In a leafy suburb of London, England, Thandie Ayola reached for the alarm clock and hit the snooze button, but beneath her pillow, her phone’s persistent ringtone demanded attention. To date, none of her foolproof wake-up measures had worked. Ever since the funerals, Thandie had lost her sense of purpose, sapped of her effervescent energy. However, today she must make it to the interview and keep her promise to Mum.
Tumbling out of bed, her bare feet hit the rough hardwood floor. Groggy from the sleeping pills, she shivered in her short-legged, sleeveless, checkered onesie from Victoria’s Secret, a birthday gift from last summer. Connor, her boyfriend, gave it to her when he was still alive, when they had plans, when they had a future. Now, no one was waiting for her downstairs. She had no one to care for and no one to please but herself, and that, it turned out, was a problem.
She ran her fingers over her box braids, yawned, found her glasses, and checked the time. Shit. She had precisely twenty-five minutes to arrive at the studio gates for her appointment with Phyllis Meyerhoffer, the niche, arthouse director of Nouvo Movies. Thandie’s dream job as an intern was less than half an hour away if she caught the Tube from Victoria Station. She’d need every minute of the twelve-stop journey to mentally prepare, run through her check-list, practice her ideal answers for tricky questions, and shake off her brain-fog. No time for a shower or make-up–no coffee!–in a panic, clutching her phone, she ran downstairs, grabbed her keys and charger from the oval table, slipped on her boots, and froze. Clothes! How could she have forgotten clothes? Balling her fists, she took a deep breath and unclenched her teeth.
Mum’s familiar coat still hung on the hall-stand more than six months after her death. The classic, Burberry trench coat, a seductively soft cashmere with all the comfort and reassurance of yesteryear when life was dull and predictable, and Mum was always there. “It may be old-fashioned to you,” Mum would say, “but for me it’s transformative, from housewife to superhero, no matter what you wear underneath.”
Could she carry it off? Wouldn’t it seem odd if she wore a coat for an entire hour maybe longer? What if the interview office was hot?
Seizing the coat, she flung it on, buttoned the front, cinched the belt, and turned toward the mirror. A wild-eyed woman stared back, her copper-hair-beads nestled against the camel-colored collar. The coat was calm and refined, giving her an understated veneer of sophistication. Yes, no matter what, she would conquer.
Waiting on the grey platform on a bone-cold February morning, Thandie surveyed the other commuters, suited and booted for a day’s work in the stale stench of the city. At eighteen-years-old, Thandie felt like a fake, a pretend grown-up, with a sprinkling of traitorous acne along her hairline. She felt inside Mum’s pockets identifying items by touch: key, tissues, band aid, lipstick, safety pin, reading glasses, hand sanitizer, a pack of playing cards, a chunky, Swiss Army knife, and a canister of pepper spray. Typical Mum, always prepared, like a good Girl Guide. Except for the day when her car was T-boned killing Connor and Mum outright, dead on impact. Thandie’s fault. She should have collected Connor from the station, not Mum, then maybe none of it would have happened.
The gaggle of passengers surged forward as the train pulled into the platform.
Funneling into the carriage, Thandie found all the seats occupied, and clung to a pole while the regular commuters shuffled, strutted, and settled like a flock of nesting pigeons into their preordained positions.
A grey-suited man with matching hair stood up and nodded toward his empty seat. His invitation was so unexpected that Thandie was caught off guard. It was the sort of old-fashioned gesture that she’d heard about but never witnessed. Her cheeks flushed with the embarrassment of an imposter. Was his gallantry prompted by the coat? She squared her shoulders, bolstered by a stroke of unexpected confidence. Maybe she could pull it off if she’d fooled a street smart city type, perhaps she could dupe Phyllis Meyerhoffer too.
At the gate to the studio, she pressed the button on the intercom three minutes in advance of her interview time.
“Hello, I’m Thandie Smith. I have an appointment at nine.”
