Breaking Free – A Quick Peck on the Cheek

Ever the gentleman, Al had insisted on going right up to the door of the flat. Sarah unlocked the door and as Al turned to go, she gave him a quick hug and a peck on the cheek. He blushed. She’d never seen him blush as much as that before, and thought that she had better get back inside before he realised that she had seen him. Buster glared at her as she turned the living room lights on.

“Better get used to it mate. It’s going to be me that gives you your dinners for the next month or so.”

He got up slowly, arched his back and walked off in the direction of Millie’s room. The door was shut but Sarah saw no point in tormenting him further so she opened it. Tail held very high, he walked through the doorway and jumped onto the bed, turning round three times and curling himself up into a big fat ball on Millie’s pillow. Sarah sat down in front of her laptop; feeling slightly bereft of any project planning for India now that Millie had gone. She looked at her watch. It was only just ten o’clock, and wondering if Jude had gone to bed, she sent her text. The reply came back almost immediately. Jude had been asleep for most of the day, Dan and the girls had gone to bed and she was too wide awake for her own good. Sarah rang her.

“Hang on, I’m in the living room under a blanket but I’ll shut the door so as not to wake anyone up. Is everything okay? Did Millie get off alright? Are you feeling lonely yet?”

“I’m fine Jude. We saw Millie off at the airport, then Tom at the station.”


“Al came, we couldn’t fit the three of us and Millie’s luggage in my little car, so Al from Security very kindly offered to take us in his big black car.”

A note of curiosity crept into Jude’s voice. “So, what did you do when you’d seen Tom off?”

“We both felt a bit flat, and Al offered to take me for a drink. He seemed a bit taken aback when I said yes.”

“So where did you go? Come on Sarah! Spit it out!”

“Just teasing, I know how nosey you are. We went to a little old pub in the country, near Al’s old home. It was lovely. Very eccentric and full of memorabilia, and the food was to die for. Toilets were a bit eccentric too, but you can’t have everything.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Al did most of the talking actually. He used to be in the police force. We did swap a few gory stories, but mostly I listened. He’s very good company.”

“I’ll bet. What happened next?”

“He insisted on coming up to the flat door with me. I offered coffee, but he declined. I gave him a quick hug and a peck on the cheek, and he blushed as he said goodbye. Is that a thorough enough description for you?”

“No, but I doubt if I’ll get much more out of you anyway. How are you feeling though? Lonely?”

“Not really. I got used to being alone after Andy left and rather enjoyed it, especially when I had Abigail to spar with. I’ve been so busy sorting out Millie’s trip over the past couple of weeks, I feel I’ve really neglected you all.”

“It’s okay. We understood. I missed you most though.”

“Well, I was thinking about that. If I can arrange to get you in, would you like to come up and sit in on the show sometime this week?”

“Oh, would I? You bet!”

“Would they be able to do without you for a night as well? I thought maybe Dan and the girls could bring you up at after school, we could all go out for a meal, Dan could take the girls home, and you could stay the night and come into work with me the next day, and I’ll take you home afterwards.”

“Wow! Would I get to see behind the scenes as well?”

“Yes, and meet Oliver if you’re really unlucky. No, I don’t mean that. He’s quite nice really, it just doesn’t always come over that way.”

“Oh Sarah. I would so love to come and have a peek at your world.”

“By the end of the filming you’ll be looking through your fingers, I can assure you. We’re filming on Wednesday and Friday. How about coming up on Thursday and I’ll take you home on Friday night?”

“That sounds great. Can I check with Dan in the morning?”

“Sure, I’ll sort things out at work, but I don’t think Oliver will raise any objections. I’ve just signed a permanent contract so I’d have to do something pretty dreadful to get the sack – especially with Millie away. Anyway, you sound sleepy now. Go to bed and I’ll text you tomorrow once I’ve sorted things out.”

“Night Sarah. Thank you. You just turned a bad day into a brilliant one. Will I get to meet the lovely Al too?”

“Probably. Goodnight my lovely. Sweet dreams.”

