The ball of kingfisher-blue mohair dropped from Queenie’s lap and rolled across the parquet, coming to a stop at the feet of the Chief Secretary to the Cabinet. Every gaze in the room followed it. Gerald Lambert sighed, fully aware his words would have to be repeated, his wisdom no match for the yarn, which was now reflecting so fetchingly in the high shine on his bespoke business shoes.
Caroline observed, not for the first time, that Gerald was the only man she knew who could look down his nose without moving his head. Ostensibly, she was taking notes on the day’s proceedings, but her main task comprised committing to memory as many quirks and character flaws as were immediately obvious in the new intake.
The knitting might be an issue. She jotted knitting at the back of her notebook as she considered the current, woolly conundrum. Gerald would not alter his stance; he would rely on military bearing to re-establish lines of communication when the novelty wore off. The room was, however, full of people who had no reason to comprehend the significance of Gerald’s posture. Yet. They were all still transfixed by the yarn. Some were even stifling giggles.
Caroline slipped from her chair, executed a parabolic trajectory towards Queenie which took in Gerald’s temporarily fascinating brogues, scooped up the ball of yarn and deposited it back in Queenie’s capacious tote bag. Knitted, she noticed.
‘Thank you, dearie.’ Queenie broke the silence with a toothy grin and a mighty glottal stop. ‘I’m always doing that, drives hubby mad it does, the wool starts bouncin’ around all over the floor when he’s trying to watch the football, he reckons I do it on purpose every time there’s goin’ ta be a goal…’ The hoarse guffaw morphed into a chesty cough. The silence in the rest of the room managed to deepen.
‘You’re very welcome.’ Caroline modelled the hushed tone she hoped would prevail around the House once the intake had completed their orientation. She resumed her seat and turned her attention back to Gerald. ‘You were saying, Chief Secretary?’
Gerald offered her an almost imperceptible sniff by way of acknowledgement, and readdressed the room.
‘Your skills have been assessed on the basis of information provided on your personal profile forms. After lunch you will be assigned to a ministerial department and apprised of your duties by that department’s chief secretary. At that point you should inform your chief of any reason why you might not be able to fulfil our expectations, as outlined in your summons, of a member of this government, for the full term of three years. Are there any questions?’
For the first time since this session’s new motley shower had shuffled their way into the largest committee room of the House of Commons—and made a mess with their newspapers and smartphones and cups of coffee and bottles of water and ungainly coats—Gerald scanned the faces.
He wasn’t really rude, Caroline mused, although she’d been shocked at his attitude back with her first intake. The theatricality wasn’t just about intimidation or snobbery as she’d first thought; just boundary-setting. As Gerald allowed his focus to waft over the assembly, Caroline watched. And added to her notes. The ones who met his gaze, the ones who looked away, the fidgeters, the sniffers, the paper shufflers…
It was always an eye-contact-maker who asked the first question, determined not to be browbeaten by a mere civil servant. ‘What happens if you’ve assessed our skills wrong?’ Big guy at the back, Lancashire accent and a drinker’s nose. Caroline wrote, Predictable mind: Treasury? as she tried not to mouth along to the reply this inevitable question generated every time.
‘If you’ve been unable to express yourself adequately on your profile, we’ll find you something less significant to do.’
‘Where’s the bar?’ Small chap. Whimsical tie. Doing a terrible Groucho Marx impression. A couple of people near him tittered. Caroline wrote, Comedian: Foreign Office?
Queenie’s hands were still now, the knitting in her lap—what is that, some sort of tea cosy?—and her face a picture of misery. ‘Can I ask a question?’
She received a courtly bow. ‘Please do, ma’am.’
‘I can’t do anyfing…I dunno why I’m here. I mean hubby said we all got to do it and all but the thing said, the bit of paper said, that if you wasn’t good at stuff you’d, you know, go be one of the ordinary reps, just sit in a office and pass messages and such…’ Caroline added waffle to the line that had begun with knitting.
‘I mean I don’t mind doing my bit. I said to hubby, I said it’s nice and excitin’ to go and be the thing, especially after Tesco’s closed the tills and all but you talkin’ about skills, well it ain’t really right—’
Gerald raised his hand as though stopping traffic.
