The Secret Truth of Towel-Folding

 

by Louise Beech

 

 

Between last breaths my wife told me how another man led her to me. A man who knew the steps to more than fifteen dances. I suppose a wife can only admit such a thing to a husband weak from counting out pills and changing bed-sheets and ordering groceries online. A man she has known thirty-six years. And only a husband can pat his wife’s dying hand and say he always knew.

 

Ruth was my wife. Ruth learnt to fold towels in the shape of a variety of animals, fashioning them into dangling monkeys and lounging dogs, and would leave them on the guest bed when our granddaughter Ellen came over Saturday nights. Ellen would jump and clap her hands and swear she’d never take it apart. Of course natural curiosity took over and she’d uncurl the material, as though the answer to its creation might open up. She’s thirteen now and pretends to care more about boys and make-up, but I’ve seen her stroking the fluffy multi-coloured elephant on the bed-end. I know she’ll never dissect Ruth’s last animal.

 

I miss Ellen. I miss her mother, Catherine, our only daughter, who runs a tea room and got divorced from womaniser Tim six years ago. But mostly I miss Ruth.

 

This cabin should make me feel closer to her, but it’s a windowless prison that suffocates me. Back then, Ruth could not afford more than the most basic accommodation; back then, back when an older single woman’s choices were limited. Today I could have booked a deluxe veranda suite, even the penthouse, but I picked room five-oh-three. It’s hard not to think of Ruth sleeping here, in one of the narrow twin beds, alone in this lightless place.

 

It’s even harder not to think of a man called Andreas.

 

Ruth never thought she’d marry. By thirty-eight she accepted childlessness and spinsterhood, born in a decade when neither was ideal but possessing rare certainty that other adventures awaited her instead. She took it upon herself, in nineteen-seventy-four, to book a cruise. Quite something for a single woman traveller. It was met with much reproach, mostly from friends. “Won’t you be lonely?” they said. “Won’t you be scared?” “Will you be safe?” “Won’t you get lost?”

 

Questions always spurred Ruth and these impelled her to board 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 home for two weeks--apicture of her mother on the bedside cabinet and her father’s tiny gold clock in the bathroom. Then she painted on lipstick—when Ruth’s mouth was pink or red she always felt ready to face the world—and walked the narrow corridor to one of the four lifts, ascended to deck eight where the piano bar and the Pinnacle restaurant were, and requested a table for one.

 

Ruth always laughed at lone diners who took something to read. She said it was a weak façade and we all know they’re trying to appear not bothered about their solitude. I often asked her, isn’t it just the same as the bold lipstick you wear when needing a mask?

 

She ate her meal that night (as every one after) without a book, ordering food never tried before—lobster bisque, veal, caviar—and then she watched passengers dancing in the piano bar. Silver-haired men in white suits courted women of all ages, standing by the ivory columns that divided the room, watching and waiting. Ruth noted that these gentlemen, all older than fifty, wore name badges and appeared to be experienced dancers, light on their feet, able to lead without pulling, and overlooking a clumsy partner or wrong step. They never approached women but waited for invite, her look or nod or bold smile.

 

That first evening, Ruth made the mistake of smiling at one of the men and he came to her table, bowed and asked if she would like to dance. “Oh, no, thank you,” Ruth said, flustered. 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.

 

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 for danger. Ruth sat on the bed and touched its leg, fascinated by how he’d come about. The room attendant, she decided. Though itching to take it apart, discover its mechanics and perhaps learn how to re-make it, Ruth resisted. In the morning, after a restless night on a rolling sea, she caught a room attendant making her bed and asked how he’d learned to make towels into animals. In broken English, Mulkan (the name she read off his badge) said they were all taught how during training. It takes ten days to acquire the lost art of towel origami, he said, and she might purchase a book from the front desk if she wanted to try. “I imagine in night,” he said, “they come alive and dance in piano bar.”

 

Each evening Ruth found herself back in that bar, watching the 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, casino slot machines flashing behind him like flares after a sinking ship. Younger than the other men, perhaps thirty-five, and dark and tanned, he never approached a woman and never appeared to speak to anyone. Ruth found his nightly presence a comfort—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 bold and went over to the doorway and asked if he had a light for her cigarette. “I no smoke,” he said, “No light, senorita.” Ruth put away her cigarette and said she’d never seen him dance. His name badge read Andreas.

 

“My favourite partner,” he said, “is never young flashy woman, not hot creature who fancies herself as favourite, but lady who doesn’t put herself forward, who shyly looks across floor, eyes misted with some memory of long ago dance.” At least that was how Ruth told me it went. She confessed she thought it a line and that she asked why he had a name badge and wore the same white suit each evening. He was a Gentleman Host, he explained, or a Ghost as they often called themselves, and was employed by the ship to dance with lonely or single women. “Must I book you?” Ruth enquired, though it was not a query for active purposes, rather just inquisitiveness. The Ghost shook his head, said no, that he would watch for a lady who made eye contact and take that as her invite.

 

“But I’ve never seen you dance,” Ruth said again, and Andreas said he’d been looking for the right partner. She picked up her jewelled purse and stood, telling him he’d likely find himself unemployed if he didn’t start dancing soon, and returned to her cabin. 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 all the questions—won’t you be lonely, won’t you get lost, will you be scared—and she tore apart the showy creature and wept into the smallest towel.

