I take the bus to the gym I can’t really afford anymore. I choose a seat by the window and try to make progress with my book. (I have been reading Ulysses for nearly nine months.) When I’ve read the same paragraph five or six times, I look up, desperate for some relief from the words. An old guy in a powder-blue jacket with long, sparse hair is coming slowly down the aisle. He looks around for a seat, but they’re all taken and no one gets up, so like a stoic he sets his mouth and grips the handrail next to him. I think about offering mine, but I’d have to ask the woman next to me to move. She looks important, smartly dressed as if she’s going to a meeting. She’s reading through some notes and I don’t want to disturb her, or make her feel bad that she didn’t offer up her seat. I go back to Ulysses and, burning with the effort of pretending I haven’t noticed the old guy, I finally make it onto the next page. When the woman next to me gets off, the old man stays where he is. I watch him sway and shuffle with the movement of the bus, dancing in his orthopaedic shoes.
At the gym, I try to get out of my contract.
‘You’ll need to wait until the thirtieth of the month to hand in your notice, and then your contract will end two months after that,’ the woman whose name badge says ‘Frankie’ tells me. It’s Halloween and she is dressed as a witch, with a hat, a cape and her nails painted black. Underneath the cape, she’s in a shiny black unitard.
‘But the thirtieth is a full month away,’ I say. ‘Can’t we just pretend it’s yesterday?’
‘If only!’ she says, rustling a tin of retro sweets at me sympathetically. I take a packet of Parma violets and crunch them two at a time.
She looks at her records. ‘I see you still haven’t had your Full-body MOT. Shall we do that now, as you’re here?’ I had been putting it off until I got fitter because I wanted to get a better score than Luke, but it’s been two years and if I’m leaving, I might as well get it done. She comes round from the reception desk and ushers me to a table, taking her plastic broom with her.
In response to the questionnaire, I tell Frankie that I don’t drink any alcohol or coffee, and that I sleep for nine hours every night. My blood pressure is good and so are my resting levels, but when she tests my aerobic fitness on the treadmill, I’m so eager to impress that I nearly slide off, and my vision goes dark while I gasp for breath.
‘How often did you say you come here?’ Frankie asks, looking at her clipboard. ‘Have you thought about a personal trainer?’ By the time I leave, I’ve signed up to three one-on-one sessions with a PT named Gavin, at a specially reduced introductory rate of £99.99.
I’m not sure if my mother has been storing up material for our conversations, or if it’s part of the process of grieving for her father, but these days when she phones, she seems to have an awful lot of awful news to relate.
‘Pippa from church, in the choir – you do know her. The husband, an atheist – you wouldn’t have met him. Slipped and fell in the shower: it’s touch-and-go whether he’ll walk again. I’ve sent Dad to John Lewis to buy one of those mats. You can’t be too careful.’
And: ‘Gordon two doors up from us, well, his son-in-law, the policeman – I told you, remember? Depressed. Several attempts, over the years, but they thought he was over all that. Anyway,’ she sighs, ‘it would seem this time he did succeed.’
My next move
I go to a cafe to get out of the house, and bring my laptop so I can do some career research. There is a table of about eight women, all with babies, and a couple of them are breastfeeding. They’re talking about how hands-on their husbands are, and while their one-upmanship makes me slightly suspicious, I can’t deny that the women look great. Their skin is fantastic, and the babies are all so sweet – tiny, quiet and content.
I’m surfing arts websites for jobs, but don’t know what I’m looking for and all my searches keep returning sales roles, or executive positions way above my earning bracket. A woman comes in who looks about my age, balancing a toddler on her hip, a little girl. The two of them are in matching Breton-striped tops and jeans, and when she orders a coffee, she actually has a French accent. She sits at the table next to me and the child is off: behind the counter, under the table, climbing up the stairs marked ‘No entry’. She is delightful; the baristas don’t mind at all.
I click on a description for a heritage job, which involves writing the blue plaques on buildings where notable fig-ures used to live. I could definitely do that, I think, sum someone up in a couple of words. I consider how I would blue-plaque people I know: Luke = ‘eminent physician’; Paul = ‘pioneering artist’; Sarah = ‘educational innovator’. I have a harder time with the ones who work in PR and management consultancy, and decide that’s because they probably wouldn’t deserve a blue plaque anyway.
