Written by Rob
They say accidents come in sets of three. The fire at Molly Stevens’ place of work – the Catterick sugar factory – qualified as accident number one. It started on the day after Boxing Day, when the place was utterly deserted. Not even security staff were on hand to notice anything awry. All of the businesses in the area were similarly locked up and deserted for the holiday. The nearest residents were at least two miles away, and the fog that day hid the smoke from view. The alarm was eventually raised by a gamekeeper who came to investigate the smell. By that time, the fire could have been raging for hours. It took the fire service fourteen hours to subdue the flames.
The damage was extensive. Little remained of the factory but a tangled, blackened mess of steel work and machinery. The offices where Molly worked as chief accountant had fared a little better, in that the basic structure was still standing. But the insurance assessor said, with a pained sigh, as though it was his own money, that demolition was inevitable.
The refining company had disaster recovery plans already in place. Production would move to their Thetford plant, which would step up to a three shift, seven-day per week system. The Catterick workers would be billeted in a nearby RAF barracks for four nights each week. Molly could not help but wonder who had the friends in high places to make that possible. Buses were chartered to ferry folk to Thetford on Monday morning and home again Friday night. Weekend shifts were all covered by the indigenous workforce. This five-day commute was projected to last until the Catterick plant was rebuilt and recommissioned, thirteen months later.
Dr. David Stevens greeted the news of his wife’s planned absences with little emotion. At 44 years of age, his life as a country general practitioner was a comfortable, predictable plod. Very little happened in Marsham village where he lived and worked, and that suited him just fine. A few more dinners for one at the Marsham Arms would be a blessing in very thin disguise: he didn’t think much to Molly’s culinary skills. Provided he kept up the exercise regime he had set himself, avoided the chips and the temptation of extra beer, all would be well. Not least, the prospect of spending four nights each week in the company of the Marsham’s barmaid, Sally, generated a sparkle of excitement.
Molly, meanwhile, had very mixed feelings about the whole business. She was six years younger than her husband and found his country life-style rather restrictive and not a little boring. The initial shock of finding the devastation at the factory on the second of January had not left her. She had worked there since she came down from university and regarded the site as her personal fiefdom. The refining company had put her through her accountancy exams and invested great faith in her abilities. Not many women achieved plant chief accountant at the age of only 38. They had been so supportive when she gave birth to her son, Michael. She was grateful for their trust and felt a bond of loyalty. When her clerks started to moan about the long hours, additional travel and disruption to home life, she gave them little succour. They would pull together until this problem was sorted.
The prospect of four nights in every seven in the company of her work pals, whilst surrounded by lots of young men in uniform, made Molly’s face flush. She had never contemplated being unfaithful to David and she didn’t now. Even though their love making was rather predictable and wooden, she knew he loved her and she him. But she also knew that she still “had the look”, attracted admiring glances with her slender legs and waist. The prospect of the attention, the opportunity, the chase, even if she had no intention of being caught, sent a thrill through her body that she had not known since the early days with David.
Michael Stevens’ pals liked to rag him about his good fortune. He landed straight As in his GCSEs with apparently slight effort and looked set for impressive A-level results; a place in Liverpool University’s school of medicine, following in David’s footsteps. He had much in common with his father: the same boyish good looks, the same quiet demeanour, the same stoical acceptance of the world around him. When Michael spoke, people listened. When arguments broke out in the sixth form common room, Michael would listen to the ranting, observe the emotion, take in the facts, then issue the answer in a quiet firm voice. Everyone understood that it was the end of the matter. He captained the school rugby team to great success. This was not because he was a great player: he had not the strength, speed nor agility to be so; it was his leadership, tactical and organisational skills, coupled with near devotion from his team, which made him a winner.
Michael’s good fortune deserted him one Saturday afternoon in late January, when a scrum collapsed, snapping his right femur, and later, when the junior doctor in Accident & Emergency failed to notice that Michael’s lower leg had no blood supply before applying the plaster cast. Molly thought her son’s pitiful complaining about the pain was most out of character. When David arrived an hour later and saw the colour of Michael’s foot, it was too late to save his calf muscles. David’s anger and frustration was all-consuming, but he recognised the junior doctor was only partially culpable, having been on duty amongst the drunks and ne’er-do-wells for thirteen hours straight.
Michael regarded the news that only his right calf muscles, and not the foot, must be amputated, as a seriously fucked-up version of good fortune. A lengthy period of convalescence was inevitable. Molly found herself torn between the two greatest loves of her life: her job and her son. The family would have struggled to cope with Michael’s predicament, even without her working week absence. As it was, they clearly needed support.
Managers at the Infirmary feared a sizeable malpractice suit and were falling over one another to help. They offered, albeit without prejudice, a bed in their staff convalescence facility, but Molly feared for Michael’s emotional well-being. He’d always been the strong quiet type, and now he looked quiet and beaten.
David said the answer was an au pair. The Infirmary almost snapped his hand off – au pairs were considerably cheaper than convalescence home beds.
Heidi arrived from Stavanger a week later and moved into Michael’s room. Fred, the gardener, helped David convert the dining room of their cottage into a temporary ground floor bedroom for Michael. David arranged for a district nurse from his surgery to visit every morning. Molly checked everything to her satisfaction. And so, all was set for Michael’s return.
Michael had spent long hours considering his predicament and it seemed pretty bleak. He knew he would never run again. It was possible he would never walk without crutches again. There was talk of locking his ankle but this would give him a most unnatural gait and, possibly, big problems with the ankle joint later in life. Surgeons, occupational health professionals and physiotherapists were still undecided on his best option. His mobility, or rather, the lack of it, once taken for granted, was now the number one issue in his life.
Michael saw her face, fleetingly, at his bedroom window, as the paramedics lifted his stretcher out of the back of the ambulance. Heidi, he guessed. By the time they had carried him down the garden path, she was hovering on the front door step, behind his fussing parents. Her big, cool, khaki eyes flashed at him, then she was gone. He’d barely seen her but already something deep inside him, something he didn’t know was there, was awake.
As a two-part publication on Inkblots, Heidi was submitted within our forum’s Half Hour Challenge back in February under the theme ‘Fanning the Flames’. Since it fitted so perfectly, Rob spent some extra time on the piece, given us a wonderful short story to read. And as it’s part of our June theme this month, betrayal plays a big part in Michael’s life, so make sure you return on the 20th when part two will be published. If you enjoyed Rob’s work, feel free to check out his other short stories including, “Man’s Salvation” and “Ending at the Start”.
Featured Image CC // Kerrie_