Saturday, 30 January 2016

Cowboys in the Corral

She let out a ‘whoop,’ while accelerating along the Sansie highway, destination Doolingabie. Beside her was Matthew, a colleague in his late 30’s who she’d worked with for the past 5 years. ‘Woo-hoo,’ she yelled, this time accompanying her cries with a sideways glance at Matthew.

‘Woo-hoo,’ Matthew hooted back, while grinning at his manager, Gina who placed her foot on the pedal and held it steady as a straight stretch of the highway unfolded. Using remote control, she cranked up the music and its throbbing beat fuelled her craving. Landscapes on both sides of the car flashed by and she revelled in the unbridled sense of control gained from driving a powerful vehicle.

Fast approaching a slower moving car, she tailgated it, as the road diverged into curves. Slamming on the breaks to avoid driving into one of the snow gums growing beside the verge, Gina impatiently stuck to the tail of the car in front as the driver took the hairpin bends at a slower speed than she could bear. Sensing her frustration, the driver abruptly skidded onto gravel and taking the opportunity, Gina recklessly swung the car, overtaking without any view of oncoming traffic, on a road, which barely passed as a highway. A road, which, however, was a major thoroughfare for Lorries transporting produce to local markets and further afield, where demand was unrelenting.


Urged on by Matthew, Gina sped along the highway and the country’s landscapes flashed by. Matthew assured her he was keeping a look out for mobile speed vans and with this collaboration, they reached their destination 30 minutes earlier than their expected schedule.

Pumping the air with her fist after parking the car, Gina joked with Matthew about their team work and together they made their way to a nearby café.  

Ordering and eating, they sat on stools at the window, guzzling coffee and feeding their faces. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, Gina got up, burping, while scraping the legs of the stool on the tiled floor. Diners turned to see who was making the noise and snorting, Gina gestured to Matthew. Like a loyal dog, he got up and he too, scraped the legs of his stool, before following her outside.  

The sun’s rays bore down on their exposed skin and the heat from the pavement assaulted their bodies with such force that they recoiled. Making their way to the car, the hot and dry air hung expectantly as if waiting for a downpour to not only break the monotony of the motionless and harsh landscape but to offer relief from the relentless, searing heat sapping the life out of those out in the NOON sun. Gina pulled her sunglasses from the top of her head and onto her eyes while Matthew, looking skywards, squinted before scurrying to catch up to not only his manager but to a person he regarded as a good friend.

‘Ok, Matt,’ she said while reversing out of the car park, ‘at this meeting, let’s do it. No retrievals, ok, they’re only gonna get some education. I want my payback next month. JASWAL won’t know the difference. We can still tell it straight.’

‘Yeh, Gee,’ said Matthew, calling her by the nickname he often used, especially when he needed a day off. He knew to suck and suck he did. Good wicket alright, he’d often think to himself. Five years after all, working with her. Exhaling smugly, he thought yeh he’d worked it nicely for himself, yeh real nice. ‘Sure, Gee, we can fudge it, I’ll draft up the report for you to clear and it will be sweet.’

Laughing, they both walked to the entrance of the building where their meeting was to be held.

Maia sighed. She’d been left at Base while Gina and Matthew conducted tri-annual reviews for the firms that the team managed. Rubbing her neck, she got up and walked around, arching her back. She regretted accepting the job as she looked around at the deserted office space, originally accommodating ten staff but over the year this had whittled to only three staff left. It had been a testing period for Maia, especially after ‘the encounter’ as she liked to call it. Determined, however, to make the best of her time in the job, she had decided that to simply quit, in an attempt to deal with the issue, would be to her detriment. In any case, she had commitments and who would hire her after only such a short period in the job. With no witnesses to support her claims, Maia felt disempowered to speak out. With the only real option available to her now to build upon her knowledge, she focused her attention on the reports, believing that she could still turn this job around in her favour.

