Sunday, 28 July 2013

Close Up Magic

The first time he came to clean the windows Erin apologised for the state of the flat. ‘I’m experimenting with that just burgled look. I wasn’t expecting anybody.’
He looked around. ‘I can see that.’ Looking at the living room window, he said. ‘Needed doing. Wasn’t sure whether to squeegee them or Hoover them.’ He read the words written in the dust on the inside of the windows. ‘Shall I do the insides?’
Erin shook her head. The last time she saw the dreaded Colin, he’d dampened a finger and written ‘I was here,’ in the dust. She hadn’t washed it away even now, but then she hadn’t emptied the vacuum cleaner for two years.
She offered the window cleaner a hot drink.
He asked for coffee and said, ‘I like my coffee like I like my women, full of piss and vinegar.’
Erin liked the line but it felt too prepared. She’d have said ‘I bet you say that to everybody,’ but didn’t want to encourage him, so she said, ‘You’ll have it as it comes and like it.’

He started coming regularly. After months she asked his name. When Jim came in to fill his bucket, they’d chat. It surprised her how easy she found this. They’d talk about the news, the telly. He’d talk about his weekends, about his flatmate Chris who’d always wanted a shed, so had done out the cupboard under the stairs as one.
Erin found herself buying in biscuits for when Jim came; decent ones with more packet than biscuit. Then, one Friday he seemed anxious to get away. Refusing a coffee he said, ‘Can’t stop. Got a bit of a blind date, as it goes.’ A sheepish smile crossed his face. ‘Friend of a friend. Tash they call her.’
‘Dozy sounding name.’
‘Think it’s short for Natasha.’
Erin sniggered. ‘Either that or she’s actually got a tache.’
Over the coming days, irritability crept up on her like drunkenness. Back at work she saw it in the faces of the claimants when she spoke to them; the initial puzzled wince, the hardening of the features. She saw it in the knowing glances passed between colleagues.
Next time she saw him they exchanged the usual pleasantries about their respective plans for the weekend. Then, staring into his coffee, Jim said, ‘Bit of a disaster with that Natasha.’
Erin gave him a bored look. ‘Oh?’ Before she could properly enjoy his discomfort, he went and spoilt everything. Simply, without embarrassment, he said, ‘There’s this cellar bar in Greenwich. Has jazz on some nights, but apart from that it’s alright. Wondered if you fancied going there Saturday.’
‘Oh, hold on, this Saturday? Tomorrow, you mean?
He smiled. ‘Yeah.’
‘Actually, I’ve just remembered I’m doing something.’
He nodded, understood.
Erin fetched her purse and counted out the money to show him he should go.
Her weekend was the usual, as lonely as a launderette.

Monday lunchtime, Mandy was waiting for her outside the Jobcentre, with Ruby in her buggy. They walked to Ferranti Park. While Ruby toddled on the tarmac, Mandy asked Erin about her morning.
‘Usual, really. Some daft training nonsense, first thing. We had to brainstorm a one sentence mission statement to go on our name badges. I wanted to suggest, “Doing a shitty job so you don’t have to.”’
Mandy looked thoughtful.
Erin touched her knee. ‘Not you, sweetheart. You’re alright.’ Starting her sandwich, she said, ‘Otherwise, a cushy morning. Had me doing an exit survey. Stood by the door trying to talk the punters into joining Exit.’
Mandy smiled. ‘One way to get the numbers down.’
Erin asked about Mandy’s weekend.
‘Went to the Sahara. Singles night. Some dick hands me his phone and says, “Here you are love, phone the babysitter and tell her you’ve pulled.’ Mandy laughed. ‘I scrolled through the names and rang the only woman on there that wasn’t his mum. Said her bloke was trying to pull me. Priceless. He looked so sick.’ She watched Ruby sitting alone on the see-saw. ‘I’m not even looking.’
Erin nodded. ‘Me neither.’
‘You should get back on the horse.’
There’d been nobody since Colin. Mandy once secretly put Erin’s details on a dating website, meaning well. When she let her know, Erin was livid. The first person to respond sounded ridiculously young on the phone. They’d arranged to meet at Charing Cross. She described herself for the purposes of identification. He complained the description was too vague. He said, ‘It’s like me saying, “I look like the ugly one out of Radiohead.” It’s like, give us a tiny clue, yeah?’ She didn’t get the reference. It made her feel ancient, so she stood him up.
Erin finished eating and looked at Mandy. ‘Actually, I got asked out.’
‘Yeah? Who he?’
‘Just this bloke.’ She looked across at the flats opposite. ‘Seems alright. You remember Andy, the agency worker when we were in the home? B.O. Always wore that tanktop. This bloke reminds me of him.’
Mandy cocked her head. ‘Stink, does he?’
Erin pursed her lips. ‘I knocked him back.’
‘Christ, Erin! Give him a go. I’ll only nag the arse off you, if you don’t.’

