Excerpt for An Empty Stool by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.


Also by TJ Whittle


Without Your Courage












An Empty Stool


By TJ Whittle


©2017 TJ Whittle


(trade) ISBN: 9781942976332

(ebook) ISBN: 9781942976349

(pdf) ISBN: 9781942976356


This is a work of fiction - names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual person living or dead, business, events or locales is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

For permission requests, write to the publisher at lee@desertpalmpress.com, or


Attention: Permissions Coordinator.

Desert Palm Press

1961 Main Street, Suite 220

Watsonville, California 95076


Editor: CK King

Cover Design: TreeHouse Studio, Winston-Salem, NC








Blurb


Trauma glues you to your seat. Don’t move, don’t make any noise, it’s safer to be unseen. And really, watching the world through a lens isn’t so bad. You’re doing ok till, one day, someone notices you and makes contact. That first little nudge is so shocking that even your favourite café stool isn't safe anymore. But when Hope keeps calling, what do you do?





Acknowledgements


Thanks to the love and support of my wife, I continue to grow as both an author and a person. Thank you for the love you provide that allows this to happen. You encourage me to write, to be all I can, do all that makes me happy. Then we move on and you become my editor. During this stage, you push me a little more and then a little more again, challenging me the entire way.

Kerry Keohane Debrah, thank you for being my straight wife. You get me, you accept me, and you love me. Thank you for all your support. You are a strong woman who I am proud to know and love.

To all our children and grandchildren, thank you for the joy and laughter you bring to our world. We love each and every one of you. You bring so much pride and joy.





Dedication


This book is dedicated to all those who give of themselves day in and day out to help keep those without a voice safe. Our children are our future, and every one of them deserve to be loved and nurtured. Every one of them should know they are unique and important.

I’d like to say a special thank you to Helene Greening Mahros. Thanks for the help you gave me with this story, and thank you for all you have done over the years to keep so many children safe. You are a very special woman.





Table of Contents


Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six

About TJ Whittle

Other Books from Desert Palm Press






Prologue


AN ORANGEY-BROWN POWDER covered the tips of her small fingers, the metal cool to her touch. “Two times one equals two.” Her voice was barely a whisper. The last thing she wanted was to alert them to where she was.

Two times three equals—”

Bang. A slamming door silenced her. She rested her head on the pillow she’d managed to bring with her and lay still, the dusty wooden planks cold against her skin. Her shorts and t-shirt gave little protection from the crisp night air.

The two distinctive voices again began yelling at one another from the kitchen below her. Knowing it was safe, she continued with her ritual.

Two times four equals eight.”

When the rumbling began, she knew she could count on the springs. Tonight, as the yelling got louder, the coils were again there for her. They’d never let her down. They allowed her to stay there for as long as she needed.

Fifteen times four equals sixty.”

Sleep was calling to her. The yelling was loud but had become nothing more than white noise as her eyelids gave up their battle, the room now in darkness. Suddenly, her eyes flew open. She didn’t know what was happening. Something had her leg, and she was being dragged from her precious springs. The safety she’d felt earlier was now replaced with terror. The darkness that had surrounded her like a blanket was now invaded by a bright light as she was yanked out from under her bed.

Her eyes worked to adjust to the sudden change. A searing pain spread through her head, again and again. What was it? She didn’t know. It was matched by sharp jolts in her back. Panic flooded her veins. She became aware of something familiar. The voice of her mother. What was she saying? Telling herself to focus, she listened carefully to the words that were all a blur, blending into one another.

It’s all your fault. If it wasn’t for you we’d be happy. You ruined everything.”

Whose fault? What was ruined? Who made her mother unhappy? And why was that piercing pain still ripping through her head?

She recognised where she was. Her eyes adjusted to the light, and she could see the broken banisters along the stairs. Her head came down hard on each step, as she was pulled down them on her back. What was going on? Why was this happening?

The hand gripping her leg pulled harder. She was now next to the cupboards in the kitchen. Two of the rickety chairs were tipped over beside the table, a broken beer bottle beneath one. The floor beneath her was cold and wet, the broken lino scratched her bare arms. The rumble surrounded her now. It was loud. Her head felt like it was being squeezed and there was a buzzing in her ears. She had to concentrate to make out the words. They all tangled together in a mumbled haze, but if she really listened, she could make them out.

Yeah, it’s all her fault. We’d be having fun if it wasn’t for her. All the money we waste feeding the ungrateful brat. And the clothes she just keeps getting too big for.”

Then it was her mother’s turn, “Yeah, selfish cow. She needs to be taught a lesson.”

That’s what I’m gonna do,” the deeper, gravelly voice of her father answered.

What were they talking about? Who was going to be punished? She felt a sudden pain bite into her arm, going deeper and deeper. Not stopping. Then another. And another. What was that? Was she being stung? She didn’t know, but she needed it to stop. She tried to move away but couldn’t. Something was trapping her there, unable to escape. What was pinning her down?

She looked up. Her mother was holding her to the floor, a strange smile over her face. One she’d never seen before. A smile should be friendly, so why was this one scaring her, and what was her mother now laughing at? As she tried to work it out, another bout of pain began. She turned to look at her arm. The bright-red tip of a cigarette was slowly being pressed into her skin. That smell. She didn’t know what it was, but it was awful. It got into her nostrils and made her think she was going to throw up. Suddenly everything went dark. The deep scratchy voice melded with the higher, witchy shrieks of her mother before fading away.


