Chapter Twelve

As I had expected, the next morning at the office was deathly quiet and seemed to take an eternity to pass. Despite the fact that only one customer walked through the office doors before midday, every moment of mine and my staff's time was taken up with running around to satisfy the relentless requests and orders of Miss Clewes, the inspector. With a complete and utter disregard for our own important daily duties and routines, she constantly demanded that we take paperwork, files, computer disks and anything else she required into the office which had once been mine but which she had quickly made her own. Our troubles were compounded by the fact that less than half of my staff had bothered to turn up for work. As well as making more work for the rest of us, their absence said little for my management of the office.

When Robert and I had arrived to open up the building at half past eight. Miss Clewes had been waiting on the doorstep and, from the moment she had stepped into the building, she had worked constantly and without pausing for a moment until one o'clock when she stopped regimentally for a precise hour's lunch. As soon as she left the office, the heavy, suffocating and authoritarian atmosphere which she carried with her followed and, as the staff relaxed, I crept back into my room to call Samantha.

I stood at the open window and looked down onto a much busier street scene than I had seen over the last few days. Snaking queues sneaked out from the covered doorways of supermarkets and grocers' shops while other stores lay vacant and empty. Yesterday's news appeared to have shocked a population who seemed now to be stocking up their larders and cupboards ready to stay in the shade and protection of their homes until things either improved or ended.

I hoped that my family were secure in the company of Uncle George and his wife. Mom had telephoned late the previous evening to let me know that they had arrived there safely and that they hoped I would soon be able to join them. As I looked out at the increasing confusion below I saw that hot, frightened and frustrated shoppers had begun to shuffle and scuffle in a supermarket queue. I knew that if things continued to develop as I feared that they might, then I would be making plans to leave the stifling city at the earliest opportunity.

I searched for the number of Samantha's shop in my records and dialled. The phone rang constantly for about half a minute but there was no answer. I hung up and tried again but still could get no reply. The line connected and the phone rang out but there was no-one there to pick it up. I tried her home number and hoped that someone there would answer. I sat on the edge of my desk and nervously waited. A dark fear grew with each passing ring that Samantha might already have left for her grandmother's house. I was relieved when the phone was finally picked up.

'Hello,' a quiet voice said.

'Can I speak to Samantha please?' I asked and I then heard the thump of the phone being put down while Sam's mother (I presumed that was who had answered) went to find her daughter. In the background I heard a muffled conversation taking place before footsteps approached the phone and the receiver was picked up again.  

'Hello,' Sam said.

'Hi, it's me. How are you doing?'

'I'm okay,' she said, relaxing. 'What about you?'

'I'm all right. It's taken me ages to get through to you. I was starting to think that you might have gone to your gran's early.'

'There's no way that I'd leave without letting you know first. I don't want to go as it is.' Sam's voice trailed away into silence and I could tell that the thought of leaving was troubling her.

'I tried the shop first,' I said. 'Should've realised that you'd stop at home today.'

'It's too hot to go out. Besides, I've got a lot to get ready here. Where are you calling from?'

'I've had to go into work. With the inspector here I didn't have a lot of choice but if things get any worse then I won't be coming in tomorrow - it's like an oven in here.'

'Can we still go out tonight?' she asked. I was surprised by her question but was pleased that she still wanted to see me.

'Of course we can. Christ, it's going to take a lot more than any heatwave to stop me having a good time. I don't know what we're going to do, but I'm really looking forward to it.'

'We could go back to your house and sit around the fridge!' Sam joked. I laughed and was pleased that she had still managed to keep her sense of humour despite the conditions outside.

'Have you heard from your grandmother?' I asked. I was almost too scared to ask but was desperate for information. 'Are you still going up there?'

'I'm afraid so. Dad's dead set on going tomorrow.'

My heart sank.

'We'd better make sure that we have a good time tonight then, hadn't we?' I asked cheerfully, trying hard to mask the bitter disappointment that I felt at having Sam taken away from me so soon. I had expected it to happen, but the confirmation of my fears made me feel ten times worse.