They found a table. Jim indicated the drunks clustered at the bar. ‘Think they reach the bottom of the stairs and can’t get out again.’
‘Like wasps in a jar?’
They looked around the room for a long few minutes. Jim sucked at his bottled lager and said, ‘Wish they’d give you a list of dos and don’t for first dates.’
Erin helped him. ‘Yeah. Like, if they ask about your day, don’t admit to spending it flossing and thinking of stuff to say.’
‘Yeah. And if she says she’s likes men who express their innermost emotions, don’t blurt out “I’ve got a lot of angry and mistrustful feelings towards women; how am I doing so far?”’
Erin grinned. ‘That’s it. If she says she likes getting caught in summer rain, don’t get all enthusiastic and say it’s great because the streets turn into one big wet tee-shirt competition.’
Their awkwardness dissolved but made a later return that Erin couldn’t understand. She asked about his job, said how it couldn’t be much fun, out in all winds and weathers.
He shrugged. ‘Not really my main thing.’
‘Which is?’
‘I do magic. Close up magic. Conjuring, you’d call it.’
Erin lit a cigarette. ‘Make a living then?’
He smiled. ‘I get by, one way and another. What about you? Got a daytime gig?’
She mumbled that she worked in an office.
He asked if she enjoyed it.
She shrugged. ‘Sometimes you get punters coming in with good names. Mr Brilliant. Betty Pond. Derek Alabaster, Felicity Upright, Mary Mary.’
He smiled. ‘What was she like?’
‘Pretty easygoing, actually.’
Jim nodded. ‘Ah, the old double-bluff.’
‘Filed some papers last week for someone whose middle name was Helium.’
‘Did you phone him up to see if he had a squeaky voice?’
Erin began to like the way Jim knew what she meant. She stubbed her cigarette. ‘Other than that, it’s shit. Aggravation wise, it’s half a notch up from driving a night bus.’
‘What sort of office is it?’
‘Dole office. On the High Street.’
Then came the awkwardness. His face fell. Erin couldn’t read why. They kissed at the bus stop. He initiated it, but it felt to her like it was an act of politeness.

She rang him, but on the phone he was cooler, less funny, cagey. She started getting his answering machine. She kept thinking of something he’d told her about magic, how its success depended on the relationship with the audience. You needed to make them care, then make them wait.
He came on the usual day to do the windows. Having filled his bucket he couldn’t get outside quickly enough. Later, he downed his coffee like a drunk at last orders making time for another. Evading her gaze he said, ‘I’ve been thinking. We obviously get on. Almost like mates.’ He coughed. ‘I’m not really after a relationship just now.’
She looked at him. ‘Who says I am?’
He relaxed. ‘I’d like us to be friends.’
Erin lit a cigarette. ‘I’ve got enough friends already.’
‘Really? You only ever mention Mandy.’
Erin’s voice sharpened. ‘I won’t be needing the windows done again.’
‘Fair enough.’
Three days later, she’d just got in from work when the doorbell rang. It was Jim. He said, ‘I should explain.’
Erin stepped out onto the landing. ‘You can explain out here.’
‘It’s not you.’
‘Don’t even bother finishing that sentence.’
Jim watched somebody go into the flat next door. ‘It’s awkward. I’m signing on.’
‘You’d better come in. Five minutes, though.’
He sat on the sofa. She stayed standing. He said, ‘I always meant to sign off but never got up straight enough money-wise.’
‘You must make enough on the windows, surely.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s only part-time. I need to put the hours in on the magic.’
Erin pulled a face. ‘It’s only tricks, isn't it?’
He looked pained. ‘Means a lot to me. Haven’t you ever had anything like that?’
She shrugged. ‘Nope.’ You grew out of that sort of thing. She’d had daft daydreams in her teens, but they’d fallen away like puppy fat. She sat down beside him. He made to speak but she stopped him. ‘Hold on, I’m thinking.’
Eventually she spoke. She counted her conditions off on her fingers. He must never transfer his claim to the Deptford office. He couldn’t clean her windows again. He must sign off as soon as possible. She paused. ‘We’ll have to be careful when we’re out. Not look too coupley .’
Jim frowned.
Erin caught his look. ‘Someone’s always making themselves busy.’ She told him about a workmate who scanned the Mercury’s marriage pages for evidence of claimants secretly cohabiting.
Jim brightened. ‘I’ll cook you tea round mine if you like.’ He touched her hand. ‘Make up for pissing you about.’
At the bus stop he told her he lived near the Rivoli ballroom.
‘I know it,’ Erin said. ‘Square building, domed roof, crimped down the edges.’
Jim looked puzzled.
Erin slapped her forehead. ‘Hold on. I’m thinking of the Ravioli ballroom.’
Jim laughed. ‘I know the place. Went in there once. It was packed. With a dodgy meat-based filling.’
‘That’s the one.’
The night was wintry so they sat at the back of the bus, where it was warmest. As they passed, Jim pointed to the sign on the Marquis of Granby. ‘Look at the N. The sign-writer must have had a twitch on him like Jack Douglas.’ As they went by the Monsoon curry house he said, ‘Reckon the same bloke did the sign here. That ‘O’s a good four inches up from the other letters.’
Erin laughed. ‘Are you autistic or something?’
Jim looked out of the window. ‘Me dad was a sign-writer. I was born under a bad sign. According to me mum it was him who painted it.’
‘Is he about?’
‘He baled out early. Before that he was always disappearing. Probably where I get the magic from.’
The bus filled at each stop. Erin budged up next to Jim and relaxed against him as they rode on. At Brockley Cross he wiped condensation from the window and pointed outside.
Erin looked. ‘The Cross Dry Cleaners? Looks okay to me.’
Jim grinned. ‘The sign’s fine, but I always imagine the bloke who works in there being permanently furious.’
They bought beer in Costcutter and climbed the stairs to his flat. It was so tidy Erin wondered if Jim might be gay.
‘Flatmate not around?’
Jim looked embarrassed. ‘Gave him two bob to go to the pictures.’
‘He’ll have to sneak in through the fire exit then.’
Jim cooked while Erin sat on the sofa and started drinking.
Soon the chilli was ready. After the first mouthful Erin exclaimed, ‘It’s good!’
Jim buffed his nails on his chest. ‘Man cannot live by bread alone.’
‘Hence the toaster.’ She looked at the food. ‘When I do rice it comes out like the scrapings from a bill poster’s bucket.’
They ate and chatted. Talk turned to the subject of exes. Jim explained how he’d not long been ditched for a bloke called Jazz. He said, ‘People called him that because nobody really liked him but they didn’t want to seem uncool by admitting it.’
‘What went wrong?’
‘We wanted different things. I wanted a secure relationship, she wanted her head examined.’
‘Must’ve seen something in you.’
Jim toyed with his food. ‘Just thought I was funny. Mostly I wasn't even meaning to be. We met at a party. She said she was an arts outreach worker. I misheard her because of the music. I said, “So what do you do, go round the pubs helping them set up a team?”’ I thought she’d said darts.’ He shook his head. ‘I flossed every day for two years for that prat.’
He said, ‘How about you?’
She shrugged. ‘Haven’t been up to much in that department.’ She lit a cigarette. ‘There was this Colin.’ She paused. ‘Bit of a let-down.’
Jim nodded.
‘We were on the bus once. This bloke was staring at me. I said, “Do you want a photo?” He said, “What for, to scare off dogs?” Afterwards, Colin made out he never heard him. I didn’t want him to clump the bloke, just admit he’d heard what I’d heard.’
She flicked ash on her empty plate. ‘He used to ask me why I was so angry. I’d say, “How long have you got?” He’d say, “Probably not long enough.”’
Jim turned so he could look her in the face. ‘Must admit, you do seem a bit humpy sometimes.’
Erin nodded.
‘Any particular reason?’
‘How long have you got?’
He pushed out his bottom lip like a builder giving an estimate. ‘I haven’t got much else on just now to be honest.’

