Walking Under Ladders
Amber lands herself more adventures than expected
Amber trotted down the steps, her phone in her hand. Thirteen ladders – simple enough, surely. A selfie showing her walking underneath each one should be enough to debunk her mother’s belief that bad luck must follow such folly.
All her life, Amber had had to endure the constraints of Phyllis’s fears; superstitions so deep-seated that her mother had actually begged the doctor for an induction rather than risk giving birth on Friday the thirteenth. Thankfully, Amber had entered the world perfectly naturally at fifteen minutes to midnight the day before, but it had been a close call. It was time to expose it for the nonsense it was.
Fifty yards up the street she was rewarded with her first ladder, propped against the wall of the pub. Water dripped from the hanging basket above and through the open door she could see a woman approaching with a watering can in her hand, presumably to finish the job.
Scurrying underneath, Amber took a shot of the flowers, artfully framed between the ladder’s rungs. No lightning lit the sky, no thunderclaps hurt her ears, just a couple of drips moistened her forehead. By the time the woman stepped through the door, Amber was across the road, heading for the park.
It was a chilly morning and the playground was deserted, leaving her free to snap herself boogying beneath the sturdy metal steps of the children’s slide and limboing under the ladder of the climbing frame. She rolled her shoulders with delight. Forget bad luck – this was fun.
She was about to return to the street when she spotted a bonus, a ladder propped against the trunk of a tree. She could see no reason for it being there but who cared? She scrambled in below and held up her phone.
“You see, Mum – four ladders down and I’m still as safe as houses,” she crowed aloud.
“Not to mention daft as a brush,” said an amused voice.
Amber jumped so hard she hit her
The heavy branch came CRASHING down. A MAN swung down after it
head on the topmost rung. She looked up to see a young man peering down at her through the foliage.
“Bit old for climbing trees, aren’t you?” she grumbled, annoyed to feel her cheeks starting to burn.
“I’m lopping, not climbing,” he said, unconcerned. “The tree suffered a lightning strike last week, so I’ve got to take the branch off before it falls. And aren’t you a bit old for mucking about in a kids’ playground?”
“I’m not mucking about, I’m walking under ladders to prove to my superstitious mother that it won’t bring calamity crashing down upon my head.”
“Could’ve done if I’d started sawing this off,” he reasoned, tapping the blackened branch.
“I think the sound of the chainsaw might have alerted me,” she countered.
“Good point.” He grinned. “So, what’s with the selfies?”
“I need to send her evidence, or she’ll never believe me. Good job you’ve got ear-protectors; you’ll hear her howls of horror from up there.”
He chuckled and settled them in place. “I appreciate the warning. Now, if you wouldn’t mind…”
Amber crawled inelegantly out from under the ladder and crossed to a nearby bench.
As she sat scrolling through the images, she heard the chainsaw start up. She gritted her teeth at the squeal of metal tearing through wood. Seconds later the heavy branch crashed to the ground, scattering leaves like confetti.
The man came swinging down behind it. A blue plaid shirt tucked into faded work jeans hinted at a lean, lithe torso and a leather tool belt sat like a holster on narrow hips. Amber couldn’t resist; she raised her phone and took a sneaky shot.
“Don’t you have a truck to take the logs away in?” she asked.
He looked across at her. “Yes, but my mate left his mobile at home. His wife’s due to give birth any day, so he’s gone to get it.” He started up the chainsaw and turned his attention to the branch.
Amber’s gaze returned to the screen. She composed a chirpy message to go with the selfies and pressed send. No backing out now.
“OK, well, I’m off to find more ladders,” she called, getting to her feet. The man was preparing to saw the branch into logs. “Where are you going to look?” “The DIY shop,” she said. “They’ll have plenty in there.”
“How about one on a fire engine?” he suggested, pulling off his gloves and strolling closer. “That would be fantastic, but how?” “My sister’s a firefighter. We could drop by the fire station and ask her.”
“OK. Have I got time to go to
the DIY store first, do you think?” “Sure. I’ve got to wait for Joe anyway.” “Fine, back in five. I’m Amber, by the way. Amber Adams.”
“Will Fielding. See you soon.”
The DIY shop was a short walk away. Amber headed straight for the building section at the rear of the store, an Aladdin’s cave of step-stools, work platforms and loft ladders. She could easily complete the whole thirteen right here if she chose… but then that would leave her no excuse to go to the fire station with Will.
