Jill scanned the situations vacant column of the local paper. There was usually very little on offer in that area, other than shop assistant or garage cashier and she needed something to fit in with Toby’s school hours. Then she saw an ad for part time doctor’s receptionist, and right in the center of the village. She checked her watch; it was still only three o clock well within the specified hours of the ad, so she keyed the number into her mobile. As she listened to the ringing on the other end, she watched the school yard for sign of the children emerging. Today she was lucky and secured a parking place right outside the gates, so Toby would see her if she was talking on the phone. The voice that answered was soft spoken and welcomed the enquiry. After Jill had listed her qualifications, she was invited for an interview the following morning. Though she held out little hope of getting the job, sure it would go to someone local, she was glad to be going back into the real world for a while. Her existence over the past few months had seemed surreal, as she was used to working, and while the house demanded a lot of her time, it was now in order and she was bored.
Coupled with that, they were both tired of eating the cheap, store-branded products her budget allowed, and even though Toby could live forever on chicken nuggets and burgers, she could not. Deciding she would keep the interview a secret, not wanting to disappoint him, she grinned as he came through the gates of the school.
“Hi, Mam,” he smiled, noticing her good mood.
“Hi, how was school today?”
“Boring,” he sighed, looking out the car window, and then, recognising someone on the opposite side of the street, waved.
Jill leaned forward to see who he was waving at and her smile vanished. Mr Keane, his art teacher stood on the pavement. When he saw her, he nodded, before walking away.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about your teachers,” she tried to make her question sound light. “What are they like?”
She was watching the road for a break in the traffic, and unable to see his face as he answered.
“Mr Jackson’s, o.k.” she could imagine his shrug of indifference.
“Was that him just now?” She pretended not to know.
Toby was with her when she enrolled him in the school, and he thought that she had only met the head teacher.
“Naw, that’s Mr Keane, he does art.”
“Oh, what’s he like?”
“He’s cool, he lets us paint whatever we like, and he never shouts or gets cross. I wish he was my teacher all the time.”
“Do the other children like him?”
“Some do, some say he weird, but I don’t think so. I think he’s just nice. He talks to me, you know, about stuff.”
“Yes,” she felt the familiar knot of fear in her stomach.
She was overreacting, the memory of the old newspapers still fresh. Though the cleaning of the house kept her busy, the disappearance of the children was never far from her mind, and the certain knowledge the time span of their disappearance had come full circle again. If another child was to go missing, then according to the dates on the newspapers, the time was now. I’m being ridiculous, she thought. If there was a paedophile in the area, he could be dead now or have moved somewhere else, and anyway, why did she always imagine her son the target? I’ll have to get my act together. She glanced over at her son, as they drove down the lane to the house.
The doctor’s surgery was bright and airy, with none of the clinical smells associated with such a place. The waiting area was clean and tidy, and she noticed as she waited for the interview, that the magazines were all new and not the usual dog-eared ones she had come to expect. There were two other women before her, and her heart sank when she saw them. Her appointment was for nine thirty and the surgery did not open for business until ten, so they were obviously there for the same reason. Her eyes scanned the pages of the magazine she held, not seeing the words, but hoping to look nonchalant.
The first woman emerged from the doctor’s office and gave her a tight smile, as she left. Once the second candidate entered, Jill was left alone with her thoughts. The interviewer seemed pleasant, a well-groomed woman in her sixties, who smiled at Jill’s anxious, pale face. Jill was wearing what she regarded as her business suit, a black wool jacket and skirt. It had cost her a fortune but had seen her through years of meeting and office receptions, so it was worth it. It was looser now than the last time she’d worn it, the stress of losing Joe and the move was the cause. She hoped the white blouse was not too prissy. Toby questioned her about the outfit that morning, and she pretended she was just signing them on with the local doctor and wanted to look smart. After assuring him for the tenth time she was not sick, he grudgingly climbed out of the car.
“Miss Purcell,” Jill looked up as her name was called.
She was so lost in thought; she didn’t even hear the other candidate leave.
“Yes,” she stood, and followed the woman into the office.
“I’m Claire O’Regan,” the woman held out her hand.
“Pleased to meet you,” Jill shook it, and sank into the chair that was offered.
“I would like to take a quick look at your C.V, if I may?”
Jill handed over the documents and waited as the woman read.
“It seems you are overqualified for our little office,” Claire smiled.
“Yes, I know what you mean, but there has been a change of circumstances.”
Claire listened as Jill outlined what brought her to the area. She told her about Toby, and how the job would fit in with his school, making it ideal for her. When she finished, Claire explained what the job entailed. The surgery was open from ten to one each day, this was the part of the shift that she normally covered, but the ill health of one of her daughters, meant that she would needed someone to stand in for her for at least six months. The afternoon shift, two to four, was covered by Marie Burke. The work was easy enough, taking appointments, filing and typing up notes.
