Apprentice Days

Apprentice Days

My first job was in a post room, as a temporary, part-time supernumerary, a dogsbody with no job description other than to help the permanent staff. I remained there just over six months, far longer than I’d anticipated. I stayed less for the money or work experience than for the social contact, especially my first encounter with workplace women. I was determined to make a go of liking them – or more important, whatever my true feelings, of being liked by them.

On the first day I was introduced to the Messenger Boy, all fife and drum, and whom I christened ‘Spots’. He showed me round, acting as a surrogate Mercury. He took me in hand – not literally, I must add, though in another setting, in the absence of anyone better, I might have allowed him to perform that sacred office.

He was intent on introducing the women.

‘And who do we have here?’ he said, stroking his bum-fluffy chin, aw we approached a desk covered in furry toy animals. Pink elephants, yellow polar bears. Animals with pants in football colours.

‘If I’m not mistaken … it’s my very, very good friend Miss Bowen.

‘Not so much of the Miss,’ she beamed.

‘Not for much longer if I’ve got anything to do with it, eh?’

‘Ignore him,’ she said to me. ‘Any friend of his is a friend of mine. Not sure why. But that’s how it is.’

‘I see,’ I said, still looking at the animals. She gave me one to hold.

‘They’ve all got names, you know,’ and she reeled off a list of characters from comic strips and cartoon films.

‘Do you make them yourself?’ I asked.

‘Yes, indeed I do,’ she replied, rubbing her hands together. ‘I began for my sister’s children. Everyone liked them and said how nice they were and how they’d like one. There’s no metal, wood or anything sharp. So they’re ideal for babies,’ she said, cradling her arms. ‘And for toddlers, as well,’ and she held her flattened, splayed downward hand at then her of her knee. ‘Even older children like the,’ she added, raising her hand to the level of her crotch. ‘And so do a lot of adults,’ she added, looking me straight in the face. ‘Even grown men, too,’ she went on lowering her eyes to my crotch, ‘though they won’t admit it. They like to hang them up in their fast cars – especially the football mascots – and let them swing there, she continued, still looking down. ‘So what model car do you have? And which team do you support?’

‘She’s a really good sort,’ said the Spotty Messenger. ‘Get on the right side of her and she’ll look after you. She does a nice meat pie.’

The other woman was Patty-Poo, whom I later discovered was a lowly of long service, who’d got in with the high-ups by winning over new staff to the work ethic and team spirit. She’d earned a licence to round up dissenters, and had, with a couple of exceptions, succeeded. She worked hard and set a good example. She let everyone know it, too, as she rushed around, trouble-shooting and furiously humming, “Dashing away with the smoothing iron.”

However, her real vocation was Family Life. Other peoples’. Knowing all she could about a colleague’s private life, angling to be Godmother to as many staff babies as possible, making work life into one Big Happy Family. She did the rounds, collecting money for the tea fund and staff leaving presents. She remembered people’s birthdays better than they did themselves, and got more excited by wedding anniversaries than the married couple.

Christmas was what she lived for – everyone coming together under her supervision. She began shopping for the Christmas Staff Party in the January sales. She made the Christmas pudding at Easter – ‘so it’s got nine months to rise’. For the rest of the year she collected the weekly contributions to what she call ‘the Pudding Club’. She couldn’t say ‘Pudding’ without a nudge, a wink and – jackpot – ‘Time’s up for your next instalment.’

‘Wednesday is your day to bring in the milk,’ she said, within minutes of my first meeting her. ‘And when’s your birthday?’

‘I really get on with her,’ said Spots in his piccolo voice. ‘She does nice chicken drumsticks. She and Miss Bowen keep this place going.’

‘And what about her?’ I said, pointing to a lady the far end of the office, sitting quietly, typing.

‘He shook his head. ‘No. Them two’s the only ones you need to know.’

