This poignant complete story was written especially for the “Friend” by debut novelist Louise Beech.
A heartwarming story by Louise Beech
RUTH was my wife. She was beautiful in an unconventional, look-twiceat-her way. She gave me our only daughter, Abigail, who gave us our granddaughter, Ellen. She lived her life with endless vigour and raw curiosity. And she was fiercely independent.
Ruth once learned to fold towels in the shape of a variety of animals. She would fashion them into dangling monkeys and lounging dogs, and then leave them on the guest bed when Ellen came over to sleep.
Ellen would jump about and clap her hands and say she’d never take it apart. Of course natural curiosity always won, and she would uncurl the material as though the answer to its creation might open up.
Ellen is fourteen now and cares more about boys and make-up. But I’ve seen her stroking one of Ruth’s multi-coloured elephants. I know she took one home, and perhaps she hugs it at night. But I don’t think she will ever take it apart.
Today there is a monkey towel on the bed in my cabin. I smile. He sits on the pillow. I put my small case next to him and start to unpack. The cruise ship will set sail in about an hour. Maybe I’ll go up on deck and watch the land disappear.
I can hear the sea lapping at the bow, gentle like kisses. I want to make this cabin as cosy as possible, just like Ruth did all that time ago.
The small windowless room makes me feel close to her. She stayed in this very one once, long ago. Back then she couldn’t afford more than the most basic accommodation. Back then an older single woman’s choices were limited. Back then she didn’t mind the tiny cabin so long as she had an adventure.
Today I could have afforded a deluxe veranda suite. I am comfortable enough these days that I could have had butler service or a room twice the size. But I picked cabin 503.
I look at the bed and think of Ruth sleeping here, her red hair fanned across the pillow as it used to do before grey stole its vibrancy.
I think also of a man called Andreas. Between her last breaths Ruth told me how another man had led her to me. A man who knew the steps to more than 15 dances.
A wife can only admit such things to a husband because she has known him for 36 years. And only a husband can pat his
It was Andreas who led me to Ruth, and I had a lot to thank him for . . .
wife’s lovely hand and tell the truth – that he always knew.
Let me tell you about my beloved Ruth.
RUTH never thought she would marry. By thirty-eight she had accepted spinsterhood with gusto. Though she secretly longed for them, she also accepted that she might never have children. She was born in a decade when neither situation was ideal, but she possessed a rare certainty that other escapades awaited her instead.
So she took it upon herself, in 1968, to book a cruise. It was quite something to be a single female traveller then. Even the travel agent asked if Ruth was sure.
It was met with much reproach from her friends, too. “Won’t you be lonely?” “Will you be safe?” “Won’t you get lost?” “Is it what women do?” Questions always spurred my Ruth on. So she boarded a train for Dover and set sail aboard the MS Freedom to Norway, land of the fjords. She made herself comfortable in the simple cabin, adding touches to make it feel like home for two weeks. She put a picture of her mother on the bedside cabinet and her father’s tiny gold clock in the bathroom.
Then she painted on bold lipstick, walked the narrow corridor to one of the four lifts and ascended to deck eight, where the piano bar and the Pinnacle restaurant were.
She requested a table for one. Ruth always laughed at lone diners who took something to read. She would nudge me and whisper that they shouldn’t be so embarrassed at being alone. She was never bothered about masking her own solitude. She rather enjoyed it.
“Isn’t taking a book just the same as the bold lipstick you wear when needing a mask?” I asked her. “No, I just love lipstick,” she said. She ate her meal that night, and every one after, without a book. She tried champagne. She ordered food she had never tried before – lobster bisque, veal, caviar – and then she happily watched the passengers dancing in the piano bar.
Silver-haired men in white suits courted women of all ages. They stood by the ivory columns that divided the room, watching and waiting.
Ruth noted that these gentlemen were generally older than fifty, and wore name badges. They appeared to be experienced dancers, light on their feet, able to lead without pulling. They politely overlooked a clumsy partner or wrong step. They never approached women, but waited for an invitation – for her look or nod or smile.
On her second evening Ruth made the mistake of smiling at one of the men. He came to her table, bowed and asked if she would like to dance.
“Oh, no, thank you,” Ruth said, flustered for once.
The man apologised for intruding and returned to his spot by the piano. Though he did not again glance her way, she felt foolish and left quickly.
A cat awaited Ruth in the cabin. Made of perhaps four towels, it lazed gracefully by the pillow, flannel ears pricked up as though listening to the sea.
