Apart from Ray I’m not really friends with anyone else on the day shift. There seem to be a lot of mums who come in to work after dropping the kids off at school, and a group of ‘resting’ actors who all spend their lunchtimes circling audition notices in a copy of the Stage.
But no one quite like us.
And I think Ray feels the same.
Well, we always try and have our breaks together. I bring in the Guardian, he brings in a pencil and we do the crossword together. He does the down clues. I do across. Sometimes I fill in his answers, even when I know they are wrong.
One time he was off with glandular fever and I couldn’t do it without him. I just kept leaving him these messages saying that I wanted him to know that I had all these gaps. And I was keeping them for when he got back. In the end I had three weeks worth of crosswords cut out and kept in a little papery pile beside my bed, underneath my Taj Mahal snow shaker.
I’ve never actually been there – Nan bought it for me from a jumble sale, as she knew I’d like it because there’s a green dot over it on my map of the world. I used to have 22 of those green dots, one for each birthday wish. There was one over California from when I was eight and wanted to go to Disneyland, one over New York from when I was 12 and had been watching too much Fame, and one at the top end of Norway from when I was 19 and wanted to go and see the Northern Lights. And now at least half of them have disappeared. Sometimes I find them stuck to the edges of the carpet, or on the heel of my foot, but I can’t be bothered to put them back.
Ray – I’ve no idea where he wants to go, or even where he’s been. Sometimes it’s best not to ask. Part of me thinks he might just say ‘the pub’.
Well, that’s where we always end up.
You’re not allowed to talk to anyone in the office so he always has to ask if I want to go by writing it on the palm of his hand. Whenever I look over in his direction after lunch he gives me this lop-sided grin, then waves, and I kind of see it in a blur. Once I wrote back ‘yes’ on my knuckles, but it hurt and left a mark even when I tried to scrub it off.
Yesterday, he wrote something a lot longer though - from his wrist to his elbow - but I couldn’t read it from where I was sitting. I kept frowning and shrugging at him, hoping that maybe he’d just sneak over and tell me what it was, but he just looked kind of annoyed. And by the time it got to the end of our shift he’d pulled his sleeves right back down and buttoned up the cuffs.
Maybe I should ask him what it was. I’ve only got to wait another one minute, 51… 50… 49 seconds to do that, because that’s when we have our next break together. I know this because my computer is counting it down for me – on the top right-hand corner of the screen. It tells me everything that I need to know - that I spent four minutes, 21 seconds on my last trip to the loo, that I logged on three minutes early this morning, and that I have hit my targets and completed all the surveys that I needed to have done by this point of the afternoon.
At the beginning of the month they put us on the Autoglass project. That means we’ve spent 20 days, or 140 hours, calling up members of the general public, aged between 18-35 years old and asking them what they think about the service they’ve received from ‘the UK’s leading vehicle glass repair and replacement company’.
The first question you have to ask is, “Did you know that a chip can turn into a crack at any time, often when you are least expecting it?” “Well, I fucking well do now,” one of them said the other day.
I had to omit that word when I typed it up.
Ray says he would have left it in.
And I’m pretty sure he would.
Which is why it was so weird that they decided to move him instead of Luke, or Darren from the night to the day shift.
On the day that happened I’d only been in the job a month and never spoken to Ray before. They called a few of us into Sylvia’s office and gave us this presentation about our above average strike rates, using all these statistics that they’d been gathering and with graphs they’d drawn out on a flip chart. Then they let us know that we’d all been selected for promotion. There was this pause where everybody looked as pleased as they could be about doing an extra ten hours a week calling up restaurants to ask about the service they’d received from a major supplier of washroom products, except Ray who was staring, open mouthed, at the manager and Sylvia who were stood up front.
Then he turned to me and said, “Well, it must be fate.”
I can remember exactly how I felt when he said that.
“You’ve got a car and I could do with a lift.”
So now I drive him back home from work every day. He doesn’t want a lift in the mornings though, because he prefers to walk and do his photography. He says it’s the only time of the day that he can do it now - when everything is new, and it all seems so possible. Still.
The counter in front of me is now blinking 3… 2… 1… and the screen fades to black. I pull off my headset with its greasy foam ear pads and hang it on the plastic hook they’ve screwed on to the side of my booth, specifically for that purpose.
