Sunday Scribble No.5

“Listen to this, she said, reading from a cheap magazine: “You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club – Jack London, 1876-1916″.    I like that” said Sarah.  “I’m going to use it as my motto”.

“Don’t know what that’s got to do with anything.  He was talking about writing, not this.  Don’t you think we should just wait for the money?” asked Luke.

“Hey, they ain’t going to give us the money any time soon.  It’s got to go through probate and mum said that takes ages.  And I don’t know for sure how much Daft Em left us.  Can’t we make a plan without the money?  Then it will be brilliant when we get it.  Charlie’s made a mint out of this already – we don’t need to wait.”

“Charlie’s dodgy and you know he is.”

“God, not that again.  He’s fine.  He got us the fucking tickets didn’t he?”

“Dave Snagell said he ripped him off…”

“Dave Snagell is a loser.  Even I would rip him off, he makes it so fucking easy.  Let’s just decide how much we want to start with.  I’ve got the rest of the rent money, and I can easily get that back off dad.  He doesn’t know mum gave it to me in cash last time I was down.  That’s 600 quid – how much have you got?”

“Jeez, you get away with murder.  If I did that…” he started, getting ready for a major whinge.

“God’s sake Luke, can we just stick to the point?  she interrupted, “we need to get the money together, so what does it matter where I get my bit from?  Just tell me what you got.”

He let out a long breath.  “Well, I still don’t know if I want to do it.  We need some kind of plan that involves not getting nicked.  Can’t you think of anything else?”

“I’ve got that covered, will you stop worrying!”

“What do you mean?” he said, suspiciously.

“I’ve thought of it.  I told you – it’s a plan.  So I thought it out.”

“So, were you planning to include me in on it?”   He looked exasperated.  “I’m not just your fucking side-kick you know”.

“Well.  Just imagine this, and tell me I’m not a genius.  Charlie can get us the Black Mamba and…”

“That’s Class B you idiot!” he interrupted.

“Wait, wait, this is gonna work…we put it in tea bags and I can stick them all over me with bits of tape, and we do the crowds and you get the dosh and I kiss the guy, or kiss the girl, whatever, and they feel me up – I don’t mean heavy stuff, they can just stick their hand up my t-shirt, and they just peel it off…seriously, it’s genius.”

“And how the hell are we gonna smuggle all that past security?”  His voice was a pitch too high, and far too loud for safety.  He looked around, and started to virtually whisper.  “And you’re planning on walking round covered in tea-bags?  Christ, I just can’t see it working, it’s crazy.  You’re crazy”.

“We get it in with Sparky”.

He looked at her for a long minute.  Sparky was going in a camper van, and would be in the disabled campsite.  Were the cops really that stupid to think that disabled people didn’t do drugs?  “Did he say he would?”

“He’ll do it for me”.

Luke shook his head, whether in disgust or disbelief was hard to say, and looked at the floor, thinking.

“I’m not going to sleep with him, doofus!  I just mean he’ll do it for me if we give him a decent cut.  We’re buddies”.

“You and Sparky?”  Luke’s voice had gone up again.  “How the hell did that happen?”

“I met him on my field trip, we got talking.  Christ’s sake, what does it matter?  He’s not a banana, he’s just in a wheelchair.  And he likes drugs.  Medicinal, he said”.

“Tea bags?”

“You can get them – empty ones.  Easy peasy.”

“Stuck all over you?  What if you get sweaty?  Won’t they all peel off?”

“We can try it out, I don’t see why it won’t work”.  She looked smug.  “Anyway, it’s bound to bloody rain, it always does at Glasto”.

Luke was still thinking, looking at his devious, spoilt, clever little sister.  It could work.


Sunday Scribble No.4

Sunday Scribble No.4

I don’t know if you noticed, but Casual Perfection, Marion’s Day and Aunty Em were all chapters in a story – and although that was part of my Daily Despatch during my week of writing every day, I wanted to carry it on.  So here goes….

The listening ear

She was deep in her sense of grief and, if she was honest, panic about her own future, when she bumped into Angela.  She was unable to keep the news to herself, even though she had been told to keep quiet for as long as she could.  They accepted that the press would get hold of it before long, but Marion and Mr Tate were working hard to come up with ways to manage the news.  Angela was too perceptive to accept ‘I’m coming down with something’ as a reason for the black cloud that seemed to surround Thea.  It came spilling out.

