I Hope You Dance, page 5
“Fine. I’ll give it a go. But you are not allowed to nag or moan at me if I can’t hack it.” I breathed out a long sigh at the thought of working for Vanessa Jacobs. “When do I start?”
“Your interview is Tuesday at half-ten, so you’ve plenty of time to settle Maggie in at school first.”
“Interview! I don’t even have the job? Mum, I cannot have a job interview with Vanessa Jacobs.”
“Oh, give over, Ruth. The interview is a mere formality. Vanessa Jacobs is not the sort of woman to be left trimming her grandmother’s toenails! Now, do you think a top without quite so many holes in would be more appropriate for the holiday club this afternoon?”
The Oak Hill Centre grew out of the church my family had attended for over four decades. My parents had been among the founding members back in their twenties, when a bunch of hippy Christians got frustrated with the constraints of organized religion and decided to try something different. If the photographs from back then are anything to go by, “different” included replacing the organ with a rainbow-strapped guitar and tambourines, preachers wearing shorts with socks and sandals, and baptizing new members in the River Trent. Praise the Lord, and they certainly did, things had de-cheesed slightly over the years.
I didn’t want to help out at the holiday club that afternoon. I was too tired, too weak, too depressed to smile and chat and sing happy-clappy songs in a room full of hyperactive children. I hadn’t been a regular at church since I left Southwell. As a young girl, I had believed in God. I just preferred exploring the wonders of his creation to singing about them.
Then I got pregnant, which in 1998, in the older, middle-class congregation of Oak Hill, was still pretty scandalous for an unmarried teenager. Although the church members were amazing – they knitted baby clothes, sent over changing mats, baby baths, blankets and even a brand new pram – I felt their pity, and their dismay, real or imagined. At nineteen you haven’t yet realized that no adult has led a smooth, trouble-free life, with no mistakes or regrets. That pretty much everyone understands how easy it is to drink a few too many glasses of vodka at a party and do something stupid with a charming boy you hardly know.
I felt exposed, embarrassed, ashamed. A lot of students get drunk and have sex with near-strangers at parties. Not a lot of them have their parents’ friends, their Sunday school teachers and half the town know this for a great big, round-bellied fact. I was still me, Ruth Henderson, but to them I must be Ruth: teenaged single mother, estranged from her dad, living in a bedsit with no money. Maths prodigy turned wasted opportunity, government statistic and source of much parental anguish.
Many, many times I had imagined leaving Liverpool and coming home. I wanted to show my old friends, my family, and the women who had babysat me, prayed for me and given me thousands of toffees, that I had not become the cliché. I was a good mother, with a good man, living a great life, a successful one. I had never done this, because deep inside I didn’t believe it. Yet here I found myself walking up the steps into the Oak Hill Centre’s main hall.
I was here for one reason: Maggie. She had decided to punish me by spending time with Nanny, following her to the club and agreeing with everything she said and did. She even wore the cardigan Nanny knitted her in pale purple wool. It had worked. I was jealous. So I came.
Oak Hill had grown out of the original building twice in the past fifteen years. Currently, they were in their new-new premises, a spacious glass and wood construction on the site of Southwell’s old secondary school. Tastefully decorated in soft colours, the large entrance hall had bright sofas lining one wall, with contemporary posters adding warmth and an informal feel. A water cooler stood beside a simple reception desk, notice boards highlighted the many events going on in the building, and a table bore neat rows of leaflets and a large vase filled with red gerberas.
Through glass double doors I could see a café area, stocked with modern coffee-makers, a chiller containing cakes, cookies, sandwiches and fruit, and several farmhouse-style wooden tables with soft padded chairs. There were more sofas, stripy ones this time, lower coffee tables and vases full of flowers. Along the walls hung dozens of prints painted by children, depicting all the things kids care about: football matches, dogs and dinosaurs, ballerinas, castles and space rockets.
