Breaking Free – Chins Up

“Shall we go on the tram?” asked Millie, fluffing up her fringe in front of the hall mirror as they got ready to go to the studios.

“Why not? I like the tram. Is it far to walk either end?”

“Nope.  Door to door, that’s why I like it. You look far too smart to be in the audience you know.”

Sarah’s face was panic stricken. “Oh no! Have I got time to go and change? I don’t want to make you late for work.”

“Gotcha! You look fine. It’s merely the fact that you aren’t showing acres of leg, tons of cleavage, have no baggy grey tracky bottoms, no pineapple ponytail, and no tattoos or piercings – apart from your two very discreet and expensive gold sleepers.”

Sarah looked in the mirror. She thought that she looked fine too. One of her go-to-court black suits, and a honey-coloured top with delicate black lace applique. She stuck out her tongue at Millie who was similarly dressed.

“Oliver has said that you can come backstage before the show and come to the mop up afterwards if you want. I think he’s taken a shine to you. I don’t mean in that way silly; he is absolutely devoted to his wife Elena. She’s really nice. You might meet her today too.”

“What have I done to deserve this?” asked Sarah.

“Doh! Have you never been headhunted my dear? No, you haven’t. I forgot. Ten years in the same office for the same local authority. Let’s look at you more closely – qualified social worker with ten-odd years of experience, looking for employment, no children or partner, able to relocate to the big bad city at short notice, with a friend already employed in media in said city. Oliver has already got your CV from Miles. Once he sees the work you did yesterday afternoon, he will be begging you to join us. That is, you do want to join us, don’t you?”

Her legs felt a bit wobbly; Sarah sat down on the sofa in a mild state of shock and panic. Millie sat down next to her and took her hand. 

“I should have said something last night, but we got so caught up in reminiscing that I didn’t want to change the mood. Can’t you see how ideal this job would be for you, Sarah? You were already using your instincts when you were watching the show last week. Oh hell, I haven’t upset you, have I? Do you really hate the idea so much?”

Shaking her head, partly in disbelief, Sarah took a deep breath, trying to marshal her thoughts into some semblance of order.

“I would love to work on the show. I would love to work with you. I just didn’t think it could be possible.  After those awful agencies I went to, I thought that there was no future for me unless I changed completely.  Andy told me that I wasn’t management material so there was no point in looking for promotion. “

“Oh darling, it wasn’t your abilities that were holding you back, it was Andy. Andy feeling too scared of losing you if you got promoted. “

“Do you really think so?” said Sarah trying very hard not to cry.

“I know so. I went through three years of a social work degree with you, remember? Talking to you over lunch, seeing how quickly you sussed out the issues on the show the other day, I was fairly certain, but seeing the work you did yesterday afternoon, convinced me that you’d be ideal for the job. The fact that you ARE footloose and fancy free, and in a position to relocate, is the icing on the cake. I believe in you, Sarah, and that will have to do until you start believing in yourself again. Now, are we going?”

“Y-yes.”

“Right. Chins up!”

Grabbing her arm, Millie propelled Sarah out of the front door and locked up behind her.  A nervous giggle escaped her as she allowed herself to be led into the lift, and out to the tram stop. Millie already had a transport season ticket, but she’d bought a ten-hour pass for Sarah on her way home from the studio. The bulk of the rush hour traffic had passed, but it was exhilarating to watch the commuters rushing through the city. Even at peak times, her own little town was far less hectic – and far less interesting.

Millie nudged her. “Here we go.”

They got up and joined the others getting off the tram, and walking across the concourse to the studios. Several of Millie’s colleagues hailed her as they headed in through the side door, and collected their security passes. At the front of the building the glass frontage revealed a crowd of people lined up in a disorderly queue. Runners in black moved up and down the queue, trying to keep people in order without much success.

Millie and Sarah left their coats and bags in a very secure locker room.

“The clients have a tendency to run off the stage – as you saw. Some of them take the opportunity to see if there are any mementos that can take home with them – or they used to until we stepped up the security. Right. Take a deep breath and follow me. If Oliver gets snappy, just smile politely and leave us to deal with him. You’ll get your turn later.”

Sarah followed Millie into the meeting room. It was gradually filling up; although the seats near the end of the table were left empty.

“Oliver, the director and producer sit down that end.” whispered Millie. “Do you want some coffee?”

Noticing that everyone else was getting coffee from the trolley near them, Sarah nodded her head, and was grateful to have the warm mug to wrap her shaking hands around, especially when Oliver and the other two important people came into the room and sat down.

Jenny, the producer, spoke first. Order sheets were handed out, and runners were allocated to each of the groups of clients. Mel, the director, concentrated on the focus for each of the three case studies. Millie had brought her own, and Sarah’s notes to the meeting and was gleefully putting ticks next to the points that concurred with the director’s notes. The first case was going to be concentrating on aftercare and support for the young couple, but with the proviso that the lad’s mother should be kept out of it as much as possible. Jenny skipped onto the last case.

“I’ll go back to the middle case in a moment, but I think Oliver may enjoy this one. We have two young couples. The male of one couple is accusing his partner of having sex with the male of the other couple, whose female is also accusing her partner of cheating. We have a double lie detector. I can’t tell you the results in advance, but I would say that it is likely that there has been some cheating going on. Probably the part that is most worthy of note, and presents Oliver with a difficult situation because we are daytime TV, is that both cheating parties have been observed by a third-party, copulating on a park bench on one occasion, and the female gave the male oral sex on the same park bench at a later date.”

A runner put her hand in the air. “How reliable is the third-party?”

Jenny grinned. “The park warden caught them both times. He takes a dim view of people having sex in his park.”

Oliver steepled his fingers. “I take it that we have the first male, then his partner, then the second female, then her partner, then the test results?”

“That seems to be the best order Oliver, I guess you can confront the female with the oral sex bit, and the male with the copulation?”

“Okay. Let’s go back to this odious Dutch woman who insists on deliberately calling me by a different name. How are we going to play it?”

“You’ve seen the interview tapes. She is rude, overbearing, and her story changes by the minute. He seems like a nice guy, but the publicity may not do him any good.  He’s been warned about that, but says that whilst there is any credibility in her allegations, no one will believe him – that’s why he wants to take the test. The researcher who has been minding her says that this woman is quite delusional about her actions. She feels it is okay to tell lies, steal and blackmail this guy, because the car he bought her had to be repossessed when the banks crashed, and he lost all his money.  She isn’t certifiable though, and she will most definitely make for a good show once she gets going.”

Oliver smiled. Sarah wasn’t sure that it was a particularly nice smile. He caught her looking at him and his smile became wider.

“One other thing to mention team. You may have noticed a new face in our midst. Her name is Sarah, she is a long-term friend of Millie’s, she is also a social worker, and once I’ve had more time to check her CV and the notes she has made for this show, she may well be joining us. She’s far too well dressed for our audience, but I would like her to be out there observing, and contributing to the mop up meeting this afternoon. With regard to the mad Dutchwoman; we’ve kept her as far apart from her ex as possible, and we must make sure that she is on a plane home this afternoon. Her ticket cannot be exchanged for a later date, and whoever takes her to the airport had better follow her through as far as you can. Two runners with her if necessary. Yes?”

Jenny looked over at the producer, and there was an almost imperceptible nod of agreement.  The meeting broke up then, with everyone getting to their various stations ready for filming.  Millie took Sarah out to her seat in the audience this time, and gave her a notepad and pen.

“If you think that you can take any useful notes, fire away.” She whispered as the audience began to file in again. “There are quite a lot of students, and a couple of their tutors in today so it shouldn’t look suspicious. Fasten your seatbelt. This is going to be a good one. Either I’ll come and get you at the end or I’ll send a runner. Don’t get cross and shout either. Leave that to the audience.”

And she was gone, leaving Sarah up on the topmost tier, watching the seats fill up, and the eagle-eyed security staff checking that all electronic recording devices were turned off. Sarah recognised one of the men from her previous visit, and he gave her a sly wink as he went past to argue with a student who was taking pictures with his phone.

The lights dimmed and Oliver’s theme music played as he entered stage right this time, instead of coming from the top of the stage as before. Sarah was curious about this change and made a note of it. The young girl with the baby was on first. She was little more than a child herself, and looked thin and tired. She had no family, and was living in a hostel with the baby. She had previously lived with her boyfriend and his family, but had to leave because his mother had been so controlling, and kept criticising the way she looked after the baby. Oliver was patient with her, encouraging her to speak up in a kind, but firm fashion, whilst all the time the boyfriend’s mother was hurling abuse from the pod room next to the stage.

The boyfriend was called out next. He didn’t seem to be a bad lad, but didn’t have much to say. He was obviously a mummy’s boy, but there something in the way he looked at the girl, and then at the picture of his baby son on the screen. Oliver picked up on it, and began to bully the boy into talking for himself. His mother had to be warned several times about shouting, and eventually she was allowed to come on stage and have her say.

She was vitriolic. She didn’t think that that the baby was her son’s, but if the DNA proved that it was, then her son had been trapped, and he was far too young to have such responsibilities, especially when the girl was hopeless as a mother, and useless at helping around the house. Oliver allowed her to rant for a little while, then told her to shut up and listen. The boy and girl had been looking at each other, oblivious to the woman’s allegations. Oliver turned to them, and held his hand up for silence. He crouched down between them

“Tell me, son, do you love her? Do you love your baby?”

“Yes.” He muttered.

“Are either of you happy being apart?”

The both shook their heads.

“Would you be happy getting back together if you didn’t live with his mum?”

“Yes.” She nodded, with just the slightest hint of a smile.

Oliver was handed the DNA test results. He looked at the three of them, and then at the baby on the screen. “The test results reveal that you ………are the father of this lovely boy.”

The lad left his seat and took his girlfriend in his arms.

“Right.” said Oliver as he stood upright. “Mum, you go that way. You two – go through that door to the left, and the aftercare team will talk to you about housing, and looking after your baby, who looks beautiful to me. You,” he said pointing at the lad, “Need to cut the apron strings and leave Mummy at home. She is not helping and if you two are going to make a go of it, she needs to be out of the picture for a while.”

A gobsmacked mother left the stage escorted by a runner. The young couple went into the next room and the screen showed them sitting down with Millie and a couple of other workers. Sarah felt very proud of Millie at that moment.

Breaking Free – The Flying Dutchwoman

The Flying Dutch Woman

“Hunnee!!! I’m hooooome!!!!!!!”

Sarah woke with a start and wondered where on earth she was.  She sat up and stretched, remembering that she had gone into Tom’s room after an hour of searching for his father on the net. The bed looked so inviting, and though she felt rather like Goldilocks, she kicked off her shoes and lay down – just to close her eyes for half an hour ago.  Looking at her watch it appeared to have been two hours ago and now Millie was home and probably wondering where she was.

“In here.” she called. “I was testing out Tom’s bed.”

Millie appeared at the door, taking off her purple duffle coat and unwinding her long red scarf. “Did you sleep well? I changed the sheets of course and Tom is so fanatically tidy anyway. How did you get on? I wasn’t overburdening you, was I?”

Sarah got up from the bed and joined Millie in the hallway.

“Come and have a look. I went through the Flying Dutchwoman’s papers, then I had a look at the other two cases. I really think Oliver should save the best one till last though.”

“You mean the park bench one?”

“Oh yes. End the show on a laugh, and send the audience away happy.”

“Exactly! The first case is a bit dull. Another DNA daddy situation. Both parents are barely out of nappies themselves, and the boy has a domineering mother who wants custody of the child if we prove that her boy is the daddy. I met her today. Foul woman and stupid son. Mind you – the girl is no better and she is adamant that if he is the father – and there are three prospective daddies – she won’t let him see the child because she doesn’t want his mother getting involved.”

“Did you meet all of them today?

“Aha! I have grabbed your interest! The Flying Dutchwoman is mad as a box of frogs and her ex-boyfriend is a very sweet man, but far too trusting for his own good. We usually put everyone up at the same hotel but we’ve kept him in a different one with a runner babysitting.”

“Why? Is he that vulnerable?”

“No. He’s a nice guy but Mrs Clog is desperate to see him, and we want to keep them apart until they meet on stage. It has more impact then.”

“And the Park Bench Pair?”

“They’ve both bought the new partners with them. Although I’m not sure they’ll all be friends after tomorrow’s revelations. The researchers are trying to keep them all sober so that they can do the lie detector tests this evening. It’s not a job I fancy.”

“Me neither. Where do you come in then?”

