I hope you dance, p.9

I Hope You Dance, page 9

 

I Hope You Dance
 



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  Martine clicked her pen twice on the desk. “Only Jesus can do that, Ruth. You can scrub forever and you still won’t undo what’s done.”

  I shrugged. This was the type of place where people talked about Jesus. If you shrugged, they sometimes stopped.

  “Some of that answer was doggy doo-doo. I don’t like doggy doo-doo. I was expecting you to tell me you needed the money. But I think you need to be here more than you need money, Ruth. I think you’d better come and clean here. You are a lovely woman, but you need some peace.”

  That was that. I now had two jobs. Both low paid and totally unrelated to my skills, passions and personality. But they would do just fine until I managed to dust off my skills, rekindle my passions and work out whether I had a personality lurking somewhere under my new haircut or not.

  I came home to find a plate of cookies cut into different shapes on the kitchen table: dark chocolate chip cookies in the shape of a dress; oat and raisin cookies in the shape of a bottle, with the word BLEACH written on in orange icing; and some plain circle biscuits with one blue and one green chocolate sweet on each cookie. I ate one of each type, with a cup of tea, shaking my head in wonder at my mother’s unfounded confidence in my ability to come home from two job interviews victorious. There was a note with the cookies:

  Taken Evelyn Scratt for a mammogram.

  Congratulations, my gorgeous girl! M xxx

  I was eating my third cookie, with one green and one blue sweet on it, when the doorbell rang.

  A woman with greasy grey hair stood at the door, clutching a bottle of whisky.

  “Hello?”

  “Oh!” She was surprised – even disconcerted – to see me. “Where’s Gil?”

  “He’s not here.”

  “Well, who are you?” She narrowed her eyes, which were small and watery.

  “I’m his daughter. Who are you?”

  “You are not!” The woman, who wore a pink anorak that strained against enormous breasts on top of saggy leggings, straightened up to her full height, which wasn’t much. “I know Lydia and Esther and you are nothing like them!” She hissed these words out slowly, clearly implying that this was not a compliment. “And Miriam is in Australia!”

  I briefly considered slamming the door in her face, but if she decided to keep banging on the door, or called the police to report an imposter in the Henderson house, it might give me indigestion, curdling those delicious cookies.

  “I’m Ruth. Gil’s youngest daughter.”

  “Well, he never mentioned you!”

  “That doesn’t make it any less true.” I opened the door wider, revealing the photograph of me at Lydia’s wedding on the wall in the hallway. “Now, do you have a message, or another insult for Gil’s daughter, or can I close the door?”

  The woman underwent a remarkable change in the few seconds it took me to finish speaking. Like steel melting in a hot furnace, she pooled into a plumpy, dimpled, fluffy middle-aged lady. The type of person who would be cast as a grandmother in a film.

  “Oh, Ruth! I misheard, dear; it does happen at my age. I thought you said… something else. What a dreadful mistake. Yes, of course Gil has mentioned you. He talks about you all the time.”

  No, he really doesn’t.

  “Yes, he’s so proud of his little Ruth.”

  Nope.

  “Who shall I tell him called?”

  “It’s Ruby. We’re bridge partners. From U3A. I’m trying to persuade him to join the amateur dramatics group I’m setting up. I think your father would make a fine actor. Such a commanding presence. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. And he has so got it.” She waggled the bottle of whisky. “This is a naughty bribe. Your dad loves a few wee drams. It really brings him out of himself.”

  “As I said, he isn’t in. Or his wife. I’ll tell them both you called.”

  I shut the door before she had a chance to say anything else. A naughty bribe. What on earth was Dad getting himself into?

  I spent the next couple of hours waiting for Mum to come home, doodling pictures of smiling anacondas with greasy grey hair shedding their skin to reveal the evil, greedy, true snake hiding underneath. Then I felt guilty, so I screwed them up and drew a picture of a koala bear with one green eye and one blue eye instead.

