Community Service Ch. 04

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Braces

Chapter 4: What’s the worst that could happen?

It had already been the worst day of my life to date: earning my £80 per week Unemployment Benefit payments, by working as a community servant — in the Sock Room.

And it wasn’t over yet …

I was at home; that is, at my parents’ house, where I was still living at the time. It was almost 7:00 p.m. and, having eaten hardly anything all day I was ravenous.

The whole of the Smith family, and also my eighteen-year-old cousin, Rose, who worked for Mum and Dad, were seated at the dinner table enjoying one of Mum’s incredibly tasty spaghetti Bolognese dinners.

“I can’t believe that working in the Sock Room is anything like as bad as you are trying to make out, David,” said Mum, pooh-poohing my stretching-the-limits-of-credulity tale of woe.

“Oh, it is, Mum. And trust me: I have given you the edited version!”

My nineteen-year-old brother John, on time off from his well-paid job as a chef on one of the North Sea oil rigs, said, “I’ll take you to the Nelson later, Dave. And you can tell me all about it – all the grizzly details!”

“You’re on, John! Thanks. After the day I’ve had, I could murder a pint!”

Just then, on the portable TV sitting on the kitchen counter, we heard the familiar intro music to Channel 4’s seven o’clock news, and we all hushed up to watch the top-story headlines.

“… And, at Westminster now, talking to Cathy,” announced the studio’s veteran anchor-man, John Frost, “is the Home Secretary, Theresa Maynard.”

The camera switched to the blonde and attractive TV journalist, Cathy Newton. Cathy was standing next to an ash-blonde, blue-eyed, slim and attractive woman in her mid-forties. The woman wore her hair in the distinctive concave bob style, and it was shot through with attractive natural highlights of light-grey and silver streaks. She also wore a distinct aura of presence, that was immediately apparent, and that would be ignored only by fools. And, rather incongruously, perhaps, for a woman in such a senior governmental position, on her feet she was wearing a pair of eye-catching leopard skin pattern flats.

“Theresa Maynard … were you surprised,” asked the wavy-haired, blue-eyed Cathy, on behalf of Channel 4’s viewers, “that the Authoritarian Female Party, led by Caroline Flynt, were elected to govern Britain in such an amazing landslide victory?”

“No. No, I wasn’t, quite frankly. Were you, Cathy …? I very much doubt it. After all, Cathy, Britain had been crying out for change. Crying out, for a government that would do something about the perennial problem of our male long-term unemployed. And only the A.F.P., led by Caroline Flynt, were prepared to tackle the issue – to grab it by the … well, I’m sure you know where I’m coming from, Cathy,” replied Theresa Maynard with a meaningful smirk.

“Um … quite,” replied Cathy. “But, some would say, though, that the A.F.P. have gone a little bit overboard … have gone too far …? I mean, for example, take the introduction of the town centre Public Caning Posts, and the medieval-style stocks. And then there’s the highly controversial Placement scheme, for school leavers with no job or training to go to upon their leaving education. And – and then there are these so-called Sock Rooms, that have beeen installed in every town and city in the UK. Where male community servants, under the supervision of cane-wielding female Community Service Officers, are made to hand-wash girls’ and women’s dirty socks … Some would say—”

“And some would say, Cathy,” bristled the Home Secretary, “that forcing lazy, workshy, parasitic … career claimants, to do something for their Unemployment Benefit payments, is a jolly good thing. Wouldn’t you? The wake-up call for these appalling scroungers is long overdue. And can you think of a better way, Cathy, of motivating the country’s long-term layabouts into finding gainful employment? Because I certainly can’t!”

“Just one final question, Home Secretary … Is it true, that the Sock Room scheme was Caroline Flynt’s own, personal brainchild?”

“Ha ha ha! Yes! Yes, it was, actually. As was the highly successful Air Purification Technician initiative, a Placement scheme that all of our major airlines have now adopted. Another wonderfully efficacious idea of Caroline’s – ha ha ha ha!” laughed the Home Secretary. “From the very first day of its operation, the Air Purification Technician scheme has been achieving quite brilliant results, proving to be an extremely effective tool for ratcheting down the statistics of male long-term unemployed. In fact, Caroline personally presided over that particular Placement scheme’s opening ceremony, at Manchester Airport. The inaugural flight, I recall, was a Sunshine Holidays flight to Corfu.”

“Thank you, Theresa Maynard, for talking to us this evening.”

“You’re welcome, Cathy. It’s always a pleasure.”

Turning to face the camera, the attractive and engaging Cathy Newton said, “And it’s back to you, John, in the studio.”

