Words to the Wise
“The best advice I was ever given was by my mother, when I was a girl,” Julie said. “She told me that all I needed for a happy life was contained within the pages of the bible.”
“That’s nice,” I mumbled in reply. I was trying to complete the latest Care/Needs Report for Jeremy Block and I didn’t want to be drawn into another one of Julie’s discussions. So I kept my eyes fixed on my computer screen and didn’t look back at her.
“If you follow the instructions in the bible then God will reward you with a good, happy and successful life,” Julie said. “You don’t need all these fad diets and exercise plans. If you follow the bible you will lead a healthy life, as simple as that. But. of course, no one wants to hear that.”
“So, if you get cancer then it’s your fault,” I replied, the words jumping out of my mouth before I could think.
“That’s God’s law, not man’s law. God does not follow our petty emotions,” Julie said, raising her head high.
“Lovely,” I replied, turning back to my computer.
“That’s the problem with the world today - not enough people follow the advice in the bible. If people did what the bible says, the world would be a much better place,” Julie reeled off.
“Like all the sexism and homophobia in it?” Again, the words leapt out of my mouth before I had chance to censure myself.
“You’re one of those ‘smart’ intellectuals who don’t believe in anything,” she snapped back at me. “It’s people like you that have marched our world into the mess it’s in.”
“Whatever you say,” I mumbled back.
“I’m not staying here to be insulted. This is why us Christians are the last, true persecuted minority in this country,” she announced, more to the rest of the office then to me, before she stood up from her desk, adding, “I’m off for my break.”
She stormed out of our open-plan office, many people staring after her. Some even muttered, “What’s up with her now?” I stared back at my computer. I’d upset her again and I knew I would be getting the blame for it. I didn’t need more stress.
I was sat in the staff room, barely keeping my eyes open, when Trevor and Nelson entered. I’d taken my break late that morning, I’d spent most of it buried under the weight of paperwork, all the reports that I had to write-up at the speed of light. Unfortunately, this just had added onto the tiredness that was already weighing me down. I’d got little sleep the night before and now the fatigue was dragging down at my body.
“That’s the thing,” Trevor announced, as he entered the room, “you have to put yourself first in this life, because no other bastard will do so.”
“That’s so right,” Nelson agreed.
Since he'd started working in our department, Nelson had almost become Trevor's shadow. Wherever Trevor was, then Nelson was there too, following behind him and agreeing with everything that Trevor said. Trevor considered himself one of the senior members of our team, even though he was on the same grade as me, but suddenly having Nelson as his willing follower had gone to Trevor's head.
"Best advice I was ever given was to look after yourself. You're number one in your life and you've got to look out for yourself," Trevor said.
"You're right there," Nelson replied.
I tipped my head forward, pretending to read the newspaper lying over my lap, and hoped I wouldn't get pulled into Trevor's speech.
"I've always lived by that advice," Trevor said. "It’s seen me well. I've looked after myself and it has got me here. I'd still be down there in some crap minimum wage job if I hadn't put myself first."
"And it’s done you well, hasn't it?" Nelson agreed.
"Of course it has, and if anyone tells you otherwise, they're bloody lying," Trevor added. "Don't you agree, Tom: you've got to look out for number one because no other bastard will do so," Trevor added, trying to pull me into his argument.
"I've got to get back to work," I replied, hurriedly folding up my newspaper and standing up.
"Come on, you agree with me though," Trevor said to me.
"I've got to go back to my work," I said and almost pushed past them as I left the room.
"Stuck-up queer," Trevor hissed after me, obviously for me to hear.
"Yeah," Nelson agreed.
I hurried back into the building's reception area. It was raining outside, and I had rushed to get my lunch, dogging the cold rain. I stopped just inside the double doors to shake the rain off my coat and hair. Crystal, her blonde hair pulled up on top of her head in a tight bun, was holding court behind the reception desk. She was the building's receptionist and anyone entering it had to pass by her. That lunch hour, she was holding court with two temps, young women her own age and wearing the same style of bright dresses and short, dark cardigans.
"You've got to believe in yourself," Crystal said, as always her voice bouncing around the reception area. "If you believe in yourself then you can do anything. If you don't believe in yourself, you'll never do nothing. That's the best advice I've ever had."
One of the temps made agreeing notices.
"I believe in myself a hundred percent - that's why I know I'll succeed in my dream," Crystal said.
"What's your dream?" one of the temps asked in a bright Scottish accent.
"I'm going to be a singer, I practice every night, and I know I'll get there because I believe in myself," Crystal said.
"Do you sing anywhere, like professionally?" The other temp asked.
"Next month I'm going to the X-Factor Open Auditions, over in East London," Crystal proudly announced. "They know how to spot real talent there, as long as you believe in yourself that is."
I quickly slipped past her reception desk and headed towards the lifts. Crystal and the temps had started to discuss what she was going to wear for her X-Factor audition, Crystal telling them what she believed would be the right outfit for her.
"Don't you agree Tom - you've got to believe in yourself and then there's nothing you can't do!" Crystal called after me.
