© Susan Howe
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The Good Samaritan
(a short story)
Asterisks denote italics/thoughts
“Samaritans. How can I help?”
Soothing, sympathetic, supportive; the way she was trained to answer.
A thin voice quavered down the line. “Hello dear, it’s Doreen. Who’s that?”
“Hello, Doreen. It’s Mary here. How are you?”
“Not too bad, dear. I’m just ringing to say I’m going to bed now. I’m very tired.”
“Are you, darling?”
“Yes, I am. I don’t know why. I haven’t done anything today.”
Poor old thing. She was more or less housebound and if it weren’t for Social Services, she’d never see anyone except her next door neighbour.
“Have you had your Horlicks, Doreen?”
“Yes dear, I have. Shirley’s just been round to make it for me. I had two custard creams as well.”
“Oooh, I love custard creams. You’d be lost without Shirley, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh yes dear, I would. She’s been so good to me, has Shirley,” said the old lady.
Mary heard the break in her voice and hastily changed the subject.
“Is Mr Bones in yet?” Doreen’s cat was as ancient as herself.
“Yes, he’s fast asleep already.”
Mary pictured a mangy old tabby curled up on a faded pink eiderdown.
“That’s good. Well, night night then, darling. You sleep tight and mind the bugs don’t bite.”
“Yes, dear. Night night. I’ll speak to you tomorrow.”
The line went dead and Mary hung up. She wasn’t on duty the following day but it didn’t matter; they all knew Doreen. She needed a reassuring voice three or four times a day and more if something went wrong in her flat or she couldn’t remember if she’d taken her pills. They had Shirley’s number, just in case.
Doreen was one of several habitual callers. The old, sick, desperate and rejected, or people whose lives had taken a wrong turn at some point. Each shift had a different set of regulars.
Then there were the sex callers who tried the patience of even the most seasoned volunteer. Having established that they were in no danger, they were told pleasantly but firmly that other callers, in more urgent need, might be trying to get though. The first time Mary received one of these she began to describe what she was wearing, thinking she was establishing a rapport. It was too late by the time she realised her mistake.
“You live and learn,” she laughed, when her colleagues teased her about it. She hadn’t been caught out a second time.
Draining the last of her coffee, Mary pushed her chair back and glanced round the room. Finding herself alone, she picked up her mug and crossed to the kitchen, passing the other three stations on the way. Each comprised a desk, swivel chair and a small booth, just big enough to accommodate the listener’s head and shoulders. The effect was plain and would have been austere, if not for the elegant full height windows and glorious stuccoed ceiling. It was Mary’s favourite place. There she felt wanted, needed, loved.
She opened the diary in which each call was recorded with as many details as possible, especially if someone was thought to be desperate and crying for help. In Mary’s eighteen years’ experience, this had happened many times. Actual suicides were mercifully few. Once a caller had taken a fatal dose, it was shattering to realise there was nothing she could do except be there, a caring voice at the end of the line.
Mary logged her conversation with Doreen, noting it was the fifth time that day.
Mary found William, her duty partner, filling the kettle. “Thank God for Shirley!" she said. "That woman's a saint, bringing up five children on her own and looking after Doreen as well.”
“Yes, we’ll have to recruit her when her kids have grown up,” he laughed. “Tea?”
Tanned all year round from working in his garden, with twinkling eyes and long, pianist's fingers, William was Mary’s image of the perfect husband. He’d nursed his wife through a savage illness and radiated happiness since her recovery. Mary often wondered, with a guilty stab of envy, how it must feel to be loved like that.
The two experienced volunteers sometimes shared an overnight duty and Mary cherished their quiet chats over a mug of cocoa. Her stomach did a tiny flip whenever William entered the room and she had to remind herself constantly that he belonged to someone else.
When the phone lines went quiet, they got out the camp beds and rested. Lying in the dark exchanging reminiscences, Mary experienced an intimacy she had never known before.
If only I could have met William, she wished, instead of that cheating bastard Charlie.
What Charlie had put her through, almost since the day they were married, still rankled. He was a playboy, she’d known that, but like a fool she thought she could change him.
Her mother was blunt. “A leopard can’t change his spots,” she said, when he left for the umpteenth time for a fling with some random floozy.
“I blame the women more than the men,” said her best friend. “Married men are easy pickings. You show me a married man who wouldn’t take it if it was offered. And we all know where they keep their brains.”
Mary agreed. It was stealing, pure and simple.
