I Hope You Dance, page 8
“No! I haven’t been feeling great.”
“Did you meet somebody?”
I pushed back the chair and stood to my feet, hoping he would interpret my anger as righteous rather than guilty.
“Seriously, Fraser. Are you accusing me of having an affair? When I have to look after Maggie all day?”
“Sit down. Don’t pretend you don’t have ample opportunity when she’s at school. It’s not as if you do anything else.”
I was crying now. Crying that I was explaining myself with practical evidence; that my love for my partner couldn’t stand up on its own. “If I was having an affair, wouldn’t I be happy and excited? Not looking terrible!”
Fraser shook his head, his features softening slightly. We were twenty-five, trying to transform a relationship born out of obligation, necessity and a smattering of lust into love for the sake of our daughter. Trying to build a foundation of commitment, and respect, and trust. My Whole Wild World binge had led to this conversation – one which threatened to smash that foundation like a pneumatic drill attacking concrete. But it had been a long time coming.
“Sit down, Ruth. Please. And try not to wake Maggie up. I’m sorry you’re upset, but I’m watching my girlfriend fall apart. You can’t blame me for wondering why.”
I sat back down, then took another drink of water with unsteady hands. Neither of us said anything for a while. Our food congealed into stodgy lumps in the cartons.
“I promise you, Fraser, I haven’t gone near anyone else. I’ve barely spoken to anybody this past couple of weeks, except for Maggie and the woman at the library. Maybe that’s the problem. I don’t know what to do all day now Maggie’s at school. I clean the house, which I detest, and do the gardening. I shop, and cook, and read a bit. I feel like a servant. I’m lonely. And so bored I could scratch my own face off. I know I don’t need to work, that it gets complicated with school holidays and everything else, and I don’t have a clue what job I could do, but honestly, Fraser, if I don’t do something I’m going to go mad.”
He let out a huge sigh of built-up tension. Here was a problem he could fix. He found me an office job through one of his contacts. I got a chance to use my brain again and feel slightly better than a tapeworm, as well as meet some people who seemed to quite like me. I snapped the DVDs in half and locked David back into the deepest, darkest dungeon of my mind. I never told Fraser that I spent the rest of the year on anti-depressants.
Half asleep underneath the willow tree, having binged on David memories, when I first heard his voice drifting through the leaves I again blamed my imagination. It rumbled, warm and deep, with a slight croak from tiredness, or lack of use perhaps. He laughed, and my soul danced. Then I heard a car door slam, followed by the clack of heels running on the driveway, and I froze. This was no dream.
“Mr David!” Ana Luisa’s voice sounded muffled, as if she was burying her head in his shoulder.
He laughed again as he replied, “Steady on, Ana. I’m weak from hunger; you’ll have me on the floor.”
“You are hungry? That is no good, Mr David! Come inside and I will fix you a nice big bowl of my grandmother’s feijoada. Fresh this morning, in your honour, Mr David. Come, come inside.”
“Ana Luisa, you have made my year. I have dreamt about your grandmother’s cooking for weeks. Let me grab my bags and I’m there.”
“Okay, see you inside. Hurry now!”
Shoot. I don’t know what to do. I’m stuck under the tree. David is here. I don’t know what to do.
I heard David open the boot of his car.
I have to see him. No, no I can’t see him yet, not like this. But how can I not see him? He’s here. He’s actually here. I can’t believe it! David. He’s here.
I can’t suddenly appear from under the tree. That would be crazy. He’d think I was crazy, hiding under his tree. Can I crawl close enough to peep through the leaves? At least then I’ve seen him. But what if he saw me spying on him? Oh, man. This is bad. I don’t know what to do.
Ana Luisa tapped back out of the door. “Come on, this is waiting for you. This cooking you have been dreaming about. I want to hear all your adventures.”
I shuffled forward enough to glimpse a flash of her through the branches. She wore a figure-hugging peacock blue dress, with a tiny silver cardigan covered in shimmering feathers and metallic-heeled sandals. Her hair was a black mane, and in the afternoon sunlight Ana Luisa’s skin was deep, silken honey.