“After care. We’ll try and set up contact centre care for the would-be daddy if the DNA comes out in his favour, mop up the tears and arrange counselling for the Park Bench mob, make sure Mrs Clog is on a plane back to Holland before she does any more harm, and do some damage limitation with her ex.”

“I still think he’s a fool for coming on the show.”

“So do I, but he feels that the stories she is spreading around are stopping him from working, and the only way to change that is to expose her as a liar. Real shame she can’t take the lie detector test. I smell a rat on her medical status and so does Oliver. She is a big girl and looks horribly healthy to me. Before you say it – her ailments are not obvious ones, so we have to give her the benefit of the doubt.”

“Will Oliver though?”

“She’s already put his back up. She keeps on referring to him as ‘Ollie’ which everyone knows he hates. She’s been told not to, but she just pouts and tosses her hair back with a sneer – ‘Is okay. I call him whatever I wants. He will not make a fool from me.’”

“Oh, dearie dear – have they actually met yet?”

“No, we tend to keep people away from Oz until the day of filming. It has more impact that way.  We wouldn’t even let him see photographs of the Body Snatchers.”

“The what!”

“Male and female – totally tattooed and pierced. They both had stuff all up their necks, arms and legs, but he had his face tattooed too. They looked plain silly. Oz knew something was up, but he also knew that his reaction to them would make very good TV. His face was a picture.”

“Why were they on the show?”

“She’d just had a baby, and her mother was dead set against having the baby’s ears pierced – and her nose.”

“NO! What happened?”

“We had to get social care involved – apparently ears are okay but the nose isn’t – and I’m with them on that. The last I heard, the couple had left the baby with her mum and done a bunk – before anything could get pierced.”

“Thank goodness for that. Are we eating in or out?”

“Would you mind takeaway? Oz was fairly foul to some of the younger runners this afternoon. The director had to take him out of the meeting at one point. The price of success. We need more people really. The research and aftercare that we provide are quite resource hungry and, despite what the tabloids say, we do have an extensive programme of aftercare. What kind of takeaway shall we have?”

“Any takeaway is a treat for me. Strictly limited to work or visiting Jude, unless Andy was away and even then, I used to have to take the empty cartons to work to get rid of them. He would get terribly disapproving if he found pizza boxes in the recycling!”

“Chinese? Tom is mad on curry – for obvious reasons – so the only time I get Chinese is when I’m here on my own. Talking of which, have you met Buster yet?”

“The cat? No. Is he hiding from me?”

“Probably still fast asleep on my bed. I’ll turf him out.”

Millie left the room, and was preceded on her return by a very large and fluffy black and white cat, who looked at her with some suspicion before strolling into the middle of the room and starting to wash itself.

Sarah looked from the cat to Millie. “Is that a good sign or bad?”

“Good. He hisses at anyone he doesn’t like. Oliver came here once. Buster hissed, spat and dashed from the room. He’s washing to show you that this is his flat, but that he’s cool about you being here. He’ll approach you when he’s ready.”

“I can’t wait.” said Sarah. “Do you want to know about this other stuff regarding Tom’s father?  I think I’ve found him.”

“Really! Good grief! Any pictures?”

“Yes. He would appear to have aged rather well, and you were right about him being a bit important.”

“Not a Maharajah or something?”

“Not that important but as far as the caste system is concerned, and no, don’t ask me about it, that was what sent me to lie down in the first place, he is something of a dignitary.”

“I thought so. Whenever I asked him about it, he just shushed me and told me not to worry about it, and that a Western woman could never understand. I guess he was right. What else did you find out?”

“One marriage, three children and get this, they are all girls so Tom will be considered his heir. That’s if you take away the fact that his mother is a white Western woman and that he was born out of wedlock. Heavily involved in local politics.  His two oldest daughters are married.  The trail goes cold about eighteen months ago though. How’s that for research.

“A social worker with exceptional research skills – how on earth have you stayed unemployed?”

“I’ve only just started making an effort. Talking of which – can you put a word in for me with your friend Miles?”

“Most certainly. Let’s get some food organised first though. Rowing with Oliver always makes me hungry.”

“I thought you said he was disagreeing with the director.”

“Well, I might have stuck up for her a bit. Trying to find decent committed workers isn’t easy. Oliver thinks we can employ just anyone off the street but we’d be in a right old state if we did. He would be the first to complain if people aren’t where they should be, or the runners and researchers have let people meet up before they go on stage. Okay, food. What do you like?”

“I don’t know. Andy wouldn’t have takeaways, Jude chooses when I eat at theirs, and on the rare occasion, we had takeaway for lunch at work, I just paid my share and dived in.”

“Good. Carte blanche. I shall go and order up a storm.”

Sarah packed up her laptop and the papers, and moved it into Tom’s room. It looked rather small on his huge desk and as she set it up again, she wondered how Tom would take the news about his father and half-sisters. What worried her more was how Tom’s father would take to the revelation that his eighteen-year-old son was curious about him, and wanted to be a part of his life. Walking back into the lounge she picked up one of the more recent framed pictures of Millie and Tom. He certainly was a very handsome boy.

“Aha! Looking at my favourite pin up boy eh?  He is rather gorgeous. His father’s eyes of course and hair, but I like to think that he’s inherited some part of me.”

“His face is the same shape as yours, and his skin is quite pale really. You wouldn’t look at him and immediately think he was Anglo-Indian – not that that would be a bad thing …”

“…I know Sarah, there have been times in my life that I’ve counted my blessings that Ram’s skin was so pale. Tom’s still encountered racism however, and usually from other Indians that were bothered about this caste thing. I don’t know whether to write to Ram again. It didn’t work eighteen years ago after all.”

“What’s the alternative?”

“Take some time off. Fly out there. Find him and tell him what a wonderful son he has? What would you do?”

“You are talking to a woman who has spent the past ten years playing it extremely safe. I have never been abroad, let alone anywhere as far as India. That’s what surprised me about Andy going to Thailand. The word ‘staycation’ could have been invented for him. He thought going into Scotland or Wales was daring, Ireland was totally out of the question – and no, we didn’t go to the Isle of Wight either. He was averse to boats.”

“And he’s gone to Thailand! He’ll freak! It’s all boats out there. Why has he gone again?”

“To find himself apparently. It seems that living with me for ten years has repressed him. I thought it was the other way round. After what I found out about his sister Abigail, I’m not surprised that he feels a bit out of place.”

“What! What did you find out about Abigail? You haven’t told me about this.”

They sat down together at the table and Sarah told Millie about her prowler and the box of family records and photographs. The excitement of driving up to Millie’s, looking at the case studies and hunting for Ram, had pushed it to the back of her mind.

“Do you think that Abigail knows she’s adopted?”

“No doubt about that. Looking at all the reports of the previous fostering and adoption breakdowns due to her behaviour issues, she was well aware of it. I guess that’s why she is so defensive about Andy. I’m surprised she’s actually let him sell the house and run away really.  It makes me feel a little less like it was me that drove him away.”

Millie put her hand over Sarah’s and squeezed it.

“I know we’ve been apart for ten-odd years but I know that it wasn’t you that he was running from. He’s kept you like a caged bird all this time!”

“Totally over the top, you daft woman! I’ve held down a job in all that time, had my own friends, and if I was unadventurous then it was just as much my fault as Andy’s. I felt safe; protected. I saw no reason to argue with Andy about where to go and what to do – apart from the TV in the bedroom. He never approved of that. I think those were the most abiding emotions in our relationship – Andy’s disapproval and my avoidance.”

“And now? Do you still feel the need to avoid issues?”

“Nope! Bring it on. I don’t deny that all this freedom scares the hell out of me, but in a way, I feel like I’m just out of Uni again and starting over. Finding you has just reinforced that feeling, and well, I like it.”

Millie was beginning to look a bit misty eyed, and the ringing of the door buzzer came as a welcome interruption. She answered the call, and said that she would come down for the takeaway.  Sarah set about finding plates and cutlery, and set the table ready for Millie’s return.

It was a proper Chinese banquet; aromatic crispy duck, sweet and sour chicken, special fried rice, and a host of other dishes that Sarah hadn’t come across but felt very adventurous for trying. Lemongrass was not a success however, and Millie advised that she might want to avoid Thai food in that case. This caused a fit of hysterics as Sarah visualised a bronzed and hugely bearded Andy returning from Thailand reeking of lemongrass. She eventually managed to explain her laughter to Millie and that set them both off.

It felt good to be laughing with an old friend.

Breaking Free – Moving to Millie’s

The sat nav on Sarah’s mobile phone was programmed with Millie’s address, and her overnight bag was packed and stowed in the boot together with her laptop.  Out of deference to Roseanne – but not Abigail the night stalker – Sarah washed up and tidied round so that the house would be respectable enough for visitors. She managed to fit her briefcase into the trunk in the garage where the printer was stowed. She locked it and piled some old magazines and boxes on top of it, and decided that it should be enough of a deterrent should Abigail decide to root around in the garage whilst she was gone. Sarah rang Roseanne and advised her about her visit to Millie, and when she would be back. Roseanne was of the opinion that letting Abigail know when the proposed buyers were visiting would be a very bad idea, as she had spent most of the time singing Andy’s praises and running Sarah down – not things that were liable to ensure a safe sale. Sarah assured Roseanne that she would move out as soon as required; her belongings could go into storage temporarily and she could stay in a hotel if necessary. They parted on very good terms.

Millie had taken the morning off so that she could be there to welcome and soothe Sarah after her drive through the city. As it was, the journey went without too many hitches. Driving was one of those things that Sarah felt comfortable and confident about; she saw the trip to the big city as a challenge, and one that she had to overcome. Parked in one of Millie’s designated parking spaces, Sarah opened the boot of her car and turned as Millie hailed her from a third-floor balcony of a block of flats with a marvellous view over the canal.

“Come round to the front of the building and I’ll buzz you in, the lift is just in front of you. Flat 36, third floor. I’ll be waiting!”

Bag in hand, laptop over her shoulder, Sarah made her way round to the imposing entrance and pressed the door button. Millie buzzed her in and after casting a quick glance round the rather stark but elegant entrance hall, Sarah called for the lift, and was happy to see a smiling Millie waiting for her when the lift doors opened on the third floor. Millie hugged her warmly and took the overnight bag from her, almost skipping down the corridor to her flat. Once inside, Sarah took stock of her surroundings. It was a lovely flat, a bit busy compared to the environment she had lived in over the past ten years, but the wall hangings and ornaments were all to Millie’s taste and they looked perfectly in place.  Millie took Sarah’s bag into one of the bedrooms and Sarah followed her. It was undoubtedly Tom’s room, three walls of light blue, and the other in a darker blue, a couple of music posters and shelves of books. The desk was bare but had obviously been the home of Tom’s PC before he left for Cambridge.

“And this is my bedroom – even more cluttered than the living room I’m afraid – this is the bathroom next door, and that’s the third bedroom, which is a junk store at the moment.  Kitchen and dining room lead off the lounge, and the balcony is a wonderful place for breakfast – well lunch and dinner as well – weather permitting. what do you think?”

Sarah looked around her and smiled. “It’s wonderful. The views are incredible.  I love it. As regards the clutter – just because I’ve lived in a sterile environment for so long doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate other people’s tastes. Andy would go mad in here, but this is more like Jude and Dan’s house, and I always feel very comfortable and happy there.”

Millie hugged her again. “I have two big favours to ask though.”

“Anything.” said Sarah.

“Number one is work related.  We’ve got an ex-couple on the show tomorrow afternoon. She alleges that she was a victim of domestic violence, that she fled the country (with all of his belongings) because she was in fear of her life.  She has custody of her fourteen-year-old son from her marriage, and has made contact with her current ex-partner threatening to expose him to the papers as being abusive to her and son. He, on the other hand, works in children’s TV, was assessed by social workers as being the perfect father-figure to this woman’s son, and says that all he ever did was put his hand on her arm and ask her to stop screaming. She had him arrested, but the police report states that there was no evidence of injury, it was her word against his, and she had a history of making false reports against her ex-husband.

The guy says he moved out of his own house to prevent any further arguments, but whenever he arranged to go round and collect anything, the woman phoned the police and alleged that he was bashing the door down and threatening her. Finally, the police went with him and waited round the corner whilst he knocked at the door. She phoned the police and made the same allegations, but was rather stunned when the police arrived within seconds and threatened to arrest her for wasting police time. The guy went up to London for an audition, and she arranged to hand over the keys to the house when he came back. When he got there the house was left open, and most of his stuff had gone. She sent him a text from the ferry saying that she sold his stuff, and taken his daughter’s dog.”

