I Hope You Dance, page 33
“That’s it, Maggie. Insulting me is definitely the way to get me to agree to this. Perhaps you want to tell me how hideous I’ll look in a ball-gown?”
“Nah. Now you’ve grown some boobs and hips you’ll carry it off.”
“Glad to hear you sounding like your old self again, my darling.”
Oh, my goodness I was glad. Breathless with relief. Of course I would dance for her. Hopefully, no spending the night on a toilet floor this time.
So Maggie came home. Mum was delighted to have a full-time needy person to cluck and fuss over, although Dad chipped in, in his unobtrusive way. I balanced my time between catching up on a mountain of work, finishing off orders for eight more pictures, awkwardly, nervously learning dance steps while Dad and I tried not to tread on each other’s toes and tearing my gaze away from the Big House.
David had called in at the hospital twice to see Maggie. The first time, I bolted to the restaurant, still too vulnerable and inside out and upside down to know how to deal with him. The second time, I walked in to find them playing black-jack. Maggie ordered me to join in. For a glorious thirty minutes I caught a glimpse of what life could be like if I managed to get a grip on my rampaging hormones and maintain a friendship with David without spending the whole time wanting to nuzzle his neck.
We bumped into each other once more, a week before the dance. I was strolling home from work, having been caught in a summer shower. My clothes and work bag were dripping wet, but the air was warm and clean in between the fat raindrops, and I was taking my time.
He came up behind me, calling my name from a few yards away.
I turned to see him striding through the rain, hair plastered to his head, the water glistening off his tanned arms.
“Hi,” I smiled. I suspect it was a little goofy.
“Didn’t want to sneak up on you.”
“Thanks. I am still pretty jumpy. Mum surprised me in the bathroom the other day and I screamed so loud it must have reached the Big House.”
“I learned to ignore screams coming from the direction of number five a long time ago,” he said, grinning.
We walked through the rain for a few minutes. The air carried the scent of ozone and fresh grass. The street leading out of the town centre stood deserted, and it felt as though we were the only people alive.
“I can’t remember if I thanked you. That day. I can’t remember much of it, to be honest. But if I didn’t, then, well…thanks.”
David smiled. He kept looking straight ahead, but moved close enough to take hold of my hand. His hand felt strong and safe. My bones turned to treacle.
“Oh yes. You thanked me. I think the word was ‘angel’. You said that, ooh, about two hundred and thirty-two times. And um, let me think… hero. That was another one. Amazing, wonderful…I’m pretty sure you called me gorgeous, and pledged your undying love to me not once, but three times. In fact, I think dinner was promised at some point, followed by marriage and many, many babies…”
“Very funny. Please do continue to make jokes about my harrowing hostage ordeal at the hands of a crazed madman.”
“You did call me an angel.”
“Let’s remind ourselves I was under the influence of illegal drugs.”
We walked a little longer.
“And you told me that you love me.”
A fiery blaze of heat whooshed up through my body. I dropped David’s hand, totally flustered. “I’ve always loved you. You’re the brother I never had. You know that.”
David turned to face me, drawing me to a stop. He looked at me for a few moments, his face intent. I watched a rivulet of water run down the side of his cheek, fearful of meeting his eyes.
“Is that how you want this to be?”
I shrugged, scuffed my feet on the ground. “It doesn’t matter what I want.”
“It doesn’t matter what you want. Doesn’t matter to who? It does to me!”
“What do you expect, David?” I raised my voice now, angry and hurting and so, so tired of this. “Do you think that three weeks after going through a living nightmare Maggie’ll look more favourably on me getting involved with a man? Find it easier to trust a bloke? I told you to leave so we didn’t have to keep going over this. So I didn’t have to keep dealing with it. I can’t do it any more. It’s too much of a tangled mess. You’re my past, David. And a lot of that past is not pleasant. We had our chance. It’s stupid to think we can go back.”
