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The Traffic Warden
I always woke up at his alarm.
I'd get breakfast while he was in the shower, and then sit in bed eating sugary cereal – the kind that my mum would never allow – and watch him opening drawers with a towel around his waist. Before he was dry all his hairs pointed downwards, straight as arrows and flowing in the same direction, like trees on a map.
I liked watching him dress. I liked the shapes he made as he put his traffic warden uniform on, as if he was dancing for me. The groove down his bare back as he bent over his belt buckle. The cat-like stretch to tuck his shirt in. I admired the way he remained so scruffy, even with epaulettes.
After he went to work, I would get up and make the bed.
His mum had chosen the duvet some time before I moved in, dark brown with little silky white swirls like sugar decorations embroidered at regular intervals, so it looked more like a huge square chocolate cake than a bed. The pillows matched, and when I lay down they crackled like crepe paper. They felt unused. They felt like guest pillows.
I found his dirty boxers on the bathroom floor almost every morning, usually in a figure of eight where he'd stepped straight out of them.
I'd hook the elastic waistband – slack, grey, peppered with bobbles – on a bent finger, drop them on his pillow, and shut the bedroom door.
I'd open the blinds in the front room and then the windows to let the previous night's smoke out, and then do the washing-up. There were trees outside the window and I watched them sway in the air.
I watched Jeremy Kyle and hated it, made toasted cheese sandwiches and collected second-hand books. I had been led to believe that such a lifestyle would be romantic and bohemian, but it was neither. I batted around the flat with no more clue than a wasp at a window.
I kept rereading a story by Roald Dahl called The Hitchhiker, about a man who could take your watch or belt without you knowing. My dad read it to me when I was little, and I had been haunted by it ever since. I don't believe in ghosts but I know you can be haunted.
Every Tuesday I bought the local jobs paper, The Argus, and laid it out on our coffee table amongst the receipt balls and tea rings. I'd go through every job advert with a pen, crossing through any that were too far, didn't offer enough hours, required specialist qualifications or were too vague or obviously dodgy.
I was meant to be doing all the things I used to talk about and I was doing nothing.
Sunday. I was on the bed reading when the Traffic Warden came and stood in the doorway, eating bread straight from the bag.
He spoke with his mouth full. "My mum's invited us for dinner."
I sat up. "Why are you eating bread?"
He shrugged. "Hungry." His hair was damp round the edges with sweat.
"Is it a roast?"
"Of course. It's Sunday."
He dropped the bread bag and ran over and tackled me back onto the bed. He lay on top of me so I couldn't move.
When I'd stopped laughing, I said, "You're sweaty," and rubbed my thumb up his forehead and into his hair. "Your hair suits you this length. It's not marine and it's not Stig of the Dump."
He lifted up my T-shirt and spoke to my stomach. "Are you going to come then, Belly?"
His parents only lived about ten minutes away, so I was surprised when the Traffic Warden started heading for his car.
"Why not? Weather's good. We should make the most of it."
He kept going towards his car, so I followed. "One day it'll be too late."
I hadn't meant to sound so ominous.
His mum was waiting for us at the front door. She'd done her hair and I wondered what she made of me, turning up in a T-shirt that was semi-clean at best and old flip-flops. She had a new tablecloth. It was sage green, and she'd put a cream crochet runner down the middle and a vase of flowers in the centre.
It felt very strange to sit on plump cream chairs that all matched. His dad sat at one end of the table and he sat at the other; his mum and I sat in between.
I started with the vegetables, as always. I like to eat a roast in a specific order.
"So how are you?" she asked me.
"I'm fine. Still job-hunting."
"It's hard, isn't it?"
"Yeah. You sort of have to evaluate what you've done and ultimately realise how little it is."
She smiled benignly. "I'm sure you've done lots."
"Not really. Got an interview, though."
"Oh, that's good. What for?"
"That sounds promising."
"Promising of boredom," the Traffic Warden said.
His mum speared a potato. "Well, we've all got to start somewhere."CHAPTER 2
The book was about torture.
The main character caught wasps and fed them into the middle of a trap he'd rigged up from an old town clock, each number representing a different way to die.
The book wouldn't fit in my only smart bag, and I realised on the train that I was going to have to sit with The Wasp Factory on my lap during the interview. Or hide it.
As the train eased into the platform I looked at the insects swarming on the cover and imagined being asked what the book was about by some chipper interviewer and saying, deadpan, "Torturing animals."
The woman I had spoken to on the phone earlier that week had told me that the office was only a short walk from the train station – "Just follow the road round until you reach us" – but right outside were a roundabout and four possible roads to follow.
Ip dip, sky blue,
Nanny sitting on the loo,
Singing songs, dropping bombs,
Out goes you.
