Second Chance

01: It was freezing cold…
It was freezing cold, winter was coming early and I wondered if snow was in the wind. Perhaps we would even have a white weekend. It would be unusual, but with the weather we had been experiencing lately, anything was possible.

Personally, I would not be surprised if we had a tornado in Luton and a hurricane in Brighton! The world is changing around us and yet we don’t even notice. Sorry, sometimes I become philosophical.

I parked my car in the junior staff car park – outdoors, not underground, as I wasn’t important enough for that – pulled my wool cap down firmly against the chill and hurried through the first doors of the research complex.

‘Good morning, Mr Morrissey,’ the old guard called, ‘cold enough for you?’

‘It’s bloody freezing, Bill,’ I said, using my pass to get through the first doors and then gave him my briefcase to put through the scanning machine. ‘Thank god it’s Friday!’

It was trite but I had to say something.

Some people find small talk easy but I don’t, I’m always awkward and what conversations I have are usually riddled with gauche silences.

Sometimes, I would enviously watch Helen and Nick talking about everything and nothing while I sat and listened, wondering how I would contribute.

‘Amen to that,’ Bill said and handed my bag back to me once I’d stepped through the scanning gate, ‘my son and his wife are coming for the weekend. I’m looking forward to seeing my granddaughter.’

Children, not something I’m likely to experience. Strangely, I yearned to have children – not something you can talk to the blokes at the rugby club about – but I knew it would be impossible for me. A woman would have to be bloody desperate to saddle herself with an awkward bloke like me.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘have fun.’

‘What about you, Mr Morrissey? Got a good weekend lined up?’ Bill winked. ‘You single blokes have the life, eh?’

Yeah, right!

Instead, I said, ‘not really, I think I have to work.’

‘I’ve heard they are running that big experiment this weekend. Is that right, Mr Morrissey?’

‘Couldn’t say, Bill,’ I said tactfully, ‘not in the know, if you know what I mean.’

I gave him a wink and hurried up the stairs – taking them two at a time – as I was running late as usual. No matter what I do, I’m always bloody late!

Nick Anderson walked from the toilet area in the locker room and shook his head sorrowfully.

‘Steve,’ he called as I opened my locker, ‘better late than never but, mate, you have to try to get here on time. Talk about cutting it fine.’

‘Sorry,’ I said, hanging my cap, coat and scarf in the locker. ‘Has Professor Garvin sprung me?’

Nick shook his head.

‘Nope, he’s stuck in traffic.’

‘Yes!’ I exclaimed happily, ‘there is a bloody god!’

Nick laughed as I ran past and slipped into my workstation. I had my computers fired up and managing to look reasonably busy by the time Professor Garvin marched by.

‘Good morning, everyone,’ he grunted as he walked to his office.

‘We are heading for a momentous event,’ he said as unlocked his office door and some of the staff rolled their eyes behind his back.

Helen Harvey looked at me from her desk and wriggled her eyebrows in my direction

‘Tomorrow, we will test the final semeiotics! I feel confident that we will achieve a momentous result!’

 

There was scattered applause from what Nick called “the crawlers” and Garvin waved grandly before vanishing into his office.

I thought I was off the hook but I was wrong.

‘Morrissey!’ Garvin bellowed a moment later and sighing, I stood and walked towards his office.

Nick shrugged and Helen looked at me in sympathy as I walked by.

‘Yes, Professor?’

‘Have you completed the schematics for the computer and server interface?’

‘Almost, Professor.’

‘No almost, Morrissey! We need the extra data sorting capability by this afternoon and the final connections first thing tomorrow. The first run through is, as it seemed to have escaped your tiny brain, tomorrow!’

‘I’ll have it done, Professor,’ I said woodenly.

‘Make sure you do, Morrissey!’

I didn’t say anything, what was the point, and returned to my workstation.

As usual, Nick, Helen and I lunched together in the canteen.

Nick and I were I.T. specialists, and Helen was a pharmaceutical assistant. We had formed an unlikely friendship a year previously when the research teams had first formed and had remained friends since.

Why?

I’m not really sure as we’re not like each other at all. Was it because we were all moving towards forty? Or that we shared the same cynical sense of humour? Whatever it was, we all seemed to click.

It was good for me as I had never found making friends to be that easy.

