Six Blocks

(Copyright 2002)

Kel sat in the canteen waiting for Catherine to come in for her lunch break. The sound of a diesel locomotive idling in the cannery sidings next door rattled the glass in the windows behind him. Kel mopped up the last of his stew with a crust of bread and drained his chipped enamel tea mug. Around him, people were stretching and getting ready to return to the shop floor. Kel's shift foreman, Mr Marano, slapped him on the shoulder as he walked past.

"Five minutes, son. Don't be late. I'll be docking your pay if you don't make quota this week."

"Righto, Mr Marano," Kel replied cheerfully, taking no notice of the foreman's rough manner. Marano was one of the good ones - hard but fair, and everyone on the shift got on well with him. Kel had been working at the factory for only six months, but he'd quickly learnt the ropes. He'd never missed his quota yet, something Marano knew only too well.

As the foreman and the rest of Kel's team left the canteen, Catherine finally walked in with her shift. She spotted Kel immediately and came across to his table.

"What kept you?" he asked. "The break's almost over - we've got to get back in a few minutes."

Catherine slid onto the bench beside him, shrugging her shoulders.

"Bloody Sara got an offcut jammed in the feed chute and Johnson wouldn't let us go for our break until we had it cleared. We're really behind now, so we'll have to do another half shift this evening to make the week's quota."

"On overtime?"

"In your dreams," she sighed. "He's threatening to dock us for any damage to the machinery as it is, or make us come in tomorrow."

"Well, you won't have time for anything but a cuppa, now."

"I know," she replied glumly. "But there's nothing to do about it."

"At least you're not missing much; the stew was mostly gristle."

"What's new about that?" Catherine ran her hands through her short dark curls, brushing dust and metal shavings onto the table. She yawned and rubbed at the dark rings under her gentle hazel eyes. She was barely eighteen but life on the factory floor was making her grow old quickly. It was only when she smiled, flashing her cheeky grin, that she looked her true age.

"Not that I've ever known you to refuse a second helping," she chided him playfully.

He was about to reply but a crash of railway wagons outside drowned out everything for a few seconds. When the noise had died away, Catherine suddenly changed the subject.

"Did you see Lina at lunch?" Her grin had faded.

Lina was Catherine's sister, older by nearly six years. She worked on the panel-stamping line, feeding large sheets of steel and aluminium into the thudding presses to make fan shrouds and engine cowls for farm machinery. Although Catherine and Lina shared the same small flat, Kel didn't see much of the older sister as she always seemed to be out whenever he called around to see Catherine. He got the impression that Lina didn't care too much for him.

"Yeah," Kel told Catherine. "She came in with her shift as usual."

"You know how I told you she's been acting a bit strange lately - all moody and funny like?"

"Uh huh."

"Well, I came out and asked her straight-up last night."


"She missed her last two months," Catherine said softly.

Kel took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "So, that's it then."


"What's she's going to do?"

"What else can she do? She's going to get rid of it."

"Oh, I see," said Kel, looking down into his empty tin mug at the tea leaves stuck on the bottom " What about... You know, what about the father?"

"What about him?"

"Um.. Won't he..."

"What? Marry her, maybe? You've got to be kidding - this is Lina we're talking about. She won't even tell me who it is and, anyway, what business is it of his?"

Kel said nothing, shrugging his shoulders slightly.

"Besides, it's too late now," Catherine continued. "Lina's got an appointment after work at the Clinic."

"Today? You mean she's... Just like that?"

"Yeah. And I'd promised to go with her, but with the extra half-shift, I won't be able to make it."

"Can't she make another appointment, or something?"

"No, she was lucky as it is to get in at such short notice." Catherine shook her head at his apparent naivety. "It's not like a trip to the bloody dentist, you know."

Kel placed his mug on his plate and pushed them aside. "I'm sorry. I haven't had much experience in this sort of thing."

Catherine's shoulders slumped. "Sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you. I guess I'm just tired... and I'm really worried about Lina."

"Well then, how about Nikki?" Kel suggested.

Nicole was Catherine's other sister. She had worked in the factory too, until she'd taken up with one of the book-keepers in the office and traded in her timecard for a three-room semi-detached cottage in the suburbs, complete with two children.

"She wouldn't be able to make it," said Catherine. "Not at such short notice, with the kids and everything."

"Then what about someone else at work? Lina must have some friends here - there's that redhead on her shift... Shelly, isn't it? I thought Lina gets on pretty well with her."

