"On the hottest days, the leaves let just a dapple of light through and when it rains the trees shelter you from the drops. It's as near to heaven as you can get." He leant forward and lifted his pale blue eyes up at her. The lines around his checks made them sparkle. She gave a half smile, as she fell into them.
Francis went back to stirring his coffee, for no reason, he hadn't taken sugar for twenty years, but it was a habit and it let him drift. She came closer, her long fingers gently caressing his, the prints stained with dirt, even after scrubbing. He watched as they moved away. Francis always liked a gardener, someone at home outside.
"Tell me more Francis, it sounds idyllic." She sipped her tea concentrating on it and then back to him.
"Really?" He puffed out, "I mean we have only just met, it kind of centred around my wife."
She had a way, warm, relaxed, inviting, not what he was expecting from her picture. But much, much better.
"Well, I guess it's better to get it all out, that way there is no hidden secrets. You are a very good listener." He pushed his spoon around again, creating a note from the rim of his cup.
"I always worked hard. Started my own business at twenty two, recruitment, mechanical." Francis broke off waiting for the sneer all sales people get and paused just enough. "It's not the sales. I genuinely love people. I always say to my new staff, “Don’t chase the money, understand your clients and your people.” He sat up and smiled. "They never do."
"She came in one day, sacked, angry and hard, made me chuckle. I knew from the second I shook her hand. I just knew." He nodded at her, as her arm reached forward and held onto his fingers. "Are you sure you want to know, isn't is a bit, you know, weird?"
"Don't stop. A girl likes to know everything.” She winked with a tilt of her head. "We remember everything to.”
His blood warmed his face and for the first time in weeks he felt relaxed. "I kept finding excuses of why she had to pop back in to see me, even after she started work. Just a friendly check to see how you are settling in. I think she knew. But she played along."
"This bloody flat is too fecking small” she screeched, looking for a cat to swing and settling on grabbing her long curly hair. She stomped to the kitchen, turned and came back again. "I don't even have room to stomp off properly.”
He smiled and relaxed on the sofa. "It's not funny Francis,” she shot as she fell back next to him. "It's not,” she whispered quietly, jabbing a finger into his ribs and leaning her head onto his shoulder.
"We could go and sit in the park?" he suggested.
"No we could not" she sulked back. "Always, 'We could go to the park?’” she mimicked, squishing her nose up. "Anyway how is business, are you making great money yet?"
He pressed mute on the Sunday match. For three years they had kept it separate. He worked late, so did she, but from Friday to Monday their time was all for them. There was something ticking in her brain. At first he never caught on to her leading question, but after being pulled in way too many times, Francis looked sharp.
"Tell me” he asked, stroking her arm. "What's going on? If you have been sacked again, it's ok, business is good. Very good.”
She dug her finger in to him again. "I have not been sacked, and what do you mean again?.” She sat up and hardened to him.
Francis let his palms come up to jazz hands. "Ok, not again.” She flumped back in beside him.
"Sacked again" she bit. He giggled. "You always laugh at me, well I'm not telling you now."
"Suit yourself." He undid the mute, kicking his feet up on the coffee table.
Elista grabbed the remote, stabbed the 'off,' button and threw it on the floor. "I'm pregnant you idiot and there is no room for our baby in this fecking flat.”
"Well Elista, what do you think?" He watched her get out of the car. She moved well for seven months cooking.
Elista put her hand on the roof and leant back in. "Don't call me Elista. Only my Dad calls me that and you are not my Dad." She slammed the door hard, stopped as the cottage took her breath away and put her head back through the open window. "I love it darling.”
Francis joined her side, his arm around what was left of her waist. "Now we have to keep the London flat, and we have to live there Monday to Friday, Well, I do. But you and junior can come and go as you please. It's not massive, just two beds, but it is isolated. Just that track we came down. No one in ear shot. And plenty of wild space."