Miss Bowen and Patty-Poo certainly looked after me. They trained me in the correct procedures, schedules and attitudes. I was polite, and unfailingly grateful. They may have mistaken this for a chivalrous interest. A friendly rivalry developed over me. Patty-Poo would grab one of Miss Bowen’s toys, usually a waspy-looking tiger, and waggle its feet in my direction, making growling noises. At which Miss Bowen would counter and stretch out the front legs of a threadbare grizzly and make hug-of-love sounds. I blinked laughed and thought my thoughts.

What could I expect as a supernumerary? I was there to be shared. I helped out as directed by the Management.  I volunteered to stay late, do weekend overtime, clear backlogs. The offers were appreciated but never accepted. I added, ‘You’re very welcome – and if you change your mind …’ It made them seem indecisive and dependent, and myself helpful and ever-present.

The member of staff I was never asked to help was Miss C., the lady at the far end of the office. She wasn’t pally at all, but reserved, self-sufficient and thus more challenging. No one talked to her. We were never ‘officially’ introduced.

She had piercing eyes and sat bolt upright, tapping away endlessly at her word processor, the earpieces of her dictaphone blanking out the world. When she stood up she’d flick her wrist, spruce away any imaginary crumbs or dust from her lap, smooth down her skirt and pat her hair. There was something prim about her, pert, almost stand-offish.

Spots, the Messenger boy, amused himself saying, ‘What she needs is a good fuck.’  Sometimes he felt obliged to say this within earshot of Patty-Poo, who, without agreeing with what she heard, couldn’t resist a smile.

I watched Miss C. closely. Prim she may have been during the day but not when it was time to go home. She prepared the evening mail and left five minutes early to post the day’s consignment. She bundled the letters to her bosom with both hands, and pushed bodily into the swing doors of the main exit. And then with one heave she thrust the letters into the gaping mouth of the letter-box. A most un-prim performance. Had Spots, the real man in the office, noticed this?

‘Silly bitch, doesn’t know what’s good for her. What she needs is a damn good … a bloody good …Yeah!’

I’m not sure how he could have known this. It might have been his way of saying he’d like to perform the honours. As it turned out she was obviously getting a quota – damn bloody good enough to get her pregnant – and probably better than he could have given. How nonplussed he was she’d already had it – and no thanks to him! He never made his little remark again. Miss Bowen and Patty-Poo made no mention of the happy event. Miss Bowen never offered a furry animal. Patty-Poo never angled to be Godmother or spoke of the nine months gestation period for the Christmas Pudding. She never asked ‘Do you want a girl or a boy?’ – but then she was always a stickler for not opening presents till Christmas Day.

The Management asked me to take on some of Miss C.’s workload. I’d helped the other staff, so they couldn’t complain. No one else would’ve wanted to help her. They should have been grateful I’d agreed. However, in accepting I became a traitor. Patty-Poo, who always wanted to be into everything, hear the gossip, give her opinion or intervene dramatically in a dispute, now felt left out, and assumed alliances were being formed. Miss Bowen became extra protective about her cuddly toys, as if Miss C.’s presence threatened to, orphan them. ‘Come to Mummy, my darling. She won’t let a Real Baby hurt you.’ Even when Miss C. was absent for medical tests neither Patty-Poo nor Miss Bowen spoke to me so much.

In fact, I had little contact with Miss C. She wasn’t very communicative or forthcoming – which allowed me to indulge my thoughts, and note the changes in her that a ‘real’ man such as Spots, might have missed.

In a matter of weeks she exchanged the precise clicking of her court shoes on the tiles floor for the slomock of soft, flat sandals. She became more erect and swayed at the hip in a directionless waddle, letting her loose dress billow. She never tried to flick away the enormous mound that had arisen between her lap and breasts. She sat with her hands holding it, sometimes pulling it upwards. Her piercing eyes had mellowed, and she gawped dreamily into space, often smiling to herself. She refused to take the evening mail but still left five minutes early, sometimes more.

I hovered round, held the door, did the post. I carried the parcels. Or should I say the other parcels? For there was something symbolic about her pregnancy. It had all the elements of a mail delivery. The knock at the door was the Annunciation, the insertion into the letter box was the Consummation, the letter falling symmetrically onto the pattern of the hall carpet was the Conception. The Gestation was carried on apace, as if transported on a rail network, in a protected, windowless carriage, all the material building up, checked for weight and screened for dangerous contents and sorted into pigeonholes, each cell joining with its like and forming a more specific outline, a better sense of direction, a clearer disposition of the members and labelling of the organs.

