It was hunger and desperation that prevented Gavin and Ben’s paths crossing that evening. Gavin had indeed left the office early, and spent the afternoon driving around the quiet estate where Sally and her family lived. He took pictures of the house with his mobile; when he saw a woman coming out of Sally’s house, his heart began to beat faster and for a moment he considered getting out of the car, then he realised that she had the dog with her and decided to stay put. He took further pictures of her with the dog, and then some close ups so that he could look at them again tonight when he was alone. She aroused strange feelings in him. He wasn’t really sure if he hated her or was infatuated with her. Her outburst at the hearing had excited him, had made him feel that he wanted to take and subdue her, to tame those blazing eyes and that lashing tongue. He’d even found it quite a turn on when she kicked the wall outside the meeting room.
He could have got a bit heavy with her then, threatened to have her arrested for damaging council property but she didn’t actually break anything, and besides, Ruby had rushed her out of the building before he had the chance.
Ruby and Ben.
Now that was a turn up for the books. He had been quite surprised when Ben mentioned that he was in a relationship with Ruby, and were there any issues about this? Apart from Ruby being a close friend of Sally’s, Gavin had nothing against her – in fact he quite fancied Ruby himself. She had the same fiery temperament that he liked in Sally, and as far as he could see, she was extremely hard-working, did her job well and didn’t take advantage by spending most of her time on the Internet, unlike so many of their colleagues.
Was there an issue about Ruby and Ben though? He was going to be asking Ben to do some pretty unorthodox things if he was going to get him looking for dirt on Sally. Could Ben be trusted not to tell Ruby things that would get passed back to Sally? Perhaps it was time now to tell Ruby that her continuing to support Sally could constitute a conflict of interests with the council – and with Ben if he told her about his investigation.
Pillow talk; the thought of Ruby and Ben together in bed did things to him as well. Gavin made an effort to pull himself together; he hadn’t had this much trouble controlling his urges when he worked for other local authorities, although there had been a few unfortunate moments when he misread the signals being given off by female colleagues and had to harass them into believing they were the ones that misread his signals.
He was very lucky to have inherited Joanna. Her amiable dimness was a complete cold shower as far as he was concerned. Her total devotion to him was cloying at times, but he knew that he was safe with her, that she could be relied upon not to talk about his ‘special’ projects, and to act dumb when necessary.
His stomach rumbled; he would have to move off soon and get some food. he had told his mother that he was working until six, which meant that if he ate now, by the time he had driven home at six, he would have a little appetite left to eat whatever she had incinerated this evening. One last thing before he moved on though. He rang Sally’s number, just to check that it really was her that was out with the dog. the gruff voice of a teenaged boy answered. Gavin ascertained that Sally was indeed out with the dog, and refrained from answering the questions regarding who he was and what he wanted. He saw Sally return to the house; the dog looked agitated, and Sally was pale. Both of them kept looking around so he slid down in his car seat, sure that they couldn’t see him.
Once he was certain that they were in the house, Gavin started up the car and drove off; it was still only four o’clock so he had plenty of time to find somewhere to eat, somewhere he could stuff his face with as much junk food as he liked, and his mother would never know. There was a new retail area opened up a couple of miles from Sally’s house where, in addition to an ice rink and cinema, there were several restaurants and a hotel. Gavin decided it was far enough from Sally’s house and from his own for it to be safe from discovery, but close enough to ease his aching stomach, which had remained empty since he had thrown his unappetising sandwiches in the bin this morning.
His mother had decided to give him something else for a change; the sight of tongue and piccalilli on white bread with margarine made him heave. She knew he hated tongue. It probably meant that she had discovered some evidence of his late-night excesses. Perhaps the neighbour had complained about him dumping rubbish in her bin? He didn’t think that anyone had seen him but she was a wily old bird and often dropped in for coffee with his parents whilst he was out at work.
This realisation made him even more determined to eat contraband food, and as he arrived at the retail park the first restaurant that hove into sight was an ‘Eat all you can for £6.99’ Chinese. He had been eavesdropping with his door open this morning and heard Karen, Cheryl and Fiona talking about their trip to the Chinese restaurant and how it had been ruined by Ruby, Ben and the two guys from IT. Ben was out of the room at a meeting, and the three witches didn’t seem to care too much if anyone else heard what they said.