Ray is sat nine booths to my left, so I walk straight down the aisle to see if he is going to come with me. But when I look over his shoulder I can see that he is only halfway through a questionnaire, so I make my way to the break room on my own. It has a waiting-room feel with hard plastic chairs all around the sides and a low wooden table in the middle.
I sit down in the corner by the window with today’s crossword. Numbers 1 and 4 are easy enough to do, but then I get stuck on 9, which is an anagram. I am just thinking about how much I need Ray’s pencil to write down the letters in a circle when Sylvia appears at the doorway and clears her throat in my direction. Her tight polyester trousers are the colour of Germolene. She is wearing glasses like Dennis Taylor.
“I need a word,” she says, and asks me to follow her into the office next door.
After I go in she shuts and locks the door behind us. Then she parks her arse right up against the edge of the desk and folds her arms.
“We’ve been keeping an eye on you,” she says. “And…
Christ. I can’t think what I’ve done.
“…We’ve decided to offer you Mark’s job.”
Mark sits at the back of the office, on his own, and spends all day listening in to our phone calls. He is checking that no one deviates from the script – that they ask all the questions set in front of them, word for word. Ray and I call him our little Stasi friend.
I don’t know what to say.
“The thing is,” she continues, “you’re the only one who consistently follows the script.”
“But I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do? Isn’t it? I thought that’s what everyone did…”
“You’d be surprised,” she says. “The amount of people I’ve had to let go because they couldn’t, for some reason or another. And it’s not as if I don’t tell them often enough. We deal in quantitative surveys here. Your respondents must all answer the same questions – if you change the way you phrase them, it can change the answers you get. Simple as.”
She waits for my answer.
“But what about Mark?”
“Oh Mark’s on the up - you’ll see. He’s going to become a supervisor here pretty soon. That could be you if you play your cards right. You could do well here, you know,” she says, carrying on. “Some people have been here a lot longer than you have and they still won’t get offered this job.”
I look down at the paper in my hands.
I think about Steve. Everybody knows big Steve. He once told me that it was because he’d played a paramedic in series 19 - 24 of Casualty. But Ray says it’s more to do with the fact that he’s been here as long as the vending machine, and that’s only been dispensing from E5 and B6 ever since we started – Cadbury’s Snack Shortcakes and Pickled Onion Monster Munch.
When I look back up at Sylvia she stares at me right through those glasses and says, “Think about it.”
She ushers me back into the break room.
The first person I see there is Ray, sitting in the corner, eating pasta out of an old ice-cream box. I go over and lay the newspaper on a chair, so that I can search through my pockets for some change to get a coffee.
“So, what happened there then?” he says, pointing his fork at the back end of Sylvia who’s disappearing through the doorway.
And so I tell him. And when I’m done he just slides his pencil from his shirt pocket, picks up the paper, holds it right up to his face so that I can’t see it and says, “Right then. Two down.”
By the time we have to go back to work half of the crossword is still left unfinished. Ray suggests that we leave it on the table for someone else to do. But I carefully rip it away from the rest of the paper, fold it up and put it in my jeans pocket where the sharp corners dig into my thigh for the rest of the afternoon.
When I get back to my seat my computer tells me that I have to complete four surveys in the next two hours and so I start:
“And was this the first time that you used Autoglass?”
But I can’t stop thinking about my conversation with Sylvia. What if I refuse her offer? They might put me back on the late shift, which means I’ll get less money and I’ll never be able to move out. I’ll just be stuck in my old bedroom forever and ever, permanently staring up at the ceiling where Dad painted over my glow stars. I can see their shape but they don’t glow anymore.
“Did you have a chip repaired?”
Or they might let me go completely. And then I’d have to sign on. Ray did that for a while, when he was trying to get his portfolio together. Apparently you have to prove to them that you’re constantly looking for work, any kind of work, and if you can’t do that then they withhold your payments. He managed to get away with it until one day he turned up at the job centre and they offered him a job, right there and then, on the other side of the desk, re-directing people to social security. I can remember that when he told me this I burst out laughing, and he didn’t, and then I ended up apologising. “It’s alright,” he said, “when I say it out loud I can make it sound funny.”
“Or had you already developed a crack?”
But if I do take the job then it means I’ll become a permanent member of staff. Still, Mum and Dad don’t ask me to open my post at the breakfast table any more. They weren’t to know there were so many ways to say ‘Thank you for your interest, but…’
“And were you in the vehicle at the time the crack developed?”