Ruth sat on the bed and touched its leg, fascinated by how he’d come about. The room attendant, she decided. He must have left it. Though itching to take it apart, to discover its mechanics and perhaps learn how to remake it, Ruth resisted.
IN the morning, after a restless night on a rolling sea, she caught a room attendant called Mulkan making her bed, and asked how he’d learned to make towels into animals.
Mulkan said they were all taught how during training.
“It takes ten days to acquire the lost art of towel origami,” he said. “You might purchase a book from the front desk if you want to try. I imagine at night these animals come alive and dance in the piano bar.”
Each evening Ruth found herself back in that bar, laughing at the thought of cat and monkey towels there, and watching the gentleman dancers.
One man, however, never danced. Though he wore the same suit and name badge as the other men, he merely stood by the main exit. Behind him, casino slot machines flashed like an SOS after a sinking ship.
Younger than the other men, he was dark and tanned. His eyes were sad as they scanned the room. He never approached a woman or appeared to speak to anyone, and
no-one spoke to him.
Ruth began to find his nightly presence a comfort. He was always there. The dancer who didn’t dance.
On the fifth night, as they sailed out of Alesund and on to Flam, Ruth had drunk enough wine to feel rather bold.
She went over to the doorway and asked if he had a light for her cigarette. Smoking was another thing Ruth did without a care for what others thought.
“I no smoke,” the dancer who didn’t dance said. “No light, señorita.” His name badge read Andreas. Ruth put away her cigarette and remarked that she’d never seen him dance.
“My favourite partner,” he said, “is never young, flashy woman. Not creature who fancies herself as favourite, but lady who doesn’t put herself forward. Lady who shyly looks across floor, eyes misted with some memory of long-ago dance. And I never see this.”
At least, that was how Ruth told me it went. She confessed she thought at the time that it was a chat-up line.
She asked why he and the other men wore the same white suit each evening. He was a gentleman host, he explained. Or a ghost, as they often called themselves. He was employed by the ship to dance with lonely or single women.
“Must I book you?” Ruth enquired. It was not a request, just inquisitiveness.
The ghost shook his head and said no, that he would watch for any lady who made eye contact and take that as her invitation.
“But I have never seen you dance,” Ruth said again. “And I’m sure many women have probably tried to catch your eye before now.”
Andreas said he’d been looking for the right partner.
Ruth switched her jewelled purse to her other hand and turned.
“Well, you’ll likely find yourself unemployed if you don’t start dancing soon,” she said, and returned to her cabin. This time a peacock awaited her there, moulded from three different-sized towels, beady eyes stuck on the head.
In the ship’s watery wake she heard again all the questions her friends had f ired at her. Perhaps being lonely and getting lost frightened other women, but Ruth was never like other women. She lived life her own way, and I don’t think she ever once got lost.
However, she stayed in her cabin for the next 22 hours. Not once during our 35 years of marriage did I ever witness her indulge in any form of self-pity, so perhaps she got it all out of her system during that strange, endless day.
She ordered food that she didn’t eat, and slept, and then watched the TV’s repetitive ship channels. One promoted the towel origami book, and Ruth was fascinated. She watched it again and again. She moved her fingers along with it as though making her own creation.
At about nine o’clock a light tapping woke her from half-sleep and she opened the door, to see Andreas.
“I am not supposed to come to room,” he said, looking up and down the corridor. “But I was very worried. You do not come. You always come, you sit by
piano. What is wrong?”
“I’m tired.” Ruth replied. She wondered whether it was decent to invite a strange man into her cabin when the only seat was her bed, but she found herself letting the door swing open anyway.
Looking at the towel swan that Mulkan had delivered earlier, Andreas spoke.
“At f irst this is just for children. But the staff realise adults find comfort in these towel companions. Perhaps more so than a child.”
Ruth nodded for him to sit, which he did. She remained standing, by the wardrobe.
“How long have you been a gentleman host?” she asked.
Andreas told her a little of himself. About his home back in Barcelona, about the smell of jasmine in the evening, his ex-wife Connie and children that never came. About a childhood as the only boy and so having to learn all the dances – the salsa, the waltz, the rumba, the cha-cha – just so he could partner his many sisters and nieces.
He talked about his time in the Army when he offended many a fellow soldier by being the better dancer and stealing away the prettiest
señorita. About how only here at sea, as a ghost, could he truly dance. Only truly be himself.
“Yet you don’t dance,” Ruth commented. Andrea stood suddenly. “You must come out now,” he said, but Ruth shook her head and said she didn’t feel like being the loner in a room of couples. Andreas insisted. “I make a deal,” he said. “I will dance if you come and sit on a chair by the blackjack table for a while. I will dance all dances I ever did learn.”
