Quiet End

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Chapter 3

The pager woke Ellie from her dream. The memory of it was gone in a second but it certainly involved Nick. It had been a pleasant reverie. The morning was cold so Ellie had dressed in her uniform, but then returned to her warm bed to read for a while. Tyrion lay on the pillow beside hers while Hannah was draped across the foot end. Ellie hadn’t intended to fall sleep and she berated herself as she hopped on one foot while ramming her second boot on the other. The dogs were undisturbed by her fumbling and cursing.

She grimaced when she saw the pager message indicated another priority one. At first she thought she was having a run of bad luck, but at her Monday night training meeting she learned all the other ambos had DOA cases. Winter was certainly the time of year that many elderly people passed away and flu was running rampant throughout the community.

According to Merv at communications, the lady in trouble was receiving CPR from a neighbour; even more reason to get to her pronto. This morning Erica was only seconds behind Ellie. They took off with lights flashing and the siren blaring. Some people complained about the noise they sometimes made but neither Erica nor Ellie cared this morning. If they hurried there was a chance to save a life.

They ran from the ambulance to the house with their equipment and found a middle-aged lady leaning over the recumbent older lady.

‘You’re doing a great job, but have a rest and I’ll take over.’ Ellie used her shears to cut the clothing from the woman’s chest and continued with CPR while Erica placed the defibrillation pads.

‘Clear!’ Erica called and delivered a shock. Ellie continued on with CPR but they failed to get a shockable rhythm. They alternated positions every two minutes, one administering CPR while the other breathed for the patient, but after almost twenty minutes they knew it was useless.

‘Damn it!’ Erica yelled in frustration.

A doctor had arrived so they cleared their equipment away and waited for the police out on the footpath.

‘I feel like a cigarette,’ Erica said.

‘You don’t really, and if you did, it wouldn’t taste anything like you remember.’

‘I still feel like one.’

The police car pulled up and Ellie felt a thrill of excitement. Nick was driving. It had been two weeks since she had seen him at the nightclub but she hadn’t phoned him. She hadn’t wanted to appear too keen and now she regretted it. He nodded to her as he walked past but he didn’t look pleased.

Erica gave her a prod in the ribs with her elbow. ‘Isn’t that the one you fancy?’

‘Yes, but I think I’ve blown my chance.’

‘Go and talk to him. Give him the case details.’

‘Oh, I don’t know, maybe you should.’

‘No,’ Erica said sharply and walked around to the driver’s side of the ambulance.

‘Shit!’ Ellie cursed.

The doctor was filling out paperwork as Ellie edged beside Nick. ‘I have the details here.’

‘Don’t worry about it. I can get them from the doctor. You are fine to leave.’ He spoke in a sharp tone that was almost rude.

‘I’m sorry Nick,’ she whispered. ‘I really wanted to call you but I thought I would seem too desperate.’

He didn’t reply and her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. It seemed that was last thing he’d expected to see when he finally glanced at her.

‘Hey! Hey!’ he said. ‘Come on outside and get some air.’ He nodded to his partner and led her by the elbow out to the street.

‘I’m sorry Ellie. I shouldn’t have been so rude. I was just…disappointed.’

She tried hard to speak but her throat felt constricted. She could do nothing about the hot tears that ran down her cheeks. Nick put his arms around her; holding her tight against his chest. She heard the truck door slam and Erica’s approaching footfalls.

‘What’s wrong?’ she demanded. ‘What did you do to her?’

‘Um…I…’ Nick stepped away.

‘It’s okay Erica,’ Ellie said. She coughed to clear her throat. ‘I just got a little overwhelmed. I feel better now. I’ll be fine. Come on Erica let’s clear the job and get out of here.’

But as she turned to go Nick clasped her hand. ‘Please call me tonight.’

Ellie said nothing. She got into the passenger seat and put on her safety belt. Nick hadn’t moved, his dark eyes stared at her. As Erica drove away Ellie nodded to him. He smiled and she managed to return it before the tears started again.

‘What happened?’ Erica asked.

‘I don’t know. I don’t usually get so emotional. Maybe it’s the culmination of all the deaths we’ve had recently.’

‘Did that cop upset you?’

‘I guess that was part of it.’

‘Bloody men,’ and then began a rant that lasted until they returned to the depot. But Ellie didn’t take any notice; her thoughts were splintered between hope and death. She chewed the quick of her fingernail until she tasted blood.

‘I need to get a grip,’ she said.

‘Go home and put your feet up.’ Erica said as she opened her car door. ‘Try to relax.’

But as Ellie pulled her car keys from her pocket their pagers sounded again.

‘Priority two, chest pain,’ Erica read from the small screen.

‘Righto, let’s see if we can’t help this one,’ Ellie said as they rushed back to the ambulance.