What had happened to stewed tea in mismatched cups served with custard creams? Where were the old, straight-backed chairs and tiny windows? This building was full of air, and light, and life. If I wasn’t so stressed I would actually find this a pleasant place to have a cup of coffee.
“Come on, Ruth; stop gawping. The children will be arriving soon.”
Mum shooed me into the main hall. At the far end was a stage rigged up with lights and speakers. On this stood a drum kit, several guitars propped up on stands and a range of microphones – all set against a huge curtained backdrop emblazoned with the words “SUPERHEROES CAMP” in graffiti-style letters. The rest of the hall split into different zones – creative zone, sport zone, challenge zone, chill zone. What struck me most was the room’s massive size.
“You have your services in here?”
Mum nodded, pretending to be nonchalant, but unable to hide her slight smugness. “Yes.”
“You could fit half of Southwell in here. How many people come?”
“About four hundred.”
Four hundred? When I used to come to the old building on Oak Hill Road, we were lucky to get more than forty. Where did all these people come from? Why?
Mum preened a little. “I told you Pastor Matt had done a good job.”
A good job? This was a miracle.
A perky girl in her early twenties wearing a “supergirl” costume pressed a blue sticker onto my chest and waved her clipboard in the direction of the creative zone.
In the half-hour before the kids arrived, I hovered under the gazebo that marked my zone and watched dozens of helpers rush about doing things – setting up games, filling the gunge tank, practising dance moves. The team ranged from young helpers like Maggie, counting out biscuits in the energy zone, right up to Mrs Messenger, the creaky cleaner who had seemed at least a hundred when she dusted the Bibles a lifetime ago. She now manned the registration desk with a heavily pierced man dressed as a hobbit.
Ten minutes before we were due to start, Lois blew in with five of her foster kids. Poppy, whose disability required one-to-one supervision, had stayed at home. She took the two-year-old, Martha, and her four-year-old sister Freya, to the mini-heroes zone (“small but mighty”) and left the eight-year-old boy with batman in the gold zone. The eldest of her children, Seth Callahan, who had been with the Harris’s for only a few weeks, sprawled on a sofa in one corner, engrossed in his phone.
I watched Maggie glance over at Seth, then flip her head back to the biscuits. Five seconds later she looked over again. Engrossed in his screen, he didn’t appear to notice. I could understand her second peek. Seth had thick, ebony hair several weeks past needing a cut and dark eyes, the lids slightly hooded. His features would have been almost feminine if not for the brooding scowl. He wore a battered jacket and slim-fitting jeans over heavy boots. He looked like the kind of boy girls like Maggie scorned in public and dreamt about in private. The kind of boy that drove daddies to sit on the front porch with a shotgun on their lap. Lois had told me nothing about Seth Callahan other than that he was fifteen but was retaking year ten after missing most of his schooling during the past few months.
He would be in Maggie’s school year. I felt a prickle of anxiety at the prospect of this gorgeous, dangerous-looking boy becoming another wound in my precious daughter’s heart.
“Ruth!” Lois gave me a hug, the round ball of baby strapped to her front making it impossible for her to reach properly. “You’re the answer to my prayers. You’ve no idea what it would do to me running this zone alone. That sign is a mistake. I made a more accurate one.”
She pointed to the back of the “creative zone” sign, where it hung down below the gazebo edge.
“I think I might have suddenly remembered an urgent appointment somewhere else. Far, far away…” I turned, ready to bolt.
Lois grabbed onto my arm with her tiny, impossibly strong hands. “I don’t think so.” She grinned. “Look.” She waved at a painting that some primary-aged child must have drawn. “Which one of the Harris family do you think created that?”
“Um. Freya?” I guessed it was probably the eight-year-old, but I couldn’t remember his name.
“What? Not even Connor?” That was it – Connor. “Me, Ruth. I did it.”
I tried to hide my smile.