"Yeah, but not for something like this. This is for family. Lina hasn't told anyone else except me - you know how things get around in this place."

"Well, there's nothing else for it then," Kel said.

"I know - I'll get the sack if I don't do the extra time for Johnson." Catherine shook her head. "Look, Lina can be a real pain at times, but she is my sister and I don't want her to have to go through this by herself." She hesitated, then took a deep breath. "You could go," she said quietly.

Kel was speechless for a long moment. "Me?" he finally got out. "Oh, no, not me. I couldn't do it."

"Please, Kel? There isn't anyone else."

"But, you just said yourself, this is a family thing. I don't really know Lina that well, and something like this... I just wouldn't feel right."

"Please, Kel?" She reached out and took his hand in hers. "I promised Lina I'd go with her, and now...."

"Cat, what on earth makes you think Lina would want me to go with her instead of you, anyway? She doesn't even like me."

Catherine's smile came back. "Because I know you. And I know my sister. She's not as tough as she makes out. If I was in her place I'd want someone like you there with me. And you're wrong - she does like you. She won't admit it, especially to me, but I know she does."

Kel glanced at the clock on the cafeteria wall. "Look, Cat, I've really got to get back, so I'll make a deal with you. I'll meet Lina after my shift and let her know you can't make it. If she wants me to go with her, that's fine. I know she won't, but I'll offer - just for you."

Catherine reached her arm around and gave him a fierce hug. "Thanks Kel, I knew I could count on you. Just keep an eye on Lina and make sure she gets home OK after... well, you know, afterwards. I'll try to get through my extra shift as quick as I can."

Kel only just made it back to the shop floor in time. The siren signaling the start of the afternoon shift was dying away as he took his place on the assembly line.

"You're cutting it fine, Kel," Mr Marano shouted over the sound of air wrench whines and screeching grinders. "You're not so good that the line will wait for you. Organise your social life on your own time."

Kel raised his wrench in mock salute. "Yes sir, Mr Marano. I just had to take a detour to the bog, that's all. That stew at lunch gave me the runs."

Marano shook his head and scowled to mask the smile that was creeping across his mouth. He pointed at the half-assembled tractor chassis in front of Kel.

"Your team's got another two of those to get through this shift. And they're both special orders so they'd better be right. Keep your mind on the job and make sure you read the friggin' spec sheets."

Marano walked off knowing that, distracted or not, Kel still worked better than anyone else on the shift - which was why he always assigned the special orders to his team. Kel set to work with his team and they soon completed the chassis in front of them and stood back while their section of the line moved forward and the first of the special orders appeared. Kel worked on steadily, quickly getting lost in the job. Marano came back once to check on progress, then left the team to it.

The first of the specials went without a hitch, but the second job had some wrong components listed on the spec sheets and they had to wait until Marano could arrange for the substitutions to be brought up from parts dispatch. They lost half an hour and probably wouldn't have finished in time had not Marano taken off his tie, rolled up his sleeves and pitched in to help. As it was, Kel was bolting the last component in place on the second special when the end of shift siren went.

"Just as well," Marano said, standing back and wiping his brow. "This one has to ship tomorrow so you lot would have been working an unpaid evening shift if that's what it took."

"You're pretty handy with a wrench, Mr Marano," Kel said, handing the foreman his tie from where it lay on the workbench. "I always wondered whether you did any real work before they made you management."

"I ain't management, kid," Marano replied, snatching the tie. "That's strictly reserved for smart-arses like you."

"Not likely," Kel smiled. "Anyway, looks like we owe you a drink or two. You planning to come 'round to the Club tomorrow night?"

"Yeah, the missus wouldn't miss her Saturday-night bingo." He stuffed the tie in his pocket and rubbed at a grease stain on the front of his shirt. "But she's gonna give me hell for this shirt. You might have to buy her a shandy as well."

Kel's team started cleaning up the work area and placing the tools back on the racks ready for the weekend shifts. The factory had been running at full capacity the last few months and there had been a lot of weekend and evening work on offer. Nobody knew how much longer it would last, so there was plenty of competition to get the extra paid shifts while they were there. Marano would have given Kel every extra shift if he'd asked, but he tried to spend all his free time with Catherine.

Catherine would have worked all the paid overtime she could but her foreman usually gave it to someone else. Kel told her that it was because she was too good at her job; she would start again rather than put out a bad component. This made the quality inspectors happy, but not her foreman, Johnson, who had a quota to meet that was based on total output. So the quicker girls got the overtime work while Catherine spent half her normal shift making replacement components for the shoddy ones produced on the extra shifts.

