A new short story by The Old Grey Owl
In the summer of 1975, Steve Chapman was feeling very clever and very pleased with himself. In the last nine months he had:
- Secured his first proper girlfriend
- Lost his virginity
- Finished his A levels
- Tried smoking cannabis resin
He made a list of these milestones in the journal he kept. It wasn’t a diary in the conventional sense. He did not record his thoughts and actions every day, but instead made lists of achievements, plans and opinions. He was pleased with the notion of a journal. It lent his thoughts greater weight and added to his sense of himself as someone of finer feelings and ambitions than the common herd.
None of these achievements had been accomplished smoothly, but, he reasoned, out of struggle comes true enlightenment. And nobody else knew he had stumbled across the line in all four spheres of human endeavour. He certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone he was a serial incompetent, when he was so clearly skilled at presenting a serene and untroubled face to the world.
The truth was:
- His first girlfriend secured him, pursuing him relentlessly and overwhelming him one evening after strong drink had been taken.
- Losing his virginity was more a question of temporarily mislaying it. A botched fumble in a spare room was accomplished with relief rather than rampant studdery.
- His results had still not been issued, but he knew that the cavalier approach to his studies he had adopted for the last eighteen months (starting the minute he discovered peers who would go to the pub with him) had seriously jeopardised his chances of success. As the results day drew nearer, he grew ever more queasy about the prospect of ignominious failure.
- Smoking spliffs, while a deliciously naughty marker of someone who was delighted to be outside of the mainstream, made him cough and fall asleep.
His Parents, who thus far had been indulgent of his long hair, late hours and frequent hangovers, mainly on the back of his unprecedented educational achievements, had their limits. It had been made clear to him that now was the time, notwithstanding his impending glittering A level success, to get a job. The very phrase sent a chill down his spine, but he knew that money was tight at home and he couldn’t expect much in the way of subs.
Matters came to a head one Sunday lunchtime in June. He was sitting at the table with his Mother and Father, demolishing a steaming plate of roast beef, thin gravy and industrially blitzed vegetables. It was a rare occasion that all three of them were in the same room together at the same time. His father often worked nights and was either out at work, or as his Mother often used to say, with a combination of warning and relief in her voice, “Your Father’s in bed.”
It was his Father that raised the subject. “So, Steven. Any luck on the jobs front?”
Steve stopped in mid munch, a heavily laden fork of Yorkshire pudding suspended in mid-air between plate and mouth. The surprise was as much generated by the fact that his father had initiated conversation as it was by the subject matter. He was a shy, taciturn man, who inhabited silence as comfortably as a trappist monk.
“Er, no, not yet. There doesn’t seem to be much about.”
He ploughed on with his lunch, piling more steaming forkfuls into his mouth. To his surprise, the conversation was clearly not over as far as his father was concerned. Normally one sentence seemed to require an extended period of silent rest to allow his father to recover from such abandoned social exertions. This was rare stamina and determination on display.
“Where have you tried?”
“I was going to try the Bakery, but Martin told me that there were no vacancies. He went round last week and just missed the last one.”
“Steven,” his mother interjected, “Don’t speak with your mouth full please. We can wait.”
Steve held up his hand in acknowledgement and ground away at his food until normal service could be resumed. With a final hasty swallow, he began again.
“Sorry Mam, this dinner is too good to wait.” Flattery was one of his most effective weapons in the ongoing battle to avoid parental censure. He had learned long ago that charm would prevent any practical difficulties arising in his life as a result of a potential telling off. He repeated the sentence again, more intelligibly this time, and waited for his Dad to drop the subject.
“I can probably get you a job at the shed you know,” his father said, patently not dropping the subject.
Steve was gripped by a blind panic. His heart started hammering against his chest and he felt himself getting hot. There must be something he could do to prevent this catastrophe from coming true. Racking his brains while taking a little longer than was necessary to finish his mouthful of roast beef, he finally managed a weak, “Really?”
It wasn’t the most brilliant strategy he had ever come up with, but in the absence of an idea, delay was the only option open to him.
“Yes, they’re going to advertise next week in The Gazette I think, but you could get in early. I’ll find out at work tomorrow if you like.”
