Vivien Henderson was made redundant at fifty five, thereby becoming trendy for, perhaps, the first time in her life. Everyone was doing it; and the working world had become ever more dynamic, more fluid and more bulgy with sharks.
But maturity was no longer a barrier to employment, now that age discrimination was a thing of the past; along, indeed, with all other types of discrimination, with the exception of ‘Positive’ (which had, at least, got its branding in the right place). Prejudice was nowhere detectable within any respectable company policy. It was a thing entirely anathema to the modern, regulation-conscious, business world.
So earnestly and so often was she assured of this, that Vivien felt that she really ought to believe it; if only out of politeness.
Yarrow Brothers, the firm for which she had been the administrative backbone for more than thirty years, had been a small, friendly, family-run and plucky little success story, which entirely deserved to buck the odds and survive all that life could throw at it. Life not being a movie, however, it did not.
The current Financial Crisis, stumbling its way across the globe, with deadly elbows, would probably have been enough to bring them down on its own, eventually; but the end had been hastened by two competing rivals. They were new, ambitious and pragmatic to a fault. They had, together, outplayed and undercut Yarrow Brothers almost before their last stick of furniture had arrived. Each then proceeded to attack the other: which they did, so ruthlessly, that the entire staff of one rival firm were eventually signed off sick – with stress, depression and, in two cases, multiple heart attacks – whilst the other was investigated for multiple infractions, roundly fined and tsked at, and, eventually, forced to shut down entirely (it reopened, after a decent period of penitence, with a completely different name, premises and Chief Executive Scapegoat).
For Vivien, whose last job interview had taken place at the time when the lands had just dried and everyone was beginning to wonder where all the unicorns had gone, redundancy was an introduction to a world in which the most desirable quality for any given position appeared to be salesmanship. Though perhaps, she later amended, what the interviewers most wanted, really, was somebody just like them; someone to discuss The Apprentice with, to share the right sort of joke and a nice cup of tea; and to speak for sixty seconds straight in acronyms, without hesitation, deviation or consciousness of absurdity. Granted, a couple of the interviewers might well have broadened their outlook, for someone with personal attributes of a particularly outstanding nature, but Vivien had never really qualified in this category, and even less so, now that she was almost considering becoming middle-aged.
Vivien did not fit: and her consciousness of this, combined with an injudicious honesty and a few, regrettable, outbreaks of brusque, had not aided her chances. She had eventually landed a job working on a supermarket checkout, a role which was not her dream: still, she was confident in the belief that she was a ‘people person’ who would enjoy the interaction. This belief held out for less than a week.
The problem was not with the customers themselves, who were as pleasant and unpleasant, polite and rude, as any given cross-section of humanity (or, at least, any given group that was currently preoccupied with thinking ‘How much?’ and ‘How much longer?’; and feeling a little ripped off about the bananas). It was the artificial and relentless nature of the interaction, the necessity to smile, and to keep smiling; to be patient with endless self-service checkout malfunctions and tactfully blind to human error; to keep all negative personality traits tightly leashed and tucked away; to endure rudeness without sarcasm and to enjoy warmth only in such brief, unsatisfying snatches – an illusive intimacy, a few tantalising details and then, farewell!, with never a backwards glance – that it was necessary to armour oneself against involvement, lest the outcome of young Milly’s battle with cancer or Barry’s wife’s self-destructive infidelity (and they were such a lovely couple), remained questions left to linger, ghostlike; nagging and forever unresolved. This awkwardness seemed to extended even to co-workers, who were mainly students burning out on overtime, so that they could afford to take out only two loans for university, or those in a similar position to herself, who blanked out work time as a necessary chore to be struggled through before they got back to their real lives. With every day of falsity, Vivien found herself to be irritated by more people, for less reason, than ever in her life before.
Vivien’s children had both emigrated to Australia, (“Nothing personal, Mum.”) and had often suggested that she join them. Now that she hadn’t the tie of a satisfying job, this was very tempting; but there was the points system to consider and there was the question of change, though this was both a barrier and a lure. And her small network of friends, whom she would be especially reluctant to lose, now that she had developed such a jaundiced approach to meeting new and, therefore, irritating members of humanity. And there was, too, despite her reluctance to admit it, a small, squashing, inner self: tutting and sneering ‘at your age’ and doodling idle cartoons of spider-infested khazis.