  Mum twirled in a few minutes after Maggie had stomped home and thrown herself in front of the television.

  “Hello, hello, my marvellous girls. Isn’t it a glorious day?” She swung six bulging carrier bags up onto the kitchen table, as if they were full of feathers, not flour and butter.

  “Give me a hand unloading this lot and tell me all about it!”

  I gave her a brief rundown of the day, which she found delightful. “You wowed Vanessa Jacobs with the impressiveness of your style and finesse. And Martine! Beneath that unusual visage is a woman of profound astuteness.”

  “Somebody called round. Looking for Dad. Ruby?”

  Mum, filling up the kettle at the sink, went very still for a microsecond before turning around, a look of breezy unconcern on her face. “Really? Well, you can tell him when he gets home if you want. MAGGIE? DO YOU WANT A COOKIE?”

  “Do you know her?”

  “What, dear?”

  “Ruby. Have you met her?”

  Mum sniffed. “We bumped into her in the supermarket once buying processed cheese. She goes to the same Italian class as your dad. And maybe theatre. Or architecture. I don’t know. I lose track of them all. You’d think he’d be too old to go back to school.”

  “She said they were bridge partners.”

  “Well, yes, that too then. Honestly, Ruth. Your father is allowed to have friends. Now pass me the milk and please stop going on about it.”

  Dad arrived home in time for dinner. Another celebration. Rainbow trout for “hope and a shiny future, full of colour and swimming to success”.

  I sent Maggie to do homework while I cleared up the kitchen with Dad.

  “One of your friends came round today. Ruby.”

  I snuck a look out of the corner of my eye, and the expression on his face sent my heart juddering. A tiny smile crept over his wide mouth as a glimmer of lost light returned to his eyes.

  “Oh yes? I’m helping her out with her photography project. She wanted to take some pictures of ballroom dancers.”

  And is this any old ballroom dancers, or would it happen to be one in particular?

  Too overwrought about whatever was going on between Dad and the creepy grandma, I barely noted that he was actually making conversation with me.

  “She said it was bridge. Or Italian? And theatre group?”

  “Yes, we’ve ended up in quite a few groups together. She’s a lovely lady, Ruby. Very friendly. A good listener. Did she say what she wanted?”

  How about your money, your body, your soul and preferably your hand in marriage, but if not, she’d settle for a wild affair?

  “It wasn’t important. Something about amateur dramatics.”

  “Right. Well. I’d probably best give her a ring.”

  “Won’t you see her tomorrow?”

  Dad thought about it. His hands twitched towards the phone.

  “It really didn’t sound urgent. Mum’s in tonight. Why don’t you sit in the garden and I’ll bring you both out a glass of wine?”

  He thought some more. “No, I think I’d best phone.”

  I tried to earwig through the wall into his study, but couldn’t make out the words. Was he deliberately keeping his voice down? How far had this gone? When had secrets and lies come to dwell in this house? How was I going to boot this man-stealer out of my parents’ marriage?

  Chapter Eight

  Ana Luisa came round the following evening to see how my first proper day at Couture had gone.

  “Ruth! You look even better than I remembered. I am an excellent hairstylist, if I do say so for myself. She must have taken one look at you and gained a new wrinkle when she saw how beautiful you are. Did she give you all the stinky, back-brea
king jobs to make herself feel prettier than you? I bet you aced them all!”

  “It was fine, really. I did some cleaning and sorting. But I spent the afternoon going through her filing cabinets. Her paperwork is a shambles, so there’s lots of nice, regular admin work to do as well. She sold me two outfits at a discount for me to wear in the shop, so I guess I’m staying. It sort of works.”

  “Not fun, though, working for a crow with a chip on her shoulder and a point to prove. I’ll bet she is all power games and passive aggression. You stay smart and watch your back. Mr David told me about the orange puffa jacket. I think he is worried about you!”

  “What?” I choked on my lemonade.

  “Yes, I told him about your job, and the stinky failure, and how we transformed you into a butt-booting lady who booted Vanessa Jacobs right up her liposuctioned butt.”

