Breaking Free – Finding Your Feet

Looking back, Sarah realised how easy people were on her in those first few weeks of working on Oliver’s show. She sat in the audience for many of the shows, getting a feel for the production methods, how the runners and researchers worked, and where she would be fitting in to the bigger scheme of things.  One of the younger researchers seemed a little offhand but Millie soon put them in their place if she caught anyone making snide comments about Sarah. Finding her way round the studio, and all the associated rooms and corridors took quite a while. During filming, if she wasn’t actually sitting in the audience, she would watch on the monitors and be ready to flatten herself against a wall when the camera and sound man came hurtling past with Oliver, in pursuit of someone who had suddenly become camera shy.

It seemed at first to Sarah that the attitude held towards the people who came on the show by those who worked with them was rather callous. Initial applications were filtered and grouped according to the main course of action needed. Some of the people came under more than one heading – ‘cheated on by ex’, ‘DNA’, ‘double DNA’, ‘double lie test’, ‘estranged sisters’. Once they had been grouped into the appropriate category, each case was then given a sexy strapline that would be bound to attract the viewer, and keep their interest during the advertisement break as it was put up on the screen at the beginning and ending of the segment.

Sharing the flat with Millie was the easiest part of her new life. They didn’t always work the same hours or even the same days, so there was no constant falling over each other in the flat. They laughed and chatted as they had in the old days, but now they had so much more to talk about. Millie encouraged Sarah to cook again, although with the plethora of restaurants surrounding the Quays, there were times when going across for a meal after a hard day was by far the easiest, and most palatable option.

Sarah felt like her horizons were being expanded in every way, and she liked it. The house purchase went through, and Roseanne kept her updated on the progress. She was delighted to hear that the young couple who bought the house intended to rip out all the seventies ghastliness, and turn it into a sleek, modern family home. Abigail had complained about the fact that Sarah had not packed Andy’s things up, but received a quick retort from Roseanne regarding the fact that Abigail would have only unpacked everything to check that nothing was missing anyway.  There had also been a couple of calls from Simon to see how she was, which she thought was rather sweet. His office had also been besieged by Abigail but she refused to talk to Simon, and would only pass messages to him via his secretary. As predicted, she had demanded the return of the box, but Simon had sent her a very formal letter stating that Andy had specifically requested that the box be kept safely until his return. She threatened all kind of legal action, but gave up eventually and concentrated on putting Andy’s belongings into storage, and cleaning every trace of Sarah from the house.

The rest of the aftercare team accepted Sarah, and she found that the time spent in forensic social work was particularly relevant to many of the people who came on the show. It was at a pre-show meeting at the start of the week that Sarah and Millie’s past came back to haunt them. They were seated round the table looking at cases and deciding which case would fit best with the others. Oliver had a tearjerker episode scheduled for the end of the week, where he gently interviewed some particularly tragic but non-confrontational cases in order to show his softer side. Young children were inevitably involved and the bestowing of toys, or an iPad for the older ones, was part and parcel of building up the genial Oliver persona. Sarah found it all a bit saccharine, but decided to keep her opinions to herself. It was media, and media was the part she had to mug up on. The producer was working through the resumes of the cases when a familiar name jumped out at both Sarah and Millie. Amy Loomis! The siren of the Graduation Ball and the seducer of Steven Horgan. They nudged each other and read through the notes quickly. Amy Loomis was going to be on the show!  Would she recognise them? 

Skimming through the notes, it appeared to them both that fate had not been kind to Amy. She had an adult daughter who had three children of her own, and Amy had another four younger children, from three different relationships. She was coming on the show to establish the DNA of the two youngest because her current partner was accusing her of cheating. She was also accusing him of cheating, so it would be a double lie detector test as well. How Oliver relished those! On the plus side Amy had a large council house, and was on every benefit she could get, so there was no need for the aftercare team to get involved. Nowhere was there any mention of Steven Horgan however, and Sarah couldn’t help wondering how long the two of them had lasted after graduation.

Oliver decided that it was quite meaty case, so he’d sandwich it between a father with issues about his ten-year old son’s gambling habit, and a couple who were being harassed by a jealous ex-girlfriend. Oliver was optimistic that the case could be sorted out on the spot, and so they would have a happy ending. At the end of the meeting Sarah and Millie both spoke to Jenny, and made her aware of their previous association with Amy Loomis. She seemed slightly irritated, but having read through the notes again, decided that if there was any aftercare involved another member of the team could deal with it.

“Try and keep out of the corridors that morning if you can. I really don’t want this woman throwing a wobbler because she recognises you both from her dim and distant past. By all means, watch it on the monitor though, and if you see anything that might be useful, let one of the team know.”

Feeling summarily dismissed, they went back to the aftercare office and had a quick meeting with the rest of the team, most of whom were fascinated to know how both Millie and Sarah knew her of old.

