Issue 6: Bloody Work

3 Feb

Yes, we know we’re a bit late for issue 6, but the bus was on a diversion and  we’ll work through lunch to make the time up, OK?  Welcome back to the Feminist Jumble Sale, the place where you can rummage through  peoples’ donations of stories, reflections, moans and tragi-comedies, all loosely tied to that most January-esque of themes;  Bloody Work. 

Here you’ll find work by five writers, some usual suspects and one brand new contributor, all of whom have been gainfully employed in a range of weird and wonderful capacities.  We cover amongst other things: backstage tantrums, Saturday jobs, sleeping with colleagues, inappropriate over-sharing and office politics. We hope that our assortment eases those hurried sandwich-at-your-desk lunchtimes.

We’ve made our back issues easier to find, made it simpler for you to like us on Facebook, and a piece of cake to follow us – please check out the new and improved sidebar over there.

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Issue 7 is due out at the end of March.  We’ll be celebrating not only 101 years of International Women’s Day, but 1 year of the Feminist Jumble Sale.  Bloody Hell! We’d like to receive your donations on the all-encompassing, free-for-all theme of Bloody Hell!  Please get them in by 25 March for consideration.

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BLOODY WORK  CONTENTS

Greasepaint- by Zoe

Team Bonding Exercise  – by Celia

Tuesday – by Emily

Colin Walker’s Dirty Secret – by Jane

Empire State Biscuits – by Jim

Saturday  – by Zoe

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Greasepaint – by Zoe

It was a bad summer season, 1994 – we were held to ransom by the sponsors. I was all the more annoyed ‘cause 1995 was our big anniversary year. I had plans. Something ambitious – maybe even a musical – ‘Stepping Out’ on the cards. Vicki Michelle or Su Pollard.

He was a good kid, Jimmy Clarke. The things he put up with that year, whew. Yep, that was tough.

He got the gig ‘cause he was some school friend of the daughter of our chief patron, so we didn’t hold out much hope at first.

We started with the usual initiation – sending him down town to get a glass hammer and some sparks. We even sent him on the ‘publicity run’ (designed to tire you out so completely that you’d be on the verge of collapse and all for nothing. If it didn’t drive you to drink it should at least teach you why profanity is so rife in the theatre). We usually only used that one on the adults. Still, he could see then that it weren’t all lah di dah.

When he came in the next morning, without a word, we knew he was alright. Lianne even bought him a choc ice and she’s tighter than Scrooge. Lianne is my deputy and it was her who found Jimmy that night – just in time.

We were starting the season with this show ‘Enlightenment’ with some crap magician. Our sponsorship would only stretch so far that year and the producer had got seduced into blowing most of it on a no-name sit-com extra and a director for the Ayckbourn with ideas above his station and a part for his wife.

Mefisto was an act as old as the minstrels – ‘bout as politically correct too.

Even though I got the geezer’s number straight off – alkie, wife left him, kind who’d have pork pie crumbs from the eighties in his pockets  it was obvious from Jimmy’s face that he ain’t never seen the like. I thought it wouldn’t be so bad for him to see it takes all sorts.

Mefisto didn’t have an assistant on account of no woman being able to stand being around him, The old producer  – he really was daft as a brush y’know – said Lianne might fancy being a soft touch an’ step in – just for one show. He obviously ‘adn’t ever spoke to Lianne before.  Magicians should have assistants.

I’d been down the Greensward for a smoke. There was a wind shelter like a miniature half-timbered house where I liked to sit. No-one ever bothered you – didn’t even see anyone – ‘cept one or other of the old dears carrying their dachshund. They made such a fuss of sausage dogs in that town. They had bed jackets and berets and miniature parasols.

Back at the theatre, everyone was milling around gearing up for the evening –the second to last night of the run. Mefisto really hit the bottle. He had a litre of Vladivar – a step up in brand and volume.

I should have clocked that something could be starting, when he ignored his five minute call, but I was a bit fuzzy and giggly. I was cursing him as I loitered out the back. ‘One more night of this and that’s it.’

30 seconds before curtain Lianne had already sussed something weren’t right. I ran through to the green room and found her and old Fred, the sound guy trying to prise Mefisto away from Jimmy. Fred was really struggling (Mind you, he’s getting on a bit. Last time me and Fred toured, we went to eat at a joint called ‘Dig in the Ribs.’ That name nearly finished him off, like that geezer in Mary Poppins). The lad was tied to an ironing board with this black stuff like giant bag ties that hold dolls in their boxes and he had words written on his face in greasepaint. At that moment, Mefisto was trying to set light to Jimmy’s hair.

We had to make Jimmy swear that he wouldn’t tell anyone about it – we didn’t want to lose our licence see- next year being our anniversary. He’s a good lad, Jimmy. Never breathed a word.

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TEAM BONDING EXERCISE  – by Celia

Sam awoke. Only dared to open one eye. Looked up at a pristine magnolia wall. Where the hell was she? A chink of light shone through the centre of the heavy blackout drapes. The anodyne framed print of a terracotta vase containing a  wilting posy confirmed that she was not at home. Yes, of course, the conference.