Angela put her arms around her, aware of Thea’s need for comfort and support.  Thea hadn’t been comforted for so long – or was it ever?  She found herself shaking and weak.  They went into Angela’s house; her tidy shiny kitchen.  All of a sudden the difference in their circumstances became irrelevant, and all she could feel was Angela’s concern and kindness.  Tea and tissues were produced, and Angela listened as the whole sorry story came out.  Thea wasn’t completely out of control, so she edited any information about the management of Oakdale Grange, but she felt the need to unburden herself of the weight that had fallen on her shoulders since she had discovered Em’s cold body.

Angela listened to the tale of discovery, medics and Coroner, Gordon and Iris, the police and the threat of legal action, the questioning by inspectors, and the paranoid suspicion that she now felt towards all of the staff.  It was likely the Care Quality Commission would close them down and she would lose her job – they were already making plans to move all of their residents.  The team drafted in by social services were all very nice but the residents were upset and needed someone familiar to reassure them, but all of the people they trusted had been suspended and weren’t allowed to talk to them. One thing seemed to lead to another, in a sickening chain that didn’t seem to have an ending.  She couldn’t believe that someone she knew could be capable of, at the very least, manslaughter.

Angela’s gentle questioning wasn’t intrusive, it was just designed to clarify as the facts came tumbling out, and she gave reassurance and perspective.  It was cleansing, and bound them together.  “I’ll come and see you tomorrow and we can go for a walk” she said, as Thea left.

When Gordon came home, it was natural for Angela to tell him what Thea was going through.  She was completely unprepared for his response, which had never even occurred to her.  His mother had died in that home.

Sunday Scribble No.3

At the Doctors

Kim saw the girl walk in, chewing gum, looking as though she hadn’t a care in the world, pushing her buggy laden down with shopping, baby squalling, toddler holding on to the buggy handles.  The kerfuffle of their entrance made everyone turn and look, some with a slightly disapproving air.  She wasn’t noticing any of that.  She looked breezy and untouched by anyone, never mind her own children.  She went up to the receptionist’s desk, lifted her gum from her tongue with wet fingers and offered it to her toddler.  “Here, you, look after this for me” she commanded.  The child put it in his own mouth, and started chewing it.

“I’ve got a 3.50 with the nurse” she said to the receptionist, “Kelly Sharp and kids”.  The receptionist ticked off her list, and told her to wait.

Kelly Sharp looked around the room, eyeing up the available seating and location of kid’s toys.  Kim suddenly noticed he was sitting right next to the storage box full of Duplo and other bright plastic bits.  He had a sinking feeling.  The toddler came and plonked himself virtually at his feet.

She smiled as she sat down next to him.  “Lovely day, innit?” she breathed, almost sighing.  Kim wasn’t sure how it could be.  But he said yes anyway.  He stole a sideways look at her.  She was staring at him quite directly.  “I’ve seen you before, you’re Kevin’s mate aren’t you?”

“Well, I do know a Kevin, but we’re not exactly…”

“Oh, I know, he’s a bit of a Wally, but he’s my boyfriend’s brother so I don’t have much choice, know what I mean?”

There was a brief lull while she poked her toddler’s arm and pointed at the baby, who had a big white sicky-looking dribble hanging from his mouth.  The toddler wiped it with his sleeve.

She turned towards Kim again, “She’s got a bit of a temperature” she said, jerking her head towards the baby, “thought I’d better do something to check it out, couldn’t get in with the doctor though, so they shoved us in with the nurse.  I bet there’s nothing wrong with her, all this bloody effort for nothing”.  Kim was surprised she thought it was an effort, she seemed to be so free of anything that could be described as effort; she wasn’t exactly calm, just supremely untouched, unconnected.

Her skin had a smoky sheen, pale and milky white.  It was so close-textured that it seemed to have no pores at all.  He wanted to touch it, not because he had any desire for her, but in the same way a child reaches out to touch something of unusual texture.  He tried to pay attention to what she was saying, as though it mattered.

“I was at that fair last night, have you been?  Saw the most blindin’ ride, I wanted to have a go but of course no money, so I says to him, go on, give us a few quid, but he’s so bloody mean, and anyway he spent it all on drink…” she rambled on.  She was fishing for the baby’s dummy all the time she spoke, while the infant cried.  Eventually she found it, jabbed it into her mouth like a plug into a sink, and looked up.  She seemed to expect he was going to participate in a conversation.  He wished he could stop the noise; see her in sleep or some unconscious state so that he could just look.

