Read Lifesaver Online

Authors: Louise Voss

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction

Lifesaver (7 page)

BOOK: Lifesaver
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I heard my agent spark up a cigarette, inhale, then exhale. I imagined the smoke billowing out of the receiver into my face and resisted the urge to cough. It was only ten o’clock in the morning, and as I lay in bed, I could still faintly smell the previous night’s smoky club on my own skin and in my hair. The thought of it in my lungs made me feel sick.

‘Well,’ said Fenella. ‘If you ask me, they knew who they wanted all along. I did tell them not to waste my time, or yours, but you know what the politics are like with these people.’

‘Whatever,’ I said. I pushed back the duvet and got out of bed, moving across the room to stand in front of the bedroom mirror in my pants, where I examined the faint silver stretchmarks on my belly. You could only see them in a certain light. ‘So, have you got anything else for me at the moment?’

Another inhalation, a nicotine sigh. ‘I promise you’re top of my list if anything suitable comes up. How do you feel about doing panto this year?’

I could have cried. It made me shudder to even think of it: the forced jollity and fake fairy-dust, the thigh-slapping and stupid hats. The tedium of bad puns twice a day for two months.

I climbed wearily back into bed again. ‘You know I loathe panto.’

‘Yes. Just thought I’d ask, though. So that’s a no, is it?’

‘That’s definitely a no. I’d rather be on the dole.’

After we’d said our goodbyes—mine somewhat grumpily - I rang Ken at the office to tell him that I hadn’t got the job. But his voicemail clicked on, after what seemed like an eternity. I hated leaving messages on his machine, it was such a palaver: press ‘1’ to do this, press ‘0’ to terminate the call (why on earth wouldn’t you just hang up, if you wanted to terminate the call?); listen to Ken himself running through a variety of options:
ringing his secretary on this number, trying him on his mobile on that number. Then eventually, by the time I’d lost the will to live - or at least forgotten what I was ringing to tell him in the first place - you got offered the chance to leave a message. I hung up long before that. It was hardly important, after all.

The day stretched ahead of me as all the others did, with not even the promise of the distraction of work. No lines to be learned, no research to be done, no cast to meet. I didn’t have the energy for a run. Lil had said she was going on a coach trip with her Women’s Institute friends up to the National Gallery—and, besides, I didn’t want to get too reliant on her company now that we were friends again. I thought of visiting Vicky, but then remembered that Wednesday was the day she took Pat to his toddler group.

So I decided to get up and go for a drive instead. I liked driving, it was a great de-stresser. I hadn’t left the house for ages after Holly, and had missed my car so much that once I was back behind the wheel again (Ken having discreetly disposed of the brand-new ladybird-print carseat), I found myself going out more and more. I could listen to CDs or the radio, and it somehow felt far more productive than doing the same sitting at home. I was covering miles, swallowing distance. And I admit, the first few weeks I went out there was more than a niggle of a self-destructive element to it: I was testing God. Or myself. If I pushed up to ninety along this stretch, what might happen? Might I lose control, spin over the central reservation? Would I care? Might it just be the easiest way out?

I felt that less now. I took fewer risks on the road, although that was mostly because I was afraid of causing death or injury to somebody else. Somebody who, unlike me, was a hundred percent sure that they wanted to live.

I honestly hadn’t set out to drive to Gillingsbury. I’d just decided that I needed a change of scenery, I wanted to get out of the house, and I had my Daniel Bedingfield CD to listen to. The bottom of the M3 was only a couple of miles from where we lived, and I often drove down there—if you went against the traffic, the road was rarely busy, and the scenery wasn’t bad, either. It was miles to the first junction, which I liked. No option but to keep going.

By the time I reached Fleet, I remembered—consciously, at least - that the M3 was the route to Gillingsbury. My mood had lifted a little: I’d had plenty of rejections in my acting career, and this was just another one—but the thought of visiting Max’s town grabbed me under the armpits and hauled me right out of my sough of despond. Aunt Lil’s words rang in my ears: ‘You could just…
suss it out.
’ It was the first time I’d taken those words seriously. The idea really had seemed preposterous when she’d said it, so casually, but I found myself getting more and more excited at the thought of maybe meeting Max’s father. How sad and empty was my life, I thought to myself; that this was so thrilling to me?

