The Crash: Chapter Seven
It was still nearer dark than light when Brad pulled up in the car park, which was why he didn't initially notice more than the vague shadow of a shape in the small, bubbly blue car by the door. As he locked his car door, he was still preoccupied with wondering why he was here, and whether he was making the biggest mistake of his career. He was fairly sure that Triple J Auto Parts weren't keeping to the standards that they should be, and if the boss was that sloppy he wouldn't be doing much good by shackling himself to a sinking ship. On the other hand, as Gaby had pointed out during their chat in the boardroom the previous afternoon, if he just walked away, he'd never know what a difference he could have made. And in all conscience, he couldn't just leave.
If he left, and people died as a result of the shoddy manufacturing process, how would he live with himself? No, he either had to take the job, or shop Jason to the Health and Safety Executive and get him stopped. Which would probably be the rational thing to do. But if he did that, word would still get around - not that he was lowering standards himself, but that he was a troublemaker, a whistleblower, someone you wouldn't want poking round your manufacturing process. Which could be almost as bad for his career in the long term.
Well, too late to worry about it now. He'd showed up here, which was a decision in itself. He'd have to take Gaby's advice and see what came of it in the longer term. A decision which would please his wife, at least.
His decision made and acknowledged, he strode towards the glass double doors of the reception area. There was nobody sitting at the desk. He looked at his watch. Eight thirty on the dot. Well, he wasn't late, anyway, but he'd expected there to be somebody waiting for him. He pictured the blonde receptionist from yesterday.
It was only then that he realised what he'd seen in the blue car in front of reception. A blonde head, bent over the steering wheel. Sleeping? Crying? At any rate, something was not as it should be. He diverted his course to take him closer to the driver’s door of the car, and, as if aware of his attention suddenly on her, or perhaps of the clock ticking on, the figure sat up. Brad recognised the receptionist, Donna.
He waited by the car door for her to get out. Her make-up was smudged and her eyes puffy. He could hardly pretend to have noticed nothing, so he went instead for the direct approach.
"Is there anything I can do?" he asked, hovering nearby as she locked her door and stepped away.
"No. Oh, wait. Don't tell Jason anything's wrong. I don't want him thinking I'm slacking on top of everything else. I'm so scared." The last word turned into something of a wail, and Brad fell into step beside Donna as she walked towards reception.
"What's the matter?"
There was a moment's hesitation, as if Donna was steeling herself to talk about it, or perhaps wondering whether he could be trusted.
"I won't tell," he promised, and this seemed to be the prompt she needed.
She automatically keyed in the code to open the reception doors and ushered Brad through. As she did so, the words poured out as if they'd just burst through the dam of self-control that had been holding them back. "My mum went into hospital for some tests last week, and they've just come back and they think it's cancer and she needs an operation."
"I'm so sorry," Brad murmured.
"And I know it happens to lots of people, but it's different when it's your mum! And I want to be with her, but I daren't take time off without notice. Jason would kill me. Or sack me. And I need this job. Dad's pension barely covers the food bills, and Mum's is even less, and I wanted to move out and get a place with my boyfriend, but they need the money I give them towards the mortgage and..." For a moment, sobbing took over from speech, and Brad took the lead, guiding Donna towards her seat at the reception desk and putting a tissue in her shaking hand.
Donna wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and through the tissue in the bin.
"I'm sorry," she sniffed.
"It's OK. Are you sure it wouldn't help to tell Jason? Then he'd know if you do have to leave that it's not because you're slacking or looking for another job, just because you're concerned for your mum."
"I'm sure. He'd say I should be concerned for her on my own time."
Brad raised his eyebrows. He'd known Jason was sloppy, but now it seemed he was more monster than just mercenary. For the first time, it occurred to him that Jason might actually know about the problems with manufacturing, and not care. In which case, the whole can of worms was far worse than he'd first thought.
