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BREATHE

BREATHE

By ROBM

The glow from the bedside lamp reveals a large tear in the orange patterned wallpaper just above the skirting board, and a tide line of brown staining on the exposed wall.

Marie desperately gasps for air. “Stop Tom, please.” She wriggles on the bed, her small hands grip his wrists but fail to remove the vice like grip from her throat. His weight pins her down and she feels that she is going to black out – just like the last time.

Tom suddenly lets go and rolls over and she starts to pant for breath.

“Sorry baby, I got a bit carried away there. Are you OK? Can I get you a drink of water?” He leans over and strokes her cheek.

“Get away from me”, she whispers knocking his hand to one side. “You're a right bastard and don't know when it stops being a game.” She stops to gulp some air. “You and me are finished this time.” She glares at him with her red eyes and gently massages her throat. She slowly pulls herself up, climbs out of bed and puts on a green kimono dressing gown lying on the floor.

“You don't really mean that do you? We have fun together you and I, don't we?” The light from reflects on his shaved head, and reveals a small shark tattoo on the left side of his neck.

“I am going for a shower. You had better be gone when I get out.” She tosses back her long red hair as she walks slowly across to the door.

He lies back on the bed and starts to play with the gold chain resting on his smoothchest.

Ten minutes Marie returns to the bedroom with her hair tied up in a towel. Her feet make a squelching noise as she treads slowly across the carpet.

“Still here, I see.”

“Come over her baby. I want to say sorry.” He crooks his finger in her direction.

She frowns but starts to walk over. “But it had better be the last time you do that.”

“We're cool baby. Once you're dressed we will go out somewhere smart for something to eat. I can't be out too late though as I have training in the morning.”

She gazes out from the sixth floor window over the park and watches the young children in the playground, riding the roundabout and clambering the slide steps. She envies their innocence and recalls the time when her life too was uncomplicated. Sighing, she walks over to the wardrobe to select an outfit for the evening.

*

The conference room has plate glass windows on two sides down to the floor which allow the occupants to gaze out across the City and appreciate the design of the other new high rise blocks nearby. There are eight people round the table, seven men and one woman, all expensively suited and booted. White boned china cups and saucers are scattered across the table.

“The provision of pro bono advice and representation in selected cases would enhance the reputation of our firm.” The speaker Paul – an earnest looking man wearing round glasses - briefly pauses before continuing. “We would stand out against other firms and demonstrate our commitment to justice and provide a riposte to those who say that lawyers are only motivated by money.”

“What would be the criteria for selecting such cases? And how much fee income would we lose? I think we would be making a rod for our own backs.” Gordon Hastings sits back in his chair after speaking and brushes a hair off the sleeve of his blue pinned stripe suit. A layer of fat under his chin overhangs his striped shirt collar.

“We are quite capable in my view of drawing up sensible criteria which limit the service to a very small number of clients so I don't think any of us would be left penniless.” Paul looks around the table for support from others as he speaks.

“I am not convinced. Once we take a case on we will be stuck with it even if it turns out to be more complicated than we first thought. We have already exposed the firm by accepting no win, no fee cases.” Gordon throws his pen onto the table.

Geoffrey intervenes. “We need to draw this discussion to a close and move on to the next item.” He has a long neck and peers over his glasses as he speaks. “I have listened carefully to all the arguments on all sides and as lead partner for the firm I will table a proposal at a future meeting to resolve the issue. Agreed?” The sharp tone of his voice discourages dissent. There are several nods round the table but Gordon mutters something under his breath.

“You have something to say Gordon?”

“No, no, let's move on as you suggest Geoffrey.”

*

The bar is painted in vibrant colours. Ambient music plays in the background and lighting illuminates the parquet flooring and marble topped bar. On Wednesday evenings a two for one cocktail deal is on offer, and a few customers are scattered around the bar looking for a midweek pick me up.

Marie lifts up her empty glass. “Another mojito?” Her chiselled cheekbones are gleaming.

“Yes but when you get back from the bar we are going to talk about Tom. It's not right what he is doing to you.” Stephanie purses her lips together and brushes a few brown curls away from her eyes. Rouge lipstick highlights her generous lips.

