A CHRISTMAS TO REMEMBER PART 5
It had been a good day, good but at the same time confusing as there was still a great deal of uncertainty as to which direction Melody and I were heading. There had been times throughout the day when we had been so close, and I thought we were about to take the next step only for me to hesitate or For Melody to pull back. When we’d been in the office for instance and for the first time we’d worked together, and by that I mean really worked together with a common goal which in this instance was trying to create a usable workspace in the chaos the builders had left behind them. One thing which had quickly become apparent was we were total opposites. There’d been an inkling of this in the car with the whole social media thing. Melody was very much techier than me something she quickly realised when she saw my glazed expression when she talked about various technologies of which I knew nothing.
“Don’t you use any of these apps?” she asked at one point.
I shook my head. “Nope it’s all voodoo to me, besides that’s what I’ve got Mark for.”
“Yeah, but Mark’s not going to be here. At least not to start with.”
I didn’t answer, as in truth it was something which had been troubling me throughout the Christmas break. Mark and I were a good team, and I didn’t think either of us were going to handle working apart very well. A little later the tables were turned when I asked Melody what we should do about a meeting room, or at least an area we could set aside for meeting clients.
“Do you really think we need to bring them here?” Melody asked dubiously.
“I will Melody. It’s how I work. Face to face.”
“I see. I usually leave that side of things to Naz.” Our eyes met and somewhere in the back of our mind’s, realization dawned, I was about to become Melody’s Naz and she was going to be my Mark. Was this the real plan I wondered? Is this what Jim Slater had in mind all along when he thrust his two top earners together? Certainly, if he wanted somebody to babysit a building site he had far cheaper, more expendable option than us. I thought back to the night of the Christmas party and some of the things Jim’s wife Sandra had either said or intimated and couldn’t help but feel whatever the play was, her fingerprints were all over it.
We only stayed in the offices for an hour before Melody started to feel the cold and suggested we leave what was left to do until we started back to work on the second of January. I agreed even though I didn’t want the day to end so soon and out of pure desperation asked Melody if she fancied a bite to eat. “There’s a place across the road, we could give that a go,” I said pointing out an ultra-modern looking Italian restaurant on the opposite side of the road. Melody pursed her lips as if deep in thought and for one awful moment my heart started to sink.
“Do you know,” she said looking me directly in the eye, “I think I would.”
Ten minutes later we were picking our way through a menu which comprehensively covered every Italian dish imaginable, as well as some good old English favourites.
“I think I’ll have the vegetable lasagne. What do you fancy?” Melody asked after some deliberation.
“Nothing to do with vegetables, there’s only steak when it comes to food.”
“You sound just like dad. It doesn’t matter where we go, he always has steak.”
“Sounds like a man after my own heart.”
Melody smiled then looked away. “Dad’s not very well at the moment,” she paused and exhaled a long breath. “He was diagnosed with cancer three months ago.”
“I’m sorry Mel, I didn’t know,” I replied cautiously, not truly knowing how to respond to this unexpected news.
“Nobody at work does.”
“Not even Lucy?”
Melody snorted and shook her head. “Especially not Lucy”
“Well, I won’t tell anybody Mel. Is it curable?” I asked fearful of what the answer may be.
There was a long-frustrated sigh. “I wish I knew Joe. Mum and Dad keep putting on a brave face and tell me everything’s fine, when it quite clearly isn’t.”
Without thinking I reached across the table and took her hand in mine. “I know we’ve had our differences Mel, but you can always talk to me.”
“Thanks Joe, it might be nice to have someone to talk to outside of family.”
“Like I said, anytime,” relinquishing my grip.
“You’re a really nice guy, do you know that Joe?” Mel said, as if she was discovering this hitherto unknown fact for the first time.
“No, I mean it. I like this Joe, he’s so different from the Joe we see at work.”
“Yes really. You must admit Joe you have a ruthless streak when it comes to work.”
Why does everybody…? “I’ll admit I’m ambitious, I don’t think I’m ruthless though.”
“I don’t think John Spence or Tony Morgan would see it that way.”