Over taken by delight Elly moved forward. "He's not junior. He’s Harvey, named after that furniture shop"
The front yard stopped only at the start of the forest and any boundary line had disappeared long in the past. She turned the key and pushed through a layer of dust. Rays sparkled it in to life. Elly bounced from the living room to the kitchen, flinging each window open and kicking the sticky back door. Sunlight poured in. "I love we have a downstairs toilet, so much easier with Harvey. He can have the back room, not so much direct sun.” She turned to her man. Her arms around his neck. "I know I'm hard work, but you are stuck with me now, so it's time you got used to it." She kissed him and trod out to the back.
"This is the closest to thing to heaven, all natural and wild. I'm going to call it ‘Near Wild Heaven’ after that song.”
Francis looked confused, "What song?"
Ellly disappeared with a wave of her hand." It doesn't matter.”
Beams of light pierced the canopy as Elly joined him at the front door. His eyes heavy with relaxation and the hustle of the city far beyond him, even if it was only for a few hours. His woman twisted his hair as the baby kicked. Seeing her happy completed the perfect circle. His brain mused at the luck he had fallen on.
"Do we have to go back tonight?" She moved his chin making him catch her eye.
"Afraid so. Besides, we’ve got no furniture. It needs a big clean and I'm not sure if I can get Sky sports out here. The reception on my phone is pants, not even one bar."
Elly's lips grew tight, "Then I'm coming back tomorrow. With your bank card. Hand it over.” Her hand came out expectedly. "This is going to cost you."
Francis fell back, laying out on the wooden veranda that ran across the front of the house. "I know, spend what you want. The business couldn't be better, this place couldn't be better and we still have our flat. Only junior to come and I don't think I could be any happier.”
"Harvey!” snapped Elly.
"What does the bloody git want know?" shouted Francis as his personnel assistant announced his next meeting.
"Shhhh,” said Gerry putting his finger to his lips, "He will hear you, he's just outside." He pushed the door closed with his Cuban. "For God sake Francis , I've been with you since the start, so I am saying this because I care, we all care. Get a grip. Take your frustration out on something and not your employees and especially your clients." Gerry straightened up, standing his ground.
"Get out Gerry, don't you ever talk to me like that again.” Francis stood, his fists thumping into his desk, eyes wild and his skin burning. "Get out."
Frances fumed, his fingers tightening, his jaw locked and the burning sun through his office window heating the back of his neck. "I've had enough of this.” he spat and bumping his hip into the desk corner, he flew after Gerry.
"He's gone. He heard every word. He is taking his business to Carter's, that's the fourth big account gone.” Gerry flipped his coffee coaster over, catching it as it span. "Francis, go home, have a bath, a shower and something other than vodka.”
The open office, fallen silent, burst back into life as his staff grabbed phones and loud conversations drowned out the stare from their boss. "You are sacked!" Francis pointed hard at his best friend. I'm going home, don't you dare be here tomorrow."
He unscrewed the top of a new vodka bottle and mumbled to himself. How many days, weeks had it been now? What time tonight would he drift off, one, two in the morning. More likely he would be chasing the clock after four. He needed the sleep, but sleep brought in more darkness. Francis sipped, sleeping was worse, he would have to awake and then remember all over again.
The only light came from the box in the corner. The dark silently surrounded him, enclosing and fitted to his body shape. He relaxed into it, invisible, alone and able to surrender to his thoughts. The one place where his true self could grow, spread and feed back into the enclosed small flat.
He flicked the television over again. The Sky Sports news channel had been playing the same stories over and over. Francis scratched his head, he couldn't recall any of them.
Maybe if he could get a good seven hours. Get fresh, get some focus back. But, the truth is, he didn't want to. At home, with the lights off, a bottle and a midnight takeaway, this is where he wanted to be, where he belonged.
One more day and then the weekend, solitude, silence. As last week, he would let the battery run down on his phone, lock the door and let his world take over.
"Stupid business anyway. What difference did it really make? I'm not changing the world. More hassle than it's worth." The television presenter didn't answer. Francis let his lids drop heavy, the bottle leaning close into him.
Twenty minutes. He woke from a snore and dribbled down his stained shirt. His eyes focused slowly on the clock that sat on the mantle piece, her clock. He had always hated it. The palm of his hand rubbed his sockets as his tongue removed the stick from his lips. He would go back, back to Near Wild Heaven. One more time for closure, the first time since the storm.
