Authors: Michael Cannon
The Bourbon Creams are long finished and the plate stays unreplenished. I stand up while she’s still in full flood and use Millie as the excuse to leave, which is feeble, because
she’s asleep. The mother looks momentarily hurt. It hasn’t occurred to her that other people aren’t riveted by the sad story of her life falling short of her aspirations. Welcome
to the club. I came here to talk to Ruth, not to be at the receiving end of some middle-class lament. Dennis seizes the chance to return to his vegetables. Ruth gets her coat, promising to get us
to the right bus. Without a potential audience Ruth’s mum loses interest in me and my delightful child quicker than Nick did.
‘Your dad’s nice,’ I repeat, once we’re out of earshot of the front door. She pulls one of those rueful smiles which causes one of those tiny, mid-stride desolations in
me. We both know what I mean, and suddenly I like her mother even less, because it occurs to me that that fucked-up overbearing old snob might have established some kind of prototype in
Ruth’s mind. Why else put up with Moira? I’m thinking as I’m walking, and looking at Millie’s beautiful hands, everything in miniature, dimpled knuckles. Sometimes I just
hold them up for the wonder of them. As usual Ruth’s keeping quiet and I look up to see, not the bus stop but the vista of her future: an ageing virgin in Cathcart looking after two
increasingly doddery parents. A dad who will thank her with his eyes and a mum whose resentment will keep pace with her dependence. She isn’t obviously pretty. What’s good and
attractive in her needs to be drawn out. She needs to circulate or she’ll wither behind the twitching curtains. It’s curious that I can see the panorama of other people’s lives
and yet, since Millie arrived, the view of my own future stops short at the next pair of shoes Millie will need.
‘You know that Lolly’s somehow managed to get a flat downstairs from me?’
‘Well she thinks she can afford it but she can’t.’ We pause at the bus stop. She stays silent. At this rate the bus might come before she picks up the hint. ‘I’m
gambling on the fact that you work shifts.’ Still no recognition. ‘For God’s sake, Ruth, I’m suggesting that you and Lolly might try sharing. Lolly plus no one equals
eviction in three months. Lolly plus you together all day equals one of you being dead by the end of the week, and my money would be on Lolly surviving. Lolly and you keeping separate hours, and
agreeing whose turn it is to do the dishes and buy toilet paper, just might work.’
‘I don’t know...’
‘It would be a trial period. You might not like it. She might not agree.’
‘I don’t know...’
The bus rounds the corner catching the low autumn sun in a string of flashing panes. I can feel Millie about to wake. This is it, I thought, a casual mid-morning exchange at a suburban bus stop,
this is one of the pivotal moments in Ruth’s life, and if it isn’t settled by the time the bus arrives then the moment will have gone and she’ll go back and fossilise.
‘What else is there for you? That?’ I point to the terrace. ‘You’ll die in instalments.’ It’s brutal. The bus is imminent.
‘Yes,’ she breathes, and then covers her mouth as if catching herself speaking treason.
‘She might say no,’ I caution, picking up Millie and collapsing the pram in one motion.
* * *
‘No!’ It’s a bark that comes back before I’m finished the sentence.
‘You can’t do this on your own.’
‘I had help from the Social, and a lot of nicked stuff, and you.’
‘I’ll get help from the Social.’
‘You need a kid, or one on the way, to qualify for the kind of help I got. You’re not their priority. I’ll help as much as I can, but I can’t spend the time on you that
you did on me. I’ve got Millie. Look, I’m trying to put this as nicely as possible, but you’re not a whole person.’
‘Pardon me all over the place. What the fuck are you talking about?’
‘What I mean is that you’re not a whole person
. You’re the fun side magnified, and you can only be that way because other people do for you the things you
don’t want to do for yourself, things everyone eventually does for themselves. You think you’re independent, but you’re not. You eat at your parents. You eat here. You’ve
never cooked anything in your life except pot noodles, and you don’t know what anything costs. I’m not saying you’re not generous – you’re
You’re generous the way only a person who doesn’t look after themselves can afford to be. When you think I’m short of stuff you go out and buy things, and it’s a load of
tat. Three dozen Jaffa Cakes isn’t a balanced diet.’