I look over at Ray. Fuck knows how often he sticks to the script. He couldn’t remember what the fatty tissue of a whale was the other day when we were doing 5 along. “Too long in this place, doing the same thing over and over again,” he said. “My brain’s shot to shit.”
“How much longer is this going to go on for?” says the voice at the other end of the line.
The truth is, I just don’t know.
All I want to be is at home right now, underneath the duvet, with the TV screen flickering at the end of my bed. That way I don’t have to think about what’s happening, I can just look at something until I fall asleep. Mostly I watch films. I must have seen Scent of a Woman at least 50 times. I think it’s because the character’s favourite drink is Jack Daniels, although I mix mine with diet Coke. I have this game I play where I have to copy whatever he does on screen. I drink when he drinks and “Hoo-ha!” when he does.
I think I’m in love with Lt. Col. Frank Slade, or Al Pacino, or Al Pacino playing Lt. Col. Frank Slade. I wonder if Ray knows how to tango.
I watch as the counter blinks 3… 2… 1… and the screen fades to black. I pull off my headset with its greasy foam ear pads and hang it back up on the special plastic hook.
Nine booths down Ray has already pushed his chair away from his desk, and is talking to John who sits next to him. Ray has his back to me and doesn’t turn around, even when I’ve walked right up behind him.
I notice how soft the skin on his neck looks.
I smile at John, and we say hello and I ask him politely how his day went and he does the same with me. And then there’s this silence where John looks down at the carpet and keeps pushing his glasses back up his nose.
I punch Ray on the shoulder.
“Do you still want a lift?” I say.
“Yeah, that’d be good,” he says, tipping his head back slightly. “I’ll be down in a bit.”
John and I smile and say goodbye. I don’t know anything about John apart from the fact that he puts salt and vinegar crisps in his sandwiches and he’s always reading a book rather than a newspaper during the tea breaks.
When I get to the car, I open the door and sit down to have a cigarette.
I think about today. I think about how Sylvia wants to know my decision tomorrow. “You’re fucked if you do and you’re fucked if you don’t,” Ray sometimes likes to sing to me, out of the blue.
When he gets in the other side I’ve been waiting for him for a pretty long time but I don’t say a thing.
“You ok?” he says, sliding in and shutting the door.
“Yeah, sure. I’ve just been listening to the birds, that’s all, and having a smoke.” I put my seatbelt on.
He nods and adjusts the headrest on his seat.
“They’re so bloody noisy,” I say.
They sit in the trees that surround the car park and on the telegraph wires that run along the road.
“They must think it’s the daytime, because all the streetlights have come on. They’re all confused. Tricked. I think it’s a bit sad.”
“It’s got fuck all to do with that,” says Ray.
I frown at him.
“It’s something to do with the noise levels. They can’t compete with them now. It’s too noisy for them during the day, because of all the cars and the people, so they don’t bother singing because they know they can’t be heard.”
“Oh,” I say, and laugh. “Thanks for that Ray. I actually feel a whole lot worse.”
I turn the key in the ignition and start to drive, pull out of the cark park and wait at the traffic lights. I like driving in the dark, following the cars in front, the broken lines on the road, looking at the blocks of light, and the colours.
Ray puts the radio on. Too loud. And every time there’s an ad break he switches over. Then he turns it off and starts rummaging around in the bag by his feet.
“Don’t worry. You can have one of mine,” I say, reaching for a packet of Marlboro lights in the side door.
But he ignores me.
He picks up his bag and puts it on his knee. From the corner of my eye I can see him taking out a camera and loading it up with film.
Then he winds down the window and starts taking photographs of all the buildings we drive past, and the people that are leaving them.
I look across.
He’s using a Polaroid and after each shot he is pulling the photo from the slot at the bottom of the camera and laying it out on the dashboard to dry.
“Do you want me to stop?” I say. “Or at least slow down?”
But he doesn’t reply. So I concentrate on the road ahead. All I can hear is the click as he takes another photo.
At the pub, while we’re waiting at the bar to be served, Ray says, “About earlier – I was only trying to concentrate.”
And I say it’s fine.
He buys me a pint of Diet Coke and has his usual, a double whisky, straight up. He downs it in one, and then orders another.
There’s a quiz on tonight and so Stu, the new barman tries to persuade us that we should enter as a team.
Ray looks doubtful and leans across me to get an ashtray.
“I dunno, maybe we might as well,” I say. “It’s not as if we’re going to be able to talk, are we?”
