Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Chapter 18

Chapter 18

The way back home was mostly downhill and he pedalled flat out, the wind streaming through his hair. He paused at the foot of the road leading up to the house to see if there was any sign of visitors. When he was certain the coast was clear he remounted and cycled up to the house. Once inside he discovered that the postman had been while he was out. The sight of the little pile of letters on the floor inside the back door made his heart beat even faster.

He circled the pile warily before he picked it up. He scanned each letter with a practised, circumspect eye like a security guard checking for letter bombs. The bills and the threatening letters which were easy to identify from their postmarks (one from the Inland Revenue, one from his lawyers, yet another from the bank, one from the credit card company) he hid unopened behind the breadbin. The free offers and the junk mail he perused only peremptorily before binning them. At the end of the sorting process only one letter remained. A plain white envelope with a typewritten address whose ordinariness made it stand out from the rest.
Gingerly he placed it on top of the television and sat down opposite on the settee where he ate some of the sandwiches he had made that morning and drank a lukewarm coffee from the thermos while he debated with himself whether or not to open it. There was always the chance, he reasoned, that it might actually be good news, although it was months, maybe even years, since he had had any of that through the post. Odd things did happen of course. Maybe a distant relative had died and left him millions. Fat chance. As far as he knew he had no relatives of any kind, living or dead, near or distant, rich or poor. There were other possibilities of course. Perhaps one of his three premium bonds had come up and he had won first prize. He didn’t know what the odds of winning were but so far the results had not been encouraging. In thirty years as a patient investor he had won nothing. The same went for the lottery. The football pools were an even longer shot – particularly since he had stopped doing them years ago, not long after he got married. On the other hand the innocuous looking letter might well be a trick, a metaphorical letter bomb from any one of his numerous creditors and pursuers. That was the real danger. At least it was unlikely to be a summons. He wasn’t certain, but he had a hazy idea that such a legal missive had to be handed to him in person. He was pretty sure the same thing applied to a warrant. He hesitated for many minutes. In the end he came to the obvious, if uncomfortable, conclusion that there was only one way to find out. He rose from the settee, strode across the carpet and picked up the envelope with a reckless, shaky hand. When he tore it open it didn't explode but the effect was just as earth-shattering.

As he read the contents he couldn't believe his eyes. He felt giddy. The print swam in front of his eyes. It was a job offer. A. Job. Offer. A JOB OFFER. A BLOODY MIRACLE. He read and re-read the letter. It was from the local area enterprise agency. An interview he had apparently attended six months before, of which he had no recollection whatsoever, had been successful and due to a re-organisation in the way the government-funded organisation was tackling economic development they were pleased to offer him the post of DEVELOPMENT OFFICER with special responsibility for High-Growth Start-Ups in which position, they felt sure, his EXPERIENCE of running his OWN small business would prove invaluable. They apologised for the DELAY in making the offer but this had been caused by a NATIONAL STRATEGY REVIEW and they hoped he was still in a position to ACCEPT the post. Would he, in fact, be in a position to START RIGHT AWAY? Would he? WOULD HE!

He couldn't believe it. It was truly a miracle. Someone up there had finally taken pity on him. He read the letter for the sixth time. A three year contract (equivalent to a lifetime). A salary that made his eyes water. Six weeks holiday a year. A generous (their words – but true) mileage allowance. Pension provision. Reasonable expenses. A thirty-seven hour week. Please phone back at your earliest opportunity and confirm on receipt of letter. Yours sincerely etc.
His brain whirled, a kaleidoscope of random, glorious thoughts. With one bound he was free. The queen's pardon. Life after redundancy. Work his balls off for them in gratitude. Tell the bank manager to call off his hounds. Pay off that garage bill. Keep a roof over their heads. Send Martin to university. Save his marriage. Resume his sex life. Presents for all. A new shirt and tie. Shoes that don't let in rain. Buy chocolate and cream cakes. Eat meat. A weight lifted from his shoulders. Sleep no longer murdered. Look the world in the eye. Say a prayer of thanks. Joy unbounded. Hark the herald angels sing. Self respect. Bursting. Literally bursting. Bursting with fucking happiness.

