The Door That Led to Where

BOOK: The Door That Led to Where
3.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

For my son, my sunshine, Dominic Corry, with all my love

Chapter One

‘You will never amount to anything, AJ Flynn. Not with one GCSE.'

Here she went again, drumming into him the heavy-metal sentence of failure. But today, a month after he'd received his disastrous GCSE results, his mum's rage seemed to have developed a purpose. This time her fury was accompanied by a culinary cacophony, as if the pots and pans were personally responsible.

‘Do you know what you are?' she continued, slamming a cupboard door and clanking the frying pan down on the stove. The question was more a flying saucepan lid than anything requiring an answer. ‘Shall I tell you?'

AJ knew of no way to stop her.

‘A bloody waste of space, that's what you are. Sixteen years and what's to show for it? One bleeding GCSE.'

AJ stood in the small kitchen of their three-bedroom flat while his mother peeled tough, pink strips of bacon into the frying pan and let them fizzle in the fat. In such close proximity, AJ's only protection was to imagine her as the monster from the depths of despair, a red reptile with a poison tongue. Here it went, lashing out again. If you let it strike you it could cause serious damage.

‘You've been nothing but trouble since the day you were born. Well, don't think that Frank is going to let you slouch round the flat doing nothing.'

From the lounge came the voice of Frank.

‘Jan,' he shouted, ‘bring us a beer.'

Frank and a marshmallow three-piece suite from Sofa World were the flat's latest acquisitions. The suite took up all the space the lounge had to offer, while Frank had taken over the flat. He was a huge, blancmange slug-of-a-man who left a slimy trail of beer cans, bacon sarnies and spittled fag ends behind him.

‘Tell him,' Frank added helpfully from the depths of the marshmallow reclining armchair. ‘Tell him he can bugger off. What about that beer, Jan?'

AJ felt a flicker of hope. This might be the moment he could devaporise and disappear into the world outside. After that it was down five flights of stairs to where freedom awaited him in the comforting wheeze of London, the siren wail of calm. Sorted.

But instead of robotically doing what Frank demanded, his mum handed AJ a letter. It was addressed to Ms J Flynn and from a law firm, Baldwin Groat. AJ's heart sank.

‘What's this?' he asked.

‘What does it look like?'

‘An official letter,' said AJ. ‘But what's it got to do with me?'

‘You can read, can't you?'

AJ read. Mr Morton Black would like to see him tomorrow for a job interview.

‘What kind of job?' asked AJ.

‘I don't care,' said Mum. ‘If it's cleaning the bogs, you'll bloody well take it.'

‘But how does he know about me?'

‘I bloody well told him, didn't I.'

AJ knew that more questions would not lead to more answers. The conversation would end with the reptile's famous saying, ‘Because I bloody well say so, that's why.'

End of questions.

A woebegone wail came from Frank. ‘Jan – my beer – where is it?'

‘Can't he get his own beer?' said AJ. ‘He needs a bit more exercise than just a workout on the remote control.'

It was an unwise thing to suggest at the best of times. The beer destined for Frank hurtled towards AJ.

From the reptile-handling manual: in the event of attack, the best course of action is to run for it.

AJ made his exit as fast as he could followed by the enraged red reptile who, leaning over the metal-railed bannister, yelled down the stairs after him.

‘You good for nothing little  … '

Elsie, from three flats below, was already out on the landing looking up.

‘Keep it down, Jan,' she called.

‘Shut up, you nosy old cow, and mind your own business.'

The door to AJ's flat slammed shut. The noise vibrated through the whole building. If a full stop had a sound, AJ reckoned that was it.

‘On one of her mad ones, then?' said Elsie. ‘Come in, love, I've another book for you to take back to the library, if you wouldn't mind. And this time, bring me something with a bit of romance in it.'

Elsie Tapper had been AJ's saviour since he was old enough to walk down the stairs on his own. She had taken him in, even kept him for weekends when Jan wanted to have a break. AJ, in return, called her Auntie, as did his mates, Leon and Slim.

