by Mari Phillips
Caro Russo stretched out a hand to hit the snooze button and she registered the pips on the early morning news. Something stirred in her subconscious.
‘Shit’ she mumbled and heaved herself out of the cocoon of the fourteen tog duvet. Must adjust the heating, she thought, as an icy chill hit her body on her way to the bathroom. At least the shower was hot; she’d insisted on a decent one when they moved in. She lingered a moment longer than usual and took a few deep breaths as she considered the day ahead, the usual mix of meetings and admin. She brushed her teeth and applied her favourite face cream; makeup could wait, she preferred to beat the traffic. She dressed quickly, everything laid out the night before to expedite her morning departure. Black trousers, silk shirt and a peacock-blue scarf to soften the effect.
‘Have a good day Caro, love,’ said Ben as he put fixed the lid on a travel mug of black Arabica, her favourite. He pushed it into her hand and leaned forward to give her a peck on the cheek. ‘Good luck!’ He said the same every morning since they instigated their role swap.
Caro breathed a sigh of relief as the meeting finished. Managing the team on Monday mornings was akin to herding cats. Docile enough when you stroked them and pleading eyes when they wanted something, but feral when arguments started, claws and trouble in quick succession. She poured another coffee, kicked off her shoes, and closed her eyes for a few minutes’ mindfulness. She wasn't sure if it helped, but she tried, anyway. Her mobile buzzed and shattered her calm.
‘Hi Maggie, how are you?’
‘Caro, I need your help.’
‘Of course, anytime…’
‘No, now, it’s urgent.’
Caro glanced upwards at the clock, ‘well I suppose it’s nearly lunchtime’.
‘There’s a new coffee place on East Street, I’ll be at the back...’
‘Yes, but...’ Caro didn’t finish the sentence. The line went dead, and she stared at her phone, eyebrows furrowed. Maggie was her closest friend and not prone to dramatic outbursts. She picked up her jacket and purse and headed for the exit. ‘Just taking an early lunch, folks,’ she said as she passed through the team office.
Caro found the coffee shop without too much difficulty. She wished she had swapped her heels for trainers, though. She scanned the tables and spotted Maggie at the rear, as promised. Maggie caught her eye and beckoned. Two coffees already in front of her. As Caro approached, she saw Maggie’s blotchy face and the beginning of a bruise over her right eye.
‘My God, Maggie, what’s happened to you?’ The words were out before she could stop herself.
‘We had a fight,’ she sobbed, ‘a bloody awful fight.’
Caro moved a chair to sit alongside her friend and stretched out an arm to embrace her.
‘He hit you. Matt? But you never even argue.’
Caro leaned forward, gently touched Maggie’s face, and lifted the fringe she had pulled forward to cover the marks. She traced the outline of the bruise and the vague imprint of knuckles.
‘Didn’t use to,’ she continued sobbing. ‘But then he lost his job and money’s been tight.’
‘Maggie, why didn't you say something?’
‘He said it didn’t matter, it wouldn't be long, and he’d been looking around, anyway. I believed him. Didn't want to trouble you.’
‘Things got worse. Late nights and sleeping all day; he looks dreadful.’ Maggie’s voice trailed off.
‘Then I discovered he’s been dipping into our savings, my savings. And there’s nothing left. So, I asked him, confronted him I suppose, and he flipped.’
‘Gosh, Maggie, I am so sorry.’ Caro felt a tightness in her chest and struggled to find words to comfort her friend. She knew Matt, liked him, and knew some of his friends. He’d been at university with Ben. There had been rumours, but she had dismissed them. Maybe they had been true.
‘Did he say where the money’s gone?’
‘Not in so many words. Booze for sure, but I think it may be worse.’ Maggie paused. ‘Caro, I need a bed for a few nights, can I…?’
‘Course, you can.’ Caro didn’t let her friend finish the sentence. ‘I’ll call Ben and get him to sort the spare room for you.’
‘Thanks, Caro, you’re a mate.’
‘Do you want to go straight there? I’ll call Ben now if you like.’
‘No, it’s ok. I’ll wait till you finish work. I’ve stuff to do.’
They finished their drinks in silence. Caro wanted to ask more questions, but Maggie averted her eyes, dabbing them intermittently.
‘Maggie, I’d better get back, meet you at 5 o’clock? Reception?’
Maggie nodded; her body slumped over the empty mugs.
Caro called Ben as soon as she left the café. Unusually, it went straight to voice mail.
‘Hi love, bit of a crisis with Maggie. She needs a bed for a few nights. Can you fix the spare room?’ She stuck to the key points. She hated voice mail. The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. Caro’s thoughts kept returning to her friend and their conversation. It all sounded so unlike Matt; he was so reliable.
She left her office at 5 o’clock precisely and took the lift to reception. She squeezed amongst all the other hamsters stepping off their wheels and escaping to their homes. There was no sign of Maggie. She checked with the staff at the desk.
‘No, Ms Russo, no messages.’
She checked her mobile - nothing. She tried to call Maggie. No answer.
‘Shit’ she mumbled under her breath. Her thumbs worked rapidly over the letters. Maggie, where are you? Call me ASAP.
‘Ben, I’m really worried,’ she said as she threw her bag down on the kitchen table. ‘Have you heard from Maggie?’
‘Yeah, she called, said she would text you. She decided to get some stuff from her place and come over later.’ Ben continued to stir something on the hob.
‘Well, she hasn't and I’m worried. Did she tell you about their fight?’
‘No, she didn’t, but I’m sure it’ll blow over.’
‘I’m not so sure. I think there’s something else going on.’ She recounted her lunchtime conversation.
Caro picked at her meal. She was in no mood to eat. Still no message from Maggie.
‘I’m going to find her,’ she said to Ben, ‘something’s not right.’
‘Shall I come too?’
‘No, best you stay here in case we miss each other. I’ll call you.’
Maggie and Matt lived on the other side of the city. It was a twenty minute drive, sometimes forty in traffic. She made it in fifteen and checked her phone repeatedly for messages, praying that she wouldn’t get stopped by the police.
The house was in darkness apart from one light from an upstairs window. Caro felt her stomach tighten, and she wiped her hands on her trousers. The front door was ajar, and she pushed it further with her foot.
‘Maggie, are you there? It’s me, Caro.’
She jumped as something furry brushed passed her legs and shot out of the door. She stood in the hallway and called again and then listened to the silence.
‘Here, I’m up here.’ The voice was faint.
Caro fumbled with a light switch and took the stairs two at a time.
‘I just wanted to talk,’ said Maggie. She was sitting on the floor, tears streaming down her face and cradling Matt’s limp body. They were both covered in blood.
Caro stretched out two fingers and tried to find a pulse in his neck.
‘Ok Maggie, just let him go now. Let’s get some help.’
She reached for her phone.
‘Police and ambulance please.’