Read Wildflower Hill Online

Authors: Kimberley Freeman

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life, #Romance, #Historical, #20th Century, #General

Wildflower Hill (7 page)

BOOK: Wildflower Hill
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So, because the emptiness and the heat were all that waited for me at home, I stayed at the rehearsal studio later and later. The perfect way to forget about Josh, about how I was waiting for him to come back, was to throw myself into my work. Rehearsals for a September production of
Giselle
were in full swing, and from the moment I arrived at the studio till the moment I left, I barely thought about him. But the sadness hung, waiting for me as I dressed in my street clothes and brushed my long hair out of its tight knot. The emptiness. No Josh to meet for dinner. No Josh to come home to.

I spent every evening of those first two weeks walking from one end of the city to another. Sometimes the traffic got too much, and I escaped into parks; sometimes I idly stared in shopwindows. On the second Friday night, I caught sight of a Blaxland Wool display in Selfridges & Co. and went in to look closer. Blaxland Wool specialized in classy women’s wear. This year it was forties-inspired suits with short, short skirts in bright colors. I doubted Grandma would have liked them, and the thought gave me a pang.
Grandma.
If she’d still been alive, she would have been the first person I’d call. “Gran, I think he’s left me. I don’t think he’s coming back.” And Grandma’s voice would have soothed me down the line.
Shh, Emma, you will be all right. I know you, and I know you will be fine.
Grandma had more faith in me than I had in myself.

I fingered the cuff of one of the suits, getting my panic under control. Josh would come back.
Stay positive.

“May I help you?”

I turned, found myself looking up at a tall, coltish young woman with miles-long French nails. “No, no, I’m fine,” I said.

“Hey,” the young woman said, “you’re Emma Blaxland-Hunter.”

“Yes, I suppose I am.” The jokes that Josh and I had made about our surnames. His was a double-barrel, too: Joshua Hamer-Lyndon. Modern parents and their need to keep maternal surnames, Josh had complained. Our children, he declared, would be Bill and Ben Hamer-Lyndon-Blaxland-Hunter, and pity the poor generation that came after them.

I’d never taken him seriously. Children hadn’t been in my plan—not until the distant future, at any rate—so I’d assumed they weren’t in his, either.

“Do you mind if I get my boss over here? She’d be ever so thrilled to meet you.”

And that night I simply couldn’t do it. I would look like a stuck-up cow, I knew. It would be shop-floor gossip for weeks: “Emma Blaxland-Hunter came in to look at our display, wouldn’t even talk to us.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I have to be somewhere . . .” I backed away, nearly knocking over a mannequin with legs identical to the shop assistant’s. “I’m very sorry.”

I escaped, hurried down to the crowded street. My stomach grumbled lowly. I ducked into the Bond Street underground and made my way home.

Every time I opened the door, my heart held its breath, hoping Josh would be back. But no, the flat was dark and
empty. I hung my keys on the hook and switched on a lamp. The message light was blinking on the phone. Surely it would be Josh this time. This silly game had gone on for too long. I dialed the message bank. No Josh; Adelaide, my part-time personal assistant.

“Call me. Important. Really important. Not work-related but important nonetheless. I want you to hear it from me.”

I frowned, hung up the phone. I didn’t want to call her. She sounded rattled. As though she had bad news.

I set about opening every window in the apartment; a grudging breeze, warm and laden with the smell of petrol fumes, leaked in. I poured a glass of wine. I looked in the pantry for food. There was none. When had I last shopped? I glanced at the phone.
Really important.
I didn’t want to know; I was afraid of what I’d hear.

Finally, I marched up to the phone, lifted the receiver, and dialed.

Adelaide had it on the first ring. “Emma?”

“How did you know?” My heart thudded softly in my throat.

“Caller ID. Are you sitting down?”

I perched on the arm of the couch. “I am now.”

“I saw Josh this evening.”

“Josh? My Josh? Is he . . . ?”
Coming back?
But I knew from the tone of her voice that he wasn’t coming back; that this would not be happy news.

“He was with someone else, Emma. I’m so sorry.”

My stomach sank. I hung on tight to the edge of the couch with my free hand. “You mean . . . ?”