“Yeah Dad, that would be great. Thanks.”
This news had obviously come as something of a shock to his mother as well. Her face had taken on a disapproving look, and she glared at her husband with a straight, thin lipped mouth.
“Don’t be daft Tom, he’ll be wanting something better than that, won’t he? A lad that’s about to go to University won’t want to be working in your filthy railway shed.”
The glare was returned. “Aye well, beggars can’t be choosers, can they? A job’s a job.”
Steve intervened. “They don’t normally have summer jobs there do they? What’s it doing?”
“No, they’re just taking on some lads temporarily to get rid a lot of the rubbish there and to clean up generally. The fitters and fitters’ mates are up to their eyes in maintenance. We haven’t got time do the clearing. The money ‘ll be alright mind.”
“Brilliant, thanks Dad. And you’ll let me know tomorrow, yeah?”
It was agreed. The rest of Sunday dinner passed as normal. Steve’s mother chattered on, while his Father subsided into his more familiar silence. Steve, occasionally responding to his Mother’s questions, with non-committal grunts, was gripped with a dread feeling of impending doom.
Later that day Steve was gloomily staring into a pint. Sarah broke into his brown study.
“So, explain it to me again. You’re broke, you’d like to enjoy this summer of leisure, and, I assume, you’re very keen to lavish money and attention on me. And you’ve been offered a job.”
“Exactly,” muttered Steve.
“I’m obviously missing something here. To any normal person that sounds like a timely solution to a problem, but you’re behaving as if you’re about to be sent to prison.”
“It’s not just any job, it’s a job working with my Dad. Shift work, in the dead of night, doing unspeakable things with bits of metal. It’ll be noisy and cold and physically exhausting. It might as well be prison, or a chain gang or something.” He sighed and took another sip of his drink.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Dear God Steve, you sound like a Jane Austen heroine. Get a grip. Its only for a few weeks, you can manage that surely?”
“Of course I can manage it, I’m not an invalid. I just don’t want to, that’s all. It’s going to spoil the whole summer. I’ll be too exhausted to see you. The trouble is, I’ve got no way of reasonably turning it down. It’s a done deal. I’m trapped.”
Sarah thought for a moment. She smiled and squeezed his knee. “I’ve got a solution. Leave it all to me.”
Sarah turned the key in the lock and pushed open the front door.
“Hi Mam, Dad, we’re back,” she called into the hall.
“Eeh, you’re early love. Anything the matter?” Her mother bustled into the hall from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel. Any time Steve saw her she seemed to be in the middle of some kind of domestic task. Until he had started going out with Sarah, he had no idea that there were so many domestic tasks to be done. He still wasn’t sure whether this was because the smooth running of the household was a fiendishly complex, time intensive procedure or whether her mother, with time on her hands, had to fill her days with something. Steve’s mother worked and had little energy or inclination left over for cleaning.
“No, no, everything’s fine. I just wanted to ask Dad something.”
“Oh well, he’s in the front room. Hello Steven love, how are you?”
“I’m very well Mrs Young, thanks.”
“Would you like some cheese and biscuits love? Come though to the kitchen while I get you some.”
Her other main mission in life appeared to be rescuing Steve from malnutrition. She took any opportunity to feed him and Steve had learned from experience that resistance was not only futile, but considered rather rude. He meekly followed her into the kitchen while Sarah went to clinch the deal with her father in the front room.
A few minutes later he came into the front room with the obligatory plate of Ritz crackers and mature cheddar. Sarah’s father was ensconced in his usual throne, a leather swivel armchair within blinking distance of a huge colour TV that was almost as deep as it was long. He was wearing a towelling robe, with his bare legs sticking out of the end with his feet, snug in leather slippers, up on a matching leather pouffe. The picture was completed by his equivalent of his wife’s tea towel, a conical glass of golden lager, with a generous head of white creamy foam.
“Well, here he is. We were just talking about you Steven,” he announced.
“Oh. Hello Stan. Were you? Talking about me I mean?” Steve was a little confused by Stan’s opening gambit.
