Three

“It’s all right, it’s OK. You’re OK. It’s just a dream.” Michael put the bedside light on and Gina sat up, her breath coming in deep gasps, tears gushing down her cheeks. He held her close until he knew she was awake, and the sobbing had stopped. He glared at the glowing figures on the clock. Just after six. He often wondered how the children slept through the noise.

“The sweat’s pouring off you. What on earth was that about?”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Not now.” She took a deep breath. “What time is it?”

“Early. You can have another hour.”

“No.” She pulled back the covers and stood by the bed, shivering a little in the sweat soaked nightdress. “Might as well get up. I’ll have my shower now. Go back to sleep.” She yawned. “I’m fine, really.”

He heard her pad downstairs to notch the heating up, and then she was back, the faint sound of the shower running. She should still be seeing Dr. Jeffries. Sophie was eight months old. If these attacks were linked to postnatal depression, surely they shouldn’t still be going on? He couldn’t remember her being like this with Daniel. If only she’d talk about it more.

He waited until the water stopped, and then he pulled on a dressing gown and went down to make some tea. Sheba greeted him at the kitchen door with a friendly bark. At least the dog didn’t avoid his eyes. She leant against his legs while he stroked her soft head, and thumped her tail against the cupboard, the beat reverberating through her body into his. The animal looked up at him, her chocolate eyes displaying only trust and devotion. She’d never had nightmares or depression as far as he knew. Gina could learn a thing or two from the dog. Tranquillisers, that was what she needed. Something to calm her down, stop her being so hyper.

By the time she appeared, hair wrapped in a towel, the tea had brewed and he was about to pour.

She dumped a jar of face cream on the table and glanced around her. He turned on her sharp intake of breath.

“Where’s the dog? Oh, my God, where’s Sheba?”

“I let her out – what’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” she mumbled, “It’s just, in my dream -” Her voice tailed away.

“Ready to talk about it?” Fat chance.

She began to cut bread for toast, her head turned away from him.

“Gina?”

“What?”

The letterbox crashed open. The door to the hall was ajar and the noise made them both jump.

“Grief – he’s early today,” Michael said, as he went to pick up the pile of mail that sat on the doormat. “Rubbish. Rubbish. Bill. Rubbish. That’s the third letter from Readers Digest in as many days. Rubbish. And a letter from -” He broke off and flashed a look at Gina, but she didn’t seem to be paying any attention. He slit the envelope and scanned the contents. He replaced the letter in the envelope and tucked it on the bottom, threw the pile on the kitchen table and went back to pouring tea.

“Sophie’s awake.”

She turned, eyebrows raised. “I didn’t hear her.”

“Jane’s dealing with her. She’s good, isn’t she?”

“Better than the last one, anyway. How many pieces?” She waved two slices of bread over the toaster. “Daniel doesn’t like her.” Michael’s turn to be surprised.

“Has he said something?”

She opened the jar and began to rub cream into her face. “Since we’re up in good time, can we get to the factory early today? I’ve got a lot on. You wouldn’t believe the state of that accounts office.”

“The lab isn’t much better. It always takes Daniel a day or two to accept someone. I wouldn’t worry about him. Incidentally, Bill Bright’s left, did you know?”

“Early retirement? Yes, I suppose he must be about due.”

“Not really, he’s not much older than me, but he’s not been happy. Been ranting about the company for ages,” Michael said, “Reckons some of the Charm products have problems and the board won’t listen to him. All very hush-hush.”

“The addiction thing, you mean? I heard about that, it’s all around the factory.” She took another blob of the cream and rubbed it into her neck. “Samuel’s furious apparently, in case it affects the market. Makes you think though, doesn’t it?”

“Damn stupid, if you ask me.”

“It’s not stupid, if the company’s making stuff that’s addictive. Bill said some people are sensitive to it, so it’s causing problems.” Michael shook his head in exasperation.

“That’s just daft. I designed a lot of those products. The formula hasn’t changed in years. And there’s always someone allergic to something. Anyway, it would never get past the industry standards.”