“Whatever”, Marie replies and gets up and walks unsteadily to the bar in her high heel shoes, her dusty pink skater dress swaying as she moves across the floor.

Two minutes later she returns with filled glasses. She makes her self comfortable in the chair and adjusts the scarf round her neck.

“Thing is Steph is that Tom is good to me. He takes me to cool places and buys me nice things. So he deserves some slack.” Marie tilts her head to one side and smiles.

“Don't give me that. He just flash with the money he makes playing football. He's got no respect for you the way he knocks you about. If he really cared about you he would ask you to move into his apartment.”

“Deep down inside he's a good guy. He is a bit temperamental and in any case he would not be happy if I ended it. Not happy one bit.”

“You need to stand up for yourself girl. One of these days he will really hurt you and you will regret it, that's if you are still alive.”

“I did make go to the police once.” Marie says in a low voice as she looks away from her friend. “I went down to the station with my sister Emma and a male officer took a statement. He wasn't very sympathetic and he rang me a couple of days later and said there wasn't enough evidence to charge him. I'm not going down that road again. Waste of time.” Marie shakes her head and then notices a familiar figure walking across from the bar.

“Hey babe. Fancy you being here.” Tom is dressed in a floral print shirt and skinny jeans which emphasise his muscular legs. ”Long time no see Stephanie”, he says picking up her hand and kissing the back of it. He looks over to the bar and calls, “Ricky come over and join these two lovely ladies.” Ricky is short and stocky and walks across like someone who has just dismounted a horse.

Jenny looks at Marie with alarm and mouths the word 'no'. Marie shrugs her shoulders and takes another sip of her mojito.

Tom and Ricky sip from their cocktails and the latter eyes Jenny but she blanks him.

“Do this often then babe”, asks Tom?

“Whaddya mean”, responds Marie in a defensive tone.

“Go out on your own, you two? Putting yourselves in the shop window.” He stares at her intently.

“No, no. Just a girls' night out, know what I mean. Haven't done that in ages Steph, have we?”

“That's alright then. Just want to be sure that's all.” He smirks and grips her left leg under the table and squeezes it hard.

*

A short middle aged man with close cropped hair enters the office, walking with the aid of a stick. He looks nervously around and stands back from the window when he sees the steep drop to the ground below.

“Good morning Mr Evans. Grab a seat and we can get down to business.” Gordon looks down at the papers on his desk and avoids his client's eye. Evans sits down and shifts uneasily in the chair as he waits for Gordon to continue.

“I have been reviewing your case and regret to tell you that I do not see any chance of success if it goes to court. None of your colleagues are willing to make a statement corroborating your claim that the injury which you suffered was the result of your employer's negligence. I know this will be a disappointment.” Gordon looks up and stares impassively at his client with his cold blue eyes.

Evans blanches and swallows hard.

“Well, it does come as a shock Mr Hastings. The last time we spoke you seemed confident that we would win. You told me that your firm had the best track record in the business for injury cases.” His hands grip the arms of his chair.

Gordon's right eye twitches. “Indeed we are the best in class. But in no win, no fee cases my firm needs to be very confident of winning. “ He pauses and looks away from Evans. “Oh, thank you Isabel. Hope you haven't forgotten to put sweetener in it this time.” His personal assistant places a cup of coffee on his desk. She is a small lady with delicate features and auburn hair cut in a page boy style.

“You have led me up the garden path. I was relying on you to help me.” Tears appear in the corner of Evans' eyes. “Unless you get your pound of flesh you just leave me to rot.”

Gordon takes a sip from his mug and then closes the file in front of him looking out of the window.

“There is nothing more to be said Mr Evans.”

“I'll see myself out. Thanks for nothing.” The man struggles to his feet and limps over to the door.

A few minutes later Isabel returns.

“I'll take your cup if you have finished. You were a bit hard on Mr Evans weren't you.”

“In what way?”

“I thought the partners had agreed that no win, no fee cases should proceed if there is at least a fifty per cent chance of success but you were suggesting that the odds had to be much higher.”

