Ted stepped up to the desk of his new job advisor and frowned when she extended her hand, palm up, in a gesture for him to take a seat. His jaw tensed when she didn’t look up, check his name or say hello. As he placed his binder on her desk and himself into a plastic chair, someone brushed close by leaving the smell of beer and sweat around him. He scrunched his nose and clenched his fist. He had showered and shaved before he came out, but the fetid air made him feel like he needed to get another. He felt severely overdressed the minute he walked in; Hugo Boss jeans and an Armani shirt did not feel right in the jobcentre.
A square table separated Ted from the woman in front of him. Two and a half grey partitions surrounded her; a full one either side of the desk, and a half at the back, leaving a gap for a doorway. Behind her swivel chair, on a three-drawer filing cabinet, cornered into the half partition, were three stacked letter trays. On those, was a bigger stack of papers crisscrossed this way and that. She kept lifting the top few sheets on the stack, turning around with a huff and shuffling through the sheets on her desk; she would pick them up, look under them and put them down and then turn back toward the stack on the cabinet. Every time she turned back toward her desk, her hip would hit the back of her swivel chair and knock the filing cabinet, causing the paper pile behind her to sway. Ted snapped his mouth shut when, by the third time she did it, he noticed realised he was staring intently at the paper Jenga with his mouth open and his breath bated.
The woman’s glasses were perched on frizzy, pale ginger hair, and she wore a dark green wool suit that hung from her body in the same way her skin seemed to hang over her bones. She had one hand over on her brow as she searched the desk with the other. He noticed there were big sallow circles around her eyes, and at first glance, he thought she was healing from two black eyes before realising it was the natural tone of her skin. The sharp angles of her cheekbones cast shadows down her cheek, and every time her head lifted enough to catch the light, he half expected to see the outline of her teeth through her skin.
After casting back and forth with her head down, huffing and puffing for whatever it was she was looking for, her glasses eventually slid forward and dropped to her nose. She had made some noise which resembled a ‘hurrah’ when, as she readjusted her focus, she saw Ted’s CV was in front of her, on the desk. Ted was already slumped in his chair, but he sank into it a bit further, bringing his hand to his head as he shook it in disbelief. Finally, she sat down without looking up. Her un-plucked eyebrows poked over the brown rims of thick, scratched glasses like a pointy finger in Ted’s face. He was distracted and turned in his seat when he heard a scuffle over near the entrance.
“But maaate, I (hic) need my dole. (hic) You caan’t do this, maaate.” Slurred a little guy in an oversized puffer coat. Releasing him into the exit area was a mountain of a man in an all-black security guard uniform.
“You cannot drink that in here. Leave.” The security guard’s voice carried around the room, and the whole place fell silent. Everyone except his job advisor, turned toward the scene if they weren’t already looking. The drunk man backed out of the first set of automatic doors onto a disabled ramp.
“A’right, a’right, I don’t want no trouble,” he said, still holding his can of Stella Artois, “I’m going.”
The outer automatic door swished shut and the security guard, who must’ve been a sentry in a past life, returned to his post beside the door with his bulging arms crossed over his puffed-out chest. The sentry’s hair was cut short to his head, and his eyes were dark but far apart. His furrowed eyebrows seemed to cast shadows over the room.
Ted took a moment to look around. The jobcentre was an open-plan design, and the cubicle he was at was the last in a row which lined the frosted windows of one side of the floor. It was early January, and he could tell, even though the frosting, that the sun was setting. Two cubicles down, a woman was having a meeting too. She was about thirty years old, wearing fishnets and pink trainers, a denim skirt and a mucky pink coat. She was gnawing her fingernails while her leg bounced frantically under the table. Ted could hear a man’s voice, but from where he was sitting, he couldn’t see who was talking to her. In the centre of the room was a seating area with three rows of chairs; only one man, who could have been anywhere between forty and sixty, sat in the middle of the row closest to him. His puffy red face was creased with a frown as he studied a piece of paper in his hand – Ted guessed it was his CV. He wore a grey suit with a white shirt and no tie. Ted noticed that one leg of the man’s case was severely crinkled, but the other was pressed neatly and, it made him sorry for him. Scanning the rest of the room, he could see to the left of the sentry that there were job boards and a few electronic touch screens for people to look at job adverts, beside a door with an electronic lock. There was a man at one of the touch screens with his back to the room. Opposite the front door was an information counter and another electronically locked door behind that. Ted had noticed there was a woman sat there when he walked in, but couldn’t see her now.
