Black Petals Issue #103, Spring, 2023

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All the Sky Is Waiting to Be Told: Fiction by Daniel I. Clark
Fire Sale: Fiction by Christopher Pate
Kregah: Fiction by Ron Capshaw
The Beauty of Machinery: Fiction by Hayden Seay
The Cold Sore: Fiction by Chris McGuinness
The Lake: Fiction by Harper Hargis
The Price: Fiction by Josh Hanson
The Tailbone Is Connected to the Hipbone: Fiction by Michael Fowler
The Thorn Tree: Fiction by Lawrence Buentello
They: Fiction by Tony Ayers
Work Experience: Fiction by Martin Taulbut
Burns: 3 Connected Drabbles by Hillary Lyon
Grandma Medusa: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
I'm So Sorry, Computer: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
Invasive: Flash Fiction by Paul Radcliffe
Jumper: Flash Fiction by Kurt Hohmann
Personal Things: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
The Good Doctor: Flash Fiction by Ron Capshaw
Another Tomato Invasion, Again: Poem by I. N. Shimabuku
Curse of the Crazies: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Ghosted: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Meteor Moon: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Halo Around the Sun: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Maker's Image: Poem by Bindi Lavelle
Specimen: Poem by Bindi Lavelle
Blood-stained Jupiter: Poem by Meg Smith
Cat Science: Poem by Meg Smith
Mortician's Powder: Poem by Meg Smith
The Pinups of the Afterlife: Poem by Meg Smith
Dark Gate Park: Poem by Meg Smith
A turntable fabricates hope during the apocalypse in 3 parts: Poem by Dennis Bagwell
Reverend Mother Munchausen: Poem by Sophia Wiseman-Rose
Whispers of Winter: Poem by Ashley N. Goodwin
A Man Is Nothing Without His Wife: Poem by Ashley N. Goodwin

Martin Taulbut: Work Experience

bp_103_workexperience_sophiawiseman-rose.jpg
Art by Sophia Wiseman-Rose 2023

Work Experience

By Martin Taulbut

 

The Beast from the East’s power was waning. Its cold empire, solid and implacable a week before, was dissolving to dirty grey slush. Only lonely outposts of black ice remained to slip up the unwary.

Alan stood at the foot of the office steps, enjoying a vape. Drawing his padded jacket around his tubby body, he admired the architecture. The building was an old sandstone Edwardian terraced house, two storeys high. A decade ago, it had been a medical practice. The Department had negotiated to have some of their wellbeing advisors visit there, half a day a week. Without their badges, of course. That turned into two or three days a week. And then, when something had gone wrong with the funding, the Department had stepped in to keep the place in use.

Yeah, it was a nice-looking building, all right. Alan would have liked to be an architect. He’d not been that bad at tech drawing at school, but the maths, the maths had let him down.

He knew he was delaying. Friday mornings were reserved for training. Given the choice, Alan would have preferred to be getting stuck in with the customers. That was what kept him in this game, helping people. Staff were also encouraged to dress down on Fridays. Although normally ambivalent, Alan conceded its advantages today. It meant he could layer up against the cold and not worry about changing his footwear when entering and leaving the place.

Time to go. Alan took a final draw of vanilla from his vape pen, then made his way up the steps to the porch. He waved through the glass on the inner door to Tam the security guard.

As the guard let him in, Alan made a mental note to ask Tam if he was up for a pint after work. Better ask before lunchtime though. Tam had moved in with a new partner, with a wee kiddie.

Rita was waiting for him in the corridor.

“Morning Alan,” she said, in her sing-song Blackburn accent. "It's cowd out there."

He’d been Rita's boss once. Well, not her boss, her supervisor, her mentor, when she’d been a nervous young graduate learning the ropes. She was all right though, Rita. Her heart was in the right place.

“Aye, absolutely,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “What have you got for us this morning?”

“Ooh, you’ll love this,” she said, leading him down the corridor. “You’re into your science fiction, aren’t you?”

They entered the training suite. A large table occupied the centre of the room. Padded vertical boards divided it into six, each with a monitor, keyboard, and swivel chair. But there was also something new. Each of the pods had a headset and visor, gleaming and fresh from the plastic, clipped into the desk. Four of the pods were already occupied. Visors hid his colleagues’ faces. Their hands twitched.

