When Ted arrived at the desk of his new job advisor, she’d done nothing more than extend her hand, palm up, in a gesture for him to take a seat; she didn’t look up, check his name or say hello. If that wasn’t bad enough, someone brushed past him leaving the smell of yeast and sweat in the air around him. He scrunched his nose, tensed his jaw, slumped into a plastic chair, and stared into the woman’s makeshift cubicle ahead. He felt stupid wearing such nice clothes in a place like this; he wore snug fitting black Hugo Boss jeans, a white Armani shirt and dark brown timberland boots which were new on that morning. He’d showered and shaved that afternoon but already felt like he needed to get another.
A square table separated Ted from the woman in front of him. She was surrounded by two and a half grey partitions; a full one either side of the desk and 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 criss-crossed 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 turn back toward the stack on the cabinet. Every time she turned back toward her desk the back of her swivel chair would 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 he was staring at the paper Jenga with his mouth open and his breath bated.
The woman’s glasses were perched on her frizzy curly hair and she wore a dark green wool suit which hung from her body in the same way her skin seemed to hang over her bones. She had one hand over 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 looking 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 sort of noise which resembled a ‘hurrah’ when she readjusted her focus and saw Ted’s CV on her desk. Ted was already slouched 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 eyebrow poked over the brown rims of thick, scratched glasses. It was like a pointy finger in Ted’s face.
He turned in his seat when he heard a scuffle over near the entrance of the job centre.
“But maaate, I need my dole. You can’t do this, Man.” 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. Out!” The security guard bellowed and the whole place fell silent, everyone except his job advisor, turned toward the scene if they weren’t already looking. The whiny, drunk man, backed out of the first set of automatic doors onto a disabled ramp.
“A’right, a’right, I don’t want 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. His hair was cut short to his head, his eyes were big and dark but seemed far apart on his head. His furrowed eyebrows cast shadows, not only over his face, but the room too.
Ted took a moment to look around. It was late in the day and although it had been light when he arrived, it was November and even with frosting on all the windows, he could tell it was dark outside now.
The job centre was an open plan design. The cubicle he was at was the last in a row which lined the windows on one side of the floor. Two cubicles down, there was a woman having a meeting too. She was about thirty years old, wearing fishnets and pink trainers, a denim skirt and a dirty pink coat; she could have been rolling around in a rubbish skip just before she walked in. 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 sat, he couldn’t see who was talking to her. In the centre of the room was a seating area with three rows of five 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 had grey suit with a white shirt on and no tie. Ted noticed that one leg on the man’s suit was severely crinkled but the other was pressed neatly and for some reason it made him feel sorry for the guy. Scanning the rest of the room, he could see to the left of the Sentry, 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. The more he watched her eyebrow twitch and point at him he felt himself getting angry with her. It’s not like he would be here if he felt like he had a choice. Slowly he began to work himself up. He was about to call her out for being rude, for judging him without knowing him, for pointing her pointy eyebrow at him when she finally lifted her head and beamed a smile at him.
“Ted! Can I call you Ted? My boy is called Theodore too, but we call him Teddy. Not that I would do that to you though; not quite the place.” She chuckled a little bit, then said, “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, you can call me Ted, everyone does.” He blinked again as he released the frail lady’s hand, a jolt of guilt poking his gut.
“Ok Ted, let’s get started. I can see you have had a few different jobs here” Jennifer paused, looking back at the CV. Oh here we go, Ted thought, here comes the judgem- “which is 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 actually find you something you actually like doing. You’re young, the world is your oyster right now.” 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 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.” Ted was half telling the truth. Yes, he hadn’t worked for an agency for a few weeks, but he had been doing plenty else.
Ted had been in care most of his life and he couldn’t wait to be in charge of his own life. Since leaving school he had cash-in-hand labouring jobs and by the time he was eighteen he had his own flat. He smoked a lot of weed back then which meant money was tight. After stuggling for a little while Ted started doing a bit of distibution for his dealer, Benny Tate, which was good money but when Ted actually started dealing weed himself, he made more.
Six months ago to the day, Ted’s best friend died. Ted had packed in smoking the weed not long after but he was still trying to stop dealing it. He had more money than he could spend, but this was the only place he felt could help him escape Benny after what happened.
“To be honest, I want something secure and regular. I want a career. I don’t really have any qualifications either, so maybe you could help me with that too? I want to learn, I have a driving license and I’ll even go across the water for work.”
“That is great news, it’s exactly what we want to hear here. Not to worry Ted, I am certain we will find something if you’re keen enough.”
Ted and Jennifer sat 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 quiet it had become.
The middle-aged man who had been sat at the centre of the floor was now sat at the cubicle the fidgety woman had been sat at. The Sentry was closing windows and checking their locks and 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 got on.” Jennifer leaned over to shake Ted’s hand again.
“You too Jennifer, thank you for all your help.”
Ted, picked up his binder of advice leaflets, potential courses and job adverts and headed for the door but it didn’t open automatically when he walked up to it. By the time Ted was looking for him, the Sentry was already strolling over to him, keys in hand, to let him out.
“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 just nodded and 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 looking in a mirror. After his meeting, he felt pretty good about the reflection in the window. The job centre was in the middle of town, it was Friday night and on the way there he had heard the music and laughter of the people inside, he fancied a bit of that now. He was dressed up and thought about going to the pub or a club and even calling his, er, friend? girlfriend? ‘Tasha 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 a moment.” The Sentry continued to stare though 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 saw those fishnet legs and pink trainers twitching from beneath the black heap.