The day of the filming arrived and there was a higher level of curiosity than usual about Amy Loomis and her family, because of her previous association with Millie and Sarah. The first section of the show went without a hitch. The father confronted his son about the gambling and money issues. The son broke down in tears. They hugged, and were left off stage to talk to the aftercare team about gambling addiction and counselling. Tucked safely out of the way, Millie and Sarah sat together, glued to a monitor for the first sight of Amy Loomis.

“If she’s still wearing her hair in pigtails I shall scream.” muttered Sarah.

“No.” said Millie. “She must have grown out of them by now.”

Oliver was on stage doing his introductory piece on Amy. Several other people had come into the room since the section had started, almost as curious to see what Amy looked like as Millie and Sarah were.

Amy wasn’t wearing her hair in pigtails. She was wearing it scraped up on top of her head in a pony tail, a style that was only ever flattering to models with high cheek bones and perfect skins. Amy had neither of those. Time had not been kind to her. The dark-haired girl in a red satin blouse was now painfully thin, her brown trousers hung on her and the beige cardigan that she pulled around her was far too large. Her skin was pale and there were huge circles under her eyes. The worst moment was when she managed a nervous smile and revealed several gaps in her teeth.

Haltingly she told a tale of how she had achieved a degree in media studies at university, but fell pregnant to a fellow student who had dumped her shortly after the Graduation Ball. He had never been interested in her daughter, nor contributed any money to her care. Amy and her daughter Stephanie lived in various hostels and sheltered housing, because her parents would have nothing to do with her.  Eventually she met up with and married a kind, gentle man who was happy to take Stephanie on as his own, and they had a son to complete the family. Seven years into the marriage her husband was punched in the face whilst on a stag do. He fell to the ground smashing his head into the concrete and died within a couple of hours.

Amy turned to drink as a way out, and had another baby by a man she could hardly remember.  She had two more children by her current partner, who was also a drinker, and who didn’t get on with Stephanie. Torn between her eldest daughter and her partner, Amy threw Stephanie out because she couldn’t stand the arguments any more. Stephanie’s relationship with an aggressive boor who beat her resulted in twin girls, a baby boy, and numerous visits to hospital for Stephanie with broken fingers, black eyes and bruises that never matched up with the accidents that she said had caused them.

Amy told Oliver that what she wanted most in life was some peace. She knew her current partner was cheating on her, and was just looking for a reason to get out of the relationship, which is why he was accusing her of cheating too. She wanted proof that the two youngest children were his, and that she, too tired and weary to do much more than look after her children and worry about Stephanie, had not cheated on him. Stephanie joined them on stage and Sarah was struck by how much she looked like Steven Horgan. The penny dropped. She felt a shiver down her back. Steven Horgan was the kind of man who got a woman pregnant and then dumped her. What a lucky escape she’d had.

Stephanie was angry. She was angry with her mother; she was angry with her mother’s partner. She was angry with the man who had supported her through two pregnancies, but had then abandoned her for another girl who didn’t have any children in tow.  For once the audience were very supportive of both Amy and her daughter; the boos and catcalls started when Amy’s partner strolled onto the stage looking very full of himself.  He threw himself down in the chair and glared at Oliver as if he was the worst person in the world.  He was not a pretty sight; shaved hair, tattoos that went from his shoulder, up his neck and ended where his hairline would have been, if he’d had any hair. The researchers had managed to persuade him to change his tee-shirt, as it had a particularly obscene phrase on the front.

Oliver went into his summary spiel to bring TV viewers up to date. He did his best to engage with the man, but each question was met with a hostile glare. As a consequence, the results of the lie-detector tests were presented to Oliver sooner than normal.  He opened Amy’s envelope first. Not surprisingly, the test proved that she was not lying on any counts.  It was a shame that the same could not be said for Amy’s partner. He failed. He tried to get up and walk away, but Al and Dave prevented him going until he’d heard the DNA test results. As Amy had predicted, both the younger children were his, and although she was throwing him out of the council house they shared, Amy had the grace to say that he could visit his children when he wanted to.

Both Millie and Sarah were feeling empathic towards Amy. On the day of the Graduation Ball, they had all had high hopes for the future.  Sarah realised now that she could have been in Amy’s position. That it could have been her sitting on Oliver’s stage, warn down and haggard, arguing with yet another worthless man who had left her high and dry. She knew that she and Millie shouldn’t get involved, but she had a compulsion to see Amy before she left. To tell her that things would be alright in the end, but everything that she thought of saying seemed trite and trivial compared to the awfulness of Amy’s situation.  She felt that Millie was having the same thoughts, and as the show cut to an advertisement break, they both sat in the office, silent and rather ashamed.

A runner burst into the room just then, “Oliver wants you two downstairs as soon as possible.”

“What for?” asked Millie.

