I Hope You Dance, page 6
Around the table sat four other women. I recognized one, Ana Luisa, the Brazilian housekeeper from the Big House. She jumped up and kissed me on both cheeks, engulfing me in tropical perfume that wafted out from the folds of her bright maxi dress. The others Lois introduced and they smiled and said hi. Lois then said grace.
“Hi God. Thanks for tonight. Thanks for great food and the chance to eat it with women who chew with their mouths closed, don’t empty their bowl onto their own – or anybody else’s – head, and break wind discreetly, not with a prior announcement. It is wonderfully refreshing, and I am already blessed. Thanks especially that Ruth was able to join us. Please help her to find this evening restorative and fun. Amen.”
The other women said Amen and started to pass around the plates and load them up with food. One of the women, Emily, lifted every container that Lois passed her up close to her nose and examined it, before either scooping some onto her plate or passing it straight on to me. She used careful, deft movements and it was only when she spoke to me I realized why.
“Is this chicken or pork?”
“Um…” I leaned in. The light was beginning to fade and we were in the shadow of the cottage wall. “I think it’s chicken.”
“Is the pepper red or green?”
“There’s both. Red and green.”
“Could you pick me out some red, and some meat?”
I lifted some onto her plate.
“Thanks, Ruth. I hate green peppers. I don’t understand why anyone eats them. Aren’t they just unripe red peppers? We don’t eat green bananas or green strawberries. Or green tomatoes. Except for in that film. Which was a great film, don’t get me wrong, I sobbed like a pregnant woman, but it was wrong about the green tomatoes. Don’t you think green peppers are just a big con? I reckon it’s a whole emperor’s new clothes situation and the supermarkets are laughing their heads off at us while banking on nobody ever saying anything. Well, I’m not fooled. I’m not playing their game. Only ripe vegetables pass these lips.”
Ellie, a forty-ish woman with a man’s haircut and dressed as though she expected to be riding a bucking bronco before the night was over, hollered across the table, “Is she going on about peppers again? Let it go, woman! Give it a rest! Ruth does not need to spend her first evening with us being hit over the head with your pepper speech. You need to find yourself a life.”
“I have a life!”
“Well, you need to look for a better one.”
“That’s offensive.” Emily folded her arms in mock outrage. “You just told a partially sighted woman she has a poor quality of life, and then taunted her about how she can remedy her miserable situation. What are you going to do next? Pass me nasty notes I can’t read? Maybe Ruth would rather discuss peppers with me than listen to a cowgirl bullying a person about their disability.” Emily pointed her fork in Ellie’s direction. “I need to get a life? And that from a woman whose best friend is a horse.”
“I love you, Em,” Ellie shouted back.
“Love you too, sister. If you were a pepper you’d be totally scarlet.”
As the light faded and the shadows crept further across the lawn, bringing with them the evening insects, the guests continued to shout, laugh, mock each other, throw advice across the table – welcome and unwelcome – eat more than a fireman after a double shift, tell stories and share the honest ups and downs of their up-and-down lives.
I listened to Emily tell us about how she had barged in on a strange man in a restaurant toilet cubicle when her kids sent her into the men’s for a joke, laughing so hard she choked on a prawn cracker. I watched Ellie and Ana Luisa hold their friend Rupa’s hands as she cried because another round of IVF had failed and she was broke, and felt broken, and was trying so hard not to grow bitter. Lois told us how between Connor’s nightmares, Poppy’s medical needs, an eight-month-old baby and a teenager who sometimes stayed out past two doing who knows what, she and Matt were surviving on three hours of sleep a night, and still an ungainly hunk of the four hundred Oak Hill members thought that Pastor Matt and his unpaid wife should be there twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to sort out their problems, dry their tears, pick up the pieces of their bad decisions and listen to them harp on about how tough their lives were.
