The house was too quiet. The baby was asleep after a night full of screaming and tears. Steve sat at the kitchen table, baby monitor next to his hands, resting on the table top. He listened to his son’s breathing, feeling his own body relax and his eyes close. Everything ached. He’d never been much for crying. It just wasn’t done in his family. He had shed multiple tears as the midwife had handed a newborn Joe for him to clumsily hold for the first time. He seemed to remember getting a little watery-eyed when Rachel had agreed to marry him. The only other time he could remember crying was when he was small and had fallen off his bike. His dad had picked him up, roughly brushed him down and plonked him back on the saddle. Steve wondered briefly what he would do when Joe fell off his bike.
The emptiness of the house brought him back. The silence itself was a sound, reverberating off the walls. Joe could certainly hear it. He had been such a quiet baby when they’d brought him home. He cried when he was hungry, or needed changing, but otherwise seemed an unnaturally happy, gurgling baby. He hadn’t even woken when Steve’s mates had come round to watch the World Cup, cheering, supping at their beers.
Now Joe cried and cried. He screamed, he sobbed, he hiccupped until he passed into a fretful sleep. Steve knew he should sleep when Joe slept, but he couldn’t.
The amount of tears he had cried these past few months had more than made up for a lifetime of not crying. It wasn’t over yet.
At first, Steve couldn’t sleep because when he closed his eyes, he saw her face. Now he couldn’t sleep because of what might wake him.
Still, his mind grew fuzzy, his heavy, exhausted eyes closing properly, his brain shutting down to sleep.
The baby monitor crackled.
Steve’s eyes opened, staring forward, past the baby monitor on the table and into the hallway. It was real. He hadn’t dreamt it, he hadn’t imagined it. He wasn’t having delusions. He knew in his gut that this was real, this was happening.
Holding his breath, he looked at the monitor and watched the light flicker as the noise grew. It sounded like white noise, the crackling of empty space when an old analogue television couldn’t be tuned in.
A flash of light caught the corner of his eye and Steve looked back up to the hallway. There was only darkness.
Then Joe’s crying broke through and Steve was on his feet, knocking the table, causing the monitor to fall over as he ran up the stairs. The crackling on the monitor quietened until the only sounds in the empty kitchen were the muffled whispers of Steve calming his son.
Erica couldn’t see clearly as she ran down the stairs, nearly falling at the last step and knocking into a suited man and his cup of coffee. Breathing an apology, she pushed through the doorway and slammed into a door. Fumbling for her security pass, she opened it and went through, into the fresh air of the world.
The office windows looked out over her so Erica didn’t feel she could just put her hands on her knees and breathe without someone asking questions.
Oh, to hell with it.
She put her hands on her knees and took a couple of deep breaths. Let them ask questions. It would be wonderful for someone to ask her what’s wrong. What’s wrong? she would say. What’s wrong? She would tell them what was wrong. A rejection email, that’s what was wrong. From her own manager, telling her she wouldn’t be getting that promotion. Four years of hard work, four years of overtime, working during the weekends, of fighting to be heard and straining to come up with good ideas which were then ignored. Four years of her life that she’d put into this job and all Erica could see when she read the email was that it was four years wasted.
Tears pricked at her eyes. She blinked them back, stood straight and sucked in more air. It wasn’t fresh. It was fresher than the air in the office which was continually turned around by the air conditioning unit, but the air outside was filled with the stench of exhaust fumes from the adjacent busy road. The same road that meant that there was no peace to be found here either.
Erica took out her phone and reread the email.
Dear Miss Murray
Thank you for attending an interview for the position of Senior Account Manager at Goldbrick Communications.
Unfortunately, you were unsuccessful at this time.
We hope you will apply again in the future and good luck.
Director of Marketing
Unfortunately, she had been unsuccessful at this time.
Erica read that sentence over and over.
The email was so short, so impersonal.
‘Four years,’ Erica murmured. The shock was turning over and pitching into anger. She wiped under her eyes with the tip of her finger, slid her phone back into her pocket and made her way back into the office.
She silently walked up the stairs. In the depths of the ladies toilets on the second floor, Erica wiped her tears and blew her nose. As she washed her hands, she stared into her own eyes in the mirror. Four years. How long would she have to wait? Another four years? That would be four years with someone else as her supervisor, someone else doing the job she had worked so hard for. Had they hired internally? Would she be working for someone she knew? Or would they be new? Erica’s mouth twisted. She knew what that would mean. If they were new, they wouldn’t understand the role. No one new to an organisation knew the ins and outs immediately. Erica would end up doing some of the work, work that she wouldn’t be getting paid for, for the job that should have been hers in the first place.
Now the anger began to burn in her belly and she snarled at her reflection.
She wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t sit at that desk for another four years, working hard only to be rejected again.
