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A Job To Hide

A story by Patsy Collins

The following is an original story submitted by Patsy Collins as part of our OnlineBookClub.org's Poetry and Art Contest.

A Job To Hide

A Job To Hide

by Patsy Collins

Alan heard his mates laughing outside Woolworths from halfway down the street. He didn't wonder what the joke was as there wouldn't be one; they only seemed to be amused by the misfortune of others. That's unless it was at one of those bubble cars and then the laughter would be to cover their envy. None of the gang was ever likely to be able to buy a decent pair of the new cuban heeled boots, let alone a car. For the first time Alan wondered why he still hung around with lads who considered themselves cooler than The Beatles, but his mum called a bunch of long haired yobs.
At school it was because Shane had said, "Are you with us, or against us?" The gang leader made it clear neutrality wasn't an option. Back then it had been quite a big group and Alan stayed safely on the edges – neither being bullied, nor picking on others. It was harder to avoid attention now there were fewer of them. Some had managed to get jobs, others were in youth offending institutions.
"Losers the lot of them," was Shane's opinion. The criminals were fools for getting caught, and those with jobs stupid for being caught in the system.
Maybe he was right, but Shane, Alan, and the rest weren't exactly winners. They never would be and there seemed little point even hoping things would be different.
"Heard about that idiot Jacob?" Shane asked when Alan reached him.
Alan shook his head. Jacob had gradually spent less time with the gang and dropped out completely about a month ago. Like Alan, Jacob always kept out of trouble as much as he could. Like the whole gang, he'd once stolen a record for Shane, to prove his loyalty. Jacob was so nervous he'd grabbed one by The Temptations and was demoted to lookout after that. Surely he hadn't done anything bad enough to get arrested for?
"Only got himself a job in the Bluebird Café," one of gang sneered.
"What a mug! Menial work for a pittance, all the time sucking up to the saddos who've got nothing better to do than drink tea in that dump. Pathetic."
Although Shane made it sound like a terrible fate, Alan thought the work might be a welcome change from hanging around on cold street corners, drinking cheap beer and breathing in smoke from the others. Saying 'no problem, I'll get that right away' might be nicer than calling out insults to passing strangers, especially if he got paid for it.
He'd seen the café. It wasn't modern, loud or fashionable like the burger place. Not somewhere the gang would go if they could afford to eat out, but Alan quite liked the idea of a chat over a piece of cake. It would be a bit like talking to Mum at teatime had been, when he was still at school and before she worked night shifts.
Something of that must have shown on his face, because Shane prodded him in the chest. "What's on your mind, Mr Squeaky Clean? Want to go over and congratulate him, do you?"
"Nah. Be pointless." He couldn't imagine Shane really would say anything positive and none of them had any of their dole money left.
"I reckon we should," Shane surprised him by saying. "Come on lads. Let's have a nice cup of tea with our old friend."
Alan, feeling slightly worried, went along with them.
The gang barged in, noisily dragging chairs about so they could sit together. The customers, except for a toddler who'd started to whimper, fell silent.
Jacob, with an apron round his waist, notebook in hand and expression which showed he'd rather be somewhere else, approached. "What do you lot want?"
"I think you mean, 'What would you like, sir?' We'll have coffee all round and lots of cakes on those fancy stand things." Shane gestured at two elderly ladies who'd stopped enjoying their meal to stare in alarm at the gang. "And make it snappy."
Jacob took a deep breath. "Can you pay for it?" His voice came out in a squeak.
"We ain't going to. It'll be on the house, seeing we're mates of yours."
"I can't do that," Jacob managed to reply.
"Some mate you are! We've always stuck up for you and kept quiet about your shoplifting."
Alan, seeing the desperation on his former friend's face, wished he'd tried to stop the gang going to the Bluebird. Maybe Shane thought he was being tough or funny or something, but all he was doing was risking Jacob's job. That's not what a real mate would do.
"Let's get out of here, Shane," Alan said. "I don't want to hang around with this loser." He stood up, shoving his chair away so hard it fell over, and strode towards the door. "He's welcome to his rubbish job, old ladies and crying babies. We've got better things to do."
Alan's heart was hammering by the time he got outside. Whether he saw the reason behind them or not, Jacob might hate Alan for those insults, but he was more worried about Shane's reaction. The gang had followed Alan out. Shane was the last to leave and didn't look happy.
"Come on then, Einstein, what's your big idea?"
Alan kept walking, trying to think of something. Anything.
"We could go over the park." They'd frighten away the mums with little kids and tangle up the swings so they'd be out of action until a man from the council sorted them out, but shouldn't be able to do any real harm.
"Park's about right for a mummy's boy like you," Shane snarled, but headed in that direction anyway.
Once he was sure the gang were going to keep away from the café, Alan left them, intending to go back to the flat. Mum would be asleep, so he couldn't play music, but it wouldn't be any more boring than watching Shane spit at pigeons.
On his way home, Alan saw an old lady struggling to lift her tartan shopping trolley up the steps to her front door. She was dressed so brightly, and her difficulty so clear, she was totally unmissable. Shane would have laughed or shouted insults. Alan would have been helpless to stop him, but Shane wasn't there. Alan hopped over the gate and shifted the trolley for the woman. Then he remembered how old people often found the gang members intimidating and mumbled, "I didn't mean to startle you. It just looked like that was heavy."
