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 Novel2 - Chapter 1 The Only Thing that Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: Novel2 - Chapter 1 The Only Thing that Counts   Fri Apr 28, 2017 7:41 pm

Chapter One – Reflection                                                                

Distorted slightly, the mirrored image in the old window spooked him a little as he cast a sideways glance. In the growing gloom, the glow of the monitor cast a surreal radiance upon his face—as if he were in contact with an alien device. As he sat there staring at his computer screen, he reflected on the events that had led up to this dangerous state of affairs.

 Steve’s mind raced back. How had he become involved? Secrets roiled, and a crowd of questions, like a huddle of bidding stock agents, vied for attention in his mind. There were reports of people dying, and a revelation just too mind boggling to grasp. The ramifications, too momentous to consider, were all pressing down on him like some huge weight. He ran his hand through his dishevelled, sandy hair and read the words on the screen again.

Steve tried to background the curious trail that brought him to this pivotal decision. At what point had things contrived to involve him? He was trying to think of the first incident that had directed his steps to this critical situation? Was it just some random event, fate, or some giant hand that ordered the cosmos, which had led him to this juncture?

It had only been a few short weeks since his somewhat humdrum life had been thrown into turmoil. Here he was, a thirty-year-old man, feeling as though his world was becoming unstable—teetering. The immensity of events—the imminent need to make decisions, his own feelings of inadequacy—all compounded to add to his gloom.

The office was darkened with the onset of evening, but Steve was oblivious to the passing of time as he mulled over the bizarre circumstances in which he had become entangled.

                                                            ------------

 

He was a qualified biochemist and plant geneticist, having completed his degree part time three years previous. It would have been easier to do the whole course full time, but circumstances had required him to work at his father’s plant nursery in the outer northern suburbs of the city. His mother had died while he was a teenager and his dad had suffered ill health ever since—all the while trying to keep the business running and raising three children. Neither his older brother John, who was a doctor living in the eastern suburbs, nor his sister Caz were interested in inheriting the business, so it had been left up to Steve to partner his dad.

‘Good ol’ Stephen Robert James’, thought Steve. What had been a short stint of being a helping hand had turned into an all-consuming endeavour. His father had succumbed to heart disease early that year and left him trying to continue running the business with Jimmy, a young local, working full time, Anne and Sally, who were sort of permanent casuals and Jodie, a friend of the family who came in when needed.

Steve jumped as his ruminations were interrupted by a loud clatter at the front. Some further rattling signalled the unlocking and opening of the tired, glass panelled door.

“You here Steve?” It was Caz.

“Yeah, I’m in the office.”

 “Sorry for the racket. I dropped my keys and then the docket book fell,” she said as she spilled the keys and book on the other chaotic desk. “Don’t stay here too long Steve. You’re always spending too much time in this place.” She paused, waiting for some response, but none came so she went on.

“You need to get out and enjoy yourself a bit. There’s a barbeque at David’s place tonight. It wouldn’t hurt you to socialise a bit,” Caz cooed in her motherly fashion as she drew near.

            She looked casually neat in tailored trousers and black woollen top with the collars of a crisp white shirt splayed over the open neckline. Steve quickly minimised the troublesome email, and left displayed some genetic lineages of plant cultures he’d been updating earlier.

“No, I’ve got a little bit to do, but I shouldn’t be long.”

“You always say that and then end up staying half the night.” She paused with a look of concern. “Are you alright? You ought to give it a break.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Steve offered, and Caz sighed a sort of ‘what’s the use’ kind of sigh and continued.

“Anyway, I thought I’d come in for a short time and process a few invoices… and pay the Watson bill, and then I won’t have to come in tomorrow. You don’t mind do you?” she added.

“No, of course not; I’m grateful that you come in at all. It’s a bit of an imposition on you, especially now.”

“What, this?” she said incredulously tapping her belly, “I’m only four months and he….or she, is no trouble at all. I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I quite enjoy being a human incubator,” she continued, briefly rubbing his shoulders. Steve arched back into the massage which ceased just as he began to loosen up.

“Anyway, let me get my work done. We’re going out tonight so I need to get a move on.”

Caz went to the other desk and cleared a space so she could settle down to work. She mumbled something about computerising the bookwork using a better program and then concentrated on her task, leaving Steve to resume his reverie.

Since his dad had died, Caz had helped with the financial records, transferring them onto computer— a task that had been long overdue— and trying to keep the business profitable. This was a great relief for Steve who hated the bookwork side of the business, being much more interested in propagating plants from cellular tissue cultures, cuttings and seed, experimenting with developing hybrid strains and modifying plant features.

In fact his involvement with his cultures sometimes meant he slept the night on a bunk in the back room behind the office, rather than drive the ten minutes required to travel to the family home. A home in which he was the lone occupant. It wasn’t just that he was alone. It was also the memories contained in the place, and its rambling size, that added to the oppression of the solitude.