Charlie invariably left her penniless when he disappeared and she had to juggle two jobs as best she could. Through it all, she’d made sure her daughter never went short of anything, even when it meant taking in washing and ironing to make ends meet. Clare was always clean and neat for school, had the right dinner money and well-fitting shoes.
“I’m not having her growing up with corns and bunions from wearing someone else’s old shoes, like me,” Mary used to say.
Cast-offs, that’s what she’d had, when her mother had drunk them dry and her father had squandered his pay packet on another dead cert.
Now Clare was grown up and married with two young sons. Her husband Simon was a lawyer in a high profile company and they had an executive home on the good side of town. Mary considered Clare’s success her own greatest achievement.
Mary’s grandsons attended a private Prep school and their mother ferried them without complaint from one end of town to the other so that they could play cricket, tennis, polo and all the other things posh kids did.
“Those boys of yours are a full time job,” Mary said when they shopped together on Wednesday morning. “It’s lucky you don’t need to work any more.”
“Yes,” said Clare, sitting on a high chrome stool sipping her cappuccino, “I suppose it is. But I do miss it sometimes.”
She gazed into her drink, fair hair hiding her face. Mary stared at her in disbelief. The idea that someone might work because they wanted to was beyond comprehension.
“Think yourself fortunate that you have a good, hardworking husband who provides everything you could ever want.”
It was as near to a telling-off as Mary ever came.
“I do, Mum. It’s not that. I get lonely, that’s all. And I miss using my brain.”
Clare had been with the company for three years before Simon joined. When the children arrived they’d agreed she would give up work for the next few years, but her sons no longer needed her at home.
“The boys can easily get a lift with one of the other mums," she said. "I told Simon I’d like to come back to my old job, but he said no, it would be too awkward us both working on the same floor.”
“Well, I suppose he could be right,” said Mary.
“But it never used to be a problem!” Clare’s eyes sharpened and she looked more like her old self. “I don’t know what’s changed.”
Mary held her tongue. She didn’t want to take sides but, secretly, she agreed with Simon. Why work if you didn’t have to?
“If work was so great the nobs would keep it for themselves.” Mary quoted her late, and seldom missed, husband. It was one of the few things Charlie had said that she agreed with.
Clare smiled, but didn’t look convinced.
Mary was a good Samaritan; the message book stood testament to that. Her name cropped up more than anyone else’s in the caller’s section.
“Thank you Mary 58 for listening to me when I thought I couldn’t go on. Your kindness and patience made me realise that there are some good people out there, and I need to get out and meet them. Michael.”
It was typical of the feedback she received, along with some treasured letters that she kept between the leaves of her grandmother’s bible. Colleagues respected her exceptional ability to persuade her callers to see their situation, and a way out, for themselves. She was reliable, always ready to do an extra shift if someone went sick.
“You don’t need experience of what your callers are going through,” said the man in a well-ironed shirt who had interviewed Mary and a dozen other potential volunteers, so many years ago. “You’re there to prove that, when all else fails, there’s still someone who will listen. It takes courage to make that call and every one of them needs your help.”
The candidates nodded at each other. That’s what they had come for.
“It sounds easy,” he continued, “listening to people talk about their lives, but sometimes it’s difficult and terrifying. And sometimes there’s nothing you can do and then you’ll feel dreadful. A failure.”
He studied them over his glasses.
“Above all, remember that you are not here to give advice or sit in judgement. You’ll receive calls from violent, unpleasant people and you must not let your prejudices get in the way. If a paedophile calls in confessing to a crime, would you be able to lend a sympathetic ear? Think about it.”
There was a buzz of conversation between the members of his audience and one woman got up and left. A couple more looked down at the speckled carpet tiles as though the answer to such a dilemma were to be found there, encrypted in the dots.
Their host waited a moment, then handed out a questionnaire.
“Please answer honestly, even if you don’t like your response,” he said. “Many thanks for coming - hope to see you all next week.”
Mary took her questionnaire home, sat down in her dingy, brown kitchen with a pot of tea, and filled it in. The fridge hummed along with the eternal percussion of decrepit plumbing as she considered the various situations she might encounter, briefly outlined on the form.
“There’s not much left that could shock me,” she mused, “after the life I’ve had.”
The only child of a loveless marriage, she had witnessed violence, desperation and hatred; suffered hunger and humiliation.
“So you’d think I’d have had more sense than to hook up with a no-good like Charlie,” she often thought, though she knew she’d been caught in the cycle of repeated behaviour that blighted so many lives.
That’s why she understood. She’d been there. She was thankful it would be different for Clare.