She decided to limit herself to six. Holding out her phone, she took shots of herself under an assortment of ladders, wondering what the people manning the security cameras would make of her antics. Flashing them a winning smile, she pocketed her phone and strolled back outside.
By the time she entered the park, a second man, older than Will by several years, was helping him load up the truck with sawn logs. This must be the expectant dad, Joe.
“Here she is.” Will beamed. “Amber, the ladder lady.”
“For one day only,” she said ruefully. “This is a challenge never to be repeated.”
“Your mum must have this superstition thing bad,” Joe said, sliding the ladder into the truck with the logs. He was a big-built man with cherubic features topped by a mop of unruly brown hair. She liked him instantly.
“Stevie Wonder could’ve written that song for her,” Amber admitted. “The last straw was when she banned me from ever getting married on a Saturday because it’s supposedly the unluckiest day of the week for a wedding. Not that I’ve found Mr Right yet,” she added, “but when I do, it’ll be our decision, not hers.”
“Still up for the fire station?” Will asked, slamming the flap shut and securing the locks.
“You bet. I’ve got three to find, and a fire ladder’s got drama built right in.” “OK – hop in.” She spent the journey pleasantly squashed between Joe’s teddy bear bulk and Will’s toned physique. His wife Kathy, Joe told her, was six days overdue and feeling like a “beached whale”.
“If it comes today, we’ll share the same birthday,” Amber said, without thinking. Will glanced at her in surprise. “Today’s your birthday?” She nodded and shrugged. “Mm-hm. How sad am I? Doing this instead of hitting the shops.”
“Never mind the shops,” Joe put in. “Birthday girls should be out being wined and dined in some posh gaff.”
“Not me,” she said firmly. “Give me cider and a ploughman’s any day.”
“You’re on,” Will said, slowing to let a man on a mobility scooter cross the road. He took the next left and pulled up opposite the concertina doors of the fire station.
“Stay with the truck, Joe, in case Kathy calls,” he instructed, helping Amber down. “Just don’t go charging off without me!”
Joe nodded and settled down with his newspaper. Amber followed Will into the station, relieved to see a gleaming red fire engine parked inside. She’d been worried it might be out on a call.
Will crossed to a door and knocked twice. It opened just a crack and the grizzled face of a man in his mid-fifties appeared, reminding her of Jack Nicholson in TheShining. “Hi, Bert, is Rachel around?” “Sure.” The man called to someone in the room behind him and an attractive redhead came out, looking every bit as fit as Will in a sage-green T-shirt and combats.
“Hey, little brother, what’s up?”
“Got a favour to ask. Can my friend Amber here take a selfie standing under the fire ladder?”
Rachel looked enquiringly at Amber, who explained about her mother.
“I just want to prove it’s all hokum and that bad things don’t happen just because you ‘tempt fate’.”
Rachel shrugged. “I guess it can’t do any harm. Is that enough ladder for you?” She nodded up at the metal frame protruding a few inches over the front of the cab.
“Plenty,” Amber said, and offered Will the phone. “Would you?” He took it and she went and stood by the engine.
“OK, fire away,” she said, and struck a goofball pose. He shook his head and took the picture. “Great. That leaves two to find.” “There’s one out on the drill tower,” Rachel suggested, pointing through the open back door to a scaffolding-like structure with a high, vertical ladder. “Looks promising,” Amber said. The trio headed outside, Rachel explaining that this was the practice tower on which the crews did their training. Amber ducked under the metal bar and stood smiling through the rungs.
“Perfect,” Will declared, taking the shot. When Rachel started to chuckle, he glanced her way.
There was a SHOUT from across the YARD. Joe was waving his MOBILE
“I just remembered – there’s a stack of board games in the day room with a Snakes and Ladders among them. Would that be any use?”
Amber was about to agree that it would make a fun finale to her task when there was a shout from across the yard. They turned to see Joe beckoning from the doorway.
“It’s Kath!” he yelled, waving his mobile in the air. “Her waters broke.”
Will thrust Amber’s phone at her. “Time to go. Thanks, Rach, I owe you.” Amber hared after him. “Yes – thanks, Rachel, he owes you.” Soon they were back in the truck and heading for the ring road.
“Is it far, Joe?” she asked, lurching against his well-padded shoulder as Will took a corner.