He liked her flat. It was like being in a time warp. The wallpaper was from the 1950s and it had the original kitchen and parquet flooring. The hallway was lined with pictures of Elsie's daughter, Debbie, who now lived in Australia, and her son, Norris, who had disappeared years ago when he was twenty-three. What had happened to him was a mystery.

In a way, AJ had always known he filled the hole Norris had left and because of that he never asked about him. It would be, he thought, treading on a thin membrane of painful memories. AJ loved Elsie. He liked the fact that time and fashions had changed but everything around her stayed the same, ageless and safe.

‘Is that right, then, about your exam results?' asked Auntie Elsie, taking him into her lounge.

Elsie's lounge still had its 1930s tiled fireplace, which made it feel cosy, just like AJ imagined home might be.

‘Yes, I only passed English. A* though.'

‘I would've thought you'd have got a lot more. Such a clever lad.'

‘Perhaps not clever in the right way,' said AJ.

‘What are you going to do now?'

‘I've got a job interview.'

He showed Elsie the letter. She turned on her lamp and put her glasses on the end of her nose.

‘Nice writing paper,' she said. She held up the letter to the light. ‘It has a watermark – expensive – with an embossed name. Must be a posh place, these chambers. What're you going to wear, love?'

It was something that AJ hadn't thought about.

‘What I have on,' he said.

‘No, love, you can't go like that for a job interview. Not to a place with an embossed name and watermarked paper. You wouldn't stand a chance.' She disappeared into her bedroom. ‘Come here, I need some help.'

AJ stood on a chair and took an old, battered suitcase down from the top of the wardrobe. Elsie opened it with pride.

‘A bit of a teddy boy in his youth, was my Jim. He loved his clothes.'

The jacket was checked with a velvet collar and velvet pocket flaps. The waistcoat was bright red, the trousers too long. Elsie said the shirt, which was a kind of silvery grey, had shrunk a bit.

‘Go on,' said Elsie. ‘Try them on.'

AJ stood looking at himself in the mirror. Only the crêpe-soled shoes and the shrunken shirt fitted; everything else was too big and made him look like a clown.

‘I can't go dressed like this,' he said.

‘From where I'm standing it doesn't look like you have much option,' said Elsie.

‘Can I borrow the shoes and the shirt?'

‘They're yours, love, if they'll help,' said Elsie. ‘But what about a jacket?'

The next day, dressed in jeans, the grey shirt and the brothel creepers, minus a jacket, AJ set off for the job interview, his stomach doing the dance of death. Through his teenage years AJ had found a way of giving himself a boost of good luck when he needed it. He would search for signs – words in adverts would do, even a white feather in the road meant his guardian angel had him safe. Never, he thought, had he needed a sign more than he did that morning as he stood at the gates to Gray's Inn, watching all the fancy-pants ants with umbrellas and suits arrive for work. The address on the letter was 4 Raymond Buildings. It was a Georgian terrace built of mellow London brick, definitely not the kind of place that would have a job for him. His mum must be losing her marbles. He wondered if it wouldn't be best if he gave the whole thing a miss, headed back to Stoke Newington and spent the day in the library, lost in a book.

That was when he saw it, moving slowly down the road, stuck in a jam like the rest of the cars. A brand-new red Porsche. It was the number plate that gave AJ the courage he needed. It read 1 GCSE.

Chapter Two

‘Mr Morton Black will be with you shortly,' said a young man in a shiny suit showing AJ into a large, book-lined room that smelled of hoovered carpets.

It possessed an imposing desk with no one behind it or in front of it. AJ was left wondering if it was the desk that was interviewing him instead of Mr Black. It looked more than capable of judging him and finding brothel creepers and a teddy-boy shirt wanting. The desk was a dinosaur of a thing bearing not even a computer to make a nod at the modern world, just an inkstand with clawed feet. On the wall behind the desk was an oil painting of a gentleman in a full-bottomed wig that hung in two forlorn curtains, framing a pink, blotchy face. He could almost hear him say in a voice of brass and wind, ‘You will never amount to anything, AJ Flynn. Not with one GCSE.'

