This is a work of fiction, any resemblance to persons living, dead or otherwise is purely coincidental. The ideas and thoughts that follow are pure fantasies. In real life, at the very least they would be unpleasant and probably illegal. Fantasies are like that; daydreams where we can contemplate and imagine the sensations without suffering or inflicting the pain, despair or humiliation.
"How could you be so stupid Grace? For a measly £2, you buy a second-hand toaster off a junk stall in the market, plug it in here without having it checked, and blow the main fuse to the whole office block. You'll lose your job for sure when the boss gets my report."
"Do you have to report it Roy?"
"My job will be at risk if I don't. That £2 cost the firm thousands of pounds because all the computers went down, and, although I restored the power to most floors fairly quickly, almost all the staff lost data that they are now re-entering and the IT bods are working their balls off to get some computers up and running again. You're damn lucky you didn't cause a fire with those paper towels so close."
"Oh, God no!" She turned very pale and looked at me with wide open eyes, tears flowing down her cheeks, "Please don't report it, please don't. I need the money to pay the rent and for a little food for us. The child benefit I get doesn't keep us. I thought the toaster would make the cheap, stale bread I buy, go a bit further and make it more palatable. If I can't pay the rent I'll get thrown out and Debbie will be taken into care. It's bad enough trying to keep social services from taking her away because of the squalor we live in, without me being homeless and her being put in with strange people."
During the conversation I checked the plug and did insulation test on the toaster. "She'd have been put into care without a mother if you'd been touching the toaster when you plugged it in. That thing is absolutely lethal. Wire across the fuse terminals instead of a fuse, and a dead short to the toaster frame. You'd have been dead before anyone found you. The stall holder should be prosecuted for selling it."
"He said it worked and I assumed..." She broke down and wept. Looking up she pleaded, "Please Roy, don't let them know."
"That should be your cue to say, I'll do ANYTHING if you don't report it." I said it light heartedly as a joke to try and lighten the atmosphere but she took it seriously.
"You're trying to blackmail me into having sex with you? You want me to be a slave to your desires? You perverted bastard. I thought ... I thought you were a decent person but..."
"No, Grace, I didn't mean it that way. I have no intention of forcing you to have sex with me or anyone else. Look, I've a couple more places to sort the power out, meanwhile put that collection of scrap metal back in your bag and keep it out of sight. Go back and finish cleaning whatever you should be cleaning and I'll try and think up an explanation that keeps you out of the shit. I'll come and see you again at lunch break."
Grace worked as the daytime cleaner for the ground floor offices. She kept the toilets and the staff kitchen area immaculate and fortunately for her, she'd plugged the faulty toaster into a socket in her little storeroom out of sight of any staff. As the firm's electrician, I knew I could concoct a convincing story to cover for her but after being called a perverted bastard, I thought I'd let her stew for a bit even if I'd said the wrong thing. I knew very little about the woman apart from her name, but I knew where to find out.
"Your office electrics all okay now Madge?" I asked the personnel supervisor.
"Yes, nearly updated the records again. What caused it?"
"Broken wire in the basement. I've spoken with Grace Wilkes and she seemed real scared there would be a fire. What do you know about her?"
"She's a single mother with a five year old daughter whose face is disfigured from being seriously burned in a house fire when only about a year old. Her husband died saving the child and they lost everything they owned. They couldn't afford insurance so they really did lose everything. Sad story. She's proud and tries not to accept charity or to fiddle the benefits system but she's still paying for things she bought that were destroyed in the fire. Lives in a bad area and never buys new clothes. That's about all I know. You fancy her?"
"Might do worse. Hadn't really spoken to her until this morning but I can see why the prospect of a fire scared her so badly."
I spent the rest of the morning 'doctoring' a cable in the boiler room. We'd had workmen down there doing repairs earlier in the week and I suggested that a piece of their equipment might have damaged it. It wouldn't pass a major investigation but I doubted it would come to that.
What to do about Grace? I pondered on that question for the remainder of the morning. Her stupid action shouldn't go unpunished but I wasn't about to order her to become a sex slave. Maybe though, I could use the blackmail option to get to know her better.
