Collette Maxwell answered the door. The man on the other side was tall, unshaven, and although his clothes weren't rags, they'd obviously not seen the inside of a washing machine for some time.
"Yes, how can I help you?"
"I'm looking for work, Ma'am; any odd-job. I'm not looking for charity; I work and you pay me what you think I deserve."
She looked him up and down. She'd always considered herself a fair-minded person and a good judge of character, and there was something about this man that made her decide to give him a chance.
"Do you have a name?"
"George Turner, Ma'am."
"Okay, Mr Turner, I think we can do each other a good turn. But can we drop the 'Ma'am'—you can start off by calling me Mrs Maxwell; and before I find you something to do, come into the house and I'll make you a cup of tea and a sandwich; by the look of you, you don't eat regularly." She sat him down at the kitchen table, then proceeded to set about getting his refreshments.
"So, tell me, Mr Turner, how did you come to be knocking on people's doors, like you do?"
"I believe it's called being proactive, Mrs Maxwell. I was made redundant from my last job and since then I've applied for virtually everything I've seen advertised. However, for whatever reason, I don't seem to have the skills that people are looking for. So, as I said to you, I only want the chance to work and I'll do practically anything that I can—the only thing that I've ever turned my nose up at is cold-calling and sales. I'm afraid that I have some scruples, and I definitely don't have the temperament for selling."
"I think I would have to agree with you there! I'm afraid I can be quite rude sometimes when people try to sell me things that I don't want. Here's your tea, Mr Turner—and I hope you like bacon sandwiches."
When he had eaten, she showed him several roughly hewn tree trunks and branches, which she wanted chopping into more manageable size pieces for the house's wood burners and fireplaces. While he was doing that, Mrs Maxwell went upstairs to see her daughter.
"I think I might have found someone, Lexi: he seems nice, honest, and hardworking. Would you like to meet him—after all, you will be having the most to do with him?"
"Let's just see how he gets on today, Mum, and then you can sound him out about the other thing."
"I expect you're right, Dear! I can always ask him to come back tomorrow."
At half-past-one Mrs Maxwell went outside to see how George was getting on.
"You're doing a good job there, Mr Turner. Come inside when you're ready, I've got the kettle on." She noted how he wiped his feet when he came indoors.
"Is there somewhere to wash my hands, Mrs Maxwell?"
"The sink will be fine, Mr Turner." After he'd washed, she invited him to sit again.
"I'm afraid I'm a bit sweaty, Mrs Maxwell."
"That's all right, Mr Turner—there nothing wrong with sweat, if it's earned honestly! Here's your tea, and would you care for some home-made cake?"
"Yes—please! And I have no objection to you calling me George, Mrs Turner."
"Very well, George! I meant to ask you, George: do you have a family?"
"If you mean a wife and children—no, Mrs Maxwell. I was married once, but it ended several years ago. I don't even know where my ex-wife is now; I think she moved south."
"And while I'm asking all these personal questions: how old are you, George?"
"I'll be thirty-four in September."
"And just one more question—if you don't mind. Where are you living at the moment?"
"In a B&B the social services pay for. It's pretty basic—but better than nothing."
"George—aren't you curious about why I'm asking you all these questions?" He shrugged his shoulders.
"You have a right to know who you're letting into your home, and I have nothing to hide." She smiled.
"And what would you say if I said that I might have a job for you here?"
"I'd say that I was interested in hearing more." She made him more tea and them she sat opposite him at the table.
"I am a widow, George, but I don't live here alone. Just over two years ago, my husband was killed in a car accident. My daughter, Alexis, was with him in the car; she survived, but she suffered quite terrible injuries to both her legs. She has had many operations to rebuild them, but it is taking a long time for them to heal. The doctors think that in time she will walk again; but she refused to stay in a rehabilitation centre, preferring instead to come home. But of course I can only do so much for her on my own, and apart from looking after her personal needs, we need to be taking a more active part in her recovery.
"In short: we need someone that we can trust, and I believe that that person could be you, George! I can't offer you a lot of money, but you can live and eat here, and I can pay a small wage so that you will have some spending money of your own. But I must stress that the final decision is Alexis'. If you would like to go home and think about it, you can come back tomorrow and talk to her."
"I would like to do that, Mrs Maxwell. If your daughter is anything like you, I think we'll get along fine."
She took a £20 note out of her purse and handed it to him, but he declined.
"No—that's too much for a few logs! Have you got anything smaller?" She had a £5 and a £10; he took the smaller note. "Thank you! What time shall I come back tomorrow?"
"Whenever it's convenient, George. How will you get here?"
"I'll walk—It's not far. Thank you very much, Mrs Maxwell. Do you need me for anything else while I'm here?"
"No, that's all! We'll see you tomorrow."