The toddler is at my table, holding out her arms and waving both hands from the wrists, beaming. I do the same and she laughs, runs away, buries her face in her mother’s lap saying, ‘Maman, Maman!’ and the mother, who might in fact be younger than me, bends over to murmur a stream of French into her daughter’s bright bobbed hair.
‘Maybe I should have a baby.’ I’m loading the dishwasher after dinner, and Luke laughs.
‘Right, I meant we should. But I’ll be the one having it, won’t I? I could be a stay-at-home mum.’
‘I thought you were finding your purpose,’ says Luke. ‘I thought that’s what this was all about.’ He makes an expansive gesture at ‘this’, as though the kitchen is somehow part of my plan, as though ‘this’ is where I spend all my time now.
‘Maybe my purpose is to be a mother?’
Luke nods, wide-eyed, pushing out his bottom lip, thoughtful but ultimately unconvinced. He beckons me over and I sit on his knee, loop my arms round his neck, rest my chin on his shoulder.
‘I think I’m going to take French classes,’ I say. ‘Build on what I learned at school. It’s a shame to let all that knowledge go to waste.’
‘Mais oui,’ says Luke, shrugging my face round to his. He French-kisses me, which means we’ll end up having sex.
6 p.m. on a Thursday, and while I may not have applied for any jobs, I have made myself eligible to win a Mini Cooper, two nights in Paris and seven in Miami, £500 of vouchers for a Scandinavian clothing brand, an enormous TV (which I plan to sell on), an espresso machine (which I’ll definitely keep), tickets to three exhibitions, a case of Prosecco, a juicer, a designer handbag, a designer coat, a meal for two at a corporate-looking restaurant in the City including a cocktail on arrival but no wine, membership to an independent cinema franchise and a VIP package for two at a female-only spa, so no one could argue it’s been a completely wasted day.
Paul, my friend from university, is back from a stint abroad that took in Berlin, Tokyo, Vienna, Johannesburg. He’s a conceptual artist of growing repute: I’ve started seeing his work mentioned in blogs (even if I always find them via links on his own). We arrange to meet at a dive bar we frequented in the old days after we’d graduated. I’d traipse into London from my parents’ house in the suburbs to interview for positions whose criteria my patchy employment history – waitressing, child-minding – fell some way short of fulfilling. Afterwards we’d sink bottles of wine and bemoan our lost youth (we were twenty-one) and rail about how life wasn’t fair: what more could we do? Why wouldn’t someone give us a break? But while I was spamming every arts, advertising and media organization I could think of with my CV – regardless of whether a job was on offer – Paul was secretly receiving scholarship offers from prestigious art schools all over the world. When I found out, two weeks before he left for New York, I felt deeply, righteously aggrieved. How dare he harbour such dreams? Who had given him permission to aim so high? Who did he think he was?
He arrives wearing big boots, their laces agape, beard full and his newly grown-out hair pulled up into a little topknot.
‘Congrats on dropping out of the rat race, little one,’ he says. He also pats me on the head, a paternalistic bit he always does – it’s ironic, but still, he does it every single time. ‘After all those years of empty threats! What made you go through with it?’
I tell him about the day I was seized by a powerful impulse to start swallowing things on my desk: drawing pins, lumps of Blu Tack, whatever would fit in my mouth.
‘I got as far as putting a paper clip on my tongue before realizing there was another way. So I spat it out and went to my boss’s office to quit.’
‘How did he take it?’
‘She was on holiday, so I had to wait another two weeks. But as soon as I’d made the decision, it was as if . . . I’d been holding my breath for years without knowing, and finally I could let it out. And I didn’t have to swallow so much as a staple.’
‘Suicide by bureaucracy: I like it,’ he says, slow-nodding in approval.
‘Hey, that’s a freebie. Have it for your next show.’
‘Mm. It’s not really my kind of work. But thanks,’ he adds, eyes shrinking into a smile.
Not Working by Lisa Owens; published by Picador in hardback on 21st April.