“The other partners can make their own minds up on such matters. I don't want to damage my reputation by losing hopeless cases.”He looks up and frowns. “Anyway, we don't pay you to have an opinion on such things.”

She turns bright red and slinks out of the room clutching the empty mug.

*

Marie gets off the bus and scurries across the wet pavement in her trainers to the entrance of a brightly lit office block. She pulls back the hood of her anorak, revealing her hair pulled back in pigtails. She approaches a huge security guard who looks like he has been carved out of a mountainside and shows him her security pass. He smiles and winks at her as she passes by and she smiles weakly back, her face pale and drawn. As she crosses the atrium an overweight man dressed in a blue pin stripe suit rushes past.

Arriving in the basement, she is greeted by two other women.

“Evening,” says Binita an older woman sitting in the corner with her chin in her hands.

“You OK love”, asks Marie?

“I'm a bit under the weather tonight to be honest but I can't afford miss the shift.”

“Look, you take it easy. Teresa and I will do a bit extra to help, won't we?” She turns to a tall young girl with short curly blonde hair.

“No problem but It's six thirty, we'd better get started otherwise Hasim will be on our case.” Teresa picks up the cleaning equipment and heads in the direction of the door.

The three ladies catch the lift to the ninth floor. They split up and each work their way gradually across the deserted open plan office, emptying bins into black bags, hoovering carpets, mopping communal spaces, and cleaning toilets.

Ninety minutes later they go up to the tenth floor. It is also open plan but has a number of glass fronted cellular offices around the perimeter. The team carry out the same tasks as on the floor below.

“Marie”, Teresa calls. “Come and have look in here.” Marie walks across into the office.

“The man who works in here must be important.” Martina points to a photograph on the desk of Gordon Hastings shaking hands with the Mayor of London.

“I think I saw the man on the left as I was coming in. Must be very posh and important. You'd better give his office a deep clean.” Marie laughs as she turns to walk out.

At the end of the shift, the three return to the basement and start returning the equipment to the cupboards. Marie suddenly cries out in pain and drops a vacuum with a crash.

Teresa rushes over. “Are you alright?”

“Can you help me to sit down love? My ribs have been hurting all evening but suddenly the pain got a lot worse.” Marie is assisted to a chair nearby.

Binita furrows her brow. “Has that boy who you are seeing been knocking you about again?” The question hangs in the air for a few seconds. “I'll take your silence to be a 'yes' then. You can do better than him, a pretty girl like you.”

“I came to this country to get away from my ex back in Prague.” Teresa crouches in front of Marie. “Sometimes you have to be brave to get out of bad relationships.”

“Yeh, one day I will.” Marie purses her lips for a moment. “Somehow.”

*

Gordon slouches back in his chair and twiddles with his red braces, and looks up to the ceiling and puffs out his cheeks.

“That's all the legal case stuff then. What else is on the partners' agenda tomorrow?” Isabel is sitting opposite and peering at the laptop on the desk.

“The landlords are proposing an above inflation increase in rent. They are blaming rising energy prices and paying the London Living Wage to cleaning staff as the reasons.”

Gordon wrinkles his nose.“Well, I hope Frank has crawled over the lease to check whether they are entitled to do this. They are chancers that lot. Legally all they are bound to pay is the minimum wage.” He kicks over a paper bin. Isabel is startled but quickly composes herself.

“Then there is the issue of who is representing the firm at the Law Society dinner next month. Your diary is free that evening if you want to put your name forward.”

“Bloody sure I do. I haven't been for ages and Miriam has been asking when we are next going to the Dorchester. Geoffrey has been hogging these dinners for himself recently.”

“Lastly Geoffrey will be tabling a proposal on the provision of pro bono advice and representation to clients. There's no detail available yet though.”

“Is he now?” As usual he will suggest a solution which is designed to please all the partners but satisfies none of us. We're not a flaming charity.” He shakes his head as he adjusts his gold cufflinks.

“I'll ask his secretary if she can provide advance notice of his plan.”

“That'll be good. “He stands up suddenly. “If that's all, can you get Holbeck on the phone for me. I need to earn some income for the firm.”

