Home > The Good Samaritan(8)

The Good Samaritan(8)
Author: John Marrs

Twenty-two days after I saved Chantelle, she and I were finally in the same room together. A burgundy velvet curtain encircled her coffin before she disappeared from view. And as her friends made their way back outside, I took Chantelle’s order of service and placed it inside the black bag I carried with me to all the funerals I attended.

It was where I kept all the other orders. Chantelle’s made fifteen in all. It was becoming quite the collection.


‘Oh, Laura, this is as light as air,’ began Kevin as he took a second mouthful of my Victoria sponge cake. I hadn’t been able to resist leaving a slice on the desk of a man with high cholesterol.

I tried to divert my stare from his scruffy beard as he approached me in the office kitchenette. He was kidding himself if he thought it was distracting anyone from his rapidly receding hairline. He spat a crumb onto my skirt. I’d have to wash that tonight.

‘Thank you,’ I replied with false modesty. ‘It’s not as attractive as I’d have liked it, and the homemade jam got a bit gloopy.’

‘I can’t believe you make your own jam, too. You are like the perfect wife.’

‘I try my best.’ I silently thanked the supermarket and encouraged him towards another slice. There are many sides to me, but all they ever saw was one: the nurturer.

‘I know why all that food you make for the fundraisers sells, literally, like hot cakes,’ Zoe added. ‘Seriously, though, you should think about entering one of those baking competitions on the telly. You’d storm it.’

She had lipstick on her front teeth again. What was wrong with people?

Fundraisers are my speciality. End of the Line is a registered charity and doesn’t receive local or national government handouts. With branches in almost every county, they’re all expected to be self-sufficient and responsible for paying their own running costs. Telephone lines, computer upgrades, software, stationery, rent, utilities and council tax, et cetera, all total around £80,000 a year. As treasurer, I’d been quite happy to lead the charge myself to find the money, until head office promoted Janine Thomson to manager. She didn’t just tread on my toes, she danced all over them with the grace of an ostrich on hot coals.

I’d known at first sight when she started as a volunteer two years earlier that we were unlikely to become friends. Everything about her appearance offended me, like her squinty little eyes and her brows plucked into ridiculous curves resembling the McDonald’s golden arches. Grey hairs crawled across her scalp like unsightly slugs, and she tried to plump up her paper-thin lips by colouring above and below them in a gaudy red. She was a clown in search of a circus.

Then, when she was given the manager’s position above me after all the hard work I’d put in, my dislike turned to loathing. I hadn’t even wanted the job, as it would have given me less time to man the phones, but it was the principle that mattered. It should have been offered to me on a plate.

Janine immediately became one of those women who needed you to know that she was in charge, even though we’d been running things successfully long before her interference.

But what annoyed me the most was that she demonstrated an unhealthy preoccupation with me. Sometimes as I sat in my booth listening to another troubled soul spilling their secrets, I’d catch her in her glass-walled office, her glasses perched on the tip of her nose, staring at me, straining to pick up on something I was saying that wasn’t in the rule book. If only she knew just how far away from that book I could stray when the mood took me. And when Tony had accompanied me to a dinner to celebrate Mary’s sixtieth birthday, Janine could barely take her eyes off him. I watched as she flirted and he humoured her. But deep down she must have known that she could never attract a man like my husband, or any man with a pulse and without cataracts, for that matter.

‘Try some of Laura’s cake,’ Kevin suggested when Janine stepped into the kitchen to rinse her coffee mug. An awful orange handbag with the emblem of a Chinese dragon on the side – a self-portrait, I assumed – hung from her sloping shoulder. It was the only bag she appeared to own and it matched nothing in her limited wardrobe of drab, patterned rags. I believed her when she said the bag was one of a kind, because nobody else would want it.

‘I don’t know how you find the time to do so much,’ she began. The others couldn’t hear it but I recognised something accusatory in her tone. ‘You volunteer here, you have a family and you still manage to give Mary Berry a run for her money. Quite the domestic goddess, aren’t you?’

‘I like to set a good example for my children and I’m very good at multitasking,’ I replied through a narrow smile. ‘If you need me to give you some tips, you have only to ask. Would you like a slice?’

‘No thank you, I’m gluten intolerant.’

‘Is that really a thing? Do you just wake up one morning and realise that after fifty-odd years you can’t eat cake?’

‘I’m forty-two.’ She glared at me and I made an imaginary chalk mark on a board. Kevin and Zoe tried to hide their amusement.

‘I’m not very good with ages,’ I added.

Janine had soon learned that her job would be much more difficult without the thousands of pounds’ worth of sponsorship and donations I alone brought in each year. I had no hesitation in going cap in hand to local companies or schmoozing at business leaders’ events to get what I wanted, even if it meant being pawed at by overweight bald men who stank of whisky, cigars and desperation, and who assumed I found them attractive.

My hard work brought me praise and freed up Janine’s time to spend on the gambling websites she visited when she thought nobody else was looking. She might have deleted them from the Internet browsing history, but I found them in the cookies section of her computer with the speed of one of those roulette balls she liked to bet on. I’d kept that knowledge, the screengrabs I’d taken and her account password to myself. For the time being, anyway.

The afternoon shift was often quiet. Desperate housewives and mums rang during the day when they were free of husbands and children. It was a time also favoured by prisoners, making use of our freephone number. Early mornings were mainly men on their way to work, commonly plagued by money worries and scared what bills might be lying on the doormat on their return home later. Most suicidal callers waited until the evening, when, alone, they had time to think.

That was the time David had favoured. More than seven months had passed since we had first come into contact, and almost five months since we’d spoken last. Sometimes I missed him so much that it physically hurt me.

I’d known from his very first call that he and I shared a connection. My intuition picks up on desperation in a voice, in the phrasing or the way a person articulates certain words. Instinct will tell me from that conversation if they’re a candidate. And there’s no feeling quite like when they come into my life.

David was a gentle, softly spoken but emotionally paralysed man who’d struggled to move forward after the violent death of his wife. She’d been killed at home following a break-in by three men while he was working nights. An oppressive cloud of guilt had since smothered the new life he hadn’t chosen for himself. It became impossible for him to navigate it alone, which is why, one desperate evening, he picked up the phone and reached me.

There was something about David’s sadness that mimicked mine and bonded us. He wasn’t seeking sympathy or asking for someone to assure him that her death wasn’t his fault, because he had plenty of people around him to do that. All he wanted was for someone to listen and really hear him – and there was no one better suited to understand loss than me.

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