“Yes, we were. I hear you’re wanting a job so that you can take my daughter out to fine restaurants.” He smirked.
“Well, er, I..”
He glanced nervously at Sarah, who was enjoying his discomfort.
“Good, I’m pleased to hear it lad. About time to. You can start on Tuesday. It could probably be tomorrow but I really should clear it with Geoff first. There won’t be a problem, but there are protocols you know.”
Steve gulped. “Great, thanks Stan. I really appreciate it.”
“No problem, son, no problem.”
There was a pause.
Finally, Steve couldn’t hold out any longer. Sarah was clearly not going to rescue him.
“Um, what exactly is the job Stan? And where exactly is it?”
Stan shook his head. “Dear Lord, don’t you two talk about anything? Or are you as simple as you appear? You’ll have to shape up better than this when you start you know. My reputation’s on the line.”
Sarah and her father turned to look at each other and beamed. Steve managed to crack a faint line of a weak smile. He was beginning to wonder whether working nights on the railway might have been the better option after all, but nevertheless, that night he added to the list at the front of his journal:
- Got a job
His mother was delighted, his father silently put out. An office job. For Steven it represented a narrow escape and further proof that this was set to be a golden summer of legend. It had got to be better than the harsh realities of life of shift work in a wind-blown hangar full of rusting metal and heavy tools. He could sit down. He would probably be able to read. He would certainly be able to daydream. And, for the first time in his life, he would get paid.
On Tuesday morning, the horror of dragging himself out of his warm bed tested his resolve to the limit but, gritting his teeth, he persisted, enduring a train journey through the pock-marked wasteland that was much of the landscape of Teesside in the 1970s. On arrival at the Cargo Fleet Drawing Office he was shown to a seat at a desk in one corner of a cavernous open plan office by Sandra, a middle -aged lady from the typing pool who had met him on arrival. As she led the way across the neon-lit arena, Steve felt horribly exposed, like a gladiator striding towards the lions, while the crowd weighed him up and assessed his chances of survival. His progress was punctuated by a series of witty cat-calls, largely generated by the fact that no women worked in this office and the arrival of Sandra produced a rush of testosterone that seemed to temporarily disable all signs of intelligent life. “Oi, Sandra, you’re a right cradle snatcher.” “Have you given him one yet, Sandra?”, “Sandra, fancy a quick one?” were some of the more sensitive contributions she had to endure on the voyage out to the desk in the corner. She left Steve wordlessly at the desk, indicating that he should sit, turned on her heels and embarked immediately on the return trip, oblivious to the repetition of exactly the same abuse as on the outward journey. She glided along, head held high, poker faced.
Just before she reached the end of the office to make good her escape, the sound of approaching shouting cut through the casual banter. The door was flung open, the handle banging violently on the opposite wall. Sandra stopped in her tracks to avoid being steam-rollered by two men who strode purposefully into the room in mid-conversation. Immediately, the sniggering and cat-calling stopped and all of the men in the office, previously so smug and sure of themselves in their casually flung insults, bowed their heads, averted their eyes and with an eagerness that was pathetic to behold, started shuffling the papers on their desks. The boldest of them, those with ambition or more resilient self-confidence, flicked a glance towards the newcomers. One of them even managed to mumble, “Morning Peter, morning Geoff.” They were disregarded and the two men continued their conversation as they progressed through the office.
“…a lovely shot from the seventeenth. Just left me about five yards. He was spitting I’m telling you.”
“I BET HE WAS. I HOPE YOU HAD SOME MONEY ON IT, GEOFF.”
The reply came from the taller of the two men. At first Steve, nervously looking on from the shelter of his corner desk, thought that there was some kind of argument going on, and that the smaller man was in receipt of a regal bollocking from the taller. Then, when it became clear that they were laughing and joking with each other, Steve was enveloped in a cloud of cognitive dissonance. Unlike the others, who resolutely avoided eye contact, Steve continued to stare surreptitiously at the giant with a voice like thunder. He was about six feet six in a dishevelled grey suit with a pink shirt and paisley kipper tie. The enormous knot was an inch or two below the open shirt collar, through which peeked a forest of jet black hairy tufts. The same unruly tangle of black hair framed a shining bald pate, and the matching effect was completed by strong tendrils of wiry growth protruding from ears and nostrils, like mini shaving brushes. Steve’s contemplation of his outfit was interrupted by an outbreak of painfully loud, explosive laughter, as the taller man gave vent to his enjoyment of his own joke. The room shook and a slight breeze stirred up as he made his way to his desk. His outfit was completed by a huge pair of black boots that seemed to be encrusted with steel segs, given the reverberating clatter they made on the linoleum floor.
