Never Look Back

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Chapter 49

Robert Mansbridge drove with the window down, elbow resting on the sill, classical music spilling out of the speakers. He drove with half of his attention on traffic, the other half focused on his daughter’s second lease on life. Yesterday sat foremost in his thoughts. Odera usually offered a congenial welcome when she arrived at work. Yesterday she had bounced into his trailer with a cheerful and bright hello, had thrown herself into his arms hugging him fiercely, intensely happy. Whenever she found a few moments to steal away from the office, she appeared at his side with a flourish and commenced to chatter off his ear.

As a child, she gathered around his desk replaying her school day. Yesterday’s chaotic appearances reminded him of those bygone days, of the little girl he had raised to womanhood. Although she had not disclosed anything in great detail, her therapy had finally produced results. For years, unfinished conversations hung between them ― conversations containing uncomfortable silences. A sullen and cautious demeanour denoted her struggle to face each day. Some days were better than others were, but for the most part, the cheerful, trusting and caring woman his daughter had grown into had disappeared.

Mansbridge looked forward to tomorrow morning, to the new woman Odera had become, rather, he anticipated enjoying his daughter’s return. She had an appointment with the head doctor today. He owed a debt of gratitude to Brinkman and to Bruce as well. What? Tightly knitted brows wrinkled his forehead. From where did that thought originate? The two of them were close, but something about seeing them together felt odd, off-center. Unnaturally natural best fitted the bill. Instant silences whenever he entered the trailer came immediately to mind. They forever turned to the monitor as if his presence equated an intrusion. In his drafting trailer! Horse’s cock. Funny he had never cued on that before now. Not completely, anyway. They were dissimilarly compatible, he thought. That made no sense. Yet it was true. Odera said Bruce was gay. She had never lied about anything important since she was a child.

During the first four or five months after Odera’s return from Scotland, he had hovered nearby to ensure that she felt comfortable around Bruce. He soon discovered that he overprotected her. Odera said she could speak openly with Bruce. Their talks left her feeling better. Women were attracted to homosexuals because they were in touch with their feelings and posed no threat.

That had to be it.

With each passing month, he relinquished more and more control of the office until Odera had become the administrative CEO in every regard. A position he had always hoped she would fill ― as it nearly had been before her assault. At those instances when he thought she would have striven to shun Bruce’s brusque attitude, to show dislike for his criminal past, she had instead volunteered Bruce’s assistance for most projects; and she championed him without exception.

Since forming their work relationship, her zest for life had steadily grown. Never-ending debates and discussions were the seeds from which her zeal had rejuvenated, Robert now realized. On occasion, he had observed her leaving the trailer, red-faced, fists clenched and body stiff. He had waited to throw Bruce out if Odera fired him or logged a complaint. Instead, she stormed by Robert, often mumbling about Bruce’s lesser manly virtues, wrapped in fuming fury. Always she returned, never once voicing a serious grievance. Sometimes she returned with an apology riding her lips. Imagine that, he had told his wife at the supper table. He now understood those verbal exchanges had coaxed Odera to step outside of herself. By sheer force of will, Bruce helped her to face the world from his viewpoint as though she relied upon his strength of character to supplement her own damaged perspective.

Unfathomable.

In the beginning, Robert felt concerned her repeated challenges would provoke Bruce’s animosity. Occasionally, Bruce had gripped the arms of the chair, struck silent as Odera lashed out at his stoic countenance, mercilessly tied into his stubborn streak. Expecting the worst, Mansbridge waited for the inevitable. Bruce had a history of violence. It was a reasonable expectation. God Lord to thank, none of his fears had come true. Rather than shout or explode at those times when Bruce reached his wit’s end, a bubble of calm seemed to descend over him, which frustrated Odera to no end. Whenever Mansbridge had tried to intervene, to come to her aid and diffuse a particularly adamant argument, Odera often unleashed her reproach upon him. He became the recipient of her wrath ― a wrath that created firm and unshakable boundaries he dared not cross.

Healthy boundaries, he now admitted to himself. Boundaries that redefined her needs after that horrible night. Long-awaited boundaries years in the making. Boundaries assembled and shaped by Bruce’s dry wit, defined mockingly by his roguish charm, buttressed by his robust disregard for anyone else’s opinion about himself. Odera had redefined herself. She had borrowed Bruce’s strength of will to reform her own shattered perspective. Inconceivable.

