Sunday, 28 July 2013

Shame


Ian put on what there was of the uniform. The agency had told him he had to provide his own white shirts and black shoes, while they issued two pairs of polyester trousers and a navy pullover. He looked at himself in the mirror of the treacle-coloured wardrobe. He'd cut himself shaving several times; nerves and a new Bic. The jumper, he supposed, was intended to give him a military or official look. He knew that it fooled nobody and he fooled nobody. He knew he looked like a man who'd lost any fight he'd ever been in. It seemed a bit of a gyp, the deal with the uniform, but it had been so long since he'd given up his job with the Post Office to look after Mother, he knew he couldn't be choosy.
The wardrobe was the only old bit of furniture he'd kept. The van driver he'd hired to help him move had taken everything else off his hands for him. He gave the wardrobe door a gentle prod. It swung slowly so that the mirror reflected a moving slice of the small tidy bedsit. It hadn't begun to feel like home yet, but he knew it was the right move to come here. The maisonette felt too big for him and too much for him after Mother died.
She died watching the Channel Five afternoon film, sponsored by Movelat Relief. He'd just gone into the kitchen to freshen the pot. When he came back she was sat with her head slumped forward and a Jaffa Cake in her lap. Far from looking peaceful, she only looked vacant.
She had always said that when she went, she wanted him to get on and make a life for himself, late as it was. But he felt it was not in him to cut loose just like that. Together they'd led an ordered life, Spring cleaning on the same day every March, peas in the freezer divvied up into portions. For now at least it suited him to continue on similar terms.
He reported to the CCTV control room, where the chain-smoking supervisor explained the daily routine to him. She led him through to the locker room with its school sports hall smell of concrete and socks, and introduced him to the other guards. One, called Trevor, had been chosen to show him round for the morning.
There wasn't much to explain about the job so as they patrolled the Riverdale Centre Trevor tried to make small talk. He asked how long Ian had been with the agency, asked if he lived locally, asked where he'd worked before. Soon he moved on to safer subjects, but even football and television drew only polite, lukewarm responses.
After lunch Ian was left to work alone. Busy as the Centre was, he found a kind of peace walking through the flow of people. Even the shouts of mothers and youths, which echoed ownerless against the vaulted ceiling, soon ceased to attract his attention.
He had reason to feel at home. The place was dotted with landmarks of life with Mother. There was the branch of Poundland that she loved. She used to say, 'If that Poundland was a real country, I'd emigrate there tomorrow.' She was sharp as a tack right to the end, even when her body was letting her down. Once in the Riverdale she had watched as another pensioner scooted past in an electric wheelchair. She had turned to Ian and said, 'You'll never get me in one of those electric buggers.' Ian said, 'Buggies, Mum. The word's buggies.' She sniggered and said, 'I know what I mean.'
He made a last circuit of the Centre. To kill the last five minutes before the lock up he went into Snappy Snaps. With a slow, empty feeling he scanned the soft focus portraits of wedding couples, families, children, people who weren't alone. He looked away and noticed a poster advertising various services the shop offered. It explained, among other things, that thanks to digital technology, unwanted people could now be removed from much-loved photographs. Ian stood considering this. He wondered what it was like to try and re-remember the moment a photo was taken, as if one of those present had never existed. He knew he'd missed a lot of things in life, but he'd been spared others.

