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Career Advice (The Sunny Centre Series #1)

 

&The Sunny Centre&

CAREER ADVICE

By Greg Webber

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

© 2017 GREG WEBBER

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

bygregwebber.wordpress.com

Table of Contents

CAREER ADVICE

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

 

 

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FLOORPLANS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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CAREER ADVICE

 

*One *

 

He’s desperate for an out. Bill knew he should’ve avoided Mr Grady. The man peeves him to the hilt and bloody well knows it – at least Bill suspects as much. He’s never certain whether the git does it on purpose. Either way, it never fails to test his patience (or blood pressure).

But no, Bill said to himself, this time, whatever the subtle barbs lined up, sod it. Let him try. Don’t let him think he’s getting under the skin.

Mr Grady, a spindly, rat like figure, is a semi-regular at the centre and hadn’t wasted much time since collaring Bill during the latter’s sly attempt to slip into the kitchen undetected. Relaxed in his seat, he’d caringly voiced concerns regarding Bill’s “tired skin”. Obviously in an attempt to get under it, one first had to poke at the surface.

The attire is now being given a disconcerting stare.

‘…Your shirt… is that the style now, having it half tucked in?’

[What next, _]thinks Bill[, frowning at a crease?_]

Mr Grady looks down to Bill’s feet. Eyebrows promptly go back the way they came.

‘Slippers…!’

‘They’re not slippers, they’re slip-ons.’

‘No need to be tense. Not really a high stress job this, is it…’

‘Not usually, no,’ agrees Bill, wanting to whack the sod over the head with his slip-on.

Grady is one of those people who invite thoughts of physical violence. The longer you remain in their company, the more your insides fill with contempt and visions of prolonged vivisection.

‘So, that brother of yours…!’ says Mr Grady, trailing off, his face lighting up with a dreamy admiration.

Bill’s face drops like a brick.

It’s the one topic Bill knew would be broached, and then thoroughly discussed; that of his oh-so-perfect brother, Robert. Grady never fails to bring it up. It’s like trying to avoid the subject of death while attending a seminar for aspiring morticians.

‘Lovely guy. Lovely lovely guy,’ coos Grady with disgusting vim.

Can no-one talk about anything else? Robert’s done this, Robert’s said that!

‘Smart too… and not just with the clothing…’

He now eyes Bill’s excuse for a shirt.

Forty, short, balding and podgy, Bill Turrock is hardly the cream of the crop. That being said, he does try every so often to make an effort appearance wise – today not being one of those days. But even when the attire does pass the MOT, and like it always seems to be, Bill gets compared to his younger, taller, trimmer, handsomer, and fashionabler (although it’s not a word) brother.

Now straining to suppress the self consciousness, Bill stays steadfast with the slip-ons. He does however fold in the tucked out bit of shirt. The current café companion meanwhile – who himself has a face only a mother, blind in both eyes, could love, looks poised to re-open the bazoo, ready to no doubt resume gushing, when, thank Christ, the phone rings at reception.

It’s the out silently prayed for.

Please be somebody selling insurance, thinks Bill. They might keep him on until Grady gets bored and scuttles back to his sewer. At least their questions won’t pertain to slippers and overrated siblings…

Bill now indicates the phone to Rat Features, feigning sadness while hiding the immeasurable relief. He then makes sure not to rush off, contrary to the strong instinct telling him to do so.

A leisurely pace is set, and Bill rewards himself with the seeds of a smile – but then, halfway, a stomach lurching sight strikes. The office door knob begins to twist. His mother Lily is, at this very precise moment, springing herself into phone answering action – and more importantly, currently closer to the receiver than he is.

No!

Bill rapidly accelerates, before craning a neck to Mr Grady to check the glaring example of desperation isn’t being witnessed.

Don’t look back, it’s slowing you down!

Lily pops her head out. Bill pounces for it (the phone) with his closest outstretched hand. Unfortunately, he doesn’t so much grab as knock and the receiver falls back behind the reception desk. Luckily, Bill’s already draped over the desk; so, like a parched rambler bringing up the well bucket, he grabs the dangling cable and starts pulling up the receiver with tiny, overwrought tugs, grateful the centre’s yet to make the leap to wireless. He then straightens back up, having regained the phone and most of his bearings, only to soon realise the all or nothing pounce and pull was in vain; Lily remains peeking out from the office door, not having moved a solitary sodding inch.

Bill waits stony-faced for his mother to retreat. Once she obliges, the phone’s brought to the ear with a rejuvenated, unabashed flourish.

‘Hello, The Sunny Centre! …Yoga?

Bill checks the schedule book.

‘Yes, back to normal this week. They’ve finished the road works. OK…’

Listening in, he waits. Then the face begins to drop, dread doing the opposite.

She’s wrapping up!

A check on Grady. Don’t send me back there, please, for the love of God…!

‘Any more questions, about the centre, in general…? What else would you like your local community centre to offer?’

Waiting, Bill suddenly brightens. The caller has resumed speech. He listens, rapt – but, after a moment, he comes over rather confused.

‘…Tai Chi? Well, I’ll have to ask the chef… hello?

Bill listens to the dial tone, doubly nonplussed.

The man currently placing down the phone isn’t the most cultured person you could bump into. It’s a sheltered life lived thus far, the elder Turrock brother never having the urge to discover and try new things. Although want to admit it, it’s a fear of the unknown. Bill likes routine, sticking to the things he knows and the confidence that brings. It’s unsettling enough having his mother think up unnecessary new classes to involve him in (“Learn Sign Language”, “Discover First Aid”, “Keep Fit”) without taking requests for strange exotic dishes!

‘Bill…?’

He doesn’t bother to turn, staring ahead, expressionless.

‘Yes, Mother…’

‘Who you talking to…?’

‘A nosy bugger,’ mutters Bill to himself.

One may also assume contentment has curbed a more open minded and outgoing approach to life – not so. Working with, not to mention still living with his sprightly mother Lily, he aches for independence like a sulky adolescent. However, the safety of the familiar and the fear of the unfamiliar keeps him entrenched. He’s been stuck in a secure but stifling rut for twenty odd years.

The jaunty mother has now fully encroached herself behind the desk, halfway through chomping a juicy green apple. She immediately clocks Mr Grady staring over, eyeing the former company’s return. Bill hasn’t noticed, having purposefully avoided the gaze that’s sure to be there.

‘D’you want me to help?’

Lily indicates the café.

Here she is again, bemoans Bill, sticking her cheery oar in.

‘No Mother, I’m handling it.’

She smiles maternally, takes a great chunk from her Granny Smith then disappears back into the office. Bill breathes a sigh of relief before glancing back to the café.

The heart sinks.

Frignow I’ve been lumbered with Grady again!

Spurning Mother’s help without thinking has become a force of habit. He looks back to the office, regretful, fighting the temptation to make a play for the door knob. He goes for it – but stops short.

No, you’re a grown man! Pull yourself together. He’s seen you… you can’t just ignore him… Robert wouldn’t ignore him! Mr Grady will tell you that Robert wouldn’t ignore him!

There’s also an urge to keep his mother away from Grady, solely to prevent the pair chatting All Things Robert, something Lily can make both light and long work of (and has done intolerably since the dawn of time).

And so, resigning himself to resumed torture, Bill takes a deep breath and turns to face his fate. Hesitant, and with a feeble smile, he edges over.

The lobby doors open behind.

A woman has entered!

Not missing a beat, Bill swings himself around, bailing back towards reception, struggling not to fling both arms out to the stranger in overjoyed welcome. He opens the mouth instead, and speech is about to emanate when Lily swiftly re-joins from the office, catches the visitors attention and the pair begin chin-wagging over the desk.

Bill comes to an abrupt halt. He glares over with a deep loathing, grating his teeth at the injustice.

Interfering frigger.

Fate is sealed. It’s a one-way ticket to Mr Grady. Or is it…?

Just look busy!

Plan forming, attention lands on the wooden island beside; the rectangular storage block centre of the room. Perfect. Plan formed, and still facing away from the undesired entity, Bill begins a timid two steps back, two steps across manoeuvre.

Destination is reached without incident. He now gets busy neatening up the already tidy island; nudging a pen pot half an inch to the left… turning one of the pens upside down then placing it back into the pot… taking the same pen out and putting it in his top pocket… taking it back out, turning it upside down then putting it back in his top pocket…

A cough from behind.

Bill continues as though he’s lost the use of his lugs, humming to drown out any future splutters.

Just then, the woman at reception becomes the woman passing into the café. Bill absently turns to observe and follow the crossover. Unfortunately, Mr Grady’s beady peepers take note and are rewarded when the onlooker accidentally makes eye contact.

Shit!

Bill remains completely rigid, clutching to the vain hope he’ll somehow blend into the surroundings.

But chameleon he isn’t. Mr Grady starts waving his little rat hand.

Foiled, the statue suddenly comes to life.

‘Ah! There you are…,’ says Bill, excuses on the fly not his forte, something he’s now all too aware of, his face matching the red wall behind like some sort of specialized lizard.

‘Still here…,’ says Mr Grady, squinting a smile.

‘Dessert?’

‘Thought you’d forgotten about me!’

‘No. No chance of that,’ says Bill, glancing away, sullen.

‘Ah, good. Well, we were chatting about your[_ brother_] before, weren’t we?’

‘Yes, you were.’

Bill knew he’d bring it up again. Knew.

‘Before you ran off to wherever it was.’

‘Telephone.’

‘And forgot to come back…’

Mr Grady gives him the soft accusing eye. Bill turns away, rolling his.

‘…Well!’ booms Mr Grady with a sudden burst of energy, slapping a hand on the armrest. ‘I still can’t believe it, can you?’

Starting at the slap, Bill’s jerked back into the conversation.

‘Hmm?’

Robert! …His success! _]Read his [_Positivity book again last night. You must be proud.’

‘Yes. I didn’t know you could read…’

Mr Grady thinks he heard something but isn’t sure.

‘And his charity work too, what he’s done for this town… what he’s given…’

‘Do you want dessert…?’

I could take the order through to the kitchen, take temporary refuge…

With this in mind, Bill brings the pad and newly acquired pen from his top pocket. Mr Grady, meanwhile, seems to have sunk into a reverie, nodding his head with ardent satisfaction. Dreaming of desserts?

‘Well, Robert has a great love for the town, for the people, doesn’t he… people like me…’

‘A rare quality, yes,’ drawls Bill.

Play the git at his own game

‘Spoke to him a few months back. Book signing. So genuine, sincere too… you ask him something, you get a straight answer…’

‘A rare quality, yes,’ repeats Bill, twiddling pen on pad.

‘Well, you do get some who try the old avoidance tactics if they don’t like the topic. Not Robert.’

‘So, what would you like for dessert?’

‘Well, it’s obvious when you think about it.’

‘Apple tart?’

‘He’s just a great guy. Plain and simple. The sort that could have a chat with anyone about[_ anything_]. He’ll always find the time. Now[_ that’s_] a rare quality!’

‘Do you want anything for dessert, Mr Grady?

‘No, I’m full up. Thanks!’

Bill’s seething inside. He stuffs the pad and pen back in the top pocket with enough force to rip the stitching. He’s also unable to contain a huff of annoyance as he turns to leave the irritant, one who now slowly lifts the head with coy innocence, eyes drifting in the departee’s direction.

‘Just wanted a chat. Never mind.’

Bill stops dead at a table. He presses a hand down hard, nails digging into the wood surface. A murderous mist has descended. Eyes bulging, he swipes up a knife from the table, whips around and comes up behind. He now mimes stabbing Mr Grady in numerous parts of the head and upper body.

The intended victim turns.

The mime seamlessly transitions into an innocent polish of the blade, aided by the whipping out of an old wrinkled tissue from the trouser pocket – Bill realising the ‘don’t let Grady think he’s getting under the skin’ mantra might come unstuck if he’s found sticking the knife through his.

Just then, having descended the main stairs, Mr Brooking passes behind. A plain looking guy, distinguished only by his navy works uniform, he retakes the seat on the farthest table to the left, a fair distance from Stab Central.

Concurrent to this, Bill’s on the move himself, pondering what Mr Grady inferred. Is Robert friendlier than me? Is that how people see me… the moody grump? Bill’s had paranoid tendencies before, often thinking people were talking about his paranoid tendencies, but with a brother like Robert he can’t help worrying how he comes across in comparison. Although unsociable and introverted, the idea that people assume this about him doesn’t sit well, especially given his delusion that it’s codswallop. Bill tells himself it’s the pests that surround him (Mother and Grady for two) that make him such a withdrawn sourpuss. He feels in possession of, or at least the capability of, that genuine, down to earth charm his brother supposedly radiates with aplomb – more so in fact. While Robert’s shut off in his writing room or touring the local homeless shelters and hospital wards waving his chequebook, spouting the same empty small talk, Bill’s stuck in the community centre day in day out dealing with the common folk first hand – that makes him the grounded one.

Reminded if not reassured, Bill takes a heavy breathe in. Eyes then fix on Mr Brooking, the other café occupant, one currently perusing the menu.

He looks like a run of the mill ordinary man, or “bloke” as people say. I can talk with him no problem.

The impulse to prove himself right remains strong, as does the opportunity to prove a certain rodent otherwise. Bill shoots an insolent yet purposeful stare back at the aforementioned, effective if only he wasn’t staring at him from behind.

I’ll show that know-all.

Bill swivels to face Mr Brooking head on. He strides forward, confident, then detours at the last second to the drinks cabinet. The nearest bottle is swiftly glugged for Dutch courage. Then, after an undignified wipe of the chin, he whips back over, the wine having done its work.

Still holding the bottle, unblinking eye contact meets the gaze of Mr Brooking, who, having surveyed since the swig, looks on a tad perturbed.

‘Um… hello! Drink?’

‘Coffee please,’ says Mr Brooking, averting gaze back to the menu.

He then looks back up to find Bill filling his glass with Cabernet Sauvignon.

‘Oh.’

Grasping the faux pas, and quickly flushing with embarrassment, Bill takes the glass and proceeds to try pour it back in the bottle. He struggles. Now a darker shade than the plonk, Bill promptly gives up the ghost. He then decides to drink the remainder from the glass before sliding it back to the table centre as though the incident never occurred. Well, if you’re having coffee…

It’s nerves more than anything; the lingering doubts that he can’t be the smooth, easy-going natural like his brother – and the more he falters, the more the doubts linger… and thus the more he falters, and thus… you get the idea.

To make matters worse, Bill’s becoming acutely aware of the lingering silence. The brain is hastily racked for filler.

‘So… just been upstairs, have you? …Toilet, was it?’

‘Er, yes.’

‘Good for you. Well done. …So, um…’

Bill tries to cough the quiver from his voice.

‘I’ve ordered already,’ replies Mr Brooking, assuming that’s the reason for the approach. ‘The beef…’

‘Ah, yes! Meat. Um… so what do you do, your job? Mr…?’

‘Brooking. Boilers mainly, radiators… if I never see another I’ll be happy.’

‘Ditto! …See that radiator by the kitchen door… keeps dripping, would you believe it? Had a complaint about a wet shoe.’

Bill shakes the head then smiles. Mr Brooking strains one. He wants to get back to rereading the menu, wondering whether he’s made the right choice. Plus what’s happening with the mug of joe?

‘Mother thinks I can’t fix it but I can.’

Bill strays a worried look to the radiator.

‘…What’s the call out charge these days, any idea?’

Mr Brooking stares straight ahead, chagrined.

Sorry. Bet you get enough questions at work. I’m the same! I mean the amount of times people ask me about that bloody menu, for instance…’

‘What salad comes with the beef?’

‘Yes!’ agrees Bill, wholeheartedly. ‘Every damn time!’

‘No, I’m asking. What do I get?’

Bill’s grin disappears in a flash, replaced with a flush of panic. He surveys the menu choice prodded.

‘Oh. Well, err… all the greens, tomatoes… cucumber!’

He spots Mr Brooking looking startled.

Sliced obviously, you don’t get a full one sticking out of your salad!’

With that, Bill leans back and gives a hearty and entirely phoney guffaw, his eyes wandering toward Mr Grady in the desperate hope he takes note of The Real Bill. A chuckle from Mr Brooking would’ve been nice but still…

Eventually calming, Bill wipes a fake, laughed too hard tear.

‘Deary me, and we’ve only just met!’

Focus sways back to the other side of the café, waiting on a reaction; so much so he hasn’t spotted the company tensing up in discomfort, making a mental note to avoid coming here again. Just buy a sandwich from the corner shop…

Thankfully for him, Bill feels like enough has been done, bonding wise. Besides, he’s getting sweaty palms. Mr Grady’s fault, thinks Bill, making him doubt the social skills.

Reassured and relieved, he begins to move off.

‘Um…’

Bill spins back.

’And the jacket potato if it’s not too late…?’

‘Certainly. I mean, I’ll sort that out for you.’

And now, as if on cue, Deirdre descends the staff stairs carrying a tray. In her late twenties, the centre’s sole volunteer is short, blonde, slightly plump and possesses a brain the size of a large crumb.

Bill spots her.

‘Ah, Deirdre, a jacket for Mr Brooking.’

‘Is he cold? Must be that radiator.’

Eyes shutting in despair, Bill rubs his temple. Although she’s good natured and harmless, her overarching dumbness is a source of constant frustration.

‘A jacket potato,’ clarifies Bill.

Ah, yes,’ says Deirdre in agreement. ‘That’ll warm him up.’

She trots off. Deirdre, bless her, isn’t playing with a full deck, but, nonetheless, she seems happy with the card she has.

Ignoring the clot, Bill turns back to Mr Brooking, who, a tad surprised at the need to do it, has begun miming the drinking of coffee while indicating the departing member of staff.

Gist perceived, Bill shakes the head.

‘No, she doesn’t touch the stuff.’

Picking up the Cabernet as a point of reference, he leans in for a whisper.

‘Just a bit thick.’

He caps off the comment with a loopy motion around the ear. Mr Brooking resigns himself to the fact he isn’t getting caffeine anytime soon.

Bill now looks set to amble away himself; but then, he appears to become gripped by a sudden perturbing thought. He looks back to Mr Brooking.

‘I was joking before by the way. I’m committed. …Not that you aren’t committed to your job. Don’t know enough about it… and I don’t want to. Couldn’t care less.’

Satisfied, assuming he’s leaving the man similarly content for nixing boiler talk, Bill moves off towards the kitchen. Mr Brooking watches on, perplexed, indeed wondering on whether his server has ever been committed. At least he’s heading towards the kitchen…

The observation is correct. However, rather than flicking the kettle, the sole purpose for the direction of travel is to pass Mr Grady, smug. Unfortunately, the only way for a subtle pass is one from behind – and so, again, without any rear view mirrors attached to the table, Mr Grady seems annoyingly oblivious to current goings on.

Bill stops, affronted. He wants to lean around and bask in a reaction.

Maybe he isn’t turning because he’s been proven wrong? Pretending to read the menu…

Bill smiles to himself, fully convinced. He makes to glide away.

‘What salad comes with the beef?’ asks the voice in front, innocent.

The confidence drains like juice from a microwaved lemon.

Christ, he didn’t hear it all, did he? All the quieter, cringy bits, all the way over here…? God, he did, didn’t he…!

Bill tries to tell himself otherwise, not helped with the realisation Mr Grady sports ears that could double for dinner plates. The sinking feeling of the foiled is disrupted by a returning Deirdre beside.

‘It’s OK, Mr Turrock… the radiator.’

‘Is it? Right.’

‘Just one drip when I was there.’

Bill agrees with the assessment. He also turns away from Grady’s table, in denial that he wigged the earlier awkward dialogue, instead distracting himself with the task of giving the boilerman’s’ table the required cutlery. He makes for the back wall cabinet.

All the while, somebody’s watching. Instead of a renewed perplexment for the recent passer-by, Mr Brooking now has a searching sort of look for Bill, watching closely as he returns with the handful of silver.

‘Thank you. Um… do you by any chance have a brother?’

Bill clumsily drops a fork. Eyes immediately dart over to Mr Grady, hoping dinner plates aren’t burning. He’s talking on his mobile to somebody. It gives Bill the courage to submit his reply.

‘Um… no, no I don’t.’

The placing of cutlery is hastily resumed, the arranger unable to keep eye contact.

‘Oh.’

Mr Brooking is taken by surprise, not because he knows it’s a fib but given the strangely long pause for thought, the question not the sort that usually requires lengthy contemplation.

The aftermath finds Bill in surprise also, unable to prevent a visible crack of giddy excitement, the notion of the idea sinking in and the fact it’s been believed (it’s almost as though in this moment, the imagined utopia is actually true! No bro!)

Bill’s glee is quickly quashed upon glancing toward Grady. The man could and would gladly counter the claims – and Bill can hardly explain the deception away with “I couldn’t bare another chat about pissing Robert, alright!?”

Stay calm… I’ve said no, that’ll be the end of it…

‘It’s just the surname.’

God, can’t he leave it alone? Let it lie. Let me lie!

‘He’s quite well known. Robert Turrock…?’

‘Never heard of him,’ replies Bill, tartly. ‘Can’t be that well known.’

And in Bill’s eyes, he isn’t. It would be a sad state of affairs if we’re letting derivative writers become big names; and non-fiction no less! Just because everyone says he’s famous doesn’t make it true.

His cheeriness a good deal dampened, Bill trundles off. This will keep him riled for the rest of the day. As he trundles, a delivery man enters via the lobby holding a peace lily flower. He stops at reception. Bill’s already making his approach. The delivery man puts the lily on the desk and hands over the signer, smiling pleasantly (he’s new). Still reeling, Bill doesn’t even look up as he scribbles. The signer is then handed back, gaze withdrawing straight onto the flower. The delivery man, stunned for a moment, turns on his heel and leaves, offended. So much for “Sunny Centre!”

The reason for Bill’s interest in the flower lies mainly with the stock note sticking out of the pot. He approaches and plucks it for a read. A gradual look of disgust soon creeps across the face. The hand holding the card begins to rattle with suppressed fury as he stares down at it.

‘Bill…’

It’s Lily, calling through from the office.

‘Who was that? …What’s that smell?’

The heart jolts with foreboding, anger having suddenly skipped town. Bill turns to the office door. Imagine if she saw this? Christ, I wouldn’t hear the end of it.

Gaze switches to Grady and Brooking.

Imagine if they did!

They’ll discover the only child fib. He has to act quickly before one of the three clocks the thing (i.e. If one does, they all would. “Here, look at this flower… and look again, it comes with a card!”)

Eyes begin to dart around in search of a solution. They land on a stack of plates on the far end of reception. Deirdre was meant to store them in the crockery cabinet but Bill isn’t complaining. He lifts one of the plates and pops the stock note underneath with the smooth swiftness of a pickpocket, albeit one who’s got the act arse about face.

Sighing with relief, Bill looks up. He flinches, nearly jumping out of his tired skin. Stewart, a tall, dark haired man with a long beard, stares back at him on the other side of the desk.

‘Afternoon.’

The visitor continues staring; waiting on a reply. Bill’s too preoccupied, eyes uncontrollably drifting to the plates. However, the worries forming (did he see and will he say anything?) are swiftly dismissed as unlikely and replaced with a sense of mounting pique. He doesn’t appreciate being unnecessarily agitated, accident or not. Unfortunately, Stewart has chosen to rock up at entirely the wrong time, but Bill doesn’t seem willing to let him off.[_ _]He’s formed a quick and instant dislike for the man. The appearance doesn’t help.

Just then, Bill spots Deirdre approaching. He curtly indicates the tray of plates with his sternest “what have I told you about this…?” face. She quickly lifts the offending contents, scuttling off to the cabinet. Bill watches on haughtily, silently hoping she’ll forgo the urge to stack separately, come across the note and suddenly announce the fact.

‘My CV.’

Bill turns back. Stewart, ignoring the apparent indignance, confidently holds out his Curriculum Vitae. Bill doesn’t take it, gazing beyond the extended arm to the man’s attire; bright canary chinos, a faded white shirt under a beige cardigan, all topped off with a beard the size of France.

Bill knows, in all probability, the large tuft of chin wool is actually quite stylish – or what people think stylish nowadays. Not that Bill can be certain, having given up on trends before he’d even started. The applicants jet black beard is also well kept, same for the long hair on the top, worn down and nearly bothering his waist. He also smells rather nice, although it’s bloody strong. Had he doused himself in it? He sure wears a lot of aftershave for someone who’s lost his razor.

The easy-going demeanour also rankles.

The man, even just silently stood, exudes a cool, confident intelligence without seemingly trying – not that he would[_ _]try given he’s cool. For Bill, it’s both secretly intimidating and a reminder that he himself lacks all of the above and couldn’t pull it off if he tried.

And what’s this now? Piercing, judging eyes…? Thinks I’m taking too long to answer, that he deserves prompt, effusive service? Thinks he’s God’s gift, does he? Well, not in here he isn’t!

The sharp ring of the phone snaps Bill from his silent derision. He makes to answer. Stewart inches closer, aware he’s about to be cut off.

‘The chef job? For the café? The sign’s still outside.’

‘Is it? No, been filled I’m afraid.’

Bill picks up the phone.

‘But…’

‘Easy mistake.’

Bill shoots him the quickest of curt smiles then turns away, uncovering the phone speaker.

‘Sunny Centre, how can I help? Ah, Mr Booth. Good afternoon.’

The CV arrives onto the edge of the desk, pushed forth.

‘I’ll hand it in anyway,’ says Stewart, a slight edge creeping into his voice.

‘No, that won’t be possible…,’ declares Bill in a patronising tone, gracefully flicking the CV over the desk edge.

Startled, Stewart’s forced to make a hasty lunge.

Now smiling superiorly, Bill suddenly realises he’s spoken the last cutting remark straight into the uncovered speaker, Mr Booth apparently unable to hold his horticultural meeting at Wednesday high noon. Bill stays calm, not wanting to show a mistake’s been made.

He listens in.

‘No… that’s right, um… well, we’re quite busy this time of day I’m afraid…’

Stewart takes in the virtually empty café and lounge. He then fixes back on Bill, eyebrows aloft.

Contrary to the fib (i.e. the truth), there has been a noticeable lack of people visiting the centre of late, evident in the struggle to establish new courses and classes. They’d have an idea, advertise it, locals would say it’s just what the community needs then none of the sods would bother turning up for it. Not that Bill minds – less chance of being roped into helping. Anyway, it’s Mother’s fault for thinking up silly classes. Who wants to paint cups? And the less said about Mastering Morse Code the better.

Now keen to save dignity and claw back the advantage, focus returns to Mr Booth on the blower.

‘…But I’m sure we can make time,’ adds Bill, adopting his most relaxed, charming and suave dulcet tones.

Just then, Lily comes over from the office, slipping behind the desk.

‘So, tomorrow, 12:30, terrific. Ta-ta!’

Bill swiftly hangs up.

‘I’m dealing with this, Mother…’

He now extends a snappy hand to take the CV. The holder holds off, providing a smug thin lipped smile instead, before turning his beard purposefully to the lady present.

‘Are you the manager?’

‘I am, yes.’

‘I’d like to hand in my CV. The chef job.’

Having successfully mimicked Bill’s smooth, drowning in syrup vernacular, Stewart gracefully hands over the vitae to mother manager. The subsequent sly glance makes it clear he’s grabbed the opportunity to turn the tables and bloody damn well knows it. Bill feels like giving the twit what-for, his initial unfounded hate for the man now given solid cause.

And Christ, Lily’s falling for it, blushing on both cheeks!

‘Certainly!’ gushes Lily, taking the CV and beginning to scan. ‘But it would be on short notice. Need someone by the end of today.’

‘You do…?’

Stewart eyes a certain falsifier pointedly. Falsifier looks away, straining for blandness while inwardly vexed, unwilling to acknowledge the unravelled white lie.

‘Would that be alright?’ asks Lily.

‘Yes, fine by me…’

Another meaningful gaze gets shot Bill’s way. The receivers face can’t help but contort. Enough with the condescension, thinks Bill, just because I did it doesn’t give you carte blanche! And stop staring at me!

‘Wonderful,’ says Lily, reading employment history, nodding with approval.

She then stops to ponder.

‘Strange though… you’re the first we’ve had. The sign’s been out there all week…’

Stewart’s eyes wander yet again. Bill can’t help looking visibly guilty at this, the fact being he’d secretly sent a good few on their unmerry way, branding them unsuitable (i.e. not liking the colour of their shirt. One guy had a bracelet!).

Concluding the ogle of the printed credentials, Lily looks up.

‘I’ll leave it a few hours though. Just in case we get another. I’d love to do one of those cook-offs, like you see on the tele!’

She gets a little excited and does a jiggle.

‘Sounds good. Well, I’ll look forward to hearing from you…’

‘Lily.’

‘Lovely meeting you, Lily…’

A swish of the head goes to Bill. Stewart looks on the verge of extending the pleasantry but decides against it, his plan all along. Point made and triumphant with it, he makes to leave. Stewart then appears to find himself in the throes of an epiphany. He turns back to Lily.

‘…Oh, like the flower… ‘

Stewart points out the peace lily then glides out into the lobby, positively beaming through his beard. Bill shoots the departee a look that could curdle milk before it leaves the udder, now certain the aspiring chef saw the hiding of the note upon arrival and knew he was up to no good all along – even more annoying that the git felt smug enough to sit on his little trump card, not using it to his advantage but merely tease on the knowledge. The bloody smug git!

A decision now needs to be made.

What with the influx of activity in its aftermath, namely Fedor Jeftichew popping up out of nowhere, explaining away the flowers newly anointed anonymity hasn’t yet received thought. With this in mind (though an explanation not), Bill moves swiftly away from an intrigued Mother, finding himself in the café beside boilerman Mr Brooking once again.

Look busy!

‘So this job of yours, I expect they’ll be quite a boom given the wind.’

Mr Brooking looks up from his magazine, miffed.

Christ, not him again… look busy!

Too tense and distracted to notice the lack of enthusiasm, Bill glances over to reception. Lily’s begun inspecting the flower, no doubt searching for what’s no longer attached.

She suddenly makes eye contact.

Not expecting the look, Bill stiffens, his stomach knotting. The brain takes a second to reboot. Then, hoping guilt hasn’t been detected, he quickly twists back to Mr Brooking with a renewed interest in the central heating profession (before realising the quick twist doesn’t help the attempt for affecting innocence).

Don’t just stand… talk! Pretend to engage!

‘Yes …I mean when you think about it, if it’s[_ hot_] you don’t need warming up but when it’s cold…’

Mr Brooking suppresses a huff.

‘Any sign of my coffee?’

‘Well, the beans [_are _]sourced from Africa… no call for boilers out there I’ll bet!’

The frowned reaction coincides with Lily’s arrival with the flower, leaning around to grab her eldest’s attention. He would be blind not to register it, but, for some reason, he seems to have tunnel vision for Mr Brooking.

‘Yes, I prefer the full bean myself. Do you grind…?’

‘Was there a note?’ asks Lily, indicating the flower.

Bill turns and feigns a look of piqued surprise.

‘Do you mind? We were mid-discussion…’

‘It’s quite all right…,’ says Mr Brooking, reassuredly, glad he’s no longer centre of attention, also hoping she’ll escort this inane bore away and double quick.

Unfortunately, she currently seems too busy admiring her namesake.

‘Now I wonder who sent it…’

‘We’ll never know,’ says Bill with firm finality, innocently cleaning a spoon with a serviette, praying she’ll drop the matter and bugger off.

‘Who else? …It’ll be from Robert.’

Bill drops the spoon on the table.

Just go! Just go now! Please… it’s not too late…“It’s a different Robert!”

Bill looks imploringly at his mother as she turns to Mr Brooking, proud.

‘My youngest. Bill’s brother.’

Thank you. Thank you so much.

 

 

Two

 

Pained embarrassment is now etched across Bill’s face as he develops a sudden fascination with rearranging the cutlery – but Lily doesn’t appear done.

‘He’s an author.’

Writer,’ clarifies Bill, seething at a spoon, failing to sound airy.

Why don’t you sit down, make an afternoon of it?

As ever with the woman, and, it seems, the whole town in general, the topic of Robert rarely sides with brevity.

Lily gazes at the flower once again.

‘Surprises me with a gift every so often.’

‘It’s not a surprise then, is it?’

Lily chuckles, entirely unaffected, smiling at Mr Brooking.

‘One gives me a peace lily and the other gives me grief!’

‘One should treat you more often,’ drawls Bill, icy enough to brand global warming a myth.

He receives a gentle whack on the arm. This from a mother who genuinely believes he’s only teasing, being lovingly sarcastic, as families tend to do with each other. This time however (like pretty much all the other times), Bill is in fact fuming. She’d waltzed over, pricked his sibling free fantasy, showing it to be a sham, and now, to top it off, the skinny hag starts up on his least favourite topic. Talk about Robert? He’d rather beekeep in his birthday suit.

Bill also resents her jolly chirpiness while doing it. Why can’t he be like that? Why can’t it be effortless for him? She flutters about like a Fairy Godmother on speed, managing to get things done without even breaking a sweat. The woman doesn’t possess a malicious bone in her rake of a body either and this riles the blood even more, given the extent to which she irritates.

And here she is now, caressing a leaf without a care in the world.

‘Now, if I remember rightly, Lilies need lots of water…’

She begins to move off, then turns back to Mr Brooking

‘…The flower, not me!

She continues on then rotates yet again.

‘And my name’s Lily, obviously.’

‘Well, it’s not Peace, that’s for damn sure,’ grunts Bill, watching chagrined as she finally totters off into the kitchen.

Why can’t she be called Venus?

On course to continue with the mood, Bill suddenly becomes conscious of the figure sat behind. The demeanour fades at once, giving way to dread as the realisation dawns.

They’re now alone (save for the elephant).

How to handle it? Better than the cutlery, he hopes.

Bill turns swiftly in feigned confidence, pouring himself a drink into Mr Brooking’s wine glass while completely avoiding eye contact. The onlooker watches on, allowing the silence to hang, unsure whether to enjoy it or feel embarrassed for the sod.

It doesn’t look like Bill’s going to bring it up.