It was some weeks before she saw Mandy again. They arranged to meet in Starburger.
You must’ve shagged him by now, surely to Christ,’ Mandy said.
‘I didn’t think he saw me that way.’
You don’t see you that way. Any good?’
‘Okay. Hairy shoulders.’
Erin laughed. ‘I know. Big epaulettes of minge. I used to watch the wrestling on a Saturday. Mick McManus had all that going on. Never thought I could fancy anyone like that.’
Mandy’s voice softened. ‘Never say never.’
Erin exhaled shakily, sipped her tea. ‘I feel a bit wobbly, as it goes. He told me something.’
Mandy snorted. ‘Surprise me; he’s married.’
‘No. He told me he loves me.’
Mandy smirked and whispered, ‘Before or after he came?’
‘Both,’ Erin said.
‘Ooh. What are you going to do?’
‘Run for the hills is me first instinct.’
‘Don’t do that.’
The food arrived. They paused until the waitress went away.
Been seeing a lot of him, actually. He’s nice,’ Erin went on. ‘He’s gentle, he’s kind, he’s reliable.’
Mandy laughed. ‘Christ! Sounds like a job reference for a lollipop lady.’
He makes an effort.’
‘Ha. What’s that like?’
‘You know. Little things. The odd compliment now and then, all that.’
The dreaded Colin wasn’t big on compliments, although he had once told her she had reasonable tits. It sounded daft, like she had the sort of breasts you could sit down and have a sensible discussion with.
‘Sounds alright.’
‘Suppose so.’ Erin faltered. ‘Feels like I’m losing something.’
Mandy’s tone cooled. ‘No pleasing you, is there?’
Erin looked at Mandy, then at Ruby. It came tumbling out, about how she’d resigned herself to spending the rest of her life with a pile of magazines down the other side of the bed. About how she thought all this with Jim might just turn out to be a con or an illusion.
Mandy listened, looking out at the traffic. When her friend finished she stroked her shoulder. ‘You worry too much. You’re knitting up a problem out of nothing.’
Erin’s eyes started welling up. She mumbled, ‘I don’t want to show myself up.’
Mandy passed her a tissue. ‘What is it you want?’
Erin leaned forward. ’I want to be loved. And I want to be left alone.’
When they parted Mandy hugged her and said ‘Don’t let fear hold you back, sweetheart.’
Erin looked at her. ‘That’s what fear’s for isn’t it?’

So she continued to see him, despite herself. She began to relax with him after Mandy had made an excuse to give him the once over. She’d invited them both to Ruby’s birthday party. After the third snot-faced toddler had climbed onto her she’d started pointing at Jim, saying, ‘Go over and ask the nice man to show you a trick.’ They liked him. As the party ended she’d watched the children babbling about Jim to their mums, stumbling over the word “magician”, watched the mothers weighing him up, asking for his business card.
Weeks passed. The trees were coming into leaf like in that poem she read at school. Erin was just thinking of him as she walked home from work, looking forward to telling him about the latest daft idea from management. They wanted to make the office a happier place to visit, by hiring some clowns to meet and greet the claimants. She imagined saying to him, ‘Don’t know about hiring some clowns, they want to sack a few.’ She came out of Pagnell Street foot tunnel and looked out onto Fordham Park as she waited to cross the road. A family played on the grass. The man was giving the young boy a piggyback. Erin squinted to see better, and began to feel dizzy.
As the man bounced the boy on his shoulders the woman called to him. The wind threw the words into Erin’s face. ‘Don’t get him overexcited, Jim.’
Erin scuttled down the street alongside the park. She climbed to the top of a grass bank, and peered over at the three. Jim and the boy began playing football. The woman moped reluctantly in a makeshift goalmouth.
Erin watched her. Who the fuck was this? She didn’t look like the arty type he’d mentioned. And what was she to Jim? Erin thought of the man who’d tried to pick up Mandy in the Sahara. Led by the dick, the lot of them.
The woman wasn’t all that, stood there smoking, skinny, hunched, with her weird little teeth, like bits of wood. And what about the kid? Hers, or worse, theirs? She watched Jim let him score another goal. He was about four, with a soft, round face. He didn’t resemble Jim particularly, but kids that age all looked the same to her. The two seemed completely at ease together. It gave Erin a queasy, nose-pressed-against-the-glass feeling.
The game ended, the boy claiming victory with some fantastical score. Jim and the woman led the boy to the park gates. Erin felt an ache in her chest like some part of her had just been removed.
At the gates, Jim went one way, the woman and child went the other. Before parting, Jim and the woman hugged and he kissed her cheek. The child stood off to one side, looking embarrassed.
She’d seen enough. Scrambling down the slope she broke the heel off one shoe. Across the road a man walked his dog. He watched her with a curious smile as his dog nonchalantly shat in the middle of the pavement. Erin hobbled home.
She drank three pots of tea in the dark and rang the phone company. Then she rang Jim.
‘I’m not seeing you any more.’
There was a moment’s silence. ‘Erin?’
‘I saw you. It’s all off.’
Jim said, ‘What’s this about? Saw me where, doing what?’
‘Don’t make it worse by lying.’
‘I don’t understand, mate.’
‘Don’t call me “mate”. In fact, don’t call me.’ She went on, needlessly. ‘I’ve barred your number. And your mobile. You can block up to three numbers for no extra cost.’
Jim spluttered. ‘Thanks for the household hint.’
Erin put down the receiver.

