The Love of the Loveless (Chapter 2) (1)
We got back to the Centre at just after one - a bit late for the afternoon handover, but it wasn't crucial. There were no more outings planned for the day. I had my annual review at two anyway, so they hadn't allocated me a client for the afternoon.
I had a cup of tea and did my morning paperwork, then went to sit in the day room. Bob was there with his afternoon client, Amanda. Amanda was one of the more self-absorbed people who came to the Centre. She spent most of the day on her bean-bag by the window, playing different music videos on her Tablet and rocking along when the mood took her. It was wonderful to see her smile and hear her giggle as she did so. Like a small child. She was 27, and she could light up the darkest room. She could light up the world.
It often made me think about when people said to me that I was at least 'lucky' to have high-functioning autism, and not have learning disabilities. Not need constant care and attention. Be able to do what I chose: hold down a job, drive a car, manage a budget, keep a home, have sex, get drunk. Maybe. But then I'd look at people like Amanda - full of joy and laughter - and wonder when it was that I last felt like that. Yes, she had all these problems. But did she understand that she had them? Did she look at us and think 'Why can't I be like you and go to work and pay rent and worry about the electric bill?' Did she have that level of awareness?
"Have a good morning?" Bob asked, breaking my reverie.
"Not bad. We went down the beach for a drive and lunch. No problems."
"Sound." He scratched his spiky black beard, which seemed to be of a piece with his black beanie, parenthesising his face. I had a thing where I enjoyed likening people I knew to famous counterparts. Bob was Kevin Smith, all the way. Same quirky attitude to life, too. The fucks I give, he liked to say. Not that many, mate.
He was one of the few staff members who'd been to university. Philosophy and Politics. Rather than imbue him with strong opinions one way or the other, it seemed to have left him with a healthy degree of disdain for all of it. It was one of the things I liked about him. He thought for himself. And he didn't care who he upset or offended. Everyone was game. Everyone was full of shit, in the end.
"Anthony had a ruck this morning," he said. "Pushed Lynn over in the garden. Straight into the paddle-pool." A smile spread across his face. "Fuckin' drenched her. Wish I'd seen it."
Neither of us liked Lynn. Blunt and bossy. A brown-nose, too. I suppose she had to have something to make her feel special.
"Was she alright?"
"Couldn't give one, mate."
"What about Anthony?"
He was one of our more challenging clients. He smashed things sometimes. He'd taken doors off their hinges. He took a swing at the Regional Manager once and busted his glasses. You couldn't help but like the lad.
"Fine. She probably wound him up, anyway. You know what that cunt's like."
Amanda found a tune and sat on the floor, rocking to her heart's content. It was Bill Haley, too. Rock Around The Clock. That made me smile. She could do that, alright.
At five past two, Nova the manager called me into the office. Phil the deputy was in there too.
"Do you mind if Phil sits in?"
They'd both been on my interview and were easy enough to get along with. I felt sorry for them in some ways. They'd been thrust into their roles when the last manager had a breakdown and left. They'd been there a time and knew their stuff. But they'd been left with a mess to sort and no real managerial experience between them. They were making the best of it. They kept the ship floating. Just about.
Nova shuffled through some papers in what I guessed was my file. She was only about twenty-five, and looked like an overwhelmed child in the big chair behind the cluttered desk. I thought of Kate Bush prancing through meadows in the Wuthering Heights video. A kidult - half-way between each state. A single trip and she could easily collapse in a heap of hair and tears. She was engaged to a guy called Chris Caine. I wondered if she'd ever considered that when they married, she'd become an anaesthetic used in dentistry.
She stared at a sheet of paper, as if looking for a prompt. Then she looked up.
"This won't take too long. You haven't been here that long, so it was really about a catch up? And to give you the chance to bring up anything you want to discuss?"
She had that thing of making everything sound like a question. The lasting legacy of years of Australian soaps and US west coast movies.
"Okay, thanks," I said.
She smiled and said nothing. It was like she'd forgotten her lines. She glanced at Phil - desperately, it seemed. He lounged back in his chair, making it creak. He was a big lad with a huge black bushy beard. A big teddy bear, too. Alan from The Hangover. He had a few years on Nova, and some thought of him as the senior of the two. He was the more confident and self-assured, and the more laid back. She did the work, though. He was the people-person. It made them a decent enough team.
We both thought Phil was going to chime in. But he was just stretching - his beer belly rising up inside his t-shirt like an animal. Nova turned back to me.