The sheets were cold against her back. She realised she didn’t have her fleecy pyjamas on or any clothes at all for that matter. Looked down at the floor. She saw a condom, used, had been tied in a knot and left there.

The conference had begun in a more dignified manner two days earlier. During the last session of the last seminar they had “mitched off”, as Yvonne called it, to the bar for happy hour bottles of Pinot Grigio. Sam always enjoyed a drink with Yvonne and Benita, her older work colleagues and they got through several bottles, occasionally popping out to smoke Lambert and Butlers under an outdoor heater. She knew that a bag of Salt and Vinegar crisps did not constitute an adequate dinner, even if they were McCoys.

They were already flushed and giddy by the time the other delegates arrived in the bar. There was no one travelling through this particular corner of Northampton it seemed and the hotel was occupied solely by the delegates of the Southern regional division.

Sam gave Nigel a deferential nod as he strolled into the bar. They had been paired off during a workshop session after morning coffee to discuss the rolling out of various operating systems across the network. Sam thought he was lovely. She had looked at his Facebook during lunch break on her iPhone and although she had noticed his wedding ring in his profile picture, which he had taken by holding his own iPhone up in front of a mirror, she still thought he was gorgeous.

The women continued laughing and smoking, glad to be away for one more night until tomorrow’s networking breakfast after which they would drive home in their cars listening to Smooth Radio and smoking out of the window. Nigel had approached the table and squeezed himself in next to Sam on the banquette against the wall.

Lying in the room Sam found it difficult to remember what had happened beyond that happy haze. Her mouth was dry and bitter and her skin felt paper thin and grubby. Looking at the red numbers on the digital alarm clock next to the bed she knew she had missed the networking breakfast.

She got up a bit too suddenly and steadied herself against the wall. She found her earrings on the bedside table and her bra, suit jacket and shirt rolled up under a chair. She continued to look for her trousers and pants. She looked everywhere in fact, behind the curtains, in and under the bed, in the bath, the minibar and the trouser press. They were nowhere to be seen.

She sat down suddenly on the edge of the bed and remembered. Nigel. Packing hurriedly in the middle of the night, scooping up clothes in the dark into his suitcase muttering then carefully closing the door to his room behind him. Oh God. She could hear people outside vacating their rooms, the maids coming to change the sheets.

She looked in her jacket pocket and  grabbed her phone, shaking as she typed in the password on its touch screen. The battery was very nearly dead. On the verge of tears, she called Yvonne. Yvonne had her on speakerphone as she was already on the drive back. “I’m coming back for you babes, I’ll nip into Primarni in Daventry on the way, pick you up some trousers. They’ll only be cheap. Size 14, yeah?” Heart of gold that woman. Sam made a makeshift skirt out of a bed sheet as she waited for Yvonne to return.

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TUESDAY – by Emily

Patricia was pacing the kitchen, gesticulating, angry while mum scrubbed potatoes at the sink.  I hesitated before entering the room, and sighed in an exaggerated, teenaged fashion.  She was going on and on about bloody work.  Again. “ …so I told her, ‘that’s a projection’, but the old cow denied it – can you believe it? She told me to cool off and discuss it later, but there’s no way – not after what I had to deal with today.  Yer woman doesn’t know her arse from her elbow. That wee gobshite Mark was at his fecking worst, too – biting, hitting, the whole carry-on.” Mum carried on scrubbing, while I waited in the doorway, of the kitchen to get a chance to speak, my dramatic sigh unheard.  Or ignored. I barely understood these daily rants, didn’t really try.  I knew she worked with difficult, frightening-sounding children in the hospital.  I knew it seemed to make her angry, sometimes with her colleagues, sometimes with the children, usually with both.

Patricia got the shoe-whitening stuff out of the cupboard under the sink, and sat down to do her leatherette trainers. I grasped my chance to greet mum, making a point of not saying hello to Pat, and asked her what time tea would be. I stepped onto the quarry tiled floor and felt the familiar cold creeping through my school socks. “Oh about half an hour,” she replied, not looking up from the sink, throwing the scrubbed potatoes into a pan on the draining board.  I turned and left, heading to my room to do my insulin injection, but before I could get away, Patricia said to me, “Don’t forget those bloody cups.” I decided to ignore this, but she came after me, leaving her shoes on some newspaper.  “I meant it,” she said, her voice rising to the same angry pitch as she’d been using for her work rant.  “We will start fining you if you don’t get your arse in gear and bring your dirty mugs to the kitchen, and wash them too.” I looked to mum, to see if she would defend me, but she just gave me a look, to show that she agreed with Pat.  I said nothing, the hatred rising inside me like poison, and slammed the door behind me.

On my way to my room, I stopped by the front room where I knew my sister Lou would be watching telly.  It might be Star Trek, or a Harold Lloyd film.  It turned out to be Battle Star Galactica.  She would watch anything.  I found this annoying, but kind of understood that she needed to escape from our reality to retro visions of outer space or 1930s New York, when the world, like our TV, was all black and white. She was lying on the sofa, sucking her thumb, the gas fire on the wall opposite blazing. I sat next to her.  “That fucking bitch has just threatened to fine me again,” I said.  “She’s taking out all her work problems on us. Who cares about a few mugs, even if they are going mouldy?  It’s only mould.” My sister tore her eyes away from the screen with some effort. “Oh God,” she said, looking concerned.  “You’d better do what she says, though. You know what she’s like.”  I couldn’t believe this, it seemed everyone was against me.  I left, slamming the door, knowing this would upset  Lou, and that mum would accuse me of creating wham bam.  I didn’t care.

