Ted was mad. It was not only the money that had thrust this mood into him, but also the fact that he was smack in the middle of a traffic jam and unaware of how much time he had remaining. He did not wear a watch. Never had. Absolutely hated the concept of time and today more so than ever. Somewhere in the back of his head, a headache was digging in, the noise of the cars and trucks wedging it.
The offices of Beltek (where he’d spent three endless months selling cellular phones to the image crowd and people richer than him), his destination, was four long blocks away. He’d learnt long ago that to be employed in the selling game, you rarely needed references, which was perfect where he was concerned.
Up ahead, in the lane beside him, the traffic had begun to move. He looked into the side-view mirror to see if he had a chance at switching lanes. He froze.
To the side of the car behind him, stood the same man that he’d seen from the flat. Now he was close enough for Ted to absorb his smart, black clothes, bulbous nose and stern cheekbones. But it was the eyes that caught Ted the most and unnerved him. One was sharp blue. The other black. For a moment he thought that it was a trick of the sun but then he realized that it was high and slightly ahead so that no shadows could have formed on the man’s face. He spun around for a better look.
The man had vanished.
“Jesus!” he swore aloud.
Suddenly, he became aware of cars hooting at him. While distracted, the road ahead had cleared and the robot was green. With a shaky hand, he changed gear and his beat-up Passat shot forward.
He double-parked outside the tall, gray building that housed Beltek on the second floor. In the foyer, a large clock showed twenty-five past eleven. He snapped up his pace, ignoring the old elevators in lieu of the quicker staircase.
Through glass doors emblazoned with the company logo, he could see the receptionist half-turned away; telephone lodged between her head and shoulder. Behind her, a darkly stained oak door with a plaque stating J. D. WEST: MANAGER was thankfully closed. He entered quickly, heard the receptionist say, “Ted, Mr. West wants to see-” and then her words were cut-off as he passed into the adjoining room which contained rows of occupied desks rooted to the walls by telephone and fax machine cords. He rushed to the far end, leaving a rippling of attention in his wake, and stopped before a young, pale looking man who looked up at him with big eyes through large spectacles.
“Ted, where’ve you been? J.D.’s mad.”
“Tell you now, Richie,” and wanting to escape curious ears and eyes, he added, “Come to the toilets, I need a piss.”
Richard was fresh out of high school, having started at Beltek two weeks before. Ted had cursed his misfortune when Richard had been given the desk next to his. Richard was irritating with his continuous consent and feeble attempts at friendship. Ted summed him up as an ex-school nerd in an adult-without-a-backbone evolution. Ted humoured him when he realised that he had a lapdog that would fetch him coffee and do other small favours without been asked to.
This was his target.
The navy-tiled bathroom was empty, as he’d hoped. Stepping over to the urinal and unzipping his fly, Ted said. “My Mom died last night. Heart attack. Nobody knew that it was coming.”
“Damn, Ted, I’m sorry.” Caught off-guard like a fly by a swatter, he blurted his response, the words obligatory and uneasy. He was unsure what to say next. A few seconds past time enough for Ted to dry up and turn around. “Uh…” Richard stuttered before he arrived at the cliched, “If there is anything I can do, just tell me,” and fell into the trap.
“Well … I do have a problem … my Dad died quite a few years back. Car crash. He left a bit of money but not enough, so us kids – there’s my sissy and me – have chipped in to keep her going … but we weren’t ready for this.” Ted’s face was plastered with hurt and he felt that he was doing so well that maybe he would be able to overwhelm himself and squeeze a tear or two.
“I’m so sorry,” Richard repeated. “If my folks died, I dunno what I’d do.”
“It’s not easy,” Ted choked. “But it happens and when it does, all you can do is let the hurting flush away and face it like a man.” Ted summoned his most anguished look and stared Richard squarely in the eyes. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come here and get all soppy on you.”
“Hey, it’s alright.” Richard rested his hand on Ted’s right shoulder.
“You could do me a favour.”
“The funeral’s tomorrow. We thought it best to have it over and done with. Say goodbye. This is embarrassing … but … could you … would you loan me two hundred bucks towards the costs.” Richard hesitated; dropped his hand and shuffled his feet. Ted pressed on. “It’s only until tomorrow. Part of the down payment. My Sissy’s arriving from Pretoria and she’ll be bringing money. After the funeral, I’ll be back here and pay you. Promise. Better to be working than moping at home.”
“Yeah, okay,” Richard agreed in a tone of voice that said that he was unsure. “You’re sure that I’ll get it back tomorrow?” To justify his doubt lest it offend Ted, he added, “’Cause I owe my parents rent.”
“I promised you, didn’t I?”
“I wouldn’t leave you in the lurch with your parents. Be good to them while they’re still around and never let your debts go bad. That’s what I say.”
In fact, Ted’s mother had died three years ago and the only thing that Ted missed was the easy source of money when he was desperate…and not so desperate.
All to well, he remembered the old age home that she’d lived in. The Victoria Randal Home for the Retired with its green, pedicured hedge that formed the outside fence and first deception. Inside, the ground was bare in places and in stormy weather the dark mud would creep across half the lawn like a blanket of shit. The outside of the building and the visitor’s waiting room, were painted like fresh snow but in the dining room and bedrooms, the walls were scarred, the multi-coloured paints dull and cracking like the residents within. His mother was shriveled with age, and her attempts to make a good appearance when she knew that he was coming left her looking like a drowning rat with make-up. So he kept his visits to a minimum, going there only when he had no cash alternative. He hated her and maybe she knew it but he didn’t care so long as she paid up. When his father died, his sole inheritance was a rust-infested Beetle. He blamed her for that, believing that she was a miser who enjoyed seeing him beg.
He shook himself free of the memory and caught Richard in mid-sentence, “-so you’d better take my bank card otherwise I’ll take flak from J.D. for not being here. Draw the two hundred from my current account. My code’s one-eight-one-nine. You got that?”
“One-eight-one-nine.” Damn right I’ve got that.
Extracting the card from his wallet, Richard said, “Bring it back when you’re finished. Not tomorrow. I need petrol to get home.”
“You’ve got it. Thanks a million, buddy. I owe you a big one and a couple of beers.” Fuckhead.
Ted excused himself with a half-smile that Richard returned fully.
In the other room, the receptionist was a cat ready to pounce. “Ted, you had better see Mr. West. He is waiting for you.”
“Sorry, Jane,” Ted replied with zero conviction, “but I’ve got an emergency. Gotta rush.”
Ted had the front door half open when a steamfaced J.D. (Justified Dickhead) appeared sharply from his office.
“Where do you think you’re going, Mr. Galbraith. Step in here, now!”
Part 3 on Wednesday.