‘I’m just saying.’
I knew the real reason for Dad’s anxiety. They relied on my wages. Treena earned next to nothing at the flower shop. Mum couldn’t work, as she had to look after Granddad, and Granddad’s pension amounted to almost nothing. Dad lived in a constant state of anxiety about his job at the furniture factory. His boss had been muttering about possible redundancies for months. There were murmurings at home about debts and the juggling of credit cards. Dad had had his car written off by an uninsured driver two years previously, and somehow this had been enough for the whole teetering edifice that was my parents’ finances to finally collapse. My modest wages had been a little bedrock of housekeeping money, enough to help see the family through from week to week.
‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. She can head down to the Job Centre tomorrow and see what’s on offer. She’s got enough to get by for now.’ They spoke as if I weren’t there. ‘And she’s smart. You’re smart, aren’t you, love? Perhaps she could do a typing course. Go into office work.’
I sat there, as my parents discussed what other jobs my limited qualifications might entitle me to. Factory work, machinist, roll butterer. For the first time that afternoon I wanted to cry. Thomas watched me with big, round eyes, and silently handed me half a soggy biscuit.
‘Thanks, Tommo,’ I mouthed silently, and ate it.
He was down at the athletics club, as I had known he would be. Mondays to Thursdays, regular as a station timetable, Patrick was there in the gym or running in circles around the floodlit track. I made my way down the steps, hugging myself against the cold, and walked slowly out on to the track, waving as he came close enough to see who it was.
‘Run with me,’ he puffed, as he got closer. His breath came in pale clouds. ‘I’ve got four laps to go.’
I hesitated just a moment, and then began to run alongside him. It was the only way I was going to get any kind of conversation out of him. I was wearing my pink trainers with the turquoise laces, the only shoes I could possibly run in.
I had spent the day at home, trying to be useful. I’m guessing it was about an hour before I started to get under my mother’s feet. Mum and Granddad had their routines, and having me there interrupted them. Dad was asleep, as he was on nights this month, and not to be disturbed. I tidied my room, then sat and watched television with the sound down and when I remembered, periodically, why I was at home in the middle of the day I had felt an actual brief pain in my chest.
‘I wasn’t expecting you.’
‘I got fed up at home. I thought maybe we could do something.’
He looked sideways at me. There was a fine film of sweat on his face. ‘The sooner you get another job, babe, the better.’
‘It’s all of twenty-four hours since I lost the last one. Am I allowed to just be a bit miserable and floppy? You know, just for today?’
‘But you’ve got to look at the positive side. You knew you couldn’t stay at that place forever. You want to move upwards, onwards.’ Patrick had been named Stortfold Young Entrepreneur of the Year two years previously, and had not yet quite recovered from the honour. He had since acquired a business partner, Ginger Pete, offering personal training to clients over a 40-mile area, and two liveried vans on the HP. He also had a whiteboard in his office, on which he liked to scrawl his projected turnover with thick black markers, working and reworking the figures until they met with his satisfaction. I was never entirely sure that they bore any resemblance to real life.
‘Being made redundant can change people’s lives, Lou.’ He glanced at his watch, checking his lap time. ‘What do you want to do? You could retrain. I’m sure they do a grant for people like you.’
‘People like me?’
‘People looking for a new opportunity. What do you want to be? You could be a beautician. You’re pretty enough.’ He nudged me as we ran, as if I should be grateful for the compliment.
‘You know my beauty routine. Soap, water, the odd paper bag.’
Patrick was beginning to look exasperated.
I was starting to lag behind. I hate running. I hated him for not slowing down.
‘Look … shop assistant. Secretary. Estate agent. I don’t know … there must be something you want to do.’
But there wasn’t. I had liked it in the cafe. I liked knowing everything there was to know about The Buttered Bun, and hearing about the lives of the people who came through it. I had felt comfortable there.
‘You can’t mope around, babe. Got to get over it. All the best entrepreneurs fight their way back from rock bottom. Jeffrey Archer did it. So did Richard Branson.’ He tapped my arm, trying to get me to keep up.
‘I doubt if Jeffrey Archer ever got made redundant from toasting teacakes.’ I was out of breath. And I was wearing the wrong bra. I slowed, dropped my hands down on to my knees.
He turned, running backwards, his voice carrying on the still, cold air. ‘But if he had … I’m just saying. Sleep on it, put on a smart suit and head down to the Job Centre. Or I’ll train you up to work with me, if you like. You know there’s money in it. And don’t worry about the holiday. I’ll pay.’
I smiled at him.
He blew a kiss and his voice echoed across the empty stadium. ‘You can pay me back when you’re back on your feet.’
