Authors: Nichola Park
Text copyright © 2015 Nichola Park
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
BEFORE AND AFTER: The moment that changes your life forever
, thought Laura.
Let's see how long you can keep this up
She sank back into the leather passenger seat and stared stiffly ahead as the car sped southwards along the A8 motorway. She barely noticed the lush green fields that were broken up by clumps of oak and pine trees. Here and there a smattering of sheep huddled together. Overhead, a group of common buzzards circled forlornly; on the hill tops, elegant power turbines made the most of the prevailing winds. Despite the grey overcast sky and cold damp weather, this scenery usually filled her with great pleasure.
But not lately.
The automatic windscreen wipers sprang to life as a persistent drizzle set in.
, she thought.
She glanced at her husband out of the corner of her eye. His face was expressionless as he concentrated on driving through the increasingly heavy traffic the closer they got to Lisbon. Her appraisal must have been particularly discreet, or else his peripheral vison was starting to fail, as he gave no indication that he had noticed her troubled face.
She felt a pang. How had they got here?
They'd been driving for almost half an hour and he’d barely said a word. Her one-sided conversation had slowly died down as she once again realized all she was getting from him was a grunt or two.
, she decided grimly,
I won't say another word till
Her thoughts turned to her five-year old daughter and her brow puckered up in concern. It had happened again last night. How she wished she could just make it all go away; it killed her to see her baby in such a state. She hugged herself tightly and shivered despite the warmth coming from the air vents.
As they painstakingly negotiated the heavy peak hour traffic on the CRIL ring road, she tried concentrating on what was being said on the news station to which the car radio was always tuned. Her husband was a news junkie, but being a brokerage office manager, David was obliged to keep abreast of what was happening around the world.
Laura tuned out the newsreader´s voice as he droned on about sovereign debt, bailouts, recession, corruption... It just made her feel more depressed.
Of course, this never-ending winter didn’t help her present mood. No true African could ever consider the European climate anything but harsh. Nor could they ever adjust to the lack of space. Here, most people lived in drab commuter belt towns. Thousands of nondescript high-rise blocks of flats; everyone packed together like battery hens. Like the towns they had just passed. She shuddered. Despite recent attempts to spruce up these residential areas, she was still grateful that she didn’t have to live there.
On the down side, it meant they had to move ever further from the big cities if they wanted to be surrounded by trees rather than concrete.
David pulled up at the curb outside the office where Laura was currently working: an impressive contemporary structure of glass and steel in the heart of Parque das Nações on the banks of the Tagus River. The former Expo 98 site had certainly been well recycled. It was now a vibrant, upmarket business and residential area whose buildings were an anthem for modern architecture. Although Laura loved Lisbon’s old quarter and traditional architecture, this was the place she would choose if she had to live in a flat.
"So, shall I pick you up this evening? Are you going to wait for me after work?"
"No, I'll take the express coach back home. I'll be finishing early today."
"OK. I'll see you tonight, then," said David as he leaned over to peck her on the cheek.
Laura didn't answer. She swiftly adjusted the strap of her laptop bag on her shoulder, opened the car door and popped up her automatic umbrella. Then she dashed to the revolving doors as fast as her stiletto heels allowed.
Once inside, she slipped her umbrella into an aluminium stand and placed her laptop bag on the receptionist’s desk while she patted her auburn hair to see if any unruly tresses had come undone.
Bom dia, Senhora Cruz
," greeted the receptionist. “More rain today."
"I'm afraid so, Ana. And it’s practically spring."
“Yes, and there’s a lot more to come still.”
“Don’t I know it. Sometimes I think I’m about to sprout gills. You’d think after so many years I’d have adjusted to this awful weather…”
The receptionist chuckled politely, but privately discarded Laura’s comment as nonsense. After all, Portugal was a sunny oasis in Europe where foreigners played golf in short sleeves all year round.
"Go on up.
Avelar is expecting you."
“Is he in the conference room? The one on the seventh floor?” she asked, stabbing the button to call the lift.
“No, he’s in his office.”
As she rode up, Laura bent down to brush off some tenacious droplets of rain that glistened on her charcoal grey business suit. She wiggled her toes in her pumps, wishing she were wearing her cargo pants and hiking boots instead. But she was a freelance business consultant and had to dress the part. In the office, at any rate. At home, she had a different persona.