His desk was at the far end of the office, adjacent to Steve’s but mercifully hidden by a couple of screens and some straggly pot plants. By leaning backwards Steve was able to peer through a gap in the screens, fringed by foliage, and spy unnoticed on the occupant of the desk. The floor shook as he clumped his way to his chair, and the air echoed to the scraped chair legs on the tiles as he prepared to sit down. His every interaction with the world around him seemed to be an assault: he slammed the door, pummelled the floor, barked his conversation, ploughed the chair legs into the floor’s crust, bombed the desk top with the set of box files he casually dropped. Then he crashed down into his seat and let out a sigh like a steam train. It was a miracle that the desk/chair combination had not been reduced to matchwood. This had taken about forty seconds from one end of the office to the other but already Steve could feel the beginnings of a headache developing.
His fascinated musings about this strange creature were interrupted by the approach of the second man, who had continued his fight path across the office and arrived like an arrow from a bow at Steve’s desk. He smiled broadly and reached his hand out to Steve.
“Geoff. Geoff Barton. And you are?”
Steve returned his outstretched hand.
“Er, Steve, Steve Chapman.”
“Yes, that’s right, Steve. And you’re going out with Stan’s daughter, aren’t you? Sarah, is it?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said Steve, not quite sure where this was leading and keen to disentangle his hand.
A smirk played across Geoff’s face. “Yes, Stan’s daughter. Stan’s told me all about you lad.” The smirk rippled into a laugh, as if what Stan had told him was in some way ridiculous. Steve’s face dropped.
“No, no”, Geoff hurried to reassure him, “All good, Steve lad, all good, honestly. Got a bit of a soft spot for you, if you ask me Steve. Not like Stan at all, actually.”
Steve softened. Good old Stan had put a word in for him, clearly.
“Anyroad up lad, down to business. See that filing cabinet behind you?”
Steve turned to look in the direction of Geoff’s gaze, and clocking a regulation gun metal grey cabinet, nodded.
“That cabinet is full of blueprints. What your job is, in the first instance, is to calculate the floor area of each building on each drawing. What’s your maths like?”
Before Steve could answer, Geoff ploughed on. “Never mind, never mind. There’s a calculator on your desk. Just work out the floor areas for each plan, record it on a central list and on the plan itself, and keep the completed plans in a pile on that table next to the cabinet. You got that?”
“Yeah, seems quite straightforward. What do I do when I’ve finished?”
“Finished?” snorted Geoff, “Finished? You wont finish lad, not unless you don’t do it properly. Just take it steady and we’ll see where we are after that, eh? Alright? I’ll drop by to check you’re alright later on. Welcome to Chicago Fleet, son. British Steel, land of the brave, eh?”
He turned to go.
“Er, Geoff?” Steve hesitantly called after him.
Geoff stopped, turned and took a few steps back in his direction, a beatific smile of endless patience with fools on his face. “Yes, Steve?”
Steve’s glanced back in the direction of Geoff’s colleague, between the screen and the pot plant. He lowered his voice. “Who’s that guy over there? The one you came in with?”
A cloud passed over Geoff’s face. He bent down and, leaning on the desk, matched his volume to Steve’s. “Don’t concern yourself with him. That’s Peter, the boss of the whole section. He’s way above your paygrade. Keep out his way, don’t draw attention to yourself and you should be alright. Most of the rest of the office are petrified of him and that’s the way he likes it, but his bark is certainly worse than his bite. But don’t give him any excuse to bark, mind. Or bite. If you’re lucky, the summer’ll be over before he even notices you.”