The morning was busy but the afternoon dragged. Ellie wasn’t sure what time to call Nick. If she phoned when her shift ended at seven would that seem too desperate? But then again if she waited until eight would that seem too blasé, would he think she’d forgotten about him? Would it seem like an afterthought?

‘For God’s sake stop overthinking this!’ she said out loud as she dialled his number. It was one minute past seven and suddenly she didn’t care if she came across as keen. He answered immediately and Ellie laughed.

‘Ellie?’

‘Hi Nick.’

‘What’s so funny?’

‘Me. I’m an idiot.’

‘Are you alright?’

‘Yes. I’m sorry about today. Things just got to me. And I am really sorry I hadn’t phoned you.’

‘Well you have now and I’m pleased. Do you want to go somewhere?’

‘Sure, where?’

‘Have you eaten?’

Ellie glanced at the packet of crackers on the kitchen bench. ‘No, not yet.’

‘Great, maybe we could go to the pub, or somewhere fancier if you like.’

‘I’m easy.’

‘They do good steaks at the BBQ place in Kadina. I mean…unless you don’t eat meat.’

‘No, I’m a carnivore.’ Ellie winced. ‘Sorry, that sounded dumb. I mean I’m not vegetarian. I eat most things.’

‘Cool. Do you want to meet there or I can pick you up?’

‘Where are you coming from?’

‘My place is at North Beach in Wallaroo.’

There was silence as she thought the question through. If things didn’t go well between them there would be an awkward “goodbye” when he dropped her home. She wanted to avoid such a scene.

‘It’s out of your way to come to Moonta.’ She said finally. ‘How about I meet you there.’

‘Sure I’ll phone and make a booking. Is eight o’clock alright?’

Ellie glanced at her reflection in the kitchen window. ‘Make it eight thirty. I really need a shower.’

‘Okay, I’ll see you there.’

Ellie chose black pants and jacket with a white shirt, broken up with a pink silk scarf so she didn’t come across too business-like. She blow dried her hair and put on some makeup. Nick seemed to appreciate the effort she had gone to.

‘I thought you looked pretty good in your uniform, but you look even better out of it.’ He said after they were seated at their table.

Ellie laughed. ‘You haven’t seen me out of it, yet.’

‘Oh, that’s not what I meant…I…um.’ His face had reddened and he gazed at the floor.

‘I know what you meant.’

‘You’re a bit of a stirrer aren’t you?’

‘I guess. My dad was a stirrer. Does that upset you?’

‘No. I just have to work a bit harder trying to figure out if you’re serious or not.’

‘I don’t mean to be hard work. You’ll soon know if I’m serious.’

They fell silent as the waitress poured them a glass of merlot. Once the girl was gone they toasted to “good health” and gazed at each other. Ellie felt her cheeks grow warm when he smiled at her. She broke the stare by reaching for the bottle of water at the edge of the table, and almost spilt her wine in the process. Nick reached across and saved the glass.

‘Shit!’ Ellie shook her head. ‘Sorry,’ she said.

Nick moved his hand from the glass and covered Ellie’s clenched fist.

‘I’m nervous too,’ he whispered. ‘I don’t usually get to go out with someone as gorgeous as you.’

‘Please Nick…can we just, oh I don’t know.’ She didn’t move her hand away but she shook her head again. ‘I don’t know what I want.’

‘I think you do.’

‘How?’

‘This is a steak place. You have to want steak.’

‘That’s not what I meant.’

Nick took his hand away and drank his wine. ‘I know that’s not what you meant,’ he said dryly.

Ellie glanced at him. Her eyes were stinging. She felt hot and bothered. ‘I’m shit scared.’

‘Of getting hurt?’

‘Something like that. I haven’t dated since before dad died. I’m so out of touch. I should be laid back and sophisticated at my age, but I’m trembling inside.’

‘I knew you’d be like this.’

‘What, pathetic?’

’No, honest. I really admire that.’

Ellie’s nose had begun to run and she sniffed loudly. ‘Excuse me,’ she said as she fled to the toilet.

She burst through the door and caught her reflection in the mirror. ‘Idiot!’ she said to her image. She breathed deeply and fanned her face. She blew her nose noisily and walked back to the table.

‘I’m…’

‘Don’t say you’re sorry,’ Nick interrupted. ’And don’t be sorry. I’m just grateful that it was you who had an attack of nerves and not me. Here, have a drink.’

Ellie raised the glass to her lips but paused before she took a drink. ‘I really hope you spiked this.’

‘I did.’

‘Good.’ She took a huge swallow and Nick laughed.

‘I will try not to rush you. If you think I am then tell me, please.’

‘Sure. Thanks for being understanding.’

‘I’m a bit rusty too. I haven’t dated much lately either.’