Bull’s balls! There had to be another explanation.

Without knowing why, or realizing until just now, he turned into Yellow Birch retirement community. Claire and Odera were so much alike that not loving the wilful matron was impossible. They were as thick as thieves. Catherine, his wife, was as different as night and day. Gentle and nurturing, sensitive to his desires, content to let him steer them through life, Catherine was a lady without parallel. Wise in social intelligence, up-to-date with current trends, market and otherwise. She hosted grand dinner parties whose invitations were coveted among the construction elite. Her witty anecdotes made people listen and laugh with genuine mirth as she embraced his colleagues and associates, coddled chief contractors, soothed and encouraged land developers and welcomed banking executives into the warm folds of her social propriety displaying an array of insights and opinions that masked the intelligence behind her discriminating aqua-green eyes. Catherine owned a knack to bring out the very best in people, to make everyone feel valued and important.

After knocking on Claire’s unlocked bungalow door, Mansbridge entered and called out, “Mum?”

He headed for the kitchen.

“Mum?”

“Outback, son,” Claire replied, her voice travelling through the screen door. “I’m taking tea. Fetch a cup along.”

Robert exited the kitchen to find Claire seated in her favourite wicker chair, the one with a high, clamshell curved back with its comfortable foam padding. She looked out upon a new flowerbed and the nearly complete granite ring with its blue-black matte finish, marvelling how it set off rose bushes that would grow to become prickly shrubs with scrambling stems topped by a rosebud. The fruit was the well-known hip. Once she had grafted a darker coloured strain onto their thorny stems next spring, the effect she had in her mind’s eye would materialize.

“You shouldn’t leave the front door open, Mum.”

Mansbridge dutifully stopped to kiss her cheek. Claire sipped tea while he took the china teapot by the bone handle and filled his cup, added cream from the tiny pitcher before settling himself into a chair. The clinking of the teaspoon introduced Claire’s words.

“Och, you’ve no reason to fret, son. If a thief wanted ma baubles bad enough to skulk into ma hoose, he’s welcome to whatever he can carry. I’d no deny him his larcenous bounty.”

“Does that include those magnificent yellow and orange burst roses?”

“Now that’d be very unwise of him to put thievin’ paws on ma bairns,” she stated, catching the sparkle in her son-in-law’s pale blue eyes.

“Those walkway stones and that bed are beautiful additions. You and Odera have been busy.”

“Aye. Several days in the making.” Claire sipped her tea before pointing to the planters bordering her patio. “Such as those planters Odera purchased, and the gazebo parasol I’ve yet to erect. The lass has fine taste and fulfilled ma wishes well and proper.”

“Have you seen her today?”

“She was here for lunch and gone again. Did she no have therapy?” Claire temporized.

Robert had not come to pass the time of day; not solely, she admonished herself, for he was a decent and kind husband and father, a conscientious son-in-law. Years of political practise working as a liaison for the Ontario Government School Board let her keep her face expressionless. Allowing others to speak their heart and mind uninterrupted alleviated guessing at their motivation. Government policy trained civil servants not to offer anything. Fewer services were offered that way, which forced potential recipients to do their homework and to ask for a specific service or provincial grant. Budgets went further. The trick was to engage the speaker, but to not mislead them or to deny services.

“Yes,” Mansbridge answered stretching out his legs and crossing them comfortably. “Yes, she did.”

“Then she’ll be here on the morrow. Afternoon, I believe. She said something aboot work in the morning.” Claire waited until he nodded. “You can no fault the child if she needs time to sort herself out. She’s come a long way, son. Her road has been rife with struggles to come to terms with her attack. Do not fash, though, I believe she’s on a path that will lead her out of the woods.”

Bright blue eyes flashed, dancing merry life that mocked him somehow. Shaking his head, he banished a rogue feeling that Claire held details back. No matter. Odera and Claire had always kept secrets. Being a father who had raised two daughters, he owned bountiful awareness of the female propensity to maintain secrets from the household’s solitary male. He trusted Claire’s judgement. Odera’s wellbeing was equally important to each of them.

“How did she seem to you, Mum?”

He cradled his teacup; the warmth spread to his hands.

