A tantalising taster from Gilli Allan's Life Class
1 - Christmas Eve
‘I work in the sex trade,’ was her usual answer. It amused her to watch the battle for self-control in the face of whoever had asked the question, and their dawning relief when she added the qualifier, ‘...the clean-up end.’
Her job had always had its lighter moments, but today, since she’d come back from her lunch break, her mood had plummeted. On the pin board above her microscopes, official instructions about hygiene, circulars and timetables jostled with the cartoons and jokes members of staff had attached. Her contribution – NEVER TRUST A SMILING HETEROSEXUAL – was boldly inscribed on a post-it note. Even though she’d become used to seeing it there, it usually it made her smile. Now it was neither funny nor relevant.
She had only seen the patient’s back view but had recognised the boy instantly. And it was impossible not to start putting two and two together, given who she’d spotted waiting in his car outside.
Earlier she’d walked back from the city centre, her mind buzzing, consumed by thoughts of the house, her mad offer for it ... and its owner. She’d had to juggle with bags, umbrella and key fob to get the boot of her car open and stow her purchases. Just as she slammed it shut, the sun had come out and a sudden flare off a puddle momentarily blinded her. She averted her eyes. In that instant she recognised the man she’d been thinking about, sat in the car parked next to hers.
What a come down. But it didn’t have to mean anything. Perhaps it was just a bizarre coincidence. Even if they had come together there was any number of explanations. Perhaps he’d come as a ‘buddy’, or in loco parentis to support the boy. She rubbed at her forehead. Why was she trying to convince herself that the obvious conclusion was the wrong conclusion? And what was it to her anyway? If you work in this field you can’t be judgmental, she reminded herself. Other people’s life-style choices are none of your business.
‘...And you’d rather miss your first life class? For Christ’s sake sis, there’s more to life than the speed of your Broadband!’
‘I don’t want to miss it, Fran, but the engineer should have been here an hour ago, and….’
Mobile cupped against her
ear, Dory looked around at the packing cases that still took up much of the
floor space in her small sitting room. ‘There’s still masses to do. I’ve boxes
yet to open, let alone unload.’
‘There’ll be time enough for all that boring stuff. After all, today is the first day of the rest of your life!’
‘Have you been reading your fridge magnets again?’
‘Why do you think we fall back on platitudes, Dory? Because they’re based on universal truths. So?’
Glancing at her watch Dory walked back into the kitchen. Her sister had a point. Even if it had been against her better judgement, why agree to be enrolled for the class if she wasn’t prepared to make an effort to attend it? She reached across the sink to close the window. Below her 1st floor rented maisonette, a dahlia enthusiast had filled his small garden with the blousy blooms, their colours magnified in the morning sun. They weren’t a favourite of hers but, momentarily transfixed by the implausible flare of luminous pinks, reds and oranges, by the crazy deckchair stripes, she felt her spirits lift.
‘OK. If the BT bloke doesn’t arrive in the next ten minutes, I’ll reschedule the appointment. I might be a bit late but…. See you when I see you.’ Dory pressed the red button and breathed. Despite the tower of packing cases, a great deal had been accomplished in a very short time. Storage solutions still had to be found, but it would all be sorted. How could she regret the
London house she’d left
behind? What price prestige, location, success if you’re unhappy in your
relationship, if you’re not doing what you want to do?
So now she’d taken the first steps to real independence, what was she going to do with it? How was she going to live the rest of her life? Maybe today would prove the cliché. It might yet prove to be the beginning of something, a different direction, a different way of thinking? After all, science had always come second to art, when she was growing up. How had she found herself in a science-based career?
The future was a clean sheet, waiting to be written. But it was her wish list, not her sister’s. In her mind’s eye Dory could see the words ‘Start a business (something creative?)’ as the first entry on that imaginary blank page. Ignore what Fran thought her priorities should be. There was little likelihood that ‘men and relationships’ would figure on the list any time soon … if ever.