Involuntarily Steve shivered. Although it was a chill October evening, the shiver had little to do with the temperature. He focused again on the email on the screen. It glowed more brightly in the fading light. The instructions were familiar to him now but he reread them anyway.

‘… go to the service elevator in the basement. Press the ‘B’ button three times, Press the ‘1’ button twice and then Press the ‘B’ button twice…

            It seemed weird the first time he had read them and it still verged on fictional farce in his mind. He thought to himself that maybe if it hadn’t appeared so unreal— if he wasn’t so curious—he would approach this problem more analytically.

His inquisitiveness now tantalised. He had to find out what this was all about. Maybe it was some sort of sick joke. If Steve hadn’t been so curious he may have been more aware of the possible danger—or at least more cautious with his actions.

            Why was he considering going? Did he need some sort of adventure to start taking risks? Steve’s mind wondered again as he brooded over his meandering life. When he came out of university he was so sure of himself. He would go into genetic research and make a name for himself developing dry land, disease resistant vegetables that would feed the world—or something like that. Steve smiled sardonically. It was all a bit hazy in his mind now. He was very tired and he stared in a dreamy trance as his mind wandered haphazardly.

            He reflected, illogically, that his plans had definitely included marrying Angela.

They had known each other for years and had talked fondly. He had thought they had an understanding. It wasn’t as if they had dated or anything, because, he reasoned, he had been busy with his studies. They had both been involved in the church youth group and that was probably the extent of their social interaction together. Angela, who was an attractive natural blonde, seemed to regularly gravitate to his side when they were at church. It was almost ironical, if it hadn’t been so shattering, that on the day he was going to ask Angela out for a date, she came into church with her new boyfriend, Jeff, on her arm. For all his uncharitable wishes about Jeff, Steve reluctantly admitted to himself that not only was he relatively good looking, in a tall, dark sort of way, but he was a genuine guy in a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of way. Jeff was friendly and thoughtfully aware of Steve and Angela’s friendship and also seemed to understand Steve’s pain.

            Steve recalled how he tried to withdraw honourably, but in truth he had often been sulking and morose in their company for most of the four years since. Jeff, Angela and he had become friendly acquaintances, although he still found himself occasionally envying Jeff, in his lower moments. And their recent wedding had renewed his depression and self-pity.

            Again, he had to shake himself loose from his day dreaming. Was that the source of his recklessness? Was he being a bit self-destructive? The idea rattled him. The thought that he didn’t care enough about his own future—his own safety—to try and preserve it at all costs, made him chew his lip distractedly.

            But that wasn’t the case, was it? It wasn’t just about him. This dilemma hinged on issues greater than his personal safety. If his information was true, this was about basic things such as right and wrong, about protecting people and, maybe, nations; and bringing some kind of justice to bear on those guilty of betraying their countrymen. He knew he had to find out.

His meandering thoughts were broken by Caz leaving.

“Have to go Steve, didn’t realise it’s so late. Do you want the light on?”

“No, I’m right. Thanks for coming.”

“Will we see you at church this week?”

“Probably, if nothing comes up,” he replied, but avoided eye contact.

“Steve...” she hesitated and then avoided her inclination to berate his attitude.

“Don’t stay too long,” she growled half seriously, and then her face lit up as she left, “You’ll get a pastoral visit if you’re not careful,” she quipped. Her exit coincided with her calling out, “See you,” and then she went, the door slamming behind her.

            Steve got up from the desk and paced around the dark office. The streetlights now showed brightly through the window. He hesitated and then bypassed the main light switch, turning on a small light in the kitchenette, considering its light sufficient for his movements. After getting his rather grimy coffee mug off the sink, Steve put in his customary measure of coffee and spoonful of sugar and then added the boiling water and milk. His mind was elsewhere again.

It had all begun with his interest in plant propagation…. He sat down and reran the events in his mind.

                                    _______________________________

Weeks earlier…

 

            It had been a very wet Monday morning. Warm thunderstorm downpours had deteriorated into cold steady rain and Steve was pottering around the flowering pots replacing some of the stock that had been sold that weekend. Jimmy had told him that the warm weekend had brought out lots of customers and they probably needed to order some new stock. He would be able to tell how much after he had processed all the sale items and produced an updated stock list. So they both busied themselves, Steve renewing some of the stock from mature cuttings in the greenhouse and plants from the back storage area, and Jimmy tidying up receipts and the book work for Caz. Sally, who did the majority of the cashier work, dealt with a very occasional customer and tried to look busy behind the counter.

            By early afternoon both men had finished their immediate tasks and Jimmy went home as there were no customers, and few were expected with the weather being so bad. Steve told him he’d call in Jodie if things picked up. So Jimmy left, grateful for the extra time added to his rostered two days off.

            After getting Sally to begin setting up new displays, Steve went to his computer and started checking out some tissue culture sites. He was keen to read about some of the latest breakthroughs and research and he soon became absorbed in technical data.