"The cause of the power disruption was a damaged cable in the boiler room," I informed her at lunchtime and we were alone in her room. She thanked me profusely but I cut in, "I haven't written the report yet and can still state the true cause." I waited a little while to give the information time to reach her brain and be processed before going on, "And I've decided to use the blackmail option."
"Oh God no! You can't! You said you wouldn't. I'm not a whore."
I grinned, "I said I wouldn't use it to make you a sex slave and I won't. Instead, you will cook and invite me to a proper Sunday dinner this weekend. Roast beef and all the bits."
"I'm so sorry Roy, I can't do it. Maybe the following Sunday but not this week." After a little questioning, she finally told me the reason. "My pay and welfare cheque won't come until next week and I've hardly enough money to get food for Debbie, even if it's only spaghetti and mince. In any case you wouldn't want to come to my place, it's too disgusting for visitors."
Having lived on my own for the last six years, I could cook but often didn't bother unless I had company. I thought my plan would give me a meal cooked by a woman other than my sister as well as finding a little about Grace; I wasn't prepared to be thwarted by her lack of funds. "Here's £20, you do the cooking and we'll all eat together. No arguments. Remember, I am blackmailing you." We both knew that wasn't a reality but after more protests, she reluctantly went along with it.
"Hi Sarah," I phoned my sister, "What would you get a five year-old girl who has nothing? Not too expensive but not from the pound shop either." Before she'd answer, I had to give her all the details of Grace and Debbie, or at least the few details I had, and she'd kidded me that I'd probably blackmail Grace into marriage as well. At 31, I'm nearly two years older than her and we have a good relationship but she's married and has been for six years so I get a lot of ribbing about my still being a bachelor and not being able to find the right girl to marry. I drop in for a meal with her and husband David and four year-old son, Paul, about once a week and there's always a good deal of friendly banter between us.
"Eventually she answered my question. "They had some lovely furry panda bears in Glimson's the other day, they're about as big as Paul. £25 or rather £24.99, is that in your price range? I could pop out and check as they are only around the corner."
"Sounds great, I'll even give you the penny for going!"
"Oh how your generosity exceeds your beauty brother dear!"
Knowing of the area in which Grace lived, I parked in the town car park and took the bus for the last mile. Even with some pre-knowledge, the area appeared far worse than I imagined. I came to the near derelict tower block of flats, "What a bloody eyesore! I can't believe anyone could live in those conditions in this day and age, and yet there are youths and children happily around playing and yelling at one another. The whole place is a blot on the landscape and the surroundings are not much more than a rubbish dump. Something should be done about it," I thought angrily, "Grace must be really poor and desperate to live in such a place."
"You from the council mister?" an urchin enquired.
"No, just visiting, Mrs. Wilkes."
"She don't sell nuthin, she's got a monster kid. Yer hav't'a go in the back door fer hers, front way's blocked."
Grace greeted me quietly and introduced me to Debbie, who shyly hid behind her mother until I knelt down and offered her the box. I gave Grace a smaller box. Much to my annoyance, she tried to refuse it but eventually she extracted the new toaster I'd bought and PAT tested and put a green safety label on. "You've no excuse now for buying a bomb off the market and trying to blow up the works," I joked but she looked serious.
"I don't deserve this, please take it back."
"No way, it's yours. Use it. This one works."
By then Debbie had dragged her box behind the table, almost out of my sight and when Grace excused herself to attend to things in the kitchen I knelt beside the young girl and clearly saw the facial scars that disfigured her features. "Hi," I said softly, "Are you going to open it?" She nodded. "You can tear the paper off if you want." Once she started, the paper didn't stand a chance, nor did the carton when she saw the picture on the outside. Her face lit up with a huge smile when she lifted the panda from the box and for me to see her delight was worth far more than all the money I'd spent.
"Mummy, mummy, look what the man brought me!"
Grace attempted to complain that I shouldn't have bought her such an expensive gift but her face beamed with pleasure too at seeing her daughter's happiness.