David continued to stare at me, his eyes burning. “Why can’t you let yourself be happy, Ruth? You don’t want Maggie to give her blessing because it gives you an excuse to continue punishing yourself for mistakes a teenage girl made a hundred years ago.”
“That is not true!” That was so true. “You are so darn arrogant, David Carrington. What makes you assume I want a relationship with you anyway?”
I turned and fled, my lightweight pumps skidding on the soaking wet pavement. If I cried, then the tears blended with the rain so perfectly I couldn’t tell.
The morning of the tea dance, two cards sat forlornly on the kitchen table. Happy anniversary, love Harriet. Happy wedding anniversary, yours, Gil. No flowers, no chocolates, no talk of one of Mum’s themed dinners. I had a brainwave and rang Esther in the hope she could help me out. No problem, her baby sister might yet save the day – she was on it.
We spent the whole day at Oak Hill, getting everything ready. Mum bustled, Dad hung lights while Maggie directed him with her crutches, and I snuck off every chance I could get to practise my dance steps in the disabled toilet. We had sold every last ticket. A hundred. The morbid curiosity generated by the organizer having recently survived a gruesome incident with a psychopath helped, of course. Seth, who had been at his girlfriend’s beck and call all morning, adjusting her cushions, fetching her drinks, calming her down, disappeared soon after lunch.
“Did Seth have something on this afternoon?” Surely not. This day had been planned for months.
“What’s that then?”
“I don’t know.” Oh dear.
“Don’t look like that, Mum. We’ve got loads of help. I said I didn’t mind.”
“I’m just surprised.”
“Really? I thought this was exactly what you expected from Seth. It gives you more reason to prolong this totally unfair probation.”
It might have been what I expected, but Seth’s secrets were not what I wanted for my daughter. Maggie was right: I couldn’t keep this probation up forever. I muttered a silent prayer that Seth would either get his act together or increase his dodgy behaviour to the point where Maggie decided not to put up with it. Just please, please don’t let this boy break her heart.
I joined Emily, folding napkins at the speed of light on one of the round corner tables.
“Hi, Ruth. How’s it all looking?”
“Pretty good. I think it’s going to be spectacular.”
“Describe it to me.”
“Well, we have white and midnight blue gossamer drapes hung in a circle across the ceiling, meeting in the middle like a tent. The blue drapes have white lights running along them, and the white ones have blue. There are more drapes covering the walls, and the rest of the round tables are like this one. White tablecloths and blue or silver runners.”
Mum had dragged in huge leafy branches and weighted them down in buckets around the edge of the room, adorning the branches with fairy lights. The chairs had white covers, with blue or silver gossamer bows, and Maggie’s friends were creating pretty centrepieces using silver plates covered in moss, tiny summer flowers and more sparkly lights.
“It looks like we’ll be dancing in an enchanted forest clearing,” I added.
“Sounds incredible.” Emily’s nimble fingers continued to fold napkins into swans without slowing down. She sighed. “I would like to take a good look at that.”
I shuffled my cha
Emily rested her head on top of mine. “How are you, Ruth? Still having nightmares? Any more flashbacks? Cold sweats or crying for no reason? Anxious or unusually guilt-ridden?”
“Yes. All of that. But it’s getting better.”
“Give my secretary a call and set up some sessions. Mates’ rates. Which in my case is nothing.”
“If I decide I need professional help, I’ll pay you for it. But I’m doing okay really.”
“Okay. I thought so. Unfortunately, I don’t consider okay a satisfactory state for any of my friends to be living in. And neither does your mother.”
“Oh, here we go…” I sat back up again.
“Book the session, Ruth. You’ll be doing me a favour,” she said, in a tone that meant business.
“I’m furious with myself!” Emily ripped up a napkin – made of pretty good quality paper and not easily torn – and threw the bits across the table. “I’m raging that I didn’t see this coming. Didn’t take this guy seriously enough. I should have spotted it.”
“If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll think about it. But maybe you need to listen to your own advice.”
