Chapter 0 - At the end
Carly followed Sergeant Ellam down the police station corridors, trying not to think about her Dad being here. So much made no sense, but she had to be strong. For her Dad. He deserved that much, at least. If only she could stop it going round in her head. Something else to think about. Focus on anything but why she was here.
Catching sight of her reflection in a glass door she wished she had her straighteners with her. The rain had made her hair curly and straggly. Her thoughts wandered to her surroundings. The station corridor may have been bright white once but now it was yellowish and didn't look like it had been cleaned for ages. There were dirty fingerprints, a footprint halfway up the wall and two bits of graffiti that read 'Clumsey hates Feds" and "Clumsey 4 Faye 4 eva" scrawled in marker pen. The whole place needed a coat of paint and a few squirts of air freshener.
Worse, there was a smell, like the year eight boys' toilets, because the boys miss the bowl and the place starts to stink like piss. She wondered how the policeman didn't appear to notice. His uniform looked as if it was brand new, and fitted him so well that he could have modelled it down the fat policeman's catwalk.
"Don't you have any cleaners here?"
"In the morning we do, but after a day of public visits from the elite, it tends to be less glamorous."
Sergeant Ellam smiled at her, but she ignored his attempt to be friendly and stared at the floor, as they turned into a second corridor, which was painted bright blue and was newer and less urinal.
He even tried to beg it with her.
"I have a son about your age. Do you know him? Mark Ellam."
Carly shook her head. She didn't want a cosy chat with PC Plod. She had stopped thinking about her hair, the station decor and the Sergeant's ensemble. Everything had moved so quickly that evening. But now grim realisation set in. She was about to see her Dad. In this shitting place. Under arrest! What was her Dad doing in a police station? He might be a dickhead, but this shit, surely he didn't deserve this.
The Sergeant stopped and opened a door.
"OK, Carly, your Dad's in here."
Carly struggled to see round the burly policeman's bulk. Seeing her Dad sat there was so good. He was in a police station, where people are tortured and kept awake for days so they confess. But her Dad was awake, he wasn't bruised or beaten up, and he smiled at seeing her. Shit, when did they last smile at each other like this? She ran to her Dad and hugged him. If the room stunk, like other parts of the station, Carly never noticed. At least it was a clean and polished desk, but with a chair on one side and an old wooden stool on the other, it was his prison. Her poor Dad, stuck in this hole. Before Five-O could arrange seat placings, Carly was sat on the stool opposite her Dad, desperate to say the five billion things she had been thinking about on her way to the station. The bloody stool wobbled because one leg was shorter than the others and Carly nearly fell off as she sat down. Her Dad laughed. She perched herself on the front of the stool to make sure she didn't fall off again.
"Good to see you here, love."
He held her hand. She wanted to tell him she loved him and that he was a good Dad. Instead she stuttered, "Dad, I'm, like... I'm sorry - it's ..."
She stopped, studying his face, and was annoyed that he was staring at the floor, rather than at her. He'd better not be like he was at home, not listening to her. She looked closely at his face. The light in the room was not bright but his hair was greasy and there were bags - more like suitcases - under his eyes.
"God, you look awful. What's happened to you in here?"
"Nothing in here, it's what's happened to get me in here that's the problem."
Carly couldn't think of anything to say. She watched her dad run his hand down his face. He badly needed a shave. Then he put his hand through his hair.
"You'll make it more manky, Dad."
"Not my biggest problem at the moment is it, state of my bonce? I haven't been able to ... I'd ask for wash and blow dry but someone might misunderstand." He attempted a laugh which died before it reached Carly's stool. A few seconds passed in awkward silence and when her Dad spoke again it felt to Carly like he was reading something he'd been rehearsing.
"If I look like crap, that's because I am crap."
He still wasn't looking at her and she took her hand away from his.
"Oh, shut up, Dad! I haven't, like, come to hear you whining."
For the first time, Carl looked up. His mouth opened, but no words came out.
"Dad, I don't want to see you like this. I wanted to say sorry. I've been thinking. This mess is down to me..."
Carl leaned forward in his chair. Now he made eye contact, his voice less of a mumble as he cut her short.
"Hang on, Carly, I feel like shit as it is - I don't want your guilt on top."
Carly began to cry. She felt her Dad's hand on her chin and wiped away the mascara trails running down her face. For a second she was mortified because of her messed up hair and black inked face. But she was reassured because now her Dad was looking right at her. For the first time in a very long while he was her big strong Dad, looking after her like he'd not done since she fell off next door's swing, when she was eight years old, and had cut her head. Even his voice sounded different now. No more weak whining tones. A proper deep voiced man.
"All this - this mess, is down to me. My cock ups - and this isn't self pity, just me, for once, being honest to myself."
Big tears continued to trickle down Carly's cheeks.
"Please, Carly, don't cry."