“Bloody Hell!” said Sarah.

“Oh, there’s more!” Millie said as she wafted the papers in the air. “The woman sent a blackmail email to her ex-boyfriend and when he failed to play ball, she emailed the producer of the show he was working on, and threatened to wreck the show by exposing the star as having been arrested for domestic violence. Luckily, the producer was made of sterner stuff and told her to back off, or he would tell the police. That was enough to screw up the guy’s career for the time being though. He went back to live with his mother and spent three years keeping his head down. A friend persuaded him to request his police records, and it turned out that he had received a caution for battery – almost as minimal as ABH – and certainly nothing that marked him down as an abuser, and not fit to work with children and young people.  He started to build his life up again, was getting work and enjoying life with his old friends. Then three years after she’d run off, the woman – who had told him that if he ever contacted her again, she would contact the police – emailed him asking for money towards the dog’s vet fees.”

“What!”

“My thoughts exactly. She spun him a long story about her own poor health and gradually it would seem, tried to reel him back in.”

“You sound a little biased here.” said Sarah with a grin.

“I know and I mustn’t. I have to be fair. This guy’s friends warned him off – a leopard doesn’t change its spots and all that, but he seems to be extremely naive. The friends who have been supporting him state that he has a misguided tendency to forgive the people who shaft him. The woman wanted him to visit her in Holland where she now lives. His friends advised him against it, because she is still convinced that he owes her money and that he was abusive to her.  It was suggested that she is so devious, that she might use the visit to allege harassment and have him arrested.  He was persuaded not to go in the end. Anyhow, she has requested that he go on the show because she says he is lying about not abusing her, and she wants him to take a lie detector test. She however, cannot take a test to prove that her allegations are false because of the medication she is on.”

“Does he have to appear?  It could do more harm than good surely?” asked Sarah, her mind assembling the facts and sorting them logically

“That’s what I told him. We are paying for him to take the test. We are flying her over here, and paying for the hotel. Oz thinks it will make for good TV – her English is not that good and that will give him plenty of opportunity to take the piss out of her. He thinks the guy has got all he deserves for not listening to his friend’s advice, and for encouraging contact with the woman again. What about your opinion, oh social worker friend? From a non-TV point of view?”

“Can I look at the paperwork? I got the impression last week that Oliver knew more about the cases than was actually revealed on the show.  I felt he was overly harsh at times, and I wondered whether this was because he knew things that we didn’t.”

“I have to pop into work for a couple of hours this afternoon, can I leave you with the files? Loads of food in the fridge, coffee maker and pods, booze in the cupboard and I’ll make us dinner tonight unless ….”

“…unless what?”

“Unless Oz is really bloody-minded and I feel soul-destroyed.”

“In which case we either go out to dinner or we order up a takeaway.”

Millie raised her hands in salute.

“Nothing has really changed over the years, have they?”

“Only a little – we have matured Millie, and we have a bit more money nowadays. What was the other favour?”

“Oh God, yes. It’s about Tom. I suppose I knew this would happen one day and I really should have brought up the subject before but I was waiting for Tom ….”

“Let me guess, Tom wants to know more about his father.”

“I knew you were the best person to ask.”

“What DO you know about his father?”

Millie poured them both some orange juice and sat down beside Sarah on the sofa.

“I met Tom’s father on the rebound. I’d been living with an Australian guy who was running a bar. He got busted for selling dodgy booze, and I only got out of it because Ram interceded. He used to come to the bar a lot and I think he was some kind of local dignitary. Anyway, he whisked me away to his house – I had my own room I hasten to add. It was all very platonic at first but a girl can only cope with being wined, dined and spoiled by a handsome man for so long before she gives in. He was so very handsome. Educated in England and extremely intelligent. I confess. I fell.”

“But you came home.”

“Yes, I found out that he already had a wife and three children in Delhi. He said that he would be happy to have me and my child in the country, and flit between us. I wanted more than he could give me. So, I came home – if you can call it that.”

“Have you been in contact with him since? Does he know about Tom?”

“His name is on the birth certificate. I sent him a copy but he never replied. Probably gone back to Delhi. But hey, we have the Internet now and it’s a lot easier to track people down.”

“Leave me his details. With my new laptop skills, I can track anyone down. What time will you be back?”

“Subject to Oz’s mood but he likes to get home to his kids – so by five o’clock I guess.”

“No probs. I’ll go through these papers and make some notes first, then I shall turn into an Internet sleuth.”

Millie jumped to her feet and showed Sarah where she could plug in her laptop and connect through their broadband. Whilst Millie got ready, Sarah set up the laptop and got out some paper and a pen from the bag. 

“Can I write on these papers or should I make separate notes?”

“That’s a spare set. I have my own as well – we can compare notes later!”

Picking up her bag, Millie gave Sarah another hug and was gone. Sarah looked around the flat and wondered if she would ever be able to afford a place like this. The view over the canal was wonderful. She loved being up this high; the old red brick mill buildings and further away, the white stone turrets of the inner-city offices.

Enough gazing.

She sat down at the table and began reading through the research reports on the warring couple. The researcher had written the woman’s story in her own words, and the Pidgin English made some of what she had to say very amusing. The whole story was full of inconsistencies however, and she could already picture Oliver listening with mock interest, just waiting to pick her up on some of the more obvious falsehoods. It was a shame that the woman couldn’t take the lie detector test – very convenient.

The man’s story was more believable, if rather pathetic. She could see that the audience would be sympathetic towards him. If he was in children’s entertainment, he was less likely to be tattooed and pierced than most of Oliver’s customers. Even if he was telling the truth though, the mere fact of being on Oliver’s show would get round very quickly, and that could be almost as damaging to his career as being branded violent and abusive.

The researcher had also contributed a report on the man’s friends. They seemed to have done their best to give him good advice, and he had done his best to ignore it, believing rather foolishly that his ex-partner wasn’t really after revenge. Sarah made notes in the margins of the reports. It could be car crash TV. The woman was so convinced that she had been a victim, despite shedloads of research that contradicted her story, that she would probably argue that the lie detector test was false, the police reports had been fabricated and that she was far too ill after her long journey from Holland to sit on the stage once Oliver started picking at her. Sarah made some suggestions for damage limitation. She doubted that Oliver would take any notice though.

Millie had left her some cheese and crackers in the fridge, and the instructions on how to use the coffee maker and its pods. With food and drink on the table, and Ram’s details to hand, Sarah set to work with a very big smile on her face.

Breaking Free – Keeping Secrets

Sarah had something that she hadn’t even told Jude and Dan about – partly because she was a little embarrassed about it, and partly because she quite like having a guilty secret now that Andy had gone. She had been watching a crime programme, exactly the kind of programme that Andy hated, and would do his best to disrupt so that Sarah would give up on watching it.  The police were trying to catch a criminal but every time they went to his flat, he wasn’t there and the rest of the people in the flats denied that he’d been there. The crime prevention officer had suggested that they put small strips of see thru tape at the bottom and top of the doors. It was unlikely that anyone would notice the tape and provided the strips were very thin, they wouldn’t present any resistance when you tried to open the door.

Before she left the house for Jude and Dan’s that morning, Sarah had been very busy booby-trapping the doors in case Abigail visited. Sure enough, the tape was loose on the kitchen and lounge doors as well as the bedrooms and bathroom. There was no evidence of Abigail having cleaned. as Sarah’s bowl and mug were still on the draining board, and the usual smell of bleach that followed Abigail like some noxious cloud was also missing. The door to the garage was still intact however, so her printer would be safe at least.  Sarah, in sleuth mode, checked out the rooms that Abigail had despoiled, and came to the conclusion that she had probably been looking for the letter that Sarah had read out to her on the phone that morning. Her books were out of order and her briefcase wasn’t quite back under the bed.  She smiled to herself and felt very glad that she had put a note in the briefcase telling Abigail to mind her own business.

Satisfied that no real harm had been done, Sarah turned the TV on and set up her laptop. She decided to send Millie an email to say ‘thank you’ for lunch and the visit to the studio. Of course, she had used email at work, but that was on a networked computer and didn’t require an awful lot of thought. Jason had set up an email account for her and Millie was going to be the first person she emailed. She found Millie’s card and copied the email address details. She even managed to save the address into her contacts. Feeling very proud of herself, she sent the email off and did some more browsing to a background viewing of ‘The Antiques Road Show’. Millie’s reply came in around ten o’clock, whilst Sarah was dozing on the sofa after a scratch tea of cheese, crisps and a glass of red wine.

‘Hi Sarah, Get you! I see the new laptop has arrived then, and you’ve paid attention to your IT guy. Just got back from Cambridge having had a lovely weekend with Tom. I need to pick your brains about something. How would you feel about coming up on Tuesday morning and staying the night? If you are interested – and only if you are interested – I can also arrange for you to sit in on some meetings, see another episode of the show, and have me cook your dinner.  Nothing fancy – my cooking skills haven’t improved over the years. Tom is fine about you using his room. Fortunately, he is much better organised than his mother. Please say yes? Lots of love. Millie’

Sarah’s reply was sent speeding back and within a few moments her mobile rang.

“Hello! For someone who says that are useless with technology you seem to have mastered your laptop fairly quickly. How was your weekend?”

Millie roared with laughter as Sarah told her about the run ins with Abigail and was impressed by the forethought shown in Andy’s letter. After a moment’s hesitation, Sarah also told Millie about the tape on the doors. This caused a further outburst of laughter.

“How was Tom anyway? How was Cambridge?”

“Tom was disturbingly well settled in. I feel quite bereft. His rooms are extremely tidy, he has organised his studies and insisted on paying for lunch. It was a light lunch, and the two dinners that I paid for were extremely large. My hotel was nice though, and the bits of Cambridge that I saw were beautiful. I have a feeling that I’m missing him more than he misses me.”

“Oh, think back to our first weeks at University, Millie. It was such an adventure, and to be at Cambridge with all that history and tradition. Your Mum and Dad must be so proud.”

There was a short but significant pause.

“Sorry Sarah, I should have said. Mum died just over three years ago and Dad is in a home for demented vicars. That sounds cruel but they never accepted Tom – especially after he was born.”

“Oh Millie, I’m sorry. Why didn’t they accept him? They weren’t that old fashioned.”

“Perhaps if I had come home and borne a nice white baby, they might have coped, or explained him away as a relative, but my darling Tom is Anglo-Indian, and that was more than their middle-class morals could cope with.  They wanted me to have him adopted. I waited a week after giving birth, and packed up Tom and all I could carry, and headed for London. Are you shocked?”

“At their attitude, not really, they were always rather strait-laced, as I remember. Am I shocked that Tom has an Indian father? No. Why should I be? My best friend’s husband comes from the Caribbean, and their children have inherited their father’s beautiful eyes, and their mother’s curly blonde hair.  No racist bones in my body. Quite a few in Andy’s, but again that was due to his parents and their horrible middle-class values. I’m sure that they would have insisted on us getting engaged and married, but luckily for me they’d already shuffled off by the time I came along. I think that they passed the bulk of their prejudices on to Abigail, but Andy inherited a few opinions that set my teeth on edge.”

“You’ve no idea how happy that makes me feel. We had no problems when we were in London, and even when we moved up here, Tom didn’t have any issues with racism. I like living in a multicultural community. Life is so much more interesting.”

“It’s why Jude and Dan moved to their current house. Nasty racist neighbours at the last one, and with Jude being ill, she just doesn’t need the stress.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s wrong with her?”

“She has Myalgic Encephalitis or ME; one of those nasty immune system conditions. We worked together years ago. She met Dan at work; he was one of our IT contractors and they got married. Things were fine after Emily and Sadie were born. Jude came back to work after maternity leave and the girls were in nursery. When she fell pregnant with Chloe she was very poorly, and spent most of the pregnancy in hospital. No one seems to know what causes ME but stress certainly doesn’t help. She had to give up work.”

“It’s not constant though is it? I mean, I’d heard that you get good days and bad?”

“True. On good days you wouldn’t know that she was unwell, and she does try to keep up a good front because she hates people feeling sorry for her. On bad days she just has to stay in bed, and Dan works from home. In essence, she’s still my good friend Jude though, and nothing will ever change that.”

“Oh Sarah, it feels so good to hear you say that, and to have found you again. Which brings me to the other reason for ringing.  Will you be able to come and stay next week?  I know that you weren’t overly impressed with Oliver, but you did seem quite taken with the show, and there are some people that I’d love you to meet.”

