Read Wildflower Hill Online

Authors: Kimberley Freeman

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

Wildflower Hill (8 page)

I longed to dance. I longed for it so intensely that it caused my chest to hurt, sometimes even more than my knee hurt. I wasn’t ready to stop dancing; but then would I ever have been ready to stop dancing? In truth, I couldn’t deny the increasing caution with which I’d been offered roles, the microscopic stiffness in my hips at the beginning of rehearsals, the bunions on my feet and ulcers between my toes caused by years of wearing unforgiving shoes. Last year’s production of
Swan Lake,
with its infinite
pas de bourrés,
had filled my legs with cramps. I’d had to ice my feet to get my shoes on. In reality, perhaps I’d had only two or three more years left of dancing professionally. Some dancers did go on forever, I knew that. I might not have been one of them. But if I stopped, I had nothing left. Nothing.

At night, when sleep took its time coming, I refused to dwell on these things. Instead, I imagined myself dancing. So far, I could only hobble, but I hoped to be able to walk by the end of the month. And then . . . well, why should I believe the doctors? If I could walk, I could run, if I could run,
I could jump, if I could jump, I could dance. It might take a year, or two, or . . .

And then I would clutch my pillow in the dark, afraid of the emptiness that lay in wait for me.

By mid-September, I was packing boxes and preparing myself to say goodbye to the rooftop terrace. Managing the rent by myself would be tough under ordinary circumstances, but in the wasteland between my last paycheck and my insurance payout, it was impossible.

Adelaide, bless her, came by to help. I suspected that she felt bad about the accident. If she had made me go home that evening, I wouldn’t have stayed until after dark and fallen. But I didn’t blame Adelaide, or the janitor, or anyone else. I understood entirely what was happening: I had been heaped with bad luck, the blackest kind, and I waited—tensed like a cat—for the next bad thing to happen.

For surely it would. I had lost my lover, my career, my home. Next it would be something worse. I worried obsessively about cancer, car accidents, abduction, terrorism, the warming of the planet, the possibility of a new ice age, the extinction of the species. I never stopped worrying. It gave me something to do in those long hours between when the sleeping tablets wore off and when it was safe to take them again.

“Where are all your books?” Adelaide was asking. She had organized me a serviced one-room unit at Holborn, where
I would stay until I could find a more permanent place. Ground floor. No stairs.

“I don’t have any books,” I confessed, wrapping another dancing trophy in tissue paper. “I read them, then give them to Oxfam. They take up so much room.”

Adelaide feigned horror. “Once you’ve read a book, you and it belong to each other for life. Did you not know that?”

“Even the pulpy ones?”

“Even the pulpy ones.” Adelaide looked around. “In fact, you really don’t have much . . . stuff. I came prepared for hard work and lots of dusting. If the furniture isn’t even yours, there’s really only your clothes and—”

“I know,” I said. “It’s all dancing awards. Josh used to say the same thing. He once bought me a photo frame and put a picture of us in it. I knocked it over and cracked the glass, put it in my bedside drawer. It’s in there somewhere.” There. I’d managed to talk about dancing and Josh without crying. No, wait, I was crying.

Adelaide gave me a squeeze around the shoulders. “You’ll be fine.”

“I won’t be.”

“Of course you will.”

I indicated the box of awards, their attractively designed angles carefully softened by the tissue paper. That was my life in there. Wrapped up and ready to be sealed away. “I feel as though I’ve lost my anchor. I’ve lost my boyfriend. Now I’m losing my apartment . . .”

“Do you have to move? Really? Could you wait a little longer?”

“I’m going to run out of money soon.”

“I don’t get in, Em. Your millionaire grandma died a few years ago. She didn’t leave you anything?”

“No. Nothing. And I didn’t want or expect anything, so I don’t mind.” When Grandma died, she left nothing to her family. From my earliest childhood, I had understood that my grandparents were very important people: Grandma for her business, Grandad for his work in parliament. But they had never flaunted their wealth nor forgotten their responsibilities to the community. Grandma’s company was now in the hands of the shareholders, and the personal fortune went to sixty different Australian charities. It was one of the reasons I had been reluctant to return to Australia. My mother and my uncle had become so bitter, even though they were both company shareholders and were quite wealthy enough. There had been legal investigations and long, stupid arguments. Nothing ruined a family like a rich relative’s death. “Besides, I can’t manage the stairs here at the moment. It’s best if I just get away.”