***


Jo bolted upright, sweat pouring from her. She struggled to breathe in deeply, slowly allowing air to inflate her lungs to their full capacity before releasing it again. As her pulse began to slow, she turned the bedside lamp on. Jo looked to her hands. They lay trembling in her lap, resting above the covers. The nightmares that enjoyed disturbing her sleep so often were more intense lately, and she wondered why.

Her eyes tentatively made their way up her arm to her bicep. The soft flesh that was normally covered, out of view of others, was now exposed. Crimson spots of scarred skin looked back at her, as angry as ever.

Allowing her eyes to continue on the path she knew they needed to take, Jo cautiously lifted the bottom of her singlet up higher, toward her breasts, revealing the many crisscrossed lines that climbed upward from her navel to her breasts. There were too many to count, all layered one over the other. The anger in them had died down over the years, and Jo had become very good at ignoring their existence. If she simply kept her head up and stayed away from mirrors, it was easy.

She knew she had to acknowledge them, here in the safety of her room, letting them have their say, allowing her to never forget. On occasion, when the child she’d once been asked to be remembered, she’d listen. She wouldn’t deny the small girl, she couldn’t. So much had been taken from her already. To take this right, this need to be heard, would be unfair. Jo refused to do that to her.

Jo lifted the singlet over her head, letting her gaze fall to her chest. The scars ended their path just above her nipples. The underside of her breasts both hid multiple marks, all blending into the others that covered her stomach. Her nipples had been saved, as had her upper chest and neck. He knew people would notice wounds if they were placed that high. He left that area untouched. The bile was rising in her throat and Jo needed to move quickly.

“Shit, shit, shit.” Speaking through clenched teeth, she hoped the words would buy her some time.

Jo threw the covers back. Naked feet collided with cold wooden floorboards. Covering her mouth, she ran. The first waves rose from her stomach. Leaning over the toilet, she collapsed to her knees. The heaving refused to subside until she had nothing else to give. A cold sheen covered her forehead, as she lay on the bathroom floor mustering the strength to get up. Finally, able to drag herself to her feet, Jo stumbled to the old wooden crates that stored her meagre belongings.

In the dim light, Jo dug in the boxes that substituted for drawers until she located a pair of socks and a sweatshirt. She tugged them on before slipping beneath the sheets she knew would be damp and cool. Trying to avoid the remnants of her sweat-ravaged nightmare, she pulled her covers over her head, blocking out the musty odour that filled her dingy flat. Exhaustion claimed her.





Chapter One


“To Bump,” Hope raised her glass out in front.

“Here’s hoping he, or she, makes an appearance soon.”

Hope shook her head. “I still can’t believe you worked up to your due date. I was half expecting to have to deliver Bump on the bar.”

“Oh, my God,” Andy half squealed half choked, his face screwed up. “You’d have been on your own with that one.” Leaning in, he hugged a puffy-faced Jane and patted her tummy. “I love you both, but seriously, can you imagine me delivering a baby?”

“There’d be a lot of screaming involved and not from Jane,” Hope kidded.

“Oh, you could count on it,” Andy said, as they all laughed.

“There’s always a place here for you, Jane. I couldn’t have made it through the past year without all the support you and Andy have given me.”

“Thanks, Hope. Working for you has given me so much more than simply a job. Bump and I have family here now and that feels so good.”

“We all gained that.” Andy spoke over the rim of his glass.

“Actually, it’s you we have to thank, really.” Hope pointed a finger in Andy’s direction.

Lifted eyebrows topped the look of innocence plastered over Andy’s features. “Me?”

Hope and Jane laughed. Both knew him well enough to know the look may say sweet and innocent, but looks could be so deceiving.

“Yes you, but in this instance, you did something good. Remember that first night you took me out with you, not long after I hired you?”

Andy nodded. “Yep, I thought it would be a good chance for you to meet new people, though I really hadn’t thought it through beforehand. It’s a good thing I didn’t. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have asked you to come.”

Jane looked at Andy, lines creasing her forehead. “Why?”

Andy pushed his glass toward Hope. “This story may require a top up.”

Hope rolled her eyes. “Any excuse for more wine.”

Andy looked to his left, then right, before leaning in. He spoke in an exaggerated whisper. “Shh, don’t give away my secrets.”

The group laughed again. The place was almost empty. An older couple sat at the windows, enjoying the sun while they took their time over coffee. Most afternoons they had a slow stream of people in need of a caffeine fix and snacks, but the place would remain quiet now until closer to dinner time when it would fill up again. Hope placed a full glass in front of Andy, and he began his story again.

“I went out all the time, either on my own and happy to meet up with whomever, or with a few other guys. Most of the time, a night out would be for one of two things. Either I was set to dance all night at a rave where talking was not on the menu, or I was on the prowl for a quick fuck. Again, not much talking involved. The bars and clubs I went to catered to the gay males of this fine city, but I’d never really considered where the lesbians might go or what they did.”

Jane shook her head but laughed at the same time. “So where did you go?”

“He took me to his usual spots. We went into this bar and, other than two fag bangles, I was the only other woman. When we walked in, all eyes followed me. I was the vampire deciding who I might like to bite, and they were all worried it might be them.”

Jane’s eyes grew wide. “Really?”

Hope nodded. “Really.”

Jane looked from Hope to Andy and back again. “I have a question.”

“Sure, what is it?” Hope took a sip of her water.

“What on earth is a fag bangle?”

“A fag bangle is a straight girl who likes to hang off her gay friend’s arm,” Hope said.

“Okay, so they were accepted amongst the crowd at the bar, but you were looked at strangely?”