Kel went into the locker room and changed out of his overalls into his street clothes. He said good-bye to the rest of his team who were heading off for a drink at one of the local pubs. As he walked out of the factory building towards the front gates, Kel thought about his own foreman, Marano, who had a policy of meeting quality as well as quota. Funny thing was, both Marano and Johnson got paid the same and both would have a job in the factory for life. Kel wondered, however, if anyone had ever bought Johnson a drink at the Workers' Club on a Saturday night.

Lina was standing just outside the factory gates, waiting for Catherine. He started to push his way through the knot of people all trying to squeeze out the gates at the same time and waved at her to get her attention. She saw him and waited impatiently until he'd freed himself from the crush and made his way over to her.

Lina was always easy to spot and Kel sometimes found it hard to believe that she was related to Catherine. Where Catherine was small and finely featured, with nimble hands well suited to her job on the lathes, Lina was tall and strong limbed, with a mane of unruly jet-black hair that she kept tied back in a tight bun. She was a full head taller than her younger sister - when Kel held Catherine her head nestled into the curve of his neck and she could rest her cheek against his chest. Lina was his height and her fierce green eyes - which always seemed to be mocking him - locked onto his at the same level. She was very pretty, but somehow Kel could never picture Lina in the arms of a man. He glanced involuntarily at her waist, still slender under her well-fitting dress.

"Hi Lina. How are you?"

"Fine." Her eyes flicked past him to the crowd still shuffling through the gates. "Seen Cathy? She was supposed to meet me here after her shift."

"Yeah. I saw her at lunchtime. She can't make it. She has to do another half shift." He quickly told her about the jammed equipment.

"Bloody Sara," Lina said in disgust. "That silly cow is going to end up killing somebody one day." She looked at Kel and frowned. "Well, thanks for letting me know."

He looked down at the ground. "Um... Cat told me where you were going this afternoon..."

Lina's eyes flashed. "Oh, that's just great - why didn't she just post it up on the notice board as well? I only told her about it last night so she'd quit bugging me."

"Hey, I'm not about to broadcast it - Cat knew that or she wouldn't have told me."

Lina looked at him for a long moment. "Yeah, I guess I know that. But, still, I wish she hadn't said anything."

"Anyway," Kel pressed on, "Cat is really sorry she couldn't make it, especially as she'd promised and all."

"Oh well, one more broken promise in life isn't going to kill me," Lina replied.

"And... she had this funny idea I could go with you instead of her." Kel shrugged defensively. "You know Cat, she gets these strange things in her head sometimes. And it seemed easier just to agree with her at the time."

He waited for Lina to brush him off with a sharp remark, but unexpectedly, she smiled instead. It was the first time Kel had seen her smile like that - a genuine smile that seemed to escape through a gap in her defences. It surprised him how much it made her face look like Catherine's.

"Yeah, well she's always been like that," Lina told him. "She has a way of getting in under your guard sometimes. I've had a hell of a lot more practice than you and she still gets to me too."

Her smile faded and there was a long pause. Finally, she nodded her head in the direction of High Street.

"Well, I've got to go. If you're headed to the Crown and Anchor for a drink, that's in the same direction as I'm going so you can tag along as far as that if you like. It's only a couple of blocks, but that should at least ease your conscience with Cathy."

"Where do you have to go... I mean where is the... um, place that you have to visit?"

"In Cowdry Road. The Clinic is in Cowdry Road." She emphasised the word clinic, seeming to enjoy the look of discomfort on his face.

"Is that far?" he asked, feeling his face starting to redden.

She shook her head. "I keep forgetting you're not from 'round here. It's only six blocks." She turned away and started walking. He didn't know whether it was out of disdain or to spare him further embarrassment. He doubted it was the latter.

"Well, I can walk that far with you. I'm not in the mood for a drink today anyway."

"Suit yourself," she said over her shoulder.

He caught up with Lina and they walked on in silence for a while. Cars full of factory workers passed them and a few slowed down so the men inside could whistle at Lina and call out good-natured proposals. She ignored them until they eventually drove on.

"Don't feel like you have to pass up a drink on my account," she finally said, breaking the silence.

"Like I said, I'm not in the mood," he replied. "I don't usually go during the week anyway - I trying to save some dough. Saturday night down at the Club is enough for me."

"Saving all you money for an engagement ring and a deposit on a nice little house, I suppose?"

"Maybe. What's wrong with that anyway?"