Before Steve could reply, Pottage barked. The phone on his desk rang and Pottage snatched up the receiver from the cradle. It disappeared into his huge hairy paw, each end only just poking clear of the mammoth fist, like a black balloon, squeezed into deformity
“POTTAGE!” he bellowed into the receiver. There was a pause, filled with tinny, far away squeaking.
“NO!” replied Pottage decisively, and he crunched the phone back down on to the cradle with an almighty crash. The room shook slightly and the ragged leaves of the pot plant continued to quiver, like an earthquake’s after shock. He went back to assaulting the pile of card folders on his desk. Never had a phone call been so comprehensively over.
Geoff smiled back at Steve ruefully, raised his eyebrows and turning on his heels, walked back out of the office. Steve stared back through the gap in the foliage, a mounting feeling of trepidation rising in his stomach. “Just as well his bite isn’t worse than his bark,” thought Steve, turning to remove the first wedge of blueprints from the filing cabinet drawer.
He worked his way through them methodically for the rest of the morning, entirely undisturbed by the other office workers, save for regular booming outbursts from Peter Pottage whenever the phone rang. Occasionally, Pottage would sally forth from his desk, sending a ripple of fear through the rest of the office. The inhabitant of every desk would immediately cease whatever conversation they had been having and give the papers on their desk their fullest attention, eyes down, brows furrowed. The relief in the room when Pottage descended on a particular individual was palpable and grew as Pottage proceeded to bawl out whoever was the lucky recipient. It was still unclear to Steve whether Pottage was giving someone a bollocking or merely checking the progress of work in a paternalistic, polite enquiry.
By the time it got to late afternoon, Steve was feeling positively euphoric about the world of work. He had survived his first day by keeping his head down, occasionally spying on the monster that was Pottage through the gap in the screens, and working his way through the mountain of blueprints on his desk. As the day progressed, the edge had been taken off his fear of Pottage, and consequently he began to feel the first stirrings of boredom.
At about four in the afternoon, Steve’s thoughts had begun to turn to the journey home and some down time. His fantasies about how he would spend his first pay packet were rudely interrupted by a commotion from the desk behind the screen. Pottage had moved away from his desk and stood adjacent to it with a clear view down to the far end. In one hand he had a huge fat cigar that he sporadically puffed on furiously, generating pungent clouds of smoke. In the other he had a fishing rod.
“MIND YER BACKS!” he shouted, though he needn’t have bothered as every other worker in the office was rigidly staring at him with unswerving concentration. Taking a final puff on the cigar he swung the rod over his head and with a snap of his wrist, flicked it back, sending the line and hook whistling through the air to the back of the office. There were murmurs of approval from the watching desks and a panicked jump out of the way by one of the occupants at the back and to the right. Once he had saved himself from having his eye out, he grabbed hold of the hook at the end of the line and affixed it to a sheet of paper about A5 size. No sooner was it attached than Pottage again shouted, “HEADS!” and began to furiously reel the paper in, stopping in mid -reel for a restorative drag on the cigar. As the hooked paper swung past him, he grabbed it and pulled it towards him.
“BROWN TROUT!” he announced, with a beaming smile playing across his lips. He ripped the paper from the hook and displayed it to the office as proof. The sheet had the words “brown trout” scrawled across it in thick black felt tip. There was a general murmur of approval, with a ripple of muted applause and the occasional “Well done Peter”.
From behind the screen, Steve watched aghast as the whole pantomime was repeated several times, with Pottage casting off and then reeling in, from various desks, a Chub, a Tench and, producing a spontaneous ovation, a Salmon. After a while, it was clear that Pottage’s sporting needs had been sated and he spent a good five minutes elaborately putting away his rod and tackle. Then, still puffing on his cigar, he strode down the middle aisle of the office and out, pausing only to bellow, “A GOOD DAY’S WORK THAT. GOOD EVENING GENTLEMEN.”