It was an offer Ruth couldn’t resist.
SHE found herself seated on a plush velvet chair by the semi-circular blackjack table. A smart woman dispensed cards from a dealer’s shoe and two men tried their luck. Coins clanked from nearby machines, and winners cheered.
As promised, Andreas danced. To the distant tinkle of the piano, and in a window’s soft light from dying sun, his feet tapped and skipped and slid. His arms held an imaginary partner.
Ruth clapped and Andreas sent dust particles flying like dizzy fairies. “Dance,” Ruth whispered. She mirrored his moves; she opposed the motion of the ship and she sent cards tumbling from one of the gambler’s hands . . .
It was here I met my Ruth; here that she practically fell into my lap. I was gambling. I lost that hand and found hers.
We were clumsy dancers, though. We were awkward and shy, and I helped her to her feet. I recall the brush of her hand against my arm as she apologised for ruining my game. I still smell the sweet scent of her shampoo and damp neck.
She looked to the window as though for a companion. Only a poster for the midnight ball fluttered there.
I asked if she had lost someone.
“No,” she said, not sounding entirely sure. “I, um . . .” Here she turned and looked fully at me, grey eyes bright with life. “I think I was supposed to be here.”
“I think I was, too,” I said.
IHAVE always known about Andreas. When I patted Ruth’s dying hand many years later and said I knew, I really did. I had seen him in the casino doorway each night as I lost money at the blackjack table.
I saw him watching the dance floor, one foot tapping along to the music. I always thought the poor fellow should just ask whichever lady he was pining for to dance.
I’d gone on the MS Freedom with my workmate, Allan. My father was a sailor and I’d always been fascinated by the sea. I liked a flutter on the horses and I’d thought that two weeks on the ocean, with all-day casinos, would make for a grand holiday.
It did. I came home with my Ruth.
“I spoke to Andreas, too,” I told Ruth as she whispered her last confession. “He was the young, handsome chap, wasn’t he? Spanish. I asked him for directions to the bureau de change on the first night and he pointed it out. It’s really strange – he said I should be sure to play blackjack tonight, for I would be lucky. So I did. I left the slot machines and chose the cards. And there you were. The best luck I ever had.”
Ruth said it wasn’t what I thought. She said Andreas and she weren’t anything romantic.
I smiled and told her that even if they had been, what business was it of mine? We hadn’t met yet.
“But that journey was just ours,” she said. “I like to think of it that way. And you don’t understand – Andreas wasn’t real.”
Ruth told me then how on the last night of the cruise – before her eighth date with me – she went to buy the book “The Ancient Art Of Towelfolding” from the front desk. She had not seen Andreas for days and so asked the assistant about him.
“He’s one of the gentleman hosts,” Ruth explained. “I wondered if he was ill as I’ve not seen him around recently. I wanted to thank him for something.”
The assistant asked her to repeat the name and frowned. Then she went into the back office, where she remained for so long that Ruth almost gave up and came to me on the top deck by the pool.
When the assistant returned, she had the towel-folding book in her hand and gave it to Ruth.
“Andreas is not here any more,” she said softly.
“He left the ship in Bergen?”
“No. In nineteen sixty,” the assistant said. “He was lost at sea. He was a sleep-walker, I’m told, who left the patio door open one night by accident. Tragic. A beautiful dancer by all accounts.”
EARLIER tonight I looked for Andreas in the piano bar. The song playing made me remember us. You and me, Ruth. I looked for you, too.
The youngsters dance a different sort of dance now. It’s all jerky and frenzied. I was never the best dancer, but we liked to be close. We always snuggled up tightly. Today they seem to want to push partners away rather than embrace them.
I didn’t see Andreas, or you.
“Andreas isn’t here any more. He was lost at sea”
But I knew where to find you. I returned to your cabin.
Tonight a towel crab sits on the bed. Its pincers are expertly twisted from four face cloths and the body is a thrice-folded fat towel. Then I look at it more closely. This one has a russet feather in one claw. The colour is stark against the white. Ruth, you always had a sweet way of adding colour, of using the occasional flowered hanky, of sticking on feathers and beads.
You must have left this for me.
I consider packing the white crab to take home for young Ellen, but they tend to fall apart when you pick them up. Like memories, it is the many details, the sounds mixed with words and the colours that stick. When you separate them, they mean nothing.
I lie on the bed and try to sleep. You’re with me, Ruth. I smell your shampoo; I feel your hair against my cheek, as red as fire. We listen to the sea and we belong to one another.