"OK, OK, Dad." She took out a tissue and wiped away the mascara and tears. They looked at each other without speaking and Carly took a couple of deep breaths. The five billion things had been reduced in a couple of minutes to zero. Carl spoke.
"Feel better now?"
"Yeah, I'm good. I...I... like, I ... Look do you want to see Mum? She's outside. They might let her in."
"Best not, love. Are you OK with her anyway?"
"Yeah it's good. And it'll be good if she's back home. And Gemma's fun."
Carly managed a smile and sat back on the stool. Almost falling off again, she remembered to lean forwards. It was a bit uncomfortable, being that close to her Dad's face. He must have thought so too, because he drew back. She was going to carry on telling him about Gemma and her Mum but she wasn't sure if he was listening. He had stopped looking at her and was staring at the blank white wall. On another day she'd have called him a wanker for not paying attention, but she wanted to keep trying to make him feel better. That was the right thing to do.
"I'm back at school and I'm trying much harder. And before you ask, I'm not going to see, like, any boys either, especially him."
"You concentrate on school. That's all you have to do. I'll be out of this place very soon."
There was another awkward silence but then Carly spoke.
"I don't, like, get it Dad. It seems mad that you've ended up in here."
Chapter 1 - Monday November 1st - The Prices
Carly Price woke up at 7.00 and leapt out of bed. She had to be at Jacquie's before eight and, glancing at the mirror, needed time to sort her hair out. She wanted to open the curtains and turn the light on, but her Dad was asleep in her bed. For a second she contemplated whether she despised herself or her Dad more, but then a sense of urgency overtook her. Rummaging around her drawers, she found her school uniform, micro black skirt, tights and white shirt. In the semi-darkness, she searched for her hair straighteners, picking up two make up bags and grinning at photos of her and her BFFs posing whilst she looked for the bloody things. Swearing softly, she found them before losing her temper. Tip toeing out, she left her pink painted bedroom, filled with soft toys and a middle aged man.
Carly spent half an hour in the shower and fifty minutes straightening her hair and putting on her make-up. It was a daily ritual and Carly rarely made mistakes or considered changing her routine. With time in hand, she made her various bits and pieces follicle free zones, took a final look in the mirror and blew herself a kiss. Time for school.
Carl Price heard the front door slam. He got out of his daughter's bed and stumbled into the bathroom. For a few seconds he sat on the edge of the bath with his head in hands. Before he could bring himself to consider the previous night, he looked around the bathroom. The floor was wet, and the smell of perfume reminded him of when he used to go to The Cat's Whiskers in Streatham 20 years ago and tried to pull anything in a skirt. Picking up a razor to begin shaving, he noticed pubic hairs lodged in the sink. He swore under his breath but made no effort to clean the bathroom. Instead his stubble joined the pubes and he could focus on arriving at work promptly by nine. It was already quarter past eight and he was never going to make it on time. He had a quick shower and made a wasted cup of tea.
Leaving for work, his key was momentarily jammed in the lock of his old Peugeot 206. As he muttered "fuck this thing" under his breath, the key turned and, miraculously starting first time, he was off. He put on the car cassette player (his car was 20th century and had no CD player), began his impression of Mark Knopfler singing Romeo and Juliet, and drove straight into a traffic jam.
Carly met Jacquie and Bethany at Jacquie's house as she lived 5 minutes from De Martens. As the three walked to school, with the neeks, geeks, Goths, chavs and emos, they passed comments about their peers. Beth pointed out a girl who had once been Carly's best friend.
"Thee that emo, there, with Ashley, she's been thelf harming."
No sympathy from Carly. "She's, like, such a bitch, who cares?"
Nor Jacquie. "I'd cut myself if I looked like her."
Carly waved to another girl "Look at the state of her, that Teri, she's worn that every day this term."
"She's a pikey"
"That's racist, Beth, calling her a pikey."
"She's mixed race, anyway, she can't be a pikey."
"I'm mixed rathe."
"Yeah so what, you're not a pikey. Or are you?"
They were at the school now. Carly interrupted Beth and Jacquie's debate.
Carly looked up at the school.
"Look at this place. Don't it look like a prison to you? It's not one of them new schools. Looks like a shithole."
"You only jutht notithed that. We've been coming here over a year."
"Yeah I know. One year gone. And..." Carly counted out on her fingers "nine...ten...eleven - three more to go."
"No, four more, counting this one."
Carly sat near the back for all her classes. Easier to be unseen by whoever was teaching. Her friends sat near her as did two or three fit boys. She had to push past the neeks at the front of the class. The tightly packed in desks and chairs made it hard for her to get to her chair. Most of the other kids were already sat ready for the lesson, but Miss Payne was late.
Carly's first lesson was Maths and she was struggling to convert fractions into decimals. She knew that a half was 0.5 and a quarter was 0.25, but three quarters and four fifths as a decimal. Couldn't do it. She looked around her. Most of the others seemed to know what they were doing. She groaned as she saw her teacher coming towards her.
