2. Helen Coughlan – Devon

United Kingdom – 07:45 Greenwich Mean Time – Devon

As the alarm chirped its high-toned warning, Helen opened one bright green eye gingerly. Using an open left hand, with a practised swat she killed the unwelcome sound. Hell, it was still dark outside.

How she hated the winter months. Almost the entire time her flat’s curtains stayed drawn from when she arrived home, having finished work, to when she set off again in the morning. Still, she didn’t have to get up that early, as her job was only a mile away, a brisk walk or short cycle across the edge of the bustling city.

Languishing amongst the sheet and pillows, she stretched in all directions under the warm duvet like a cat. She’d read in one of the Sunday supplements about this comfy technique to get your body working after a night’s rest. After trying it out a little sheepishly for a few days, she’d now made it part of her get up and go routine. Well, small pleasures taken little and often were life was about, weren’t they? She also didn’t have to worry any more about leaving room in bed for her big lazy ex, Pete. Or making sure he got out of the door in the mornings for that matter. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

She rolled over, flexing her long legs to the edge of the bed and stretching her fingers behind her neck until they touched the smooth, broad oak headboard. As she folded her arms back in by her waist her deep chestnut hair, cut in a trendy bob fringe, tickled the side of her slim neck as it fell back into place. How she loved the French designed sleigh bed that she’d bought online at no small cost a year ago. She’d needed a separating present for herself after Pete went.

Now this was the one place in the world that she felt really at home. Since buying the bed, there had been more than a few weekends that she’d left it well past lunchtime before surfacing back into reality, with only a slight sense of guilt.

There was something about the clean, crisp new Egyptian cotton sheets too, that made you feel a bit like Queen Cleopatra each and every day. As she extended a long limb a final time, there was a muted ‘briaoww’ sound as she caught the cat, who had spent the night snuggled into a the corner of the warm goose down duvet.

She heard the soft thump as, indignantly, he dropped his black bulk off the side of the broad bed, followed by the delicate squishing sound of velvety paws padding over the carpeted floor and out of the bedroom. Nero was a recue cat that she’d acquired about at the same time as the bed. Soft, affectionate, available most of the time and about as loyal as any cat would get, as far as males went he was perfect. The ideal one in one out panacea too, considering her last disastrous human male relationship.

She’d been nervous when she’d first arrived at the cat rehoming centre where she’d rescued him from, unsure about whether she was responsible enough to look after another creature. But the warm smiles she got from the receptionist at the desk, and the time taken to show her all of the felines that needed a good caring home, convinced her that she was up to the job. It was love at first sight with her black furry soulmate, ‘Carbuncle’ as he had originally and inadvisably been called. The way he pounced on her hand and rubbed his broad long-haired head across her wrist, purring sonorously, told Helen all she needed to know. This was the one, and she would call him Nero, after the Italian for black, rather than the somewhat unloved Italian emperor that had burned Rome. When he wasn’t fast asleep, she’d quickly grown to love this furry mischievous personality, but was careful to keep out of the way of his swift left paw hook and sharp claws when he played a bit rough.

Still, having a cat meant there was less lazing about. She could already hear the plaintive meows for food coming from the kitchen. Apart from an occasional fussiness with food, she mused that being a slave to a cat had its compensations. She’d often be sitting of an evening watching TV, when Nero would come in from some outdoor expedition, and launch himself at high speed onto her lap. She was convinced he scouted her out first, watching to make sure she had something white on that he could deposit long, black wavy fur over.

Right, that was it, she said again sternly to herself. There was work to do, and it was usually a fun day over at the British Weather Office too. Nearly two thousand people worked in the airy new custom designed three floor building. Apart from the fact most people who were employed there were bright and well qualified, there was a real buzz all around the place that she loved. Part of the thrill was, much like newspapers, the wide range of weather forecasts that the British Weather Office provided had to be got out to strict and tight deadlines.

That meant taking all the weather data, crunching it, analysing it, interpreting and agreeing what it meant. Then they got their world famous weather presenters to impart it to an eager public on the news and online, in an easily digestible way, all in a few minutes flat. This was Britain after all. Everyone was obsessed with the weather.