Hearing a car approach, she turned to see a jeep pull in to the curb. The window rolled down.
“I’m Phyllis Meyerhoffer. Hop in. We’re working on site today. A fifty-five minute drive into rural England, farming country.”
Before Thandie had secured her seatbelt, Phyllis, hunched over the steering wheel, sped away along the damp street. She was far more petite than Thandie anticipated from the clips and interviews on You-Tube.
Once they reached the motorway, the miles slipped away as did the cityscape and soon they were chugging along winding, rutted lanes bordered by dense hedgerows.
“What I need,” Phyllis said, “is someone who can think on their feet and act independently. Is that you?”
“I … er.”
“We’re in the field today and possibly tomorrow, scouting a possible site for a scene by a riverbank, weather permitting, and taking a few shots. This is England after all. Never know when we’ll have a downpour.”
They careened close to a hedge and Thandie, who was not a good driver, realized she wasn’t as bad as she thought she was. Phyllis was talking non-stop, firing a series of questions, and then pausing for Thandie’s answers.
“Well,” Thandie said, “if the leading actor wanted coffee before starting work, I’d give him mine after I’d wiped the lid and hope for the best. However, I think I’d have anticipated that need and bought a gallon of coffee and brought disposable cups ahead of time.
“If the lead actor tore his jacket,” Thandie said, “I’d fix it with double-sided fashion tape for the shoot and give it to the wardrobe mistress to mend afterward.
“If the cameraman had forgotten his back-up battery … ” Thandie racked her brain, “I suppose I’d charm a local resident, bed to borrow an extension cord, bribe them to use a power outlet.”
“How would you bribe them?” Phyllis said.
“With the promise of an autograph or five minutes observing filming on set.”
“Great answers, Thandie.” Phyllis slammed on the brakes showering gravel across the parking lot. “Let’s see if you walk as good as you talk.”
Phyllis slammed the car door, raised her hand to her brow, and surveyed the foggy scene under a heavy sky threatening rain. Half a dozen people were scattered across a soggy meadow near a narrow, swift-running river. An earthy scent seemed to rise from the ground and seep into air tinged with moss and woodsmoke. A heavy dew coated the long grass and dripped from a cluster of trees.
“Hope you don’t ruin your pixie boots,” she said, “or slip in the mud.”
“I’ll be fine. Good treads on these.”
Phyllis opened the five-bar gate with rusty signs, “trespassers will be prosecuted,” and “Poaching is a Rural Crime.”
“Curious choice of clothing,” Phyllis said, closing the latch on the gate, “but at least you won’t feel the cold.”
“I always wear this trench coat.” The lie was far easier than Thandie anticipated. “It’s like a uniform and a second skin. Makes me easier to single out in a crowd. Practical too. Deep pockets–better than any handbag. Everything I need inches from my fingertips.”
A tall, lanky guy strode through the grass toward them.
“This is Chris, our cinematographer, top of the food chain.”
Chris smiled and shook Thandie’s hand.
“She’s right,” he said, “the hierarchy is tough, but we’re a small crew and all work together. Talking of which, Lara arrived via Uber. She’s our seven-year-old movie star, an unknown, a tomboy, and a tearaway. I had a text from her minder–all minors need an adult guardian–to say she’s running late.”
“Typical.” Phyllis sighed and turned to Thandie. “Right, can you entertain Lara, keep her safe and stop us from being sued?”
“Sure. Where is she?” She scanned the field. What kind of idiot left a child unsupervised?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll find her.”
Thandie headed toward a fence surrounding a herd of grazing Ayrshire cows, a lure for any curious child. Cupping her hands to her mouth, she called out.
“Hey, Lara, where are you hiding? Can I play too?”
“I’m not hiding.”
Thandie looked up into the branches of an ancient, gnarled oak tree. A curly-blond white girl straddled a sturdy bough.
“Are you practicing your part in the movie? Shouldn’t they hire a stunt guy for dangerous shots?”