Before the two women went Bayan Eskort out of camera shot, Cathy Newton could be seen smiling, as she said something while pointing down at the Home Secretary’s leopard skin pattern flats. Smiling equally widely, Theresa Maynard responded by slipping free her right, bare foot, picking up her flat, and tucking her right foot in behind her left knee; her bare right sole, now angled directly towards the camera. Effortlessly balancing herself upon her standing left leg, Theresa Maynard then proudly showed her shoe to Cathy, apparently extolling its virtues as she turned it this way and that, and viewing the stylish shoe from every conceivable angle. The two women – interviewer and interviewee – continued smiling, as they tested the flat’s flexibility, scrutinised the insole, and apparently began discussing at length the merits and delights of owning and wearing said footwear.

“Oh, but she’s a hard woman, that Theresa Maynard,” commented Dad, returning his attention to his dinner.

“Nonsense!” replied Mum. “We need bright and intelligent, hands-on, no-nonsense women like Theresa Maynard running the country. Women with some backbone, resolve … And she always wears nice shoes, too. Did you see those flats, girls? Absolutely gorgeous!”

Alison said, “Yes, they were lovely, weren’t they, Mum? And girl-friendly, too. I like shoes that you can easily slip your feet in and out of while you’re sitting at your desk in the office, wiggle your toes a bit, and let them breathe. That’s why I love mules … mmm, such freedom. We have to wear three-inch heel leather pumps in the office – don’t we, Denise? My latest pair are still quite new and – oh, my poor feet! I can just about pop out my heels, but … Oh, and that stuffy Mr Kilroy, the senior partner – more like kill-joy! – he says it’s unseemly, in a solicitors’ office, for office girls to be seen playing about with their shoes with their feet, under their desks and seats.”

Denise said, “Yes, Alison, but at least my office pumps are quite well worn-in now, so they’ve become supple, and are actually quite nice to wear. And sod Mr Kilroy – the miserable old duffer! None of the other partners have ever said anything … In fact, now that I come to think of it, Alison, that Mr Pervis …? You know, one of the junior partners, who sits at the desk behind mine – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve looked over my shoulder to see him staring, bug-eyed, under my chair … Oh, my god! – ha ha ha ha! Do you think he’s got some kind of a foot fetish, or something? Ha ha ha ha! – Pervis the pervert! … Anyway, yes, I thought Theresa Maynard’s flats were quite sexy, actually. I thought they looked great on her – and she looked fantastic in them. Maybe I’ll buy myself a pair … Des will love them.”

Des (Desmond) was Denise’s fiance. Apparently he was ‘something in the City’, and he was well loaded. One of his money-coming-out-of-his-ears, Champagne-swilling banker colleagues, Henry (hedge-fund) Harris, he’d said, bought a brand-new, top-of-the-range Porsche every year, and had opened an account for his shoe-crazy girlfriend at the world-famous women’s shoe designer, Manolo Blahnik. And, he’d added admiringly, of his richer-than-Croesus colleague, that he routinely lit his £100-a-pop Cuban cigars with £50 notes. And the very idea of that – of money literally going up in smoke – drove me totally mental. Yes, it was his friend’s money, and he could spend it how he liked. And I didn’t care a jot, that he bought a brand-new, ultra-expensive motor every year, and that his banker’s bonuses made the Prime Minister’s salary look like change for the phone. And I didn’t even care that, thanks to his indulgent largesse, his girlfriend made Imelda Marcos look stuck for something to wear – good luck to her, in fact. But, the thought of him lighting up his cigars with £50 notes made me want to put my foot through the TV screen.

Rose said, of Theresa Maynard’s leopard skin pattern flats, “Yes. They are to die for, aren’t they? Stylish, comfy, and – like you said, Denise – sexy, too.” After glancing at Dad, Rose said, “And look at the state of these ratty old things, uncle Dan,” as she pushed her chair back, stuck out her bare, olive-skinned legs and, dangling her pair of black, well-worn flats from her toes, worked her toes to execute a rapid-fire half-dozen heel slaps. Rose then added coyly, “But a pair of those flats would cost more than I earn in a week …”

Pretending not to have taken on-board Rose’s thinly veiled hint at a pay rise, and trying to get the conversation back on-topic; or, to be more precise, to get his shoe-mad wife, daughters and niece off the subject of female footwear (because, once they got started, you couldn’t prise them off the subject with a 12-foot crowbar) Dad said feelingly, “Well, I’m glad I’m not Theresa Maynard’s husband!”

“Ah,” responded Mum, “but that’s because you are married to me. Isn’t it, darling? To me, who you love more than life itself. To me, who you just can’t get enough, of—”

“Children present!!” I yelled in mock shock, pointing to my nineteen-year-old brother, John, and my two sisters, Alison and Denise, twenty-one and twenty-three, respectively. And to my eighteen-year-old cousin, Rose, who was my parents’ full-time assistant in their town centre florist shop, Roses are Red.

