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 steelwork 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 sugar corporation had disaster recovery plans in place. Production would move to their Thetford plant, which would step up to a three shift, seven day system. The 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 forty-four 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 sugar corporation 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 thirty-eight. 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 her 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 well 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 that was the end of the matter. He captained the school rugby fifteen 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 Leeds A&E failed to notice that Michael’s lower leg had no blood supply before applying the plaster. 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 Leeds 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: now he looked quiet and beaten.
David said the answer was an au pair. Leeds 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. Surgeons, occupational health professionals and physiotherapists were still undecided on his best option.
He 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, had awakened.
Once Michael was installed in a new bed beneath the front window, David called Heidi in, to make the formal introductions. She was tall, straight and slim but she moved with the quiet graceful force and control of a dancer or gymnast. He gazed at her impassive face, tanned, with a few tiny freckles beneath her eyes; only the slightest hint of a smile as she shook his hand with cool fingers and scarlet nails, “Hello” with heavy accent and Scandinavian up-tone inflection. He didn’t want to let go of her hand but she looked down, puzzled, and he shook himself out of his reverie and let her go. He noticed what dazzling white teeth she had. Her perfume lingered.
Heidi’s duties were not onerous. She looked after Michael for five days whilst his father was at work, usually 07:30 to 18:00. She had weekends and evenings to herself, in theory. In practice, she spent most of her time off in Michael’s room, much as she did when on duty, reading to him, watching television with him, talking to him. Occasionally, David would insist that Heidi accompany him to the pub for dinner, joking that he needed looking after too. Michael didn’t see the joke and seethed with jealousy.
In their time together, Michael probed Heidi to find what made her tick. Although she was caring and attentive to his needs, he found her distant, cold even. She regularly expressed gratitude for the opportunity that Michael’s injury had afforded her. This puzzled Michael greatly: opportunity for what he wondered? A twenty-two year old Norwegian, from a bustling port town, looking after a teenage lad in a rural backwater: it made no sense. But he kept prying, even though she tended to clam up, and discovered she meant “opportunity to escape”. She would not say what she needed to escape from, but he noted she would not speak of her father, even though she spoke fondly of her mother. He sensed a secret.
Heidi seemed to get on well enough with both of Michael’s parents, though rather better with David, since she had so much more opportunity to see him. She tried to tell Michael how lucky he was to have such a caring father but he didn’t want to hear it.
Prior to his injury, “love” meant the convenient fit Michael enjoyed with his parents. He sometimes overheard the other sixth formers talking about their latest crushes, jealousies, lusts, and found them puerile. Now he couldn’t bring himself to even think the “L word”. Heidi had infected every cell of his being and every cell yearned for her. He examined her for hours at a time, never tiring is finding new miniscule details; the cut of her short brown hair; the tiny mole on the lobe of her left ear; the enticing way she looked above his head when she finished speaking; the slope of her not quite straight nose; the scent of her; her beautiful, long, clever fingers; he found every detail perfect. What was happening to him? He’d liked girls before, but had never taken the idea of a relationship seriously. He’d experimented with a snog and a fumble, driven by curiosity, at a couple of parties, but then lost interest.
Michael tried to recover his previous calm and resolve. He tried to concentrate on his A-level studies and catch up on the lost weeks but it was hopeless. Heidi tried to help, though her English was not really up to science studies. Hadn’t people suffered far worse catastrophes than his, yet gone on to lead full lives and successful careers? Michael could not wrench his mind away from Heidi long enough to make sense of the words on the page. When she left the room, he suffered an anguish and agitation he could not explain. He wanted to touch her and devised plans to make this possible: offering to hold her tee-shirt down while she removed her sweater, placing a book for her to read on her lap, putting his hand under hers when she handed him his lunch plate. At night, when she was upstairs and he was supposed to be sleeping, he tossed and fretted with imagined scenarios, where he thrashed her bullying father and she fell gratefully into his protective strong arms.
He tried to entice her into discussing romance. She wasn’t interested. He asked if she had a boyfriend; she gave him a flat “no”. He asked her what kind of boys she liked and she said “older ones”: it was like a slap. She must have been aware of his pain, yet she still looked at him as though nothing had happened, with an ice-cold stare.
One evening, she came to collect his discarded dinner plate from atop his bed quilt. As she leant over the bed, he had a perfect view down the v-neck of her blouse, to her braless brown breasts and tiny dark nipples. As she bent, she turned her head and started to ask why he had eaten so little, then caught the direction of his ogle, dropped the plate, clutched her arm across her chest, turned and ran from the room. He called after her but to no avail: she did not return. He hadn’t meant to look down her blouse but he couldn’t help himself. Later, he heard her chatting with his father, watched them wander down the garden path together and away down the lane to the village, probably to the pub. He heard his father laugh out loud beyond the hedge, presumably at something Heidi had said. Michael darkly imagined she’d said “I caught him looking at my tits!”
Michael wept with anger and frustration. He was sixteen years old, yet crying like a baby! “Take a hold of yourself” he shouted then wept all the more. The pain he had suffered from his leg injury was nothing compared to what he felt now. He wanted to die, he wanted everyone to die, the world to end, his father to crumble to dust, and still he wept and wailed like a wounded animal. His grief utterly overwhelmed him. He cried until he was exhausted, curled up like a puppy in the middle of his bed, where he fell asleep.
Michael woke with a jolt. The house was dark and silent. He shivered with cold in his sweat soaked pyjamas. He groped for the quilt but it had fallen to the floor. He succumbed to an involuntary sob then quickly held himself still. He resolved he would not go down that road again. He must speak with Heidi. She must understand, be made to understand, that he needed her and she was his. He tried to crawl off the bed but fell in a heap, the quilt saving his shoulder. He crawled to his crutches by the door and used the welsh dresser to lever himself upright, plates rattling in protest. Out into the hallway, then the slow painful fight up the stairs, sweating and panting with exertion. His bedroom door was open. He swung himself inside and switched the light on. He winced in the sudden brightness, then took in the surroundings, familiar yet not familiar, his room but her things. The bed was empty and still made. He felt a stab of pain: she had left! But no: all her stuff was still here.
Michael heaved a sigh of relief, backed out and struggled down the landing towards his parents’ room. He must ask his father where she was. As he grappled with crutches and the searing pain in his leg, a guilty memory invaded his mind. He remembered abusing his parents’ bed as an impromptu trampoline when he was young. He remembered the squeak of the springs and the flap of the headboard. Then another sound came, like a squeak or even a whimper, in the same rhythm. He nudged the door to his parent’s room open with his forehead. His father’s rather spotty bum was pounding away between Heidi’s thighs, urged on by her scarlet finger nails. His face was turned away from Michael, issuing grunts of exertion. Heidi was looking at Michael with her usual cool stare.