In my room, as I sat on the bed to do my injection, I looked round counting up the mugs.  There were only four, no, five, and only a couple of them were mouldy.  What’s the big fucking deal, I thought. After I’d finished with the syringe, I pressed play on my tape player.  Not in the mood for the Cult,  I turned the tape over to rewind the Cocteau twins on the other side.  I needed Liz Fraser to calm me down before I had to go and face the inevitable next round of confrontation.

This room, the smallest in the house, was my sanctuary. Every wall was covered in pictures, postcards, posters.  The wall I was proudest of had only black and white pictures that I’d collected and cut out from copies of The Face magazine, round at dad’s flat. Most of the floor was covered with school books, art materials, magazines, sketchbooks and clothes.  My dressing table heaved under a mass of make up, hairspray, crimpers, jewellery.  It was messy, but I roughly knew where everything was, and anyway, it was my chaos.  It was where I escaped the people I lived with, where I wrote endless volumes of my diary, thought and wept about boys, experimented with Sun-In and Boots 17 and occasionally wised I was dead.

This room had been mine almost all my life, my parents had decorated it with psychedelic purple, pink and orange wallpaper before they moved my cot in here when I was one. Amazing fat birds and giant flowers covered one wall, guarded my infancy. The curtains that mum made for me when I was about seven had had wild animals and trees, beautiful, delicate flowers and wading birds.  I had got rid of all that now, and painted the room white, but sometimes at night I missed the birds and animals, the patterns of the past.

When my sister came to tell me it was tea time, I was lying face down on the bed, dreading the discomfort of the meal that lay ahead.  I had decided to take the mugs down.  I could not afford to lose any precious pocket money.  I would need it at the weekend to spend on Marlboros and Liebfraumilch.  “It’s OK, you don’t have to persuade me,” I told her, collecting the mugs.  I couldn’t bring myself to do as I was told by that woman, though, so I left one partcularly encrusted cup carefully hidden under my bed.  That would show her, I thought. We headed downstairs and I slammed them on the sideboard. Pat raised her eyebrows, lips pursed, but said nothing.

Tea was boiled cabbage and boiled potatoes.  Mum had lost interest in cooking in the last few years, and we either had this or convenience food like frozen pizzas or Findus Crispy Pancakes, which Lou and I secretly loved after a lentil-based upbringing.  Pat  cooked about twice a year.  She could make salad or vegetarian chilli, but since the last chilli gave me food poisoning, she didn’t make it any more. I watched butter melting on my potatoes so I didn’t have to make eye contact with anyone.

It wasn’t long before she was off again, talking about work.  “Mark was crazy today!” she announced, to no-one in particular, laughing.  She often spoke about this disturbed and damaged little boy in the psychiatric unit where she worked.  “The wee eejit bit me, kicked the wall, and was about to start throwing things when I managed to restrain him.  The second time it took two of us! So we had to put him in the isolation room.”  She seemed to think that we would think her heroic for holding down a child and locking him up. “Is that like when you restrained Lou?” I asked, hot fear of asking this terrifying question turning my face red.  “Oh we don’t need to talk about that again.  She brought that on herself, and you know it.  With Mark it’s a whole different thing. That kid would carry on like there’s no tomorrow.  He’d hurt the otehr kids.  Or himself.” I glanced at my sister.  She looked upset.  “I didn’t…” Lou began, but decided against finishing her sentence. I finished my food, feeling anew the shock at the home life we had somehow ended up with.  I had stopped trying to work out why, it was easier to simply hate them than to try and understand adults.

After some grim silence, mum managed to change the subject, asked us about school.  Lou spoke about some boys in her class flashing at the back of the science lab.  She made it sound funny, but I knew it wasn’t really.  I mentioned something about how much I hated hockey and the hockey teacher and all the girls who cared about hockey, and the hockey kit. I didn’t talk about having been sent to the deputy headmistress for wearing makeup (again) or how I was upset that Frank didn’t speak to me in art (again), or the fact that I was sent out of maths for being rude to the teacher (again).

As soon as she’d finished her food, Patricia got up and put on her denim jacket and newly-whitened trainers to go and smoke a B&H outside the back door.  Moody and glowering, I could see her through the window, pacing, her face set in a usual frown.  I went to the sink to deal with the mouldy mugs while mum cleared the table, my sister back to the front room for whatever was on telly next.

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COLIN WALKER’S DIRTY SECRET – by Jane

Colin Walker stood in front of the bathroom mirror looking at the invitation propped against it. He was oblivious to the usual jarring debris of shared living – the clutter of opened wash bags on the windowsill, a damp line of mismatched towels hanging odorously from the shower rail. He looked down at a bar of soap sitting in its slimy swill on the edge of the washbasin. He grimaced and looked away. He stood a while longer, gripping the sides of the basin, sleeves rolled to the elbow, watching the water as it splashed and sparkled, creeping its way up the sides of the bowl.

