One day I was sitting in a coffee shop, minding my own business when a man came and sat next to me. I was sitting on a banquette facing the door. The glass door was propped open because it was a warm, sunny day in early June. The view from my vantage point was of the high street outside, a pedestrianised road paved with cobble-effect stones. People walked by, passing in and out of shops across the road. A group of smokers congregated outside the door of what must have been an office building, chatting with each other or staring intently at mobile phone screens. The remains of my second flat white had turned cold in the cup, as the street scene held more interest for me.
The day was feeling long, I had quit my job at the garden centre the week before and time was starting to weigh heavy. The job had held my interest, for a while, but it turned out that I couldn’t stand the smell of plants and growing stuff, who could possibly have known? At first, because I was working on the till which was situated away from the main area, and the odour was only very slight, it didn’t affect me too badly. However, it soon became apparent that they were having trouble finding labour to work in the nursery area. Apparently, it had something to do with the exodus of Europeans who feared being lynched after the UK left the EU, and I was made to slave in the seedling sheds. After a while I knew why they struggled to fill the job, I’d have fucked off to Romania too if I’d known anyone there.
Soon I started to become very nauseous when loading up trolleys of seedlings and bags of compost. It got so bad that one day I vomited over a customer when they placed a tray of geraniums in front of me. There was no time to stop myself, I gagged, and it just happened. Barely an hour after lunch, and the spaghetti was still pretty much intact. Her white, summer blouse was ruined. The manager and I were in complete agreement that I should seek employment elsewhere.
‘Look, Clifford,’ he’d said, ‘While I sympathise, and couldn’t be more supportive, personally, there is a certain standard of behaviour that the company expects…’ He paused, I am not sure why, possibly for effect or to give me the chance to interject. So, I jumped in. ‘It’s fine, Patrick, I understand,’ I began, ‘You’ll have to let me go. Look, I have never been queasy like this before, but the fucking stink in here is intolerable.’ A look of surprise passed over his face, maybe my choice of words was a little strong, I was in no mood to hold back. ‘I really feel that I shouldn’t have to deal with this shit, I am leaving, life is too short.’ Patrick continued to look bemused at my outburst, it felt good to unload. Patrick had not been a bad boss, but it was nice to upset his ineffectual demeanour. It seemed he could even have been considering a reprimand sufficient, possibly because of the after-effects of my interview performance, but I wasn’t going to let him back out now. ‘You’re not a bad bloke, Patrick, just a bit of a wanker, bye.’
Looking back, I am not sure what came over me. It’s not as if I do stuff like that. Ever since I can remember I have always been quiet and slightly withdrawn. Not popular at school, I had one or two friends who were similar to me. We vaguely loitered in each other’s vicinity, not exactly hanging out, but something like that. If teachers had something to say to me, I just nodded and agreed, at that point in my life it hadn’t occurred to me that there was another option. So, this outburst was unprecedented, but not exactly unforeshadowed.
That particular episode of employment had only lasted a few months, but jobs had never held my attention for long. Since I had left school, the year I had taken to decide on the correct course at uni had become two then three, it was seven at the last count, and I had been aimless. By now it was a habit that was proving hard to break.
There had been the building labourer’s job. That had lasted nearly a year, mainly because the work was not mentally demanding, and they left me to get on with stuff. The company was pretty disorganised, I didn’t have to do much. No one ever checked up on me. There was this Polish bloke who was supposed to manage things for the boss, but he didn’t have a clue. That job ended because one day the boss came around the site and I was sitting down checking my Instagram feed, he asked me why I wasn’t working, all I said was, ‘Calm down, mate,’ he went a bit mental and sacked me.
I had tried to get involved in retail. Worked my way around the local shopping mall, menswear, shoes, confectionary, even worked for the mall as a cleaner. Nothing held my interest enough for me to be bothered trying. If I had ever taken the time to think about my situation I might have been depressed.
The garden centre was the latest attempt to get ‘into something’. The advert had promised direction, possible promotion, a career. It hadn’t turned out to be as advertised. Patrick had interviewed me for the position. There should have been alarm bells when he looked over the CV I presented showing fifteen jobs, none of which had lasted long, and didn’t immediately show me the door. The references were as neutral as possible without straying into open dishonesty. For a change, I was actually interested in breaking the inertia of my pointless existence, so perhaps I wasn’t tuning in to the warning signs.
‘So, Clifford,’ he began, ‘tell me what made you apply for the job here at Daisy’s Nurseries?’ Patrick was quite a bit older than me, he had a soft face like a kindly uncle might have. Everything about him screamed soft touch. On the day of the interview he was blowing his nose often and playing with his tissues in between filling them with snot. I regretted shaking hands with him. It’s not as if I am very fastidious but I draw the line at touching peoples’ snotty hands. His manner was friendly and familiar.