What in all the dog's-dinner days had given his mum the crazy idea of writing to this law firm? He tried and failed to think what she might have said that would make even the cleaner agree to give him a job interview. He wondered if he was meant to sit on one of the chairs in front of the desk.

He could imagine it tipping him off the minute he tried, saying, ‘I only seat clients. Clients with well-padded bottoms and well-lined pockets.'

AJ waited and waited then, fearing his voice might have left him, said out loud, ‘“It would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosarurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”'

Bleak House
,' boomed a voice. The collywobbles in AJ's stomach did a somersault as, from an unseen door in the bookcase, a gentleman appeared. ‘The everlasting quagmire of Jarndyce and Jarndyce,' he said.

AJ stared into the face of a jolly-looking man with eyes that twinkled and a rubicund nose not dissimilar to the nose in the portrait. ‘Rate him, do you? Mr Charles Dickens?' asked this apparition.

AJ wondered if his tongue had lost the power of speech. The best he could do was mumble, ‘He's the beat master.'

‘The what?'

‘He pumps out the rhythm of rhyme, keeps a story ticking.'

‘Well, that's one way to describe it. “My father's family name being Pirrip.”'

Great Expectations

‘“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”'

A Christmas Carol

‘“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”,' continued the man, ‘“it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”'

A Tale of Two Cities
,' said AJ.

The apparition chuckled.

There was a knock on the door and a man in his late thirties entered the room. He had short-cut hair and a gaze that summed you up and kept the verdict to itself.

‘I'm sorry, sir. I've no idea what Stephen was thinking. I'm supposed to be interviewing Ms Flynn's son in my office.'

‘I take it then that you are Aiden Jobey,' said the gentleman from the bookcase. AJ felt the carpet to be moving in a not altogether helpful way. ‘You are Aiden Jobey?'

AJ felt a momentary panic. There must have been a mix up.

‘I'm known as  … ' He stopped himself. Perhaps by claiming this new name that fitted his two initials he would at least sound like someone. ‘Yes,' he said.

‘Good. And my name is Groat.' He held out a hand. AJ shook it. ‘And this is Morton Black, our senior clerk, whom we call Morton. If we take you on you will be working under him. Do you know, Morton,' said Mr Groat, sitting down behind his desk, ‘this young man has an exceptional knowledge of Dickens.'

AJ hadn't a clue if that fact interested the senior clerk or not, for his face remained a perfect blank.

‘I see from your mother's letter,' Mr Groat continued, ‘that you passed English with an A*. She writes of her great disappointment – spelled incorrectly – that you didn't do well in your other exams. Why didn't you do well, Aiden?'

AJ was battling to think straight. There was no mistake. This never-before heard name, Aiden Jobey, belonged to him.

‘I spent all my time in the library because school was noisy. I loved English. I loved history, but we only did the twentieth century.'

Mr Groat half closed his eyes so that only a slit of white could be seen. He looked like the prehistoric lizard.

‘What do you know about the law?' he asked.

‘Very little, but I want to learn,' he said, cursing himself for not being better prepared.

Morton Black studied him. AJ felt as if the senior clerk was looking inside his head and didn't much like the decor.

‘Do you cope well under pressure?' Morton Black asked him. ‘By that I mean, in difficult circumstances?'

‘I've coped with my mother for over sixteen years and that hasn't been easy.'

Mr Groat burst out laughing. ‘You're sixteen years old?'

‘Seventeen next week. I'll do anything,' said AJ. ‘I don't mind what it is, I just want to work.'

Mr Groat tapped his hand on the desk, which responded as if it were a bass drum. He stood up and looked out of the window across Gray's Inn Gardens.

‘You are obviously a bright young man,' said Mr Groat. ‘Wouldn't you agree, Morton?'

‘Yes, sir. But I am somewhat intrigued to know how Aiden managed one A* GCSE and no more.'

AJ, convinced now that the whole thing was hopeless, thought he had nothing to lose in telling the truth.