"That bad, huh?" Brad gave what he hoped was a sympathetic grunt, although he wasn't sure he didn't just end up sounding like a snuffling pig. Not that he could be snuffling much worse than Donna, whose eye make-up was now smeared around like a small child's efforts at face-painting a panda.
"He's evil," she said, sounding surprisingly vicious for someone who had been whimpering like a baby not long ago.
"Maybe he wouldn't be as bad as you think," Brad suggested, without much conviction. She didn't seem like an all-out wimp, so even allowing for her stress levels in the light of her mother's illness, for Jason to have reduced her to such a quivering wreck showed there was something pretty seriously wrong. "How are things with your mum at the moment?"
"She's at home, but they want her to go back in next week."
"So there's not much you could do at the moment, right?"
"Best get cleaned up then, and I'll see what we can work out before next week." Brad wondered what he was letting himself in for, but, as Gaby had said, it certainly seemed he was needed.
Donna nodded and took another tissue from the box. She dabbed at her eyes, but the effect it had on the inky smears was negligible.
"Wouldn't some soap and water work better?" he asked, amused by her feeble attempts to hide her emotional state.
"Cleanser would work better, but I don't have any. Soap and water would do, but that means going to the loos."
"You make it sound like going to the Himalayas! They're not exactly far away."
"No, but it's after eight thirty. I need to man the phones. Jason could phone any minute. Or a customer." The last was added as an afterthought, and it was obvious where her real fear lay.
"Yes, and the visitors could come out of the board room any minute and see you sitting there looking like a panda. Go and get clean. If you're that worried, I'll stay here and answer the phones."
"Would you?" Her relief was evident.
"Of course. Go on. Quick."
She went, still scrubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand as if it would make a difference.
Brad sat down at reception and thought about the situation. What would he do if he were her? Probably start looking for another job. Get down to Fastemps or somewhere like that. Good receptionists were hard to find and usually the agencies snapped them up pretty fast. So why was she here? Was it because Jason had destroyed her confidence to the point that she didn't know she could get a job in any one of a dozen Sheffield companies the next day?
He made up his mind he'd have to talk to her later.
Although if he was going to encourage her to leave, it was harder still to understand why he was even considering staying himself.
Maybe it was because he liked a challenge. Or maybe just because he knew how keen, or even desperate, Rachel was for him to step into another proper job now that he was off parent duty.
"Thank you," Donna interrupted his reverie. She was back, faster than he'd expected, and fresh-faced, though still with the tell-tale puffiness around the eyes, now exacerbated by the frenzied scrubbing. Still, it wouldn't take long to get back to normal, and then nobody would guess she'd been sitting in the car park sobbing her heart out when he arrived.
"You're welcome. It's not a big deal." Brad was amused, and a little bit saddened, that she was so grateful for his tiny gesture of support. It seemed to suggest someone who got very little help and appreciation. Once again, he wondered what Jason was playing at.
"Not many men would understand," she said feelingly, and he wondered what the men in her world were like. He couldn't imagine many of his friends back home having so little feeling for the plight of a pretty girl.
"Hey, we've all been through it. I spent some time back in the States recently, looking after my father." He didn't add that the day after the funeral, he'd been on a plane back to the UK. She didn't need to know that the old man had died of cancer after a painful three-month illness. "I took a bit of time out of work for that. It's good to be back."
He supposed it was. It was good to be around people and be reminded that others, beside his family, had struggles and worries of their own. He just wished he knew what he was going to do about the quality issue. If he didn't do something, it could be a parent sitting at home, worrying about their child's recovery from a traffic accident. And, whatever Jason thought about the values of cost cutting, that wasn't something Brad was prepared to accept.
Before Brad could come to any further decisions, the boardroom door opened, and Gaby popped her head out.
"Brad? Glad you're here. Jason says could you come through and have a word with a customer, please?"
From the tone of her voice, the word wasn't likely to be positive.
Brad took a deep breath and stepped into the boardroom.