“Dunno. Just said to come and get you both quick.”

Casting confused glances at each other, Sarah and Millie followed the runner downstairs and through the maze of corridors to another green room. Oliver was sitting on a sofa talking with Amy.

“Ah, come in you two. Amy was asking after you. She’s very eagle-eyed and had seen Millie on the show ages ago, but then she saw a more recent recording and recognised you as well, Sarah.  She asked if she could say hello?”

Oliver moved over so that Sarah and Millie could sit next to Amy. She smiled; a shy ‘I-know-my-teeth-are- bad-but –I-can’t-afford-to-see-a-dentist’ smile.

“I wasn’t sure if it was Millie, but then, when I saw you as well Sarah, I remembered how inseparable you two were at Uni. You both look as if you are doing well. Is it all okay with you?”

Sarah couldn’t find the words at that moment but luckily Millie could.

“Hey Amy, I have a son who’s just started at Uni. Sarah’s just emerged from a long-term relationship. She’s a bit like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. She’s staying with me till she finds a place of her own.”

Amy smiled again and they could all see beyond the wrinkles and the sunken eyes, what a pretty girl she used to be.

“Just like the old days at Uni then. There’s something I’ve always felt guilty about, Sarah.” she said. “This seems to be a day for getting things off my chest. I had a feeling that you had almost arranged to go to the Graduation Ball with Steven, and I stepped in and pinched him. Do you forgive me?”

“There’s absolutely nothing to forgive Amy. It sounds as if you saved me from a fate worse than death.”

Amy nodded. “It was good with Steven at first but once he found out I was pregnant he wouldn’t stay. He went off to some foreign place to find himself.”

“So, did I, and found myself pregnant instead.” said Millie.

“My partner – sorry – ex-partner has just gone off to Thailand to find himself.” said Sarah trying not to sound too bitter.

Just then a runner turned up and announced that the car had come to take Amy and Stephanie back to the train station, so that they could go home and start the process of throwing her partner out of the house and reclaiming it for their own.

“Thank you for today, for getting to the truth for me, and for letting me meet up with my old friends.” Amy said to Oliver as he stood by the doorway doing his compassionate clasping of hands. Impulsively, Sarah came forward and hugged Amy, followed by Millie.

“The aftercare team will be here to support you Amy.” said Oliver in a less oily tone than usual.

“Thank you. I feel like you’ve put me on the way there already.”

“Just out of interest, what happened to Steven in the end?” asked Sarah.

“I’m afraid he died. He joined the army and became an explosives officer.  He was defusing a bomb in Afghanistan. I kept in touch with his mother. He wasn’t a bad man Sarah, just young and unable to handle the consequences. I have Stephanie to remind me anyway.”

Amy turned and followed her daughter and the runner out to the waiting car. Sarah and Millie both sat down on the sofa.

“Come on girls! No blubbing! Amy has left the building and you two have work to do. Chop, chop!”

There were times, thought Sarah, when she could cheerfully strangle Oliver Standish.

Breaking Free – Extending Friendships

There can be few things nicer than waking to the smell of fresh coffee – unless of course you don’t like coffee. Sarah felt confused.  Andy didn’t drink coffee, and grudgingly made her cups of instant coffee. He had frowned at her attempts to persuade him that a cafetiere would be a useful addition to the kitchen.  Pulling on her dressing gown, she stumbled downstairs to the welcoming sight of Millie soft boiling eggs, cutting bread soldiers and pouring coffee from what must be her own cafetiere.

Millie turned round and grinned. “I thought that we should celebrate your last morning here doing things that Andy wouldn’t approve of. I’m having one egg, you can have two so that all the egg cups are being used again, and I hope you appreciate the neatness of my soldiers?”

Sitting down at the breakfast table, Sarah felt a lump in her throat and looked up at Millie.

“Stop it Sarah, don’t you go getting all sentimental on me now! Today marks the ending of one life and the beginning of another. We’ll take the storage boxes down after breakfast, I get to meet the lovely Jude and her family, and then we hightail it off to the big bad city and the overwhelming whims of Oliver Standish! Ta Da!”

“It almost feels as if we were back at Uni again. Promise me something Millie?”

Millie sat down at the table next to her. “What’s up?”

“Promise me that you’ll be honest with me, and tell me if I behave like a prat?”

“As if!”

“No, I realise now how poor the communication was between me and Andy; how little I knew about him really. There were things I should have said and so should he, but both of us were too scared to say them. Promise me that you’ll tell me if I do anything to annoy you, or you need more space, or you regret having me to stay – and work with you?”

“Listen, I know an awful lot of things have happened to both of us since Uni days, but I knew as soon as we sat down to lunch that day, that beneath it all, we were still the same two silly sods as we used to be. I was dreading Tom going off to Uni. I miss him so much. You know what it’s like coming home from a traumatic day with no one to offload to.”