The last road left didn't really seem that promising, but I followed it and sure enough, halfway up the hill there was a square prefab with a doorbell and three labels, one saying Weblands with a dull blue business logo.
"Hello?" The voice was fuzzy but I was fairly sure it was the same woman I had spoken to on the phone.
"Hi, I'm here for the interview."
"Come up to the first floor," she said.
The door buzzed and there was a click as the catch released.
The stairwell seemed very dark after being outside, and it smelt dry, like plaster. When I opened the door marked Weblands with the same generic business logo, I found myself in a strange L shape created by a couple of brown screens, strategically placed so I couldn't see how big or small the office was.
The voice on the intercom belonged to a short lady who wore a long skirt and cork wedges, which struck me as a strange choice for someone who looked almost sixty. I smiled and held The Wasp Factory behind my back. "You're ... Mary."
"Yes, that's me. If you'd like to take a seat, our managing director will be with you shortly." She clasped her hands together and tipped her head on one side, like a saint in a stained-glass window. "Would you like a drink of anything?"
Anything. "Um ... water?"
"That's fine, fine. Take a seat." She motioned to a line of three low chairs, made of the same brown fabric as the screens that sectioned me off from the office.
The weather was hot and my clothes were stifling and prickly, like electricity on my skin. My previous job had come with a uniform that consisted of a polo shirt and a pair of men's trousers, so I wasn't used to the tightness of cotton shirts in my armpits.
Mary brought me the water in a glass with a base as heavy as a paperweight and sides so thin that I didn't want to hold it too tightly in case the thing shattered in my fingers.
I went over all the lies I had in my head, about why I wanted this job, what skills I had, where I saw myself in five years' time.
After fifteen minutes, Mary poked her head round one of the screens. "Sorry to have to ask you this, but we need you to sit a typing test."
"Okay, that's fine."
I followed her into the office, where about twenty people sat at an array of desks, some on the phone and some typing, and a woman stood at the printer, hand on hip. I sat down at the computer Mary had gestured towards.
It was opposite a guy who looked about my age, wearing a white shirt with a thin blue grid on it, like graph paper. He didn't look up. I set the book facedown on the desk beside me.
The test was ancient and difficult, and I knew that I was scoring badly even while I was doing it, despite the fact that I was a good typist.
When I was done I sat back and Mary came and clicked a few buttons and noted my score on a Post-it note.
Then I sat back down on the brown chair and waited for a further ten minutes with nothing to stare at but the brown screen before a clean, tall man approached me.
I stood up holding the book behind my back, smiled and shook his hand.
"I'm Nathan?" His voice was slightly high for a man his age and he pronounced it like a question.
I followed him back downstairs, through the door of another office, into a room made of glass and blinds and a huge table of laminated wood.
While he was examining my CV I slipped The Wasp Factory under my left thigh and realised that my shoes had rubbed streaks of polish onto my stockings.
He said, "This won't be a formal interview."
I felt pretty formal, but I folded my hands on my lap and smiled and said, "Okay."
"We like to keep things informal here."
I wasn't sure what response he might expect to that, so I nodded without a word.
"So. You graduated ... two months ago."
"What did you think of university?"
I tried to think what kind of answer he would like and decided that if I sounded like I was a poor girl who'd worked hard that might be something good.
I weaved my fingers together and put them round my knee. "Well, I was lucky to go," I said. "I learnt a lot. I came across books and ideas that I would never have otherwise."
I rolled my thumbs around each other. "Um, I don't know. I guess I learnt what it is that I really want to do in life."
"What is that?"
I felt that I had fallen straight into the first trap. I should've sensed the danger.
"Well, I'd like to work in publishing. Or in a library. Something creative. Something with books would be good."
I smiled back.
An interviewer makes up their mind about you in the first sixty seconds, so I knew the battle was already lost or won.
"You worked in McDonald's while you were at university."
"What did you think of it?"
I had to find some way of side-stepping saying I had hated it. "Well, even though I don't agree with the ethics of their business, I did learn a lot while I was there."
"You became a manager."
"After a year, yes."
"What was that like?"
"It was okay. Not always easy. I worked hard for the money. I had to train people, and I also dealt with some cash and safe duties, and with customer complaints. I enjoyed it in some ways. Working for a big corporation is ... an interesting experience."
"Well, we're a fairly small office."
"I want to work somewhere that's different to what I've done before."
That wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the whole truth. I had applied for a data entry position principally because it didn't seem to require any contact with the general public. I had this dreamy idea of a solitary desk by the window, the sun making warm rectangles on my papers, tea on tap and a pot plant with dark green leaves.
Perhaps I could be happy here.
Perhaps I could spend my days unfulfilled but also undisturbed and slowly, slowly, fade into anonymity.