And so, she maintained the ritual daily browse of the local jobs site, despite this being usually a mere slough of emptiness and despair (occasionally jobs did arise: ‘Carers wanted, own car, own sandwiches, own set of heavy duty flannels’, ‘Factory workers required, to work soul-sucking rotating shift patterns, against all medical advice. Your complete exhaustion, confusion and slow resignation of the will to live, is guaranteed. Also, one tea break’; and, of course, the living nightmare that is telemarketing.)
It was on a Thursday, over slightly underdone toast, that she spotted the adverts.
“Do you have what it takes to wow ‘Ewedream, Ltd’: the Number One Dream Experts? We are looking for an outstanding ‘dream’ of an administrator who ‘can-do’, ‘team-plays’ and, most of all, is capable of some serious ‘fun’!
Minimum two years experience in similar role, must have certified computer skills and A -Level maths and English (or equivalent). If your career dream is ‘Ewedream’, apply today!!”
“Danford and Davis, Dream Consultants, are looking for an organised and computer literate individual, to assist their small team. Apply to Sarah Davis at …”
It was curious that two such similar positions should open at the same time. The offices, too, were sited very close together. Vivien pictured a scenario in which administrator A met administrator B over coffee, they fell headlong in love, perhaps over a mutual interest in geckos and garter snakes and ran away to start a small reptile import business together.
She shook off this nonsense impatiently – it was an increasing curse – and left a note on the laptop, as a reminder to check over her C.V.
Vivien had no great love for the faddy, the New Age and the fluffily pseudo-scientific, a category for which ‘dream consultation’ appeared to fully qualify (“What I object to is the woolliness of it all. And, whether it’s earnest wool, tangled wool or wool in sharp clothing, at the bottom, somebody’s getting fleeced.”) Her daughter had once suggested that this blanket intolerance owed a little something to labels and perception, rather than a full critical assessment. Vivien had retorted that codswallop was codswallop, however you labelled it; but, nonetheless, was aware that there was a grain of truth in this, just not one that she was prepared to delve through a trough of codswallop to dig out.
But this distaste and the fact that she had never knowingly dreamt in her life, did not now seem insuperable objections. It would, after all, remove any personal element and what she needed right now was a job for a paper person. A spreadsheet person. A remote and efficient filing system on unremarkable legs.
“Danford and Davis, dreams duly dealt with. How can we help?
“Yes, we offer a comprehensive service for all your dream requirements. We have courses for the instigation of desired dreams, interpretation, of course, at very competitive rates and we can also eradicate up to one hundred percent of your most troublesome nightmares.
“Bananas in tartan pyjamas? How very interesting. Will you want those disposed of, repeated or explained? Certainly… we can offer a telephone reading or a personal session.
“Let me pass you over to a dedicated Interpreter.”
Vivien tapped in the code and nodded over to Maya, who smiled warmly and picked up the call. It was fortunate, indeed, that so much personal warmth filled the office, as the heater was set to ‘negligible’ and the weather was being seasonally inappropriate, greeting the unwary and the coatless with sharp nips in delicate places; offloading surplus snow from the winter slump.
Catt was in early, undergoing a fit of restlessness. She flitted, in turn, from the inner office – into which she and Sarah would sometimes retreat to fight paperwork, take non-client calls and doodle – to the main office, and on into the third room, which was set aside for courses and other customer interaction. She even, occasionally, opened the cupboard and peered speculatively past the coat, perhaps in a routine sweep for lions.
The door opened, slightly more forcefully than was strictly necessary and let in an ambulatory snowdrift. Catt, distracted from the mysteries of the cupboard interior, cheerfully reached for a towel and for a yeti joke. Sarah accepted the towel, with thanks and declined the joke, as being so musty as to induce lung disease. Briskly, she rubbed the frost from her hair and slipped off her coat, revealing a cardigan and trouser combination that was one shade lighter in blue than the three, otherwise identical, work outfits that she usually adopted.
Catt ceased prowling.
“Graeme’s moved on to Flam.”
“Ah.” The farther the better, perhaps. “Not coming home after all, then?”
Sarah disappeared under the towel. “He’s decided to research Norwegian swear-words for the book. Says if you mention cruise ships to the locals, a fertile torrent of filth is sure to flow.”
“Good thing he packed a cagoule. Is he actually writing this book, do you think?”
“Probably. Now that he’s thought of it.” Sarah folded the towel with a sharp flick. “Graeme has always been given to flight first and justification after. Even when we got married, I half-expected him to bolt when we got to “I Will”.