How the size and tension mounted! Hers was the delivery we all waited for. Would it arrive on time? Be unbroken? A surprise? And from whom had it come?

Yes, indeed. What of the postman who’d performed the Symbolic Office? Would I have fancied him? Had he worked here in the mail room? Met up with Miss C.? Was I his replacement? Was I fit to step into his shoes?

No one collected Miss C. at night or dropped her off in the morning. No one phoned her. Her boyfriend must therefore be estranged?

‘Is there one?’ Miss Bowen asked.

‘One?’ queried Patty-Poo. ‘No half measures with her. It’s either virgin birth – or a choice of several fathers.’

‘I’ll take care of you,’ I thought. I’ll take over. I’ll grasp the baton.

My! Was I solicitous? I could have been the daddy. Some staff may have thought I was. I ensured there were no trailing wires. I cleared the floor of rubber bands and upturned drawing pins. Still I couldn’t rid myself of the possibility of something going wrong. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something almost happened – but didn’t quite – because of me?

Oh, please Miss C., do be careful of that typist’s chair! Poor old Mother’s wheelchair is bad enough. I she forgets to put on the brakes and pushed back to get up, then back she goes as well – only more so. But THAT chair, Miss C., doesn’t have any brakes. It’s got oiled castors. And it swivels, too. And please, don’t ever use it again like a sideway swing, swirling your legs outstretched!

I went to the local Library and mugged up on the First Aid I should really have leaned years ago for Mother. Next day checked in the cupboard at work where the stretcher was, the blanket, kettle, scissors and if the first aid box needed to be replenished.

I was encouraged in this by the member of staff who acted as Health and Safety Representative – and for whom in the absence of anything better I’d probably, have been content to go without, runty and adenoidal as he was. He spent most of his working life at training courses, long meetings and even longer lunch-breaks. He was – with Miss C. – the one member of staff whom Patty-Poo had not been able to snare in her trawl of truculent dissenters. He had little else in common with Miss C. He avoided her, embarrassed she might be too fragile to approach. Yet, he couldn’t evade responsibility. One day he called me aside.

‘Look!’ he whined, rolling himself a cigarette, ‘this business. I don’t feel I can ask her direct but … well, you work with her …’

‘I only help out as instructed by the …’

‘Yeah, but I’m not here all the time. Look, what I’m saying is – as – as you help out and know her better, could you …? Would you don’t mind? What I want to know … How much longer have I got to go on worrying something might go wrong?’

‘Several months.’

‘O, Lor’!’  He wet the cigarette in his pale thin oboist’s lips and droned reedily, ‘Of course, I’ve done lots of Health and Safety courses but not specifically about … women … when they’re … I know they can’t spent too much time in front of the VD–’ He hesitated mid-abbreviation and repeated in full ‘the visual display units’. And I know they’re not supposed to smoke,’ he added, lighting up. ‘The only other thing I can remember is … in the Ladies … the incinerator – but I don’t suppose that’d be applicable to her anymore.’

No, I don’ suppose it would.’

I gave his arm a gentle squeeze, not hard or convincing as might have been the case if he’d at all prepossessing but being runty and adenoidal it was merely a promise I’d help him out in his Health and Safety role.

‘Leave it to me.’

‘Only too happy to,’ he sighed, exhaling pent-up smoke.

I felt efficient now, indispensable almost. I waltzed around, self-important, I checked access and egress to the fire exits, the date the extinguishers should be serviced, if the insurance was comprehensive. I, the newcomer, temporary make-weight, felt apart and above the management. I could jiffy them up, even tell on them. Still, my concern was not for office politics.