His question gave me the chance I was waiting for. ‘Well, Mr Snipe…’ He interrupted immediately, ‘Please, call me Patrick, Clifford, we’re like a big family here. Always first names.’ That annoyed me. ‘Cunt’ I thought before I could stop myself. Hoping the spontaneous idea hadn’t shown in my facial expression, I pressed on with the spiel I had prepared. ‘Patrick’, I corrected, ‘gardening has always been a passion of mine. When I was young, we lived in a large house, which had a big area of garden, it was there that I spent the happiest times working alongside my father. He was a busy man and all his time at home was spent in that garden, while my brothers were out playing football or riding their bikes, I would be there learning about propagation, grafts, or just weeding the vegetable patch.’ All lies, but it scanned well I had thought during rehearsals.
Patrick was leaning slightly forwards in his chair, regarding me closely although not in a shrewd or evaluating way. He was enjoying the story.
‘I suppose it was the association of gardening with such happy times that made me apply here.’ Here, I left a space for him to ask a question, thinking that if he was invested there’d be some detail he wanted. Sure enough. ‘Do you and your father still enjoy gardening together?’ His tone and body language told me that the innocent enquiry was made in the hope that I would continue to fill out the idyllic picture. I knew that he was hoping for an epilogue involving cups of tea and discussions about greenfly. ‘Actually, Patrick, he died quite recently. Eight months ago, to be precise, he contracted a rare form of sepsis from a thorn prick, he fell into a coma three days later and was dead in two weeks.’ I watched his expression change from that happy smile to one of horror, I knew then that the job was mine.
It is possible that there was no need to lie so heartlessly, but no one had really died so there was no harm done. He hadn’t known my father, neither had I for that matter, so what had I actually done? Merely killed off an imaginary person with an illness I had made up. Who knew, it could have been true in another lifetime.
‘Please accept my condolences on your loss,’ he offered. ‘Terrible.’ And that was that. He couldn’t get me out of the office quick enough. The embarrassment at the shared moment was so excruciating for him, but I knew it had done the trick. Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise to find the letter on the mat a week later, congratulating me on my success.
The fact that the smell of plants and vegetation had exposed my lies made it all the more necessary to burn the bridges there. I wondered if Patrick had bothered to pick over my story after I had left, or if I had shocked him enough to just be glad that I was gone.
On this day, I was sitting there minding my own business when a man sat down close to me on the bench seat. The thoughts that had been drifting unbidden through my mind while I watched the shifting scene in the street outside were dark. They centred on my aimless, pointless existence, a recurring theme these days. The debacle of the garden centre, something I had attached quite a lot of importance to, seemed to typify this quality. Although it seemed not to be significant on its own, as the culmination of a period when nothing had come to fruition as I felt it should, that episode was the tipping point.
My mother had been admitted to a nursing home suffering from early onset dementia. She had been spiralling downward for a few years, from healthy, independent, to managed accommodation and finally into a home for demented people in the space of only five years. Now, she recognised me only occasionally, often calling me George and telling me that she needed to visit the doctor. When I summoned the nurse, he told me that it wasn’t a current need and to ignore her urgent entreaties. I was becoming used to her rambling conversations and gif-like loops of thought.
Perhaps I would have cared more if she hadn’t been such a fucking bitch toward me when I was younger. It gave her perverse pleasure to tell me that my conception had been an accident, a one-night stand when she had been too drunk to remember the name of the man who had fucked her.
My mother was forty-five when I was born, and I only remember her being bitter. She worked as a legal secretary at a firm of solicitors in town, until she was fired for having too much to drink at a lunchtime birthday do. The last straw was her telling one of the partners that he was an ugly cunt, I’m not sure if it was the language or the blow to his ego that made the difference. It is possible it was just the out of control drinking.
‘You’re miles away.’ The man had leaned closer, he spoke quietly but clearly. Although I had registered his presence, I had taken no notice of him until that moment. His comment brought me back.
‘My grandad used to say, “Penny for your thoughts”, I never understood what he meant by it’, he continued, as if I had given his intrusion some kind of validation by looking in his direction. ‘Henry’, he extended his hand towards me clearly expecting me to reciprocate. When I just glanced at his hand and then back at his face, he seemed to get the message and withdrew the gesture.
I had been trying to ignore the fact that he had sat down so close to me, but it seemed that he wasn’t willing to be ignored. Reluctantly, I turned to look at him, knowing that he wouldn’t just go away.
The man looked slightly older than me, and although I would guess his age at around thirty, there was already some grey appearing in his dark brown hair. His face was quite narrow and long, the dominant feature was his nose which, although not large, was strong and curved. Another thing that struck me immediately were his eyes, set a little too close together, they were of a startling, pale blue, once I looked into them it was hard to look away. The only thing I remember of his mouth from that first meeting was that he was smiling and showing straight, white teeth, a small gap between the front two.