‘You got hurt?’

‘Divorced, but that was years ago. It’s hard to believe we were once friends. By the time she dragged me through court I hated her more than anyone alive, or dead.’

‘That’s tough. Do you have kids?’

‘No. She does now though. I’m glad we didn’t have any together, but maybe if we had she wouldn’t have turned so nasty. I guess it was greed that changed her, plus the bloke she’s with now. It was a real eye-opener.’

‘So you’re bit wary now?’

‘Does it show?’

‘Not really but it must affect you.’

He nodded and gestured to the waitress. They ordered a filet mignon each with salad and sweet potato wedges.

‘So how about you?’ Nick asked. ‘Have you been married?’

‘I was engaged for a time but it wasn’t the right thing. People were always on at us to tie the knot, but I think we both knew it wasn’t going to last. Jack wanted to travel and I couldn’t. I always had too many pets to just up and go. Back then I had horses as well as dogs. Then dad got sick so I came here to care for him. Jack used the excuse to leave. I didn’t even cry. I’m pretty sure he didn’t either.’

‘What did your dad die from?’

‘He had liver cancer.’

‘Poor bugger.’

‘There wasn’t much of him at the end. I was glad when he died. I mean, I miss him so much, but not how he was at the end. It was terrible for him.’

‘And for you.’

Ellie finished her wine and Nick poured her another glass.

‘So what are you doing tomorrow Ellie?’

‘I was going to clean the house.’

‘Do you have to?’

‘Do you mean is it messy?’

‘No I mean if I ask you to come fishing with me will you come?’

‘Fishing? On a boat?’

‘Sure. We can cruise around the coastline. It should be fine weather.’

‘That sounds great.’

‘Is seven too early?’

‘I need to walk the dogs before we go. Is eight alright?’

Nick laughed and said, ‘if we were going for a serious fish it would be too late, but seeing as we’re just sightseeing it’ll be okay.’

‘Thanks. I’ve been a bit neglectful lately. I need to make it up to them.’

‘I have a dog too. Maybe we could take them somewhere together one day.’

‘Sure. Is yours a boy or a girl?’

‘A girl, “Indy,” she’s a ridgeback. She loves other dogs.’

‘Oh good. Hannah loves other dogs too, but Tyrion doesn’t like male dogs.’

‘Tyrion?’

’He’s named after a character in Game of Thrones. He’s a corgi. He has an attitude problem. But he’ll be fine with Indy.’

‘So they are your kids?’

‘Absolutely. I wouldn’t be without them.’

Nick moved to top up Ellie’s glass but she stopped him. ‘Sorry, I don’t mean to be a kill-joy but I need to drive home. I’ve had enough.’

‘I’ll get you a cab,’ Nick offered.

‘That’s sweet but then I’d have to get another cab to pick it up in the morning. I promise I’ll still be fun without more booze.’

Their food arrived and the steaks were delicious. They chatted and laughed until eleven o’clock. Ellie couldn’t remember the last time she’d had such a great night. When they finally said their goodbyes in the car park she was disappointed that she hadn’t asked him to take her home.

‘Thanks heaps Nick. I really enjoyed tonight.’

He pulled her close to him and kissed her for a long time. When they parted her head was spinning.

‘Wow,’ she whispered.

He held her face in his hands and kissed her again. ‘You are beautiful Ellie. I really want to spend lots of time with you. I hope you feel the same.’

‘I…um, I do, I think.’ She bit her lip and held his gaze. ‘I’m scared,’ she admitted.

He kissed her one more time and said, ‘please don’t be.’

As he walked away she wanted to say more. Her heart was thudding in her chest and although she was smiling there were tears in her eyes. ‘Get a grip,’ she whispered as she unlocked her car.

She wound down the window as she drove home and savoured the wind in her hair. For the first time in years there was a promise of a new life, and maybe more, maybe love. She felt like she was flying.

*

Nam yawned as he took his second cup of coffee into his office. Felicia had taken the children to school and the house should have been quiet, but the earthmoving taking place in the front yard seemed to vibrate though the walls and floors. He couldn’t concentrate.

By ten am the only work he’d managed was to send encrypted messages to Lawrence via Facebook. It still made him laugh, the fact that social media had become one of his safest options of communication. He had set up a closed poetry group with fifty-six members. Lawrence was one and he was all the others. It paid to have an incredible memory.

Their key words were hidden within poems and those key words were changed frequently. Their posts to each other were babble with a hint of talent, enough to pacify any pretentious poet or Facebook administrator who happened to spy on their content.

The front door slammed. Felicia was home and in a rage. Nam heard her cursing as she came down to his basement office. She burst through the door, hands gesticulating wildly, showing her Italian heritage, and speaking a barrage of words dotted with shrieks. He stood and hobbled to the doorway. He held her as close as he could for a moment.