“Yeah, strange concept, isn’t it? You’d think with all the discrimination that’s been dished out to the gay community there’d be more support within. I was actually blown away to see how segregated gays and lesbians were when I got home.”

“See, for me, I never knew anything but that,” Andy added. “From the time I came out, there were always places I could go, but they were really only visited by other gay guys. The sole reason for existing was to provide a safe place to hook up.”

“I think that’s kind of sad, really.” Jane frowned, and Hope nodded her agreement.

“I think so too,” Andy shrugged, “now that I know better.”

“Okay, back to the story.” Hope sat up in her seat. “We had a few drinks there with me feeling like all the conversation was being monitored in case someone let out some top-secret codes around me.”

“Because I’ve got friends who are gay and straight, both men and women, I figured everyone did. Until that night. It was an eye-opener for both of us,” Andy admitted.

“I understand. For many years, gay men had to keep their meetings very secret. Getting caught could mean losing so much—families, jobs, freedom. It’s all too easy to forget that it wasn’t that many years ago, when homosexuality was illegal. People were imprisoned and locked up in mental institutions. They were put through electric shock treatment, lobotomies, chemical sterilisation, and beatings.” Hope stared into her water for a moment, silently thanking those who went before her, those who had sacrificed so much.

“Sadly, most of my generation and younger never think of that. They take their freedom for granted, never considering others may not have had the same.” Andy raised his wine. “I think a toast is due.” He waited for Jane and Hope to raise their drinks. “To those who were brave enough to make the changes that allow us so much more freedom.”

Three glasses clinked together, and the friends all took sips.

“Now, back to how I was brilliant enough to bring about all of this.” Andy’s arms opened in a flamboyant sweep of the room, ending with a fluid turn of his hands.

“Well, we went dancing.” Hope recalled. “I was, again, one of very few women in the club and, once more, all eyes followed me. Though I must say, once I started dancing everyone seemed to forget that I was a woman. They were all in their own worlds and happy to be there.”

“It helped that you can dance.” Andy grinned.

“That I owe to a flatmate who loved to watch all the music videos and attempted to copy the dance moves. She ended up getting me and our other flatmate to join in for fitness. Seriously, if her upper-class English parents had seen those sessions, they would’ve keeled over.”

“I wish I’d been a fly on the wall for that,” Jane teased.

“Maybe we could re-enact those workouts one day.” Andy jumped up, thrusting his hips back and forth before shimmying his top half.

Feeling her face redden, Hope shook her head vigorously. “Not on your life, mate. Now, let’s get back on track. After I got home from dancing with Andy, I lay in bed and started to think how it would be nice to have somewhere to go that allowed people to have a few drinks, maybe a light meal, as well as somewhere to dance. Not rave music, just sounds that have a good beat that you want to sing and dance to with friends, in between drinks and conversation, a place where men and women, gay and straight, could mix and mingle. Then I wondered, why not here? The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. The best part was that I could keep the café style during the day, honouring Aunt Em and all that this place meant to her, as well as it becoming a place in the evenings that I could enjoy developing. Out of all that came Jem’s.”

“I’m so happy you decided to take the risk, Hope,” Jane smiled broadly. “If you hadn’t, then you wouldn’t have needed more staff, and I’d never have met you guys. I’m going to miss not seeing you both every day.”

Andy moved closer and wrapped his arm around Jane. “We’re going to miss you too, but you’ve got the most important job of all now. Being a mum.”

Jane rubbed her belly. “I know, and it scares the shit out of me. Being a mum was never part of my plan.”

“You’ll be a great mum,” Hope assured her. “I think you’ll surprise yourself.”

A hint of tears welled in the corners of Jane’s eyes. “Thanks guys.”

Hope rubbed her friend’s shoulder. “Now I have to try and fill your shoes on the lunch shift till we hire a replacement. I think I’ve got a pretty big task ahead of me.”

“Don’t worry,” Andy soothed. “I’ll be here to show you how it’s done.”

The three friends shared stories for a further hour, before Hope noticed Jane beginning to tire. She admitted her back was aching, and she was ready to head home for a long soak in a hot bath. Hope threw Andy her car keys. “Why don’t you make sure Jane gets home safe and sound. I won’t need my car tonight, so you can take it home and just bring it back in the morning.

“Thanks Hope, my feet feel like they could explode at any minute.”

Scrunching his face up, Andy stood. “Let’s get you home before that happens.”

Evening was fast approaching and Hope needed to complete her regular afternoon chores. She made sure there were enough drinks in the fridges, the register had sufficient float, and the tables were in place for the evening crowd.

Her cloth swept over the shiny beer taps, wiping away the condensation that would be replaced within minutes. She threw the now wet cloth in a bucket under the bar with the dirty aprons and bar runners. She ran her fingers over the smooth, varnished surface of the wood.

This honey-coloured rimu had once been Aunt Em’s serving counter. Hope had spent many afternoons sitting at the counter doing her homework and enjoying her aunt’s homemade cookies and cakes. When it was time to renovate, the one thing Hope was certain of was this wood needed to have a home in the new bar. Hope needed Aunt Em with her.

I hope you like what I’ve done with the place, Aunt Em. Your regulars still come and visit me. I think they’re checking up on me for you. We still chat and laugh. I hear you sometimes, when I’m here on my own. I miss you so much. Hope followed a darker grain the length of the bar, stopping at the end and smiling, before she undertook the endless paperwork that awaited her.





