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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
for him in the corridor.
she said, in her sing-song Blackburn accent. "It's cowd out there."
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.
he said, rubbing his hands together. “What have you got for us this morning?”
this,” she said, leading him down the corridor. “You’re into your science
fiction, aren’t you?”
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.
asked Alan. “VR?”
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.”
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.
right,” said Alan.
He sat down and slid the brace over his head. “How does it work?”
visor when you’re ready. They say it’s intuitive. There’s a quiz at the end,”
I pause it?”
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.”
suspected the Department wanted to ensure the staff completed their modules. A
lot of the younger ones, they didn’t have the work ethic.
said. He pulled the visor down.
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.
left Alan to
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.
“Don’t know, Courtney. Because they’re wise?” Then paused, smiled. “Because
they’re wise and free?”
promised to buy her a pet owl if I won the Lottery).
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-
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.
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
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.
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.
sure if that’s
gonna work out.
colder. The footfall thins as folks disappear into the warm pubs or head home.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
glassy eyes stare
out at me from a bloated face.
change, pal?” I ask.
staring. My stomach lurches. I…time to re-orientate.
business, pal?” I hear myself say.
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–
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.
things,” he blurts out.
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
drugs,” I tell him. “Ok? I’m clean.”
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
on,” I say.
“It’s thirty, by the way.”
what price points to use, but I’m not going to freeze to death here.
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.
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
soon you’ll be a married man).
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.
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-)
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.
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.
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.)
guy with the moustache and beard behind the counter is watching me with some
says the shopkeeper.
shake my head.
“That’s all, pal.”
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.
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
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–”
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!
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.
stared at the
was going to
be a long day, he thought.
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
A young white
adverse childhood experiences (?), substance misuse. [#amended#]
3. Housing First,
money management, confidence-building, abuse survivors’ network [#amended#]
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.
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
are, Alan. All done? What did you think?”
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?”
certainly help with appraisals, Rita,” said Alan. “Sorry, I just have to…you
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
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.