This was it; the one he’d been waiting for, and it had definitely been a long time coming. He reread, with a plate of beans on toast balanced on his lap, the advertisement in that evening’s Free Press: “Assistant required for Knowles’ Bookshop. Send a CV if you think you have the requisite skills and interests for this position”. Steve Hull folded the newspaper and lit one of his last cigarettes of the evening. He had been floundering, lost, in his job as a post-room worker at a big telecommunications company; going to work bloated with nausea at the approaching boredom of the working day, handing out mail to sneering secretaries and serious go-getters, younger than him, in their sharp suits and narrow-boat length shoes.
It had only, at the beginning at least, been a stop-gap measure; something to help him pay the rent whilst he hunted out something more appropriate, something that was even vaguley connected to the low-rent literature degree he’d somehow managed to get. He never had enough money for the train in the mornings, wouldn’t even dare asking his crab-apple-faced girlfriend, and so had to put up with the pocket-trauma of avoiding the ticket inspector; waiting until he was sure which end of the train the inspector was starting at before boarding himself. It was only a 20 minute journey and, apart from a daily and inexplicable 90 second halt in the middle of a tunnel, was normally non-dramatic.
That morning, the gods being belatedly with him, he found an unstained CV as well as a virgin envelope, all within the space of twenty minutes; no nasty ranting with his girlfriend or kicking over of insolent furniture. This undoubtedly augured well, and he dropped his CV into the bookshop’s letter box on his way up to the station. He then came across what he thought was a heavily sleeping cat on its side on the deserted, early morning pavement, but, prodding it with the toe of his trainer, he discovered that it was, in fact, dead. It looked perfect, lying there, no blood-soaked fur or visible wounds. Bad omen perhaps?
Three days later, on the Thursday morning, he got home to find a letter from the bookshop inviting him to an interview the following Monday afternoon at 2 o’clock. Ode to joy! This piece of welcome news helped him through the thick-sliced tedium of an evening’s television viewing with his girlfriend. Very occasionally, usually when he looked at her, he’d wonder what they were doing together; he didn’t even like her much. She never made him laugh, and was always going on about the dreary sagas at her office. An office populated by a cast of dull people whom he had never met but whom he was supposed to be interested in. All in all she was a blend of the nasty and the bland, not at all the person he should have been with. Or so he thought. To be fair, she probably wasn’t that happy with him, but he couldn’t be sure of that because she was always putting in place long-terms projects for them both: getting a Yorkshire terrier, buying a flat, even, and he shuddered inwardly, getting married. And he was always dextrously manoeuvring himself out of putting his signature to the dotted line of these projects.
That weekend a friend from London came down and they spent as much time as they could haggle out of his girlfriend in the pubs. She signalled her disapproval not by going home, which would have been whoopingly welcomed, but by sullenly staying with them, complaining every time one of them went up to the bar to get another round of drinks. They even went out all day on the Sunday, ostensibly to watch a seemingly important football match but after that they had finished by convincing themselves that the evening fixture between Dumfries and Hamilton Academicals was simply unmissable. Having drunk all day the beer began to acquire a metallic taste, like he was sucking on the contents of his rarely used toolbox, and his face felt switched on, house-brick red and beaming with bumpkinish slow-wittedness.
After an argument with his girlfirend, the text of which he subsequently and determinedly forgot, he inserted himself painstakingly into his bed. His sleep was not refreshing. It was the unplugging of an overheating machine, the engine put on an unsteady stand-by. In the morning his mouth felt like a deep-fried animal sanctuary, and shaving rather than brushing his teeth seemed to be a more probable way of exorcising that backdraft of booze, fags, and indeterminate take-away foodstuffs. Neverthless he settled on the toothbrush and stabbed it around his complaining mouth while looking at his poached and deepsea eyes in the Ikea mirror.