"Okay," she said. "Well... everything seems to be going along alright? You seem to have settled in well? You get along fine with all of the clients? You show initiative with activities? Your online training's all up to date, too. Nice to see someone cracking on and getting it done."
"I don't like to have stuff hanging around," I said. "I prefer to just get it out of the way."
"You're the only one with one hundred percent so far. I'm having to nag a lot of people."
Phil coughed and pulled his tee up over his face. His belly was like an unshaved space hopper with a bullet hole. She kicked at him under the desk.
"I'll get them done," he said. "I have a busy life outside of work. I've got things to do."
"We've all got things to do."
He pulled his tee down again and feigned hanging himself.
"You should be setting an example," she said.
"Yes, mum," he grinned.
Nova picked up my file and straightened the papers against the desk top. It seemed to be Phil's cue.
"Like Nova said. No complaints from us, Will. You seem to know what you're doing. You don't turn down stuff like some people. You're always game for a challenge. All in all, you're a valued member of staff."
As always, I wasn't comfortable with compliments. One of my things.
"Thanks. That's nice to know. I try to do my best."
"Indeed you do. And you do. You do."
Silence. They looked at one another. Then Nova turned to me again.
"Any issues you've had we should know about? Do you need us to make any adjustments?"
I knew what she meant. I'd announced at the interview that I'd been diagnosed with Asperger's. No sense hiding things. I like to be straight with people.
You'd have thought I'd told them I liked wearing frilly knickers.
"I'd never have guessed," Nova had said at the time.
I'd often wondered what the clue might have been. The lack of eye contact, maybe. I always did my best with that. It usually didn't work, though. I usually just focused on noses or foreheads.
"No, I'm fine. Everything suits me. The hours. The work."
"Great. You know you can always come in if there's anything."
Phil sat forwards and straightened himself up.
"It's useful to have someone on staff with that inside knowledge," he said. "You probably understand a lot more than the rest of us."
"I don't know," I said. "Some of the behaviours make sense to me. Things I do myself, though perhaps not on the same scale. Routines and special interests."
Phil opened a desk drawer and took out a bag of Werther's Originals. He offered us both one, then took one himself. We sat for a few seconds, listening to each other click the sweets against our teeth. Phil looked at me again.
"You're not married are you, Will."
"Not now, no. Was years ago."
"Not that it's any of my business."
"That's alright. I don't mind. I don't hide it."
"How long were you married, then?"
He sucked on his sweet thoughtfully, considering this.
"Got any kids?"
"Free man, eh?"
"Man after my own heart."
"Better not let Leigh hear you say that," Nova said to him.
He laughed. "Not with twins on the way, I suppose."
I looked at them both. I was old enough to be their dad. Her grandad, almost. Yet I was the one, oddly, who felt like the youngster. Listening to how grown-up people behaved. How they lived their lives. They were certainly more mature than I was at their age. I had some idea why now, at least.
"Those are my kids," I said at last, pointing my thumb at the door. "That lot out there." They laughed. I'm not sure they realised how much truth was in that, though. Maybe I didn't realise myself.
Silence again. Nova crunched her sweet.
"That's about it. Unless there's anything you want to bring up?"
I looked at the desk top. I had a few things I wasn't happy about. The way some staff behaved. Always messing with their phones. The way paperwork wasn't always being done properly, cleaning wasn't being done properly. Some people were lazy and seemed to get away with it. On the other hand, I was wary. I'd found this out in other jobs. I was never really good at sussing who was in with who, and how word might get around. I'd been in the position too many times when I'd have a moan about something to the wrong person, and before I knew it people were making comments, or ignoring me. I never understood the workings of cliques and gossip-mills. They had never interested me. But I knew that was how society functioned - especially in the work-place. Loyalties and favourites. I knew that Nova was, as her name implied, a bit of a 'star' in the place's firmament. It's sun, maybe. Many of the other staff were friends with her outside of work. Some of them had been to school with her. They drank in the same pubs, danced in the same clubs, ate off the same tables. Sometimes, they slept in the same beds. I didn't want to upset anyone and make it uncomfortable for myself. Even though outsiders shouldn't really give a damn. But I just wanted a quiet life at work - do my job, pass the time of day, get along... then go home and shut my door.
"I don't think so, thanks. I'm generally happy."
Which was more or less true.
"Okay. Good. Thanks a lot."