  “What… what did he say?” David was worried about me? David had thought about me? Talked about me?

  “Oh, nothing much. You know Mr David.”

  I did. I did know Mr David. And I wanted to crawl into the cupboard under the stairs when I considered he now knew Vanessa Jacobs, the woman he had chosen instead of me, said I stank of failure. Bury myself under the roll of carpet at the back when I realized he knew I had moved back in with my parents, despite all the times I swore I would get away as soon as I could, and was so desperate I allowed a virtual stranger to cut my hair and paint my face in order to grovel to Vanessa Jacobs for a job scrubbing floors in her shop.

  I felt very, very grateful he hadn’t seen me hiding in a miserable heap under his willow tree.

  But now I thought about it… David could spot a harlequin ladybird at eighty paces. He would probably have noticed a grown woman sniffling in his own garden.

  “Anyway, he is gone back to his grand job, saving the rainforest and protecting endangered species and rescuing kids from brain-rotting computer addiction with his amazing show. Oh, I will miss him. It is so quiet in the house when he is gone. It will be a long wait until Christmas.”

  He’d gone? But I wasn’t ready to decide if I wanted to see him or not. I hadn’t had time to think about it enough. I wasn’t sure if I was avoiding him yet. But he’d gone. And he knew I was here. He had avoided me.

  Yes, it would be a long wait until Christmas.

  Two weeks later, Maggie’s school called again. Busy vacuuming the church hall, I nearly didn’t hear the phone. For another three rings I stared at the number ID and wrestled with the urge to pretend I hadn’t. Of course, Maggie might not be in trouble again. She could be ill, or hurt, or upset.

  Or not.

  I grabbed a chocolate brownie from the Oak Hill café and ate it in the school car park. Slowly. This time the head, Mr Hay, was less sympathetic.

  “A smashed-up iPhone was found in one of the girls’ toilet bowls, and Maggie has been accused of stealing it and putting it there. We’re hoping she will tell us who it belongs to.”

  “Is this true? You broke someone’s phone and put it down the toilet?”

  “Yes.” Maggie sat in the plastic chair beside mine, her posture erect, face blank. I watched the rapid thump of the pulse in her neck.

  “Why?”

  “She annoyed me. I lost my temper.”

  Mr Hay leaned forward across his desk. “We have spoken about this several times, Maggie. Why didn’t you talk to a teacher if someone was giving you a hard time?”

  Maggie shrugged. “I didn’t especially want a teacher – or my mother – to know about a picture going round school of me in my bra. For some reason, I also didn’t want them to see it.”

  I sucked in a sharp breath of horror. What?

  “You should have told us anyway.” Mr Hay kept his face impassive.

  “You wouldn’t have believed me.” Maggie scowled at the desk.

  “You don’t know that.”

  “The phone belongs to Annabel Wordsworth.”

  The head sat back. “That is a strong accusation, Maggie. Are you sure?”

  Maggie looked at me and rolled her eyes. “Annabel is a prefect, gets straight A stars and is planning on playing netball in the Olympics.”

  “Now, Maggie. That has nothing to do with it. School policy says that –”

  “Oh yes, and she’s the assistant head’s daughter.”

  “Are you going to question this girl?” I was seeing red. Sick with rage at the thought of a photograph of Maggie. She shouldn’t have broken the phone, but right now I was mother lion fighting for her cub.

  “I can assure you the situation will be dealt with appropriately, Ms Henderson. But that’s not relevant here. Maggie stole an expensive item of property and wilfully destroyed it. That has serious consequences. If it was one of ninety-nine per cent of the other children in school sat here, I’d be calling the police.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” Maggie flung her arms out, incredulous. “Poor, screwed-up Maggie, her dad’s dead so we have to be extra nice to her in case she totally loses it or takes an overdose or something? She’s all broken and doesn’t know what she’s doing? Don’t give me special treatment, sir. And don’t you dare pity me. Call the police and I’ll tell them there were photos going around school for three days of girls in the changing rooms.”

