She had survived the first week of work and that was the closest thing to a blessing since they had moved. She was working in the offices of the city’s main hospital, tedious work that required her to read, type and file. Tedium was good when it could be found.
The other women in the office seemed nice enough, they greeted her with smiles, asked about her kids, showed concern when they discovered that she was a single mother, and made tea at regular intervals. Not since she was temping, all those years ago, had she ‘enjoyed’ an environment such as this.
Clean, safe and reserved, she concluded.
“I have a grandson that age,” the eldest lady had offered after the first week.
This was the door opening as the eldest lady, Anne, was the gatekeeper. Nothing too warm or overly friendly about Anne. Nevertheless Laura liked her; in the way that one might like a professional funeral director.
“What are your boys called?” Anne continued opening the door wider.
She felt that she was being quizzed by a teacher.
“Michael, he’s the eldest one. Last year at school. Christopher, middle one, a year younger. And Peter, the baby, he’s getting on to being five in December.”
A cloud of confusion drifted over Anne’s face.
“But I thought you said your husband died five years ago.”
Not so much a funeral director now as a police inspector. The typing fingers of the others stopped to hear the outcome.
“Peter was born not long after Simon’s death.”
Their audience waited.
“Oh that is so tragic, my dear.”
Laura never thought of putting ‘so’ and ‘tragic’ together in this manner. ‘Tragic’ was simply tragic and ‘so’ diminished it somewhat. Still, for their watching audience, this was riveting; something to talk about later.
“Oh, my poor dear, how did he die?”
For a normal person to make leaps like this into such a sensitive area would have been like crossing a potential mine-field with oversized shoes and a blindfold. Anne was not such a person. Her tread was straightforward, yet assured.
“He died in a car accident,” Laura replied. “I’d rather not talk about it as it still hurts.”
A moment’s cease-fire was followed by a more compassionate voice from the older woman.
“Of course, my dear. I apologise if I’ve asked too much. It won’t happen again.”
And that was the conversation ended.
Have I passed the first test? Laura wondered. Will there be more?
With the practised completion of the funeral director, Anne ran her palms lightly across the front of her black skirt (she always wore white blouses and black shirts – always freshly laundered ones) and sniffed the air as if finding some other duty to chase down. Then she was gone in the clean scent of her au de toilette.
“You’re okay, Laura, I think she likes you,” Jenny, another member of the admin staff assured her.
“I’d hate to not be liked by her,” Laura replied, as much to herself as anyone else.
“Yes, you most certainly would,” Jenny added without any wrinkle of humour in her eyes.
Upon leaving the general office, Anne, went straight to the room of Doctor Christian. Her three sharp knocks announced her and a voice form the other side invited her in. Doctor Christian was seated behind his desk and was reading from a computer screen when she came in.
“So, how is our new recruit settling in, Mrs Spencer?”
Mrs Spencer was what he always called her. It was the type of formality that she responded to. She breathed deeply so as to deliver her news.
“Yes, she has three sons. Husband is dead in a car accident. She is strong.”
Doctor Christian’s eyes watched her from afar, his attention seemingly divided between the information on his monitor and his assistant in his room.
“Three sons, eh?”
She loved his voice.
“Yes, sir. Three boys aged sixteen, fifteen and four. Michael, Christopher and Peter.”
“The Trinity? My lord what will they think of next?” he asked not meaning to be answered. “The two older boys are at the school whereas the little one is not yet there. Please, if it is not a bother, find out where she takes the child during working hours.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied and waited.
“It is okay, Mrs Spencer, we have finished our conversation. You may go.”
She turned towards the door and was surprised by a little clearing of the throat from the man behind the desk.
“Oh, and thank you, Mrs Spencer. This has been very useful. Just keep an eye on her.”
Later that day, Laura Andrews was greeted with a slap of rain as she made her way to the carpark. The dark nights had arrived early and a gusty breeze was chasing clouds across the sky. For some reason, she was running late. Actually, that reason had been Anne asking more questions about her sons. Laura remained at arms’ length, trusting to an instinct that she was unaware had been past down through generations of genetic memory. No matter how much Mrs Spencer smiled, Laura felt that she must remain on guard. Again, the rain attacked her.
She found Brian, the family Volvo, secreted between a row of newer cars, all glistening with autumn rain. He looked like an eccentric uncle at a family gathering, but she didn’t have the heart nor finances to replace him. Laura rushed to find her keys, no automatic locks here, and turned them sharply before pulling open the door with that familiar metallic groan of his. Once inside, her breath began to cloud the air. With a little prayer, she turned the ignition; it was like waking the dead, nothing.
“Not now, Brian. Not now.”
She remembered that, at times Brian liked a bit of choke. Simon had a way with this as if he shared some profound understanding of the workings of the car’s engine.
“Not too much or it will flood,” she heard him say. “Not too much. And listen to the engine.”
She could see his slight rolling of eyes being matched with by his stoic smile that appeared on these occasions.
“Okay, I hear you,” she said to nothing.
She reached for the choke and turned again. This time there was a little more enthusiasm in the vehicle’s response and she encouraged this further with a prod of the accelerator.
Remember, too much all at once is not good for it. Let it have a sip and get the taste for it.
Still listening to her late husband’s advice, Laura smiled with satisfaction as Brian sparked into life. She fastened her seatbelt, turned on the lights then checked her mirror so that she could reverse out of the space. The rear-view mirror was also clouded and she had to wipe it with the handkerchief so that she could see. When the condensation had finally been cleared, she gave it a cursory glance, put the gear lever into reverse and then lifted the handbrake.
The car jumped backwards at speed and into a loud bang.
A sharp exclamation of surprise left her as she quickly looked for the thing that she had hit. Hadn’t she checked before she started to move? She had been sure that she had. She had… she had.
She looked at her right hand which held the steering wheel and recognised its trembling. It was shaking with a will of its own. A flush of heat ran along her body, bringing with it the immediate perspiration that had been so commonly aligned to her attacks. She knew that she had hit something. Had she seen a figure at the last minute standing in her path? Had she seen someone just before she had lifted the handbrake? Had she knocked that someone over? Had she?
When she got out of the car to check, only space greeted her. Nothing more.