“Mr Kim Stanley!”  A voice called from further down the corridor.  It was his appointment, so he gave a half-wave to Kelly Sharp, and lumbered off towards the voice.

He sat and shuffled in his seat.  How is it possible to say things that are unspeakable?  You just get it out, quickly.  He looked up, as the doctor was doing her “what can I do for you?” routine, a kindly look on her face.  Kim lurched headlong into speech, feeling as though he had decided to take two steps of a downward staircase at a time, but gradually realising he was falling down the whole lot in a crumpled heap.  “The accident…you must have heard about it…the girl…I was there and she…she was so happy…and she was killed, right there, in front of me, it hit me, the blood…look…” He offered up his hand for inspection,  “I can’t wash it off, it won’t go, I don’t know what to do.”  He was breathing hard, and the doctor took hold of his shaking hands.  Her eyes looked shiny with compassion.

“Calm down, there, there, dear, it’s alright now”, she said, “you’ve had a nasty shock and it’s quite normal to feel like this.  I did hear about it, a real nasty one – and you saw it did you?  Dear me.  Did you know them?”

“No, I was just passing.  She was really lovely.  The sort that people turn round to watch, you know?  I saw her run towards this bloke, she was so happy, they both were, she jumped into his arms like she was really free, just got out of jail or something, she let go of herself completely.  He was twirling her round, and she leaned back like a child on a roundabout.  It just made me keep staring.  God, I wish I hadn’t…” His voice started to break.

“It’s OK, really, go on, you have a cry”, she soothed, putting the box of tissues closer to him on her desk.

“She didn’t know anything about it, that’s for sure”, he gathered himself together, sat upright and stared at the wall opposite with an unfocussed look.  “It’s slow-motion almost, now, I can see it all, and I can’t stop seeing it, all the time…”

“Just tell me what you see, it’ll really help if you can talk to someone.  Take your time, I’m here to help you, and we’ll take as long as you need…”

“They were hugging, and she turned her body, like this”, he demonstrated, shifting around in the chair and lifting his arms out, “and the motorbike just knocked her out into the road, straight out of this guy’s arms, he can’t believe it, but there’s nothing he can do…she went straight into the path of that car, and it decapitated her, I don’t even understand how that happened, even though I can see it, again and again.  Her head just went flying, I can see it flying through the air, she still had a smile on her face, the blood just gushed over me”, he held his hands out yet again as evidence, “and I got these marks that won’t come off, I never had them before, I know it looks stupid and I’m not mad, I’m not, I’m not…” His voice trailed off.  He looked down at his hands, started wringing them together, and then looked at them again.  “I don’t know what to do to make it go away, what can I do?”

The doctor reached for her prescription pad.  “I know you won’t like this, but I’m going to prescribe you some Prozac.  It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with your mind, I don’t think you’re going crazy or anything, its just you’ve had a really big shock and it’s natural to feel bad about what you’ve seen.  After the shock wears off you’ll probably get a bit of depression, that sort of thing.  It will fade in time, believe me, but these will really help you to get through.”

“It’s my hands, doctor,” he said, confused.

“I know, I know, but really this will help with the hands.  You must know, if you think about it, that the blood isn’t really there, it’s just your way of saying you feel stained by what you saw, it touched you really deeply, so much that your skin felt connected to what happened.  Just think of it as your little helper so that you can let go of that.  Let me know how you get on, and make an appointment for next week so we have another chat.  OK?  If you still feel you need someone to talk to, I’ll arrange you an appointment with the counselling service.”  He felt himself being dismissed, eased out.

Kelly Sharp didn’t have the kind of skin that could connect with anything.  You couldn’t imagine her flesh raw, like his was.  He was thinking of her as he walked out through the automatic doorway, into the sunshine.  He took a minute to adjust to the brightness.  She was outside, there next to him, and he became slightly terrified at the prospect of having to speak with her again.

“You know, you looked like you could do with cheering up mate, so I thought I’d walk back with you.  Can’t be that bad, eh?”

“Oh, er, that’s kind, but I’m not walking,” he gestured to the car park.  He realised she would expect a lift if she thought he had a car, and explained “I’m on my bike”.  He was horrified at the idea of walking back through the estate with her.