Chapter Two


“Come on you two, let’s go outside for a little fresh air.” The instant Jo walked into the room, her two companions were on their feet, waiting on her every move. She headed for the door, and both ran to her side. Before Jo could get the door half open, they were gone in a flurry, leaping at one another, taking each other out at the feet, and running around in circles. Jo never tired of watching this ritual.

Ruby and Oscar were the best. Since the day she got them, they’d been so much fun, utterly full of life and such great company. She’d never had a pet before, or even thought of having one, until that Sunday, almost a year ago.

Jo had been shooting photos. Sundays were always a time Jo looked forward to. She’d head out with her camera to the local parks and playgrounds where she got to see kids at ease, having fun with their parents. She got the chance to see mums and dads watching their babies explore the world around them. Adults made time to relax, taking pleasure in being together over a coffee, sometimes becoming carefree again, just as they were when they were kids. Jo loved to see a dad on the swings or a mum kicking a soccer ball, but what she loved the most was watching the smiles and hearing the laughter. She sat on a park bench, watching a family fly their kites.

The older lady sitting next to her leaned over to speak. “The laughter is contagious, isn’t it?”

“It’s what brings me back most weekends,” Jo agreed.

Sitting between them was the cutest dog Jo had ever seen. She was small and a little scruffy. Patches of ginger blotted the white fur over her head and back.

“She’s so cute. What’s her name? That is, if she is a she.” Jo laughed. “I’m not very good at guessing when it comes to dogs.”

The lady laughed with Jo. “Well, you got it right this time; her name’s Angel.” The woman gently stroked Angel’s head. “She isn’t as cute as usual. I’m afraid she’s looking more like a haggard mother who’s sleep deprived.” She bent down to give Angel a little kiss to the top of her head. “I’ve brought her out for a little time to herself. She had pups a few weeks ago and really needed a break from them. I thought this would be nice for both of us.” The older woman extended her hand. “I’m Olivia.”

Jo framed the woman’s much finer hand with her own. “Pleased to meet you, Olivia. I’m Jo.”

The two talked easily, as they watched the comings and goings around them. Angel began nudging Jo, trying to encourage a pat. “She usually isn’t very interested in other people. She’s a bit of a mummy’s girl. You must be a very special person, Jo.”

Petting the little dog, Jo shook her head. “That’s nice of you to say, but I can assure you, there’s nothing special about me. I’m very regular. If anything, I’d fit more into the boring, dull category.”

“Angel seems to think differently. Since she hasn’t steered me wrong in the three years we’ve been together, I think I might just trust her on this one.”

“Did you get Angel as a puppy?”

“Yes. I was lonely after my husband, Daniel, passed away.” Olivia stared at the clear blue sky above them, a little lost in thought for a moment. “Sadly, we never had any children. For many years, we hoped we’d be blessed with a child, but it wasn’t to be. When we came to accept that, we moved on and had a very full life together.” She turned back to Jo. “Daniel passed away a little over three years ago.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, Olivia.”

A smile crinkled the corners of old eyes. “I was lost without Daniel for a while there. He was my world and it hurt so much to be without him, but I’d go through it all again if I were given the chance. True love is one of the greatest gifts you could ever receive. If you’re ever offered the chance, please my dear, grab on to it with both hands.”

Olivia looked at her watch. “I’ve enjoyed your company, Jo, thank you. I’d better get Angel back to her babies now; they’ll be pining for her and ready for more milk.” Jo smiled, but before she could answer, Olivia continued, “You should come visit and meet the puppies if you have time. We live just around the corner.”

“Really? I’d love to see them.”

Jo was on her feet in a flash, her hands clasped tightly in front of her to stop herself from clapping them together in her excitement. The three new friends set off. As they rounded a corner, entering a no-exit street, Jo instantly felt a sense of calm. She’d been past the end of this road many times, when out and about on her bike rides, yet had never bothered to look down the quaint little cul-de-sac.

Large maple trees, tall and sturdy, shadowed the road for as far as Jo could see. Full of life, their dense roots lifted the footpath. Jo gazed up at the branches covered with leaves representing every shade of green she could imagine. The sun, working hard to force its rays through the vegetation, cast a pattern of shadows on Jo’s face as she tilted her head to the sky.

“The trees are beautiful. I love the way their limbs have twisted around one another. They have so much character.” Drawing her eyes back to the woman walking beside her, Jo received her warm smile. “If these trees could talk, imagine the tales they could share.”

Olivia nodded. “They could definitely tell many a story, I’m sure. They’ve been here through generations and have seen a great deal of change in their time.”

Jo grew quiet as she walked beside Olivia and Angel, taking in the peace she felt as she wove in and out of the mix of sunlight and shade. At the end of the serene street, Olivia led them to a side gate. The sight of the house beyond brought Jo to a standstill. The two-storey villa must have been almost as old as the trees lining the street and was, without a doubt, one of the biggest houses Jo had ever seen. It towered over the other homes nestled into the neighbourhood.

Olivia beckoned with her hand. “Come on, I’ll get us something to drink. You must be thirsty.”

“That’d be great. I could do with a drink now.”

Olivia climbed the stairs in front of them, and Jo guessed the house to have been built in the early 1900s. In amazing condition, the residence was obviously well loved. Painted white with smoky grey trim, the home, like the street it resided on, surrounded Jo with a warm welcoming feel. Ascending the front stairs behind her new friends, Jo followed Olivia who was now inside holding the door open for her.

“Please, come in.”

Jo entered the wide, open entranceway and immediately heard the sounds of puppies wanting their mother. Angel, recognising her babies’ squeaks and squeals, raced down the hallway then off into a side room.