Every day followed the same pattern, with Steve dividing his time up between daydreaming and continuing his allotted task of working out floor areas. Every day, Pottage assaulted his immediate environment, and all those in it, with his every action. Even his thoughts seemed loud. Every day, Pottage devoted the last forty-five minutes to practising his casting technique as part of his fantasy pursuit of brown trout about five hundred metres away from a river that had not seen a fish of any description since the Industrial Revolution. Every day Geoff would wander over to Steve’s desk and say, “Alright Steven, how’s it going? Good lad,” and then wander away again without waiting for a reply.
Steven took to devoting his daydreams to thoughts of his future life as a University student. By then he would have taken up his rightful place as one the country’s intellectuals, far from the meagre, petty concerns of this nine -to- five drudgery, surrounded by smaller spirits and meaner souls. He began to pity his fellow office slaves for they had no such chance of escape. Probably that was kinder, for what would they do with choice if it were ever on offer? Without the wit to inhabit such liberty fruitfully, it would be shamefully wasted on them.
Similarly, he thought Teesside a provincial backwater, ill-suited to his talents and he envisaged his journey to York in September as emotionally and intellectually, a one-way ticket out of Nowheresville. Probably, he mused, en route to London or Oxford, or some other exotic place he actually had no idea about at all, where he would end up working in some kind of creative profession, whose jobs were routinely advertised in The Guardian on Mondays. He would meet a series of impossibly glamorous and sophisticated beautiful women who would be entranced by his northern charm, towering intellect and dashing good looks. A string of casual yet subtly intense affairs would follow before finding a soulmate in an obscurely published avant-garde poet.
He had begun to think that his relationship with Sarah had run its course anyway and that it was probably best all round if he finished it before he left for York. Sometimes an act of decisive cruelty was, in reality, an act of kindness. It had been great and she was great, but she wasn’t quite up to the mark culturally, when push came to shove.
He was decided. He would give British Steel another three weeks, out of respect for Stan, and to accumulate enough money to fund an appropriate wardrobe and accessories to make a splash on his first entrance into undergraduate life. He reckoned he could probably just about bear another three weeks of idling away behind a screen, observing the ridiculous goings on of the workforce. The only issue was when was he going to break the news to Sarah, who obviously, would be devastated. She had already made a bit of fuss about not seeing him very much and had ruined a “romantic” dinner for two over a bottle of Mateus Rose by continuously carping and complaining about his being “distant”. Distant! Was it his fault his mind was full of finer things, things Sarah couldn’t possible understand or appreciate? The more he thought about it, the more he realised that the only option open to him was to cast off all of the trappings of his old life in preparation for the new.
No matter how hard he tried or how much he steeled himself, he could not bring himself to do the deed. Finally, it came to the week he had planned as his penultimate at the Cargo Fleet office. He had arranged to meet Sarah at The Stockton Arms on Thursday evening. It was the usual drinking venue of their set and he thought it might be kinder to break the news to her in familiar surroundings, surrounded by all of their friends, who would undoubtedly be a source of solace to her afterwards.
They were sitting at a corner table, and a series of friends had come and gone. It had been a great night and Steve positively had to fight back his tendency towards nostalgia. It had to be now, he told himself repeatedly. Just as he was about to launch himself into “the conversation”, they were joined at the table by a couple of people who were outer members of their circle, John and Graham, who were always good value after a few drinks.
“Hey guys,” announced John, “Mind if we join you two young lovers?”
“Hi John, Graham, come and sit down. How are you?” Sarah was genuine in her enthusiastic greeting. Steve felt a mounting sense of irritation. Sarah seemed more comfortable when other people were present.
“So, Steve,” John began cheerily, “How are you feeling about going away in September? York, isn’t it?”
“I’m pretty excited actually John. The university looks great, it has a really good reputation – almost like Oxbridge actually. And, to tell you the truth,” continued Steve, warming to his subject, “It’ll be a relief to get away from Stockton.”
“Oh, why’s that?” enquired Graham, sitting forward in his chair.
“Well, you know, Stockton’s so small and there’s absolutely nothing happening here. It’s such a backwater, I’d go mad if I had to stay here.” He looked from one to the other, a broad smile on his face. He was met with blank looks and the silence grew. It began to get awkward.
“Er.. where is that you two are going again? Nottingham, was it? What’s that like?” Steve was struggling to thaw the sudden freeze that had descended.
