One for the Gods

Gerry Wells



John Aloysius is late, a conspiracy of alarm clock and public transport. Naturally the lift’s out of order as well, grinning behind its smug notice and padlock. So that leaves several flights of stairs to be taken at a grunting lope. Up and up. Somewhere among the clouds, the stairs peter out. In front of him, there’s a door with a stencilled notice: DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH STUDIES. So it does exist. John takes a deep breath.

The door sighs shut behind him and a long corridor stretches ahead. What a change! Panelling, plush pictures in gilded frames. There’s a pervasive smell of polish and the suit John got bullied into by his wife suddenly seems appropriate, comfortable even. He straightens his tie. At the end of the corridor there’s a door bearing a notice: ENQUIRIES. Behind the polished wood sits a young woman dealing with enough hi-tech scenery to organise all the nation’s colleges, not just this one. She looks up.

“Good morning?” A composite greeting and what-do-you-want? - in a neat package.

“John Aloysius. I’ve come for an interview. Late, I’m afraid.”

She checks a list - a long one - and John wonders why he bothered to run - or even start. The secretary marks off his name and smiles. “It doesn’t matter - we’ve reversed alphabetical order for today, so you’re in plenty of time.” She gets up and crosses to the door, “I’ll take you down to the waiting room.”  

John inwardly chunters as he follows the swing of her hips for what seems to be several miles.  We’ve reversed alphabetical order, he mimics silently. I could have had a heart attack doing those bloody stairs...

The atmosphere twangs as he enters the waiting room. There’s a fug of sweat and tension. Hard chairs and pea-green walls. A tall window looks out across the city and a hot blue sky. Conversation dies in a dusty throat-clearing silence, and lots of pairs of eyes size up, evaluate and look away as John sinks gratefully on to the one empty chair.

Interviews aren’t many people’s bag, and there’s nothing more unpleasant than sitting around waiting for one. It brings out the worst in nerve-knotted human nature by way of the inevitable braggers. Braggers are the ones with enough relevant qualifications to fill up a memory stick, all with a lifetime’s experience in exactly this kind of job - as well as having had a good close shave when they got up.

John takes all that in and fingers a patch of beard he missed. He studies shoes while a bragger goes on where he left off at the interruption. There’s one pair of Oxfords, a couple of brogues and the rest a miscellany. Especially his. He tucks them under his chair and a muscle in his thigh twitches a fluttering protest.

The grumble of traffic infiltrates like a distant storm, and now and again you can hear a flurry of wings as an eagle leaves its eyrie to pick-off a fresh human for lunch. Conversation becomes desultory, stupefied by a fug that’s probably made permanent by a window that’s been screwed shut so people can’t jump out. In time warps like this, thought crumbles to a mass of mental jingles while candidates disappear like the green bottles on a wall - but a lot more slowly.   Eventually they reduce to two. Then one.

John’s pacing the empty room deciding absolutely finally that he doesn’t want the sodding job - and that he’s well able to survive on DSS a while longer - when he’s called into that other world. Panels and pictures again, a wide and tasteful stretch of carpet across the room to where the interviewers wait. An arena... the bull trotting out across the sand wondering what it’s all about. That sort of feeling.

Three of them sit spaced out behind a very large desk, two men - and a woman who leans forward to shake John’s hand. Introducing herself and her companions, she points to a chair set in front of the desk.

“Do sit down. Sorry to have kept you so long - but as you might imagine, we’ve had quite a morning of it.”

Forcing back the not-at-alls and quite-all-rights that come springing to his dry lips, John pauses by the chair. He wonders whether to shift it an inch or two - just to show he’s at ease as well. But he’s heard stories about interview chairs being rigged to collapse if you move them - a nasty initiative test to see what you’ll do under stress. He leaves it where it is.