While Debbie quietly hugged and talked to the bear, I had chance to look around and wondered why the place hadn't been condemned years ago. The inside, Grace cleaned with her usual thoroughness, but she couldn't do anything with the damp walls, the cracked window or the rotting woodwork. It couldn't do the child's health, or hers, any good and I wondered why she hadn't looked for another place but suspected she couldn't afford anything better and as Madge said, her pride wouldn't allow her to work the benefits system to obtain more money if it meant slightly falsifying her income.
Dinner passed pleasantly enough, and for a while afterwards, I played with Debbie and breached her shyness to some extent. Grace revealed just a little more of her life and the Catch 22 situation she found herself in. She couldn't afford a babysitter for Debbie so she could work more hours, and because she couldn't earn more she couldn't afford a better place. Her husband had a job with good prospects and they'd bought a lot of furniture on hire purchase, all of which was destroyed in the fire and which she still had to pay for.
I invited them to a meal that I cooked the following Sunday but Grace firmly refused, saying that she'd only done this for me because of the blackmail. I knew that wasn't the real reason and so did she, and I sensed she was afraid to get close to a man while she had a disfigured daughter. Perhaps after the comments I'd heard outside, she feared no one would take her and accept her child. Without the overalls she always wore at work, I saw she had an attractive figure, not one that would win any glamour contest, but nice and homely. Late twenties I guessed, dark hair, small frame and breasts and, the few times I'd seen it, a lovely smile. I did give her a peck on the cheek when I left but from what she'd said, I doubted she wanted to continue with our relationship.
Grace tried to avoid me for the next three weeks but I 'accidentally' met her several times but she wouldn't do more than pass the time of day. I asked about Debbie and found she still adored the panda and called it Polly. One morning I detoured to pass her little room and caught her coming out wheeling her bucket and mop. She looked forlorn and worried and had been crying but refused to say why. I went to Madge, the fount of all knowledge when it comes to personnel. "The council have condemned the block of flats and are going to tear them down. At the end of the week, Grace has to leave and the council are putting her into temporary B&B accommodation and Debbie is going into care. Social Services have been itching to get their hands on Debbie for some time. All her stuff is being put into storage the council will pay for but only for three months, until she finds another place."
"Not if I can help it," I grunted.
"The fact that she is losing Debbie is tearing her heart out although she hopes the council and social will change their minds about that. I've looked at what accommodation is available but there's nothing in her price range so it looks as if the council will separate them, at least for a while, probably a long while as the council have 22 families in that block to re-house and they're more worried about the payments than the care of the tenants." Madge looked at me curiously, "Naturally she's upset but she's no money for a deposit on another flat even if she can afford the rent. I doubt she'll accept charity from you, if that's what you're thinking Roy."
For a rushed planned job between Sarah, David and me, it went with almost military precision. I walked to work and checked out at 3:30, minutes before Grace left. Sarah arrived driving a hired van and parked in a visitor's space close to the main gate. David collected Paul from school and took him to a friend's house where he would spend the night, and then drove to Grace's apartment. We needed his car because it had a child's seat already in place. The big variable, Grace's reaction, couldn't be figured into the plan but I hoped gentle force would be enough to ensure she cooperated.
I waited behind a parked car but in Sarah's view and signalled to her as Grace left the building. Only a few workers left at that time so we had a clear space. Sarah pulled up alongside Grace, and pushed open the passenger side door. "Get in Grace," she ordered.
"Yes, get in," I reinforced the command with a push.
"What's going on... ?" By then I'd almost lifted her into the van and her struggles were too late and too feeble to be effective and I'd climbed in alongside her. "What the hell is going on Roy? Who is this woman? Where are taking me? I have to pick up Debbie. Let me go or I'll report..."
"Shut up Grace! No one is going to harm you or Debbie. First meet my sister Sarah." Sarah smiled and said, "Hi," but Grace only scowled and turned back to me. "We're abducting you Grace, and Debbie too. It's for your own good. We're doing it because of your stubbornness and refusal to let anyone help you. I'm not going to let the bloody council and social workers split you from your daughter when I can give you a place to live together. We're going to Debbie's school now. You will pick her up and walk her home as normal. We'll go to your flat and load all the stuff you've packed into the van and take it to my house where you will have the use of two bedrooms but we'll have to share the kitchen and bathroom facilities."
"I'm going to have to live with you? I thought you'd finished blackmailing me!"