It hit me like a piano from a three-storey window. Ana Luisa. David. Ana Luisa and David! They had probably met when he was filming the rainforest snake episode. And she invited him to her house to sample her grandmother’s cooking. How could I have assumed she was simply the housekeeper? A magnificent woman like that?
Grabbing the top of my head with both hands, I screwed up my eyes. I was done. I felt like a foolish little girl, and wished I could be anywhere else than under that stupid tree. I just wanted David to go in the house so I could get away. It took forever for him to unload three bags and carry them ten feet down the path to his front door. The whole time Ana Luisa hovered and smiled and made flappy bird movements with her hands to encourage him inside. Finally, she disappeared after him. I counted to a hundred before creeping over to the far side of the willow, building myself up to the great escape.
“Ruth? I have brought you a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I didn’t know if you wanted to come out from under the tree, or drink it in there.”
“Ana Luisa! You scared me. I…”
“Oh, Ruth. You do not have to explain yourself to me. It is a lovely tree, a fine place to cool down and grab a few moments of serenity on a day like this one. Shall I leave the juice here?” She bent down, placing the drink on the grass underneath the tree. I caught sight of her impressively curvaceous cleavage as she did, and promptly burst into tears.
“Oh, Ruth! Oh dear!” Ana Luisa fluttered about on the edge of the branches.
My nose started to run, and I fumbled about for something to wipe it on.
“Here.” She held out a tissue, trying to reach me from her position outside the tree. “Oh. This is no good. Can I come inside? Would you mind?”
I nodded, unable to speak. Ana Luisa ducked under the canopy and knelt down beside me. Even her knees were lovely. She took hold of my hand, and murmured what I assumed were Portuguese words of comfort as I sobbed.
A while later, I managed to pull myself together somewhat. “I’m so sorry. This is really embarrassing. I just had an exceptionally bad day, and the willow was the place I always came when I needed to feel better. It, it…”
I started off again. Ana Luisa pointed to the initials carved on the tree. “This is you. You and Mr David.”
“This is a very special place for you. I understand. When I was a little girl I used to hide in the back of my mao’s closet. She had a fur coat she kept in there. Not a real one, a pretend only, but it was so soft and cosy, and it smelt so like her. After the men came and took my sister, I used to hide there a lot. Oh –” she took hold of my tissue and wiped her own eyes – “I miss her so much. And my mother. She is a beautiful woman. She taught me everything I know.
“But” – she shook off the memories with a huge smile – “we are not talking about me. Tell me about your exceptionally bad day, Ruth. One thing Mao taught me is that a problem shared is half way better.”
“I’m being silly. It’s no big deal. I needed a bit of a cry and didn’t want Mum to see and get worried. It was really kind of you to bring me a drink. I’ll finish it, and then get back home. Maggie will be back from her first day soon.”
“Very good. So while you drink your juice you can tell me why you needed a cry. Otherwise I have to start on Mr David’s bag of tropical washing, and I want to put opening that smelly suitcase off for as long as possible. You do me a favour, and we become better friends.”
I sipped the juice. Ana Luisa waited. I took a deep breath.
“Yes. That is hard. And you are angry and hurting too.”
“And then I had a letter today from Fraser’s work with some really bad news in it. I don’t know how to deal with that either.”
She nodded, her brown eyes wide and gentle. “And you wish Fraser was here to share this problem, so you can deal with it together. This makes you even sadder.”
Not quite, but close. If Fraser was here I would leave all the sorting out to him.
“Yes. And part of sorting out the mess is finding a job. So I went and had an interview at Couture this morning.”
“Couture?” Ana Luisa actually hissed. Not when she said the name. Afterwards. She hissed like a panther.
“Yes, I’m desperate. But according to Vanessa Jacobs, who is probably right, I stink of failure. And obviously she can’t have me contaminating her boutique with my stench. So, if I want the job, which I absolutely don’t but right now I have no other options, I need to turn up tomorrow with new shoes, hair, make-up and attitude.”