“Well, that is why I took the boltcutters.” Catt murmured, unheard. Her feelings toward her brother-in-law – who was attractive, talented and charming, with a deep underlying streak of neuroses and panic – had been mixed and highly complicated; but since his sudden decision to ‘find himself’ in Norway, they were beginning to lean more bearably towards straightforward detestation. But there was no point going over this again and she had promised Sarah to rant less in the office, at least when the phones were busy.
A call was finishing just now, with a decisive click.
“Mr Parker needs to find himself a more specialised phone service.” Charles wiped his receiver and began, meticulously, to wipe his hands as well.
“More strange stirrings in the veg patch?” Catt mimed, reflexively, and to no applause.
“It’s the lack of subtlety as much as anything.” Charles shook his head and sighed. “Not exactly an interpretive challenge, the throbbing marrow. Or a field of quivering purple broccoli, with a perky tip.”
Sarah glanced over, unmoved. “Charles, you know you don’t have to take the heavy breathers, we’re not that far into the red, yet. Just add him to the list. Good morning, Vivien. How are you finding things so far?”
It had been a varied first week. Sarah had suggested that the sorting of files and wrestling with the personal quirks of a highly strung computer, should be kept to short intensive bursts, leavened by pausing to stretch and relax and get the blood pressure down. Vivien, constitutionally a doer and already disconcerted by the sheer quantity of daily tea-breaks, had chosen to interpret this as assisting: with the phones, with tidying, with surreptitious dusting, with listening and learning.
“It’s intriguing, what people dream about. Three so far involving bananas, for some reason.” For Vivien, Freud had never been much more than a name, so it took a moment to interpret all the slightly raised eyebrows. “Ah. That reason.”
“Dreams of assorted groceries tend to burgeon in the spring, Vivien, when the sap is rising. Cucumbers, melons – marrows – ” he uttered it darkly “and all of that tedious ilk.”
Charles moodily sipped a glass of water. “I mean, I’m a highly trained professional. Is it too much to ask for just a shade of nuance?”
The question remained unanswered, as there was a scrabbling at the door – it stuck, but only in the heat, the cold, the damp and on a Friday and so was low on the priority fix list – and, finally, a successful entry, as Elliott burst in, shivering.
“I need some tea. Emergency tea. And spare hands, these ones have embraced a bold new life as icebergs.” He exhibited two magnificent frozen wastes, which dripped all over the carpet.
“Amazingly, you have actually arrived at tea break.” Catt turned to a colourful rota that decorated one wall, with a list of names, neatly written and then frequently crossed out, scribbled on or deformed by wriggly arrows. “And, even more luckily, the chart says that it’s your turn.”
“Technically true,” Elliott waved a glacier carelessly at the words ‘Definitely Elliott this time’ inscribed in a firm, and exasperated, pencil. Not that he had ever, deliberately, avoided the task of tea-making, as such – and, in fact he excelled at it – but the inner office, which doubled as a kitchen, was obscurely unsettling and had only one exit; there were, therefore, frequent cases of circumstances.
“The art of tea-making,” he continued “requires a certain care and, at least one, functional hand. Whereas I, currently, have two throbbing great lumps of ice.”
“Could we, perhaps, declare a moratorium on throbbing?” Charles was developing a headache – of a sort which he determined to classify as ‘pounding’ – along with the feeling, not a new one, that the universe was ever so subtly mocking him.
“I’ll make the tea.” Sarah headed for the kitchen. “There’s only one of Maya’s peanut butter squasheds left, anyway.”
These delicacies having been made – Elliott felt – very particularly on his behalf, the suggestion was monstrous. He waggled his fingers frantically, to shift the ice crystals. “Wait, just a sec, I think there’s some feeling coming back. The left one’s almost ok now, look.” He struck it cautiously on the desk with a soggy thud. “See? It would hardly sink a rubber duck.”
“Too late. You can have the next turn, when we’re down to the selection pack rejects. The usual for everyone?”
“Green tea for me, please.” Charles grunted. “Dull as you like. With extra bromide.”
“I won’t even stir it.”
Elliott flopped, gloomily and damply, onto a chair, and spent a few minutes in failing to lift a pen. His hands remained estranged from him, though beginning to tingle with the wrath before the thaw.