“What it is?” asked Alan. “VR?”

“A bit more advanced,” said Rita. “Total immersion they call it. The Department wants all staff to try it out. So they can become more responsive to their customers’ needs. Really understand where they’re coming from.”

Impressed, Alan nodded. His nephew had persuaded him to try a scuba diving game a few months ago. He’d almost shat himself when the shark had pounced. Even if the Department was piecing together some old film footage, well, it was worth a go.

“All right,” said Alan. He sat down and slid the brace over his head. “How does it work?”

“Just lower the visor when you’re ready. They say it’s intuitive. There’s a quiz at the end,” said Rita.

“Can I pause it?”

“Oh, no,” Rita looked sheepish. “They reckoned that might…spoil the immersion. Once you start, you have to stick with it until the end, or restart the whole thing.”

Alan nodded. He suspected the Department wanted to ensure the staff completed their modules. A lot of the younger ones, they didn’t have the work ethic.

“Ah well,” Alan said. He pulled the visor down.

Rita watched his body slacken, then jolt as the simulation began. The tech officer had explained the process to her. Volunteers’ memories recorded direct from their brains, then stored as electrical signals. It made her uneasy. She should have pressed for details. But management could be quite prickly these days.

She left Alan to it.

#

Despite the chill, the square has been busy all afternoon. They’ve set up stalls outside the museum to sell arts and crafts. There’s a jewellery maker stand that fascinates me. All that steel, glass, metal, and gems transfigured into new, exquisite adornments. One of the pieces catches my attention. It's an owl about an inch high, pinned to the side of the stall by a silver-plate chain. Its feathers are alternate brown and yellow studs, its eyes glinting blue stones. Nadine always loved owls. Loves owls.

(I’d asked her why.

She’d shrugged. “Don’t know, Courtney. Because they’re wise?” Then paused, smiled. “Because they’re wise and free?”

I’d laughed and promised to buy her a pet owl if I won the Lottery).

The stallholder, an older blonde woman, is scrutinising me. What does she see? I clock my reflection in the mirrors that frame her wares. A twenty-five-year-old white woman. Long dark hair, a bit unkempt (ha, both me and my hair, I haven’t been to the station showers today), gaunt, blue eyes. Clothes a bit crumpled. But I’m not some junkie. I’m the same as her, you know? Only she can go home to a nice wee place, and I-   

From somewhere in the crowd, the smell of pipe tobacco hits me. Always hated its earthy, stink: like dirty straw. I start to sweat, scan the throng. Can’t be him, he must be, what…fifty, sixty? Shit. Could be. Oban’s only a few hours away. 

Ah. The hell with it. I pull myself together, leave the square and find myself a pitch. It's between the bank on the corner and a shop selling kitchen apparatus. My cardboard sign reads: BRITISH-BORN HOMELESS, LOOKING FOR WORK, PLEASE HELP THANK YOU.

The day drags on. At dinnertime, a chubby boy of about eight or nine wearing thick-rimmed specs, comes over and gives me a pound. He goes back to an older white-haired woman in a grey coat. And then later, a middle-aged couple pass. She's large, black, buxom, very glam in purple heels and a purple dress. He's white, earnest-looking, very tall, and thin and bald, in chinos and a Hawaiian shirt. The guy gives me a pound too.

As they move off, I note their anxiety and think: first date. She says something about “lacy”. Pretty saucy. It’s only after they’re out of sight I realise. Calling me lazy. Cheeky cow. I've worked, worked cleaning work, temp work, anything when we came here.

Not sure if that’s gonna work out.

It’s getting colder. The footfall thins as folks disappear into the warm pubs or head home.

Around eleven, it starts to snow. It's light to begin with, its white flakes well dispersed and dissolving as soon as they hit the pavement. I’m not worried at first, until the shower thickens, and the snow starts to accumulate. I roll up my sleeping bag and stash it behind me, on top of a pile of cardboard to keep it dry. By twelve, I’m shivering, my fingers red and raw. My cardboard sign is sodden, the lettering smudged. This is not good. I consider my options.

(That takes me back: those hot chocolate drinks that mum used to get. Used to love those, the only thing I’d ever nicked from her. Felt so bad about it that I’d nip out to the corner shop and get her a replacement bundle of sachets for each one I’d taken. Could do with one of them now to heat me up.)