Gavin now knew for definite that Karen felt Ben had broken her heart by going off with Ruby. The fact that Ben had told him that he and Ruby had known each other for years rather gave the lie to Karen’s theory that Ruby had ‘stolen’ Ben away from her. For once Cheryl had actually tried to be reasonable, and explain that Ruby and Ben had been in a relationship since he returned from University, but hadn’t wanted to tell anyone until he had spoken to Gavin. Fiona and Cheryl were of the opinion that if Gavin said it was alright, then it must be a proper relationship with no room for Karen to intervene. Karen had wept a bit more, gone to the toilets, re-plastered her face and decided to open up the match-making site again.
That thin, cynical smile spread across Gavin’s face when he heard this. Karen was definitely on the way out then. Her IT records were not going to look good when Ben examined them. No matter. He had no room for disloyalty and it appeared that Cheryl and Fiona were more knowledgeable about which side their bread was buttered.
Gavin parked his car over to one side of the restaurant and checked his watch again. Still plenty of time to gorge himself on crispy aromatic duck, special fried rice and chicken with cashew nuts. His mouth watered at the very thought.
The restaurant was half full, and Gavin was pleased to see that the staff were busy refilling the heated cabinets as soon as they were emptied. He ordered an endless Diet Coke and made his way over to the food. Not surprisingly he had an order to what he ate in these serve-yourself restaurants. He never took too much, or wasted time on food that he only liked a little. As a consequence, his first three trips were exclusively duck, pancakes, hoi sin sauce and the shreds of spring onion and cucumber that offset the fattiness of the duck.
Gavin’s plate was polished clean, but he left it on the table and went in search of a fresh one for his next course. It made him laugh to see other diners with their plates piled high with food that they would never eat because they had taken too much. Such a terrible waste. He allowed himself three more trips for his main course, filled up his drink again and then settled to a dessert of banana fritter with golden syrup and ice cream. He looked at his watch as he settled up the bill. A quarter past five and plenty of time to drive back into town and drive out again at six as if he were leaving work at the normal time.
He contemplated driving back via Sally’s house to see if he could glean anything else, but decided against it in case he got caught up in traffic. The drive back to town was slow enough but he made it back to the office car park by five past six, and phoned his mother on the mobile to say he was leaving and would be home soon. She sounded colder and more formal than she usually did, but Gavin was so used to her changes of mood that he paid no mind to it, put his phone on the hands-free cradle and drove out of the car park again. On the way he ducked down a little to avoid being seen by Karen, straggling after her two friends across the car park and obviously headed for the pub. She was going to be disappointed if she thought Ben was going to be there; Gavin habitually checked the car park for signs of his staff and there was no sign of Ben’s car this evening. Perhaps he was already round at Ruby’s flat, perhaps they were enjoying a glass of wine after work, perhaps they were enjoying each other?
Trying very hard not to think about Ben and Ruby, or Sally for that matter, Gavin backed his car into the driveway, turned the engine off, picked up his phone and briefcase, and locked the car. He walked round to the kitchen door, as was his habit and was confused to find that it was locked, so he walked back to the front door and found that locked too. He scrabbled in his pockets for his house keys but was unable to get the door open with them so in the end he rang the bell.
It took a while for his mother to answer the door. It would normally take her a while anyway, struggling to get to her feet, manoeuvring the elbow crutches into place, limping slowly along the hallway, and trying to open the catch with her arthritic hands. Gavin had seen her play this game before. Something was up.
“Oh, you’re home then.” his mother said as she opened the door slowly.
“Yes Mother. I phoned you half an hour ago to say I was leaving work.”
Gavin slowly pushed the door open enough to squeeze in. His mother remained where she was, half-blocking the hallway.
“Why is the back door locked?”
“Burglars. Mary next door says there has been a spate of burglaries round here recently. She says we have to be careful. She went to a neighbourhood watch meeting on Monday, and there was a very nice police woman who gave her a set of bells to put on her purse and lots of leaflets about how to keep your home secure. She’s going to get me some, but she said in the meantime that I should keep all the doors locked and put the snip down on the front door. So, I did.”
Gavin sighed and put his briefcase in its customary place on the hall stand.
“There’s no point putting the snip down if you’re expecting me home at any moment, Mother. By all means put it down now if you want to. I’m home now.”
“Oh?” she said. “Not thinking of going out again then. To a Chinese restaurant or something?”