Lately Mary had noticed that her daughter avoided eye contact whenever Simon was mentioned, but she was reluctant to voice her observation. Clare had always been so confident and in control and had rarely needed advice. When she met Simon, her career was already established and she threw herself into the relationship with her customary vigour. Mary gazed at her daughter's wedding photograph, aware of how strong-willed she could be.
But recently Clare had seemed much less sure of herself. She looked pale and tired, lacking enthusiasm, which wasn’t like her. Simon was often away as a case demanded or he had a conference to attend, and sometimes Clare and the boys didn’t see him all week. Even when he was at home he brought boxes of files and his boss rang him constantly, demanding more and more of his time. His sons needed their father's attention and they had started to play their mother up.
The shrilling of the phone cut through Mary’s reflections. It was Clare.
“Mum, it’s me. Can you come over, I need...” her voice faded to juddering sobs.
Mary's fingers tightened around the receiver but her voice remained calm, exactly as she had been taught.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can. Hold on, darling. I’m coming.”
Within the hour she stood on Clare’s doorstep. She let herself in and found her daughter face down on the leather sofa, curtains closed, crying as though her heart would break. Mary sat beside her and rubbed her back as she had when she was a child until her tears subsided. She made some tea, settling down next to Clare who wiped her swollen face on her sleeve.
She’s just a kid, Mary thought, pulling a clean tissue out of her bag. My little girl.
Clare blew her nose and offered the hanky back to her mother. It was an old joke, but the memory raised a thin smile. Mary searched her face and Clare pulled a crumpled scrap of paper from the pocket of her designer jeans.
“What is it darling?” Mary said, unable to decipher the writing.
Clare swallowed. “It’s a receipt from a restaurant in Paris. One we went to on our honeymoon.”
Her mother raised her eyebrows. And?
“Look at the date.”
Mary peered at the faded print.
“It’s from last week. When Simon was supposed to be in Bath. I found it at the bottom of his bag.”
Mary leaned back. What did Clare think she was saying?
“He’s having an affair, Mum.” Her eyes filled again. “It explains such a lot.”
She began shredding the sodden tissue. “The phone calls at odd hours. Why he’s never at home or too tired to take me out. All his new clothes. Why he’s always so critical. He hasn’t touched me for months.” The tears spilled over.
“Oh darling.” Mary pulled her close. “You could be wrong. That date is so faint, it could be anything. He might just be finding it hard going at the moment. You know - a difficult case. He’s under a lot of pressure.”
Even as she said the words, the clawing in her guts told her they were nonsense. She realised now she’d seen the signs herself. The lack of commitment to his family; his dismissive attitude towards his wife. No wonder he didn’t want her back in the office. Perhaps everyone there knew what was going on. It was true all right, but there was no sense in letting her daughter know that. Not yet.
She took Clare’s hands.
“Try not to worry, love. He’s just tired. Make yourself beautiful for when he gets home and he’ll soon see what he’s missing.”
It was a clumsy platitude, but it worked. Hope sprang into the younger woman’s eyes as she grasped at the possibility that her marriage wasn’t over. Mary hated lying to her daughter. It was against all her principles, but she needed time to think.
“Let’s go shopping tomorrow,” she said, smoothing Clare’s matted hair from her face. “We could both use a hairdo. Just look at my mop! We’ll make a day of it.”
There was a crash as the front door slammed and the boys’ shouts rang out in the hall. Clare jumped up and straightened her clothes, mustering a smile as she went to greet them.
“You get off now, Mum,” she said over her shoulder. “Thanks for coming. I’ll pick you up tomorrow after I’ve taken the kids to school.”
“If you’re sure?” Mary studied her daughter's face. “I’m supposed to be on duty in just over an hour. Will you be all right or shall I come back later?”
“Don’t worry, Mum. We’ll be fine.”
Mary sat on the bus, forehead pressed against the window, watching cold raindrops slash grey streaks through the dirt. She conjured an image of Simon, sleek in his city clothes, and his betrayal spawned a bitter anger. She’d been so certain her daughter wouldn’t have to endure what she’d been through. And yet, here they were again. History repeating itself.
How many calls had she taken from wives and girlfriends in the same position as Clare? Not to mention those from the Other Woman. Even the odd desperate plea from the villain himself, out of his depth and on the brink of discovery, shame and loss. She’d treated them all the same, offering sympathy, reason, and a borrowed strength to try and find a way through.
“What would you say to your best friend if she came to you with a problem like this?” she might ask, steering them gently towards seeing it more objectively.