The first sign to Gillingsbury took me off the motorway and onto the A303. Salisbury 24, Gillingsbury 17, it said, and my left foot tapped with excitement against the floor of the car. There was a storm brewing to one side of me; the sky had turned an amazing lowering sort of yellow, and everything seemed so clear—I could see individual leaves on trees fifty feet away, and felt as if I was looking into the eyes of the reclining cows in the fields.

It only took about an hour. The town of Gillingsbury lay in a valley, and as I approached it, I thought: Max is down there somewhere, with a part of me having rooted and blossomed inside of him, helping make him well again. The yearning to meet him was so strong that it was literally a hunger—my stomach rumbled with anticipation.

I stopped at a petrol station on the outskirts and asked directions from the man in the glass booth. It was easy, he said, handing me change for the two chocolate bars I’d purchased in the hope that they would take my mind off the nerves and the hollow longing fluttering inside me: halfway around the ringroad, then first left. It was another five minutes’ drive to the college, by which time all the chocolate was gone.

With a cloying heavy sweetness on my tongue and coating my teeth, I parked the car and got out, marching far more confidently than I felt towards the main reception.

Gillingsbury Community College looked like most modern colleges seemed to, as if the architect’s brief had been to make the building look as anonymous and nondescript as possible. I couldn’t pick out a single notable feature of it; it was more like a multi-storey carpark than a seat of learning. Yet somehow this reassured me: I was just an ordinary person going into an ordinary building. I had as much right as anyone else to be there: as much right as that elderly woman with fat arms bulging out of short sleeves over there, or that group of Middle-Eastern looking men sitting smoking on a wall, nudging each other and gazing at my… Damn! I glanced down at my clothes. Having not planned this impromptu expedition, I wasn’t best equipped for it. I was wearing saggy black jersey trousers and a very small, very tight sleeveless fuchsia t-shirt, with no bra. I slung my bag over my shoulders—luckily it had a long handle—so that its strap covered one of my nipples, and self-consciously fiddled with my ear so that my left elbow hid the rest of my chest. The men snickered and muttered to each other, sucking their cheeks into shadowy hollows through skinny rolled up cigarettes.

I pushed through swing doors into a shabby, lino-lined lobby. A pinboard on the wall sported a plethora of wonky scribbled notices, and I couldn’t help but stop and read them before I did anything else. I was an inveterate reader of bulletin boards, I just couldn’t help myself: ‘Chest of drawers, £15—buyer collects’; ‘Clean Japanese au-pair available. Love children.’ I never knew what I expected to find on them. Maybe it was evidence of other people’s weaknesses—their spelling mistakes, their avariciousness. Or perhaps it was the opposite, perhaps I was looking for the good qualities; the hope and optimism in people which made them believe that somebody would not only buy their knackered old MFI chest of drawers, but cart it away for them as well.

A bald middle aged man in a brown suit, with a bushy moustache and a polka-dotted bow tie, was standing behind a long countertop, behind which was a couple of desks sporting two old grey computers. Shelves full of files lined the walls, and next to me a circular wire rack drooped with different coloured leaflets in a variety of languages. The counter had a lift-up section to it, like a bar. It reminded me of the scene in
Only Fools and Horses
where someone lifts up the hatch just as Del-Boy, lurid cocktail in hand, tries to lean on it, and falls sideways out of sight. I could have used one of those radioactive-looking cocktails at that moment, paper umbrella and all.

‘Can I help you?’

Be strong, I told myself. You’re an actor, you’ll pull it off. ‘Could I see a prospectus, please?’ There was no law against walking into a college and enquiring about its courses, was there?

The man waved his arm expansively in the direction of a wobbly and uneven stack of A4 sized books on the floor behind me. I walked over and picked one off the top.
Gillingsbury Adult Education College
it said in fat letters.
Be all you can be!
Inside were pages and pages of course listings, in tiny black script, mostly sounding fearsomely dull, or else in some kind of arcane code: EFL with IT, TESOL Certificate Training, BCS ECDL. There were a few intriguing ones too, I noticed, particularly on the General Interest page:
Classic Roasts, Haircutting for Children, an Introduction to Geology, Street Dance for Beginners, Intermediate Parchment Craft
…In a moment of escapist madness I had an urge to register for everything under General Interest, but then I remembered why I was there. I sat down on a polished wooden bench, like a church pew, and quickly scanned down through the subject headings until I found ART AND CRAFT DEPARTMENT. Page 117. I flipped through to the right page, and saw a small black and white photograph of an earnest looking man sitting at a potter’s wheel, his palms embracing the wet clay. For some reasons it reminded me of the way Ken had shaken my hand when we first met. I supposed I
been like putty in his hands.