 

Ruth stayed in her room for the next twenty-two hours. Not once in our thirty-five-year marriage did I 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 watched the TV’s repetitive ship channels, one of them promoting the towel origami book. At about nine a light tapping woke her from half-sleep and she opened the door to Andreas. “I not suppose come to room,” he said, “but was worried. You not come. You always come, sit by piano, drink wine.”

 

“I’m unwell,” Ruth said. She wondered whether it was decent to invite a strange man into her cabin when the only seat was her bed, but found herself letting the door swing open. Of the towel swan that Mulkan had delivered earlier Andreas said, “At first it just for kids, but staff realise adults find comfort in these towel companions, perhaps more so than child.” Ruth nodded for him to sit, but she remained standing by the wardrobe. “How long have you been a Gentleman Host?” she asked him.

 

Andreas told her then a little of himself, about his home back in Barcelona, the smell of jasmine in the evening, his ex-wife Connie, 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 time in the army when he offended many a fellow soldier by being the better dancer and stealing away the prettiest senorita, about how here at sea, as a Ghost, he could only truly dance.

 

“And yet you don’t,” said Ruth.

 

“You must come out now,” said Andreas, but Ruth shook her head, said she didn’t feel like being the loner in a room of couples. Andreas insisted she must. “I make deal,” he said. “I dance if you just come and sit on chair by blackjack table. I dance all dances I ever learn.”

 

And so Ruth found herself seated on a plush velvet chair by the semi-circular blackjack table, where a stiff woman dispensed cards from a dealer’s shoe and two men tried their luck. Coins clanked from nearby machines, winners cheered, losers swore. As promised, Andreas danced then. To the distant tinkle of piano, and in a window’s soft light from dying sun, his feet tapped and skipped and slid, while his arms held an imaginary partner. “Hit me,” said one of the gamblers, and again, “hit me.” Ruth clapped and Andreas sent dust particles flying like dizzy fairies. “Hit me,” said the gambler. “Dance,” whispered Ruth, holding onto her seat. She mirrored his moves. She opposed the motion of the ship. She sent cards tumbling from one of the gambler’s hands.

 

And here I met my Ruth; here she practically fell into my lap. I, the gambler, lost that hand and found hers. We were clumsy dancers, awkward, and I helped her to her feet. I recall, even now, the brush of her hand against my arm as she apologised profusely for ruining my game, and I still smell the sweet scent of her shampoo and damp neck. She looked to the window as though for a companion, where only a poster for the midnight ball fluttered, and 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, a paradox begun.

 

“I think I was supposed to be here,” she said.

 

Of course, I knew about Andreas. When I patted Ruth’s dying hand and said I always knew, I did. Only the always part was an untruth. I had seen him in the casino doorway each night as I lost money at the blackjack table, thinking that the poor fellow should just ask whichever lady he was pining for to dance. I’d gone on the Ms Freedom with my work-mate Allan; we liked a flutter on the horses and I thought two weeks at sea, with all-day casinos, would make for a grand holiday. It did. I came home with Ruth.

 

“I spoke to Andreas too,” I told Ruth as she whispered that 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. The day I met you he passed me in the corridor and said I should be sure to play blackjack tonight, for I would be lucky. And I did; I left the slot machines and chose the cards.” Ruth said it wasn’t what I thought, Andreas and she weren’t anything, and I smiled, told her that even if they were, what business was it of mine? We hadn’t met yet.

 

“But that journey was ours,” she said, tearfully. “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 Towel-Folding from the front desk, and as an afterthought, having not seen him all week, asked the assistant about Andreas.

 

“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, frowned, and then 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 a towel-folding book in her hand and gave it to Ruth. “Andreas is not here anymore,” she said, softly.

 

“He left the ship?” asked Ruth. “In Bergen?”

 

“No, in 1962,” she said. “He was lost at sea. A sleep-walker, I’m told, who left the patio door open. A beautiful dancer by all accounts. Like air.”

 

I looked for him tonight in the piano bar. The song playing there made me ache, made my throat constrict and head pound. I looked for you too, Ruth. The youngsters dance a different dance now, all jerky and frenzied. I was never the best dancer, but we liked to be close. Today they seem to want to hurt one another, push partners away rather than embrace them. Now the ship is tired, a fading movie star. The piano keys are all but white and paint peels on every wall.

 

And so I return each night to your room.

 

Tonight a towel crab sat on the bed. Its pincers were expertly twisted from four face cloths and the body was a thrice-folded fat towel; I almost took it apart. Yours are better Ruth. Your sweet way of adding colour and stripe, of using the occasional flowered hanky, of sticking on feathers and beads, has no compare. I considered packing that white crab for Ellen, but they tend to fall apart when you pick them up. Like memories, it is the whole, the many details, the sounds mixed with words and colour that stick. When you separate them, they mean nothing. As am I without you.

 

 

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Louise Beech writes to find out what happens. Her stories have won the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, the Glass Woman Prize, the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, and were shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Writing for the mum of two is therapy, escape, adventure, fulfilment. She cannot imagine doing anything else.