“He reckons they’re putting something extra in that you didn’t, something weird. The idea is once you start using a product, you have to go on using it.”

“We all have to go on using soap and deodorant, Gina, not because it’s addictive, but because we need to be clean. This house is full of Charm stuff, and we’re all right. If we don’t use theirs, we’ll use someone else’s. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

“No. You wouldn’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.” She was rifling through the envelopes, had found the one he’d put on the bottom. “Who’s this from then?”

“I’ll make the toast, shall I? You have your tea.”

“It’s from Rosemary, isn’t it?” she said and pulled a face.

He got up and moved away from the table. He should have binned the letter when he’d had the chance. Gina would never let it rest. “What was the nightmare about? Do you want to talk yet?”

She stared at him, head on one side, challenging.

He shook his head and sighed. Why the hell she couldn’t confide in him, he would never know. Now she would use that letter as a distraction.

Sheba sat outside the French doors, barking. He let the dog in and she padded over to her water bowl for a drink. He put two slices of bread into the toaster and pressed the lever down. He sighed again.

“Read it, then. If you must.” Damn Rosemary.

“Morning all,” Jane said as she entered the kitchen, Sophie in her arms. “Say good morning to mummy and daddy.”

“Hello, sweetheart. What’s this big tear for?” He tickled the baby under the chin, then took her hand and blew a raspberry into the palm. Sophie giggled and wriggled, and leaned towards him. The toast popped up, and her eyes widened with a start.

“Want some toast, pickle? Or some lovely soggy cereal.” Jane stuffed her into the highchair and dumped toys on the tray. Then she took over the bread knife. Michael was redundant. He smiled as he watched Sheba’s reaction to Jane passing a finger of toast to Sophie: the dog took up a position near the highchair and waited for manna to fall.

“I don’t believe this.” Gina paused in her cream rubbing. She’d gone from pale to puce.

He should have put the bloody letter in the bin. Some things were so predictable. She’d use anything to swing the attention away from her nightmares. Rosemary’s letter was a gift.

“Michael, she can’t be serious?”

“Perhaps I’ll have my toast later.” Get out while the going’s good. “I’ll get Daniel up, shall I? I expect he’s awake.”

“Private education? For those two monsters? And my kids go without, so hers can have everything?”

“I don’t think anyone goes without. Look, I’ll get Daniel. We’ll talk about this later.” He frowned and nodded towards Jane’s back, but Gina was obviously in no mood to take any notice. Sophie began to bang a red wooden train on her tray and Michael registered a headache he hadn’t known was there.

“Fine, so I can get Daniel the trainers he wanted and buy Sophie that dress from the boutique.” Gina folded the letter neatly and put it back into its envelope. “And I’ve seen a dress I like. Might go and get it at lunchtime.” She took a piece of the toast Jane had just buttered and bit into it.

How could anyone inject that amount of venom into a bite of toast?

“Gina -”

“What? I can’t buy a new dress? You favour those girls -”

“No -”

“Maybe it would be different if she weren’t still tied to you. She could marry Charles if she were free.”

“Shall I go and shower now, if you want to be early?” He turned away from her and closed his eyes. Why couldn’t she just leave it? Why did she have to push –

“Go on – change the subject.”

Him change the subject? That was rich. “I’m not, but you said -”

“Every time things get confrontational, you change the subject.”

“She doesn’t want to marry Charles.”

“You mean you don’t want her to.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Gina picked up the jar of cream to put the lid on it, but it slipped from her fingers and dropped to the ceramic tiled floor, shattering into a sloppy mass of cream stuck with shards of opaque glass. Sophie looked startled and her lip dropped, but she didn’t cry. She was too busy watching Sheba, who had leapt forward to lick up the cream.

“Get off you stupid thing, you’ll get glass in your tongue.” Michael shoved the dog out of the way and Jane tackled the mess with the cloth she’d grabbed from the draining board.

“I’m going to get Daniel and have a shower,” he said, when the worst was gone. He closed the kitchen door behind him with relief and leant on it a moment before climbing the stairs.

