soft-spot for Seth Callahan re-hardened slightly. I narrowed my eyes at his swarthy good-looking swagger and the probation remained intact.

  Maggie wanted to talk about the tea dance, now only three weeks away.

  “H
ow many tickets have you sold? Who’s doing the decorations? Hannah can’t do everything. What about the food? You need to stop visiting me so often and start sorting it out, Mum!”

  “It’s fine. All under control. Nanny has organized a team to sort the food, and the Oak Hill craft group are following Hannah’s instructions regarding the decorations. It’s great – she’s having to go along to the group to check they’re doing it properly, for your sake, of course. She even walked there yesterday.”

  “Right. But what if nobody comes?”

  “We’ve sold sixty tickets, Maggie.”

  “SIXTY?”

  I grinned at her wonderment. She looked so young with her hair unstyled and no eyeliner.

  “We’ve had to say no more entries for the intergenerational competition. Pop said there were twelve couples, and unless we decide to hold heats, we can’t fit any more on the dance floor.”

  “Did he cross us off the list?” Her face fell glum again. “He was really looking forward to dancing. And we were bound to win.”

  “Well, you can give some poor disadvantaged non-professional a chance instead.”

  Maggie looked at me, her expression sly. “Or… you could do it.”

  “No.”

  “Why not? You used to dance. You could pick up the steps really quick. Oh, come on, Mum. You’d make Pop’s day. I bet he’d love to dance with you. Please, Mum. Please, please, please.”

  “No.”

  “I’m grievously injured and, like, seriously emotionally traumatized, and my one and only wish is to see my mother dance with my grandfather, bringing home the first ever Oak Hill tea-dance intergenerational trophy and giving me something to smile about in a world that has become cruel and twisted and –”

  “I’ll think about it.”

  “Hah! That means you’re going to do it. Hand me my phone. I’m texting Pop. You need to get learning the steps straight away. I know you’ve had years of training, but if your half-hearted attempts at class are anything to go by, you need all the practice you can get.”

 
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