I made my first claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance. I attended a 45-minute interview, and a group interview, where I sat with a group of twenty or so mismatched men and women, half of whom wore the same slightly stunned expression I suspected I did, and the other half the blank, uninterested faces of people who had been here too many times before. I wore what my Dad deemed my ‘civilian’ clothes.
As a result of these efforts, I had endured a brief stint filling in on a night shift at a chicken processing factory (it had given me nightmares for weeks), and two days at a training session as a Home Energy Adviser. I had realized pretty quickly that I was essentially being instructed to befuddle old people into switching energy suppliers, and told Syed, my personal ‘adviser’ that I couldn’t do it. He had been insistent that I continue, so I had listed some of the practices that they had asked me to employ, at which point he had gone a bit quiet and suggested we (it was always ‘we’ even though it was pretty obvious that one of us had a job) try something else.
I did two weeks at a fast food chain. The hours were okay, I could cope with the fact that the uniform made my hair static, but I found it impossible to stick to the ‘appropriate responses’ script, with its ‘How can I help you today?’ and its ‘Would you like large fries with that?’ I had been let go after one of the doughnut girls caught me debating the varying merits of the free toys with a four-year-old. What can I say? She was a smart four-year-old. I also thought the Sleeping Beauties were sappy.
Now I sat at my fourth interview as Syed scanned through the touch screen for further employment ‘opportunities’. Even Syed, who wore the grimly cheerful demeanour of someone who had shoehorned the most unlikely candidates into a job, was starting to sound a little weary.
‘Um … Have you ever considered joining the entertainment industry?’
‘What, as in pantomime dame?’
‘Actually, no. But there is an opening for a pole dancer. Several, in fact.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘Please tell me you are kidding.’
‘It’s thirty hours a week on a self-employed basis. I believe the tips are good.’
‘Please, please tell me you have not just advised me to get a job that involves parading around in front of strangers in my underwear.’
‘You said you were good with people. And you seem to like … theatrical … clothing.’ He glanced at my tights, which were green and glittery. I had thought they would cheer me up. Thomas had hummed the theme tune from The Little Mermaid at me for almost the whole of breakfast.
Syed tapped something into his keyboard. ‘How about “adult chat line supervisor”?’
I stared at him.
He shrugged. ‘You said you liked talking to people.’
‘No. And no to semi-nude bar staff. Or masseuse. Or webcam operator. Come on, Syed. There must be something I can do that wouldn’t actually give my dad a heart attack.’
This appeared to stump him. ‘There’s not much left outside flexi-hour retail opportunities.’
‘Night-time shelf stacking?’ I had been here enough times now to speak their language.
‘There’s a waiting list. Parents tend to go for it, because it suits the school hours,’ he said apologetically. He studied the screen again. ‘So we’re really left with care assistant.’
‘Wiping old people’s bottoms.’
‘I’m afraid, Louisa, you’re not qualified for much else. If you wanted to retrain, I’d be happy to point you in the right direction. There are plenty of courses at the adult education centre.’
‘But we’ve been through this, Syed. If I do that, I lose my Jobseeker money, right?’
‘If you’re not available for work, yes.’
We sat there in silence for a moment. I gazed at the doors, where two burly security men stood. I wondered if they had got the job through the Job Centre.
‘I’m not good with old people, Syed. My granddad lives at home since he had his strokes, and I can’t cope with him.’
‘Ah. So you have some experience of caring.’
‘Not really. My mum does everything for him.’
‘Would your mum like a job?’
‘I’m not being funny.’
‘And leave me looking after my granddad? No thanks. That’s from him, as well as me, by the way. Haven’t you got anything in any cafes?’
‘I don’t think there are enough cafes left to guarantee you employment, Louisa. We could try Kentucky Fried Chicken. You might get on better there.’
‘Because I’d get so much more out of offering a Bargain Bucket than a Chicken McNugget? I don’t think so.’
‘Well, then perhaps we’ll have to look further afield.’
‘There are only four buses to and from our town. You know that. And I know you said I should look into the tourist bus, but I rang the station and it stops at 5pm. Plus it’s twice as expensive as the normal bus.’
Syed sat back in his seat. ‘At this point in proceedings, Louisa, I really need to make the point that as a fit and able person, in order to continue qualifying for your allowance, you need –’
‘– to show that I’m trying to get a job. I know.’
How could I explain to this man how much I wanted to work? Did he have the slightest idea how much I missed my old job? Unemployment had been a concept, something droningly referred to on the news in relation to shipyards or car factories. I had never considered that you might miss a job like you missed a limb – a constant, reflexive thing. I hadn’t thought that as well as the obvious fears about money, and your future, losing your job would make you feel inadequate, and a bit useless. That it would be harder to get up in the morning than when you were rudely shocked into consciousness by the alarm. That you might miss the people you worked with, no matter how little you had in common with them. Or even that you might find yourself searching for familiar faces as you walked the high street. The first time I had seen the Dandelion Lady wandering past the shops, looking as aimless as I felt, I had fought the urge to go and give her a hug.
