Equal Shares Ch. 01bysteveh11©
Preface and Dedication
This story could not have happened without the initial encouragement of Strickland83, who read a post I made on Nick Scipio's forum and urged me to consider writing.
Of course, that leads me to thank Nick, and also Frank Downey. Their Summer Camp and Dance of a Lifetime books, respectively, were truly inspirational. Cheers, guys.
Other authors who contributed, unknowingly, include everyone that I read between the ages of around 8 (When I discovered Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons in a local library), to today. To all of them, thank you so very much.
My Primary Editor, Bob Hebert, has been simply wonderful. The reality team have put in a lot of work in the readthroughs. Without these people the story would have been greatly reduced by the simply huge number of errors that they caught, in terms of grammar, sense and direction. Any errors that remain are, of course, my responsibility.
Finally, this is dedicated to my darling wife, Karen. I love you so very much.
Equal Shares came about as a result of a challenge set to me by Strickland83. It was worded as encouragement, but a challenge it was.
He read a post on Nick Scipio's forum that I made. In it, I poured my heart out about the three occasions in which I'd fallen hopelessly in love with a fictional character. One was when I was only 13, the other two were Frank Downey's Sophia and Nick's own Gina. It was an emotional vent, in which I praised them for their ability to make a 50 year old man break down in tears over pain occurring to a character that was, in the end, no more than words on paper (or a screen).
He said, in part:
> I want to see others share their talents. Don't beg off by saying
> that your spelling or grammar are not good. That's what editors do
> for you.
> Give it a try. Find an idea that you can be passionate about and
> work from there. Develop the story in your mind and then write
> about it. Give it a try.
> You have been touched by other stories. Now go out and touch
So, I thought about it. I dismissed the idea, of course, as I hadn't tried to write fiction since I was a schoolboy. But there remained this thing...
Then, I had an idea. I had a tale to tell. I wanted to tell a story, an erotic story, that didn't feature kids of school or university age, that wasn't a coming of age story, which actually featured people who were 'grown up'. It would be a slow story, about a man who began as emotionally dead, but who had the support of just a few people who could help him, just enough support. It would also tell the story of those around him.
This tale is very definitely not autobiographical, but there is some of me in Stan. In some facets, quite a lot, actually. In the same way, some of the characters have real-life counterparts for some of their personalities. Anne is heavily based on the smartest person I have ever known, who sadly died of cancer a couple of years ago. Elizabeth is an amalgam of three people. There is, I'm afraid, no real life analogue to Denise.
Stan's devotion to Caron is heavily modelled on my own love, of course. Like everything else, sweetheart, I offer this to you.
Steveh11, 12th May, 2006
* * * * *
Stan woke up, rolled onto his back, and stared at the ceiling. It was a defensive reflex; looking at the empty pillow next to him would bring tears to his eyes.
It was his 42nd birthday, and he was alone... again... still.
The ceiling didn't really speak to him, yet he could still hear his wife's lilting voice: 'Time to get up, Stan. You have to go to work.'
Caron. He still loved her. He still thought of her, every day, many times a day. The deep depression that he felt was his only protection from his memories of her.
The car had swerved to avoid a young girl, who was running across the road to her mother without looking, and it had caught Caron a glancing blow. It wouldn't have been too serious, but when Caron fell she'd struck her head on the raised ironwork of a manhole cover.
And that was that.
Stan had been visited at work. When the policewoman said, "Please sit down, Mr. Hinch, I'm afraid I've got some bad news," he already knew that Caron was dead. It was the compassion in her eyes, the sadness in the set of her face, the whole attitude of the young policewoman's body that told him.
He didn't break down immediately. Somehow he made the arrangements, got to the funeral, he was even able to get to the part where he was supposed to speak... and couldn't. He couldn't see anyone through the tears; he couldn't speak through the boulder lodged in his throat. Someone – he still didn't know who, probably Bob, his boss – got him down from the dais. Someone else, Elizabeth he thought, had comforted him.
Tomorrow it would be six months. Just as he'd managed to survive yesterday, in a bubble where no one could touch him, and where he didn't make any real contact with anyone else, he still had to get through today.