Ray doesn’t say a thing but hands over another fiver and Stu chalks up our names on the board.
We sit at the bar and share a packet of peanuts. I listen to the two of them talk over the latest transfer news for City. Every time I think about what happened today I take a peanut, place it on the back of my hand, slap my wrist and try and catch it in my mouth. Hepburn did it in ‘Bringing up Baby’ and I’m trying to improve my 3:2 success rate.
At seven o’clock, there’s a bit of commotion and Tony appears behind the bar and plugs in his mike.
“Right then folks,” he says. “Can we have a bit of hush? There’s some paper making its way around the room, so I suggest you go grab yourself a sheet.”
Ray wanders off to get the paper, while Stu hands me a pen from beside the till. It’s filled with clear liquid at one end and when you tip it to write, a soldier in full armour slides around in front of the Parthenon, between two bushes.
“Let’s make it a dirty 30 tonight,” says Tony.
As soon as Ray returns with the paper I write down numbers 1 – 30 neatly on the page in the margin and put the date at the top in the right hand corner.
“You ready?” I say to Ray.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” he says and takes another large gulp of whisky.
“Ladies and gents, let’s have your team names please,” shouts Tony, pointing towards the board and reading down the list of competitors.
When he gets to us I look blankly at Ray, who raises a glass to the room and shouts, “The losers.”
“Bloody hell Ray,” I say.
“Premature if accurate,” says Tony.
Everyone else just laughs.
Ray gives me his best lop-sided grin, looks into his glass and before he takes another swig I could swear he says, “Well, at least I got one thing right this week.”
But before I can ask him any more about it Tony starts with, “Question numero uno. On 8th January 1940 the first 3 food items were rationed due to WWII in the United Kingdom, they were sugar, butter and what?”
“Fuck knows,” says Ray. “Beer?”
“That’s not a food item,” I say and write down meat instead.
“What colour is zero on a roulette wheel?” says Tony.
“Green,” says Ray confidently and I put that one down.
And then that’s it as far as Ray is concerned. I’m on my own. From question three onwards he puts way more into his drinking than working out the answers. He disappears to the loo on question eight, “What colour were E.T’s eyes?” and only reappears for question 13, “What is a fandango?” And by that point he doesn’t even attempt to get back onto the barstool but leans heavily against the counter and re-arranges the beer mats into the letter ‘R’.
After question 15 Tony announces that there will be a short break for everyone to get themselves another drink. “And don’t forget the scampi offer we have tonight,” he says. “Free chips with every portion ordered.” I ask Ray if he’s doing ok, but all he does is look at me in a very unfocused way and light up another cigarette. We smoke and I go through the answers I’ve written down so far.
Ray is further down the bar ordering more drinks when the bell rings to mark the beginning of the second half. I put my head down to concentrate. I listen to Tony read out questions 16 and 17, but as he’s doing it I’m distracted by the sound of Ray in the background trying to persuade him if he can have a go.
“I only have to read them off the page,” he keeps saying. “What could possibly go wrong?”
I look up to see Tony giving us all a big wink. “Bit lively tonight our Ray,” he says. “So, where were we… question 21…No? Question 20… What is the biggest lake in Canada?”
Ray disappears outside with Seb, the chef, in his whites, which definitely aren’t.
I stay until the end, mark all my answers, but don’t win, not even close.
Then I join Ray and Seb in the alleyway. Seb stinks of fried food and is smoking away. I can’t stop looking at his cut up hands.
We leave for the car park with Ray ahead of me, his collar pulled up against the drizzle and the cold.
In the car we sit there and smoke and listen to the rain getting heavier and heavier on the roof above us. Ray takes his camera out of his bag and takes a few photos of it flooding down the front windscreen. Then he says, “Come on.”
I watch him open his side of the car and hurl his lit cigarette out, into the dark. He turns back to speak to me.
“Come on, “ he says. “One last shot and you’ve got to help me with it.”
I carry on smoking and tapping ash out of the window.
“You have got to be kidding me Ray,” I say. “It’s pissing down.”
He gets out, shuts the door behind him and comes round to my side. He stands there and talks to me through the narrow gap at the top of my window.
“I need your help with this. Just this once,” he says. “Please. Just for me.”
I look at him peering down at me, his gaze more steady now, his eyes so blue.
I wind up the window and open the door.
“One shot,” I say. “One shot only. And then we’re going home.”