“Don’t get me wrong – some of them do have genuine problems, and need our help. And we love to help them. But less than one per cent of those problems are emergencies needing to be dealt with during our off-time, half of them should and are being dealt with by the pastoral team, and the rest are nothing that with a bit of common sense and effort these flabby-bottomed people couldn’t solve themselves. A tiny, yet misguided, proportion call us at idiotic times of the day because they want to feel important. They think their problem is worse than everybody else’s and quite frankly they’re too selfish to care that we are so, so tired we haven’t had a decent romantic evening together in four months and thirteen days. Yes, I am counting. And yes the word ‘romantic’ is a euphemism. I’m on the brink of yelling it out in the middle of Sunday’s service. Ruth, I’m presuming you’ve worked out these evenings are confidential.”
I listened, and laughed, and cried a little bit, and did not feel for one second pitied, or a loser, or anything less than a normal human being who gets up every morning and lives and breathes and simply tries to do the best she can to take the muck life throws at her and build a nest with it.
Somewhere around eleven, Lois went inside to make coffee. I cleared my throat, snuck a glance back inside the house and spoke.
“Could we maybe do something for Lois?”
Everybody leaned forward and listened.
“I was thinking. Between us, maybe we could take care of the kids for a night so she could go away with Matt?”
Rupa shook her head. “I don’t think it’s that simple. They’re foster kids, so aren’t allowed to be left with just anyone.”
“Surely we could find some way round that. Have them go away, without actually going away?”
We considered this. “I wouldn’t mind coming over and sleeping on the sofa, getting up in the night to see to the children,” Ana Luisa said. “But I don’t think this is very romantic to hear Connor’s nightmares through the wall, and listen to someone else try to comfort him.”
Ellie tapped her fork against her glass. “They need to be near enough to make it legal and appropriate, but far enough away to pretend they aren’t.” She looked around. “What about the tree house?”
“Or a caravan?” Rupa asked. “Is that romantic? I’ve never stayed in one.”
“What about one of those VW camper vans? They’re cute. I bet you can hire them. We could park it in the garden.” Ellie mimed driving a camper van.
“No, no, no!” Ana Luisa waved her hands about to emphasize her point. “Too small. And can you imagine what the bed is like? Not good for romance! You might as well bring your horse box, Ellie.”
“A tent would be bigger.” Ellie looked at Ana Luisa. “But it would be freezing at night now that we’re heading into autumn. And air beds are definite passion killers. Almost as bad as a water bed.”
“Ouch, Ellie.” Emily winced. “I do not want to know how you acquired that information.”
“Ignore her!” Ana Luisa purred. “Tell us everything!”
I was still thinking about other ways to sleep in the garden in relative comfort.
“What about a yurt? I’ve seen pictures of them. You can get them with four-poster beds, rugs and things to make them really luxurious. We could put a coffee table and cushions in there; leave them a lovely meal and some chocolates.”
“Oooh.” Ana Luisa’s eyes shone. “Like an Arab prince and his beautiful bride. This is a wonderful idea, Ruth! I can picture this… it looks good!”
Emily clutched my hand. “Yes. With millions of flowers in there. And candles.”
“Candles in a tent? Isn’t that a fire hazard? They could get all excited and knock one over, and then that would be the end of
“Stop miming; I can’t see you in the dark. It’s rude,” Emily huffed.
“I’m getting excited and knocking a candle over. You can imagine it in your head. Now I’m putting out the flames with the sheet.” Ellie pretended to choke on the smoke.
“If candles are no good, we could string up loads of fairy lights.”
“And we would need some sort of heater, and a little cool box filled with treats like strawberries and cream.” I considered what else. “They’d have to use the bathroom in the house – that’s the only thing.”
“Sorry, Ruth. Has no one told you where the bathroom is?” Lois had crept up behind me with a tray of drinks. “Rupa, can you grab those mints you brought while I show Ruth to the loo?”
I followed Lois inside to the downstairs bathroom, which also contained a shower cubicle. Problem solved. We would just make that area of the house off limits to the children for the night.