"It was a different bus driver," the woman said as if that explained something. "He didn't drop me off on the corner, so I had to walk all the way from the stop up by Queen Street. I could do with a cup of tea, I can tell you."
She'd let herself in as she spoke, leaving Alan to follow with the shopping trolley.
"As you're here, be a dear and open the new jar of marmalade, would you?"
By the time Alan found it, loosened the top and put it in the cupboard, the lady had filled the kettle and set out two cups and two small plates.
"Fetch the cake tin, would you?" She gestured to the pantry.
Alan spotted a big cream tin, which he placed on the kitchen table.
"You'll have a slice."
"I'll never eat it all before it goes stale and I hate to waste good food. Put everything on a tray and bring it into the front room."
Just as with Shane, the lady didn't give him much option but to go along with her wishes. Alan didn't mind sitting on her lumpy settee; it was more comfortable than the brick walls which were his usual seat and, as she'd put a match to the fire, the room was warming up. The cake was lovely. The old lady asked him his name and told him she was Mrs Swift. She chattered away about everything from the weather being good for the garden to her amazement they were thinking of sending a man to the moon. It was sort of nice in a way. She was very positive and asked his opinion on things she'd read about in the newspaper. That reminded him of how Mum used to talk to him. Now he hardly saw her and when he did she was tired.
"Have you got a job?" the old lady asked.
Alan shook his head. He'd tried to get one after school, so Mum didn't need to do so many hours, but with the factory where most people in the town had worked closing down it was hopeless.
"You'd like one though?"
"There's not much about and everyone wants qualifications and references and that."
"There are things you could do for me; cutting the grass, cleaning windows and bringing in coal. I don't have much money, but I could give you a few shillings "
Alan had already guessed Mrs Swift wasn't rich. She didn't have a phone or a TV that he'd seen. Her place was crammed with nicknacks and ornaments. For all Alan knew they could be valuable, but most looked like holiday souvenirs. Still, even a bit more money would be good and it was something to do.
"Yeah, all right then."
"I like a routine and something to look forward to. Shall we say you'll be here at nine o'clock every Tuesday?"
Alan often wasn't up by nine, but didn't like to say so. "All right."
Hanging about in the street with the gang felt even more boring than usual after meeting Mrs Swift. They were so negative about everything and wanted everyone as unhappy as they were. It was working; their attitude dragged him down.
On the Tuesday morning, Alan got up earlier than he had for months. Mum came in just as he was making toast, so he did her some. She looked so pleased, and so tired, that once she'd eaten it he told her to go off to bed and that he'd wash up.
"You're a good lad," she said.
Alan remembered that even after thinking Jacob's job of making tea and sandwiches in the warm sounded better than hanging about with Shane, he hadn't thought of doing that for his mum. He hadn't been a good son to her, but he'd try to be from now on.
At Mrs Swift's he cut the grass and raked up some leaves, cleared a blocked gutter and replaced a lightbulb. When Alan left, with a very small number of shillings, he was was shocked to realise he'd been there for three hours. It was good to feel useful and she'd kept praising him for being so kind and doing a good job. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had been impressed with him and it had happened twice in one day.
Alan was grinning when he met up with the others.
"Where you been?" Shane demanded.
Alan had no intention of telling them. Fortunately, from his cheerful expression someone guessed he'd been with a woman.
"Can't deny it," he said. He grinned again when the gang showed him something like respect. If only they knew!
Over the next few weeks Alan made breakfast for his mum every Tuesday morning and on other days if he got up early enough. He washed up afterwards too. Both Mum and Mrs Swift continued to praise him, sometimes for qualities he didn't have. Alan found he wanted their words to be true, so spent less time with the gang and more at home, and with Mrs Swift.
"I can't pay you any more, lad, but I could give you your lunch."
Alan regularly went shopping with Mrs Swift, so he could help carry the extra ingredients. On their return she showed him how to prepare meals, encouraging him to have a try. Soon Alan was contributing his shillings so two or three times a week they could make extra large cottage pies, lamb hotpots and chicken stew and Alan could take a portion home for his mum. Sometimes he even remembered to clear up a bit before going to bed in the evenings, so the flat was nearly as tidy when she came in from work as it had been when she left.
"You don't know what a difference it makes, having you help out like this," she said.
Alan was beginning to. She was much less tired now, the difference being greater than could be accounted for by the amount of housework he did. Doing everything herself had been getting her down, just as hanging out with Shane's gang had depressed Alan. He was sure that even though Mrs Swift had been cheerful since their first meeting, she too enjoyed his company. He should be sure, as she kept saying that she'd miss him once he had a proper job. She sounded so confident that he'd get one, Alan wondered if it might be worth trying again.
Visiting Mrs Swift more often had only one downside; it increased his chances of being seen there. Eventually Shane spotted Alan carrying shopping into her house. He'd fetched the gang and waited.