In August 1984 Colin Walker had shaken hands with Freddie Mercury in a brief exchange of hero worship on one side and rock star courtesy on the other. Colin, then a shy young man of 19, was working as a marshal at Queen’s much-anticipated Wembley comeback concert. From his position at the temporary railings he attempted to steer the audience towards their seats, hoping the authority of his high-visibility marshal’s tabard would be enough for the wayward crowd to follow his instructions. During the performance Colin mouthed every word of every song. Nothing could be better than this. Except that it could.

Towards the end of the set he heard his name being shouted above the noise and turned to see the head marshal, Ian, beckoning to him in agitated semaphore. As a rule Ian found the mix of inexperience and over-confidence of his young team of marshals tiresome, but he liked Colin for his singular lack of cockiness, and was aware of his devotion to Queen. Ian gestured that Colin should follow him backstage, and as the band finished their final encore he positioned him, glazed with terrified anticipation, at the foot of the stairway, telling him to wait for the band to go past as they left the stage.

Moments later Colin heard the audience’s final climatic roar and then there was Freddie, heading down the stairs towards him. As he passed, Colin held out his hand. “That was brilliant,” he said, the words sticking to the sides of his dry mouth. “Why thank you” said Freddie, smiling in Colin’s general direction as their hands locked in a sweaty, fleeting meeting of palms. Freddie walked on but the electricity of the moment stayed with Colin. He had met, spoken to, and touched, his idol.

Colin had never believed the rumours of Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality but quickly recalibrated his mental biography after his idol ‘came out’. Colin loved Queen for their musical virtuosity and Freddie in particular for his giftedness as a songwriter and showman. But he had never been comfortable with his hero’s more pantomimic antics, the infamous cross-dressing video a particular low point. Indeed, Colin would have preferred it if Freddie had not wanted to break free.

Nevertheless Colin was devastated when, on the 24th November 1991, six years after meeting his idol, Freddie Mercury died from bronchia-pneumonia, one of the opportunistic infections that had attacked his enfeebled body, and just a day after he had made public his HIV status. Colin contributed to the official fan club tribute publication, with the words:

”Mercury was a genius and a legend whose music will go on, lighting up the airwaves like a comet illuminating the sky. He Will, Queen Will, Rock You!!”

Colin found it hard to get over Freddie’s death. He spent time talking with fellow fans, and many hours putting together a scrap-book from the collection of cuttings, photos and other Queen-ephemera he had amassed over the years. But it wasn’t enough. Colin wanted to make a more personal, tangible, and permanent contribution to Freddie’s memory. He considered a tattoo but this was becoming quite common among fan club members. At length he decided on a more dramatic, physical tribute to the hero whose sweaty hand had shaken his. He would never wash his right hand again.

Colin had been a quiet boy at school, and a quieter young man at university, where he spent three years in the halls of residence. He liked the food and the domestic comforts, and while he enjoyed his own company, he welcomed the annual arrival of new faces at the halls, in part for the lack of firmer friendships their company disguised. He left university with a good degree in Industrial Engineering and was quickly taken on by a manufacturing company in Reading. He enjoyed the work and, while not ambitious, he was good at his job. But after his decision of 1991, he realised he could no longer continue with it, his hands too often oily from the mechanical components he handled. So, to the disappointment of his colleagues, who liked him (and enjoyed teasing him with predictable outbursts from Queen’s back catalogue), and to the bemusement of his manager, who valued his quiet diligence, he left.

Over time detritus built up on his right hand, causing painful cracks in his finger joints and unsightly dark stains on his palm. Colin began to wear gloves. And for this reason, coupled with his natural reticence, it took him some time to find another job. Eventually he found work in the local Housing Office, but soon his gloved hands became an unwelcome talking point. His colleagues were a larky bunch, young and friendly, with a relentless after-work social life. Colin found them overbearing, and their persistent curiosity about his gloves difficult to fend off. Worse was their collective derision of Queen, whom they dismissed as preposterous, old-fashioned and shamefully operatic. It was too much; to his colleagues’ dismay, (as though they enjoyed teasing him, they liked Colin and had tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him to join their nightly booze-ups), he left.

Colin’s gloves protected his hand from exposure to dirt and the elements, but they also limited his activity. He stopped jogging (too sweaty) and swimming (too wet), though he had never been much of an athlete, so this was no real hardship. However, he began to gain weight. He knew he needed a physical, outdoor job, one that offered him greater solitude and the opportunity to wear gloves without seeming out of place. He considered becoming a dustman but the proximity to so much filth would only have made his life harder. So he applied instead to the local council’s Environmental & Recreational Department, and in the summer of 1992 began working as a Parks & Gardens Assistant in a large, suburban London park.

The job suited him and for two years Colin cleared leaves with an unwieldy electric blow-hose and dredged the man-made lake for condoms, plastic bottles and nappies. Gradually he learned how to plant out in spring and how to prune the gnarled flowering shrubs that clambered determinedly up walls and across wooden pergolas. Colin learned quickly and enjoyed the work.