The doorbell rang. Jim’s eyes were at the open letterbox, then his mouth. ‘Can we talk? I’ve worked it out. She’s my sister.’
‘Do what?’
‘In the park. My sister, Denise.’
Erin grunted. ‘Prove it.’
Jim disappeared from the letterbox. The slot reopened. A woman looked through. ‘Alright?’
Erin opened the door.
Jim touched the woman’s elbow. ‘Show her.’
She reached inside her puffer jacket and brought out a piece of beige paper. ‘It’s a bit tatty.’
Erin read the birth certificate. It was true. She could see it now in the woman’s face; the jaw, the eyes slightly too far apart. She looked from Jim to his sister, at a loss.
Jim’s sister made her excuses, throwing Jim a questioning look as she went.
Inside the flat Erin gave him an uncertain smile. ‘You never mentioned her before. How come?’
Jim said, ‘Didn’t feel right, going on about family when you can’t talk about yours.’
Erin nodded. ‘There’s nothing there.’ She sighed. ‘When you came in earlier, that’s the first time I’d seen you looking angry. I almost felt relieved. Suppose you trust what you’re used to.’
She told him about her time in care. All the girls would sit smoking on the stairs last thing at night. Mr Doble, the care-worker, would join them, and sit on a lower step so he could look up their nighties. She told him about Carol, whose so-called uncle used to get her to hold his cock while he peed. She recalled the time she got caught shoplifting. When she got back to the home one of the girls said, ‘You want to get out there and sell your front if you’re skint.’ She explained how she’d learnt to push people off.
She lit a cigarette. ‘Feel like me granddad sometimes.’
‘How come?’
‘He never got used to decimalisation so he always converted everything back into old money. Feel like him. Bit stuck.’
Jim nodded.
She fetched an ashtray. On returning she said, ‘Seeing you with the kid really turned me over. The way you seemed so comfortable.’
Jim smiled. ‘Alright when you can hand them back, aren’t they?’
‘Are they?’ She twitched her cigarette distractedly. ‘I don’t honestly want them. Used to think it was about the money, how it wouldn’t be much of a life on what I bring in. Their toys from the poundshop, everything else with blue and white stripes on.’ She looked into Jim’s face. ‘It’s me though. What you’re not shown early on, you have to imagine later, and I can’t manage it.’
Jim said, ‘Fair enough. None of my business, is it?’
‘Doesn’t it bother you?’
‘Do you mean, do I want kids?’
‘Sort of.’
He shook his head. ‘Rather be shot out of a cannon. Hardly grown up myself.’ He cleared his throat for longer than seemed natural, then looked at her. ‘I signed off. Can manage it now with the kids’ parties. Chris is moving out – Leeds somewhere.'
Erin sensed something coming, felt queasy.
Jim said, ‘Come and stay for a bit. If it goes alright, maybe you could rent this place out.’
She thought about him and she thought about her flat. She wouldn’t be giving it up exactly. She said, ‘Can I think about it?’
He nodded, smiling.
It was turning dark outside. Erin stood to draw the curtains. Jim touched her arm. ‘Don’t just yet.’
He fetched hot water from the kitchen and began cleaning the insides of the living room windows. Erin watched as the last words of the dreaded Colin disappeared.
Jim finished and said, ‘Not much of a view but you might as well be able to see it.’
They stood at the window, holding hands, and looking out over New Cross Road to the lights of the college library.


A Last Dance

His wife died. He came home from the funeral, drew the curtains and went to bed. The curtains stayed closed until his daughter visited a week later. He grew a beard because there was no reason not to. He began to smell because baths were a bother. He took to eating spaghetti, cold, straight from the tin.
After some months, his daughter took him in hand. She made arrangements. She owed him that at least, she felt.
The bereavement counsellor had a bland smell about him, like soap from the pound shop. There was a flowchart in his office, illustrating the recognised stages of the grieving process. It looked to Des like a badly drawn map with no scenery. The counsellor asked him if he could identify his current state on the flowchart. Des looked at the chart, scanning it for the word 'tired'. It wasn't there, so he just shrugged. On his pad, the counsellor wrote the words, 'Noticeable lack of affect'.
At the next session the counsellor greeted him, then sat silently for some minutes while Des looked at him, bewildered. Eventually the counsellor said, 'Silence is okay, you know.' The silence resumed until the counsellor spoke again. 'Have you had any thoughts since the last time we met?'
Fidgetting, Des said, 'I hardly feel like I knew her.'
'Go on.'
'I was away with work a lot, on the road, repping. She developed a life of her own really.'
The counsellor nodded. 'Much in the way of mutual friends, shared interests?'
'Only our girl. Our daughter.'
'Any pastimes?'
'She liked the tea dances. At the Rivoli ballroom.'
'So you shared that, then?'
Des shook his head. 'I let her go on her own.'
The expression on the counsellor's face decided Des against ever seeing him again. As the session ended he reeled off a to-do list for Des of what he called action points; take up a new hobby, find out more about Pam's interests, speak to one new person every week. Des felt like a child being sent out on a shopping errand.