"I didn't say there was anything wrong with it. Who you planning to be the little missus? Cathy? You've certainly made an impression on her; I can't get her to shut up about you sometimes."

"Cathy? Maybe. I don't know - we've only been going out a few months." Kel felt strange talking with Lina about these things. His conversations with her until now had consisted of a few simple hellos and good-byes.

"Anyway, you've got to start making plans in life sometime, you know," he said, trying to steer their talk onto more general ground. "You can't just sit back and wait for something to happen, then wonder what the hell you're going to do about it."

"Then you don't know the people around here," Lina said with bitterness in her voice. "That's how they live their lives - no thought for tomorrow as long as they get their weekly wage and there's a pub on every corner."

"They can't be all like that," he said. "There must be some decent ones too. What about Nikki's bloke?"

""Peter? He's OK, I guess. But they only got hitched because Nikki was knocked up - she was sixteen at the time, so there was a bit of a fuss. She seems happy enough now - out in the suburbs with her kids. She had the second one straight after the first. Not for me, 'though. And not for Cathy, either, you should know. She's got big plans, has Cathy."

"I didn't know that about Nikki," Kel said. "But at least her fellow did the right thing by her."

Lina stopped walking and turned to face him. "Yeah, well wasn't he just a regular knight in shining armour? Aren't you all? Now, how about you take my place at the clinic?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."

Lina shrugged, no real anger in her voice. "Forget it. It's not your fault. Why did you offer to come along, anyway? What's it to you?"

Kel had recovered some of his composure and Lina's baiting was beginning to get to him. "I told you. It wasn't my idea," he said. "Cat asked me to, so I'm doing it for her. OK?"

Lina laughed. "You don't need a ring 'round your finger, do you? You've already got one thorough your nose." Before Kel could answer, Lina stopped again and pointed across the road. "Well, there's the Crown and Anchor. I've got to go up this way. Your last chance to opt out."

"Like I said, I'm not thirsty. I can keep walking with you. Or not."

"It's a free country. I suppose you'd better walk with me all the way or Cathy will give you hell. She can be a real pain in the butt sometimes."

"Funny, she said the same thing about you," Kel said. They stood on the corner and waited for a break in the traffic so they could cross the intersection.

Lina shrugged her shoulders. "Yeah, well she can move out of the flat anytime she likes. I'm tired of looking out for her anyway."

"You know, I used to think about my little brother like that," Kel said. "But I haven't seen him for a year now and I'm kind of missing him."

Lina turned her head to look at him. "You got a kid brother? I never would have guessed."

"Yeah, he's still up north with my folks. He's finishing university this year. He'll probably go into my father's firm when he graduates."

"Smart little bugger, hey? So what's your father do, then?"

"Dad? He's a solicitor. He's got a practice back home."

There was a sudden gap in the traffic and they dashed across the busy road. When they reached the other side, Lina grabbed his arm and pulled him around to face her.

"You're pulling my leg?" she said. "Your dad's a solicitor?"

"Yep, he is. On the level."

Lina shook her head. "You expect me to believe that your daddy's a rich lawyer? Big house, nice car and all that? Kids at private schools and big dinner parties every night? And then, he'd let you come down here to work on a factory line in this shithole?"

"Well, he's not exactly rich," Kel replied. "Our car's about ten years old, and he doesn't believe in private schools - not for his kids anyway. Dad's firm does mostly legal aid stuff - there's not much money in that. And the clients aren't exactly they type of people you'd invite to a dinner party. Ex-crims, junkies, single mums..." Kel stopped abruptly.

"People like me, you mean?" said Lina.

Kel's face went red. "No, I..."

"Hey, that's OK," Lina told him. She let go of his arm and started walking again. "I know what you meant." There was an awkward moment of silence but then she spoke again. "So, your kid brother's a pain too?"

"Sort of, but it's not his fault. Declan always got picked on in school because he was so smart. I was always getting him out of scrapes."

"No one picked on you, then?"

"Nah. I've always been better with my hands than my head. I didn't go looking for trouble, but most kids found out they'd be better off leaving me alone. And they soon figured that they'd better leave Dec alone too."

"And now he's graduating from university. How come you're not? You seem smarter than most of this lot around here."

Kel shrugged. "Like I said, my hands work better than my head. Never could really get into math and that sort of stuff. But I liked shop - you know, making things. I did some labouring for a while after I left school, spent a couple of years on the docks unloading ships, and nearly a year at a garage servicing trucks. That didn't work out, so I decided to come down here and try to get some work in a factory."