“A woman, yes. Not just any woman. Sarah. His assistant.”

I barely remembered her and was surprised that Adelaide did. But they had probably organized appointments together. Josh and I were both very busy people.

Somehow I managed to keep my voice even. “Thank you for letting me know.”

“I’m so sorry. I wish I had good news for you.”

“No, no. I’m glad you told me.” Was I? Or was that the kind of empty platitude anyone said when her heart had been torn out and crushed to pulp on the ground? “I’ll see you at the studio.”

I hung up, slid down into the couch with my eyes closed. Josh and his assistant. What a horrid cliché. He’d moved quickly: less than two weeks since we . . .

But wait.
Sarah.
I was remembering now. She had a hard face, not pretty at all. Her name had popped up many times in our conversations, not that I’d paid much attention. And now it seemed that I’d been overlooking some very important facts. Josh’s late nights at the office, at least one business trip a month, the endless attachment to his BlackBerry, furiously two-thumbing messages every minute of the day and night. Had he been having an affair all along? Was his ultimatum a way of finally deciding between me and her?

I felt myself crumbling from within, turning to sand. I didn’t want to be alone, but I had so few friends. Two away, abroad with the ballet. One old friend from Australia who now lived in . . . where was it again? And for the first time in a very long time, I wanted my mum. I wanted her very badly.

I scooped up the phone again and dialed before I could
think better of it. At the other end, thousands of miles away, the phone rang. And rang. I realized that I would be terribly disappointed if it rang out. That, despite the fact that my mother would nag me to come home, I still needed desperately to hear her voice.

Just when I was about to give up, the line went live.

“Hello?” Out of breath.

“Mum?” I said, my voice already breaking.

“Oh, Em, what’s up? You sound—”

“Josh has left me.” Big sobs bubbled out of me, the first I had allowed myself since Josh had abandoned me at the restaurant. “He’s run off with his assistant.”

“Darling, I’m so sorry,” Mum said, and while I cried, she kept up a comforting string of sounds and words. For the first time in years, I actually wished I were home in Sydney, just so I could put my cheek against her cool throat and be comforted like a child. Mum and I had a tense relationship, a clash of personalities that we hadn’t been able to resolve. But she was still my mum, the person who had smoothed Band-Aids over my cut knees and driven me to every ballet class.

Finally, I got my tears under control. “God, Mum, one minute I think I’m living the perfect life, and the next, it all falls apart.”

“You could come home,” my mother ventured.

The familiar sting of irritation. “No.”

“Just for a visit. You haven’t been back since before your grandma died.”

“I can’t. I’m in rehearsal for a production.”

“After that.”

“There will be another production.”

A sigh on the line. “Emma, you’re nearly thirty-two. You can’t dance forever.”

But I could: that was the thing. My body still felt fine. If not forever, I hoped to get at least another ten years out of my work. Maybe more. I’d seen footage of Maya Plisetskaya
en pointe
at sixty-three. Since childhood, I’d wanted to do nothing but dance; I couldn’t even think of stopping. I didn’t know how to stop.

“Mum,” I said, “I promise you I’ll come home when I stop dancing. But for now it’s still my life.” In fact, it was all I had left.

I must have heard the expression “broken heart” hundreds of times in my life. But now I understood with every muscle and nerve in my body what it actually meant. My heart, the vital organ that pumped blood through my body, and love and longing through my veins, never stopped hurting. I would wake up with the pain, then go to sleep with it again at night. I cried into my hands over the bathroom basin getting ready for work. I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t know myself.

The only way I knew to shut out the awful feelings was to move. After rehearsals every night, I stayed on, dancing and dancing and dancing. Adelaide gave up on me at six every evening and wisely went home to her family in Clapham. I cherished the gleaming empty room, its high white lights and its long mirrors. I had all the space in the world to express my anger and my pain. The more my feet ached, the closer I
knew I was to getting over him. I danced like a mad person; I danced as though it were the only thing keeping me alive. And in some ways, it was.

Thomas, the janitor, rattled around the hallways. I heard the vacuum cleaner, the water running in the bathrooms. One evening he came and cleaned the mirrors from one side of the room to the other, studiously not watching me as I tortured my body. By the second Friday afternoon, Adelaide couldn’t hold her tongue anymore.

