I could sense the tension in my sister's house the minute I
stepped inside. Sophie was standing at the sink, washing up, eyes raw from
'Is it Gemma?' I asked with as much sympathy as I could muster,
considering I knew next to nothing about fourteen year old girls - other than I
used to be one. My niece was 'playing up' according to my mother, who'd been
quick to express her opinion when I'd called round to see her that morning.
'Your sister's too soft with those children. I told her she'd
pay the price,' she'd said with a typically smug expression. I couldn't get a
word in edgeways as she rattled on, obviously relishing Sophie's predicament. In the end, I'd left without telling her the reason for my visit.
'I suppose Mum's told you everything. Is that why you're
here?' Sophie sounded so miserable I put down my bag and pulled her into
my arms. We weren't given to displays of emotion, but she let me hug her
briefly before stepping away.
'Mum did tell me,' I admitted, noting the defeated set of
Sophie's shoulders. 'But I was coming to see you anyway.' I didn't say
why - that would have to wait for now. 'Where are Greg and the twins?'
'Greg's away on business, and the twins are at
nursery.' Sophie's eyes swam with tears. 'I'm at the end of
my tether with Gemma,' she burst out. 'She's in a terrible mood and I can't get
to the bottom of it. She won't talk to me.'
'Shouldn't she be at school?'
'She refused to go in. I had to tell them she was ill.' Her
tears spilled over and I tore off a sheet of kitchen roll and handed it
over, feeling helpless and slightly afraid. I'd only just moved back to
theUKafter living abroad for years, and
hadn't had much to do with her family life.
If I was honest, I'd never wanted children of my own, which was
one of the reasons my relationships hasn't lasted. After enduring a
Victorian-style upbringing with older parents, I
was worried that I, unlike Sophie, might turn out like Mum and Dad.
I couldn't wait to leave home and escape the restrictions of
family life, choosing to live as far away from my parents as I could, and
although I'd missed Sophie we'd kept in close contact, emailing and Skyping
regularly. I'd never been tempted to return - until my latest relationship had
'Perhaps you could have a word with her,' Sophie said, blowing
her nose. I blinked uncertainly. 'I know, I know,' she rushed on.
'You're not comfortable, you don't want to interfere, you don't know
what to say. But maybe she'll talk to you.'
'Well . . .' I began, stretching the word out, trying to think of
an excuse that would let me off the hook.
'I'm scared it's boy trouble, or she's in with a bad crowd, or taking
drugs,' Sophie blurted, fresh tears brimming over.
I looked at her anxious
face, saw new lines around her eyes, and nodded.
'I'll give it a try,' I said, squaring my shoulders. 'It
can't do any harm.'Could it?
'Oh Claire, thank you so much.' Some of the tension drained from
Sophie's face and she gave me a watery smile as I left the kitchen.
I was ashamed of my reluctance as I headed slowly upstairs.
Sophie rarely asked me for anything, and I knew she didn't get much
support from Mum and Dad. It was time I made an effort.
Gemma's door was firmly closed, and there was no answer when I
knocked. I turned the handle and pushed it open, as nervous as if I was
going for a job interview.
The room was stuffy, the floor layered with discarded clothes
and mugs. Gemma was face-down on her bed, tinny music erupting from her
When I lightly touched her arm she looked round, revealing a
'Auntie Claire!' She pulled off the earphones, her
expression brightening, which made my heart turn over in a way I hadn't
expected. 'What are you doing here?'
'I've come to see you.' My voice was too hearty and her
expression immediately darkened.
'I suppose Mum sent you.' She sat up and hugged her knees.
'I would have come up anyway,' I said, perching on the edge of her rumpled bed, completely out of my
I remembered her aged five or six, her skinny arms jangling with
sparkly bracelets, and butterfly clips holding back her curly blonde hair.
Now her hair was black and poker-straight. and her arms were bare, increasing her air of vulnerability.
'You used to be obsessed with butterflies,' I remembered suddenly.
'And?' She shrugged with a teenage nonchalance I remembered well. Sophie had perfected that look at around the same age.