I inwardly groaned and counted to ten. Spence and Morgan were both former long-term Slater and Webb employees who thought their length of service automatically guaranteed them a senior position when the chance arose. Until yours truly arrived on the scene that is and leapfrogged over the pair of them. John Spence never got over it and left a few weeks later. Tony Morgan stuck it out for a year, sniping away behind my back until one day I’d had enough and confronted him in the canteen. He left not long after that. Did this make me ruthless? I didn’t think so, ambitious yes, but not ruthless. Besides, I had good reason to be the way I was…
“Look Mel, you more than anyone know where Leanne and I grew up,” I said choosing my words very carefully.
“And not only that Mel, you’re lucky, you have a dad” I said cutting across her. “My dad, if you can call him that, went to work when I was two and never came back.”
“That’s terrible,” Melody said, visibly shocked at this revelation.
“Yeah, it was. He was a construction engineer working on a petrochemical site in Saudi. I never knew him; Leanne has a few vague memories. He used to work three months on and one month off. We lived in a big, detached house in the country back then. Mum didn’t work, she didn’t have to because dad was earning a fortune. Then one day he went back to Saudi and we never heard from him again.” I paused and took a beat. The subject of my father was always an emotive one which brought back too many bad memories.
“What happened,” Mel asked. “Had he had an accident or something?”
“If only. No, after not hearing from him for a while mum rang the company he worked for only to be told he’d left two months ago. You can imagine what that did to my mother. It didn’t get any better when she phoned around his so-called friends, most said they were as surprised as her, others said they knew he was leaving but were very vague about where they thought he’d gone. Africa and South America were both mentioned but nobody seemed to know for sure, or if they did, they weren’t saying... I paused whilst the waiter placed our drinks on the table in front of us.
“So, what happened to him?” Melody asked once the waiter was back out of earshot.
“He’d done a runner and left mum with a mountain of debt. That’s why we ended up living on a council estate with mum working one shit job after another. It’s the same reason why I had a paper round and worked in the garden centre on a weekend. It wasn’t for pocket money for me, it was to help pay the bills. They were hard times Mel, and I don’t want to go back to them which is why I’m like I am. I still wouldn’t say I was ruthless though. Ambitious yes, but not ruthless.”
Melody leant back in her chair, deep in thought. “I never knew, I mean I know we weren’t close at school, but we sort of knew who one another were.”
“It wasn’t something I talked about. I still don’t.”
A pained expression crossed Melody’s face. “I feel awful now though. For the way I…”
“Mel,” I said quickly interrupting her. “The past is the past let’s leave it there. Jim’s given us this chance to start again so let’s take it.”
“I know but…”
“No buts, you said you like this Joe, well this Joe likes this Melody so no looking back. Nothing good comes from looking back.”
There was a long silence, or at least that was the way it seemed before Melody raised her glass. “Forward it is then.”
We talked then, like we’d never talked before, peeling back the layers revealing our true selves to one another, which for whatever ridicules reason we’d kept hidden for far too long. In the two hours we were in that restaurant we spoke more than we had in the last two years. At one point my phone dinged notifying me I’d just received a message from Mark.
“What is it?” Melody asked on seeing the mile wide grin on my face.
“I’m guessing Lucy knows we’re having lunch together.”
“Yes, I told her… why?”
“Mark’s just asking how my date is going.”
“I should have known better, shouldn’t I,” Melody sighed as our eyes met. If there was ever a moment when I should have taken the bull by the horns and made a move this was it, only I bottled it. Something I was still kicking myself for nearly two hours later when I eased to a stop back outside number 42 Montrose Avenue.
We’d had a good day; a really good day and I didn’t want to spoil it when it came to saying goodbye. The truth was when it came to romantic situations I was at a loss. Rosemary and I had what we had, an arrangement, which whilst it was fun wasn’t in any shape or form romantic. Not that I needed to have worried as fate intervened in the form of Melody’s dad who was in the process of sliding a car jack under a red Ford when we pulled up.