It was for Miss C. How best to help her? What was happening to her? What was going on inside her? I went to the local library and read books about women’s parts and all the things that can go wrong – and sadly much can. I learned the key words, the knowing abbreviations, the timescale. A new world opened up. Things I’d never known or been taught to feel curious about. I took each book to my former vantage place – the window seat overlooking the public lavatory – and found myself more and more absorbed. Sometimes former clients, seeing me in my old position, hovered round hoping I’d follow them as before. I looked up from the book, smiled sweetly and said, ‘Oh, no. I’m a changed man.’ ‘What’s up with you?’ their eyes queried. ‘You don’t look any different.’ They rattled keys or coins. ‘There’s extra if you want.’ I shook my head and cradled the book like a baby.

Inevitably I began to steal the books from the Library. The act of theft appealed greatly at the time. I wanted my own collection – but it had to be of used items. I fondled the books, sniffed them – imagining what they’d done for previous readers. What locks had been opened. What crevices illumined? I counted the number of issues on the date labels. I checked if the book was thumbed all the way through. I read every page turned down. I shaded in the line drawings. I pushed a finger up the spine and the glued-up stitching.

No, I had no qualms about stealing the books. It’s the most refined form of theft, and presumes a high level of intelligence and taste. No one could wholly condemn it, except the complete philistine.

Nor did I have a conscience about denying other readers access to information. I was putting it to better use myself. Let anyone with a problem come to me – and that included the Health and Safety Representative and any former pickup who wished to follow in my new-found enlightenment. I was becoming an expert about women. This was beyond a sudden enthusiasm pursued with tubercular obsession. This was the basis of a lifetime’s study. I wanted to become a gynaecologist. All the famous ones are men. They are more confident than women in dealing with ailments they’ll never suffer from.

Of course, I hid the books from Mother. She might have forgiven me having porno videos, but somehow think it unhealthy for a man to interest himself too deeply in the intimate working detail of her gender’s anatomy. I probably come to know more about the subject than she ever did. Poor Thing.

I was tempted to take some titles to work and leave them in a prominent position so that Miss Bowen and Patty-Poo couldn’t fail to note. I would enhance the impression I might have been the cause of Miss C.’s pregnancy.  However, the risk Miss C. herself might see them was too great.

She must know nothing of my reading, my past inclinations and associates. I viewed her with clinical dispassion. She was to be my first case study. I sidled, I looped, looking on as voyeur. A jackal waiting for a wildebeest straggler to give birth couldn’t have been more attentive. I anticipated every ‘stage’ and attendant ailment. She relied on me as the only sympathetic member of staff.  She may have thought I was too young to pose a threat. She confided in me, giving an air of worldliness about this, her first pregnancy.

‘I’m not that incapable,’ she’d laughed ion mock offence when I’d first offered help. Months later she stood back, like a patient, helplessly acknowledging her dependence.

To make her feel at ease I invented as sister who’d just had a baby.

‘Her first, too,’ I confided. ‘No problem at all. Docile as anything. Lets anyone pick it up.’

Miss C. seemed pleased and always asked after it. I never gave the baby a name and always called it ‘it.’ I made my sister husbandless as well. Miss C. Looked reassured. Perhaps she thought ‘He’d make such a good father.’

She told me the day the baby was due. I worked out the probable conception date. I checked my diary to see what I’d been doing that night. There was no entry. Strange. I usually manage to write something, however inconsequential. Did I suffer from amnesia or a brainstorm? Was I in some way responsible form her state? Had I in scrutinising her somehow made her pregnant?

She certainly had an effect on me. At her seven-month stage I developed a phantom pregnancy. My contact lenses became unwearable. My nipples swelled. I suffered from morning sickness, an enlargement – very sudden this – of the abdomen. I wore loose clothing, felt a heaviness in the legs, made more frequent sorties to the toilet. At night I slept on my back or in the foetal position. I had nightmares about a giant baby poking me with an erect umbilical cord.

I purchased a cheap wedding ring, which I never wore to work, but never failed to flash on late night visits to Department Stores. It gave me confidence as I wandered through the Lingerie Department, looking at the selection of knickers, bras, tights and corsets. I admired the dummies – in the Mannerist attitudes. One turned out to be a shop assistant, who gave me a suspicious look and hovered, a half-smile beneath her eagle eyes.