The woman settles herself and shuffles through a folder. She’s wearing a wedding ring and has a round unlined face behind the sort of glasses that have clip-on colours for each day of the week. Today’s her blue day. This is the time allowed for a candidate to become fully aware of the vulnerability his position, so she’s not hurrying. John’s diverting himself by wondering whether she’s wearing a wig. Her hair is... well, so bouffant and blond - and that hairline looks a bit too well defined... Isn’t that the giveaway? But his speculations are interrupted as her smile focuses on him again...

“Well now, we seem to have plenty of information about you here,” still shuffling through the file... “why do you want this post ?” The question - an old familiar that drops into every interview like a homing pigeon. John fidgets.

“I want this job because I’m nearly skint and getting desperate. Because of a wife who’s lost in moods I don’t recognise any more, a turning away into silences because they ‘re easier. And God knows what else I haven’t latched on to yet...” Of course, he doesn’t say any of that. Instead, he takes the usual line - about the challenge of the work, an opportunity to give something back.... the usual stuff, and pretty well what all the others must have said before him.

The elder of the two men takes over. He wears gold-rimmed John Lennon glasses and has a pipe sticking out of the breast pocket of his jacket - probably isn’t allowed to smoke it, thinks John, and has to make do with the scent and bite of vintage dottle.

“You’re older than the other candidates, Mr Aloysius,” smiling to take the sting out of it. “How do you think you’d cope with the demands of the work?” Relaxing, John deals with the attack with a few brisk remarks about the advantages of experience outside teaching. He gets into his stride... feels better. The third of the trinity clears his throat. Plump and confident, he’s wearing a jazzy tie and doodles on a pad that’s so covered with artistry you can’t begin to see the paper. His hair is gelled and spiky. He looks up.

“How long have you lived in this country?”

“I was born here.” This guy’s the psychologist, thinks John - here to provoke reactions and see what we do with our hands. A needler. “No doubt that’s in my notes somewhere,” he adds. They look at each other.

And so it goes on. A shaft of sunlight lengthens across the carpet, and behind the chimneys framed in the window small clouds skim away on holiday - while John’s past and possible future are passed from hand to hand for scrutiny. It all takes thirty-five minutes before they’re through and sit back. John relaxes as well. He’s been careful about his hands that have been clasped in his lap out of harm’s way. Mrs Blue Glasses smiles encouragingly. “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?”

John thinks up a couple of points - he’s expected to ask something, pretty well anything, except what he really needs to know. No doubt that answer will flop on to the doormat sometime next week. With luck.

There’s an air of well-earned lunchtime in the room as John gets to his feet. Jazzy Tie unhooks a corduroy jacket from the back of his chair and waits for him to go. Not an ally, thinks John, shaking hands all round - but you never can tell. Descending a dozen flights of stairs that nobody else seems to use is as bad as going up. Worse in fact. This is the beginning of worry time, when all the intelligent decision-swaying replies come creeping into your head a lot too late to be of any use.

Down and down... How did it go? Any chance...?   Those will be the questions in an anxious kitchen, his children busy with tea. It’s hard to be the one stuck at home while imagination does its worst. Outside feels like a blast of sauna with the street streaming by and the sun a great brilliance. It’s the real world again.   John puts on his shades and goes off to ease the pressure on his bladder. The public convenience is cool and unoccupied.   In its time the place has accommodated the entire school of spray-can graffiti artists. Across the longest wall - the one you see most of - there’s a big BLACKS GO HOME in a sprawl of paint.

“Coffee first,” says John, washing his hands.

Heading for the MacDonald’s he avoids treading on the cracks between paving slabs. He won’t walk under any ladders either... when things get as tight as this, you take no chances. An ambulance wails by in a hurry. Whoever it’s got inside is safely anonymous behind the darkened glass. The driver wears a preoccupied expression as he takes the traffic lights at amber. His two-tone klaxon diminishes behind a wall of red buses distorting into distance like some rampaging animal. Two notes... one high, one low. Life? Death?

Take your pick.

©2008 Gerry Wells

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