Olivia closed the door behind Jo, laughing lightly. “If you follow Angel, she’ll be proud to introduce you to her little ones. A break from them is important, but now she’ll be pleased to be back with them.”

Jo waited for Olivia to walk ahead. The second Jo entered the room, Angel made a mad dash for her, seeming to encourage Jo to come and see the squirmy little canines. Jo forgot her manners and moved past Olivia. At the sight of the furry puppies, who were now all feeding from their mother, Jo knelt beside the enclosure that held Angel and her pups.

The wire pen was up against a couch. Jo figured it had been placed there to enable Angel the freedom to get herself in and out, while at the same time providing the newborns a safe environment. The sight of all four babies lying on top of one another, suckling from their mother, made Jo melt.

Olivia rested a gentle hand on Jo’s shoulder. “I’ll be back in just a minute. I’m going to switch the jug on.”

Jo fell in love with the small balls of fluff. Slowly, one by one, they finished feeding from Angel and began to move around. The fullness of their bellies limited their movement, and Jo started giggling.

Two pups had mismatched eyes, each with one brown and one blue. Jo had never seen this in animals before and found the contrast fascinating. These two were more mischievous than the others. They tried getting the two quieter pups to play, but this was a wasted effort. They moved on to grabbing Angel by her ears. Finding them too adorable to resist, Jo scooped them up. Both decided it was fun to chew on Jo’s nose, their breath still sweet with the smell of milk. As neither had teeth yet, their gummy bites managed to evoke a fresh round of giggles.

Jo gave the babies back to their mother and sat on the floor to watch the little family. She noticed the faint smell of mothballs mingled with something sweet. She couldn’t name the scent but knew it made the house feel warm and enticing.

Olivia returned with a tray that she laid on a small table that divided two large, wingback chairs. She sat in one, gesturing to Jo to take her place in the other. “Please, take a seat. The chair is a lot more comfortable than the floor.”

The tray between them contained drinks accompanied by what looked to be freshly baked biscuits. Jo smiled at the source of the sweet smell.

“Thanks for inviting me back to see Angel’s babies, Olivia. They’re gorgeous.”

“Thank you for coming and for talking with me at the park. I’ve loved the conversation. It’s so nice to have company. I rattle around this huge house all on my own, and as much as I’m grateful to have such a lovely home, I do get lonely.”

Jo looked into Olivia’s eyes and could see the loneliness there. She felt for the older woman. Of all people, Jo knew what it was to be lonely.

“I’ve loved your company Olivia. I spend a lot of time on my own as well. Maybe we could spend more time together.”

A full smile lit up Olivia’s features, and Jo felt as though she’d just won a major prize. “I’d love that. Please, come and visit me as often as you like. I don’t go out much, only to get groceries or to take Angel for a walk. That’s about it these days.”


***


Jo found herself going back to visit Olivia and the puppies often as their friendship grew. The two would sit talking, endlessly, over afternoon tea and lamingtons. Discussing the books they were reading, art, events in the news, and their day-to-day adventures kept them amused for hours on end. The pups attempted to climb over one another and entertained the two friends.

“Olivia, I adore your house. It has so much warmth within its walls and is always so inviting.”

“This home belonged to my parents and their parents before them. There’s been many a family celebration within these walls. Lots of children have laughed and played happily in this house. I believe their joy still flows through the rooms.”

Jo looked into Olivia’s eyes and could almost see the memories running through them. A small pang of jealousy raced through her, but it was brief.

“You’re lucky to have had that, and I think you’re right; that joy is exactly what I feel when I’m here.”

“I was incredibly fortunate. I grew up in a family of wealth. We never wanted for anything. I was privileged to be able to experience a lot of things that others didn’t. Though what made me even luckier was to be a member of a family so filled with love. One in which I was always supported and knew I was valued.”

“Yes.” Jo lowered her eyes from Olivia’s view, concealing what might be told through them. “That’s something not everyone’s lucky enough to receive.”


***


Jo lay on the floor, playing with the puppies. Olivia poured her a glass of homemade lemonade. On a side plate, she added two homemade chocolate chip biscuits for their afternoon tea, a ritual that was becoming important to Jo.

“Thanks, Olivia. Sharing afternoon tea with you is the highlight of my day. Talking with you and hearing all the funny tales from your adventures is special to me.”

A gentle curve formed in the corners of Olivia’s mouth, as she raised her glass from the table. “I look forward to our chats so much. It’s wonderful to have someone to share my thoughts with but especially my memories.” She took a small sip from her glass before gently placing it back on the oak table that had been in her family for over a hundred years.

Olivia was looking at her hands, twisting one of her constantly present hankies pulled from her sleeve. “The pups are ready to leave their mum now. I think I’ve got a lady who’d like to take two of them.”

Jo’s heart sunk. She loved all the puppies but more so her two, special troublemakers. There was something about the tiny, mischievous ones that Jo couldn’t seem to resist.

Without looking up from her drink, Jo braved the question, “Which ones does she want?” Unable to look Olivia in the eyes, Jo felt her heart begin to ache.

“She’s interested in the two quieter ones. She’d like to show them. The other two are no good for that purpose because of their different coloured eyes.”

As Olivia’s words sunk in, Jo became aware she’d been holding her breath. She slowly exhaled and looked over to Olivia. “I knew they’d all have to go at some stage, but I pushed it to the back of my mind.” Jo shook her head as her gaze fell to the subjects of their conversation. “It’s amazing how these naughty, little poop machines can grab hold of your heart strings so tightly, isn’t it? I should never have let myself bond with them so much.”