‘I know you didn’t notice me, but I have been watching you for the past couple of hours. You have been sitting there gazing out of the window, never checking the time or showing any other interest in the outside world. That is your second coffee, and you haven’t even bothered to finish it. Also, I didn’t see you look at a mobile phone or other electronic device either.’ His speech was rapid but not rushed, his accent was that of an educated man but with a touch of London beneath the cultured tone. ‘This tells me that you are not concerned with the passage of time, that perhaps you are not employed at present?’ He paused, I presumed it was to allow me to answer, but when I opened my mouth to speak, he carried on. ‘No need to confirm my observations, it’s quite obvious.’
To be honest, his manner pissed me off as much as what he said. No matter that he was correct, the fact that he had been spying on me was slightly off-putting too. My immediate feeling was to get up and walk away from him, and I did begin to shift towards the gap between the tables. Seeing me move, he continued to speak.
‘Please, indulge me. I selected you to approach from among many that I have observed over the past few weeks. There is something about you that convinced me you are the person I need for a very special task. It is a delicate bit of business that requires someone who is not in a hurry, someone who can sit for long periods without distraction.’ I was getting quite freaked out now, but something about what he said began to pique my interest.
My body turned slightly towards him as if of its own accord, there was nothing I could do, I was becoming intrigued. Although I hadn’t said anything, he read my body language and slid a little closer along the bench seat. When he spoke again, it was in a lower tone of voice and he leaned in conspiratorially. ‘Yes, I thought you could be the man for me. Perhaps I should say that I am a wealthy man, and this delicate task carries a very handsome reward. Some might find the work a little distasteful, immoral even, but we can discuss the level of reward that bypasses morals. Tell me, are you interested in exchanging some time for a nice payoff?’
‘No harm in listening, I suppose’. My comment was meant to be non-committal, to show that I had options, and maybe he was wrong in his assessment of me, inside, though, a feeling of excitement had begun. Wasn’t I looking for something to do? This mysterious person had come out of nowhere, like this was somehow meant to be. Suddenly it occurred to me that I could do with some time to process this. ‘I’m going to the toilet’, I said, sliding along the bench seat and standing up into the space between the tables. ‘Back in a minute’.
As I walked to the toilet the feeling grew, this was so out of the ordinary it must be the opportunity I had been waiting for. I would go into the disabled toilet where I wouldn’t be disturbed, and turn this over in my mind.
As I arrived at the door to the disabled toilet I looked back to where I had been sitting, the man, Henry, was sitting calmly watching my progress across the café. There was something unsettling about his manner, so self-assured and certain. What kind of person could approach someone in public like this, and dissect them without the slightest appearance of discomfort? Maybe it was having money that gave him a sense that he was untouchable, above the considerations the rest of us have to live by. How would I be if I didn’t have to think about paying rent, or about the steeply rising prices at the supermarket? If I could go anywhere I wished at any time, would that confer upon me the impeccable veneer he wears?
The heavy door swung open easily, I entered the spacious room, pulling the door to behind me I lifted the lever that locked the door. That was the moment I realised I had been holding my breath. Obviously, this encounter had affected me more than I thought. What was the sensation? Possibly, I was a bit nervous at being approached, this was unprecedented, after all, but the main feeling was excitement. Here was an opportunity that, if he was what he said he was, could change my life. When I looked at that, I realised I didn’t even care in what way my life would change. At this point I would take whatever the offer was.
The business at the garden centre had made some things clear to me. The illusion that I had some control had disappeared as my plan to make something happen had fallen apart. There is always an unknown that can trip you up. The way forward for me is not through the mundane, such as a job, this was proved by how many times it hadn’t worked out. So, with such avenues closed off, and my proven inability to make my own way, it means that I must take the random when it appears.
This, then, was my thought process when I first met Henry Lancing. Having five minutes in the toilet was perhaps not the best preparation for making a decision of such magnitude, particularly when the offer hadn’t been clarified yet, but as I said, I would take any way out of my life. If, as he said, the job involved a lot of sitting around then I would be perfect for it. There is not much that I like more than my own company, having no friends or family made that a necessity. Had I known then what I know now about Henry, I wouldn’t have gone back to my place. But I didn’t, and anyway, the rewards have been worth the pain, so it is good that I didn’t know more about him or I may have missed the best thing to happen in my life.
Making my way back to the seat I felt a bit shaky. Henry was still sitting exactly where I had left him, the cup that had contained tea was on the table, empty now. He didn’t look up when I crossed his sightline, almost like he was in rest mode. When I resumed my seat he turned to look at me again. ‘Obviously, I can’t expect you to decide before I have told you what the task entails…’ he began, but I cut him off. ‘I’ll do it, you’re right, I don’t have a job at the moment and I would like to accept.’