That’s when the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it,” Adelaide said. “Don’t get up.”

I anticipated the moving van arriving an hour too soon. What I didn’t expect to hear was my mother’s voice at the bottom of the stairs, explaining who she was to Adelaide.

My heart jumped, and I tried to get up too quickly. Hurt my knee. Sat back down. Then my mother was there, striding toward me gracefully, her back erect, her dark hair shining and straight and caught in a long ponytail at the nape of her neck. I had always known the sting of having a beautiful
mother. When I was a teenager and my mother was still modeling professionally, I would pin photos of her to my bedroom mirror, then sit among them with sick wonder at the difference between our complexions, our eyes, our mouths. Then I’d tear down the photos and put them away, practice for an hour as though exorcising a demon. All that mattered to a ballet dancer was that she was firm and fit and light enough to be picked up. Which I mightn’t have been if I’d grown as tall as Louise Blaxland-Hunter.

“My darling,” Mum said, leaning down to enclose me in a hug. “You look pale and tired.”

“Thanks,” I muttered.

Mum knelt and I envied her the ease of movements in her joints. Despair tumbled over me like a wave. “Let me look at you,” she said.

I glanced at Adelaide, who nodded and quietly left the room.

“Was this your idea or Dad’s?” I asked my mother.

“Both of ours,” Mum said. “But I organized it. I’m offended . . .” A little-girl pout, a flutter of eyelashes, entirely inappropriate on any other fifty-eight-year-old woman but somehow still appealing on my mother. “The first thing I wanted to do was come to you. My baby. But I kept thinking you’d come home on your own.” She stood, smoothed her skirt. “But you didn’t. So I’ve come to take you home with me.”

“I’m not coming home.”

“Why not?”

I opened my mouth to reply, but her question caught me
off guard. Why not, indeed? I’d been lying in bed being miserable for weeks. I didn’t eat properly, I took too many painkillers; I’d seen myself in the mirror, and the light had gone out of my eyes. There was nothing here for me in London now. Would it be so bad to go home, to be with my family?

My mother sensed me wavering and moved in for the kill. “We have some of the best specialists in the world in Sydney,” she said, puffing up with national pride. “They will take such good care of you and your knee.” Then the words that sealed it. “Your father knows a physiotherapist who helped one of the Sydney Swans rehabilitate his knee. She’s quite famous, and I believe he’s gone back to the game now.”

My heart caught on a hook. Was she saying this physiotherapist could help me to dance again? Because if I could dance, I had a future. If I couldn’t, I was this wreck of a human being.

Mum held her breath.

“All right,” I said, “I’ll come.”

It took me six full minutes—fingers locked like iron around the banister, sweat beading on my brow, knee twinging—but I finally made it up the narrow stairs to the rooftop terrace.

It was unseasonably cold, with squally rain clouds blowing in from the northeast, as though they’d gathered up the gray sea on the way. I made my way over the timber decking to the railing, past the scruffy pots of marigolds and impatiens, leaned against it, and took deep breaths.

This was the view—over the Thames toward Battersea Park—that Josh and I had fallen in love with. Melancholy
slid its arms around me. I remembered the day we’d moved in. I’d been in rehearsals for a regional tour of
Daphnis and Chloe,
Josh had just gotten a promotion. We’d left the packing and putting away to come up here with Chinese takeaway and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. As the sky darkened and the lights all over London flickered into life, Josh had brought up an armful of blankets and we’d made love under the sky. All his kisses tasted like champagne and soy sauce. I froze and laughed at the same time. We were sure everything would go our way from that moment on.

Perhaps, for Josh, it had gone his way. I didn’t know. I realized I knew too little about him. I never asked about his work because it bored me, even though he always wanted to know about mine, what I was thinking and feeling about it. Had I been that self-obsessed? It seemed so. Perhaps there was always an assistant waiting in the wings for the partners of women like me.