Halfway to the Rivoli he got off the bus, having decided to turn round and go home. He sat on a wall and thought of Pam and how she'd always ask him to go dancing and he'd always make an excuse. In an off-licence, he bought a quarter bottle of vodka, then he went in the cemetery to drink it.
Arriving at the ballroom, he dodged the flow of dancers and found a corner. Soon he sensed somebody standing in his light. He looked up from examining his hands to see a white-haired woman of around his age.
She smiled. 'I wasn't sure it was you. With the beard. You've lost some weight. We met, you know…' Her voice fell away.
They'd met, certainly. It was Mary, Pam's friend and sometime dance partner. Des had met her for the first time at the funeral. He remembered thinking her outfit a bit blowsy, given the occasion.
She smiled again. 'Are you dancing?'
Des looked past her to the circling dancers. 'I was thinking of sitting these ones out.'
She took his arm. He was struck by the strength of her grip. He let himself be guided across the gleaming floor. His clumsiness filled him with an odd, unaccountable shame.
As the tea dance ended, she released him.
He said, 'Not really my thing this.'
She laughed. 'I'll say. You dance like you got a book out of the library about it. And took it back without reading it.'
He winced. Looking past her again he said, 'I could really do with talking. To you, I mean. Not here though.'
She looked him up and down and nodded. 'There's a lunch club at the Well, top of the High Street. I'm often there.'
He said, 'Thanks,' and felt ashamed again.

As with the dancing, so with the lunch club. He felt a stranger. The smell of mince that hung in the air turned his stomach. The place, it seemed to him, spoke of the end of things. In his head, he named the club the funeral directors’ waiting room.
He'd never been one for small talk. Pam, on their rare trips away, would happily chat to strangers on trains, but he couldn't see the point. And these people here! It was a puzzle to him, the way people could apparently become more irritating and stupid as they progressed through life, when, logically, they could be expected to become wiser and better adjusted.
And so he gravitated to Mary, lunchtime after lunchtime. He wanted to talk about the present, to seem competent and interesting but it all felt like an act. So they talked about Pam instead.
There came to be two things that he wanted to ask Mary. He asked them both on the same day. He swallowed the last of his pudding, dabbed at his mouth with his hankie and, without looking at her, said, 'So, did Pam ever used to talk about me much?'
She wouldn't look at him, and then she did. 'We'd talk about all sorts really. Her job up Iceland. What the girls there were up to. Your girl. All sorts.'
'But not me.'
'Not loads I suppose. Sometimes. She was very loyal.'
Des frowned. 'I don't suppose we did much together. I was busy. Mouths to feed.' He knew it sounded like an excuse and probably was one.
She looked at him, gently this time. 'Bit chalk and cheese, weren't you? You two.'
He nodded. 'I had my interests too. In fact, I was meaning to say.' He cleared his throat. 'I was hoping to ask you.'

She balked at the suggestion of the country proper so they took a bus to Oxleas Wood. They didn't stay as long as Des planned, partly because Mary had no sensible shoes. As it came on to rain, they took shelter in a nearby café.
Carefully sipping his tea he said, 'Perhaps I should have made sandwiches. The prices are a bit steep here.'
Mary made a small 'Hmph,' sound under her breath and said 'Doesn't hurt to push the boat out once in a while. You only live once.'
They both looked down the hill at the greenery, squinting slightly as the sun came out again. Mary said, 'Did you used to do this with Pam?'
Des shook his head. 'Don't think she was interested.'
'Did you ask her?'
'She wasn't interested.'
'Well you asked me.'
'But you're interested.'
Mary shrugged. 'It's more that I'm being…' She paused and lit a cigarette. 'Perhaps you should have asked her.' She blew smoke through her nose. 'I think it hurt her a bit, the way you shut her out.'
'I never meant to shut her out. Never. We were just different.'
'Do you think that she was happy?'
Des shook his head again. 'Don't suppose either of us were, particularly. Or expected it. Think we were both brought up to eat what was put in front of us.'
Flicking ash, Mary said, 'Maybe we should call it a day.'
He looked at her, anxious. 'How do you mean?'
'Get back before it rains again, I mean.'
On the bus back, he said he might like to go dancing again. She patted his arm and said, 'There's lessons you can go to. I'll give you the number.'

He didn't quite have two left feet, but he wasn't a natural and well he knew it. It was embarrassment that hobbled him. He felt self-conscious attempting a simple waltz; how people braved the Charleston was beyond him. But the tutor was patient and the women seemed glad he was there. Perhaps because he was the only man in the class, they were kind to him. And for some time now, he'd felt a stranger to kindness.

At the lunch club for the first time in ages, he deliberately arrived before Mary so she would have to choose. She came in, waved and joined him. They exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, and then there was a pause.
Quietly, Des said, 'I've been noticing my hands lately. How old they look.'
Mary said, 'We're none of us getting any younger.'
Speaking in as level a tone as he could manage, he said, 'I didn't do that well by Pam. I know it. But I can change. I'm willing to have a go at being different.'
Frowning, Mary asked, 'How's the dancing going?'
He sat back, distracted from his train of thought. Then he gathered himself and said, 'Not so dusty. I'm the only chap there. Quite sought after, I am.'
'Good for you. They're always short of blokes.'
Des smiled. 'Not making you jealous am I?'
This wasn't going well. But he decided to battle on. 'I was wondering if you'd like to go dancing. At the Rivoli. I feel ready, pretty much.'
Mary sighed. 'Well, I'll be there anyway. I'm regular there, aren't I?'