“I know, I used to stop off at Jude’s sometimes because I knew that Andy wouldn’t want to listen.”

“And Jude will still be there. We’ll have each other to grumble to when Oliver gets up our noses, or we have a really sad story that doesn’t look as if it will work out.  You’ve been living in limbo land for a long time, and now it’s time to take the real world on. I promise not to make you eat boiled eggs every day though. I like the egg cups for their decorative use as well as practical. Now taste this coffee, it is rather gorgeous but needs to be drunk fresh.”

The storage boxes took up all the room in both their cars and Sarah was glad of Millie’s previous experience of storing goods as the whole system was totally alien to her. When she moved out of her parents’ house Andy had hired a house clearance firm to take everything but Sarah’s clothes, and her most personal belongings. She had been so shell-shocked by the death of her father that she had just let Andy take charge of everything, signing papers when bidden but unable to deal with anything that reminded her of the loss of both her parents. To be fair to Andy, he had done an excellent job. He told her that most of the money from the house sale had been invested in shares for her, and the rest put into a savings account that he set up in her name. He really had been her rock in those early days and she was grateful for his kindness, which she now knew she had mistaken for love.

Sarah was fascinated by the storage facility. The manager had looked at the number of boxes they had, sold them a stout padlock with a couple of keys, and helped them load the boxes onto a trolley.  He led the way down a dark corridor where movement activated lights sprang into life as they passed. The little windowless room that would house Sarah’s belongings for the time being was half-filled by the time the trolley was unloaded, and as she padlocked the door and pushed the empty trolley back to the entrance Sarah felt like another door in her life had closed.

“This is the key code to get into the building, and the same code opens the gates if you decide that you desperately need something when the office is shut. We have ten-four-hour CCTV, so although you may feel you are alone if you come in out of hours, I can assure you that we’ll be watching. It gets a bit spooky here after dark though, so I wouldn’t advise it.”

The manager was quite matter of fact but Sarah had a feeling that she wouldn’t be venturing down the corridors if there was no one with her. A simple pub lunch rounded off the morning and left them both in a better frame of mind for the final packing up. Sarah phoned Jude when they got back to see how she was. It was a good day.

“Are you sure Millie doesn’t mind stopping off here on the way back?” said Jude.

“Of course not, she’s really looking forward to meeting you – all of you – she understands just how important you are to me. Oh, and we have to tell you about Andy’s solicitor Simon.”


“Oh, more than, he went to school with Andy and – get this – Abigail used to stalk him and fantasise about him.”

“Oh my god! What else?”

“No, I’ll tell you when we get there. I’ve got three bags of charity stuff but I thought the girls might like a rummage for dressing up clothes first.”

“Brilliant. Millie will like us, won’t she?”

“She’s just as worried that you won’t like her, and desperate for you to know that she won’t take me away, or try to take your place. I love you both, and I know that you’ll be able to see in each other what I see in you.”

“Okay, we’ll see you soon. Have you eaten?”

“Pub lunch after the storage place. All fed and watered and very anxious to close the door on this place for the last time”

“Hurry up then.”

With renewed vigour, Sarah and Millie packed away the last of Sarah’s belongings and put them into her car. Sarah left most of the house keys in an envelope on the kitchen table, and after a long look around each room in the house to say goodbye, she locked the front door and posted the keys back through the letter box. No turning back. Millie waited patiently in her car, watching Sarah methodically saying goodbye to the house she had seen as a home for the past ten years, then followed her on the drive to Jude and Dan’s house.

The girls greeted Sarah with enthusiasm, but the potential dressing up clothes met with absolute joy. Dan took them off into the front room to supervise, and indicated with his head that Jude was in the kitchen. Sitting at the table, with coffee and biscuits ready, Jude looked very nervous, but one look at Millie’s face made her realise how nervous she was as well. Sarah made the formal introductions and once they were sitting down, began to tell Jude all about Simon, Abigail and the revelations of the day before, with the occasional back up from Millie. Within a few moments all three of them were laughing, and both Millie and Jude realised that no one had anything to fear in regard to losing Sarah’s friendship.

Dan sent the girls in to display their creative use of Sarah’s old clothes; the combinations were hilarious but Sarah wondered why she ever wasted money on some of them.  Dan followed the girls.

“I’ve packed the other stuff away and I’ll take it to the charity shop on my way to work tomorrow. I have to say Sarah, there are some really bad taupe things in there that even the girls wouldn’t entertain.”

“Don’t blame me. They were presents from Andy in his effort to make me look more like his sainted mother. I fell very short of the mark, I’m afraid. Most of them I wore only once, just to please him, the others stayed hidden in the wardrobe. Andy was a kind man, but he had no taste whatsoever.”

“I’ll say!” said Millie. “I couldn’t believe it when I first walked into the house. Those kitchen tiles!”