Erica left the toilets and made her way back to her desk. Keeping her head down, avoiding eye contact with anyone who passed. She didn’t want to talk. The soft rock music that pumped through the Goldbrick Communications office seeped into her ears and her right eye gave a subtle twitch in response. The office itself was littered with brightly coloured chairs and large desks. Big leafy plants were stationed at either end of every desk, towering over the Macs with their shiny screens. The carpet was coloured too, a bright blue that the CEO spent good money on keeping clean every month. His semi-private office, made pointless by the large glass wall separating him from his employees, was empty. He was in Italy, skiing.
Thankfully, Erica’s team was currently represented by a load of empty desks. Her manager was in a meeting. A few were on holiday, one was on maternity leave, others were in meetings and one was off sick with depression. Erica considered that. Would the doctor sign her off sick? She sighed. No. That wasn’t who she was, it wasn’t what she wanted.
She fell into her chair and stared blankly at her computer screen. After a quick glance around, Erica loaded up the screen, typed in her password and opened the search engine. She paused and looked over at the empty desk next to her. Pouting, she pulled out her phone again and sent a quick message.
I didn’t get the job.
Placing the phone carefully on the desk where she could see it, Erica began a job search. The rock music grated at her. The office had seemed wonderful four years ago when she’d first stepped foot inside as a marketing assistant. She’d had a plan. She would work hard, have wonderful, original ideas and be promoted within her first year. Within five years, she’d be creative director, in charge of all the marketing accounts within the agency.
Of course, maybe she wouldn’t stay at this particular agency, but her progression would be so swift she wouldn’t have time to move to another employer.
Her phone buzzed against the wood.
What?! That’s insane. Do you know who got it? Do you want to have drinks tonight?
Erica grinned. Thank the powers for Jess. She looked back at her friend’s empty desk. Maybe she should go part-time too. The week would certainly be more bearable without a promotion if she was only in the office at the same time as Jess.
It had taken two years to get the promotion to account manager. That was fine. A vacancy simply hadn’t come up and Erica was learning so much. She enjoyed the work and they’d put her through college for her qualifications, paying for all of it. She owed them. So she hadn’t even entertained the idea of leaving. It would be fine, she’d thought. In two years, she’d be a senior account manager and then the marketing manager. So it would take her eight years instead of five to become creative director. She could handle that. Except that it would take longer now, wouldn’t it. This was the second time she’d applied for the senior role. The second time she’d been interviewed by her own manager. The second time she’d been rejected. Yet, when she asked him about it he could only tell her what wonderful work she was doing.
She bashed out a reply.
No idea. And yes yes yes please. I’ll come to you.
Going back to her job search, Erica saved the links for two managerial jobs. The pay wasn’t enough. Was it her or were salaries decreasing? They wanted previous managerial experience as well. How was she supposed to get that when the people who knew her and what she was capable of wouldn’t give her a chance?
Her phone buzzed.
Great. I’ll get the alcohol. Come for dinner. 6pm.
Erica gave her phone a smile and went to reply when it jumped and buzzed in her hand. Erica managed to not give a surprised squeal as “Mum” flashed up on the screen. All thoughts of the rejection, anger and alcohol were replaced with a splash of fear. Sliding the green button, she held the phone to her ear, moving her chair to turn her back on the office.
‘Hello. Everything okay?’ she asked.
‘We’re all fine,’ said her mum. ‘Your grandmother’s gone missing again.’
Erica exhaled slowly.
‘Have you checked the cemetery?’
‘Of course. First place we looked. She’s not there. Has she said anything to you recently?’
Erica looked over her computer screen as her manager came back to his desk, smiling, deliberately avoiding eye contact.
‘Oh no! That’s awful!’ Erica exclaimed. Her manager peeked over at her. ‘I don’t know. I’ll see what I can do. I’ll be there as fast as I can.’
‘What? You don’t need to come, Ric. I was just wondering if she’d—’
‘Yep, as fast as I can. I’m on my way.’
‘You didn’t get the job, did you?’ A lump rose in Erica’s throat. ‘Oh, sweetie. I’m sorry. Screw them. Come home and we’ll sort out a little search party.’
Erica nodded and then realised her mother couldn’t see that.
‘Okay. Love you.’ She hung up and began to tidy her desk away. ‘Mark?’ Her manager turned to her in his swivel chair. ‘I don’t know if you heard any of that.’
‘Family emergency?’ he asked, biting into an apple.
‘My grandmother’s gone missing from her nursing home.’
‘Didn’t she do that last month?’
And last week, thought Erica.
‘Yes. She does it a lot. She’s what’s known as a flight risk. Apparently. My work is all up to date.’ It always was. ‘I don’t have any meetings. But I’ll keep my phone on.’ Erica wondered why she said that. Why did she always have to make herself available to these people?
‘Please make sure you do. I hope you find her. Maybe you could work from home if you find her quickly?’ Mark raised his eyebrow expectantly.
