The Big Issue : Edition 439
38 THE BIG ISSUE 16 -- 29 AUG 2013 I shrugged. I had no idea what working people did, considering I had never been one. "You need to actually do something, Geraldine," he said. "I'll help you get a job. I still know some people." I left him to fnish his eggs and wandered out to the pool. I put my sunglasses on and hopped onto my stepfather's infatable Pool Party Entertainer – a foating, yellow-and- green cushiony mat with headrest, cup holder and attached plastic palm tree that served as a rather unsatisfactory screen from the sun. From the pool I could hear my stepfather shouting on the phone, "Bob, Bob! How's tricks, Bobby?" I paddled around, thinking of myself as a modern-day, female Benjamin Braddock, without the degree, the promising future or the proud parents. My stepfather came out a few minutes later with a jug of milk in his hand. "I got you a job," he said. "With Bobby Whipple. You remember him? He needs a receptionist." "What? A receptionist? I'm not trained to be a receptionist." "Training, shmaining," my stepfather said, as he lifted up the jug and chugged back a few mouthfuls of milk. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "It's a good, respectable job," he said, as if that were the answer to every possible dispute I might have. I looked up at the window and saw my mother's face peering down at us from between the curtains. She was fddling with the cord of her dressing gown. "Come!" I waved to her. "Come down!" But the curtains fell back into place as she stepped away from the window. "Sad to see," my stepfather said, putting the jug of milk down by the side of the pool and shaking his head. "Sad to see your mother like that." He stood at the edge of the pool, his chest like a continent – broad, bulky, solid. He dived into the water, creating waves that the Pool Party Entertainer admirably rode out, like a sturdy little ship on unsteady seas. His head popped up at the side of the Pool Party Entertainer a few seconds later. "You start Monday, 8.30am," he said, wiping his face with his hand. "Do it for your mother, if not for anyone else." I tuck tHE wad of chicken into the side of my mouth and say to Bob Whipple, "Complaints about what?" The idea that I might fail at something else seems to sharpen my senses. "The details don't matter," he says. "A pretty girl like you shouldn't have to worry about details." I swallow the chicken, and the bulk of it hurts the back of my throat as it goes down. “Are you going to fre me?” I say, my voice wavering. "Oh no, Geri. No, no. But I'll tell you what I think." He pulls his chair a little closer to mine and takes my hand in his. "I think that if you smiled more it would make people feel... well, more welcome, more wanted. People like receptionists who smile. I do try to remind you, but at a certain point..." He lets go of my hand, sits back and shrugs. "Well there's only so much I can do." I nod and look down into my lap. "We'll work on it together. You and me," he says, reaching forward to hold my hand again, now enclosed tightly between both of his. "I know it's hard for you right now, what with everything going on at home, but it can't be that hard to smile every now and then, can it? Geraldine?" AftEr I StArtEd working for Bob Whipple, my stepfather often asked me about him. "How is he, the old Whip?" he'd say. "How's he treating you? Top bloke, the old Whipper," he'd say. I'd shrug and say, "Okay, I guess. I don't know." "I hope you're appreciating the opportunity to work with a man like Whipper. Have you told him how much you appreciate it?" "Sure," I'd say. "Of course." But it seemed like a strange thing to do. To thank someone for the chance to do something that I never wanted to do in the frst place. "Good, good," he'd smile and shake his head. "Oh, the stories I could tell you about the old Whipper," he'd say as he organised my mother's medication on a plate. Every day he would arrange the tablets to make a different picture: a smiley face, a jogging stick fgure, a house with a chimney billowing little pillows of smoke. I suspected my stepfather was trying to poison my mother, but the doctors are certain that the light grey mass that shows up in her ultrasound portends a speedy death. WE ArE SIttIng in the restaurant, Bob Whipple and me. I have covered my face with my hands. I feel a tightness in my chest. My breath is coming in short bursts. But I'm worried because the tears aren't coming. If they don't come at all it will suggest that I am faking this whole act. So now I try and force the tears. I'm squeezing my eyes up, trying to get just a little moisture. Bob shifts his chair even closer to mine. He puts his arm around my shoulder and I can smell his aftershave – the full- bodied musky aftershave all men used to wear. "A pretty girl like you doesn't need to cry," he says. I feel like the air I am breathing in is empty of whatever things it is meant to contain in order to sustain life. I am taking bigger gulps of air but it doesn't seem to be making any difference. "I think I might be..." I say in a weak voice, "...having some kind of attack." “come, come,” Bob Whipple says, “just breathe. Everything will be fne, geri. there’s no need to get upset. We’re in this together, you and me." WHEn I WAS watching TV last night I heard my mother calling out my stepfather’s name. I turned and saw her ice-white feet at the top of the staircase.