'Your dad bought you a book about them, and whenever I popped
round you'd read out these amazing facts, like, they taste with their feet, and
their wings are transparent, and they can't fly if they're cold,' I said,
surprised by how much I could recall.
'They are pretty cool,' she acknowledged, with a ghost of the
smile that used to melt everyone's heart. 'All that chrysalis stuff is,
like, amazing.' A shadow crossed her face.
'What is it, Gemma? Why aren't you at school?' It felt natural to take her hand in mine, and although she didn't return the pressure of
my fingers, she didn't pull away.
'I'm fat,' she burst out, roughly pinching the skin on her thigh
with her other hand.
'Gemma, that's not true,' I said, shocked.
'The girls in my class said so.' She avoided my gaze. 'I keep trying to go on a diet, but I like eating too much. I'm gross.'
'Please don't tell Mum. She wouldn't understand.' Gemma
climbed off the bed with the elegant grace that the other girls probably envied,
and moved across to the window.
I stood up and began browsing her bookshelf, while I tried to
think what to say, and spotted the battered copy of the butterfly book among
her more recent fiction paperbacks.
'You've still got it,' I said,
touched, but she didn't turn around.
I flipped through the worn pages and silently read,
Butterflies employ tricks to keep from being
Some fold their wings to blend in to the
background, using camouflage to render themselves invisible. Others wear
vibrant colours and patterns that boldly announce their presence.
'Your mumwouldunderstand,' I said, heart
'What do you mean?' Gemma looked at me then, her green gaze
heavy with suspicion.
'She was bullied at school because she had a birthmark on her face.'
'No way.' Her whole demeanour changed and seemed to
soften. 'Poor Mum,' she murmured. 'I didn't know.'
'She had it removed a long time before you were born,' I said. 'People could be so cruel. I got in a lot of fights, sticking up
'Good for you.' Gemma seemed momentarily distracted from her own
dilemma, nibbling her thumbnail. I returned to the bed and sat down with
the book on my lap. 'What happened in the end?' She sat beside me and gave me a
'She changed her appearance when she got to sixth form.' My memory flashed back to that time. 'She came out of the shadows, bigger, brighter
and bolder - the person she'd always wanted to be. She had an orange mo-hawk
for a while,' I laughed.'She got sent
home for that. Clothes in vivid colours that she sewed herself. Mum was
furious. Exotic make-up, a pierced eyebrow. She became popular because
people saw her personality, not her birthmark.'
I hadn't needed to fight for her after that.
Gemma was quiet for a moment and I could see her slotting this
new version of her mother over the old one, and perhaps working out how she
could apply my words to her own situation.
'Don't tell her I told you,' I said, giving her a nudge.
Gemma glanced at me shyly. 'I won't,' she promised. 'It might
be too traumatic.'
The silence that fell was companionable.
Gemma was the first to break it. 'You're cool, Auntie Claire,' she said, and pressed soft lips to my cheek.
Tears sprang to my eyes. I thought of the baby curled magically in my womb - a precious
gift I hadn't known I wanted until it was there. After my boyfriend decided he wasn't cut out
to be a father, I came home to tell my family, and to ask for Sophie's
advice. I'd been terrified I would make a terrible mother, but maybe I would be okay after all.
'I've got some good news,' I said, standing and holding out my
hand, and Gemma leapt up, a child again, with skinny arms and a trace of blonde
at her roots. 'Let's go and find your mum.'
Marco waits, patent shoes gleaming, his gaze as dark and intense as espresso.
The music starts; a throbbing beat to match my pulse and it vibrates down to my feet. I swish my dress back and forth with my hands like Marco taught me, the material shimmering and sparkling beneath a sequence of glitterballs.
My legs are tanned and toned and my shoes no longer rub; I’m accustomed to wearing high heels again after years of sensible flats.
A ripple from the audience sends adrenaline rushing through me and I lift my chin, sashaying forwards like a professional. I still can’t believe we’ve made it to the finals. What started as a hobby – a bit of harmless exercise to work off middle aged spread – has swiftly become a passion.
Marco’s there; narrow-hipped, head tilted, arms outstretched like a matador.
He grasps my waist with confident hands, bending me this way and that, lifting and twisting me as if I weigh less than a feather, his sinewy body briefly pressing against mine.
