Spring-Clean by Proxy

Bio sci-fi with a drizzle of romance. Vanessa Palmer runs a pre-school. She'd love a relationship. But just as a relationship might be in the offing, in comes an intervention from space that makes survival the only game in town. Captivating Opening Competition Nominee (2016)

Emily Weeks cutting her knee on a piece of glass was only one way the bleak future could have made itself known. But it was dramatic enough.

Emily found a beetle on its back in the school sandpit. She saved it with a leaf and dropped it in the grass and that’s where the glass was. It was just a feeling that something was wrong, a stab that made her clumsily roll over. She held her knee and felt the stickiness, she saw the redness on her fingers, and she cried.

Twenty yards away, the playground supervisor, Annilade Norwood, Annie for short, always attentive to the children and normally as protective as a mother hen, ignored Emily. She flipped open her mobile phone, dialled her husband and waited.

‘Hi, Annie.’

Annie paused a second. ‘The dryer’s still not heating up.’

‘The dryer?’

‘You said you’d get someone to fix it.’

Her husband’s voice raised a notch.

‘No, Annie, I’m busy. We discussed it this morning. We decided you would phone the shop. It’s still under warranty. They’ll send someone out.’

‘The shop?’

‘What do you mean, “The shop”? Annie, phone the shop and get them to send an engineer this afternoon. I’m on the forklift, I have to go now.’

Annie waited – Emily, forklift, shop, blood – it was all so confusing. She ended the call, watched Emily by the sand pit, watched the child hold its knee in the air and cry. She dialled the garage.

‘Good morning, Ridgeons.’

‘My name is Annilade Norwood; I brought my car in for a service yesterday. Is it ready?’

‘Hello Mrs Norwood. I’ll just check with the mechanics…’

Annie didn’t see Vanessa Palmer burst through the school’s doors, she just heard her.

‘Annie!’

Annie cupped the mobile. ‘I’m on the phone, Mrs Palmer. I’ll be with you in a second.’

‘But, Annie! Emily is bleeding. Put the phone away!’

Annie had to raise her voice over Emily’s sobbing to make herself heard; ‘When I’ve finished the call if you don’t mind, Mrs Palmer.’

Vanessa Palmer, founder and head teacher of Little Oaks Nursery, a hands-on professional with no time for incompetence, didn’t stop; she carried straight on through to the sandpit.

‘I don’t understand, Annie, put the phone away and do your job, please!’

‘Mrs Norwood?’ It was the garage.

‘Yes.’

‘Your car is ready. We could drive it round for you. Would twelve o’clock be alright?’

‘Yes.’

At last Annie could shut her phone; the calls had been made, at least all the calls she had to make as far as she could remember. She watched Vanessa inspect Emily. Thank God the crying had stopped. She wondered why twelve o’clock was so important.

Vanessa inspected Emily’s leg, all the while concern, insurance and parents playing a game of tag in her mind. This was all she needed on a Friday morning when she had already shifted down the gears with only the nursery accounts to finish before the 3.00 p.m. bell and the slow drift into the weekend.

A cut about an inch long, impossible to guess how deep, she hoped to God it hadn’t damaged a tendon. The possibility of insurance claims hovered well above zero. She’d grabbed some paper towels on her way out of the nursery; she used one to carefully wipe away the blood.

‘Emily. What have you done?’

Emily managed to say, ‘I saved a beekle.’

‘You saved a beetle?’ Vanessa gave her a hug. ‘That was very kind.’

Maybe stitches, definitely a good cleaning and a tetanus jab. She looked around for the cause, found the piece of glass and checked for more. Finding none she put it in her cardigan pocket, another cardigan ruined, if it wasn’t paint it was food and if it wasn’t food it was blood, the price she paid for running a pre-school.

‘Did it bite me?’

‘The beetle? No, he’s probably gone to get you a present for saving him. But he’ll have to leave it by the sand pit because we’re taking you to the doctor. He’ll put you back together in no time.’ She pressed the paper towels on Emily’s knee before lifting her up.

‘A present?’

Vanessa’s smile faded as she passed by Annie.

‘I don’t have time to talk to you right now, Annie, but I will definitely want to have words with you when I get back.’

‘I leave at one.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Annie’s reply was so out of the ordinary it stopped Vanessa in her tracks. ‘Annie, no, you stay here until I get back, please. What on earth has gotten into you today?’

Eight more children dotted over the grass, eight more potential accidents, not the thing you wanted in a pre-school. She looked back at Annie. ‘Could you at least get the children inside, Annie? That was a piece of glass, there could be more.’

Vanessa waited. But instead of replying Annie once again flipped open her phone.

‘Annie!’

‘The dryer has stopped working, Mrs Palmer’ Annie hit re-dial.

‘Surely the dryer can wait until lunch; get the children inside, please!’

When Annie’s call connected she turned her back on Vanessa. ‘Yes, I am calling about our tumble dryer...’

For a few seconds Vanessa could only watch and listen. She was going to say something else but there really seemed to be no point, even raising her voice had no effect. It was so extraordinary that she found herself holding Emily tighter until a moan from the child forced her to relax. She backed away in the direction of the pre-school until at a safe distant – yes, a safe distance was what she was thinking – she turned away and increased her pace.

‘I’m not happy with this at all, Annie,’ her voice sounded weak over her shoulder, ‘If we don’t have words today we will definitely have them on Monday. I’ll get Mister Jackson to have a look for glass. It would be better for you if he tells me when I get back that you helped him.’

Annie listened to the voice on the phone. Absently she touched the lump that had appeared on the back of her skull the day before. No pain, but maybe she should get it checked out.

Robert Bayley
Robert Bayley

Robert Bayley edits the local paper and runs his own business as a proofreader. He is also trained as a Gateway Assessor for Citizens Advice.  He has two degrees and two Masters Degrees and still doesn't really know what he wants to do.


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Spring-Clean by Proxy