Melody yelling a none too pleased “What are you doing dad? “As she strode purposefully down the driveway. I don’t think Mr Carpenter had noticed us until then, his guilt-ridden face falling to the floor when he looked up and saw his far from happy daughter bearing down on him.
“It’s just a flat tyre Mel.”
“I don’t care what it is, call the AA or something.”
A pained expression crossed her father’s jaundiced face. “Don’t be silly Mel, I’m not an invalid.”
“You know what the doctor told you,” Melody continued. “Nothing physical.” For a split second I thought Mr Carpenter was going to argue the point which I knew from my own work-related feuds with his daughter wouldn’t end well. Mercifully, he was interrupted by the sound of a key turning in a nearby door lock.
“What’s going on?” asked a tall, mature lady framed in the front doorway.
“It’s Dad, he’s fixing a flat tyre on the car.”
The lady, who was obviously Melody’s mother, fixed her hapless husband with a withering stare. “Alan? I thought I told you to leave it. I’ll ask Terry to do it when he comes home from work.”
By now I was feeling more than a little sympathy for Melody’s dad and decided it was time to intervene and offered my services. “I’ll do it,” I said talking directly to Mr Carpenter.
“You don’t have to Joe,” Melody said.
“It’s not a problem Mel, it’s not as if I have anywhere else to be.”
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Mr Carpenter asked getting to his feet and dusting himself down.
“No, not at all. You can supervise while Melody puts the kettle on,” I replied trying to make light of the situation.
A wry smile flashed across Mr Carpenters face. “That sounds like the best idea I’ve heard all day.”
“I’m Joe, by the way,” I said holding out my hand. “I work with Melody.”
“Alan,” Mr Carpenter replied, his brow furrowing as he took my hand.
“Work Joe?” A voice queried which was answered by an apprehensive “mum” from Melody.
I turned to see Mrs Carpenter standing behind me. I had a very vague memory of her standing outside the school gate and even though she had undoubtedly aged you didn’t need a degree in genealogy to work out from whom Melody had inherited her good looks.
“As in the devil incarnate,” she continued with a definite twinkle in her eye.
“Well dear, I don’t see any horns and no, there’s no devils tail either,” Mrs Carpenter continued theatrically craning her head behind my back and seemingly reveling in her daughter’s discomfort. She flashed me what could only termed a conspiratorial smile before making a show of looking me up and down. “Hmm, normally I’m quite old fashioned and insist on Melody’s boyfriends calling me Mrs Carpenter,” she said ignoring the exasperated “mum,” “but you can call me Jean.”
“You’ll have to excuse my mother,” Melody said shooting her the blackest of looks.
“Oh, for God’s sake Melody lighten up,” her mother replied sharply. A bit too sharply as Melody visibly stiffened before rounding on her mother, or she would have done if her father hadn’t intervened.
“Please don’t start, I really don’t need it,” he said in a tired, forlorn voice. “There’s no need.” Both Melody and her mother looked truly mortified, and an awkward silence ensued which I broke by kneeling down and sliding the car jack under the Ford.
“They’re not normally like that,” Alan said once his wife and daughter had gone inside. “It’s the stress of dealing with my illness. I take it Melody told you I’m not so good at the moment.”
“Yes, she did, and I was sorry to hear it.”
“It is what it is. We’ve just got to take it one day at a time.”
“Well, if there’s anything you need don’t be afraid to ask. I only live twenty minutes away.”
“Thanks, you never know…” Alan's voice tailed off and I looked up to see him focusing his attention on the opposite side of the road.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes, yes, it’s just I could have sworn there was somebody lurking behind those trees.
“Really?” I said scrutinizing a group of mature trees at the bottom of an extensive and somewhat overgrown garden. As I watched a light breeze caused the trees to sway from side to side and I thought I saw something too until I realised it was just a shadow.
Alan scoffed and shook his head. “Ah, it’s probably my medication playing tricks on me. Melody was right. I shouldn’t have tried to do this,” he said gesturing to the wheel which I’d just removed from the wheel hub.