“She bubbled hope. For the longest time, I did not think ma granddaughter would return, but she’s on her way. We have abundant blessings to be grateful for, son.”

“I, too, have recently experienced a string of hope-inspiring days,” he admitted, happy and content that Odera carried joy with her. “I must say that I once doubted Brinkman ― appointments that had no end in sight and which produced so little change. If he returns Odera whole, I’ll be the first to shake his hand.”

“Aye, the doctor has been instrumental.” Claire raised her cup toward Robert. “Touch it up a wee drop or so.”

Leaning forward, Robert took the cup from Claire’s outstretched hand, asking, “Has she ever spoken of Bruce?”

“Oh, aye, often enough for me to know a thing or two.” Claire waited until Robert relaxed back in his chair. “She takes ease from their conversations when she’s no ranting aboot him one moment and laughing the next. Is he no the thief you hired to do computer work while we were overseas?”

Mansbridge chuckled.

“He’s not a thief. And I didn’t find out about his computer abilities until after I hired him. Never expected Odera would return from Scotland that quickly, or I wouldn’t have hired him at all. Damn near let him go as it was, but Odera objected to that course of action until his behaviour warranted termination. You know what happened a few weeks later. Since then, he’s become quite useful and valued.”

“Odera mentioned something aboot scaffolds. Ma memory is no what it used to be.”

“I hired him more than two years ago. His Aunt Ruth’s a genealogy buff. You’d like her,” he noted, recalling Claire’s ability to list the family tree five generations back. “She connected Charles by marriage, sibling, brother-in-law and so on, and initiated an interview. One led to another and I hired him. I kept looking for reasons not to, but his honesty and forthright disclosures were compelling reasons to say yes.”

“Then you no have a complaint?”

“None worth mentioning, though it bothered me to leave them alone together, at first, that is. But Odera eventually explained he’s gay and easy to talk with. I had a strange thought on my way over here.”

“That maybe Odera spoke of this man to me.”

“Yes, something along those lines.”

“If it’ll put your mind at ease, the child has no but praise for the lad and complains mostly of his unbending nature.”

“Bruce is more stubborn than income tax. I’ve seen her leave the trailer fuming. Despite her being my daughter and his boss, he’s unafraid to support his position. Sometimes I think they’re much alike, but Bruce seldom invites questions and offers little to fill in the gaps. For as long as he’s worked for me, I know precious little about him personally.”

“Do you trust him?”

“Odera trusts him. Given her ordeal, I wouldn’t have thought she’d find comfort in such a man’s company. I trust him with distrust. Though I can’t say why.”

“Och, the lass has fine instincts and would no find solace in a deceitful man. I agree with you, though. They each have reasons to seek haven from the world we enjoy. It’s no hard to doubt a private person. Unanswered questions often cause us to think the worst.”

Robert stood. He set the teacup down on the table and stretched his back muscles until they popped.

“I suppose so, Mum. Mysteries are troubling. Bruce and his parole officer spoke at my church. The presentation helped me to understand some of his challenges. Still, I can’t get over the feeling I have him to thank, in part, for the changes in Odera. I’m puzzled and can’t quite put my finger on the reason why. It’s the strangest damn sensation. When I picture the one, I also see the other.”

Holding the backyard door open, Robert noted her wordless encouragement. Claire entered the bungalow and reached for Robert’s arm.

“Odera needed someone neutral to talk with. She said Bruce understood the dynamics of her ordeal. It stuck with me because of how odd it sounded at the time. Now I’m not so sure. Each lives separate from the world we enjoy. Each distrusts whether the sun will rise tomorrow. Each is independent to a fault.”

“Aye, that’s no difficult to fathom,” Claire agreed as they reached the front door. “You have the right of it. I’m certain. Give young Bruce a chance, if only to appease Odera. Should he lighten her burden, who are we to deny the lass her due? We should be thankful, if that’s the case and add him to our prayers.”

“She’s been through so bloody much; I’m worrying for no reason. The Lord sends us gifts that arrive in many packages. If Odera finds solace in those conversations, I should be offering thanks.”

“Och, you struggled mightily to say that. Dinna fash yourself, son. If you cannot find it in yourself to trust Bruce, then trust Odera’s judgement. Mind you, judging someone for his or her past can lead you astray of the truth. We all have skeletons of one kind or another. Not one of us is exempt. You ken?”
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