We sat and folded napkins together for a few minutes.
“Mum’s going to pay you for the sessions, isn’t she?”
Emily smiled. “I couldn’t possibly comment.”
“Mates’ rates? It’s about time my mother stopped paying people to be nice to me.”
“It’s about time you stopped running away and let people be nice to you.”
“Is she paying you for this conversation?”
“Remarks like that are exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Oh, there’s my lovely boss, Martine. I must go and say hello.”
Emily shouted after me as I dashed off. “Running away!”
Later that afternoon, the Henderson family got the shock of their life when a voice boomed out, “Stone the crows! Would you cop a loada this?”
“Miriam!” My mother vaulted across the room, tossing the tablecloth in her hand over one shoulder as she ran. Throwing her arms around Miriam, she cried and laughed and stood back to look her up and down before clutching her tightly again. Dad followed close behind her.
After a few minutes, I prised my parents away long enough to give my favourite sister a hug. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“Heard there was going to be a Henderson reunion. Ya didn’t think I was going to miss it, did ya?”
I must have looked confused. Mum whispered, “It’s meant to be a secret! Lydia is one of our surprise celebrity judges!”
Lydia, a judge? Great. Maybe people would expect her to show bias towards me due to our sisterly status. I snorted at the very thought. At least dancing with Dad might reduce the temptation to mark me down.
Miriam, the exact image of Mum save for her dark brown hair and Sydney tan, peered around the room. “Well, where’s that champion niece of mine? I want to sign her cast.”
Introductions were made, tea was fetched and eyes were wiped. Miriam called her husband, Adam, in from the foyer, and the remaining preparations were put to one side.
Against all odds, despite past vows and by some sort of miracle, at seven o’clock that evening I found myself dressed up to the nines in a white ball-gown, hovering at the edge of a dance floor. The hall looked amazing, even better than we had hoped. Maggie, hopping in on crutches decorated with silk flowers, took in a slow sweep from one end of the room to the other and glowed. My Maggie, stunning in a simple black and white fifties-style dress, glowing. Ana Luisa and Ellie had agreed to man the door, checking tickets and pointing guests in the direction of the seating plan. Ana Luisa stood resplendent in a fiery red salsa costume, Ellie unbothered in her smartest blue jeans and a checked shirt.
I joined a table primarily made up of Oak Hill employees. Lois and Matt sat entwined on one side, enjoying a rare evening as a couple. Martine perched on my left, shimmering in an aqua tasselled flapper dress, complete with a blue and green feathered headdress and her usual make-up.
“Ruth! You’ve been avoiding me!”
I couldn’t help smiling. It was true. I’d been feeling too emotional, too fragile for Martine’s frank honesty these past few weeks. I thought I’d been pretty subtle about it, though.
“You heard about Dorothy?”
I shook my head. I knew she had resigned from her cleaning job the day after Carl’s arrest and gone to stay with a relative in Derby. I’m sure my face showed just how interested I was in hearing news about Dorothy.
“She’s got a new job, working in a leisure centre again. It’s going well, apparently. She’s moving forward with her life.”
“Good for her.” Ouch, Ruth. Sarcasm does not befit white ball-gowns.
“Yes. It is good for her. But what about you, Ruth? Managing to move forward, or does the elastic of unforgiveness keep pinging you back to that dreadful day?”
“Can we talk about this some other time?”
“No. This discussion is long overdue. You’ve avoided me at all other times. And as long as you refuse to forgive all parties concerned, including yourself, you might as well be dragging a life-sized model of Carl Barker with you everywhere you go. Do you want to be free of him or not?”
“It’s been a month, Martine. I’m doing my best.”
Martine did a little growl of frustration. “I’m going to fire you if you don’t do better.”
“What? You can’t do that!”
“Probably not. But go and see Emily anyway. She’s a good counsellor. And maybe she’ll be able to help you sort out your pile of issues while you’re at it.”
“My pile of issues?”