“No, It’s Teesside Poly actually,” said John in clipped tones, “I’m not gonna get the grades for Nottingham.”
“Oh. Oh well”, said Steve brightly, “I’m sure that’ll be fine, staying somewhere you used to.”
“Yeah,” agreed Graham, “Somewhere small and not too demanding. Somewhere we could cope with. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed I don’t go mad. Still,” he continued, scooping up his cigarettes and pint, “at least all the tossers like you will have left. Come on John, let’s go and talk to someone who’s not being intellectually stifled by his hometown.”
They both got up and moved away, shaking their heads.
“God, what’s wrong with them? They’re a bit touchy, aren’t they?” protested Steve.
Sarah glared at him. “My God Steve, you really are a bit of wanker, aren’t you? What a snob. Don’t you get it? Not everyone is as clever as you, but they don’t like having their noses rubbed in it. Honestly, I give up with you, I really do.” She drained her glass and got up.
“What…what are you doing?” spluttered Steve.
“I’m leaving. That’s it. And not just the table, I’m leaving you. I was going to tell you tonight anyway, but I can’t bear to spend any more time with you. I’m going to talk to some proper human beings with proper feelings.”
“But, I didn’t mean…”
“No buts. Enough. Finish your drink on your own. You might as well get used to it.” And with that she stalked off.
The next day at work, Steve consoled himself with the fact that he could give his notice in, do one more week and then be free. He had spent half the night tossing and turning, trying to come to terms with what had happened in the pub, but try as he might, he couldn’t make sense of it. What had he done that was so wrong? Everyone knew that Stockton was the armpit of the universe. Denying it was just romantic nostalgia of the worst kind.
He was able to continue chewing it over in his mind, sitting at his desk protected by the screen and the pot plants, but he made little progress and, giving up the struggle, devoted most of his imaginative energies to speculating about the finer life he would have in York, where his thoughts about the world would not be so cruelly traduced. He even found time to fit in a little floor area calculation, adding the figures to his growing list of tallied numbers.
By the time the clock had ticked around to 4pm he could begin to think about home time. He would go over and find Geoff to let him know that next week would have to be his last. He felt sure that Geoff would be a little gutted to lose such a productive and trouble-free member of staff. He was just about to get up to begin, when he was interrupted by stirrings from the lair of the mighty Pottage behind the screens.
“Oh God,” thought Steve, “We’ve got to go through this angling pantomime again. Jesus wept.”
He shrank back down behind his screen and prepared to watch the daily ritual of Pottage being indulged by the junior members of his office staff, pathetic in their abject fear. At least, thought Steve, he could hide and stay out of the way.
Pottage collected his rod, lit his cigar and strode out into the centre aisle as usual. He stopped, surveyed all corners of the office, sniffed the air and bellowed, “DO YOU KNOW LADS, I THINK I’LL TRY THE OPPOSITE BANK. I’M FISHING DOWN AT GREAT AYTON ON SUNDAY AND THE SUN’LL BE AT ME BACK MOST OF THE TIME.”
There was a general murmuring of approval and nodding of heads as Pottage crunched his way down to the other end of the office, his cigar generating industrial quantities of smoke. From his hidey hole, Steve looked aghast down to the other end where Pottage was taking up his position. He was in full view. He thought of edging sideways, closer to the pot plants, but it was too late. Pottage had him in his sights. He took the cigar from his mouth and opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it. Instead he half turned to glare at a desk half way down on the left. He flicked the rod back over his head and snapped it forward, casting the line unerringly on to a sheaf of paper in front of the nervous occupant who quickly attached the sheet of paper as part of a well-drilled routine and watched with some relief as it sped away, Pottage furiously puffing on his cigar while working the reel handle.
He squinted at the sheet and a broad smile broke out. “PIKE!” he proclaimed.
“Oooh,” came the servile chorus with a smattering of applause. Pottage held his hand up, still smiling, and as quickly as the applause had broken out, it stopped.