Damn Rosemary.

Daniel lay with his head over the edge of the bed and his feet up the wall. Toys littered the floor and Michael had to mind where he put his bare feet as he beat a careful path to the window and opened the curtains. It was lighter now, probably as light as the day was going to get. The forecast for steady drizzle looked right, for a change.

“I heard you arguing.” Daniel didn’t look at him.

“Grown ups don’t argue. They discuss.”

“They discuss very loudly.” Michael nodded.

“Sometimes.” He tickled Daniel’s middle and turned him in a somersault, so that his feet hit the floor. Laughter creased the child in two, but then he frowned. He was like his mother and wouldn’t be diverted.

“What was the crash?”

“Mummy dropped a jar of face cream and it smashed into a thousand pieces all over the kitchen floor. All cleared up now. No problem. Come on. Race you to the bathroom.”

“Your bathroom?” Michael nodded. “Yippee – Power shower.” The child giggled and gave him a shove, before flying off to be the winner, as usual.

Washed and clean, unruly black curls slicked close to his head, Daniel climbed onto a chair at the breakfast table while Michael rummaged in the cupboard.

“Shreddies, Wheetabix, Monster -”

“Waffles and syrup.”

“At the week-end love, I haven’t time today and you’ve got school. Anyway, you know how mine always stick. Mummy makes the best waffles.”

Daniel turned his smiling face on Gina, but she was still scanning Rosemary’s letter and didn’t notice.

“I’ll make them,” Jane said, wiping down Sophie’s highchair, “If you’ll help me give Sophie a quick bath first.”

Daniel nodded. “OK.”

“Incidentally,” Jane said, “That shelf above the basin in the kid’s bathroom? It’s fallen down again.”

“I thought you’d fixed that?” Gina glared at Michael.

“I keep meaning to,” he said. “I’ll do it tonight.” Something else for her to moan about. “Daniel seems OK,” he said when Jane and the children had gone. “I asked him in the shower if he liked Jane. He said she’s all right. High praise from Daniel.”

“Are you going to tell her or am I?”

“Tell who what?”

“Rosemary.”

“I’ll speak to her.”

“Make sure you do. She must know it’s impossible, Michael. It’s too much money. We can’t afford it. Every time she gets some little whim in her head, she comes running to you.”

“That isn’t true.”

“Defend your wife, why don’t you.”

“I’m not defending her, but -”

“I suppose we’ll be paying for everything until those girls are through their education, through university. It’ll cost a fortune.”

“I can’t avoid it. They’re my responsibility.”

“And we’re not?”

“Don’t be stupid.” He paused and then, “As we’ve got Jane and she does seem to be settling in OK, do you fancy going away this week-end?”

Gina picked up a splinter of glass Jane had missed. “I’ll have to get some more of that cream. My eczema’s cleared up again, but every time I stop using it, the dryness is back. Makes you wonder about Bill’s theory, doesn’t it? Tried a cheaper one, but it seemed to make it worse.”

“We get the staff discount – market price is much higher.”

“Still expensive.”

“You get what you pay for, I suppose.” He tried again. “It’s ages since we went away for a week-end. I’ll book something shall I? Anywhere you fancy?”

“If you think we can afford it. After Rosemary’s had her pickings.”

Ignore her. Don’t rise. He gulped at the cold tea and pulled a face.

“Are you going to tell me about this nightmare? Or do you want me to make an appointment with Dr. Jeffries?”

She glared at him, flounced out of the kitchen and banged the door behind her.

Sometimes, he could scream. He didn’t keep having a go at her about Simon, did he? And that was much more recent than his marriage to Rosemary. That was all over, for goodness sake. Marriage had done him no good last time around. A piece of paper wasn’t going to change anything between them.

*

Later, inside one of the south facing offices upstairs in Charm’s unsightly buildings, Gina yawned and tried to stretch the knots out of her neck. The day seemed to have lasted forever, yet when she looked at her watch she discovered it was only half past three. The blind was down and the door was open, but there was no breeze in here and the heat was still oppressive. Her blouse felt as though it was glued to her skin.