Olivia reached across the table, her fingers lightly patting Jo’s much larger hand, the affection evident in her touch. “You’re who you are, and with that comes a big and giving heart full of love. That’s one of the many things that led me to care for you, so don’t ever beat yourself up for who you are.” Olivia gripped Jo’s hand firmly. “It’s also the reason why I want you to have your two rascals.”

Jo often found compliments unnerving, and today was no different. Although she found the words awkward to hear, they warmed her heart. As she let the sentiment settle, Jo became more aware of the words that had followed. “What? You want me to have the ratbags?”

Olivia nodded.

Jo shook her head. “I couldn’t do that. Other people would love to have them, and I know you could get good money for them. They’re purebreds, after all. I can’t afford to pay you what you could get for them from other people. Besides, I’d never be allowed them at my little, one-room flat. Even if I was, it’s way too unhealthy for them.”

“Jo, my darling girl, I don’t care about the money. I want to know that Angel’s babies are going to a good home where they’ll be loved. With you, I know that’s what they’ll get. I see how much you love them and how much they love you. That’s all I care about. I know you don’t have a lot of money. I’ll happily pay for them to be neutered. I can also buy food in bulk and store it in my chest freezer so it keeps the cost down for us both.” Olivia made eye contact with Jo and continued in a quieter voice. “I don’t just want you to have the pups, Jo. I’d like to offer you the little place I have out the back. The three of you would have plenty of room, and I’d still be able to see these two all the time. Of course, that’s if you want them. You might not want to be responsible for two little dogs.”

Jo couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Trying her hardest to blink back tears, Jo looked down at the tired little balls of fur conked out at her feet. She was overwhelmed by Olivia’s kindness and struggled to speak. As much as it was something she wanted to be able to say yes to, she knew she couldn’t. “Olivia, I can’t believe what you’re offering me. No one’s ever been so kind to me, but I can’t accept. It’s all way too much.”

Olivia’s smile was tender. “Jo, I’ve grown to love your company. You’re a bright, thoughtful, funny young woman who’s been given a raw deal in life, so far. Having you stay in the cottage would mean so much to me. I have no other family and, as you know, I get lonely here on my own. As much as I wouldn’t need you to be with me all the time, simply knowing you’re out there would be a great comfort.”

Before Jo could speak, Olivia raised a hand between the two of them, bringing Jo’s words to a halt. “I figured you’d see it as too much, so I gave that some thought as well.” Olivia lowered her hand, knowing she had Jo’s attention. “What if we call it payment? In exchange, you help me out around here. The gardens are becoming too much for me on my own, yet I don’t want to hand it all over to strangers. I still love being able to get out there when I can.”

Jo jumped up and raced around to Olivia’s side of the table. She threw her arms around slight shoulders, holding on tightly as she gave Olivia a big hug. When she let go, Jo ran to the puppies, picking up her two rascals. “You guys are going to be mine. That’s right.” A shaky breath came before a kiss to each of their tiny, black noses. “You get to come with me, and we can be together every day. You’ll get to see your mummy all the time, as well.” In true puppy style, they responded by licking Jo’s nose and nibbling on her nostrils till she pulled away laughing.

“You’ve just made me a very happy lady, Jo.” Olivia rose to stand beside her. “There’s one more thing you could do to make me that little bit happier.”

Grooves appeared on Jo’s forehead. “What’s that Olivia? I’ll do anything I can for you.”

“Let me take you to collect your things and give your notice now. Then we can come back and get you settled in.”

Unsure she could trust her voice to work for her, Jo replied with the slightest nods. After moving her bike around the back, she gave Olivia the address, and they drove to the old, dilapidated building. They found a car park directly outside. A few tenants sat on a collection of torn armchairs, old beer crates, and plastic chairs picked from someone else’s rubbish. They drank their beers straight from the bottle, as their children ran wild in the car park. These were the surroundings Jo had been calling home for the past year. She dipped her head low, as Olivia turned the engine off.

“If you wait here, I can run in and grab my things. It won’t take long.”

Olivia seemed to understand and didn’t push Jo. “How about I wait beside the car and open the boot for you when you come back then?”

Jo did her best to offer up a smile. “I’d feel better if you waited in the car until you see me coming.” Looking around the neighbourhood, Jo avoided looking at Olivia. “It’s not one of the nicest streets. Most of the people are nice enough, but some can be unsavoury. I’d feel better knowing you’re in the car, please.”

“I’ll make a deal. You go and get your possessions, and I’ll wait in the car until I see you, but then I get to open the boot.”

“Agreed.” Jo headed into her one-room flat. She filled two large, plastic rubbish sacks with all that she owned, then made her way back to Olivia to store her bits and pieces in the boot. Olivia again waited in the safety of her vehicle, while Jo went to the owner’s flat to give the required two weeks’ notice.

Knocking on the door, Jo remembered what Olivia had said, “I don’t want you spending another night there if you don’t have to. I’ll sleep so much better tonight if I know you’re safe out the back in your new cottage.” Jo knew she would sleep better tonight, as well.

The landlady opened the door, wearing her usual scowl, and Jo was brought quickly back to the here and now.

“Hi, sorry to bother you.” Jo received a grunt for her efforts. “I’m just here to give my notice. I’ve already collected my belongings. I’ll make sure the next two weeks’ rent is in your account on time, but as I won’t be back, you can rent the room out as soon as you find someone new.”

The woman simply turned and pushed the door shut with Jo’s letter in her hand. Feeling a sense of relief she hadn’t expected, Jo almost skipped back to the car.

“Did everything go okay?” Olivia asked.