He continued listening to Queen, usually on a Walkman wedged into the front pocket of his overalls, and his gloved hands were rarely noticed or remarked upon. Better still, no one made fun of Queen. The small team at the Parks Department were older men who, if not actually fans, were happy enough to spend occasional lunch hours ranking the band’s hits into an all-time top ten, or debating their position in the rock canon, (Colin arguing hard for their place at the top).

At the weekends Colin visited the great central London parks, noting down hard landscaping ideas and planting schemes. Sometimes he met up with fan club members to plan events and talk about the band. Not quite friends, but not far from it. Occasionally he went home to see his parents and the younger sister who still lived with them. His parents had been older when they had started a family, and were now definitely elderly. They were a quiet, self-contained couple, whose continued independence was secured by their daughter’s lack of it. On these visits, Colin would retreat to his old bedroom, though Queen posters no longer lining the re-papered walls, and the room was now a guest bedroom, though Colin was the only guest to have used it. Sitting on the bed he would go through the scrapbook he had made after Freddie’s death, and which remained at his parents’ house for safekeeping. He was glad when these visits were over and he could return to the large, airy room he rented in a South London Victorian terrace.

He shared the house with various post-grads and young professionals who came and went over the years, and who treated Colin with a friendliness that didn’t extend to invitations to shared meals in the communal kitchen. And, on the whole, Colin was content with this situation and enjoyed the routine of his work and quiet social life.

But in July 2004, Jackie Elliot, a small, smiling young woman with a BA Hons in Horticultural Science, joined the Parks & Gardens Department. At first her presence alarmed the all male team, but she surprised them by settling in quickly and was soon considered by them as one of their own. Jackie was warm and easy-going, with the sensitivity not to undermine her colleagues with her superior knowledge and skills. In return they liked her and treated her with (previously unrealised) avuncularity. Colin, the youngest man in the team, also liked Jackie and, gradually the two of them began working together. Colin enjoyed her enthusiasm and the quiet generosity with which she shared her greater skills.

A few months after Jackie joined the team, while she and Colin were bagging fallen leaves, she told him about her son. “I wanted to tell you before, it’s just that I hadn’t mentioned him at my interview, I thought they might not take me on if they knew I was a single mum. But guess what – he’s called Fred, isn’t that weird? I didn’t name him after Freddie Mercury but it’s a coincidence isn’t it? He’s nearly five now”. She showed Colin a photo of a smiling young boy on a swing. “He looks like you”, said Colin, “he’s got your eyes”.

As the gardening year continued, Colin and Jackie worked increasingly closely. She taught him how to prune the more delicate herbaceous shrubs and to propagate cuttings. Their colleagues noticed and embarrassed Colin with their tool-shed teasing: “Making a cuppa for your girlfriend are you Freddie?” Colin had learned to make tea expertly using just his ungloved left hand, and secretly enjoyed his nickname, which they had given him soon after he joined the team.

One day, as he was repairing an electrical pruning saw (his background in engineering had turned out to be useful, and had given him status within the team), Jackie approached him, holding out a brightly coloured card. “It’s an invitation to Fred’s fifth birthday, at the lido. He’s just learned swim so he’s really excited. Please come, he’d love to meet you.” Colin looked at the invitation. He liked Jackie, he liked her more than any woman he had met before, but it had never occurred to him that she might want to include him in her life outside the park. As he looked at the invitation he allowed an image to play across his mind, of him chasing a delighted Fred through the water, Jackie looking on happily from the side of the pool. But the image was quickly replaced by panic. He tried to cover his agitation, studying the invitation more closely. Jackie smiled encouragingly, and reached out to touch his gloved hand, “Colin, it would mean so much to me if you came, and Fred would be delighted, I’ve told him all about you”. Colin flinched at the pressure of her hand on his gloved hand, but in his mind he had already begun planning a taped mix of Queen’s greatest hits (his own favourites, not something taken from a compilation LP), which he would give Fred as a present. Still looking down at the invitation, and despite his anxiety, Colin thanked her and said he would love to go.

On the afternoon of the party, Colin stood in the bathroom, staring at the invitation propped against the mirror. He took off his gloves, wafting away the cloud of dead skin flakes and dust that flew around him, lit up against the sunlight from the bathroom window. He looked down at his right hand: white and hairy through lack of exposure to sunlight, with deep grooves of grime and flaking skin. He smelled the strong, familiar odour that came from it and looked away, returning his attention to the invitation.

Colin arrived late to Fred’s party. Jackie waved across the pool at him when she saw him, beckoning him over to where she was standing with a group of other women. Colin skirted the edge of the pool and joined her near a table piled with presents, crisp packets and the remains of a guitar-shaped birthday cake. He was introduced to the group of smiling women, mothers of other children at the party. He handed Jackie the tape he had made for Fred and noticed her quick glance at his right hand which was stuffed into the pocket of his jacket. He moved away, towards the table, asking if he could try the cake.

Colin stood holding a piece of unusually brown iced birthday cake in his left hand, watching the children in the pool. He recognised Fred at the centre of a group of boys floating excitedly on a raft of inflatable animals, being pushed through the water at some speed by some enthusiastic men; ‘dads’ he supposed.