We were a funny trio – Helen was strikingly attractive with a real warm sense of humour. She didn’t seem to know that all the blokes thought she was hot, even though everyone tried to pick her up.

Except me, of course.

That would’ve been a joke.

No classy bird like Helen would even look sideways at a bloke like me!

It would be kind to say I was “a heavy build” but the truth was I was overweight. I’ve heard people call me fat – and, in my truthful moments, I know that I am.

Trouble is, I enjoy take-away food too much. Therefore, I am fat, but what did it matter? I lived alone and I had long given up finding a girlfriend. No smart young woman looks at a fat man!

Fat and bald to be precise!
I lost my hair by the time I was twenty-five. I kept the trauma of losing it to myself and endured the usual cracks. There was nothing I could do about it.

 

 

The mirror told me every time that I was not film star material and I had long ago given up trying to pick up birds. They would take one look at me and either giggle or roll their eyes.

Nick, however, had no trouble. He was tall and ruggedly good-looking – it must be that Norwegian ancestry – so if we were a film, I’d be the bumbling comic sidekick while Nick, the handsome hero, got the girl.

Nick always got the girl.

He had dated Helen once or twice but it had fizzled out. I never asked why and he didn’t volunteer. At least he and Helen could still be friends.

Nick had invited me to play in his Rugby team and even though I wasn’t up to his standard, I managed to get a few games. The advantages of being tall and heavy, I suppose, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of the team.

The three of us had met on the first day on the job when the teams had first assembled.

Occasionally, we would talk about the awful experiences we all experienced at our other jobs. We had, as Helen constantly pointed out, landed on our feet with jobs at the research complex.

Of course, we had no idea what the actual experiment was, what was actually the reason for the existence of the research complex. Moreover, we probably wouldn’t find out as we were definitely on the outer ring of the “need-to-know” circle but we didn’t really care.

‘Are you two coming to Patty’s party?’ Helen asked as she put her water bottle down before picking at her salad.

Nick shrugged.

‘Dunno. It’s on Saturday night, isn’t it? I might roll around and see what’s happening.’

‘If you haven’t got a date by then?’ Helen asked archly and Nick shrugged again. ‘Isn’t that the “Nick Plan”?’ Helen persisted. ‘Find a bird to shag by – what, ten o’clock?’

‘Something like that,’ he said nonchalantly.

Nick didn’t have any problems picking up birds and we all knew that. Funny thing was, he never seemed to hang onto them for very long.

‘What about you, Steve?’ Helen asked after a moment.

‘What?’

‘The party, idiot,’ she said cheerfully.

‘Probably not.’

‘You might find a bird, mate,’ Nick said with a wink but Helen and I ignored him.

‘Why not come?’ Helen continued. ‘Come on, please, it’ll be fun. I need someone to talk to!’

‘Parties are really not for me,’ I said munching on my hamburger. ‘I’ll end up standing around by myself and getting pissed on cheap lager.’

Realising I sounded like a real loser, I added, ‘I’ll have to work on the schematics, anyway.’

‘Didn’t you tell Garvin you’ll have them today?’ Helen asked, concerned.

I nodded.

‘And I will but I’ll have to fine tune them tomorrow for the engineers. They’ve already asked.’

‘So you’re working tomorrow?’ Nick shook his head. ‘Don’t go for that caper, mate when the Rugby season starts.’

‘Well,’ Helen said, ‘still consider the party. You can’t be a hermit. There’s a nice woman out there for you, Steve, for sure.’

‘I’m not looking,’ I said staring down at my plate.

Helen appeared at my desk just before the end of the day. She had her coat and scarf on and, as usual looked gorgeous.

‘You nearly finished?’

‘Soon. I’ve given Garvin the schematics but I have to check everything for tomorrow.’

‘Come for a drink? Nick and I are going to the pub in the village.’

I shook my head.

‘I’d better not.’

Helen smiled wryly.

‘All work and no play, Steve,’ she warned jokingly.

‘Yeah, makes me duller than I am,’ I laughed. ‘Seriously, I have to finish. You go ahead and have a great weekend.’

‘You’ve made up your mind about the party? You’re definitely not going?’

I kept looking at my computer.

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Oh. Are you sure?’