“Yeah, I told her I won’t be there again as of now, but payment will be made as usual. For that I was lucky enough to be grunted at a couple of times and have the door shut in my face.” Jo laughed as she finished.

Olivia patted Jo’s hand and started the car. “I’m extremely relieved knowing you don’t have to come back here again.” Looking over her shoulder, she pulled away from the curb. “Now to the next job of the day.”

Having no clue what Olivia had up her sleeve, Jo asked cautiously, “What would that be?”

“We need to stop on the way home so you can collect some goodies for your new charges.” Before Jo had a chance to argue, Olivia hurried on, “You need to pick out anything you want for them, toys, bedding, clothes, and food. Anything you think they’ll need or enjoy.”

Both women enjoyed themselves in the pet shop, picking out the essentials along with a collection of squeaky and chew toys, as well as cute little jumpers for the colder days. Olivia insisted on paying for everything, including brushes and flea treatment.

Yet again, Jo was surprised when Olivia turned into the car park of the local supermarket.

Olivia confidently guided the car into one of the narrow parking spaces. “Again, no arguing! We’re going in, and I’ll be buying anything you need to set up a kitchen. It’s important to me that you’re able to feed yourself and not be worried about where you’ll get the money to stock a pantry.”

“Olivia, this is all way too much.”

Since they’d first met, the two had spent many hours talking. In that time, Jo had shared some of her childhood with Olivia. Often, when people found out about her upbringing, Jo would be treated with pity. But Olivia had never made her feel inferior.

“Jo, I know how hard it’s been for you. I’m just so happy that I can do something to not only bring you some joy but also make your life a little easier and safer. I always fretted about you being in that place on your own, especially at night.”

“I don’t know what to say, Olivia. Words seem so insignificant compared to what you’ve given me, but that’s all I have to offer at this stage.” Moving closer, Jo hugged her. “Thank you, Olivia.”

They wandered toward the supermarket doors. “I’ll pay you back just as soon as I can.”

“Okay, I’ll give in on this one.” Olivia laughed lightly. “I think I may have met my match. You’re as stubborn as I am.” She touched Jo’s arm gently. “Jo, I’m just so grateful that I’ll go to sleep tonight knowing you’re no longer in that environment. I’ll know you’re safe and that means the world to me.”


***


Jo settled in straight away. She loved being at Olivia’s and made sure to take time out, every day, to enjoy the yard and all it offered. Ruby and Oscar had a safe place to explore and have adventures, while Jo had somewhere to relax. She loved sitting under the big kauri tree, lying back and closing her eyes. The needle-like leaves rustling above her felt like a blanket, soothing and comforting. Sometimes, when she had things on her mind, Jo found herself counting the branches, multiplying and dividing them. The old habit settled her.

Jo had once sought comfort and safety under her rickety old bed. Now, for the first time in her life, she had somewhere truly safe to be. Somewhere she was wanted and somewhere she wanted to be.





Chapter Three


The lunch rush was beginning to slow. Most customers were heading back to offices or off to meetings, settling into their afternoons. Replacing bar runners with fresh ones, Hope wiped down the soothing wood. I know, it’s good that we’re busy, but Aunt Em, working double shifts is starting to take its toll on me.

One of the draw cards for the café was the two very different spaces it offered. The customers could sit at the more formal tables and chairs to order their meal, or sink into comfy couches or upholstered chairs with overstuffed rolled arms to enjoy their coffee and muffin.

During the winter months, a fireplace provided a warm and cosy atmosphere, allowing people to shelter from the elements for a while. Throughout the summer, the bifold windows were opened wide, offering the feeling of being outside.

The menu provided selections to suit everyone. All the foods were designed to serve up quickly; providing a tasty, fulfilling meal at a fair price within a lunch break. Over time, the café had managed to acquire several customers who were now regulars. Staff knew most by name, enjoying conversations with them about their days, plans for weekends, and everyday chitchat.

Hope didn’t work the lunch shifts often. Doing so now, covering Jane’s hours, she was surprised to see the relationships that had developed. She was proud of her staff and the environment they’d created. What’s more, Hope enjoyed being a part of the comradery.

She was just wiping down the last of the tables when Andy called to her. “Hope, I need to go downstairs to change over one of the kegs so we don’t run out tonight. Will you be okay here on your own for a little while? It may take me a few minutes.”

“Sure Andy, it’s getting quiet now. I’ll be fine. I appreciate you doing it for me”.

“No worries. I know you won’t get a lot of down time until we find someone to take over the lunch shifts, so I’ll do whatever I can to make things easier for you”.

Hope grabbed a pen and pad to sort out the stock they’d need for the first rush.


12 Coronas

6 Steinlagers

5 Lion Reds


She lifted her head and noticed someone seated at the other end. At first glance, Hope thought it was a teenage boy. But as she got closer, the shape of the body revealed a female. Her beanie covered head was bent down over a book, and she appeared to be alone.

“Hi, is there anything I can get you?”

The eyes that looked up from the book captured Hope the second they met her own. They were the most stunning green Hope had ever seen. “I’d love a Coke and a BLT sandwich, please.” The order was followed up with a friendly smile.

Hope’s mouth suddenly felt dryer than the Sahara, and she forced down a swallow. “Sure, would you like the Coke now or with your food?”

“Could I have it now please?”

“I’ll be right back with it.” Hope popped her head into the kitchen and passed on the order before filling a glass with ice, followed by the bubbling, black liquid. Returning to the end of the bar, Hope placed the glass in front of the intriguing stranger.