Laura greeted various familiar faces as she made her way to the CEO's office. She'd worked on and off with Delta-Engenharia & Construção for a number of years and felt quite at home there. She tapped lightly on the door and walked into Hugo Avelar's spacious office. The view behind him was stunning, and although Laura had seen it many times before, she never ceased to be dazzled every time she walked into the room. The large windows framed the
Vasco da Gama Bridge where it spanned the 17 km of the Tagus Estuary, a wetland area that attracted many migratory birds such as flamingos, little terns and black winged stilts. Hugo rose from behind his desk and walked up to her, removing his reading glasses.
"Hello, Laura," he smiled warmly as he shook her hand.
, Hugo," she smiled back.
“No, no, no. In English, please. You know I have to practise—all those meetings I have with our clients in China and the Middle East. I’d like my English to be as fluent as your Portuguese. You barely have an accent.”
lived here for years, Hugo, but OK, English it is. Not that you need to practise, though. You’re perfectly fluent.”
“Fluent? I wish, but it’s too late for that now. So, what is the plan for today?" he asked her.
"I'm speaking to the heads of department. We've identified key procedures that need improving, and we are going to define some vital actions that will increase productivity and reduce costs."
"Well, you know where to find me if you need anything. Listen, why don't we have lunch together and then you can speed me up."
"You mean ‘bring me up to speed, `” Laura laughed.
“You see, old dogs like me really can’t learn new tricks.”
“Old? At fifty?”
“Well, I have a good fourteen years on you.”
“Maybe on paper, Hugo, but there’s no one who’s more in sync with my ideas and opinions. In fact, I think you’re the only one that really understands me.”
She laughed self-consciously, regretting her words the minute she’d uttered them.
“Boy, that sounded really cheesy,” she said lightly, trying to underplay her words.
Hugo gazed steadily at her, not returning her embarrassed smile. The air crackled with tension.
“Um, well,” she cleared her throat, “so, I’ll, uh, see you later then.”
Her pulse throbbed in her ears like a rhino on a rampage as she beat a hasty retreat.
Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!
She chastised herself.
Jeez! What was it with that woman
, thought David as he pulled away from the curb.
Sometimes he thought that he no longer recognised his wife. She went off in a huff again today, for no good reason he could see. Shit! He didn't need this. He didn't need this at all. As if the pressure at work wasn't enough, he now had to contend with tension at home, too.
At the end of the day, all he wanted to do was relax in front of the TV with a glass of wine. Instead he had to listen to Laura going on about what the contractors had or hadn't done. He was beginning to regret having given in to her desire to live in the countryside.
They had bought a
, a smallholding sixty kilometres north of Lisbon, which meant a 45- minute drive to work every day. Still, he had to admit country living was an acquired taste he was rapidly developing. Who would have thought he would take to gardening and bird-watching? He smiled to himself. And of course it was great for Vanessa— all that space and peace and quiet. She took after her mother when it came to her interest in nature and the environment. Not a bad thing, he supposed.
So what was it that afflicted his daughter then? Something was bothering her, that’s for sure. Something deep down.
His smile quickly turned into a frown. The move to Óbidos had brought them nothing but problems…..
When they they’d bought the property, they’d moved into the cottage that would one day be the guest house while the villa and outbuildings were being renovated. And therein lay the problem. The renovation had been dragging on for over a year and had been the cause of most of their arguments. Laura had no tolerance for shoddy work or missed deadlines. She hounded the tradesmen when they didn't show up and expected him to do the same. As if it would help. There simply wasn't any point in getting worked up about it. It would be done when it was done. And anyway, she only worked part-time so she had way more time than him.
Exhaling loudly, David stared out of the side window. There was no doubt Avenida da Liberdade, chock-a-block with such luxury stores as Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci, had become Lisbon’s most elegant avenue. However, with the country sinking deeper and deeper into recession, it was mostly tourists, especially Brazilians, Russians and Angolans, that David saw entering these exclusive stores.
The traffic light turned green and just as David pulled away, a man shot out from behind a bus and ran across the street. Startled, David slammed on the brakes, his heart pounding.
!” he cursed out loud. “
Merda dos peões
!” Bloody pedestrians.
He took a deep breath. He had to chill. He wasn’t even at work yet and his blood pressure was already soaring.
Oh, what the hell
, he decided.
I’m probably overreacting. Anyhow, things are great most of the time.
He put these niggling thoughts out of his mind, turned into a side road and used his swipe card to access the underground office parking garage.
There was already a hive of activity at that early hour. The markets had been a rollercoaster ride for quite a while due to the economic climate. This exerted an additional strain on the brokers who, even at the best of times, were already under considerable pressure.
David nodded to a couple of people who looked up from their screens and headed for his office. All thoughts of the morning's commute dismissed from his mind, he took off his jacket and booted up his computer. He took a moment to stare out of the window and flex his muscles.