God was throwing buckets from the office roof, he peered down at the drains spilling back up, complaining that they were never meant for this much work. Gerry came to the side of him. "Hottest day of the year yesterday, storms today, this climate change does make it interesting.”
Francis murmured in response, his mind out of his head as he broke down the drive he would take. "I think I'm going to shoot early. Elly's gone out to the forest. There's no reception out there. I think I'll drive down, make sure she's not blowing too much on the card." He winked back at his assistant.
"You go boss, there is nothing here I can't deal with. I know you, you'll only worry if you don't." He placed the flat of his hand on his friend’s back.
Frances indicted left to no one. The storm had gone ahead of him keeping everyone but the foolish indoors. The canopy was no match for the down poor as rivers ran off the tarmac, away from the white lines and into the verge.
A few hundred yards and the local planning gave up and let the track to the wilds. Gravel had been chucked some years back and now turned with the water creating pools of light brown mud that hid the pot holes. He slipped it down to second, crawling forward and lurched from left to right and back again. The wipers on full and even with the blowers up to ten, the mist grew from the sides of the windscreen.
Francis killed the engine. It had become too narrow. Still unfamiliar with the path, it would only be time before he slipped it off the tack and down into the ditches that ran parallel.
Automatically he locked the doors, turned his collar and slouched his head. The water ran warm at his hair line and inside his cotton shirt. His shoes filled with water as he found another dip in the road. "Bugger,” he swore and pushed on.
The track swung a left, bringing the cottage in sight and the relief of shelter. Francis smiled, wet, but not cold and only a hundred yards left. Head down he skipped passed a fallen log, a large bolder and into the wind, bringing with it two voices. He stopped.
Sat on the veranda, sheltered and watching the rain was Elly. Stood behind, arms dug down into his pockets and a face deep in concentration was her manager.
Francis, took a step forward, the light from the open door inviting, but the stance of the two individuals asked for distance. He moved to the side, slipping behind the large bolder and half out of sight.
"For the hundredth time, the baby is yours, not Francis’s.” Her hands dragged her skin and came to a point at her chin.
He removed his hand and placed it on her shoulder. "Then we tell him. I've meet him, sure he will be upset. But he's got lots of friends. He's a very amiable bloke. You always said he was the most laid back man. I'll explain. You didn't go out to hurt him. Sure we will be the villains. We can move away. start again. You me and our child."
Elly nodded, "I'll tell him, then I'll come to yours.”
She flicked her long hair back and placed her cup back down on the table. "So you went back?"
Francis sat up straight, "Yes, about two weeks later, just for closure. I didn't go in, but just to he boulder. I got there and couldn't face it. It burned at me, every waking minute, it was all I could think about."
She nodded, "Yes it does that, for nearly all of us. It’s not as easy as the telly makes us think it is."
"No.” said Francis, blowing out. "Can I say something personal?"
He left his head drop to one side. "Your ID picture. It doesn't really capture you. I noticed as we sat down."
Taking the picture and turning it up on it's chain she peered down at herself. "Now Francis, nearly there, a couple of more things. The bodies, are they still inside?”
His brows went up. "Yes, well, I assume so. I didn't go back in. But it doesn't look like anyone else had been there."
"Good, well done, and the log you used?"
"Yes, it will be next to them, I didn't hide it or anything."
"One more thing Francis. I need you to confirm that we offered you a solicitor of your choice or one appointed but you declined and the statement you have made is at your request."
"For the tape Francis."
"Oh, Yes. Yes, I came in to tell you. I had to tell someone."
She twisted her back, stopping the tape machine as her colleague came forward.
"Ok Francis we are taking you to a holding cell," she kept her voice soft. "We have some officers checking the area, we will get back to you as soon as we know more."
He lay on the one single bed, pushed down a lump and dropped his head on the flat cushion. He closed his eyes, feeling the deep heavy darkness lift from his bones and disperse. His mind emptied and for the first time since the storm, he feel into a deep sleep. .