Alison and Denise were solicitors, and they both held well-paid, responsible positions at Canford’s most eminent law firm, of Black, Brown and Grey. Although in fact, there was no one with any of those names at the town’s most distinguished law firm any more. Alison had explained to me that Mr Kilroy (“more like kill-joy!”), who had bought out those fine old gentlemen, hadn’t then removed their names from the window and replaced them with his own name and those of his partners’. He’d preferred instead, to cash in on the kudos of those long-established, and prestigious predecessors’ names and reputations. Apparently that was quite lawful. Provided, of course, that Mr Kilroy and his partners all signed legal documents, etcetera, with their real names.

Alison then said to me, “So … about your job hunting, David. Are you sure you’ve looked everywhere? Knocked on every potential employer’s door? Adrian says he’s heard a rumour they may soon be taking on some warehouse staff at Tesco’s.”

Adrian was Alison’s fiance, and he worked as a forklift truck driver for the supermarket giant.

“Yes, everywhere I can think of,” I said. “They are sick of the sight of me, Alison, turning up on their doorstep every week or so. But I’ll get myself round Tesco’s again as soon as I get the chance. And thanks for telling me – say ta to Adrian for me.”

Denise said, “Hmm … You’ve definitely thought of everywhere, though, have you? Everywhere in Canford? All of the employment agencies? Units in the Industrial Estates? Supermarkets, warehouses, garages, factories …?”

“Yes. Anywhere I might have a chance, they are just not taking on staff. Or, when they do, they always give the job to someone else. But yes, Denise, I keep thinking there must be somewhere I haven’t looked. Or that something hasn’t occurred to me. I …”

I was looking at Rose … She was a full-time employee in Mum and Dad’s town centre florist shop, Roses are Red.

And Rose was looking at me … uneasily, as if she was waiting to see if a penny was going to suddenly drop …

“That … that’s … that’s it!” I cried, in my Eureka moment – as the penny suddenly dropped. “Rose. Rosie … don’t you see? You can sign on the dole! Females are getting two hundred and forty pounds a week now, in Unemployment Benefit payments. Don’t you get it …? You can be a lady of leisure. And I could work for Mum and Dad at the florist shop!”

I was cock-a-hoop. It was problem solved! I couldn’t believe it. The simple solution had been there all along, staring me in the face. What a relief! I was euphoric. I couldn’t contain myself. I sprang out of my chair and started doing a merry jig … of sorts. “Ha ha ha! We-hey!” Clapping my hands in sheer happiness, I sang, “No more Sock Room – oh no! No more Miss Karen, no more Miss Linda – oh no! No more—”

At perceiving her cherished job in dire jeopardy, Rose whined, “But – but I don’t want to go on the dole! I don’t want to be a lady of leisure! I want to work! At the florist’s! Are you forgetting, David? I’m supposed to be taking over the running of Roses are Red eventually, when auntie Gail and uncle Dan retire. So there! You’ll just have to find something else – and that’s that!” she told me flatly.

I stopped singing. Stopped clapping my hands. Stopped doing a merry jig.

And then Rose recovered her confidence and assurance, saying to me, “Anyway, David. It’s a ridiculous idea. What possible use would you be, in a florist shop? You wouldn’t know a cowslip from a cow’s bum!”

“Ha ha ha!” laughed Mum. “Rose has got a point there! And besides, David, you should be ashamed of yourself – trying to steal your cousin’s job! How could you? I think you should apologise to Rose – and now, David.”

“Thank you, auntie Gail,” said the grossly affronted and gravely offended Rose – as if she and Mum had just caught me red-handed, looking through my cousin’s underwear drawer. Rose looked at me, expectantly. “Well, David?” she prompted. “I’m waiting …”

While Rose waited, she crossed her right leg over her left knee, allowed her right flat to dangle from her toes, and she proceeded to work her toes, causing the heel of her dangling flat to repeatedly slap against the bottom of her bare heel … slap … slap … slap … slap … slap …

I felt my face going red from shame. Mum was right: I should be ashamed. And Rose was right, too: I had taken leave of my senses there, for a moment. I would be about as much use in a florist shop, as an ashtray on a Harley Davidson. While Rose was a natural, in the florist shop – she had the proverbial green fingers. And taking her out of Roses are Red, and replacing her with me, would be akin to removing Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel, and replacing him with some slapdash, cack-handed emulsion dauber.