As he was not working that morning he had time to dismantle his wide-screen hangover and put his mind to that afternoon’s interview. He was no good at preparing for these kind of things and so reassured himself by saying that his reacting spontaneously would sharpen up the answers rather than spewing out oven-ready responses that would have everybody knee-high in ennui within minutes. He chose, and then ironed, his favoured black Ben Sherman shirt, ran a suede brush over his run-down desert boots, and picked a sprig of loose cotton out of the seams of his beige Levi’s sta-prest. His hair wouldn’t quite get itself together; there seemed to be something untoward happening at the crown and his side parting was almost a diagonal one. But that shouldn’t, he thought, constitute a reason for reacting unfavourably to his interview technique.
He got to the shop a good five minutes before the stipulated time but entered anyway; the perma-smiling man behind the book-crowded counter told him to take a seat, the only visible chair in the shop, and that Mr Knowles would arrive shortly. He looked around at the massed battalions of second-hand books and cellophane-wrapped magazines and knew that this was his kind of enviroment, not the faintly-vomit smelling corridors of the telecommunications company along which he traipsed his ridiculous post trolley. An older man, bald with a heavily-sculpted face, whom he took for Mr Knowles, abruptly entered the shop a few minutes later and broadcast a long, drawn-out belch:
“Those cheese and onion sandwiches at The Vicky have got a bloody decent kick in them.”
He looked down at Steve Hull and then at the smiling man behind the counter:
“Is this the next victim then , Phil?”
Steve got up and shook Mr Knowles’ solid, workman’s hands, carefully exerting enough pressure to signal that he was not in any way effeminate but also not too much; he didn’t want Mr Knowles to think he was one of those thrusting, muscular types. That type didn’t work in bookshops. The interview was to take place in the back room, and the other man, Phil, went and turned the shop sign around indicating that the premises would remain shut during the interview. Phil posed the questions and Mr Knowles lurked beyond the reach of the bare light bulb, gripped in a bedraggled leather armchair. He would occasionally interrupt the proceedings:
“I’m a bit Mutt and Jeff, could you speak up a bit?”
He answered the questions as best he could but was unable to dispel the creeping feeling that he should have, perhaps, prepared for this interview; that his answers were skinny, threadbare things, and that, even worse, he was coming across as unsaveably inarticulate. That type didn’t work in bookshops either. Anyway, hands were shook at the end and Phil said that either he or Mr Knowles would call him in a week or so. He left the shop with the recent scenes already unspooling themselves over the floor of his head. Opposite the shop he saw a pub, the Victory, and convinced himself that after a solitary drink maybe he’d see that things hadn’t gone so badly after all; that he had, in fact, put himself over as the ideal candidate rather than a man speaking as though he had been underwater, his mouth crammed with small, polystyrene balls.
He got through several pints and had helped himself to quite a few complimenatry glasses of wine that were being offered to help boost a promotion. Towards 5 o’clock he began to feel rather more optimisitc, despite the undetected piss-stains down the front of his beige trousers. He finished off another three pints and a few more glasses of wine before deciding that it would be impolite not to pop back over to the shop to have a word, maybe clear up any misunderstandings that had arisen during the interview; tell them that it was just nerves and that he was a very sharp, articulate kind of bloke. They’d probably appreciate such a display of initiative. That would most definitely mark him out from the other applicants. It was usually little details like that that helped swings these things. It was then that he misjudged the position of his bar stool and lurched backwards over a table laden with full glasses for a group of after-work drinkers. The barman looked up angrily, and barked:
“Ok, mate: it’s been on the cards. That’s yer lot, get yourself home now. Or at least out of here!”
He tried, or he thought he tried, to reason with the barman but, and without any intervening scene, he found himself out in the glare of the early evening street, beneath the greasy rain. His face felt micro-waved and as he attempted to navigate the pavement he swayed epically as if on some frail ship punished on boiling, buckling seas. When things cleared he found himself back in that chair in the bookshop, his eyes moist with recent tears, and Phil was not smiling anymore:
“Mr Hull, this is the third time you’ve been in here. You’ve driven all of our customers out. Now, I’ve been patient but If you don’t go and promise not to come back then I’m going to have to involve the police.”