"Okay, well, the job does involve some telephone work. About one per cent."
"Okay." The dream faded slightly, but I could cope with one per cent.
"I mean, you'll very much be a part of the office."
I thought he might just be saying that to make me feel better, so I said, "That sounds good."
He narrowed his eyes at me and for a moment I wondered what he was thinking. Then he glanced back at my CV, then at me again, and a silence hung in the room, floating with the summer dust.
* * *
When the Traffic Warden got in from work he went straight to the fridge, pulled out a block of cheese and bit right into it. "How did it go?"
I was reading on the sofa and lowered the book but didn't sit up. "I really wish you wouldn't do that." It was one of his many annoying habits, like putting empty bottles back in the fridge and leaving the bread bag open.
"I really wish you wouldn't speak." He paused and craned his neck to watch something out of the kitchen window, which overlooked the car parking area for all the flats in our block.
"It was all right, anyway. I think," I said. "I don't know. It was a strange one. Hard to predict."
He was still looking out the kitchen window.
"Something interesting going on?"
He spoke through another mouthful of cheese. "Mini Man's welding."
Mini Man lived in Flat 4 with his moody girlfriend and their daughter Jessica, a toddler who was always crying. The only times I saw him were when he went out front to have a fag, or when he was in the courtyard tinkering about with his Mini. It looked like he'd made the whole thing from scrap parts as it was about two feet shorter than a normal Mini and rust-coloured, apart from the black roof, which he could just take off whenever he felt like it.
"Fascinating," I said.
"He's got all the gear and everything. I wonder where he learnt to do all that stuff."
"Why don't you ask him?"
The Traffic Warden didn't respond.
"How was work, anyway?"
"How many tickets did you give out?"
That night as we were getting into bed, he pulled back the cover and seemed to scrutinise the pillows.
I leaned over. "That's dribble, I think."
"I know." He picked the pillows up and banged them together like cymbals. "I've seen loads of spiders lately, I don't want them crawling on me in the night. Did you know that you swallow eight spiders —"
"— every year. You don't, though. It's an urban myth." I sighed. "It was made up by this woman who made up a load of similar facts and put them on a website, just to see if people would believe them. And what d'you know? They did." I leaned back on the pillows. "I mean, the spider's effectively committing suicide. Why would a spider do that?"
He got in bed, lifting the duvet clean off me.
"Oi, that was warm, don't let all the cold in." I settled my head on his shoulder. "And don't steal it, like you did last night."
"Me? It was me who didn't get any."
"What absolute bollocks. I woke up twice with cold feet." I kissed him and felt his hand in my hair.
"You're so dramatic."
I put my leg over his. "And you are the Duvet Thief. It's what you are in your very core and you know it." I kissed him again. "And you know that I know it."
And he kissed me back, and climbed on top of me, practically ripping my T-shirt off.
I was surprised when the phone woke me the next morning, and it was Nathan telling me I had the job.CHAPTER 3
"So, this is an agreement." A tanned woman called Mel was showing me how to enter agreements into the database. "These are all the details you need to enter. So you've got Name ..."
She typed the name.
"Tab along, and then the date of birth."
She typed the date of birth.
"Tab along and the address."
She typed the address.
"Tab along and the start date."
I nodded and nodded, until I thought I'd be sick.
I was glad that the work was monotonous, but the atmosphere in the office was slightly awkward, a party of strangers thrown together when there was nothing to talk about, nothing to say.
My dream of a sunlit desk had dissolved; there was nothing but blind windows and a busy road humming behind them.
Weblands officially broke for lunch at one, Mel said, but she and I were to have ours at twelve because they wanted someone to answer the phone over lunch and that someone was her. Soon to be me.
We both got our neat boxes of sandwiches from the fridge and sat opposite each other. There was no canteen or anything, so we just sat at our desks while everyone carried on pecking away at their keyboards.
"What you got?" I asked her.
"Cheese," she said. She held the sandwich with both hands, as if it was going to break apart.
I asked her why she was leaving.
"Just time to move on," she said.
I had hoped for a genuine answer, but she gave me the diplomatic one. I suppose I would have done the same, if I was talking to someone who was about to start the job that I was leaving.
"Oh, right. How long have you worked here?"
"Too long." She finished her sandwich, wiped her fingers on a sheet of kitchen roll dotted with little clouds.
She fiddled with the frill along the shoulder strap of her yellow top. Like all the other women, she was dressed more casually than me.
I had decided it was better to be too formal than not formal enough, and the week before I had bought five white, collared shirts from Matalan. They looked like school shirts, lined up in my wardrobe with a crease down each sleeve.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Everybody Knows this is Nowhere"
Copyright © 2014 Alice Furse.
Excerpted by permission of Burning Eye Books.
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