He waited until she had given him a little wave from the corner, and disappeared from sight.  He got his helmet from the back carrier on his bike, switched on and revved the engine, then rode out.

The Daily Despatch – Day 7

Aunty Em

Aunty Em was, of course, not party to the decision-making.  It had been several years since she had understood what was going on around her.  She lived her life in a cocoon of memories and pain.  The dementia had crept up slowly, so she had time to sign the Continuing Power of Attorney documents so that Gordon and Iris could take care of things for her.  They were so kind, especially Iris, the lovely Iris, who had lived with her for a while, when her own mother (Em’s sister Barbara) was taken so cruelly.  Em didn’t really recognise Iris any more, but she thought of her constantly as she was 50 years ago.  She would nod off when the pain-killers for her cancer kicked in, still talking to the child that she saw in front of her in the sunny garden that she imagined herself to be in.  She imagined herself playing with Iris’s beautiful long hair.  She was annoyed when she was interrupted by that old couple who kept trying to make her drink or roll over.  And how dare they try to undress her!  The shame of it; until she forgot that she cared.

The ambulance came and that old woman was bossing everyone around and then suddenly was weeping, flapping her hands and telling those boys in uniform to hold her gently.  She was scared by the commotion, and grew more and more distressed as they took her out of the house on that stupid bed.  She craned her neck and saw the house from the outside for the first time in years.  How had she got there?  This wasn’t right.  There was gravel instead of her beloved cottage garden flowers – there should be campanula, geraniums, roses, columbine, violets, dianthus, phlox and Sweet Williams, but instead she saw gravel and dustbins.  Someone had murdered her garden last night.  She distinctly remembered dead-heading the roses yesterday.    She howled with rage and fear, and started kicking that stupid boy with the cap.  Everyone was speaking in too many voices; she couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let her up.

Of course they were all in it together.  They forced her down on the bed and strapped her down, and closed the doors, and she could feel the ambulance driving away from everything she knew.

She woke up the next day and couldn’t find her glass on the bedside cabinet; someone had moved it to the wrong side.  Someone had changed the walls of the room and the windows and the curtains.  That old woman was sitting there, and all Em could think was that they had kidnapped her.  That woman tried to hold her hand, so she punched her, hard.  She wasn’t going to go quietly, that was for sure.  They might think she could be imprisoned by force, but she was a fighter.

Another woman came in the room, another stranger with short dark hair and a white uniform.  She spoke quietly and that old woman left.  Em cried a little bit, and then allowed herself to be given some pills, and her pillows were plumped and the curtains were opened; she could see a little balcony and green, lots of lovely green, even though the view from the bed was restricted.

“I’m Thea” said the dark-haired one.  “I know it’s a shock to be somewhere strange, but I promise you we will make everything how you like it.  You probably need some time, but gradually I will find out everything you love the most, and I will make sure we get it for you.  I can go back to your house and get anything you like.”  Her voice was like honey, and Em closed her eyes.

She could hear the woman moving about; she could hear the rustle of her uniform even though she couldn’t hear any footsteps.  She reminded her of Barbara.  She was drifting again, back in school uniform with Barbara standing on the step so that they were the same height, ready for the photograph.  Where was that photograph?  “Barbara dear, where’s that photo that daddy took on my first day at school?” she turned to Thea, frowning.  “It should be over there on the bookcase.  Have you put it somewhere else?”

Thea was standing by the window, with her hair lit up and her face in shadow, but Em could see that she was smiling.  “Yes I took it to clean the frame, but I’ll have it back in no time” she said, glad to have found the first clue to a way of communicating with this sad and frightened woman.  She would go with Iris to the house and collect that photograph, and as many other mementoes of her past as they could find. She didn’t mind that Em thought she was someone else.

But the journey with Iris was a waste of time.  Thea crept back into the room in the early evening and laid the things out while Em was sleeping, her breathing raspy but even, so that she would be ready for conversation the next day.

When she came back the next morning, Em was gone.  She was there in the bed, eyes open, with her mouth slightly open, and it was hardly necessary to feel the coldness of her skin to know that she was gone.  Thea felt sick with shock.  She hadn’t had time to get to know Em, but she knew what this meant for all of them.  The other residents would know and would get upset.  Marion would be on the warpath, and so would Mr Tate.  There was no way this should have happened – Em’s life expectancy was at least another year or two.  This was not only somehow a personal failure, but she knew she would also have the ordeal of facing the guilt and anger of Gordon and Iris on her own.  Marion was only good at getting them in.