“Hi there Colin, I’m Sue, Ollie’s mum. I’ve heard so much about you from Jackie, she says you like Queen”. One of the smiling mothers was standing next to him. “Um, yes,” said Colin. “Which are your favourites?’ she continued, “I absolutely love Seven Seas of Rye. What do you think? Is that a good one?” “Um, yes, yes it is,” Colin replied. He tried to think of something he could ask her in return but couldn’t. She carried on, asking him how long he had known Jackie and whether he had any children, but by now he was struggling, anxious that his answers were too short and agitated by the cacophony of the lido. After a while she retreated. Colin continued to stand by the pool, relieved. He had no desire to rejoin the smiling mums and a strong urge to block his ears from the children’s shouting, the dreadful music coming from the speakers, and the boisterous animal impressions of the party dads.

“Hi you’re Colin aren’t you? Colin looked down to see Fred looking up at him from the water near his feet, his elbows propped over the side of the pool. “Have you brought your swimming things, are you coming in?” Jackie appeared next to Colin, smiling. “What do you think Fred, can we persuade him? Or shall I just push him in?” Fred laughed and began chanting ‘IN, IN. IN”. Colin stepped back from the water’s edge, “No, no chance I’m afraid, I’m fine where I am thanks”. Fred looked up at him, screwing his nose in bemusement, “You look funny standing there like that. Why have you got your hand in your pocket? Is there something wrong with your hand?” “Fred!” Jackie broke in, but just as she spoke Fred’s name was called for the water-bumps and he headed off with splashing enthusiasm to join his friends. Jackie glanced at Colin and, saying something about needing to find her camera, she left him still standing by the pool.

Colin moved away from the party when all eyes were on Fred being flung wildly in the air by the party dads. He stopped and looked back at Jackie, laughing, holding her camera to her eye to capture the moment. He turned towards the exit and started walking, and as he walked he took his right hand from his pocket and held it up, scrubbed and ghostly, to the slanting autumn sunshine. He looked at the daylight appearing and disappearing between his fingers as he opened and closed them. Turning back he waved in the general direction of the party, feeling the cool air brushing his open palm. And to the sound of Happy Birthday sung to a happy splashing five year old, he left.

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EMPIRE STATE BISCUITS  – by Jim

The swimming pool attendants worshipped a carrier bag.  It could be seen through the high windows above the pool, flapping from the tree it had been stuck to for as long as anyone could remember.  They believed that while the bag remained there, none of them could ever leave.  Like the Picture of Dorian Gray, it represented their souls – stranded, disintegrating, but eternally hopeful that a wind of change strong enough would eventually blast it free.

As usual I passed below the bag at quarter past eight, crossed the road and looked through the big windows to see the musclebound Sean on duty at poolside.   Just as I was making a ‘wanker’ hand gesture at him, something struck me hard on the right ear.  It was a snowball, which knocked my furry hat off.

‘Fuck off skinhead,’ shouted a wee guy, running up the street with his mates laughing.  I could see Sean  was equally amused.   If you’re going to sport flamboyant headgear on a snowy day in Glasgow, what can you expect?   Still, it seemed to confirm my worst fears for the year ahead: the portents were not good.

It was the first day back after New Year and Carol’s desk was still festooned with Christmas cards, many of them with a cat theme.  I had already binned the one card I had personally received, ‘from all at Offrex Office Supplies’, so my side of the office was bare, apart from a pile of new membership applications waiting to be processed.

At two minutes to nine, the clack of high heels and a gust of cold air announced Carol’s sweeping entrance.  Her face was pale white, haloed in ginger under a black velvet hood, her mouth a shocking gash of scarlet twisted in disdain.  She dropped her sodden umbrella into the metal bin with a remorseless clang.

‘I think we need to talk,’ she pronounced coldly, doffing her cloak to reveal the legendary bust that crowned her petite frame.  As famous as her breasts were,  they were never ever mentioned in front of  Carol herself, which was  why my remark at the Christmas party had been such a horrible own goal.  But there are a couple of points, or should I say a pair of erect nipples, I’d like to make in my own defence.

In the six months since starting as her assistant, I’d had to withstand a bombardment of innuendo from the receptionists about me and Carol.  Of course none of this was for the consumption of Carol, who they claimed to know was still a virgin at 32.  They kept her on a diet of light teasing about hunky men and eligible batchelors and saved the smut for me.  In a sick way I enjoyed it, because in my mind I was trumping every comment with something more graphic.  I just made the mistake of verbalising one of these thoughts when Margaret caught me off guard with two empire biscuits at the staffroom get-together.

‘I knew you’d  appreciate these,’ she said, proffering the pair of cherry-clad cakes.  The symbolism was clear and I could no longer be bothered with the nudge nudge wink wink routine.

‘That’s supposed to be Carol’s tits, isn’t it?’ was my petulant response. I immediately knew I’d blown it and, sure enough, Margaret wasted no time in cornering Carol, feigning hilarity but well aware she was about to stir things up big time.

‘Carol, you’ll never guess what he’s said now….’

I didn’t stick around to hear Carol’s response, hoping against hope that two weeks off would allow the incident to recede into insignificance.