George walked back to his temporary home. His spirits were soaring at the thought of coming off State benefits and doing something useful again. He had a reasonable suit that he kept for interviews—if he ever got any, that is—so he used some of the money he'd just earned to buy disposable razors and other toiletries.
He got up the next day in plenty of time to eat the breakfast provided for him, then he did the best he could to make himself presentable, before setting out for Mrs Maxwell's house. Fortunately, it was a pleasant, balmy day, so he walked steadily and got there in just under an hour.
"Good Morning, George! You're looking very spruce today—I hardly recognised you! Shall we go straight up to see Alexis."
George followed her up a wide staircase. Mrs Maxwell knocked, then went straight into her daughter's room. He hadn't really known what to expect—but it certainly wasn't what he saw! Alexis Maxwell was thin and her complexion overly-pale, but she had long and lustrous raven-black hair and emerald-green eyes; and she was by far the most beautiful woman that he thought that he'd ever seen! She held out her hand and smiled—and if they had said to him, 'We'll pay you in Monopoly money', he would still have taken the job.
And perhaps only her mother would have noticed the difference, but the light in Alexis' green eyes seemed to shine a little brighter when she first saw George. It may also have been the fact that Alexis hadn't seen many men apart from doctors and orderlies during the last two years, but she was sure that she felt her poor, thin, scarred legs tremble when she saw his tall, muscular frame, his curly blond hair and his blue eyes.
"Please have a seat, George. Will you get George some tea please, Mum." Mrs Maxwell smiled as she left the room.
"I think my mother has already told you something about the job, George. As you can see, I still can't do very much for myself, so I need people to help me and I can't afford to let considerations of modesty play a part, if you understand what I mean."
"Yes, I know what you mean. And your mother said you need help with the therapy on your legs."
"Yes! Would you mind pulling the covers back for me."
He didn't think that he'd ever seen such scars on a person: her legs had been sliced from pelvis to ankle, and although the flesh was pink and warm, indicating good blood supplies, the muscles were wasting with inactivity.
"Not a pretty sight, are they! But in theory they are still functional. Go on, touch them, George—if you are going to help me, we can neither of us avoid it."
"Are you in any pain?" he asked before he touched. "Do I have to be careful how I lift you?"
Alexis was glad that he was taking this practical, matter-of-fact approach. Like a lot of people in her position, she had always detested being pitied; it was what it was, and there was no need to dress it up prettily. She preferred to just get on with it.
"No, there's no constant pain any more, although they do ache sometimes and I take painkillers occasionally."
George took off his jacket and rolled up his shirt-sleeves, then he gently lifted her knees and slid a strong arm underneath them. Alexis put an arm around his neck and he supported her back. They could smell the warmth of each other's bodies.
"Is that comfortable?" he asked, as he lifted her off the bed. She put her other arm around him and pulled herself into his neck. Alexis could feel her heart beating faster in her chest—she hadn't felt this excited in a long, long time!
"Yes, that's very good. Am I heavy?"
"No, I can hardly feel any weight; but I expect you'll get heavier as we get your muscle tone back." She was thrilled by his positivity and she was suddenly feeling the most optimistic that she'd been since the accident.
Mrs Maxwell came back with the tea. She was a little surprised, but not disappointed to see Alexis being carried around by George.
"So are you happy with George, Dear?" Alexis smiled.
"Yes, I think he'll do very well—if he wants the job." They both looked at him, enquiringly.
"Can I move in today?"
Mrs Maxwell offered him the money to get a taxi back to the B&B and then another back to the house, but again he declined the offer. He said that he would walk back into town to inform the necessary people of his change of circumstances and change of address, and then he would put his few personal possessions into a cab, which she could pay for when it got to the house.
George was glad to be leaving the rented room, but the landlord had always treated him fairly, so he shook his hand, gave him his new address and asked him to please forward any future mail. Meanwhile Mrs Maxwell had been getting his new room ready for him.
One of the first things that changed dramatically, was that Alexis was no longer confined to the first floor. George was able to carry her up and down the stairs as necessary. She already had a wheelchair with which she could now move herself from room to room, and as soon as George was settled in he started to construct ramps so that she could get in and out to the garden, which she really enjoyed. But what Alexis really wanted, was a proper bath.
What they had to establish first was how sensitive Alexis' lower body was to heat. Between them, Mrs Maxwell and George soaked towels in different temperatures of hot water and then carefully laid the towels onto her legs. Once they'd established her limits, they could ensure the bath water was no hotter.
George was probably more aware and more concerned about Alexis' nudity than she was, so for her first bath at home in over two years, she agreed to leave her nightdress on until he had lowered her into the water. But of course, as soon as it was wet it became completely see-through and stuck to her body like a second skin. As she clung to his neck she whispered coquettishly in his ear:
"Perhaps next time you ought to take your clothes off, too, George—I'm sure Mummy wouldn't mind!"