"Do you need help, Carly?"
Carly didn't want the rest of the class knowing she couldn't do this. Why couldn't Payne in the arse just piss off and leave her alone? Carly didn't look up.
"Carly, did you hear..?"
"Yes, I heard you, Miss. It's OK, I'm OK. I'm doing this."
"I just saw you looking round and..."
"No, miss, I wasn't. I'm just thinking."
"So, Carly, maybe you can share the result of your thinking with the rest of the class. What is three quarters as a decimal?"
Why was she doing this? Trying to show her up in front of everyone. Not just in front of Jacquie and Beth, but in front of chung boys, Shane and Drew, and the self harmer, Jess. What a bitch!
"Not sure, Miss."
"Well, what do you think it is, Carly? Have a guess."
"No, that's one quarter. So for three quarters what do you think it is?"
Carly was pissed off now. She wanted to say, "Just fuck off and ask someone else. Stop bugging me." Instead, she managed, "Dunno, Miss."
"OK, can anybody help Carly out?"
A geek gave the correct answer. Carly turned round to Jacquie.
"She's a fat bitch, d'you see her, pickin' on..."
"Carly, don't start talking to your friends. You obviously need to..."
"I don't need this ..."
"Carly, don't back chat me. You don't know your fractions yet, so don't waste time gossiping."
Carly didn't know why the fat cow was still singling her out.
"Miss - you're always pickin' on me - I wasn't talking".
"Don't be silly Carly. I saw you talking to Jacquie. You always claim to be little miss innocent every time I catch you gossiping"
"I was, like, asking her about the fractions, Miss, how to do three fifths."
"And, what's the answer?"
"I don't know, Miss, coz you interrupted us working it out."
Shane and Drew both laughed, as did some of the others. Carly felt good. See how Miss Payne liked being made to look a fool.
"OK, class, who can help Carly work out three fifths as a decimal?"
"Miss, you don't have to..."
"What is it now, Carly?"
"Nothing. Don't matter...Just stop making out I'm the only one who, like, doesn't get this decimal stuff."
"Alright, Carly. I'm sorry if you feel that. But if you pay..."
Carly couldn't help revelling in her teacher's apology. She turned to Bethany
"See, she's beggin' it with me now, she's..."
"Carly, you're doing it again. Stop talking. Pay attention and try and learn something. Or I'll put you on detention."
"Miss, you've been jarring my head all morning. Enough, now."
Bethany and Jacquie laughed and spoke in unison.
"You're doin' the pigeon again."
Carly's friends called her pigeon because she thrust her head forwards and sideways when she was making a point aggressively.
"No, Carly. Enough from you. Wind your neck in."
"Miss, that's like, racist...er, neckist, I can't help movin' my head."
"Just shut up Carly, and keep it quiet for the rest of this lesson."
Carly muttered "fat bitch" under her breath and Bethany and Jacquie both giggled.
Miss Payne heard the giggling - she'd have a word with the Head later about Carly Price.
Carl Price arrived at work just after ten past nine. The modern open plan office, at Crouts Furnishers plc, had been designed by corporate bods attuned to hierarchical laws. Carl walked past the Directors' suites and spotted a couple of them sitting in their palaces. He wondered if they ever held parties or orgies in them. He reckoned that twenty five purchase ledger clerks occupied the space of one Director's penthouse. Made no sense. In the separate workers' section, only department heads had their own office; supervisors, such as Carl, had a desk of sufficient size to underpin their seniority over senior clerical staff, who in turn lorded it over ordinary clericals. Anyone could be God, as the recently refurbished lighting system responded to movement and first one in and last one out, could turn lights on and off at will.
Carl arrived with sweat running down his forehead.
"Morning, Janice, morning, Marion" he spoke to the ladies sat on two identically sized desks to his own. Then, nodding to the boss's office -
"Am I OK - is he in yet?"
Janice - small and slightly dumpy with a good heart and caring nature - glanced over her shoulder, checking the coast was clear.
"He came over to see you so we told him that you were in the toilet - I think he
went there to look for you.
He reached his hand out to touch her shoulder, about as tactile as he could be in the middle of the office.
"Thanks, Jan, you're a lifesav...oh, shit, he's a …"
"Carl, there you are - you know you shouldn't get these ladies to lie. They don't want to be tarred with ...."
"I'm 10 minutes late, Martin, that's all."
"My office - now!"
As a prostitute follows her pimp, Carl followed Martin to his office. The desk was free from paperwork and the high spec laptop was not turned on. Even if Martin had been the best bloke in the world, Carl would have had an issue with him. Martin was six years his junior, but his boss. Public school educated Martin was a qualified Certified Accountant, and, at thirty two, was Crouts Financial Controller. Carl, schooled at the local comp, never finished his exams once he'd met Marie, and Carly came along.
Martin sat down behind his desk, whilst Carl sat on one of the two cheap hard plastic chairs that Martin had to offer visitors. A very poor man's Director's office. Carl imagined that he was back at school, being summoned to the Headmaster. The difference being that he was now expected to perform the Head's work.
