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.’
‘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.'
'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.