‘I’ll be making a written report about what happened at Christmas,’ she now told me. ‘I’m not going to let people speak about me like that. I’m making a formal complaint of harassment.’

I wanted to hand her a Battenberg cake in the shape of a phallus, but all I could manage was, ‘Happy New Year, Carol’.

‘In the meantime,’ she continued, ‘you know those posters out front?’

‘Yes.’

‘You’ve used blu tak.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘What should you do when posters are facing out the way, through the windows?’

‘Is this a trick question?’

Carol was keeping her composure. ‘We spoke about this.’

I pretended to have to think about it.  ‘You should use white tak?’

‘That’s right. So if you wouldn’t mind changing them.’

Equipped with the requisite ball of white putty,  I trudged to reception.

‘What’s she got you doing now, son?’ asked Margaret, in a tone of sympathetic exasperation.

‘Bit of a faux pas on the temporary adhesives front,’ I informed the receptionists.  ‘Fixatives should be camouflaged whenever possible,’ I quoted from a fictitious manual, as highfalutin language to describe the absurd tasks Carol liked to set me was a running joke between us.  ‘By the way, thanks for setting me up with those empire biscuits.  I’m going to be disciplined.’

‘Surely not!’ cried Margaret. ‘That was never my intention… ‘  But they were loving it.  Getting Carol on her high horse was something like a national sport at reception.

Just then, a Swedish netball team arrived and it was my job to give them a tour of the building.  I stopped at the swimming pool viewing area and pointed out the sacred carrier bag.  Sean, who was scrubbing tiles, clocked what I was doing and started to pray, muslim-style, to the bag.  I then made a tea-break gesture and he nodded. The Swedes were oblivious to what was going on, but, unbeknown to me, Gavin, the operational supervisor, was not.

To many, Gavin was the acceptable face of chauvinism – a charming sexist with a cheery line in sectarian bigotry.  Like most of the attendants he had a tribal tattoo, but his was a disguised form of the Rangers FC emblem.  Although he used expressions like Nae Bother and Cheers Big Man, it came out in the posh-tough accent of a Radio Clyde sports presenter, or a Strathclyde CID man.  He was 24 going on 50.  The attendants thought he was the Anti-Christ; Carol loved him.

I was in the tearoom trying to explain the gravity of the situation to Sean.

‘It’s a storm in a D-cup,’ he laughed.

‘Very funny,’ I replied. ‘ ‘Sexual harassment of a poisoned dwarf’, how d’you like that on your CV?’

‘About as much as I’d like ‘total smart arse’,’ said Gavin, piling through the door.   ‘You better keep the in-jokes to yourself.  Even if the punters don’t realise you’re taking the piss, the rest of us do.  Now report to my office.’

Carol and Margaret were already waiting there.

‘As you know we expect certain professional standards of behaviour in here,’ said Gavin, ‘so I want you two to apologise to Carol.’

‘Sorry Carol, there was no offence meant,’ said Margaret.

‘Aye, me too.  Sorry, Carol.’

‘In return, Carol,’ said Gavin, pointing at me. ‘ I’d like you to ease off on Captain Clever Clogs here.’

‘Pardon?’

‘I think you know what I mean. We’ve all got to get along in this place.’

At that point Gavin’s phone rang.

‘It would seem there is a situation at the front of the building which requires your expertise,’ he said to Carol as he replaced the receiver.

Outside, some firemen were rescuing a cat from a tree. This combined two of Carol’s major interests: she was a leading light in the Cats Protection League and, for the benefit of the receptionists, claimed to have a thing about firemen. A crowd had gathered to watch a fire fighter trying to grab the cat, while the owner, an old lady, stood on the pavement below, where she was soon joined by a supportive Carol.

‘This is unreal,’ I commented to Sean and Gavin. ‘These guys actually come out for cats?’

‘Looks like it,’ said Gavin, ‘must cost the tax payer a fortune.’

‘Will they do it for other pets?’ I asked. ‘I mean, what if it was a gerbil stuck up there?’

‘There’s a minimum size limit,’ explained Sean. ‘They won’t come out for anything that would fit in a jam jar.’

At this point I noticed the ladder man was only about twenty feet away from our religious icon.  I nudged Sean, nodded towards the tattered bag and made scissor fingers.

‘I definitely don’t think they rescue plastic bags,’ he said.

But Carol was ahead of us.  She had already switched into giggly mode and no sooner had the cat been brought down than the fireman was being raised into the neighbouring tree.  As we watched in amazement, he homed in on our totem, then tugged and unravelled it off the branch. Carol almost curtsied as she took it from him and, following more hair tossing and laughter, she crossed the road to us.

‘I hereby declare you free,’ she said, dumping the fankle of dirty, wet plastic into my arms.

‘How did you manage that?’ asked Sean.

‘I told them it was spoiling a photo we wanted to take of the building and that there was a free swim and sauna for the entire crew in return.’

Then she walked past us into the foyer and held up a piece of paper to the receptionists.             ‘His mobile number,’ she announced, to a ripple of applause and a few winks and ‘well done’s.

Back in the office, I placed the remains of the bag on my desk.

‘Happy endings all round,’ said Carol.  ‘I got a fireman’s phone number and you got your plastic bag.’