The woman who’d come out of the office would have looked more at home at an open air music festival than standing here, hands spread on the reception desk. Behind small round glasses, her eyes were smudged with greasy black make-up; her layers of baggy clothes looked as if they’d been assembled in the dark, the acidic taint of sweat hung in the air. She waited, mouth pinched, for him to identify himself.
‘I’ve been engaged to teach art classes.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Stefan Novak. Mornings. Monday, Tuesday and today.’ He was already tense about the new job – let alone the fact he was starting on a Friday, which felt weird in itself. Now he was getting the distinct message that his arrival was as unexpected as it was unwelcome, and was preventing this woman from getting on with far more important work. Maybe this was an over-reaction, saying more about him than it did about her. Even so, he could do without the assault on his confidence – wherever it came from. There was nothing to stop him turning on his heels and walking out. He didn’t have to do this. Except that he knew he did. He couldn’t live on air. He had to do something until … if ... the big breakthrough.
‘Ah!’ Sitting down abruptly, she swivelled towards the computer monitor and banged the mouse several times on the desk. She raised her hand to her head and raked through her short hair, leaving it sticking up in all directions. He noticed the colour – an unnatural orange – was growing out, giving the roots a faded, almost greenish-brown tint.
‘I didn’t recognise you as staff. And you’re too early to be a student.’ It seemed a half-hearted justification of her ungracious manner. She still stared at the screen. ‘So…’ Rapid clicks of the mouse. A muted swearword. ‘You are … Stefan Novak?’ she eventually read out, as if he’d not supplied his name already. She looked towards him, eyes narrowed, accusing. ‘You’ve taken over from Sandira Benfield?’
He shrugged. ‘So I’ve been told.’ There was a pause.
Stefan wondered if he should apologise. ‘Do you know where your class is? First
floor, right at the top of the stairs, second door along.’ She handed him some
keys. ‘That one’s the class and that’s the storeroom. When he gets in I’ll tell
Gordon, head of department, you’ve arrived.’
As he mounted the stairs he was aware of the tension, still gripping him. Was it a kind of stage fright? Anxiety about standing in front of a class? Only natural he supposed. After all, he wasn’t a teacher. Had never had the slightest instinct or ambition to teach. Yet here he was. He’d heard the horror stories, but this wasn’t an inner city comprehensive, it was an adult class. The students were here by choice. And one of them – if he turned up – he already knew. At least he needn’t worry about meeting resistance or having to win the class over.
Dom sniffed surreptitiously in the direction of his armpit. Didn’t seem too honk too badly and it would’ve made him late to go back to wash and change. It was more important to make sure of getting the bus. And if he had shown his face, what’s the betting he’d’ve had to listen to another bollocking about staying out overnight, or endure another sermon about going back to school.
Couldn’t they get it? He’d had it with school. If the Principal was to be believed, school’d had it with him. What was the point? At his age he didn’t have to go any more, and he wasn’t about to beg to be allowed to. Anyway, there was only one subject he was interested in, and doing this three whole mornings a week had to be better than one poxy art lesson, with a roomful of kids who didn’t care and a teacher who’d given up trying to make them. He’d show them all!
Across the pavement from the bus stop the shop window was plastered with tempting adverts. No point trying to buy smokes. Dom guessed he’d be challenged about his age and didn’t have any ID on him. Perhaps he could blag some off Stefan. He couldn’t be bothered to waste energy arguing about it now. But crisps and cola were another matter. He’d not eaten since…? As he struggled to recall, the pang of hunger and thirst that gripped his belly was irresistible.
The Asian woman filling a shelf on the back wall behind the counter turned at the piercing chime of the doorbell. She visibly stiffened. One hand clutched the filmy scarf thing around her neck, the other curved, kind of protectively, over the till drawer. What did she think? That he was going to rob her? Didn’t she realise he was in more danger of being mugged than she was?
