Short story: Home Alone – or Into the Unknown?

Rose Bay is a leafy, upmarket suburb in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.  My grandparents live there, on a hilly street leading away from the coast road. Under glass-clear cobalt skies, houses dot the cliff leading down to the sea from their home; when, at the end of summer, the cooler breezes finally break through the suffocating heat, the bridge and opera house can be glimpsed across the jade-and-white waters of Sydney Harbour as the tall trees begin to sway once again. The suburb offers a lifestyle that’s the envy of many a Sydneysider, and frequently features on those Kirsty-and-Phil-type property programmes. My aunts live in nearby Coogee, my cousins in reclaimed brick and steel apartments in edgier, more central neighbourhoods jostling for position with hipster coffee bars and pop-up restaurants serving the latest trend in Vietnamese street food. The few visits to the city that we’ve made as a family since I was a young child have been the best possible advertisement for all the contemporary Australian lifestyle has to offer.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to live there.

And there’s the problem you see, because over dinner a couple of weeks’ back, my Mum (British), and Dad (Australian), announced their intention to move there, now that my Dad has retired and my grandparents could use a little more help. Mum was an only child, of parents who aren’t around anymore, so what’s to stop them? And there’s me, just shy of 27, a Brit in most ways, but with this funny Australian bit bolted on, suddenly wondering, well, if my parents head off to Australia – where does that leave me? Do I stay here, in the country I’ve known as home my whole life? Or do I – as they suggested, rather strongly in fact, last night, move there with them and away from everything that’s familiar to me for a completely new life?

It can be strange having parents from two different countries. Often you don’t quite fit in in either. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that you kind of half fit in each. You spend a childhood acquiring a random selection of habits, knowledge and customs from both sides to become a sort of hybrid. In Australia, my uncles say I talk like I’ve got a plum in my mouth. I say ‘cool box’ instead of ‘esky’, ‘hostel’ instead of ‘hostELL’; and I’ve never learned to share my cousins’ nonchalance in dealing with red back spiders lurking on the back patio. Then again, my so-called Britishness is diluted by a preference for Lamingtons over mince pies, and while I managed to get through my childhood without reading a page of The Wind in the Willows, my bookshelf contains a well-thumbed copy of ‘Harry the Hairy-Nosed Wombat’ and a box set of the adventures of Blinky Bill the Koala.

My parents met when my Dad (restless ex-law student who came here as a 20-something in the early 1980s) and Mum (hospital pharmacist) bumped into each other at a friend’s housewarming party. They bonded over a mutual loathing of those smug ‘Year in Provence’ books and, presumably, Wham and mullet hair dos and in time settled in Windsor. Eventually they produced my sister, now 30 and still living nearby and then me, now living in rather less classy but considerably more affordable Brentford.   Sydney not exactly being a short hop across the channel, we visited whenever annual leave and family finances allowed it – maybe 4 times during my childhood – and when that didn’t happen our years were punctuated by return visits from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The family photo albums variously catalogue these visits as sunbleached, relaxed and carefree against the white sands and vivid turquoise seas of Sydney’s many beaches; or as attempts to entertain our shivering visitors in the drizzle at Hampton Court, the British Museum or the Tower of London.

At the end of university, I did the whole ‘6 months in Oz’ thing, spent some time working, travelled around, hung out with the folks, but at the end of it, I don’t know, I was just….ready to come back here and get my life started really.  Like Dad, I’d studied law, and 4 years in things are really going well. I’ve got a great bunch of friends, I get out hiking at the weekends with my walking group, I’ve got my first flat in the pipeline…life here’s really shaping up for me. And I kind of thought I was here to stay.

Isn’t the real essence of your home country in the tiny details, the everyday certainties, the shorthand forms of communication with the people around you that you don’t even notice until you’re abroad? Post boxes, I know, are tall, round and red; emergency services can be reached by dialling 999, the Telegraph is to the right, politically speaking, Guardian to the left, and you get on the bus at the front. I know that if someone bumps into me in the street, the right thing to do is to say sorry, just in case. I know, too, that when someone hands me, say, a biscuit, or a document at work, and says “Here’s one I made earlier”, with a slight smirk and raise of the eyebrow, they’re not really trying to tell me how super-organised they are. For all that I’m an amalgam of things both British and Australian, this is the place where I feel most at home. Do I really want to leave it behind just now?