"What about mummy and daddy?" Lina asked. "Weren't they upset that their little Kel didn't want to become a lawyer?"

"No, they're pretty cool about things like that. Declan went to uni because he wanted to, not because they wanted him to. And our old man won't offer him a job unless he's good enough. But he will be. He always has been."

"Now I understand why you're not always chasing overtime."

"What do you mean?"

"I suppose daddy helps pay any bills."

"No," Kel said, annoyed. "He doesn't. I pay my own way. I make enough to get by and still save some. If you must know, I'd rather spend time with Cat than get the money for overtime."

"Well, don't tell Cathy that. She's not planning to marry some no-hoper like our old man." Lina stopped and grabbed him by the arm again, not as hard this time. She had strong slender fingers and they felt pleasantly cool on his skin. "Does Cathy know what your father does? She's never said anything about it to me."

"I maybe mentioned once or twice that he was a solicitor. So?"

"Did you mention he was a poor solicitor?"

"It didn't exactly come up in the conversation, no."

Lina nodded slowly. "That explains a lot, then." She let go of his hand and started walking again.

"Like what?"

"I told you. Cathy's got her sights set on getting out of this place. If you plan to remain a grease-monkey on the assembly line, don't expect Cathy to stay interested."

"Maybe you don't know Cat as well as you think you do," Kel said. "Maybe..."

Suddenly, Lina stopped and placed her hands over her stomach, gasping as if in pain.

"Are you all right?" Kel asked, his face clouding over in concern. He placed his hands on Lina's shoulders to steady her.

She stood up straight again, a smile on her face. "I'm fine. I was just kidding - to shut you up. You were starting to get a bit wound up, that's all. Boy, you really are a soft touch aren't you? And you think you've got Cathy figured. You know jack-shit, Kel. Don't be fooled by her sweet little face; Cathy will chew you up and spit you out."

Kel still had his hands on Lina's shoulders. He felt like shaking her. He stared into her eyes for a long moment. "Just what is your problem, Lina? What have you got against me?"

Lina held his stare, her green eyes unblinking."What have I got against you?" she murmured. "Nothing. And everything."

Kel dropped his hands and Lina pushed past him. He turned and followed her.

They walked on for another couple of blocks, then turned a corner into Cowdry Road. It was an ordinary little street, lined with a mixture of red-brick townhouses and worn little shops. The clinic was about half way down, huddled in between a bookstore and the chemist. The chemist had an sign hanging down from a bracket bolted to the wall. On the sign was a picture of an old-fashioned mortar and pestle. The chemist was still open, but the bookstore had closed for the day. The clinic appeared to be little more than a peeling wooden door set between a couple of large windows, the glass of which had been covered inside with some sort of frosted film. A small brass plaque had been fixed to the door; Branston Family Planning Clinic was engraved in neat letters. Underneath, painted on the timber of the door, were the opening hours and a telephone number.

"Is this it?" Kel asked.

"What did you expect? A big flashing sign?"

"No, but it's just a bit..."

" down?" she finished for him. "Well, it's supposed to be one of the good ones, according to my doctor."

"No, I meant... Well, I don't know what I meant. I guess I didn't know what to expect, that's all." He shrugged.

"Yeah, well I'm here now. Thanks for the company." Lina took a deep breath and placed her hand on the door handle, but didn't turn it.

"I'll come in with you, if you want," Kel said.

"You don't have to..." she said, not looking at him.

"I said I'll come in if you want me to," Kel said quietly.

Lina said nothing, but nodded her head, once. She turned the handle and pushed open the door. She walked inside and Kel followed her, closing the door gently behind him. Inside it was surprisingly clean and neat, well lit and smelling faintly of antiseptic. The walls were painted a soft pastel green and the floor was covered with a green and grey tiles. There was a large reception desk and a row of about a dozen chairs lining one wall. To the left of the reception desk, a long hallway ran off into the depths of the building.

There were three young women - girls really - sitting on the chairs. They looked up as Lina and Kel walked in. Lina, they barely glanced at, but their eyes fixed on Kel. They looked at him with a curious mixture of envy and hatred, almost animal in their intensity. Kel felt like he was surrounded by wild creatures who would pounce on him and tear him to pieces if he turned away. The spell was broken by the receptionist who walked up the corridor and returned to her place behind the desk.

"May I help you?" she asked.

They went over and stood in front of her. Lina cleared her throat.

"Um, I have an appointment..."

'The receptionist looked down at a large book lying open on the desk in front of her. "Right. You'd be Lina, then?"