“Yes!” said Jude. “And the pine cladding. I’ve never seen so much pine cladding before in my life!”

“Okay you two. No ganging up on me. I know that I should have persuaded Andy to do something about the décor years ago, but it’s too late now. That house is someone else’s problem. I need never set foot in it again. Although I’d give money to be a fly on the wall when Abigail goes in there, and finds that the box of papers has disappeared. Simon says that he will write to her saying that the box is in his safekeeping till Andy’s return. For some reason he didn’t seem too keen on giving her a call!”

United by a common dislike of Abigail, the rest of the afternoon sped by and soon it was time for Sarah and Millie to make the last leg of their journey back to Millie’s flat. Jude hugged them both goodbye and whispered into Sarah’s ear, “You’re right, she’s lovely and I do like her, and I’m not worried anymore.”

With that reassurance ringing in her ears, the drive back gave Sarah a little more time to take stock of all that had happened in such a short space of time. Before she realised it, she was following Millie’s car into the car park and parking beside her in what was now her designated space. It took three trips to get everything upstairs and the flat looked a little cramped once Sarah’s belongings cases and boxes were placed inside.

“Come and look.” said Millie, leading Sarah towards the box room. It was completely transformed. Millie had managed to get rid of most of the clutter and with the addition of a new single bed and wardrobe, it now looked like a place that Tom would be willing to sleep in when he came home.

“This makes me feel so much better Millie. I was worried that Tom would feel resentful about me coming here and taking over his space.”

“He’s fine. I sent him pictures and even he was quite impressed with what I’d done to the junk room. Now come and look at your room.”

It too was transformed. Millie hadn’t gone mad but she’d had toned down Tom’s masculine approach and made the room a softer and more feminine place by a fresh coat of lilac paint, some pretty curtains and duvet cover.

“How on earth did you manage all this in two days – and work?” said Sarah.

“I can’t take all the credit. Our good friend Al came over after work and did all the heavy stuff as well as the painting. He wanted you to have a warm welcome too.”

It was all a bit too much and Sarah sat down on the bed, feeling that the emotions she had been trying so hard to keep at bay for weeks were about to break through the well of self-defence. Millie handed her a box of tissues and left the room so that Sarah could have the time to herself. She cried like she had never cried before; big sobbing gasps that eventually subsided into snivels that could be safely mopped up by the tissues. Sarah was just beginning to pull herself together when Millie knocked on the door and came in bearing two large glasses of red wine. Her timing, as always, was impeccable.

“Sorry Millie.”

“What for? It was bound to catch up with you sooner or later. Come on Ms Professional Social Worker. You should know as much if not more than me, about the process of separation and grieving.  Drink up that wine and when you are ready, come and join me in the kitchen where I am cooking up my signature dish.”

“Which is?”

“You’ve forgotten already? Cheesy pasta topped with griddled spicy tomatoes – except the spices are a bit more sophisticated than they used to be.”

“Ah but one can work wonders with a tub of curry powder!”

“You do remember! The pasta’s just gone in the oven but I need to stand over the tomatoes in case the grill incinerates them. Warning – it can get a bit fierce. I’ll see you in a bit?”

“How can anyone resist the lure of your cheesy pasta and griddled spicy tomatoes? Do you mind if I do a bit of unpacking?”

“Course not. It’ll save me from tripping over the cases when I use the bathroom.”

“Sorry!  Oh, you were taking the mickey. I must get out of this habit of over apologising.”

“You must! I’ll call you when it’s ready. Drink up!”

Sarah pulled her suitcases and boxes out of the hallway and into her room. She had done her best to be organised and written a resume of the contents on each of the boxes. On closer examination of the room, she was pleased to find that she had a double wardrobe, two chests of drawers and a floor to ceiling bookcase.

With an unusual self-control, Sarah unpacked all her clothes and hung them up, or folded them away. The suitcases went one inside the other and Sarah managed to put them up on top of the wardrobe. That left her books, DVDs and CDs, and the little box containing her most precious items, including the egg cups. She decided to leave these, till later, and having deposited her make-up, perfumes and pitifully small amount of jewellery on the desk cum dressing table, she took another sip of her wine, threw her shoulders back, and followed the enticing smell of cheesy pasta into the kitchen – her new kitchen for the time being.

Breaking Free: Andy’s Solicitor

Millie wasn’t due to arrive until eleven o’clock but something made Sarah wake up early and connect the printer to her laptop. She dug out the box containing Andy and Abigail’s mementos and scanned some of the documents; not the photographs, she didn’t feel that she wanted anything that would remind her of the two of them as children. Abigail as a child, looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Andy’s mother had made a point of dressing her adopted daughter in frills and flounces. The early colour photographs made the pink dresses look particularly sickly.