Then again, I don’t much fancy being separated from Mum and Dad – possibly my sister too – by thousands of miles either. You know what someone asked me the other day? “Are you going home for Christmas?”  And much as the almost 27-year-old don’t-you-realise-I’m-a-full-grown-adult-now pedant in me wanted to reply, “What, you mean Flat 1, Cameron Lodge, Lingfield Gardens, Brentford?”, I knew what they really meant was, was I going to my parents’ place. And how long, I wonder to myself, do people go on considering your parents’ house as your home once you’re an adult?  And, like it or not, how long do we carry on doing it ourselves? More than that, where will ‘home’ be once my parents are no longer in the same country?

So that’s the dilemma, really. Stay here, on my own and carry on with the life I’m building for myself? Or go with Mum and Dad to Australia, a country I like but which definitely isn’t ‘home’, and start life again from scratch?

Well, what to do. I decide first I need to talk to my friend Eloise. We go back a long, long way – to junior school in fact. She’ll give me a straight answer, if no one else does.

“You must be bloody mental! I’d give my eye teeth to move to Australia. Why’re you even thinking about it? And Sydney – it’s frigging gorgeous there – I’d come and visit you in a heartbeat! What’s the problem?”

I explain about the post boxes, the newpapers and the children’s TV references, but she’s having none of it. “Yeah, but Australia’s not that different is it? They speak English, and you’ll get a new job no problem. And you’ll be able to see your family, like, all the time instead of just visiting. It’ll be awesome!”

I come away feeling more confused than when I arrived, and so the next day I decide to Skype my cousin Simon in Sydney for a different point of view. We’ve always got on pretty well despite the distance, and he let me stay in his flat for a while when I was over there.

“You must be bloody mental! I’d give my eye teeth to live in the UK. I don’t know why you’re even thinking about it. London’s unreal – and you’ve got Europe on the doorstep. Over here you’d be surrounded by the relos – they’d never leave you alone! Stay right where you are, I reckon.”

I explain about Mum and Dad, the chance to get to know the rest of the family, start a whole new life in a beautiful city, but he, like Eloise, is having none of it. “Look – it’s a small world these days. You can come over and visit any time. But stay in the UK and you’ve got the best of both worlds – keep your life over there, and family a safe distance away.” Eventually I give up the fight and log off.

In search of some sanity, a couple of days later I Skype my grandma in Sydney. We talk about some of the options – do I have do decide straight away? Could I come over for a year, see how I get on? In the end, she sighs. “Well, it’s not an easy one love, not for you or your sister, that’s for sure. I mean, I know they say the world’s got smaller these days, and you’d only be a 24-hour plane ride from the UK even if you did move here.” She laughs a little. “It wouldn’t be like when my poor Mum and Dad came out – 6 weeks by boat if you were lucky, and that’s if you had the money for the fare! They knew they might never see their parents again, and they never did. Then again, in some ways maybe that made it easier – you made your choice, and you had to stick to it. This was your new home, you had no choice but to make it work.” She pauses, before going on, “But even these last 30-odd years, with planes and phones and visits, it’s still been hard being so far apart from you all.” She stops and contemplates me, her face distorted fuzzily by the webcam. “But this is the thing, love. We’d all love it if we could see more of you, and I’m sure your Mum and Dad would find it tough if you decide not to come here with them. But at the end of the day, you’re an adult now with your own life to live. You’ve got to make the decision that’s right for you.”

The weekend comes, and the walking group and I head off for one of our easier routes around Virginia Water and into Windsor Park. For all my Australian family’s teasing about the British weather, the late November day is cold and crisp, the sky a clear, pale blue and the ground crunches satisfyingly under our feet. The path loops through ancient parkland as we climb to the Copper Horse monument where we stop for hot coffee and chat and enjoy the view. Below us, the Long Walk stretches down to the Castle, and beyond that the town, still hung with the mist of the early morning. Beyond this still, the Chilterns, and over it all, a never-ending cycle of planes departing from Heathrow, the sound of their engines muted by distance, a reminder of the choice I have to make; to stay, to continue to invest in the life I’ve begun to create here; or to go, to seek out new adventures and new beginnings.

It’s a few days later now. I’ve made my mind up, and tonight I’m heading off to meet Mum, Dad and my sister for dinner so we can discuss our various plans. So there we are, reader, I’ve made my decision. Now it’s your turn – what would you do?

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Short story: Khatyn

We found the envelope among my grandmother’s things when we were clearing out the house. The rough, brown paper was addressed with slanted, Cyrillic handwriting, and so worn with age that the paper inside poked out through the edges.