He only managed three dances with her, and one of those was a gentleman's excuse me. As the afternoon ground on he felt as if every cell in his body was settling near his feet, like sediment. He caught up with her at the bus stop. A knot of youths was milling around in the shelter. He stood near her. In a strained, breathy whisper he said, 'I asked you dancing for a reason, you know. I really quite like you.' The words sounded strange, as if he was speaking a second language and was parroting something he'd learnt by heart from a phrase book.
Mary took him by the elbow and led him out of earshot of the youths. Des had once been made redundant in his early thirties. The manager who told him the news led him into his office with the same touch on the elbow.
She sat on the low wall beyond the bus-shelter and Des did the same. Watching the passing cars, she said, 'I'm really not looking for romance at my age. Not that I'm past it, mind. I wouldn't be averse to some good company and a bit of the other. But not love again. I've had my turn.'
Des thought for a moment, wondered if this was a clue, a kind of invitation. He blurted, 'I've been thinking of a weekend away. Brighton. It's only a pound each way on Megabus. Plus the booking fee.'
'I don't think so, Des. No thanks.'
He said, 'We could tell the bed and breakfast that we're married, if that bothers you.'
She said, 'You don't really know me, do you? I don't lie, and I don't live by what others think of me.'
'What then?'
'You're a nice man, Des. I like you better than I expected.'
'From what Pam said.'
'I thought you liked me. From the way you were acting. Being nice to me.'
Mary cleared her throat and lit a cigarette. 'I sort of promised Pam that I'd keep an eye out. Make sure you were coping.'
Des smarted. 'But I came to you.'
She looked sheepish. 'I know. I wasn't going to bother. The way I saw it, I owed it to her but I didn't owe it to you. But then, there you were.'
'What had she been saying about me?'
'Nothing drastic. Just about not really being there.'
'Just that?'
She sighed. 'I think she thought you might be playing away. Back when you were on the road.'
Des stood, struggling not to raise his voice. 'I never. Really, I never.'
She stood too. 'I believe you. I think you were just being you. Off on your own somewhere in Desworld.'

He surprised himself on the day, making the best of it as he did. A bit like cocking a snook. He made sandwiches for the journey. He ironed and packed a change of clothes. He was conscious of looking after himself for once.
Brighton had changed since last he was there. The old atmosphere of polite sleaze had gone. Now the streets were full of girls with frightening pieces of metal embedded in their faces.
The guest house was pleasant enough, although there was a slight catty smell of damp about it. He was reminded of his days on the road, the freedom of being unknown in a strange town. When the crowds and the youngsters and the couples got too much he went for walks in the surrounding countryside. On his last day he had time to kill before his coach left. He went down to the beach for a last look at the sea and a think.
As well that Mary had refused him, he thought. Too much of the past there, muddying the waters. He thought of the Rivoli, about whether he'd go back there and give the dancing another try. She would be there and he would feel awkward. And besides, he was no Fred Astaire. But there were people there, and he needed people, however much they might disappoint. He decided to toss for it. Heads for yes. The coin spun upwards, seemed to pause in the breeze, then fell at his feet with a clink. It was tails. He bent to pick it up, muttering, 'Alright, best of three then.'