Some were so distressed they couldn’t think straight.
Others said, “I’d tell her to knock him on the head, straight away. Have more self-respect.”
“And,” Mary would continue, “what do you think she would say, if the situation was reversed?”
That was the trouble. They couldn’t detach themselves enough to admit the solution lay in their own hands. They were in love and it rendered them powerless. All she could do was help them to look at it from every angle and offer the Samaritans’ continued support if all else failed.
She was ten minutes late at the Centre and her duty partner, Jill, was on a call. Mary’s heart sank. Of all the volunteers, Jill was the one she couldn’t like. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with her, or that she wasn’t supportive or a good listener. It was because she was exactly the type Charlie had fallen for, time and again. A blowsy blonde with an easy-going manner and low cut top straining over a generous bosom.
“Wotcha,” Jill said, hanging up and swinging round on her chair. “How’s tricks?”
“Sorry I’m late,” Mary replied. “Anything happened I should know about?”
“Nah, it’s been quiet.” She turned away. “Oh, hang on a sec. There’s an alert in the message book. It’s about Doreen. Poor old duck!”
Heart racing, Mary opened the book.
Message to all volunteers about Doreen. She rang this morning very upset because she caught Shirley stealing some jewellery. After consulting Nigel 36, it was decided that we should tell social services, so he’s organising that. I talked to her for an hour but she’s in such a state that I said someone would call her later. She was going to take a pill and try to have a sleep. Could someone ring her at 6 o’clock please? Thanks, Amy 135.
The words swam out of focus and Mary grabbed the table for support.
“No! I can’t believe it. Not Shirley.”
Her head started to throb and her hands trembled as she put the book back in its place.
“You okay, love?” said Jill, putting an arm around her shoulders.
Mary stood up straight, moving out of range. “Yes, yes. I’m fine. It’s just a bit of a shock, that’s all.”
“It’s a crying shame. You can’t trust anyone these days, can you? Sit down and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea. Two sugars?”
“No, no sugar. Thanks.” She sat at her station, fighting back the tears and wondering if the day could get any worse.
The phone rang. Mary almost called Jill back to answer it, then took a deep breath and picked up the receiver.
“Samaritans. How can I help?”
“Hello.” It was hardly more than a whisper.
“You’re through to the Samaritans. How can I help?”
Another minute passed.
Then, “It’s Rachel again. I’m sorry. You’ve got better things to do than listen to me.”
“Not at all, Rachel,” said Mary softly. “Would you like to tell me about it?”
"My name's Mary. I’d like to help if I can.”
“Now, what’s upsetting you so much?”
“It’s my boyfriend. Well - manfriend really.”
*Tell me when it isn’t.*
“We have such a wonderful time together. It’s perfect. He says he’s never loved anyone like he loves me.”
“But there’s a problem?”
“Yes.” A hesitation. “He’s married.”
Mary took a moment to modulate her tone.
“And did you know that when you started seeing him?”
“No - well, yes. I don’t know.” Another sigh. “I thought he might be.”
“But you did it anyway?”
“Yes. Well, not at first. But he kept asking. And he sent me little messages at work. He wouldn’t give up.”
“And you couldn’t resist?”
“No. I should have, I know. And now I can’t live without him.”
The tears came and Mary waited, drawing hard black lines across her pad.
“He said he was going to leave his wife,” Rachel’s voice cracked with effort. “He said they don’t get on any more. He said he loves me. He even took me to Paris - to celebrate our anniversary.”
Mary’s pencil snapped.
“He says it’s difficult at the moment. One of his kids isn’t well.”
*A likely tale.*
“How many children has he got?”
“You said he sent you messages at work?”
“Yes. We work for the same company. He’s quite high up. That makes it even harder.”
Mary jammed her trembling body back against the chair.
“Yes, I can see it would. How long have you been seeing him, Rachel?”
“Just over a year.”
A year! A whole year of lies and deceit. Mary's stomach churned and she tasted bile.
She flicked through her options. It was strictly against the rules to give advice. A dismissable offence. But she had to do something. Mary looked quickly round to see what Jill was doing; her duty partner was engrossed in a call, speaking gently, as if to a child.
Leaning further into the booth and cupping her free hand round the mouthpiece, Mary hunched her shoulders, took aim and fired.
“They never do, you know, Rachel.”
“Leave their wives.” She measured out her words with precision. “They say they will, but they never do. Not for long anyway. They always go back. Always.”
Fear jumped down the line. “But - how do you know?”