‘I didn't much take to school. Or school didn't much take to me. They always wanted us to learn things that I had no interest in. There are so many books out there  …  about different times, amazing worlds, knowledge without limits. I didn't  … '

AJ stopped. He was trembling, his knees wobbly. He hadn't cared about getting a job at this law firm, not until now. Suddenly all he wanted was to work there.

Morton Black asked what else had he read in the library.

‘Thomas Carlyle on the French revolution.' He had read that after
A Tale of Two Cities
. ‘And I loved
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
. It's the best piece of fantasy history I've ever read. Apart from Tolkien.'

‘What did you want to do when you left school?'

‘Well, up to a few minutes ago I didn't have a clue,' said AJ. ‘But now I would like to work here. I'm a quick learner.'

On it went. AJ wondered if some of the questions were tricks to trip him up because they came faster and snappier, almost too fast to think about. AJ was positive he had given the wrong answer to each one. Finally he was told to wait outside. He stood in the corridor and thought it was all over bar the shouting. He shouldn't have mentioned Tolkien in the same breath as
The Decline and Fall
. It sounded stupid.

He waited, watching the busyness of the chambers and a wave of despair come over him. He was certain he'd blown it. The idea that he stood a chance of being employed here was off-the-wall crazy. His mum's words echoed in his head. ‘You don't get to wear a suit to work, not with one GCSE.'

‘Aiden.' Morton Black stuck his head out of Mr Groat's office. ‘Would you come back in?'

AJ had so successfully persuaded himself that he was unemployable that for a moment he couldn't work out what Mr Groat was saying.

‘We would like to offer you a three-month trial period as a baby clerk,' he said.

‘It's a glorified way of saying you will be an office boy,' said Morton. ‘Your job will be to assist Stephen, the first clerk, and myself, maintaining the stock of stationery and chambers' brochures, updating the chambers' library, collecting and delivering documents.'

‘Will I be paid?' asked AJ, hearing the red reptile breathing down his neck.

‘Most certainly,' said Mr Groat. ‘Not much to begin with but if you prove yourself you will be put on a salary, and if you work hard, one day you might even become like Morton, a senior clerk, thinking he'll retire at fifty-three. You will prove yourself, won't you, Aiden?'

There it was again. That incredible name. Could it really belong to him?

‘Yes, sir. I will do my best, my very best.'

Had he heard them right? They were offering him a job, for real.

‘Good. Welcome to Baldwin Groat, Aiden.'

The minute Morton and AJ were out of Mr Groat's office, Morton turned to him, not in an unpleasant manner, but firm, as if he meant business.

‘You start on Monday and I want to see you suited and booted. No brothel creepers, no cowboy shirt.'

AJ nodded.

‘Eight-thirty sharp, and I don't tolerate lateness.'

AJ stood on the pavement staring up at 4 Raymond Buildings, still unable to take in what had just happened. He wondered if by going through the door that led to Baldwin Groat's chambers he had altered everything. He had gone in jobless, hopeless and nameless, and come out with a job, a glimmer of hope and a name he'd never heard before.

All his life his mum had made no bones about telling him that A and J were just initials, nothing more. Those two meaningless letters had been a problem at school. He had stood out when all he wanted was to fit in.

‘It's not a proper name,' his teacher had told him.

She had insisted he spelled it out: A-J-A-Y, until his mum had said with the subtlety of a cement mixer, ‘No, he's just an A and a J.'

What she wouldn't tell the teacher was what those two stunted initials stood for, and she definitely wasn't going to tell AJ. By the time he reached secondary school he'd given up asking her. The question of his name belonged with numerous other unanswered questions, like who his father was, or even what had happened to his father. That much she eventually told him.

She had said, without a trace of emotion, ‘Dead.'

AJ had assumed that the letter J must be the first letter of his father's surname. He'd imagined it to be something like Jones – certainly nothing as exotic as Jobey. He said it over and over again. Jobey. Aiden Jobey. It felt as if it was a password to a future. In Aiden Jobey there was space to grow. AJ had always felt like a dead end. As he arrived back in Stoke Newington the name was beginning to fit him, although the mystery of why he had never been told it before hung over him in a black cloud.

BOOK: The Door That Led to Where
3.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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