I Meet Ben

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from the opening chapter of a novel "Darkest Kiss" to be published this week — narrator meets future fellow-worker

      “I’ve come about the job,” I said.

      “We’ve been waiting for you,” he said.

      “Have you?” I said.

      “Yes, we have,” he said.

      “Oh,” I said.

      “Come this way,” he said.

      “Yes,” I said.

      “My name’s Ben,” he said.

      “My name’s John,” I said.

      “We’ll call you John then,” he said.

      “Most people do,” I said.

      “I should think they do,” he said.

      “Oh,” I said.

      “Come this way,” he said. “Here’s the lift,” he said.

      “Yes,” I said.

      “We’ll use the stairs,” he said.

      “All right,” I said.

      “Never know what you might find,” he said.

      “No,” I said.

      “No,” he said.

      We mounted the steps. Ben’s left foot, not lifting itself sufficiently, gave him a good, little stumble. He looked at the step and muttered something. He pointed at the step and seemed to be accusing it of something. He scowled at the step. If he could have spat at the step, I had no doubt he would have spat. Was he accusing it of growing an inch or two, of deliberately trying to trip him up? He turned to me. Somber as hell, he said, “She’s in the office but don’t be put off by that!” We had arrived there. Ben was pausing as if summoning up all the courage of past, military heroes, his face darkening like night darkens day. Opening the office-door, he stepped back very quickly behind me and I was left facing into that office. It seemed unnecessary to go forward. The office itself seemed to step out to greet me and its greeting was vile. Heat, smoke, indescribable smells, air gasping for oxygen, tumbled out of that office, and bustled past me, my face and my wild eyes gobbed at, ribboned by gunge, unhappied by the pasty air of that vile “ambience”. Sitting bang in the middle of that formidable tumult of staleness and badness was a lady in her late fifties or early sixties. I was coughing but I managed to turn my cough into a throat-clearing situation. She was staring at me through the smoke, beckoning me to enter further into the maelstrom that was her office. She was dressed in blue and her suit was lined with cigarette-ash. The ash resembled the colour of her hair. She was overweight, and at the time of my entry, she was undecided as to which of two cigarettes she should take a drag at next. The ash-tray’s stubbled butt-ends were everywhere though it seemed to have been designed by a magnificent architect who knew the habits of chain-smokers because its grooves and notched niches were abundantly supplied and were filled to overflowing with spent cigs. Close up to the blue-suited lady sat an electric fire like an inanimate animal glowing red and closing in on her shins, hurtling heat on to her extraordinary person. Above the lady’s head was a cross-grating which was spewing forth enormous gobs of hot-air heating helping to keep blizzards, snow, icicles, howling Atlantic winds at furthest bay. Everything that could be switched on was switched on despite the mild English weather outside and from this formidable gully of heat, ash, smoke and smell, Pikehassle was bellowing, “Don’t just stand there! Come on in!” I took one step forward. “Sit, lad,” she commanded. Ben suddenly appeared from around the corner and holding a handkerchief to his nose pushed me into a chair. He then went back a pace and stood by the door as if on guard, smirking the while but also gulping a bit of fresh air. He was eager to know how the interview would progress and he probably wanted to relish my getting the sack before even starting. Feeling sadistic he also knew I would start to suffocate and wanted to relish my discomfort. I learnt afterwards that my interviewer had already told him I’d got the job and he was riled no end by this fact.

      “You’re here for the job.” I opened my mouth to speak but only managed a nod. “The job’s easy enough. It doesn’t pay much. We don’t expect you to do much. You shouldn’t want much. If you want much that’s too much. I like the look of you even more than when I saw you on the ‘phone. You can take the job if you want the job. It’s for old-age pensioners. Don’t expect to be treated like a youngster. You’re a youngster. Look at that!” she indicated, nodding at Ben. “He’s old, he’s pensioned off, he thinks he’s the boss. Just take a look at that!”

      I did. I turned to take a look at Ben. He was hurt and bristling. Once again he looked at me with undisguised suspicion, then addressing Mrs. Pikehassle, he said ever so slyly, “Aren’t you going to ask him why he wants to take this job when he’s just a lad and can get better money elsewhere?”

      “I’m in charge of questions round here. I give the orders!” she shouted, angrily. “Besides, he’s an old lad, that’s the reason. Take him round, Ben. Show him what’s what. Show him what’s not. Bring him back. Make sure you bring him back. Hit the kids if you see them. Hit them bloody hard. By heaven! Give them the thrashing of their lives!”

      “Come on,” said Ben, morosely. I arose. “Come on,” he repeated. “Look sharpish.” We trudged off together.

(From Chapter One, "Darkest Kiss")

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