Elizabeth, his assistant, would look with compassion in her eyes at him from across the desks they shared, and he would, once again, refuse to engage her beyond superficialities. Bob, his manager, would inquire about some task he'd been assigned, and Stan would respond with the minimum effort required. Stan expected there'd be the usual brushfires that always came up, but he couldn't make himself care about anything any more.
He knew, intellectually, that this was bad; he knew he should try to break out of this. But he was afraid, afraid of the hurt coming back to overwhelm him. He'd spent just one night staring at the bottle of a variety of pills he'd collected from various stores. He got rid of the bottle the next morning, vowing not to bring the temptation back.
The apathy he'd developed had become his armour; his ability to function was only viable because he refused to let life reach out to touch him any more.
- - - - - - - - - -
He arrived at The Firm, where he'd worked for the last 20 years, a little before eight thirty as usual. He murmured "Hi!" to Elaine, the receptionist, and went to his desk. The familiar and comforting rituals continued as he said "Good Morning" to Elizabeth, sitting opposite him, and turned on his PC as he sat down.
Elizabeth watched him, maternally. At 62, she was eligible to retire, but didn't want to just yet. She'd told Stan, "I need to get more into my pension – a couple more years or so should do it." The Firm was happy for her to continue, so she did.
She thought of Stan as her surrogate son; she had been his friend for the last 15 years since she'd joined him at The Firm. As time passed by she'd become his confidante, as he'd become hers, and they'd told each other things they hadn't shared with anyone else. Her husband had died over a quarter of a century ago, so she knew what Stan was going through. But she also knew that his continued withdrawal was harmful to him. Besides, she missed her friend.
Stan was, of course, oblivious to this. He was pretty well blind to anything not work-related, in fact.
Elizabeth, however, was nothing if not persistent. If she couldn't get through to him, someone else might be able to – and she had a good idea who might be willing to try.
- - - - - - - - - -
Denise Bottomley went into the canteen to get her lunch with the rest of the IT crew. Contrary to most people's expectations of 'computer' people, Denise was pretty social; she enjoyed a chat with the various staff from Manufacturing, Sales & Marketing, and Engineering. In fact, Denise was able to move from department to department within The Firm and get along with everyone around her equally well. This was an asset to her in her job, where she seemed to spend a lot of her time solving her colleagues 'computer problems' – which were more often than not simple user errors, or what she called 'Finger Faults'.
Denise was collecting her salad when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned her head and was a little surprised to see Elizabeth, who normally took an earlier lunch.
"Do you think we could get a table outside today, Denise?" Elizabeth asked her friend, "I need to talk to you."
"Sure," Denise replied, "what's on your mind?"
Elizabeth didn't reply directly. Instead she just made small talk, picked up a tray, collected her salad, paid and walked to the exit, holding the door for Denise.
They sat together on one of the benches in the late spring sunshine.
"What's on your mind?" Denise asked again.
"Stan!" Elizabeth replied, picking at her food. "He's still not talking to anyone, not really talking. Ever since his wife died, Stan's been upset. I've been patient, because I know how he feels – I lost my husband, too – and I worry about him."
"Yes, " Denise said. "I know what you mean."
"It's starting to affect his work, you know," said Elizabeth. "He's been coasting, not getting into new projects in the way he should. I know that Bob's noticed. We need to get him going again."
"Yes, We!" Elizabeth said firmly. "I know you like him, I've seen you looking. Stan's not a bad looking guy, and I know you've noticed."
"What?" she said, a little defensively.
"Don't play the innocent, you don't fool me for one minute," Elizabeth maintained with just a hint of frustration. She continued, more softly, "I've watched you. I watch everyone, I enjoy people watching anyway, and Stan is my friend. We've known each other longer than you've been with The Firm."
"Before Caron died you and he used to flirt a lot – I know, I know, innocent fun at work only, but I could tell you enjoyed it."
"And so did he, actually!" Elizabeth continued.
"He did, didn't he?" Denise replied. "But Stan's been very, well, difficult since then though. I haven't known what to say to him, it's as if I wasn't really there when I try to speak to him."