Something inside Erica screamed but instead of letting it out, she held up her laptop case.
‘Packed up and ready to go. See you tomorrow,’ she added quickly. Mark nodded as she turned and walked as fast as she could out of the office and towards her car.
Once in her sky-blue Mini Cooper, Erica relaxed back into the seat and pulled out her phone.
Gran’s gone missing again and isn’t at the cemetery. I might be late. Will let you know.
She turned on the engine and music blared into the car. Pushing away thoughts of the rejection email, Erica replayed her last conversation with her grandmother as she drove out of the car park and towards home.
Her phone buzzed as she drove. That would be Jess replying, she thought, so she ignored it for now.
Her phone tucked away in her pocket, Jess held five shopping bags in her arms, slammed the car door shut with her hip and somehow managed to find the lock button on her car key. The car blipped and seemingly went to sleep. Jess took a deep breath. The bags were getting heavier. That would be the potatoes. And that bottle of wine.
Still, she thought, I’m on my own driveway leading up to my own front door with my own shopping. It made her smile and the bags seemed a little lighter. But only a little.
She staggered sideways, turning to face said front door when a slam made her look up.
On next door’s driveway a large man was doing the same as her, his arms comfortably full of shopping bags. Jess didn’t bother to count whether he was carrying more than her. It was hard enough wrenching her gaze from his face.
He caught her eye and for a moment they stared at one another.
‘Hi.’ He nodded at her.
Jess managed a smile, feeling the bag with the potatoes slipping from her grip. The big man with short dark hair shaven close to his scalp, biceps bulging under the weight of shopping, turned and walked into her neighbour’s house.
Jess struggled down her own driveway and stared at her front door.
Her neighbour was an elderly man who had glared at them from the window on the day they’d moved in. When she’d gone round to introduce herself, he’d snidely remarked that he hoped her child would be quiet and that she wouldn’t be bringing strange men into the neighbourhood at all hours. Jess had avoided him after that, giving herself a mental note to interrogate the neighbours next time she was buying a house.
Was this the neighbour’s son? Who else could he be? And how was she going to open the front door?
With an exasperated sigh, Jess put down all five bags and unlocked the door, pushing it open to reveal the stark white walls of her new home. With a grin, big handsome man not forgotten but pushed to the back of her mind, Jess took her shopping in and unpacked.
Flicking the kettle on, Jess sat at her kitchen table. A row of cabinets and the oven in front of her, large fridge to her left and a wall of glass looking out onto the garden behind her, Jess checked her phone. Erica hadn’t replied. She considered calling her. No. She would be driving, or busy. She’d give it another hour. Except that in an hour she’d have an unruly four-year-old at home. Jess checked her phone again. It was nearly time to pick Ruby up.
‘But then Miss Crabby said I did it when I didn’t. She made me sit away from everyone, which wasn’t nice of her. Can I watch TV?’
Jess blinked. Her daughter had been a fountain of words since Jess had met her at the school gates. She had so much to say since she started school.
‘Hang on,’ Jess told her, taking off Ruby’s coat and hanging it up. ‘So many things are wrong with what you just said. Firstly, it’s Miss Gabby, not Miss Crabby. Never call her Miss Crabby because one day you’ll accidentally say it to her face. Secondly, did you do it?’
Ruby stared up defiantly at her mother.
‘Of course not. Can I go watch TV?’
‘Of course not. We’re not done yet. Do you know who did do it?’
‘Charlie did it.’
She was lying, Jess knew, but she didn’t want to say that outright because parenting books and advice columns sometimes said that was a bad thing to do. Jess frowned as her daughter looked up at her.
‘Sometimes we get punished for things we didn’t do,’ Jess murmured, her mind springing to her own job.
‘That’s not fair.’
Jess cocked her head at her daughter.
‘Did you do it?’
Ruby threw up her arms dramatically.
Jess smiled. There it was.
‘Well then. Don’t put paint on the walls and then blame someone else. Be glad all Miss Gabby did was separate you.’ Jess hesitated. ‘What was the point of separating you?’
‘Charlie dared me to do it. Can I go watch TV now?’
Jess had to stop herself from laughing.
‘Nope. Look, Ruby, we’ve got this lovely house now with a lovely garden. You can watch TV later but for now go and change out of your uniform and then why don’t you go play in the garden?’
‘I can watch TV later?’
Ruby looked sceptical.
‘Can I stay up late?’
‘Can I have ice cream?’
Ruby considered this.
‘Okay.’ She jumped over her bag on the floor and ran up the staircase, her footsteps echoing around the hallway. Jess picked up the bag and took it into the kitchen to dissect its innards.
She was just peeling a flyer for a school fair and a permission slip for a visit to a farm from one another when Ruby flew past her, through the open patio doors and into the garden.
‘Careful!’ Jess shouted after her, sniffing at the sticky substance on her fingers.