‘So, Robert Turrock…’

‘Not worth mentioning,’ blurts Bill, hoping to sound offhanded. ‘…So, is this your first time having beef in a salad?’

At least the awkward silence has been broken. Then Mr Grady slithers over and Bill wishes they’d both stayed quiet.

‘I heard you mention Robert!’

‘Splendid,’ says Bill, mock thrilled.

‘That he is,’ replies Mr Grady, missing the sarcasm. Or has he? Again, it’s said innocently, without an edge. He can’t work the rodent out!

All the while, Mr Brooking’s taken to nodding brightly at the appraisal.

‘Yes. He was in the paper last night; being interviewed.’

‘Oh,’ says Mr Grady, a mixture of surprise and sadness, plucking for the spare seat opposite. ‘I missed that.’

‘Ditto,’ says Bill.

For once, the truth. Bill isn’t a fan of the local news with its piddling non-stories and coma inducing contributors. Just because he works in a community centre doesn’t mean he has to have an interest in the community – that and the fact they’d printed quite a few Robert stories in the past – once he got front page! Bill’s tempted to ask how Mr Grady missed the latest. The guy never fails to spot anything, especially Robert related. He’ll have missed a cut out for his shrine. The tongue is bitten however, not wanting to add to the saga length discussion sure to follow. Sure enough, Grady’s making himself comfy.

‘A phone interview I’ll hazard…,’ says Grady. ‘Well, he’s up in Scotland doing a book tour, isn’t he…’

Bill shrugs, acting dumb.

‘For his Be Stronger bestseller. It’s going paperback.’

‘I would’ve said something sooner,’ says Mr Brooking, ‘but I wasn’t sure whether Robert even had a brother.’

An embarrassed stretch of the face follows from the repairman.

Bill glares, livid. Well, he’s not famous, is he… so why would you know his family bloody tree!?

‘Well, they don’t put him in the paper, do they,’ chirps Mr Grady, cocking a pitied head to the obscure Turrock.

‘My choice, by the way… don’t have the time for it,’ says Bill, straining for casual, then turning to Mr Grady. ‘Have a good day, nice chatting…’

He motions towards the exit, eager to redress the unfair balance, narked with the pair branding him a second best nobody. And it garners a result. Mr Grady duly makes a move, one of shuffling in his seat, twisting himself far enough to fix his awaiting usher a sad, almost mournful, frown.

‘Bet you’ve had people constantly singing his praises the past few years… well, the past few decades, I’d imagine…’

‘The odd one or two,’ says Bill, pointedly, giving the pair cold penetrating stares, one then the other.

Grady’s doing it on purpose, Bill’s sure of it. He sees a slight flicker of a smirk. Yes, definitely doing it on purpose. Even so, this does little to brighten the manner.

‘Can’t be easy living in the shadows, and when it’s your younger brother too. Must get your goat up.’

‘People constantly singing his praises…’

‘You’ve already said that.’

‘Asking “When’s his new book out…” …When is it out by the way?’

Bill doesn’t reply, face straining to stay placid.

‘Everyone saying “He’s an authentic, decisive voice”, ”He’s a kind, generous soul”, “He saved this centre”, “He’s not bad to look at”, I mean…’

‘For Christ sake!!’ thunders Bill, the veneer finally cracking.

Mr Brooking and Grady start, their focus fixing on the source of the shout.

Senses restoring, regret mounting, the source immediately discerns what they’ll be thinking, assuming… their little brains whirring…

[_“What was that about?” _]

“Well, we were praising Robert, weren’t we?”

“He must not like it, he must be jealous.”

“I had no idea he was that bad.”

“Dear me, I’ll make a note to keep doing it.”

“Yes, good idea!”

The fact is the pair have just picked and poked at a number of sore points for Bill, all in relentless succession. Robert did, in fact, save the centre from closure a few years ago. Cutbacks from the government meant the place was earmarked for closure, but, when all seemed lost, Robert “Beacon of the Community” Turrock heroically stepped forth and spearheaded the successful campaign to keep the doors open, adding to the already flourishing admiration townspeople bestowed on him.

In short, Bill has his little brother to thank for keeping him in a job. He also can’t help thinking he’d feel more positive if his brother wasn’t publishing best-selling books about feeling positive. The swine.

Another reason for the widespread popularity is undoubtedly down to Robert’s extraordinary good looks. While the face doesn’t feature heavily on or in the books, it tends to be on show whenever he attends a local event, Robert usually forgoing the canny use of a brown paper bag. He’s always been the handsome one. Bill, in times of self-conscious crisis, likes to remind himself the man [is _]a good few years younger than him – but then he can’t help remembering the fact _he didn’t look like Robert when he was that age. The only ray of hope is the flimsy notion they could’ve been spawned by separate fathers, that way Bill could put the blame on bad genes then put his feet up, the pressure to live up to a stepbrother barely existent. He often daydreams on the idea.

Now, however, isn’t the time for fantasy as he stands, working out what to say or do following the “For Christ sake!!” café outburst. Struggling, he mercifully spots Deirdre coming through the kitchen doors with the java and the milk jug.

‘…Your coffee is here at last, Mr Brooking!’ beams Bill, in a jaunty, nothing just occurred tone.

He then rounds on Deirdre.

‘Took you long enough… for Christ sake!’

With that, the schizophrenic ugly duckling begins to move off, clinging to the desperate hope they’ll conclude his earlier eruption was meant for the ditzy volunteer in the distance, upon her, and the coffees, late (though timely) arrival.

Milk added, Mr Brooking notes the departure.

‘Yes. Thank you… um….’

He’s gone blank. He tries to wrack the brain.

‘Bill,’ offers Mr Grady, pleased as punch to do so.

‘Right!’ says Mr Brooking, nodding, then looking back over. ‘…At least I knew the surname!’

Bill strains a blink and you’ll miss it smile then swings back to the kitchen doors, drained and withered, ready to find the nearest corner to slump into.

‘Don’t forget the jacket!’ chirps Mr Brooking.

Bill gets an involuntary twitch, wound very much salted. He resolves to ignore, continuing onwards. Then, hand reaching for the kitchen door, he tentatively glances behind. Deirdre stands listening to the disciples of Saint Robbo, either dumb to it all or already converted.

Regaining some of his energy (i.e. anger), Bill thrusts open the kitchen door, hand having blossomed to fist.

 

The kitchen finds Bill still smiting somewhat but ready to at least try relax. Already present is the part time centre cook, Tracy. In her mid-thirties, ginger haired and petite, she’s busy talking with Lily while prepping a green salad, currently checking the lettuce for yellowy bits.

‘Well, there’s a bit saved up for sightseeing, plus I’m renting the flat while I’m gone so…’

Thinking on it, she starts grinning.

‘Ten o’clock tonight!’

She puts down the iceberg to start giddily flapping her arms like an airborne bird, flying around Lily who stands gazing at, guess what, her prized pot of peace.

‘A secret admirer, maybe,’ wonders Tracy, having landed and calmed herself.

Lily ponders the notion but soon shakes the noggin.

‘No, it’ll be Robert.’

Bill rolls his eyes, exasperated.

Not here as well. Is nowhere sodding safe?

For a change of subject if anything, Bill gives Tracy the jacket potato order. Thoughts, however, have drifted to whether Mother, like Mr Grady, missed The Big Interview. He believes it a likely possibility. She’ll have almost definitely mentioned it by now. Nonetheless, he wants to be sure. But there’s hesitation to ask. If she has read it he’ll be the one opening the can of worms. He’s torn – but only for a few seconds. The urge to know wins out.

Be delicate. Easy does it…

‘Um… read the local last night, by any chance…?’

Lily looks at him, blank.

She hasn’t!

Bill remains calm, masking the joyous relief. However, both women now seem to be staring at him, expectant. He suddenly realises the mentioning of it implies something of interest must’ve lied within – otherwise, why ask!

‘Oh… just something about dangers in the workplace. Nobody see it?’

They both shake their heads.

‘Ah, good.’

Panic over. Robert’s interview can thus be deemed yesterday’s news. Bill now treats himself to a biscuit while Lily returns to the flower. She’s still pretty sure it’s from her little Robbie.

‘We need a good catch up.’

‘Don’t suppose I’ll be getting a call from mine before I go,’ says Tracy, sombrely. ‘Had a bust up.’

Lily extends a sad pout, though eyes already drift back to her surprise…

‘I’ll phone him later. Robert, not yours!’

Bill huffs, not just for Mother recycling a joke she made mere minutes ago, but for the prospect of the call. Even though Bill won’t be taking the call himself, or, in all likelihood, residing anywhere close to it (fearing a pass over), you can bet he’ll be given the full transcript post hang up; which, by Bill’s estimations, means a full transcript of the newspaper article. I’ll get to read it after all!

In reality, buried under the bitter envy, he knows Robert isn’t like that. The man is genuinely (or in Bill’s case annoyingly) humble, honest and magnanimous – but big brother can’t bring himself to believe it. He desperately wants to assume little brother’s smug with his success, a smugness made all the more risible given Bill’s deluded view there’s such little success, if any at all, to justify the smugness in the first place. The simple truth is he needs something negative to grasp onto, something that makes him feel superior, something that makes Robert seem less perfect than he’s being portrayed to be.

[_Get ready for another recital of donations made, book signings attended and cross-country marathons completed… _]

Now falling back on another well worn past time, Bill tries to erase “him” from the mind. He clocks Lily’s clipboard on the large central island. Clipped to the clipboard; the CV handed in earlier.

‘Stewart was it?’ asks Lily, spotting his interest.

A wary glance shoots her way.

[_Surely she isn’t considering him still? I thought she was just humouring the man! _]

‘Well, he looked alright to me.’

About to bite a McVitie, Bill looks to Tracy in disbelief, as if she knows the figure under discussion.

‘Guy after your job,’ explains Lily, pointing to the clipboard and its contents.

‘”Alright?”’ repeats Bill, incredulous. ‘I’ve seen less hair on a yak.’

‘Bill…’

‘We’ll end up with stray beard in the soups and sauces.’

Tracy rolls her eyes. She’s never been Bill’s biggest fan with his constant moody gloom outlook. It’s like spending time with Bognor Regis.

‘Why don’t you take over then?’ suggests Tracy.

It’s now Lily’s turn to look taken aback.

‘Bill can’t cook!’

‘Not to cook, to find the new chef!’

Bill looks away, dismissive. He’s never been one to take on extra work, not without a discernible personal benefit for doing so – and Lily, mulling it over, still isn’t warming to the prospect either.

‘Best if I do it. Bill can’t handle this sort of thing.’

‘It’s not that I can’t…’

‘I understand,’ says Tracy, affecting sadness. ‘Mummy makes all the big decisions.’

‘It’s not that, alright! …I do have an actual job to focus on. People need me out there…’

Bill turns to the door. He then starts on another biscuit, feet grounded.

All the while, Tracy watches on, scarcely believing the hypocrite. Not that she[_ hates_] him. She’s managed to put up with his daily grumbles and gripes for the past few months – mainly by poking fun at them, a hobby she rather enjoys. On the flip side of the coin she also slightly pities him; still living at home at his age, barely venturing out beyond work, stagnating (although stagnating suggests he’s actually[_ doing_] something – stagnated sounds more apt). If only he tried to be more outgoing[_. _]When is he likely to shake things up like she’s about to? The only way you’d get him to California would be through an all expense paid competition win, or, failing that, the hiring of professional kidnappers. Watching him now, there’s the firm belief for Tracy that she could come back in twenty years and he’d still be here, ranting with a digestive. The only advancement being his gut, the top half covered in crumbs.

Oblivious to the inner musings of the outgoing chef, Bill keeps focus on his mother. He’s of the belief[_ he_] could come back in thirty years and she’d still be admiring that sodding peace lily. All withered and drooped, Lily would look a right state.

‘I’m pretty sure it’s Robert…’

Bill bares teeth.

Also feeling a change of subject would be nice, Tracy remembers she hasn’t yet asked how the weekend trip to Hampshire went so proceeds to do so (i.e. “How was Hampshire?”).

Upon hearing and discerning what she’s alluding to, Lily opens her hands with exuberance, implying no words exist that can describe. Bill can only hope.

‘…Beautiful it was. Patsy [_did _]go in the end.’

‘Didn’t Bill want to…?’

‘No,’ replies Bill, firmly, assuming the matter had already been put to bed.

He had to endure the interminable “why don’t you come?”, “the fresh air will be good for you” comments all last week. He knows Tracy knows this. She’d been there, chiming in herself with “but you never go on holiday”. Not with a coach of old biddies, no…

He resolves to maintain a resolute stare ahead, not giving Tracy the satisfaction of a scolding squint.

‘You would’ve enjoyed it,’ says Lily.

Very much unconvinced, Bill turns away in petty defiance. This soon poses a problem when he wants another biscuit so he begins to feel around for the packet.

‘Well, I wasn’t too sure when we arrived,’ continues Lily to Tracy, washing her hands in the sink. ‘One of those coach tour excursions, you know… Well, we get there, step off, and there’s a giant pier stretching out across the water!’

‘Where else would it be?’ says Bill, turning back, bemused.

‘Well, I surprised myself because I managed to walk on it.’

Now Tracy frowns, confused.

‘The [_water?’ _]

[_’No, the pier! _]Well, it’s not like me to be near water, not like me at all.’

Lily finishes rinsing her hands, pondering the perils of H2O. She shudders at the thought.

‘Yachts, boats… poor Patsy has to go cruising by herself!’

‘You should take lessons. Learn to swim.’

‘No no,’ says Lily, smiling through the feared prospect. ‘…No, I don’t know what it would take to get me in the water.’

‘A nudge?’ suggests Bill.

Tracy shoots him a reproving glare. Lily doesn’t react, too wrapped up in her recollections.

‘We did _]tour the fish market though. But the smell… [_oh!

‘Bad, was it?’

‘No, glorious! Shrimp, prawns… scampi… and mussels, you wouldn’t believe the size! Thought we could add some to the menu.’

Lily opens the fridge containing the Tupperware boxes full of souvenir seafood (i.e. The Hampshire Spoils), buoyantly pointing them out as though she’s performed a magic trick. Bill shakes his head at the whole thing.[_ “The fresh air will do you good?” …Sounds like the place stunk of dead cod. _]Plus he’s heard all this at least four times already. She’s spent more time talking about Hampshire than she actually spent at the sodding place.

Tracy, meanwhile, ambles across to inspect.

‘Big mussels on the menu, sounds good to me.’

‘Give me strength,’ mutters Bill.

A passing Tracy decides to stop for a squeeze of his bicep. She pouts, impressed, as if to say his wish has already been granted (though Bill tensing up in shock during the impromptu inspection likely skewed the results).

Nonplussed, the physical contact leaving him shaken, Bill’s accidental double meaning suddenly registers. Eyes roll.

Everything’s one big joke with her.

Nonetheless, the explanation for the squeeze helps him relax somewhat, allowing him to scrutinise Tracy as she sticks her beak into the shrimp tub.

‘You won’t even be here to use it. You’ll be up and away before supper…’

‘With a hunky Steward if I’m lucky. He can strap me in with his big strong arms… brace yourself for turbulence!’

She now flaps while gyrating.

Bill turns away, face pursed.

Is there any need for all the smut? He’ll be glad when she ups and emigrates, or whatever “trying out California for three months” can be called. A gap quarter? Still, it begs the question of who’s going to be her temporary replacement; and the mention of the word Steward brings one immediately to mind…

‘Just don’t hire Stewart, alright?’ says Bill, tapping the CV. ‘He looks like something you’d find washed up between the rocks. Hair like matted seaweed…’

Tracy soon finds herself looking at Bill’s receding hairline. A chuckle is stifled.

‘You should grow yours a bit longer.’

‘Wouldn’t dare.’

‘Might if he could.’

‘What? You mean he can’t!?’

Tracy’s mock surprise is greeted with an insolent glare from the soon to be slap-head. Lily stays mute on the matter, the discussion of hair having reminded her of her own.

‘Can’t decide whether to grow mine long again…’

She ponders the notion while flicking and patting.

‘…I’ll think about it for a few months then decide.’

With Lily busy talking to her bangs, on the other side of the table, the topic of Bill’s hair still lingers like a bad fart, Tracy now keeping watch on his scalp. Although he knows the sensible course of action is to rise above it, his locks, or lack thereof, are another of those sticky sore points. The balding dilemma lays heavy up top.

‘…It’s not that I can’t, I choose not to. It’s unprofessional.’

Tracy nods, sympathetic, reasoning he has no hair to clutch onto so straws will have to do.

All the while, seeking to re-join the conflab, Lily’s scampered over to ruffle what’s left of her eldest’s mop.

‘Hasn’t got much, and that’s on its way to autumn.’

Bill pulls away sharply, taut with embarrassment. Why does she have to do things like that? I don’t go about fluffing her fringe…

‘If you moved away like me, started a new life abroad, you could buy a toupee. No one would be any the wiser!’

Bill ignores the comment. Nonetheless, there’s the urge to claw something back.

‘I have got other hair.’

‘Where?’

‘Down there,’ says Bill, pointing then realising. ‘…The legs! Hair on the legs!

‘Show us,’ drawls Tracy, giving him the sultry stare.

Bill doesn’t know where to put his face. He does feel himself blushing heavily though,[_ _]a mixture of embarrassment and pique at the woman’s temerity. He gathers himself, considering a rebuke. [_Oh, why bother. Don’t give her the satisfaction. _]Not that he has a clue what to say.

Tracy’s about to suggest having his leg hair removed then re-attached to the head; they can do that nowadays. She holds off however, for still tongue tied with a crimson hue[_, _]Bill’s making a hasty adieu. He passes Lily, who, surprise surprise, has returned to admiring her surprise gift.

‘It would’ve been so much simpler with a card.’

‘Yes, it would’ve been, wouldn’t it!’ snaps Bill, ready to set the thing alight.

Peace lily! The thing’s brought anything but.

He promptly exits up the stairs in search of some.

Watching on, Bill’s little strop and the fact he’s strayed further from his already abandoned post gives the cook pause for thought.

‘You should get Bill some help.’

Lily ponders.

‘He does struggle out there, doesn’t he…? It’s the money, though…’

‘Yes. Psychiatrists aren’t cheap.’

Lily looks up from her flower – briefly…

 

Three

 

 

Ten minutes later and it’s lunchtime – and Bill, about to start his lunch break of all things, has returned to the kitchen to prepare a sandwich. However, the bread has barely received its butter when Tracy leans in – and it isn’t long after that when she’s taken to dangling a key in front of him, along with its accompanying “I’m a keyring” keyring.

‘It’s only up the road. Rent’s cheap… and it’s about time you flew the nest, yes?’

Yes…,’ agrees Bill, now hesitant to the implications.

Tracy waits with bated breath, trying not to appear desperate – but in truth, she[_ is_] desperate. She needs to sort the renting of the flat before she leaves (the big flight mere hours away!) It had been previously sorted well in advance but her friend Sandra’s just gone and backed out twenty minutes ago via an apologetic phone call, under the misapprehension the rent would be approximately zilch. No fool, she also knows Bill will take some persuading – and through bitter experience too. The idea was initially broached to him a fortnight ago. However, with little fondness or patience for Bill’s evasive replies of “let me just mull”, Tracy had no trouble saving him the trouble when the former friend got wind. Yet now it’s back to Bill, seemingly her last option. However, Tracy does have an ace up her emigrating sleeve. Although set in his ways, she’s sought to capitalise on a particularly strong weakness; his desire for freedom, or, more to the point, freedom from his mother.

‘...Well?’

‘Well, not right now…’

Tracy rolls her eyes and turns abruptly away. Here we go again, around in bloody circles.

‘There’s all the packing, unpacking…’

‘Does that cease to exist in the future or…?’

‘It’s a bit sudden.’

‘I told you, my friend backed out at the last…’

Tracy stops, privy to Bill’s affected displeasure for the brusque reply. She knows full well what he’s doing, seizing on the fact he has the power, making her work for it. Unfortunately for her pride, time’s a ticking. And without the weekly cash injection from a tenant, her holiday expenditure will be smaller than an alcoholic’s budget for ginger beer.

‘I could show you the flat? We’ve got an hour…’

He doesn’t answer. The trouble is, Bill likes the[_ idea_] of independence, but making it happen is a different ball game (and he isn’t much good at those either).

Tracy has since consigned herself back to square one. Usually bubbly and carefree, she now looks decidedly narked. Bill, on the other hand, has become more concerned with finding a plate for his sandwich. He spots a pile of unwashed plates in the sink.

These are yesterdays!

‘Got a dishwasher, your place…?’ asks Bill, drily.

‘Yeah, you if you take it.’

Tracy eyes him with renewed hope. Bill doesn’t answer. He looks back to the sink, frowning at the washing up liquid.

‘Any clean ones?’

‘Top of the oven,’ grunts Tracy, having since zoned out, closing the oven door behind her.

Why do him a favour?

She’s brought her Vegetable Torte from the cooker; a veggie packed savoury cake that keeps for the whole week (and a nice respite when somebody orders during a busy afternoon). Should ease the transition for the new chef also… not that she’s in a very kindly mood now.

Why can’t he just try it? It’s only for three months…

Trundling over, Bill opens the oven door. A whiff of heat escapes out. Bill then reaches in for the sole plate. His hand about to touch, he abruptly halts, twisting a head around.

‘It’ll be hot, won’t it?’

‘Probably,’ says Tracy, putting on her hat and coat.

Plopping mobile into coat pocket thereafter, she fails to notice Bill holding out his bare hands, mouth agape. [_I could’ve singed…! _]

Still reeling, he stomps to the sink and squirts dish soap onto the top plate. He then looks at the thing, as though waiting for it to do something.

Switching off the oven, Tracy peeks a look. She can’t help wonder how the flats sink would’ve fared if he’d plumped for it. The slob would be buying plastic cutlery within the week… paper plates too. It’ll be like a four-year-olds birthday party… “Who wants to play washing and drying!?”

Stuff this!

With a huff, Bill gives up, instead grabbing a pink oven mitt and swiping the hot plate from the oven. Tracy’s shot a withering squint as she exits out the side door. Is she just leaving these pots? What’s the plan, let them soak ‘til the new year?

Sarnie’s then slapped on China.

 

In the lobby, Lily comes out from the office holding an A-frame chalkboard display. She continues on outside, sign held under the arm, the [_Wanted: Part Time Temporary Chef _]advert just about visible underneath.

 

Concurrently, half mitted and chewing honey roast ham, Bill enters into the café. He approaches to pass Deirdre who clutches a tray under her arm.

The tray… the stack of plates… the note!

He’d completely forgotten about it.

Bill continues for a few paces, still eager to sit and scoff, but the anxiety has begun to bubble.

Best get rid of it now, before it gets discovered…

He nips across to the back wall cabinet, placing down the hot plate. The crockery cupboard is opened, the stack is found and Bill begins peeking between the plates – the clean and cool plates. He stops. With a peeved squint to the kitchen, negating his own oversight for their existence, Bill takes one from the top and transfers the sandwich.

Regaining focus, he continues searching, lifting each plate in the solitary stack. Sweet FA.

Confused, and now a touch apprehensive, Bill swivels back to find Deirdre polishing a table. She has difficulty trying to clean with the tray still clutched under her arm, especially since she’s using the same arm to clean. It hasn’t occurred to scrub with the other hand, or, alternatively, just put the tray down.

‘Did you see a note on that? Said “To my darling Mother…”’

‘I wondered who that was!’ exclaims Deirdre, jumping on the wrong end of the stick as per.

‘Yes, um… never mind. Just… keep it to yourself.’

Conscious of earwiggers, he’s in no rush to correct. There’s the dread of the truth spreading – complete with confirmed platitudes for a certain sibling. Sure, it’s petty and Bill’s fairly certain the gift sender will be revealed at some point in the near future but he just doesn’t have the will for it today.

With nondisclosure decided and lunch lifted, Bill turns away. He turns straight into the path of the seated Mr Brooking. Seeing him eye the sandwich, Bill’s gripped with the sudden fear of appearing like he’s slacking off, of not being the perfect, hard working professional, ala Robert.

‘Er, order for upstairs. Just taking it.’

Bill glances down, soon realising it’s flaunting a rather large bite mark.

A hasty walk away is established, both to curb the rush of embarrassment and to wolf another large, hungry gobful. He’s still annoyed with himself though, for being so desperate to prove himself to the virtual stranger sat behind.

Why did I lie? I’m entitled to a break! People can be good at their jobs and still take a lunch break. I don’t need to prove myself…

This defence mechanism is quite a common one. Forcing himself, brainwashing himself almost, into believing he’s up to standard. Silly then are the feelings of inadequacy when held up against his sibling.

It’s the only way he can function.

Now slipping behind reception, Bill’s just about validated himself, when, putting plate to desk, he spots a man entering meekly through the lobby. Bill isn’t particularly snobbish, but the man approaching is a complete scruff. Tracksuit bottoms with an ill-fitting, badly creased shirt and hair that appears to have been styled using margarine. If Bill shows up for work looking like that Mr Grady would never leave.

‘Hi,’ says the scruff, his voice feeble, the smile awkward. ‘Came about a job.’

‘Right. Well, we’ll be in touch.’

‘But you don’t have my number. Well, I don’t currently have a number. Been cut off.’

‘Well, I’ll stop you there,’ drawls Bill, thinking his response both sarcastic and appropriately final.

Rather ironically, the man’s become otherwise engaged. Afflicted, he’s recalling the many recent visits to the public call box, the struggle etched very clearly on the mug. Then Bill’s comment finally seeps through and brings him back to the present, anxious.

‘But the job. The paid job. …My CV.’

The unemployed mess passes over the one sided sheet with mustered spirit. He looks on, eager but still without confidence, worn down by the constant and ever humiliating rejections.

He’s picked the wrong guy for sympathy. Bill doesn’t like the look of him one bit, nor the pong. He smells like bad pasta. He daren’t let the man near the perishables, let alone cook with them. Probably more interested in the food than the job.

Even so, Bill begrudgingly accepts the sheet, hoping the taking of it will speed up the man’s exit, followed a few minutes later by the pungent whiff. The CV is then afforded a customary gander. Eyes widen.

‘Handwritten!’ exclaims Bill, pretending to sound impressed.

‘More personal.’

‘Right. Can[_ _]you cook?’

Bill struggles to find evidence of such on the paper, unless you count the curry sauce splodge under Stuff I’ve Done.

‘Is that what the job…?’

Scruff trails off, turning in the direction of the sign outside. He suddenly swings back.

‘… Yes, yes I can!’

Bill squints warily, dropping attention back to the sheet.

Looking on, the man fidgets, apprehensive, numerous worries circling above. Is that honey roast ham?

‘…Oh, and did it say[_ temporary_]? Does that mean it’s not permanent?’

Bill looks up to slowly bob the head, slack jawed at the question. Deirdre’s found a soul mate.

‘Any chance you’d make it full time, or the chance for overtime, it’s just…’

‘Not my call. But I’ll pass it on.’

The man beams.

‘You mean it? I don’t wish to sound desperate but another rejection and I’ll probably top myself.’

‘Promise.’

Bill smiles, sincere. He sounds it too. The guy now strides out through the front doors with a spring in his step. Bill watches on cheerily as the door swings shut. He then immediately scrunches up the CV, dropping it mid-air onto the desk without a seconds thought.

‘Mr Turrock!’ exclaims Deirdre, having witnessed the whole thing from afar.

‘All a matter of taste Deirdre.’

Bill smiles again at his own wit. He looks smugger than Dirk Diggler doing the helicopter. I’m on fire! Amazing what a bit of self-induced confidence can do.

He now goes for another bite of his sandwich. So what if Mr Brooking sees? Let him! A great chunk’s bitten off with eyes on said repairman, albeit the back of said repairman’s head. Still counts…

It does, however, properly catch the attention of another. Bringing her assortment of cleaning material to the island, Deirdre becomes privy to the final few chews.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Being disturbed. …I do need to eat!’ snaps Bill, hushed, eyeing the back of Brooking.

He can’t help lowering the volume. Mr Brooking, like it or not, has come to be held as an arbiter, the “ordinary man” judging him against his brother. And Bill, well accustomed in the art of human behaviour, feels anger might be perceived as a negative.

Concern for Deirdre though remains squarely on the sandwich.

‘But aren’t you worried it could fill you up?’

‘I was rather hoping it would actually…’

‘But the meal?’

Yes…,’ replies Bill patronisingly, looking down slowly to the meat and two bread.

_She really is slower than a parked car. _

‘With your mother,’ adds Deirdre, assuming she’s merely reminding.

Bill is now utterly confused. Mother? What’s Mother got to do with it, with the sandwich?

He watches Deirdre closely as she resumes the cleaning of a table.

‘Those table wipes… alcoholic, aren’t they?’

‘Um… I think so,’ replies Deirdre, who doesn’t have a Scooby.

‘Are they strong?’

‘Very,’ replies Deirdre, confidently stretching the wipe.

Bill shakes his head, scarcely believing. He finds her stupidity quite fascinating. Unlike intelligence, it seems to hold no bounds.

Abandoning the notion to enlighten nor be enlightened, Bill picks up the plate and makes for the staff stairs.

‘It’s very sweet, Mr Turrock…’

He resolves to ignore, continuing on.

‘…You’re very sweet, for doing it.’

‘If you say so, Deirdre.’

He keeps going, not wanting to spend his lunch break playing riddles with a fruit-loop. Deirdre doesn’t notice, wiping the reception desk in a world of her own.

‘Son’s don’t spend enough time with their mum’s, that’s what my mother always said to me…’

Bill pauses, a foot on the stairs.

‘Spend enough ti…?’

He steps off and returns.

‘Has she put you up to this?’

A forceful point gets swung towards the office where Lily still resides, probably still staring at the flower. Again, Bill’s inner paranoia has sprung to the surface. On the one hand motivated to spend as little time with the woman as possible, he doesn’t like the idea of being labelled a bad, neglectful son – especially when Saint Robert’s added to the equation.

Deirdre is clueless to the reaction.

‘The meal with your mother. I read the note.’

‘Note, what note?’

‘Well, the back of it. You’re not mad, are you?’

‘I don’t know what I’m meant to be mad about! The back of wha… the flower note!’

Finally, he’s grasped what the loon’s harping on about. However, the relief for finally knowing is quickly superseded by hungered intrigue.

‘…What did it say?’

He looks on, alive with curiosity.

‘What did it say?’ repeats Deirdre, wondering why he’s asking.

‘Yes, what did it say? …The note on the tray!’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because you saw what it said!’

‘But so did you.’

‘No,’ replies Bill, hotly, ‘I only saw one side. What did it say on the other?’

‘Um… To my darling Mother.’

‘The other side!’

Christ, thinks Bill, it’s like pulling teeth! And what in God’s name is she doing now?

Deirdre’s taken to frisking herself.

‘Well, I thought you’d remember…’

The patting drifts to her trouser pocket. She then clocks the blank expression.

‘What you wrote… on the note…’

Robert wrote the note!’

He tried to avoid spilling but it’s no good. She’s annoyed it out of him.

[_‘Robert?’ _]

‘Yes,’ replies Bill. ‘My darling brother.’

‘Oh.’

In her head, Bill wrote the note – he implied as such minutes earlier. The girl struggles with basic, straight forward situations; conflicting ones are a no-go.

The reason for the patting though now becomes clear. Bill’s eyes bulge with anticipation as a familiar looking card gets pulled from the pocket. Continuing the upwards trajectory, Deirdre barely gets it beyond her waist before it’s confiscated with a snatch.

He checks.

It’s the note.

He brings it close to the chest, craning a neck to the office, checking nobody with his surname is coming out to clock it. Deirdre, meanwhile, is feeling a tinge of sadness.

‘I… I thought you were sitting down with your mum for a nice dinner…’

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ hisses Bill, impatient to read.

Another check behind and across. Confident, office doors both fully closed, the card’s brought from the bosom.

‘“…Sorry it’s been so long. Hope you’re not busy this afternoon… thought we could catch up with a meal at the centre. R.”’

‘It is sweet, isn’t it?’ gushes Deirdre.

‘Not “Arrr”, R for Robert!’

Anger mixed with anxiety, Bill’s heart has begun to thud madly. He resolves to re-read, doing so with increasing displeasure. Now he’s just mad.

‘…Christ, I don’t believe this!’

‘You think it’s been forged?’

Bill turns to Deirdre, his burning rage offset by the sheer disbelief. _Good God, she gets dumber by the day. _

And now, about to place down the note, taking one last vacant peek, Bill spots another line at the very bottom. Separate from the main message, he subconsciously assumed it would be company details or some other triviality. The note promptly gets pulled close to the face, scrutiny increased for the smaller font size.

‘“PS; Family is everything.”’

Bill looks up from the card.

‘Bastard.’

Recycling one of his Positivity book quotes I’ll bet! And is that him acknowledging me? Not important enough for the main message… only good for an afterthought, a footnote… a subtle comment on what he thinks I am?

Just then, brooding, a sudden lurch of fear strikes. Bill whips a head to the office. A pregnant pause follows as he turns back to Deirdre.

‘You shown her this?’

The stern whisper gets a shake of the head.

‘Good. Don’t.’

Deirdre now holds out a hand to take it. Bill swiftly pockets it.

A touch baffled, Deirdre slowly points toward the office.

‘But I think Robert wanted…’

‘Yes!’ interrupts Bill, leaning in for a manic whisper. ‘And that’s exactly what he wants! Don’t you see? Give her time to roll out the red carpet!’

He forces himself to be calm.

‘Best to keep schtum, OK?’

‘Schtum’s a word?’ asks Deirdre, befuddled, her grip on the English language ropey at best.

Mum’s the word,’ amends Bill, gesturing to the office, hoping for mutual understanding and appreciation of the wit.

Deirdre nods back with a knowing smile, thinking she misheard mum for schtum before, wit not even on the radar. She soon wanders off to resume cleaning.

Bill, however, is still reeling. Robert’s coming. Today. He doesn’t quite know what to do next.