"OK You shouldn't have to wait too long. There's some forms to fill out as well. Your doctor would have have told you about them?"

"Yes, he did."

"Good." The receptionist opened a drawer and took out a sheaf of forms and a small booklet that she handed to Lina. "This booklet has some important information about what you should do following the procedure. Please read it thoroughly." Her eyes flicked towards Kel. "Will your friend be waiting for you?"

"I don't know," Lina said, looking down at the booklet. She folded it and tucked it into her handbag.

Kel felt three pairs of eyes staring at his back. He was no longer really sure why he was here, but he knew he couldn't leave. "Yes, I'll be waiting," Kel said.

'That's fine," the receptionist said, speaking to Lina. There's a small cubicle outside the procedure room. He will be able to wait there."

"Do you have a pen I could borrow?" Lina asked her.

"Of course." The receptionist picked up a pen from the desk and handed it to her.

The forms didn't take long to fill out. Lina passed them back to the receptionist who quickly scanned them. "That all looks fine," she said. "You can take a seat now. The nurse will come and collect you when the doctor is ready for you."

"I was wondering about... I mean, I don't know if you want me to pay now, or..."

The receptionist smiled reassuringly at her. "Oh, I thought your doctor would have gone through that with you too. We only accept referrals from registered practitioners so it's all fairly straightforward; the account just gets sent to your doctor and you can sort it out with him. Don't worry about those things, dear. You just go over and try to relax for a while."

Lina nodded and she and Kel walked over to the chairs and sat down as far away from the other girls as they could.

"They're probably the same sort of clients as your dad's office," Lina said under her breath. "Junkies, pros and underage girls - Clinic one day, legal aid office the next, huh?"

"I wish I'd never mentioned it," Kel replied "I didn't mean it like that, anyway. Are you going to keep stirring me about it?"

Lina looked at him and smiled weakly. "Hey, I'm just a bit nervous, OK? I've never done anything like this before."

"Well, are you sure you want to go through with it? You can just leave, you know."

"Look, if you are going to start saying things like that, you can just go now," she whispered fiercely. "Don't you think I've thought about this enough? It's my decision and my choice. Just because I'm nervous doesn't mean I don't want to do it."

"All right, all right, I'll shut up about it."

"And don't sound so smug. You don't have any idea..."

"I'm not saying I do."

"Good, because you don't."

They lapsed into silence and the minutes ticked slowly by. A nurse in a crisp white uniform walked up the hall and went behind the reception desk. She handed a file to the receptionist and took another two from from a small pile in front of her. She flipped through the pages than looked up.


One of the young women, a thin dark-haired girl wearing jeans and a thick sweater, stood up.

"You're in room three," the nurse said.


One of the remaining two stood up.

"You're in room four. Follow me please."

The nurse lead the two girls away down the corridor. Lina watched them go. Kel looked down at his shoes. There was only a couple of inches between his worn leather work boots and Lina's shoes. He noticed she was wearing a pair of shiny low-heeled pumps that looked almost new.

"About now, Cathy would give me a hug and tell me it would be all right," Lina said to Kel, glancing sideways at him. "You try it and I'll break your arm."

"The thought never crossed my mind."


The nurse walked back up the corridor and collected another file from the receptionist.


Lina stood up. "That's me."

"You're in room two. This way please."

Kel stood up and they followed the nurse down the corridor. They turned a corner into another corridor and the nurse stopped outside a door marked with a number two. Across from the door was a small alcove with a chair and side table, stacked with dog-eared magazines. The nurse indicated the alcove with a nod of her head.

"Your friend can wait there," she told Lina.

"Thanks," Kel said to her. "I'll be right here, Lina."

Lina didn't reply but followed the nurse into the procedure room. The door closed behind them and Kel sat down on the chair. A moment later, the door opened again and the nurse reappeared. She walked back up the corridor without glancing at Kel. He leaned back in the chair and stretched out his legs. His stomach rumbled. He wasn't wearing a watch, but he knew it must be close to his suppertime. Shortly after, the nurse walked back down the corridor, leading the other girl who had been waiting in the reception area. He glanced up as the passed. The nurse ignored him, but the girl stared at Kel with her sad, angry eyes. He looked away quickly, embarrassed but not knowing why.

Kel waited. It could have been minutes, or it could have been hours. The only sound he could hear was the nurse's footsteps on the tiles further down the corridor. He flipped through the pile of magazines, but there was nothing of interest to him. The chair wasn't very comfortable and he got up every once and a while to stretch. He must have eventually dozed off because the sound of the door opposite opening woke him with a start. He stood up as the nurse lead Lina out of the procedure room.

