I’m not sure if creative writing is my thing, so this short story is a bit of an experiment. I wrote it towards the end of 2016 as part of a short story writing course – getting it on paper was a bit tortuous!
James took the jacket from his new suit from the hanger, and slipped it over his shoulders. Contemplating himself in his wardrobe mirror, he seemed to see an entirely different James to the one that had been standing in his faded boxers a few minutes earlier. Business-like. Someone to be taken seriously. The kind of person who makes serious, grown-up decisions about serious, grown-up things. The dark navy fabric set off the paleness of his newly-shaven chin, and his hair, cut Action Man-short the previous week for the first time in 4 years, barely brushed the collar.
With a final glance at his reflection, he took off the suit and hung it back on the hanger, taking care to shake out the folds so that it would not be creased on Monday morning. With significantly less care, he grabbed cargo pants and a turquoise t-shirt from the chair where he had dumped them the previous night. The t-shirt sported the slogan ‘Adopt a Puppy – ask me how!’ in white printing on the front, and the charity’s logo of a sad-eyed terrier on the back. Grabbing his bag, a pile of the charity’s sign-up forms, clip-board and pen, James headed downstairs. Pausing only to dump his cereal bowl in the kitchen and shout a quick ‘See you!’ to his housemates, he headed out of the house for his final ever shift.
Damp, cool morning air stung James’s eyes a little as he made his way down the street to the bus stop. For the last year or more, his journey into the city centre had been a time for him to pursue his job hunting activities, a never-ending round of emails, checking the day’s job advertisements and calling companies to follow up on his applications. This morning, he relished the sudden freedom that came with finally having a proper job on the horizon. He allowed his mind to wander instead to the events of the past year. Since the time of his own graduation, another round of happy, excited new graduates in their black gowns and hats had spilled from the town hall, disoriented-looking parents in tow. It had been a year of endless visits to the Careers department, browsing racks of leaflets called Get that Job! illustrated with photographs of intense, ambitious-looking types, their faces illuminated by the glow of a computer screen. One by one, his university friends had shaken off the camaraderie of all-nighters in the library and sharing tips about where to get the cheapest loo roll and moved on with their lives. They had got jobs in Cardiff, Birmingham, even London, and with those jobs had come the first prized trophies of adulthood: moving out of shared houses into flats with girlfriends and boyfriends, a car that wasn’t borrowed off their parents, incomes which allowed them to do more than just subsist, and, more than anything, a sense that life was actually going somewhere. Once or twice, he’d met his old housemate Baggy for a drink after work. The first time they’d met up, Baggy had been only three weeks into his role as a trainee accountant and seemed anxious to portray himself as the adult he didn’t yet feel himself to be. He looked self-conscious in his new suit, like a 15-year-old trying to sneak into the pub undetected. Baggy had covered his lack of confidence up with bluster, referring to the chief executive by his first name and dropping the names of the company’s better-known clients into the conversation. James suspected that it was no accident that he still sported his work ID card slung fake-casually around his neck, that he was waiting for James to notice it and be impressed. Over the following months, his friend had stopped signing his texts ‘Baggy’ and started using his real name, Tom. The next time they met up, some six months later, Baggy had dashed into the pub late, laptop bag in tow, full of apologies for the meeting that had overrun. Later in the evening they were joined by his new girlfriend, a trainee management consultant, and they told him their plans for their upcoming holiday in Thailand. James had left the pub that night feeling like someone who was still tying his trainers at the start of a marathon, while the rest of the field had set off without him and were half way to the finish line. Suddenly, his ancient, tatty rucksack and greying trainers marked him out not as a member of a cool and happening group of fellow non-conformists but as an outsider among his peers.