‘Calm down sweetness, tell me what’s wrong.’

‘It’s the garden!’

‘I know it looks messy, we talked about that, but it will be beautiful when it’s finished.’

‘No, no, no, no,’ was her Gatling-gun reply.

‘Yes, yes. It will all be over. The designer said two months and it has only been two weeks. You must be patient. The diggers have almost finished terracing the block, once that’s done the only disruption will be the stonemason and the gardener, and their work won’t be anywhere as noisy.’

He kissed her wet cheek but she shook him away. She waved a letter in front of his nose.

‘Another threat from him,’ she stabbed the air to her right indicating the next door neighbour’s house, ‘his lawyer is going to sue us for the disturbance we have caused.’

Nam embraced her again but this time she didn’t resist. ‘Calm down sweetness. I will sort this out and you mustn’t worry.’ He put a hand on her heavy belly and kissed her neck. ‘You mustn’t have stress.’

She relaxed a little but there was still a pout on her full lips.

‘How about we get out of here today? Let’s go for a drive into the mountains. We could go to that little café that you love so much. What’s it called?’

‘Poppy’s,’ she said grudgingly.

‘That’s the one. You go and get ready and I’ll sort out this silly stuff with Gregory’s lawyer. It won’t take long.’

She gave him a small smile and wiped her eyes. He watched as she trudged up the stairs. He sat at his computers. In a few minutes he had dealt with his neighbour. It was doubtful that they would have any more complaints about their garden renovations.

Later that afternoon while Nam and Felicia perused quaint antique shops in quaint towns scattered within the Glasshouse Mountains, the police raided Gregory Steer’s home. They confiscated his home computers, laptops and tablets. The anonymous tip-off they had received had been correct; the man had downloaded hundreds of child pornography images. Gregory wasn’t home at the time. He was arrested at his city office.

*

Morris, as Ahmed was discovering, had been an old romantic. Much of the old man’s correspondence had been thrown in the bin but there were over a dozen old biscuit tins packed tight with letters to his wife.

For almost an hour Ahmed sorted them into chronological order from their postage stamp dates, and for the last two days he had been reading them in any spare moment he had. Yalda had already yelled at him twice, calling him a lazy good-for-nothing. But Ahmed was intrigued by the tale these fragile parchments told.

Marjorie Harrop was born and lived in Derby. She had met Morris’ brother James, at a pub in Sheffield the night before he was sent to an army training camp. World War Two had been in full swing. Morris was a couple of years younger, too young to join up. He worked in a blacksmith shop just out of Sheffield and he and Marjorie became pen pals.

In a surprisingly candid fashion she told Morris, that despite the fact that she and James became engaged on one of the few furloughs he had before going to France, he showed little interest in her. There was no evidence that Ahmed had found to say that Marjorie and Morris had ever met, and yet she wrote to him about intimate matters regarding her betrothed. They corresponded with each other every few days, and it wasn’t until the tenth or twelfth letter, that it was apparent they had finally seen each other.

They met at James’ funeral. He’d been gunned down in Normandy.

The communication then became romantic. Marjorie had obviously made an enormous impact. Morris spoke of his undying love, and his promise to care for her in his brother’s absence. But Marjorie was not interested in a substitute; she wanted Morris for who he was. There had not been, and she was adamant, any romance past the odd kiss between she and James. In fact, she stated quite undiplomatically, she didn’t think James was interested in any women at all. Morris’ response was not hostile, it was, he said, as he’d suspected for years. His brother preferred the company of men. Morris blamed his mother for all her doting, but also said he was pleased his father never suspected. The old man would have seen it as a mortal and unforgivable sin.

By the time Morris was old enough to join up, the war was over. He and Marjorie had married the following year. Ahmed checked the next post dates. They covered the years from nineteen sixty until nineteen seventy-five. It was almost midnight but he was keen to find out why they had been kept apart for so long. Three more letters and he found his answer.

Marjorie contracted polio the year the couple had planned to emigrate to Australia. Her family had been devastated. They were obviously wealthy and sent her to the clinic of a polio specialist in Switzerland. Her therapy was long and Marjorie worked hard. Whilst Morris built up a business and home for them in South Australia, Marjorie learned to walk again. Ahmed now understood why there were ramps around the house. Marjorie had been wheelchair bound in her old age. He guessed Morris didn’t want to be rid of them. Perhaps they were a reminder of her.

Ahmed was so engrossed in the letters between Morris and Marjorie, that he didn’t hear the first screams. When they built in pitch Ahmed ran, leaving fluttering pages and scattered envelopes in his wake.

‘Lilith!’ he cried as he ran down the hallway to his daughter.

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