Gordon virtually exploded with indignation when she gave the news.  “We trusted you to look after her.  What kind of rotten people are you that an old lady can die within a day of you taking her in?  Someone is to blame for this, and I’m not going to let you get away with it.  My wife was virtually kicked out of the room and you just took over, and then you ransacked her house, you’re nothing but a load of vultures!”  The police were called in the end.

It was horrible.  But the worst was still to come, when the autopsy (which was always required for an unexpected death) revealed that she had been murdered.

The Daily Despatch – Day 6

Marion’s Day

Marion took one last look in the mirror just before she left the cloakroom.  Her pale blue dress was on the young side for her if she was honest with herself (she had bought it from French Connection after being told by the assistant that she looked ‘stunning’); it had a boxy cut and a slashed neckline, which was risky but she felt it made a statement of confidence and modernity that was infinitely preferable to wearing a suit.  She had her game face on, the one that said she was in charge but would rise to the trust that was put in her, and as she opened the door from her office into the corridor, she smiled broadly at the waiting visitors.

“Mrs and Mrs Milbury, I’m so glad you could make it” she said as they rose from their chairs.  Hands were proffered and shaken firmly.  She didn’t believe in that faux-caring lingering hand-holding that some people did.  Marion stood to one side and with a sweep of her arm indicated that they should precede her into her office, which was tastefully done out in pale grey and cream, with 2 cream sofas either side of a small table, and a desk of pale blond wood topped with some glossy folders and a pink orchid.  There were several paintings – real paintings rather than prints – and a small bookcase, but the room looked bright, clean and uncluttered.

She waited until they settled themselves on one sofa, and she sat opposite rather than at her desk.  “I know you don’t really want to make any choices today; it’s such a difficult decision and you really want to make sure it’s the right thing for Auntie Em, so please don’t feel that I am putting any pressure on you”.  Marion prided herself in remembering what names clients used for their loved ones, rather than using Mr or Mrs – it made her seem like part of the family rather than part of a faceless business.  “I just wanted to tell you about the change to our waiting list, and I thought the sooner I gave you the information the better, just in case it makes a difference to you.  I’m so sorry you are even here in this office, to be honest, because I know you don’t want to be; it’s such a hard situation for everyone”.  She paused, sympathetically waiting for a nod or some other indication that she was making the right pitch for them.   Everyone had their baggage that they brought with them into the room; it could be guilt or it could be relief, and it was always good to tease out the angle that would work best.

Gordon Milbury leaned forward in his seat, and his brow furrowed.  “Are you trying to say that someone else is jumping the queue?” He sounded alarmed.  That was helpful – clearly they could not cope with Aunty Em at home and a decision needed to be made very soon.  They had visited three times already, and she knew they had seen several other local care homes.  What they didn’t know was that they were all owned by the same company, and that Marion met with the other Managers at the weekly review meetings.  Tate Holdings had been slowly consolidating its hold on the care sector business in the eastern region.  Marion saw a bright future for herself; she rather liked Arnold Tate and had been working on consolidating her hold on him for quite some time.

“Well not exactly, since there is no list as such, but you know how oversubscribed we are at Oakdale Grange, and there is a family that has been back to visit several times, like yourselves, and you know how we encourage that sort of period of getting to know us.  They particularly liked the Malvern room, because of the balcony overlooking the park.  They’ve arranged a meeting with me next week, so it seems quite likely that they are going to take that room.  I know how much this means to you both.  You see how things are; I can’t turn people down if there is a spare room.”  She spoke gently, smiling all the time, with her head slightly on one side.  Gordon Milbury turned towards his wife Iris, who looked down into her lap.

“Do you know what might be best?  I’ve got to see a member of staff for 10 minutes, so how about I order some afternoon tea for you, and I leave you here to have a little chat.  Would that be helpful?”  She wanted to make this easy for them.

She went out and rang for Christine using the phone on the reception counter.  She could have walked to the end of the corridor to see Christine in the kitchen, but she wanted to see Thea during this small interval, and her office was in the opposite direction.  “Could you bring afternoon tea and some biscuits for two people in my office please Christine, quick as you can” she said, just waiting long enough to hear a confirmation and then putting the phone down and walking straight in to see Thea.