“Now then,” he said quietly, a gleam in his eye. He turned and flicked the line flatter this time. It fizzed like rocket, arrowing straight to Steve’s desk where the hook bounced off his pile of blueprints and hit him on the shoulder. He jumped out of his skin, his trailing arm sending the neat pile up into the air like a cloud of giant confetti.
“WHAT FISH HAVE I CAUGHT YOUNG MAN? EH?”
“Um, I haven’t got a fish actually Peter,” Steve mumbled nervously.
“WHAT’S THAT LAD? SPEAK UP.”
Steve cleared his throat and raised his voice. “I er, I haven’t got a fish Peter.” He racked his brains to think of a time when he had ever said anything quite so ridiculous.
“PUT THE FIRST SHEET OF PAPER ON THE HOOK LAD. COME ON, CHOP CHOP!”
Like a naughty school boy, humiliated by a sadistic teacher holding him up by his ear, Steve fumbled amongst the sheets of papers, found one and inserted the hook. Pottage, watching him like a hawk whipped it away and began reeling it in. Steve watched it gracefully fly away from him and into Pottage’s waiting hands.
Pottage tore it from the hook and scanned it quickly, his expression clouding over as he did so. He paused to puff again on his cigar. The office held its collective breath, waiting for the judgement of Solomon.
“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL’S ALL THIS RUBBISH?” He screwed it up into a ball, dropped his rod to the floor and marched back down the aisle towards Steve’s desk. He bent down and scooped up the blueprints and Steve’s laboured calculations that were strewn all over the floor.
“IS THIS WHAT YOU’VE BEEN WORKING ON LAD?” He brandished the fan of papers under Steve’s nose.
“Er, yes, that’s right”, gulped Steve.
“AND WE’VE BEEN PAYING YOU FOR THIS CRAP HAVE WE?”
“Er, yes, you have actually.”
“DEAR GOD, NO WONDER THE COUNTRY’S IN SUCH A STATE. CLEAR YOUR DESK LAD, THE GRAVYTRAIN HAS JUST OFFICIALLY HIT THE BUFFERS.”
Pottage’s final act of humiliation was to rip the pile of papers in front of Steve’s nose and to deposit them directly into the bin by the side of his desk. Before the last fragment had fluttered down into the bin, Pottage had turned on his heels, picked up his fishing rod and clattered his way out of the office en route to a weekend’s real fishing.
The stunned silence persisted after he had gone. No-one could bring themselves to look Steve in the face, and one by one, they all began to pack up their own work and prepare themselves to leave, making sure they returned on Monday morning to a clean desk. Eventually, Steve was the last person left in the office. He was just about to get his jacket and leave, when the door at the far end of the office swung open and Geoff came in. He walked up to Steve, an embarrassed expression on his face.
“I suppose you realise that this was your last day Steven?” he asked.
“I sort of got the feeling that was the case, yeah,” replied Steve, his face telling a story of confusion and hurt.
“Don’t look like that lad, you had a good run. You were just unlucky Peter changed his casting position. He’s never done that before.”
Steve looked at Geoff. “There wasn’t ever really a job here was there? Not a proper one, I mean.”
Geoff shook his head. “No, lad, there wasn’t. It was a favour to Stan. We sort of “create” a job every summer for one of the executive’s sons before university, that sort of thing. Sometimes two. In your case, you were the deserving boyfriend, that’s all.”
Steve forced out a hollow laugh. “Deserving boyfriend, that’s a joke. The funny thing is, I was gonna…” He paused.
“You were going to what lad?”
He shook his head.
“Oh nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
Later, in the early hours of the morning, in the quiet darkness of his room, he sat at a desk, staring out of his window at the rows of streetlamps illuminating the pebble dash houses of the estate. A confined cone of yellow lit up a small section of the desk top and his journal, opened to the first page. After some thought he turned his attention to the journal, picked up a pen and wrote, adding to the list:
- Lost girlfriend
- Lost job
- Lost reputation and friends.
He stopped for a moment, looking back out of the window at the rows of identical houses, huddled in the darkness. Shaking his head, he turned back to the journal and added
- Lost self -respect
He shivered. Suddenly, he wasn’t feeling very clever or very pleased with himself anymore.