Mum and I carefully spread the contents on the kitchen table. The official-looking paper bore a hammer and sickle seal in the letterhead, and we took it to be some kind of government record or certificate from Belarus, as that’s where grandma was born.  It was dated, if our guess was correct, 24th October 1955. Tucked inside the document was a creased black-and-white photograph, probably pre-war, which bore the signs of much handling. It was a village scene and showed, standing by a rough log hut, a man and a woman, aged perhaps in their late twenties or early thirties, and a girl and boy aged around 7 and 9. The man wore loose trousers tucked into boots and a smock, the woman and girl faded cotton dresses and flowered headscarves. They all stared solemnly at the photographer and their gaze, less hostile than disinterested, seemed to say, “You don’t know us; and we don’t know you.”

Neither of mum nor I could read Belarusian, so two days later we took the envelope and its curious contents with us when we visited my great uncle Stepan, grandma’s younger brother. In his tiny flat, mum sat on a dining chair next to Stepan, while I perched on the end of the sofa.  He read the document, and, when he reached the photograph, spent a silent ten minutes contemplating the rural family. Finally, he put the picture down, and ran a rough, shaking hand across his face.

“I never thought I would see these faces again,” he sighed.

We gave the old man a moment to collect himself, and then could restrain ourselves no longer. “But Stepan, who are they? What’s the document about?”

After a moment’s pause, he took up the photograph again, and pointed.

“This is the Maskyevich family, they were good friends of our parents in Belarus. The little girl here, she was Olga – Olenka. Your grandma Lyena’s friend,” this last he directed at me. “In Belarus, you know, Chashniki, our village, was only tiny with no school. But the Maskyeviches, they lived in Khatyn’, which was a bit bigger and had a school. Lyena would live with the family during the week so she could go to school there.”

Stepan paused again, looking past mum and I, through the window of his room. It was a gusty, damp spring day. Outside, the trees bowed and waved, as if trying to get our attention.

“When the Germans invaded Belarus in during the war, at first the grown-ups thought we might be all right – living in a village, far from anywhere. Why on earth would they bother us? But then stories began to reach us….” Stepan’s voice tailed off momentarily, as he grasped the arm of his chair tightly. “They were coming to villages like ours, burning them to the ground, killing everyone who lived there. We were lucky – we went to distant relatives in the city and then – well, you know what a long story it is, but eventually we ended up here.”

“Once we left Belarus, it was hard to get news from back home. But bit by bit, news began to reach us, and, well,….. what we heard was that the people of Khatyn’ hadn’t been so lucky. Early in 1943.…..” Stepan’s voice trailed off, and he stared at the floor. Mum stroked his hand, until he suddenly seemed to gather himself together, and continued. “Early that year, some partisans blew up an enemy convoy, so as a punishment enemy soldiers forced the villagers of Khatyn’ into their barn, and set fire to it.”

Mum and I stared at Stepan, horrified at what we were hearing, but he, having begun to unburden himself, now seemed unable to stop. He picked up the document and, after reading it, went on, “I don’t know how Lyena managed to get this, but the document is from the authorities in Belarus. It’s about what happened to our friends, the Maskyevich family.”

I crouched next to Stepan’s armchair, and he began to translate, running a finger beneath the lines as he read aloud.

“The Lahoisk Regional Soviet acknowledges receipt of your enquiry of 25 April 1955 concerning the whereabouts of the family of Maskyevich, Mikahil Leonidovich, (born 19 August 1909) of Khatyn village, Lahoisk region following the period of fascist occupation of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus 1941 – 1944. We regret to confirm that following citizens perished during the destruction of Khatyn’ village on 22 March 1943:

Maskyevich, Mikhail, age 34

Maskyevich, Nina, age 31

Maskyevich, Timofei, age 12

Maskyevich, Olga, age 9”

Stepan leant back in his arm chair, weary with the effort and emotion involved in his task. I picked up the photograph again. My grandfather’s explanation and his translation of the document had breathed life and personality into its subjects. “Now you know us,” they seemed to say, “though we’re far apart, we’re connected.”

*************************

Back home, I flicked open my laptop and began searching. After a few blind alleys – how do you spell ‘Khatyn’’? –  I came across a raft of websites that confirmed Stepan’s story. In fact, the village had, in the 1960s, been chosen as the site for the national war memorial, as well as a memorial to the destruction of Khatyn’ itself. Photographs and video footage showed school parties and dignitaries visiting the site and newlyweds laying flowers there. And something else caught my eye too: an advertisement, flashing at the side of the screen. Belarus tourist information! It declared. Visa support! Group tours! Getting up to make a cup of tea, I thought about my family’s relationship with its past. No one from mum’s generation or mine had ever been to Belarus; in Communist times, it had just been too complicated, but even since then, I’m not sure the thought had ever occurred to us. Belarus? Nobody went there.  And anyway, we were British now, weren’t we? But with Stepan’s revelation, it was as if a gauntlet had been thrown down. Should we go there? Could we? I set my mug down, and clicked on the link to the travel site.