After brief thought, he opts for the first impulse; feeling for the note in his trouser pocket – only to make sure it’s still there of course (which gives the excuse to take it out and read it again). What’s this in my pocket? Best check. Maybe re-reading will show it in a different, less hell inducing light? Even to just accept what it says and try move on? In truth, Bill just wants the opportunity to slag him off again.

He claps eyes on the printed text once more and, sure enough, it quickly administers the sufficient pique to resume heavy scolding.

‘“Hope you’re not busy…!” What if we are? Thinks we’re just stood about clutching his card! When you see him…’

Bill looks up expecting Deirdre close-by. He starts. [_Where’s she…? _]

The vicinity is skimmed, and it soon centres on a figure on all fours polishing under the coffee table, her face visible through the glass.

The discovery incites a huff, Bill preferring her full attention on the rant.

He looks back to the card.

‘…And could he get any cheaper? Coming here, eating food bought with his donation money. Arrogant sponge.’

Some form of agreement is now expected from Deirdre. She’s too busy breathing onto a cloth. Disapproving, Bill reconvenes with the note instead, which seems to incite fury from the merest glance.

‘…Oh, but we should be grateful, shouldn’t we? Because we’ll get to bask in the glow of Saint Robert! The centre saviour! We might even get to pick his brain, if we’re very lucky.’

Hands are tensed into cranium grabbing claws.

‘Oh, and lest we forget, the big newspaper story he’ll be “too shy” to gloat about. He’ll have it memorised word for piddling word.’

‘Well, I don’t need to hear it,’ says Deirdre, wiping a magazine.

‘Neither do I,’ agrees Bill, impressed with her verdict. ‘If he thinks I’m sitting through it…’

‘He told me it all already…’

Deirdre points to the “He” over in the café. The man himself, Mr Brooking, catches sight. She offers a hearty wave with the cloth and Mr Brooking strains one back, a trifle bemused at the randomness with half a slice of beef hanging from his mouth.

‘Lucky you,’ grunts Bill to Deirdre, slightly miffed, assuming her refusal was for spurning the article altogether.

With this revelation though comes another, for Bill’s just worked out she not only knows about the secret note but the secret article and its contents also. As a result, a reminder seems in order. He motions to the office.

‘Not a word. Kapeesh…?’

‘No word I’ve ever heard.’

Bill closes his eyes and rubs his forehead, resigning to try dumb it down.

‘Not a word. You understand?

‘Kapeesh? No…’

Sensing actions will speak louder and simpler than words, Bill gestures the sealing of lips. Deirdre copies – but only out of sheer bemusement. Then, against the odds, it seems to click.

Finally!

Noting the flash of comprehension but still annoyed with her face, Bill looks back to the card.

It ruffles the feathers again. There’s a bit left in the tank.

‘You know what he is? Smug personified.’

Bill thinks on it and beams with pride.

‘That was quite good, did you hear what I…?’

She’s bloody vanished again.

He looks to the coffee table. No, definitely gone this time. In the kitchen presumably. Would’ve gone over her head anyway (and it would’ve taken the remainder of the lunch break to explain the meaning of personified).

Alone, Bill now takes to absently scratching an itch on the side of his head, but soon begins to frown. The scratch feels odd. Squashy. He looks to the hand and quickly surmises the reason. Thanks to all the drama beforehand, he’s still modelling the bright pink oven mitt. The plate’s been cold since the swap!

It’s forcefully removed with a good portion of misplaced rage. The removal allows for a proper uninhibited dig with his nail, also the ripping up of the flower note thereafter, its resulting confetti travelling south into the bin below.

Satisfied, the scratch and rip helping to settle emotions somewhat, Bill picks up the plated lunch and proceeds up the staff stairs.

 

The upstairs function room does what it says on the tin – a large multi-purpose space, fit for whatever’s required; a classroom, a workshop, a dining room, or a spot for the yoga class currently in session. Entering, Bill acknowledges the group ahead, trying to avoid scooting straight across to the bar to save on the blushes. Not that he fancies any of them. It’s just all the spandex.

It’s a relief to note they’re all in shut eye mode. They’ve probably detected a presence but have chosen to collectively ignore, eager to maintain blind solitude. Even so, Bill fears they’ll open peepers and presume he’s perving so quickly presses on.

Well on the way to the bar, he spots Deirdre dusting not far from the entrance.

Thoughts abound. Since the newspaper revelation, any sparks of interest for what lies within have been suppressed, Bill convincing himself the article will be frivolous fluff and likely stocked full of undue flattery; in short, not worth the time of day. Any slight urge to probe Mr Brooking before the ascent was also deemed out of the question. Nonchalance is paramount. Let Robert do what he wants, it doesn’t affect me. Why should it? I’ve got my own life… and because I’ve got my own life I’m too busy to spend time hearing about his life every waking minute of every waking hour. In short, don’t think about it.

But here now is Deirdre. [She knows. _]And it’s alright to ask Deirdre. _She won’t read into it.[_ I’d be merely making conversation_]. It’s a weird feeling nonetheless; for once he’s actively looking to gain knowledge from this woman, a woman who thought Blasphemy was a tourist spot in the Caribbean and also a cute name to christen a child.

However, by the time Bill’s slowed to a halt, finally resolving to test the waters, he’s already entered into the bar. And so, as though someone’s rewound the tape, Bill reverses back through. He then casually swings around, slides across and leans onto the wall currently receiving its weekly dust.

‘So he told you quite a bit then, Mr Brooking?’ asks Bill, looking for imaginary dirt in his fingernails.

‘Er… a bit, yes. Did he tell you?’

‘No. Not something I’d pay attention to. …Nothing worth paying attention to was there…?’

Bill averts gaze from the nails for a sly glance, waiting on elaboration.

Nothing.

Deirdre’s more concerned with the section of wall leant on. It needs a cloth on it. Bill soon discerns this development – but he pretends otherwise, fixing a harder stare, waiting on an answer.

If you want me to shift, spill…!

Unfortunately, she persists and Bill can’t ignore the brazen attempts to clean under his armpits. It tickles for one – and it’s no good; he’ll have to move off.

But questions remain. What was in the paper? What did it say? What else can be said that hasn’t been already? Why does he get all the sodding attention in the first place? It’s self-help. Shouldn’t the praise stay with the person helping themselves? They’re the ones who’ve put the effort in to change. Why’s he getting the column inches?

Realising he’s digressing, attention reverts to wondering on the contents. Obviously it’s nothing truly delightful or the policeman would’ve already come knocking. Some charity thing probably… or maybe he’s talking about the books again… trading on past efforts… not that Bill wants him to have anything new out. Last time it was hell on earth. The only small mercy was the book signing being moved to the town hall down the road (not that it’s bigger, just more spacious).

Probably visited some care home.[_ He’ll have taken a camera, snapped himself with an old dear then sent it to the Herald. “Say what you want… just make me sound good!”_]

It’s no good. Intrigue’s been left to fester. Bill needs to know.

So why’s Deirdre making it so damn difficult!?

It might only be Deirdre but Bill doesn’t like the feeling of leading a conversation when it involves learning more about his brother. The lean on the wall suggested he was just there relaxing, the topic of conversation being secondary and/or unimportant. Now he’s just stood there. The desperate lemon.

An idea forms. He begins a slow walk back to the bar, letting Deirdre dust as he feigns trying to remember something, clicking the fingers with a pained expression.

‘What was I saying before… um…?’

Come on… take the lead…

Nothing.

Slowing further, he continues to think, slightly peeved at having to prolong the “Can’t recall when it’s as clear as a bell” act.

‘Hmm… oh that’s it, the paper! Nothing worth paying attention to… in the paper?’

Deirdre shrugs her shoulders.

‘Thought so.’

[_Damn. What now!? _]

Deirdre looks up. Bill quickly finds renewed interest in the bar, as though ready to breeze through, unaffected.

Back turned, he waits.

Again, nada.

Christ, he’d learn more asking the ham sandwich. Sod it. It isn’t worth lowering himself any further. Just have to wait ‘til Robert brings a copy on arrival.

He slinks off in a sulk.

‘…Said Robert wants to take time out, away from books…’

Bill spins around and whips back through, dignity lost in transit.

‘Does he really…!?’

Bill quickly reigns in the features, reverting to casually calm.

‘Um… anything else…? It’s just, well…’

He indicates the bar then his sandwich, feigning cheery impatience.

‘No, don’t let me keep you,’ says Deirdre. ‘Nothing worse than a cold dinner.’

Bill looks to the cold sandwich, puzzled. Deirdre resumes cleaning, oblivious.

And so, like before, for pride’s sake, he has to begrudgingly relent, moving off in much the same mood as the time previous.

Bill then begins to contemplate having his lunch break without knowing.

He spins back again.

‘…Well, say what you were going to say, then I’ll be able to… Mr Brooking… what he told you… the paper!

‘Oh, err… they asked Robert “What’s next?” He said he didn’t know yet.’

‘So much for decisive,’ mutters Bill, revelling in the titbit while managing to find fault. ‘Say anything else, did he?’

‘Er… said he’d got a new hobby.’

[_’Hobby!’ _]

This is getting glorious! The reporter was obviously onto a lost cause. He can just see it now; they’d hoped for an exclusive on his next big endeavour and Robert had squat!

‘Bought a train set, did he?’

Grinning from ear to ear, Bill doesn’t wait for a reply or confirmation of recreational activity. He trots off, entering the bar practically skipping for joy.

‘No,’ replies Deirdre, delayed in her response, having knelt to give the skirting boards a wipe. ‘He’s been learning how to cook.’

Half a second passes – then the penny drops, closely followed by the plate. A loud smash echoes from the bar.

“How to cook?”

We need a chef… we need a chef and Robert’s been learning how to cook!?

[
__]

 

Four

 

 

The half dozen strong yoga group fix toward the direction of the racket, all of them striking the tree pose. Deirdre, meanwhile, hoists herself up from the floor, finding Bill speeding back in, eyes wild.

‘Cook!? …Why didn’t you tell me!?’

‘I think your memories going, Mr Turrock,’ replies Deirdre, unfazed.

‘Memory? What are you talking about?’

‘See.’

‘Forget that. Just tell me…’

‘Forget what?’

‘Don’t you start!’

Bill takes a breath to compose, then, conscious of overhearing yummy mummies, he pulls The Fountain of Knowledge into the bar.

 

‘What did he say about the cooking? …Mr Brooking!’

‘He didn’t say much, I just served him the salad…’

Teeth are gritted, eyes narrowing.

‘What else, Deirdre?’

‘Oh, and the jacket potato. Tracy put it on a side dish.’

Bill bites down on his lip, suppressing the strong urge to throttle.

‘By all means be specific but keep it to what he told you, what exactly did he tell you about Robert?’

‘He said Robert was your brother.’

The head is lowered in dismay. Bill puts a trembling hand onto his heated forehead, so hot you could fry an egg. Stay calm; she can’t talk if she’s being strangled…

‘How long has he been learning, the cooking, do you at least know…?’

‘Oh. Err, not long. A few weeks.’

‘Few weeks…,’ repeats Bill, taking it in, calm.

The subdued expression then starts to slowly contort, as if melting. Tear ducts begin to fill.

‘He’ll be over qualified already! It’s only café food… salad and soup!’

Bill’s aware Robert’s competent with the basics already, recalling the simple dishes cooked at home before his leap into full blown independence. This isn’t the primary concern. Even if range and proficiency have improved in the yonks since, that’s alright also – but actively learning, not out of necessity but enjoyment? He must have a real solid interest in it, ramping up the distinct possibility of wanting to do more if the chance arises. Add to this the fact he’ll be near his beloved family and the local community and it’s the perfect opportunity come disaster waiting to happen.

A ticking time bomb.

‘She’ll persuade him, I know she will!’

Pacing back and forth in a panic, Bill squeezes both sides of the cranium, as though simulating a vice, the brain cells needing a jumpstart, both in the desperate search of a solution and for the avoidance of envisioning the worst; for the idea Robert could potentially work here for three solid months is a fate too ghastly to contemplate. Bad enough he’s praised and lauded from afar, but having to watch his model-like mug while it happens? Even worse, Bill’s fear of being seen as the second best sibling will be ever more likely, close proximity allowing easier comparison. He now tries to convince himself, as he so often does, that the man in question isn’t as popular or capable as feared.

It doesn’t work.

Bill makes a noise resembling cats being drowned in a sack.

The yoga class lift their heads mid pyramid, visibly displeased. They’ve been forced to cancel for the past two weeks thanks to the road repairs and they come back to this!

Bill hasn’t clocked the looks of chagrin beyond the bar doorframe, too busy trying to curb the dreaded apparitions.

‘Hold on…,’ says Deirdre, a realisation dawning.

Bill turns to the voice of hope. A solution, a plan…?

‘He could work here! He could be the new cook!’

Stating the bleeding obvious it is. A solution it isn’t.

Bill looks on with disbelief and rising contempt at the dusty cretin. A solution from her? There’s more chance of playing catch with Halley’s Comet.

In the depths of despondency, head lowering into hands, Bill looks ready to crumple into a rocking ball on the floor. Then, all of a sudden, the head jerks up like a meerkat sensing a hawk.

‘Hang on! She hasn’t seen it, the local… they’re due a catch-up!’

[_If Mother doesn’t know, we can find someone else first, have her hire someone else before he gets here… yes…! _]

Although far from confident, it’s all he has. He darts out of the bar then whips a head around.

‘Not a word!’

Deirdre repeats the lips sealed motion they worked out earlier. Quick and to the point, it’s the perfect response in the current situation. Bill’s taken aback, neck still craned. Eventually, he comes to and turns – and just in time, about ready to ricochet off one of the yoga ladies. Direction is quickly adjusted and he duly disappears downwards, a renewed sense of anxiety following close behind.

‘Come back Stewbacca, all is forgiven!’

The tip toeing yoga class look on, stressed, Glenda especially. Deirdre resumes cleaning as though nothing’s occurred.

 

If she finds out about the hobby… if she knows he has an interest in it…

But Robert might not want the job… oh, he will… if my luck’s got anything to do with it

The phone!

Will Robert be expecting a call to confirm the meal? Would he call instead? Will Mother call for the unrelated catch-up she mentioned… is she doing it now!?

[_“Hi, sorry I didn’t phone sooner… busy trying to find a new chef!” _]

“Really…?”

Already downstairs, Bill speeds across to reception in a heart pounding tizz. The phone’s alone.

Phew.

Hysteria curbed by a good two percent, Bill gives it further scrutiny. No red light… it’s not being used in the office either. Still, he’s not taking any chances. Bill glances to the office then puts the receiver to his ear, suspicious, as if Robert’s somehow waiting on the undialled line, ready to answer, ready to read…

No-one. Not a sound, thank God.

If they don’t speak there’s a chance of shielding her from the bombshell, at least until they appoint a replacement (preferably one that isn’t a blood relative). That’s the plan. So where is the old bat? It’s tricky shielding a person when you haven’t a clue where the sodder is… plus he needs to hurry her along with the hiring; get her to make a decision now.

‘Mother?’

No answer.

Bill starts wiping his sweating brow. He freezes halfway.

‘Mobile!’

The sainted twit of a brother sent her a snazzy handset last year. Another surprise gift. S[_he’ll be on it in the office, being appraised! _]

Bill vaults for the office door and wrenches it open. He disappears within, hands clawed with the intent to hurriedly seize.

She isn’t in there.

She’s entering through from the lobby happy as can be, accompanied by a rather tall, dashing man in his mid to late thirties.

Robert has arrived – and, by way of coincidence, so have his good looks, namely the jaw line, the cheekbones, the pristine set of gleaming white teeth and the full head of luscious, wavy locks, so consistent in its perfect state one could be forgiven for thinking it’s a tailored wig.

‘I wasn’t expecting you!’ beams Lily, in the throes of heady recovery. ‘I was just about to call!’

Lily now perches an elbow on reception next to her treasured gift. She spots attention drifting towards it.

‘Lovely, isn’t it? Not sure who it’s from though…’

She goes for a leaf stroke, mouth all a smirk.

‘Wasn’t there a note?’ asks Robert.

‘Nope.’

‘Huh. Mystery.’

Lily tenders a knowing smile.

Contrary to this stationary tranquillity, Bill’s rushed from office to lobby, frantic.

Where the bloody hell is she!?

He looks around aimlessly.

[_It’s too windy to make a call outside… surely to goodness…? _]

Robert, meanwhile, has begun his own surveying, though a fair bit less berserk. He’s having a good ogle around; not having visited for a good few months. The lounge area is singled out for admiration, refurnished since his last visit.

‘So, how was Scotland?’ asks Lily,

‘Wonderful. I toured The Highlands. So calm and serene.’

Peaceful?’

She indicates the peace on reception, grinning.

It’s now when Bill spins to face them, wondering if the kitchen’s a good bet. Unprepared for the sight across the reception desk, he judders to a startled halt. The mouth droops, slack jawed in horror. He looks as though he’s just swallowed a beaker of battery acid.

They’re together… they’re speaking! He’s mentioned the hobby and she’s offered him the job…!

Bill remains stuck in the lobby in spite of himself, too gripped running off theories.

Is that why they’re smiling? Or maybe he’s just turned up… maybe it’s not too late… maybe they haven’t had the chance to properly chat…

Facing the opposing way meanwhile, Robert’s begun to notice the lack of activity within. He presumes it must be a quiet day. Maybe there’s a class upstairs? Doesn’t sound like it…

Thoughts then proceed to the lack of one person in particular.

‘Is Bill not…?’

Just then, as if heeding the call, the missing man bursts in, eyes flitting back and forth between the two trying to gage the damage.

‘Bill! So good to see you.’

Robert holds out the arms for a brotherly hug. Bill stands rigid, smiling nervously, teeth clenched. He can’t relax, not until he knows. He offers Robert a strained wave instead, as if miming a rainbow.

Oblivious to the awkwardness, Lily indicates the flower.

‘I was right about the…’

‘You just arrived?’ interrupts Bill.

Robert nods, excitedly.

‘Wonderful… you spoken yet?’

‘No,’ beams Lily. ‘Can’t wait to catch up!’

They both exchange wide smiles again. Bill joins in.

‘Wonderful! Mother, we need to talk.’

Suddenly stern, and not waiting on a reply, Bill attempts a swift pull away.

‘Not now Bill!’

A huff’s given by the wannabe shepherd, then an attempt to appear unaffected by the shun, frustration bubbling. He has to get her away from him!

Now poised for the next opportunity to do so, Bill has the chance to take in the sight of a sibling up close. The first thought one of wonder on why the git never seems to age, managing to look younger every visit. It’s like witnessing The Curious Case of Robert Turrock. In thirty years’ time, Bill will be pushing up the daisies and he’ll be back sucking on a teat. And how does he keep his teeth so white?

The miracle himself, meanwhile, can’t help but sense something is amiss.

‘Sorry. I should’ve phoned.’

I knew it, Bill exclaims to himself. He did just trot in without confirmation!

‘You’re not too busy…?’

‘Well, now you’ve brought it up…’

Maybe that’s the answer. Get rid of him…? But what’s the excuse? Can’t very well explain about finding the new chef!

‘No, don’t be silly,’ says Lily. ’It can wait.’

‘Well, now you’ve brought it up…!’ repeats Bill to Mother, manic, thinking it really can’t wait at all.

The response is met with two startled reactions. Thankfully, a sizeable and suitably distracting gust disturbs the lobby doors behind. Lily soon feels the chill.

‘That wind’s picked up, hasn’t it? Close the doors would you, Bill?’

Me? But…?

Trepidation is evident. But then, suddenly amiable, Bill wheels around and goes for the latch.

‘Not those, dear! The [_front _]doors!’

Lily prods a finger to indicate beyond.

‘Oh! I see!’

Bill gives a hearty and entirely fake laugh, knowing what she meant all along. Then, amusement waning and request still waiting, he simply stays rooted to the spot as though auditioning for the role of Lounge Floor Lamp. The plain truth is he can’t risk leaving the room, or, more specifically, leaving those that reside within. It only takes a few uninterrupted words from either side and it’s curtains.

But now, unresponsive, the fear of coming across unhelpful in front of Robert creeps in.

Bloody hell!

Still gripped with a condition the medical profession might describe as “shit-scared”, Bill takes tentative steps, backing up through the lobby doors arse first, beady eyes fixed on the shrinking relatives. Then comes the realisation; this is no time to dawdle. The dreaded catch-up could commence the moment he edges from earshot.

With this in mind, Bill reverses with sudden haste, zipping out of sight. The doors settle back into position.

Lily’s left with her youngest – and, as if his presumed saintly powers can predict a brother’s worst fear, Robert turns to Lily and opens the trap.

‘I…’

The first syllable is barely uttered when the doors burst open behind and Bill hurtles back through. He stumbles to an overzealous, exaggerated standstill. He then points behind to the imaginary gust that’s just swept him through uncontrollably, the lobby apparently playing sudden host to Hurricane Babushka. A light shrug declares a return attempt a lost cause.

Just then, a double smack sounds.

The entrance doors have whacked against their opposing walls – so, while not quite the house lifting variety advertised, the winds are still sizeable.

Bill looks to Mother. He can tell from her face. She won’t leave them to flap and thud. She’s also just happened upon the pink oven mitt on the floor. How in the what? Did the wind…?

She goes for the pick up.

An idea![_ _]

Take her out into the lobby… ask her about hiring Stewart… anybody… anybody but Robert…

‘Could do with some help…,’ says Bill, motioning into the breach.

Robert begins the approach.

‘Mother…!?’

Stretching an arm to innocently block Brother, Bill extends the hand to Mother, his face one of strained pleading. Lily, however, appears to fancy the recently vacated role of Lounge Floor Lamp. As a result, Bill decides to just grab and shepherd her through, the oven glove coming along for the ride and serving as an unsettling reminder of what else is up for grabs. Robert’s left on the other side rather nonplussed.

 

The double door rescuers split to take one side each. Lily’s first to the scene, managing an easy hold onto hers while the gale’s calmed.

‘Latch yours and I’ll connect.’

She waits. Bill’s attention, however, isn’t on the door – and so, its disappearance, having swung outside seconds before, hasn’t even registered.

He’s too busy readying the speech, making the sly approach.

Here’s the chance. Ask her about the chef! Maybe if I take over, persuade her to let me pick… yes!

Plucking the courage, he turns to face Lily. It coincides with a large gust of wind. The swing happy door now returns inside at speed, and Bill’s right there in its path.

‘I was wondering whether…’

The slab of solid wood clouts him in the arm, the force sending him back the way he just swivelled, almost as though Babushka’s vetoed the speech.

‘Ow!’

Grabbing the door, the afflicted jiggles the opposing knocked limb. Unbeknown to him, behind, Robert’s using his significant height advantage to view outside over the top of his scalp.

‘Blimey.’

The comment causes Bill to flinch, immediately twisting the neck back; along with the forming of a theory; that of Robert inheriting a mother’s ability to glide room to room without the need for decibels.

‘Lucky that sign of yours hasn’t blown over. The one saying you’re looking for somebody to…’

‘Argh…! Ooh, that wind!’

Bill hugs himself dramatically, inwardly alarmed. [_Robert knows about the job… he’s seen the sign! _]

Unfortunately, the wrapping of arms frees Bill of the door, one that swiftly blows back outwards. He chases after it. Halfway out, the door re-enters twice as fast and collides into him, the effect being the horizontal equivalent of skydiving onto a pavement.

The recovery begins again for Bill, this time wondering whether he still has a nose. During which time, the self-helper selflessly steps in to manhandle the door, latching it shut, allowing Lily to finally bring hers to a connecting close.

Job done.

Now what?

The bloody oven glove!

Talk about keeping the topic alive. Mother might as well write the vacancy across her forehead.

Bill bids to take it off her hands.

Snatched, it’s immediately put behind the back, checking then to see if a brother noticed. He hasn’t. He’s looking out through the door window. He’s looking out at the sodding sign.

[_Christ, he’s going to bring it up again. If he knows we’re looking, he’ll mention he’s been cooking! _]

Or will he just skip ahead… go straight for putting himself forward…!?

‘So you’re looking for…’

Argh!

‘Let’s not discuss work. Today’s about family, eh?’

Saying the words nearly bring Bill out in a rash – but something divertary had to be said.

‘Good idea,’ beams Lily. ‘So Robert, what have you been getting up to?’

‘Well…’

Argh!

‘Something funny happened earlier,’ blurts Bill. ‘I had to laugh…!’

They both look on, waiting.

‘…Yeah?’

‘Yeah! …Anyway, let’s go back through. This way…’

As if they’ve never set foot in the place before, Bill indicates the way, allowing Lily to usher Robert back towards the lounge. En route, she looks around to Bill, who’s taken to trailing close behind as though trying to huddle in for warmth.

‘Bring the sign in would you love.’

Bill stops; indignant, watching the two drift through, arm in arm. Not that he’s jealous of Mother’s current favouritism towards Robert, he knows it’s simply for not seeing the handsome git in the flesh for such a long while. However, all this might be tolerable if their cosy catch-up doesn’t need averting at all costs.[_ _]

He now spins to the open entrance door, works out the logistics (i.e. blackboard or life), then, choosing life, spins back and speeds to rejoin, tossing the glove as he goes. She won’t know.

She won’t know about the cooking hobby either if Bill’s got anything to do with it.

 

He catches up earlier than anticipated, both Mother and Brother having stopped at reception, Lily back by lily. Bill skids to a stop between the two and proceeds to awkwardly smile from one to the other, pretending everything’s perfectly routine, the heightened dread seeping through the cracks. He looks as if he’s smack bang in the middle of a particularly tense tennis match.

Robert then starts to remove his jacket.

‘Let me take that…’

Bill whips behind, pulling it the rest of the way.

‘Unless you can’t stop…? We’d hate to keep you!’

Secretly revelling in the notion, Bill holds the coat ready for slipping back into. Robert seems unsure how to respond so Bill begins sliding the sleeve back up the arm.

‘Safe journey.’

Now doubly unsure, Robert looks to Mother. She shakes a slow, dumbfounded head to Bill.

Outerwear is separated from owner once again, Bill aware it was a long shot beforehand. It doesn’t stop him scuttling to the cloakroom the shade of a London bus, not to mention stressed.

Don’t give up… keep trying…

Now debating the possibilities of swapping Robert’s coat for Robert and keeping him stored away for the duration, Bill suddenly remembers the first rule of the plan… and the fact he’s currently flouting it.

You’ve left them alone!

He looks feverishly around.

Robert’s looking at Mother. He’s leaning next to her on the desk! He’s opening his mouth!

‘So…’

‘So…,’ shouts Bill from afar, one hand feeling for an available coat hanger, ‘your shirt… it’s blue!’

Robert looks down and agrees with the verdict. It’s also a short sleeve polo that, enviably for Bill in both respects, manages to compliment the toned physique without seeming too showy.

‘Nearly ruined it last week. Spilt curry sauce down the front while I was busy…’

‘Eating a takeaway, yes!’ interjects Bill in a loud tremble, fearing a tale of self-cookery. ‘Happens to the best of us.’

Lily frowns.

‘But you don’t eat fast food.’

‘Yes, because I always spill the damn stuff!’

‘But you’ve never…’

‘I said “I always spill the damn stuff!”’

Bill looks to Robert.

‘I’d surprise her with a hearing aid next time if I were you!’

The real reason for spurning fast food is more bacterial. He’s watched the programs about hygiene; he’s heard the horror stories. He prefers to know who’s making his food – i.e. his mother.

And now, although relieved for curbing the potential hobby reveal, Bill is increasingly anxious to rejoin the pair. So where’s a spare coat hanger when you need one?

Mr Brooking doesn’t need one… he’s eaten his jacket… but this one? Come on!

A solution arises. He checks Robert isn’t looking. He isn’t. Bill promptly tosses the coat into the cloakroom and vaults back over.

Job done.

Upon arrival however, he jerks to a befuddled halt.

[_Where the hell’s Mother!? _]

Robert’s none the wiser either, still inspecting his shirt for traces of tikka masala.

A search is initiated, one of rotating around on the spot. She was literally here two seconds ago…

Full circle is achieved when Robert suddenly clicks the fingers.

He’s remembered the need to sod off, prays Bill, mentally crossing fingers and everything else available.

‘Gone and left the shortbread in the car.’

[_He’s cooked shortbread! _]

‘Keep them! I’m on a strict diet.’

‘Really? Shame. They’re from a lovely little shop in The Highlands.’

‘Well, when you put it like that, bring them in! I’ll tell Mother…’[_ _]

Bill hurries off in renewed search.

Robert watches on, wondering whether his brother’s on the right diet. His sugar levels seem off the scale. Nonetheless, he now moves off himself, shortbread bound.

The hunt for the elusive parent, meanwhile, is back in full swing. Still no luck though. Frustration rises. Here’s another chance to get her alone again and it’s frittering away like a shopaholic’s inheritance. The cloakroom’s given a quick peek just in case.

[_No sign… where the sod…? _]

Another large gust sounds outside.

Privy to the gale, en route to the lobby, Robert turns back.

‘Best wrap up.’

He approaches the cloakroom.

Watching, about to absently step aside, Bill stiffens up, a dreaded thought circling the system.

I tossed the coat!

‘Stop!’

Bill illustrates his meaning, halting oncoming traffic with a cheery but firm honk of the hand.

‘Allow me! Won’t be a sec!’

Staring until Robert backs off, the sibling eventually does so, moving off to sit on the sofa armrest. Attention then slowly returns to the cloakroom and its floor. It’s a near pitch black hovel. There’s scant sun outside let alone in this poky nook – and the coat being the colour of a crow doesn’t help. He daren’t bend either, for it runs the risk of Robert, now surveying progress, twigging the flagrant disregard afforded to his outerwear. Bill doesn’t like the man but he doesn’t want the shit to know about it.

Just then, a figure passes right to left.

It’s Lily, back from the kitchen. She re-joins her youngest, though more specifically the flower beside. It’s given a drink from a beaker of water (for lilies need lots of water).

Robert watches the pour.

Now!

The cloakroom attendant looks to the hovel with cunning intent. Get the coat… he’ll go for shortbread… I’ll talk with Mother!

Bill reaches in, bends and takes out the first item to hand. He now stares at a ladies fur coat. _Damn. _

‘So…,’ beams Lily. ‘What have I missed…?’

Argh!

Positive Robert’s about to quote The Herald, unsure whether the second squat will garner a result, Bill hurriedly grabs a nearby hula hoop meant for the yoga class (dwindling numbers left quite a few spare around the place). He steps into it and sets it off, gyrating for queen, country and potential hip replacement.

‘Look at me!’ shouts Bill, desperate. ‘I wonder how long I can…’

He trails off, hula hoop having done same.

A second attempt is immediately initiated to hold their bemused interest. Sweating, Bill begins to wonder how long he can keep it up (not the hoop specifically but the general divertary act). They won’t watch silently for the whole afternoon, no matter how disturbingly hypnotic.

But that’s no longer the main source of anguish. As he starts up for the third time, hoping it’s a charm, Bill’s struck by a stomach dissolving sight through the lobby door windows. Mr Grady’s sauntering into the centre holding a pink oven mitt and what looks suspiciously like yesterdays local.

The blabbermouth! Turn around! …Blow away!

[
__]

 

Five

 

Ratman now drifts to the lobby side of reception, unabated; holding up the local rag beside a face grinning with utter delight, all but certain to impart every word of the unmentionable article and more. Bill stares in unrelenting horror, continuing to absently rotate the hips even when the hoop’s long since hit the skids.

[_How’s he got yesterday’s paper!? _]

Reasoning the shit’s been out searching the bins,[_ _]Bill wastes no further time and bolts toward Robert and Lily; but, in his haste, forgets about the hula hoop, which now drags on the tops of his shoes. He attempts to continue unaffected but soon becomes frustrated and begins petulant kicks to discard it, nearly tripping and nutting his forehead on the hard floor. He finally halts to supply undivided attention, jumping backwards over the hoop. It’s then carelessly thrown across the room like an oversized Frisbee, promptly finding its resting place over an unsuspecting Mr Brooking who wears it like an oversized necklace.

Focus finally regained, Bill speeds towards it, and, with a quick shooting of opportune daggers at the star-struck rodent (one who’s flounced through via the reception desk like he owns the place), Bill interlocks an arm around Mother’s to whip her away sharpish.

Caught unawares, Lily’s swept off her feet – quite literally. She can barely keep on her toes, now being virtually airlifted in the direction of the kitchen. Robert watches on, clueless, wondering where’s the fire, also whether to follow.

‘Back in a jiff.’

Vulnerable prey deposited on the other side of the room, Bill scoots back towards the paper wielding swine with a view to bulldoze. However, having just spluttered a gushing reintroduction to Robert, Mr Grady seems to have been invited across to the café.

Adapting in response, Bill makes to innocently pass the pair on an unrelated errand. The moment he does, out of a brother’s view, Bill twists to enact a grab and hold. Mr Grady’s legs continue to lift but with a newfound lack of forward momentum.

Meanwhile, over in the café, the previous manhandle has caught the attention of Mr Brooking. Since freeing himself of the offending hula, he’s resumed reading something of interest on his snazzy computer tablet, headphones in. Spotting Lily though, earplugs are popped.

‘Hello again.’

The repairman’s hand jiggles for attention, but the woman’s unresponsive, still recovering from the journey. The hand doesn’t jiggle for long though, for another familiar figure now approaches beside, catching him by surprise. The guy… from the paper, in the pictures, yeah it’s him!

‘…Robert!?’

So loud and jubilant is the greeting that Bill overhears. Having just snatched the Herald from Grady, the realisation hits.

Mr Brooking knows! He knows and he’s right next to Mother… shit, and Robert’s back with her again!

Bill dashes back the way he came, eyes bulging as though ready for a dose of Optrex drops. But then, halfway, he spots the contents of his hand, soon surmising he’s on course to take published evidence straight into the arms of mother dearest. Feet skid to a juddered halt, impulse turning him back the way just dashed, specifically with a view to transport the offending rag to the nearest incinerator.

But he can’t leave Mother.

A look back to the café. Mouths are moving… they’re talking…!

