Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Manners Test

They met in the café on New Cross Road just before it closed for the day. Kelly handed him the usual envelope listing the addresses, the consumer durables, and what they both called the visiting times. He gave her thirty pounds, saying nothing. He rarely had anything to say to her. He sat for a while, sniffing quietly, occasionally rubbing the side of his nose. No mystery where his money was going.
She said, 'I suppose you'll be getting off then.'
He nodded. 'People to do, things to see.'
As he left, she thought of him as he was at school. The most fancied boy in the year. There was something almost delicate about him then. Now that was hidden behind the wiry swagger he'd picked up when he'd been sent to detention centre for joyriding. He'd matured since. He said he missed the buzz of those days but it was about pure destruction. Sooner or later, you had to settle down to earning.
The café owner began mopping up. Kelly went home and returned to bed, to sleep in readiness for the next shift. She woke to darkness with the familiar woolly feeling that her mind and body were running out of synch with the world around her.
She rode the short distance to work, the moped buzzing like a sickly wasp. Lately the roads at this time of night made her nervous. Too many drunks and headbangers around. She feared she might be losing her nerve. Losing the nerve to stay and continue, and losing the nerve needed to escape. She sometimes thought that if her life was a film she'd make some romantic dash for freedom. But she knew that nobody disappears into the sunset on a pizza-delivery moped.
Arriving at work, she winced at the cold white light bouncing from the tiled walls. Amir gestured impatiently at her. 'Hurry with these. They're late. Tarik is sick. Lazy bastard.'
He shoved a stack of flat boxes into her outstretched arms. Kelly turned to one side to let him stuff the computer printed delivery list into her coat pocket. Loading the bike she checked through the list; order details, prices, addresses, and phone numbers in case there was difficulty in finding the address.
Before long, she would have a new list to hand over in a grubby envelope in a grubby café. Soon, but not just yet. On the first drop of the night she stood patiently in the front room of the shared house, as the stoned residents went through a pantomime of dithering, trying to find the money owed. She clocked the room and its occupants. From the mix of untidiness and good manners, she guessed they were students. She knew that years down the line they might harden into something other, but for now they were happy to treat her like an acquaintance who'd popped by. Eventually one of the students handed her exactly the right money, all in change. She felt safe enough to joke with him. 'Been begging by the cash-point again?'

Soon, the new list of people to be tested started growing. The theme and the hurt were always the same. There was the suit on Jerningham Road, late home from the office, insistent that he'd ordered garlic bread when he hadn't. He asked for a complaints form, then refused to believe her when she told him no such thing existed. There was the woman in Brockley who wouldn't let her step into the porch although it was pissing with rain. There was the reading group in Telegraph Hill who bubbled with chat until the moment she walked in, then fell dead silent. The woman whose house it was noticed her looking at the scatter of identical novels on the coffee table. She looked at Kelly, waved a hand at the table, and said, 'Do you read, yourself?'
To Kelly, every time, there was that look in the eyes. A way of looking without seeing. There was that change in the voice. A way of speaking; slower, a making allowances voice, a voice that said everybody like me is clever, and everybody clever is like me.