“I’m a free agent. I’ll let Roseanne know that I’ll be away on Tuesday and coming back Wednesday night so she can let the prospective buyers snoop around as much as she likes.  Actually, I’ve decided that Roseanne is more of an ally than an enemy. She hates Abigail as well. Will we have time for looking into renting a flat as well? I talked to Jude about it today and depending on which part of the city I live in; I might even be closer to them than I am here.”

“What kind of accommodation are you looking for?”

“A purpose built flat. No garden. No work needing to be done. The opposite to this horrible 50s semi with its immaculate lawns and borders. Somewhere I can just move into and scatter my books and DVDs around.”

“Plenty of those around. I’ll have a look on my way in tomorrow.”

“Should I come on the train again or bring the car?”

“I have two parking spaces so if you don’t mind braving the traffic – I get the tram into work and back most days unless I’m going food shopping afterwards. Oh, you aren’t allergic to cats, are you?”

“Not as far as I know. I take it you have a cat then?”

“Yes, Buster. He’s Tom’s cat really but he tolerates me provided I feed him. He’s a big fat black and white Maine Coon house cat. He was a present from Oliver for Tom’s sixteenth birthday.”

“Sounds lovely. I have nothing against cats or dogs. Andy detested both because of the damage they did to his garden, not to mention the gardens at work.”

“Right, well I need to sort out some clothes for tomorrow so I’ll leave you in peace. Sarah, you just don’t know how happy I am to have you back in my life.”

“Me too. Laterz.”

“Oh yes, laterz potaterz.”

Sarah spent a happy hour flat hunting on the laptop. She was a little concerned about the prices, she knew that she would have enough for the deposit and a couple of month’s rental in the bank; and going on her previous salary, once she was employed, she wouldn’t have a problem either. It was the getting employed that was the difficult bit.

Just then Sarah heard a sound out in the garden. At first, she thought it was a cat prowling around but the noise was more like footsteps.  Who on earth would be prowling around outside the house at this time of night?

To give him credit, Andy had thought about household safety rather a lot, and whilst the alarm system he had installed was simple enough for even Abigail to turn on and off, there were a few added extras that only he and Sarah knew about because he had put them in to make her feel safer in the house when he was away. Very quietly Sarah walked to the alarm panel and pressed a sequence of buttons before whipping the door open. Instantly the front garden was flooded with light and there – like a stunned rabbit caught in the headlights – was Abigail.

“For goodness sake, Abigail! It’s a quarter to one! I’m not letting you in, and if you do anything to damage my car, I will call the police.”

Abigail found her voice. “I was just checking that you were okay. Please turn the lights off Sarah, you’ll wake up all the neighbours.”

“Go home Abigail. I know that you’ve been sneaking round the house whilst I was out today, and you weren’t doing cleaning either. I’ll just warn you now that Andy installed some other security measures that you don’t know about, and I’m quite happy to use them to protect his property and mine if you don’t scuttle off home and leave me in peace. Good night!”

Sarah left the lights on until she was certain that Abigail had left the premises, got into the car and driven away.  Lights were already going on in the neighbour’s houses, so Sarah quickly switched off the intruder lights, locked and bolted the door and went back to her laptop.

Working on the basis that Abigail was unlikely to return that night, Sarah closed everything down, put her dirty plate and cup in the sink and walked very slowly up the stairs. What exactly was Abigail trying to do? Scare her out of the house? Some chance, she wouldn’t go until she was well and truly ready. Andy and Abigail’s parents must have been pretty strange people to have raised two such weird children. Sarah had to admit to herself that she had never really been curious about the former inhabitants of the house before. When Andy asked her to move in, she just took the house on face value, accepted that his parents were dead, and never really asked any questions. As far as Abigail was concerned, her parents were saints who would never have approved of Sarah, let alone of Andy and Sarah living together. Piqued by a sudden fit of curiosity, Sarah went into Andy’s box room, and a few moments of rummaging, found a trunk containing old photographs and papers.

The first photo album was fairly standard; photographs of Andy as a baby, then as a toddler. His parents seemed like a fairly normal middle-class couple; a bit older than most but why were there no pictures of Abigail? A glossy white album yielded up the answer; this consisted solely of pictures of her, and at the very back a certificate of adoption.  Sarah sat back on her heels. Abigail was adopted! She wasn’t even a blood relative of her blessed Andy! At the bottom of the box was an envelope containing a birth certificate and some social work reports. It appeared that Abigail had no father as such, her mother had been a sixteen-year-old, who was made pregnant by her own father. The situation was hushed up within the family, and Abigail was put up for adoption. The first family who adopted her however, handed her back to the care of the local authority because of her bizarre behaviour by the age of three. A year later Andy’s parents had taken her on, and the social work reports held a catalogue of dysfunctional behaviour, expulsion and police cautions for violence. The bad behaviour appeared to cease once she left school and got a job in the local greengrocers where she met and fell in love, apparently, with the owner’s son. There was nothing recorded after that. Sarah packed everything away. She would never tell Abigail what she had found but it certainly explained a few things. Feeling extremely tired now she went off to the bathroom, washed her dusty hands, cleaned her teeth and climbed very wearily into the bed.

Breaking Free – The Purple Metallic Laptop

Sarah’s learning curve was steeper than she thought. Jason had left her with a list of short cuts and troubleshooting hints, as well as his mobile phone number in case she really got out of her depth, but just packing up the printer into its box and stowing it away in the garage, left her slightly confused about which of the leads went into which sockets. The laptop bag made life a bit easier because it seemed to have pockets for all the things that she needed to make everything work smoothly. She remembered most of the things Jason had told her the day before however, and was busy whizzing through international news before she’d even finished her Shreddies. The phone was curiously silent this morning, but whether Abigail had taken her threats seriously or was just lying low for a couple of hours, Sarah wasn’t sure. She phoned Roseanne just before she left the house and confirmed that there were no viewings planned for the day. Roseanne went up in Sarah’s estimation when she apologised for the incident on Friday. Sarah assured her that she had no problem with the estate agency or Roseanne – just Abigail.

Feeling more than a little light-hearted after this, Sarah picked up her laptop bag, locked the house up very securely and drove off to Jude and Dan’s house.  She stopped on the way to pick up treats and surprises for the children, she always did this if she was going to be spending the day there. Fresh coffee and the smell of roast pork assailed her she walked up the drive. Jude’s smiling face at the door followed by the clamouring of the children made her feel doubly welcome. Dan was very impressed with her laptop, and set about installing some other software that he said would be very useful to her.  Sarah took him at his word and went off into the kitchen to drink coffee and bring Jude fully up to speed on her situation.

Already fascinated by Oliver Standish, his show, and the very thought of being in the audience of a live TV show, Jude hung on Sarah’s every word and almost jumped for joy when Sarah said she would ask Millie about Jude getting some tickets.

“So,” said Jude as she basted the roast potatoes and put them back in the oven. “Tell me about Millie. What does she look like? I know you met at university but what else can you tell me about her?”

“Hmmm, well she’s quite tall – taller than me anyway – straight dark hair. It was very long when we were at Uni, but she wears it in a very stylish bob now. She always dressed like a hippy chick in the old days. I have a very vivid memory of seeing her off to India – huge rucksack, leather sandals, long flowing cotton kaftan, and more beads than you can throw a stick at.”

“And now?”

Sarah grinned. “Complete change. She was wearing very smart black trousers, a matching jacket and a red blouse. No high heels though – she says they spend so much time chasing people up and down the corridors that she’d inevitably fall and break her neck if she didn’t wear sensible shoes. Her looks have always been striking rather than conventionally pretty, she stood out at parties, but tended to scare some of the boys off because she seemed rather aloof.”

“And was she?” asked Jude, stirring a white sauce before pouring over a tray of cauliflower and broccoli.

“No, just as scared as the rest of us really. She came from quite a sheltered background – her father was a country vicar and her mum was dedicated to parish work. It must have been something of a shock to them when she came home hugely pregnant, and with no husband in tow.”

“What happened to him?”

“Millie was a bit reticent but I get the impression that Tom is Anglo-Indian and that his father was someone quite important, compared to the other guys she hung around with.”

“It sounds as if she led a very exciting life – unlike us.” said Jude.

“Oh, come on. You have Dan and the children, before that you had the job – and it wasn’t always as bad as it is now, was it?”

“No, it’s just that sometimes I think that I should have lived a bit more. You can’t help being envious of people who manage to travel the world, and embrace new ideas and cultures when you’ve never really ventured further than your own back yard. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dan and the kids more than I can ever say, and I wouldn’t want to change things, but there’s a part of me that would like to be doing something more exciting. My inner hippy chick if you like. Didn’t you envy Millie when she went to India?”

Sarah looked puzzled and thought for a moment. “I never really considered it. Mum and Dad wanted me to come home, there was a job waiting for me and I hadn’t formed any special attachments at Uni, apart from Millie and she was going off travelling on her own. I was fairly unexciting and all these years later, nothing much seem to have changed.”

Jude laughed. “What are you like Sarah! You get dumped by your very boring boyfriend, given notice to get out of the house you’ve lived in for the past ten years, meet up with a long-lost friend, and learn how to use a laptop properly, and all in the space of a couple of months!”

“Well, when you put it like that – I suppose life has moved rather quickly recently. Talking of which, next week is Operation Find Somewhere Else to Live. I have four weeks left apparently, although Roseanne told me this morning that four weeks is fairly optimistic, and conjured up by Anxious Abigail in order to get me out quicker.”

“That woman is so obnoxious. Has she nothing better to do than harass you?”

“Apparently not. She has a husband called Kevin, and two immaculately behaved children. I doubt if any of them dare give her any grief.  I was quite impressed by what Andy said about her in the letter though. It seems that though he loves his little sis, he thinks she is just as much of a pain in the neck as I do. Which is nice.”

Laughing together, Sarah and Jude went into the dining room where Dan was still tinkering with Sarah’s laptop.

“Come on Dan. Stop playing now and get the girls cleaned up, we need to lay the table. Lunch will be in about ten minutes.”

“Thank you, my darling, I am almost done. This is a really nice laptop, Sarah. What made you choose it? Please don’t say it was the colour?”

Sarah looked shocked.

“As if Dan! I told the salesgirl what I wanted the laptop for, and how inexperienced I was with computers. The fact that it is metallic purple is merely a side issue.  She was excellent and Jason, the guy who came over yesterday to deliver it and set it up, he was brilliant too and I can phone him up if anything goes wrong.”

Dan and Jude looked at each other knowingly.

“What?”

Dan shook his head.

“Andy really made you lead a sheltered life, didn’t he? I checked the paperwork. You are tied into a maintenance deal with the company for the next three years and you’ve paid a pretty penny for it too. I would have come over and sorted things out for nothing.”

“I know you would, but I have to learn to stand on my own two feet now, and if that means paying someone to come and bail me out, so be it. I have enough money for now anyway, and if I can get a job then I’ll be laughing.”

Dan packed the laptop away into the very stylish bag that Sarah had chosen whilst Jude went to get the cutlery.

“Come along girls, I hope you haven’t eaten so much chocolate that you can’t eat this roast that your Mum has made.”

“Don’t be silly Daddy. Is Auntie Sarah staying for lunch too?” asked Emily, the eldest of the three.

“I most certainly am.  Do you think I could leave this house when the food smells so good?”

“Goody. You’d better come and wash your hands too then, Auntie Sarah, even grown-ups get dirty hands.”

Sarah meekly followed Emily and her sisters out of the room and into the downstairs bathroom for some rather splashy hand washing and drying.

Lunch tasted as good as it smelled. Pork with crackling, crisp brown roast potatoes and the perfectly baked cauliflower and broccoli in cheese sauce. Dan had been up very early and prepared a fresh fruit salad with a variety of conventional and strange fruits.  Emily managed to guess most of them but was thrown by the lychees and dragon fruit. After lunch Jude settled the girls down to watch one of their favourite DVDs whilst Dan and Sarah stacked the dishwasher and cleared away. Jude came back into the kitchen just as Dan was making some coffee.

“Seriously Sarah, what are you going to do about work? Your lump sum won’t last for ever.”

“Oh no Jude! You sounded just like Andy then. I must admit that the idea of going back into mainstream social work doesn’t appeal to me at all.”

“But you are so good at it! You are so calm – even with really horrible people – and you come up with such good ideas for solving issues. I hate to use the phrase but ‘thinking outside the box’ could have been invented for you.”

“Thank you, but seeing Millie again, and the way that she’s using her social work skills – well it opened my eyes up a bit.  Millie says that Miles at the last agency I visited deals with all the companies at the Quays, and she said she would put in a good word for me.”

