There are 158 footsteps between the bus stop and home, but it can stretch to 180 if you aren’t in a hurry, like maybe if you’re wearing platform shoes. I turned the corner onto our street (68 steps), and could just see the house—a four-bedroom semi in a row of other three- and four-bedroom semis. Dad’s car was outside, which meant he had not yet left for work.
Behind me, the sun was setting behind Stortfold Castle, its dark shadow sliding down the hill like melting wax to overtake me. On a different sort of day, I could have told you all the things that had happened to me on this route: where Dad taught me to ride a bike without stabilizers; where Mrs. Doherty with the lopsided wig used to make us Welsh cakes; the hedge where Treena knocked a wasp’s nest and we ran screaming all the way back to the castle.
Thomas’s tricycle was upturned on the path and, closing the gate behind me, I dragged it under the porch and opened the door. The warmth hit me with the force of an air bag; Mum is a martyr to the cold and keeps the heating on all year round. Dad is always opening windows, complaining that she’d bankrupt the lot of us. He says our heating bills are larger than the GDP of a small African country.
“That you, love?”
“Yup.” I hung my jacket on the peg, where it fought for space among the others.
“Which you? Lou? Treena?”
I peered around the living-room door. Dad was facedown on the sofa, his arm thrust deep between the cushions, as if they had swallowed his limb whole. Thomas, my five-year-old nephew, was on his haunches, watching him intently.
“Lego.” Dad turned his face toward me, puce from exertion. “Why they have to make the damned pieces so small I don’t know.”
“Upstairs. How about that? A two-pound piece!”
I looked up, just able to hear the familiar creak of the ironing board. Josie Clark, my mother, never sat down. It was a point of honor. She had been known to stand on an outside ladder painting the windows, occasionally pausing to wave, while the rest of us ate a roast dinner.
“Will you have a go at finding this bloody arm for me? He’s had me looking for half an hour and I’ve got to get ready for work.”
“Are you on nights?”
“Yeah. It’s half past five.”
I glanced at the clock. “Actually, it’s half past four.”
He extracted his arm from the cushions and squinted at his watch. “Then what are you doing home so early?”
I shook my head vaguely, as if I might have misunderstood the question, and walked into the kitchen.
Granddad was sitting in his chair by the kitchen window, studying a Sudoku. The health visitor had told us it would be good for his concentration, help his focus after the strokes. I suspected I was the only one to notice he simply filled out all the boxes with whatever number came to mind.
He looked up and smiled.
“You want a cup of tea?”
He shook his head, and partially opened his mouth.
I opened the fridge door. “There’s no apple juice.” Apple juice, I remembered now, was too expensive. “Water?”
He nodded, murmured something that could have been a thank-you as I handed him the glass.
My mother walked into the room, bearing a huge basket of neatly folded laundry. “Are these yours?” She brandished a pair of socks.
“Treena’s, I think.”
“I thought so. Odd color. I think they must have got in with Daddy’s plum pajamas. You’re back early. Are you going somewhere?”
“No.” I filled a glass with tap water and drank it.
“Is Patrick coming around later? He rang here earlier. Did you have your mobile off?”
“He said he’s after booking your holiday. Your father says he saw something on the television about it. Where is it you liked? Ipsos? Kalypsos?”
“That’s the one. You want to check your hotel very carefully. Do it on the Internet. He and Daddy watched something on the news at lunchtime. Apparently they’re building sites, half of those budget deals, and you wouldn’t know until you got there. Daddy, would you like a cup of tea? Did Lou not offer you one?” She put the kettle on, then glanced up at me. It’s possible she had finally noticed I wasn’t saying anything. “Are you all right, love? You look awfully pale.”
She reached out a hand and felt my forehead, as if I were much younger than twenty-six.
“I don’t think we’re going on holiday.”
My mother’s hand stilled. Her gaze had that X-ray thing that it had held since I was a kid. “Are you and Pat having some problems?”
“I’m not trying to interfere. It’s just, you’ve been together an awful long time. It’s only natural if things get a bit sticky every now and then. I mean, me and your father, we—”
“I lost my job.”
My voice cut into the silence. The words hung there, searing themselves on the little room long after the sound had died away.
“Frank’s shutting down the café. From tomorrow.” I held out a hand with the slightly damp envelope I had gripped in shock the entire journey home. All 180 steps from the bus stop. “He’s given me my three months’ money.”
The day had started like any other day. Everyone I knew hated Monday mornings, but I never minded them. I liked arriving early at the Buttered Bun, firing up the huge tea urn in the corner, bringing in the crates of milk and bread from the backyard, and chatting to Frank as we prepared to open.
I liked the fuggy bacon-scented warmth of the café, the little bursts of cool air as the door opened and closed, the low murmur of conversation, and, when quiet, Frank’s radio singing tinnily to itself in the corner. It wasn’t a fashionable place—its walls were covered in scenes from the castle up on the hill, the tables still sported Formica tops, and the menu hadn’t altered since I started, apart from the addition of chocolate brownies to the iced-bun tray.