Focus Courtney.

Let’s see. There’s a couple of places over by the Cross will do you a bed for eighteen quid. I look at my takings, and there’s less than four there in coins. This is bad.

As I’m stood there, a man in a suit come stumbling through the darkness, from the direction of the Merchant City. His suit blends in with the snow: white trousers, white jacket, white shirt. No overcoat: he’s dressed for the tropics. Now I’m thinking of some YouTube clips I saw few years back. In the ads, this debonaire silver fox, in white suit and fedora, gets driven out to a tropical plantation. He's there to say yay or nay to their pineapples or whatever. Yeah…the Man from Del Monte, that was it. My Man from Del Monte is peely-wally pale, is missing the hat and is a bit overweight. There’s a big dark wet patch on his shirt. He’s steaming.

His glassy eyes stare out at me from a bloated face.

“Spare some change, pal?” I ask.

He pauses, still staring. My stomach lurches. I…time to re-orientate.

“Looking for business, pal?” I hear myself say.

He’s confused.

“Sexual business?” I clarify.

Although taken aback, he’s considering it. But then he crunches away, quick-smart: it’s weird to see a man so fat put on that turn of speed, especially in the snow. I turn back and finish packing up my stuff, dread rising in me. Sometimes the charity folk will come round, but I haven’t seen anyone out tonight yet. Maybe there’s a big push on elsewhere because of the cold snap–

Footsteps behind me. They stop. I turn, and it’s the Man from Del Monte back again. He has his wallet in one hand, and he’s holding a ten-pound note in the other. Before I can react, he’s pushing the money into my hand.

“Don’t do bad things,” he blurts out.

That pisses me off. This eejit thinks he can pass judgement on me. Stoating about the city centre after hours, handing out cash like he’s one of those jokers off Dragon’s Den.

“I don’t do drugs,” I tell him. “Ok? I’m clean.”

Judgemental prick. Ok. I cool down a bit. Yeah. I don’t do drugs, not smack or anything like that. Still. I tuck the note away into my hip pocket. The anger’s enough to make me commit.

“Come on,” I say. “It’s thirty, by the way.”

No fucking idea what price points to use, but I’m not going to freeze to death here.

I take his wallet out of his hand, pull out twenty (he must’ve used the cashpoint) and return his wallet. With the sleeping bag tucked under my arm, I turn and advance into the alleyway. There’s a heavy-duty commercial bin, like a giant steel mine-cart, parked about halfway along it. I locate a dry spot and prop my sleeping bag there. When I turn back, he’s still hovering in the street. I have to go back and grab his wrist and lead him into the passage. Maybe it’s his first time doing this? (My second. The last.) We end up so that he has his back to the brickwork. I'm standing in front of him, so that I can keep a lookout.

Drunken male voices and guffaws erupt from the main street. My customer lurches forward, colliding with my back, but I lower my right hand to his crotch and shush him. A line of young lads in pressed jeans and shirts file past the alleyway, slurring in posh accents. One of them is wearing an orange loincloth, spotted with black triangles, over his normal clothes and a short blue neckerchief. He looks cross.

(Cheer up pal; soon you’ll be a married man).

They pass, and I’m fumbling at Del Monte’s trousers. Buttons rather than a zip. My palm slips into his trousers. From the warm swelling cloth of his underwear, he’s partially ready. My hand closes around the short stub of flesh, forefinger brushing his balls, and begins to move. There’s a nasty miasma of smells developing. His sweat, stale beer, piss, smoky, stale grease and rotting vegetation. I’m babbling nonsense now, to encourage him to finish sooner.

(In my mind, the warm flesh, the human contact, isn’t his: I’m spooning on the sofa-bed with Nadine in her cousin’s spare room. We’re laughing at the broken wires on the wall, where the telly should go. Wondering whether the landlord or the previous tenant had removed it. Cuddling, and then-)

(Pipe smoke.)

Blue lights flash across the alley, accompanied by a persistent wail. I turn in their direction and the punter (No. This is the last time.) is panicking again, trying to push me away, but I slap at him with a free hand and give it a final jerk and tickle. He shivers: a few drops of warm fluid dribble into my hand. It’s a false alarm anyway, I can see the ambulance racing away as we break apart. He rushes to tuck his shirt in and button his trousers, then stumbles out of the alley towards the taxi rank.