Syed’s voice broke into my reverie. ‘Aha. Now this might work.’
I tried to peer round at the screen.
‘Just come in. This very minute. Care assistant position.’
‘I told you I was no good with –’
‘It’s not old people. It’s a … a private position. To help in someone’s house, and the address is less than two miles from your home. “Care and companionship for a disabled man.” Can you drive?’
‘Yes. But would I have to wipe his –’
‘No bottom wiping required, as far as I can tell.’ He scanned the screen. ‘He’s a … a quadriplegic. He needs someone in the daylight hours to help feed and assist. Often in these jobs it’s a case of being there when they want to go out somewhere, helping with basic stuff that they can’t do themselves. Oh. It’s good money. Quite a lot more than the minimum wage.’
‘That’s probably because it involves bottom wiping.’
‘I’ll ring them to confirm the absence of bottom wiping. But if that’s the case, you’ll go along for the interview?’
He said it like it was a question.
But we both knew the answer.
I sighed, and gathered up my bag ready for the trip home.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said my father. ‘Can you imagine? If it wasn’t punishment enough ending up in a ruddy wheelchair, then you get our Lou turning up to keep you company.’
‘Bernard!’ my mother scolded.
Behind me, Granddad was laughing into his mug of tea.
I am not thick. I’d just like to get that out of the way at this point. But it’s quite hard not to feel a bit deficient in the Department of Brain Cells, growing up next to a younger sister who was not just moved up a year into my class, but then to the year above.
Everything that is sensible, or smart, Katrina did first, despite being eighteen months younger than me. Every book I ever read she had read first, every fact I mentioned at the dinner table she already knew. She is the only person I know who actually likes exams. Sometimes I think I dress the way I do because the one thing Treena can’t do is put clothes together. She’s a pullover and jeans kind of a girl. Her idea of smart is ironing the jeans first.
My father calls me a ‘character’, because I tend to say the first thing that pops into my head. He says I’m like my Aunt Lily, who I never knew. It’s a bit weird, constantly being compared to someone you’ve never met. I would come downstairs in purple boots, and Dad would nod at Mum and say, ‘D’you remember Aunt Lily and her purple boots, eh?’ and Mum would cluck and start laughing as if at some secret joke. My mother calls me ‘individual’, which is her polite way of not quite understanding the way I dress.
But apart from a brief period in my teens, I never wanted to look like Treena, or any of the girls at school; I preferred boys’ clothes till I was about fourteen, and now tend to please myself – depending on what mood I am in on the day. There’s no point me trying to look conventional. I am small, dark-haired and, according to my dad, have the face of an elf. That’s not as in ‘elfin beauty’. I am not plain, but I don’t think anyone is ever going to call me beautiful. I don’t have that graceful thing going on. Patrick calls me gorgeous when he wants to get his leg over, but he’s fairly transparent like that. We’ve known each other for coming up to seven years.
I was twenty-six years old and I wasn’t really sure what I was. Up until I lost my job I hadn’t even given it any thought. I supposed I would probably marry Patrick, knock out a few kids, live a few streets away from where I had always lived. Apart from an exotic taste in clothes, and the fact that I’m a bit short, there’s not a lot separating me from anyone you might pass in the street. You probably wouldn’t look at me twice. An ordinary girl, leading an ordinary life. It actually suited me fine.
‘You must wear a suit to an interview,’ Mum had insisted. ‘Everyone’s far too casual these days.’
‘Because wearing pinstripes will be vital if I’m spoon-feeding a geriatric.’
‘Don’t be smart.’
‘I can’t afford to buy a suit. What if I don’t get the job?’
‘You can wear mine, and I’ll iron you a nice blouse, and just for once don’t wear your hair up in those –’ she gestured to my hair, which was normally twisted into two dark knots on each side of my head ‘– Princess Leia things. Just try to look like a normal person.’
I knew better than to argue with my mother. And I could tell Dad had been instructed not to comment on my outfit as I walked out of the house, my gait awkward in the too-tight skirt.
‘Bye love,’ he said, the corners of his mouth twitching. ‘Good luck now. You look very … businesslike.’
The embarrassing thing was not that I was wearing my mother’s suit, or that it was in a cut last fashionable in the late 1980s, but that it was actually a tiny bit small for me. I felt the waistband cutting into my midriff, and pulled the double-breasted jacket across. As Dad says of Mum, there’s more fat on a kirby grip.