What the room ought to have was a fan. She would have liked to go home and have a shower, but in the absence of that she decided that she what she needed was some caffeine and a couple of paracetamol. Perhaps a wander away from the office would help. It was a relief to stand up and leave her desk, to make her way along the relative cool of the corridor to the landing. This side of the building was out of the sun and had windows that opened wide outwards, admitting a welcome breeze. In the lobby, she pushed the button and the ancient machine dispensed a dark liquid that passed for coffee into a plastic cup. She tasted it and pulled a face.

“You should have added sugar and creamer. Then it’s drinkable. Just about.”

“Simon. I didn’t see you lurking there.” She looked up at the boyish face that peered around the coffee machine. “Have you come to brighten up my day?”

“Does it need brightening? You’ve lifted mine a thousand per cent. Just to see your smile, makes music lilt into my brain, makes me want to dance.” He executed a quick bow and grabbed her in a ballroom hold, throwing coffee everywhere.

“Idiot,” she said, but she smiled.

“Sorry, can I get you another one?” He smoothed an imaginary wisp of hair back from his forehead and leant on the machine.

She shuddered. “No, thanks. There’s enough in here to take two paracetamol with. That’s all I need it for.”

“Headache?”

“Foul,” she agreed, “If only these offices weren’t so damned hot.”

“Tell me about it,” he said. “Everyone’s moaning, as usual. Bad design. Every year the board drones on about installing air conditioning and it’s not even midsummer yet.”

“That’s all it is – talk. Nothing’s ever done about it. And in a week, the heatwave will be over and everyone will decide we don’t need it.”

“The trouble is Samuel Kite doesn’t seem to notice the heat. Has to be a hundred and ten in the shade before you’ll see him with his jacket off.”

“You’ve still got yours on and you look cool enough. I don’t know how you do it.” It was true. Simon was immaculate, as always. She felt her heart give the little kick it always did when he was around.

“Go home if you don’t feel well.”

“Have you seen that office? We’re knee deep in paperwork. Neil Starling’s driving me mad today. He’s badgering me to find some antiquated file he’s lost, as if I haven’t anything better to do.” She jabbed him in the ribs. “And that pile of rubbish you dumped on my desk this morning isn’t getting any smaller. You keep adding to it.”

“Sorry again, but I can’t help it.” He folded his arms, displaying neat gold cufflinks in the pristine white shirt. “Kite’s decided to make one of his rare appearances today and he’s got his brains tangled up in his flashy tie. Reckons he needs figures and projections for the next year. Wants them by Friday. And if he wants figures -”

“You want figures,” she finished for him. “I’d better get back.”

“How’s life with Monotonous Michael? What’s he doing to you? You look tired.”

She had turned to go, but stopped and went back to him. “I’ve asked you not to call him that. Anyway, it’s my fault.”

“Not sleeping again?”

“Sleeping, but also dreaming. Of course, he wants to know what it’s all about.”

Simon studied her for a long moment before he said, “And you won’t tell him.”

“I can’t remember properly, can I?” She shook her head. “It’s awful, I’m sure it’s worse than if I knew what the dreams were about. Only last night -”

“Go on.”

“Well, there was the man in a bird mask, and then it all went weird, as usual, so I can’t remember, but – there was something different. Somebody was swimming in a pool and then suddenly I dreamt the dog died.”

“Sheba? And did she?”

“No.” She shook her head.

“But when you were a child, your dreams were prophetic, weren’t they?”

She leant on the other side of the coffee machine and put her forehead on the cool metal. They must look like bookends, holding it up.

“I think so,” she said. “It’s difficult to remember now, and so much is -” She raised her shoulders to her ears and squeezed her eyes tight in the effort of trying to work out what it was she was trying to say.

“It’s repressed, that’s what,” Simon said. “I still think you ought to visit a hypnotist. Explain it all to him, and get this suggestion-thing taken off. I’m sure they wouldn’t do anything like that nowadays. It can’t be good for you and might be downright dangerous.”

