THE BRAKE BROKEN Shortish short story (946 words)
She made it easier than he’d any right to expect.
She came into his office quickly, a bright look on her face. Took both his hands and said, “Frank, please, please don’t apologise. It wasn’t even a shock. Once Space went belly-up the contract was finished. I was last on to the shop-floor, so I’m first out.”
A saw cutting twelve-millimetre tubing went wee-oo-er.
He gestured her to the chair, its straw guts showing. “You worked your own ticket, Terri. You deserved better.”
“Worked my own ticket! I travelled first bloody class! You didn’t even know I was sane when you took me on. An act of charity. A horrible gamble. You taught me the press brake when I didn’t know press brakes from a hole in the ground. And you were so patient. All that five-mil sheet I wasted.”
“Sold for scrap,” he said, then laughed at her liveliness. “I hated what the courts were doing to mothers back then. Jailing them, for Christ’s sake. Their babies dead. I suppose you eased my conscience. Mind you, I wasn’t all that certain press brakes were a feminist gesture.”
She was indignant. “They’re the ultimate gesture. A free pass to the lion’s den. All those glowering males.”
“Well, you had the last laugh. You learned quickly. And not just press brakes, either.” He leant forward across a desk strewn with invoices and quotations, many black-thumbed. “One thing pleases me. Any fabricator with a vacancy would be pleased to hire you.”
“That’s why Terri’s such a useful name,” she said, giggling conspiratorially. “I could be a chap.”
Now he looked at her as a woman rather than an ex-employee. “Not so sure there.” Took in the skin-tight jeans, the breast curves over the tee-shirt. The cleanness! How did she stay clean working with metal? “I did you one favour. Forcing you to put your hair in a bun. That’s a very sexy hairdo.”
“Now you tell me.” She picked up a Tesco bag she’d brought in. “There’s these.”
He made space on the desk and received two sets of overalls, a vernier gauge, the little toolkit he’d bought her, two pairs of industrial rubber gloves. “Keep ‘em,” he said. “Certainly the overalls. You unpicked them so they’d fit more snugly. I wouldn’t like anyone else wearing them.”
Suddenly he didn’t want to prolong things; felt he was in danger of showing his feelings. He handed over the paperwork with the cheque in a separate envelope. “Two months’ pay,” he muttered, slightly embarrassed. “It’s all I can run to. But I’m sure you won’t need it. You’re employable, Terri. Anyone that thinks you aren’t, have them call me. And don’t be scared of CA systems. Just a morning, that’s all you need. A month and you’ll be programming the damn things.”
He stood up rather too abruptly, stuck out his hand. She rose more gracefully. “Don’t be such a damned Brit, Frank. We can do better than that.”
The desk wasn’t the barrier he’d imagined. Being kissed across it was shockingly arousing as she arched her body forward.
When the door closed behind her he needed time to himself. It was some moments before he realised he was still standing, that he had to instruct himself to sit down. Lunchtime came but his sandwiches stayed untouched. An hour before he’d glanced through the window overlooking the workshop – just between the Favourite Tractors calendar and an imperial-metric conversion chart – a view that took in half the press brake. The machine was unmanned.
He was like a ghost the rest of the week. Unrelated to the world around him. On Friday he decided to resume his routines and called Beryl, as normal, asking if she’d like a drink or two at the British Legion. They sat together, she a widow, he a widower, an asymmetry that the passage of time might resolve. He forced himself to chat but it wasn’t working. She said comfortably, uncomplainingly, “I half-promised my niece I’d take over her baby-sitting.”
“Sorry I’m such a dead weight. I’ll drive you where you need to go. But we’ll go via the workshop. I’ll pick up my laptop.
Not wanting to open the car-park gates he parked on the road. Approaching the flat-roofed building he saw the door was ajar. Spotted a flash of light from within. His office door was wide open.
The laptop stood on the floor beside her. She squatted, her legs nicely angled, working the dial on the small floor safe. He’d made no sound but she sensed him. Turned with a wintry look.
“It’s Friday,” she said, “you take Beryl out on Fridays.”
“I bore her, it seems.”
“I wish to hell this hadn’t happened.”
He nodded. “Two months’ pay wasn’t enough, then?”
“All gone. Paying off debts. My ex left me screwed.”
“You don’t need this. You’re employable.” He paused. “Also, fabrication’s a man’s world. Chances are you’ll find another impressionable manager like me.”
“Not like you, Frank.”
He shrugged. She said, “I wanted this to be an anonymous robbery. I need the money and you were all I could think of. Now you and the money are in hell. Even worse, you won’t call the police.”
“Not the way you feel. Whereas I… no, I’d never convince you. I could prove it, of course. Cut my throat. Stick my head in the milling machine. Futile.” Her expression was still wintry, quite hopeless. “But I’d do it, kill two birds. Prove the point, solve the problem. You’re a decisive man, Frank. Guide me.”
“The combination’s 26-53-74-19.”
“Shit, Frank, is that good news or bad news?”
“You’re pretty clever. Work it out.”