By unspoken agreement, we said nothing about our yurt plans to Lois. I sat back in my chair and sipped my coffee, watching the easy conversation between these possible new friends and feeling a tiny spark of something strange and wonderful mixed up in my belly among the noodles and black bean chicken. I named it hope.
Saturday was a sharp jolt back into reality. I took Maggie school uniform shopping in Nottingham, trying not to let her see how much it cost me, mentally and in pounds and pence, to kit her out for the new term. I wanted her to fit in, to feel confident and look good, but that came at a price. It was a whole extra type of grief, having to scour shops for sale items, say no to a thirty pound school bag, try to balance shoes that would last the year with the scant pennies in my purse. Two years ago all this had been of little or no consideration. I tried to push down the anger I felt towards Fraser for leaving his daughter in this situation. Tried to hide from Maggie how much it hurt to have to say no. Thought about the cheque from Dad, hidden in a shoe-box at the back of my wardrobe.
By late afternoon, we were about done. Maggie, who had been cooperative but uncommunicative, suggested we stop and have a drink.
I shook my head, my hands beginning to tremble. Two cups of coffee seemed like a ludicrous waste of non-existent money.
“Why don’t we go home and I’ll make us one there?”
Clang. The shutter in front of Maggie’s face slammed down. She turned away, her offer of forgiveness spurned, and began clomping back towards the car park.
Rats. I resisted the urge to start pulling out my hair. I hated this. Hated having to scrimp and worry and scuttle about the shops with hunched shoulders, always, always, always thinking about money.
“All right.” I hurried after Maggie and stopped in front of her. “I would love to have a drink with you. Here. In town. You pick somewhere.”
The cost of half an hour chatting with my daughter, without her checking her phone once? Priceless.
When the alarm went off on Tuesday morning, it felt as though a bear was sitting on my chest. I lay there for a long time, ignoring the ticking of the clock, my eyes squinched tightly shut against the beams of sunlight poking at me from the edge of my curtains. I could hear my parents rattling about in the kitchen, the faint sounds of another argument drifting up the stairs. Maggie was in the shower, next to my room, the water making spattering sounds on the wall beside my bed.
This was it. My summer of hiding and indulging my despondent emotions was over. Time to set off on the road to recovery. Today was going to be a good day. Maggie would have a great start at her new school, I would get myself a job and then cook us dinner to celebrate. I pushed off the bear with the strength of my forced optimism, clambered out of bed and went to get on with my new life.
“Ruth Henderson?” Vanessa Jacobs stopped straightening cardigans on the rack in front of her and peered at me through chunky-framed glasses. “Wow. You’d better come into the back.”
I followed her through the shop, the sign of which said “Couture” in simple, thin lettering on a plum background, down a long, slim space lined with uncluttered rows of boutique-style fashion. At the far end stood a glass counter containing a couple of displays featuring accessories, including locally made jewellery and designer handbags. It was tasteful, elegant and about five zillion miles from the nearest orange puffa jacket. Vanessa Jacobs had come a long way.
She offered me a low stool in front of a full-length mirror, set among piles of boxes.
Ah. Now this could be a problem. I had sold all my decent clothes, bought using Fraser’s secret debt mountain, for pitiful and desperate amounts on internet auctions. My mother declared that my few remaining items, worn to death over the previous couple of years, were in no way suitable for an interview with Southwell’s queen of fashion. Ever prepared, Mum triumphantly produced a chocolate coloured shift dress, the label still attached.
“I mentioned your wardrobe deficiency to Lois, and she gave me this! She bought it for a conference and then found it was too small for her.”
A dress too small for five-foot-nothing, tiny Lois. Yes, I contained about as much fat as a diet yoghurt at that point, but I stood several inches taller than Lois, and shared my father’s sturdy frame. Squeezing the dress on, I managed to wrestle the zip all the way up to the top with a little help from an empty stomach and Maggie. I had not, however, yet managed to successfully take more than the shallowest of breaths, sit down properly or bend my body further than about two inches in any direction.
I looked at the stool. “Actually, I’m fine standing.”
