She gave herself a minute then shook the thought of the dunking sessions out of her head and jumped to her feet. It was a long time ago. He’d be older now, frail from broken bones (if he was still alive) what harm could he do?
Alice shuddered the thought away, she new better than to question her step-father’s capabilities.
She glanced at the clock: ten past nine.
“Noooo! Not again!” Alice cried, rushing from the kitchen into the hall for the phone. Grabbing the blue-cordless handset from the telephone-stand she wedged it clumsily between her chin and right shoulder, for a moment looking like a woman who’d recently suffered from a stroke, as she punched in a familiar-flurry of digits. She chewed hard at the inside of her cheek and listened to the dial tone, while strumming four whittled-nails against the edge of the telephone-table. There was a click from the other end just as it occurred to Alice that her boss might not be so forgiving this time around; she had after all already been given a verbal warning.
“Heeello?” The voice asked. It was a harsh phlegmy voice riddled by impatience.
“Greg?” Alice asked.
“Speaking.” The voice replied. Alice thought she detected bemused sarcasm.
“Greg it’s Alice, listen I’m sorry but the car won’t start! I’ve called a mechanic, but he can’t fit me in until twelve. I could hop-on a bus? But it’ll take me a good hour!” Alice lied.
There was a phlegmy-cough and Alice moved the receiver away from her ear, sighing a breath of relief as she loosened her shoulder into a pleasant slouch.
“I’m glad I’ve got you on the phone Alice, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” Her boss replied, and once again Alice’s shoulder’s tensed.
“A holiday!” He said. “That’s what you need. You’ve been through a lot lately, and it shows.”
“Been through a lot?” Alice asked, feeling her stomach take-a-dip. Her legs momentarily wobbled as she cleared her throat.
“I hear you’ve had a recent bereavement” Her boss asked.
Alice – now restless - followed the tiny shadowed hall to the coat-rack, where she picked out an appropriate coat; a thick-rustic number lined with dark faux-fur . She grabbed it off the peg and once again wedged the phone between her neck and shoulder as she wriggled her arms into the sleeves.
“Alice? Are you there?”
“I’m here Greg.” Alice replied, warily. “Who told you?”
“It’s not rocket-science Alice” her boss replied, “you asked for time off to attend a funeral - when you come back you’re not yourself. Somebody close?” He probed, giving his best-shot at sympathy.
Alice sighed a gush of relief as she realised he knew nothing. Nobody had contacted him after all. She slumped her shoulders and returned to the table.
“You could say that.” Alice replied, gnawing her lower lip.
An old skeleton! A voice cooed from the back of her mind, Isn’t that right Alice? You have a lot of those don’t you. Alice dusted the thought away and squeezed the warm plastic handset tight.
“Say no more! I can take a hint.“ Her boss replied, and now Alice could hear a series of clicks pulsing from the receiver in what sounded like Morse-code.
He’s clicking his tongue. She thought, rolling her eyes. A bad-habit of her boss’s which she was all-too- familiar with.
“Here’s what we’ll do - as from today you’re taking a week off – two weeks – however long it takes. Time’s a healer Alice, and that’s something you need right now!”
“But there’s a stack of paper w...” Alice began.
“Sorted!” Her boss interrupted, “I’ve put Jenny onto it, she can use the over time!”
He’s thought of everything! Alice thought with a bemused-smile; but in a way she was glad. Alice had business-to-attend-to. Unfinished-business.
“Well if you’re sure Greg? I guess it wouldn’t hurt.” Alice replied, fumbling in her coat pocket for the car-keys.
“Can I make a suggestion?”
“I’m listening” Alice replied.
“Take yourself off somewhere quiet - somewhere away from the bustle - maybe the Cotswolds or a trip to the coast.”
The thought incensed a twitch beneath Alice’s right-eye, and she could feel her heart bumping heavily. There was an awkward silence. Alice could hear a dim knocking and what sounded like her boss clicking his fingers. It brought a wry-smile to her lips; she had seen him do this many times before to summon in impatient staff.
“I have to go Alice, remember take as much time off as you need, and think about what I said.” He finished.
“Will do, thanks Greg.” Alice replied, waiting for the phone to click. She dropped it into it’s cradle and headed back into the kitchen.
Somewhere quiet... a trip to the coast! A voice echoed. Alice ignored it.
She parked herself in one of the chairs and laced her fingers together - elbows rested on the smooth-pine table, where her eyes fell upon the box. She made a snatch for it and turned it over quickly, as if there was something nasty lurking beneath it (catch-it-unaware). Something scribbled on the bottom maybe? There was nothing, just another blank-white surface.
“You should never have gone to the funeral!” Alice said, fixing her attention on a neat stack of newspapers and women’s-weeklies at the far end of the table. She reached for the top-paper and placed it in front of her where it fell open on the local obituaries page.
Her finger drifted across the many tributes over the faces of the deceased, nameless faces. Only, they weren’t nameless:
Norman Tyler, aged 69, loving father and grandfather
Maureen Skelter, aged 72, loving mother, grandmother, sister and aunt
... Emily Nickels, aged 60, loving mother and wife
Alice paused over this particular tribute, staring hard at the faded picture which accompanied it. An old photograph, two decades give-or-take a year. A pale lady with an oval face and dark wavy hair. Her eyes brought a rush of acid to Alice’s throat, twisted her stomach and once again plunged the kitchen into darkness. The woman’s eyes were dark and ambiguous. Alice thought they looked distant and cold; even though they were looking up at Alice, they were paying her no attention.
“Loving mother” Alice mumbled. “I wonder who’s big idea that was?”
She dragged her finger slowly across the print, “and wife”
Alice’s mouth fell open, and let out a small strangled-croak.
“He’s still alive!”
Now don’t go jumping to conclusions – you don’t know that, you don’t know that he’s alive! Alice’s rational voice, now franticly trying to calm her, intervened.
Alice – hands now trembling – reached for the brown paper wrapping which she’d torn from the box and cast-aside in the hurry to get to the goods, and turned it over.
“No stamp, no address!” Alice whined. She’d hoped that her mind had been-toying with her that perhaps she’d missed it; maybe it had been stamped and addressed on the underside. But no, old-postie had been by-passed, this had been a hand-delivery.
“Him” Alice croaked.