Breaking Free – Aftermath and Another Breakthrough

Sarah had taken Daryl back to his flat to get a change of clothes on Sunday, but neither she nor Millie were happy with him staying at home alone so he came back with her.  Sarah made a massive Greek salad with buttered chicken, and they both watched on in amusement as Tom and Daryl played more mindless war games on the X-Box. Tom’s first lecture wasn’t until Monday afternoon, so they dropped him off at the train station on the way to the studio.

“Keep me posted about finding my Dad.”  Tom whispered as he hugged Millie goodbye. “I don’t want you wandering off without some kind of tracking device on you.”

“I appreciate your concerns my darling, but I have travelled around India before you know!”

“Hmmm, and came back pregnant with me. Times have changed Mum, and there are a lot more safeguards that we can put in place before you go. Okay?”

“I do love you, Thomas.”

“And I love you, Mum. If you can find my Dad, and he wants to be involved then all well and good, but you’ve been all I needed for the past eighteen years, and now we have Sarah too.”

Millie looked at him, long and hard, realising that she really had done something very right when she brought up this intelligent and empathic boy – well – man now. Tom hugged her again, waved at Sarah and Daryl, then ran off down the stairs to his train platform. Millie gulped and climbed back into the car. Daryl handed her a tissue, and Sarah turned the radio up a notch.

The studio was a rather sombre place that Monday morning; Daryl was the only one of the five runners to make it in, and understandably everyone needed to know what had happened. After the first rush Millie noticed that Daryl was looking pale, and took him off for a coffee whilst Sarah explained to the others that he was still suffering from shock. Jenny arrived then, and agreed to put Daryl on office duties with the aftercare team. Fortunately, there was no filming that day so the runners were not as missed as they would have been.

Oliver called everyone into the office at mid-morning. He was quite gentle with Daryl but wanted to know what had happened that night.  Daryl haltingly explained that the meal out after work had been arranged a couple of weeks earlier, and that they’d all agreed to go by train and taxi. It was Natasha’s idea to borrow her mother’s car and take them all in it instead. None of her friends knew that she wasn’t insured to drive the car, or they would never have gone with her. They also thought that she had sobered up from lunchtime, because she seemed okay when they set off after work. The meal was good; Natasha wasn’t drinking during dinner, and Daryl said she seemed to be in a happier mood. It was when they were driving home that she changed. She started ranting about Sarah stealing her job, and how she was going to get even with Sarah, but wouldn’t tell anyone what she had done.

One of the other girls got very cross with Natasha, and said that she wanted to go home. That seemed to make her even worse, and her driving got very erratic as she did her best to scare them all. Then it all went too far; Natasha was going too fast round a corner, and the car ended up in a ditch. The car behind them swerved and missed them; the driver called 999 and managed to get everyone out. The police had breathalysed Natasha at the hospital, but Daryl didn’t know what the result was.

Rubbing his chin, Oliver looked rather pensive and turned his attention to Sarah. “Natasha’s mother has been ranting on the phone at me from Barbados – says it’s my fault for employing you instead of Natasha. I made it quite plain that I would never have considered her daughter for a permanent job here. I told her that I’m sorry about the accident, but even beforehand I found Natasha to be sloppy, lazy and totally unreliable. The fact that she injured four of my staff as well as herself because she decided to drink drive, and show off in her mother’s car makes her even less reliable. I won’t deny that her performance at work has deteriorated over the past couple of months, and that may well be due to her jealousy of someone who has more experience, more intelligence and personality than she has.”

“Thank you.” Sarah gulped. “What worries me is that she told Daryl and the others that she had done something to me to get her own back. Did she give you any idea of what she had done?”

Daryl didn’t shake his head; he had learned not to by now. “She didn’t say. I know she was looking at the case notes of past programmes the other day but I thought she was just doing some research.”

“Anyway,” said Oliver. “I’m satisfied that Sarah hasn’t done anything wrong. On the contrary. I’ve spoken to the other three, but either they are dopier than you Daryl, or they feel the need to cover up for Natasha.”