I shrugged, still staring at the screen but looked up from my computer when I sensed Helen was still there.

Helen looked disappointed so I quickly added, ‘I might go, then.’

‘Really?’

‘It depends how the schematics go.’

She brightened.

‘I’ll call you to prod you along,’ Helen said with a wink and walked to the lifts.

When the lift arrived with a chime, Helen waved and stepped inside.

‘I am dull,’ I muttered as I focused on the diagrams on the computer screen, ‘a big fat dullard.’

I liked using old words and dullard just rolled off the tongue.

Besides, it described me perfectly.

Big fat, bald dullard!

One by one, everyone left and I was alone with my computers, thinking about what take-away I could get on the way home.

The research complex was two hours from London and I lived in a small flat just an hour away so it didn’t take forever to get home.

It wasn’t a posh place, small bed-sit really, but it did me and I had my own bathroom. That was a bonus.

I had picked up a curry and a few other things as well as a video. Truth be told, I didn’t mind being on my own so much as it allowed me to enjoy my desperate vice.

Yes, I was a romantic film junkie!

If I had told Nick, he would have laughed himself silly and called me gay or something. He would have told all the blokes on the Rugby team and I would have been the butt of all their jokes. Blokes can be bloody cruel and they don’t know when to stop.

No, I couldn’t let anyone know and I shuddered at what they would say in the sheds.

Helen would also have thought I was a bit weird so only the weedy nerdy bloke who served at the video shop knew my secret.

And I don’t think he cared! At least I wasn’t renting the raunchy stuff that lined the back wall and stuck to the romantic films!

I always made sure no one else was in the shop when I hired the film and the clerk wouldn’t say a thing. Maybe he was a closet romantic film buff as well.

What else did blokes like us have?

Saturday morning, I drove to the complex and actually walked into to the conference room on the second floor on time.

Garvin, seated at the head of the table and surrounded by his assistants glowered at me. The bored engineers at the other end of the table looked up. I was the meat in the sandwich.

‘Morrissey,’ Garvin said sarcastically, ‘how good of you to arrive.’

The bloke never cuts me any slack!

‘I said I’d be here, Professor Garvin,’ I said evenly, ‘and I am.’

On bloody time, I wanted to shout at the pompous prick!

‘Have you got the diagrams and the software, Steve?’ Ed, the head engineer asked quickly, stepping in.

‘The software is on this,’ I said, sliding discs down the table, ‘and the diagrams are here.’

‘Right,’ said Ed, standing and the other engineers followed suit, ‘let’s get on it.’

I was at my desk when Ed appeared next to it and I looked up.

‘We’ve got a problem, Steve, and Garvin is throwing a fit! I’ve never seen a Professor go purple before.’

I laughed and stood up.

‘Do you want me to take a look?’

‘You got clearance?’ Ed said, looking at the identification pass on my pocket.

‘For the Ring, but not the lab.’

The laboratory was in the centre of a ring of offices and workstations and for obvious reasons that area was simply known as the Ring.

Nick used to chant One Ring to Rule them all when the scientific team were beings secretive. They didn’t get the joke.

He nodded.

‘Ok, let’s go.’

I ran and reran the software but could not find a solution.

‘It might be hardware,’ I suggested but Ed shook his head.

‘We checked everything before we decided to get you.’

‘It’s your stuff up, Morrissey,’ Garvin yelled pointing a quivering finger at me across the room, ‘fix it, you fat fool!’

Ed looked at me as if to say sorry and I sat down at the computers again.

I worked for another hour running tests and gradually all the engineers wandered off, leaving me alone.

I have to find the solution, I thought, otherwise that bastard is going to make my life even more miserable than it is!

Half an hour later, I found it!

And, it wasn’t my stuff up but Garvin’s! Moreover, it could cause a big problem, maybe an accident!

Triumphantly, I stood up and looked around the ring to find someone to share my news with but it was deserted.

The door to the laboratory was half-open and I thought about going in but realised that Garvin could and probably would have me sacked for that.

It was exactly at that moment, I felt and heard the explosion!

It came from the laboratory and it rocked me back on my heels for a few seconds.

Alarms rang – bells ringing through the complex – and I saw smoke billowing through the laboratory door.

Quickly, I rushed in and a chaotic scene greeted me.

