Read Between the Lines - Part 2
“What do you mean, chook? What do you mean, it’s about you?”
“I mean...” Nikki looked up and straightened her back, avoiding her face in the mirror. She turned round to look at Joan and took a deep breath. “You know that story I told you about my finger?
About why it’s a tad lumpy and misshapen?”
Joan paused and nodded. “I remember that. A few weeks ago. You said you fell from your bedroom window when you were six.”
Nikki pushed back some more tears. “Yes. Well that manuscript you gave me...just...detailed the whole thing. Every single part of it.” She hiccupped again, and a laugh burst through her stilted sobs.
“Oh God, I’m a mess. I’ve got a blooming stalker. Great. Fantastic.”
Joan wrapped her arms around her as Nikki burst out crying again. “It’s ok, honey. It’s ok...”
The minutes passed slowly, but eventually Nikki stopped crying. She leaned backwards out of Joan’s arms and wiped her puffy eyes. “W-What now?”
Joan tilted her head. “Can I...see the manuscript?”
Nikki nodded and swallowed another hiccup. “You just go ahead and have a look. I can’t go out looking like this. Come b-back when you’ve read it. I’ll be right here, o-ok?”
Joan smiled and walked to the door. “I won’t be long, love. What do want me to tell the others if they ask?”
“Just that I felt sick or something. They don’t need to know about this.”
Joan nodded sympathetically and stepped out of the room. “I’ll be two seconds,” she said, her voice dripping with worry, and then she was gone.
Nikki took a deep breath and turned back round to face the sink. Her eyes were red and puffy; her nose blotchy with red patches. Her brown hair frizzed around her face, a golden halo. Nikki sniffed and splashed her face with cold water. God, she looked like a mess. There probably wasn’t any reason to be upset. It might just be a coincidence. She didn’t have a stalker. Why would anyone want to stalk her?
She spent the next few minutes staring at herself in the mirror, examining her face. She could see her dad’s features in her nose and eyebrows, and she hated it. He had always told her she had been her mother’s daughter, but she could never quite believe it. She didn’t look like Mum, not really. Dad had shown her photos, and the likeness between them was nonexistent. And yet, her father was compelled to force her image onto Nikki’s face. She puzzled over this for a second, and then pushed it aside. It didn’t matter. She had a two year old son, a father who wouldn’t take no for an answer and a stalker. Her mum didn’t matter. She was long gone anyway.
The door suddenly swung open and Nikki whipped around. Joan was standing in the doorway, her face calm and restrained. “Ok,” she said. “Ok, so the story is quite like the one you told me. I accept that. But the little girl’s called Nicola. So maybe...” She trailed off and looked at Nikki hopefully.
Nikki just sighed. “My name is Nikki. My full name though is Nicola Jane Debine.”
Joan’s hopeful face collapsed in on itself and she slumped where she stood. “Oh.” She looked up.“Should we call the police?”
Nikki swallowed. Should they? She remembered the night her father had been arrested, and the sudden anger she had felt towards the sergeant who told her. It was tide of flames that had rolled through her body, and then it had been suddenly doused by the realisation that she hated her father, not the police. The sight of policemen made her nervous - a side effect of that slap in the face. They made her angry, simply by power of association. Besides, it was probably a coincidence. Nothing the police needed to be involved in.
“No. I don’t think so.” The words rolled around on Nikki’s tongue, slaloming between her teeth like ice-skaters. Her speech was slow and precise. “No,” she repeated. “I’ll just leave it. It was probably a coincidence, that was all.”
“Are you sure? I mean, I could-”
“No, Joan. It’s fine. I’ll go back to my desk and work a bit more, ok?” Nikki forced a smile and started walking to the door. Joan blocked her path, her frail arms like twigs as the dangled in the air.
“No way are you going back to work. I give you the rest of the day off. Get your stuff and go.”
Nikki frowned and crossed her arms. “Fine. Just let me out of this bathroom.”
Joan nodded and stepped aside. “On you go. Get some rest. Try to forget about it.” She blinked as Nikki opened the door, and then in a loud voice added, “I hope you feel better later, Nikki. Chicken soup and a warm bath!”
Nikki stepped out the door and smiled. As annoying as Joan could be, she was pretty funny sometimes. Glancing up off the floor, Nikki weaved her way through the desks back to her corner of the office. Everyone was working again, the quiet turning of pages breaking the silence. It was nice, especially after the symphony of worry that had sang in her ear for the last ten minutes.
