A new beginning – Week 1 of the 52 week challenge

Gerrit_Dou_(Dutch,_1613–1675),_Sleeping_Dog,_1650._Oil_on_panel

‘Do you need a lift?’

Danny looked at his mother; still wearing her dressing gown and her hair was in a state of bird’s nest tangles.

He shook his head. ‘It takes me twelve minutes and forty-five seconds to walk to the centre. I have twenty-two minutes and thirty seconds to finish my breakfast, wash up and put things away, put on my coat  and trainers. I have already made my lunch and packed it into my rucksack. It will take you at least forty-three minutes to go back upstairs, wash, brush your teeth, get dressed and find your car keys – which are in the bowl on the breakfast bar. I put them there this morning because you left them next to the microwave. So, no thank you.’

Whilst speaking, Danny had already moved from the table to the sink and washed up his bowl and spoon. His mother was about to tell him to leave the drying up for her but she knew that Danny preferred to wash up his own crockery. She watched him as he moved to the hallway, pulled on his trainers and tied the laces meticulously. She longed to be the sort of mother who could give him a hug and a kiss before he left the house but was held back by the knowledge that this would make him freeze and back away from her.

His coat was on now, and after checking that he had his own keys, his wallet and was wearing his rucksack with the straps adjusted equally, Danny nodded at her and left the house.

Even allowing for pavement crack avoidance, Danny still managed to arrive at work with two minutes and twenty-five seconds to spare. He keyed in the combination  on his locker, hung his coat and rucksack inside, and carefully juggled the numbers again so that no one would be able to guess his secret code. Other workers were already waiting in the staff room; as was his custom Danny took a seat at the other end of the line of chairs, away from his colleagues. No one was offended by this however, that was just Danny.

On the stroke of eight o’clock, Maggie, the centre manager joined them and began cleaning off the white board so that she could write up the jobs for the day. Danny expected to be on kennel cleaning. This had presented him with a problem at first but Maggie made sure that he always had the right gloves, a boiler suit, boots and an apron to wear, and it gave him a warm sense of accomplishment when he left the kennels clean, tidy and ready for the dogs to come back to.

Today was different though. Maggie didn’t give him any jobs. This worried Danny. She had explained to him and his mother that the centre couldn’t afford to take on many permanent staff, and that Danny could have expenses as a volunteer but would need to prove that he could work hard with his colleagues, and for the good of the dogs that had been abused and abandoned by evil, thoughtless people. Danny loved the dogs. He loved his job. He began to breathe heavily as he imagined what life would be like without his job at the centre. Maggie was very quickly at his side.

‘Come with me Danny. I have a very special job for you. I don’t know how long it will take you or if you can manage to do it, but I have a feeling that if anyone can succeed, it will be you.’

Danny followed her out of the room. Maggie was nice. It didn’t look as if she was going to sack him after all. He hoped that he could do the job – whatever it was.

They walked along the corridor: anxious doggy faces peered through the bars of the kennels. Some dogs barked, some whined, some yapped. Most of them wagged their tails as they recognised people who only ever showed them love and kindness.

‘In here,’ said Maggie as she unlocked the door to the special kennel. ‘This little boy was brought in during the night. I’m afraid that someone has been very unkind to him and he is extremely scared. He doesn’t know what to do when you touch him because he thinks you are going to hurt him. The only noise he can make is a scream of fear. I need you to spend some time with him every day. Talk to him, try to stroke him if you can. Your job is to help him to trust people again. Do you think you can do it Danny?’

Danny nodded, not taking his eyes from the skinny, cowering dog hiding in the furthermost corner of the kennel.

‘I’ve put in a clean bean bag for you to sit on; there’s fresh food and water, keep the door closed while you are in here and lock it when you leave. The noise he makes is pretty bad so come out when it becomes too much. Any questions?’

Danny shook his head, his eyes still focussed on the little dog.

‘We’ve called him George. He didn’t have a name before.’

Maggie left the kennel, mentally crossing her fingers that Danny would be the one to save George. The centre relied on donations and being able to rehome dogs once they had recovered from their pasts. She was doubtful that George would ever recover.

Danny moved the beanbag closer to George and reached out a hand to touch him. George screamed. An ear-splitting noise that Danny had never heard a dog make before. He turned its head towards Danny’s hand as if to bite it but experience had taught George that this action would only result in a kick or a punch, so he was too nervous to actually make contact with Danny’s gentle fingers.

‘It’s alright George. I won’t hurt you. I promise to look after you. I’m just going to sit here on the bean bag next to you for now so that you can get used to my smell.’

Maggie found them there, side by side, when she came back near lunchtime. George still looked scared but he wasn’t screaming. Danny looked up at her and she could have sworn she saw a glimmer of a smile.

‘Time for lunch Danny. You can either take a couple of the dogs round the field this afternoon, or you can come back and spend some more time with George – but only if you want to.’

Danny got to his feet stiffly and turned back to George.