She slipped out from under the covers, printed with an exotic display of the glowing ring of the northern lights as seen from the International Space Station 400km above the Earth. She guided her feet into her cosy sheep slippers, one of the few things Pete had bought her that she liked, and headed for the bright bathroom.

Six months ago Pete had left her, dumping her by sending a mobile text message one Friday morning. It said simply, “I’m leaving. Don’t try to call.” Not even that he was sorry. Stunned, with her hand shaking at the time, she’d counted the letters, soberly realising they’d been together more months than the letters in his text.

It was such a shock she hadn’t known what to think, except that she must have done something to make him leave that suddenly. Otherwise why would he just leave and say not to bother trying to contact him? It never dawned on her there might be someone else.

She’d got back from work to find shelves that looked like a mouth with broken teeth, devoid of whole sections of books. He’d taken their Scandinavian bed, random pictures off the walls and, worst of all, no booze was left in their drinks cupboard, the cheeky git. But, thankfully, there was a space in the garage where his smelly old Triumph motorbike had been.

She never even get the chance to confront him about what everyone else appeared to know, what had been going on behind her back. It was that Lisa, a young, blonde secretary in the architect office where he worked. Twice a week, for a year, they’d apparently been shagging in the back of his Mondeo, out in a pub car park.

Every Monday and Thursday at seven he’d set off for his regular darts matches at the pub and be back home by about ten. It was only later, when a mutual acquaintance in the team told her, that she’d found out all the darts matches usually finished by nine.

Pete had always picked a dark corner at the far corner of the pub car park, well hidden from other cars and the side entrance door. After each match he’d have a quick pint with his mates on the team, say his goodbyes, then meet Lisa outside in his car, for half an hour’s bouncing on the springs in the dark. Helen guessed he could have been seen or discovered at any time, but didn’t care. It had taken a break-in at the office at the back pf the pub for him to be found out.

The pub’s security camera sat on a high pole focusing on the side door, but with a vantage point of the rear car park corner too, where Pete’s Mondeo usually sat. When the bar manager, Alf, had scanned the infra-red camera CCTV tapes for evidence of the pub raid at the back, they’d spotted something else too, something no-one could have normally seen, out there in the late evening gloom.

After he’d passed the relevant tape of the break in to the police, Alf had taken the time to scan some of the other older tapes, just in case he could spot someone casing out the back office. From the infra-red footage he discovered the same car four times in the previous two week, in the same place. At around 9.30 on each night odd regular bright white flashes appeared in the front of the car, for about twenty minutes each time. Phil was no scientist but knew enough about heat cameras to realise it could only mean one thing. Someone was in the front seat and for some time too. Very strange.

Off duty a few days later, curious, he took the video home. Using software on his home computer to zoom in on the car, iit took five minutes watching the footage in slow motion before it dawned on him what the rhythmic flashes were. Even though the video was very grainy yes, that that was an arm, and that could only be? Wow.

Phil knew there was money to be made in anything voyeuristic, especially when you had a couple of naked bodies shagging away. Even though the footage wasn’t great, the fun bit was it had to be people everyone knew from the pub. Once you knew what you were looking at, it had made him horny, and he knew others would like it too for sure. So he’d taken a copy of all the videos to do more work at home, to make a compilation of the greatest bits, so to speak.

His favourite was a Tuesday, when a bum could be seen bobbing up and down in wild abandon for at least five minutes. From the way they moved it was obviously the same couple each time, a bloke and a girl.

Within days half the pub regulars had seen the speckled video but the camera wasn’t good enough to work out who the couple could be, which made it frustrating and tantalising.

Then, the weekend after the break-in, a new high intensity infra-red camera, with zoom facility, was thoughtfully installed by the pub’s owners. At the appointed time the following Monday Alf was manually controlling the new car park camera. There, for the first time, under a girl’s arm he could clearly see Pete’s face, and lots more of both of their anatomies besides. He’d headed outside and watched from behind a parked car, entranced, recognising Lisa too.