But most of all I liked the customers. I liked Kev and Angelo, the plumbers, who came in most mornings and teased Frank about where his meat might have come from. I liked the Dandelion Lady, nicknamed for her shock of white hair, who ate one egg and chips from Monday to Thursday and sat reading the complimentary newspapers and drinking her way through two cups of tea. I always made an effort to chat with her. I suspected it might be the only conversation the old woman got all day.
I liked the tourists, who stopped on their walk up to and down from the castle, the shrieking schoolchildren, who stopped by after school, the regulars from the offices across the road, and Nina and Cherie, the hairdressers, who knew the calorie count of every single item the Buttered Bun had to offer. Even the annoying customers, like the red-haired woman who ran the toy shop and disputed her change at least once a week, didn’t trouble me.
I watched relationships begin and end across those tables, children transferred between ex-spouses, the guilty relief of those parents who couldn’t face cooking, and the secret pleasure of pensioners at a fried breakfast. All human life came through, and most of them shared a few words with me, trading jokes or comments over the mugs of steaming tea. Dad always said he never knew what was going to come out of my mouth next, but in the café it didn’t matter.
Frank liked me. He was quiet by nature, and said having me there kept the place lively. It was a bit like being a barmaid, but without the hassle of drunks.
And then that afternoon, after the lunchtime rush had ended, and with the place briefly empty, Frank, wiping his hands on his apron, had come out from behind the hot plate and turned the little CLOSED sign to face the street.
He was twisting a tea towel between his two hands and looked more uncomfortable than I had ever seen him. I wondered, briefly, whether someone had complained about me. And then he motioned to me to sit down.
“Sorry, Louisa,” he said, after he had told me. “But I’m going back to Australia. My dad’s not too good, and it looks like the castle is definitely going to start doing its own refreshments. The writing’s on the wall.”
I think I sat there with my mouth actually hanging open. And then Frank handed me the envelope, and answered my next question before it left my lips. “I know we never had, you know, a formal contract or anything, but I wanted to look after you. There’s three months’ money in there. We close tomorrow.”
“Three months!” Dad exploded, as my mother thrust a cup of sweet tea into my hands. “Well, that’s big of him, given she’s worked like a ruddy Trojan in that place for the last six years.”
“Bernard.” Mum shot him a warning look, nodding toward Thomas. My parents minded him after school every day until Treena finished work.
“What the hell is she supposed to do now? He could have given her more than a day’s bloody notice.”
“Well…she’ll just have to get another job.”
“There are no bloody jobs, Josie. You know that as well as I do. We’re in the middle of a bloody recession.”
Mum shut her eyes for a moment, as if composing herself before she spoke. “She’s a bright girl. She’ll find herself something. She’s got a solid employment record, hasn’t she? Frank will give her a good reference.”
“Oh, fecking marvelous…‘Louisa Clark is very good at buttering toast, and a dab hand with the old teapot.’”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dad.”
“I’m just saying.”
I knew the real reason for Dad’s anxiety. They relied on my wages. Treena earned next to nothing at the flower shop. Mum couldn’t work, as she had to look after Granddad, and Granddad’s pension amounted to almost nothing. Dad lived in a constant state of anxiety about his job at the furniture factory. His boss had been muttering about possible redundancies for months. There were murmurings at home about debts and the juggling of credit cards. Dad had had his car written off by an uninsured driver two years previously, and somehow this had been enough for the whole teetering edifice that was my parents’ finances to finally collapse. My modest wages had been a little bedrock of housekeeping money, enough to help see the family through from week to week.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. She can head down to the Job Center tomorrow and see what’s on offer. She’s got enough to get by for now.” They spoke as if I weren’t there. “And she’s smart. You’re smart, aren’t you, love? Perhaps she could do a typing course. Go into office work.”
I sat there as my parents discussed what other jobs my limited qualifications might entitle me to. Factory work, machinist, roll butterer. For the first time that afternoon I wanted to cry. Thomas watched me with big, round eyes, and silently handed me half a soggy biscuit.
“Thanks, Tommo,” I mouthed silently, and ate it.
He was down at the athletics club, as I had known he would be. Mondays to Thursdays, regular as a station timetable, Patrick was there in the gym or running in circles around the floodlit track.
“Run with me,” he puffed, as he got closer. His breath came in pale clouds. “I’ve got four laps to go.”
I hesitated just a moment, and then began to run alongside him. It was the only way I was going to get any kind of conversation out of him. I was wearing my pink trainers with the turquoise laces, the only shoes I could possibly run in.
I had spent the day at home, trying to be useful. I’m guessing it was about an hour before I started to get under my mother’s feet. Mum and Granddad had their routines, and having me there interrupted them. Dad was asleep, as he was on nights this month, and not to be disturbed. I tidied my room, then sat and watched television with the sound down, and when I remembered, periodically, why I was at home in the middle of the day, I felt an actual brief pain in my chest.
“I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I got fed up at home. I thought maybe we could do something.”
He looked sideways at me. There was a fine film of sweat on his face. “The sooner you get another job, babe, the better.”