‘Fear not, dear lady, we have considered your case most carefully. Now, just before I send you all off for lunch, I should probably introduce Caroline Grant. She is your babysitter. And please know that all of you’—he nodded to the early questioners in particular—‘are currently babies. It’s her job to hold your hands while you learn, God help us, to run this country.’
‘Oi, Queens, this letter’s for you.’
Queenie wondered for the umpteenth time why Bert always yelled from the front door. The far end of the hall was draughty and cold. He could just bring the letter through, couldn’t he? And say something quietly for once.
She opened the door of the parlour, kicking the multicoloured, knitted-snake draught excluder out of the way.
‘Bring it here then, is it a bill?’
‘Don’t think so, it’s got that seal on, like when they wrote to me about the repping.’
Bert gave her one of his looks. ‘Don’t you go thinking they want you for a rep. What can you do for the bloody nation?’ He gave the snake an unnecessarily vicious kick as he wedged it back under the parlour door, and threw the mail onto an already cluttered coffee table. ‘Unless they want everyone to learn to knit.’ He turned his smirk towards her, so she could see it was okay to laugh.
‘They don’t know that yet, though, do they?’ Queenie was in no mood to pretend Bert’s jokes were funny. And she wasn’t through wondering, again for the umpteenth time, why he always had to chuck stuff about, as if putting things down carefully was something you had to learn at school and it was possible to have been off that day. ‘You know as well as I do it’s all, wossname, you know…random. They’ll decide they don’t want me when I send the form back. Like they did with you,’ she added, as she picked up the letter and inspected the envelope.
‘That was a misunderstanding.’ Bert bristled. ‘I didn’t tell them enough about my committee stuff, I just said I’d been “active” in the working men’s club. I should have told them about bein’ sub-vice-president and all that. Still, it’s just as well.’ He smirked. ‘How would you have managed for three years on your own?’
‘I’d have been fine.’ It was Queenie’s turn to bristle. ‘I can manage without you just perfect. Anyway, you’d only have been gone part of the time, I’d just have ’ad the chance to get used to the peace and quiet without you yellin’ all day, and you’d have been back. Yellin’ again.’
‘Don’t talk daft, woman.’ Bert’s voice softened; so he knew he was beaten. ‘Is there any tea left in the pot?’ He lifted the woollen tea cosy off the pot on the table and peered inside. ‘It’s a bit stewed. Make us another pot, eh, Queens, I’m gasping.’
‘Make your own. I’ve got a letter to read.’ Queenie settled into her armchair and ripped at the envelope.
By the time Bert returned with a full pot of tea, Queenie was chewing the top of a pencil.
‘What’s a curriculum vitae? Have I got one?’
‘Nah.’ Bert put the pot in front of her and nudged his cup towards it. ‘You goin’ to be mother, Mother?’ He showed his teeth in what she knew was supposed to be a smile. Queenie wondered, as she often did, whether he really thought this was his best joke.
‘Pour your own, I’ve got this to do.’
‘I’ll help you better with a cup of tea inside me.’ His tone turned a bit wheedling. Queenie hated that even more than the yelling.
‘I don’t need no help from you, Bert Mason, I can read. What makes you think you can help anyway?’
‘You just asked me what that thing was!’ Bert nudged his cup a bit closer. ‘Go on, Queens, you do the milk better than me.’
‘If you can’t even do a cup of tea for yourself, you’ll starve when I go and be the government. You might as well get some practice in for when I’m swannin’ about living it up in bloomin’ Westminster and you’re here all on your own. Now be quiet, I’ve got a form to fill in.’
Bert sighed, did the eyeroll that meant he’d lost but wasn’t going to admit it, and poured some milk into his cup.
‘By the way, that curricula thing is for when you’ve had education and fancy jobs. It says on the form you don’t need to have one, just send it in if you have. The form is, like, instead.’
‘I can see that, now I’ve read a bit further on, thank you. I’ll manage better if you just shut up and let me get on with it.’