The other night they’d taken his iPod and some cash, but he’d got away without being badly hurt. That was the main thing. And he’d already recouped the money. Withdrawing his right hand from the pocket of his low-slung jeans he double-checked the screwed up bank notes in his grubby palm. And it felt like there was some change at the bottom of his pocket, too. He didn’t need to pinch anything … well, not from people like her. If he did ever nick stuff – his left hand encircled the new iPhone in his other pocket – it’d be from the big shops in the city centre. Whatever Stefan said … it was, like, a victimless crime, wasn’t it? Although recently Stefan had stopped asking him how he acquired his stuff, or where he got the extra money.
The strap of his backpack now comfortably heavy over his shoulder, he returned to the stop, swigging from one of the six-pack of cola he’d bought. In the distance the bus appeared and the queue shuffled forward. Somehow, since knowing Stefan, he’d become more aware of his environment, more aware of light and shade, of form and substance, colour and texture. Taller than the bloke in front of him, Dom had a view of the top of his head, pink scalp gleaming through the silky strands of white hair. Then, as if suddenly sensing something, the man glanced back over his shoulder. The crazed skin of his face was almost grey, a spider-web of blue on the cheeks. The blurry yellowed eyes narrowed; his mouth compressed into a puckered slash. Taking a distancing step, the old geezer turned away and began to mutter. Slowly they boarded the bus. Dom stepped up behind him and heard snatches of his ramblings before the driver cut them short.
‘… Out there … our brave boys … Queen and country … likes of you …’
‘All right mate. Everyone knows it’s a scandal. Where to?’
‘The engineer was due at eight, but when I spoke to Dory he’d still not arrived,’ Fran told her husband. She lifted her jacket from the hook. ‘So she might be late for her first class. OK, I’m off.’
‘That’s a shame.’ Instead of retreating into the sitting room or the kitchen, Fran watched bemused as Peter crossed the wood-block flooring of the large hall and picked up her art bag. He opened the door and stepped out onto the porch, sliding his socked foot into one of his Crocs.
‘Where are you…? What are you doing?’
He stood on one foot attempting to hook Jimbo away from the other shoe with his upturned toes.
‘Out the way bird-brained animal…!’ He stretched out his hand towards Fran. ‘I’m helping you. Car keys?’
Helping me? ‘I’m capable of carrying…’
‘But now I’m home I can help. This bag’s heavy. Is everything in here strictly necessary?’ Both
now leapt and skittered around his feet as he walked to the back of her car.
‘I never know what I’m going to want. I may as well take everything.’
‘And it’s disgustingly filthy. You don’t want dust and charcoal and goodness knows what, all over your clothes.’
‘But Peter…?’ I’ll be lifting it out of the boot and carrying it into the school, she argued silently. Unless you’re planning to come with me as my porter.
‘Why don’t you get yourself a new bag? Then you can rationalise the contents and chuck this one out. Bet you’re lugging stuff to and fro you’ll never need.’
She acknowledged his last remark with a tight smile as she took the car keys he proffered and slid onto the driver’s seat. Was this what it was going to be like from now on? His view of early retirement had been rosy and optimistic. Hers had been more cautious, a caution that was beginning to look justified. ‘Now he was home’ he’d said, with that indulgent smile, as if there was nothing but good to be gained from his continual presence. This ‘helping her out to the car’ was exactly what she was afraid of. A kind of well-meant suffocation.
She was still a young woman – not yet forty – fit and attractive and still up for a good time, which in her book did not mean a trip to the pub for lunch with your husband every other Wednesday. She wasn’t ready to embark on the kind of Saga existence that he presumably envisaged. She enjoyed her freedom; she liked to do exactly what she wanted, when she wanted, without explanation or interference. It was early days but having him hanging around her house 24/7, with nothing to do but wonder what she was doing, was already getting on her nerves big-time.
You are being so petty, she reproved herself. And you’re not being fair. But guilty conscience didn’t stop her feeling this way. But hey, she could forget home and husband for a few hours. She was on her way to the first life class of the autumn term. The class changed little from year to year, but this time her little sis’ would be there … and maybe one or two other new members. A buzz of anticipation began.
‘Give my regards to….’ Peter called after her as the car began to move away, crunching over the gravel.
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