Thea’s office was a small and business-like space, with box files and wall charts and filing cabinets filling most of the room.  Marion sat on the office chair opposite Thea, who said “What do you think?” with an expectant gaze.

“I think they’ll bite.  Give us another 15 minutes, and then can you come in and tell me there is someone else coming to see the room at 6:30 tonight?”

“Are you staying to 6:30 today then?”

“No, I’ll be heading off at 3 to see Mr Tate of course, for his daily briefing; I just want to be doubly sure that I can get their signature before I go.  He will be very impressed if I can say we are full.  That will reflect very well on all of the staff of course.  Make sure you pass on the message in the team meeting, won’t you?”

“Of course” said Thea, looking away.  She wasn’t happy to be lying to prospective customers.  She had a fair idea what the daily briefing was all about.  But she had to give Marion credit.  And chances were, it meant something better for her in the long run.  So she wanted to watch and learn.


The Daily Despatch – Day 5

So, enough with the philosophy and reverie and digressions.  Here’s my creative output for the day.

Casual Perfection

Thea wasn’t having any of it.  Her brother was an idiot.  “Why do you always have to spoil things?” she huffed, re-arranging the floral display at the centre of the dinner table, accidentally knocking off a couple of petals but deciding to leave them where they were.  They were just daisies and roses from the garden.  I don’t want it to look contrived, she thought.  The Mackie family were known to have an immaculate house, but almost in protest she didn’t want Darren and Angela Mackie to think that she had gone to any trouble.  Better for everything to be casual; she wasn’t even going to tidy the papers away, even though Ivan was on his way out and she usually cleared up his messes.  She felt an anger that she couldn’t understand.

She had given careful thought to the meal tonight.  She had visited the Mackie’s last month, and she had felt suffocated by the precision of everything, down to the little bowls next to your plate (for the pips and remains of each bit of lemon that had been served with the fish), and those tiny julienne strips of vegetables.  She had fumbled and fretted with her white damask napkin.  The wine made her pale skin flush.

Darren was charming and possibly flirting with her, although it was hard to read.  He was probably just an expansive sort of person, Mr Dolce Vita, full of himself.  He talked about their last holiday in Barbados, and said that Jelly (his pet name for Angela) had burnt herself to a crisp and had to stay in the shade for a week.  “And didn’t you love it” she said, laughing, “heading off to the bar without me after a day spent out on the ocean; good job I’d taken my Kindle on holiday”.  Thea thought it sounded wonderful, despite Angela’s sunburn.  In her mind, she saw a hotel with ocean views and white beaches.  She felt they had such a casual perfection in their lives because of the ease that money brought them.

Angela brought out home-made crème brûlée for desert, which was warm from the last minute blow-torch to the caramel topping.  She started talking about her children who were both at university and asking what Thea hoped for Ivan.  She didn’t ask whether Thea had hopes for herself; the implicit assumption (as always) was that she should be responsible for Ivan’s life instead of her own.

They were only accidental friends; Thea had looked after Darren’s mother at the care home until the end.  Thea knew where they lived, but had always kept conversation professional.  It was unavoidable when Angela spotted her coming out of her house in the small row of council houses just around the corner from her own modern executive mock-Tudor; Thea’s heart had sunk just a little, but she smiled and exchanged greetings.  ‘Gosh, yes, isn’t it funny, living so close all this time…’  She wondered if Angela would rather not have seen her too.  One thing led to another.  Being invited for a meal felt like an act of Lady Bountiful largesse from Angela, but it would have been difficult to find an excuse not to accept.

So it became important that the meal today was simple, but impressive enough that Angela would know that she was in the presence of someone with a confident style of her own.  She didn’t want her to think she was awed by her social superiority; she felt it keenly but was embarrassed by her feelings, which she knew had no place in her head.

She and her brother Ivan were both Gifts from God – quite literally, that was what their names meant (or at least it did until she changed from Dorothy to the more elegant-sounding Thea), but it felt more meaningful in Ivan’s case since he was such a late arrival in their lives – a full 15 years later than Thea.  Their parents were both from religious backgrounds, and felt that the names expressed both their thanks and also blessings for the future.  She wasn’t sure what her blessings were.  In her late teens people had assumed that Ivan was actually her child, and she was sure it had put off any potential boyfriends.  She hadn’t intended to be an old maid.  Was 33 too young to think of herself like that?

