The Love of the Loveless (Chapter 7) (1)
I liked to get to work early in the mornings. Usually around eight - way before anyone else arrived. Then I could make myself a coffee and sit on my own for a while. Relax. Psyche myself up for the day ahead. It was an odd thing maybe, but I didn't like it if someone else got there ahead of me - and I didn't like walking into a crowded room. I wanted to be there first, like I was part of the fittings, so that I could see the others as they arrived, then blend into the background. Just one of my things.
Mid-October and it was still warm, so I went out onto the decked area, overlooking the trees at the edge of the parkland. Beyond them, a hill rose to a distant farmhouse. An early mist still drifted in the hollows, like fire-smoke. It could have been early summer, almost. Just that tiny occasional bite in the air, though. It wouldn't be long. The year was winding down quickly now.
Almost a year since I'd been in the job, too. A record for me in some ways. Twenty-nine jobs in forty-three years. About eighteen months each, on average. Six years was the longest. Two weeks the shortest. I remembered, at my interview, Phil looking through my application form in amazement.
"You've had as many jobs as years I've been alive."
I'd thought it would count against me. He'd been there since he left school. I couldn't imagine that. One job for that long. My longest was in the DSS office. That was when I was married, and had a mortgage, and as 'normal' a life as I'd ever experienced before. My office manager there had retired at sixty after forty-four years service - all spent in the same place. Julian Durdey. He was like something out of Dickens - all hunched up and obsequious, with huge round glasses and the world-view of a earthworm. He must have had an enormous pension by then. Mortgage paid off. Years ahead to do what he liked. Take up souvenir pencil collecting, probably. Travel around the country in a camper-van, collecting souvenir pencils. My philosophy had always been that life was too short for a pension scheme. I didn't have one, anyway. I just expected to be alright, when the time came. I was used to living on not very much, so it wouldn't be a great change. That's if I got there, of course. Live for today, as dad used to say. You might be dead tomorrow. He'd taken it a bit too literally, though. Stored up nothing at all. All he had, at the end, was the clothes he wore, a few paperbacks, a tin of biscuits, a baccy pouch, an ashtray and a lighter. The bits mum still had in a cardboard box in her loft. The essentials really, when I thought about it. What was wrong with that? Sometimes, I wondered if Karen's assessment was right. Too much like your dad. I doubted I'd have much to leave, whenever the time came. But I hoped it wasn't anytime soon. I was already beating the average age for autistics: fifty-four. Main cause of early death? Suicide. I understood why that would be. But I didn't want to turn my head that way again. And I wasn't going to wish it away either, like dad had. I think I had enough of mum in me. Enough to see where it all might take me yet.
"I just liked to try different things," I'd replied to Phil that day. "It took me a long time to find the right thing."
The truth was, I'd taken whatever I could, when I could. I was just glad to escape from school. I'd done farm work, shop work, office work, road work, piece work. I'd delivered parcels, washing machines, beer, sanitary bins, leaflets, flat-packs, newspapers. I'd even helped deliver a baby, once - though not in a post-bag. I'd sat on checkouts, dug trenches, changed tyres, driven tractors, kept books, pumped petrol, answered phones, mopped corridors, picked apples, stacked shelves, shovelled shit, mown grass, painted walls. It had made for an interesting CV, I suppose. A long one, anyway. It added up to something, I was sure. Some sort of a plan. Not one like Karen or Michael had. But one that had led me here. And this felt right, at long last - just a few years short of retirement. But then, so much had come to me late in life. Why not this, too? I wasn't rich like Karen, and never would be. But I was keeping my head up. And I was still alive.
I'd been staring into that mist layer, perhaps half a mile off. Suddenly, I was aware of movement in it. Something clearing through. And then it appeared. A horse - raising and dipping its head, as if agreeing with a thought it was having. As I watched, it turned until I could see it full profile, in relief against the smoky backdrop, like a wood-cut. It raised its head again, towards where the sun was, and stood there - its tail whisking in the vaporous air, the sunlight catching on its hazelnut flanks and liquorice mane. Perfect. Like it had come there, just for me to see, and me alone. I watched, scared to breathe or move a muscle. It stayed that way for several seconds, almost as if frozen. It turned it's head again briefly, directly towards me, and dipped it once more. Then, as if on a signal, it faced about and was gone. Back into the mist, like it had never been there at all. Like I'd dreamed it. And maybe it was like a dream, in that way. Telling me something. Leaving me a message to figure out. I wasn't superstitious, but I put a lot of store by 'signs'. I'd learned to notice them when they came. And this one felt good. Hopeful, maybe. It set me up.