She resembled Miss C. I moved on horrified I might bump into the real one. Or even Patty-Poo buying baby clothes for her umpteenth God child.

The dummies in the Maternity Department are relaxed, gentle quattrocento Madonnas. The customers are gander-legged mothers-to-be, trying on shepherd’s smocks with leg o’ mutton sleeves, their eyes slowly grazing the racks like sheep viewing the gut-spewing carcasses in a slaughterhouse. They hold a dress up to themselves, all sense of measurement gone, and stare into a full-length mirror, barely enough to encompass their girth.

Miss C. would have modelled the dresses far better. I envisage her flip-flopping the catwalk, parading a selection, each for a more advanced stage of pregnancy – from the first hardly perceptible 1920s beltless to the ‘Why-hide-it? Why-not-make-a-feature-of-it? stage, to the final disarray when it’s driving her and her grin’s almost cretinous – and yet … Doesn’t she look happy, fulfilled and what did I tell you? She won’t regret having kept it after all. Could be the making of her!

Oh Mother, were you ever like this? What did you wear when you had me? A smock and poke hat? Mother and Miss C. compete on the catwalk. A difficult choice. The judges tie. The casting vote goes to the foetus!

I’d never before – had I? – been inclined to wear women’s clothing or dip into Mother’s dressing table of make-ups and scents, but with my phantom pregnancy developing a pace I was sorely tempted. Take this little shepherd’s smock. At a pinch – a squeeze more like – but surely I’m not already that far gone!

Pleating is the commonest stitching here, yoke-line gathering, hipline ribbing, darts, bibbing, kilting tucking neatly stitched braid on tiers and edging, rows of ornamental buttons, opening on nothing. More girlish frills and decorations than baby will ever get.

‘Can I help you, sir?’ the assistant asks, heading towards me as if just offstage and singling me out for audience participation. She wasn’t really like Miss C. at all, but mildly resembled one of my former pick-ups, all dragged-up, with a balloon under his dress and singing a song, full of double-entendres, at the climax of which, he’d take out a needle, say the word prick and …

‘Yeah, sure,’ I blurt out enthusiastically and then lapse into winning hesitancy. ‘My girlfriend’s … er … wife’s expecting her birth … birthday … soon, well … not exactly … but a present … can you? It’s the first … yes, and all unawares, no proper budgeting, not too cheap but … you know … doesn’t have to last, won’t need it again, at least hope not, but … you know how these things happen.’

Don’t you just love my boyish gaucheness but DON’T be fooled, because when it comes to the crunch I can and I do (and pretty often, too) and now she’s out of action – so what time are you off tonight and yes, you’re right, assistants in Maternity Wear Departments do make the best mothers and that’s something I really do admire, yes, sirree, I sure, sincerely do.

‘Er – not thanks.’

No, I don’t want anything for baby. I dream only of things for you, Miss C. Of you. Not of the product of your labour. Or how you came by your state.

Tell me, Miss C., what you’d do if you knew my ethos had once been against fatherhood? That I’d had more men than you’d ever had? That while you were still out of action I seduced your baby’s father? Who, let’s face it, whoever he is, would be more than susceptible. How often have my former clients claimed their wives were out of service, monthly or nine-monthly? But they, the clients were more than willing – but not with another woman – there’s such a thing as elemental loyalty in time of need, don’tcherfink? But a man’s OK, no commitment. Doesn’t have to be penetrative – indeed men can do some things just as well as women can. So what the suck? How much?

Yes, what would Miss C. have done if she’d known that I was dreaming of the man who impregnated her, hoping to seduce him, not caring about the baby who would come out, just of the willy that had gone in!

She left a month before the baby was due. There was no leaving party, no collection for the baby, no good wishes, or ‘Let us know when, what it is or whatchergonnacallit?’ not even ‘Are you coming back after you’ve had it?’ Miss Bowen didn’t offer a furry animal, not even a life-size mouse, let alone a life-like one. Patty-Poo didn’t beg to be Godmother, or promise a slice of Christmas cake. They both took annual leave the day Miss C. left. She’d shown them up, with their surrogate families and zoos. They couldn’t handle it. Poor Things.