As Gina and Matt’s meeting ended, they made their way to their Motel. ‘Another one in the bag,’ chortled Gina to Matt as they got their luggage from the trunk. ‘Yep,’ said Matt, ‘let me buy you a beer. As usual, your performance was impeccable, Gee.’

‘Whoah,’ she yelped, ‘that payback is sure looking good,’ she said as they walked to reception to check in.

Maia had spent the afternoon reading the reports and thought she would do a crosscheck of JASWAL’s findings. She inhaled, paused and exhaled before beginning the task. She read the first of the six 10 page reports, skimming the introductions and focusing on the report’s findings. After reading two pages, she stopped. Shaking her head, she read the findings again to be sure about what her research was revealing.

‘That’s odd,’ she thought as she discovered conflicting findings for the same firm in the reports. Continuing with an open mind, she thought, ‘Surely, the reports would have been written with knowledge about JASWAL’s findings.’ The day was drawing to a close, but Maia continued reading while cross-checking the findings. What she discovered puzzled her. She could not understand why the reports differed. Scratching her head, she thought she would check in the morning with Remote Monitoring (RM). She hoped that what she had discovered would be easily explained. She shut down the PC and left Base.

After they had checked into their Motel, Gina and Matt were playing darts and downing schooners after their official duties were over. It was a late start too in the morning and since they were within walking distance to their rooms, the pair relaxed. Gina laughed out loud, exclaiming to Matt that there were no medical conditions in her family tree. She paused before draining her beer and said, ‘except, Matt, there are a hell of a lot of alcoholics.’ With that she sculled the rest of her drink and cried out to Matt, ‘your turn to shout.’ She let out another whoop and impulsively lifted her T-shirt, exposing her bare breasts. Cackling she said, ‘here you go, Matt.’ Groaning Matt replied, ‘Gina, you’re not wearing a bra.’ Yeh, she cackled again, ‘more of me for you to see.’

Laughing, he said, ‘Give me a tic, goin’ to get more beer and some food.’ He rushed away and she collapsed onto the sofa, ignoring the stares from other patrons. Matt returned with drinks, announcing that he had taken the liberty of ordering her favourite meal, while he had decided on Fillet Steak and chips.  They drank and laughed together and after eating their meals decided they ought to sober up in readiness for the morning’s journey by heading back to the Motel to drink hot tea.

Staggering back to their rooms, Gina held tightly onto Matt, whispering to him about how much she enjoyed working with him. Carefully guiding her, Matt said, ‘Come, Gina, let me make you that nice cup of tea, in my room.’

Laughing Gina said ‘that sounds like something that we both need.’ Fumbling with the key, Matt eventually found the lock and swung open the door. Once inside, Gina only let go of him when he reminded her about sobering up. She let him go while he found the jug.  Collapsing onto the bed, she buried her face in the bed’s soft covers and was comforted by the familiar whirring of the jug springing to life after Mal filled it with water and switched it on.

Giggling, Gina rolled onto her front and sat up. Matt sat beside her and gazed into her eyes. Gina held his gaze and squeezed him tightly. What happened next was inevitable as they slipped into a complex entanglement, all the more irresistible as the shadowy light in the room draped a cloak of secretive mystique over their unexpected liaison.

Matthew awoke. It was quiet and daylight streamed into the room. He blinked, momentarily unsure of his surroundings. Becoming more alert, fragments of the night came back to him. He turned sideways and was horrified, to recognise Gina’s shape sleeping beside him. ‘We didn’t, did we?’ he muttered.

As the answer to his own question, dawned on him, he sat upright. Swinging his legs onto the floor beside the bed, he placed his head in his hands as the memory of the night’s events came flooding back.

With thoughts of his wife foremost in his mind, he desperately searched for his phone. Not wanting to wake Gina, he reached for his clothing thrown in a heap on the floor, found his phone underneath his trousers and quietly got dressed, checking that he wasn’t disturbing Gina. Walking swiftly, he reached the door. Fighting the lock, it was all he could do to maintain calm as a mix of panic and anger surged within him. Finally the lock released and he dove outside, walking around the side of the building for privacy to call his wife.