Dad was long gone (not dead but departed all the same, despite his religious upbringing), and mum was likely to move into a care home herself in the near future with advanced MS (and not the nice care home that Darren’s mother had been in, but a cheaper one on the other side of town).  Mum rarely made it out of bed these days, so would not be expected to join them for dinner, which was one less thing to worry about, since she was incapable of managing the cutlery anymore, and Thea couldn’t face feeding mum in front of the Mackies.  She knew that if she did it with the same care that she had shown to Darren’s mother, her own mum would make fun of her; she planned to feed her before they arrived.

It was her own damn fault.  She had tried so hard to create a professional persona at the care home; she paid attention to her diction, and painted her nails and had a good haircut.  Somehow the person she was at home didn’t seem quite right.  She had spent her life caring for everyone else – always Ivan who treated her like a second mother, then dad (girls do housework), and now mum as well.  It was good to go out to work and be someone else.  She was Assistant Manager now, although that just meant that Marion the actual Manager (who earned 3 times as much as she did) could swan off and leave her with anything at the drop of a hat.

She had decided on a Hungarian Goulash – it sounded exotic, as though she knew about international cuisine, but it was basically a one-pot thing that could be flourished at the right time, with a nice glass of red wine.  Served with white rice, it sounded fool-proof.  And she bought an apple pie from Marks & Spencer to serve with squirty cream: that sweet stuff that didn’t need to be whipped.  Ivan loved that; he had a habit of squirting it straight into his mouth.  She bought a new one, just in case he had licked the nozzle.

Angela and Darren arrived on the doorstep on the dot of 7, smiling at the neighbour’s children who were gawping shamelessly.  They brought her chocolates.  They did what she expected: they admired her house, her table, and her beautiful flowers, (“how lovely and natural” Angela cried in delight, “I wish I had your gift”) and her food (“lovely hearty meal, what a feast” Darren said as he stroked his belly).  And surprisingly, Angela became wistful and said “Thea, you put me to shame – I spend my time doing stupid fiddly little things with food and here you are, doing something simple and amazing and you work as well, and take care of your mum.  Isn’t she a marvel Darren?  Maybe I should do something more useful with my time.  But I’m sure I couldn’t work with old people – you are so special.”   Darren patted her hand and smiled, with a hint of a tear in his eye. They were perfect guests.

At the end of the evening she saw them out with relief.  She had been calm and in control, paying attention at the right times to the conversation and still managing to serve everything with a convincing air of “I do this all the time; this is second nature to me”.  But she still felt angry with herself, for not allowing herself to even consider enjoying the evening, and with her deeply felt conviction that she would end up being friends with Angela.

Sunday Scribbles No.1 – The new one

Sunday Scribbles are just some of the beginnings of stories…I have all sorts of reasons (excuses) for never reaching the endings.  Lack of time, not finding the right voice, losing the right mood, having another idea, losing interest.  Whatever the reason, I just don’t do it often enough to get any better at it.  So here goes.  Just think of this as me ‘doing the scales’ on a piano.

The new one

She looked like Beryl Bainbridge in her prime, if Beryl Bainbridge hadn’t been a smoker.  Pause for a moment and imagine that skin, ironed and smoothed; sort of pretty but a bit thin-faced with too much cheekbone.  That was her.  There was an element of blackness in there too, but given the shape of her nose and mouth, that was obviously a short but useful blip in her gene history.

I wanted to be impartial and objective, but how can you not take on the subliminal impression that she was intelligent, with possibly a slightly acerbic wit?  I’ve never read a Beryl Bainbridge novel in my life, but I know her reputation.   So this woman became the new one, partly on my recommendation, and I always inwardly called her Beryl.  I had every reason to assume that she would be smart and sassy in doing her job; you needed a certain hardness to do the interrogations but honestly, it wasn’t the only requirement – you needed to know you could have a laugh with your co-workers, after all.  We aren’t machines.  It wasn’t that she said anything particular clever in her interview, it was more that she hadn’t said anything to challenge my stupid preconceptions.  And she made a little joke that wasn’t anything offensive or radical, it was a soft little jibe about how hard we had to work compared to our boss, but it was enough for me to feel she could be a buddy, and was willing to be nice.  She smiled.  Was it fake?  I’m a pretty good judge, and I didn’t think so.