I take my coat off, pull it over my head and follow Ray as we run through the rain to the front of the pub.
It doesn’t really look like a pub, more like a 1970’s house that belongs in a cul-de-sac somewhere; boxy, squat, with a one-level flat roof extension stuck onto the front.
Up on the flat roof, lit up by the orange streetlights, is what Tony constantly refers to as his ‘pride and joy’ - his flamingo garden. A kitschy display, made up of three brown plastic palm trees, their rubber fronds drooping in the wet and a couple of plastic pink flamingos, slightly faded now, both balancing on one leg. Between them hang row upon row of multi-coloured lights that look as though as though they come from that scene in ‘Roman Holiday’ where they’re dancing on a boat and Audrey Hepburn ends up hitting someone on the head with a guitar.
“We’re going up there,” he says.
I don’t answer.
We walk around to the side of the pub and stand by the wall. “You first, I’ll help you up,” he says.
I think about it.
I can feel the water running down my arms from holding my coat above me. My jeans are soaked to the skin.
“You’ve got to promise me Ray. One photograph and one only,” I say.
“One photograph, I promise,” he says, and puts his hand to his heart. “On my life.”
We look at each other and then I hold onto him and he puts his hands together so that by stepping into them he can give me a leg up. I reach out and grab hold of the top and haul myself up. The roof surface is asphalt but Tony has laid down a large piece of AstroTurf underneath the display, a carpet of green, which you can’t see from the ground.
“He’s even got grass up here,” I shout down to Ray.
His hand suddenly appears at one corner clutching his camera that I gently take from him and place on the edge of the AstroTurf.
Then he struggles to pull himself up, his feet scrabbling against the wall. I kneel by the side and lean over, clutching onto his arm and trying to help. He manages to get up and we both stand there, in the flamingo garden, the rain pelting down on us.
“It’s even better than I imagined,” he says, smiling.
I smile back at him. It’s hard not to.
Ray hangs his camera around his neck, where it rests upon his chest. Then I watch him pacing around, with his arms crossed, working it all out. What he wants to do.
“Right then. Over there,” he says, motioning to the display.
He holds up his camera and starts waving me back.
“You need to stand over there,” he says.
“No way,” I protest. “I agreed to help you with this, and I have. But I’m not going to be in it.”
He raises his camera to his face, as though he’s about to take a picture.
I cover my face with my coat and turn away.
“I don’t like having my photo taken. Ever,” I say.
“They don’t steal your soul anymore you know.”
“I know that,” I argue.
“You’re not bloody well Amish. Are you?” he says, like it might be a vague possibility.
“No,” I shout from underneath my coat. “But I did like Harrison Ford in Witness.”
He doesn’t respond.
“Anyway, how come they don’t like having their photo taken?”
“Oh, it’s something to do with their religion and not making ‘graven images’, fucks knows what ‘graven images’ are, but it sounds good,” he says.
“Why didn’t you help me more in the quiz?”
“This is the only stuff I know,” he says.
I don’t answer.
“Anyway, even more reason to like them,” I say.
“Yeah, you’d look good in a bonnet.”
I ignore that.
“On a pony and trap.”
“Actually I wouldn’t mind it you know,” I say. “Things seem more simple, and ordered with them. I like it.”
He doesn’t respond.
“I’m getting totally soaked,” I yell.
And wait for him to reply.
And then he’s there. So, very, very close to me.
I can feel it.
“Turn around,” he says. “And face me.”
And so I do.
I open my coat and look at him through the gap. He is standing there, drenched to the bone.
“Do you know what. We haven’t go time for this,” he says. “We need to do this now.”
I have never seen him like this before. So sure.
“And you’re going to have to take your coat off.”
I give it to him.
Then he holds onto my shoulders and walks me straight across the artificial green, into the middle of the plastic paradise, with the rain dripping from the fairy lights as they swing in the wind.
“You need to stand here,” he says, placing me between the two flamingos and beneath the bedraggled palm trees, their brown trunks cracked and splitting in parts.
Then he takes my hand, and wraps my arm around the neck of one of the flamingos.
“Stay there,” he says. “And don’t move.”
I watch him walk away. The rain also pouring down my face.
He turns around and picks up his camera.
I don’t smile, he doesn’t ask me to.
I stay still.
I hold on tight to the flamingo’s neck and look beyond Ray, into the night, and beyond that, and imagine what the photograph will look like. What I truly look like from the other side.