The hand doesn’t want to let go. But it has to. Fretting it’s already too late, Bill bolts right, tossing the paper back the way it came, former owner ready to reclaim his second-hand prize via the well timed snapping of a second-hand oven glove. It contains hot news after all…

In the café, the buoyant repairman has since stood to shake hands, still coming to terms. Not overwhelmed but adjusting; it’s not often you meet local celebrities – and in the flesh no less!

‘I’ve read your books. Read [_about _]you too… you’re the guy in the…’

Just then, Bill arrives and does a dramatic hand clap above the head, the first evasive tactic to hand on split second short notice. A stunted silence duly follows.

Somebody has to break it…

‘Well… pleased to meet you,’ replies Robert to Mr Brooking, a little too chummily for a certain someone’s sensitivities.

Does he have to make friends with everyone?

‘Likewise,’ enthuses Brooking.

He’s miffed with Mr Brooking also, watching him now, grinning like a goon. Bill tried the friendly approach before and the man was decidedly standoffish, albeit while sat down. The jacket and beef salad might’ve perked him up since, but still…

‘Heard a lot about you.’

‘Blame me!’ bleats Bill to Robert. ‘I told him about you!’

‘Eventually,’ mutters Brooking, curtly, shooting a knowing glance – though a fleeting one, attention soon straying back to the younger sibling, eyes a crinkle.

‘But no… I read yesterday’s local!’

‘Oh…?’

What’s this, Lily wonders, something in the paper?

‘Yes, dangers in the workplace,’ replies Bill at once. ‘Wonderful it was.’

‘No…,’ replies Brooking, firmly, looking ready to elaborate.

‘You didn’t think so? Well, it struck a chord with me. I’ll never look at a spoon the same way again. Still, we can’t please everybody, can we?’

Just then, Mr Grady comes up behind the group, eager. Bill slips him a twenty-pound note. The exchange is seamless, the approaching presence sensed, the contents of the pocket known prior. Mr Grady has his morals however… but he also has a twenty-pound note. The bribed rodent spins on his back foot and moves off, paper under arm. He doesn’t get very far. The bony behind plonks itself on the armchair by reception, its owner too intrigued to leave completely.

Briber Bill has since smacked on a high spirited smile, relieved the group appear to have missed the manoeuvre, all of them still sufficiently bemused by the spoon anecdote. The smile soon fades though, not because it’s no longer required but because he’s just happened to spot the article Mr Brooking’s been reading on his computer tablet, the one he’s lifting up into view.

Easy Cuisine.

It’s a cookery article!

‘Cookery…!’ blurts Bill involuntarily. ‘Could… err… we speak in private Mother, won’t take a moment.’

‘It can’t keep?’

‘Not for much longer,’ replies Bill, nearly breathless after the onslaught of the past few minutes.

He looks on imploringly, forcing the urgent need as she deliberates. Eventually, Lily gives a light huff and a motherly roll of the eyes, stepping away towards reception.

Success!

He scuttles to catch up.

Hurry it up, thinks Bill, having caught up, the scant time available needed for talking not walking. Every second counts. Impatient, he sticks an arm out, said arm quickly meeting the back of Lily’s spine. Her speed doubles.

Arriving, Bill swivels him and his recovering mother away from the scene just departed, fearing the multi-skilled sod of a sibling could’ve also developed an affinity for lip reading. Unfortunately, the twist brings the pair head on with Mr Grady and his rat features, namely the rat nose which currently rests on top of the raised newspaper. Lily gets involuntarily rotated yet again, this time towards the lobby.

‘What’s going on?’

Still wary of earwiggers, though relieved his brother hasn’t made front page, Bill leans in close.

‘The thing we talked about before… the thing you said I couldn’t handle…’

‘Um… you’ll have to narrow it down.’

Lily hasn’t a trace of sarcasm in the voice but damn does she manage to belittle. The urge to say ”just let me pick the sodding chef!” is strong but Bill keeps his cool. He doesn’t want to seem too keen or she might smell a rat (one that isn’t holding yesterdays local).

‘Hiring the new employee, vis-à-vis the kitchen. Well…’

A passing glance hits upon the scrunched up CV, the one callously discarded.

‘…Well, I think I’ve found the perfect guy!’

He reaches over the desk to grab. As he does, Robert approaches. Bill remains oblivious, eyes down, madly unscrunching, praying to find something positive within to impart aloud.

‘He’s got all the attributes; keen, determined, handwritten…’

Bill’s confidence notably wobbles voicing the last entry, only now remembering said attribute upon staring at the fully opened sheet. He desperately scans the wrinkled page for a redeemer when a chirpy looking Robert peers over.

‘What’s this?’

Bill starts.

‘I thought we weren’t discussing business?’

‘None of yours,’ mutters Bill under the breath, piqued at the intrusion.

A sudden pang of anxious dread immediately follows. [_Did he just hear that…? _]

Adding to the disquiet; the question of whether the huddled talk will recommence. An unsure silence ensues as Lily, sensing she’s in possession of the deciding vote, mulls it over.

‘…Let’s leave it ‘til later, Bill.’

With that, she moves back to the café with Robert, arms interlocked, a journey all the more pleasant given the speed isn’t breakneck.

Bill watches on, furious and frustrated. As a rule, he usually tries to avoid conversations with his mother; but now, when the attention’s actually wanted, albeit for secondary, less loving motives, she’s harder to keep than a gold-digger after a visit from the bailiffs. Smiting at the injustice, Bill re-scrunches the CV and squeezes the subsequent paper ball in his fist, imagining it’s a family member’s head, either of the two ahead sufficing.

Suppressing the urge to find a second sheet, Bill withdraws the stony faced glare. It lands on the man stinking up the nearby armchair, still risking a paper cut under the conk.

‘Here, why don’t I cut you some holes?’ offers Bill, joyfully manic, picking up the reception scissors then gesturing Mr Grady lift the newspaper to cover the whole face.

‘Hold still, one for each eye.’

Bill proceeds to feign stabbing through where necessary. It’s then perceived that attention isn’t where it should be. Mother’s by herself with Brother… again!

‘We’ve the last of the morning’s soup? Warm the old cockles?’

Robert nods.

With a cheery rubbing of the palms, Lily troops off to the kitchen. She leaves her youngest hesitating on whether to follow on. Being the guest it doesn’t feel right without an invitation.

Glancing behind, he finds a brother scurrying across.

‘Should I go and…?’

‘No…! No need. It’s all in hand… well, not literally… soup, hand… ahaha!’

Robert chuckles. It’s decided. He’s staying put, thinking it nice to spend time with Bill for a bit. He’s been dashing all over the place; here’s a chance to slow down and properly reacquaint. With this in mind, Robert chooses the table left of Mr Brooking and sits. Bill senses the intent and actually comes around to the idea of staying, his motives a good deal slimier however, for he’s just stumbled on a rather neat (and slimy) idea of his own.

Bill now slowly comes around to the chosen table, slow because he’s since begun to hobble, walking suddenly a struggle. He reaches out for the back of a chair then proceeds to groan like an overworked charlady.

‘Woo! Bit of a grind, this place.’

He groans again, but over-eggs it, the resulting sound approaching a death rattle.

Robert pulls out a seat for the afflicted but gets a resolute “I’ll soldier on!” shake of the noodle from Bill, keen to continue the dramatics.

‘Not everyone’s cup of tea, this place. No, not for the faint hearted. Anyway, what about you? What’s next… take a long break, I imagine?’

Please say yes!

‘Well, I’d like to keep helping the community if I can. Got a few ideas bubbling away…’

‘Write another book!’ blurts Bill, animatedly, suddenly free of arthritis. ‘Bet you’ll be missing it by now, no…? Sat at a desk, typing…?’

Floundering with the merits of the vocation, Bill takes to simply nodding encouragingly.

‘Yes, but I’d like a new challenge. Keep on moving!’

‘That’s the ticket! I hear Sydney’s great this time of decade. Best to book early for a good deal… (indicates lounge library computers) non-refundable but still…!’

Bill pauses; realising it’s being laid on a tad too thick, only two steps from offering to fly the plane himself – but desperation and a lack of time demand it. Mercifully, Robert hasn’t twigged ulterior motives. Like his mother it’s a case of forever seeing the good in people, and so it would never occur that his brother holds such a wash of negative emotion towards him, the lack of suspicion aided by the fact Bill keeps such feelings well hidden, especially whenever Saint Robert’s in earshot (bitching behind a person’s back not working too well when the person can hear every word). As a result, setting up shop in the outback is taken as a mere innocent suggestion.

‘Was thinking somewhere a little closer to home…’

‘The third world; they’re still poor, aren’t they? Go build a hut! I’d tag along but (struggles onto the seat) …ah! Rest the old bunions.’

As Mr Mopp waits on a reply, Lily re-enters, her manner bright, her pace brisk.

‘Tracy must’ve nipped out.’

She claps the hands together.

‘So then, time for a good old chin-wag!’

She plonks herself down. Bill immediately shoots up as though playing a game of high striker, Lily the mallet, Bill the puck. He turns to Robert.

‘How about a tour of the kitchen!?’

‘OK,’ comes the reply, Robert still adjusting to the sudden burst of energy as he stands.

He then smiles to himself.

‘You know, it’s interesting you mentioning kitchens…’

‘Isn’t that interesting? Come along…’

Bill ushers him towards the kitchen. It coincides with a volunteers totter down the main stairs. Already acquainted during past visits, Robert’s all set to ask how she’s been. There isn’t time. Bill steers him away and onwards.

A tad befuddled, Deirdre curtsies as they pass, holding up an imaginary dress. Bill cranes a bemused neck back. Attention, however, soon drifts leftward to Lily.

She’s poised to stand.

She’s making to tag along!

Bill isn’t about to surrender the separation, not again.

Action required and quick, he regains eye contact with Deirdre. He motions toward Mother and starts to mime writing on a notepad. To grateful relief, the message is understood. Deirdre fishes the pad from her pocket, lifting it up, triumphant.

A few paces later, Bill turns to re-check. He now has to manically emphasise her actually doing something with the aloft pad, the dolt still resembling a bible preacher gone static. Finally understanding, Deirdre nods feverishly, hastening in the direction of the head cock.

‘Er… ready to order?’

‘We’re sorted for now, Deirdre, thank you.’

Having used up all of her imagination (i.e. none of it), Deirdre swivels back to her master for mimed guidance. Bill grits his teeth. He Mere steps away from the kitchen, he now has to divert and circle Robert around an empty table to signal further instructions. He gestures drinking. He then has to exaggerate it to glugging for it to permeate.

Deirdre swivels back.

‘Drinks?’

Lily doesn’t quite know. She looks to her departing sons, detour complete.

‘You decide!’ shouts Bill. ‘…Preferably something with a kick.’

With that, Bill gives the kitchen door his slip-on before herding a disoriented Robert through as though he’s taken a hostage.

 

The empty kitchen finds itself swiftly occupied, the first of the two being a rather startled self-help writer. Fortunately though, after steadying himself, the unorthodox entry is put down to enthusiasm for the tour and nothing else.

‘So here it is…,’ says Bill, ‘the kitchen!’

Robert takes it in.

‘…Well, now you’ve bonded…’

Bill proceeds to bolt for the doors. Halfway, he cranes a neck back.

‘Nobody likes a third wheel!’

 

Back in the café, Lily’s still deciding drinks, pointing at the menu then frowning at it. Having initially raced through, Bill now segues into a more considered, though still rather speedy approach, picking the fingernails as he finalises the speech.

“So hiring the chef. No need to prolong it… the handwritten guy… he really does stand out!”

Arriving, he taps Deirdre on the shoulder. She’s sent to the kitchen; once a server now a replacement tour guide.

Right, thinks Bill, speech prepped. It’s time to solve the problem before the problem tires of Deirdre. Conclusion, time won’t be kind.

Mouth opening, Bill then happens to spot a rather refined looking woman enter and park herself by reception. Is she holding what I think she’s holding?

A change of plan. He plumps for going over, struck with the heart leaping hope this lady holds a CV in her hand and is a dab hand at crimping a pasty.

‘Deirdre!’

She’s motioned back to her previous post.

One thing’s for sure; the woman at the desk exerts an undeniable air of authority, even if her fitted grey suit and beefy frame bring to mind a school matron due in court. Bill likes the professional look though; it makes a refreshing change from the scruffs so far – plus she doesn’t have a beard. Yes, thinks Bill, no trouble persuading Mother to hire this one.

Please be here for the chef job… please don’t be peddling insurance!

‘Good afternoon.’

‘Afternoon. I’m here regarding the current vacancy in your establishment.’

[_Thank the heavens …my establishment! _]

Bill stops himself from breathlessly asking when she can start.

‘Yes. Wonderful…’

He twists a head to the café.

‘…Mother!’

Lily doesn’t hear, busy drumming a tune on her chin. Undeterred, Bill turns back, extending a hand for the CV in the hope to dash it over, pronto. The lady, however, lifts her head high, ignoring the hand.

‘Now, you’ll have other applicants, I’m sure…’

She proceeds to give her cover sheet a gentle stroke as though the things sprouted fur.

‘…but understand I’ve cooked for the best connoisseurs in the country.’

‘Right!’ replies Bill, still keen but vacant, missing any notion of her being vastly overqualified for such a position. ‘Well, I’d love to give you the job this very second, but I just need to organ…’

‘Vincent Costello, the upper crust of the pastry set, said my puffs were unlike anything he’d ever put to mouth.’

Bill wouldn’t mind finding something similar to shove in her gob, beginning to regret the decision to engage the windbag. Gaze drifts back to the café for an update.

The sight brings a deadly lurch. Lily’s hoisting herself up. Deirdre’s looking over, panicked.

‘Like anything he’d put to mouth!’ repeats Haughty with force.

‘Wait!’

‘Well, they were light as a feather,’ replies Haughty, reminiscent once more, assuming focus has deservedly returned to her fluffy puffs. ‘And that’s just one of the strings to my baker’s bow… but of course one doesn’t like to brag. Although…’

Bill’s been stiff as a chopping board for the past few seconds. He now snaps out of it. Action’s required and quick. A look back to Lady Savoury. He needs to wrap this up. Deirdre’s doing her best but can only awkwardly hug Lily for so long. An attempt’s made to try read the top of the cover letter. Ludrig… Ingrid… Ingrid Palmer…

‘Is that your CV?’

‘Indeed it is.’

‘Well, could I…?’

‘My work comes to life on the plate, not the page.’

Still she doesn’t relinquish. Now considering the merits of a karate chop tug, Bill checks behind again.

The hug’s over.

Deirdre’s following Lily towards the kitchen, clueless.

She needs help.

About to cut and run, Bill spots a rogue hula hoop resting against the sofa. He quickly snatches it up and skims it across the room. It passes behind Mr Brooking who subsequently frowns, trying to fathom an unexplained whoosh. An equally puzzled Deirdre grabs the hoop as it makes to pass, Bill then grabbing her attention. He proceeds to mime an overhead hook manoeuvre for his kitchen bound mother.

‘Ah, yes, another thing…’

Bill looks back to Ingrid, impassive, now resolved with the fact that even if he does secure her the job, he’ll be sick of the woman before the first shift.

‘You should also note the five years I spent at the Ashburton Culinary Academy.’

‘Good,’ replies Bill, vacant, beginning to turn.

Good?’ shrieks Ingrid. ‘It’s the most prestigious course of its kind!’

Ignoring, Bill completes the turn. He then judders to a stop, staring ahead in high bewilderment. Deirdre, far from hooking Lily and keeping her in the vicinity as instructed, has instead taken to performing the hula hoop for her; mouth wide with glee as she gyrates for continued observation. Alas, Lily’s already pointing to the kitchen, apologetic as she continues towards it, having already witnessed her daily quota of unannounced hooping. Switching tacks, Deirdre whips the apparatus over the head and offers it over.

It’s politely declined.

Lily presses on.

No!

Bill desperately repeats the instructions again. Hook her! Do it now!

So caught up in Deirdre succeeding, it doesn’t register for him to physically go and assist – it’s almost like he’s watching a play unfold from the stands, willing the hero to avert the onstage pickle.

That’s it, yes!

Deirdre performs the overhead manoeuvre. However, it quickly becomes clear she’s misunderstood the objective. She simply follows Lily into the kitchen keeping her central in the hoop, as though playing a life-size interpretation of wire loop.

This finally gets Bill on the move. He zips across in despaired pursuit.

‘Anyway…,’ says Ingrid, eyeing her cover sheet none the wiser. ‘I think you’ll find my CV speaks for itself. Although…’

‘Brilliant!’ replies Bill, half way across the room.

Ingrid spots the widening gap.

‘But…’

‘Throw it on the desk… thank you!’

Worry for Bill now firmly centres on the conversations beyond the kitchen door, both presently and prior. What if Robert’s mentioned his hobby… what if he’s bursting to tell Mother… oh God, what if he’s doing it now…!?

Deirdre’s since reappeared, her hoop hollow once more. Bill approaches her to pass. Although consumed with what if’s and don’t be true’s, there’s still room to chide.

‘I meant hook and pull pea-brain!’

He continues at a pace; then, two steps from bursting through the door, a flash of yellow whips past the retina north to south; then, one step from the door, Bill comes to a jerking stop as though a shepherd’s got him by the crook. Already in shock, a second swift yank occurs, twisting him around. He now faces Deirdre. She stares back, pleased, holding one side of the newly filled hoop, grateful for a practice demonstration generously afforded.

The apparatus is quickly and angrily grabbed, lifted from encircled body and flung. It promptly skims across Mr Brooking’s table, this time clocked above the raised tablet. Hoop doesn’t stop to chat, continuing along the back of the sofa and swirling on out into the lobby, unnoticed by Ingrid stood at reception, busy staring at her credentials. What she is aware of however, is being well and truly abandoned. A good deal affronted by it, the refined pastry lady spins on her heel dramatically to depart.

Facing the lobby doors though, she stops to ponder. Then, after making sure nobody’s looking, she slyly places her Curriculum Vitae on the desk, shame swallowed.

 

Six

 

Bill bursts into the kitchen, double quick. The sight expected isn’t the sight playing out. Lily’s present but her company takes the form of veritable pest Mr Grady.

Already reversing in shock, Bill can’t help but check outside to the lounge, wondering how the hell he can be in two places at once. He isn’t. He’s here. He’s here and he’s holding the effing Herald!

The man’s already leafing through the pages, searching.

‘You heard the news?’

Lily looks unsure but intrigued.

With renewed dread and a heart somewhere north of the throat, realising he shouldn’t be reversing but advancing, Bill speeds back across.

‘Wait, please don’t!’

Mr Grady’s too caught up delivering the news.

‘Frank’s died.’

‘Oh, thank Christ!’ exclaims Bill, clutching the island and his chest, the relief momentarily outweighing the grief. ‘Er… I mean, he was in pain wasn’t he, the poor sod.’

Mr Grady puts down The Herald.

‘He’d been given the all clear.’

‘Has he? Good for him,’ replies Bill, too distracted going for the paper.

He swipes it, rolls it up and grips on for dear life. Bill has a good mind to swipe the twenty from Grady’s pocket too, the treacherous louse… what part of a silent, unspecified backhander to scram didn’t he understand?

‘Poor Frank. What does it say about him?’ asks Lily, her eyes fixing on the rag.

‘Well, what [_can _]you say!?’ sniffs Bill, suddenly bereft, grip tightening.

‘Well, the family obviously thought of something…,’ interjects Grady.

‘Did they. Did they.’

The paper stays palmed. Miffed, Mr Grady comes forth in an attempt to reclaim. By sheer coincidence, at that very moment, Bill spots an imaginary fly and dashes after it, brandishing the roll mid-air, ready to swat.

‘Bloody pest…,’ huffs Bill, now swishing about the place as though erratically waving a flag. ‘Coming in here, where they don’t belong…’

With a pointed glance to Grady, Bill then attempts a whack on the worktop but fails to hit anything apart from the worktop (given it’s imaginary).

‘Damn fly, where’s it got to…?’

‘Try the soup,’ drawls Grady, nodding a wry head to the pot.

Undercut, Bill curdles a smile across the room, bringing the roll back to his chest. Mock all you want, you ain’t getting it back!

All the while, Lily’s been taking in the passing of Frank, a regular to the centre.

‘He hadn’t been in for weeks. Should’ve known.’

Mr Grady nods, mournful.

‘Still, we shouldn’t dwell. Frank wouldn’t want it.’

A sentiment agreed by Lily, remembering he was always the life and soul of the knit group. [_Bless him, he wasn’t all there but who is these days? _]

‘Kept asking after Robert… “Is he not in?” he’d say. Thought he worked here!’

‘Poor Frank,’ interrupts Bill, heart pounding, subject changing. ‘It was no age…!’

‘How old was he?’

Bill shrugs, having no idea. Lily begins to ponder then her eyes light up.

‘Check the paper!’

‘Good idea!’ exclaims Bill; keeping it clutched ever tighter.

Unfortunately, the inaction brings rise to an approaching Mother. She extends a hand for the pass-over. Bill hurriedly sidesteps the elusive fly back with a silent vengeance. It then seems to vanish as soon as he reaches the other side of the room, as if it never existed.

Not caring for the oddball performance, nor the reason for it, Mr Grady reverts back to thoughts on the bereaved. He turns to Lily.

‘I reckon they’ll want the wake here; bit of buffet food, that sort of thing. You’ll have to ask the new chef, whoever you decide to…’

‘Hmm, love a good buffet!’ blurts Bill, straining enthusiasm.

Sure, he likes a good spread but if he has to interrupt once more he’s going to scream!

‘It’ll be hard replacing someone like Tracy,’ says Lily. ‘She’s become like family.’

Replacement… like family…!

‘Well, I know someone who’d be perfect…!’

Just then, timing perfect (for Bill was set to shriek), Robert bobs down the stairs, fresh from the bogs. Bill settles for slotting the paper into the back pocket along with remembering to breathe.

‘The new toilets are lovely. Well, the men’s are… don’t know about the women’s or disabled’s!’

Lily and Mr Grady grin. Bill refrains. Laughing at the disabled…

‘Yoga too, eh?’

‘Twice a week,’ says Lily, pleased at the face of approval. ‘You looking for a new hobby?’

‘No!’ exclaims Bill. ‘…Well, he’s already got, no… um… lovely, aren’t they, the toilets!’

Robert nods.

Bill exhales.

That was close. Too close. And anyway, how many more hobbies does the man want? …Is suicide a past time?

Looking on, Robert’s since gone in for another round of pleasantries with Mr Bubonic Plague, the latter having begun to make himself a sandwich without asking.

Even though he knows he shouldn’t, for it isn’t exactly helpful by way of a remedy, Bill can’t help but just stare, secretly glaring at the sibling causing the stress, the effortless good looks not alleviating the ill feeling. Lily, meanwhile, realising Tracy might be a while yet, has begun the warming up and stirring of the soup. She also wants to slice the bread for dipping but struggles to do both, the loaf on a different worktop and her arms measuring less than 10ft. Lily daren’t abandon the spoon though; the base of the pot currently on burn alert given the lack of liquid.

She gestures for assistance. Robert duly works the legs.

‘Let me help. I’ll stir the pot.’

‘Quite good at that, are we?’ asks Bill, innocently while bitter in the face.

He instantly regrets the open invitation, putting fist to mouth. You’re supposed to be avoiding cook talk, not encouraging…!

‘I’ll give it a go!’ beams Robert, taking charge of the pot, oblivious to the implied double meaning, thankfully not elaborating.

The worm.

Bill now watches on with a heightened mistrust, the sort of suspicion one reserves for people passing to join friends or family further up the roller coaster queue. There’s rising dread also, hoping to Buddha his new hobby doesn’t become plain to see. Is this where he subtly shows off? It would cleverly bypass the smug bold announcement. He’s simply helping, helping and patiently waiting for the “You seem to know your way around a spatula” segue – and if this isn’t forthcoming… “Any other jobs need doing? Basting, sautéing…?”

Relax would you, he’s only stirring soup!

Just then, Mr Grady, beef sandwich in hand, winces halfway through a chew.

‘Needs pickle.’

Have mine, thinks Bill, watching him go straight for the correct cupboard without hesitation. Even Bill doesn’t know where half the things are kept in this place. The employed pickle spreader might be out for lunch but still… [_who does he think he is!? _]Bill then remembers he’s a man in the know.

Christ… and Roberts stood stirring! If there’s a time to bring it up!

If Mother discovers…

Thinking on it, the probable scenario would actually be her continuing as planned, likely giving the other candidates a fair hearing, before plumping for a nice slice of guilt free nepotism.

It reaffirms the urgent necessity. Bill needs to get her out and sharpish. He needs to take charge of the hiring before Lily gets the lowdown (i.e. before Ratty Arbuckle opens his bazoo). So, like a politician’s other half after a car collision, it’s time to get in the driver’s seat. The only barrier to this being Mother actually agreeing to interchange.

The getting her out sharpish isn’t cut and dry either.

‘Why don’t we choose a table…?’ suggests Bill, beckoning.

‘You can if you want,’ says Lily, hand delving into the bread bag. ‘Actually yes, you can go sort the cutlery!’

Bill extends appreciation for the great idea. He then turns to the doors, thoroughly thwarted.

[_Pissing hell! _]

He can’t have a private conversation with her while she’s in the same room, let alone another room entirely.

There’s now the expectation for him to depart. Mercifully, Bill discovers he doesn’t need to. The cutlery’s already here! The silver’s gratefully grabbed then taken over for Mother to place on the tray.

Lily stares at the knife and fork being presented.

‘It’s soup.’

Fine, grunts Bill to himself, [_if you’re going to be picky… _]

He now offers the contents of the hand to the person nearest.

‘…And I’m eating a sandwich!’ exclaims Mr Grady, jiggling his hands, which usually do fine for such a meal (once they stop jiggling).

The unrequired cutlery is thus abandoned with gritted teeth, although the temptation to offer them to a stirring brother is murderously strong. And why’s Mr Grady still here… how long does it take to spread pickle!? Bill answers his own question almost immediately, surmising the rodent’s only spreading the Branston so he can continue the snoop.

However, he can’t concern himself with such trivialities. Priorities take precedence (as priorities tend to do).

There must be a way to get Mother away.

There is!

With a sudden look of devious intent, Bill slips across to the double doors, feigning the hearing of something before sticking an inquisitive head through.

‘…What’s that Deirdre, Patsy on hold…? Yes, she’s just coming!’

Unbeknown to Bill, his disappearing noodle coincided with the emergence of Deirdre’s, hers descending down the kitchen stairs along with the rest of her body. She smiles back at Robert, Lily and Mr Grady, a touch embarrassed by the attention.

‘Mother, there’s a call…’

Waiting on a reply that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming, Bill turns.

Oh.

He now takes a long blink, both to confirm Deirdre being there and the fact he’s yet again made a prat of himself. She is and he has.

Seeking to save face, a brother looking on, Bill affects shock at the sight then peeks back into the café, nonplussed, as though Deirdre’s somehow sprung a doppelganger. The turn away also gives Bill an opportunity to clamp his eyes shut in anguished embarrassment.

Why do I always look like an idiot in front of him… why!!?

There’s also the numbing notion his brother, up on the study of human psychology, will be scrutinising him and his behaviour, another reason why he can’t possibly acquire the chef position here, the result being a shared close proximity between the two for a good portion of the week (x12). He’d feel like a patient under observation in a psych ward. What if the secret animosity’s discovered, expertly hidden until now? Christ, what if his next book’s about me? Every day from now could be subconscious research!

With all this circling, wondering what’s hitting the shelves first; him or the cookbook, Bill has to turn back to face them.

Thankfully, a distraction is at play, courtesy of the centre volunteer herself. It’s not the placing down of the drink orders, nor the recovered hula adorning her left shoulder like an avant-garde accessory, but the dustpan and brush she holds. It has shattered plate remnants and bits of sandwich on it.

Deirdre pinpoints the destination of the collective gorps.

‘Just been cleaning upstairs…’

She looks to Bill.

‘You left it all over the floor. Remember, when I told you about…’

‘Drop it, Deirdre…,’ interrupts Bill, smiling through clenched teeth.

‘…But I’ve just picked it up.’

Bill turns away, dismayed. Thankfully, the dolt doesn’t divulge further details on the matter, currently experiencing a distraction of her own. She seems preoccupied with the face stirring the soup.

‘Oh, has Robert been given the…?’

‘Go!’

Bill shrinks with surprise at his own volume, anxiety not mixing terribly well with frustrated annoyance.

[_Act normal! _]

Conscious of Robert diagnosing anger issues, his opinion maddeningly important, Bill now politely motions Deirdre towards the café – but this is a tough ask also. She doesn’t budge. She continues her stare at the bloke warming the tomato and basil. Bill soon steps between to give a death ray glare, his pledge for kindness abandoned quicker than a blocked public toilet. Deirdre, however, mistakes the stony expression for one of bemusement, the two often used in conjunction where she’s concerned.

Seeking to clear the fog, she points to Robert.

‘So he’s no…?’

‘No!’ blurts Bill in high alarm, making it a duet.

Fearing imminent elaboration, Bill grabs the hula hoop on Deirdre’s shoulder, brings it over her sponge of a head to meet the waist and proceeds to pull her to the stairs, shepherd style.

‘I’ve just remembered, me and Deirdre need to…’

He trails off, though not in motion. Unfortunately, the escape plan has hit a snag, namely the wall either side of the stairs, the hoop not wanting to fit through. Bill tries ragging it with increasing mania, willing it to squeeze.

‘Maybe try it the other way,’ suggests Mr Grady, baffled but loving the show.

Bill begrudgingly agrees, chiding the lapse in common sense. Deirdre, however, is first to take action. She lifts the hoop above her head, flips it, then lowers it back down, resuming her attempt to push.

‘We meant sideways!’ shouts Bill.

‘[_I _]didn’t,’ mutters Mr Grady, battling a smirk.

The hoop’s now angrily tilted at a sharp angle, and, nearly administering a whack to Deirdre’s lower jaw, Bill finally pulls the cretin up the stairs and away, the sight resembling an exasperated husband escorting his drunk and disorderly wife from the children’s sports day.

Fast becoming their collective expression, the remaining trio look on, bemused. Mr Grady is the first to acknowledge, asking what the hell’s wrong with him. Lily, ever the optimist, believes the erratic behaviour is simply giddiness, overjoyed to see his brother.

Pretty sure that’s not the reason, though biting his lip at disclosure, Mr Grady finishes his sandwich by the back wall (preparing not scoffing).

Lily’s still caught up with her theory of an excited eldest.

‘Isn’t it sweet!’

She gives her youngest a pinch on the cheek. The pinched then peeks into the pot. He frowns at the contents – or lack thereof.

‘I’ll check out the back. Might be something we can add…’

‘Good idea!’

Encouraged, Robert heads out through the back wall archway, across the corridor into the cellar/pantry.

Watching him toddle, Mr Grady brings the plated sandwich over to Lily by the island. The final step causes him to look curiously downwards, then go for a bend. Brought up from underneath the rat foot is a familiar looking newspaper…

 

Meanwhile, upstairs in the function room, Deirdre enters through from the meeting room looking a tad sheepish, hoop in hand. She gently props it up on the wall beside her, before proceeding to watch half a dozen women do the downward dog.

 

Back in the kitchen, footsteps sound on the stairs. Finished with the hula lady’s refresher course (i.e. “pee off”), Bill descends, relieved if not carefree.

‘…Really!?’ says Lily to Mr Grady, taken aback.

‘It’s true,’ assures Grady, flicking through the recovered Herald on the worktop. ‘I’ll show you…’

Nearing the foot of the stairs, Bill jerks to a disbelieved stop; mouth gaped in horror, as though arriving for a blind date to find Lizzie Borden.

Mr Grady’s somehow got the paper back. Bill feels his back pocket, and, sure enough, all he can feel is cotton over a buttock. The sods swiped it!

So busy pulling Deirdre from the scene, he’d forgotten what he left with Mother.

He’s telling her about Robert… showing her…

‘No!’

Bill bounds over to the island. He grabs Mr Grady and seeks to pull him away by the scruff of his ironed shirt. Seeking to grab the paper, Mr Grady manages only to pinch the corner, drag it across the worktop then have the rest tear off onto the floor once free of the granite. Suffice to say, he isn’t allowed to retrieve.

‘Steady on!’

Escorting at a pace, Bill cranes a neck back to Lily.

‘Excuse us while we…’

He cocks a head to the double doors. They are soon swung. Mr Grady soon finds himself out on his tod.

Vermin dealt with, emotions subduing, Mother’s now viewed across the room. Far from seeking an explanation for the grab and push, she’s leafing through the picked up paper, trying to find something.

A horrible feeling hits.

Has the truth already come out?

It sounded like he’d already told her… don’t say she’s searching for what’s already been blabbed!?

Hurrying back over, heart pounding; Bill leans over the island, his stare pulsating.

‘Did you see… has he told you…[_ the article… Robert!!?]’[ _]

Hands are primed, ready to snatch the paper if the answers a negative.

[_Come on, spit it out… what do you know dammit!? _]

Mr Grady? Yeah… can’t believe I missed it yesterday…’

Christ, no! She knows!

[
__]

 

Seven

 

Bill swivels to face the back wall, face drooped like a neutered St Bernard. He can’t bear to hear it. She’s going to make the connection, if she hasn’t already… hobby to job…

Although it’s too late to say or do anything, the brain can’t help kick-starting for a possible circumvent. If there’s a way…

Just then, Mr Grady pops a head in.

‘Telephone.’

He indicates reception – and so, with Deirdre upstairs surveying the Spandex, Lily’s forced to depart. The door is kindly held open for her, allowing Bill to shoot across his thanks to the man held responsible.

No sooner have the doors to the café swung closed when the side door does the opposite. Tracy comes through, helped along by a strong Babushka gust.

‘What happened to town?’ asks Bill, barely bothered for the answer.

‘Have you seen it outside? Lucky I’ve still got my hat. Still got my flat too, mores the pity. Came back for another round of calls, so if you’ll excuse me…’

Closing the fridge with a scotch egg shoved in her mouth, Tracy heads for the stairs.

Bill remains in the depths, wondering how he’s possibly going to get through the next ninety days. The glum gaze absently drifts. It happens upon the departing chef’s apron.