"Carl, look, you cannot turn up late like this on a regular basis. You're the second in command here - you're supposed to set an example, not get the girls to lie for you."
Carl's eyes fixed on Martin, as he felt his face contort like a rabbit stuck in a
microwave. He wanted to tell Martin to fuckoff, but instead he replied,
"I'm sorry, Martin, it's Carly, she's a teenager, it's difficult on my own…"
"Carl, I thought Marie left you years ago, about time you moved on."
Carl sat forward in the uncomfortable chair. His index finger pointed at Martin, as he strove to respond, without shouting back at his boss.
"If you want someone to sort you out you could do worse than Janice. She's happy enough to lie for you on a daily basis".
"Janice! But she's… I…"
Carl stopped spluttering, shook his head, muttered under his breath and raised his eyes to the celing. None of this was Miller's business. Up until now Martin had been handing out unwanted advice. Seeing Carl's response he decided to stop being supportive.
"Look I'm not interested in your love life or lack of it. I need the six months forecast on my desk by end of play today. OK?"
Carl wanted to hit him. What right did this dickhead have to bang on about his personal life and then shut him up? Not much he could say back, though. Seething, he was about to meekly agree and leave Martin's office, but his boss had a final nasal show to provide. Carl looked at Martin with expectant vomit as he watched his boss's fingers approach his nose. Carl turned away, mumbling a promise to prepare the work, and left Martin's office. Although, desperate to tell his boss where to stick his job, by the time he returned to his desk, he was working out how to complete the forecast data.
"How did it go with Martin? You looked fed up in there."
Carl smiled ruefully at Janice.
"Went OK - only got slightly humiliated and didn't quite say what was on my mind. Oh yeah, and he did the nose picking thing. Makes me want to puke every time I see it."
"I hate that. And I'm sure he eats them as well."
"I have to look away once I see his finger moving northwards. One day he'll flick it at me and I won't be quick enough to move away."
"You shouldn't be so squeamish. You have to keep your eye on his finger till it's gone. What if he wanted to shake your hand?"
"Fortunately won't happen, Jan. He's always too busy having a pop at me."
"Just you? I thought I heard my name mentioned in there. Did he say something about me?"
Carl looked straight at Janice. The banter was so easy with her, sometimes he wished he had the nerve to...but he didn't.
"He pointed out that you had tried to cover for me. Said I should be grateful to you. And I am, honestly. Thanks for that."
At which point both Carl and Janice blushed and looked away
Chapter 2 - Monday November 1st - The Richardsons
Janice Richardson surveyed her living room. She was proud of her little house. Might not be a mansion, and the neighbours on both sides occasionally drove her mad, but it was hers, and she took good care of it. Yesterday, she had hoovered in both bedrooms, including under Nathan's bed, and the front room, and cleaned the kitchen floor. She had even lifted up the new settee in the front room, and found 63p in the process.
Twenty four hours later, it looked like the Russians had decided that her pristine palace needed some peacekeeping and sent the tanks in to her house. Her only son Nathan's entertaining consisted of imbibing copious quantities of drink and crisps and chucking the empties on the floor, leaving Janice to clear up the mess. She looked at the stain in the arm of the settee and feared what it might be.
She heard Nathan coming downstairs with his best mate, Michael. Michael was a nice kid, polite and friendly, nice parents, nice family, whereas her Nathan was…well, if Janice knew how to arrange it, Nathan would have long since been sent to brat camp.
"Nathan, place looks like a bomb has hit it..."
"So...annoying...I've just got up...Go away...Please"
"Don't talk to me like that, Nathan. I cleaned this place yesterday. It's....
"Michael, we'll eat out. I can't take this so early. Proper jarring me."
"I know you're never going to clear this up but could you at least tell me what this stain is on the arm of the settee?"
Nathan walked over and sniffed the stain. "Dunno, Mum, might be when Michael was gettin' too excited watchin' porn."
For a moment Janice recoiled in horror but seeing both boys laughing, shook her head.
"He's joking, Janice," Michael said. "It was blue WKD, wasn't me though, honest."
"No, I knew it wasn't you, love..."
"What, like, he's a fuckin' angel and everything bad is down to me? Fuck off Mum."
"I didn't mean or say that, Nathan, did I? Anyway it was you. And don't use the F word to me please."
"Yeah whatever, Mum…laters." He grinned at Michael. "Enjoy your cleaning."
"Bye, Janice, thanks for having me." That was Michael.
Janice didn't answer. She glared at the front door. Then the phone rang. It was the dentist - had she remembered her appointment? "Great" she thought to herself, abused by her son and about to be abused by the tooth monster. As she picked up her coat she knocked over a bowl of crisps that the boys had left lying around. Her swearing as she left the house would have done Nathan proud.