I, on the other hand, emerged in a stronger position. The Management asked me to stay on to cover the vacancy. Miss Bowen and Patty-Poo, thinking I might be a long-term fixture, arranged a peace settlement. I replaced Miss C. with my imagined sister and her baby. At the mention of the word ‘baby’ Patty-Poo’s ears pricked up, and Miss Bowen’s fingers gathered uncontrollably at the elasticated pouch of a knitted wallaby. I felt forgiven and back in the fold.

‘What’s the name of your sister’s baby?’ asked Patty-Poo, trembling with anticipation.

I looked her straight in the eyes. ‘It’s called – Daddy.’

‘That’s a funny n me for a baby.’

‘I don’t see why. The child if Father of the Man – and having him has been an education for my sister.’

‘Yes, but …’

People often call a child after the family name or the parent’s name. And our father – I can’t speak about yours – was called Daddy. We thought it was such a nice name. Much better than Sonny or Junior. I’m sure the time will come when he will be called Daddy. So why not start off with it?’

She smiled, blinked and shied away – and thought her thoughts.

Spots, the mangy-winged Messenger boy, angled for a friendship. ‘Sure you didn’t make ’er pregnant to get ’er job?’ he chortled, adding chippily, ‘Really on the job, eh? Fancy coming’ down the boozer ’n’ ’avin’ an ’arf and a larf. They do a nice Ploughman’s.’

He was like a Saturday assistant in a butcher’s – swearing all the time by the bully-beefyness of meat-eating – while looking pocked as a plucked chicken, goose-pimple-pink, his rabbit’s buck-teeth surmounted by the twitching upper lip of a tapir, and his veal-white chest as flat as a duck’s.

‘Lovely, ‘I puked, ‘that should really be a lauGH and a HaLf.’

How could I have envisaged even a moment of illicit bliss with the likes of him? May the zinc slab and the plastic parsley soon display his mealy carcass!

What connection did I have with any of them? Who was there to interest me now that Miss C. had left? There was no point in staying. The episode was over. All the symptoms of my phantom pregnancy had gone. My future didn’t lie in this office.

I worked out my notice conscientiously and was never more polite than the day I left. I bought cakes all round and made sure several of them were animal-shaped. Poor Miss Bowen could hardly bring herself to eat them. To please her I asked if I could buy one of her furry toys.

‘I was going to give you one anyway – and one for your sister’s child.’

I wished Patty-Poo every success with the Christmas Party. ‘Do come to it,’ she said. ‘Bring your sister, too. We’d like to meet her – and Daddy.’

I never went back, of course. I never heard of Miss C. again. I didn’t want to see her baby. It might have suggested what then father looked like, and I wanted to conjure him up for myself … and then one day look in the mirror to see if there was any resemblance.

 

 

 

 

 

jdixonclapham

Poet and short story writer, John Dixon has had poems published in Chroma. Envoi, Iota, Orbis, Nomad and Haiku Quarterly. His first collection - Seeking, Finding, Losing - was published in 2012. He has edited the poems of the late Ivor Treby.
In 2013 he published a collection of short stories - The Carrier Bag - which includes the Bridport Prize-winning title story. He won a prize at the Chorley Short Story Competition. Other stories have appeared in the anthologies - People Your Mother Warned You About, The Best of Gazebo, and Eros at Large.
He edited - Fiction in Libraries - for the Library Association, and co-edited a volume of his father's short stories and his mother's autobiography. He has written reviews for Chroma Blog.
He has given readings at Libraries, Schools of Drama, and LGBT groups and Southwark's Rhyme and Reason festival of Poetry.
His novel - Push Harder Mummy, I want to come out - is due for publication shortly.

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One comment

  1. A brilliant evocation of the madness and paranoia of office life. It vividly recalled the ghastly atmospherics – I nearly wrote ‘hysterics’ – of various Civil Service departments, of Pearl Assurance (Holborn), of RNLI (Poole H.Q.) &c. Every Jobcentre Advisor should be forced to read your new book.

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