"What you up to?" Shane demanded when Alan emerged.
Alan wanted to say it was none of Shane's business, but couldn't risk him deciding to torment Mrs Swift as revenge for Alan standing up to him in front of the others. He crossed the road and joined the group as though that's what he'd been on his way to do.
"Having a look round, seeing if there was anything worth nicking."
"Is there?" Shane asked.
Fortunately he could tell the truth there. "Nah, a load of rubbish."
"Just like you then."
As the gang laughed, Alan realised it wasn't true. He didn't have any qualifications because they'd convinced him it wasn't worth bothering. That, and their attitude to work rubbing off on him, meant he'd not stood a chance of getting the few jobs he'd applied for. Hanging around with them instead of doing something useful made him feel ever more miserable. At last he'd broken free of that vicious circle.
"If I'm rubbish, you won't want me hanging around." He walked away and didn't look back.
Alan walked in a big loop and, after checking the gang had moved on, returned to Mrs Swift's house. On his way back in, he watered her pot of geraniums, the job he'd gone out to do thirty minutes previously. He explained the reason for his absence and then found himself telling her everything.
"I think you're ready," she announced.
"For what?" Alan asked.
"A job."
"Yeah, I should try." He would too.
"There's a vacancy in the Bluebird café. How would you feel about working there?"
"I dunno." He'd like that, but didn't think the owner would want him.
"It's a good place to start. I was a waitress there myself once and... Well, that's a long and an old story. I think it would suit you."
"Yeah, might do."
"I'll give you a reference. I can say you're punctual, you can cook simple meals, and that you're honest and resourceful, because that's all true, isn't it?"
"Yeah ... I suppose it is."
At the café, Jacob gave him an application form. "I'll put in a good word for you," he promised.
"Thanks. If I get it, I'll work hard and not let you down, you'll see."
"Actually I won't." Jacob explained he'd got a new job in the local hotel. "It's doing the same kind of work to start, but I'll get training and the chance to work myself up. The person who I took over from here did the same and maybe you could too."
"If I get this job. All I've got is one reference."
It was a really good one though. Mrs Swift seemed to know exactly what to say. The person she described did sound like Alan, but a version of Alan who'd be a good choice to work in a café.
"It's easy enough once you know how and I've written lots of these," she said, when Alan expressed his gratitude.
Alan got Mum to cut his hair and he dressed in his smartest clothes for the interview. At first he was nervous, but he followed Mum and Mrs Swift's advice to tell the truth.
"What have you done since leaving school?"
Alan admitted that he'd not done much except get into a bit of minor trouble to start with, but lately he'd been helping an old lady.
"Mrs Swift?"
"And did she teach you to make a cottage pie as good as the one Jacob does?"
"She taught him?"
"Yes. And me, and lots of other people in between."
Not long after getting over that surprise, Alan was shaking hands with the boss and saying he looked forward to starting work on the following Monday.
Mum would still be asleep, so Alan went straight to Mrs Swift's house to share the good news. He saw her, wearing an orange hat and purple coat, struggling to lift the tartan shopping trolley up the steps to her front door. Before Alan reached her, a lad hopped over the gate and ran up the path behind her. He wasn't one of the gang members, but even so Alan was concerned he might be up to no good and sped up. Then he saw the lad shift the shopping trolley and heard Mrs Swift saying how far away the bus stop was and that she was in need of a cup of tea.
Alan turned away. He would thank Mrs Swift for helping him get the job, but he'd come back another time to do that. If he didn't interrupt her now he wouldn't need to apologise for no longer having so much free time to come and help her, as his replacement there would already be in place. He wondered how long it would be before, like dominoes, that boy took his job in the café and Alan took Jacob's job in the hotel.
Once Alan was earning, his mum cut her hours and returned to day shifts. Soon she was the happy, optimistic woman he remembered. By the time she married his step dad,Alan had moved from working in the Bluebird to the hotel, where he was able to live in, so that worked out perfectly. He did indeed receive training there, but didn't work his way up to Maitre 'd as Jacob eventually did. Instead he'd returned to the Bluebird Café, first as assistant manager, then manager, finally buying the place from his former boss. Every year, on his holiday, Alan bought Mrs Swift one of those china nicknacks she seemed so fond of.
Now Mrs Swift is long gone, though not forgotten. Alan has himself retired, but still maintains an interest in the Bluebird Café. He and his wife often have lunch there. They did that today, then walked home.
Alan's bringing in his wheelie bin, but apparently hasn't noticed a bright turquoise plastic bag jammed up in one of the wheels, and he's struggling to move it.
A girl in fashionably ripped jeans, bleached blonde hair and a nose stud, hops over the wall and pulls it free for him. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you, but I saw this was giving you trouble." She holds up the bag.
"Blown by the wind I expect," Alan says. "Proper dries you out this weather does, I need a cup of tea I can tell you."
Alan talks about the weather as he opens the side gate and walks round to the back of the house, leaving the girl to follow with the bin. He calls out to his wife that they have a visitor. She'd baked a lovely cake the day before. They don't really need help eating it, but they'll offer the girl a slice anyway.

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