I can see tears well. They’re only partly genuine. She wants me to join in. This is all too close to home for comfort. I resist for her sake. I produce a pad and a pen and force her to sit
and make up a list of her potential expenses. She always slumps at the prospect of writing, and her bottom lip shunts out like a cash register. It’s the same pose as the nine-year-old
I’d to pass the arithmetic answers to. Watching her write is torture. I could
faster. She finishes, slams the pen down and leans forward, head on crossed forearms resting on
the table. She can dance, drink and fornicate till the cleaning staff arrive, but any kind of mental exercise exhausts her. I slide the paper out from under her.
‘What kind of employment do you imagine you’ll have to get to fund this?’
‘Dunno. Vet? I like animals?’
‘You have to go to university to be a vet. And you have to pass exams to go to university. And you have to write fluently to pass exams.’
‘Well, something else then.’ To be fair to her she’s not work shy.
‘I’d say that’s advisable. Lower your horizons a bit. And this list,’ holding it up, ‘leaves a few things out.’
‘Such as furniture –’
‘Your dad’s pals can nick it for me.’
‘Such as furniture, that can’t all be nicked or why would I be lumbered with this rubbish? Such as food, and rent, and gas, and the electric. Do you want me to go on? We’ll
just insert a few figures there then shall we?’ She studies the totalled accounts over my shoulder. ‘Your business plan’s right down the toilet, and I haven’t even included
anything for social activities. If you get a half-decent job that’s wildly beyond your capabilities you might
make ends meet if you stay in every night.’
‘As long as she understands and we follow my rules.’
‘And what rules are they? Pay up, wash the dishes and leave the living room free in case you want a shag on the hearthrug?’
‘She’s been put upon her whole life. I didn’t suggest this just so she can become your unpaid domestic. She’s not going to replace the other people who do all the things
you don’t want to, to let you stay the way you are. You’ll have to change, both of you. Be nice.’
‘I mean it.’
And I did mean it. It was a kinder calculation than either of them knew. Ruth alone would contract round a routine of rust that would last till she was eaten by her cats. Lolly alone would live
the life of a porn movie in fast forward till she combusted. I thought they might complement one another. I also had hopes for Ruth. Not all the men Lolly comes in contact with are the usual
fodder. I’d an image in my mind of some quiet sidekick of Lolly’s latest, drinking a solitary lager in the living room, while Lolly and his mate pummel the bedsprings next door. This
lonely guy would be a satellite, like Ruth, and they’d meet and exchange shy ‘hello’s to a backdrop of Lolly’s shrieking instructions, and Ruth would meticulously plate the
chocolate digestives, to avoid eye contact, and they’d stammer out cringing small talk, and he’d strain every last sinew of his confidence to ask for her phone number, and they’d
lay the groundwork for something meaningful and permanent, while Lolly comes like a factory steam whistle through the plywood partition. It’s probably telling that most of my long term plans
and kindest aspirations are for other people.
The first week they had about four spats which consisted of Lolly storming upstairs, bursting in, waking Millie and saying things like ‘You’ll never guess what she’s gone and
!’ And I never did guess, because it was usually something as trivial as Ruth storing the brillo pad under the sink, which wasn’t really the reason but the
excuse, because something else, probably nothing to do with Ruth or the flat, had annoyed her, and all it took was one tiny, unpredictable trigger.
‘You’re a human being, Lolly, not a bear with furniture. She’s the most accommodating person you’re ever going to get. You’ll have to learn to get on.’