Denise paused. She didn't want to upset Elizabeth, but...
"I'm not even sure I even like Stan at the moment. I know his wife's death hit him hard, but he's bordered on being rude sometimes. Oh, never discourteous, but when you try to strike up a conversation and get minimal answers all the time, you eventually get the idea that you're not wanted. You know?"
Elizabeth considered her for a moment. At 32, Denise was 10 years Stan's junior. Striking red hair which came to a point in the middle of her back, and soft grey eyes set in a rounded face with a slightly pointed chin, framed her serious expression.
But Elizabeth had seen his appreciative smile often enough. She knew Stan's taste in women, and good-looking redheads came near the top of his list.
Denise was, at that moment, also intently thoughtful. She focussed well beyond Elizabeth, gazing at infinity. Stan was reasonable looking, she had enjoyed a good flirt with him at work, knowing that he was 'safe' – "Safely and very married!" Elizabeth had said to her once, - but he'd become so distant that she didn't think she really knew him at all any more.
Besides, Denise had just finished a relationship herself. It had ended amicably, they were still friends, but there was still that feeling of not wanting to upset her former lover by jumping at someone else straight away. Although...
"Denise, he's still the same Stan inside, you know," Elizabeth said eventually, cutting in to Denise's reverie. "Losing a loved one like that is one heck of a shock. It took me a long time to get over the loss of my husband George, and I'd been anticipating it for the whole year, ever since his diagnosis."
Denise looked at her questioningly. "Cancer," Elizabeth said, softly.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" Denise got out, before Elizabeth interrupted with "It's OK. I got over it. I found that people would let me grieve, but that I needed to be with them, to get on with life. That's what Stan needs to grasp, and he's just not doing it. I've even suggested he get professional help, but he dismissed that idea instantly."
"What do you think I could do to help?" Denise asked.
"I've got an idea," said Elizabeth.
- - - - - - - - - -
Denise thought about what Elizabeth had told her, as she went back to her workstation.
She didn't think of herself as particularly beautiful, but was honest enough with herself to know that she wasn't ugly either. At 5'7" barefoot and just about exactly 140 pounds, she thought of herself as perpetually needing to lose weight. But she knew that her 36C bust was quite adequate and she was proud of her long hair. Long, thick and wavy, she came by her red locks naturally but she was always upset that she had the freckles that proved it.
She dressed as she always did, 'blouse & trousers' as she called it, although today they were figure-hugging jeans with a very professional white blouse. Her hair was gathered into a ponytail with a matching white scrunchy. A pair of comfortable but slightly elevated shoes completed the ensemble. She smirked to herself, as she thought that she was not exactly a Mae West vamp. Oh well...
"Make an excuse and talk to him," Elizabeth had said. "Tomorrow will be six months to the day since his wife died. Insist that you want to go for a drink with him tonight. Do it while the office is full. Stan doesn't like scenes, so he'll have to agree to prevent one – and his sense of honour will force him to follow through. Don't expect much of a date, though. I expect it'll be one-sided conversation, a quick drink, and time for home.
"Don't worry about what to talk about," Elizabeth continued. "I don't expect Stan will notice. Just chatter for a bit, talk about his clothes, the weather, football, whatever. Baby steps, Denise. Yes, it'll be frustrating, but you need to take the short steps now to allow for bigger ones later.
"If you get more than half an hour out of him, I'll be surprised. But that'll be a victory.
"I worry about him a lot, Denise, I do. I've known him a long time, he's practically a son to me – my son and daughter laughingly ask after 'their brother' – and I can't approach him myself. You can. You can start him living again; teach him that life goes on, that he can't continue to 'just exist'. Please try, Denise?" Elizabeth was very earnest. This meant a lot to her.
'What about me?' Denise thought to herself. 'Do I want to try this?' She was quiet for a moment. She used to like Stan a lot. Caron's death seemed to have changed him, but Elizabeth had been very persuasive... and Denise did like his looks, at least a 'little bit'.
She decided to go for it.
"OK, Elizabeth, I'll give it a try," she told the older woman.