George was more than a little disconcerted by this suggestion; until he realised that she was probably teasing him. But seeing Alexis in the bath did give George one idea.
"Mrs Maxwell, is there any money in your household budget for a portable swimming pool. I don't mean a kiddies one, I mean something that Alexis can float in and when her legs start to get stronger, exercise them."
"That's a good idea, George. I think we can always find money for something that will help her."
Although she wasn't trying to conceal her financial state from George, her husband had left her financially very comfortable and the insurance company had paid Alexis quite a lot of money, which was currently in her bank account earning interest.
And of course the Maxwell's never intended to cheat George by underpaying him—but they wanted him to take the job because he wanted to and not because of any financial inducement. They had both decided that if he wanted something he would be given it, and if after some time he left to go elsewhere, he would be given a generous bonus to take with him. But they both hoped that that time would be a long way off.
While Collette Maxwell had only initially wanted someone to come along and help her with her daughter's care and treatment, she hadn't fully anticipated the effect that George would have on Alexis' overall demeanour. From the time that he carried her downstairs in the morning, until the time that he put her to bed at night, she was almost the happy, carefree young woman that Mrs Maxell remembered from before the event that so changed her daughter's life.
She noticed, too, that the two of them were never far away from each other, and if George was working in the garden, Alexis' eyes would often be looking in his direction. It was of course too soon to be thinking in terms of any sort of romantic relationship between them, 'But, ' she thought, 'I can think of a lot worse things!'
She wouldn't try to push them together, but if it happened, she wouldn't interfere: besides, Alexis was nearly thirty, and she could make her own decisions! But she was vulnerable, Collette conceded, and any setback—physical or emotional—would no doubt hit her hard.
Mrs Maxwell had asked if a physiotherapist could visit the house: to show George the ways that he could help Alexis' physical recovery. These included several exercises that she found hard and frustrating, and she would have given up with her mother—but the major compensation was that they involved George holding on to her and supporting her. And even though she would have been content just to stand still next to him, she tried really hard just so that she could get him to praise her—and surprisingly, she even felt that they were having some effect.
But her favourite activity was the massages The therapist said that she needed them to help aid the blood-flow and muscle-mass development, so George worked enthusiastically, massaging and kneading her legs, while they chatted away about all sorts of things; and she quite forgot that sometimes it was pretty uncomfortable. And there were times, as a special treat, when he would give her a full-body massage. He was by now completely used to seeing her naked, and he always pretended not to notice when her breasts swelled and nipples hardened when he turned her onto her back. And Alexis knew that while her lower body was still too weak to move much on its own—from the waist down, it was still very much alive to his touch.
In the middle part of summer, when the sun was at its hottest, George would put on shorts and carry her into the new pool. For Alexis this was utter bliss, as George held her almost-naked body against his naked chest and abdomen. Alexis argued that it was pointless wearing a bathing suit, as they were not overlooked by anyone and she had nothing that hadn't been seen often by everyone in the house. But Collette was insistent, so they found her the briefest bikini that they could get; which Alexis only thought fuelled her argument, as it covered barely anything at all. George whispered in her ear that if they were ever alone it would be different—but now, for her mother's sake—
But they did discover that, with the water supporting most of her weight, Alexis really believed that she could move her legs the tiniest amount by herself; and George thought that he could feel the smallest of muscular contractions, too. It wasn't much, but after over two years of virtually nothing, it was a definite something.
And so, in full view of the house, Alexis pulled George's head onto hers, and kissed him. He knew what was happening, and he knew that it was maybe a betrayal of trust on his part; but he didn't want it to end any more than she did, so he allowed them to sink down into the water—where hopefully they wouldn't be so conspicuous. Even though they were in barely warm water, Alexis seemed flushed. As he held her under her shoulders so that that she could float on her back, she whispered:
"I think I love you, George. I don't care if you don't love me—you might one day—but I wanted to tell you." He was in somewhat of a quandary: he did love her, he'd known for weeks, but should he tell her or not.
"Let me see if I can float on my own, George—but stay close."
"So what are you two doing?" Collette asked.
"It was very exciting!" George said, "We are both sure that we felt the tiniest muscle activity in her legs!"
"Oh! That's wonderful! But don't stay in the water too long—we don't want you catching cold!"
"She's right," George declared, "We can always have another go tomorrow, if the sun shines." He sat her in her wheelchair, wrapped in a big, fluffy towel, but she still started to shiver.
"Come on! Let's get you indoors. Do you want to get her dried off and into pyjamas, Mrs Maxwell."
While that was happening, George went up to his room to change, too. He came downstairs wearing jeans and a denim shirt.