Bert picked up the newspaper, made his way past the snake, and left the room. Queenie watched him go. His morning appointment with ‘his bit of peace and quiet’ in the bathroom was as much a ritual as the teapot battle. Did it all annoy her more these days? Back when she’d worked the tills at Tesco’s, she’d quite liked coming home to it. Walking into the tiny flat, filled to bursting with Bert and his ways, it was like putting on a comfy old pair of slippers. But now? Now she never went anywhere, it was a bit…a bit what? There was likely a word for it. If she was the sort of person who had a curriculum thing, she’d probably know what it was. She settled for samey.
Why shouldn’t she be a rep? Just because they hadn’t wanted Bert didn’t mean they wouldn’t take her. Everyone in the country had the same chance of being picked; it was like a raffle. Just, be a citizen and you might get the letter. Some people messed up their forms deliberately. Not everyone wanted to go and ‘run the country’ for three years, or even do stuff on the local council, though that was part-time. She’d heard rumours that sometimes they took you if you messed up your form enough because it meant you were clever. And that manager at Tesco’s, the one they’d sacked for having his fingers in the till, he’d wanted to be a rep so much he pretended to have done loads of fancy stuff. They’d turned him down just like they hadn’t wanted Bert.
Queenie decided to do her best. She wouldn’t mind a bit of a change. If they took her, she’d get out of the flat, there could be days without Bert’s bathroom habits. She’d do it in pencil first, read it back, maybe even get Bert to look at it if he was in a good mood. Then she’d ink it in and send it off.
It was times like this she missed Angie. Angie would have known what to write…she was the clever one. They’d worked the tills together for years. Everyone who shopped at the Whitechapel Road Tesco’s had known the pair of them. Queenie and Angie: they’d joked and chatted and questioned and comforted their way through the days until all the customers called them by name. Angie was the one who knew about the news—‘current affairs’, she called it. You couldn’t rely on admiring everyone’s earrings all the time to get a chat started because it only worked once and only if they wore them. Angie’d use a headline to get chatting to the quieter ones, then Queenie would make a joke about it, pretending to be stupid, and they’d all laugh. Well, sometimes she wasn’t really pretending: Bert didn’t approve of news—it interrupted the football.
Some people had even chosen their tills especially, for a chat, even if there was a queue. Mostly the lonely ones, the old people who never went anywhere unless it was shopping. Queenie realised with a sigh that she was one of those now too. But, just like everyone else, she couldn’t go have a joke at Tesco’s any more. People did their shopping in silence these days.
First it had been the automatic checkouts. But they’d been sort of okay because most people hated them. If you couldn’t think of something nice or funny to say, you could roll your eyes and copy the computer voice—‘no unexpected items in the bagging area for you today?’—and people laughed and you made more friends.
But then the gun things came in and that was that. Checkouts were finished. People cost too much. Angie got a job delivering pizzas—apparently you still needed people for that—but Queenie, well, she’d worked the tills since school. What else can you do when the only thing you know is admiring people’s earrings or asking if they feel a bit peaky? Remembering someone’s kiddie had been sick or asking about exam results, getting excited about the recipe for something that Jamie made on the telly and everyone wanted the ingredients for, that was all stuff nobody needed now. Of course she didn’t have a curriculum thingy—chatting wasn’t a job, was it? She decided to give Angie a call. It had been ages, be nice to talk, and maybe she’d have some ideas about what to write.
Bert handed the form back to Queenie.
‘What do you think?’
‘Fine? Is that all?’
‘What do you want me to say? All you’ve ever done is knitting and talking. Unless they want the Chancellor of the Exchequer to start knitting money, you got nothin’ useful to contribute. So, a form full of “not applicable” ticks is about the best you can do.’
‘Yes, but I put a lot in the bit about “What else can you tell us?”’
‘I can see that. What’s all this pattern nonsense?’
‘That was Angie’s idea. She said following a knitting pattern was clever, because it means you can, um, apply written directions to practical outcomes. She’s been doin’ a course at the library for getting a better job.’
Bert snorted. ‘It doesn’t make any difference what you put. They want barristers and accountants and teachers, not silly old women who can’t do nothin’.’
‘Don’t you be so nasty. If I can’t do anything you can cook your own bloomin’ tea. In fact, you might as well, because I’m going to do this over in pen and take it to the post office.’
‘Get some fish and chips on the way back, will you, Queens?’
He turned to the telly, put the football on, upped the volume, and farted.