The bomb dropped. He had obviously been seen this evening by one of her cronies. He had been so careful too; there had been no familiar cars in the car park, the retail park was on the other side of town from where he lived, he had surreptitiously checked the restaurant through the plate glass window before he even entered. No sign of anyone he knew but someone had snitched on him.
Snitched, such a childish word to use but that’s what it was. He was a grown man with an extremely responsible job. He had bought this house and moved his parents from their family home so that he could look after them in their old age, and dotage as far as his father was concerned. The furniture was theirs but the house represented all that he had worked for. The state-of-the-art kitchen that he wasn’t even allowed to cook in officially.
Gavin stood his ground.
“What’s the problem Mother?”
She pouted. “Problem? Why should there be a problem? That fact that I phoned the office and some chit of a girl called Karen said you were out for the afternoon, and no one knew where you were. That’s a problem. Suppose your father got taken ill or I had a fall? Then I get a call from Mary to say that I shouldn’t be bothered making dinner for you tonight because her granddaughter has just started work as a waitress over at the new retail park, and saw you eating dinner there about four-thirty – when you were supposed to be at work. At whilst I’m at it, Mary says she would be grateful if you would stop putting your rubbish in her bin. So, what have you got to say for yourself Gavin?”
“Nothing Mother.” His shoulders drooped. “Nothing at all. I’m going to my room.”
“Oh no you don’t!” she cried, barring his way with one of her crutches. “There’s a perfectly good dinner in that kitchen and you are going to eat it. I don’t care how full up with Chinese rubbish you are.”
“But…you said you hadn’t cooked anything for me?” said Gavin, looking very puzzled.
“I never did! I said that Mary told me not to bother, but what kind of mother would I be if I didn’t cook my only son a dinner every night, even if he is so ungrateful as to go and eat foreign muck and lie to me about whether he was at work or not.”
Gavin sighed; defeat written all over his face but determined to salvage some pride somewhere.
“I was out at a meeting this afternoon. Had you spoken to my secretary Joann, she would have told you where I was but she must have been away from her desk when you called. As a consequence, Karen took the call and gave you incorrect information. I will be having words with her in the morning. My meeting finished early. I didn’t have time for lunch so my sandwiches were back in the office. One of the people at the meeting recommended the new Chinese, so I had a late lunch there. A late lunch, not an early dinner. I went back to the office, finished off a few things, called you and came home. If you have a dinner prepared for me, I will eat it gladly. As far as putting my rubbish in someone else’s bin, I saw some rubbish bags on the floor outside Mary’s house when I was putting our rubbish out. Our bin was full so I put the rubbish in hers. You know how I feel about people leaving rubbish in the street Mother.”
She looked at him with some suspicion still, but put her elbow crutch back down on the floor and allowed him to walk past her and into the kitchen. His dinner of overcooked braising steak, jellified gravy, lumpy mashed potato and grey tinned garden peas was waiting to be warmed up the microwave. He sighed, put it in and set the timer for two minutes, using the time to lay the table and wash his hands.
He had to work hard to force the food down; chewing on the gristle-filled steak and almost choking on the lumpy mash and rock-hard peas. He ate in silence and when he was finished his mother took the plate away and replaced it with a shallow bowl of tinned peaches and evaporated milk. Not his favourite dessert by any means, and his mind went back to the crisp little banana fritters covered in syrup, and vanilla ice cream.
The crockery and cutlery were placed carefully in the small dishwasher and his mother returned to the front room without another word. She probably didn’t believe him; she had gone through a lifetime of him lying to her, and he had gone through the same lifetime of telling her lies in order to appease her.
Summarily dismissed now, Gavin went out to the hallway, picked up his phone and briefcase and climbed the stairs to his room. Once inside he locked the door and sat for a moment with is head in his hands. Then he remembered the photos he had taken earlier, of Sally and her dog. He plugged his mobile into the mainframe computer, and downloaded the pictures so that he could look at them more closely; so that he could blow them up and examine every inch of her face and memorise it. Once loaded Gavin put the pictures into a software programme, and amused himself by putting pictures of himself and Sally together, superimposing their heads onto the bodies of loving couples. Well, they started off as just being loving couples but soon Gavin was using more graphic pictures and becoming more and more aroused by what he was creating.
A sharp rap on the door made him jump, but it was only his mother confirming that she and his father were going to bed and that it was time for Gavin to go downstairs, check all the doors and windows, make sure everything was turned off and be the dutiful son that she expected him to be. He saved his work into a hidden file before unlocking the door and going down to carry out his duties.