With close to one thousand trees lining the avenue, in summer practically all he could see were the tops of the elm, hackberry and plane trees. But now that they had shed their leaves, the wide, patterned cobblestone pavements with their fountains and flower beds were visible amongst the tables of the street cafés that were now sitting empty.
Deciding he needed some fortification before
the usual stream of brokers started lining up to see him, he left his office and made his way to the coffee machine. He fished an indigo-coloured capsule from a glass bowl filled with delectable colours, popped it into the machine and closed the slider. An intense aroma of roasted cereals wafted up to him.
“Morning, David.” A hand clapped him on the shoulder.
“Hello, Ricardo,” replied David, turning round.
“Rough night?” asked his co-worker, eying him critically. "Did Vanessa have another episode?"
"That obvious, huh?"
"Well, you do look a little uglier than usual," his friend ribbed him.
Not rising to the bait, David ran a hand over his rugged features as if to wash away the tiredness.
"Yeah, sleep deprivation will do that to you."
That’s probably why Laura and I are so cranky
, he surmised privately.
We haven't spent a single night alone together since Vanessa was born.
He had no family to speak of and Laura's was back in South Africa or in Australia.
"This has been going on for some months now, hasn't it?" asked Ricardo.
"Yeah, it started when we moved to Óbidos and every so often, out of the blue, bam! She'll sit up screaming, wide-eyed and terrified. Laura tries to hold her and calm her down, but she just keeps on yelling for her mother as though she can't see her."
"Christ," his friend mumbled. "Sounds like a scene from
What does the doctor say?"
"He says children usually grow out of night terrors, and that it's nothing to worry about. Says it's probably caused by the stress of all the recent changes in her life—new town, new house, new school...."
“Kids are such a worry. That’s why I never wanted any. They invariably place such a burden on you,” commiserated Ricardo.
“Much as I love my daughter, I can’t understand why it is that couples who are having problems think a baby will bring them closer. If anything, it drives a wedge between them.”
“That’s what I told my ex,” agreed Ricardo.
“Absolutely. All the inevitable child-rearing tasks consume so much time and energy it doesn’t leave much time for bonding. Not unless you dump the kids off on the grandparents most weekends.”
“Not a luxury you and Laura can indulge in, is it?”
“No, but then again we wouldn’t, even if we could. Laura was so enthralled with Vanessa those first two years that she gave our daughter her undivided attention. She barely had time for me.”
“You do realize how selfish and jealous that sounds, don’t you? More like something I would say.”
“You know what I mean,” replied David, “but I realize now that we´ve invested all this time in being parents and being a couple has come a poor second.”
Ricardo nodded in understanding. "And now this problem Vanessa’s having—all very distressing."
The clicking of high heels made both men turn round in unison.
"Certainly not your recent divorce, judging by your cheerful smile," quipped Ricardo with an appreciative grin that indicated it was more than Joana’s sunny disposition he had noticed.
Their colleague tossed her head and flicked her sleek black hair like a recalcitrant colt.
"Too right. What was distressing was being married to that loser. I'm well rid of him."
“If I weren’t such a gentleman, I’d say
I told you so.
” Ricardo preened like a rooster intent on increasing his harem.
“You’re a fine one to talk. Not yet forty and already two divorces to your name.”
“Ouch. While that may be true I assure you I won’t be making that mistake again.”
“Yes, I must say I’m enjoying my new-found freedom. It’s wonderful to do as I damn well please whenever I please.”
"Even so, Joana, I know only too well how tough divorce can be, so if you need anyone to talk to I’m here for you," said Ricardo, placing a hand on her shoulder and a sympathetic look on his face. Anyone who didn’t know him would’ve bought the act.
"Sure—just as soon as Botox is covered by the NHS!" Joana snorted. "What sage advice could the office playboy possibly have to offer?"
"Madam, you hurt my feelings. And what need could you possibly have of Botox?" He held a finger to her flawless face.
"Down, boy!" she replied firmly, swatting his hand away. "David, fix me a coffee, will you?"
"Sure," he answered, lifting his lean frame from the edge of the table where he was perched. "What flavour?"
"Oh, I’m sure I’ll like whatever you give me."
Two pairs of dark eyes met and held, and a pregnant silence ensued while David drew the coffee. She took the cup from him, her fingers lingering as they brushed his, and downed the coffee in three dainty gulps.
"Catch you later," she said, her gaze excluding Ricardo from the innuendo her tone promised.
Ricardo watched as her curvaceous black pencil skirt sashayed away.
"I think she likes you," he said.