“You’ve been doing this for two weeks. You
know
it’s bad for you.”

“Practicing is never bad for you.”

“You can push your body too far. If Brian found out—”

“Don’t you dare tell Brian!” Brian Lidke was the artistic director. The last time he’d cast me, he’d pointedly asked me how old I was. “I need to do this, Adelaide. I spent far too much time with Josh, missed rehearsals, lost form.”

“You’ve never missed a single rehearsal, Em. I manage your diary. I should know.”

“I could have attended the extra ones.”

She snorted a cynical laugh. “For God’s sake—for your
own
sake—go home.”

Home. To the empty flat that I couldn’t afford much longer. “One more hour.”

Adelaide hitched her bag onto her shoulder and huffed away. I pushed down my guilt and headed for the barre. Calves aching.
Up.

I worked particularly furiously that night. Didn’t notice at first that I couldn’t hear Thomas’s vacuum cleaner. When I
was done, working through some cooldown exercises, I slowly started to realize that I truly had the theater all to myself. I went to the door and peered into the hallway. Usually, the wooden panels and wide stairs were lit by soft downlights. But it was pitch-black. Either Thomas hadn’t come, or he had taken off early and forgotten me. I was probably locked in.

A war took place inside me: whether to laugh or to cry. I did neither. I needed to get to my locker for day clothes, so I left the door of the studio open in hope that some of the reflected light would follow me to the changing rooms. I’d never be able to get the key into the locker in the dark, so I decided instead to head downstairs and see if I could open the door from the inside. If not, I guessed I’d be curling up to sleep on the floor for the night and I wouldn’t need to get changed. The idea somehow suited my miserable, lonely mood. I thought about my mobile phone in my locker but knew it would be uncharged. I hadn’t laid eyes on it in a week.

I walked down the hallway. The light ran out near the stairs, but I found the railing with my right hand and slowly felt my way down to the next step. And the next. And the next.

But the one after that wasn’t there. At least I couldn’t find it with my toes, and something strange happened in the dark. My muscles, tired from a week of punishing practice, were off duty and simply couldn’t compensate for the sudden change in terrain. I had a moment to remember that the stairwell curved to the left just at this point, but it was too late for my falling body.

It all happened horribly quickly, though later, I would
remember it as taking forever while I watched outside myself. I skidded down the stairs and landed on the rough carpet like a doll that had been dropped by a careless toddler.

No immediate pain. Not so bad, then. Though why was my heart pounding so urgently, as though it knew something my brain did not? I tried to stand.

And my right knee buckled beneath me, almost as though there were no knee there at all. The pain came from everywhere at once, making me cry out. And the joint began to fill, just like a balloon filled with water.

What have I done? What have I done?
This couldn’t be happening. My blood pounded in my ears, nausea filled my stomach. I collapsed to the ground, clutching my knee, calling out for help in the dark, empty theater.

SIX
 

F
rom one specialist to the next, day after aching day, and each wore an unbearable expression of serious consideration and sympathy. I had heard the story a hundred times by the end of the first week, a thousand by the end of the second. The angle of the fall had torn my ligaments. Not just ice-pack-and-rest torn. Torn-to-shreds torn. The pain was mediated only by heavy painkillers. The specialists were already muttering darkly about a “mixed” prognosis. One orthopedic surgeon opened up my knee and then closed it again only to refer me to another orthopedic surgeon. This time the operation went ahead, but the outcome was “not as we’d hoped.”

It took a full three weeks—because of the painkillers and the shock and the stupid euphemisms the surgeons used—before I realized they were telling me that my knee was beyond repair. I would be able to walk, though as I got older and weaker, the pain might increase to the point where it would be better to give me an artificial joint. As for dancing . . . well, that was not going to be possible.

The bottom fell out of my world.

*  *  *

 

The very worst had happened, and I was constantly surprised that life kept going. That, in fact, I had to accommodate this very-worst into my life as it continued on without pause. As the traffic kept moving outside my window. As the season of
Giselle
went ahead with another, younger dancer in the lead. My heart didn’t stop, my body didn’t forget to draw breath. In my apartment, with all the curtains drawn against the summery brightness, I continued to live.

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