Chapter Ten

I awoke next morning to find that the heat seemed to have increased yet again through the dark hours of the night. Although I had neither the time or the inclination to try and prove such a theory, I felt sure that if I'd cracked an egg on the pavement it would have fried within moments. I was sorely tempted to stop at home but I knew that, as office manager, I should make the effort to go into work. If it got any warmer though, I thought, there would be no way that I'd even think about going into the office and shutting myself away indoors.

When I arrived at the building only Robert and Carol were there. Robert held a door key and Carol lived only five minutes' walk away from the office so I had expected to see them both there. Three of the remaining staff, however, had already called in sick and two more were much later arriving than usual. Thankfully, the office was quiet again and I had an empty diary. Outside the streets were a little busier than they had been as people were forced to come out of the shade to take care of the jobs which they had put off over the last few days.

I sat alone in my room and listened to the muffled sounds of the office. The mechanical whirring of an electric fan was the only constant noise and the relative quiet was a marked contrast to the usual deafening melee which I normally had to endure. I opened the window as wide as possible and dragged the swivel chair over towards it. I rested my feet on the windowsill and, once settled, angled the fan so that it pointed my way and I could relax in the cool breeze.

For once, for the first time in months, my desk really was clear of work and I had no qualms about taking things easy. All that I could think about, however, was Mom, Dad and Michelle and I wondered if they had made it safely to Uncle George's. I hoped that it would be a little cooler up there. Dad could be grumpy at the best of times but I had never seen him in quite the state which he had worked himself into last night. I tried not to think about what might happen to him if he was unable to find relief from the relentless conditions outside.

With my feet up on the window ledge and the cooling wind from the noisy fan blowing into my face, I began to drift off to sleep. Suddenly the phone rang and its unexpected clattering shattered the peaceful quiet. Fortunately it was not a customer calling, it was Rebecca.

'Hi, Steve. How are you?' she asked, sounding annoyingly vibrant and cheerful.  

'Hot!' I replied. 'What about you?'

'Just the same. It couldn't get any warmer if it tried, I'm sure of it.'

Rebecca sounded relaxed and well. I asked her where she was calling from.

'I'm at home.' she said. 'I just couldn't face the thought of going into work this morning.'

'I know what you mean. I thought about stopping at home too but as I'm supposed to be in charge here . . .'

'The responsibilities of office, eh?' Becky joked. She was quiet for a moment before speaking again. 'I saw Mark yesterday.'

'I saw him on Monday,' I said. 'We went out for a drink.'

'Yes I know, he told me all about it.'

A short, knowing silence followed and the purpose of Rebecca's call revealed itself - she was sniffing out gossip.

'Who's this girl then?' she asked.

I felt strangely awkward telling Rebecca about Sam. As a rule, we usually shared all our secrets, keeping nothing back from each other, and we had discussed my lack of romance on more than one occasion. Now that I had found someone though, things felt different. I hoped that it would not change our relationship and could see no reason why it should. Ruthlessly and relentlessly, Rebecca pushed me for more information.

'She's called Samantha,' I began, 'and she's...' I paused as I struggled to find the words that would effectively describe what she was beginning to mean to me. 'Well, she's just about the best thing that's happened to me in a long time.'

Thankfully, Becky seemed pleased for me and was keen to meet Sam. Within a few minutes she was making plans for Samantha and me to visit her or to go out for a meal with her and Richard I skirted around the invitation with a subtle decorum - although it sounded like a good idea, I had not yet been out on my own with Sam and that was something that needed to be corrected before I started making plans for us to socialise with other people.

Rebecca stayed on the line for the best part of half an hour. I was glad of the interruption and I got the impression that she was pleased to be able to speak to someone else for a while. Richard only meant well for her, but it sounded as if he had almost confined her to their house until the conditions outside eased. I accepted that it was probably for the best, but could easily understand her frustration at having to constantly stare at the same four walls. She was going stir crazy.

There was a knock at the door and Carol's face appeared, I cupped my hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone and looked up.

'Sorry to interrupt you, Steve,' she squeaked in her timid, mousy voice. 'There's a Miss Clewes here to see you.'

The name failed to ring any bells.

'Miss who?' I asked and Carol stepped into the room so that she could not be heard in the office outside.

'Head Office,' she whispered and my heart sank.

'I'm sorry Becky,' I said, taking my hand away from the phone. 'I've got to go, something's come up.'