A few months ago I wouldn’t have believed I could be so flexible, but my muscles no longer protest. Under Marco’s careful tuition I’ve become supple. He’s unleashed a part of me I didn’t know existed; wild and primal, at one with the music.
I’m no longer just Catherine - mother, widow and soon to be grandparent. I’m a dancer and a good one. Spontaneous cheers from the crowd confirm it.
I dip and glide, led by Marco, and the music fills me like a magic potion, lending grace to arms more used to washing up, and a sultry sway to my hips. Smiling proudly, Marco twirls me on the end of his arm like a ribbon.
“Perfect, cara,” he whispers drawing me close, one hand on my thigh, his smokey eyes probing mine. I can feel the thud of his heart through his gossamer shirt and stare boldly back, letting him know with every fibre of my being that I’m ready for more than dancing.
Something flickers in his expression. Understanding dawns and the air seems to tremble as the music builds to a climax. He spins me across the floor, faster and faster and I feel unstoppable, like a tornado, until finally he slows and stops, dipping me over his knee. I feel the flex of his muscles, the arch of my neck; his firm hand caressing the small of my back.
“Magnifico.” He brings his mouth close to mine and I stare at the shadowy stubble on his jaw, longing to trace it with my fingers. My chest is rising and falling rapidly as the crowd stand up and begin to roar their approval.
“Tonight?” Marco murmurs and I nod, just once.
Satisfied he lifts and turns me to face the audience, eyes blazing, and we take a bow.
“You were splendid,” he says with a flash of teeth and I’m filled with a tumbling joy.
“We both were,” I tell him, bravely.
A single red rose sails out of the crowd and lands at my feet. Marco laughs with delight.
“See, amore? They adore you.” He scoops it up and hands it to me with a flourish. “For you, my beautiful dancer.”
His eyes are full of promise and my heartbeat accelerates.
The lights, the music, the crowd and Marco are gone in a flash. I whip round, dazed and blinking, to see my daughter framed in the doorway behind me, smiling.
“Gemma! I, er, was just practising for tonight.” I lower my arms, embarrassed to have been caught twisting, turning, humming and day-dreaming in front of my mirror like a teenager.
“The dress is gorgeous on you, Mum.” Gemma comes in, one hand on her baby bump, and fingers the spangled fabric. “Aren’t you nervous about tonight?”
“Just excited,” I admit, unable to stop a smile breaking out. “I never thought we’d get to the finals.”
“I’m so glad you’ve found something you love doing,” says Gemma, and there’s no denying the sparkle in my eyes and the rosy flush on my cheeks. “It’ll be something to tell your grandchild one day.”
“I feel bad being out so much at the moment,” I tell her, reality rushing in. “What if the baby comes?”
She puts her arms round me. “It won’t, it’s not due for a month. And if it does my darling husband will take me to hospital, so stop fretting.” She squeezes me tight. “It’s brilliant to see you like this again,” she says, a catch in her voice, and I know she’s thinking of her dad. “It’s been five years, Mum and you’re still young. You’re allowed to have a good time. He’d want you to.”
I stare at her lovely, earnest face through a shimmer of tears and wonder what I did to deserve her.
“I’m so proud of you,” she says. “I’ve a feeling you and Marco are going to win.”
She lets go of me and I squash a lingering image of his lips inches from mine, feeling guilty. What would she think if she knew how I really felt about him?
“It’s so obvious he’s got the hots for you,” Gemma says casually, as if she’s read my mind, and it feels like all the blood in my body has rushed to my face. “And you know what they say about men who are good dancers.” She wiggles her eyebrows mischievously.
“I ... hadn’t really noticed.” My cheeks are flaming.
"No?” She grins, disbelieving. “I overheard him asking you out the last time I came to pick you up.”
“Oh.” The room seems to wobble and spin. For a moment I can feel the music again, and the pressure of his arms enfolding me.
“What did you say?” Gemma says, her voice soft with understanding, and the music grows louder with every beat of my heart. I imagine his naked chest, smooth and muscular, and turn away so that Gemma can't see the heat in my face.