I sat through the short bus journey feeling faintly sick. I had never had a proper job interview. I had joined The Buttered Bun after Treena bet me that I couldn’t get a job in a day. I had walked in and simply asked Frank if he needed a spare pair of hands. It had been his first day open and he had looked almost blinded by gratitude.
Now, looking back, I couldn’t even remember having a discussion with him about money. He suggested a weekly wage, I agreed, and once a year he told me he’d upped it a bit, usually by a little more than I would have asked for.
What did people ask in interviews anyway? And what if they asked me to do something practical with this old man, to feed him or bath him or something? Syed had said there was a male carer who covered his ‘intimate needs’ (I shuddered at the phrase). The secondary carer’s job was, he said, ‘a little unclear at this point’. I pictured myself wiping drool from the old man’s mouth, maybe asking loudly, ‘DID HE WANT A CUP OF TEA?’
When Granddad had first begun his recovery from his strokes he hadn’t been able to do anything for himself. Mum had done it all. ‘Your mother is a saint,’ Dad said, which I took to mean that she wiped his bum without running screaming from the house. I was pretty sure nobody had ever described me as such. I cut Granddad’s food up for him and made him cups of tea but as for anything else, I wasn’t sure I was made of the right ingredients.
Granta House was on the other side of Stortfold Castle, close to the medieval walls, on the long unpavemented stretch that comprised only four houses and the National Trust shop, bang in the middle of the tourist area. I had passed this house a million times in my life without ever actually properly seeing it. Now, walking past the car park and the miniature railway, both of which were empty and as bleak as only a summer attraction can look in February, I saw it was bigger than I had imagined, red brick with a double front, the kind of house you saw in old copies of Country Life while waiting at the doctor’s.
I walked up the long drive, trying not to think about whether anybody was watching out of the window. Walking up a long drive puts you at a disadvantage; it automatically makes you feel inferior. I was just contemplating whether to actually tug at my forelock, when the door opened and I jumped.
A woman, not much older than me, stepped out into the porch. She was wearing white slacks and a medical-looking tunic and carried a coat and a folder under her arm. As she passed me she gave a polite smile.
‘And thank you so much for coming,’ a voice said, from inside. ‘We’ll be in touch. Ah.’ A woman’s face appeared, middle-aged but beautiful, under expensive precision-cut hair. She was wearing a trouser suit that I guessed cost more than my dad earned in a month.
‘You must be Miss Clark.’
‘Louisa.’ I shot out a hand, as my mother had impressed upon me to do. The young people never offered up a hand these days, my parents had agreed. In the old days you wouldn’t have dreamt of a ‘hiya’ or, worse, an air kiss. This woman did not look like she would have welcomed an air kiss.
‘Right. Yes. Do come in.’ She withdrew her hand from mine as soon as humanly possible, but I felt her eyes linger upon me, as if she were already assessing me.
‘Would you like to come through? We’ll talk in the drawing room. My name is Camilla Traynor.’ She seemed weary, as if she had uttered the same words many times that day already.
I followed her through to a huge room with floor to ceiling French windows. Heavy curtains draped elegantly from fat mahogany curtain poles, and the floors were carpeted with intricately decorated Persian rugs. It smelt of beeswax and antique furniture. There were little elegant side tables everywhere, their burnished surfaces covered with ornamental boxes. I wondered briefly where on earth the Traynors put their cups of tea.
‘So you have come via the Job Centre advertisement, is that right? Do sit down.’
While she flicked through her folder of papers, I gazed surreptitiously around the room. I had thought the house might be a bit like a care home, all hoists and wipe-clean surfaces. But this was like one of those scarily expensive hotels, steeped in old money, with well-loved things that looked valuable in their own right. There were silver-framed photographs on a sideboard, but they were too far away for me to make out the faces. As she scanned her pages, I shifted in my seat, to try to get a better look.
And it was then that I heard it – the unmistakable sound of stitches ripping. I glanced down to see the two pieces of material that joined at the side of my right leg had torn apart, sending frayed pieces of silk thread shooting upwards in an ungainly fringe. I felt my face flood with colour.
‘So … Miss Clark … do you have any experience with quadriplegia?’
I turned to face Mrs Traynor, wriggling so that my jacket covered as much of the skirt as possible.
‘Have you been a carer for long?’
‘Um … I’ve never actually done it,’ I said, adding, as if I could hear Syed’s voice in my ear, ‘but I’m sure I could learn.’
‘Do you know what a quadriplegic is?’
I faltered. ‘When … you’re stuck in a wheelchair?’
‘I suppose that’s one way of putting it. There are varying degrees, but in this case we are talking about complete loss of use of the legs, and very limited