Janice, like most people, hated the dentist. She could not understand why someone with above average intelligence would choose to spend 35 hours a week looking in peoples' mouths. Unless all dentists had some kind of weird oral fetish. Yeah, that must be it. Couldn't be any other reason. The dentist had a modern and plush surgery replete with modern furnishings and upmarket magazines less than two years old. No NHS patients here. She was about two minutes late but the receptionist glowered at her as if she had murdered her grandmother.
"Mrs Richardson, yes the dental technician is waiting for you. You're lucky that we had a cancellation right after you. Go straight in."
A jolly, middle aged woman greeted Janice.
"Hello, lovely day, isn't it?"
What did she mean - a lovely day - for torture? It was an English November, hardly the Caribbean. A spot of sun and this woman is delirious. Janice wished she could be that easily pleased.
As the torture chair became horizontal and she was asked to lie comfortably, Janice grimaced - the thought of the next 15 minutes was nauseating. As the scraping and picking and spraying got underway, Janice fists took on a boxer's stance. Clenched so hard that her nails left crescent marks on her hands. The radio was on and Four Tops 'Do what you gotta do' began playing. Janice listened and although she would have preferred 'Bernadette' or 'Standing in the Shadows of Love', she was temporarily soothed despite the increasing agony.
Then the technician hit a nerve. Janice felt a tear in her eye. Was it the tooth massacre, being moved by music or the feeling that her life with her ungrateful teenage son was a bloody nightmare? Whatever, as the dental nurse continued, oblivious to Janice's pain, she decided there and then that she was going to change her life.
Nathan and Michael were chilling round the streets of Waddon, an area east of Croydon. Nathan was comfortable around Waddon, having lived there with his mum since his dad had walked out on them when Nathan was a year old. He liked the parks where he'd spent years kicking a football about and he knew most of the kids on the local estates. Waddon wasn't great and there'd been a knife attack there a few months ago, but it was Nathan's patch.
The boys walked semi aimlessly down Nathan's road, eyeing a couple of dumped cars.
"Those motors, geez who dumped them keeps having beef with the feds. Bet he..."
"You don't know about his beefs, Nath. Don't make the road look too good though."
"Not exactly fuckin' palaces down here, is it bruv? Shit little terraces. Not like your posh gaff in Coulsdon..." He stopped and stiffened and put his left arm across Michael's body, to stop his mate advancing. "Don't fancy that much, let's cross."
A lab staff cross was out on its own, walking towards them.
"Nath, you scared of dogs? Looks alright, like my dog, Truster. Just a bit old. You're a pussy hole."
"Fuckoff, bruv, I've seen that dog around. It's gone for people." Nathan didn't want to admit to a fear of dogs.
"You got too much time, Nath, watching the local hounds. Bet you get bored - you don't go to school, don't go to work. Innit a bit shit after a time?"
"Nah, I get up, doss about, see my chick. Who needs GCSEs? Anyway, you go to school but what have you learnt? You're as dumb as me."
"Nah, mate. We ain't dumb, we're streetwise. Off with the bros, dahn with the hos. It's all sweet."
The smell of fish from the local chippie reached Nathan.
"Mike you got any cash for chips? I'm starvin'."
"No probs, blood. Let's get munch."
"So good havin' a rich best bro'."
"Not just more money than you, but more sex than you, mate."
"OK, that does piss me off. That ain't fair. All the girls I've been with and you go out with one girl and …"
"Mate, that's coz I don't try to mash and dash with every girl I meet. Me 'n' Char is the real thing. I love her and she loves me. It's forever and that's why our relationship is what it is. One day, mate, you'll get there, maybe with Faye."
"I ain't soft like you, Mickey, but I'm six months older than you and gaggin' for it. I'm gonna have Faye one of these days. Just need my Mum out the house and give Faye the bullshit that you give Char."
"Ain't bullshit when I give it, Nath. That's the difference between you 'n' me."
"Fuckin' hell, mate. I'm 16 years old. I can't be in love with girls at my age. It's OK for you, but I couldn't do it."
They had carried the conversation on as they queued for chips but, back on the street again, the subject changed.
"You proper hype it with your Mum, Nath, she gets bare mad."
"She pisses me off. Always moanin'. She needs to leave me the fuck alone"
Michael's phone rang - it was Charlotte - love of his life "Yeah, I'm with Nath…I'll see you later…Love you too."
"She wants to see you?"
"No she's with Hannah, let's go see the others." They began walking down the main road. It started to rain.
"Fuckin' weather. It always fuckin' rains in November."
Michael was peering ahead, frowning.
"Don't worry about the weather, Nath, d'you reckon they're OK."
A gang of lads approached them. Michael & Nathan had been walking the streets of Croydon for several years. They'd been approached by boys with knives and once, a gun, but apart from being mugged for a handful of mobiles, they had been reasonably trouble free. Plus, they could both run fast.