He kept it to himself for a week, then spent a Friday evening compiling a new video, thoughtfully dubbing in an audio track from a seventies porn movie. Then, on the Sunday, he invited a small group of regulars round to the back room for an after-hours session. There, over drinks, they watched the Pete and Lisa live sex show and the camera zoom into bits of the human body that should only be exposed in the gents and ladies toilets. It was only a matter of time before Alf decided to load up the pub car park video onto the Web.

So, worst of all for Helen, was what happened two weeks after Pete had left her. She’d been out with her girlfriends, drowning her sorrows. Returning from the bar with a round of drinks, the girls had gone into a hushed silence as she’d arrived back. As she got closer she saw Janice hastily shift her mobile out of sight under the table, trying frantically to turn down the sound. Despite the loud bar she could hear regular noises, a bit like a steam train going up an incline.

She’d put down the tray, laden with fluorescent cocktails. The mobile was still hidden, but she could hear from it quite clearly what sounded like panting noises. Some sort of big dog? What were they up to? Janice looked alarmed as Helen grabbed the mobile from her.

As she saw the video she realised it was a man making the noise. The oddly bright footage showed a bloke on top of a thin girl in a car, giving it his all. An infra-red camera zoomed out from the back of a grey Ford Mondeo, a bit like Pete’s. Then she saw the pub darts team sticker on the rear window. Pete’s window. Pete’s Mondeo.

She sat down heavily, feeling sick, the mobile dropping from her fingers onto the floor with a clatter. Janice scooped it up, checking the screen hadn’t broken, going red as she muttered an apology.

Janice blurted out, ‘Look, Helen, we wanted to tell you. But it really wasn’t our place. That video was already all over the internet.’

All the others looked away guiltily from her steely gaze. Helen turned and left the bar, knowing she couldn’t face her friends seeing her hot acid tears, welling up. She hadn’t spoken to Janice since.

Getting Pete’s text telling her their relationship was over had been bad enough, but now she had the memory of that girl’s white bottom moving up and down on top of her Pete to cope with. In those early weeks after seeing the video, she’d tried to put out of her mind the thought of what the two of them had been doing in his car every week, for months. She found it really hard to stomach.

Why had he done it? Hadn’t their relationship been good enough or interesting enough for his needs? Hadn’t they been having fun? Sure, the sex wasn’t exactly as great as in the early, heady days when they met, but wasn’t that what all couples experienced? Had she said or done something that made him stray? She gave up.

None of these questions that she asked herself had any obvious answers, and the result was that she ended up staying in the flat, their flat, for most of the next month. Late evenings were spent, eating microwaved TV dinners on the sofa, staring vacuously at reality TV, drinking bottles of cheap supermarket prosecco.

All she could think about, night after night, was the lies Pete had told her. Those evenings he’d claimed to be holding the honour of the local darts team together. He’d told her about the dark interior and a sticky floor that made it difficult to move your feet when you were aiming your darts. Macho matches in a dingy pub that smelt of sweat and stale beer. Descriptions purposely designed to make sure she’d never set foot in the place. All of it a deliberate ploy just to get his end away, with him knowing she’d never want to come to some dodgy inn, miles away from the cosy flat they’d set up together.

As soon as someone had told Pete about the online video, she guessed he knew it was only a matter of time before the game was up. Hence the swift text he’d sent her, without even the gumption to come round for the rest of his stuff that littered their small place. He’d sent his mate Dave round the following Monday with a van, knowing she would be out at work. No note, nothing. Just the daft glow in the dark skeleton keyring on the counter top, with his keys.

During their time together they’d moved in different social circles, and their groups of friends hadn’t overlapped that much. Pete hadn’t really liked her chatty friends and she found most of his pretty dull. So, eventually, she stopped crying into her wine glass and started to answer the daily calls from her girlfriends. Rightly guessing many of them felt some guilt in the fact they’d watched that video, it was obvious it their response that they had come together to make it their mission to ‘sort her out’, Janice excluded.