Vanessa raised one perfectly plucked eyebrow at me. She waved her hand at the piles of cardboard boxes and cellophane-wrapped outfits hanging from the ceiling all around us.
“There’s not enough room for both of us to stand. Please sit.”
Oh dear. Gingerly, apprehensively, with as much care as Neil Armstrong landing Apollo 11 on the moon, I lowered myself the long, long distance down to the stool, wondering if my backside would ever reach the shiny black seat.
Come on, Ruth. You can do it. Take it steady now.
The dress material began to stretch and strain impossibly taut around my hips and back as the angle forced my body forward in order to avoid toppling over. My knees began jutting up higher than my hips as I closed the gap an agonizing fraction at a time. I grabbed onto a nearby clothes rail for balance, smiling valiantly at Vanessa as I descended the last few inches. She watched me, her expression blank, as I finally hit the wooden surface. At that moment, in the clumsy silence, was a distinct rrriiiiiippp.
Vanessa took a tiny step back, her eyes widening in horror and surprise. I felt a gentle waft of cool air on my back, right above the top of my faded knickers – a noticeable contrast to my face, burning with mortification.
I took a deep, rallying breath – rriiippp. Squared my shoulders – rriiippp.
Fine, this is okay; this is salvageable. She doesn’t know what’s causing the ripping sound. Maybe it’s just my stomach gurgling with interview nerves. Or a mouse scrabbling about behind the skirting board. Or a ghost… Just sit absolutely still, do not move a SINGLE MUSCLE below your neck, and get through the next few minutes.
Vanessa narrowed her eyes. “Is there a problem?”
“Nope. No. Not a problem. I’m great. It’s great to be here. This is great. Isn’t it? I love job interviews…” My voice trailed off into one of those weak, embarrassed laughs. Vanessa perched herself on the edge of a normal-sized metal chair a few feet away, and smoothed out her black silk skirt. The mass of frizzy curls that had spent the nineties in a pineapple ponytail were now sleek, chestnut ringlets. She pursed glossed-up (and I suspected plumped-up) lips and stuck out her large, pointy chest.
“Well, you’ve certainly embraced the size zero look. Half my customers would pay to show that much skeleton.”
Yes, Vanessa. I should write a book. “The Bereavement Diet: How Losing Your Partner Can Lose You Those Pounds!” Or “
“Um, thanks. You look, um, great. The shop too. That’s… great.” I squeaked that last word at a pitch I suspected was undetectable to human ears.
Vanessa raised one eyebrow. “Yes. Perfect exam results might get you a nice certificate, but they can’t teach you how to succeed in the real world. Business acumen is what matters, not being able to complete a quadratic equation.”
I was further impressed. I couldn’t remember Vanessa ever turning up to a maths lesson, let alone listening enough to pick up words like “quadratic”. Or “equation”.
“So. Tell me about yourself. What have you been up to since leaving Southwell? Didn’t you go to university?”
“Yes. I went to Liverpool, to study maths. But only completed my first year.”
“Really?” Vanessa’s two-inch fingernails tapped away on her iPad screen. “What happened?”
“I had a baby.” Vanessa Jacobs knew this, of course. She knew that I knew she knew. This was about establishing the pecking order. As if it needed to be established. I remained frozen, sitting bolt upright, trying not to be distracted by the breeze tickling my spine.
“Yes, I heard a few rumours. We all presumed it must be David Carrington’s. But then, if it was, you wouldn’t be needing a job, would you?”
I said nothing. The prickles of heat intensified across my chest and neck. There was no way on this earth I was going to let Vanessa Jacobs see how his name affected me. See how the memory of her smirking over his shoulder as she wrapped herself around him still punched me in the gut.
“Your boyfriend died?”
“My partner. Yes.”
“Sorry to hear that. It must be depressing finding yourself alone at your age.” Vanessa swiped a hand across the screen of her pad. She did not look sorry. “Work experience?”
“I’ve worked in various office jobs. Temping, admin stuff, some accounts.”