“And with EIoise ill, I’m left in charge. The kids saw through me in about ten seconds. They kept asking me to demonstrate art techniques and help them out and then pretended to be upset when I ruined their craft. Yesterday they waited until both my hands were stuck to an egg carton and then had a paint fight. No wonder Eloise’s stomach couldn’t take it.”
“I’m not sure what you expect me to do, Lois. I find one child a handful.”
“I expect you to wow the kids with your legendary art skills into respecting the creative zone again. I’ll do the rest.”
The next two hours passed in a gluey, paint-splattered, clay-encrusted whirlwind. I sketched tigers, fashioned elephants from milk cartons, butterflies from pipe-cleaners, caterpillars from clay, and ended up wearing so much paint I felt like a walking, talking canvas. The sign was true. My clothes were wrecked, I had no idea what I was doing and yes, I did feel a migraine pecking at the back of my eyeballs. But, boy. For two hours I forgot about poverty, homelessness, irritating parents, estranged parents, Vanessa Jacobs’ dress shop, grief, deep, dark loneliness and crawling back to Southwell with my tail between my legs. I had a ball.
When was the last time I had done that?
For the final section of the afternoon we had a short talk by the perky woman about how Jesus loves to help us out with all our problems. She asked the kids if they had any problems they wanted Jesus to help them with.
One little girl was worried about her hamster, which had been flushed down the toilet by her elder brother. Another one felt anxious she might not get a pink and purple sparkly princess fairy ballerina mermaid castle cake for her birthday next week. A boy put his hand up. He needed some help finding worms to put in Casey Jones’s lunchbox. Someone else wanted Jesus to make her ill on Saturday so she didn’t have to wear that stupid bridesmaid’s dress to her auntie’s wedding. A tiny, frail little girl asked if Jesus could help her mummy not die from her really bad cough because she would miss her mummy if she couldn’t see her ever again. A hush fell on the crowd as every person in that room thought about the sweet, small girl never seeing her mummy again. The woman at the front looked at her. “Would it be okay if we asked Jesus to help your mummy get better?”
Yes, that would be okay.
They asked Jesus. The little girl said thank you very much and the band leader tried three times before he managed to choke out the going home song.
By the time the kids left, the zones were dismantled, and four hundred chairs were being set out ready for the church service on Sunday, it was nearly six. Matt had arrived earlier to help clear up before taking his younger children home, leaving Lois and Seth to finish off. I watched Maggie try to surreptitiously work her way closer to Seth’s section as they moved back and forth putting chairs out. Seth had his earphones on, head down and frown in place as he quickly and mechanically filled up the rows.
Oh, Maggie. Be careful.
Lois came over to congratulate me for the hundredth time on saving the creative zone. “You’re a natural. Those kids loved you. You should come and help us out on Sundays.”
I concentrated on lining up the chair in my hands with the rest of the row.
“Will you at least think about it?”
“Okay.” There, I’ve thought about it. Sundays? Church days? My answer is no.
“So, first Friday of the month is girls’ night. This month I’m celebrating surviving a whole six weeks with no school. Don’t get me wrong – I love having the kids around all day, and lazing in our pyjamas until lunchtime if we want to – but I am so tired, my eyeballs feel as though they’re filled with sand. We’re meeting at mine at eight for a Chinese. You’re coming, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t really… Mum has probably already cooked something. Maybe next time?”
Lois began to say something, then a light popped on in her head. She leaned in closer. “Please come. You really helped me out today. Please let me buy you a take-away as a thank you. I owe you big time.”
“No you don’t. I enjoyed myself, honestly. But I’m really tired. I don’t think so.”
Seth sauntered across. “The chairs are done. Are you nearly finished, or shall I walk back?”
“One minute, honey.” Lois furrowed her brow. “The girls are really friendly. They’d love to meet you. Can’t you come just for a bit?”
Friendly women? That was precisely the problem. What brings you to Southwell, Ruth? Where are you staying? What do you do?