The weeks loped past, regular as breathing. Ian lived up to the description of him on his reference as a man who worked hard and kept himself to himself. In lunch-breaks in the locker room, he would bury himself in the Mirror while he ate his sandwiches, then go and sit in the library for the rest of the hour.
His silence troubled nobody. Only Trevor became curious. Trevor was a man who took an interest in small things. Like the time he saw Ian looking at the pictures on one of the temporary stalls. Trevor watched from a distance as the other customers browsed the soft-featured children, the too bright landscapes, the depictions of nature bland in feather and curve. The shoppers looked at them as they would a clock or a calendar; a quick glance to see what they were expecting, then move on. But Ian studied the pictures as if he was looking for something. And something in the way he was looking told Trevor he was lonely to his boots, every bone of him.
Friday lunchtime, Ian was just folding his newspaper when Trevor came in, loosening his tie and smiling. As he stuffed his pullover into a carrier bag he said, 'Half day today, mate. Off on me holidays next week.'
'Nice.'
Trevor fished his wallet from his locker, and some photos from the wallet. He showed Ian. 'Off to Butlin's at Filey again. That's us there last year.'
Ian looked at the two straw haired children, nuzzling unembarrassed into the broad shoulders of their broad mother. 'Nice.'
'You married yourself?'
Ian saw his mother saying, 'Private we are and private we'll stay.' Then he did it, said it. 'I am as it goes, yeah.'
Trevor paused, with the photos part way back into the wallet. He said, 'You'll have to bring in a photo,' then immediately felt somehow guilty, uncomfortable.
Ian nodded. 'I'll see if I can dig one out.'
All weekend he couldn't sleep. He cursed himself. He'd lied like an idiot boy.
Back at work, all peace was gone for him. The noise he'd once ignored now weighed in on him, hot and oppressive like the air in a swimming baths. Shoppers swarmed towards him like shoals of dull-eyed fish.
In the evenings in the bedsit he struggled to imagine an identity for his newly invented wife. It was tougher than he thought. He tried to conjure up the way they had met, the things that had drawn him to her, but nothing came to him. It was as if the part of him that might want and be wanted, had withered like an unused muscle. He did not have a 'type'. A preference suggested a chance or a choice.
The first two lunchtimes after Trevor's return, Ian went straight to the library and ate his sandwiches in the toilet there. But on the Wednesday Trevor was too quick for him. He jumped into the lift behind him just as the doors were closing. He waved the envelope of photos from Snappy Snaps. 'Come out good they did. Quite a laugh some of them.' He invited Ian to join him for a fry up at Ponti's.
Ian looked at the floor of the lift and said, 'Okay.'
In the café he shuffled through the holiday pictures at the appropriate speed and made the required noises. The setting for the pictures was essentially the same as the ones he'd seen before. Even the weather looked similar. Only some of the outfits had changed. These stills from a regular life saddened him, reminded him that what is called security in a family, is called failure for someone alone. They seemed happy with each other. It was a mystery. It seemed such impossible work but somebody like Trevor appeared to manage it with ease.
With a show of reluctance he slid the photos back into their envelope.
Trevor smiled. 'Going to show us yours, then?'
Ian felt a sickly, watery feeling in his gut. He gathered himself enough to execute the move he'd rehearsed at home. He slapped his forehead, said 'Bugger! Knew there was something. Another time I'll remember.'

The Thursday after pay-day was always curry night for Trevor. He and his brother-in-law Steve would meet outside the Riverdale at locking up time and head for the Wetherspoon's pub on the High Street, which did a pint and a reasonable curry for a fiver. This Thursday Trevor and Ian walked out into daylight together. Steve stood outside the double doors, shifty in a car coat, a roll up at an angle in the corner of his mouth. He greeted Trevor, then, seeing Ian said, 'Alright mate. How you keeping?'
Trevor looked at Steve then at Ian. Ian didn't speak.
Steve said, 'Fancy coming for a Ruby Murray?'
Ian shook his head. 'Better be getting back.'
In the pub, as he began his pint, Trevor said, 'You know that Ian bloke from somewhere then?'
Steve nodded. 'Done a job for him with the van. Moved him into the bedsit when his old dear pegged it.'
'Yeah?'
'Yeah. Took a load of her old furniture off him. Did him like a kipper, as it goes. He had no use for it though, being on his own.'
Trevor floundered for something to say but was saved by the arrival of his chicken Balti.

He cleared it with his wife Jean over breakfast. She thought it'd be nice. She remembered what Sundays were like when she was on her own. They both thought tea would be better than dinner in case he felt awkward and wanted to get away.
He caught Ian in the control room as he was collecting his wages.
'You fancy coming round ours on Sunday? Teatime, say. Have a bite to eat and that. Nothing fussy.'
Ian looked at the open door, as if he was going to make a run for it. He tried to think of an excuse but couldn't. 'Okay.'
Trevor gave a quiet smile.
'Should I bring the wife?'
Trevor dabbed at his top lip with his fingers. 'Up to you, mate.'

In the kitchen they waited. Trevor looked again at the Elvis clock above the fridge. 'Maybe the buses are bad.'
'Maybe,' Jean agreed. She gave him the look she always gave him when he showed his soft side. She loved it but it could be a nuisance. It was the reason they'd ended up with the cats.
Trevor looked at the food laid out on the breakfast bar; mini-pizzas, spicy vegetable wedges, crab sticks, sandwiches. 'Don't reckon he's veggie do you?'
'Doubt it. Bit old for that sort of thing.'
The Elvis clock ticked on. Trevor wondered to his wife whether they should have made more sandwiches.
She put the beers back in the fridge. 'Just for now. Stop them getting warm.'
Trevor stood up. 'Maybe I should go down and wait for him out the front. In case he can't find it.'
'Think he'd find it, love, if he was coming. It's easy enough.'
'Suppose so.' He took a plate and began helping himself to the food.

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