Ten minutes later we were in the Carpenters kitchen with tea and homemade ginger biscuits. Jean and Melody had seemingly put their earlier spat behind and were discussing the pictures of the new offices which Melody had taken on her phone.
“And there’s only going to be you two there?” Jean asked holding Melody’s phone at arm’s length and peering at it over the top of her glasses.
“Us and about fifty builders.”
“That’s what we keep asking ourselves. Why?”
Jean pulled a face which involved pursing her lips whilst simultaneously twitching her nose. It was something I’d seen Melody do many times when she was deep in thought. The twitching nose was quickly followed by a wry smile. “Well, if nothing else it’s brought you two together.”
I thought Melody was going to go on the defensive again and no one was more surprised than me when she fixed me with those beautifully expressive eyes and said “Yes, it has mother.” If I’d had any doubts as to whether we were ever going to become an item they were dispelled then. There was even less doubt a few minutes later when Melody sat next to me on the family settee, and by that, I mean not next to me as a colleague, but up close and personal as something much more than just friends. Have you ever experienced the joy of obtaining the unobtainable? Because that’s what it felt like. For years I’d watched and desired Melody from afar, even when we’d been at loggerheads that desire never went away.
We sat talking with Melody’s parents for well over an hour. At some point I must have taken Melody’s hand in my own even though I didn’t have any conscious recollection of doing so. At four o’clock an alarm sounded in the kitchen. “Medication time,” Jean announced where upon both she and Alan made their excuses. I turned to find Melody’s beautiful face inches from mine, our eyes met, and I leant in toward her and we kissed for the very first time. It was a long sensitive kiss, or at least it started off sensitive and rapidly turned into something far more passionate.
“You have no idea how long I’ve been wanting to do that,” Melody whispered once we came up for air.
“Oh, believe me I do,” I said fighting back a tear of pure joy. We kissed again, a long loving kiss the likes of which I’d never experienced before. Once again loving and gentle evolved into intense and passionate and I think if it weren’t for the fact we weren’t alone this would have been the point when we would have ripped one another clothes off and made mad passionate love on the living room floor. As it was we had to contain ourselves, for now…
“What are you going to tell Lucy now?” I asked still hardly daring to believe I was holding Melody Carpenter in my arms.
“Everything.” She said leaning back a little and becoming all serious. “I don’t want there to be any secrets Joe. Promise me that.”
“I promise, no secrets. What you see is what you get.”
“Good, because I like what I see.”
“So do I,” I said leaning in for another kiss only to be interrupted by a discreet cough from the hallway.
“We were wondering if you’d like to stay for tea Joe?”
“I’d love to Jean, only I’ve promised my niece and nephew I’d call around with fish and chips on the way home. I can’t disappoint them.”
“No of course not. Maybe next time.”
“Do you really have to go?” Melody asked once her mother had retreated down the hallway.
In my mind I saw both Reece and Annie’s excited faces, there was no way I couldn’t go. “Unfortunately, I do. As Leanne often says, there’s nobody like Uncle Joe.”
“No, I don’t doubt there is,” Mel said wistfully.
“Have you anything planned for tomorrow?”
“Other than being driven mad by mum and dad, no.”
“So, let’s make it a proper date. No work, No Lucy’s, or Marks in the background, just you and me.”
Melody nodded thoughtfully before pulling me to her until there was only a hairs breadth between us. “I think I’d like that very much,” she said kissing me softly. One thing I was quickly learning was Melody Carpenter could paint a picture with a single loving kiss.
There are no words to describe the elation I felt when I drove away from Melody’s house, none at all. Elation and a feeling of utter disbelief it had taken us fifteen years to get to where we were at today. Fifteen years, unbelievable. These were the very thoughts going through my mind when I pulled up at the T junction where Montrose Avenue met the main road. Casually looking to my right the last thing, I expected to see coming toward me with its left-hand indicator flashing was Jason’s Silver Porsche. He must have seen me at the same time and instead of turning left roared straight across the T junction and disappeared at a rapid rate of knots toward the town centre.