I wondered if the picture was of Adam. It didn’t say, but looking down the listings I found A. Ferris next to several courses:
Life Drawing Beginners, Life Drawing Intermediate, Basic Pottery,
Mosaics for Beginners
. They were all daytime courses, starting at different dates in September—there were evening classes in the same subjects, but taught by a P. Rumbould. Adam must turn down evening work so he could be there for Max, I thought, my chest swelling with a completely unjustifiable pride. I just knew Adam was a good dad.

Oh, stop being so ridiculous, I countered. For all I knew, Adam kept his evenings free to indulge in his coke-dealing activities or run his lap-dancing club. But somehow I felt that I was right.

I went back to the man with the bow tie. He had begun to eat a very messy tuna salad sandwich, even though it was only eleven in the morning, and was reading the job section of
The Guardian
. The smell of the tuna drifted across the counter at me, making my nostrils flare involuntarily.

‘Excuse me? I’d like some more information about some of these courses.’

‘Which ones?’ He took a large bite of sandwich, dropping a blob of grey tuna onto the lapel of his jacket.

‘Um. The art ones. The daytime art ones.’

I had to wait a few seconds while the man chewed exaggeratedly, jabbing a forefinger towards his mouth to indicate that he wasn’t able to respond just at that moment. Eventually he swallowed. He hadn’t noticed the spillage.

‘I beg your pardon. If you’d like to take the second left along that corridor behind you, you will find the Art Department. The departmental secretary’s name is Pamela Wilkins. She should be able to help you with any questions.’

‘Thanks,’ I said, glad that Adam taught arty subjects and not something nerdy and complicated like Applied Maths or Computer Aided Technology. As I walked off down the corridor, with the smell of furniture polish and school dinners in my nose - not nice, but better than the tuna sandwich—I couldn’t help but feel excited. That secretary knew Adam. May even have met Max. I slowed my pace, to give myself time to think of what to say.

I put my head around the open door of the Art Department. It was a big, messy room, covered in a grey film of clay dust. Charcoal nudes and some abstract tapestries hung on the walls—rather good, I thought, not that I was any judge of artistic merit. I couldn’t draw the most basic of dogs without it looking like a donkey. Scarred melamine-topped tables were arranged in a horseshoe formation around the edge of the room. I remembered those tables from school—different coloured tops, and metal tubes for legs.

There was nobody about, but just as I stepped inside I heard brisk footsteps behind me in the corridor. I hadn’t really given it much thought, but I supposed if anyone had asked me, I’d have imagined that the secretary of an Art Department would be small and slight, elfin, and would waft around distributing pastels and putting away paintbrushes, dressed in a variety of floaty, probably crocheted garments. In hues of rainbow.

Pamela Wilkins, of course, could not have been more different.

‘Are you looking for me?’ she cried heartily. ‘Sorry. Just popped out to the little girls’ room.’ She pushed past me through the doorway. ‘Come in, come in.’

I surveyed her, impressed at how any woman could care so little for her appearance. She was about four foot two, late forties, perhaps, with thick stubby legs and enormously wide hips, across which a fantastically horrible bright blue pleated and patterned nylon skirt sat, a good six inches higher round the back. She had long dull black hair, a visible, almost luxuriant black moustache, and wore not a scrap of make-up. I suppressed a vision of her leaping naked through a bluebell field, paintbrush in mouth, hair whipping around her head, stopping every now and then to daub colour onto a large canvas nearby…

‘If you’re Pamela Wilkins, then yes, I’m looking for you. The man on reception suggested I come and talk to you about the art courses.’

‘Ah, poor Wilf. Yes. I’m sure I can tell you anything you need to know about this place—been here for twenty eight years, since it was first built, I have. People say that I must have been dug in with the foundations! Dug in with the foundations!’

BOOK: Lifesaver
12.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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