Of all the times to leave. Temporary emigration! This is all Tracy’s sodding fault!

Tracy! Of course!

Revitalised, Bill suddenly whips around.

‘Stay!’

He’s been so busy focusing on the recruitment of somebody completely new that a second, altogether simpler solution hadn’t crossed the mind; until now.[_ _]

If Tracy stays put, there isn’t any reason for a replacement. All problems will be nixed! She might have niggles about going… what if she’s talked around?

She turns around at least.

‘Eh?’

‘Stay here.’

What’s with him today, wonders Tracy. Has the second screw gone to find the first? She helpfully points out the stairs.

‘But I want to go up… unless you’re going…?’

She nods a head to the lounge. Not caring for his company at the best of times, she doesn’t relish Bill in the vicinity while she begs the contents of her contact book.

‘Stay… at the centre I mean…,’ clarifies Bill, all smiles.

Tracy strains one, waiting for the punch-line.

To be expected, thinks Bill. Staying positive nonetheless, though not taking a leaf out of his brother’s bestseller, he takes pause to locate the right words. He can’t seem to find them so proceeds.

‘Um… this three-month sojourn, well, I mean… what if you fall out with this friend, whoever she is? Tamarno…’

‘Tamayo.’

‘Tamayo, Tamarno… she sounds a bit pushy to me, demanding you go. I say stay!’

‘She didn’t demand…,’ clarifies Tracy, getting tetchy. ‘I said she nagged a bit because…’

‘Because you weren’t sure! Stay! We need you. You’re an asset!’

‘And you’re an ass.’

‘Ass?’ scoffs Bill. ‘You’re not in America yet! …And you don’t have to be… I’ll be good!’

‘There’s not a chance in hell I’m changing my mind, alright?’

With that, she continues to the stairs with a purposeful stride, her stance on the matter firmer than a dead lifters derriere.

‘I can see you’re in two minds so…!’

Bill trails off, in voice and in motion.

There must be a way of persuading her. God knows how…

He loses confidence, all but giving up. Then a sudden thought. He springs back to life.

‘…If you stay I’ll take the flat!’

As Bill begins to grasp the flaw with said suggestion, the cause of all the bother returns from the cellar, tin-less.

‘Couldn’t find any more soup…’

Tracy has already turned to give the elder brother a parting shake of the head. She now takes in the sight to the right, a touch startled. What the… is that…?

The two haven’t met before, his last visit also coinciding with a change in kitchen personnel, Tracy having rocked up a couple of days after. She’s seen his face before of course, but even so… wowza.

Bill clocks the ogle. [_Is there anyone who isn’t interested in him? Stick him in a crowd and they’ll be a stampede. Here’s hoping… _]

‘Hi, I’m Robert.’

Tracy shakes the man’s hand, cheeks a blush. This, coupled with her current stance regarding The Golden State, means Bill doesn’t care to remain.

Tracy spots the trundle out. Not that she looks for long…

Wowza.

 

Bill slumps out into the café. Seeing Mother by the phone, it brings a renewed need for a solution. Until she actually ends the call and offers him the job, there’s still time…

Deirdre’s nearby.

Although garnering a solution from her isn’t likely, voicing the Tracy problem aloud might clear the fog. He scuttles over and steers her towards the back wall cabinet, moving in close.

‘Tracy…’

Deirdre,’ replies Deirdre, pointing to herself.

Tracy,’ repeats Bill, jabbing a forceful head to the kitchen. ‘She can’t leave, for California. I need her to stay. So how… cajoling her?’

‘What, buying her jewellery? Could work…’

‘No! Cajole as in[_ persuade! How do we persuade!?’_]

‘You could buy her…’

‘No!’

Far from clearing the fog, there’s now an angry mist thickening it up. Focus! Something to keep her off that plane…

‘What if you don’t have to…?’ says Deirdre, brightening.

She runs the thought through again. Yes…

‘What if you just [_let _]Tracy leave… then you won’t have to persuade!’

Bill looks on, realising it’s actually being presented as a serious panacea.

‘”What if you don’t have to!”’ repeats Bill, the tone pure mocking.

He returns to his own ruminations.

But then, straining for something, the sudden flash of inspiration is entirely unexpected. He seems awestruck by his own brilliance – and the fact Deirdre has actually assisted (albeit unintentionally).

‘What if I don’t have to!’ repeats Bill, the words given newfound reverence. ‘What if she hasn’t got a choice… what if she[_ has_] to stay!?’

Grinning fiendishly but with a certain trepidation for what’s about to be attempted, well aware the idea’s riskier than Ray Charles running air traffic, he affords it a further ponder. A split second later he whips off, leaving Deirdre hanging as he seeks a return visit to the kitchen.

 

Bill enters. His least favourite sibling (though, in Bill’s defence, he has only one) leans on the opposing side of the island alongside Tracy, both amiably chatting away, both discussing the transition to a warmer climate.

‘Yeah, a heat wave apparently, the past few days…’

The swing of the door causes them to do same. Bill’s quick to send a cursory crinkle of the eyes across, making it clear he isn’t there to disturb current proceedings, subtly signalling his desire for the pair to continue their chummy discourse by vacantly picking at his fingernails.

Conversation duly restarts and, mercifully for Bill’s plan, heads revert also, turning away from him and the coat rack he’s seeking to slowly creep towards.

Please be inside… please be inside…

Arriving, blocking out talk of sunblock, a sly hand finds the inside of Tracy’s coat pocket. It comes out with a prize. He remembered the mobile being deposited in there before her abandoned trip to town and here it still is, or was… for Bill’s just pilfered the thing.

He pops it in his pocket. The opposing hand makes a fist in silent, “gotcha!” celebration. He then concludes part one of the plan is only the first part of the plan.

There’s more to do. Part two for one…

‘Um… sorry; Tracy, could we talk?’

Sensing the need for privacy, Robert signals whether it’s best to leave them to it. Bill concurs, smiling faux lovingly as the blue eyed boy opts for a hike upstairs. Bill then drifts back around. The cook’s waiting. Right, yes, the deception…!

‘Yes. Bit of bad news. Don’t know how to break it… your friend Tamarno…’

Tracy bites her tongue at the mispronounced name, too intrigued to hear more.

‘She came in before, while you were gone. The thing is, her sister wants to try California too… so she’s taking her instead!’[* *]

Tracy stares back at a complete loss. Then a wry, half condescending smile breaks out.

‘Yes, very funny…’

Well aware it was going to be a tough sell from the outset, Bill sticks at it, making the face sullen yet sympathetic, one of “oh no, she thinks I’m joking”, also hoping this friend does, in fact, have a sibling, preferably one with reproductive organs.

‘She wanted to tell you personally. Then when you weren’t here she tried calling… no reply…’

Tracy’s already going for her coat pockets, eager to substantiate her continued disbelief. There won’t be a call. He’s making it up surely…

‘Is she still…?’

Tracy indicates beyond the double doors.

‘Gone. While ago now.’

The search through outerwear pauses, replaced by a piercing squint.

‘Then why were you persuading me to stay before, if you knew…?’

The stomach of the accused drops. So does the head.

‘I was just trying to soften the blow,’ says Bill, timid. ‘If you decided yourself then you’d be making the decision, not her.’

Feigning discomfort for the rare show of compassion, Bill awaits the verdict. If the story’s dismissed now then he’s buggered.

‘What a nice thing to do,’ says Mr Grady, stood by the double doors having polished off the beef and pickle.

Bill looks ready to give him the heel of his slip on; certain he’s just derailed the whole thing with the dry reply. Also, how long has he been stood there? Did he clock the phone swipe? Bill doesn’t need bother with the boot though, for Grady, placing down the empty plate on the worktop, pushes off of his own accord, complete with a faint but perceptible smirk.

The meddling shit!

He still feels like administering a good kick up the bony caboose, and now he’ll have a good run-up…

‘Well, that’s that then, isn’t it,’ says Tracy to herself.

Bill winds in the leg. He turns to scrutinise. She looks defeatist, morose almost…

Bill can’t quite believe it.

She’s bought it!

Mr Grady’s thickly veiled sarcasm has gone completely over her head and instead tipped the balance in favour, a presumed unbiased third party turning out to be just what Tracy needed (though not necessarily wanted). She doesn’t like it but she’s bought it, the final hurdle having to swallow Bill actually possessing a heart.

[_Yes! _]

‘I still want to call her… give her a piece of… [my phone, _]where[ is _]it!?’

The triple check of the coat is complete, apron also. Not a sausage.

‘No… don’t say you’ve lost it!’ groans Bill, affecting pity, his hand clutching the very thing in his pocket.

[_What bad luck! _]

And so, in the interests of letting it sink in, Bill decides to scoot. He also needs to switch the phone off before anyone chances a call. He seems to remember her having quite a specific ringtone… some ghastly pop tune if one recalls…

And after that’s done, Bill plans to nip to the office to inform Mother of the specifics, specifically Tamayo popping in to piss on Tracy’s parade. Then Mother can scurry on through to console the spurned. “Don’t worry, you’ve still got a job here!”

‘Well, I’ll leave you to…’

A jiggle of the hand completes the sentence, one of “leave you to mope while I make off with your mobile. Agreed? Splendid!”

A hand reaching for the door, he glances back.

‘Look on the bright side, you’ve already lost one friend today because of the flat – what’s another!?’

It’s not entirely well received. He won’t be releasing a self-help book anytime soon.

 

Having sucked all the happy from the kitchen, the man currently swapping kitchen for café is a man full of high spirit.

[_It actually worked. Really! _]

Suitably distanced, Bill turns to face the empty main stairs. The phone’s brought from the trouser. Never owning one himself, nor accustomed to such contraptions or their miniature workings, it’s blind luck that manages to accidentally hold the correct button long enough to shut the thing off.

Oh… ah… very good, yes…

Spinning around, he’s met with the sight of Lily approaching, herself finished on the phone, now holding the previously discarded pink oven mitt. Starting in a panic, Bill whips the similarly garish phone behind his back, praying she didn’t see a sausage.

‘Er… you might want to talk with Tracy… bit of bad news…’

Lily follows the direction of the head cock.

The mobile’s returned to the pocket.

Phew.

Maybe switch it back on when the coasts clear, thinks Bill, _might need to text the tomato woman with a suitable excuse… _

[_“Sorry for the short notice but I’ve had a change of heart. Godspeed!” _]

That’s not to say Bill doesn’t feel bad for actively scuppering a great opportunity. There’s definite guilt hiding somewhere amongst the buoyancy – but like a doughnut surrounding a crumb, the good stuff’s easily transported elsewhere; a solution he now puts into motion, ambling over to the office, wanting somewhere to keep the mobile in safe hibernation until needed, not feeling comfortable keeping it upon his person (it might fall out, he might forget about it then pull it out when he shouldn’t, someone might question “the bulge”). No, best hide it for now… the drawer behind the door… stick it in there… yes…

Concurrently, a young, fashionable thirty something approaches reception, having just tootled through from the lobby.[_ _]Bill offers a broad smile to the lady. She seems nice. However, nearing the edge of the sofa, still some distance away from the visitor, there’s hesitancy to divert from the office. He’s torn. He feels the phone in his palm and wants to rid himself of the risk, gaze drifting to the chosen destination.

‘Hello,’ says the visitor, sensing she best make the first move.

‘Just a second,’ replies Bill, polite in kind, also a touch bashful as he goes for a lean into the office.

Raising one leg off the floor, and with one hand on the doorframe, he stretches around to the drawer just around the corner.

‘I’m Bill by the way. You…?’

‘Oh… I’m Tamayo. Tracy’s friend.’[* *]

 

Eight

 

 

Tamayo’s taken to watching the half obscured figure hold steady on the superhero stance, powers of movement currently playing second fiddle to a collapsed lung.

God!

Oh my God!

Bearings are quickly gathered (on the outside at least) and Bill, left leg shakily brought down, whips across to meet, smile plastered. “How pleasant of you to pop in! Please leave!”

He would’ve text later at some point… but here she is now… holy cow, here she is now!

Bill looks to the kitchen. She needs to be fed something – and quick.

How to put it… break it gently… gently but quickly…

Just then, Deirdre trots through from the lobby.

‘Is Tracy staying then?’

‘What’s that?’ asks Tamayo, confused.

‘Not going to California,’ clarifies Deirdre, turning to Bill. ‘Did you manage to…?’

‘Yes!’ blurts Bill, shushing the ninny before she blows the lid.

He hurriedly lifts up a stapler close by.

‘A bitch to fix but I managed to!’

Bill now looks for some paper to staple. Turned away, free from prying eyes, he lets the pretence of casual chirpiness slip considerably, positive the escalating deceit can’t be juggled.

All the while, the aforementioned hunt for A4 fails to hold Tamayo’s long term interest. “Not going?” An explanation wouldn’t go amiss.

‘Is it true, what she just said…?’

‘Afraid so. Sorry.’

Stapling Stewart’s CV together, Bill adds a dose of indifference to the reply, hoping to establish an air of aloof authority, also a pinch of smug pleasure, what with the lady’s disruptive plans to take a treasured member of staff having gone up the proverbial. If it bolsters believability…

‘No. She was all for it last night. Couldn’t wait!’

Tamayo runs it through the loaf again.

‘No. No, I want to hear it from the horse’s mouth…’

‘Charming,’ clucks Bill, looking to Deirdre. ‘Calls her a horse! No wonder she wants to stay!’

Although spoken light heartedly, largely to offset suspicion for appearing too guiltily stiff, Bill instantly regrets saying it. The woman doesn’t scream joviality at present. She looks about as cheery as a polar bear in Port Sudan. Intense too.

‘Is she in…?’

Bill slowly shakes the head, commiseratingly. Behind, Deirdre joins in – except she’s nodding unreservedly. Aghast, Bill readjusts the shake to aim squarely at Deirdre, the shake of reserved regret segueing into one of manic exaggeration. Stop sodding nodding!

Mercifully, the performance desists before Tamayo completes rotation.

‘I’ll call her then.’

‘Lost it. Her phone.’

At least Deirdre can’t shake for that, although Bill checks to make sure. He also can’t help the peepers glancing to the office where said device currently resides.

_Stay cool… _

‘I mean you can try if you want but…’

She does.

Straight to voicemail.

And so, with nobody to see and nobody to call, Tamayo exhales a sizeable huff, one of continued disbelief.

‘We’re setting off for the airport tonight! Supposed to be. Came to give her the ticket!’

‘Never mind.’

‘And I paid for it too. I mean if she’s just decided not to go…

Not exactly, thinks Bill, failing to disclose the thought, too caught up on the potential snag. He didn’t consider the tickets.

‘Well… what about your sister, maybe she’d like to go…?’

They let you switch the names on tickets, don’t they?

The suggestion is met with stony befuddlement. [_Sumi? The lawyer? She won’t uproot! _]

‘Or I’ve got a brother…,’ mutters Bill, hiding relish for the notion.

‘Did she mention reimbursing?’

Bill bites the lip, unsure of the right response. If the answers no, she seems the sort to pursue. Tamayo won’t stand for being screwed. She won’t take it lying down either. For the plan to work, ties need to be severed. Both sides are allowed to be rankled but they also need to be accepting of the situation and move on; preferably, in Tamayo’s case, across the pond never to grace the skies again.

But what if the answers yes? What if the money has been set aside? If it sends her on her way without a prolonged fuss…

‘How much are we talking?’ asks Bill, slinking across to the till, quietly opening with one eye on the kitchen doors.

‘Four hundred and ninety.’

‘No she didn’t mention anything,’ replies Bill, closing the till.

There’s protecting a lie and there’s blowing your pension. And he’d be the one paying; Tracy unlikely to fund Sumi’s make-believe moment in the sun.

Now what?

Bill turns away, despaired. Eyes happen to fall on the kitchen again. This doesn’t do much to curb negative emotion; in fact, it serves only to rekindle dreaded fear, now reminded there’s only a swinging door separating deception from truth.[_ If Tracy expands the phone search…_]

’And I’m not made of money,’ exclaims Tamayo. ‘What does she expect me to do…?’

Bill nods along, distracted, two blocks of aligned wood holding bulk interest. Though reliance on his mother and brother churns the stomach like mushy peas in a rice pudding, if the two can keep Tracy in there with their combined inane prattling that would be grand.

He turns back to a dour, obstinate figure, one who looks set to dig the heels in. There must be another way, a way to soften the blow. Maybe if Tracy has a good reason for staying, a sympathetic one?

‘It’s not her fault.’

‘Then who’s?’

He thinks. An idea materialises.

Poised to impart, he checks Mother hasn’t magically rocked up beside, also the sole café occupant Mr Brooking remains distracted, earphones back in the lugs. Affirmative and affirmative. Leaning on the side of precaution though, Bill does exactly that over the desk, getting up close, serious face slapped on for weighted effect.

‘Tracy. Her son’s been in an accident this morning.’

‘No! Rupert!?

Bill tries lowering the friend’s volume after the fact, worried Tracy has voice recognition software and it’s in full working order.

‘Nothing serious. Just a broken leg, cracked vertebrae, memory loss…’

‘The poor guy. What happened?’

‘Slipped… on a spoon. Cracked his head open. Yes, it’s made Tracy realise the importance of family… and picking up dropped cutlery…’

‘When did she tell you that?’ asks Tamayo, her tone inching ever so slightly towards suspicion.

‘She called… from the hospital.’

‘I thought she lost her phone?’

‘Must’ve borrowed one I expect… probably a payphone, anyway, Tracy said to say sorry… as in me from her to you, also “all the best with the new job!”’

Bill gives a thumbs up. It receives a muted response. What was it, a video call?

‘She would’ve phoned you directly but… don’t suppose she knows it by heart.’

‘I should visit. I’ve got an hour spare.’

‘You can’t! It’s… he’s far away… he was on some trip when it happened. Had to stay there.’

‘Where?’

‘Hampshire. Tracy drove down…’

‘But she can’t drive.’

[Christ, _]thinks Bill[, what’s the new job in California, chief of police!?_]

‘Took a taxi. Probably spent that money she was planning to give you!’

Bill holds off on a chuckle, realising it’s not the time to make light.

Story time is thus concluded. He now tries for a “what can you do” shrug, segueing into a slow, polite sway of the hand to the lobby, hoping Tamayo might see fit to just totter away and accept the complete fabrication as gospel.

Still though, there’s hesitancy to accept. Not the story as such but the impending hole in her purse. Staring at her non-refundable ticket, a window seat no less, she’s caught between compassion versus cold hard cash. It’s a big expense to write off. Not the sort of thing one wants when starting a new career… and on a new continent to boot!

Discerning, Bill thinks it might be necessary to add weight to the sympathy scales. The son’s injuries could be a little more life threatening. Coma maybe? Amputation?

But then, out of the blue and the kitchen also, Lily’s coming across. Yet again, she’s gliding about the place without so much as a peep, lighter than one of Ingrid Palmer’s legendary puffs. It’s only the drifting eyes of Tamayo that cause Bill to look over the shoulder and discover.

He double takes the sight.

[_How the…? _]

Unfortunately,[_ _]the baffled reaction inadvertently stops her resuming the glide into the office!

‘A real shame, isn’t it?’ says Lily, head tilting kitchen-ward.

‘Terrible, yes…,’ replies Bill, voice a tremble, the reply more for the current deadly situation.

He wills her to continue (walking not talking), her hand on the office door knob.

No such luck.

Lily’s gone and spotted the sullen faced visitor, the latter’s hand playing host to her chin, elbow propped on reception. To Bill’s horror, Mother relinquishes the knob to come over, always a sucker for a stranger’s ailments.

But she can’t hear this sorry tale.

Lily’s been spun the same story sold to Tracy, the one starring Underhand Tamayo and her bitch of a sister. Not broken leg Rupert and his bitch of a bruise. The two stories can’t mix. And the same applies vice versa. If Tamayo hears she’s kitchen enemy number one, the games tits up.

‘Everything OK?’

Tamayo puts on a brave face.

‘It’s funny,’ says Lily, ‘I’ve just seen a face just like yours!’

Go away!

Lily regains focus on her eldest.

‘Still can’t believe it, can you? The thing’s people do.’

‘Yes, it’s almost too much to talk about!’ exclaims Bill, Tamayo’s intrigue inciting the sort of dread you’d find in a hermit after a house fire.

He now moves to try escort the muckraker from the scene. Oblivious, she turns to face him.

‘How long was she here for then, this Tam…?’

‘Tambourine!’ exclaims Bill, diverting for the handy rattle drum in the nearby instrument box.

He cheerfully shakes it then slaps it with a stick substitute. Unfortunately, the stapler pierces through the skin. Oops. Least it still shakes…

Overcoming the baffled frown, Lily sways back to Tamayo.

‘The friend I mentioned…’

‘Call Patsy!’ interrupts Bill again, picking up the nearby phone. ‘She loves a tale.’

He then has second thoughts on the receiver selected, realising Mother on the nearby handset sort of defeats the objective to have her sod off. Bill now drops the receiver to usher swift transportation to the office equivalent, Mother obliging (not that she’s given a say).

A close of the door later and Bill’s back with Tamayo. She’s back ogling the half a grand headache. It takes a visible effort to climb down, but she doesn’t appear to have much choice. A resigned huff follows. Tamayo then begins stretching and rubbing the strained skin around the eyes.

‘Where’s your toilet? My face needs water.’

Hoping she means the sink, directions are given via use of the staff stairs, Bill fearing the main ones take her too close to The Truth.

His polite smile cracks the second she trundles off however. He isn’t exactly thrilled with her continued presence in the place. It’s unnerving. [_Stay calm… won’t be long, then she’ll be gone… _]

Waiting on her return, teeth gnawing away at the nail of his thumb, the kitchen doors are given another furtive gander. Bill prays the lady opts for a swift rinse of the mug and an even swifter exit thereafter. Splash then dash…

Just then, a lanky, ginger haired teen comes through from the lobby. Bill catches sight. He hasn’t met him or his freckles before, he’s quite sure. That being said, the face does look familiar. That also being said, Bill has bigger things to fret about. He affords the guy a vacant welcome, focus soon drifting.

‘Hi… is Tracy in? I’m her son.’

The desk’s gripped for moral support. Bill views the kid as if he’s descended from another planet.

[_Mother of God! _]

[_Of course he looks familiar – he’s the spit of his sodding mother! _]The only difference being shorter locks and lower mileage. Throw in a wig and a restless night and the sods could alternate a passport. And also, what else can Babushka blow through!? Her second cousin… her estranged pen pal from Port Sudan? (Not the polar bear). Bill should’ve bolted the door when he had the chance.

What to do?

‘She’s out,’ blurts Bill. ‘Gone into town.’

The guilty gaze travels to the staff stairs; now praying Tamayo likes a thorough splashing of the phiz. Christ, she thinks Rupert’s laid up in traction! Hanging above a Hampshire hospital bed!

Bill feels the sweat seeping onto the brow. Tamayo can’t be allowed to see Rupert or his lack of spoon slippage.[_ _]The son can’t meet the friend and the friend will be down any minute, scratch that, any second!

Don’t panic.

‘I thought she’d be here. Thought we could have lunch.’

Bill nods along, distracted. Don’t come down, don’t come down!

‘A goodbye sort of thing,’ continues Rupert. ‘To bury the hatchet, before she went. I sent her a flower and card, hasn’t she seen…?’

The former, placed nearby on the desk, receives a nib of the finger.

Only half hearing, glancing back, Bill sees the flower referred to and begins to grasp the gist. He now extends his own point to the peace lily, albeit one of limp stupefaction, mouth slack jawed.

He can’t mean… all this time it wasn’t even…

‘”To my darling Mother,”’ recalls Bill, staring dumbfounded at the flower.

As the hypnosis continues, his own Darling Ma re-joins from the office, quickly discerning one-half of the duo has altered in the interim.

‘Rupert!’

‘Ah,’ mutters Bill, fully enlightened.

Not R for Robert after all…

Watching the wrong mother nestle up to the pot, Bill seems to have gone rather timid. He feels too foolish to pass on the newly discovered fact, even if it strips a smarmy sibling of an unworthy honour (of which he has a shitload).

Besides, on this occasion, time with her namesake is short-lived.

‘I’ll tell her you’re here,’ says Lily to Rupert, scurrying off, ‘…or do you want to…?’

Turning to find out whether she has a follower, Lily slows up, confused with Rupert’s puzzled expression, one that’s swinging its way toward Bill.

‘Oh, she’s back, is she?’ replies Bill, feigning good natured, unflinching surprise. ‘Splendid.’

Now Lily’s doubly muddled.

‘But you saw her befo…?’

‘Splendid!’ repeats Bill with increased volume, already bustling out from behind reception.

He now kindly jump-starts the son’s journey to the kitchen. The preferred route would be the opposing way toward the car park but this will have to suffice.[_ _]As long as he’s out of the way for a few minutes… as long as they have a nice prolonged catch up in there, enough time to deal with Tamayo out here at any rate…

Just then, passing the staff stairs, feet are heard descending – and they’re making fair use of the steps.

Frig!

Eyes bulging, Bill quickens the pace, arm around Rupert, walk now a speed walk.

[_ ‘]There[ _]isn’t any rush,’ says Lily, perceiving the brisk pace being set behind, having to hurry her own legs to avoid being flattened. ‘It’s not like she’s going anywhere anytime soon…!’

 

Lily’s proven herself wrong.[_ _]The trio are in. The kitchen, however, hasn’t a person to view. Emptier than a socialites bookshelf.

Hmm. Must be somewhere around here, presumes Lily, opting to climb the stairs for a check of the meeting room – she decides against it though, feeling it rather redundant after spotting Tracy making her way through from the cellar.

Naturally, the chef is quick to note the presence of her estranged son.

‘Rupert! I wasn’t expecting you!’

Neither was I! thinks Bill, stricken.

The two exchange a warm, reconciliatory hug. Lily looks on, delighted. She then looks to Bill. He’s grown distracted. He can’t help wondering whether they made it into the kitchen undetected and, more to the point, unfollowed.

 

Bill slips back out into the café, turning to face both the room and Tamayo, ready to hold her off if required.

Except it isn’t Tamayo.

The feet, it’s now clear, actually belong to a yoga lady, come to grab a spare hula.

Far from being relieved, Bill comes over rather grumped for the unnecessary stress induced.

‘That’s staff only you know!’

Ready to depart, one foot on the step, hula tilted for easy passage, the lady fixes toward the shout. She then glares, having recognised the man who shat on her Zen twelve minutes previous.

She departs the way she came. Bill does the same, roundly vexed. Some people.

 

‘No!’ exclaims Rupert. ‘What a cow!’

Bill looks back to the café, sharing the sentiment but for another individual entirely.

In context, Tracy seems to have explained the situation regarding her cancelled escapades. The son’s still trying to take it in. What a crummy thing to do. I’d scratch her eyes out!

‘Well, why don’t we go talk about it, or just try forget about it, whatever you prefer. It’s your lunch hour, isn’t it?’

Tracy nods, liking the idea. She fancies a cream bun and a good old bitch.

‘Yeah. We can sit down in there…’

Café indicated, they begin an immediate move towards.

‘No!’ cries Bill at once, abhorring the idea. ‘Er… what about somewhere in town… a nice café… well the food’s not up to much here, is it?’

Realising insulting the person you’re trying to persuade might be counterproductive; Bill zips the yap. He’s left to wrestle with the fear that he’s just kyboshed the thing and they’re about to plonk themselves squarely in the danger zone.

All the while, striving to ignore the comment, Tracy peers out of the side door window for a weather update. She then glances back to the son.

‘You come in the car? I’ve gone off flying…’

Her comment’s punctuated by another gust. Rupert’s already given the nod, smirking at his mother’s wit. He’s missed her these past few weeks.

‘Come to think, there is a place just opened,’ says Tracy. ‘Didn’t think I’d get to try it before I went. Would it be OK?’

The questions put to Lily, a finger put to her imaginary wristwatch.

‘Of course, take your time! Well, I’m catching up with mine, aren’t I; wherever he’s got to… you should with yours!’

‘Splendid,’ says Bill, adoring the idea. ‘Well, it’s quicker around the back, so…’

He gestures a return to the less risky side door. But, problem shown the door, one-half isn’t responding. Rupert seems to have come over in a state of euphoric wonder, staring at Lily having arrived at a “dare I believe it?” presumption.

‘You don’t mean… he’s not here is he, here now!? Robert!?

He takes the smile as confirmation.

‘Oh God, I love him… I love his books! I’ve got to meet him before we go. Where is he?’

No!

I should’ve known, the man has a pulse, of course he likes Robert!

Rupert looks to all concerned, seeing which of the trio can enlighten the quickest. Well… nobody…?

‘Not sure,’ says Tracy. ‘Didn’t he go upstairs before…?’

Alarm bells ring for Bill. He did. But Rupert can’t. Tamayo’s up there, face likely freshened, shoes likely stepping.

‘Well, you stay here and I’ll…’

The turn to address Rupert doesn’t bear fruit. Just a swinging door. The gits gone back into the café. He’s gone to mount the stairs. He’s going to bump into Tamayo, which, consequently, will be the only actual bump he’s received today.

[_This isn’t happening! _]

‘She’s up there!’

‘Who?’ asks Tracy.

‘Nobody!’ says Bill, realising he spoke aloud. ‘You stay here and I’ll…’

He trails off, realising he’s standing still. Now having to make up the time lost, he hurries out in hot, sweaty palmed pursuit, seeking to retrieve the wanderer before it’s too late.

 

Just my luck, thinks Bill, bounding through. He would’ve given his right arm for Robert to reside upstairs ten minutes ago, but now?

Sure enough, Rupert’s already clamouring up the main stairs like he’s trying to beat the wrong side of the escalator.

‘Maybe if you stayed in the kitchen, once we find him we’ll…’

Steps are still being taken – and they haven’t changed direction.

Think!

‘Stop…! I… I’m sure I saw him go through there.’

Rupert pauses, turning to view. [Anywhere but up there, _]thinks Bill,[ ]choosing where the finger lands.[ If it stops him going up… _]

And it does. Rupert swaps the stairs for the lounge library.

Leaving the path clear, Bill arrives at the indent soon after to find not a ginger with a limp wrist but a door frame laden with jangling beads. He’s gone through into the main library at the back of the centre. Poised to follow, seeking to reaffirm his advice to stay in the kitchen like an unsuspecting fugitive, Bill gets Deirdre blocking the path. He looks ready to request an immediate shooing for her, but then another thought prevails.

‘Go upstairs… keep an eye on that woman…’

He indicates reception, unsure whether Deirdre recalls the woman in question, her skill for retaining information usually on a par with a pork chop. She remembers the start of Bill’s request at least, hastening to climb the stairs.

The jingle of lounge library beads wrenches Bill from his distraction, turning him back to peek. However, Bill’s choice to go counter clockwise allows Rupert to walk behind him unnoticed – though not for long.

Bill goes full circle.

Pissing hell!

He’s heading back to the main stairs. He’s following Deirdre upstairs. Following her to Tamayo!

‘Wait, where are you going!?’ exclaims Bill, scurrying over.

‘Trying to find Robert.’

‘No…! Er… Deirdre’s doing that.’

About to disappear up, Deirdre turns with a puzzled frown. Robert’s not a woman. She now gets silently shooed.

‘All taken care of. So how’s about…?’

A thumb and a tilt of the head suggest a return to the kitchen. Unfortunately, Lily popping out from the kitchen at that very moment appears to advertise her rather than the room.

Sure enough, crossing over to reception, Lily’s acquired a follower.

Bloody hell!

Bang goes any sense of relief. The perfectly fine offspring still being exposed, not to mention Tracy likely popping out to chat with said offspring any second keeps the stomach fairly well knotted. He needs the café clear for the next few minutes at least.

[_Stay focused… it’s still do-able…! _]

Bill’s arrival by reception coincides with Lily’s, her returning from a quick office peek. She’s drawn a blank. No Robbie.

‘He’ll be around somewhere. Actually, come to think, he [_did _]mention about the yoga upstairs…’

Mother!

Prioritising the shooting of evils over the desk, again Bill fails to get the jump on Rupert, already running towards the staff stairs faster than the speed of light.

Argh!

Zipping off, Bill manages another rueful glare at Mother.

 

Nine

 

In the function room, the yoga group are holding themselves well, one leg cocked per body, one hand clutching respective outstretched foot. Just then, a son and son combo enter to unintentionally scupper solitude, proceeding to weave themselves in and around the group in search of a tousled haired beauty.

A good few partakers open eyes to discern the draft. What’s this, a spot check?

‘He’s not here! I did say…!’

Bill looks to the toilet corridor. He can’t hear running water…

It’s soon established. Robert isn’t present. Not soon enough for the group, but still. They‘re left to re-establish their inner selves again. Most of them anyway, for Bill’s just accidentally walked into one of the half dozen stuck out legs during his egress, causing Connie, its unfortunate owner, to spin on her solitary grounded foot and knock the other into a fellow participant’s stomach.

It’s a hit and run for Bill. Or at least it would be. All set to gratefully follow Rupert back down the stairs, Son of Tracy has decided to spurn them, instead heading straight for a check in the storage room.

Bill slows. The altered direction barely processed, his attention darts left. Deirdre’s coming through from the toilets, panicked, pointing behind.

Tamayo’s finished with the face.

Shit!

She soon brings it into view. Bill’s already there waiting, sweating, ready to pounce.

‘Shall we…?’

He motions towards the main stairs. However, in an apparent effort to further Bill’s perspirement, Tamayo’s taken an interest in a certain Hindu discipline, drifting closer.

‘I wonder whether I should try. Might relieve the stress. Aside from the Tracy business, I’m feeling quite jittery about flying.’

‘Best not. You might disrupt.’

Ignoring a “huh” in front, Bill makes to swivel Tamayo counter-clockwise like he did Connie. He then catches a glimpse over the shoulder. The door’s opening. Rupert’s coming out from storage.

Shit Shit!

‘On the other hand…!’

Tamayo’s swivelled back to the yoga group, courtesy not longer required, Bill slotting her and himself into the vacant gap on the back row (Connie and Glenda having required a time out).