I finished my coffee and checked my watch. Half-eight. I got up and went back into the Centre to wash my mug. As I was wiping it, the door clattered open and Beth came in. One of the casuals.
"Hi, Will. Okay?"
"Thanks. And you?"
I liked Beth. She was nice to work with. I could talk to her or not, she didn't mind. She was Trinidadian, about forty, had an easy laugh with a smoker's rasp in it. She was open about it, too.
"I smoke too much, I drink too much, I eat too much, I weigh too much, and if anyone don't like that... tough shit!"
She was settling comfortably into middle-age and letting it take its course. Threads of grey in her beaded dreads. A good way to be, I thought. There was something about her I'd picked up on, though. Insecurity, maybe. I had a good radar for that, even if I was bad at reading people otherwise. Something had happened somewhere down the line. We all had our histories, of course. I often wondered what people picked up from me. Did they see through the 'mask'? Did they know something wasn't quite there in the picture? I'd only mentioned my autism to Phil, Nova and Bob (because of his sister). I was wary about saying too much. Even in a place like that, people could still be funny. Plus... I'd not wanted to play on it too much. Not make it a focus. I didn't feel special, and didn't want to be treated like I was.
"Just switched the kettle on again," I said, as Beth took a seat and checked her phone.
"I'm good, thanks."
The others arrived in dribs and drabs. Chantelle. Phil. Bossy Lynn with her bleach-blonde crop and her Don't Mess With Me sweat-shirt. She didn't really need to advertise it.
"Alright?" she said, in her pinched, nasal way.
They each made drinks and sat together, chit-chatting between checking their phones. Nova arrived, clutching a coffee from Costa - a croissant in her mouth as she pushed the door open.
I was soon out of the centre-of-gravity, just listening in as usual. Talk of the weekend: amounts drunk, things bought, stuff watched, games played. The common currency exchange of lives. I doubt they'd have been too interested in mine. Sat on my computer. Went for a couple of runs. Watched some films on Netflix. Renewed my books at the library. Played with the cat. Washed the sheets, pillow cases, duvet cover. Did my vacuuming.
Bob arrived and put his hand on my shoulder as he passed. I didn't flinch, though I wanted to.
"Willhelm! All good?"
"Not bad," I said.
"Another new week in the crazy house?"
"Sanest place I know, mate."
By ten to nine, the Centre was buzzing. Twelve of us today. Nova put the sheet on the table with our daily allocations of clients and activities. Everyone crowded in to look. There were the usual whoops of delight or groans. Beth turned to me.
"We've got bowling this morning with Ian and Sam."
Ah. Nice one. I loved working with both of them. And I had Ralph on a one-to-one in the afternoon, too. A great start to the week.
At nine, the minibuses started arriving, and in they trooped. The escorts brought in those in wheelchairs. Heather arrived with her parents. Amanda went and stood by the office door, rocking from foot to foot, to wait for her Tablet. Ralph sat straight down and took out his cards. Ian made a beeline for me, grinning through his beard.
"Bolling," he said.
"That's right, mate. With me."
He nodded his head with a big Ahhh and sat down.
Then came Shirley, swinging her bag.
"G-Good morning, Will."
"Hello, Shirley. How are you today?"
"I-I'm very well, thank you."
"Good. Go and make yourself a cup of tea, if you like."
She headed for the kitchen, then turned back to me as something occurred to her. "And shall... shall the truth set us free, Will?"
I guessed it was something from church again.
"I think it probably will, Shirley, yes," I said. "Honesty is usually the best policy."
She put her hand to her mouth to cover her chuckle, then carried on.
Sam usually arrived a bit later, so I took the opportunity to nip to the yard and book out the people-carrier for the journey. He was there when I got back, his dad just settling him into his wheelchair from the car. He was our youngest at twenty-one - a strip of a lad with a faceful of freckles and a big smile. He had cerebral palsy and one of his legs was badly twisted. He could walk, but not far - though we were encouraging him as much as we could. He only knew two words: dad and please. But he had the best laugh in the whole wide world. All you had to do was act the arse - pretend to trip over, or drop something, or sit on the piano keyboard for a thunderous chord, and he was off.
He grinned as he saw me and I lifted my hand up. He lifted his own, held it a moment to build the tension, then slapped it palm to palm. And he erupted in laughter.
"He's all good," said his dad.
I smiled. "I know he is! We're going bowling this morning, Sam."
He squawked with delight as I wheeled him in.
(to be continued)