I couldn’t bear pity, or trying to bridge those awkward moments when I told people my partner had died and no one knew what to say. The attempts at optimism: I’m sure something will turn up! Or encouragement: Wow, you are so brave! So I would be left either dodging questions all night, or committing social suicide by talking about the taboo “girls’ night” topics of death, debt and desperation. I was, quite frankly, too exhausted to deal with it.
“I’ll come another time, I promise.”
Lois conceded defeat. “Well, have a nice evening. I’ll see you soon. And thanks again.”
So how come, two hours later, I found myself once again loitering on Lois’s cluttered front path, clutching a bottle of flavoured spring water and trying to work myself up to ringing her doorbell?
My mother. How else? I was only a thirty-three-year-old woman. I couldn’t possibly be left alone to control my own social life, could I? Or any other part of my life, it would seem…
I should have sussed that Lois had given in too easily. That sneaky pastor’s wife had phoned Mum.
I had been standing wrapped in a towel following a long shower when my bedroom door crashed open.
“Sorry, Ruth. But I am too exasperated for formalities like privacy. I am reaching near dangerous levels of frustration and bewilderment. How can someone so impressively intelligent make such consistently stupid decisions?”
I sighed. “Lois called.”
“YES, LOIS CALLED!”
“I can run my own life, Mum. Please back off before I flip out and stab you in your sleep one night with your Harrods letter opener. I’m somewhat unstable at the moment.”
“Precisely. You are all inside out and twisted up and out of time. You need help. Get dressed in your least hideous outfit, brush your hair and go and make some friends.”
“Just stop it! Didn’t you hear me? I spent all afternoon doing what you wanted, making friends with Lois, talking to people. I am really tired. I’m having something to eat and then reading a book in bed.”
Mum pointed her elegant finger at me. “You are not tired, my darling. You are bored, and lonely, and lost. No one can live without friends. You in particular need them to heal, and to grow, and to find yourself again. These women are good women. They will be those kinds of friends.”
“I have friends.”
“No, you do not. You know what a true friend is, and that zero plus zero equals no friends.”
“That is rubbish! You have no idea who my friends were in Liverpool.” I grabbed another towel and started rubbing at my hair with it.
“Louisa.” I threw the towel on my bed and instead turned on my hairdryer to maximum power.
“Work colleague.” Mum, refusing to take the hint, shouted over the noise.
“So? I can be friends with my colleagues. What about Susanna?” I gestured the appliance wildly.
“How often did you see them out of the office?”
“At least once a month.” So there, I muttered in my head.
“At a non-work-related do?” She reached down and flicked the dryer off at the socket. Silence.
“How many times have they texted since you left work? Phoned? Offered to help pack, dropped by with flowers or a box of chocolates to cheer you up, politely hinted that you need a haircut or given you a hug?” She banged her fist into my bedroom door, her point well and truly proven. “It is a horrible, heart-wrenching fact, but is still a true one. You have no friends, Ruth. And by golly how you need some!”
One day, someday, hopefully before my hair is completely grey and I have lost the majority of my marbles, I will finally surrender to the truth that my strange mother is always – one hundred per cent of the time – right. I hate it. But I love her. I got dressed in my least embarrassing clothes, brushed my hair and went.
Lois opened the front door. “Stop lingering on the doorstep, Ruth. I’m paranoid you’re judging the state of my garden.” She gestured behind her. “Come through – we’re in the back.”
Lois led me through the house, past discarded transformer toys, piles of folded laundry and the reams of paraphernalia that affix themselves like barnacles to large families. The dining room contained a formal oak table barely visible underneath piles of papers, books, a dismantled computer and more clothes. At the far end a pair of French doors opened up onto a flagstone patio. Here stood another wooden table, this time laden with a Chinese take-away feast set around two silver candelabras. The rest of the garden consisted of a huge lawn, with a football goal at one end, an enormous tree with a tree house, a trampoline and a swing. Nearer to the patio was a sand pit, a saggy looking paddling pool and more of life’s clutter.