'Come around at about seven,' she said. 'I really can't wait to see you again.'

I knew just how she felt. Although it had been less than two days since we had last seen each other, and only a matter of hours since we had spoken, I was desperate to be by her side once more. As we chatted, I could not help but think about the relationship which I had become suddenly and hopelessly embroiled in. Weeks ago, I would have scoffed at the idea of falling in love with someone so quickly and so deeply but, today, I was forced to accept the fact that it had happened. Weeks ago, however, I would also have dismissed the possibility of the planet that I lived on burning up around me as well.

Miss Clewes surprised me at half-past three.

I knocked on the door of my office and went inside to find her packing her papers and folders away into her smart and practical leather briefcase. As I approached she snap-locked the case shut and laid it flat on the desk in front of her. Her face appeared tired and she looked ill.

'Mr. Johnson,' she said wearily. 'I'm not well. I'm going to go home.'

For a moment I could think of nothing to say. From the second she had first appeared in my office, she had appeared to be almost inhuman and completely invulnerable to such trivial inconveniences as the stifling heat and illness. The Miss Clewes who stood in front of me now was different. She was a tired and worried woman.

'I'm sorry to hear that,' I eventually said, remembering to reply to the best news that I had heard all day. 'I hope it's nothing serious.'

She shook her head slowly and gently touched her forehead with a trembling hand.

'I'm sure it isn't,' she croaked before clearing her dry throat and speaking again. 'I don't think that I will be in tomorrow. In fact, I've spoken to my superiors and we have agreed that the rest of the audit will be postponed until the conditions improve. I'll be in touch with you when I am ready to return.'

With that, Miss Clewes stood upright (she had been leaning uncharacteristically against the desk for support) and pulled her heavy, formal skirt straight. She picked up her case, draped her jacket over her arm and breezed past me out of the room and then out of the office altogether. Once I was sure that I had heard the sound of the front door being closed, I allowed myself to relax.

The phone on the desk began to ring and I picked it up quickly.

'Steven Johnson,' I said, automatically and officially.

'Hello, Steven, it's Keith Etheridge here.' Keith was the manager of a nearby branch of the company and had been a colleague of mine for a number of years. 'I've got some good news for you mate!'

I couldn't cope with two lots of unexpected good news in an many minutes standing up and sat quickly down in my chair in my newly reclaimed office.

'I've just had a communication from head office to be circulated around the branches. We're shutting shop for the next few days until things improve.'

'It's about time,' I said, relieved.

'That's what I thought. There's no point in staying open. I mean, we've only had three members of staff come in today and that's still two too many to serve the number of customers that have been in. This heat's not doing anybody any good.'

I thanked Keith for delivering the company's message and then spent at least ten minutes trying to get him off the telephone. Although he was a pleasant and amiable man, he liked to talk and all that I wanted to do was get out and go home. I eventually managed to get rid of him, claiming that I had to take another call. (Keith was, in fact, the only person to have telephoned the office all day.)

I walked out into the main office relaxed and, more importantly, glad to finally have some good news for the staff. Despite the fact that the situation must have been really grave for the company to have taken the drastic step of closing all of its branches, I was pleased that it had been left to me to tell the employees in my charge. I normally only seemed to talk to them to tell them off when something had gone wrong or to ask them to do a job for me and I was glad that, for once, I was to be the bearer of glad tidings.

My news was met with a typically disappointing and apathetic reaction from the four staff that were still in the building and, without stopping to even ask me any questions or query the company's decision in the slightest, they trooped past me, out of the door and were quickly on their way home.

Once again, I was left to lock up the building with my ever-present and ever-complaining assistant Robert who stumbled around the office looking more and more exhausted with each minute that passed.

'It's about bloody time the company saw sense,' he grumbled. Instead of pursuing the conversation, this time it was my turn to act dumb in an attempt to get out as quickly as possible.

We stepped out into the fading evening light and found that the streets were silent. The frenzied activity of earlier in the day had disappeared and nearly all of the shops were locked, bolted and had their metal shutters drawn for the night.

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