“Where would you live though? Are you sure that you don’t want to come here – until you get on your feet at least?”

Sarah smiled and shook her head. “No. What I really want right now is a nice low maintenance flat – possibly in town. When I was on the train the other day, I saw loads of old mill buildings that have been revamped into flats. I’d be no good with a garden; Andy would only let me sit in ours, and he did all the maintenance on the house.  I know my skills are limited, so it makes no sense to take on anything that needs any work doing. Don’t say it, Dan! I know you’d help with anything I needed doing but you work full-time, and you have Jude and the girls as well. I’ve had ten years of relying on Andy for everything, and now I need to stand up for myself!”

Jude clapped her hands and gave Sarah a huge hug.

“I am so proud of the way you are dealing with this. I never expected you to crumble, I know you too well for that but – and don’t hate me for saying this – this might be the making of you.”

“Finally! It’s only taken me ten years to discover that I rather like standing on my own two feet.”

“Have you heard from Andy lately?” asked Dan as he poured out the coffee.

“Postcards every week in writing so tiny that I have to use a magnifying glass to read it. Geographically they are very informative, but I am no wiser as to what he is doing. He did say that he hoped that I was well, that Abigail wasn’t irritating me too much, and that the house sale wasn’t too distressing for me. I have no return address for him so it’s all rather one way really.  I keep comparing his situation with Millie’s – at least Andy won’t come home pregnant but he might bring home a Thai bride – or even better – a Ladyboy!”

“Sarah! I had no idea that Andy was – you know – that way inclined!”

“He was never the most dynamic lover – not that I had anyone to compare him with anyway – but who knows what he might get up to.  Imagine Abigail’s face! I hope that he does find someone to love whilst he’s over there. He isn’t a bad man – just a very controlling one.”

Jude pulled a face as she set down her mug. “I think you are being very generous to him. I still can’t believe that he worked out his notice and planned his escape without letting you know what he was up to.”

“It wasn’t all his fault Jude. I was never interested in his things, so he could have been planning to steal the crown jewels right under my nose, and I still wouldn’t have noticed. We weren’t suited, and I’m glad that he had the courage to admit it, because I didn’t.”

The end of the DVD spelled the end of adult chat, and Auntie Sarah was cajoled into a walk to the park. Jude opted to stay home and put her feet up for a while.  Dan tucked a blanket round her and handed her the remote control.

“Find something non-stimulating. You can doze off then. We’ll keep them out for at least an hour.”

“Thank you darling. Have a lovely time.”

The park was only ten minutes away, and Sarah enjoyed the novelty of handling a pushchair, although Chloe insisted that she was far too big for it now. Dan took the hands of Emily and her younger sister Sadie as they walked down the road.

“Chloe thinks that she is too big for a pushchair but her legs get worn out on the way to the park and then Daddy has to carry her home.” Emily confided.

“Yes,” said Dan “And Chloe is a complete lump when she falls asleep.  She still has some way to go before she can manage both ways.”

There was a brief respite once they were inside the play park and Chloe had been installed in a swing.

“So how is Jude, Dan?”

“You noticed?”

“She looks very pale today.”

“She has good days and bad days. Luckily, I can work from home when things are really bad, and now that Chloe is in nursery, Jude isn’t so run off her feet.”

“Does the medication help at all?”

“Not really and the doctors don’t know what to do. ME is one of those invisible conditions that very few people know what to do about. I suppose the infuriating things about it is that when Jude has a good day, no one would know there was anything wrong with her, but on a bad day she can’t even get out of bed. Her family don’t really help.”

“If I can help, please let me know?”

“You do help, in more ways than you realise. Jude needs things to occupy her. It broke her heart having to give up work. You and Andy splitting up has perked her up immensely – I know that sounds weird….”

“…I understand. She’s always worried about my boring life with Andy!”

“Well, he wasn’t that challenging.  Are you going to sign up for any dating sites?”

“Good grief no! No disrespect Dan, but I rather like just being responsible for myself. Oh!  Sadie’s fallen over; time to go back?”

Dan ran over to Sadie and picked her up, stifling her tears in a bear hug. The sobs subsided on the way home with the promise of some more of Auntie Sarah’s sweets, and the favourite DVD again.

Jude had managed some sleep but still looked tired, so Sarah took her leave knowing that Jude would go off to bed once she had gone. Driving home, she thought about Jude and Dan and the fact they never seemed to have fallen into the doldrums in the way that she and Andy had. She did feel sad about Andy; not because she wanted him back, but because it took them both so long to realise that they both wanted, and needed more than they were giving.

Breaking Free – Do One, Abigail

The runner came back for Sarah, and led her along the corridors that she had seen previously on the screen at the back of the stage.  There were a few curious looks from some of the staff, but Sarah just smiled at everyone she saw and was gratified when she received some smiles in response.

Millie was waiting in one of the anterooms and patted the seat next to her.

“Well? What did you think?” Millie grinned.

“I have a confession to make,” said Sarah as she sat down. “I have seen the show before. I didn’t want to say because you were in a rush to get back and I thought you might not invite me to stay.”

“So, come on then?”

“My friend Jude taped some episodes for me and we watched them together. One of the women I worked with had a client who was having custody issues with her ex and they had a huge row on the show.  I felt really stupid when they started talking about it in the office. Not Andy’s type of thing at all you see.  So, Jude and I spent an entire afternoon watching episodes back-to-back. We ate popcorn and drank cider so we were a bit silly towards the end.”

“Did you hate it?”

Sarah wrinkled up her nose. “I didn’t actually hate any of the episodes. Some of the people made me angry, others made me cry, and for most of the afternoon I wanted to bitch slap Oliver.”

“That’s a fairly standard reaction. We all feel like that at times. Sssh, here he comes!”

Oliver Standish, his shirt unbuttoned a little more to expose his greying chest hair, strode into the room.

“Aha!” he said, “So this is your friend from student days, Millie. Do I merit an introduction?”

Millie and Sarah got to their feet, and Sarah shook Oliver’s outstretched hand.

“Oliver Standish, meet my oldest friend, Sarah Gibson.  Like me, she has a social work degree, and shedloads of experience.”

“Impressive. What did you think of my show though?”

“I was just about to tell Millie.  I’ve never seen behind the scenes of a televised show before. I was fascinated by the organisation involved in getting people on the stage, finding the right camera angles, sound, and all that running down the corridor after people!”

Oliver looked a little disappointed. Sarah carried on quickly.

“I was very impressed with the way you coaxed information from people, and how you can change from the hard guy into an empath though. It must be very difficult “

This seemed to appease Oliver and sooth his ego.

“I work on gut feelings, you see Sarah.  Did you have any gut feelings about any of my clients this morning?

“Not at first, but I began to have misgivings about whether Tina really was the good-time girl she was making herself to be.  I wasn’t suckered in by the mother who was allegedly being abused by her son either.

Oliver winked at Millie,

“When I read the research papers, I wondered how long it would be before the audience saw her true colours. Hideous woman.  We can help the lad though, and it looks as if Darren and Tina have patched things up too. Beki will be okay too, especially if she dumps that hideous jumper and gets her hair done! I like it when we can get them sorted out. Nice to meet you anyway Sarah – any friend of Millie’s – you know?”

With that, Oliver stalked out of the room again, leaving Millie and Sarah giggling like a pair of silly schoolgirls.

“Right! What are you doing now?” said Millie, grabbing a pad of paper and a pen off the table.

“Back home on the train – if you can call it home.  The house is a shrine to Andy’s beloved parents still, and when he left, nearly everything in every room sprouted envelopes of typed instructions and post it notes. Andy’s horrible sister Abigail is liaising with Roseanne the estate agent. The pair of them are busy selling the house from under me, but I don’t really care.  It was never my house anyway. My new laptop and printer are being delivered tomorrow, so I shall inevitably call on the skills of Jude’s husband Dan to come in and set it up for me.”

“Tom is my IT guy. I’m not sure how I will cope without him. He’s been gone a fortnight, and there’s only me and the cat. I feel quite bereft. God knows how you feel Sarah.”

Sarah smiled and shrugged.

“Numb, confused, relieved, free?  A whole host of emotions.  I am amazed that Andy has done anything as exciting as running away to Thailand. I’m not surprised that he kept it all from me, he’s always been rather secretive, that and the fact I wasn’t really that interested in the things that he was interested in.”

“Have they got anyone for the house yet?”

“Not yet.  I try to keep the place reasonably tidy and go out whenever they have a viewing. Abigail comes in and blitzes the place the place every week anyway.  She doesn’t touch my stuff; I make sure that it’s all stowed away.”

Millie doodled on the pad of paper.

“How much stuff have you got then?”

“Clothes and shoes mostly; books and DVDs, and my new laptop and printer.  All the furniture was Andy’s and I don’t particularly want the bedding and towels. I always hated his taupe towels. It won’t be hard to move out – when I finally go. I can probably fit all my stuff in the car. I don’t know where I want to move to yet. My experience with those agencies this morning has put me off moving up here really.”

“Wouldn’t you miss your friend Jude and her family if you moved?”

“No, Jude and Dan live halfway between here and Andy’s anyway.  They offered me their spare room but it isn’t really spare. They have three children, and their eldest should really have a room of her own. They are wonderful people and going there is like an oasis, but I want to keep it that way.”

Millie handed Sarah a piece of paper, complete with flowery doodles.

“This is my address, home telephone number and email. You’ve got my mobile number on the card. I’m going down to see Tom this weekend but I’ll be back Sunday night. Let me know how you get on with the laptop? Maybe we can meet up for lunch again next week?”

Sarah wrote down her address and mobile number for Millie.

“I don’t use the landline. All I ever get when I check the messages is nagging Abigail. I’d love to meet up. To have found you again after all this time – especially when my whole world has just been turned upside down – it must be fate!”

“I’ll see you out, they are sticklers for security here – not surprisingly.”

She laughed and led Sarah through another series of corridors, stopping to drop off Sarah’s pass and lanyard.  The tall, well-built, but rather attractive security guard told her that she could keep the wristband as a memento.

“Don’t throw that pass away Al, you may well be seeing this lady again.  We’ve been separated for years and I have no intention of losing her again!”

Al smiled and shook Sarah’s hand. He was surprisingly gentle for such a large and well-muscled man.

Outside on the concourse, it was getting dark and the array of lights were twinkling through the trees. After hugging Millie goodbye, Sarah hurried over to the tram stop and was lucky enough to get on one going back to the station straight away. Looking out of the tram windows, Sarah couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to work in such a big city after ten years in a small town where nearly everything was a familiar landmark. The train station was bustling and busy with commuters going home.  Her next train was in ten minutes so Sarah indulged in another cup of the kind of coffee that Andy would sneer at. With that in mind she asked for an extra shot of espresso, and a double chocolate chip cookie.

The train was in when she got to the platform and she was extremely lucky to get a seat. The feeling of contentment that settled over her as she sipped her coffee and nibbled the cookie, was similar to the way she felt when she visited Jude and Dan and yes, similar to the way she felt when she and Millie saw each other again.  It wasn’t a long train journey, and fairly quiet as once again, nearly everyone in the carriage was busy on a device of some kind. The coffee kept her awake however, and the thought that by this time tomorrow she would have her own laptop to play with made her smile. Best of all, there would be no Andy to look on disdainfully when he caught her playing Solitaire instead of writing up her reports and case notes.

Throwing caution to the winds, Sarah decided to take a taxi home instead of waiting for the bus.  Andy’s extremely organised lighting system made the house look occupied anyway, but Sarah was surprised to hear voices in the lounge when she unlocked the front door.

Dumping her bag on the floor and throwing her coat over the newel post in a manner that would have deeply distressed Andy, Sarah walked into the front room to find Abigail and Roseanne deep in discussion.

“Oh, hi.” She said, forcing a note of cheerfulness into her voice.

“Where have you been all day, Sarah? This is most inconsiderate.” snapped Abigail

“Not that it is any of your business what I do Abigail dear, I’ve been on a lovely train ride and met up with an old friend from university. Did I miss something?”

“Roseanne has found us a buyer for the house so I’m giving you four-weeks-notice to leave.” said Abigail smugly. “Don’t you ever check your messages? I left one this morning telling you that we had a viewing. I had to rush over and do some tidying up; you left a dirty bowl in the sink.”

If Andy’s face bore a resemblance to a goat, then Abigail’s was distinctly porcine. Her snubby little nose wrinkled with disgust at the thought of Sarah leaving dirty crockery around when there was a perfectly good dishwasher that her brother had provided for the inconsiderate Sarah.