“Then again, it might be worse than it is now.” She stared out of the open window, but instead of seeing the yard full of delivery lorries and chemical barrels, her view was of daffodils nodding either side of a long drive.

“Could it be worse?” Simon asked.

She shrugged. “Don’t know. Suppose not.”

“Does Michael know? Have you confided in him at all?”

“He’d scoff at the whole business, wouldn’t he? You know Michael. It’s not scientific. He’d just think I’m even battier than he does already. Prophetic dreams? He can’t cope with barmy nightmares. Anyway, he’s got enough on his plate.”

“Problems?”

“Only the usual: work and Rosemary. You know her latest crazy idea? She only wants to send the girls to private school and expects Michael to pick up the tab.”

Simon pulled a face. “Ouch.”

“Exactly. Bloody woman” She took a swig of the coffee. “This is getting cold and vile. I’d better get back and take my pills.”

“I can’t believe you two don’t talk to each other.”

“We do, but –”

“Not about things that count.” He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. “I think you ought to examine your motives, Gina. Work out why you don’t tell him things. Maybe you only want him because he’s still married to Rosemary.”

“Oh, shut up, Simon. Enough of the tame psychology.”

“Hey, I’m not saying it to make you angry. Just – well, maybe he’s not the right one for you. Maybe you’d be happier without him.”

“And go away with you, I suppose?” She smiled and closed her eyes, leaning her head down to allow his hand to caress her cheek for a second. His voice was gentle and his face showed concern, but this wasn’t what she wanted to hear. “It wouldn’t work, you know it wouldn’t. You’d be bored after six months. We’d cramp your style, the kids and I -”

“For your sake, not mine, think about it.”

“I’d better get back.”

He caught her hand, stopped her. “Gina, have a drink with me – after work.”

“Can’t. Came in with Michael.”

“How come? You don’t have to work the hours he chooses to. Or doesn’t he trust you any more?”

“Shouldn’t think so, but that isn’t why. Car’s in for a repair where I scraped it last week, and they didn’t have a courtesy job. We’ve had to come in together for the last couple of days. I pick it up tonight.”

“Next week then? Tuesday? No. On Second thoughts, I can’t do Tuesday. What about Thursday?”

She hesitated. It would be good to have someone to talk to, but he was never content to just talk. “Simon, we shouldn’t -”

“Promise me you will, or I swear I will grab you and make mad, passionate love to you here, on the floor by the tar machine. You temptress, I have missed you so much. Just give me an excuse.” He pulled her to him and she could smell his cologne. Subtle, expensive.

She giggled. “You are such a fool.” Then, as he tugged her closer, a wicked look crossed his face, “OK. OK, I promise.”

He let her go with a wink.

“Do you know,” she said, “I really think you would.”

“You can count on it, Blue eyes,” he said in his best James Cagney, and disappeared through the swing doors into the corridor.

She shook her head and went back to her desk in the oppressive heat of the office, still smiling.

Simon made it all sound so easy, but it was impossible. However much he made her laugh, even though he was so easy to talk to, she didn’t want to be with Simon, not on a permanent basis. He would never cope with having a young family in his life, even if that were what she wanted. Which she did not.

She could just imagine it: Sophie throwing up on his beautiful suits, Daniel running cars all over his leather upholstery? Sheba chewing his Gucci’s? The thought made her smile again. No, it would never work. He wasn’t the marrying kind, she knew that much.

Michael was. It was just that he was married to someone else.

She massaged her head again and swallowed the pills. The lukewarm coffee made her feel queasy. She wished she had her car here today and could go home. Well there was no chance of that. Doubtless Michael would work late as usual, so she might just as well get on with the pile of rubbish on her desk.

As she walked back to her desk, shadows of memories filled her mind: someone thrashing in a swimming pool and pictures of a dead Sheba. She shuddered. No wonder she had a headache.

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One thought on “Three

  1. Pingback: Chapter 3 | Clean Death

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