Maya took pity. “I’ll bake another batch tonight, Elliott. And some fruitie oaties, if my girls don’t scoff the lot. They smell them out and track them down like young leopards.”
Her daughters had, in fact, much in common with leopards. They were prone to spots from various causes – illness, mysterious outbreaks of excitable skin, besmatterment with meals, paints or worse – were large-eyed and appealing in repose and fierce and toothy in the face of opposition, vegetables and bedtime. They consumed most foods with voracity and were much inclined to pouncing, whether this was aimed at hapless gazelles, distracted parents or people who stopped by for tea.
Maya was developing this theme, with an illustrative stalk, when the phone rang, so Vivien picked it up. “Danford and Davis? Oh certainly, let me just check.”
“… they crouch… just like this… a flex of the shoulderblades, so … and… ROWR!
Ah. Sorry, Elliott. But, look, your hands are working fine now. Do you want some help getting down?”
“Yes, we do have a space. What was the name? Cantrip?”
“Thank you, I think I can…” A thud “ Well. Lucky it’s a sturdy light fitting, at home, they usually… what did she say? No! Vivien, wait!” Elliott signalled frantically, but belatedly.
“ …you’re all booked. See you soon, Mrs Cantrip.”
Vivien, turning to meet a general dismay, was reminded suddenly of her first-ever job, at the age of sixteen, when she had not realised that everyone, very carefully, did not mention the manager’s secret vodka cupboard, even when he accidentally left it unlocked and open to some honest criticism of his brand choice (cheap, nasty and later implicated in several cases of blindness; though it did get your pipes spanking clean). “What did I do?”
“Sorry, sorry, it’s my fault.” Catt gestured widely, accepting blame with a theatrical grandeur. “I forgot to run through the exclusions list. It was on my ‘to do’ list. Or my ‘ “Things to put on my ‘to do’ list” list’. Or rather…” She squinted at an inky smudge. “…my hand.”
“Mrs Cantrip, Vivien, is a human menace.”
This, coming from Elliott, was less convincing than Maya’s solemn amplification. “She’s an inhuman menace.”
“If we are such stuff as dreams are made on,” Elliott continued, “ then Mrs Cantrip is pure, bubbling nightmare juice, in a lead-lined jar. And eating, inexorably, through the sides.”
While Catt rather agreed with this, on some deeply embedded, hackle-alerting level, she felt that it lacked a certain groundedness and so endeavoured to explain a little more coherently. “We have a short-list of people with whom we don’t deal any more. Most of them are Charles’s sex pests…”
Charles harrumphed again, uncontrollably, which did not improve his mood. During the usual pre-bed simmer-and-stir that had for some time replaced intimacy in his marriage, Mary had once compared him to a nettled elephant with catarrh, an image which he had immediately and inadvertently conjured up again in protest. “They are not my sex pests. Maya gets them too.”
“Occasionally, yes. Whereas, you seem to attract shoals of them and particularly fetid shoals at that. We get quite a few erotic dreams, of course, Vivien, but there’s a difference between the frank, mature exploration of something complex and layered and, well, sheer wanton throb…”
“Palpitating.” Charles was getting marrows before the eyes, and he began to think seriously about appropriating Elliott’s sofa bed for a business-related forty winks.
“And then there are a few oddballs and Mrs Cantrip rather heads that list.”
“She is the list. There’s no one else left, she’s eaten them all, with her pointy, pointy teeth.”
Sarah, returning with drinks, walked slap into a thick slab of gloom, and had to pause to adjust the tray. “What happened, is the world about to end? Should I switch to a less frivolous cardigan?”
Elliott turned a face of solemn portent towards her. “Mrs Cantrip has infiltrated.”
“Ah.” She rested the drinks on a semi-clear surface with a sharp click. “That is unfortunate. And we’re fresh out of Holy water.”
Vivien, bemused, but accepting that explanation would come, if at all, in small and cryptic bites, explained how she had unwittingly brought doom upon them. “… so she’s booked on this afternoon’s course, lucid dreaming for beginners.”
“Bad luck, Elliott.” Sarah gave him a sympathetic glance. “I almost wish I could revoke tea-maker’s privilege and let you have first go at the biscuits. But, you know, you start by bending one rule and suddenly anarchy has you in a headlock.”
Elliott blinked hopefully. “You could always choose a malted milk.”
“I am shocked,” Sarah raised a reproving eyebrow, “ that you would even suggest it.”