By nine o’clock everything necessary had been scanned and the box was packed up and sealed.  The devil in Sarah was still active, so taking a chance that some solicitors might work on Saturdays, she called Andy’s solicitor. He was in and seemed quite nice on the phone. Sarah explained about the box of papers and photographs and asked if she could drop them off at his office for safekeeping.

“I’m moving out this weekend you see, and I don’t like the idea of them being left in an empty house. I’ve only had a quick look but there are things in the box that must be important to Andy….”

“….and to Abigail I would imagine.”

“Ah, you know about Abigail then?”

“I’ve known the family for many years; Andy and I went to school together. I think you’re right, they should be here really till Andy comes back. Rather than you come in here, would it be easier if I popped round later? We close the office at one o’clock.”

“That would be fine, my friend and I are packing up my things today – I’d be grateful to have a third-party present otherwise Abigail will accuse me of stealing the potato peeler or something!”

“She hasn’t changed then. She had a ridiculous crush on me when Andy and I used to hang around together. I tried to dissuade her as gently as I could but she took to stalking me. Every time I left the house she would be hiding badly behind a bush. I told Andy eventually and I don’t know what he said to her but the stalking stopped. I also stopped going round to Andy’s after that. His parents took Abigail’s side – she’d told them that we were going out and I dumped her of course – it was a shame because Andy was always a good friend, although I don’t suppose you want to hear that right now do you?”

Sarah couldn’t help but smile.

“Strangely enough I’m feeling rather grateful to Andy right now. He gave me the jolt that I needed. I know that you are his solicitor, but can I tell you something in confidence?”

“You mean that you don’t want Abigail know. My lips are most definitely sealed!”

“Phew. I must admit that I felt quite distraught when Andy left, but in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened. Having to think about my own future instead of trailing along in Andy’s wake for another ten years was just what I needed. I took voluntary redundancy and went off to the big city looking for work. Purely by chance I met up with one of my oldest friends in a coffee shop. Thanks to her, I start my new job on Monday and I’ll be staying in her spare room till I find a place of my own. “

“Wow! Things have moved fast. Is this the friend who is helping you pack?”

“Yes, Millie. We were at Uni together and lost touch when we graduated.”

“I look forward to meeting you both later this afternoon then.”

Sarah hung up the phone and grinned. She phoned Roseanne next and let her know that she would be moving out that weekend, and that the solicitor was popping round that afternoon to collect some of Andy’s papers. Roseanne laughed.

“I bet those are the papers that she’s been nagging me about. I’ve told her that no one can remove anything from the house until you have handed the keys over and moved out. She got very agitated and was rather rude.”

“Sorry about that. I think I may have wound her up a bit. Can I give you my forwarding address? I’ve arranged to have my post redirected but it won’t kick in for another week. “

“I promise not to give it to Abigail.”

“Please no! I really don’t want her stalking me in town as well. I sometimes wonder why there isn’t anything more interesting in her life than bothering me, but she’s a little obsessive so that probably accounts for it.”

“When are you actually moving out?”

“Tomorrow. We’ll be taking my boxes out to the storage centre in the morning and then taking my clothes and stuff back to Millie’s in the afternoon. I can leave the keys in an envelope here for you. There is one key that neither you, nor Abigail has, it’s for Andy’s chest in the garage. It’s full of fairly expensive climbing gear so we always kept it locked. If Abigail is going to be responsible for packing up the rest of the things in the house then I suppose it makes sense for her to have it.”

“Just leave her a note explaining about the extra key then. That way she won’t be ringing me non-stop asking what happened to it.”

“Will do. Thank you for everything Roseanne. You’ve made it all quite painless.”

“It’s been nice knowing you. Shame I can’t say the same for Abigail. Bye.”

Thinking about how modern and individual Millie’s flat was, Sarah couldn’t help but wonder what she would make of Andy’s monument to seventies bad taste. Strange how she was able to look at the house through different eyes now, and realise how dreadful her surroundings were. Moving from the lounge to the kitchen, her eyes were assaulted by the cladding and those horrible brown and white tiles. She looked at her watch. Nearly eleven and Millie would be here very soon.

Although Sarah had been looking out of the window like an impatient child, she actually missed Millie’s arrival due to a telephone call from Abigail, who was demanding to come round again. Sarah told her, quite curtly, that it wasn’t convenient as she had visitors and didn’t want Abigail there making a nuisance of herself. Abigail took great offence at this and was about to come over anyway and have a showdown, when Sarah dropped her bombshell and mock-reluctantly stated that it was Andy’s solicitor that was visiting, and she was quite prepared to complain to him about Abigail’s behaviour if she did turn up. This seemed to silence her temporarily at least.

Sarah managed to let Millie in through the front door whilst still on the phone to Abigail. She took advantage of Sarah’s being busy, and prowled around every room downstairs, coming back to Sarah in the hallway with her eyes opening wider and wider, as she wondered how on earth Sarah had managed to live in a place like this for so long. When she finally got rid of Abigail, Sarah joined Millie in the kitchen where she was unpacking a number of mysterious looking tubs and packages.