White pages were littered around the floor of her desk in heaps. It looked as though someone had tried to tidy them up, but hadn’t done a very good job. Nikki picked up the sheets from the floor and sat them on the desk. Her hand was clutched round a wad of paper, her nails burrowing into the paper’s white flesh. Sitting it on the desk, she paused. It was a new chapter of the book, a large 6 dominating the page. Nikki leaned over it and ran her finger across the surface. She wanted to know what it read. It would be so easy to slip the few pages into her handbag and walk out of here, free as a bird, with no-one being wiser. It wasn’t strictly company policy, but then again, nothing was today.
With a flourish, Nikki lifted the paper and dumped it in her handbag. Curiosity killed the cat....but satisfaction brought it back, that was what her dad always said. She would read it tonight when Noah was asleep. Nikki let another smile flit across her face and she threw her handbag over her shoulder. Turning around, she picked up the pot of pens that had fallen, and with a nod, walked out the office. Good riddance.
The lamp cast a misty yellow glow over the bed, the golden rays illuminating the dancing dust specks as they waltzed through the air. Nikki yawned and slid under the duvet, her head resting on the pillow. Finally. She had gotten home at three, answered her emails, picked Noah up from nursery, played with him, fed him, bathed him, put him to bed, ignored the inevitable phone call from the prison and paid all her taxes. The day had stretched like elastic, every hour seeming so much longer than 6o minutes. But now, she was in her bed. She could sleep. She could rest. She could read the
Nikki leaned over and pulled the wad of paper from her handbag. She had been fighting the urge to read it all day. Her eyes strayed to her bag almost constantly, as though some hungry force drew them nearer and nearer, whispering sweet nothings in their ear, teasing them and baiting them until they looked and then SNAP! they would be gone, and there would be no turning back.
But she hadn’t looked, and her curiosity had grown famished. She flipped the paper in her hands, and ran her finger over the tiny lumps where the words where. With a deep breath, she began to read:
The teenage years had a bit of a gale force wind to them. One minute Nicola would grace us with the calm before the storm, her easy smile a genuine expression of her lively soul. Then the next minute, things would go awry. Every sneer punctured my heart, every scoff weakened my resolve. The pain was always fresh in my heart, but my affection never wavered.
Every summer the family would go on a holiday as a way to escape the familiar bouts of summer boredom. Of course she’d venture to the beach, only because she loved the opportunity to get about fifty shades darker and the rest of the family couldn’t resist the mysteries of what the ocean holds. Oh, and the sand. Can’t forget the sand…the sand castles, the open canvas, and the chance to get down and dirty.
Nicola was in one of her moods, slouched in her chair with a scowl hidden beneath her sunglasses. “Family bonding,” I heard her say to her little brother, Rodney, “isn’t too high up on my priority list these days.”
But the moment Rodney uncovered the boogie board from beneath the rubble-better known as the family’s stash of beach supplies-that sliver of spunk turned up the corners of her pout. Nicola loved boogie boarding, unless she went under, then she’d curse the sand that coated her hair and the salt that clogged her throat and blinded her enough to make her eyes water.
What really hit home, though, was the fact that the boogie board the family had decided to bring was the same one she used as a child, the board with the psychedelic peace signs that decorated its front, topped off with her initials, N. D. The letters got a little frayed over the years and the mass of colours faded, but the board could still ride the waves, as Nicola so giddily demonstrated not long after Rodney pulled the board out for her. He’d steady the board, his little ten year old arms straining to stop the waves. She’d smile back at him and ask if she could go yet. He always said no and tightened his grip, until finally he caved. When he nudged her on the wave, her squeals of excitement patched up the holes that the past left behind.
Even though boogie boarding was a small act at the time, it made a big impact on the relationship I had with Nicola. Those teen years were hitting her hard, tearing us further and further apart. Yet that small act of familiarity, that tiny fragment from the past tied us together again, even if Nicola never seemed to acknowledge my existence outside someone to shout at. I remember watching as the adventurous, spunky girl I loved mellowed out into a more calm, self-aware teenager, but I also remember the realization that stuck with me many years after that liberating day on the beach: no matter where life took Nicola, we’d always find ways to pull together again. Even if she didn’t care about me.