She sat at the kitchen table, waiting for her mum to go out to darts. With her chin in her hand, she watched the rain falling on Fordham Park. In the daytime, when she was awake, she allowed herself to like the view. When they first got the fifth-floor flat, her mum said, 'Make a nice change to look down on someone else.'
Kelly noticed two orange lights glowing by a skip on Vansittart Street. That would be more of them moving in. She lit a cigarette. It puzzled her, this anger, so blunt and so specific. It was always there, waiting to be noticed like a missing tooth. It got her down, made her feel older than she was.
Her mother once cleaned for people like that, but Kelly would not and would never. She would come home, put the kettle on and unload her latest resentment. The begrudged granting of a request for new rubber gloves. The discovery of a discarded shopping list for milk (semi-skimmed), bread, pesto sauce, coffee (fair trade), coffee (instant, for cleaner).
The hall light came on. Her mum stood framed in the rectangle of light. 'Off now, love. I shan't be late.'
As the door banged shut, Kelly consulted her list and pulled the phone closer to her. She called this process the manners test. She wanted to know that the slights she'd received came from somewhere deep, weren't just the backwash from a bad day at work, rudeness passed round like a head cold.
But it was fun too. Putting on all the voices. Like being back at school. Sat at the back in the fifth form, taking the piss, doing any voice imaginable, taking requests even.
She began her calls, ran through her repertoire, her list. There was the confused Barbadian grandmother phoning for her grandson's birthday, getting the number wrong. There was the thickly-accented minicab driver phoning to announce his arrival to a non-existent passenger. There was the bored market-researcher sing-songing emptily through a script of questions. Each time, Kelly would prod and prod at the victim's patience, listening for the anger tightening their voice. Finally, when she had them breathless with frustration, she'd drop into her normal voice and say, 'You're not from round here are you?' Sometimes she'd wait for an answer, sometimes she'd just let the handset drop gently back onto its rest.
Of the people she called, only one escaped moving on to the next stage of the process. The woman from the book group threw her completely by listening for ten minutes to Kelly's tour de force rendition of a sobbing teenager who'd misdialled when trying to reach the Samaritans. Patiently she gave advice, heard the babble of imaginary problems, helped when she could, admitted she didn't know when she didn't know. She offered to put Kelly in touch with a friend who was a counsellor.
Kelly imagined her sitting by the phone, her head on one side. She saw her cradling the receiver under her chin when she lit a cigarette. She saw her nodding quickly, frowning sometimes, and gesturing with the cigarette.
Kelly ended the call with a grunted thank you. The woman said, 'Let me know how you get on.'
To distract herself from the unease that came over her, Kelly made herself busy. She checked over the list. The pleasure was over now. There only remained the boring routine of phoning and hanging up, to establish the times the victims were most likely to be out.
She began making herself some cheese on toast. As she cut the cheese, the unease returned. She stayed still long enough to identify the feeling. It was a sort of sadness, and it was something about that last phone call, the kindness of the woman.
She found herself thinking of school, and the trouble she was always in. Every report she got complained about her showing off. Except the reports for drama. She'd walk into the tiled studio above the woodwork rooms and feel like she'd been given some magical drug that put things right. The other kids treated the lesson as a joke and it galled her, although she knew even then that she wasn't in any position to judge them.
When the Careers Office gave her a choice of going on a training scheme or two years at college, she knew for once what she wanted. She chose BTEC Drama at Bromley College. They made her take other classes too but she never went to those.
She woke up terrified every day. The class seemed full of girls with the right type of face and often, the right type of accent too. She'd tell herself they were nothing to her, but it never quite worked. What kept her coming back was that she was good, and she knew she was good. And Chris the tutor knew she was good. He said he'd never seen anybody do improv as well as her. But it wasn't enough. They wanted you to be good at every bloody thing, like the girls who did everything as if it was too easy.
Although she could do voices, it was language that let her down. It took her ages to read anything. The letters used to jumble themselves up. She'd run the tip of her finger below the words as if she was trying to nudge the letters back into place. Whenever she got a part she'd get the play out on video, or tape herself reading the lines, then listen back to the tape repeatedly on her Walkman.
She just missed getting into the end of term production of Mother Courage. Then her burning wish came true when the lead developed laryngitis. Chris took her to one side and asked her to stand in for the next night's performance. They arranged to meet up for a run through an hour before curtain-up. He squeezed her elbow and said, 'You'll be fine.'
Kelly knew it was impossible even while she was saying yes. She spent the night and the day trying to shove the words of the play into her head, but panic set in and they wouldn't settle, wouldn't stick. On the night of the performance, she lay in the flat on the sofa, with the phone unplugged and the lights off.
One afternoon the next week Chris came to see her. Kelly stood in her nightie, not taking the chain off the front door. She told Chris she'd wanted to go further, take it further, proper college, do it as a job even. And the look in his eyes was as if, at sixteen, she'd admitted to still believing in Santa. When she thought of it now the memory made her want to curl into a ball. She looked down at the food she'd prepared, and tipped it into the pedal bin.

The name on the delivery list looked familiar. When she walked into his front room she knew immediately that he'd been done. She looked round as if inspecting a spot the difference picture. The stereo, the DVD player, the TV, the iPod; everything from the list she'd supplied was gone.
The man paid for the pizza, then sat down and began eating. He faced towards the corner where the television had been. On the wall was a faint oblong shadow of dust it had left on the paint-work. The man seemed smaller now, as if he was crumpled, as if some of his bones had been stolen too.
He looked at her. 'I'm sorry. I was forgetting. I'll show you out.'
In the hallway he said, 'They'll probably sell the hi-fi for £30. I'd give them £40 for it myself.'
Kelly mumbled, 'People are crap, aren't they?' and let herself out.

Unless she'd told her, she'd never have known. The girl, about her age, led her into a bed-sit full of cardboard boxes. She said, 'The microwave's in here somewhere.'
She kept looking at Kelly and smiling. Eventually she said, 'You won't remember me. At Bromley College. I did Drama with you.' She said her name.
Kelly looked her over. 'Oh yeah. I know. You were a bit…'
'Quite a bit bigger then, yeah.' She looked down at her body, doubtful, then she looked again at Kelly. 'None of us understood why you baled out of the course like that. You were the number one hope in the year.'
'No fucker told me.'
'I'm back living round here now,' she said, then laughed at herself. She pointed to the boxes waiting to be unpacked. 'Duh.'
'How come? I thought you was off to do drama at Uni and that.'
'Finished now. Only three years isn't it?'
'Haven't seen you on the telly.'
The girl smiled. 'I'm working in a call centre, for my sins.'
Kelly smiled. 'Christ, you must've done something terrible.' She made to leave.
The girl tore a corner from the lid of the pizza box. She wrote her phone number on it and gave it to Kelly. 'Maybe we could hook up if you fancy doing something. I'd like it. I've lost touch a bit.'
Kelly managed to stop herself grunting, 'I've already got your number.' She stuffed the wedge of cardboard into the pocket of her parka, with no look on her face. As she walked back to the street through the small front garden, she threw it from her. She got on the moped and sat there for a while, not starting the motor. She looked up at the window of the bed-sit, saw the outline of the girl through the thin, cheap curtains. She looked back into the small garden. The piece of cardboard with the phone number on it was lying on the grass in the dark, white like a new milk tooth. Kelly climbed off the moped, picked up the piece of cardboard and put it back in her pocket. Perhaps she would call her, now she was back local.

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