Maia arrived at Base and switched on the PC. While it was starting up she went and made tea. She organised the reports she had been reading the day before and took out the notes so she would be ready to explain when she rang RM. Dan led the team and she had met him when working on the Grimson’s Project six months ago. She knew that he would verify what she was asking and that he would be happy to help. She was expecting Gina and Matthew back at Base today but since they hadn’t told her of their arrival time, she wasn’t sure when they would return. She knew the distance by car from Doolingabie to Base was three and a half hours, so she guessed they would return late afternoon. This would give her precious time to meet with Dan and to verify the reports with him.

Meanwhile, Matthew was willing his wife to pick up when he heard her familiar voice.

‘Nikky,’ cried Matthew. “It is good to hear you. I……I’ve had a terrible time here, I don’t know how to explain it…’

‘Matt,’ said Nikky alarmed, ‘what has happened?’

‘Look, I…I…I’m not sure. There were some problems here last night.’

‘What,’ said Nikky, ‘are you hurt?’

‘N….nooooo, er I am ok, Nikky. I just needed to hear your voice…’

‘Oh, Matt,’ said Nikky, ‘you softy, you’re not missing me are you?’

‘Badly,’ said Matt.

The line momentarily dropped out and when Matt got her back, he said, ‘Gotta go Nikkie, talk later.’

They rang off and Matt, deflated walked slowly back to his Motel room and to ……Gina.

‘Yes,’ said Dan, as he and Maia met while reviewing the reports. He went on, ‘there ought to be consistency in the team’s findings and with the Area Office.’ He was silent for a moment before continuing, ‘So Gina signed off on this …eerr, report that Matthew had written?’

Maia, nodded and she said, ‘well, yes, but how, why didn’t they crosscheck the Area Office’s findings. How did it get through?’

‘Mmmmm,’ replied Dan. ‘I do know that the Area Office sometimes work independently of Base and maybe this time…there were reasons that we’re not aware of.’

There was silence as they both absorbed the conclusions they were both drawing. Neither wanted to suggest that, well Matthew or Gina had somehow acted improperly and on this occasion had been, well, caught out. For Maia it was sizzling and as a relative newcomer to a team of seasoned managers she didn’t want to be the one to approach them about it. Especially since, Gina, was well simply well, foul-mannered and then having to raise an issue of possible impropriety, with her, well, Maia’s stomach began to turn at the thought of it.

As if sensing her dread, Dan spoke, explaining that she wouldn’t be required to raise it with her team, that he would verify Area Office’s findings with one of the Auditors, and then escalate it with a view to holding a meeting with Area Office and the pair to find out their version of events. He smiled at her, reassuringly, stating that she had done the right thing in querying the findings and that in waiting, it was a way to more or less, well protect all the parties involved. He went on to say, ‘until more clarity around the issues were made.’

Relieved Maia nodded, thanking Dan and reluctantly returned to the office to finish out the remaining hours of her shift fearing that the pair would be back on site while she was still feeling very perplexed and unsettled about the difficult situation she now found herself in.

As it turned out, Base was still empty when Maia got back. She logged on, monitoring the workflows and periodically checking the time. Then 10 minutes before end of business, she heard the rattling of keys in the basement door. Tensing she braced for their arrival but when both Matthew and Gina appeared, they were strangely subdued. Maia put it down to the long road travel for their unusual silence. She did however continued to appear as if nothing out of the ordinary was occurring and asked how the trip went. ‘Fine,’ muttered Matthew as he threw his bag beside his desk. Returning to her PC, Maia did not engage with Gina who, simply asked Matthew if he was right to return the car keys and log book to the safe. ‘Yep,’ he said and with that Gina was gone.