“It’s all of twenty-four hours since I lost the last one. Am I allowed to just be a bit miserable and floppy? You know, just for today?”
“But you’ve got to look at the positive side. You knew you couldn’t stay at that place forever. You want to move upward, onward.” Patrick had been named Stortfold Young Entrepreneur of the Year two years previously, and had not yet quite recovered from the honor. He had since acquired a business partner, Ginger Pete, offering personal training to clients over a forty-mile area, and two liveried vans on credit. “Being made redundant can change people’s lives, Lou.” He glanced at his watch, checking his lap time. “What do you want to do? You could retrain. I’m sure they do a grant for people like you.”
“People like me?”
“People looking for a new opportunity. What do you want to be? You could be a beautician. You’re pretty enough.” He nudged me as we ran, as if I should be grateful for the compliment.
“You know my beauty routine. Soap, water, the odd paper bag.”
Patrick was beginning to look exasperated.
I was starting to lag behind. I hate running. I hated him for not slowing down.
“Look…shop assistant. Secretary. Estate agent. I don’t know…there must be something you want to do.”
But there wasn’t. I had liked it in the café. I liked knowing everything there was to know about the Buttered Bun, and hearing about the lives of the people who came through it. I had felt comfortable there.
“You can’t mope around, babe. Got to get over it. All the best entrepreneurs fight their way back from rock bottom. Jeffrey Archer did it. So did Richard Branson.” He tapped my arm, trying to get me to keep up.
“I doubt if Jeffrey Archer ever got made redundant from toasting teacakes.” I was out of breath. And I was wearing the wrong bra. I slowed, dropped my hands down onto my knees.
He turned, running backward, his voice carrying on the still, cold air. “I’m just saying. Sleep on it, put on a smart suit, and head down to the Job Center. Or I’ll train you to work with me, if you like. You know there’s money in it. And don’t worry about the holiday. I’ll pay.”
I smiled at him.
He blew a kiss and his voice echoed across the empty stadium. “You can pay me back when you’re back on your feet.”
I made my first claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance. I attended a forty-five-minute interview, and a group interview, where I sat with a group of twenty or so mismatched men and women, half of whom wore the same slightly stunned expression I suspected I did, and the other half the blank, uninterested faces of people who had been here too many times before. I wore what my dad deemed my “civilian” clothes.
As a result of these efforts, I endured a brief stint filling in on a night shift at a chicken processing factory (it gave me nightmares for weeks), and two days at a training session as a “home energy adviser.” I realized pretty quickly that I was essentially being instructed to befuddle old people into switching energy suppliers, and told Syed, my personal “adviser,” that I couldn’t do it. He insisted that I continue, so I listed some of the practices that they had asked me to employ, at which point he went a bit quiet and suggested we (it was always “we” even though it was pretty obvious that one of us had a job) try something else.
I did two weeks at a fast-food chain. The hours were okay, I could cope with the fact that the uniform made my hair static, but I found it impossible to stick to the “appropriate responses” script, with its “How can I help you today?” and its “Would you like large fries with that?” I was let go after one of the doughnut girls caught me debating the varying merits of the free toys with a four-year-old. What can I say? She was a smart four-year-old. I also thought the Sleeping Beautys were sappy.
Now I sat at my fourth interview as Syed scanned through the touch screen for further employment “opportunities.” Even Syed, who wore the grimly cheerful demeanor of someone who had shoehorned the most unlikely candidates into a job, was starting to sound a little weary.
“Um…Have you ever considered joining the entertainment industry?”
“What, as in mime artist? Opera singer?”
“Actually, no. But there is an opening for a pole dancer. Several, in fact.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Please tell me you are kidding.”
“It’s thirty hours a week on a self-employed basis. I believe the tips are good. You said you were good with people. And you seem to like…theatrical…clothing.” He glanced at my tights, which were green and glittery. I had thought they would cheer me up. Thomas had hummed the theme tune from The Little Mermaid at me for almost the whole of breakfast.
Syed tapped something into his keyboard. “How about ‘adult chat line supervisor’?”
I stared at him.
He shrugged. “You said you liked talking to people.”
“No. And no to seminude bar staff. Or masseuse. Or webcam operator. Come on, Syed. There must be something I can do that wouldn’t actually give my dad a heart attack.”
This appeared to stump him. “There’s not much left outside flexi-hour retail opportunities.”
“Nighttime shelf stacking?” I had been here enough times now to speak their language.
“There’s a waiting list. Parents tend to go for it, because it suits the school hours,” he said apologetically. He studied the screen again. “So we’re really left with care assistant.”
“Wiping old people’s bottoms.”
“I’m afraid, Louisa, you’re not qualified for much else. If you wanted to retrain, I’d be happy to point you in the right direction. There are plenty of courses at the adult education center.”
“But we’ve been through this, Syed. If I do that, I lose my Jobseeker money, right?”
“If you’re not available for work, yes.”
We sat there in silence for a moment. I gazed at the doors, where two burly security men stood. I wondered if they had got the job through the Job Center.
“I’m not good with old people, Syed. My granddad lives at home since he had his strokes, and I can’t cope with him.”