*****************************

Three months later, mum and I were in a minivan in the depths of rural Belarus. The previous day, we had called at grandma and uncle Stepan’s home village, Chashniki. Were it not for the one or two rust-spotted Ladas in evidence, it might have been a scene from a previous century.  We’d wandered along narrow, unmade lanes of tiny, brightly painted wooden homes, each decorated with carved wooden lace. The place was deserted, save for a scattering of very elderly ladies. With the help of our guide, a young English language student from a nearby town, and a few photographs that we’d brought, we approached each of them until we found one who remembered Stepan as one of her childhood playmates. A tiny woman in a flowered housecoat and wrinkled, woollen tights, her eyes brightened and she clasped at mum’s hand as she saw the photographs.

Though the memorial site at Khatyn’ had seemed a hive of activity online, today was evidently a quiet day for visitors, with only a handful of cars visible as our minibus crunched over the gravel. We emerged into the fresh air, and stood quietly for a moment. We had mixed feelings about making this visit, mum and I. Our feeling of loss at finally visiting grandma’s birthplace without her was intense and we both felt an acute sense of opportunities missed. Worse than that was now knowing the devastating news that she had received all those decades ago and had felt unable to share with her family.

As we entered the site, we were first struck not by what we could see, but by what we could hear. It was a warm day, and the breeze that rustled the pine and birch trees surrounding the site was benign and gentle. On that breeze came the occasional distant snippet of conversation, or call of a playing child, from one of the other visiting groups. Most curiously, though, those sounds were punctuated, every minute or so, by the sound of many single bells striking in unison.

We made our way down a flower-lined path towards the site. Ahead of us, and over the entrance loomed a giant statue of a haggard, bearded man bearing the body of a child. “The statue here,” our guide explained, “is called ‘The Unconquered Man’. It shows a man called Joseph Kaminsky. He was the only adult who survived of the massacre at Khatyn.”

Walking a slow circuit of the main site, we passed a memorial to each of the villages destroyed during the war. Soft toys and red carnations had been left in alcoves, and candles guttered in crimson glass jars. As we walked, the regular chime of the bells punctuated our thoughts. How on earth, I wondered as I walked, had the survivors in this country, who had witnessed such horror meted out to their own neighbours and loved ones, managed to pick themselves up and carry on with their lives?

Now, the path looped around the site, and into the memorial to Khatyn’ village itself. Our guide had promised to help us locate the memorial to the Maskyeviches – if there was one – and I fished in my bag for the copy of the document and photograph that I’d brought with me.

The sound of the bells had grown louder as we drew near to the Khatyn memorial, and the source of the striking bells now became clear. The boundary of each home in the village – perhaps some 20-25 of them – was marked by a low, concrete wall, and, at the front of each, a small gate stood ajar, as if the occupants might return at any second. And, in the middle of each home, stood a simple bell tower, perhaps some 8 feet high, and on each tower were listed the names and ages of the people who had lived there.

We walked between the homes, and the dense summer grass, studded with meadow flowers, tugged against our calves. I had been trying to master the Cyrillic alphabet since discovering the documents at grandma’s house, and so with some effort, I could make out the names on the bell towers, but none were the ones that we needed. Our guide had walked on ahead though, and when she called us, we found her, document in hand, standing before a house towards the end of the row. “Here it is,” she said, “I think it’s this one – take a look.”

Mum and I stepped through the open gate and looked up at the bell tower and gradually, like a light emerging through fog, the list of names emerged:

Maskyevich, Mikhail, age 34

Maskyevich, Nina, age 31

Maskyevich, Timofei, age 12

Maskyevich, Olga, age 9

“It’s them,” I said to mum. “This is the one.”

I took out the photograph, and we matched each person to each name on the memorial, from the young parents right down to little Olga, grandma’s friend. “Here we are,” they now seemed to say. “You found us.” We had promised Stepan to leave flowers at the memorial, and these we now lay at the foot of the bell tower. And then, we sat for a while on the low wall of the house, and the breeze ruffled the petals of Stepan’s flowers, and tossed the branches of the trees behind us, and the bells struck in unison, and then struck again, and again.  The sound would stay with us long after we had left the place.

Short story 1: Moving on, fitting in

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.