Mr Decent’s Entitlement

As usual, Gloria chose the film; Battleship Potemkin. Andy started sneaking glances at his watch even before his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He saw angry faces and hurtling prams and thought, I could go to work and see poor people getting arsey.
In the bar over coffee, a strange flatness hit him as Gloria talked about her recent selection as shop steward. Later, she wheeled out her favourite anecdote. The delivery was the same as ever. ‘I remember back when Major was in. He was on the radio doing his “the welfare state’s safe in our hands” bit, and he dropped this classic Freudian slip. He said, “We want to make sure the need’s concentrated where it needs to be.” Not the help, the need, yeah?’
‘That’s it exactly, you know?’
Andy looked at her as if she was speaking in some dialect he was too tired to remember or decipher. ‘Yeah. Something like that.’
She lit a cigarette. 'Do you have to be so cynical?'
'Yeah, yeah, I know. I know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I'd be perfect running a pound shop.'
'It's not a joke, Andy. It gets me down, you being like this.'
He sipped his coffee. It tasted as if the machine hadn't been cleaned properly.
He hadn’t always been this way. Early on, the job seemed to offer a mixture of affiliation and superiority that suited him. He'd look at the claimants and think, there but for the grace of me goes me. And occasionally he’d been amazed at the way people managed.
It hurt to know that the Andy that Gloria had started dating two years before, no longer existed. In the staff-room, out of nowhere, she'd asked, 'Did you know people call you Saint Andy, behind your back?’
He'd sighed. ‘Oh. That balls.’
They began to notice each other. They’d talk by the photocopier, of weekends just gone, films seen, books read, things done, things yet to be done. When she asked him out, he stood before her, wishing he were elsewhere. He thought of excuses, then contemplated another Sunday of toast and envy and Radio 4. Another Sunday walking to Greenwich, going early to avoid the late-rising couples, freshly fucked smug. He said yes.
He watched the remaining inch of Gloria’s Marlborough, and considered asking for a cigarette.
As he returned from lunch the next day, she called his name and caught up with him. She stood fidgetting with the lighter in her hand.
He said, ‘I was thinking we could do another movie.’
She rubbed her nose with her thumb. ‘There’s not much out that I fancy seeing.’ She looked at the floor behind him. 'I can't really do this anymore.'
'How do you mean?'
'I'll get a box from the offy after work, and drop round with any of your stuff that’s still at my place.'
He made sure he was out when she came. He returned to find a mug, some Y-fronts, her keys to his place, and some CDs in a box on the landing outside his bedsit.
Next morning he arrived at the enquiries section, unbuttoning his jacket as he walked, hoping it made him look annoyed with himself for being late. He took his position at the counter and called his first claimant.
Her cheque was late. Looking at her, he knew what was next. Her face, at first perfectly still, crumpled into weeping as suddenly as a falling wall. She spluttered that the rent was due on Monday. ‘It’s my boy’s birthday. I won’t be able to get him anything.’
‘How old is he?’
He locked his jaw so his muttering showed as no more than a slight flickering of his lips. Well, he’s not going to know any different is he?
He dealt with her and called another ticket. As the next claimant approached Andy noticed his open, slightly blank face.
The man tried to pull the chair closer to the counter but it wouldn't move. He leaned forward, turning to reveal a small beige hearing aid curled in his ear. He frowned and adjusted the device’s controls. He read Andy's name badge. ‘Mr Decent?’
‘Pronounced like dissent?’ the man asked.
‘Descent? Yeah that’s it.’ It was rare to meet someone who could guess without being told. He didn't notice the man watching the movement of his lips as he checked through the claim form.
The claimant frowned again. Poxy bag of shit for temping, was it? Then bag of shit for temping my arse, it seemed like.
Andy scanned the slab of tiny writing crammed into the backdating section of the form. He stopped remembering Sunday and mumbled, I don’t want your life story.
The claimant straightened. He cupped a hand to his ear. 'Did you say something?'
Andy looked at him, surprised. Something in the cupping of the hand swept him back to the age of thirteen, when his muttering began. After the divorce, his dad fell silent. They'd sit in the front room, no television on, no sound from anywhere. Andy would feel words itching behind his teeth. Muffled wisps of speech would leak out like smoke.
His father would cup an ear and say, ‘What say?’
Andy would say, ‘Nothing.’
He rarely saw him now. His father's old silence had long been replaced by torrents of nonsense. Andy would sit there thinking, please stop, as his father banged on about how he liked Songs of Praise except all the hymns, and how firemen had it easy now, not like in the War when they fought fires while being strafed by Stukas.
Andy wrote the man a list of documents still needed and urged him to bring them within a fortnight.
The pain of losing Gloria slowly dulled to a sort of tiredness. Soon it was Easter. He spent the long weekend staring out of the window. On the Tuesday he rose again, returned.
The first claimant was a skinny woman in her thirties. Andy leafed through her renewal claim. At every point where it asked about the claimant’s partner the woman had written; ‘I haven’t got a partner.’ He smiled. Touched a bit of a nerve there, then. He copied her documents and issued a receipt.
The woman stood to leave. ‘See you next year then,’ she said. ‘Unless I win the Lottery.’
He nodded. You’re not down to win anything. Kwiksave Shopper of the Year Award if you’re lucky.
The final claimant was the deaf man. Andy listened to his stretched vowels as he gave his excuses for not providing all the necessary proofs. There was more wow and flutter in his voice than before. His face was flushed. Eventually Andy stood. ‘I'll copy these. You can have another two week's for the other stuff.’
The man said, 'It's a lot of fannying about. Is it worth it? Can't you give me some idea what I'm entitled to?'
Andy shook his head. Thing is, what the fuck am I entitled to? As he headed for the photocopier, he felt sure he heard the claimant say, ‘That’s for you to work out.’
After lunch, Andy heard the shouting man before he saw him. He put his interview sheets in the filing tray. He fetched a new pen from the stationery cupboard. He helped unjam the photocopier. He returned to the counter. Still the man shouted.
He sighed and called the ticket. The man approached. It was hopeless. The man began yelling, ‘Call the fucking Polis, Mr Deceit! Call the fucking Polis!’ He banged the counter. ‘They can’t touch me. I’m the son of God!’
Andy thought, fuck it, and pressed the panic alarm.
His manager, Mel appeared. He stopped the man from claiming to be Jesus long enough to resolve his enquiry, while Andy hovered nearby, feeling useless.
As the shouter left, colleagues gathered. Someone patted Andy’s shoulder. ‘Bad luck,’ they said. ‘What set him off?’
‘Don’t know. Maybe he’d had a rough weekend.’
There were some guilty sniggers. Mel frowned.
At about 4.30 Andy sensed somebody standing behind him. Mel said, ‘Can I see you when you've dealt with this customer?’
In his office, Mel sat behind his desk, looking like somebody in a photo who hates having their picture taken. ‘Just wanted a chat, Andy, before anything has to get boring and official.’
Mel unwound a preamble about equal opportunities and the ‘diverse range of faiths’ practised by staff. His hands lay flat on the desk, as if to stop himself from miming speech marks around these stock phrases. Then he said, 'Bit concerned about that Jesus wisecrack earlier on. Someone’s complained. They haven't made it official yet, but I said I'd have a word.'
Andy said nothing.
Mel continued. 'Part of a bigger picture though, I think, mate. Your timekeeping, for instance. Unfair on the others. Always busiest first thing.’
‘Okay, okay.’
‘I don’t get you, Andy. You’ve got a good face for poker.’
It was true. Andy’s face floated free of his feelings like a buoy severed from the wreckage it signalled.
Mel shifted in his chair. ‘I think you need a change. The visiting team needs someone for maternity cover. I'd like you to try it. It'd be a breather, at least.'
Andy felt like he wasn’t properly inside his body. He nodded. 'Okay.'
As he left, Mel said, ‘Nobody wants to be here mate. Not me, not you, not the punters.’