Their lives carried on as usual. Alexis and George's physical closeness was obviously necessary, but whenever she thought that her mother couldn't see her, she would kiss his neck; and wherever and whenever possible, she would slide a hand inside his shirt to feel his warm skin and muscles. He never objected to this intimacy; but he never encouraged it either.
Before her accident, Alexis had led a full and active life and she was no stranger to sexual behaviour, but of course she had wondered how this would be affected by her injuries; or even whether any man would find her attractive in that way again. She knew how she felt about George—and that he was very fond of her—but she was trying to remain realistic about the future. She wanted him, but would he want to commit his future to someone who might possibly—yes, it was a possibility—never walk properly again. And what about children? Again, she knew theoretically she could have them, but did she want them; did he?
She had been flirting outrageously with him for ages, but although she gave him the opportunity, he seemed reluctant to respond in kind. She had had to learn to be patient about so many things, but her doubts about George's feelings for her were getting stronger by the day.
One morning they were all sitting around the breakfast table together, when Mrs Maxwell made an announcement:
"Your Aunty Joan wants me to go to Manchester for a few days, Lexi. She knows that I couldn't go before, but now that George is here, maybe I should."
"Of course you should go, Mum! She's your only sister, and I'm sure we can cope for a little while—as long as George doesn't kill me with his cooking!" He smiled, but he didn't join in the conversation.
"I don't think it will come to that, dear. It hasn't come up before, George, but do you drive?"
"Yes, I have a full licence, but I haven't owned a car for some years."
"Then I shall have you added to my insurance. We have the car in the garage, but it hasn't been touched since—"
"It's okay, Mum!" Alexis interjected, "It wasn't Daddy's fault, and I'm not afraid of cars. It's time we started living our lives again; perhaps when George is ready, we can all go out somewhere in the car."
"Do you know anything about them, George? Can you have a look at ours if you do."
"Of course I will. I used to service my own cars, but sometimes it's better to let the professionals do it."
"Right! We all seem to be in agreement, then! I shall contact Joan and make the arrangements, and one of your first jobs today will be to look at the car and I'll contact the insurance company!"
"Can I come and watch you, George?" Alexis asked.
He didn't need to get her mother's permission, but he gave a quick glance in her direction and a smile and a quick nod of the head provided his answer.
"All right, but it might be a bit dusty in there—and how do you feel about spiders?"
"I'll risk it!" she replied.
George pulled the double-doors of the garage open. There wasn't much in there, apart from numerous cobwebs and a car-shaped thing with a cover over it.
"I wouldn't get too close until the dust settles," he said. When the cover was removed, George recognised the car as a 1999 Mercedes E320 CDi saloon.
"This was my father's car. He was driving my mother's Volkswagen when we had the accident—perhaps if we'd been in this we would have both come off better!"
"I don't think I can do much to this, except see if it starts; but I would be very surprised if it did." He got in and turned the key, and not unexpectedly, nothing happened. "It's completely flat. Do you know if you have a battery charger?"
"I don't think so. My father wasn't mechanically-minded, I think he just called someone if it didn't work, but he never had much trouble with it."
"Well, I can make a few phone calls, if your mother is prepared to spend some money on it."
"Yes, I think she wants it running again, so that you can drive it, George."
"Come on, then—let's go back inside. Do you want me push you?" Alexis looked at him.
"All right! But I want you to kiss me again, first!" George knelt on the floor beside her chair. With him leaning in, she put her arms around him and they kissed.
"This will be so much easier when I can stand again!"
The starting problem was solved with a new battery. He checked all the fluid levels, then after a few hesitant turns of the starter motor, the engine fired into life. George let it run to warm the oil and get it circulating, he then made an appointment to have the car MoT tested at the end of the week. The Maxwell's insurance broker had promised that a cover note would be in the post that evening. Collette Maxwell would be catching the train to see her sister on Saturday, by which time they hoped the car would be fully documented and legal again, so George could drive her to the station.
"Are you coming to see me off, Lexi?" her mother asked her on Saturday morning.
"Yes, I think so!"
George lifted her onto the car's front passenger seat: it was all very natural and there was no anxiety or flashbacks to the accident. Although she still remembered the events of the day quite clearly, the accident itself had all been over so quickly that she didn't remember much about it at all—only the efforts of the emergency services to get her out of the car. She also vaguely remembered touching her father's arm and asking him if he was all right—but apart from that, not much.
The dark-blue Mercedes glided out of the drive and into the road. Alexis watched George and she was pleased to observe that he was very relaxed and comfortable in the still relatively strange vehicle. At the station Collette Maxwell carried her own case, while George pushed the wheelchair onto the platform. Mrs Maxwell stooped to kiss her daughter, and she promised to ring when she knew when her return train would be arriving, so that they could collect her again.