Instead she swept away the crumbs from the polished oak table into her saucer and picked up her cup.
At the kitchen sink, Melissa squirted a watered down bleach solution into her palms and pounded her knuckles vigorously into her palms. She then interlocked her fingers as if in supplication and rubbed enthusiastically as she had seen nurses do after any possible exposure to infection. She dabbed at the broken skin around her fingertips before slipping her hands under the pool of acidic water. The ledge was empty of plants or ornaments that might soften the austere, uniform lines of the window. Two days after moving in to Empire Road, Melissa had completed a thorough decontamination routine of the apartment. All the previous tenant’s knickknacks and plants had been swept into a bin liner, tied up and removed from the new home. Nothing living had the audacity to resist her chill of order and regularity. The removals men had had a fraught day trying to negotiate their way round her demands for order and cleanliness. Each box had to be wiped and laid on a plastic bag before it could be tugged inside. The men took their tea breaks outside and angrily agreed among themselves that if the boss had turned up that day they would demand bonus payment. Their wives had to tolerate their early starts and unsociable days but coming home late was a license to start an argument as soon as they heard the key in the lock. By the time they were dismissed from Melissa’s at ten o’clock, they were grateful to have enough energy to pass by the chemist for painkillers before heading home.
Melissa lifted her hands out of the sink, shook the excess water away then rested them on a clean towel to dry naturally. The sparseness of her surroundings prompted Melissa to cogitate on the events of the afternoon. Lionel had loved her, she supposed, but she had refused his affections for many years. He would never be her father, she thought clinically, so I can never pretend to be his daughter. Until the age of about six she had accepted his paternal role in her life without question. She was all she had known and she loved him like a daddy even though he was careful to feint away from the title. He had never hidden the truth of her story but she remembered vividly an evening after school he had taken her out to the park to talk to her about serious things she needed to hear. The sun had just dipped behind the trees as she sat on the roundabout swinging her legs and watching the warm glow of late summer seep through the park foliage behind Lionel’s head. He had chosen a summer evening and a familiar spot to tell her how she had become his family. He described how much he loved her. He explained how delighted he had been to offer a homeless child a place to be safe and happy but as he talked, the summer evening took on a chill. Clouds had begun to gather on the horizon and the quality of light had dropped significantly as he told her that her mother had abandoned her after her baby had been born. Without warning, Melissa felt that she was in the hands of a stranger. ‘Stranger Danger’ they had called it at school and despite Lionel’s best efforts to get the place and timing perfect, Melissa became taut and increasingly uncooperative when he decided it was time to get in the car and go home. She refused to hold his hand as they walked back to the vehicle. Lionel thought she was asserting her right to behave like a grown up but in fact, she was pulling herself away from him. Over the years, she stopped asking him to take her out and happily relied on her friend’s parents for help. Melissa knew he had only seen her considerate nature in her refusal to accept his generosity. One day she had chalked a family tree onto the paving slabs outside the back door. It showed Mummy and Daddy having baby Melissa and no sign of Lionel. Years later when he discovered he had been omitted from her 16th birthday plans he had left her gifts at the foot of her bed and gone silently to bed. Melissa then knew that he had admitted to himself the change in her affection towards him. She had recoiled from his touch, timed appointments to coincide with times he was at home, bought a lock for her bedroom door and found a multitude of little ways in which to keep him away. She was repulsed at living with a man twice her age, who was not her father and his proximity developed into abhorrence. Lionel had never asked to be called Dad but Melissa made a strange coupling between him and her mother that she could neither express nor forget. He would always appear to her like the cuckoo in the nest that had ousted her mother even though he had fostered her after her abandonment. Sharing a house with him began to feel like a perversion to Melissa.
Magenta Unwin filed the last of his pending paperwork into the top drawer of his desk and slid the drawer shut with a muted swish-thud. It was Friday and he had plans. His little butterfly would be waiting inside the front door with his scarlet kimono draped over her arm. They would kiss, he would wrap her in his arms and tonight he might scoop her off her feet and carry her to the bedroom. He had decided that this evening would be perfectly romantic. He would turn her head with lilies, catch her eye with chocolate and melt her heart with diamonds. His colleagues assumed he lead a bachelor existence because he had never been accompanied to work Christmas drinks and kept his home life an intensely personal matter. Descending in the lift from the 12th floor, Magenta smiled to himself and studiously disregarded the glances of piqued interest of the others dropping down the floors to their weekends.
The trees were turning into a fabulous array of colour, he mused as he stepped into the spacious entrance to the apartment block. On the first floor he turned over his hands twice sensing there was some dampness between his fingers but they were as dry as when he had held them under the dryer in the gents at work. Mounting the second flight he hung his hands by his sides and had his fingers spread out to air them before he realised that he was still experiencing a sensation of water on his hands. What state was this for him to be in upon his return from work? Nothing would detract from the evening he had prepared for his little bird. He thought about her slim, boyish figure and her prettily cropped hair that fell from a bare neck into a long sculpted flick of fringe. Tonight he would thrill her by offering an engagement ring in white gold, engraved with their names. His mind was full of her delight and sparkling green eyes as he slid his key into the lock and pushed open the front door.