            Caz came in a little later that day and brought him some lunch before settling down to balancing the sales and cash. His sister had been called Caz for as long as he could remember. It was an affectionate name for Casey. She was always trying to look after him even though she was younger. She knew Steve wouldn’t do anything about lunch and so as a matter of habit would bring in sandwiches or soup. Caz was two years younger than he but, unlike Steve, was very settled. She had a husband and two children, a boy at school, a girl at kindergarten and there was another child on the way.

            By the time she was ready to go to the bank Steve was looking at his professional association site and hardly noticed her farewell. He checked out the job advertisements and some further updates on some issues he had been following when he noticed a tender advertisement for the supply of vegetable cell cultures of a range of vegetables. The list coincided with most of the vegetables he had done for the supply of seedlings in the vegetable section of the nursery. Steve smiled wryly at the ‘seedling’ misnomer. Perhaps he should refer to them as plant clones.

            The advertisement was accompanied with an email address and Steve spent some time writing his expression of interest and detailing his expertise and ability to meet the stipulated requirements.

            Halfway through his cogitations a delivery truck arrived unexpectedly. The distraction took him to the main shed.

“Where do you want it?”

“Just dump it here,” was his blunt reply while he waited impatiently, a little annoyed at himself; and then he signed the delivery docket.

Back in the office he was quickly on the phone. “Jodie, could you come in and sort out some deliveries? I’m halfway through a tender I want to send off quickly.” He waited as Jodie explained that she wouldn’t be long and then asked why Jimmy wasn’t there.

“I forgot about the delivery and let him go early,” confessed Steve sheepishly.

            The afternoon had regressed to cold and showery, and he was still working on the tender when Jodie popped in to tell him of her arrival. She came over to scrutinise the tender, always inquisitive about Steve’s work, when Angela came into the office.

“Hi Steve, hi Jodie,” Angela greeted lightly.

“Hello Angela, what can we do for you?” asked Steve, a little too upbeat, which made it sound a trifle false.

“Well I was wondering if you have any of those plant hole-diggers we could borrow. We’re planting a whole lot of natives next weekend.”

“Sure,” replied Steve, refraining from saying something politically incorrect about planting ‘natives’ and continued with a hint of a grin, “Jodie, will you get that for Angela?” And as an afterthought he added, “And you can keep it. I never did get around to giving you two a wedding present.”

“Oh thank you Steve,” smiled Angela and Steve felt himself getting uncomfortable.

“This way Ange,” said Jodie as she ushered her out the door.

            Between trying to make notes about the tender and ruminating about whether his affection for Angela had ever been more than friendship, or appreciating her quiet caring nature and her obvious attractiveness, Steve doodled a fanciful flowchart regarding possible directions for his life. He was just at a point where a number of branches were appearing: a) go back to uni and do research and do his doctorate, b) Take up offers from his professor to lecture at university, c) Sell the business and work for a big agri-corporation, d) Status quo...

For ‘e)’ he had put two question marks when he ran out of ideas and then quirkily wrote ‘None of the above.’ He smiled and chewed the end of the pencil before returning to more concrete tasks.

            About an hour later a weary, dishevelled Jodie came back. Her face was grimy, her overalls dusty and her dark hair lank from the intermittent rain. Her mood seemed slightly testy as she detailed what she had done with the supplies.

“I’ve put most of the bags and bottles in the equipment shed. I wouldn’t try the storage shed, it’s a mess. I brought some of the pesticides into the shop since we’re just about out.” Steve looked up and then suddenly felt guilty as he realised that he’d left Jodie to do all the work, and he considered what heavy lifting was needed to shift the delivery.

“Oh, Gee, I’m sorry Jodie; I shouldn’t have left you with all that lifting. Jimmy can stack the shop later.” A little mollified Jodie softened her gaze.

“You look distracted. You’re not still thinking of Angela are you?”

His head jerked up, “What do you mean? … no, no of course not. I’m involved in this tender.” It sounded a little unconvincing, even to him.

            She then gave Steve a short lecture about forgetting about Angela and getting on with his life, as only a good friend could. Jodie left rolling her eyes at Steve’s protestations.

“We were only ever just friends. I mean, I don’t even know what you’re talking about. She’s just a friend.” There was no-one there to hear his final feeble comments.

 Steve put his head down and addressed the requirements of the contract submission before him.

Late that day the tender was finished. He paused a minute at the thought of what Jodie had said. Something about not just marking time but making his life more meaningful, or perhaps more purposeful would be more accurate. ‘I guess I have felt sorry for myself,’ he thought. ‘Too much business and no social life, but I can change that,’ he contended, and then considered the incongruity of contemplating recreation as he sent the email in an effort to get more business.
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Anthony van
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PostSubject: Happy to serialise but I don't want to clutter the site   Fri Sep 29, 2017 6:46 pm

Let me know.
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Novel2 - Chapter 1 The Only Thing that Counts
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