She looked pale and drawn, but her eyes met his with their usual fierceness. The nurse handed Lina her handbag.

"Here you go, dear." She turned to Kel. "Are you taking her home?"


"OK. She has had a bit of a rest in the procedure room, but she will still be be pretty weak for a while. She'll probably want to sleep some more when you get her home, but just in case..." The nurse reached into the pocket of her uniform and took out a small bottle of pills which she handed to Kel. "These will help her settle down if she has trouble getting off to sleep."

"What are they?"

"Just a mild sedative, although she might not even need them. She seems to be holding up pretty well, but you never can tell. Everyone is different; you probably know her better than me, so you'll be in the best position to judge if she needs them."

"No, not really, I'm just a friend of her sister's, so..."

"Right. Well anyway, they're there if she needs them. Make sure she reads the booklet that she was given and get her to contact her doctor if there is anything unusual. Now if you follow me, I'll show you the way out." She pointed down the corridor. "There's another door at the rear of the clinic that leads out to Baron Street. There's a taxi rank there where you can get a cab if you want. We ask you not to go back through the waiting room."

She lead them down the corridor, past half a dozen doors until they reached a set of glass sliding doors. The nurse pushed a button on the wall and the doors slid open. Kel and Lina walked out and stood under a large awing sheltering the doorway. The doors closed silently behind them. Kel realised that the clinic was shaped like a large L with the entrance in Cowdry Road and this exit facing the side street.

It was dark now and it had rained while they had been inside the clinic. Cars swished past, their headlights shining off the wet roadway. Kel looked for the taxi rank the nurse had mentioned and saw a couple of cabs parked at the curb not far up the street.

"You wait here," Kel said to Lina. "I'll get us a cab."

"I don't need a cab," Lina said. It was the first time she had spoken since leaving the procedure room. "I'm OK. I don't need a cab. I can walk."

"Don't be stupid, Lina. We'll get a cab."

"I said I'm OK."

"Look, it's starting to rain again. We'll both get soaked. I'm getting a cab."

He walked over to the curb and waved at the nearest parked taxi. The driver saw him, switched on his headlights and moved forward up the street until the cab was beside Kel. Kel opened the door and helped Lina in. He walked around the back of the car and got in the other side beside Lina. He gave the driver her address and told him to take it easy. The driver looked at Lina's face in the mirror and nodded. He knew the neighbourhood well enough to figure out where they'd come from.

It began to rain harder. Lina stared out of the water-streaked window. The route the driver took went back by the factory and Kel looked out his window as they drove past. Most of the factory lights were on and it stood out clearly among its dark neighbours. Kel wondered how long it would be until Catherine's extra shift was over. If it hadn't stopped raining by then, she would get drenched walking home.

A few minutes later, the cab turned into the street where Lina and Catherine lived. The driver pulled into the curb outside the block of flats and switched his meter off. "Twelve-fifty," he said to Kel.

Kel took out his wallet and paid the driver. He got out of the cab and dashed around to Lina's side or the car. He helped her out and they walked quickly up the pathway to the front door of the flats. Once they were under the awning sheltering them from the rain, Lina retrieved her keys from her handbag and they went into the foyer.

"Are you OK to walk up the stairs?" Kel asked. The flat was on the second floor.

"I'm fine."

They went up the stairs to the second floor landing and Lina unlocked the door to the flat. When they got inside, Kel took of his coat and hung it over the hook on the back of the door. His hair was damp, but the coat had kept him reasonably dry. Lina kicked of her shoes and put her handbag on the side-table beside the door. She took out her purse.

"This is for the cab," she said, handing him some notes.

'"Forget it," he said. "It's OK."

"Take it," Lina said. "Please. I pay my own way, just like you."

Kel looked at the notes in Lina's outstretched hand. "All right," he said, taking the money from her. He would give it back to Catherine later.

"I've got to get out of these clothes and have a shower. Are you going to wait for Cathy? She should be home soon."

"Yeah, I thought I might. Can I get you anything to eat? Or a cuppa, maybe?"

"I'm not hungry, but I won't say no to a cup of tea. Black, no sugar. You know where everything is."

Lina disappeared into the bathroom and Kel went in to the tiny kitchen to put on the kettle. While he waited for it to boil, he made himself a cheese sandwich. There was a small window above the sink that looked out into the laneway behind the flats and as he ate, Kel watched a couple of cats wandering among the shadows. It had stopped raining.

