Millie’s absence was obvious to everyone; not just from a practical aspect but because everyone was so used to her long rangy figure loping around the corridors, and managing to be everywhere at once. Sarah did her best to compensate, but she learned very quickly that the teamwork approach she and Millie had developed, was nowhere near as effective without Millie.
It didn’t help that there had been a huge row up in the Chief Executive’s office which resulted in Natasha’s mother resigning, because she couldn’t accept that her darling daughter had done anything wrong, and couldn’t understand why efforts were not being made to have Natasha reinstated and apologised to. The Chief Executive had explained that Natasha had not reached the required performance level required for a permanent contract, and in addition she had broken the law and put the lives of her colleagues at risk. A member of the legal team had been brought in and further emphasised the issues regarding Natasha’s employment but this was to no avail; Natasha and her mother were taking the company to court – allegedly.
As a consequence, everyone was on their best behaviour and rather snippy. Sarah picked her moment before asking Oliver if Jude could come to the studio and see the show. He grimaced but gave his consent.
“On one condition though Sarah.”
“Of course, what is the condition?”
“Make sure that the runners know that your friend is not seeking employment, she is just coming here to visit, and see what it is that you do for a living now. I don’t want any more runners getting silly ideas.”
“Jude is a social worker, but she is also a very busy mother of three who is not in a position to take up any work even if she wanted to, which she doesn’t. She does watch your show though and enjoys it. She’s very excited at the prospect of actually seeing the show being filmed – and of seeing you!”
Oliver preened, just as Sarah knew he would, and gave her a wink as he wandered off in search of someone else to irritate. She sent a text to Jude confirming the arrangements for Thursday, and was immensely cheered by an immediate response saying that Dan and the girls could do without her for the two days, especially when it meant a posh dinner with Auntie Sarah.
A meeting was held that afternoon to look at the cases for Friday. There wasn’t likely to be any controversy, a double lie detector, a DNA and a DNA plus ‘I don’t want my ex to have any contact with me if the baby isn’t his’. There was something about the last case that annoyed Oliver, but Sarah couldn’t put her finger on it. The research was thorough, if a little limited by contradicting information given by both parties. Sarah decided to look at the cases more closely given Millie’s absence, and make sure that the aftercare team had everything set up ready for the end of each show segment. Neither Sarah nor Millie usually did this; it was a job that fell to the researchers, but Sarah just a niggling feeling that wouldn’t go away.
The first couple were in their late twenties and had been going out with each other for a couple of years, but they kept splitting up and drifting back together again. Mercifully there were no children, and they had both settled with new partners. Rumours about both of them cheating on each other were rife, and they felt that they could only move on with their own lives if they could finally find out if any cheating had gone on. It was the type of case that Oliver hated; it was unlikely to produce any dramatics, no real aftercare was needed, and the lie detector test wasn’t really needed now that they were no longer together. Sarah expected that there would be a bit of an Oliver rant at the end of the segment. The next couple were temporarily estranged until it could be established whether the male partner was actually the father of the little boy. He was only four weeks old, and his mother looked very young and fragile. Her partner was a couple of years older, but from the answers he gave the researcher, he really wanted to get back with his girlfriend, and be a good dad to the baby. Oliver would like that one. It would give him the opportunity to show his softer side. Sarah hoped to hell that the girl was telling the truth, and the baby was her partner’s. She hated it when it all went wrong, but at least this case had the possibility of reconciliation through counselling, or at the very least, access arrangements set up by aftercare.
The last case had the potential for fireworks if it wasn’t handled well. It was another couple who had split up. The young mother was being dominated by her parents who wouldn’t let her ex-partner see their child. Her ex was being equally supported by his dad, and there were accusations of stalking, bad motherhood, overbearing parents, and drug-taking flying about on both sides. Just from looking at the notes, Sarah could tell that the girl and her parents were from different social circles to the boy and his father. The boy worked in his dad’s building firm and was being groomed to take over the company; the girl was the youngest of six children, all of whom lived at with their parents in a very crowded house. They were all on benefits of some kind according to the boy’s father. None of them had ever worked for more than a day or two, and they were constantly trying to get him to resign from his father’s company and live with them on benefits. It all looked very stacked against the girl and Sarah could just hear Oliver sounding forth on benefit cheating, and silly kids having babies in order to get a house. Kid gloves for this one definitely, she thought as she filed them away in her bag and left the office.