“There you go. Your sandwich shouldn’t be too long.”

Glancing up from the book, the eyes smiled as their owner replied, “Thank you,” then promptly returned to the book.

Hope walked back to the fridge to finish restocking. As she counted the bottles and cans, she did her best to concentrate on the task at hand. It wasn’t easy. Every time she turned back to the paper to write down numbers she found herself looking down the bar. With every sneaky peak, the girl still had her head down and appeared to be reading contentedly.

Hope finished the stock list as Andy came up next to her. “Wow, have you only just got that finished? You should’ve called me. Sorry Hope, I didn’t think it would be too busy. I should have waited another half hour.”

“Nah, it wasn’t busy, I was just distracted. There was only one customer.” She nodded toward the end of the bar.

Andy followed Hope’s gaze and laughed when he looked back to his boss. “And what, exactly, was so distracting?”

“At first, I thought it was a teenage guy, but when I got closer I realised he is a she. And she has the most amazing green eyes I’ve ever seen.”

Just then, the BLT was ready. Hope almost ran to get there ahead of Andy, swiftly scooping up the plate before heading back to the end of the bar again. “Here you go, one BLT sandwich. Is there anything else I can get you? Salt, pepper, or another drink?”

Green eyes looked up from the book she was intently reading. The owner returned Hope’s smile. “I’d love a glass of water please.”

Andy came up behind Hope. “Here you go, Jo, your regular ice water.”

The girl Hope now knew was Jo seemed to relax at the sight of a familiar face. “Thanks Andy, just as efficient as ever, I see.”

“You know me; I can’t resist a pretty face. How are those babies of yours?”

“They’re great, just as adorable as ever and full of mischief.” Her face lit up as she spoke. “They offer me so much entertainment every day.”

“I agree with you, they’re definitely adorable.”

“Hope, let me introduce to you one of our most treasured customers.” Andy faced Hope, as he extended his hand toward the girl with the mesmerising eyes. “This is not only one of our valued customers, Jo here is more like family.” He turned back to Jo. “Jo, this is Hope, the café’s owner and the best boss in the world.” Andy wrapped his arm around Hope’s shoulder. “She isn’t used to the lunch rush or its most important customers yet. Hope usually works nights but is helping out till we get someone to fill Jane’s position.”

Jo laughed. “I’m hardly an important customer with my regular Coke, a BLT sandwich, and ice water.” Looking to Hope, she said, “Hi, nice to meet you.” Jo’s eyes flicked back and forth between Hope and Andy. “Have you heard from Jane? How’s she doing?”

“She’s really well. The little guy’s putting on weight, and she’s getting used to the midnight feeds.” Andy pulled a face. “I don’t know how she does it. Once I’m in bed there’s no getting me up again till I’ve had a good seven hours sleep. However, Jane seems to be in her element. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so happy, or tired.” He laughed.

“I’m so happy for her. Please, send my love to the two of them next time you talk to her.”

“Better still, why don’t you come with me the next time I go to visit? I know she’d love to see you.”

“That’d be great, just let me know when. It would be fantastic to see them both.”

“Excellent, now eat your lunch and enjoy the book while we get back to clearing tables.” Andy pulled a face as he moved away, giving Jo a laugh.

With Andy gone, Hope found herself unusually stuck for words. The best she could come up with being, “I hope you enjoy your lunch.”

“I’m sure I will, these are the best BLT sandwiches ever.”

“I think so too, but it’s great to hear others think so as well.” Why am I so nervous? She caught sight of Andy out of the corner of her eye. “I’d better go help Andy clear tables and set up for the evening shift. I’ll never live it down if he does more work than me.” As she walked away, she found herself giving Jo a little wave and feeling excited when Jo returned the gesture.

As they’d finished cleaning, Andy came over to Hope. “Why don’t you try and grab a couple of hour’s peace and quiet before it’s time for the evening crowd to start rolling in?”

“Thanks Andy, that sounds like a good plan. Give me a call if you need anything. I’ll just nip home to shower and change my clothes.”

“Everything will be fine. I’ve got it covered; just do what you need.”

“When you’re settled here, how about coming over before you head home? We can have a quick drink while we look over the applicants for the job.”

“Sure, I guess the sooner we find a replacement, the sooner you can have some time back.”

Hope grinned. “That sounds good to me.”

Hope left out the back door of the café, wandering through the back gate and into her garden. Being so close was handy, it meant she could keep her finger on the pulse, yet still get time to herself and a chance to wind down without having to worry about travel time.

The garden wasn’t very big, but it was enough to keep her happy. She walked the path through a grassy pocket to a patio of square pavers. She passed the small, round table and chairs and the free-standing hammock that she loved to lounge in on nice days. Hope unlocked double French doors, opening them wide to allow fresh air to filter through her lounge to the rest of the cosy home.

She made a beeline for the stereo. Rather than the pop music they played in the café, the sound that came from the speakers was an easy-listening, upbeat jazz piece. Hope enjoyed music from a variety of genres, but today jazz called to her.

As the first beats made their way to her ears, Hope wandered to the kitchen to turn the jug on to make a pot of tea. She wouldn’t usually have more than one cup but always brewed enough for two. Aunt Em was no longer there to enjoy the second cup, but Hope wasn’t ready to change the habit yet.

While the tea brewed, she collected a bread and butter plate from the cupboard and placed a couple of biscuits on it. The plate would wait on the table in the corner of the kitchen, under windows that allowed anyone sitting there to bathe in the afternoon sun. She retrieved her favourite cup and placed it beside the plate of biscuits.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-32 show above.)