‘It’s been quite a day,’ I agreed, reaching for the scissors.  I wasn’t sure whether to cut the bag into relics, or just bin it.

‘By the way,’ said Carol. ‘I noticed they’re out of programmes at the front desk.  Would you mind taking some more out?’

As I headed for reception, Carol picked up the phone and punched in a number.  It was the first in a long list of calls to her network of friends, who I knew would be waiting to lap up her fireman anecdote in offices all over the city.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————-

SATURDAY  – by Zoe

I used to love Saturdays. They came with a sense of luxury, that knowing that you didn’t have to answer to any crabby or pedantic teachers, wear an oppressive uniform or endure the torturous journey on the school bus.

I never had any serious plans; probably watch a bit of ‘Going Live!,’ groan at Trevor & Simon’s jokes and the inanity of the phone-in questions; help dad wash the car then go on a low-key day trip, maybe to Sittingbourne or Canterbury.

That all changed on October 20th 1994, when I walked, falteringly, through the staff entrance to Woolworth’s on Chatham High Street.

When I was first issued with the regulation staff uniform, it was how I imagined a wrongfully accused female prisoner might feel as she hands over her clothes to the warden in exchange for the standard, unflattering utilitarian garb, with no proclivity to fashion.  A navy and white striped shirt – the shirt was ok, if kind of scratchy – but the pinafore, my God. It was like the smocks you saw fallen schoolgirls wear in convents in the sixties, where they’d been sent away to disguise their shame.

Well, I was certainly not disguising my shame. It was flaming in my cheeks as I stepped out onto the shop floor, the voluminous fabric of the dress more than capable of concealing a couple of toddlers, a dehumidifying unit or ET. I was mortified and that was before the actual work had even started. Oh God. How many people were going to see me? It seemed entirely possible that almost, at least half my year would pass in to the shop at some point during the day. I had an Alice band in, black velour, which didn’t help the look at all, but my hair was going through an unruly stage, so I couldn’t bear to remove it.

I saw two other girls, swishing their smocks miserably stood around by the tillpoint. They didn’t look any better. I’d taken the job without really thinking. Well, I’d been thinking a bit, about how much I needed some money to get clothes I wanted and to save for driving lessons. I hadn’t expected that it would mean manning the pick’n’mix dressed like a member of a Christian folk group. No-one would ever ask me out now.

By lunchtime of the third day, I could already tell that I hated it and after six weeks, in the prelude to Christmas, the week they made us wear reindeer antlers, I was sure I was in hell.

That was when Ben Bulmer came in, with those lads he knocked about with. The idyll of Saturdays lost seemed like a documentary about the past I couldn’t quite recall.

Ben was in my French class – I didn’t really know know him, just that he was mouthy and often in detention, or outside the head’s office. Not for doing anything really bad, but for his backchat. He had two friends, tall, lolloping lads, who weren’t as smart as Ben, but were tough. Ben was quite small, so they looked like his bodyguards.

They sauntered around, pausing by the Sega Megadrive demo to watch the child prodigy who came in and played it every Saturday. Whenever I arrived for work; always a few minutes early so as I could customise my uniform as best I possibly could, there Sega guy would be on the step, waiting for Dave, the assistant manager to unlock the doors.

Ben was wearing a Wu-tang Clan sweatshirt which drowned him and the bodyguards had army trousers with oblong pockets. I was wearing reindeer antlers and a huge scowl, as I stuck my hand into the shrimp compartment to remove the remains of some half-chewed free samples allocated to themselves by some eight year old brats who had dared each other to help themselves. They would lose their nerve after plucking the sweet out and putting it in their mouth, as though spitting it out again before it was finished in some way redeemed them.

I should’ve guessed what trousers with big pockets meant, but in my naivety and sulk at the gooey remnants of a child’s half chewed sweet at the forefront of my mind, my focus wasn’t attuned to the obvious.

I saw them swipe the Panini first. They were over, the other side of the Ladybird section from the confectionary. Ben’s whistling caught my attention and I gazed over at the exact moment he slipped them into his hoodie. That wasn’t all. They sidled back over to the pre-packaged sweets and from where I skulked behind the Pick’n’mix structure, I could see them slipping strawberry laces and Animal Bars into the roomy pockets of their cargo pants.

I didn’t want to see this! This made me a witness. But I  couldn’t bring myself to look away. We’d been shown a video in week two about ‘what to do, if confronted with crime.’

I looked at the security guard at the door, bored and not standing to attention, then back to Ben. They were laden down with a good selection of Woolworth’s stock by now, and sure to make a run for it in the next five minutes.

There was vague talk of some sort of a reward; like if you retained a bankers card that had come up on the epos system as stolen or fraudulent. It would be good if there was a possibility of extra cash. I don’t  know though – it is Christmas. Good will to all men, especially sort-of-hard- nuts from school who don’t even know your name.

I took a moment’s pause in the pathetic excuse for a staff room. Someone’s soup had exploded in the microwave again and there was a liquid burnt on bowl on the side. The peeling walls and coverless seats in an airless room made me feel sick.

As I knocked on the door of the manager’s office all I could think was that after I told them I was going to ask for a transfer to the record bar.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————-

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