There’s now an urgent need to blend into the crowd. A friendly smile of encouragement from the instructor up ahead coupled with Bill having to practice what’s he preaching gets him and Tamayo to assume the current pose in the program.

Rupert’s back in the room. He looks over to the group in front, all facing the other way, all practising the Warrior pose (one leg bent, both arms a shelf).

Stood still and silent beside Tamayo, positive the back of her head is about to be recognised, Bill looks anything but stress-free, the stance not helping matters, bringing to mind an out of shape shop mannequin with a grudge.

At least Rupert isn’t talking…

So what is he doing?[_ Maybe he’s gone downstairs?_]

Bill chances a peek behind and sees a flash of auburn enter the games room.

Is there enough time to get her out? wonders Bill.

However, before he’s done considering the possibility of chauffeured escape, Rupert’s returned. Bill quickly twists the head back. He soon discovers a change in group posture, the instructor having led the charge from Warrior to Lord of the Dance.

Bill attempts the segue. As he does, Connie and Glenda want to re-join, and in their former places thank you very much. Unfortunately for them, Bill stays steadfast, praying Tamayo holds her nerve and left leg to do same – a task made difficult when you’re on the receiving end of an irked prod.

An update behind finds the lusting homosexual continuing right, slipping into the bar.

Christ, where else does he want to check, under the yoga mats?

Seconds later, he returns with a huff but no hottie. Bill wastes no time motioning Deirdre to take him downward, a task made difficult without the use of his arms, one raised and one trying to hold his arched back leg. Somehow she discerns the instruction and carries it out (the instruction, not Rupert).

Bill hangs on until the coast is clear. He then expertly backs away from Tamayo and the group, as much as one can while hopping on one foot…

 

Both feet back on the ground, Bill’s back downstairs. Catching up with Deirdre, he pulls her aside, motioning her to resume surveillance up yonder.

‘Same as before, yes?’

She scuttles off.

Now looking to Rupert, the threat of a lie unravelling still hangs in the air like Rupert if he were actually in traction. Yes, there’s always the chance of Tammy loving the pose striking, potentially spending the rest of the session up there, but Bill isn’t willing to take the chance (not that her continued presence in the place will settle the nerves either). He’s operating on the assumption she’ll be down any second. So Rupert, now back by the desk and going in for a lean isn’t cause for champagne.

‘Nothing,’ says Rupert to Lily.

He seems satisfied to wait until there is.

‘What’s he wearing today?’

‘Er… a blue shirt, royal blue.’

‘Like his eyes…’

Rupert’s own soften at the recollection. Approaching, Bill’s do the opposite.

‘I thought you’d come to see your mother?’

Yeah… we’re going for the meal… but Robert…!’

The weight given to the name, and its apparent significance, finds Bill at a feigned, secretly smiting loss.

‘…Have you read his Be Yourself book?’ asks Rupert.

‘From cover to cover,’ replies Bill, the innards gladly eluding him.

‘It helped me come out. His face alone made me realise I couldn’t live a lie!’

With all due respect to the man’s sexuality, Bill doesn’t give a tinkers toss. Any other time he’d likely resent yet another fawn over the man’s fanciable features; currently though, energy needs devoting to an incentive or scheme to move the horny idiot away (one that doesn’t involve a thump and drag).

Struggling, Bill stays on the outskirts, one eye on the staff stairs. There’s a renewed sense of nervous tension. He feels like he’s on protective detail for a high ranking official, and on high alert too, word having come through about a security threat with a refreshed face and contradictions aplenty.

‘You met this Tamayo lady then?’ asks Lily to Rupert.

‘Once or twice. Don’t think I’ll be seeing her again in a hurry!’

Bill isn’t so sure. In fact, he’s positive. Deirdre’s halfway down the main stairs jabbing frantically at the staff equivalent.

He meets her by the sofa back.

‘Stall her!’

Deirdre dashes off to do so – though her choice to run over and use the main stairs has its logistical drawbacks.

Despaired, panicked and pressured, Bill quickly surmises it’s solely up to him. He has to think of a solution.

The time restraints serve well. Inspiration sparks.

‘He’ll be outside… Robert!

Bill rushes toward the startled ginger.

‘Looking for her phone! Your mother, she lost it.’

Lily confirms.

Relieved with the plausibility of what spurted out, Bill slaps the forehead for his silly oversight (dabbing off the excess sweat in the process).

‘Yes, he’s very kind like that,’ adds Lily.

Bill strains agreement, not least for the fact she’s stalling the plan.

’And in this wind too. I hope he’s wrapped up…’

Shush Mother!

He turns to Rupert.

‘Around the back probably, retracing her steps… trace, get it? Ha! Go!’

He now seeks to bustle Rupert towards the lobby. But he meets resistance, the son trying to turn toward the kitchen.

‘Isn’t that way quicker…?’

‘Not if you keep pushing.’

For a skinny, effeminate teen, he can really hunker down the heels. But Bill can’t relent. It’s too late to cross over to the kitchen. They won’t make it in time. Feet can be seen on the staff stairs.

‘Mother, could you…!?’

Voice faltering, Bill indicates the descending, soon to be discerned Tamayo. Plan sorted, he presses on with the hasty herd – a task simplified thanks to the pause addressing Mother, the false sense of stability created by it means the subsequent shove catches Rupert completely off guard.

The two finally make progress. Two steps from the lobby however and second thoughts hit like a bolt, bringing Bill to a juddered, heart stopping stop.

Mother with Tamayo… Mother can’t talk with Tamayo! Tamayo might mention the wounded son! Mother might mention he’s here. Tamayo might mention she’s Tamayo!

Bill promptly reverses back, twists Mother around and bustles her forward.

‘This way.’

Startled and a touch disoriented, Lily’s reassigned escorting duties outside. Ensuring she fulfils the task and fast, Bill extends her left arm as if she’s a police warden signalling traffic. The cranked limb promptly meets the back of Rupert and the newly formed duo are left to continue on their merry, rapid way.

Bill now opts for a reverse and spin manoeuvre, finding Tamayo on her approach. Worried though that the partnership over the shoulder hasn’t yet vacated from sight, he makes sure to avert attention by pointing at her Capri trousers with an alarmed gasp for no apparent reason. That done, explanation forgoed, he chances a check behind.

The coast is clear.[_ _]

‘Um… well I’ll be going,’ says Tamayo, not in the right headspace for unexplained trouser gasping. ‘The yoga didn’t really…’

‘So how was the yoga? Good?’

She makes to sidestep.

‘I think I’ll just…’

‘Wait! Not yet!’

Fearing a car park reunion, Bill looks around for a reason. He finds it and promptly swells with confidence.

‘I know what you need.’

Tamayo is politely motioned toward the café, invited across to the drinks cabinet. Rooted out is a rather decent bottle of scotch (another gift from the well to do writer if ones forced to recall).

Unscrewing the cap, Bill dares to see a flicker of hope within. [_One drink then she can go… should be safe then. _]A quick sample of said drink emboldens the hope, not that he actually pours any… _ _

‘Ahh.’

Just then, the swish of a door sounds behind.

‘Argh!’

The kitchen!

Bill goes rigid – and not due to the stiff restorative. He manages a twist of the feet, the body following suit, neck of the whisky bottle clenched in his palm. Please no… not Tracy!

It’s not Tracy. It’s Robert peeking into the kitchen, fresh from the main stairs.

Close the damn door!

‘So,’ chirps Robert, bounding over, revoltingly chipper, unaware of the circs.

He then eyes the newbie.

‘Hi. I’m Robert. Nice to meet you.’

Tamayo smiles in kind, smitten. He’s gorgeous. But is he spontaneous? She’s got a spare plane ticket, a spare room… hell, if she got her way, she’d still have a spare room…

Bill’s heart rate travels perpendicular to Tamayo’s. He’s confident Brother remains out of the loop, wherever he got to. Another half minute then she can leave… everything’s fine…

‘So where’s Tracy… is she not…?’

Robert gestures to the kitchen.

‘She’s not in there!?’ exclaims Bill, alarmed, gravitating towards the room, scanning all available entrances as though he’s about to be sniped.

He suddenly discerns the lack of Tracy shouldn’t be a surprise, given she’s supposed to be sat beside a hospital bed somewhere south of Salisbury.

‘She’s not in there,’ repeats Bill, this time defiant on the matter, nearly stomping his foot to prove it.

He checks on Tamayo. She’s a little puzzled but doesn’t seem suspicious. Phew!

He strives to keep a calm façade for those present. Nonetheless, the brain still whirs, as do the darting eyes. Where could she be…? _]He doesn’t like the idea of her walking around. At least before he knew where to avoid, where to keep watch. [_Don’t panic… probably just nipped to the toilet… or maybe the pantry… everything’s fine…

‘Terrible what happened,’ says Robert, cocking a head to the kitchen. ‘Dreadful.’

The heart rate suddenly trebles.

He knows the story. He might tell Tamayo about Tamayo!

‘Who told you!?’

Bill looks to a returning Deirdre, suspicious.

‘Oh, well I got talking with a Tim Grady upstairs.’

[_That bloody blabbermouth! _]

‘Nice chap. Had me autograph a twenty-pound note…’

Bill’s able to grit teeth for the above, for Robert’s no longer looking. He’s caught Tamayo staring at him, although it could better be described as drooling.

‘Sorry, I didn’t catch your name…?’

Argh!

‘I didn’t give you that tour, did I…?’ blurts Bill to Robert. ‘Deirdre, give him the tour. Start upstairs. The meeting room…’

‘Kind of looked myself before!’ replies Robert, a touch tickled. ‘Once passing through then again with Tim…’

‘Third time lucky!’ exclaims Bill, herding tourist toward tour guide. ‘You probably missed the new kettle.’

With the tantalising prospect dangled, Deirdre, having just returned down the staff stairs from her unsuccessful stall, now offers her ushering service up the main set.

It’s politefully declined.

Not that Bill notices. Stood by the drinks cabinet with two empty scotch glasses, he’s since become preoccupied. Mother’s back through from the lobby, making her way over. What does she want?

‘I wouldn’t mind…,’ says Tamayo leeringly to Robert, hoping fitty sees fit to transfer to tour guide. If he’s seen it twice…

About to reply, Robert too spots Mother Turrock, who, in turn, spots him.

‘Ah, there you are, Robert. I’ve got somebody who’s desperate to meet you!’

Bill nearly drops the crystal.

[_Shit! She’s bringing the son back through! _]

She’s already hurrying back towards the front entrance. And going by Rupert’s affection for Robert, his return is likely to be a sprint…

‘Glasses… filthy!’ declares Bill, snatching up the whisky then whisking Tamayo away arm in arm before she can voice otherwise.

Vision remains locked on the lobby as the body travels the opposite way; but Bill soon has to ensure both him and Tamayo stay on course for the kitchen, the room he’s blindly trusting is a chef free zone like his brother just implied. It’s a risk he’ll have to take.

Then, about to burst through the door, Bill chances a look left, hoping the drinking partner hasn’t grown dubious of motives. The first thing he notices is that she isn’t Tamayo. He’s gone and grabbed Deirdre in the mad rush!

‘You’re not Japanese!’

The two swapped places while Bill’s was busy looking over at Mother, ditzy tour guide replaced by emigrating tourist; and looking over, that’s where Tamayo is now; taking flight with her new fancy. A fancy who knows the wrong story. He could blab the story!

Tracy could be en route from the bogs!

Bill runs up the stairs with Deirdre and swaps her out like Casanova on commission.

A step and a half in front, Robert doesn’t even notice the switcheroo. Not straight away anyway. Though once he does it doesn’t take long to hit upon the irrefutable fact he’s playing tour guide to somebody who knows the place better than he does.

 

Whizzing through the double doors, the newly reunited duo come to a sharp stop in front of the kitchen island. Relief isn’t quite there for Bill, an emotion waiting on the current company vacating for good.

Sticking to the flimsy excuse given, he now nips around Tamayo to rinse the perfectly fine glasses. That done, the malts poured for bringing back over, Bill barely slowing for the exchange. He continues the brisk walk around the island, one eye already on the newly anointed exit. [_If Mother’s bringing Rupert’s through the front… Tamayo can go out the back… _]

‘So you drink up, then I’ll take…’

Bill stalls, in voice and in motion. The firm focus has strayed. Mr Grady’s stood by the open fridge sniffing shrimp.

He doesn’t have time to question. Bill carries on to the side door then reaches for the handle. But someone’s beaten him to it on the other side. The shadow of a skinny figure can be seen through the frosted glass.

It’s the gay son. He’s coming through the back entrance!

‘Time to go!’ exclaims Bill, darting back over and swivelling Tamayo around. ‘Drink up!’

It’s now full steam ahead back into the café.

‘Planes can be early as well as late. What’s the opposite of delayed?’

‘…Not delayed?’

 

Tamayo finds the café at considerable speed. She tries to keep her glass of scotch from spilling about the place, the jut of the doors giving the liquid a BMX in a skatepark quality.

Keep going… once she’s gone…

‘He’s through [there?’ _]queries a camp, inflexed voice from the kitchen. [’Robert…!?_]’

Who’s that? wonders Tamayo, turning a head back.

Bill knows. He should’ve known. Mr Grady can’t go two seconds without bringing the topic up, to strangers, shrimp or otherwise.

The pace steps up a notch, now passing the sibling about to be ambushed. Bill can’t help feeling decidedly peeved as he does; the extra beads of sweat all thanks to Robert’s bestselling success. Why couldn’t he be a pseudonym? Someone who doesn’t exist at any rate…

He continues on, solace taken for Tamayo not recognising the raised tones behind.

The face, on the other hand, would be another matter entirely.

At least with Rupert behind, the front will be free from obstacle…

 

Concurrently, back from the windy car park, unable to find Robert’s biggest enthusiast, Lily warms up her exposed arms with a hug rub. A lack of body fat doesn’t lend itself to bad weather bravery. But then, turning to close the door before another smack and thud, she does actually find somebody.

Unzipping her coat and whipping off the gloves as she steps inside, Tracy spots Lily’s furrowed brow.

‘Thought it might be outside… the mobile…

‘No joy?’

Tracy shakes the bean.

 

Oblivious, Bill and the adjoining cargo continue across the room at speed, whizzing past Mr Brooking like a tossed hula hoop.

Just keep going… don’t stop… surely it’s plain sailing now?

‘Well, I’ve found my son but now I’ve lost yours!’ exclaims Lily in the lobby.

Terror strikes the face of her first born. Halfway across, he slants the head for a better view through the lobby doors. He can now see into the future.

Shit!

Tracy!

She’s heading straight for us! We’re heading straight for her!

Thankfully Tamayo’s out of view on the right. But in a few more steps…

Nonetheless, Bill keeps going. It’s too late to turn back.

What he can do, however, is divert.

The route to the lobby is abandoned in favour of a steer right to the office and its open door. Bill forces Tamayo to stick to the revised path. Though moving at a pace, they’re still a good few steps away from shrouded safety.

And the lobby doors are opening.

Bill needs a subtle shield for Tamayo’s face and fast. (A hula won’t help this time).

With nothing else to hand, Bill lifts up the bottle of scotch already in his hand and keeps it aloft. Even though the sight resembles Boris Yeltsin giving a toast, it does the business, helped both by the bottle being three-quarters full and Tamayo inheriting a tiny cranium. He smiles broadly at Tracy as they come to a near head, the need to establish a sense of breezy normality nearly knocking him straight into the doorframe. He pulls away just in time to dodge. The main thing though; the emigrator has gained safe passage, now in the office undetected, albeit jet-lagged before she’s even boarded a plane.

Bill soon follows, the blanch having spun him straight through the open office door. He has to hurriedly grab both sides of the doorframe to prevent a fast backward stagger.

Stable once more, arms stretched, he now has the opportunity to view the fluctuating café contingent. Rupert’s already back through from the kitchen, and sure enough, Robert’s ready for a gushing fan like an insomniac’s ready for shut-eye.

’The only room I didn’t check,’ exclaims Rupe to Rob, all a flutter, unable to suppress a giggly snort.

They’re soon joined by the two mothers. At least they’re all distracted…

 

Bill shuts the office door just reversed through. Then, faking a carefree manner with an unfortunate touch of the unhinged, the opposing door is eagerly indicated to Tamayo; the route to take her out to the lobby then the great outdoors, undetected. Freedom!

She’s too busy looking down at her cream blazer. She’s gone and spilt scotch down the front.

‘Well, how did you do that!?’

‘How do you think? …Back to the sink!’

‘No! No need! Just change when you get home.’

‘But I’ve packed everything now. It took me all morning to zip.’

Bill exhales.

‘Won’t it dab? There must be something in here we can use…’

He begins a harried search of the office desk and its drawers. Soon Tamayo’s doing the same on the other side of the room. But, to Bill’s horror, she’s nearing The Drawer, scratch that, she’s about to open The Drawer; the one with the pilfered mobile.

‘On the other hand! Wait here!’

‘But why can’t I just go…?’[_ _]

‘Go go?’

‘Go to the sink.’

‘Wait here!’

_Something, something to hold her… _

‘Tracy left a surprise for you! An apology present! Just wait while I…’

Bill trails off, already out of the room.

 

The office door’s sealed shut. Bill now turns to face the mother/son throng. Mercifully, their attentions remain amongst themselves, specifically Tracy who’s taking herself into the kitchen for some reason (washing the pots finally?). It allows Bill to launch into a manic search of reception at any rate, not for a fake gift from a former friend but for something to dab the former friend’s sogged jacket.

Nothing.

Absolutely bloody typical. Yet another obstacle. It could be karma for the mobile, or, very likely, yet another example of Bill’s exemplary ill-fate. For Bill, bad luck doesn’t just occasionally pop buy, it has its own parking space.

There’s only one thing for it. The kitchen.

There’s no time to waste. He dashes over.

Seeking to avoid the conglomerate grouped around Mr Brooking’s table, Bill stays on the outskirts, passing around the back. Then, passing the last café table, he registers Deirdre’s cleaning kit resting on the top. He doubles back for the grab, the assorted contents sure to have everything required. He now makes to double back the whole hog, office in his sights.

‘Did you catch her name?’ asks Mr Brooking to Robert. ‘The Japanese lady before…?’

‘I didn’t, no.’

Rupert’s interest has been aroused (and not by Robert).

‘Japanese?’

‘No!’ blurts Bill, seizing up.

Lily flinches herself, twisting a neck to her eldest, the raised voice having gone right up in her lug. Bill remains seized, straining the brain to do otherwise.

Everyone’s looking. The “No!” needs explaining away, as does the lady.

‘No… No-taku! Japanese lady, from the yoga group. Lovely lady…’

Please be an actual name!

‘Yoga?’

‘New starter. She was running late. Not the best start I grant you…’

Robert frowns, confused.

‘But you’ve just taken her to the office…’

Silently smiting the fact he noticed, Bill grabs the chance to glance behind. Please stay inside… please stay inside!

‘Right, yes. She… wasn’t a fan of the hula hooping. Couldn’t get into it.’

‘Couldn’t get into it? Christ, how big was she!?’ chirps Rupert.

His subsequent goofy grin towards Robert is left to hang. The object of affection remains fuddled.

‘”Notaku” …isn’t the name American… male American?’

Just then, Tracy swings open the kitchen door; a good thing for Bill as it strays focus from the widening holes in his unrehearsed hokum.

‘Ready to go, Rupe?’

Poised to resume his dash to the office, Bill pauses. He knows an alternative remedy when he overhears one.

‘Good idea! Off you go! Out the back!’

‘Ohh, but we’ve only just met. A couple more minutes. Pretty please…’

The horny teen indicates the man of his dreams, attaching on a pleading, puppy dog look to mother dearest. She rolls her eyes in light hearted response, as if to say “charming!” Then, looking at Robert and thinking she doesn’t blame him, she slips back into the kitchen.

Watching Robert move to a table with Rupert, Bill rolls the eyes also, but with a more exasperated flavour. Back to Plan A it is. Nerves then see fit to resurface, reminded of the precious time just wasted on Plan B, especially when there are likely mere seconds before someone else sees fit to resurface.

Bill twists to the office. The office door that’s opening.

Shit! Rupert’s still here!

Bill spins back, running over.

‘Robert, give Rupert the tour. Give you a chance to talk. How about starting in the kitchen…?’

‘No thanks,’ replies Rupert, fine where he is, pulling out the future husband’s seat to sit, resisting the urge to follow onto his lap once he does.

Time’s running out.

Desperate, Bill comes up to Rupert.

‘What’s that in your eye?’

Before Rupert has the chance to shrug, Bill promptly sprays water into both; the cleaning materials coming in handy.

‘What the…!’

Rupert begins wiping the excess liquid from his sockets, the act of which mercifully shields Tamayo from vision and, by the same token, his own dripping face from Tamayo’s.

With no time to apologise, popping down the vision impairment kit, Bill spins the pair around, now offering his personalised ushering service, one of no declining permitted, moving both startled individuals towards the first port of call. The writer and his adoring wet fan tackle a door each. Behind, Bill stops just short, immediately whipping around to work out whether he’s gotten away with it.

No!

A shoot across to Notaku is duly undertaken, kick-started by two slabs of solid pine whacking him in the rear – and it’s a hasten over made all the more urgent since Mother’s already making good time.

Not on my watch, says Bill to himself, zipping past her like an advert for Energizer Bunny, cleaning kit grabbed along the way. The regular battery powered rabbit doesn’t give up however; in fact, she continues on past the pair, Bill eventually realising she had the office phone in her sights all along.

‘Hello, [_The Sunny Centre. _]He is, yes, how did you know!?’

All the while, it’s a despondent Tamayo looking back; however, Bill’s more concerned for closing the office door then subtly edging her away towards reception. He has a fear of flying being overheard.

Arriving at the desk, Tamayo makes the little sheet of paper in her hand known, and, swapping it for a dry cloth, it’s passed over.

‘My number.’

Bill stares at it, stumped.

‘Oh… well, I’m… I mean I’m not really looking for a long distance relation…’

‘For Tracy,’ replies Tamayo, stony-faced, still stained with scotch.

‘Oh. Right! Yes. Well, of course. My little joke.’

‘In case her phone doesn’t turn up. Tell her to ring, whenever…’

‘Well, of course!’ lies Bill, eyes drifting to the nearest receptacle.

And so, with nothing else to add but a weak, jaded lift of the mouth, Tamayo and her scotch stain make to leave. She then pauses.

‘…You said Tracy had something for me?’

‘Oh. Ah, yes!’

He now waits for Tamayo to frig off with the tambourine. And she does.

Thank the heavens!

Silent celebrations begin. Bill then ambles back towards the kitchen, scrunching up the telephone number in his hand. Midway across, he hears what sounds like a yelp and a thud, appearing to emanate through the lobby, possibly outside. Any significance or need for further thought on the occurrence is soon dismissed by Bill, shrugging to the nearby Mr Brooking as he buoyantly resumes the saunter. Life is suddenly good.

 

In the kitchen, Tracy’s tidying up the Vegetable Torte prep, a mess she’s only just gotten around to sorting, given everything that followed.

The author of which now breezes through.

In his peppy state, seeing Tracy obviously ruminating on what might have been (California Dreamin’), Bill feels a tinge of pity, an emotion only usually felt by other people (often when thinking about him). Continuing to watch her though, there’s also the wonder on how long she’s going to be like this. Yes, Mr Positivity has been denied the ladle, but Bill doesn’t want to be lumbered with a joyless grump for weeks on end either.

‘At least there’s one positive to come out of today,’ says Bill. ‘You and your son making up.’

Ready to chide at the first half of the sentence, Tracy concedes for the second, even if she’s currently playing second fiddle.

‘Really lovely meeting you,’ gushes Rupert, coming into view on the stairs, calling up to the first fiddle with giddy fervour.

He’d gladly stay longer but he doesn’t want to push it with mother. Plus he’s starving hungry. A look to Tracy signals he’s ready to make tracks.

The sight tickles Bill. Smiling at the two about to leave even though he no longer needs them to, Bill chances a look behind through the double doors.

 

The cause of the unidentified yelp and thud now makes itself abundantly clear. It’s Tamayo, coming through holding up a bloodied nose with her index finger, eyes and forehead facing the ceiling. As if today can’t get any worse, thinks Tamayo. What next, a plane with one wing?

Bill looks on, horrified. Where the hell’s she headed? Why’s she walking over!?

Behind the injured party is Deirdre, unsure where to put her arms.

‘Over there… our kitchens got a sink…’

No!

[
__]

 

Ten

 

Bill swings around to face Tracy and Rupert, terror off the charts. They now really do need to leave. But here they stand, one texting everyone he knows, the other wiping the chopping board.

‘Come on, out! The meal! Don’t take advantage of my mother’s good nature.’

He taps his imaginary watch. Tracy’s coat’s then ragged off the hanger and thrown over.

Bafflement at the sudden rush keeps Tracy at a pedestrian pace however, feeding arms into her winter duffle. Bill’s since taken to holding the side door open, impatiently swirling the hand as though unravelling a hose on a fire truck. Speed it up… hurry!

‘Keep your hair on,’ says Rupert, before clocking Bill’s in the final stages of male pattern baldness.

He speeds up his exit thereafter.

Now it’s just Trace. Bill’s in such a rush he nearly closes the door before she has the chance to pass through.

Finally, they’re out.

Readying to subtly shield the side door and its window before the company bundles through, Bill’s the one who does the observing. He’s clocked Tracy’s hat on the coat rack. An awful uncertainty steels over. Debating whether to simply ignore, Bill has a terrible feeling she’s going to come back for it. He can’t take the risk. He grabs the bobble beanie and hurries out to catch.

And not a second too soon. Barely a second passes before Deirdre enters with the injured. She’s guided around to the sink and, once there, Deirdre scurries back across to the “bits and bobs” cupboard in search of something to stem the bloody flow.

‘So what happened?’

About to explain the reason for the red snot, Tamayo hangs fire. Raised voices sound outside, growing louder, nearing the side door. It promptly swings open.

‘…I didn’t know it was in the car. I might not get to see him again!’

Coming through, looking back as he does, Rupert holds his prized copy of Robert Turrock’s Be Yourself mid-air.

‘It’s one signature. Jeez!’

‘Rupert!?’ exclaims Tamayo, cranking the head down to confirm.[_ _]‘I thought you were in an accident?’

Rupert looks at Tamayo like she’s gone mad, not least because he was about to ask her the very same question. What’s with the conk?

Tamayo’s since taken to looking at Deirdre likes she’s gone mad. I’m not putting on a clothes peg! Thankfully she remembers the spare hankie in her pocket and it’s stuffed up the nostrils.

Now looking back to the figure by the door, Tamayo still can’t quite credit what she’s seeing. Has the tumble affected her eyesight?

‘But the man who works here… he said you’re the reason…’

She cuts herself off, drowned out by more from beyond the open door.

‘If he wants to go in, let him… and let go of me!’ shouts Tracy, a touch harried, something other than the wind seeking to control her trajectory.

Arm stretched, chasing her coattails, Bill desperately wants to try for a tug to keep her from the kitchen. But it’s too late. He’s already halfway in.

Shit.

Tracy soon double takes the figure behind the handkerchief.

‘Wha…?’

‘What’s happening?’

Already accustomed to unexpected arrivals, Tamayo feels able enough to take the conversational baton.

‘I thought he cracked his head open on a spoon. I thought that’s why you were staying!?’

‘I thought you were taking your sister instead of me!’

‘Who in the world told you tha…?’

It clicks for both parties, Rupert also. They turn to Bill in slow unison, who currently seeks to reverse out of the side door like he’s walked into the wrong building; and it might’ve worked if the wind hadn’t just blown the thing shut.

Well…!?’ says Tracy, expectant, pupils flaring.

‘Er… well… well it’s just a slight case of miscommunication… can happen to…’

Bill trails off, for Tracy’s lifted the pan of soup, ready to tip, whack, or, preferably both. Bill reverses into the door again.

‘…Alright! The truth? I didn’t want you to go.’

‘Why?’

‘I…’

A guilty glance travels up the stairs.

‘…I can’t say.’

‘Oh.’

Tracy’s “Oh” is a heavy one, one of unfavourable realisation. What other reason could there be? It’s obvious…

Bill gulps at the “Oh”.[_ _]She can’t know the resentment held for Robert surely, that and the hobby? Has she put the two together, read between the lines? Did Robert say anything to her before?

Tracy whispers her theory to an intrigued Tamayo.

[_God, she’s spreading it around already! If it’s whispered to Rupert… _]

“Can you sign this for me… by the way your brother can’t stand the sight of you and tried to stop you getting a job here… two kisses please… one on the book…”

The hushed tones conclude. Tamayo turns to Bill.

‘Is it true… have you got the hots for her?’

About to vehemently refute, almost on autopilot for what he assumed would be said, Bill stops himself. The pause inadvertently seals it. He digs Trace. For Bill though, the infatuation explanation is a good deal more palatable than The Truth, and it’s the only alternative seemingly to hand. Maybe she’ll think it sweet, going to all this trouble…?

Tracy’s stomach has gone rather queasy. It then drops further, her having arrived at another deduction.

‘My phone. It was you!’      

‘No!’ exclaims Bill, now able to use the face of strenuous phoney denial after all.

‘I bet he’s hidden it somewhere,’ says Rupert, pointing at his person.

‘Well don’t think I’m putting my hands in there after this. Not that I would’ve before!’

Rupert declines a frisk also. If it were the younger Turrock then it would be a different matter, a search for unexplained bulges on Robert would likely do the same in kind…

Seeking to claw back some dignity facing the sea of squinty eyes, Bill pulls out his trouser pockets to prove his innocence.

‘No phone, see…?’[_ _]

No, just a scrunched up piece of paper found to contain Tamayo’s phone number – picked up off the floor by the lady herself, who now appears to be on the cusp of violently shaking.

‘I gave him my number and he… he…’

‘I did say I can’t commit long distance.’

Bill turns to Tracy for a “some people!” roll of the eyes.

‘….So how about it, staying…?

Tracy stares back, agog, wondering whether she needs her ears syringing. She finds Bill looking on, nodding encouragingly, actually believing it’s a possibility.

The friend fishing out her ticket to freedom ends the trance. It’s gladly snatched up.

‘Bet you’ll be glad to get out of here now!’

‘Huh!’ says Tracy, perking up, reminded that yes, she is actually flying out later tonight after all, away from this godforsaken place.

‘Should be him in hospital, not me,’ adds Rupert. ‘…Not that I was!’

Demeanour staunch, he then stumbles upon a curious thought, turning to Mother.

‘Does this mean your flats back on the market?’

Tracy gives the eyes wide son a whack on the arm, the current situation demanding seriousness.

‘I can pay.’

‘When can you move in?’ asks Tracy, eager.

Rupert begins the calculations, specifically working out how he can remove the valuables from the current flat when he’s on a final warning for rent arrears.

‘Come on,’ says Tracy, ‘let’s go for lunch…’

[_If you’re paying…, _]says Rupert to himself.

Leading the way, wanting to discuss the handover, Tracy also wants to transfer some of her newfound cheer onto Tamayo; after all Bill didn’t get his way… everything’s back on track. Plus she might finally have someone to rent out the abode!

Just then, Lily comes through, all smiles.

‘Look what I’ve just found in an office drawer. Strange!’

The trio in the know submit fresh glares for Bill to shrink from, Tracy’s spirit having faltered like a Tory in a council estate. [_The tossbag! _]

She moves around the island to reclaim her recovered handset.

‘You’re going to have to look for someone permanent. Because when I get back I sure as hell aren’t returning here! Lovely working with you Lily.’

A display of genuine warmth is exchanged along with the mobile. Tracy’s then reminded of the woman’s offspring.

‘…But I’m sorry, that…’

Swivelling, the mobile gets jabbed across the island towards Bill.

That’s too much.’

Unable to bear dredging up the details again, time also precious with her son before the flight, Tracy decides to just leave. She reunites with her estranged friend by the side door and they proceed out.

‘What happened with the nose?’

‘Tripped on that bloody blackboard out front, the wind must’ve blown it dow… ow!’

Talking hurts. Talk about a danger in the sodding workplace! If only Bill brought it in when Mother requested; Tamayo would’ve driven off down the newly resurfaced road and all this would’ve been the mere stuff of nightmares. Suffice to say, Bill now rues the decision.

About to resignedly huff like he’s mimicking the weather, he then notes the continued presence of Rupert. Stood by the side door, he appears visibly torn clutching his unsigned book, unsure whether the big exit would be weakened if he nips upstairs for just a split sec. Solidarity with mother ultimately wins out, also the camp homosexual bubbling within, too keen to make his departure as flourishingly dramatic, bitchy and fabulous as possible.

Filling the lungs with air, Rupert now puts it into motion, swishing with an enlarged pout, striding out toward the wind machine, door left to flap.

Display over, Lily sways to Bill.

‘What did she mean… “too much”?’

Bill doesn’t know what to say. Riddled with a raft of emotions, mainly embarrassed, toe circling guilt, he looks away. In doing so, he spots the sink; full of plates, cups and cutlery.

‘Too much… the pots. I always said we needed a proper dishwasher…’

Lily struggles to give it full credence. It seems a bit odd. Especially given her offer to do the washing up today… and even when she assumed Tracy was saying the kindness wasn’t revoked. Strange. Oh well.

‘Well then… you know what this means…’

‘What? Oh.’

He knows.

‘Find Robert, would you.’

‘Right,’ replies Bill, dejected, his assumption proven correct.

Mother wants Robert in here. She wants him in here so she can offer him the job. The permanent job.

Forget three months. Try thirty effing years. You get less for murder.

Seeing him now make to leave, Lily motions to the pot of soup.

‘Do you…?’

‘I’m fine,’ replies Bill, bedraggled as he trundles out. ‘I’m absolutely pissing dandy…’

 

In the glazed over stupor, Bill’s gone into the café, declining to check Robert’s last known whereabouts upstairs. The feet don’t feel like they can currently walk, let alone climb. Besides, he can’t bear to bring the two together. Let them find each other. He’d rather go into the office and stick his head in a drawer.