“Okay.” said Sarah. “Is that it? Only I’ve had a long day and I’m really hungry.”

“Well, there’s hardly anything in the fridge, all that nice food that Andy left for you. I’ve had to recycle it today!”

Sarah grinned.

“That’s okay. I’ll order up a pizza – or a kebab – or maybe even a curry! Not sure what I fancy yet. Was there anything else you two wanted? Only I have it in writing from Andy that this is my house until it is sold, and the keys are handed over to the new owner. With all due respect I don’t particularly want to share my food with either of you.”

Roseanne got to her feet, slightly embarrassed by the situation. She quite liked Sarah, who had made efforts to keep out of the way, whereas Abigail tended to turn up at viewings, singing her brother’s praises, and being very rude about Sarah.

“I must be off anyway. There won’t be any cause to disturb you over the weekend, Sarah but the buyers might want to visit again next week, if that’s alright with you?”

“I keep telling you Roseanne, Sarah doesn’t have a say in it. This house belongs to my brother Andy. It was our childhood home and he has done his best to keep it in good condition.  I dread to think what our mother would say about Sarah having lived here all this time, and not even having the courtesy to marry my brother.”

“Woah! Hold on there, Abigail!” said Sarah angrily. “We never married because he never asked me. Just like we never had children, for which I am extremely grateful under the circumstances. Right, off you go, and I will do my best not to hold any weekend raves and trash the places. Stop gaping Abigail, it makes you look even more gormless. Bye-bye, you two.  You can see yourselves out.”

Abigail got to her stubby little feet and clutched her tasteless taupe coloured bag in front of her. Her face was red with rage and Sarah hoped that she might explode.

She didn’t.

“I’ll just remind you Sarah, that under the terms of Andy’s instructions – which were noted and verified by our solicitor, that you will be held responsible for any damage to the house and grounds until such time as you have left the premises permanently.”

“Abigail.”

“Yes?”

“Do one. No offence Roseanne, but you can do one too.”

Roseanne stifled a giggle and headed for the door with an angrily stomping Abigail in her wake.

Once she was sure that they had left the house, Sarah locked the front door and hunted out the takeaway menus she had hidden in her bookshelf.

Pizza sounded like a very good idea indeed.

Breaking Free – Hello Old Friend

“Sarah! Is it really you?”

“Millie?”

“Still Millie!” 

The face that had once been so familiar hadn’t really changed that much over the past nineteen years. Millie. Sarah’s staunch companion through university who had gone off to find herself long before Andy even thought of the idea. It appeared to Sarah that Millie hadn’t just found herself, she was doing very well for herself too. Her style of dress was a little more conventional than it had been when they were students together, but then so was Sarah’s.

Millie stood at the side of the table beaming, then threw her arms around Sarah in the biggest and happiest hug she had ever received.

“I want to say that you look wonderful Sarah, but I can see that you’ve been crying.”

Millie sat down next to her and Sarah wanted to cry again but not here, in this crowded coffee shop with the three people that Millie had walked in with watching her.

“What are you doing here? Are you here for long? Can we meet up for lunch?”

Millie’s questions spilled out like rapid machine gun fire.  Sarah smiled again.

“I’m visiting for the day, I have loads to tell you that will probably make me cry, so can we have lunch somewhere quiet where people won’t look at me?”

“Of course, I know just the place. I can’t stop now because we’re in the middle of filming a show, and we just had to escape for five minutes to let things calm down. It should be me that is doing the calming down, but I’m breaking in a new runner so I’ve left him to cope. “

She pulled a card out of her pocket and thrust it into Sarah’s hand.

“I’ll meet you here at one o’clock. The restaurant is just round the corner. Here’s my number in case anything happens. It is SO good to see you again.”

Another hug and a warm kiss on the cheek left Sarah feeling as if her world had just been turned upside down, but in a good way. Millie returned to the counter, and with a parting wave, grabbed up her coffee and joined her colleagues rushing across the concourse.

Sarah was in shock.  She turned her attention back to her own latte and a sticky cake that seemed far more appetising now. As her watch confirmed that it was only five past eleven and that left almost two hours of browsing in shops that Andy would hate, and probably buying things that Andy would hate too.

Yes!

Avoiding the camping and mountaineering shop, Sarah spent a pleasant hour in a shop full of the kind of weird and wonderful oddities that fascinated her and infuriated Andy; a miniature sewing kit inside a ladybird, a cactus shaped massage ball that she could keep in her handbag and use on her aching back at the end of the day, a sketchpad and some coloured pencils so that she hoped might reawaken her inner artist. This successful and emotionally- freeing shopping trip gave her the confidence to walk into the computer shop and open her heart to a very young, but extremely knowledgeable girl who took note of Sarah’s needs, showed her various laptops and printers and helped her to choose something that was efficient, smart and not too heavy.  Sarah paid up and arranged delivery for the following day.

Another result!

With a lightness of step, Sarah returned to the coffee shop and waited for Millie to return. She wasn’t expecting her to be on time; thirteen years was hardly enough to give Millie the ability to be on time. Dead on one o’clock however, a smiling Millie appeared and bestowed yet another hug.  Grabbing Sarah’s arm, she steered her around the corner to an Italian restaurant that was so full of red gingham tablecloths and empty Chianti bottles sporting wax dripped candles, that Sarah felt she had stepped back in time. A smiling waiter ushered them to a corner booth at the back of the restaurant, handed them menus and took their drink orders.

“Okay Sarah, what have you been up to?”

Sarah shook her head. “You first.  The last time I saw you, you were toting a rucksack almost as big as you, and heading off to India. I would guarantee that your life has been far more interesting than mine.”

Millie took a deep breath. “Maybe, maybe not. I’ll give you the potted version and we can fill in the gaps at a later date. Trust me Sarah, the woman you see before you is a world away from the girl you waved off at Heathrow.”

“You look a lot better dressed, and you’ve obviously got a good hairdresser.”

“Yes, well Chapter One of the story of Millie; I went to India, fell in love, fell out of love – times that by seven in short succession. After the seventh I fell pregnant, and came home to give birth and shame my poor parents. After Tom was born, I did some top-up training, put Tom in a creche and worked with the poor and needy of Tower Hamlets.  There have been several men that I thought could be potential husband and father material, but none of them turned out to be Mr Right. A friend tipped me off that a TV presenter was looking for a trained social worker to provide support on his show; I went for the job, we argued with each other, and he decided that I was just what he needed to make the show a hit. I don’t appear on set much but when I do I have to look reasonably well-kempt, hence the decent clothes and the good hair. Two years ago, production of the show moved North, so Tom and I moved up here too. My boy has done very well at school and college, so well in fact, that he has just left me and the cat to start training for a medical degree in Cambridge. I miss him. Your turn.”

Sarah shook her head in disbelief. it was hard to imagine Millie as a mother, let alone the mother of a Cambridge undergraduate. She drew in a deep breath.

“After you left on that plane to India I went home to my parents, got a job in children’s social care and led a very boring and mundane life for six years.  Mum died of breast cancer and secondaries in that time. She said that she had been too busy to go to the doctors.  Dad was broken-hearted and went downhill rapidly after she died.  I’m not sure if you remember them, but I was a change of life baby, and they were already retired by the time I graduated. I looked after Dad as best I could but I don’t think I helped him much – all those years of social work training, and I couldn’t put it into practice for the one man who needed it.”

Millie took Sarah’s hand in hers. “Join the club love, social workers are lousy at organising their own lives.”

The waiter brought their drinks over and in accordance with his suggestion they both ordered garlic bread with mozzarella and the special, seafood ravioli in a crab and sweet pepper sauce.

“More?” said Millie, raising her glass of red wine.  Sarah smiled as their glasses met.

“A friend persuaded me to take Dad on a tour of one of the local stately homes. He wasn’t really that interested, but he’d always enjoyed gardening so I thought he’d like the gardens there. They were beautiful.  It was a mistake though. It just reminded him of Mum, and he sat down on a bench and cried like a baby.  One of the gardeners came over; he seemed a nice chap and he helped me get Dad back to the car so I could take him home.  He asked for my phone number. I thought it was because he was interested in Dad so I gave it to him.”

Sarah took a long sip of her wine.

“Dad had a stroke that night and was unable to call for help. By the time I went into him with a cup of tea the next morning the damage was done. He died three weeks later in a hospice. The nice gardener – Andy – called to ask after Dad several times, and even came to see him in the hospice.  Andy was very kind to me, a real gentleman, and he stopped me from falling apart when Dad finally died. I clung to Andy like a drowning woman, and inevitably our friendship grew into something more serious.”

“You got married?” Millie asked.

“No. That was against Andy’s principles.  I found out later that he had a great many principles but at the time he was all that I had. I sold the house and moved in with him. We were together for ten years. He was promoted to head gardener, and I worked my way up to senior practitioner level. I suppose you could say that I led a double life; competent and composed at work, subservient to Andy when at home, although of late I have been rebelling. I met Jude at work, she is my very best friend. She’s given up social work now because she has three children to look after.  Andy and I agreed that we didn’t want children though, and he had a vasectomy because he thought I was too scatty to remember to take the pill.”

“Oh nice! I can’t wait to meet him.”

“You’ll have to go to Thailand. Six weeks ago, he dumped me. Told me he was going to Thailand and selling the house, so I’d have to find somewhere else to live. In for a penny in for a pound, I took voluntary redundancy, and took the train up here today armed with my CVs, in order to find a new job.”

“Oh Sarah! You are well rid of him. It wasn’t Andy you were crying about, were you?”

“No.”

Sarah shook her head and explained about the disastrous agency visits.

“Miles is okay,” said Millie. “We use Miles when we need any extra staff. I’m not surprised that you opened up to him, he has the reputation of being something of a ladies’ man.”

This news cheered Sarah a little.  She hadn’t been looking forward to starting the rounds of agencies all over again.

The garlic bread arrived and Sarah steered the conversation back to Millie’s present job.

“Oliver is the presenter of the show – you’ve undoubtedly heard of him although I don’t suppose you watch it.  He specialises in stripping away facades and getting to the ‘truth’.  Most of the people who come on his show have had a very colourful past; drink, drugs, prostitution, domestic violence, custody issues. The show provides counselling, detox, rehab, and organised access, and that is where I come in. I run the social work side for the psychologist.  I make all the arrangements for after care, and sometimes I get called in to give an opinion or mediate with the really difficult cases. Oz isn’t a social worker or a psychologist, but he is very skilled at getting people to open up and talk about their issues.  He opens Pandora’s box and I have to jam the lid back down again.”

Wiping her garlicky hands on the napkin, Sarah said “You don’t like him much, do you?”

“For the first couple of months I hated him, and hated the show, then I realised that for every ten awful chavs who just wanted the publicity, there was always going to be one that wanted help, and that we could provide it in a way that no one else can. Oz is not the nicest of people, but he is honest about what he does and how he feels. We frequently disagree but that adds to the interest. More wine or some water?”

“Water please. I have to get home on the train yet.”

The waiter brought plates of steaming ravioli in a delicate peach coloured sauce. It was heaven, and there was little conversation until they had both cleaned their plates. Sarah excused herself and went off to the lavatory, a haven of black tiling and white porcelain with her favourite hand driers. When she returned, she found Millie poring over the dessert menu with a big grin on her face.

“Guess what! I just phoned Oz, and he said I could smuggle you into the audience this afternoon – only if you want to and you don’t have any other plans, mind?”

It might have been the wine, or the Marsala-filled zabaglione that finished off their dinner, but Sarah felt light-headed and ridiculously happy as Millie took her arm and led her over to the studios. She had to fill in several security forms in order to get a pass. ‘Access All Areas’ made her feel incredibly important.

Millie introduced her to people as they walked through corridors and small ante-rooms. Sarah smiled back at everyone; they were all very busy but found time to say hello to Millie’s long-lost friend. By the time they got to the studio, people were beginning to filter in; shown to their seats by a number of black clad assistants wearing headsets.  Millie took Sarah to a seat right at the top of the tiered seating.

“You’ll be okay here. Just follow the instructions from the floor manager and stay put whatever happens. And Sarah …”

“Yes?”

“Welcome to my world. It’s a joy to have found you again.”

Breaking Free – Living Alone

As Andy had pointed out, in yet another neatly typewritten note left in the cupboard where he kept his muesli and oats, and her chocolate Shreddies, he was leaving her on a Friday so that she had the weekend to get over it, and put on a brave face when she returned to work on the following Monday.

Two days to get over ten years of unmarried tolerance.