- - - - - - - - - -
"Stan, I want to go for a drink tonight... With you!" Denise couldn't believe she'd just said that, and in front of so many people! The office was full; there must have been a score of listeners. She didn't dare look at Elizabeth.
"Um. I don't think..."
"Yes. You're going to come down to the Mitre with me, tonight; we'll have a drink and a chat. You can tell me some off-colour jokes and we'll have some fun together. When was the last time you enjoyed yourself?" Shit. She hadn't meant to say that.
For the first time the office crowd could remember in a long time, Stan's reply sounded a little irritated, "About six months ago, what do you think?"
"Yes, sorry. But I've not had a night out in ages either. So you can take me out, tonight. You can pick me up at eight. You remember where I live?"
"Er, no, Denise, I don't..."
Softly, she interrupted, "Yes you do, Stan, you used to give me a ride in to work every morning."
"No, I meant I don't think..."
"Often the case, Stan. But I'll be ready at eight, and you'll be there, ready to drive us, won't you!" she again interrupted. This time her voice had an unshakeable edge to it.
Stan looked at her, really looked at her for the first time in ages. Denise actually met a lot of his 'criteria' he realised. Smart, witty, pretty. That long red hair was simply fantastic. She dressed reasonably at her work, but those jeans certainly showcased her ass. Most of all, Stan recognized that he did like her. His inner voice told him that he really ought to agree, never mind what anyone else thought... he needed this.
"OK! I'll take you for an evening out. But there're things I need to get done tonight, so it'll just be for a quick drink."
She bent down and gave him a peck on the cheek. Both of them noticed something then... but both denied it to themselves.
When Elizabeth left work, her customary 30 minutes before the others, her concession to retirement, Stan noticed that she was positively beaming. "Enjoy yourself tonight, Stan," she said, softly. "Denise is lovely. She thinks a lot of you too, you know." Then she swept off.
'Too,' Stan pondered. 'Too? Well, I think a lot of Elizabeth, don't I?' He shook his head and got on with his work.
Everyone in the office wished him a good evening as he left. Absentmindedly, he thanked them. There were some frowns, but in fact for the first time in a long time Stan's thoughts weren't of his dark-haired Celtic goddess, but of a red head with a lovely smile, and... freckles.
- - - - - - - - - -
Denise looked at the clock, again. She felt silly, actually giddy at the thought of her date, 'A date?' and consciously tried to calm herself down.
She showered and washed her hair, then spent a long time drying and brushing it. Makeup applied, she looked at herself critically in the mirror. 'Oh well, I pass muster, I guess,' she told herself, and went to her wardrobe to fetch her dress.
Denise very seldom wore anything other than her usual uniform, her 'blouse & trousers.' Elizabeth had suggested that she wear something "more feminine," but Denise was somewhat stuck for choice here. She picked out a dress and realised that it had been over two years since she'd worn it. She clucked her tongue and slipped it on.
Well, she tried to anyway. Denise always thought she ought to lose a few pounds, and putting this dress on – a white, handkerchief design with spaghetti straps and a low bustline – just made her wish she'd already done so. She always felt wearing a dress overemphasised her tummy and the roll at her waistline. In exasperation she took the dress off and reverted to type: this time a deep red blouse and white trousers.
"Good enough!" she said to herself.
Again, she looked at the clock. Ten minutes to eight. He'd be here any minute. What was she doing? "You're out of your mind, girl," she told her reflection. "Well, I'm only doing this for Elizabeth!" she replied.
- - - - - - - - - -
Stan, meanwhile, arrived home, turned on the CD player, and fell into his chair. He zoned out for a while, not really thinking of anything, not even really listening to the music, just letting time pass. He shifted, ill at ease no matter how he was sitting, and looked at the clock.
He pondered just not going, but knew that this would be 'standing her up', and he really didn't think that was fair. Of course, he could always ring Denise and cancel... but he couldn't do that, either, he'd never got Denise's number. How did he feel? 'Confused', he wryly decided.
More time passed and with a start he accepted that he'd have to get ready and go. Something like the shirt and trousers he'd worn to work would be good enough for the bar, he thought. Just time for a quick shower, then it'll be time to go...