‘I am going for my lunch now George. It will take me precisely twenty-six minutes to wash my hands, eat my lunch, go to the toilet and wash my hands again. I’ll come back here afterwards and bring my magazine with me. It’s about computers so you won’t really understand it, but it will help you to get used to my voice if I read to you. Is that alright Maggie?’

‘Oh very alright. I’ve explained to the others what you are doing with George but it’s completely up to you how much time you spend with him. If you need a break and want to stretch your legs, come and find me.’

Danny nodded, knowing that taking time to have his lunch would be the only break he needed. Maggie closed the kennel door behind them and handed Danny the key. He walked quickly down the corridor, feeling proud that she had trusted him with this very special job and not wanting to take any longer over his lunch than necessary.

It took two weeks in all. Every day Maggie made time to visit the kennel and listen to Danny’s soft voice telling George about computer systems, how to cook scrambled eggs, cleaning out kennels and making sure that the dogs had a balanced diet – anything that Danny felt George would like to know about. George stopped screaming when Danny reached out to him, and eventually took to creeping closer to the bean bag until the wonderful day when Maggie peered through the kennel bars and saw George curled up on Danny’s lap, sleeping happily as Danny stroked him.

Maggie went back to her office feeling a bit choked. She picked up the phone and called Danny’s mother.

‘I have some good news for you. I haven’t told Danny yet so act surprised when he comes home.’

‘What? What?’

I’ve been given a grant to take on an apprentice kennel worker. I want Danny to have the opportunity  – if he wants it.’

Danny’s mother almost choked on her reply. ‘How wonderful! Oh Maggie! I never thought I’d see the day that Danny would have a real job. Thank you. Thank you so much.’

‘No, it’s all down to Danny. I gave him a job that I didn’t think anyone would be able to do and he’s excelled at it. Has he told you about George?’

‘A little bit every day. We looked at some of his old books and discussed whether George would be receptive to music. It always soothes Danny when he gets wound up. I’d better work on looking surprised for he gets home tonight.’

Maggie walked back to the kennel, smiling at the sound of Danny singing an old lullaby to George. It would be a new beginning – for both of them.

 

‘Bullies’

Any bullying is bad but using the internet and social media to stalk, insult and mock is the worst. It happened to me today.

 

Gavin looked up at the clock.  Twenty past two.  Time for a snack.  His parents were sound asleep and would not be disturbed by the sounds of him whipping up a way after midnight snack.  He shut the door from the living room to the stairs, and then quietly closed the kitchen door so that no cooking smells would permeate the upper floor.  He had been caught out like that before.  Despite the meticulous washing up and putting away of all the cutlery, crockery and kitchen utensils, his mother’s face the next morning at a breakfast of rubbery scrambled egg and burnt toast, had said it all.

It was the silent reproach that hurt him the worst.  He could parry the acid comments as they fell from her disappointed lips, but the look on her face, the look that told him how ungrateful he was for supplementing the food his mother so carefully ruined for him, it cut him to the quick and made him even more determined to hide his secret excesses.

There was no such reproach from his father however; locked inside the fantasy world that had descended long before the official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease had been made, his father smiled through every day in a place where he shovelled in the burnt offerings as if they were ambrosia from the gods.  A place where the TV held new delights every day and the operation of the remote control was a thing of wonder.  Answering the telephone was slightly more problematic; Gavin’s mother wasn’t always quick enough to seize the handset before his father’s querulous voice could begin interrogating whichever hapless PPI salesperson or accident insurance company had called.  His mother dealt with all callers with a briskness at odds with her age and disabilities; cutting through the call centre scripts and dispatching the recorded messages with expediency.  She was a formidable woman.

Hatches thoroughly battened down now, Gavin began assembling the foods for his favourite late night meal; chicken breast, salsa, onions, peppers, a soft tortilla or two, sour cream, grated cheese and oh, deep joy, guacamole.  He was the fajita king!

Ready to rustle up his guilty pleasure before creeping back to his internet stalking on the laptop, he could feel his mouth fill with saliva that wasn’t just due to thesmell of the food. He would savour every mouthful, washed down by an illicit bottle of fizzy drink that he had smuggled home in his briefcase with the fajita ingredients.  His mother didn’t approve of fizzy drinks having seen a programme where they left pennies in a glass of fizzy overnight and produced a batch of shiny metal in the morning.

“Just think!” she said.  “Just think what that stuff is doing to your stomach!  I didn’t go through fifty-three hours of agonising childbirth to have your stomach ruined by fizzy drinks!  Are you sure that you aren’t drinking this rubbish at work?  I can always ask your secretary!”

Gavin had briefed his secretary well.  Anna was a good girl.  Not bright but bright enough to understand that when Gavin’s mother phoned she was to use the list he had made for her when replying to questions and not to deviate from the set topics.  Yes, Gavin was in a meeting. No, she wouldn’t forget to ask him to call his mother back, she was writing a note for him at the moment and would pop it on his desk for his return.  Yes, she had seen Gavin eat the sandwiches his mother had prepared for him and she had only made him two cups of coffee this morning using the decaffeinated instant brand that his mother used at home.  Gavin had made it quite clear to Anna what would happen if she revealed his mother’s demanding ways to her colleagues and as a consequence, she gave a tight-lipped smile when asked about him and would only comment that he was very easy to work for.