The lads that approached were from a known crew, subtly known as "The motherfuckers". One of the motherfuckers gave a reassuring greeting
"Hey, you, Slack and Clumsey. Safe, bros."
Always reassuring when one of an opposing crew is a mate. The main "mothefucker" was a school mate from Penge, a place that - according to him - made Croydon look like Disneyworld. Penge guy continued -
"Saw your grafs on the Lidl wall. Yours is greasy, Clumsey. Slack's a bit moist though, blood. Need some lessons."
"No, you're right. Nath...Clumsey's proper mint, mine's a bit shit."
"He's the next Van Gogh, innit? Just watch for bros tooled up."
The motherfuckers gone, Nathan and Michael looked at each other.
"Was that a threat at the end? Slicing off my ear?"
"What you on....?"
"You're the one at school, Mickey. Van Gogh. Ear. He cut it off."
"Must have been bunkin' that day. Don't think it was a threat, Nath. Couldn't really tell, though. Would he have have known who Van Gogh was?".
Both boys pondered this for a moment and Michael continued.
"He's right about you being talented. We've been graffing for four years now and your stuff is well good."
Graffiti was possibly the one subject both boys might have earned a GCSE in. However, Nathan hadn't been to school for 6 months and had so far managed to hide all the letters that had been sent by the school/council. Because his Mum worked and he was at home, this allowed him to become fictitious Uncle John on the phone, and to avoid any comeback for the constant truancy. Nathan knew that his Mum would eventually be in trouble for his slacking from school but he would deal with it, and her, when the time came.
Chapter 3 - Monday November 1st - Marie
Marie O'Brien was waiting in the coffee shop. It was brand new and she liked the bright red plasticky chairs that were garish, but really comfortable. The wall to ceiling mirrors were similarly tacky, but it meant she could adjust her lippy. Looking around, she thought she was probably the youngest person in the place, although she should be second youngest, because Louis, her assistant, was late.
It was weird having someone working for her that she would have happily shagged at a moment's notice, if she was unattached and free of children. In spite of the fact that she was about 10 years older than him and told him what to do every day, she would have accepted domination by him in bed. She'd seen him looking at her tits and arse on a number of occasions. Looking at her reflection, she decided that she wasn't bad for someone over thirty, and a good figure considering she'd had two kids. Louis was quite fit too, round faced and balding but with gorgeous deep blue eyes, like a snooker ball she wanted to pocket. Apart from that, their personalities gelled and he could even make her laugh. She gave Louis none of that rapport when he arrived.
"You're 10 minutes late. Come on, my car's outside."
Her BMW 5 series was parked outside - a set of wheels she had worked bloody hard far. Marie was beginning to have serious doubts about her ability to live committed and monogamous relationships, but her BMW was gorgeous, faithful and loyal. As they drove to the client, Marie gave out some words of experience -
"Louis, some advice for you - don't get married."
"I wasn't planning to, Marie. Not for a long time. I might have no hair but I'm only 25 and there's no way I'm gonna get hitched until I'm at least 30."
"You know I've told you before that my first marriage was a disaster. I blamed Carl and crucified myself with guilt, over leaving my daughter Carly with him."
"Anyway, I'm not going out with anyone now..."
Louis looked over at his driver. Marie did not reciprocate. Her eyes were fixed on the road ahead.
"She was much better off with him than me. But now I'm on my second marriage and this is making the first one appear idyllic. I'm going to have to knock it on the head."
"What, you're getting divorced... again."
"This time I won't be leaving my daughter behind. Gary's a crap husband and father anyway, so Gemma will be leaving with me."
"Better at your job than the personal stuff, aren't you?"
Now, Marie took her eyes off the road to look at Louis. For a moment she thought about using her status to have a go at him for that crack. He caught sight of her and put his hand to his mouth.
"OK, sorry, just came out. I shouldn't have said that... "
"Too right, you..."
"OK, why tell me all this when we have this presentation? You know I'm always interested in your love life, Marie, but I didn't get up at 7.30 on a Monday morning to listen to this. Unless you're setting me up to be husband number 3."
Marie was no longer annoyed. Well, he was right, and he was cute.
"You might be bright and creative and at least you have a six pack. But you would need to be 10 years older and be my boss. I don't do toyboys or staff."
"If I was 10 years older, I'd be doing women my age now - not that you're not an attractive woman, but..."
"We're both digging ourselves a hole here... Oh, shit, I've missed the turning. This is it. Looks more like a big house than an office, doesn't it?"
Marie and Louis were recovery auditors, and she was a highly successful one as well - working as a freelance and employed at client premises, helping them recover money from their suppliers by analysing business deals, accounting data and agreements. Her job involved moving money from one set of rich bastards to another.
The only moral vindication of the job was that by employing her graduate assistant Louis, she was a small business employer and therefore putting something back into the economy. Apart from that, it paid well and although Marie hated presentations she was pleased that as a self employed consultant all the bollocks that goes with corporate political arse licking was something she could happily avoid.