I looked down at my crumpled clothes and bare feet, waved a hand at my tear-streaked blotchy complexion, my awful, awful hair.
“And the only way I can get new shoes in time is to call my superior sister. Mum is two sizes bigger than me and Maggie only wears Dr Martens. Esther makes me feel like a drab, pathetic, feeble disaster at the best of times. I’m not sure I can face her condescension on top of everything else.”
I didn’t mention the worst part of my day, as it directly involved Ana Luisa, and besides, I couldn’t have spoken the words if I tried.
She clapped her hands together lots of times. “This is not a problem. I will cut your hair!” Untucking one foot from under her, she waggled it next to mine. “Six and a half?”
“Ah ha! My whole life I have questioned why God would give me such a troublesome shoe size, trusting that in his mysterious wisdom he had a reason. And today we find the reason! I have shoes that would shove Vanessa Jacobs’ snotty attitude right back up her nose where it belongs. You will be transformed! Oh, this is so much fun, Ruth. I am so glad you came to live at number five with your crazy mother and your dancing father. And I promise you, when I am done the new attitude will be no problem at all. You will not stink of failure; you will carry with you only the scent of fabulous womanly splendour! Come on. Come inside and the magic will begin.”
“Ana Luisa, that is so kind, and really means a lot to me, but I need to be at home when Maggie gets back. Are you able to come over and sort me out there? I can wait, if you want to spend some time with…”
With David, whose name I can’t say. And is the real big, strapping, handsome reason why I don’t want to go in the Big House.
“Oh, those boys are ugly enough to look after themselves. Mr David’s washing can wait. And if he has a problem with that he can do it himself. Now, go! I will be there in half an hour.”
“Ta da!” Two hours later, Ana Luisa spun me around, daytime television make-over style, and presented me with my new look in the living room mirror.
“No, no, no! You mustn’t cry, Ruth. This will spoil it already. Here, quickly.” She dabbed under my eyes with a tissue.
My frizzy, unkempt nest had been replaced with a sleek, choppy bob framing my face and softening pointy cheekbones. The colouring on my eyes and lips looked subtle, classy. The purple shadows had disappeared, along with the lines that told the story of a troubled year. The woman who stared back at me from the mirror appeared younger, happier, healthier and snazzy. She resembled a woman, not a thing. She was alive, and living.
I remembered this woman. From when she was a girl. I didn’t know her well, but there had been many brief encounters. When I won my first art competition. When I sat my maths exam two years early and scored one hundred per cent. When I walked to school, in my floor-scraping navy skirt and black army boots, David’s old denim jacket across my shoulders.
The last time I saw her was at a party, when the coolest boy on the maths course filled my glass with vodka and asked me to dance.
I gazed at her, this old acquaintance, and wondered if I could get to know her again. If by wearing her hair, her make-up, her shoes, she would stick around and become a part of me. Was I ready for that? To start living again? To find the potential me inside, the best me? I wasn’t sure. Because embracing her meant acknowledging that she had been there all along. That I had wasted fifteen years allowing my brain to rot, my creative talents to fester and my beauty to hide under a thick, scratchy blanket of self-doubt, oppression and pathetic apathy.
The truth was, I had abandoned everything my mother had taught me and spent my entire adult life settling and making do. I had not strived, fought, adventured, embraced, journeyed, dared, been inspiring or inspired. I had barely laughed.
Come on, Ruth. You can waste a whole load more years lamenting the lost ones, or suck it up, pick it up and make darn sure you don’t waste another second of the ones you have left. For pity’s sake. You’ve cried enough.
Who’d have thought it? A minor epiphany brought on by a haircut and frosty nude lip gloss.
Maggie sauntered in. She raised one eyebrow. “You actually look all right.”
“All right?” Ana Luisa smacked her on the head with the hair straighteners. “Your mother is gorgeous! Like an angel, or a beautiful mermaid come up from the sea to enchant a prince. You should be very proud of her.”
And then Maggie said something that made all the rest of it – the letter, the willow tree, the fighting and the prospect of another ten seconds spent in the clenched jaws of Couture – seem like nothing but an annoying fly alighting briefly on my arm.