'All right,' she said. 'I'll speak to you soon.'

'I'll call you later,' I said and I hung up. I quickly stood and tidied the office as best I could. I moved the chair back under the desk, hid the electric fan and straightened my tie. Miss Clewes suddenly appeared in the doorway.

'Mr Johnson,' she said, walking quickly towards me.

'Good morning,' I replied 'This is an unexpected pleasure.' I shook her outstretched hand and she almost crushed mine with a grip of immense vicelike force. Surprised, I offered her a seat and she sat down.

'My visit is unexpected, Mr Johnson,' she began in an official and oppressive tone, 'but I do not expect that it will be a pleasure. I'm from the company audit department.'

My legs weakened and I fell heavily into my seat Miss Clewes stared directly at me with an unflinching expression fixed on her face.

'As you know, the company employs my colleagues and me to make these random spot checks on our branches and to ensure that everything is in order. You will be required to offer me every assistance and to comply with my every request. The audit will take between three and four days to complete and my findings will remain confidential to myself and my superiors until I am sure that all of my investigations have been completed.'

It took a couple of seconds for me to fully comprehend and digest all that she had said (although it was, in all probability, a standard and well-prepared speech) and then I was only able to acknowledge her with a dumb nod.

Miss Clewes was a formidable character. Well-built and white-haired, she looked to be in her mid to late fifties. She was dressed in a smart business suit and her wispy hair was pulled strictly and severely away from her face into a tight bun. With no jewellery, perfume or make-up, she was an imposing sight and, in the sweltering heat gave off an imposing smell as she refused to take off her jacket. She brought the air of a harsh, old-fashioned school headmistress with her into my unprepared office.

'Are you able to answer any questions?' I asked. 'Can I ask you anything about the audit?'

She thought for a moment, obviously searching through the standard replies to questions that the company had forced her to memorise during training.

'As I said, Mr Johnson, I will be unable to discuss my findings until all my work here is finished. If you have any other questions, I will listen and will answer them if they merit my response.'

Throughout her reply and through all that she had already said to me, the tone of her voice did not alter in the slightest. Her words sounded false, rehearsed and lacking in spontaneity - she was the archetypal company employee. I decided to risk her wrath and ask another question.

'Is my branch being inspected for any particular reason, or is this just a routine visit?'

It was a question that needed to be addressed. In the short time that Miss Clewes had been in my office, worries and doubts about my recent performance had flooded my mind and I needed to know whether it was me or the branch that was being scrutinised. Once again, she paused to find the correct answer before replying.

'There are several branches being audited in this region. This is not the only one.'

Although her answer was, I presumed, deliberately ambiguous, it eased my mind a little. I had thought for one terrified moment that rumours had spread around the area that I was seeing one of my customers and that those same rumours had managed to find their way into the ever-listening ears of my superiors at head office.

'As I've said,' Miss Clewes continued, 'the audit should last for only a few days. You will be involved little but I will need the full co-operation of both you and your staff to obtain for me all the documentation and data that I might require.'

She began to explain the actual areas of the office's work which were to be examined but I was not really listening. My mind had begun to wander and I found myself staring out of the open window into the deep, clear blue sky and towards the huge, incandescent sun which continued to burn down relentlessly. As she rambled on, uninterrupted, I thought of my friend Mark outside playing games with his students and of Rebecca sitting at home in comfort. I thought of my family, miles away by the sea and then, finally, I thought of Samantha. I knew that I had to get myself out of this job. It was killing me.

Miss Clewes finished her briefing by explaining that she would need privacy to do her work and, as my room was the quietest part of the office, that she would be commandeering it for the duration of her visit. Depressed, annoyed and incredibly hot, I collected my belongings and took them out to a spare desk in the general office. I dumped them angrily down and, ignoring the stares which came from what remained of my staff, tried to find something to do. I knew that the next few days would be far from easy.

The rest of the day was agonisingly long and drawn out. In an unpredictable contrast with the rest of the week, the office suddenly became very busy. It had nothing to do with the customers (none of whom seemed to want anything to do with us at the moment) but had everything to do with the extremely demanding inspector who had graced us with her presence. Her constant requests for information and explanations took every spare second of mine, and of everybody else's time.

The five members of staff who had eventually arrived for work. Miss Clewes and I finally left the office at just before five-thirty.

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