Today, she and Louis were about to meet a new client, Crouts Furnishers plc. She had already met the Finance Director, Jeffrey Parker, briefly and was not looking forward to seeing him again. Arriving at Crouts reception, and signing in, Marie couldn't help asking the elderly receptionist,
"It's an unusual building this. Offices in the middle of residential streets. Was it somebody's house once?"
The woman gestured at the surroundings with a swollen-knuckled hand.
"It was an old aged home once. Apparently one or two of the residents still haunt the place. So people have said anyway."
As they sat down, Louis whispered in Marie's ear,
"She's ancient enough to be one of the ghosts."
The receptionist kept Marie and Louis waiting for 10 minutes before contacting Parker's secretary. Eventually, the auditors were directed up a flight of stairs to Jeffrey Parker's office.
Looking through the window they could see him working on the Times crossword. Marie thought how tiny Jeffrey Parker seemed within his office. Apart from his desk and chair, there was a two piece suite that reminded Marie of one she'd seen at the Palace of Versailles, and another two chairs that did not match the settee, and were also living room, rather than office chairs. Paintings adorned the walls and Marie recognised Monet and Van Gogh replicas. She thought it like a part translocated home, rather than a modern office. As Jeffrey gave himself a congratulatory clenched salute on completion of the crossword, he caught Marie's eye. Rather than beckon them in he came outside to greet Marie, oozing fake charm.
"Marie, hi, good to see you, can I get you a drink, tea or coffee perhaps?"
As he shook hands, his face was close to hers and his gaze riveted upon her breasts. Parker was a reasonably attractive man for his age but she took a step back and withdrew her hand. He continued to smile at her breasts but they weren't smiling back. Marie resisted the urge to fasten her jacket; he was giving her the creeps. Still, he was the client and she hoped that she did not look as uncomfortable as she felt. A fixed frozen smile was still on his face. She wondered whether he was doing this on purpose - exercising his status over her - surely he knew that leering at her and her breasts was not appropriate behaviour. It must be obvious that she was uncomfortable.
"Jeffrey, this is Louis, he will be assisting me on the audit."
"No problem, as long as he maintains the professionalism that we expect from our consultants."
Jeffrey did not adjust his eye contact from Marie's breasts to Louis and, in desperation, she dropped her executive case and turned her back on him, in order to pick it up and move away. She bent down, certain that he was staring at her bum. Next time she would wear a pair of trousers and a pullover.
"Jeffrey, are we meeting in your office?"
"Yes, that's right, Marie, go straight in."
Sitting in Jeffrey's office was similarly difficult. Jeffrey's chair was upright and high, whereas they were in the mismatched chairs that sunk well below his eye level. Short people would have had their legs dangling in mid air and Marie was grateful for all of her 5'6". She perched on the edge of the chair, as sinking back would have exacerbated the effect of talking to a higher being. She noticed Louis did likewise.
"You will find me very easy to work with." Jeffrey's gaze was fixed on Marie. He directed his comments only to her. "My team knows that they have to work hard but we play hard as well. Anything you want, I can get it for you. Within reason and grounds of good taste obviously." He laughed. "Mind you good taste is subjective. I'll not tell Mrs Parker if you don't."
Marie shifted in her seat.
"Well, you certainly polished off the Times crossword easily."
"Well that's me - I can put a shine on anything."
"Yes, but I can't work with a cock like you"
The last comment was not what Marie came out with. Instead, she laughed half-heartedly - more than Louis managed - and the corporate hierarchical experience was complete. Once the meeting began and Marie was into her stride, she assumed her more usual mantle of confidence and poise as she explained the audit. Before she finished, Jeffrey interrupted her.
"This all sounds most interesting and well researched, Marie. I am sure that we will work together well."
"There is a lot more meat to the bone yet, Jeff…"
"Details, shmetails. I don't need to know all of those. I've plenty of people here who can go through the fine print with you."
"I am sure we can both accommodate and assist you. I will deal with the contracts and from hereon in your day to day contact will be Martin Miller."
"Martin is Financial Controller of the operating subsidiary and he will set you up with office space, download data and anything else you need. I suggest you meet him on Wednesday - I'll email you contact details and so on."
Jeffrey was out of his seat and looking at his watch.
"Marie, Larry, good to meet you both. I'm sorry I have to rush you, but I've another meeting due."
The auditors weren't exactly bundled out of Jeffrey's office but were soon stood outside Crouts.
"Gonna be fun working with him, Marie."
"Don't knock it, Louis, at least we'll have some audit work and a signed contract. If I can tolerate him, should be a breeze for you."
Chapter 4 - Tuesday November 2nd - School & office
At break Carly sat in the classroom, at the front, waiting for Miss Payne. It was going to be a one to one discussion, and she knew that she was in trouble this time. During lessons, the classroom always looked too small for all of them, with the cramped desks and chairs. The empty classroom felt vast, and she was nervous.