“It sounds ideal,” Jill said, but the memory of the other two candidates made her think she was unlikely to get it.
“I will be speaking to the doctor as soon as he gets here,” Claire said. “The sooner I get someone to take my place the better. I am very anxious to leave, and I need someone to start straight away. Could you start in the morning?”
“Yes, of course,” Jill said, “I drop Toby off a school at ten to nine, so it would be no problem.”
“Well,” the woman rose and held out her hand. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you.”
Jill smile and shook it, not sure if she was wishing her goodbye forever.
The supermarket was crowded that morning. The next stop was the post office which was also a newsagent, and she searched along the shelves for Toby’s favourite comic. There was a free toy with it that week he said, not really expecting he would get it. It still amazed her how accepting he was when she told him that they could no longer afford the things he had once taken for granted. There were no tantrums or tears just a quiet acceptance that things were no longer the way they used to be. She smiled, as she passed over the money for the comic, and asked that it be wrapped in a paper bag, so he would be surprised when he took it out. The next stop was the butcher. She bought enough meat for three days dinners and was carrying her shopping back to her car, when her mobile rang. Dumping the lot down onto the bonnet, she fumbled in her bag, hoping it wouldn’t ring off before she managed to find it.
“Hello,” she answered, and recognised the voice of the woman who had interviewed her on the other end.
Expecting to hear the excuse she had found someone more suitable for the job, Jill went silent for a moment, thinking she had not heard right.
“Jill, are you still there?” Claire asked.
“Yes, I am, I mean, thank you,” Jill was too surprised to think straight.
“Good,” she heard the smile in the woman voice. “So, I’ll see you at nine in the morning?”
“Yes, oh yes, you will. Thank you again.”
Her hands shook as she hung up, and she was smiling as she retrieved the shopping. The drive home passed in a blur of planning as she imagined the difference the extra money would make to them. The mornings she had come to dread spending alone, would now be filled with activity, and the job would help her to get to know her neighbours better.
The house was cold, as she had not had time to light the fire in the kitchen. Now she set about it with renewed vigour. Walking across the hall, she turned the television on; the noise company as she worked. Changing out of her suit, she made the beds and tidied the two rooms they used. The air was icy up and she shivered, vowing to take a chance on lightening the fires that weekend. If she lit them during the day, at least she could gauge the ventilation, before they went to bed and avoid killing them both from carbon monoxide. She tried to imagine Toby’s face when she told him her news and she was singing along to a jingle as she peeled and chopped the vegetables for the beef stew, an old favourite. God, she realised they are already advertising toys for Christmas.
The coming of the season no longer filled her with dread, as she would be able to afford the toys he was hinting about. She had become quite adept at using the open fire and she hung the pot on a hook and swung the blackened arm over the flame. There was an old bottle gas cooker in one corner of the kitchen, but she was wary of using it, because of the expense. Anyway, it made her feel closer to her grandmother when she cooked like this, and maybe it was just her imagination, but she was sure the food tasted better.
She had the school run down to a fine art now and knew if she arrived fifteen minutes before the bell, she was sure of a good space. Hers was the first car to arrive and after she parked, she ran across to the post office to buy the evening paper. She was just coming out the door when she came face to face with Mr Keane.
“Chilly day, Miss Purcell,” he lisped.
“Yes, indeed, very cold.” She tried to walk past him.
“I was talking to a farmer this morning,” he continued, intent on engaging her in conversation. “He told me that snow was not far off.”
“Really?” She tried to sound interested. “It seems very early in the year for snow.”
“These men are used to the ways of the land,” he tapped the side of his nose, conspiratorially. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if what he says comes true.”
The clanging of the school bell gave her an excuse to walk away. God, he gives me the creeps. She thought of his bony fingers and the flecks of coloured paint buried beneath his nails.
Toby was one of the first at the gates, and to her surprise he had another boy in tow.
“This is Liam,” he introduced him. “His dog had five pups and he said I can have one for free,” he added.
Jill looked at the small boy, who stood beaming back at her.
“What kind of dogs are they?” She asked.
“Collies, black and white. My Dad doesn’t want to keep the bitches.”
Typical, she thought.
“He says we can go and see them at the weekend,” Toby said, and his voice rose to whining plea. “Can we, Mam, please?”
“We’ll see,” she motioned at him to get in.
“All right,” he punched the air, thinking that her lack of refusal meant yes, and she realised, as he did, that it probably did.
All he could talk about on the drive home was the puppy. What he would name it and where it would sleep. She knew the comic she had bought would be poor substitute for a real, live dog, but it pleased her to see him so happy.
“I have some news,” she managed to get in between his chatter. “I got a job.”
She explained what she would be doing and the hours she would work. When she was finished, he was quiet for a moment.
“That’s cool, Mam,” he said. “You got a job and I got a dog. I’m glad things are getting better.” She was relieved that he didn’t add, at last.