“Pile. Mountain. Heap. Rubbish dump. Issues!”
“So you’ll go?”
“I’ve got nothing better to do with my evenings once this tea dance is over. At least on Emily’s couch I might get some peace.”
At that moment, Maggie tapped me on the shoulder.
“Mum!” Her face was white.
“What is it?”
“Hannah’s not here.”
Hannah was getting a lift to the dance with her neighbour, John. This whole dance had sprung from Maggie’s attempt to help her reclaim a life for herself. Hannah had worked for weeks planning everything, even dusted off her old pearls and silk gloves to wear. I tried to hide my concern.
“Is John here yet?”
She shook her head.
“They’ll be here. He would’ve let us know if there was a problem.”
Maggie didn’t look convinced.
“Give it another half hour, then we’ll start worrying, okay?”
At that moment, there was a fanfare of dramatic ballroom music. Dad glided onto the stage from behind a curtain. Dapper in top coat and tails, he stood in front of the microphone. Relating the story of how Maggie cajoled them into starting a tea-dance class, to help her friend Hannah, he described the early classes, with the rag-tag bunch of teenagers and residents from the care home. Explained what a privilege it was to see the two very different groups of people having fun together, and how it had borne the idea of the intergenerational dance-off.
“But you have to wait till later on to see the fabulous fruits of the tea-dance class efforts! We’re going to begin the evening by giving you a taste of what they went through. On your feet, ladies and gentlemen, and please offer a very warm welcome to the best dance instructor in the country, if not the universe: the internationally acclaimed, twice UK champion, Harriet Henderson!”
Mum floated onto the stage, her full-length gown whooshing out in a blaze of shimmering sparkle as she twirled to join Dad. The crowd broke out in spontaneous applause. Half the people here had been on the receiving end of Henderson compassion. Mum took her husband’s hand as she curtseyed, and a thousand memories zipped through my mind:
They coached everyone through a waltz, with a perfect balance of professionalism and light-heartedness. Mum demonstrated with one of Maggie’s school mates, who blushed sheepishly as she insisted he hold her “like a man”. Dad beckoned Martine to come and be his partner. She earned top marks for enthusiasm. I’m not sure who was leading who in that waltz. As the music played and two-thirds of the one hundred guests squeezed onto the dance floor, within moments everything descended into hilarity and chaos. The novice dancers muddled through, until a few minutes in someone turned the music off. All the lights dimmed, save one spotlight in the centre of the floor. Esther and Miriam, two tables away from me, began chanting, “Harriet and Gil! Harriet and Gil!” By the third chant, the couples around them had got the hint, retreating from the floor and joining in with the increasingly loud demand. Martine pushed Dad into the spotlight, and Maggie’s friend dragged Mum “like a man” next to him.
I held my breath, too nervous to chant. For the first time ever, my parents looked uncomfortable to be in the spotlight. The chants died away and we waited, in silence, to see what would happen next. A lot of people knew all had not been well in the Henderson family of late. I prayed – a genuine, gut-wrenching, eager prayer – that they would take this opportunity, make our dreams come true and dance.
Esther did not let me down. Out of the empty, endless hush came the first few bars of “At Last” by Etta James. Mum lifted her head as Dad lowered his to meet his wife’s gaze. A tiny smile twitched at the corner of each mouth, and Dad offered his hand. As Mum drew gently closer, into the perfect Viennese waltz hold, she could not have looked any less beautiful, less radiant, less content than she had when those same few notes played at the first dance of her wedding reception, exactly forty-nine years before.
At last, indeed.
Nobody breathed, or uttered a sound, or so much as rustled their tea dress as the music soared and the best two dancers in the country, if not the universe, performed a love story so exquisite it expressed everything needing to be said without a single word. Dad ended by dipping Mum to a couple of inches off the ground, before sweeping her up again. She tapped him on the backside and said, her voice bouncing off the rafters, “Well, Gil Henderson. Looks like you’ve still got it!”