Ted turned back to the woman in the cubicle. Her bony finger, tipped with chipped-off brown nail varnish, tapped against her pursed brown lips and her chin sat somewhere in her neck as she studied the page. Slowly he began to work himself up. The more he watched her eyebrow twitch and point at him, the more he became angry with her. It’s not like he would be here if he felt like he had a choice. The words were lining upon his tongue – he was going to call her out for being rude, for judging him without knowing him, for pointing her pointy eyebrow at him – when she lifted her head and beamed a smile at him.
“Hi Ted! Can I call you Ted? My boy is called Theodore too – we call him Teddy – not that I would do that to you though, not quite the place.” She did a little chuckle to herself. “Oh where are my manners, I’m Jennifer, I’m your advisor.” She stretched out over the desk, extending her skeletal hand for a shake. Ted, blinked and stuttered as he sat upright to return the handshake.
“Er, y-yeah sure, call me Ted, everyone does.” He blinked as he released the frail lady’s hand and felt a pang of guilt in his gut.
“Ok Ted, let’s get started. I can see you’ve had a few different jobs here” Jennifer paused, to look back at the CV. Oh here we go, Ted thought, here comes the judgem- “which is a great experience for you. Having tried a bunch of things means maybe we can figure out which bits of those roles you liked the most, and find you something you actually like doing. You’re young, the world is your oyster, right?” She did another big smile.
Ted gawped a little. This was not the usual treatment he had when he signed on; this was the first time anyone looked at his CV for more than a glance, the first time anyone called him Ted, the first time he saw had seen anyone in these cubicles even smile.
“Well I’m with a few agencies, but I haven’t picked anything up for a week or two. I want something secure and regular. I want a career, but I don’t really have any qualifications, only work experience. So I’m here in case you could help me with that?” Ted was half telling the truth, he hadn’t worked for an agency for a few weeks (hardly at all in the last year in fact). Instead, he had been working for Benny Tate; a childhood friend turned drug dealer. The money had been good, but he needed a way out and a normal life. Ted sat forward in his chair to take out a list of courses from his binder to go with the jobs he thought he would enjoy, and slid it across to Jennifer. “I want to learn, I have a driving license so I can get around in Hull, or I can even go across the water for work.”
“Oh you came prepared.” She picked up the list and scanned it, then she picked up a highlighter. “This is great. Not to worry Ted, I am sure we’ll find something.” Ted sat with Jennifer for over forty minutes, looking at jobs and courses around Hull. She asked him questions about the things he liked about himself and what he was good at. It was only as their meeting was coming to a close that Ted noticed how empty it the room had become. The middle-aged man who had been sat at the centre of the floor was now sat at in the cubicle the fidgety woman had been sat at. The sentry was closing windows and checking their locks, while an old man in dark green overalls had appeared in the job board section and was mopping the floor.
“It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Ted. I’ll see you in two weeks to see how you’re getting on.” Jennifer leaned over to shake Ted’s hand again.
“You too, Jennifer, thank you.” Ted, picked up his binder of advice leaflets, potential courses and job adverts and headed for the door. It didn’t open automatically when he walked up to it, but by the time Ted was looking for him, the sentry was already marching over, keys in hand, to let him out. Ted checked his watch: 17:26.
“Thanks, mate-“ Ted started. The sentry smiled weakly and turned the key in the door opening the first one. “-bet you get some right states in here, don’t yer?” The sentry made eye contact for a moment, then kept walking. They went into the vestibule, but just as the sentry placed the key in the lock of the second door, he stopped and squinted through the glass. Ted looked too, but between the lighting on the inside and the darkness on the outside, he may as well be have been looking in a mirror. After his meeting with Jennifer, he felt pretty good. The jobcentre was in the middle of town, and it was Friday night. Despite the time of year, on the way to his meeting, he had heard the music and laughter of people inside the pubs he passed. He was dressed up, thinking about having a few drinks and calling – he considered if she was his friend or girlfriend? – Terri, for a few drinks.
“You alright there, mate?” Ted said, startling the sentry. It made Ted jump too, seeing a man so intimidating, jerk. What was he looking at? Ted thought, squinting back out into the darkness. His eyes widened when he saw a black heap in the middle of the road.
“Shit, has someone been hit? We need to get out there, what are you waiting for?” Ted looked around frantically for a button or handle.
“I don’t think he’s been hit. Keep your voice down for a moment.” The sentry continued to stare through the glass.
“Shit man, what can you see that I-” Ted moved closer to the glass, his breath steaming it up as he saw the black mass on the floor was moving up and down. He used the back of his wrist to wipe the foggy patch on the window and that’s when he saw the fishnet legs and pink trainers twitching from beneath the black heap.