Elation was quickly replaced with confusion, there could only be one place Jason was going when he was turning into Montrose Avenue and yet Melody had made no mention she was expecting a visit. I remembered her telling me there was to be no secrets between us, something she reiterated on the front step when she said goodbye, so why hadn’t she said anything? Maybe Jason had taken it upon himself to call out of the blue, a brave decision if he had, considering the content of the text messages he’d sent Melody when she knocked him back. Part of me wanted to call her there and then and ask her outright, another more sensible part of me argued I was a grown man not a school kid and to take a breath. Fortunately, the latter won. It still didn’t stop me from mulling over a hundred and one different scenarios in my head both during and after my visit to Leanne’s.
No one had been more surprised than Leanne when I told her Melody and I were now officially an item, and once she’d got her head around the idea she was genuinely happy her little brother had finally allowed someone to come between him and his job.
“I hope it works out for you Joe, I really do,” she said before cheerfully telling me I had to go through into the front room and listen to the concert Annie and Reece were going to stage using the recorder and drum kit I bought them for Christmas. Smooth Leanne, really smooth….
It must have been gone nine by the time I finally got home and settled down in my front room with a mug of tea in one hand and my phone in the other. I don’t think it rang twice before Melody answered with a happy sounding “Hi.” We talked then for a solid two hours during which, on Leanne’s advice, I told her about my friends with benefits arrangement with Rosemary.
“I suppose that’s explains a few things,” she said once I’d finished.
“Well, we often used to wonder at work. I mean you’re a good-looking guy Joe, and I’m not just saying it, you are. You have a career your own house and other than your dodgy dress sense you’re quite the catch.”
“Dodgy dress sense?”
There was a barely audible snicker down the other end of the phone. “Yeah, that’s going to change.”
“Oh yes, really.”
I felt a happy smile spreading across my face. “Listen, Miss Carpenter…”
“Seriously though Joe, I’m glad you told me. I don’t like secrets.”
“It wasn’t a secret.”
“I know, but I’m still glad you told me.”
Somewhere around eleven we said our goodbyes and I settled down for what I hoped would be a good night’s sleep. It would have been too if it wasn’t for my phone rudely awakening me two hours later. My first, and only thought, was something had happened to Leanne or one of the kids which was why I snatched the phone from its charger without pausing to look at its screen.
“Joe?” a tremulous voice asked.
“Mel? What’s wrong?”
“Somebody tried to break into our house.”
“What, when?” I asked flinging back my bed sheets and turning on the light.
“Two minutes ago.”
“Have you called the Police?”
“Mums talking to them now. Can you come round Joe? We’re really frightened.”
“Don’t worry, I’m on my way. Whatever you do Mel don’t go outside before I get there.”
“I won’t,” her voice tailed off as she tried to listen to her mother’s conversation with the emergency operator.
“I’ll be there as quick as I can.”
During the day, the journey from my flat to Melody’s house takes around twenty minutes. Pushing it you would get it down to fifteen. I did it in ten. I must admit when the Landcruiser swung into Montrose Avenue I fully expected to see a Police Car outside number forty-two, needless to say there wasn’t. Undeterred by the lack of a Police presence I abandoned my car on the Carpenters driveway and hurried toward the front door all the time probing the surrounding shadows for any sign of an intruder. The front door opened before I reached it revealing Melody and her mother standing side by side in the doorway.
“Thank you Joe,” Jean said closing the door behind me. “We’ve all had a nasty fright.”
“I’m not surprised. What happened?”
“Dad has a camera on his tool shed which activates an alarm on his phone if it’s triggered,” Melody said in a voice still edged with fear. “Dad’s fast asleep upstairs, the drugs knock him out, mum heard it though and when she checked saw there was somebody in the garden by the house.” The nervous, frightened tone of Melody’s voice made my blood boil, and my first reaction was to make for the back door with the intention of ripping whoever I found lurking in the shadows to shreds. Evidently Jean read my mind and stepped in front of me.
“There’s no point going outside Joe, they ran off when I hammered on the window.”
I paused and took a beat. Jean was right whoever had been out there would be miles away now. “How many of them were there?”