Jude had done her the world of good coming over with food and wine the night Andy flew out of her life.  Emboldened by red wine, the two of them had ignored all of Abigail’s calls, giggling like two schoolgirls, as the voice on the phone grew angrier and more frantic by the minute.

They stayed up late; watching rubbish films and nibbling on pieces of kebab meat. Sarah found other notes from Andy positioned strategically around the house; in the bathroom cabinet a yellow post-it reminded her that she had to make a dentist appointment, another note was sellotaped to the wall of the garage requesting very politely that Sarah did not use his mountain bike.  The bike was firmly chained to the garage wall in three places, and whilst Sarah contemplated buying a bolt cutter and giving the freed mountain bike to the first homeless person she saw, she decided that she would probably buy the wrong bolt cutters and have to leave the mangled mess for Andy to crow over when he returned.

The she remembered.

He wasn’t returning.

At least, not to this house.  This house was for sale and, if Roseanne the estate agent was to be believed, there were dozens of couples dying to buy it. Roseanne and Abigail had turned up at the house on the Sunday morning. Sarah let them in and half-heartedly apologised for not answering the phone. The she delivered some more apologies for the fact that the house was already a tip after only one and a half days of being Andy-free. Abigail brought out a frilled apron and a pair of Marigolds from her capacious handbag.  Sarah felt nauseous but watched sullenly from the sofa, whilst Abigail moved around the house like a miniature whirlwind; tidying up, wiping down, and separating the rubbish from the recycling. Roseanne wandered around the house too, identifying the fixtures and fittings that were to be sold with the house. Sarah felt strange; the numbness she had felt when Andy left, returned like protective armour against Abigail’s shrill complaints, and Roseanne’s endless advice about moving on and moving out sooner rather than later.

On the Monday morning Sarah phoned in sick.

She wasn’t lying, she was sick.  Sick and tired of finding Andy’s notes, and listening to the endless litany of Abigail’s phone messages. She and Jude had talked long into the night about what the future could hold for Sarah, and came to the conclusion that now was the time to make some drastic changes. Although she had worked her way through the ranks of social care to a reasonably senior position, Sarah had become disenchanted with the work several years ago.  She refused to apply for further promotions, and was known to be obstinate and bloody-minded, especially when her department started employing trouble-shooters with no social care experience to run the department and cut down on expenditure.

There had been mutterings in the office about voluntary redundancies but most of the staff, like Sarah, were afraid of change and decided to stay put in the safety zone.

“Except I’m not afraid of change now!”

Sarah said to herself as she jumbled up the cutlery in the drawer, and left an empty glass tumbler unwashed on the draining board.

“Change has been foisted on me and I’m going to do something about it.”

Jude was always there for her, if not in person, at least at the other end of a phone, but she had three children and a kind husband whilst Sarah had – well nothing much really. After having a long phone conversation with her manager, Sarah applied for, and was granted voluntary redundancy. She had to work a month’s notice but would get a reasonable lump sum that would tide her over until she knew what she wanted to do.

She didn’t want to carry on living in Andy’s house. He had put notes and post its in the most ridiculous places, and after six weeks she was still finding them, and what had seemed like a concerned fondness for so many years, was now seen as the act of a control freak. Jude had offered Sarah the use of their spare room, but it wasn’t really spare because it would mean moving their eldest child back in with her sisters. She had thanked Jude profusely, but explained that she felt the need to live in a completely new space. She just didn’t know where that space would be.

Three days after leaving her office for the last time, Sarah decided to go on a train ride. She and Andy had been on trains before, but they were always unusual, and had been restored by men in navy boiler suits, who enjoyed the way Andy bombarded them with technical questions whilst Sarah looked on, reading old station posters until she knew them off by heart.

This was an intercity train ride, taking her away from her provincial town and into the heart of things. After leafing through a couple of social work magazines, she’d drawn up a list of agencies in the city that she liked the look of, and with a sheaf of CVs in her bag, she was armed and ready to see what a change of environment could do for her. She had taken her good suit to the dry cleaners and ironed a clean blouse – Andy had left a post-it on the iron which she screwed up and threw away, then retrieved and straightened it out because she couldn’t remember how to use the iron. With hair freshly washed, and a reasonable amount of make-up applied, Sarah had looked in the hall mirror before she left the house and decided that she looked very employable.

She had always been on the thin side and Andy’s healthy diet had kept her that way – despite the chocolate Shreddies.  People were supposed to lose weight when they split up; she was sure that she had read it somewhere in one of the glossy magazines she now felt able to buy without Andy snorting with derision.  Drinking wine and eating unhealthy food had caused Sarah to put on a little weight, but she could still get into her clothes, and Jude’s husband Dan said she looked better for it.

The thought of going into an agency and trying to sell herself seemed a little daunting but then she turned the situation on its head, and reminded herself that she had been going into strange houses and telling people how to live their lives for so many years now, that her nerves abated within seconds and the calm, controlled Sarah took over.

Watching the houses and fields go by, Sarah wondered idly what Andy was up to now. He sent her a postcard each week; his tiny writing full of descriptions of the places he had been and the people he had met.

They were SO boring.

She had to face up to it. Andy was boring too. He hadn’t made her feel happy or excited, or even interested for years. They had just plodded on; two people sharing the same airspace but with no interests in common, and no desire to encourage an interest either. Nevertheless, she had pinned each one, picture side up, on the kitchen noticeboard as a record of his travels. It appeared that he still hadn’t found himself though.

Looking around the fairly crowded carriage, Sarah noticed that nearly everyone was plugged into a computer device of some kind; large unwieldy laptops that took up all the room on the few tables in the carriage, smaller brightly coloured tablets and Kindles. She felt something of an oddity, and was reluctant to bring a dog-eared and much-loved paperback out of her bag. Despite his desire for efficiency, Andy despised modern technology and would just about tolerate her bringing her work laptop and mobile home. When she gave up her job and lost both useful items, Jude and Dan took her shopping for a new mobile phone that seemed to possess more apps than she knew what to do with, but had the advantage that neither Abigail nor Roseanne knew the number. When Sarah’s phone rang now, she knew that it was either a friendly call or someone wanting to sell her a new kitchen or boiler system. Whenever that happened, she told them that she was only renting, and passed on Abigail’s phone number, a smile of secret glee on her face when she thought of how much this would irritate Andy’s unlovely sister.

Looking around at her travelling companions, Sarah resolved to buy a new laptop if she did nothing else today.  She would go into one of those big stores, throw herself at the mercy of some squeaky-voiced youth that knew all there was to know about technology, and get herself kitted out with an all-singing, all-dancing, lightweight something or other in an unusual but functional bag. The thought of polluting the non-technological atmosphere of Andy’s house with such an item made her feel very happy, and it was with a lightness of step that she got off the train in the vast, glassy dome that was the station.

Dan and Jude had very kindly set up the sat nav on her phone and loaded in the addresses of the three agencies that seemed most likely to want to utilise her skills and talents. The first two were in easy reach of the station, but she would need to get a tram out to the third and had resolved to treat herself to lunch at the Quays, and a little retail therapy afterwards.

It was a long time since she’d had to attend any kind of a formal interview so Jude had given her some tips; don’t tell them that you are about to become homeless, don’t tell them that your partner of ten years has just left you and run off to Thailand, and most of all, don’t tell them that you took voluntary redundancy because you had become so bored and frustrated by your job that you had to force yourself to go in every day. Instead, she was to tell them that she was relocating to the city because she was looking for a new challenge, that she was flexible with regard to location and client group, and was available for work within a week. Jude also went through Sarah’s CV and updated it removing most of the information that had appeared so vital when she’d put it together ten years ago. Condensed down to two pages, even Sarah thought it looked impressive as Dan printed off several copies for her to take away.

A printer! She’d have to buy a printer too, but that would be too heavy to lug around with her today. Sarah shook her head. She was thinking of the large unwieldy printer stations dotted around the offices at work. They must make smaller ones than that surely?

She walked purposefully to the first agency, experiencing only the smallest hint of nervousness as she entered, and introduced herself to a bored-looking receptionist who took her CV and ushered her over to a row of chairs that had seen better days. There were two other people sitting on the chairs and Sarah felt perplexed as she took covert glances at them.

The male had huge holes in his ears and nostrils, made by the large ear and nose rings inserted there.  She could also see a line of stud piercings over one eyebrow. He had bothered to put on a shirt and tie, but the black tie looked out of place against his multi-coloured Hawaiian shirt, torn jeans and tattered red Converse boots. He wore no socks and looked about sixteen.

The female was no better. From the feet up she wore huge studded platform boots, fishnet tights that had seen better days, a tiny black net skirt and a yellow vest that showed her multitude of tattoos off to great advantage. Her hair was a back-combed nest of unfeasible green, and her tiny face sported even more piercings than her male companion. She might have been pretty once.

The receptionist beckoned Sarah over and led her down a dark corridor.  She knocked on the door before opening it and announcing, “Sarah Gibson to see you. Her CV is on the top of the pile.”

It was a very short interview.

The owner of the agency was very impressed by Sarah’s CV and would need to make some enquiries, but she was sure that she could find something suitable within the next month or so. In the meantime, had Sarah thought of doing domestic cleaning, caring or shop work? No, Sarah hadn’t and she didn’t want to, either. They parted with a handshake that convinced neither of them that a working partnership had been formed.

The second agency was even worse.

It appeared to be a meeting place for the disenfranchised youth of the area; the primary attraction being a free hot drinks machine, a large flat screen television, and armchairs. Sarah didn’t wait to be seen, she just dropped off her CV and got out of the door as quickly as she could.

Dispirited, Sarah decided to find the tram stop and start her retail therapy early.

The movement of the tram soothed her to some extent, and its low speed meant that she could take in the beautiful architecture of the city, and work out where the decent shops were. She liked the Quays though. It was one of the few places that Andy had taken her to that she actually appreciated.  Well, she didn’t really appreciate the War Museum, but she had been given the opportunity to go off and browse in the nearby outlet centre, provided that she didn’t buy anything for the house. She didn’t buy anything at all. She just looked and enjoyed.

The third agency was in the middle of the Quays, and a sudden change of mind inspired Sarah to get it over and done with so that she could enjoy the rest of the day. Walking in through the plate glass doors, she was glad that she hadn’t come here laden with shopping bags and tired from her exertions. The only other person waiting to be seen was wearing similar clothes to Sarah. No piercings, tattoos or strange coloured hair, she too was clutching her bag a little nervously and shot a tentative smile at Sarah when she sat down. Sarah smiled back.

The interview this time was more complex. The male interviewer went through Sarah’s CV with a fine toothcomb, and before long she found herself admitting to all the things Jude had told her not to say, and even, worst of all, getting slightly tearful when she talked about the break-up of her relationship. She was handed a box of scented tissues and tried to dab daintily although she desperately wanted to give her nose a good blow. Her CV was accepted however, and her hand was shaken very firmly on leaving. The interviewer and owner of the agency, now known as Miles, pointed her in the direction of a nice coffee shop. Sarah felt slightly more optimistic than she had at the previous two agencies and decided to treat herself to a large latte and a sticky cake to go with it. She had just sat down on a seat near the large glass windows when she heard a familiar but long-lost voice calling her name from the door.

Breaking Free – A Sign of the Times

The ‘For Sale’ sign outside her house came as a bit of a shock. She didn’t remember putting it up for sale and she didn’t recall her partner Andy saying anything about it. Sarah parked her car outside the house, grabbed her bag and files, locked up and went to inspect the sign again. It looked new.  Had the estate agent made a mistake and hammered it into the garden of the wrong house? She looked at the houses either side of hers and shook her head. Surely one of them would have said something; they were on good terms with all their neighbours and putting your house up for sale was the sort of thing you let other people know about.

Wasn’t it?

Still puzzled, Sarah let herself in and put the files on the hall table, bag on the floor and keys in the designated bowl. Andy bought the bowl for her; partly out of affection and partly exasperation as they were late for yet another of his trainspotter meetings because she couldn’t find her keys. It was a very pretty bowl. White pottery with a pattern of delicate poppies and cornflowers. It was feminine in a way that, try as she could, Sarah could never achieve. She didn’t do little dresses with frills, spend hours over her hair and makeup, nor squeeze her feet into fashionably high and uncomfortable shoes.  She was aware of the fact that she would never be Andy’s ideal woman, but then for the last ten years, he had been anything other than her ideal man.

“Andy? Hello?” She shrugged off her coat and hung it on the neat but characterless coat stand.