“This isn’t dangerous, not for a grizzly bear, like me.”
Lara swung her leg over the branch and moved down the trunk of the tree as swift and sure-footed as a Gecko. A pack of playing cards wasn’t about to entertain this youngster. Lara needed something safe and engaging, but not too exhausting before her performance.
She turned toward Phyllis, fifty yard away, waving an arm and pointing. Thandie followed her direction to see a flock of sheep trotting toward the river, toward the artistically natural location, toward the cinematographer’s designated area of interest.
“Come on, Lara.” She took the girl’s hand. “Let’s play shepherds and stop those sheep trampling the scene.”
They tore through the meadow, dodged a dozen boulders, and hurtled across to the riverbank. Thandie stopped to catch her breath on the edge of the shore, the water pooling around her boots on the gritty shingle. The sheep huddled together warily on the opposite shore, their sharp hooves sinking into the shingle, bleating and shuffling, jostling for position.
“How can we get them to go back?” Lara asked. “I’ve never seen a sheep in real life, only in picture books. Do we shoo them away? What if they stampede, like elephants?” Lara took a step back and wrapped her arms around her body. “They’re huge, aren’t they?”
“They are.” Thandie guessed each goggle-eyed sheep weighed at least 200 pounds.
From a few yards away, Phyllis called out a five minute warning to the crew.
“Can sheep swim?” Lara asked.
“I have no idea, but if they try, the weight of wet fleece might drown them. Besides, that river’s moving fast. There’s a powerful current.”
“Why don’t we scare them? Pretend we’re bears. I’ll be a polar bear in my white dress, and you be a brown bear in your caramel coat.”
How much damage could sheep do? Would a few flattened patches make any difference? Thandie ran her palms over the soft cashmere and wished for inspiration. Continuity–the scene must remain exactly the same. The sheep must not invade.
“I know,” she said. “I’ll whistle, like a shepherd to a sheepdog.”
“No! I’ll whistle. You pull up your collar, and bark like a dog.”
Lara put her fingers in her mouth and gave a piercing whistle.
Reluctantly, Thandie complied, spread her arms wide, and took a leap forward. “Woof, woof, woof!”
The flock scattered. They scrambled up the bank, butting bodies, shoving shoulders, scattering into the open field and regrouping some distance away bleating their complaints to their neighbors.
“Hi five!” Lara said. “You make a great faithful hound.”
“Thandie!” Phyllis called. “Go talk to that man in the Land Rover. Don’t let me drive through the gate.”
“Here,” Thandie said to Lara, “use this hand sanitizer and then join the crew.”
Clambering up the riverbank, Thandie galloped across the meadow toward a ruddy faced man in a flat cap fighting with the latch on the gate. A shotgun leaned against the fencepost.
“You there! Get out! You’re trespassing on private land.”
“Hi.” She offered her hand. “I’m Thandie Ayola. What seems to be the problem here?”
“You! You’re the problem, or rather, you on my land is the problem. I’ve called the emergency services, they’ll be here any minute.”
“There’s no need for that. I’m sure we can sort this out. It’s just a misunderstanding.”
“I’m almost bankrupt as it is. We farmers lost almost two-and-a-half million pounds last year.” He rested his forearms on the top bar of the gate, and a stout left boot against the butt of the gun. “Sheep rustlers should be shot on sight.”
“Sheep rustlers? We’re not here to steal your sheep. We were just shooing them off the set. The crew have permission to film here.” She spoke with authority and hoped it was true. She nodded toward the equipment: cameras, tripods, lighting equipment, and a tangle of cables snaking across the meadow. “That’s Phyllis Hoffmeyer, the movie director. Would you like to meet her, later?”
“I don’t understand. You’re shooting a movie here?”
“Do we look like sheep rustlers?” She raised her chin. “Do I?”
He rubbed his thumb across his stubbly chin while he examined her from head to toe.
“You look respectable enough, but out of place. A townie like you belongs somewhere fancy. You’re a posh pedigree cat in a shelter full of strays.”