He read the letter once again and this time the tears welled up in his eyes. Had anyone ever received such wonderful news? He looked slowly around the room. For the last six months it had been his prison, now it was about to become paradise once more. He felt an absurd twinge of regret. He was about to lose that peculiar form of freedom that comes with being unemployed. The freedom to do what you want, to get up when you want, to do nothing if you felt like it, to sit at the window and count every second of every day. The freedom to go mad with boredom, the freedom to feel totally useless. He bit his lip. No, the letter had arrived just in the nick of time. Another week and he would either be dead or completely round the bend.
He was half way through dialling the number on the letter heading when he realised there was a fly in the ointment. He hesitated then put down the receiver. Mrs Roberts. His hostage. The latest millstone round his neck. Could he set her free without risking getting caught? He couldn’t see how. She had seen his face after all. They would be on to him in no time. The only alternative he could think of was to keep her as a long-term captive. He closed his eyes and shook his head. That was downright silly. How could he possibly look after her and hold down a full time job? There was no way he could do both. Apart from anything else he was determined to give one hundred per cent to the new job to make it a success. There was no way on earth he was going to allow himself to fail at that. It was too important. His last chance. A lifeline.

He didn't hesitate for long. He picked up the phone again and dialled the number on the letterhead. It took him ages to get through to the right person, he must have been transferred to at least four different departments, and even when he spoke to the person named in the letter she didn't seem to know what he was talking about. For a moment he thought it was all a mistake, a final cruel joke by Him up there, perhaps even the start of the retribution which would be exacted on him for all the dreadful sins he had committed recently. And then he discovered, to his enormous relief, that it just seemed to be the way the organisation always operated. "No one tells me nothing round here," sniffed the woman on the other end of the line. "What? Tomorrow? Yeah, all right, if that's what you want. I’ll have to get your ID card ordered and get someone from IT to come in and hook your workstation up to the network. Who signed the letter? I might have known. She’s gone home already, you won’t catch her working late. Okay. Don’t worry. Leave it to me I’ll organise it for you. You just come to reception tomorrow at, say, ten and we’ll have everything ready for you. Don’t worry, you can rely on us. We always end up organising everything round here, the so-called executives in charge haven’t got a clue. Okey dokey then, see you at ten. Byee."

So he had got the job. He was employed once more. No longer a second class citizen. No longer inferior, a lost soul without hope. All the old certainties that went with being a valued member of society would soon return. The freedom from fear, no more hourly dramas, a good night’s sleep, the post and the telephone friends once more. All the things that made life worth living. Even the littleness of life, the humdrum grind, would be welcome after the heightened drama of the past six months. It would be easy to be ordinary once again. He punched the air with delight. This miraculous development called for a celebration. No, wait. Don't go overboard. Buy a few cans of beer when Maureen came home, then an early night. Bright eyed and bushy tailed. Raring to go. Start the new life with a bang.

And Maureen. He couldn't wait to see the look on her face when he told her the news. She'd always had faith in him though, he had to give her credit for that. She'd always said he would come up trumps in the end. She was right too. As always. He should never have doubted her. So in the final analysis he hadn't let her down. That was the most important thing. He’d lived up to his half of the bargain that was enshrined in the marriage vows they had taken all those years ago. For better or for worse. Over the years there had been plenty of times when it had very definitely been for worse. But from now on it was going to be for better. No doubt about it. No way on earth was he going to screw up this opportunity of a lifetime.

He stood up and looked out of the window. The bird table at the foot of the garden was devoid of food. A few chaffinches sat forlornly in the lifeless branches of the old apple tree. He smiled. Their future too was now assured.