Apart from her daily job at the British Weather Office, her first foray out again with them was arranged for a local pizza restaurant. That evening, within the first hour of her friends arriving, Helen was sobbing over a glass, dripping tears onto her garlic bread. Even though she’d gone home to her lonely flat afterwards, for more wine, it had really helped to release her frustrations about Pete.

For the next few weeks, that soon became months, the pizza place became their ‘go-to’ place for drinks after work. She had food there most evenings too, not having the energy to cook for herself.

It was hardly a surprise that, by mid-summer, she had put on over a stone from pizza, pasta and heavy nights on the booze. When her jeans stopped fitting round her pert bum, what she regarded as her most alluring feature, she decided she had to get a grip on her health. She cut back on the socialising, except with her best and closest friends, and started to work rebuilding her life properly.

So, into her new focus and horizon had come the new bed, gym membership, cat and flat screen TV, in that order. Six months on, she felt fit and almost sane again, and ready to face the world. She’d also started to think about men again. Carl at work in particular.

She peered at her face in the bathroom mirror, reflecting that she still looked pretty good for her age. Part of her new fitness regime, apart from the regular gym, was to keep her skin and hair healthy. Every two weeks now she had her hair cut and underwent a facial and manicure. She suspected it made a fairly small difference to the way people viewed her at work, but it made her feel a whole lot better inside. And, most importantly, helped her focus on Carl.

Part of the confidence she felt about him was that she sort of suspected Carl liked her too. They’d actually known each other for nearly ten years, both on the same induction group that had started at the British Weather Office back in the late noughties. The company was really good on training and they’d both shown their promise after getting their science Master qualifications. Carl and Helen had almost tracked each other up the career ladder over the last decade. Then, a few months ago, Carl had got his move to the SWC, the British Weather Office’s highly skilled Space Weather Centre.

Tall, slim looking and fit and, she’d discovered, slightly older than her, Carl had a ready smile on his face and boyish charms. Like Helen, he’d had a regular partner for years, but they had split up recently. The grapevine said that it was related to work and was an amicable parting, that she was a geologist who been made an offer she couldn’t refuse with an institute near the Rockies in the States.

To be honest, she didn’t really mind, and didn’t think it was too ruthless to think that either. But she had checked discretely and thoroughly, making sure the relationship really was over. And now she had decided the time was right to put ‘plan Carl’ into action.

Standing in her dressing gown, Helen watched Nero wolf down his cat food, as if it was his last meal. He was her major triumph over the last few months, having nursed him from being a slim, bony cat to a well-muscled tomcat. These days he looked more like a miniature panther when she saw him negotiating his way along her boundary wall.

‘Don’t get into trouble today, Nero,’ she chided, knowing that he would be waiting patiently by his bowl on her return from work.

She made a cafetiere of strong Java coffee and popped a couple of pieces of granary bread into the toaster. Breakfast was supposed to be the most important meal of the day, but it didn’t do to overdo it, especially as in her mind she’d already selected her business-like black dress to wear today, to begin the process of wooing Carl. It was sometimes tricky trying to form relationships in the British Weather Office though. Half the staff were the ‘techies’ that dealt with the forecasting systems and data analysis. They were mostly blokes and, unless you appeared in a dress emblazoned with bits of computer code, your chances of getting them to notice you were pretty well zero. But the front of house forecasting team and weather presenters were different, and that’s where Carl worked.

Back at her wardrobe she suddenly changed her mind. She sometimes forgot she was finally back in shape after the recent months in the gym. ‘Time to show what your bum can do’, she muttered to herself. With a slightly startled thought she realised that, had that remark come from a work colleague, it would be instantly regarded as sexist. But what the hell. Women were always the tougher and stronger sex.

Yes, that was the outfit. The burgundy blouse and charcoal Katherine Hamnett skirt. Slimming, sexy and comfortable. And good with her little black boots too.

Back in the bathroom she applied careful mascara and a deep shade of lipstick. If nothing else, unlike the sun now being rapidly obscured by cloud, she wasn’t going to be seen to disappear today.