Anyhow, the next week we were on the transport together to get to the jail, once she had been through all her induction stuff.  She acknowledged me with a nod, but for the rest of the journey her face was blank.  She didn’t show any interest in our route through the desert, even though it was her first time, as far as I knew. I had been a nervous wreck my first time.  We all knew the dangers from insurgents, so the team usually spent the journey scoping.  Not her.  Wow, I thought.  That is one cool customer.  Unless nerves have made her all buttoned-up.

Tecs was the guy in charge of disembarkation, and he was a bit of a control freak so he liked to make sure we were all in a neat line before he let us off.  Plus he made us show our passes.  I’ve been on those trips for three years and he never showed a single flicker of recognition.  But as soon as Beryl was near the front it was a different story – I could see his eyebrows adjust and the slightest flicker at the side of his mouth; he pretty much brought it under control, but I spotted it.  So who was this new girl if Tecs knew her?  Was she a plant, just to spy on us?

I’m a suspicious soul.  I decided to keep an eye on Beryl.  That’s what I do, you see – I study people.  I’m really good at it too.  They made me the Lead on the programme because I could read people so well.  They had made a mistake if they thought I wasn’t going to notice any funny business.

When I was in college doing my psychological baffles study unit, they used all sorts of tests to fox people and put them off the scent.  I was always top of the class.  And I was getting the most out of interrogating Gilbert, even though he wasn’t saying anything.  I was having less luck just lately because some idiot had put too much pressure on him so he was becoming wary and expecting death – what a stupid, stupid thing to do.  Anyhow, I was back with him and building up my boredom engagement with him again.

I had plans for me and Beryl to tag-team; I thought it would be a great way to get to know her.  So I asked Lucas to sort it out.  He was usually amenable to any of my suggestions.  It was going to reflect well on him if I got the goods, after all.  We were sitting in the briefing room when I made my suggestion, and Lucas, standing at the podium, paused.  That was another thing that freaked me out.  Lucas always just said yes or no.  And he said “have you thought this one through Stanley?  Do you know how violent he has become?” and I thought, since when do you care if someone is getting violent?  Since when has it ever bothered you if any single one of us was in danger?  And what I said was “whatever you say boss”.  So we didn’t spend much time together that first day.

It took me a week or so, back and forward, back and forward, to get to talk to her again on the transport.  I was dog-tired.  I had worked with Gilbert to build back his off-guardedness.  Jesus these people did not understand how hard that was.  I was dedicated and focussed, and I knew I was getting somewhere, so the tiredness was mixed with a bit of pleasure, enough that I felt sociable – tiredness usually makes me avoid people, but not this day.  I thought I’d be business-like with her; she was still blank-faced and hard to read, so I thought that maybe this was her schtick, all jobsworth and professional.  “Is it up to your expectations?” I asked her.  She was looking out at the desert but she turned and looked at me for a second and said “Absolutely”.   Eyes back on the desert.  Someone must have had a word with her about the danger out there – but then again, nice touch if she was just pretending in the first place that she didn’t know.

“That’s good.  Some people find it a bit boring after the hard-sell at the beginning”.  I waited for her to give me something.

Suddenly she grabbed my left shoulder and pulled me down roughly, crouching with her.  At the same moment Nellie fell.  There was no visible wound, so we guessed it was an NRG strike.  How the hell?  I didn’t know whether to add this to my suspicions or be truly grateful for how good she was.  But I thought it would be brilliant bonding material, so I went to town on how shook up I was – well, relatively-speaking that is, otherwise everyone would have known I was up to something.

“I need a drink, how about it” was my gambit as the transport pulled up to base.  But also “How come we don’t get proper protection anymore Tecs?”  I wanted to see whether he would pick up the bait, and whether they would talk at all.

All he said was “In line folks” just as he always did.  But I saw it again as she was moving level with him.  I know I saw something.  What the hell was it?

We went to the mess bar, but Beryl and I were playing cat and mouse with each other.  Everything I asked, she asked me something else.  I reached out to touch her cheek – just a whisper of a touch, but enough to unsettle anyone.  “You have great skin” I said, leaning back.  “You have great teeth” she responded, unsmiling but not unfriendly, “do we mate now or later?”  I couldn’t help my eyes widening; I knew it was happening.  She had trumped me.  Then she laughed, making it into a little joke.

“I want to work with you; you’re good” I said.