Sunday Scribbles are just some of the beginnings of stories…I have all sorts of reasons (excuses) for never reaching the endings. Lack of time, not finding the right voice, losing the right mood, having another idea, losing interest. Whatever the reason, I just don’t do it often enough to get any better at it. So here goes. Just think of this as me ‘doing the scales’ on a piano.
The new one
She looked like Beryl Bainbridge in her prime, if Beryl Bainbridge hadn’t been a smoker. Pause for a moment and imagine that skin, ironed and smoothed; sort of pretty but a bit thin-faced with too much cheekbone. That was her. There was an element of blackness in there too, but given the shape of her nose and mouth, that was obviously a short but useful blip in her gene history.
I wanted to be impartial and objective, but how can you not take on the subliminal impression that she was intelligent, with possibly a slightly acerbic wit? I’ve never read a Beryl Bainbridge novel in my life, but I know her reputation. So this woman became the new one, partly on my recommendation, and I always inwardly called her Beryl. I had every reason to assume that she would be smart and sassy in doing her job; you needed a certain hardness to do the interrogations but honestly, it wasn’t the only requirement – you needed to know you could have a laugh with your co-workers, after all. We aren’t machines. It wasn’t that she said anything particular clever in her interview, it was more that she hadn’t said anything to challenge my stupid preconceptions. And she made a little joke that wasn’t anything offensive or radical, it was a soft little jibe about how hard we had to work compared to our boss, but it was enough for me to feel she could be a buddy, and was willing to be nice. She smiled. Was it fake? I’m a pretty good judge, and I didn’t think so.
Anyhow, the next week we were on the transport together to get to the jail, once she had been through all her induction stuff. She acknowledged me with a nod, but for the rest of the journey her face was blank. She didn’t show any interest in our route through the desert, even though it was her first time, as far as I knew. I had been a nervous wreck my first time. We all knew the dangers from insurgents, so the team usually spent the journey scoping. Not her. Wow, I thought. That is one cool customer. Unless nerves have made her all buttoned-up.
Tecs was the guy in charge of disembarkation, and he was a bit of a control freak so he liked to make sure we were all in a neat line before he let us off. Plus he made us show our passes. I’ve been on those trips for three years and he never showed a single flicker of recognition. But as soon as Beryl was near the front it was a different story – I could see his eyebrows adjust and the slightest flicker at the side of his mouth; he pretty much brought it under control, but I spotted it. So who was this new girl if Tecs knew her? Was she a plant, just to spy on us?
I’m a suspicious soul. I decided to keep an eye on Beryl. That’s what I do, you see – I study people. I’m really good at it too. They made me the Lead on the programme because I could read people so well. They had made a mistake if they thought I wasn’t going to notice any funny business.
When I was in college doing my psychological baffles study unit, they used all sorts of tests to fox people and put them off the scent. I was always top of the class. And I was getting the most out of interrogating Gilbert, even though he wasn’t saying anything. I was having less luck just lately because some idiot had put too much pressure on him so he was becoming wary and expecting death – what a stupid, stupid thing to do. Anyhow, I was back with him and building up my boredom engagement with him again.
I had plans for me and Beryl to tag-team; I thought it would be a great way to get to know her. So I asked Lucas to sort it out. He was usually amenable to any of my suggestions. It was going to reflect well on him if I got the goods, after all. We were sitting in the briefing room when I made my suggestion, and Lucas, standing at the podium, paused. That was another thing that freaked me out. Lucas always just said yes or no. And he said “have you thought this one through Stanley? Do you know how violent he has become?” and I thought, since when do you care if someone is getting violent? Since when has it ever bothered you if any single one of us was in danger? And what I said was “whatever you say boss”. So we didn’t spend much time together that first day.
It took me a week or so, back and forward, back and forward, to get to talk to her again on the transport. I was dog-tired. I had worked with Gilbert to build back his off-guardedness. Jesus these people did not understand how hard that was. I was dedicated and focussed, and I knew I was getting somewhere, so the tiredness was mixed with a bit of pleasure, enough that I felt sociable – tiredness usually makes me avoid people, but not this day. I thought I’d be business-like with her; she was still blank-faced and hard to read, so I thought that maybe this was her schtick, all jobsworth and professional. “Is it up to your expectations?” I asked her. She was looking out at the desert but she turned and looked at me for a second and said “Absolutely”. Eyes back on the desert. Someone must have had a word with her about the danger out there – but then again, nice touch if she was just pretending in the first place that she didn’t know.
“That’s good. Some people find it a bit boring after the hard-sell at the beginning”. I waited for her to give me something.
Suddenly she grabbed my left shoulder and pulled me down roughly, crouching with her. At the same moment Nellie fell. There was no visible wound, so we guessed it was an NRG strike. How the hell? I didn’t know whether to add this to my suspicions or be truly grateful for how good she was. But I thought it would be brilliant bonding material, so I went to town on how shook up I was – well, relatively-speaking that is, otherwise everyone would have known I was up to something.
“I need a drink, how about it” was my gambit as the transport pulled up to base. But also “How come we don’t get proper protection anymore Tecs?” I wanted to see whether he would pick up the bait, and whether they would talk at all.
All he said was “In line folks” just as he always did. But I saw it again as she was moving level with him. I know I saw something. What the hell was it?
We went to the mess bar, but Beryl and I were playing cat and mouse with each other. Everything I asked, she asked me something else. I reached out to touch her cheek – just a whisper of a touch, but enough to unsettle anyone. “You have great skin” I said, leaning back. “You have great teeth” she responded, unsmiling but not unfriendly, “do we mate now or later?” I couldn’t help my eyes widening; I knew it was happening. She had trumped me. Then she laughed, making it into a little joke.
“I want to work with you; you’re good” I said.