Florentina leaned back on the cushions and half-closed her eyes as the delicate strains of James Galway’s flute drifted from the stereo. Her notebook and pen lay on her lap and her thoughts drifted like the specks of dust caught in the shaft of sunlight streaming through the open window.
She saw the brick a split second before it made impact. The glass shattered with a resounding crash, showering her with splinters and leaving a great gaping hole in the window. She leapt to her feet and saw a dark shadow move outside. Quickly drawing the heavy red curtains she pressed herself against the wall and waited. Then it began. At first just a harsh cawing then a relentless stream of profanities. Horrified at such an invasion of her privacy in full view of the neighbourhood, Florentina ordered the trespasser to go away. The malevolent screeching continued more fiercely and the window frame shook with such violence she expected the whole structure to collapse. Regretting now that she hadn’t taken a course in self-defence she didn’t fancy her chances if she tried to throw the intruder off the premises. Instead she ran into the hall to look for a weapon and pulled from the hallstand a red umbrella with a long dagger-like point.
Reflecting on the damage she might inflict on herself if she lost control of this weapon she decided the most logical course of action would be to call the police. She ran back to her sitting room and dialled the number of the local station. After being passed on to three different people she eventually got through to the Complaints Officer. Florentina explained again what was happening and asked for a patrol car to be sent round to remove the offender.
The officer asked politely, “Do you have any written proof of this?”
“Written proof?” shrieked Florentina. “How can I possibly have written proof? Listen to it for God’s sake.” She held the phone out towards the window where the savagery of the voice and the vibrating of the frame were only partially muffled by the velvet curtains. “There! Is that proof enough?’
“Is the complaint you are making simply your own account of events or are you taking into consideration the possible extenuating circumstances of the alleged abuser – who of course might view this whole thing rather differently. I mean, is it possible that your own behaviour may have precipitated this extraordinary reaction?”
Florentina’s jaw dropped open. “The perspective is my own, of course,”
“I see,” said the officer. “Well, in that case, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.” He disconnected the line.
Florentina stood for a few seconds gripping the receiver, trying to breathe. Then the noise suddenly stopped. She put the phone down and crept back to the window. Not a sound. Just a malodorous stench. Cautiously she opened the curtains. No one there. But the remaining glass was covered with shit. She poked her head out of the jagged hole and looked around. Whoever had been responsible had now slipped away and the only signs of life on the street were a few twitching lace curtains.
She went back to the phone and rang her friend Felicity who had recently taken a job as a television reporter. To the astounded woman she explained the situation and asked for advice. Felicity was outraged at the offhand way the police officer had treated Florentina. “It’s just not bloody on! I think your best plan is to go directly to Police Headquarters. You’re wasting your time with minions. I’ll come with you – that should get you past the initial barriers. The top woman there has a reputation for being hard – takes no shit from anyone – but fair.”
“Oh dear,” said Florentina. “I feel out of my depth.”
She cleaned up the glass and excrement and phoned the glaziers. Half an hour later both women were striding along the city pavements to Police headquarters. Florentina had Suki on the end of a leash. The excited approach of a Great Dane reminded her that Suki was on heat. After some perfunctory sniffing Suki dashed after the Great Dane, yanking the leash out of Florentina’s hand. Florentina called her back, but Suki ignored her. The two dogs bounded off together crashing through the flower beds of a nearby garden.
Florentina began shrieking at the dogs who then tore round and round in hysterical circles and made a dash for freedom past Florentina. She grabbed Suki by the scruff of the neck and pushing her own face up against the slavering jaws of the Great Dane she yelled at the top of her voice, “GIT!”
The Great Dane streaked off as though the devil were behind it.
Suki offered her paw in apology and Florentina said, “You were very nearly a goner, but as it was my fault I forgive you.”
Felicity stood open-mouthed. “And you’re worried about taking on the Police Department?”
In the huge pink and white marble foyer of the Police Headquarters Felicity took Florentina into a small room which contained only a chair and a pile of neatly folded clothes.
“We have to take all our clothes off,” she said.
“So they know we have nothing to hide – except our modesty. We can wrap a towel around ourselves. Sorry, but you’ve got to play the game their way.”
They tied Suki up securely and padded with bare feet across the vast empty foyer with its glistening crystal chandeliers and polished rubber plants and climbed up the curved marble stairs past the profusion of greenery which draped elegantly over the wrought iron balustrade. Minions in immaculate grey suits and crisp white shirts wandered in and out of adjacent offices. Florentina, feeling conspicuous and vulnerable tried to ignore the stares and knowing smirks of passers-by. At the top of the stairs they crossed a wide landing and there the opulence ended. The corridors from then on were narrow and dingy and access to the top floor was by means of a decrepit spiral staircase.
“Oh no!” cried Florentina. “I have no head for heights.”
“Yup,” said Felicity. “But I’ll help.”
The metal steps were worn and uneven which made the climb up painfully slow. It was wearying beyond anything Florentina had imagined. Halfway up she looked down and saw the floor a hundred miles below. She gripped the handrail and the whole ancient structure shook.
“I can’t!” she squealed.
“You can,” said Felicity. “Don’t be such a wimp,” and gave her a hard push.
The outrage Florentina felt at Felicity’s insult generated enough energy to propel herself up and off the stairway onto firm floorboards. Felicity clambered off a few seconds later and winked. “Always knew you had it in you.”