“Abigail?” said Millie.

“The very same. What’s all this?”

“Lunch. I hit the deli on the way over. I have a variety of cheeses and meats, some olives, anchovies, tiny red bell peppers stuffed with cream cheese, and some fresh granary bread. I thought I’d lay it out on the table to warm up a bit.”

“There’s an awful lot for just two of us.”

“I know. I always over cater. Still, what we don’t eat today we can have for lunch tomorrow.”

“Actually, we have a guest so extra is good.”

“Who’s coming? Not Abigail surely?”

“Good God no! Would I waste food like this on her? No, Andy’s solicitor is coming round after one o’clock to collect that box of photos and papers I told you about. He doesn’t think they should be left in the house.  He knows all about Abigail’s past, in fact, she stalked him when he was at school with Andy.”

“No! Poor guy. What’s he like?”

“Nice enough on the phone. Never met him in person before. Andy didn’t mention that he had a solicitor, let alone one that he went to school with and who Abigail had a huge crush on.  I felt that the box should be in safekeeping because if I left it here Abigail would get her mitts on it and probably destroy the paperwork. If it’s in a safe place then Andy can decide what to do with it if he ever comes back – with his true love.”

“What true love?”

Sarah poked around in her handbag for Andy’s latest postcard. She handed it to Millie who read it and whistled. “Are we still taking bets on whether he comes back with a he, a she or a ladyboy?

“Please don’t. Whoever he or she is, I hope they’ll benefit from Andy getting rid of this mausoleum.”

Millie looked around her and sniggered.

“How the hell did you live in this place without going off your trolley. It hasn’t been decorated since the seventies. I didn’t know that Formica existed anymore.”

“It probably came back into fashion but nobody told me. Come on let’s get some packing done. Sitting here looking at all that food makes me feel hungry, and I don’t think we’ve done anything to earn it yet.”

The next two hours passed quickly as Millie helped Sarah sort through her clothes and the other personal belongings that would be coming with Sarah when she moved in. Sarah was stunned to find how much of what she owned had sat at the back of a drawer or in a wardrobe for years without being touched. There were outfits that hadn’t been worn since she graduated; together with several items of clothing that were obviously presents from Andy, and an attempt to turn her into a taupe ghost of his mother. It was these items that Sarah took the greatest of pleasures in designating to the growing charity shop pile.

It was while the two of them were giggling over a particularly loathsome polyester blouse in orange, black and green, that Sarah heard the knock at the door. She looked out of the window and after establishing that Abigail’s car wasn’t outside, they went downstairs hoping that the caller would be Andy’s solicitor. It was, tall, dark and rather handsome, he introduced himself as Simon Forder, as he followed the two women into the kitchen. He looked around and laughed.

“Nothing changes. This is exactly the way I remember it. Andy’s mum was so pleased when they had the cladding put in here. She said that it added ‘chick’ to the room. I always thought that it made it look like a run-down sauna.”

“That’s exactly it!” said Sarah. “I wish that I could say that Andy left the house the way it is because of his childhood memories and as a tribute to his parents, but I rather think that he saw no reason to change, and that doing anything with the house wasn’t very stimulating compared with gardens, trains and mountain climbing.”

“Didn’t you try and get him to change? To decorate and make something of your home?” asked Millie as she opened up the cheese and hams ready for lunch.

Sarah shrugged. “Getting Andy to do something that he really didn’t feel comfortable doing, was almost impossible. I’d get sulks, and if that didn’t work, there would be the ‘stomping around the house’, and as a last gasp attempt, he would invite Abigail and her family round for dinner. He always cooked it though. He didn’t trust me after the time when I let a pan of potatoes boil dry because I was watching the news on the TV.”

Millie pulled a face and started cutting the bread into suitably thick slices whilst Sarah laid the old mismatched plates round the table. Simon watched them both, partly amused by their interplay but also wearing the face of someone who really needs to say something.

“Can I ask you a really personal question Sarah?”

Sarah sat down at the table. “Fire away. It seems that you knew Andy far better than I did though.”

“Possibly. We’ve got to know each other a lot better in the past couple of months whilst he was planning his trip.”

“His escape you mean?”

“Don’t be bitter Sarah. He felt very guilty doing it the way he did, but he didn’t think he had any choice other than to make a clean break. He wanted you to be angry with him, he felt that it would hurt less.”

“You’re certainly right about the being angry bit.” said Sarah, tearing a lump of bread off the slice that Millie had just put on her plate. “I was furious with him. It passed after a day or two though. It’s so much easier to be furious with Abigail.”

“I suppose Andy explained why he had to leave to you, didn’t he Simon?”  asked Millie, cutting chunks of cheese and putting them on a plate with the slices of ham and salami.