Mum would be here to get me within an hour. The flights had been booked before she even left Australia. Business class, so I could have my leg stretched out for the entire trip if necessary. Still, I dreaded it. Such a long way. It would take the last of my sleeping pills and painkillers to get through it, and I had deliberately refused to renew my prescriptions. From the moment I touched down in Australia, I was determined to regain my fitness. My dignity. Perhaps even my ability to dance.

How I wished Mum would stop banging on about “other careers.” Especially teaching dancing. Teaching! I could barely relate to adults, what would I do with children? Break them, probably. Choreography: no. It would only make me jealous
to see other people moving, fluid, alive, their hearts thundering, while I stood on the sidelines and watched.

I sighed and sagged against the railing. “Goodbye, goodbye,” I said to the London sky and the river and the cars and the people and the dream, and all of my insides were in a tangle of grief. “I’m going home.”

SEVEN
 

T
o her credit, Mum waited a week—long enough for me to recover from jet lag and withdraw from the painkillers—before she revealed her ulterior motive. Perhaps she would have waited longer, but Uncle Mike dropped by unexpectedly and, just as unexpectedly, said what he shouldn’t have.

It was spring in Sydney, and the air was alive with the scent of the jasmine that Mum grew in the deep back garden. I had started physiotherapy with my father’s acquaintance and, at her recommendation, was resolutely walking up and down the entrance hall, avoiding the overly friendly wet nose of Tiger, the German shepherd pup Dad had given Mum for Christmas. Without the painkillers, I was more able to feel the joint, know it. The physiotherapist hadn’t given me any false hope. My injury, she said, was a one-in-a-million piece of bad luck for anyone, let alone a dancer. But she had given me good advice: just concentrate on today. To think of all the tomorrows ahead would overwhelm me, immobilize me. Walk
for now. Rebuild the leg muscles. Live in the present, in case thoughts of the past or future flattened me.

Dad was at work in the hardware store he owned. Mum and Dad had never married; that’s how I had ended up with my mother’s double-barreled surname. Periodically, they made noises about a “celebration of their love,” a thought that both embarrassed me and filled me with soppy happiness.

Up and down the hallway.

The knock at the door.

“Uncle Mike!” I tentatively offered him a hug, silently begging him not to perform one of his Uncle Mike moves like sweeping me up and shaking me around. He was a giant bear of a man, known for bomb-diving swimming pools and complicated prank handshakes.

“Em! So good to see you. You look beautiful. The Australian sun is doing you some good, then.”

I didn’t tell him that I wouldn’t cross the road without a hat and sunscreen. I was very attached to my ivory skin. Instead, I said, “It’s nice to be home.”

“How long you staying?” He closed the door behind him and walked toward the kitchen, not waiting for an answer. “Has Hibbins been on to you yet? What’s the story?”

I didn’t know what he meant, but it wasn’t unusual for Uncle Mike to go off on a tangent that nobody could understand except him. I followed him slowly, catching up just as he was pulling a beer out of the fridge and setting it down with a clunk on the marble countertop.

“Want one?” he said.

“Mum!” I called, aware that she’d want to know Uncle
Mike was here. Whether she wanted to see him was another thing. “Visitor.”

Uncle Mike twisted the top off the beer and leaned his back against the opposite bench. “So, what did you get?”

“Get?”

“Hibbins. Your Nana Beattie’s solicitor.”

“Nana Beattie. I haven’t called her that since I was eight.” I shook my head. “I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”

“Jeez, you sound like a Pom. We’re going to have to knock that accent out of you.”

I heard footsteps on the carpeted stairs. Mum was coming to save me. She emerged into the kitchen looking more poised and glamorous than anyone had a right to while ironing. When she saw Uncle Mike, her whole body tensed.

That’s when I started to suspect she hadn’t told me everything.

“Mike,” she said.

“Louise,” he responded.

“I asked you to give Emma some space.”

“Space? I’m her uncle. I wanted to come and see how she was.”

“Don’t lie. I know why you’re here.”

“Someone’s got to tell her. You obviously haven’t.”

“You selfish fool. My daughter has just suffered through two operations and has been told she’ll never dance again. Those other things can wait.”

Uncle Mike snorted a laugh. “Don’t pretend you’re protecting her, Louise. You want to know as much as I do.”

I watched the exchange with growing apprehension. “Can somebody explain what’s going on?” I asked with a dry throat.

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