Assistants in white coats were struggling through the smoke and I shouted, ‘this way! The exit’s this way!’

They all seemed dazed as I pushed past them to see if there were any other survivors.

As the stunned assistants passed me, stumbling through the smoke and rubble, I searched for Professor Garvin.

Suddenly, he emerged from the smoke, eyes wide.

‘What are you doing here?’ Garvin called at me and I thought he was remarkably calm. ‘Get out, it could blow, you fool!’

He suddenly grabbed my arm and tried to pull me with him but I was too big for him.

‘Stay then,’ he muttered, dropping his hand.

He pressed past me towards the exit and I pushed through the smoke to make sure there was no one else.

‘Help!’

It was a man’s voice and I listened for it again as I couldn’t see clearly through the heavy smoke.

‘Help!’

Pushing through the smoke, I saw a man under an upturned desk. He seemed dazed and, quickly, I turned the desk over and helped him up.

It was Doctor Denham who was a few years older than I was and responsible for medical procedures.

Although he was new, I had seen him around and we were on a nodding basis in the lifts.

‘Thanks,’ he said groggily as I pulled him to his feet.

He rubbed his head.

‘Something must have hit me in the explosion.’

‘Anyone else back there?’

‘I’m not sure.’

‘Can you get out by yourself?’

He nodded and drunkenly stumbled in the direction of the exit.

‘Anyone hurt?’ I called out and listened.

Taking a deep breath, I stumbled through the smoke to the centre of the laboratory and it was there, I realised the explosion had occurred. It was a real mess and benches were burning as flames licked their way to the ceiling.

I had reached the furthest end of the laboratory. This was far as I could go and I had to get out while I still could. I looked around and called out again to make sure there was no one else but no one replied.

Suddenly, there was another explosion – much smaller and from the left side of the laboratory – but big enough to knock me over.

I smashed into an upturned bench that was smouldering and covered with a slick residue of a strange metallic liquid.

The liquid flicked over me and then I saw it was also on the floor and was moving towards me, shining strangely under the emergency lighting. Shaking my head, I pulled myself up from the floor, coughing from the smoke.

As I regained my feet, I noticed I had cut my palm on broken glass and pulled my handkerchief from my pocket to wrap around my hand.

Ignoring the small cut, I pushed my way through the smoke and finally burst from the laboratory and into the ring.

The assistants were waving fire extinguishers around and shouting at each other as I emerged.

‘The Fire Brigade is on its way!’ I heard someone call.

‘First Aid Officers! Where are the bloody First Aid Officers?’

It was chaos and people were running everywhere. Doctor Denham was leaning against the wall and I walked towards him.

‘Any one else back there, Morrissey?’ Denham asked and I noticed he had a bandage patch on his forehead.

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Thanks for helping me in there,’ Denham said, gingerly touching the bandage patch with his forefinger, ‘I appreciate it.’

‘No problem.’

Garvin pushed through the crowd and waved his finger at me.

‘You’ll be sacked for this, Morrissey, you don’t have clearance for the labs!’

‘He bloody saved my life,’ Denham protested.

‘Oh, don’t be so bloody dramatic, Denham,’ Garvin sneered.

He suddenly noticed the bandage on Denham’s head.

‘You cut yourself?

‘No, just a bump.’

Garvin looked disappointed and then his eyes fell on my hand. He stared at it for a moment and then walked away.

Shaking my head, I walked off, deciding that I might go to the party after all, as I needed a drink.

‘Wait up,’ a voice called and I turned to see one of the assistants with a Red Cross bag over her shoulder. ‘You’re hurt?’

‘Just a scratch,’ I said.

I had forgotten about the cut and it didn’t look so bad. In fact, it seemed to have stopped bleeding and a thin metallic slickness sealed it.

‘Let me look at it.’

‘It’s stopped bleeding so there’s no need and I need a bloody drink.’

I thought I’d have a quick shower before heading to the party and get plastered on somebody else’s lager.

As I drove home, I suddenly felt very tired, so tired it was almost a struggle to keep my eyes open.

Feeling deeply exhausted, I lay down on the bed, just to close my eyes for a few minutes.

‘It’s the excitement,’ I told myself, ‘trauma or shock – something – just close my eyes for a minute and then shower.’

Just a few minutes.

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