“About five miles,” he said tensely. She patted a meaty forearm. “Don’t worry, labour takes hours. You’ve got plenty of time.” He shot her a grateful look. “So everyone says, but it’s our first, see, and we’re neither of us spring chickens. Can’t help but worry. Sorry to be muckin’ up your special day.”
“Are you kidding?” Amber crowed. “I haven’t enjoyed a birthday this much in years!”
Thanks to a set of opportunely changing traffic lights and some expert driving on Will’s part they arrived at Joe’s house in fifteen minutes flat. The frantic father-to-be hurried inside, leaving Amber and Will in the truck. “Phew, that was hairy.” “My driving?” “No, you lummox, that was great. I felt safe as houses with you.” He huffed out a laugh. “Not sure safe’s the greatest compliment you could pay a bloke.” “But lummox is OK, presumably?” He grinned. “I meant what I said, you know, about going for a meal. Or just a drink if you pr…” He stopped midsentence as the door to Joe’s house opened and the big man came out, his arm around the waist of a petite and very pregnant woman.
“Should we help?” Amber asked, sitting upright.
“Give him a sec. This is their moment. If he needs us, he’ll say.”
They watched Joe ease Kathy into the car, solicitously fastening her seatbelt before loading the case into the back. When Will tooted his horn Joe glanced their way. Will gave him the thumbs-up and Joe responded with a tremulous smile. Then he climbed in behind the wheel and headed off to the hospital with his wife.
“Oh, they’re so sweet together.” Amber sniffed, blinking away a tear.
“Twelve hours in labour and she’ll be yelling at him never to go near her again!” Will started up the truck. “Anyway, let’s get you back to the park, then I can get these logs offloaded.”
Amber spent the journey forwarding the rest of her photos, then sat back, waiting for the inevitable reply. Sure enough, just as they pulled in at the park gates, her phone trilled.
“Brace yourself,” she mouthed. She put the phone to her ear and greeted her mother, thanking her for her birthday gifts; a new sweater and a bottle of her favourite perfume. “You’re welcome, darling, but…” There followed a full minute of Phyllis telling her how foolish she’d been, how cavalier with her health and happiness, “and on your birthday, too”. Sitting beside her, Will clamped his lips together and stared straight ahead.
“Mum,” Amber said calmly, as they pulled up beside the same tree, “I’ve had a brilliant morning and met some lovely people. My only problem was finding enough ladders to walk under. With my new friend Will’s help I’ve done twelve, not quite the ‘unlucky thirteen’ I was hoping for but I think my point is made.
“Nothing bad’s happened and I’m now heading home to take Poppy for a walk. Give Dad my love and tell him I’ll see him at the weekend, OK?”
Reluctantly her mother let her go, but only after making her promise not to attempt to find that last ladder. “That really would be pushing your luck.”
“OK, Mum,” Amber said fondly, “I promise.” She disconnected and sat staring at the stark white stump of branch that Will had cut down earlier.
“So I’ll pick you up at seven, shall I?” he said at last.
“Oh! Yes. Seven’s great. Thanks for your help, Will – it’s been fun.”
She slid along the seat, grimacing as the worn plastic piping snagged her tights.
“Looks like I won’t need to look for ladder thirteen, it’s found me!” she said, feeling the familiar zzzip of ruined nylon running up her leg. She twisted round to show him the damage. He pulled a face.
“Oops, sorry! I’ll make it up to you later – promise. Bye, Amber.”
She jumped down and closed the door. Only as he pulled away did it dawn on her that she hadn’t given him her address. She broke into a trot but he was already pulling on to the road.
Deflated, she made for the exit. She was just crossing the street when her phone trilled.
“Here’s a thought, Amber Adams. Maybe you should explain to me where you live?”
“How did you know my number?” she asked in astonishment, climbing the steps to her door.
“I phoned my mobile from yours back at the fire station. Couldn’t take any chances, could I?”
She slid her key in the lock, stooping to greet the ecstatic bundle of fluff that was waiting in the hall.
“Hi, Pops – yes, I missed you too. It’s the pale blue house right opposite the park,” she told Will, raising her voice to be heard above the terrier’s excited yaps. “Number nine. See you later, Will.” His voice was warm in her ear. “With any luck.” Smiling, she disconnected and bent to ruffle Poppy’s fur.
“You know, girl, as birthdays go, this one’s looking like a winner.”
Only as he PULLED AWAY did it DAWN ON HER: he didn’t have her ADDRESS