“They were all in the back.” said Daryl hastily. “I doubt if they heard as much as I did.”

Oliver patted Daryl’s shoulder very gently.  “Good quality loyalty. Admirable but don’t waste it on Natasha – a spoilt brat if ever I saw one.”

“Her Dad’s okay. Isn’t he Sarah?”

Sarah nodded her head. “He’s not the one that’s been spoiling her. I think that’s Mummy’s problem.”

“Yeah, well Mummy needs to be a bit careful as well. She may work in the Chief Execs but her daughter has broken just about every rule in the book here, as well as drink driving and driving without insurance. Thank goodness the guy behind her didn’t hit the car.  I’ve also got four staff that are traumatised and injured because of her selfishness. She ain’t coming back here if I have anything to do with it.”

On that he stalked back out of the office with all the dignity he could muster. Sarah looked at Daryl and shrugged her shoulders.  Millie invited Daryl to stay the night again but she got the impression that her flat might not be so enticing now that Tom and his X-Box had gone home. He had been quiet all day, but she felt it was more to do with the revelations about Natasha than the accident itself.  They dropped him off home and he assured them that a friend was coming round that evening and that he would be fine.

Things gradually came back to normal at the studio; the other runners returned and at Daryl’s insistence, told Jenny what Natasha had been saying. They also apologised to Sarah and Millie for the trouble that was caused.   Millie waited for the dust to settle before she dropped her bombshell about going to India to look for Tom’s father. Not surprisingly, Oliver went ballistic. Jenny however, understood completely; she had lost her own father at a very young age.

“To be honest Millie, your annual leave is mounting up anyway. You carried over leave from last year, and the year before. How long do you think you’ll need?”

“I really don’t know. Sarah helped me track him down – or at least the place he was last known at. I’d like to spend a bit of time just travelling and sight-seeing as well. Can I risk a month do you think?”

“It’s doable. By the way Sarah, I have a new permanent contract for you – if you are interested of course?”

Sarah hesitated just long enough for Jenny to look worried.

“I’d be delighted Jenny. It’s been a steep learning curve but I think I can manage to take off my stabilisers now. Any news on Natasha?”

“Good news.  Well goodish; no lasting damage done. The bad news is that her mother is insisting on us having her back but the legal department are set against it, not just because of her work record, but drink driving, no insurance and endangering the lives of other staff when you are on a final warning call for instant dismissal. I’ve got Mommy Dearest coming down to see me this afternoon. She had to fly back from Barbados in a hurry, and is still banging on about Sarah stealing her daughter’s job, but I have a file of incidents that happened before you even came here Sarah. Natasha’s been on borrowed time for quite a while – it’s just that she and her mother are too deluded to accept it.”

“I’ll keep out of the way this afternoon then.” said Sarah quietly, still wondering what it was that Natasha had done to get back at her.

“Not too far away. I will be asking Natasha’s mother to apologise to you on behalf of her and her horrible daughter!”

“No! She’s been through enough Jenny. It isn’t her fault she has a silly mother who indulges her.  Maybe this will knock some sense into her. I really don’t want an apology, please?”

“Fair enough. See you later then, and don’t worry about Oliver, I’ll calm him down.”

Now that the decision had been made, and the annual leave agreed, Millie, aided and abetted by Sarah, set to plan the trip to India with an efficiency that Tom would have been proud of, but which had played no part in Millie’s earlier trip to India.  Sitting on the sofa, sipping red wine after a leftover pasta dinner, the idea of India turned into a reality for both of them.

“It’s scary Sarah, I didn’t even have any jabs before I went last time. I had a rucksack full of clothes, three hundred pounds, a return plane ticket and a student rail card.  I can’t go anywhere for another two weeks because of the jabs – that’s assuming I can book an appointment with the overseas inoculation specialist – I think that’s the practice nurse. Oh, why do I have these silly ideas?”

“Calm down Millie. Time to set up a nice project sheet with dates and parameters.”

“I haven’t done one of those for years.”