I wait for a while, then pick up my sleeping bag and make for the other end of the alleyway, exiting there. On the way to the hostel, I pass a newsagent, and buy some juice and a wee pack of baby wipes. As I plonk them by the till, I notice the pile of Lottery scratch-cards. There’s one there called Triple Jackpot, a fiver, pricey for a scratch-card, but its face says: WIN A MILLION.

(In my head, I imagine Nadine unwrapping a present from me, out of the blue, to reveal the necklace with the owl on it. She’s so happy, we’re so happy, in our new wee flat down by the river.)

The young Asian guy with the moustache and beard behind the counter is watching me with some concern.

“Anything else?” says the shopkeeper.

I shake my head. “That’s all, pal.”

When he gives me the change, I drop a quid in the green charity tin on his counter. Open the wet wipes on the way out and rub my hands all over.

On the way to the hostel, my stomach rumbles. I’m shivering again. Hot food, I need something hot. Outside the chippy, they have a sign up saying Why Not Try Our “Justin Bieber” Special? so I buy a carton of chips and cheese. I stand under the railway station canopy, shovelling the food in. Justin might have eaten there once, but he wouldn’t do it twice. Greasy as hell man, the oil leaves this awful aftertaste. I start to feel sick. Persevere, Courtney. But then I dry retch and have to breathe through my mouth to recover. I end up dumping half the food in the bin, and sluicing my mouth out, spitting. At least I keep the food down. Use more of the baby wipes on my lips and hands: I’ll have to conserve those.

As I’m hovering there, a black cab whizzes past. I swear there’s my saviour in his white suit in the back seat. I suddenly remember the slogan from those ads: “The Man from Del Monte, he say–”

#

The vision faded to blue. Then a picture of a suspension bridge, its superstructure glinting in sunset, appeared. Soft, gentle guitar and piano notes mingled together in the background, soothing Alan. A message popped up: This concludes the immersion part of your training. Please remove your headset and proceed to the personal reflections section. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers. Good luck!

Alan took the headset off and set it down on the desk. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the shift back to the office lighting. The rest of the pod stations were vacant: the others must have finished.

He stared at the screen.

This was going to be a long day, he thought.

He focused on the VDU, clicking on the arrow prompt to cycle through the questions. He bit his lip, trying to imagine what Rita might want, wishing he’d remembered to take a notepad and pen in with him. He started to type into the free text boxes, one by one:

1. A young white woman.

2. Homelessness, adverse childhood experiences (?), substance misuse. [#amended#]

3. Housing First, money management, confidence-building, abuse survivors’ network [#amended#]

4. Customer service, cleaning, personal and social care (?) [#amended, invalid occupation#]

5. It reslly made me think about my own unconcius biases and the limitd choices some vulnerable customwrs have due to their chaotic lifestyles and family backgrounds. I will seek to proactively apply this in my own dealings with customers when building their rihts and responsibilities framework.

When he finished, he clicked the button to submit, pushed back his chair and stood up. Maybe he could nip to the toilet after this, settle his nerves with a quick vape? He left the training suite and went down the corridor. As he passed the staff kitchen, he saw Rita standing at the counter, pouring herself a cuppa. No-one else there.

Rita looked up.

“Ah, there you are, Alan. All done? What did you think?”

He nodded. “Yep. It’s…intense.”

Rita gave a brittle smile. “Yes, that’s the feedback we’re getting. A bit too voyeuristic? Anyway. Management is thinking about loading it with staff’s experiences next. to give senior management a real insight into the frontline. Any thoughts?”

“Oh, well…it would certainly help with appraisals, Rita,” said Alan. “Sorry, I just have to…you know?”

“Of course, Alan.”

As Rita watched him disappear towards the gents, she thought how funny it was. How different people looked outside of their normal work attire. Dress down Fridays always seemed a bit American to her, a little bit false. The Department must know what it was doing. But still, Alan seemed a different person, a much less confident man, without his usual white suit.





Martin Taulbut lives in Paisley, Scotland, and is a member of the Shut Up and Write! Glasgow Group. His previous short stories have appeared in Psychotrope, Scheherazade, Albedo One, Black Petals and Mycelia.



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