I made positive sounding noises as the lift door opened in front of me.
It was mid-afternoon and I had nearly finished typing up my fifth report of the day, fatigue pulling down at my mind and body, when Joe sat himself down at my desk. He is the manager of our department and is always pushing himself forward. He excelled in management speak and making himself look good. Most of the time I quietly avoided him, finding it easier that way. That afternoon he'd searched me out, and now sat at my desk so I couldn't avoid him.
"Tom, I want a quiet word with you," Joe said.
"Sure," I replied, though I felt my stomach sink. What had I done wrong to make him seek me out like this?
"You know Katy is going off on maternity leave next month?" He said.
"Yes," I replied.
"I'm going to need someone to act-up as Team Leader, and probably take over the role. She hasn't made her mind up if she is coming back, so whoever acts-up will probably get her job," Joe told me.
"What about Trevor?" I asked him.
"That walking ego? He's no team player," Joe replied. "I want you to act-up."
"Me?" I said.
"You apply for it and the role is yours, I'll make sure of it," he said.
"I don't know," I told him. "I'm not ready for that role, not at the moment."
"What?" Joe snapped back.
"I can't think about a role like that, not now. I've got too much going on in my life at the moment," I told him.
"What? For God's sake Tom, man-up. This is an opportunity for promotion. You need to seize it now. You need to seize opportunities like this with both hands," Joe replied.
"I just can't, not at this time," I protested.
"You're being handed this on a plate and you're not snatching hold of it. God, Tom, you're just not hungry enough to develop your career, are you?" Joe said.
"It's the wrong time," again I protested.
"You need to seize these opportunities when they come your way, not sit there and waffle on about what you should be doing. You need to be hungry for these opportunities or they'll just pass you by," Joe said, his face fixed in a hard expression of annoyance. "You won't get any better advice than this!"
He shot his last remark at me before sharply standing up, making his chair roll back with the sudden movement, and marching away across the office.
I stared back at my computer screen. I could feel the people around me staring at me, wondering what I had done to make Joe angry, but I didn't look up. I couldn't take his advice, even if it had been right for me, but I didn't want to have to explain why to him.
The tube train was packed and I had to stand for all of my journey home. This was normal though - I was used to these crowded trains, and most days I had to stand on my way home. I was tired but I'd found a space to myself in the centre of the carriage. I was hanging onto one of the hand rails, and could just zone out with my own thoughts.
I'd had all types of advice poured onto me that day and all of it had meant nothing to me, it had no relevance to me. The best advice I'd ever received had been from my dad, someone who actually knew me. It had been just after I'd told him I'm gay.
He'd simply said, "Be yourself, be true to who you are, that's what important." It had been a breath of fresh air at the time. My mother had been pouring out onto me all her homophobia and her Catholic beliefs that I was going to hell. My father's simple acceptance had been my lifeline.
Out of all the advice people have pushed onto me, often without my asking for a word of it, those were the only words that had meant anything to me. They had come from someone who actually knew me.
I bent forward and glanced out of the tube train's window, as we rushed into the next station. Only two more stations and it would be my stop.
Dad was sitting on the sofa when I arrived home. He was slouched back on it, his face drawn in a tired expression and heavy dark bags under his eyes, as he watched the television, though he barely seemed to be paying it any attention. He'd been sitting in the same place on the sofa when I'd left for work that morning.
"Hi Dad," I said, as I dropped my coat and bag on a chair.
"Hello son," Dad replied, lifting his head off the cushion it was resting on.
"How are you feeling?" I asked him.
"Just a bit tired, Tom, you know how it is."
"Yes," I replied, and I did. "What do you want for dinner?"
"Isn't there some fish and chips in the freezer?" Dad asked.
"I think I'll cook something a bit more healthy," I replied.
"There's a cheesecake in the fridge too," Dad said.
"A cheesecake? Where did that come from?"
"Your friend Callum dropped it around this afternoon. He said he was on a day off and he stayed a bit. He's a great lad, that Callum, I don't know why you don't see him anymore," Dad said.
"It's complicated," I replied before I left the room for the kitchen.
Callum was my ex, but still wanted to be my boyfriend. When I thought about it, I still wanted Callum and me to be together too, but it just wasn't possible at this time, so I tried not to think about it. My mind did wonder back to it too often though.
In the kitchen, I started to rifle through the fridge, searching through the food there and mentally working out a recipe for tonight's dinner. Dad had cancer, and after his last cause of chemotherapy, three months ago, he’d been told that his cancer had finally become terminal. He'd been living with that cancer for a little over three years, but now he'd lost that last fight. He'd moved in with me six months ago when he became too ill to live on his own anymore. Since then he'd become the focus of my life. He was becoming increasingly frail with each day, and no longer could I think of anything else but looking after him.
As I pulled out of the fridge the ingredients for that night's dinner, a thought jumped into my mind: if I'd followed any - or even all - of the advice offered to me today, then I wouldn't be able to look after Dad. I couldn't think of anything more stupid.