“Ah but I have, and I have the software on my laptop. As a going away present I will set you up a plan, and an agenda. You need to tell me where you want to go and how you want to travel. Knowing you as I do, I won’t make the timescale too rigid – enough to get you there and back again.”

Millie’s face brightened; she quite liked the idea of her itinerary being mapped out for her. “So, if I do a bit of research about India and travel and that kind of thing ….”

“…. I will stick it all together in a nice neat package. I take it that you no longer want to travel student class?”

“Lord, no! I’ve earned the money for this trip, and I’d like the best I can get. Ooh, can I stay in a really posh hotel this time?”

“There are plenty of posh hotels in New Delhi; they may not be what you want though. There are some nicer boutique hotels from I’ve seen, small but very tasteful. I’ll draw up a short list.”

“Oh, bliss! Vaccinations first. I do think it’s rather wonderful that my health centre arranges this kind of thing online now.”

“Sign of the times my dear. Much better than having to listen to an endless engaged tone or queue up to make an appointment together with a load of sneezing, coughing sick people.”

That night marked the first of many nights spent searching for the ideal holiday for Millie.  The combination of her fantasies with Sarah’s more practical approach gradually evolved and was slotted into the project plan.  The budget flight of ten-two years ago was transformed into business class on Emirates flights.  Millie decided that flying First Class was pushing the boat out too much, but when she saw the photographs of the pool at the Imperial Hotel, New Delhi, she knew that this was what she wanted. Everyone at the studio joined in on the project planning; whenever the subject arose, there was always someone who had an idea or an opinion to voice. Al came up with the practicalities regarding staying safe and being contactable.  His suggestions made both Millie and Sarah feel more secure, and fell in line with Tom’s ideas about keeping in touch.

The clothes shopping was perhaps the most enjoyable trip for both Millie and Sarah. Buying thin cotton dresses that floated gracefully, scarves, loose tops and palazzo trousers, was bliss when the weather outside was cold and grim. Sarah allowed herself a few little indulgences in case anyone ever asked her out on a date where a floaty dress might be appropriate. Millie’s holiday started two days before she flew out. The studio staff took over the Italian restaurant for a farewell dinner, and Tom managed to get a couple of days off to come home and make sure his mother was sorted.  When Millie was determined not to get too stressed but was failing badly, Sarah stepped in and took over; every step planned and executed immaculately, and ending with Millie being waved off at the airport by Tom, Sarah and Al, who had volunteered to help with the luggage by chauffeuring them in his shiny black people carrier with tinted windows.

Sarah tried very hard not to get choked as she saw Millie disappear through security. Tom was dropped off at the train station again, and as Al negotiated the army of taxis outside, Sarah felt rather flat.

“Umm, Sarah?”

“Sorry Al, I was miles away.  Thank you for all this. You’ve been a miracle worker.”

“It’s been a pleasure, honestly. Uh – I don’t suppose you’d like to go for a drink, would you? I won’t be offended if you say no.”

Sarah smiled for the first time since Millie had gone. “Do you know what Al? I would love to go for a drink. Where shall we go?”

“What do you want? Loud and brash, quiet and sedate, or quirky.”

“Definitely quirky. I take it you have somewhere in mind?”

“I do. It isn’t far but it’s out in the country. It’s a pub near where I grew up. The owners have stuffed it full of war time memorabilia, dusty as hell but the food is good too, if you are hungry that is. The landlord’s an old mate.”

“Do I need to get changed?” asked Sarah.

“You look lovely – I mean fine – as you are. You always look good.”

Sarah was glad of the darkness of the car so that Al couldn’t see her blushing.

Al pointed out landmarks as they drove through the countryside; the pub was exactly as he had described it but even better. Al was greeted with enthusiasm by his friend, and the smells coming from the kitchen reminded Sarah that she hadn’t eaten since a quick sandwich at lunchtime. The food was excellent, and Al was wonderful company. He told her tales of previous close call incidents at the studio, and of his career in the police force. Sarah had such a good evening that she almost forgot that Millie was flying away to India.