Since the business day had come to an end, Maia tidied up her workstation, shutdown her PC and bid a farewell to Matthew who still appeared strangely silent. Maia, relieved that the business day was over, quickly left.

Life went on at Base, Maia showed up each day, monitored the workflows, spoke with Gina when required and resisted contacting Dan. Matthew appeared distracted, since Doolingabie and when only the two of them were in the office, Maia asked him if everything was ok. Not looking at her, he said, ‘yeh, just my back playing up.’ Maia returned to her routines, applied herself to the job and life pretty well went on as usual. Except for thing. Three months after the pair had returned from Doolingabie, Gina would disappear mysteriously during the day, citing medical appointments.

Sometimes, Matthew would leave at the same time as her. Maia knew something was going on but she couldn’t put her finger on it until one morning Gina came into work and her condition was laid bare as her attire accommodated an unmistakable bump. ‘Heavens,’ Maia silently gasped and then muttered ‘pregnant’ to herself.

Since Gina had never raised it, Maia did not feel compelled to say anything at all and carried on as normal.

She observed, though, that the dynamics between Gina and Matthew had somehow shifted. She knew they’d always gotten along but recently she sensed a certain closeness in their relationship, as Matthew fussed around her.

It did cross Maia’s mind if something had happened between the pair at Doolingabie but she knew that Matthew was a family man and she wrestled with her hunch.

As the seasons changed, colder weather set in. Maia rugged up in winter woollies to protect herself against the biting wind and chilled nights. Gina’s bump grew as winter wore on. Matthew called in sick. Maia wasn’t sure what was wrong. Since now she had been in the job for 12 months she took on Matthew’s workload easily along with her own and progressed requests through the office with consistent regularity.

One day she came into the office just as the colder weather had turned the corner and the weather saw the beginnings of spring. Maia set herself down, turned on her PC and commenced working as normal. Matthew arrived later that morning. He and Gina went out together for about one hour and when they returned, both appeared nervous. Maia didn’t ask. She took a phone call from a client and prepared a few emails. She overheard Matthew tell Gina that the room was booked and ready for the meeting.

As mid-morning approached, Maia heard a familiar voice a few metres down the corridor and turned her head, expectantly and saw that it was Dan. She gasped as he approached the corral with two other men.

‘Hello,’ said Gina as they greeted one another. Maia looked up briefly and Dan said ‘Hi,’ as he introduced her to the other two. Matthew got up from his desk and said, ‘this way gentlemen,’ and he guided them to the meeting room.

Maia continued working and stayed in over lunch as Gina and Matthew did not return to the office. She tensed at the thought of the discussions in the meeting room and wondered what was raised.

Two hours later, Matthew and Gina returned to the corral. Gina threw her notepad and pens across her desk and Matthew rushed out of the office without speaking with anyone. She could hear Dan’s voice again and looked up as he rushed towards her. ‘Hi,’ she said as he came close to her desk, exclaiming, ‘Maia, I haven’t got much time, but I have been told to encourage you to apply, well apply for.… the vacancy… I have to go but look in notifications tomorrow…’ With that, Dan was gone and Maia was left wondering about this unexpected news.

Both Gina and Matthew left the office early that day. Maia resisted contacting Dan since he had reinforced to her the sensitive nature of the information they had discussed almost six months earlier, so she knew it better to simply continue on with her usual routines.

And routines they were, Matthew and Gina appeared the next day as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened and Maia took this as a sign that she ought to continue working as usual. The week ended and as instructed by Dan, Maia looked at the notifications and submitted an application. She thought no more of work - pleased that Friday was done. She was looking forward to the weekend where she would catch up with friends as she left the office.

As Maia drove off, she made way for a removalist van pulling into the car park. She wondered which team was moving out, not having heard any news about staff movements but soon forgot about it as the anticipation of her weekend captivated her and Monday felt like another lifetime away.

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