  Mr Hay took a deep breath. “Were you the one who tripped Annabel down the stairs?”

  “Maggie!”

  “No. Not intentionally. We were wrestling for the phone and she lost her balance.”

  I resisted the urge to bury my head in my hands. I could see the headline in the Southwell Bramley newspaper: Liverpool thug mugs star pupil, pushing her down stairs and shattering Olympic netball dream.

  “I’m not going to call the police. This time. But if this sort of behaviour continues, I will have to think very carefully about whether or not Southwell Minster is the right school for you, Maggie. In the meantime, I want you and your mum to have a look at this. If you decide to sign up, we can leave it at that. Providing you are prepared to compensate Mrs Wordsworth for the phone.”

  “How much?” My voice was a croak.

  “Five-hundred and forty-nine pounds.”

  I looked at Maggie. She pulled a face. “You can take it out of my pocket money.”

  Maggie hadn’t had pocket money in over a year. I would take it out of the precious pot called “new home, new life, sanity, independence, hope”.

  I was not looking forward to showing Maggie the details of Mr Hay’s flyer when she came home from school. Tensions were already at boiling point. This would not be easy.

  The front door banged open. I straightened my shoulders, perched on the stairs, ready to intercept.

  Maggie saw me and threw the look of withering contempt that is every fourteen-year-old girl’s speciality. “Can I at least get out of this hideous uniform and have something to eat first?”

  “Ten minutes.”

  Twenty minutes later, we were sat at the kitchen table. Maggie was pretending to give all her attention to spreading a thick layer of chocolate spread on a piece of toast, but her shoulders hunched up in fear. She knew what the cost of replacing the phone meant. She knew how I would feel about the photograph.

  “Did you know she’d taken this picture?”

  “What?” Maggie screwed up her face, horrified. “You think I was posing for the cameras in the changing rooms?”

  “No.” I sunk lower into my chair. “Of course not. I just don’t know what to think, Maggie. I have a job now. I can’t keep dropping everything to come and deal with this stuff. Not when I need to somehow find five hundred and fifty pounds on top of everything else.”

  “Five hundred and forty-nine pounds.”

  “Seriously?” I lost it then. All the stress and despair and anger bubbled up and out, and I couldn’t control it any more. “Well, that one pound makes all the difference! We’ll be all right then, won’t we? It’s all right that you smash up people’s phones, and trip them down stairs, and bang their heads into lockers. Do you
think I give a flying fig about the money, Maggie, compared to watching you try your hardest to mess this up even more than it already is? I know you hate me right now, that you blame me for the move and the new school and having to bore you with our lack of money or anything else, but honestly, Maggie, I am doing my best. I did not crash that car. I did not leave us with a mountain of secret debt. I did not choose to be here either! So give us all a break and try and manage one week without making our situation a whole lot worse. I’ve got enough on my plate without dealing with all this.”

  She tried desperately hard to stop a tear from spilling out onto her face. It made a black streak of cheap eyeliner as it rolled down. I clenched my fists in my lap, took a few steadying breaths, tried to rein myself back in.

  “Why didn’t you talk to me about what was going on? You know I would have taken it seriously.”

  “And done what? Made it some massive thing? How do you think that would have gone for me? Don’t you think I want to die already after this?”

  Maggie’s chin began to tremble. Her jaw clamped shut, and I watched my little girl fighting to hold herself together. I leaned forward slightly in my chair, desperate to pull her into my arms and offer her some sort of comfort, but she flinched away.

  “I know this is really, really hard for you. I know your life feels rubbish right now. But things will get better, Maggie. Something else will happen, some new gossip, and the photo will be yesterday’s news. The other kids will start to get to know you, and most of them will love you, because you are amazing, and kind, and so, so clever, and funny and cool. Now I’m working we can start to think about getting a new place to live, just us again, and make some plans for the future.”

 
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