The hope to make it across undisturbed goes for a Burton. Bill now has to wipe the morose yet embittered scowl from his face, coming face to face with the brother come chef in wait. He’s sauntering through the lobby, coat in one hand, tartan biscuit tin in the other.

‘Thought I’d get the shortbread before I forgot!’

‘Short memory?’ quips Mr Grady, neck twisting on the lounge sofa in front.

Bill screws up the face at the so called humour. It gets a broad smile from Robert (the quip, not the face), who then kindly hands over his hooded jacket, Bill blocking passage to the cloakroom door.

‘Cheers.’

Coat draped over the arm, watching Robert continue onwards to the kitchen and his new career, Bill’s suddenly gripped with another all but confirmed hypothesis. Robert must’ve discovered the coat on the cloakroom floor.

He must’ve… how else did he get it!? He’ll think I just threw it in… which I did! God! I bet he thinks I despise him… which I do!

At least they’ll be space on the kitchen coat-rack from here on out…

Despair doubles.

All the while, back to perusing his newspaper, Mr Grady spots interest from Deirdre close by.

‘Article on dwindling bees. Well worth a read. Obviously I’d prefer yesterday’s for the one about Robert, but alas, nowhere to be found… like honey if we’re not careful…’

Grady points out the articles main contributor Clive, forced to downsize hives from six to five (a despair not shared with the Herald’s headline writer).

Bill, meanwhile, resolves to ignore, his own hand reaching for the cloakroom door.

The palm doesn’t make the handle. He turns.

‘That’s today’s…? You mean you were showing her that before, in there…?’

‘Well, trying to… before you rudely interrupt…’

‘But you told her about Robert, the article…?

‘I said he was in the paper.’

‘And the hobby, Robert’s hobby…!?’

Bill’s voice and features strain with a rising, manic uncertainty, now approaching the sofa back.

If he hasn’t… that means! That means she never…

Mr Grady shakes the head. He doesn’t get the chance to speak further on the matter, for Bill’s running back across to the kitchen, feet barely gracing the laminate, a brother’s jacket flying into the lounge library.

She never found out!

So that’s why she hasn’t sodding mentioned it. Her lack of conversation about the topic seems glaring in retrospect, although the fib about Tracy did prove rather headline grabbing when it hit the stands soon after. Her silence on the subject was subconsciously assumed to be for that very reason. But no.

No!

It’s now clear her leafing of the newspaper before wasn’t for finding the feature featuring her youngest; she was looking for the eulogies of the honey bee and the deceased knit enthusiast!

Hurry! It’s not too late.

But it could be. Robert’s in there at this very moment with Mother, their delayed catch up ready to recommence with the need for a replacement chef back on the agenda. Plus, Bill is well aware the potential worst case scenario has worsened – if Robert gets the job, it won’t be for three months.

It’s going to be permanent.

Hurry!

[
__]

 

Eleven

 

Lily stirs the remains of the morning soup, warming it up on the hob once again, a task put aside during the earlier hoopla. And once again also, she lovingly recounts her seaside sojourn, this time to Robert.

‘I ate some lovely shrimp. Patsy had crabs.’

Robert looks a touch taken aback.

‘You mean she had[_ crab?_]’

‘No,’ replies Lily. ‘She had two.’

Just then, hinges on the double doors are resoundingly tested.

‘Don’t!’ cries Bill, bounding through.

Unfortunately, in his haste he’s forgotten about the kitchen island ahead and promptly collides into it, his upper body careening over the top as though peering over a high storey balcony. It stops the two talking at least…

Peeling himself from the granite, Bill’s immediate concern, in-between catching his breath and massaging his waist, is to judge reactions; Mother’s especially, who, if recently privy to the acquired pastime and the answer to her recruitment prayers, surely wouldn’t wait to spill even with her current bemusement.

But nothing.

Thank frig, she still doesn’t know!

But the befuddled stares remain.

Increasingly aware and seeking to explain away the entrance expletive, Bill’s eyes drift to the pot. Uneasy angst is soon replaced with a plastered on smile.

‘…Don’t start without me. The soup!’

He slyly moves the massaging of his waist up to the stomach.

‘Oh,’ replies Lily, who could’ve sworn he declined barely a minute ago. ‘Should be enough I suppose.’

Ladler Lil’ looks south for confirmation. _Hmm… _

She seems less sure upon viewing, the amount bubbling within barely enough to drown an ant.

‘Well, it’s ready.’

Bill adds a third bowl to the line up, ready for pouring (though the amount of soup being portioned out, one could replace the bowls for saucers). The ladle’s a lost cause at any rate, its deep base unable to scoop a single drop.

Bill remains on a knife edge. He knows once the sipping starts, it’s game over. Not for the act itself but the deadly conversation between slurps. They still haven’t had time for a proper catch up and this will be the first thing on Mother’s lips (aside from the excess tomato and basil).[_ _]

So what now?

Seeing Mother struggle with the pouring, Robert looks set to extend sly assistance yet again. Bill has other ideas. He slyly blocks passage.

‘Would you mind setting the table…?’

Bill grabs up the knives and forks and offers them over.

‘It’s soup,’ repeats Lily, wondering why he seems dead set against spoons.

She then remembers about the dangers they apparently pose in the workplace. But still, soup with a fork…? A spork maybe but…

Fortunately, Robert doesn’t take issue, taking the cutlery and heading on out. Bill watches the door swing shut, then, without pause, spins around to face Mother.

‘Let me hire the cook!’

Facing the soup, it’s now Lily’s turn to turn; and her brows a furrowed one.

‘You want… why?’

‘Why?’ repeats Bill, incredulous, as though the answer’s plainly obvious (masking the fact he doesn’t have one).

‘Why the interest all of a sudden?’

‘Why… why, why do you want to know?’ stammers Bill, like Porky Pig at an impromptu barbecue. ‘I mean, do you need a reason?’

And “all of a sudden”, thinks Bill. If only she knew!

‘Hmm… I don’t know, Bill.’

‘I won’t need your help at all. Please!’

An accompanying look of unreserved pleading is applied, eyes protruding, upper body leaning over the island. Please agree, just… please!

‘Is it because Robert’s here?’

‘No…!’ exclaims Bill, retreating the lean, adopting blind sighted astonishment. [_What can he possibly have to do with it? Silly woman! _]

‘Showing him you can make decisions. Being decisive?’

‘Yes, that’s it!’ exclaims Bill, blind to the irony.

On the contrary, he’s since deemed it rather clever to jump on the assumption. Irksome as it is, it could be used to his advantage; the story being one of a younger brother held in high esteem by the elder, one who’s slightly in awe of his success, thus keen to impress.

The false admission voiced, how much it rankles now needs to be suppressed, especially if Lily’s to believe the declaration to be true. But the idea of it! I don’t need to prove anything to him. The other way round, maybe, if he wasn’t so jumbo-headed!

Just then, Lily’s expression catches the eye, bringing Bill from his inner fume, for it’s an expression that seems to suggest actual consideration.

‘Well, another came in earlier so we’re doing the cook-off thing…,’ says Lily. ‘So I’ll be tasting then picking the best.’

‘I can taste! I know how to do that! Then I’ll pick. Pick me to pick! Please… you can still organise everything.’

Another shrewd move thinks the persuader. She loves to flitter about behind the scenes, so keeping her in charge of all that should alleviate concerns of an unarranged shambles. If it’s just the tasting and subsequent pointing to be outsourced then quenched should be the worries. Besides, she doesn’t have any taste buds left anyway. Her point’s fairly middling too come to think.

So why isn’t she agreeing already?

The sticking point for Lily, put simply, is the sheltered life Bill’s palate’s been afforded, mainly thanks to its owner’s pernickety approach to sustenance. Good luck getting him down the World Foods aisle. Not only that, a discerning for fine grub is perfected over many a year. Would he be able to pick the tastiest dish after forty years of bread and cheese?

Bill, on the other hand, has confidence in his palate. He can taste victory and defeat at the same time. That’s what you call layered. Say yes!

He can’t wait any longer. The suspense is killing him.

‘Well…?’

‘I’ll have to tip the pot,’ says Lily, thoughts having drifted to the empty soup bowls.

She grabs the nearby oven glove.

‘Where’s the other mitt? I brought it back through before…’

Bill turns away, a good deal peeved at the distraction, also worried a successful pour then speedy depart will precede her decision. He needs a yes before the egress.

He then spots the desired oven mitt. Seeing her turned away in search, and with his foot already producing a sly gap between the double doors, Bill tosses out the oven glove (closely followed by a nearby, substitute worthy tea towel). He spins back to greet Mother with a smile of complete innocence.

It was close, but she didn’t turn in time. The son staring back instead reminds her of the prospect put forth. She resumes the mull, one of judging whether he can be the judge.

It’s a mull sensed.

Please God…

‘…Oh, I suppose!’

‘But… yes! Well, that’s agreed!’ beams Bill, adjusting to joyous.

‘Well, I’ve got other things to sort out,’ reasons Lily. ‘There’s the delivery, Patsy’s calling, oh, and we still need… ‘

‘Yes, yes,’ interrupts Bill, waving a dismissive hand.

He’s got what he wants. It’s no longer a requirement to humour the woman, hanging onto the dullard’s every word. The relief though! It would be nice to have the decision in writing, just to be sure; but, in any event, Bill knows his mother isn’t the type to go back on her word.

Now basking, Bill barely notices Deirdre entering through from the café. She stays by the door, one hand holding it open, the other holding a pink oven mitt and a substitute worthy chequered tea towel.

Lily, however, does notice. She can finally pour the soups.

And she does.

That done, she lifts the tray holding the might as well be empty bowls.

‘Right then… Robert!’

Pleased though Bill is, echoing Mother’s eagerness isn’t easy. He manages a twitch either side of the mouth.

‘Don’t want him feeling left out, do we!?’

With her turning to go, Bill begins a roll of the eyes. Then, a sudden eureka moment catches him entirely off guard as he stares beyond the open door to Robert. His heart leaps about as high as a kangaroo on a trampoline.

None the wiser, Lily’s stopped to add the sliced wholemeal missing from the tray.

‘Just saying Deirdre, don’t want Robert feeling left out.’

‘No, no we don’t…,’ says Bill in wide eyed, robotic reply, staring at the sibling chin-wagging with Mr Brooking between tables.

He now drifts towards the open door with cunning intent, as though aiming a red laser dot on his brother’s forehead.

He’ll gladly make sure Robert’s not left out.

Yes, Bill’s going to ask his brother to apply for the chef job.

The genius of the next move continues to merrily skip around Bill’s clever balding head.

He won’t know what’s hit him… it’s perfect!

Not only has Bill secured control over who’s hired, in doing so, he’s bagged the opportunity to knock his aspiring cook of a brother down a good few notches. He feels like the cat with the double cream. Now he has power, and with power comes opportunity, and, with that, corruption. Before it was all about preventing Robert from an easy victory, but now, what about a humiliating defeat?

Yes, it would be perfectly fine if Robert doesn’t participate, merely having his catch-up then trotting off to pastures new, but how much sweeter if he left with a tail between the legs, preferably one that trips him up on the way out (but doesn’t send him back through with a nosebleed)?

Such are the potential delights in store for Bill, namely the look on Robert’s mug after he points to someone else’s meatballs, that he remains in a heady reverie.

‘Er, Bill…?’

High spirits are suddenly displaced with a lurch of fear, the plan at risk before it’s even started. Does Mother suspect? He should’ve dialled down the devious intent.

He turns to face.

‘The drinks…,’ clarifies Lily, tilting a requesting head towards them, her hands already occupied.

None the wiser.[_ Thank heavens!_]

Just then, a meek Deirdre, unsure whether to interrupt with the reason for coming through, finally musters the courage to tap the nearest Turrock on the shoulder. Attention gained, she rips a note from her order pad and passes it over, departing thereafter in case she did wrong.

On the contrary, Bill’s glad she did. Order now in hand, he swivels to face Lily.

‘Pot of tea.’

He leans forward to plop the note onto the tray. By the time Lily looks up from the order, laid atop the stack of sliced whole-wheat, she’s staring at a swinging door. Bill’s zipped out. If he were a cartoon, he would’ve left speed lines.

The lack of a mother for the next minute or two is warmly welcomed. Even though, once finally hearing about the hobby, Lily would likely join forces, persuading Robert to put on the pinny and compete, it will feel all the more satisfying for Bill if the scheme’s pulled off by the sole person who devised it. He’s also planning on shrewd, subtle coaxing, so Mother’s overzealous begging could’ve gotten in the way…

Measured might be the plan once he reaches Robert, but the current demeanour is more akin to chomping at the bit. Having burst through the double doors, Bill has to come to a speedy stop, both to avoid crashing into the table currently two feet from his knees and the realisation subtlety should’ve already started.

He now skirts around the table, arching around the back of the café, pressing the lips together as he does, suppressing the devious smirk for what he’s about to do.

A few moments later, busy watching Deirdre give the hula her hips once again, Robert hears an ‘Ow’ behind. He twists the rump to discern. It’s Bill, tidying the imaginary mess on the island, having made sure to accidentally drop a paperweight, albeit on his foot.

‘Sorry! So… got any new hobbies, any at all?’

Robert’s rather taken aback by the abrupt segue.

‘Um, well…’

‘Good for you!’

The answer already known (very much so), Bill isn’t about to waste time having it repeated. Smile and move on. Smile and politely shift Deirdre from her prime spot also. She now has to walk and gyrate simultaneously to keep the hooping alive. Not that Bill gives a Mr Grady’s ass. He’s got a brother to reel in.

‘…Well, what do you reckon to this place? Great, isn’t it? Great place to work, no? Well, you wouldn’t know, would you? Yet.’

Bill returns to the soul stirred act, hamming up the performance with a puffed out chest, taking in the surroundings as though surveying The Sistine Chapel. As he does, thoughts are suppressed that, in the eagerness to skip to the good bit (one of signing Robert up), he’s not quite achieved the seamless spontaneity first envisaged, instead showing the same subtlety gravity deals a brick. Even a nearby Deirdre’s picked up on it, now staring as well as spiralling. “Yet?”

Bill spots the expression, and, for once, doesn’t seem resigned to explain; quite the opposite. The urge to move her away and spill is rather tempting. No, stick to the plan.

Processing the speech meanwhile, Robert’s at a bit of a loss himself. [_Wasn’t Bill berating the place five minutes ago? _]

‘But I thought you said…?’

‘Sorry, Deirdre wants a word!’

The urge wins out. Bill ushers her away, biting the bottom lip with giddy anticipation, close to bursting. They move to the main stairs, Deirdre managing to keep the hoop around the waist, mainly by holding it there.

‘What’s going on?’ asks Deirdre, still thoroughly baffled and encircled.

Only too happy to gloat, a check first to make sure they’re sufficiently far away. Satisfied, Bill moves in close.

‘I want Robert to apply for the job.’

‘But why?’

‘So I can tell him he can’t have the job! Off you trot!’

Conference terminated, Deirdre gets shooed. Moving away, she cranes her neck back, struggling to both compute the information and walk in a straight line, looking as though she has her head on back to front. Bill blindly ignores, basking in his own smugness. He then realises the masterplan’s barely off the ground – and there’s no guarantee it will do so.

The worry is quick to multiply. [_What if he doesn’t want to apply? Robert’s his own man. _]

Attempting reassurance, Bill thinks on the persona he’s attached to said brother; i.e. Mr Big Head with the ego the size of a freight truck. [_He’ll go for it. “Piece of piss” he’ll think, “show them how it’s done…” _]

Yes, Robert secretly wants the job and he’s playing a tight-lipped game to get it.

Reassured, Bill walks back to the table, somehow brisk yet tentative at the same time.

[_Stay confident, casual and confident! _]

‘Where were we? Ah yes, working here. Interest you at all?’

Robert’s caught a little off guard. So too Bill – it sounded a little more shrewd in the head.

‘Well… I did think about it. When I saw the sign out…’

‘Well, think again!’ blurts Bill, accidentally reverting to the initial stance of “over my dead carcass.”

The slime-ball’s admitted it, he wants the job!

Bill suddenly realises the faux pas.

[_‘Think again _]and realise you should! …Go for it!’

‘Apply? …Hmm, I could I suppose…’_ _

[_The plan’s a-go, Robert’s game! _]      

‘So that’s a yes?’

‘Well… I’d need a bit more time.’

‘Of course!’ agrees Bill. ‘…Well?’

Robert’s forced into a think, innocently taking big brother’s enthusiasm for what it appears to be; that of simply really wanting him to work here.

Watching on, Bill’s quick to pick up on the pause. He usually wouldn’t mind Robert sitting on the fence, provided it’s spiky and prone to tetanus; but in this case, a push looks to be required.

‘… And bear in mind whose making the final decision!’

He twiddles a coy finger at himself, eyebrows tickling the ceiling.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t want any favouritism.’

‘Nepotism,’ clarifies Bill, tartly. ‘Yes, I wouldn’t worry.’

Vision drifts sideward, cunning intent clear.

Mr Perfect returns to a ponder, firmly believing Brother and his assurance, confident they’ll be no surrender to nepotism; a view entirely correct given Bill’s desire to do the opposite. The ponder doesn’t light up any other potential hurdles either. It looks to be a clear path.

‘Well…,’ begins Robert.

He’s about to agree. However, Bill, in his on-edge state, mistakes the “well” as a prelude for politely declining.

Think… keep pushing…

‘Come on, this is your chance to prove yourself! …Stop the gossip.’

‘Gossip?’

‘Well, people have been talking…’

The dropped voice is now paused for effect. He checks for eavesdroppers then leans in.

‘They think you think you’re too good for a place like this.’

‘Oh…?’

Bill leans back out.

‘Load of rot if you ask me.’

Having turned away following his dramatic denouncement, eyes slowly slink sneakily back across.

[_He’s definitely thinking… _]

The words don’t appear to be inciting anger or hurt feeling though, nor any spur to action to prove the imaginary blighters wrong. The truth being Robert, for all his own lack of snobbery, can actually see how the gossipers could arrive at such a view. Going from a successful, money making writing career to working at a community centre might be seen by some as an unthinkable step-down, something only viable after a successful frontal lobotomy. Robert though is of the firm opinion he’ll enjoy working here.

‘Alright!’

Bill turns to a brother who’s throwing his arms up with a grin. He’s taken completely by surprise, having prepared for a placid “Oh well” then another round of bullshitting to try persuade. It takes a moment for the “Alright” and its meaning to sink in. Bill’s wide eyed gorp turns into a smiling, dare I believe it gawk.

‘…I wouldn’t be stepping on your toes?’ asks Robert, tentatively.

‘Step away!’ declares Bill, euphoric, offering both slip-ons.

‘No harm giving it a go I suppose!’

‘No harm at all! Terrific!’

Bill wants to take Deirdre for a dance around the café, or maybe take the hoop for a spin. He’s gone for it!

Robert is about to broach the matter of not having a CV; a requirement surely? He’s not gotten around to updating the old one yet. Never mind updating; it’s been so long he might as well start from scratch. Worries on this, however, are interrupted by Lily’s appropriately buoyant entry and approach.

‘Here we are. Who ordered tea?’

Distracted with dastardly delight, Bill goes for the grab, motivated to dramatically scoot away and let Robert impart the good news. He soon realises however that seizing the thing by the pot rather than the handle brings its consequences.

‘Ow, ow… OW!’

Bill lunges forward like he’s hurling up bad crab, dropping the pot on the table, no acting required. The lid rattles, molten lava barely retained.

‘Bill! Oh lord…!’

The injured party firmly dismisses the seriousness, smiling through clenched, almost chattering teeth. He indicates the concerned onlookers both sit with a nod, arms currently out of service, both palms clasped firmly under the pits.

“It’s fine, it’s fine!’

Not wanting the incident to mar the moment, Bill stays strong through the pulsating agony, trying to force the earlier elation to return to the fore, reminding himself what’s just been put into motion. That being said, it still sodding hurts.

‘Right! I’ll leave you both to talk.’

He pushes the chair in with his non-scolded knee.

‘But…?’

Lily indicates the soup, the portion he requested. But a pained rub of the stomach gets promptly returned over the table.

‘Must be all the excitement,’ says Bill, cheerily throwing away his spoon, which proceeds to disturb Mr Brooking’s forehead.

‘Ow!’

The dazed repairman lifts it up, confused of its origin. Rubbing the soon to be bump, he happens upon a rather guilty face, one who’s just double taken the casualty of the tossed cutlery.

‘What did I say… dangerous…’

Bill points to the spoon, face serious. Before a reply can be given, he’s swayed back to the family.

‘Oh, and Robert’s got another surprise… no surprise there!’

Feeling it’s a good time to depart, Bill begins a sprightly trot toward reception, leaving Lily awaiting the news as she pours Bill’s soup into Robert’s bowl.

Walking off, Bill wants to feel amazing, untouchable – unfortunately, the only thing presently untouchable are his singed paws. He nips around behind reception to hunt for some plasters. Mr Grady watches on from the sofa, wondering what’s happening with his pot. Is nobody bringing it over…?

Although he’s left them be, currently mid-search for adhesive palm dressing, Bill can’t resist taking in Mother’s reaction. He feels like the guy whose just lit the fireworks, dashing away to then marvel from a distance (albeit after one’s just exploded in his hands).

As predicted, her face brightens. Bill’s glows victoriously. Feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, a feeling reciprocated on both his palms, he continues through into the lobby, unpacking his pack of miniature plasters, leaving Mr Grady potless (aside from the signed twenty).

This leaves Deirdre, who now feels slightly out of the loop, and, exercise abandoned, also the hoop. She doesn’t know whether to follow Bill or sit with the soup sippers. She settles for neither, choosing Mr Brooking. He looks on a tad perturbed, not used to servers plonking themselves down for a rest, not before he’s ordered dessert anyway. Still, at least he can pass back the spoon…

 

Twelve

 

Outside by the front door, Bill takes in the fresh afternoon air. The winds since calmed and it’s a pleasant breeze that greets, almost as though it’s running concurrently with the Robert business; the unpredictable onslaught seeing fit to pass, a risk no longer.

Bill’s attention is now drawn downwards to the blackboard display – still laid flat on the floor thanks to the earlier gust, a fact Tamayo knows all too well. The side facing up reads [_Wanted: Part Time temporary chef. _]

Chuckling at the fact they’ve forgotten to state Dead or Alive, Bill’s smile is a self-satisfied one. The last time he was this happy was when he lost his mother in the supermarket.

It’s nice out here, could stay here for a bit; gives them time for their blessid catch-up…

Although passing on hearing it first-hand, Bill can’t help running the conversation through in his head, or at least how he assumes (hopes) the talks going;

“I’ve been learning to cook and I want to try out for the chef job!”

“Wonderful! I think you’ll do really well my second favourite son!”

“You do? Well… (Looks away pretending to be modest) let’s just wait and see, eh…?” (Sips soup like a twat).

Revelling in the delightful ruminations, Bill looks out to the centre’s twenty odd capacity car park, resurfaced a few years ago through the kind aid of Robert – not that he did the actual tarmacking himself, although give him a few minutes to learn…

It’s evident the younger Turrock’s already made a mark on the place, the new sporting equipment and sizeable shed around the back also come to mind, but that’s interference from a distance – something just about bearable.

How good it will be to send him back there, into the distance… back to the other side of town or maybe even beyond, wherever the new career takes him…

Bill now takes to viewing his hands, specifically the tiny circular plasters he’s attached to both palms. The overall effect makes it look as if he’s battling an addiction to nicotine patches – and losing, especially when viewed alongside the cigarette packet and lighter he’s just fished from his pocket.

It isn’t a forty a day habit but more a force of habit; merely, as Bill often puts it, a casual addiction. He can stop if he so desires. Lily doesn’t smoke and wants him to stop – one reason he’s kept it up. Another is the opportunity to get away from her (and other irritants who reside within at any given time), to escape, to de-stress, to clear the head. His safe, smoke clouded haven. This time though he lights up purely to bolster the suave, cool confidence currently felt, like a spy silently celebrating after gaining trust with the enemy.

Thoughts though are anything but debonair. He can’t help giddily running through what’s about to happen, skipping ahead to the upcoming tasting and its pre-recorded verdict.

[_“The other guys dish was just a tiny bit more perfect. Terribly sorry…” _]

Bill chuckles, rubbing his plastered hands with glee, fag in mouth. He really wants to find the perfect killer line – i.e. nice but utterly humiliating.

[_“I had to go with the best tasting one… you said it yourself… just going with my gut. Chin up, there’s always Namibia!” _]

Awarding second place has been toyed with, just so it doesn’t reflect too badly on himself, being[_ the_] loving brother. But would it be sufficiently degrading? Maybe just announce first place and leave second and third hanging, that way it will hopefully eat away at him. The irony!

Just then, Stewart, half man, half beard, strides through the car park. He proceeds to walk past Bill into the centre without so much as a curt gander.

Not that Bill’s bothered.

Confirmation of Stewart being one of the lucky three doesn’t bother either. Let him try. Although, notes Bill, the third applicant, whoever they may be, could now offer up a polished turd and still feel pretty optimistic.

Eager to follow, Bill gives the fag a final drag and puff. He then stubs it out on his plastered palm.

 

Entering the lobby, Bill finds Deirdre doing same. He continues on past, peering through the lounge door window as it settles from the swing. The view shows Stewart approaching Lily mid-sip of the soup. Turning, she’s rather startled at the sight. Looking at her watch brings further surprise. Five to one already? She knows the cook-off was pencilled for one but with the unexpected thrill of Robert’s company, coupled with all the Tracy hoo-hah, it was shunted to the back of the mind, left to silently creep up like she does with Bill. Still, this is a woman who takes things in her stride and in good spirits, especially so given the recent announcement.

All the while, the lobby peeper continues the ogle, itching to get started; an urge shared with the plastered palm, currently itchier than a tramps vest.

‘Seems Stewart’s caught the tide back,’ quips Bill to Deirdre.

The quip washes over her, not privy to the earlier sea references.

Not that Bill notices. Peeling a patch south of the index, burrowing to find the sweet spot, he moves to nudge open the door with the shoulder.

‘Mr Turrock, I think you should wait a bit longer.’

Bill holds off to consider.

‘Make them nervous, good idea.’

He then spots focus is in fact on the peeling of the plaster.

‘Oh.’

Gaze returns to the window, finger slyly scratching.

Just then, Mr Jowett, the stranger Bill’s earmarked for cook-off victory, saunters in from outside. The man has a long, skinny frame; brown hair with blonde highlights and appears to be camper than a row of multicoloured tents. Unfortunately, Bill, busy eyeballing, back turned, blindly blocks his intended passage into the lounge.

‘Don’t think Robert will stay for long afterwards,’ says Bill to Deirdre. ‘Well,[_ I ]won’t stop him. _I won’t stand in his way!’

Care to extend the policy, thinks Mr Jowett, propping a dramatic hand on the hip.

‘He’ll likely think up an excuse then scoot. If he stays for dessert I’ll eat somebody’s hat!’

Deirdre doesn’t seem enthused by the suggestion. Talk about chewy…

‘We’ll get the new chef to fix him a doggy bag!’ chirps Bill. ‘…Can you put soup in a doggy bag?’

 

In the café, Lily hoists herself up with the might as well be empty, now empty bowls. Stewart stands beside, eyebrows raised, his mouth the opposite. He’s just been given the news.

‘He’s deciding!?’[_ _]

Stewart turns towards the lobby, clocking the man in question.

‘Bill? Yes, he is. Sorry by the way… didn’t realise the time!’

Time isn’t the issue – but Lily’s in a newfound rush to get organised, already bustling off to the kitchen. As she does, the source of Stewart’s exclamation enters from the lobby, followed by the other irked hopeful, Mr Jowett, followed then by Deirdre, clutching a handful of used plasters.

As the latter continues to the kitchen, Bill slips behind reception, keeping an intermittent watch on his brother while pretending to look busy.

Stewart soon approaches.

‘I want a word.’

‘Just looking for my pen…,’ replies Bill, feigning distraction, searching for a pen that’s quite clearly poking out of his top shirt pocket.

‘It’s not fair, this. Any chance I had before…’

‘Vanished!’ exclaims Bill, fishing around reception for the elusive ballpoint. ‘Bet somebody’s made off with it.’

‘It’s not right!’

‘Sorry…,’ replies Bill, now looking across, a tad embarrassed. ‘I know it’s awkward but… would you mind checking your beard? I know you can’t catch a break but that thing could’ve snatched my bic!’

Stewart glares, rage seething within. The recipient puts on a caring, apologetic smile, leaning over.

‘Don’t worry… you’re not the only applicant I don’t like!’

Emphasising the point, Bill waves effusively at Mr Jowett. He hesitantly waves back, unnerved. Single with a libido does not an easy man make – although the gorgeous hunk in the blue shirt would do nicely.

Bill’s since resumed the pen hunt.

‘It’s in your top pocket,’ grunts Stewart.

‘It was but then I moved it. Wanted to write some notes. I’m judging a cook-off you see, and…’

‘I want this job.’

You do? So[_ that’s_] what the CV was all about then, well bugger me!’

Bill now turns attention to the peace lily beside, admiring and stroking it with a finger, a subtle reminder of how Stewbacca stuck the knife in when they last/first met. Stewart watches the performance, furious, mouth clenched tight as though he’s mistaken glue for yoghurt.

‘You’re an absolute…’

‘Ah…!’ coos Bill, taking a big sniff of the flower and basking in its scent. ‘Lovely, isn’t it? Gets one all calm and relaxed. Could stay here all day.’

‘Bill?’

It’s Robert – and he’s coming over.

‘Oh, it was in my top pocket the whole time! Well…’

Bill points the pen towards the main stairs and scuttles off in its direction, negating to finish the sentence or use the nearer option of the staff stairs, instead choosing to flounce through the lounge with poncy purpose. The bland smugness adopted with Stewart sat well with Bill before and it’s carried forth here, adopted with the hope all present perceive him as a man of importance, a man with places to be, things to judge. He needn’t concern himself with small, trivial matters – Lily can deal with the pre-tasting hoopla. Bill’s concern lies solely with the main event and no more. It also brings the rather pleasant opportunity to feel more notable than his brother for a blessid change.

‘I think it’s time,’ drawls Bill to the aspiring chefs, keeping the pace brisk, ‘if you’d like to…’

Even the hand gesture to the kitchen is regally limp.

About to follow on with his question, Robert’s path gets cut off by Stewart. He’s in pursuit, venting unfinished.

‘You didn’t tell me you were…’

‘We’ll let the food do the talking, shall we?’

Quickly discerning the fact food can’t technically speak (unless in the company of Hannibal Lector), Bill grabs up a nearby health and beauty magazine and continues on. He still has eight minutes of his lunch break and intends to take them.

‘But…’

‘Ta-tar! Call me when it’s cooked!’

Two steps from the stairs, Bill steps straight into a puddle of water.

Sodding hell!

Face going furtive, a glance over the shoulder is avoided. Instead, attention finds the dripping radiator. Bloody thing. Exit ruined, Bill shakes the sogged slip-on (which nearly slips off) and hurries upstairs before anything else dampens his authority.

The disappearance of the judge coincides with the formers emergence, head popping out from the kitchen.

‘OK contestants, in you come!’

Stewart strides over with renewed cause. He waits for Robert and Mr Jowett to enter.

‘Lily. May I speak with you for a moment?’

 

Ten minutes later, having squeezed in an extra two, Bill concludes his lunch break with a rumbling stomach. The two bites of sandwich haven’t filled the tum. Still, he reasons, not long until the call to the kitchen, not long to sample the trio of dishes; one good, one not so good and one absolutely god-awful… oh well, can’t have everything!

Sat in the bar, a Britvic has also been poured, and, with inner giddiness ramped to the max, Bill’s decided on a jazzy cocktail umbrella. A straw’s also added to the mix, although not in lieu of the good cheer. He’s just read an article claiming straws prevent the staining of teeth. Robert’s are always bright and pearly white whereas Bill’s, to be blunt, aren’t. The smoking doesn’t help. He now wonders on the merits of smoking through a straw. Perhaps a cigarette holder… add a flair of debonair too, like the guy in that Gatsby book, Jay somebody… Bill then thinks again, fearing he’d look a tit.

Never mind, Robert won’t be flashing the gnashers for long!

 

Deciding to take a gander, Bill enters the function room. He also takes a long sip of the orange and lemon, eyes closed, blissfully pondering future visions of a dour sibling.

‘M…mmm!’

Bill opens the lids, immediately getting an eyeful of the yoga women’s bent over backsides. Arms stretched on the mats, they’ve heard the “m…mmm!” and now promptly crane collective heads between legs.

‘Lovely… the drink!’

Bill flushes at the line of upturned faces, unsure whether it’s wise to maintain eye contact; it prevents looking guilty but at the same time might be misconstrued, especially in their current positions. He’s always nervous around vaguely desirable women, especially those in tight Lycra.

‘Sorry, I’ll just…’

He travels around the back of the group. They watch him, suspicious.

You never see him with a woman… bloody perv…

Regaining composure and a steady heartbeat, Bill continues toward the meeting room/kitchenette. As he nears, Lily pops her head out through the double doors.

‘Ready?’

‘I suppose so, yes,’ replies Bill, attempting to feign nonchalance while impersonating a Cheshire Cat.

‘Good. I’ll bring them out.’

With that, she slips back in.

Bill’s a good deal taken aback, expecting to follow. The room ahead seems ideal for the tasting; its large centre table for one, with Bill sat on one side and the three chefs at his mercy on the other.

Maybe they cooked in there and it’s a bit of a state?

The kitchenette’s mainly used in tandem with the meetings for teas, coffees and nibbles. When needed though, it also serves as a workable second kitchen (hence the name).

[_Maybe the table’s a mess too? Can’t expect me to judge on a messy table! _]

Wondering whether to peek, he suddenly notes said vision has been replicated right beside him. The table here, however, is noticeably smaller and a little off centre for Bill’s liking, but, on reflection, still serves the same purpose. It will do. Nothing can hinder the high spirits.