Mum dug out her pasta machine and made crab ravioli with chilli and a saffron sauce to celebrate my new “finger snapping, hot and spicy hair with a saucy sultry complexion and fizz”.
She baked hazelnut crème brûlée with frosted sparkles to honour Maggie’s first day at school, because “You showed that Henderson girls have nuts and sparkle!”
I ate so much my jeans ceased teetering on the edge of my jagged hip bones. I drank a glass of wine with gusto. Gusto. Steady on, Ruth. New Ruth was back at the dress shop at nine the following morning. It was hard to tell from her stiff face, but I gathered Vanessa was impressed as she let me stay on for an hour scrubbing grime off the back room window frames and skirting boards. Not an easy task in your mother’s pencil skirt and borrowed heels, but a whole lot easier than trying to sit at a desk and type with Cramer Spence breathing his sour breath down the back of your neck. Eight pounds fifty ticked off the mammoth debt. Only four squillion, two hundred and seventeen to go.
After finishing at the shop, I stopped in at the Oak Hill Centre before going home to shower and change. Lois had phoned to say one of the cleaners had broken her ankle running away from an escaped tarantula, and they needed a quick replacement. I hated cleaning, but I hated secret debt and having to rely on my parents even more. I had an appointment with the senior manager, Martine McKinley. She beckoned me into her office.
“Hello, Ruth. Please take a seat. Make yourself at home. I’m Martine. M.A.R.T.I.N.E. Not Martin. It’s a woman’s name. I’m a woman. I’ve learned it’s best to clear that up right at the start.”
This may seem like a strange thing to point out upon meeting someone. Usually even very small children can figure out someone’s gender, but although embarrassed, I was grateful for the heads up. Martine wasn’t especially tall, maybe five foot four. Her hair floated in a wispy cloud somewhere above the top of her head. I didn’t try to count the individual hairs during our thirty-minute meeting, but I maybe could have. The polite word for her build was “solid”. She wore grey c
But what drew my attention, once we had introduced ourselves, was twofold. Martine had one green eye, surrounded by a ring of green eye shadow, and one blue eye, covered in blue. She also had the biggest, brightest, sunniest-day-on-a-white-sandy-beach-in-the-middle-of-the-ocean smile I had ever seen. It creased her face up so much her eyes were hidden, and only the eye shadow was left to remind observers which eye was blue and which was green.
During the course of my half-hour interview it became apparent that Martine was ferociously honest, highly opinionated and as mad as a hatter. I loved her.
“So, Ruth. How’s your mother? Still running around trying to pretend she isn’t sixty-nine?”
“She’s keeping busy.”
“Do you like cleaning, Ruth?” Martine held up her hands. “Think about it for a moment. Be honest. No point wasting each other’s time with fudged answers we both know aren’t true.”
I thought about it for a moment.
“I like things being clean.”
“I like tomato ketchup but I don’t grow the tomatoes myself. Why do you want to be a cleaner?”
“I want to work somewhere that feels safe. At the moment I need a job that isn’t going to be too intellectually challenging, or stressful, or emotional. I think the physical exercise will be good for me and the hours are right.”
Martine frowned at me. She didn’t look convinced. “Why not walk dogs or deliver newspapers? I want to know the truth about cleaning.”
I took a deep breath. “Right now, Martine, my life is a mess. It contains dirt and rubbish and grimy secrets. I am a mess. I am working on that, but it’s going to take a very long time. Meanwhile, I believe that eliminating other people’s filth and straightening up after them will be like transference therapy. If that even is a type of therapy. I will get great satisfaction from knowing I’ve done something to make this world less grubby and more pleasant for someone else. It will give me hope. And I don’t have to make small talk while I work, or be nice to people when I feel like biting their head off. I can work on my own, have space and time to think away from my mother and the ten thousand issues that live in her house, and when I scrub those toilets I will channel all the tension I’ve built up in longing to scrub away the dreadful mistakes of my past and wipe them clean instead.”