Licking the sour cream from around his lips, Gavin searched hungrily for any mention of the woman he had set out to torment.  He hadn’t actually followed her online yet, that would come later.  A nice piece of intimidation that would inevitably end up with his being blocked, so he had to work hard to rummage around in her brief and personal musings first.  Music; she obviously liked music, and comedians, actors, journalists and writers.  He sighed as he chewed on a particularly tasty piece of chicken; this account was not proving as fruitful as he had hoped.  . Damn!

Fajita finished, he left the laptop on whilst he washed and cleaned the surfaces; removing every trace of his transgression, then moving silently out of the back door to hide the last pieces of evidence in their next door neighbour’s bin.  He had been doing this ever since his mother, wielding her stick, had gleefully produced the fruits of her wheelie bin grubbing; a bag containing the remnants of a KFC meal that he had consumed on the way home and needed to get out of the car because he was taking her out shopping the next day.

The mileage his mother got out of this heinous crime haunted him to the extent that his fast food intake was severely affected for over a month and his digestive system suffered from the penance of burnt offerings.  He had grown wise now and all evidence was deposited in next door’s rubbish or in a bin far, far from home where his mother and her stick could never venture.

Putting his briefcase up on the table; Gavin extracted the file that contained everything on the woman who had been his obsession for the past six days.  He would see her crumble before him; begging for mercy with no sign of the cool and almost amused tone he had heard when he had spoken to her on the phone.  She was not going to be as easy to deal with as some of his other victims.  No matter.  He loved a challenge.

He skim read the file again.  Her qualifications annoyed him too.  She had far too many, and she had a long and unblemished service record.

The profile picture had been changed recently to a selfie she had taken.  He stroked the long hair with his finger; traced the shape of her large blue eyes hiding behind the glasses.   He knew her; knew so much about her now that he was sure that  the means of her downfall lay in his hands.  This was his skill, the reason for his meteoric rise from a humble clerical officer to the head of his department.   He had worked for six different employers in order to achieve this however and whilst he had left damage and resentment in his wake, Gavin Slime was headed for the top of his profession and was a man who was head-hunted for his ruthlessness and determination.

He looked up at the clock.  It was twenty past three and time he went to bed.  With a sinister smile on his thin lips he hit the follow button knowing that an email would be waiting in her inbox when she got up the next morning. An email announcing that he was following her on Twitter.  His profile picture, in an attempt at humour, showed him eating a giant fajita with only his eyes and horn-rimmed glasses on show as a clue to the man within.  He closed down the laptop and put it away so that the kitchen table would be pristine for his mother when she descended to her kitchen to prepare his sandwiches four hours later.

Following the routine he carried out every night, Gavin checked the doors and windows on the ground floor of the house.  He checked every inch of the scoured worktops, cooker and table, even peering short-sightedly down the plug hole of the sink in case any fajita detritus remained to betray him to his mother.  Nothing.  He put his laptop bag and briefcase out into the hall and under the table where no one would trip over them, then climbed the stairs  before he turned the corner and went into his immaculately tidy bedroom.

It was a room that was frightening in its sterility.  The predominance of white prevented any undetected sullying of his domain; duvet cover, sheets and pillow-slips were pristine, starched and laundered to his specific requirements rather than thrown in the washing machine by his father’s carer June.  The sterile white vertical blinds gave the room an additionally medical feel that was enhanced by the uncluttered white bedside cabinet, part of a set from of white Swedish furniture that included a wardrobe, chest of drawers and two chests.  One of these chests held fresh bed linen, still in its laundry packing and ready for Gavin to put on the bed once the sheets no longer felt clean and new.  The other chest was closed with an iron hasp and weighty padlock to which only Gavin had the key. It contained secrets; the sort of secrets people cringe from, the sort of secrets that destroy lives and that would put Gavin in a position where at least a dozen people would pay to have him quietly removed from the earth.

They weren’t just other people’s secrets however.  Gavin kept his own secrets in the chest, secrets that made him blush and rush to lock his bedroom door, secrets that lit up his pale grey eyes and made his pulse race. They were secrets that no one must ever know and the mere thought of anyone else discovering them gave Gavin chills of excitement and fear.

He got changed for bed into his crisp pale blue cotton pyjamas.  He never wore the same pair for more than two days and then they too went off to the laundry.  He slipped into the small en-suite that he had paid to have built into his room.  The main bathroom was filled with the equipment and medication of two people who were dying by degrees and he wanted no part of it, no unnecessary clutter in his life. Not anymore.  After brushing his teeth with the state of the art electric toothbrush, Gavin Slime went back into his room, placed his glasses neatly on the bedside table and slid between his glacial sheets, a sinister smile on his face as he thought of the woman’s reaction when she got up and saw the email sent on his behalf.