The kettle boiled and he poured the water over the teabags he had placed in two china mugs. He wiped down the kitchen bench and carried the two cups into the living room. The flat wasn't all that big and there was only enough room in the main area for a large sofa and a few other small pieces of furniture. He sat down, holding both cups in his hands.

Lina came out of the bathroom, wearing a thick bathrobe and vigorously drying her hair with a towel

"Bloody hair. It takes forever to dry when I wash it. I'm going to cut it all off one day."

"That would be a shame," Kel said. "It suits you."

"Yeah, well you try combing metal shavings out of it some time." She threw the towel back into the bathroom and pulled a length of ribbon out of the bathrobe's pocket. She tied up her damp hair in a loose ponytail and walked over to sit on the sofa next to Kel. He handed her the cup of tea and she took a long sip.

"Ah, that's good. They gave me a cup at the clinic, but it had milk in it and tasted like dishwater."

Kel looked up at the clock on the wall. "Cat should be home soon, her shift will have finished by now. I hope she'll be OK. At least it's stopped raining."

"Two of the other girls on her shift live downstairs so they always walk home together after a late shift," Lina told him. "She'll be fine."

"Yeah, I'm sure you're right." They sat in silence drinking their tea. Kel drained the last of his and placed the empty cup on the floor beside the sofa.

"What would you have done?" Lina asked suddenly.

"About what?"

"The clinic," she said. "Would you have gone?"

"I... that's not really a fair question, Lina."

"Why not?"

"Well, I just can't answer it, that's all."

"It's a simple enough question, isn't it? Would you or wouldn't you?" She looked at him over the rim of her cup.

"Well I guess if you put it like that, no, I wouldn't have gone. But you guessed that anyway."

Lina frowned at him "Well, what the hell would you know about it? You can't ever know. Not ever."

"No. I can't."

"Bastard," she said quietly. "It's all very simple for you, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose it is. But you're not me."

Lina put her cup on the floor beside the sofa and leaned back. She reached behind and untied her still-damp hair, shaking it loose with her fingers. The thick curls, much like Catherine's, only longer, tumbled over her shoulders.

"Yes, you're you."

"I'm sorry if you think that's a bad thing, but I can't change me."

"Don't," she said.


"Don't look at me like that."

"Like what?" he asked, puzzled.

"Like you pity me."

"I don't - I mean..."

"I'd hate it if you pitied me. Because that would mean you thought I didn't know what I was doing. And you would be so wrong. I know exactly what I have done, and what it means. You can walk out that door and forget all about it. I can't; it's something I'll have to live with forever."

"I can't help it if I feel sorry for you, Lina. It's just so sad, that's all."

"There's lots of thing that are sad, Kel. Just take a look around this neighbourhood - there's lots of sad. I don't want to be a part of that by adding another kid into the middle of it. You might think you know what I'm talking about but you can't really understand it because you're not part of it."

"I can't help thinking the way I do," he told her. "It's just the way I am."

"Then that's too bad, Kel." Lina's voice was growing tired. She let out a deep sigh.

'Why is that?" he asked.

"Because Cathy is going to hurt you so much, you poor sod."

"I guess that's a chance I'll just have to take."

Lina rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. "I wonder what it would have been? Boy of girl?"

"Lina, maybe you shouldn't think about it too much just now."

"Yeah, perhaps you're right. There will be plenty of time for that later. I'll have plenty of time. Nothing but time..."

Slowly, as she talked, Lina's head had slid along the back of the sofa until it rested against Kel's shoulder. Her eyes had closed and her breathing gradually became long and regular. Kel moved along the seat to give her more room and placed one of the cushions on his lap. Gently, he lowered Lina's head from his shoulder onto the cushion and she lifted her legs onto the sofa and nestled into a more comfortable position. Her hair had fallen over her face so Kel reached down and brushed it away with his hand, half expecting Lina to protest but she remained quiet.

He let his head fall back onto the sofa and looked up at the ceiling. It was quiet in the street outside. He could hear raised voices from one of the flats downstairs, but he couldn't tell if it was an argument or just two people talking loudly.

"Hey, Kel," Lina whispered.

He raised his head and looked down at her face. Her eyes were still closed, but a tear had worked its way from under an eyelid and rolled down her cheek onto the cushion.

"Thanks," she murmured."You know, for coming with me and stuff."

"No problem," he said. "No problem at all. It was only six blocks."