*

He is running late for the dinner. It took him longer than he expected to get the tuxedo on and now Miriam will be waiting impatiently at the tube station. He rushes to the lifts and finds one is out of order and the other is heading up to the twentieth floor and so he goes through the swing door and calls the service lift. The door opens immediately and he gets into a space with barely enough room for two people. He presses 'Ground'. The lift stops at at the sixth floor and Marie gets in carrying a mop and bucket. “Room for a little one”, she asks?

He ignores her and checks his watch. The lift starts to move but then shudders to a halt between floors four and three, and the lights flicker on and off.

“That's all I need”, he says.

Marie presses the button for 'Ground' several times but nothing happens. She then presses the emergency button.

“Can I help you”, a voice asks?

“We are stuck in the service lift in the Gresham Tower. It has stopped between the fourth and third floors. We need help asap.”

“Don't worry, we will get an engineer to you as soon as we can. But it might take a little longer than usual as it's a Friday night.”

“That's not good enough”, shouts Gordon. “My firm pays a premium rent and expects better than that.”

“We will do our very best sir. I promise.”

Marie gingerly turns round to face Gordon, and immediately notices the strong after shave which he has recently applied.

“I didn't want to be rude standing with my back to you”, she says pulling her head back a little. He says nothing in return.

She observes sweat on his forehead, his cheeks turning very red and him clumsily attempting to loosen his bow tie.

“Are you OK”, she asks?

“Yes, nothing to worry about.”

An awkward silence follows for a few minutes, with Gordon trying to keep it together and Marie scrolling through the photos on her mobile, having discovered there is no signal.

Suddenly, he slumps against the back of the lift trembling, breathing quickly and with sweat soaking the front of his shirt She speaks to him in a calm voice.

“I think your'e having a panic attack, love. What you need to do is to try and breathe in as slowly and deeply as you can through your nose and breathe out slowly through your mouth. And close your eyes to focus on your breathing. I will count from one to five to time each breath in and out. OK?” He nods. “Ready? One, two, three, four, five. Now out, one, two, three, four, five.”

Marie continues with these instructions and, with his eyes shut tight, Gordon slowly inhales and exhales for a couple of minutes. He then opens his eyes and stands up straight mopping his forehead with a red handkerchief.

“That's much better. Thank you. Where did you learn that?” The strain has ebbed from his face and a vague smile appears.

“I did a first aid course years ago and that bit came back to me.”

“What's your name by the way?”

“Marie. And yours?”

“Gordon.”

“I've seen you coming out of the building but you probably haven't noticed me.”

His brow suddenly furrows as he studies her left arm.

“My God, how did you get those dreadful bruises?” He points as he speaks.

“It's a long story if you have time to listen to it.”

*

Emma tops up the three glasses with prosecco. Marie is laughing but stops when she glances up at the television screen.

“Look the story is coming up again. Turn up the sound Mum, will you?”

Sophia picks up the remote and presses the volume button. Her short red hair is the same shade as her daughter's.

“Finally”, the newsreader says. “A young woman has won her civil action against the footballer Tom Grant. The court granted a non molestation order barring him from approaching her and upheld her domestic violence compensation claim, awarding her £72,000. The court had heard evidence of Grant's controlling and abusive behaviour and the injuries which she had suffered at his hands. Her lawyer Gordon Hastings spoke to our reporter Amira Khan after the verdict.”

“I am delighted that the court upheld my client's claim. Some high profile men think they can get away with treating women badly and it is important to show that they can be held to account in the civil courts when the police fail to act.”

“Is it true that you represented Marie free of charge?”

“Indeed. I am proud that my firm have agreed that each partner can take one case each year on a pro bono basis and I am delighted to be the first partner to have grasped this opportunity. I hope more firms will adopt a similar policy.”

“OK, that's enough Mum. Turn it down.”

“Do you think he believes all that stuff,” asks Emma?

Marie looks to the floor.“It's hard to tell with Gordon. I am not sure he could answer that question himself. Whatever he really thinks though, he helped me to do the right thing. That's for sure.”

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About The Author
ROBM
ROBM
About This Story
Audience
18+
Posted
11 Nov, 2021
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3,557
Read Time
17 mins
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