The doors of the bus hissed shut behind him, and James headed up the hill to the place that had been his patch for the last year. He wondered what it would be like no longer to walk this stretch of pavement every day. Its quirks and flaws were as familiar to him as the pattern on the patch of wallpaper next to his pillow at home: the set of wobbly paving slabs outside the charity shop where he’d once tripped and spilt takeaway coffee all over the woman in front of him; the pavement by the bus stop dotted with dark spots of discarded chewing gum like a grubby dalmatian’s coat; the Big Issue seller with red-rimmed eyes and acne-scarred cheeks who greeted every passer-by who dared make eye contact like an old friend.
As he approached his patch, James wondered whether he had the energy to spend this final afternoon trying to persuade complete strangers to engage in conversation with him, much less to get them to commit to donating cash to a charity in which they had zero interest. He had always known that, in spite of his training, his fake bonhomie and cheesy opening lines barely concealed his discomfort at having to approach complete strangers. For the most part, passers-by responded with a glassy-eyed stare that went just past his right ear and a stiff, fixed half-smile as they kept on walking. If he was less lucky, they would just tell him to sod off. When he did manage to persuade someone to stop and listen, he felt a brief spike of relief. But then nine times out of ten the person would shift from foot to foot while he began his pitch, gradually backing away from him before confessing that, sorry, they weren’t really interested thanks, or that they already supported another charity.
By the end of his shift, James had managed to stop a grand total of two women and one couple. The couple turned out to be French tourists, who, in halting English, informed him part way through his pitch that they only needed directions to the city’s art gallery. He had more success with the two women. The first wore a raincoat in a luminous, Dairy Milk purple which caught his eye while she was still at the top of the hill. As she got nearer, he could see that she also wore black patent heels and had a bouffe of dark, backcombed hair reminiscent of Joan Collins. Crucially, she was also accompanied by a tiny dog of the kind that Paris Hilton might keep in her handbag, and which she held by a matching black patent lead. Her willingness to sign up to donate was, he suspected, the result in part of several glasses of wine over lunch, and her signature wobbled across the bottom of the signup form. Lady number two was that rare surprise, someone who seemed genuinely interested in the charity’s work and who allowed him to reach the end of his pitch uninterrupted. The small, practical-looking woman introduced herself as Jean. She had, she said, worked herself as a dog breeder. From her outfit, James could almost have guessed that she still did: a grey, cropped, no-nonsense hairstyle was topped by a khaki cotton hat with a wide brim. The face was ruddy from being outdoors in all weathers, a deep groove on either side of the mouth giving her the appearance of an elderly ventriloquist’s doll. A brown and cream checked flannel shirt poked from beneath a padded gilet, also khaki, and she wore wellingtons despite the dry day. She poked around in the pockets for her glasses so that she could read the material and the form, and managed to produce both an old packet of dog treats and a lead before finally locating them. Jean asked a number of searching questions about the charity’s work, far more than anyone had before, and James inwardly rolled his eyes at the old person’s need to have all the facts before signing on the dotted line.
His shift finally over, James headed back down the high street to the charity’s tiny office. He had stuck out the job for longer than any of the other chuggers, and the administrator stopped to ask about his new job as he handed over his ID card, spare signup forms and clipboard. Emerging back on to the street, rather than heading straight home James took his time sauntering through the city’s early evening streets. The sense of dread and failure that had accompanied his job hunting, the hundreds of applications that had led nowhere, the hours of networking and phone calls and research, began to crack and shift like tectonic plates in motion. He observed the commuters that brushed past him, intent only on getting home and leaving the working day behind, and relished the thought that, come Monday, he would be one of them. He was almost beyond caring if the job turned out to be boring, or didn’t live up to his expectations. At the very least, with a regular wage, he could now make plans for his life, feel as if he were moving forward, join with his peers in talking about office politics, holiday plans, maybe even buy a car. He would, finally, fit in.
Arriving back home, James called a quick hello to his housemates, grabbed a beer from the fridge and headed up to his room. He pulled off the charity t-shirt and shoved it in the washing basket – he would wash it later. For now, all he wanted was to crash on his bed, gaze out of the window and watch the sun set on his old life.