Ghost Dancer

This poignant com­plete story was writ­ten es­pe­cially for the “Friend” by de­but nov­el­ist Louise Beech.

The People's Friend Special - - CONTENTS -

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.


The End.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.