“He did, and I’m assuming that I can say what I like in front of Millie, can I Sarah?”

“Of course, you can. It all sounds very mysterious though. Has he got some serious condition? A brain tumour or cancer or something like that?”

“No Sarah, although it would probably be easier if he had.”

“Is he gay?” asked Millie.

“Possibly, although I think confused would be a better description.”

“Right. That would explain a few things. Umm. Was he experimenting before he went away Simon? I mean, should I go and have any blood tests or anything?”

“Unfair Sarah. He wouldn’t do a thing like that to you. He had a full health check before he went, and his physical health is fine.”

“I’m sorry Simon, it’s just that spending ten years with someone, and then finding out that you didn’t really know them at all, it’s a bit much to take in at once. I don’t feel angry with him anymore. He made the best decision for both of us, and I really am grateful to him for being brave enough to make it.”

“He told me that you’d come round sooner rather than later. He said that you deserved so much better, and that he’d been holding you back all these years because he was so frightened of change.”

“I’d noticed.” said Millie as she looked around the room.

“That’s why you have to admire his decision to put the house up for sale. He knew it would force your hand about moving out, and when he eventually comes back, he can start from scratch.”

Sarah stared at the food on her plate, not really feeling very hungry now.

“I wish we’d talked more. Ten years is such a long time to be wishing you were somewhere else.”

“No, he only began feeling like this about six months ago. He mentioned you’d been on a secondment some years ago?”

“Yes, forensic social work.”

“Right, and he said that you did very well and they wanted you to apply for a job there.”

“It would have meant longer hours, travelling. It felt like a huge step. Andy wasn’t happy about it; in fact, he was so stressed that I didn’t feel I could take up the job.”

“And this post you are about to take up?”

“Bloody hell!” said Millie. “An even huger step if you ask me!”

Sarah looked a Simon a little ruefully. “Okay. You win. I just hope that things work out well for Andy too.”

“He’d be very happy to hear you say that.”

 Simon’s mobile rang and he looked at the display. “I’ll just take this out in the hall if that’s okay?”

“Of course.”

As Simon closed the door behind him, Millie reached over and squeezed Sarah’s hand.  “He’s a nice guy. How are you feeling?”

“Fine. A little shell-shocked but I’m glad that Andy has got someone like Simon that he can talk to. That was one of the things that I worried about. Not that Andy and I did talk – or confide in each other for that matter but, to be honest Millie, I’m even more anxious to get out of this house and all its memories as soon as possible.”

Simon came back in.

“Got to go. Something urgent has cropped up. You have my number Sarah, if you have any problems, don’t hesitate to call. Now where is this highly confidential box?”

“Here, I’ll carry it out to the car.”

“Thank you. Nice to meet you, Millie.”

Sarah walked out to the car with Simon, and he locked the box securely in his boot. “I meant what I said Sarah, call me – here’s my mobile number as well – if you have any issues. I’ve got your numbers, and Millie’s address. Do you want to know when Andy comes back?”

The question took her aback but when she stopped to think about it, yes, she did want to know. Sarah nodded, feeling a bit choked. Surprisingly, Simon hugged her and got into the car. He grinned and waved as he drove away and Sarah couldn’t help wishing that she had met him sooner; he might have helped her to understand Andy and Abigail.

Millie was in the kitchen examining Andy’s list and comparing it to the items on show. She turned to Sarah with a quizzical look on her face. “You don’t seem to own much in the way of kitchen equipment my dear? I can see a garlic press, one small aluminium saucepan, and a set of ‘comic’ egg cups on this list but not a lot else.”

“I bought the garlic press; the saucepan is a hangover from Uni days,and the set of egg cups is one of the few things I bought from my parents’ home.  A chicken, a duck and a rooster. Andy hated them. I used them to annoy him. I also cut my bread into soldiers and dipped. Very cross face. In fact, he wouldn’t sit across the table from me if I was having a boiled egg. “

After rummaging in the kitchen cupboard, Millie found the egg cups and pulled them out triumphantly. “Oh, these are so cute. If you don’t mind Sarah, until you find your own place, these will have pride of place on the dresser. One can never have too many small saucepans and Tom broke my last garlic press. You are coming to our flat with a considerable dowry already!”

The rest of the day sped by; having Millie there took all the pain and strain out of the packing. They decided not to pack up any of Andy’s things as Abigail was bound to unpack and check everything anyway. By nine o’clock all the storage boxes were packed, the charity boxes were ready to be dropped off at Jude’s as there were no shops open, and Sarah thought that it would give Millie and Jude a chance to meet finally. Sarah’s own belongings were mostly packed with just a few things that would be needed overnight and in the morning.

Sarah ordered pizza for them both and opened a bottle of wine. They watched an old comedy programme on the TV and laughed. It was a good end to the day.