Thandie heard sirens wailing in the distance, the sound growing louder by the second.
“So you did call the police.” Thandie stood tall and braced her shoulders. Cops always made her nervous and tongue-tied. The farmer was right. She did look out of place, and a black woman in the wrong place always meant trouble.
“Yes,” the farmer continued, “and the RSPCA too in case any of the ewes are injured.”
Somehow, Thandie associated the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals with household pets, not farm animals.
“Though now I think about it,” the farmer said, forcing the latch open, “I’d best move that man-trap before the cops arrive.”
Thandie gasped as the farmer stormed across the meadow.
She followed in his wake, scuttling to keep up. “Man trap? Where is it?”
He pointed in the direction of the riverbank, where Thandie had left Lara only a few minutes ago.
An ear-piercing shriek sliced through the sound of the sirens. Thandie raced past the farmer. At the river, she saw Lara in the middle of the fast-moving river, clinging to a rock, her white dress trailing in the rapid current. She struggled to keep her head above water. Pale faced, her dark eyes blinked with fear.
Thandie tore off her trench coat, flung it on the bank, kicked off her boots, and plowed into the water. Her flimsy onesie clung to her body like a swimsuit as struggled against the rushing water. Her toes inched across the riverbed finding purchase between the stones. She moved downstream, behind Lara, and clutched the girl around the waist.
“I’ve got you,” Thandie said, flipping Lara around. “Hang on tight.”
Shifting her weight, Thandie advanced toward the shore, one steady step at a time, Lara’s forehead buried under her chin.
Other people, men in uniform, were suddenly at her side, knee-deep in the water pulling them through the shallowing water and onto the shingle shore. Someone took Lara and wrapped her in a blanket. A sea of anxious faces surrounded Thandie shivering in her transparent onesie.
An EMT wearing a yellow neon jacket, draped a Thermal wrap over her head and shoulders, and within minutes she found herself in the back of an ambulance.
A nurse checked Thandie’s vitals at the hospital where she perched on the edge of the bed.
“Is Lara going to be okay, the girl who came in with me?”
“Yes, but she’ll need an overnight stay for shock and hypothermia. Can’t be too careful. You too. I hear you’re the hero of the day.”
“Who told you that?” Thandie felt a flush of heat, and brushed her braids behind her shoulder.
The nurse pointed toward the door where Phyllis paced the corridor.
“You’re only allowed to have relatives,” the nurse continued, “however, under the circumstances we’ll let her visit. Okay?”
The nurse strode toward Phyllis. The two women exchanged a few words. Phyllis hurried to the bed, dumped a tote on the chair, and wrapped her arms around Thandie.
“That must be the most memorable first day’s work on record,” Phyllis said. “I think I’ve aged a decade in a single day.”
Phyllis rummaged in her tote and pulled out the trench coat.
“I thought you might need this,” she said, “although, we ought to get it dry-cleaned.”
Phyllis rested her hands on Thandie’s shoulders. Face-to-face Phyllis stared into her eyes.
“Do you realize what a bright future lies ahead of you, Thandie?”
Thandie stroked the soft cashmere bundle nestled on her lap, a second skin and a cloak of strength.
“I think you might be right,” Thandie said.
Madeline McEwen is the author of three stand-alone novelettes, numerous short stories published both traditionally and online, and is a contributor to several anthologies.
Currently, Madeline is focused on two cozy mystery series, one set in the UK and the other in San Jose, USA both featuring a significant character with a disability, and a senior female amateur sleuth.
She is an ex-pat from the UK, now settled in San Jose, California in the heart of Silicon Valley. Bi-focaled and technically challenged, she and her Significant Other manage their four offspring, one major and three minors, two autistic, two neurotypical, plus a time-share with Alzheimer’s. In her free time, she walks the canines and chases the felines with her nose in a book and her fingers on a keyboard.
© 2020, Madeline McEwen