Florentina was too exhausted to feel any sense of exhilaration and peering over the edge of the rail she quaked “If I’d known about this…”
“Oh you’re not through yet,’ said Felicity and pointed to a door at the end of the passage.
In a few minutes they were standing outside the office of the Chief of Police.
They entered a small stuffy room whose dirty narrow windows reluctantly let in thin shafts of pale sunlight. Rows of pale people clutching piles of paper were sitting on rickety chairs. A straggly queue shuffled up to a high wooden desk. Behind the desk sat a granite-faced woman with dyed red hair. Her eyebrows were pencilled ginger arches like a 1930s movie star and her mouth a thin red gash.
Felicity whispered. “It’s up to you to impress her now. Just tell her what happened. Don’t use too many adverbs or adjectives. She’s a stickler for good sentence structure.”
She took a vacant seat at the back of the room while Florentina walked nervously to the front.
The Chief of Police stared at Florentina. “Where’s your homework?’
Florentina felt her heart sink. “What homework?”
The woman’s eyes glittered in her flour-bag face. “You mean you’ve come to me unprepared?” She spat through clenched dentures.
“Well, no,” stammered Florentina. I have everything recorded in my memory and I can tell you word for word.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed to spiteful slits. “Seven sevens?” she rasped. “Nine eights? Twelve tens? Eleven twelves.”
Florentina bit her lip. “I didn’t know there’d be a tables test.”
The woman threw back her head and shrieked with laughter. “I didn’t know there’d be a tables test,” she mimicked. The people waiting on the seats began tittering.
Florentina felt her face go red. “I don’t want to be a mathematician,” she said. “It’s telling stories I’m good at.”
“Oh sweet Jesus, not another one!” groaned the Chief of Police. “It’s shop assistants I’m short of. Useful folk like fish slicers, social workers, nurses, receptionists, maths teachers. Oh and biology wallahs. Are you any good at science?”
Florentina shook her head.
The Chief jabbed her thumb at a dozen cartons on the floor, all overflowing with dog-eared manuscripts. “Chuck your script in there,” she sighed. “Someone will get round to reading it when there’s time.”
“I haven’t actually written it down,” said Florentina. “In fact it didn’t occur to me to write about it because what happened doesn’t make a great deal of sense.”
“Am I meant to read your mind then?” sneered the Chief. “If it doesn’t make sense to you how the hell am I supposed to make head or tail out of it? You obviously haven’t learned the first thing about presentation. Bugger off.”
Florentina leaned across the desk. “You are the rudest person I have ever come across!”
The woman struggled to her feet and Florentina was amazed to discover how tiny she was. “That,” she hissed glowering up into Florentina’s face, “is precisely why I am on this side of the desk and you are on that side.”
Felicity plucked at Florentina’s elbow. “You’ve blown it. I told you to play the game their way. Sit at the back and I’ll see if I can soften her up.”
Florentina was too angry to reply. She ran to the door with tears squirting from her eyes. Just before she reached it she noticed the queue had disappeared and the room was almost empty. She turned round to the Chief and called, “No wonder you’re short of personnel.”
The Chief looked up in in surprise and replied mildly, “If you really intend going on with this lark my advice would be to make a jigsaw. Ring for an appointment when you’ve done it.”
Florentina banged the door behind her. “Completely bananas,” she wept, stumbling down the stairs. She crossed the gleaming foyer to the small room where her clothes were stored. The room was empty. The dog was gone.
“Of course,” she said bitterly as she also realised that somewhere en route she had lost her towel. With her eyes fixed straight ahead she ran naked through the crowded streets ignoring curious stares and outraged comments. When she reached her home she found Suki inside asleep on the rug. She locked all the doors, fastened the windows and closed the curtains. She opened her wardrobe and grabbed some clothes. She sat down at her desk, switched on the lamp, opened an exercise book and picked up a pen with a long curling feather. The colours in the feather flickered and flashed in the lamplight as she wrote page after page.
She wrote through the night until the report was finished. After she read it she wept, “It still doesn’t make any sense.” And flung it into a far corner of the room. Then she picked it up and tore all the pages into tiny pieces and threw them up into the air. They fell around her like snowflakes. She looked at the pieces scattered on the floor then knelt down and started fitting them together until a shape began to emerge.
Absorbed in her task she was oblivious to the phone, the doorbell and the invitations that dropped in her mail box. Only when she could no longer ignore her bursting bladder and rumbling tummy did she leave the jigsaw for brief periods during the day. At night her dreams were dominated by vivid interlocking shapes forcing her to wake up and stagger to the sitting room to complete another section.
One morning she put an oboe concerto on the stereo and settled on the floor to work on the last remaining pieces. When the final shape was in place she sat back on her heels. Startled at what she saw she picked up the phone and began to dial Felicity’s number. Then changing her mind she put the phone down, glanced at the completed jigsaw, and rang Police Headquarters. Before anyone could answer she put the phone down, turned up the volume on the stereo and leaned back in her chair where she could see the whole picture in front of her.
And the music was deep, sealing everything in.
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in rural Canterbury, New Zealand. She is the author of five books including The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell, Mākaro Press, NZ, Soul Etchings, Retreat West Books, UK and Sing no Sad Song, Canterbury University Press, NZ. Her short fiction has been widely published and anthologised internationally. She has received nominations for The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions and The Pushcart Prize. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia. Check out her web site at www.sandraarnold.co.nz. Sandra recommends the Cancer Society of New Zealand.