Miss Payne was a bitch and was always picking on her. If the fat old cow said anything she wasn't going to let her get away with it. She'd tell her to lose a couple of stone and sort out her hair...and her clothes. The blue dress that she had on today, her arse was about to explode out of it. Carly was wondering how her Dad would react, when Miss Payne came in and sat at her desk.
"Hello Carly - you know why you're here don't you?"
"Not really, miss. I ain't done nothin'."
"The constant backchat, the talking in class, disrupting lessons, never doing any homework, 6 one hour detentions in the last fortnight, 3 of which you never bothered turning up for. Do I need to carry on?"
"Yeah miss, but…."
"But what Carly, go on, do tell me"
"Miss, why are you talking to me like that? You're like, the same as me, being a bitch ..."
"I beg your pardon. Are you calling me a bitch?"
"Yes… I mean… Look Miss, it's not always me who talks in class. You pick on me when, like, you hear people talking, even if it's..."
The teacher leaned forward in her chair. Carly was certain the chair creaked. She dared not laugh. Miss Payne had her angry face on.
"Of course I do. And Mr Green and Mrs White and Mr Pink. We all have nothing better to do but pick on poor Carly Price."
"I thought sarcasm is the lowest..."
"You're telling me how I should speak to you. Is that how it goes, Carly? The badly behaved twelve year old girl is entitled to tell her teacher how to talk to her. When did we reverse roles here, Carly?"
"Oh shut up, Miss." Carly said it quietly but the rebellion was clearly audible and the Siberian atmosphere grew several degrees frostier.
"What did you say? Did you tell me to shut up? You are a very rude child."
If this had been a bar in the Wild West there would have been a big fight and the two protagonists would have ended up being firm friends and setting off together to enjoy jolly japes and lots of fun. But it wasn't. It was a pissed off thirty year old teacher, sick of her life being dominated by stroppy, unpleasant teenage delinquents versus a particularly stroppy twelve year old, full of adolescent angst and sick of being picked on by bitchy teachers. Carly would have liked a scuff to release her rising tension.
Instead, she responded by shrugging her shoulders and the one to one was over.
"As ever, you and I make no effective communication and become entrenched in our mutual antagonism."
Carly's nose wrinkled as she looked at her teacher.
"What are you on about Miss? Entrenched in our what?"
She expected Miss Payne to shout at her for being stupid, but her teacher just looked fed up.
"Never mind, Carly, it doesn't matter. Look, you will be put in isolation for one week. Your father will be contacted and asked to come up to the school to discuss your behaviour. If you carry on like this, you will be suspended with a view to permanent exclusion. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal." Carly didn't care too much. What would he do anyway that hadn't already been done to her? She left the office and as her first afternoon lesson had already begun, bunked off for the rest of the day.
Carl Price sat in Martin Miller's office, waiting for Martin to come off the phone. He looked around for evidence of work. The table was clear, there were no files out and Miller had not hidden the Solitaire game on his PC. Glancing out the window, Carl counted three files on his own desk and four more on the floor beside it.
After a few minutes, Martin came off the phone.
"Carl, I've asked you in here because what you need to realise is that at Crouts we have professional standards and your persistent lateness is something that I will no longer tolerate. We need to set an example here. The forecasts I had asked you for were supposed to be on my desk by end of play Monday."
"They were, Martin. I stayed here until 6.30 and finished it. I put them on your desk before I went home."
"6.30 was too late. I asked for it by 5 o'clock. This is what I mean, Carl. You are always late."
Carl wanted to reach over the desk and give his boss a well deserved smack in the mouth. Instead his face reddened and he blurted out. "You said Monday evening, end of play! How was I supposed to know that you would leave before 6.30? I never do."
Martin sat back, smiling in a way that appeared smug to Carl. That smack was coming closer.
"You could have asked me Carl. That's what being pro-active is about. You assumed that I'd still be here. It's like Jeffrey was saying to me the other day - give me your hands a sec…"
"Give me your hands - put them down flat with your fingers outstretched."
As if sharing a potential Nobel Prize discovery, Martin wrote each of the letters A-S-S-U-M-E on Carl's left hand with the E having to be annotated on Carl's right hand thumb.
Then, triumphantly, Martin explained the mnemonic
"Never assume anything because if you do it can make an ASS out of U and ME." Martin put three of Carl's fingers that spelled "ASS" then the remainder that spelt out U and ME. Carl looked at his boss open mouthed and moved his hands away. Martin continued with less enthusiasm.
"Anyway, you get the point. We need to be moving in the right direction and that means all of us working flat out."
"Staying late and stuff you mean." For a moment, Carl reminded himself of his daughter, arguing like a petulant teenager. The difference was that he was right of course. Martin the twat had pissed off early on Monday evening forgetting that he needed the forecast figures for a Tuesday morning meeting with Jeffrey Parker.
"If Jeffrey sees fit to invite me to a business function after work that does not give you an opportunity to score points