“Because I’ve been sitting here for eighteen years, listening to calls from girls like you. Nice girls. Girls who should have a husband and children of their own. Not someone else’s.”
There was a long silence.
“So what should I do?”
“You must leave him, Rachel. You must save yourself now. Because in ten years’ time he’ll be telling you the same lies. Giving you the same excuses. And you’ll be much older and it will be harder for you to get over it and find somebody new. You’ll be an old maid. Never have children. Is that what you want? Is it Rachel?”
Jill shifted in her chair and Mary pulled herself under control in the nick of time.
“But I love him. I’ll never love anyone else. And I’d have to leave my job. I’d be nothing without him. Nothing.”
The poor girl was frantic. Mary almost felt sorry for her.
“You must do it. Straight away. A clever girl like you will soon find another job. Tell me you’ll do it, Rachel. Promise me you will.”
She waited until the flood of tears subsided.
“Will you do it, Rachel? Before it’s too late?”
A barely audible whisper.
“Yes. I’ll try.”
“And will you give me a call to tell me how you got on? On Friday evening, between six and ten?”
“Yes.” Rachel swallowed. “Thank you Mary.”
“You’re welcome, dear,” said Mary. “I only want to help. I’ll speak to you soon.”
The line went dead and Mary slumped forwards, a thousand tangled thoughts crashing through her head. As a Samaritan, she’d done something unforgivable. But as a mother, what else could she do?
She rose unsteadily and swayed into the kitchen for a drink of water which she sipped, teeth chattering, leaning against the cold steel of the sink. Then she picked up the diary and took it back to her desk.
Name: Mary 58. Date: 13 June. Time: 16.05. Name of Caller: Rachel.
Description of Call: Rachel rang to discuss her boyfriend trouble. She’s not sure if she wants to carry on with the relationship - said she’d probably end it. Seemed to feel better. No follow up necessary.
In bed that night she tossed and turned, sweating one minute, freezing the next. What if someone found out what she’d done? What would William say? She tried to block it out; concentrate on Clare and how happy she’d be when Simon was back, a real husband again. Everything would be all right, just as she’d promised. And Rachel was young. She’d get over it. But it chewed away at her just the same.
“Oh dear Lord!” She sat bolt upright, her throat constricting as she realised she hadn't rung Doreen. She clasped her hands together. “Please God, let her be safe.”
The following morning Mary waited with her coat on for Clare to pick her up. When her daughter hadn’t arrived by ten o’clock, she picked up the phone.
It rang for a long time, then a thick, blurred voice answered, “Yes?”
“Clare, is that you?”
“Oh Mum. He’s gone.”
“What do you mean, love? Who’s gone?”
“Simon. Simon’s gone. He’s left me.”
Mary sat down hard on the stairs.
“But - he can’t have.” She shook her head. “Rachel said she would give him up.”
“What are you talking about, Mother? Who’s Rachel?”
“Rachel - the girl he was seeing.”
“It’s Kathy. That’s who he’s been seeing. His boss. Kathy.”
Mary sat there for a long time, oblivious to the creeping cold. Her mind wandered, disconnected. The sun slanting through the landing window fell on a worn patch of carpet.
I must cover that up, she thought.
Closing her eyes, she forced herself to focus. She should go to her daughter.
*Clare needs me. My little girl needs me.*
On Friday evening Clare’s best friend arrived for the weekend and, feeling lost, Mary drifted to the Centre to work her shift as usual.
She sagged at her station, trying to arrange her thoughts and considering her position as a volunteer. She had made assumptions, jumped to conclusions, and she’d been wrong. For the first time in eighteen years she had allowed prejudice to cloud her judgment.
But was it the first time? She remembered the many occasions she had snubbed Jill, based on what? The ground beneath her seemed to slip away.
She reached for the message book, her mind a chaos of uncertainty. The latest entry informed her that Doreen was now in a care home, her independence curtailed. Perhaps it was for the best - at least she would have company. Mary blinked away an unwelcome image of frail figures slumped in rows of high-backed chairs. She was going to miss the old girl, no doubt about it.
Or maybe she could visit her in the home? Yes. Of course! She could still offer friendship and support, possibly more than before. She could even take care of Mr Bones. Doreen would like that. Mary sat a little straighter.
The ringing startled her. She opened her pad at a new page, breathed in and picked up the handset.
Soothing, sympathetic, supportive. “Samaritans. How can I help?”
“Is that Mary?” Tremulous words washed down the line. “It’s Rachel.”