At which point her allegiances would instantly reverse, and she’d storm downstairs to a dismayed Ruth, and I could practically hear, welling up through the gaps in the linoleum
‘You’ll never guess what she’s gone and fucking told me to do
The interruptions tailed off, and the two of them settled into a kind of quiet mistrust, that neither would admit grew into friendship. Lolly can’t be alone for any length of time. Her
reliance on me borders on unhealthy. I’ve always known. I’ve never minded and I’ve always coped for the two of us but now with Millie as a priority I needed some help. I was glad
of Ruth, as much to divert a bit of the attention. And there was another good consequence for me. I took advantage of the offers to babysit. I needed to work, and not just for the money. I needed
something else beyond the round of toddler group, groceries, flat. Ruth worked mostly back shift. Lolly’s attempts to find work hadn’t yet paid off, probably because of her total lack
of any qualifications. I organized a rota that allowed me to work part time.
I applied for a job offering loans over the phone. It was the kind of company that boasted how they got clients from all walks of life. Criminal records of potential customers didn’t put
off them. Neither did the fact that the hapless bastards had been turned down by everyone else. The voice-over, on their telly advert, speeded up at the last part, like the
commentator on the final furlong. It was the verbal equivalent of small print, the part that reveals the eye-watering interest rate, and the fact that your house
be taken away from
you when you default. And the sad bastards always do. The guy who interviewed me looked about fifteen. From the job description it seemed to me that all it involved was assessing the gullibility of
the poor morons who called, and distributing the leads to the sales people. The interview room was shabby, and that’s the part they
‘Can I see the workplace?’
He looked shocked, mumbled something, disappeared, came back and waved me to follow. It turned out the interview room is the garden spot of the place. The area was open plan. There was only one
office, and that had glass walls so that the whip-cracker inside, a balding flat bloke with a crumpled shirt, could look out. Most of the people at the desks were on their feet. ‘House
rule,’ says the teenager, ‘you take the call standing so he,’ nodding towards the fishbow, ‘can see who’s working.’
I’m not claiming to be a saint but I’d some misgivings, even before I arrived, about selling expensive money to the people who can’t afford it. The appearance of this place
didn’t dispel my doubts. The woman on her feet nearest me had a kind of pleading look on her face, there’s no other way to put it, and you just
that if she didn’t
con some even sadder bastard and make her target she’s out, just like you knew that the guy behind the glass would grope you in the stationery cupboard.
The next interview was a music shop in town. My idea of a music shop is a place pumping volcanic noise into the street with most of the customers my age or younger. I dressed accordingly, that
is to say in the only kind of clothes I own. The place had thick carpets not flattened with chewing gum. I felt my clothes looked gaudy and cheap, probably because they were. There were two girls
on the other side of the counter who looked as if they’d come straight from the gymkhana. They had that kind of money smell you just can’t buy. But they smiled at me, the quiet lift I
needed as I followed the guy leading me into the back office. They were using this as an interview room. There was a woman in her fifties, and a late twenties early thirties man sitting the other
side of a small low table. The middle-aged man who’d shown me through waved me to a vacant chair with a posh ‘please’ before joining the others at the other side of the table.
‘Reminds me of the children’s panel.’ This was met with a blank silence. The younger guy kept staring at my clothes. The older guy gathered himself.
‘What do you know about music?’
‘Nothing. At least nothing about what
call music. How much do you need to know? This isn’t a mega store. I thought the punters browsing in here would have a good
idea of what they’re looking for. I didn’t think anyone impulse shopped for a sonata.’ It happens to me sometimes. I’m seized by nerves and can’t stop, no safety net
between brain and gob. ‘No offence, but why do you need to know? You don’t need to know about Mars Bars or lentils or whatever to sell
‘But... there’s a qualitative difference...’ This from the older guy.
‘Maybe so. I don’t know anything about that and I imagine Zoë and Philippa don’t either.’ This is probably the nearest I’ll approach an out of body
‘The two girls out there – whatever they’re called. They’re not exactly hard on the eye. You’re not telling me
got the job because they know loads
about classical music.’
They all look toward the older guy and so do I, and pick up the family resemblance. I now have nothing to lose. He clears his throat. ‘We’re not saying it’s essential but it
wouldn’t be a handicap.’ He has a fruity BBC Royal Correspondent delivery.
‘I can’t sew to save myself but I sold more stuff in my last place than anyone else.’