Completely deflated, I slumped back down in my chair at the dining table, and miserably twirled some of the remaining strands of spaghetti around my fork. When I felt able to face her, I looked across the table at Rose. “I’m sorry, Rose,” I said. “I wouldn’t really have taken your job. Honest, I wouldn’t. It was just an idea, that’s all. Just a daft idea. Just a daft, clutching-at-straws idea,” I said despondently.

Everyone had gone quiet at the dining table.

“Come on, Dave,” said John, slapping me on the shoulder. “Let’s go and have that pint.”

* * *

The Lord Nelson, our local pub, was quite busy for eight o’clock on a Monday evening. It was Happy Hour – half-price drinks – until nine.

On the Juke Box, Mick Jagger was raucously bemoaning that he couldn’t get no satisfaction. No – and you are not the only one, Mick, I mumbled under my breath.

John and I found a vacant table to sit at and, when we had both taken the tops off our ice-cold pints of lager, I observed, “It’s funny that, isn’t it, John? It says Happy Hour. But it starts at six o’clock, and finishes at nine. That’s three hours.”

John raised an eyebrow. “Why? Not complaining are you, Dave? Shall I go and have a quiet word with the landlord for you – tell him he’s contravening the Trades and Descriptions Act of eighteen-something-or-other?”

“Ha! You’ve never been able to take your drink, John. It goes straight to your head. You’ve only taken the top off your pint, and you’re already spouting nonsense.”

“Never been able to take my drink? I’m nineteen years old, Dave – hardly a veteran drinker. Anyway, having a sense of humour, it’s called, actually,” responded John with mock offence.

“A sense of humour? Yeah, well, I used to have one of those … You’d soon lose that, John, in the Sock Room,” I said morosely.

“Ah, yes. The dreaded Sock Room. So … is it as bad, then, as you’ve been leading us all to believe?”

“No, John – it’s a thousand times worse. What you heard earlier … well, that was the sanitised version. For Mum’s benefit. No – it’s hellish, John. Just hellish. I’ve … I’ve got these two supervisors, C.S.O.’s Karen and Linda. Hell! They are only a year or so older than me, but I have to respectfully call them Miss Karen, and Miss Linda. Or they’ll cane me – chastisement, they call it – they’ll pull my uniform shorts down around my ankles, and cane my bare bum. In fact … they’ve already done it. They really let me have it – six strokes of the cane each. I’ve never known pain anything like it. And it’s still hurting like hell, even now, hours later.”

“What …?” said John, in tones of outraged incredulity. “Did I hear you right? Your supervisors caned you, just because you didn’t call them Miss—”

“No. No, there’s a bit more to it than that. I – I had a bit of a mishap with some detergent, Kolour Kind, it’s called. Even then, I might have still gotten away with a stern telling-off from C.S.O.’s Karen and Linda …”

“But …?” prompted John.

“But I – I’d been, well … undiplomatic, with Canford High’s schoolgirls’ PE teacher, a Miss Pardew. So C.S.O. Linda handed her cane to Miss Pardew, so that she could cane me as well. It was bad luck, really, because it turned out that C.S.O.’s Karen and Linda are former students of Miss Pardew, which made matters a hundred times worse. They were both apoplectic, outraged that I’d been anything less than ultra respectful to their former PE teacher, who they both apparently still think the world of. So they gave Miss Pardew carte blanche – let her cane me as many times as she wanted. God, John, Miss Pardew really gave it to me – good and proper. She really gave me a good seeing to. I thought she was never going to stop. She kept saying that my manners weren’t what they ought to be, and that she was bringing me to heel.”

“Good god!” exclaimed John. “I was wondering why you were looking so agitated; shifting and shuffling about on your chair all the time during dinner. You hardly sat still for two seconds. No wonder, you tried to pinch Rose’s job—”

“And Mrs Newlove was there – at the Sock Room. She actually came for the day – like it was a day out at some amusement theme park. Can you believe that? She’d got her mum to mind the kids, and brought a load of food and drink – like it was some kind of picnic outing … incredible! Her, and another woman, Gina Stainham …? You’ve seen her around, John. Anyway, she—”

“What? Mrs Newlove, did you say? Norma Newlove? Norma Newlove, from across the road – her? Why? What about her, Dave? Oh, hell, what has she done now? What did she—”

“What did she do? Mrs Newlove? She saw everything I did, and heard everything I said, to Miss Pardew – and she blabbed to my supervisors! When Miss Pardew turned up again in the afternoon, with another big batch of Canford High schoolgirls’ dirty sports socks – Year Four’s, this time – Mrs Newlove opened her big mouth and gave my supervisors chapter and verse. And I mean, chapter and verse. She was in her element. She dropped me right in it! But, John, that’s not the worst of it – not by a long chalk … Mrs Newlove, she … she—”

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