“Just one, I think. They were wearing one of those hoodie things, so I didn’t get a good look at them.”
“What about your CCTV?”
“There’s not much to see, like mum says it’s dark and they were wearing a hoodie.,” Melody said fiddling with her phone. “Here, there’s two short clips, one when they pass the shed coming into the garden and another when they run back out.” A grainy video clip appeared on her phones screen showing the view directly in front of her father’s tool shed. The images were black and white and not the best quality, even so there was no mistaking a shadowy form moving from left to right across the screen. I paused the footage trying to discern any identifiable features or marks, which was when my blood froze…
“What did the Police say?” I asked in a quiet even voice so as not to cause alarm.
Jean snorted in disgust before telling me the Police had given her an incident reference number and told her they would send somebody as soon as an officer was available.
“Ok, and did you tell them the intruder was carrying a weapon?” Both mother and daughter gasped in pure horror with Melody snatching her phone out of my hands and scrutinizing the frozen image on its screen.
“Oh my God, look mum Joe’s right,” she said pointing to what looked like an eighteen-inch-long bladed weapon in the intruder’s right hand.
“You’d better give me that reference number,” I said in a calm voice which surprised even me. That calmness was starting to wear extremely thin by the time I’d listened to three automated messages telling me to press one for this, two for that and three for the other. I seriously thought about putting the phone down and dialling nine, nine, nine only Melody and her mother said not to. Eventually, after what seemed an age, I got to speak to somebody called Greg who in a dangerously disinterested voice asked me for the Police incident number which once I’d counted to ten I gave to him.
“Ah yes, a report of an intruder at number 42 Montrose Avenue.”
“Yes, that’s right,” I replied fighting the urge to jump down the phone and instil some sense of urgency.
“And you are?”
“Joe Mason, a family friend. I’m calling to tell you I’ve just reviewed the CCTV footage of the intruder and it looks as if as if they were carrying a long, bladed weapon.”
“What sort of weapon, can you see?” Gregg asked in an altogether more focused tone of voice.
“Not clearly no.”
“Ok,” there was a pause on the other end of the phone during which I guessed Greg was reading a computer screen to see what officers he had available something which was born out when he told me there would be a car on scene shortly. Sure enough not ten minutes later two cops, one male and one female, appeared on the doorstep. They introduced themselves as PC Evans and WPC Graham and after briefly studying the cctv footage of the intruder made a quick sweep of the back garden.
“There doesn’t appear to be anybody there now,” PC Evans said once they came back inside. “I checked your shed, and it doesn’t look like it’s been tampered with.”
“That’s a relief,” Jean said. “My husband keeps his tools in there. He would have been devastated if they were gone.”
“It’s a good job you had it alarmed, we’ve had a run of shed burglaries,” Evans said once again studying the cctv footage on Mel’s phone. He was of a similar age to me with a ruddy faced complexion and looked vaguely familiar. I was about to ask him if he went to the same school as me when he passed the phone across to his not unattractive colleague. “I don’t think it’s a knife, it looks more like a long-bladed screwdriver to me.”
WPC Graham nodded her head in agreement “Yes, that’s what it looks like to me too, they were probably going to use it to jemmy open the shed door.”
“We’ll inform the control room and ask them to keep a visible presence in the area,” Graham continued.” I don’t think whoever it was will be back. Somebody will be in touch tomorrow.”
Jean thanked them for coming out and promised no one would go outside before day light.
“Would you like me to stay?” I asked once she closed the front door.
“Yes,” Melody said before her mother could answer. It was then I noticed her visibly shaking, something which tore at my heart. This is what the shitbags who break into people’s homes don’t see, the fear and trauma they inflict on their victims. Not that any of them would care if they did.
“Hey,” I said in a soft, soothing voice. “They’re long gone now.”
“I know, it’s the shock. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
“Well, I’m here, and the Police said they were going to keep an eye on the place.” I took hold of her hand. “Nobody’s going to hurt you now.” I lent in and kissed the top of her forehead as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “Nobody.”