He sat through the week of training in an airless room on the fifth floor, feeling like a fly trapped between the panes of double glazing. The visits began. He scrutinised the home-life of the suspect, assuring them it was all quite routine. He sat in the stuffy flats of the vague and bird-like old, the ill, the terrified. He drank tea like a concerned relative, verified evidence of lives going wrong.
Then, one morning things changed. Standing on the doorstep of the terrace, he recognised the handwriting on the application form. He leaned hard on the door-bell, wondering if it had been adapted for the deaf man.
A tired-looking woman in her fifties answered the door.
'Hello. Is Mr Evans in please? Ken Evans?'
The woman removed her cigarette. 'No love. He's got the day off work. He'll be down the allotment if you want him.'
Later, the slick ease with which he stepped into a lie nauseated him. 'Oh yeah. Course. Remind me the road that's on.'
He lurked carefully at the end of Stanley Street. On a small plot, a lone figure stood, hoeing. The man turned. It was him.
A sharp pain hit Andy, as if somebody had kicked him in the solar plexus. He levered forward, pressed the heel of his hand against his chest. He fought to gulp air into him.
Without looking again at Evans, he stumbled towards New Cross Road. His first instinct was to throw the manila folder in his hand over the nearest fence and run away. Instead, he wandered the back-streets. He ducked into a bleak pub on Tanner's Hill. He couldn't just fabricate the details of the visit. But he knew there was something wrong about Evans' claim, and that he couldn't stomach shopping him.
He had a pint to help him think. Then he had three more to stop himself thinking. He ambled back to the allotment. He picked his way along the paths between the plots and tapped on the door of Ken's shed. There was no reply.
He peered round the edge of the door and jolted backwards as he caught sight of Ken. 'Christ! I didn't think you were here.'
Ken reached up and turned on his hearing aid. Recognition spread across his face, then puzzlement. 'Is this official?'
Andy leaned against the door jamb. 'Why?'
'You look half-cut, is all.'
Andy screwed up his face. 'I don't know what to do.'
Ken swung the door open and gestured him in.
The smell of creosote made Andy’s mouth water. He managed to say something professional-sounding. 'I've got to do these routine checks, and something we look for is people doing undeclared work.'
Ken's voice rose unsteadily. 'I'm not working.'
'I spoke to your partner. She said you had the day off work.'
Ken quietly repeated, 'I'm not working.' Eventually he said, 'I haven't told the wife I got laid off.'
'She's relying on me.'
At a loss, Andy looked out of the shed's small window at the wind in the trees.
Ken opened his flask. 'What can I do?'
Andy's chest tightened again. 'I'll work something out.'
Declining Ken's offer of tea, he left. He went straight home. Later he called his friend Frank; there was nobody else left. Frank listened as he related the events of the day. Suddenly, there was a burst of female grunting from Frank's end of the line.
Casually Frank said, 'Sorry about that. Video's just come off pause.'
'What should I do?'
The video was silenced. 'Get down the doctors. Sounds like you had a panic attack. That's got to be good for three weeks off with stress.'

The GP wrote the certificate and slid it across her desk. 'Happy with that?'
Andy looked at the end date for the certificate and thanked the doctor.
By Friday, he'd hired every film he wanted to see from the video shop. Telling himself he was only going out to buy milk, he put on his jacket and left the flat. And he walked to the allotment on Stanley Street.
He tapped again at the shed door. Ken opened it.
'Mind if I come in?'
'If you want.'
Ken poured two cups of tea from his flask. He looked at Andy's clothes. 'You in mufti then?'
'Dress-down Friday or something, is it?'
Andy shook his head. 'No. I'm sick.'
'Yeah. Sick of work.'
'Not surprised, that place. Not natural, putting up with all that aggravation. Can't be good for you. I've seen you there. Don't know how you can stay so calm.'
'Because I don't give a toss, that's how.'
'I don't believe that, as it goes.'
Andy stood and looked out the window. 'I used to believe in it. Felt right really. Like, if you're in the shit, you shouldn't have to just swim for it, that sort of idea.'
He told him about getting moved down from the top-stream after his parents divorced. When he descended, Alan and Colin took him on. They were the boys at the back of any class, boys who never had a pen with them. He once overheard one of the top-stream saying, ‘Looks like the smell-bags have adopted Andy.’
Andy smiled. 'Drove my dad nuts. He wanted me straight out of school and into a bank.’
Ken nodded. 'My dad and me was the opposite of you. Like chalk and chalk. All I wanted was to be a joiner like him. Didn't quite happen though.'
Ken looked at his hands. 'The apprenticeship never worked out. I could do all the stuff, but there was mix-ups with the paperwork.'
The sadness in his voice silenced Andy.
The following Friday, he went at lunchtime, bringing beers to lighten the mood.
'What's that in aid of?'
'Cheer us up a bit. You seemed a bit low. Memories and that. Bet you were shit-hot at your job.'
Ken shook his head. 'As it happens, not really. I was never all that. The younger blokes used to humour me, but they all reckoned I was slow and no good. Then this started going.' He pointed at his ear. People thought he was getting careless. He'd walk away and leave the ripsaw running, hearing it only as a distant hum. When the time came for redundancies, he was an obvious choice.
He took sandwiches from his rucksack, unwrapped them, and offered one to Andy. Eyeing the beers doubtfully he said, 'I'll say I stopped for one on the way home.'
Andy bit the sandwich, nodded, said, 'This is good.'
'You married?'
'Not whatsit, are you? I know some of them are down the council.'
As if answering a question, Ken said, 'I will tell her. It's just she's always been nervy. Looks to me to be the steady one.'
Gently Andy said, 'Maybe she'd like a change.'
'Doubt it. She's not good with change.'
'Perhaps that's you.' Andy looked at Ken and imagined him thinking, don't come insulting me in my own shed. The remainder of the afternoon passed in near silence.

The weeks passed. Sick-note followed sick-note. Ken continued to pick up his sandwiches each morning. Spring became summer. Andy would turn up for their talks in shorts, while Ken sweltered in overalls. He insisted on staying inside the shed because he wouldn't be able to explain a suntan to his wife.
Until, one Friday, Andy was late. He arrived smiling and stepped inside, leaving the shed door open because of the heat. 'I've been into work.'
'Fuck me, really? How come?'
'I've given them notice.'
'What are you going to do?'
'Christ knows. But I can't do that anymore.'
'I'll miss your company.'
'I'll still come down here. Maybe not so much, but when I can. While I sort out what to do next. Looks like I'll be signing on for a bit.'
Ken grinned. 'Do you want a hand with the forms?'
'Think I'll manage. What about you though? You need to tell your wife.'
'I know. I can't stay in here forever. I'm starting to feel like Ann Frank.'
That afternoon Andy made an excuse to leave before Ken's imaginary knocking off time. On his way home he stopped at a phonebox and rang Ken's wife. He said, 'Ken's down the allotment,' and gently replaced the receiver. He imagined her shoving her feet into shoes, snatching up the keys to the house and heading towards Stanley Street, half-curious, half-annoyed. He walked home, whistling some tune he only half-remembered.