The underground parking was always a bit spooky but especially so at night. Sarah had parked near a wall light that morning but some bright spark had smashed it during the day. She got the distinct feeling that she was being watched, as she walked to her car and felt in her pocket for the rape alarms that all the staff had been issued with. She was just about to press it when she heard her name being called. She turned round and there like some black clad avenging angel, was Al.
“It’s you! I was sure that someone was following me, and I was just about to press my alarm.”
“I’ll walk you to your car. We’ve had some vandalism down here today, and I said I would keep an eye out, especially for the female staff. Did you see anyone when you came down?”
“No, it was just a feeling. Here we are. I’ll just check the back seat for intruders.”
“Don’t joke about it, Sarah! Umm, I was wondering if you wanted to go out for a drink again?”
Sarah felt a little thrill but dismissed it immediately. “I need to do some shopping tonight, and clean the flat. My friend Jude is traveling up with her family on Thursday, she’s coming to the show on Friday, and then I’m taking her home to hers afterwards. I’m free over the weekend though?”
Al looked somewhat crestfallen. “I’m busy all weekend. I said I’d help my sister decorate her kids’ bedrooms and the front room. She’s a single mum and doesn’t get much help from her ex.”
“Careful, Oliver might snap her up for the show. I’ll see you tomorrow anyway. Thanks Al.”
Sarah got into her car and drove off, hoping that she hadn’t put Al off. She really didn’t have any food left in the flat, and wanted to have the place tidied for when Jude stayed. She came to work on the tram the next day. It was much cheaper and she still enjoyed looking at the old buildings on her way in. It was whilst the tram was waiting at some traffic lights that she thought she saw a familiar figure standing in a shop doorway. Marta? She looked back but the figure had gone and the tram moved forward. Sarah tried to reason with herself. Marta was in Holland. There was no way she could know where Sarah and Millie lived. There were lots of women who looked and dressed like Marta. She must have been mistaken. She was going to mention Marta to Al, but he seemed to be very distant all day, so she thought she had better leave well alone. Oliver kept her very busy anyway.
Thursday was one of those lovely bright days where there was a slight nip in the air and all the trees displayed the golden red hues of autumn. Sarah was glad to have brought her car in though. The day passed without incident, and she was roused from her case studies by a phone call to say that Jude and her family were in reception. Oliver had agreed to Sarah giving the girls a very quick tour of the studio; there was nothing much going on in there anyway. Jude and Dan were almost as fascinated as the girls with this peek into Sarah’s new world. Having watched the show so often, Jude was particularly keen to see the pods at the back of the set, and the corridors where Oliver and the crew were constantly chasing people who suddenly decided that they didn’t want to be on stage anymore. They bumped into Al as they were coming back out of the studio, and Sarah introduced him as ‘my friend Al’ which made him smile and blush slightly. Seeing this gentle giant interacting with the girls, Sarah took another step back as it struck her again what a very nice man he was. He looked a lot happier than he had the last time she’d seen him.
Tour over, Sarah collected her things and led the way over to the Italian restaurant. There were other places to eat but this was her favourite. She was greeted warmly by the manager, and a great fuss was made of the girls. It was a lovely meal with much laughter; Sarah watched Jude and Dan, glad that finally she was able to give them something more than the snatched hours that were their lot when she lived with Andy. The concourse was lit up and rather magical when they left the restaurant. They all walked back to Dan’s car and collected Jude’s overnight bag. There were hugs and a few tears, when the girls realised that Mummy and Aunty Sarah weren’t coming home with them, but with the promise that both would come home tomorrow teatime, Dan packed the girls into the car and drove off.
Sarah and Jude walked back to the underground car park arm in arm.
“This is almost like the old days, isn’t it?” said Jude.
“A bit yes, nicer surroundings than the old social work offices though.”
“Oh yes, this is such a glamorous place to work by comparison.”
She hadn’t thought of it in that way before, but looking around now, this new world was rather glamorous and she had a lot to be grateful for. Someone had arranged for the broken light to be replaced and Sarah had a feeling that she knew who that someone was. The thought of Al made her smile again, and so distracted by the thought and the need to drive carefully out of the entrance, she didn’t even notice a familiar figure standing in the shadows and watching her every move.