Must’ve done it when I was in the bar, probably had Deirdre do it…

He now lowers himself into the chair, exhaling with hearty, pompous pleasure. He then looks beyond the empty three seats opposite to find, yet again, he’s staring straight into the path of half a dozen derrieres.

‘Um… nearly done for the day, aren’t you?’ asks Bill, tapping the wrist.

He isn’t keen to switch sides, messing about swapping the chairs. The cooks might be out any second. Plus, this layout gives them a longer walk to their seats, holding their nerve as they pass Judge Turrock. Thankfully, the yoga instructor nods. They’re nearly done – but not before performing their final pose; the Parivrtta Trikonasana (a.k.a. Twisty Triangle). Bill acknowledges with a smile, breathing a sigh of relief before hurriedly averting his gaze, worried the sigh will be taken as elation for their resumed bending.

Just then, the kitchen doors open behind.

‘Ah. Take a seat, any order,’ declares Bill, sensing the figures approaching.

The sole figure as it turns out; it’s Lily pushing a trolley holding three dome covered dishes, each with their own swivel sign.

Befuddled, Bill swivels to check behind. Nobody. Not an apron in sight.

‘Well, where are they?’

‘We’ll bring the winner out at the end,’ replies Lily, calm as can be, lining up the dishes across the table.

Bill’s mouth slowly droops, stunned. He then spots the swivel signs being placed behind each dish.

‘Oh, I see. Names on the signs.’

The rising worry evaporates. Each dish will have the corresponding chef name on the flip side. Phew!

‘Well, turn them around.’

He indicates the signs. Lily obliges. The signs are turned, one by one for each dish. They read “1”, “2’, and “3”.

Bill stares, flabbergasted. The horror of the situation is beginning to dawn. He’s judging the damn thing blind.

 

Thirteen

 

 

The situation doesn’t seem to be quite sinking in.

It can’t be anonymous, it can’t!

In disbelieving disgust for the sight in front, Bill feels like scratching his eyes out, not that it will make a difference to the judging.

[_It can’t be blind! _]

‘But… but I need to… this wasn’t the agreement!’

‘You’re picking the best one, aren’t you?’ says Lily, confused at the drama.

‘B… but…’

‘It’s all a matter of taste!’ clucks Lily, attempting to lighten the mood.

It doesn’t work.

The remark makes Bill shudder, recalling using the very same quip in a previous moment of superiority. It seems a long time ago now.

Arriving off the main stairs, Deirdre comes over to inspect, just in time to see Lily lift the dome covers. All three are fish salads; prawn salad, cod salad and salmon salad. Forget eating the stuff, Bill feels like he’s been slapped by a wet one (prawns excluded).

‘That trip to Hampshire came in handy!’ chirps Lily.

‘Yes, well… I smell something a bit fishy.’

‘That’ll be the cod,’ says Deirdre, always eager to help.

Bill advances her the sort of look an average child reserves for sprouts and members of the opposite sex.

Mother Turrock, meanwhile, has an inkling regarding the source of the grump.

‘Well, I would’ve brought the cooks out but Stewart had concerns…’

‘Oh, I might’ve known!’

He now feels like scratching someone else’s eyes out.

That’s why the chairs were already out, thinks Bill, eyeing them opposite. He’d begun to suspect it was done deliberately just to get the hopes up, but no, the chefs were due to be seated until Stewart stuck his hairy spatula in.

‘He didn’t think you’d be fair to him.’

‘The slimy piece of…!’

Bill cuts himself off, preferring the role of innocent victim. He’s the one being wronged, not that bearded oaf. There’s also the strong urge to protest the accusation, noting he could swear under oath that Stewart would place not last but a respectable second (second to last given the numbers but still…).

‘It’s the fairest way, Bill.’

And with that, Lily backs away.

She leaves Bill at a complete, despaired loss. He turns to Deirdre. He often turns to her in times of crisis, feeling she’s on his side, the only one in this sorry place he feels comfortable confiding in. Deirdre won’t laugh, judge or spill to third parties. She’ll also rarely contribute anything of logical help but nonetheless, a bad idea from Deirdre might lead to a less terrible one from himself.

He now motions her to come closer, conscious of Mother hovering behind by the meeting room door.

She leans in, confused.

‘I can’t do it like this!’ hisses Bill, indicating the meals with tense, opened out hands.

‘I said keep the plasters on,’ says Deirdre, concerned, ‘…do you need a hand?’

She jiggles one of her own, jazz style, then has it lift up a fork. Bill glares menacingly then snatches back the fork, debating the object of the first stab: Salad or Deirdre? The latter (and current frontrunner) catches the drift and scurries away, disappearing down the main stairs.

Left with the meals, Bill’s since come over weary; resigning himself to the fact there’s no determinable way around it. He feels like Goldilocks in the three bears house. Yet, instead of porridge, they’ve gone and left a sodding fish platter.

Just do it… there’s still a chance… a less than likely chance… God!

He holds up the fork reverse grip then brings it down for a sharp stab into the prawn salad, imagining Stewart’s face amongst the lettuce. The forkful’s quickly shoved into the gob. _Get it over and done with… _

He chews with a constant frown, like a convicted clown ostracised in the corner of the prison canteen. Bill isn’t even sure if the thing tastes of anything, such are the bitter thoughts infecting every fibre.

‘Any good?’ asks a yoga lady with a smile.

‘Turn around. I don’t need an audience!’

They all swivel to resume bending, rather affronted, backsides back in Bill’s face once more. He looks ahead but swallows the food, miserable; as if watching Robert break records in a bachelorette auction. The plate gets pushed away. Lily soon bustles forward, leaning over the shoulder to pull the second dish into place.

[_She doesn’t even trust me to move the sodding plates! _]

Making to retreat, Lily pauses. She comes back in for the lean.

‘Oh, and Robert mentioned your little speech, persuading him to apply.’

Scowl discerned, Lily zips the lips for a quick retreat, assuming it’s like at home; he doesn’t care for interruptions during mealtimes.

With her out of sight, still sullen, he then clocks the Britvic. The cocktail umbrella gets petulantly flicked from the glass and off the table.

Attention turns back to the food. Eventually, albeit reluctantly, Bill takes a fork full of the cod salad and chews. The chews abruptly stop. Bill pulls a long black hair from his mouth, staring virtually cross-eyed in shock; shock that slowly gives way to unadulterated joy.

[_Stewart’s! It must be! Who else!? _]

He now feels the strong urge to jump out of his seat, holding up the hair as though he’s found a cure for baldness. Instead, he stays put, staring triumphantly at the hair, held in a hand beginning to shake uncontrollably.

The action hasn’t gone unnoticed.

‘Something wrong?’ asks Lily.

Vision from behind is impaired but it’s pretty clear he’s stopped eating cod.

Bill freezes solid. A quick fire solution is required. He can hear Mother approaching.

Without the time to contemplate, Bill sucks the long hair back up, Lady and the Tramp style, wincing as it slowly tickles the lips and disappears – and just the nick of time, for Lily’s coming around into view, head already twisting to inspect. She looks on inquisitively, watching the hastily renewed chewing.

Bill smiles awkwardly, trying not to gag, praying she’ll be satisfied enough with the chomping to sod off so he can spit it out.

No such luck.

Scared to part the lips, Bill’s cringing smile (happy yet constipated) keeps her perplexed enough to remain. What doesn’t help normalise Bill’s facial features is the rising fear of what’s fast becoming ever more certain.

He’ll have to swallow the putrid thing.

Still chewing, the strand is manoeuvred to the back of the mouth, then, taking in a sizeable breath up the nose, and gripping his trousers for support, it’s finally gulped down the trachea.

The torture of doing this side-tracks Bill on the reason for swallowing in the first place, and it takes a moment for perspective to return. I’ve done it… Stewart’s the new chef, not Robert!

He looks at the dish below, the one that definitely doesn’t belong to a blonde haired brother.

‘This one, number two,’ declares Bill, a touch hoarse, still wincing as though something’s refusing to go down.

‘You sure?’

Bill’s eyes narrow, suspicious. Does she know it’s Stewart’s… is she trying to persuade me to change…?

He holds her gaze then smiles, defiant.

‘Positive.’

A cough immediately follows the declaration. He thumps the chest, unable to praise the aftertaste while trying to keep the thing down.

‘But you haven’t tried the last one.’

Lily points to the untouched third dish. In his rush to declare, the salmon has completely slipped the mind (also the mouth). Probably wise to sample, thinks Bill, in the interests of maintaining impartiality – and it might help to push down the choking hazard…

A quick bite is taken of the third. It’s gulped without pause.

‘Ugh! Number two please!’

‘Chew it properly Bill. Let me just try…’

‘No! No, it’s my decision, remember?’

He now turns to the meeting room, his hands forming an impromptu megaphone.

‘Number two! Seconds the best! By a hair’s breadth…!’

He has to immediately stifle another throaty cough, having unwittingly reminded himself what lurks within. Thankfully, Lily moves off for the meeting room, wanting to break the news to the hopefuls if they haven’t already heard.

With her gone, nausea comes to the fore.

It touched my lips… it’s inside me!

Not helping is the magazine read before, specifically the article straight after How Not to Stain Your Teeth, which told of the bacteria one often finds in beards. Remembering the finer details, Bill swigs the Britvic, allowing it all corners of the mouth, rinsing the remnants of seafood while ironically resembling an overactive puffer fish.

He still feels a bit queasy. But it was worth it. The belief begins to embolden and he breaks out into a smile.

Concurrent to this, their session finally concluded, the yoga ladies begin crossing to the main stairs.

‘Bye now. Have a lovely day!’

They exit, unimpressed, his earlier outburst still rankling (not to mention his overall disruptiveness the past hour). Even the instructors gone off him. Bill remains serenely oblivious however, even offering a parting wave.

Attention then diverts behind, hearing the door open. It’s Lily coming out with the chosen one. Indeed, the hair’s come good.

It’s Stewart!

The overarching delight of the winner not being Robert means joviality is ready and waiting.

‘Stewart! Congratulations, I’m absolutely thrilled for you, thrilled!

‘Er… thanks’, replies Stewart, wondering when they kissed and made up. Was the cod that good?

‘I’ll see the other two out,’ says Lily to the winner. ‘Congrats again.’

She slips through the double doors once more.

[_“See the other two out” _]repeats Bill to himself, interest for one in particular causing him to follow.

Stewart sidesteps to block.

‘So I was the best, was I?’

There’s a distinctly nasty sneer curling his mouth, smug with the assumption Bill’s putting a brave face on it, pretending to be pleased, pretending the earlier negativity never occurred.

Bill gestures to the doors behind.

‘Yes. I should offer my condolences.’

‘No need, I’ll have to just grin and bear you. …So, the dish, what made it so worthy of winning?’

‘Er, everything.’

Bill now attempts a swerve and bolt, the desire not just to evade further jibes but to witness Robert’s loser face.

‘No, no,’ says Stewart, blocking again. ‘I’d like specifics.’_ _

[_A dog with a bloody bone, you try be nice and congratulate the man…! _]

‘Um… good texture.’

‘So not too hard to swallow? Good.’

Not like you’re thinking, no…

‘What about… well, I’m not sure how much you’d know given your lack of credentials, but what could I improve upon?’

‘Your timing, perhaps?’ says Bill, fast losing his rag.

‘Well, it wasn’t overcooked…’

Bill suddenly twigs that the meeting room doors aren’t the only route of escape. He hastily scuttles to the main stairs. Stewart, however, moves in parallel, the pair now resembling two duelling crabs. Bill can’t muster the nerve to try jostle his way through though; the man’s quite imposing up close, the piercing eyes especially, not to mention how pathetic it would look should he attempt a barge, amplified when he fails miserably. There’s also the risk of touching that beard – Bill then remembers he’s already got a portion tickling his windpipe.

Nonetheless, escape remains on the mind.

Bill now cranes a neck to the staff stairs, the only clear route. He backs away, beginning to swivel.

‘We’ll talk later, alright?’

‘Fine.’

‘Yes, come to think of it there is one thing I’d really like to bring up…’

Turning away, Bill pretends to pull the long hair from the back of his throat. He continues on at a pace and speeds down the stairs, irritated at being kept behind by the teacher during playtime. Even so, between him and Robert, it’s still very much the lesser of two evils.

And at least the git’s stationed in the kitchen; I can avoid him for most of the day…

 

Bill arrives in the lounge, ready for a sibling post-defeat. He finds the room completely empty (of people, not contents). Nonplussed, he happens upon the open lobby door. It brings about an abrupt and alarming notion. Has Robert made the hasty retreat? Has he hightailed already?

Don’t say he’s gone! He had the time to… bloody Stewart…

Just then, someone appears to be coming through the lobby. Hopes are raised – then quickly dashed. It’s Deirdre, hauling through the blackboard sign from outside, clutching it under her arms with the Wanted: Part Time Temporary Chef side showing.

She approaches Bill and plonks the thing down.

‘Needs a wipe.’

Producing a cloth, she looks ready to do the deed when a kitchen door wafts open, courtesy of Mr Jowett trundling out.

‘The first?’ asks Bill, uneasy.

Privy to earlier possible exits, Deirdre nods.

‘Well, here we are…!’ beams Bill, rubbing the hands with glee, before refraining due to the sting.

It doesn’t stop the pep though.

‘Yes, our little parade of flops. The walks of pitiful shame…!’

He turns. Mr Jowett has approached quicker than anticipated.

‘Commiserations…,’ gushes Bill, sympathetic, not pausing for breath between the personality switch.

The recipient looks on, blank. Before, in a room with Robert, Bill and his homosexuality, Mr Jowett barely noticed the older ugly duckling.

It’s a dulled expression soon spotted.

‘Bill Turrock. I tasted your cod. Or was it the prawn…?’

Just then, Mr Brooking distracts. He’s clocked leaving the kitchen in an apron, also dispirited. He wanders over.

‘Oh, you too?’ says Bill, nonchalant through repetition. ‘…Well, bad luck.’

Barely mustering acknowledgement, the rejected repairman reunites with his old table, flopping down into the seat, forgetting the fact he’s still flaunting the pinny. Bill, meanwhile, begins to brace himself for the glum figure sure to pop out next. But then the smile suddenly collapses, replaced with a mounting befuddlement.

Something isn’t right.

‘Wait. Stewart, Robert, you…’

Bill points to Mr Jowett, adding him to the finger tally. But he has three fingers up already. Three cooks, three fingers. So what about Mr Brooking?

Perceived as the anomaly, Bill hurries over to Mr Brooking, reassuring himself that a simple misunderstanding must’ve occurred.

‘Sorry, you’re not a chef, are you?’

‘Well, there’s no need to rub it in,’ snaps Mr Brooking. ‘I tried my best!’

‘But you weren’t with the others, before…’

The man mellows, conceding the point.

‘Oh. Well, no, it was all very last minute. I didn’t have a CV but Lily said I could give it a go…’

‘Her and that helper guy,’ adds Mr Jowett, joining the pair at the table.

“Helper guy?” wonders Bill and Deirdre alike, the latter bringing herself closer also, dragging the blackboard sign along for the ride.

‘Yeah…,’ says Mr Jowett, grasping to recollect a name. ‘The good looking one.’

‘No…’

‘Well,[_ I_] wouldn’t say no!’

‘No, I mean the numbers don’t add up.’

‘Neither will mine come the end of the month,’ laments Mr Jowett. He’ll have to take in a lodger. Is blue shirt guy looking for digs?

All the while, Bill’s still more muddled than a cow on Astroturf. There were three dishes upstairs. The one in the middle had the hair… definitely three… so how…?

He meets Deirdre’s gaze.

‘Should’ve been four dishes, surely?’

As she starts counting on her fingers, the horny reject continues to mourn the job he never had, sighing for anyone who cares to listen.

‘You don’t get opportunities like this every day, not around here…’

Meanwhile, seeing Deirdre’s contribution amounts to the holding up of two index fingers and a thumb, Bill turns to Mr Brooking.

‘[_How _]many chefs took part?’

‘Don’t remind me, please,’ groans Jowett, interrupting with a dramatic flop of the hand. ‘…Us two and the beard. I’ve only got myself to blame I suppose. Got given the chance, blew it.’

‘I shouldn’t cook on a full stomach,’ bemoans Brooking, regretting the adding of the jacket spud.

Bill ignores the asides, too busy processing the intel.

So these two and Stewart… but that leaves…?

‘He must’ve backed out. Robert. The chef job.’

Bill’s reaction to the prospect comes as a surprise. It’s merely disappointing rather than full blown disastrous. Yes, he’d rather see him humiliated, but nonetheless, the main headline remains; Brother Robbo will be gone by days end. Sure, it negated the need to pick Wolfgang Stewart or purposefully swallow a hairball but that’s hindsight.

Probably withdrew because he knew he’d lose…

Deirdre still seems a few steps out of the hula-loop.

‘Robert applied? Can he cook then?’

‘Well, you’re the one who told me… you what?’

‘Me what?’

Confusion abounds. Has she forgotten she started all this fuss in the first place, quoting The Big Interview?

‘Mr Brooking… he told you he had a new hobby.’

‘Yeah, Mr Brooking’s taken up cooking.’

‘You mean Robert?

‘No…’      

About to inform the dolt that, yet again, she’s managed to cross her own wires, Bill finds Mr Brooking kindly holding up his tablet and the cookery magazine[_ ]displayed on the screen [_(Easy Cuisine),] one of a few he’s been gladly perusing since the beef salad, and a good deal before that too, away from the centre.

The sudden fear of what might’ve happened takes hold.

‘I told her about Robert then about my new hobby.’

‘He told me about Robert then about his new hobby. Then I told you!’

Good effing God!

[_It’s true! _]

‘But you said Robert…’

‘Must be your memory problem, remember?’ says Deirdre, soft-hearted.

Bill ignores, rapidly rewinding to the initial conversation with Deirdre. Already appraised but desperate for every detail, he pressed for more, asking “What else did Mr Brooking say…?” It’s now abundantly clear. When picking out an answer, Deirdre didn’t realise interests remained solely on All Things Robert rather than the general interests of a potato scoffing sulk.

After all that; the scatter-brained running about, the herding everyone to and frigging fro, this feared new hobby; it wasn’t Robert’s newfound passion at all, it was just a pleasant distraction for a fatigued pipe repairer. In short, it’s been the biggest waste of time since Admiral Nelson bought himself a skipping rope.

Robert wasn’t even bothered for being the cook!

‘Deirdre gave me the idea actually,’ says Mr Brooking. ‘To apply.’

‘B… but she made it sound like…!’

Bill trails off, fixing Deirdre with a murderous glare.

‘Well, what did I expect… from someone who can’t kapeesh kapeesh!?’

Concurrently, having overseen developments for the past forty seconds, Mr Jowett’s interest is firmly on the wane. He’s got things to do. He’s got some more CV’s to print for a start.

‘Well, nice meeting you all.’

The guy moves off, leaving a silent Bill, busy retracing his sorry steps – a pursuit that soon stumbles upon on a point that doesn’t appear to make sense.

‘But Robert agreed. He saw the sign!’

He looks to Deirdre for agreement, then for reassurance, beginning to think he’s imagined it. He agreed to apply. I heard him. I persuaded him!

Deirdre, however, is too distracted watching Mr Jowett pass by.

‘You too. Bye!’

Mr Jowett glances back for a parting smile. While doing so he becomes drawn to the blackboard propped up beside her.

‘Oh, and say bye to the helper guy.’

Bill surveys the man, confused. Mr Jowett points to the sign. Bill’s now more confused.

‘”Helper”… what “helper”? Let me see…’

Deirdre duly bends to grab. It’s then hoisted up for awaiting eyes.

‘The other side!’ barks Bill, already gravely familiar with the chef vacancy.

She swiftly resolves to rectify, resting it on the floor for a flip and lift. The side of choice is now brought up, though Deirdre fails to note a vertical flip manoeuvre also flips the text, now topsy-turvy.

With a large vein throbbing from his forehead, Bill angrily grabs the board, spins it like a sand timer then thrusts it back into Topsy’s grasp.

It reads Wanted: Permanent Full-Time Helper: Apply within.

Bill stares, agog. How the bloody hell did that get on there… when…?

Less than an hour previous as it turns out, courtesy of Lily. Ever since then, Bill hasn’t been in a position to view this particular side or its content – quite literally in fact, given the helper advertisement, rather unhelpfully, found itself facing away from the front entrance and thus Bill’s beady peepers. Even the strong wind conspired to blow it down in the chef’s favour.

However, that’s not to say the advertised position didn’t catch another’s eye… someone who past that side of the sign, someone who came into the centre within the past hour…

Bill slowly turns to Deirdre, ominous.

‘You don’t think he saw…?’

Indicating the notice, he falters. [_How the hell would she know? _]

Besides, courage for enlightenment isn’t forthcoming. Bill’s trembling at the prospect of asking Mr Jowett. But he has to know.

A readying gulp.

‘The helper guy. What guy was it…?’

‘The good looking guy, blue shirt… what’s his name again… looks kind of like you but good looking.’

Mr Brooking looks up from his tablet.

‘Robert!’

Mr Jowett clicks his fingers. That’s the fella!

Bill suddenly has the strong urge to book in at the nearest clinic, feeling his stomachs on some kind of rotisserie.

Good effing God!

[_It’s true! _]

Mr Jowett looks set to ask for Robert’s contact details or a recent photograph when Bill, now the colour of minimalist paint, darts towards the kitchen.

‘He saw the wrong side! He saw the wrong bloody side and applied!

 

Fourteen

 

Bill whizzes through the back of the café, his mind running faster still, mainly elongating the word “No!”

“Full-time”… “Helper?” …That doesn’t mean he’ll be out here with me… it can’t mean that!!!

Surely I mentioned cooking when I went to persuade him, surely?

The whole thing was such a rushed job thanks to Bill’s eagerness, and the simple fact is he can’t have mentioned it or Robert would’ve flagged it up – that is if he’d let Robert get a solitary word in.

[_Mother must’ve added the advert. Christ, she’ll have accepted with open arms… and I left them to it… for fresh air and a fag! _]

[_It’s a done deal… it’s been a done deal for the past ten minutes! _]

He’s all set to hurtle through the kitchen door. Then, without warning, Bill suddenly flies feet first into the air. Almost horizontal, he then drops flat on his backside, travelling an extra few feet forward given the speed before the slip. His head meets the floor with a crack and bounces straight back up.

‘Jesus wept.’

Now stationary, fairly certain his buttocks are going to be bruised for the rest of his life, Bill feels the back of his head. It’s wet. He turns to look at the floor behind. The assumption’s right. The head landed, and subsequently splashed, smack-bang into the cause of the slip itself; the blasted puddle of leaked water.

Only mildly relieved it isn’t blood sogging up the crown, he glowers at the radiator on the wall. He then cranes focus to a certain radiator repair man. Mr Brooking lifts up the computer tablet to cover his face.

Looking away, wondering if there are any nearby spoons, Bill can’t help spotting the yellow floor sign not far from the puddle. It’s blank. He reaches to turn it around. The other side reads Caution: Slippery surface.

Signs can go swivel, thinks Bill, trying for a push-up.

 

In the kitchen, the lucky winner gets himself accustomed with the cooker. Robert’s nowhere to be seen while Lily’s busy poking her fork into the leftover salmon. The last of the three dishes lined up in a row, the woman’s scoffed more of the stuff than the actual judge.

‘Mmm…!’

This one’s nice, thinks Lily, _probably the best out of… _

She cuts herself off, refraining from voicing her opinion, conscious of Stewart and, in her opinion, his third placed cod.[_ _]

‘That the cod?’ asks Stewart.

‘Mmm…!’

Just then, the adjoining doors burst open. Bill rushes in, his manic eyes fixing straight onto Mother.

‘Helper!Full time!?’

‘I know,’ coos Lily, ‘still can’t believe it either! We’ve you to thank, Bill. You persuaded him.’

Bill visibly wilts at the words. He’s helped his brother become a helper!

‘Yes, but…’

‘You wanted help and you got it. Tracy said you needed it.’

Bill doesn’t know how to reply, his disintegrating quality of life jostling for headspace. Also the scramble for a reversal; for if even the slightest chance exists to stop the appointment, he needs to be on it… but without showing how strongly he wants it, in case suspicions flare.

“Why’s he so eager, anyone would think he doesn’t want his brother working here…!”

Be casual… offer alternatives… does she know about Africa?

‘But you shouldn’t rush these decisions, did you hear about…’

‘I just heard!’ declares Mr Grady, stood by the back wall archway holding the teapot by the handle. ‘Great news.’

‘Isn’t it!’

Lily’s too wrapped up with glee. How splendidly it’s all worked out!

She turns back to Bill.

‘I didn’t think anybody would want to work with you… without pay I mean. Then look who comes along! And it’s Robert so I couldn’t help showing a[_ little_] favouritism.’

‘Nepotism,’ replies Bill, twitching in suppressed agony.

Lily notes it’s probably neither since nobody else applied. You can’t pick a favourite from one. This though is the other reason Bill’s remained in the dark regarding the search for help, not least the fact a search even existed in the first place. The truth; Lily didn’t hold much hope for anyone coming forward. They’ve tried to advertise for volunteers before with little success. Lucky they have Deirdre, and if she had any sense…

As a result, she didn’t bother mentioning it (and Bill likely wouldn’t have listened if she had).

But this time ears are set to receive – and receive they have.

[_“Without pay”… Unpaid… A volunteer job? _]

This new little titbit offers an angle, the possible route to reversal.

Then, as if on cue, the azure shirted Adonis glides down the kitchen stairs. He appears buoyant, or, in Bill’s eyes, puffed up, adjusting his windswept hair, combing it through his fingers in what appears to be a screen test for Pantene.

Bitterness gets a rain check. Bill’s already whizzing towards the lucky frigger, his own ugly mug veering towards the wrong side of manic.

‘Robert, about all this, full time without pay, I mean can you afford…?’

Robert smiles, getting the gist, (though not the actual gist of a brother dissuading due to a loathing of every fibre).

‘Sure. Royalties, from the books. Savings too. Got quite a bit tucked away for a windy day!’

The shampoo commercial gets a mock re-enactment.

‘Mr Moneybags!’ clucks Lily.

Bill strains a “lovely, I needn’t have worried” smile. He already knew, as soon as the words “can you afford?” left the tongue. Bill likes to forget how successful the books have actually been, not least the money they surely rake in. Although very generous with the proceeds; giving to charity, helping the centre keep afloat, Robert, being perfect in every way, would of course be secure and financially sound. Responsible also, money won’t have been frittered away on fancy cars or expensive gadgets; astuteness had him invest it wisely.

So that’s that. What can Bill possibly say or do now? He plumps for ringing tufts of sogged puddle hair. Robert opts for sticking a hand into the posh carrier bag held, lifting out the contents.

‘Champagne anyone?’

Lily doesn’t need to be asked twice.

‘So that’s where you slipped off to, is it?’ says Bill, struggling to sound light-hearted. ‘And you’ve just come in through the back door. Perfect!’

Blind to the double meaning, Robert acknowledges, though a little perturbed at the volume and wild delivery. A similarly untamed wind blows outside. Babushka’s back. So that’s what it was before, notes Bill; _the calm before the sodding turmoil. _

The popping of the champagne cork coincides with Lily’s return, two flutes per hand. She finds Robert looking over the three fish dishes as he pours.

‘Lovely they are… hardly been touched.’

Wiping her mouth, Lily sits back on her seat. She then slides out the one beside, an offer gladly taken up by Robert, sitting down eager to sample. Bill watches him get comfy, smiling serenely, blankly, like a sedated patient refusing to accept reality. Robert’s not permanently staying, no.

But he is.

Maybe just take a strong tranquilizer every day for the next twenty-five years, that might work?

Just then, Deirdre enters, blackboard in tow. Clocking her approaching presence, Bill returns to consciousness, not having forgotten her starring role in the staging of the apocalypse.

‘Our new helper Deirdre,’ declares Bill with restrained venom, pointing to specify the new permanent full-time employee.

‘Can’t wait to get stuck in,’ says Robert. ‘I’ll be hands on, anything… well, anything besides hot teapots!’

Bill’s hands are lovingly indicated. Everyone chuckles except you know who, who instead puts both hands together. The result of the clasp resembles a handy makeshift pistol. He’s unsure, however, on who should receive the lucky aim. He keeps it just below the chin, decision made.

‘Oh, and I heard about a little interview in the local,’ says Lily. ‘Said you’d been spending time with a model?’

‘New hobby, eh?’ hisses Bill to Deirdre. ‘Waxwork, was it?’

She turns away, gurning with embarrassment. Robert, meanwhile, gives a light shake of the head to Mother.

‘Yeah, the article exaggerated that bit. Think they were just looking for a story… and remember, there are two sides to every story!’

‘Two sides,’ says Bill, with a knowing despondency. ‘Right.’

He knows all too well the perils of unforeseen sides.

‘Bit like the sign,’ says Deirdre. ‘Two sides.’

Thrilled to be on the same wavelength for once, she clarifies, lifting the board to show the chef advert. Robert surveys.

‘Oh, yes. Didn’t see that side.’

Bill knows all too well about that too.

‘Oh, and the flower note!’ declares Deirdre. ’Two sides!’

Bill’s heart jolts. He shoots an involuntary, fearful look to Lily, the sort of look you’d get from Anne of Cleaves after she’d accidentally wolfed the last black pudding. It then dawns on Deirdre. She was meant to keep kapeesh. Or was it schtum? She suddenly slaps a hand to her mouth, the act of which causes the blackboard, underarm support removed, to inevitably drop and thud sideways on Bill’s big toe.

‘Ow!’

He’s left to tug himself free, Deirdre busy slapping a second hand to her mouth, shock doubled. It takes a good few seconds for her to assist, grabbing up the board as Bill limps away, biting himself a new lip (hoping the incident at least provides sufficient distraction from the flower card revelation). He then comes face to face with Stewart who’s attaching a bobble to the pulled back locks.

‘Your mum’s idea. Stop hair going in the food.’

Bill doesn’t react. He can’t anymore.

Glazed over, he diverts the hobble away from the bobble.

‘Robert love,’ says Lily, prodding some prawns. ‘Do you know anything about radiators…?’

 

And with that, Bill opens the double doors with his head, leant forward like a sprinter crossing the finish line (if only it’s over), before entering the café and walking straight back into the puddle.

He looks down.

That effing well does it!

A reckless rage comes over and he starts stomping and splashing in mad, displaced fury, features straining to leave his face. Unfortunately, the injured foot hurts after the second stomp so he continues to stamp with just the one.

Although unable to currently appreciate, it’s progress; moving from denial to anger – and pretty quickly in relation to most sufferers. That being said, Bill’s a long way from the stage of acceptance, the prospect too bleak to swallow. He’d rather swallow the rest of Stewart’s beard. What he now faces, thanks to his meddling, is ten times worse than the earlier worst case scenario. Instead of Robert part time in the kitchen for three months, he’s got the guy full time everywhere in the centre permanently. The thought of which keeps him stomping the slip-on.

The outburst hasn’t escaped Mr Brooking. He looks on, now fully convinced the man is on some kind of day release, a decision born out of pity for the good staff at Broadmoor. The repairman’s gaze can’t help but drift downwards, checking around Bill’s ankle for a box shaped bulge. As he does, Bill clocks the attention and stops the stomp; not out of embarrassment (already beyond that) but because it doesn’t seem to be alleviating his anger one jot. He can’t properly vent with only one foot.

Sure enough, the foul mood follows him through the café and past Mr Brooking.

‘Um… Bill?’

An unexpected and pleasant surprise – a combination he’s forgotten existed. Mr Brooking’s earlier forgetting of the name had stuck in the mind, especially given the assumption it was done purely to exaggerate his status as a nonentity compared to Robert – but now he’s actually taken the effort to remember it!

Bill turns around, keen to reciprocate the olive branch.

‘Yes, Mr Brooking?’

‘Can I have it…[_ the bill…?_]’

Mr Brooking mimes writing on a notepad then taps on his watch. Bill glares at the man, incensed, but the tablet has already been returned to the face.

Bill spins on his heel without a word, mouth clenched tight. He strides off towards reception. It’s an approach with an audience. The desperate unemployed scruff from before has a face up against the lobby door window, desperate. Have they read the CV? Could they understand the writing?

Completely oblivious amongst the red mist, Bill continues behind reception. He stops at the cash register and begins to work it, with the apparent objective to break every button he presses.

Then, in the corner of his eye; the peace lily.

The potted flower is now, rather ironically, the symbol for unremitting stress and everything going tits up today. With this in mind, and in the interests of rebalancing his shattered Zen, Bill grabs the scissors on reception and chops the lily off at the stalk.

Bloody vandals, thinks Bill, prepping an explanation for when the time comes.

‘I’ve come back for the flower…’

The time has come.

Gaze drifting from the act of vandalism, Bill finds a face in the lobby staring across the desk. It’s not the sweaty unemployable but Rupert, the actual purchaser and sender of the flower, back to repossess his surprise gift. He’s afforded a surprise of his own. He’d be remiss not to note the peace lily now of two separate pieces.

Bill smiles weakly, placing down the choppers. After failing to reattach the flower with a stapler, he offers over the piece separated from the pot. Rupert stares at the amputated gift in his hands then looks back to Bill, waiting for an explanation.

‘Saves her on the baggage allowance.’

Bill now wonders whether to book a last minute flight himself, perhaps a low-cost fare to Niagara Falls… or maybe Tracy has room in her luggage…

 

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Career Advice (The Sunny Centre Series #1)

Meet Bill Turrock; a balding, middle-aged community centre worker who likes nothing better than playing second fiddle to his brother, a best selling self-help writer, who, amongst his many achievements, helped save The Sunny Centre from closure. Living and working with his mothering mother Lily, Bill struggles with the locals constant fawning of his brother (‘Saint Robert’) and the day to day running of the place. Not helping matters are ditzy volunteer Deirdre and wise cracking cook Tracy. However, as bad as things seem now, it can only get worse for poor Bill Turrock…

  • Author: Greg Webber
  • Published: 2017-08-31 21:20:14
  • Words: 50820
Career Advice (The Sunny Centre Series #1) Career Advice (The Sunny Centre Series #1)