“Up here.” Came the reply. His voice sounded odd, and she wondered what she had done this time. Taking extra care to put her boots neatly on the shoe rack, Sarah walked slowly up the stripped pine stairs. He wasn’t in their bedroom. She turned around and went into the guest bedroom, not that they ever had any guests. Andy stood behind the bed, which was covered with clothes, toiletries, and a very large rucksack that still bore the label of the outdoor pursuits shop Andy loved to frequent. He looked up and gave a slightly guilty smile that made him look even more goat-like than he normally did.

She frowned.

“Some idiot’s gone and put a For Sale sign up in our front garden. I was just going to ring the estate agents and ask them to remove it. What’s all this Andy? Are we going somewhere?”

“Erm, WE aren’t. I am. The sign isn’t a mistake. I’m putting the house up for sale.”

“Our house? Why?”

“My house. My mother’s house originally. I’m going away.”

“But – but – we’ve lived here for ten years. Where are you going?”

Sarah sat down on the very edge of the already crowded bed.  She didn’t like the house. She had never tried to remove the remnants of Andy’s childhood, and his mother’s desire for a neat, orderly and feminine environment.  Any attempts on her part had been gently but firmly rebuffed, so she gave up eventually.

“We aren’t going anywhere Sarah. I’m leaving tonight and I’ve put the house sale in the hands of my solicitors. You can stay here until the house is sold of course, but the estate agent thinks that she can get a fairly quick sale.”

Brain whirring as she tried to process Andy’s words, Sarah sat immobile on the bed. Andy continued packing things into the rucksack.  He was an excellent packer; she would say that for him. He folded clothes very precisely, and knew exactly which of the Velcro pockets of the rucksack would be best for the object in his hand.

“Where are you going Andy? Shouldn’t we have talked about this?”

Patiently, he put down the pair of immaculately ironed shorts that he was rolling into a sausage that would prevent any travel creases.

“I’m going to Thailand. I’ve worked my notice already, and my plane leaves at twenty-hundred hours. I have booked a taxi to take me to the airport. I don’t want any scenes; you know how embarrassing I find them.”

“Why Thailand? Why now? Are you going alone? Why are you selling the house? Why didn’t you tell me this a month ago when you handed in your notice?”

“So many questions Sarah. I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand, and whenever I raised the subject, you made some silly comments about ladyboys and kidnapping. Some idea you got from one of those trashy novels you read, I suppose.”

“But – but – but what am I going to do? I won’t have a home anymore, what will our friends think?”

“MY friends already know, and think that I am making the right decision. We’ve gone stale Sarah.  We were never that compatible in the first place, but your untidiness and slapdash ways have been driving me to distraction for years. It was charming at first, but now it’s just self-indulgent. My sister will be coming over to pack away my belongings and put them into storage while I’m away, so I’d be grateful if you could start looking for somewhere else to live so that she has less to go through.”

Sarah hated Andy’s sister Abigail with a passion.  The thought of her rummaging through the house, their house, made her feel incredibly angry.

“Don’t I have any say in this at all?”

She shouted at him, her hands clenched into tight fists that desperately wanted to punch him in the face, to grab hold of that silly ginger goatee beard and tug it till his eyes watered.

“Ah yes. Time for the hysterics. This is why I didn’t tell you before. You really are rather predictable.”

“I hate you, Andy!” she said vehemently.

“Good. That makes it a lot easier for me.”

He picked up a neatly typed list and handed it to her.

“This is an inventory of the contents of the house. Those typed in black belong to me, those in red are yours, or things that we bought together that I don’t wish to keep. Abigail, my solicitor and the estate agent all have copies of this letter too.  Would you mind moving off the bed now please? I have to finish my packing.”

Sarah stood up and walked slowly to the door.  She felt numb, unreal. Her instinct was to go into their bedroom, throw herself on the bed and cry extremely loudly. This would have no effect on Andy whatsoever. Passion of any sort was alien to him.

She went into the bedroom nevertheless and got under the duvet. She rolled over to Andy’s side of the bed and sniffed his pillow hoping that the remaining scent of his hair might break through the wall that was building up around her.

Nothing.

He’d changed the bedding.

Sarah wanted to scream, and shout, and rave. How dare he! How dare he plot and scheme behind her back in this way? She’d seen no change in his manner over the past month, had she? She rewound her memories and found no major arguments.

Nothing.

She found no major moments of happiness either.

Andy would wake her with a cup of coffee, then he would shower and shave round the edges of his beard, eat his horribly healthy breakfast, and be out of the door before she had even made up her mind as to whether she would shower or have a bath. The choice was usually dictated by how long she had lingered over her coffee and the news. They had been embroiled in a cold war over the television in their bedroom almost from the start of their relationship. It was Sarah’s television, and she needed its cheery morning information to wake her up.  Andy had no time for lingering, and lost no opportunity to express his disdain. 

The more she thought about it, the more Sarah had to admit that Andy was right. They were going through the motions of a relationship but there was no laughter left, no fun. Just a distant, healthy, athletic landscape gardener and an untidy, disorganised social worker who found her partner’s style of living both reassuring, and stifling.

It was warm and comforting under the duvet and, as had always been her habit, Sarah fell into a deep sleep that wiped away all that had happened since she had arrived home. It was such a deep sleep that she barely registered the affectionate peck on the cheek and the gentle ‘Goodbye’ as the bedroom door clicked shut.

When she woke, the house was quiet, too quiet.  She reached for the remote and turned on the television in time to catch the end of the ten o’clock news.  It wasn’t until she’d finished watching the weather that she remembered Andy.

“Andy?”

She called, half hoping that he would reply but knowing that he had gone. She rolled out of bed and wondered for a moment why she had been in bed fully clothed in her going-to-meetings suit and vaguely pretty blouse that she had allowed Andy to buy her.

“Andy?”

She called again and pushed open the guest bedroom door. The bed was bare now, save for another copy of Andy’s inventory list. She pushed it onto the floor in disgust and decided that she was hungry. Making as much noise as her be-socked feet would let her, Sarah stomped down the stairs in a manner guaranteed to annoy Andy, if he was there.

But there was no response.

The curtains in the lounge were drawn and the sidelights on, the kitchen was similarly put into evening mode by Andy before he left.

Thoughtful to the last.

Thoughtful!

How could it be thoughtful to abandon your partner of ten years and sell the house from under her? Sarah pouted as she opened the fridge door looking for immediate food. The shelf containing Andy’s macrobiotic foodstuff, and bottles of water was empty. Her shelf was always more interesting anyway. It certainly was now; Andy had stocked it with the items that he usually found disgusting. Sarah extracted a can of Diet Coke, some sliced cheese and bread.

She made her sandwich and left the knife and chopping board on the worktop. She didn’t even bother with a plate, as ten years of Andy’s rules flew out of the window. It felt good to be curled up on the sofa, balancing her sandwich and can on the leather arm, whilst flicking through the TV channels for something other than wildlife and gardening.

The phone rang and without thinking, Sarah jumped to her feet knocking over the can and spreading breadcrumbs onto the floor.

She looked at the phone.

Abigail.

No thanks.

Leaving the answerphone to deal with her much-loathed sister-in-law, Sarah dug her mobile out of her bag and went back into the lounge, stepping over the sticky mess on the floor. She could hear Abigail’s annoyingly sweet voice being patronising over the phone as she left a message guaranteed to patronise and infuriate Sarah.

When in doubt, phone a friend.

“Jude?”

Sarah could feel her voice cracking already.

“Hello Honey. No need to explain. I got home from work today to find a type-written note from your ex-beloved explaining why he was running away to Thailand without you and selling the house. Little rat!”

“Why didn’t you call me Jude?”

“Your phone was off.”

“He must have done it before he left. Pig!”

“He’s gone then?”

“Yes indeed!”  Sarah tried to inject as much enthusiasm into her response as possible.

“And I bet you are drinking Diet Coke and eating a sandwich in the lounge without a plate or coaster in sight.”

“Right again. I’m not sure what to do now though. I spilt my drink on the floor and there are crumbs everywhere.”

“I’m on my way. Are you still hungry?”

“Yes, this cheese sandwich is disgusting.”

“Good, what we need is red wine and kebabs.”

“Won’t Dan mind?”

“No, my darling husband sends his love and hugs, and asks that you send me home in one piece tomorrow. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

Stepping Back – That Nightshirt and Those Pigtails

Mark tried to open the front door as quietly as possible but Pluto was already on the other side of it, tail wagging furiously.  Rachel wasn’t far behind, and Mark couldn’t help smiling at the sight of her.  Pigtails, old navy cotton nightshirt, and spectacles perched on the end of her nose. 

His Rachel.

He tugged one of her pigtails and pulled her close. “I’ll take Pluto out for a wee now, and then you can get into bed.”

“No way!  I took him out about an hour ago so he can hang on while you tell me what’s happened.”

Rachel pulled Mark into the living room and sat herself down on the sofa while he kicked off his shoes and wriggled his toes.  Not content with having Rachel sat next to him, he pulled her onto his lap and buried his nose into the softness of her neck. “Okay.  The guy, whose name is Jason by the way, had arranged to meet up with Pete with money for the heroin, but Pete didn’t show because he had been beaten up by the smugglers when he couldn’t pay them.  He’d managed to hide the drugs, which is why we found them when he turned up here after being on the run.  Although we have the Portuguese end of the smuggling ring under lock and key, Jason is our link to the people buying and distributing the drugs.  They are not going to be happy about having lost their money as well as the drugs. Jason is absolutely terrified and singing like a bird in exchange for protection.  He’s in a bad state and needs some legal medication to keep him alive. We will provide it, but the tentacles of these organisations spread throughout the penal system, as well as quiet country villages like this one.  We can keep him safe until he testifies but once the court case is over, we can’t guarantee anything.”

“Will you have to go back to work now?” asked Rachel, a little sadly.

“No.” said Mark, pulling her even closer.  “This is a really big case that is already being dealt with by the Met.  They are grateful to us for giving them another piece of the jigsaw but this is their area of speciality, and I for one, am very happy to hand it over.  This won’t be the last time though Rachel.  The job I do isn’t very safe; apparently, with my colouring, I have the knack of blending in rather than looking too obviously like a copper.  It also means that you might have to put up with long hair, designer stubble, a beard, a moustache or even both.  Can you deal with that?”

“I may need to wear my spectacles more often, and buy some new flowing scarves.  Can you cope with me when I have a deadline to meet, and I need to shut myself away?”

“If you can cope, then so will I.  Perhaps you could wear that green scarf that I saw in the wardrobe?”

“Just the green scarf?”

“Rachel, you are most definitely not the shy girl my little sister took under her wing at Uni.  What’s else has been going on in our part of our world?”

“Mrs K and I had a drink after you left; we have put the world to rights one way or another.  She approves of pale peach for our bedroom and will be scrubbing the walls and wardrobes with sugar soap while we are out shopping in the morning.  I had to Google sugar soap so that I’d know what she was talking about.  I have also spent some time looking at the merits of gloss and emulsion, masking tape and whether brushes are better than rollers and paint pads.  It’s complicated.”

“What else did the two of you talk about?”

“The funeral, bright clothes for the girls…”

“And babies.  Don’t tell me that you avoided talking about babies?”

Rachel shook her head. “I tried, but you know what she’s like when she puts her mind to things.”

“And her opinion is?”

“Leave it to fate. If we are meant to have children, then we will, and if we aren’t, we’ll still have Lou and the girls. Oh, and she said you should stick to wearing boxer shorts and avoid tight jeans.  Much better for male fertility apparently.  I Googled that as well, and she may have a point.”

“Time to put Pluto and the laptop to bed.  It sounds as if we might be a bit busy in the morning.  Mrs K is a very light sleeper though, and always knows when I come in late, so with any luck she won’t be tapping at the bedroom door with a pail and some sugar soap.”

“I’ll go and get my dressing gown; better to be prepared. Mrs K doesn’t think that this nightshirt is particularly attractive.”

“That nightshirt and those pigtails are making me feeling wide awake again.”

“Good.”

Rachel ran down the corridor to collect the dressing gown that she had left on the bed that morning. Mrs K had hung it up on the back of the door of course, as well as vacuuming the space where the dressing table used to stand. Mark had settled Pluto down and was waiting for her in the corridor. He smiled and picked her up in his arms; a move reminiscent of the early days of their relationship when he had to carry her to the bathroom and back, every day. This time was different; this time she held on very tightly and kissed him as he pushed open the door with his foot, and then shut it very firmly behind them.

“Talking about babies…” he said, as he laid Rachel very gently down on the bed.