She looked good in red. If I had my choice, she’d have been in blue. But I missed that. I missed the pigtails, the way her thumb would pucker up with wrinkles after she sucked it all night. The best friend who sold her out for a sleepover at the cool kid’s house. She wouldn’t even call me dad this morning, as we shared a fry up in the café down the road from my place. Nicole would have given me hell about clogging up her arteries. But she’d run it off. PE was period three. I knew that much. It felt like a small victory.
I tipped her a wave over the wheel as I watched her shuffle into the side gate of the school, the tall blonde figure swallowed up by the acne-pocked mass of teenaged flesh. Her green backpack lingered a moment longer before it joined her. Did she always shuffle? Or was that a new development?
Some jumpy mother gave me a toot from the horn of her BMW, the chrome grille glittering in the cool morning air. I ignored her.
My phone buzzed in my pocket as I watched the kids pour in. Some boy who thought his afro compensated for a helmet was doing a wheelie through the crowd, ringing his bell and stooping to spank a girl who stepped aside at the last moment. They expelled you for that now, I heard.
The mother behind me was passing my window now, shooting daggers over her twin boy’s heads at me. I continued to ignore her.
The text was from Derek. He’d put his name into my phone alongside a little smiley face. I didn’t know how to remove that. I’d have put in a middle finger.
I sighed and looked once more after the crowd of kids. Ellie – Eleanor could text now. Apparently, it was old hat. Which is why she didn’t do it. Or at least didn’t text me. It struck me as strange. That that was the last hurdle to cross. The most intimate of connections came through a phone. I wondered if she texted about me.
I read Derek’s text, sighed again, and threw the phone on the passenger seat as I turned across the stream of traffic and back onto the high street.
My parole officer had done me the ultimate indignity. He’d found me a job. Which was strange in itself. I’d always listed myself as “freelancer” when any of those church do-gooders had popped in with their milky tea and stale rich tea biscuits that were the height of luxury for block E. We were supposed to refrain from telling the old biddies what we thought of Jesus while the screws stood three deep in the dining hall. Little Ed had to be excused after adding his own milk to the tea. He’d done two weeks in segregation for that. And I’d done four days for laughing. But I wasn’t laughing now.
I turned into Raven court, crossing a roundabout that the clunker made me feel in my spine, and took a left onto Fairfield avenue. The houses here were quiet, nondescript. Two stories, two cars, two point five kids and a mortgage. Sometimes two lovers, one through the backdoor. The suburbs I’d dreamed of, a lifetime ago.
I parked outside the Starbucks bulging from the wall of the job centre like some hopeful tumour. The parking was free, the coffees weren’t. I hoped Derek was feeling generous.
My parole officer was sat in the back corner of the dingy shop, paunch poking out his black turtleneck. His perennial clipboard was tapping faintly on the table to the beat of Elton John’s Rocket Man, playing softly through the headphones of some spotty kid working on an essay and a cappuccino.
“Simon,” Derek’s red face split into a shark’s grin as I took the seat opposite him. He had a tall hot chocolate loaded with marshmallows in front of him. I had a tepid water. He tapped his watch. “running a bit late, are we?”
Derek was about forty. Which still made him a good decade younger than me. I was pleased to see further white in his dark sideburns. Perhaps it stopped me throwing my water in his face.
“School rush, you know how it is.” I grunted.
“Ah,” he tapped his nose. “I do, I do.” He looked thoughtful. “Still, I wouldn’t have thought you’d be tardy today.” He tapped the pen against his clipboard. The sound cut through the aroma of his drink and the mumbled conversation of the patrons like a playground whistle. I felt my eyes involuntarily roll over it. Twenty years ago, I could have ripped it out of his fat hand, flipped it, and buried it to the hilt in his throat. Would have, if I’d been ordered to do it, and paid in full. But that pen had the power to send me back to the slammer with a flick of his wrist. And the bastard knew it. Also, it was blue. A shame to spoil it.
“Sorry.” I said, looking away from his maddening grin. “Won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t, please.” He tapped his clipboard again. “It wouldn’t look good, you know.”
I focused on a flyaway Sainsburys bag outside the window and tried not to think about an assault charge.
“Anyway,” Derek clapped and took a noisy slurp of his hot chocolate. “How was young Eleanor today?”
“Fine.” I turned and looked at him. I should have shaved before coming out. Two day’s growth sat on my cheeks like the chocolate sprinkles in his drink. At least I’d showered.
“I must say, Nicole and Stephen, was it?” He looked over the rim of his drink at me. It was. He knew damned well it was. I stayed quiet. Derek looked disappointed. “They’ve been very good about all this. Letting her spend every third weekend at your flat. How is she settling in?”
“Fine.” I said again.
“You might have to give me more than that, you know.” He said. “There’s safeguarding to think about …”
“She’s safe.” I said. “Nicole says so, Stephen says so,” I heard the venom as I pronounced the art gallery owner’s name and hated myself for it. “And I say so.”
“Ah, but what does Eleanor say?” Derek reclined backwards, the button on his jeans stretching.
“Not a lot. Still.” I looked down at the table so I didn’t have to see the grin.
“There, there.” Derek said after a moment. I could hear the fucking grin. “She’ll come round. Not every teenager has a jailbird daddy, after all.”
I bit my lip.
“So, are you excited about today?” Derek said after a moment, savouring his barb.
“Ecstatic.” I said.
“That’s my man!” He drummed plump fingers on the serving tray. “Did you bring your uniform?”
I shrugged my shoulder in the bag strap. Derek took that for assent.
“Good man.” He slapped my shoulder. “And you can drive there okay?”
“Last I checked.” I said.
“Just think, it’s not much different to cleaning the showers, but you actually get paid! How exciting is that?”
“Turning cartwheels.” I said.
“Well, get out all that sarcasm right here.” Derek laughed. “No time for that on the job. How are you finding it all?”
“Mop, bucket, floor.” I said.
“Precisely.” Derek nodded. “wash away your sins, day by day. Soon we won’t need to meet every week, you know.” He looked around conspiratorially before whispering to me. “I’m going to miss it.”
“I bet you will.” I said. Derek laughed and made a note on his clipboard.
But he was right about one thing. I did enjoy the job. In a way.
The sky was grey as I drove across town, the first spots of rain pattering off the windscreen. It made me anxious. It was the same puke-stained shade as the mattress and the uniform I’d worn for fourteen years. The shade of nonentity, the shade of 6 a.m. with a screw rattling his truncheon across the bars, the shade of the mealy porridge, the shade of no hope.
It was too much to hope for the sun in mid-February. But it wasn’t even the sun I wanted. I dug my fingers into my bag as I turned into the leisure centre car park. The soft blue material of my new uniform soothed me. I lifted it out, pulled it to my nose and sniffed it. Washing powder and the tobacco I’d kicked last month when Eleanor told me it stank and she wished she was back home. I’d hoped she’d meet me halfway. But so far, she just sat in her room with the door locked and talked to people on her phone. I felt awkward about confronting her, so I just lay on the sofa and watched Friends reruns and twitched for a fag. Nicole said it would take time. The look of compassion was almost worse than Derek’s glee.
The girl on reception was young, red-haired, and had a spider’s web tattoo inside her left wrist. She looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and disgust as I shuffled up to the desk, passing a sweaty guy coming out of the attached gym with a towel over his shoulder. He was about the size I used to be.
“Clocking in,” I nodded at her, expecting her to tap her keyboard and let me through the turnstiles. The gatekeeper of purgatory.
She hesitated a moment, her eyes searching my face. I wondered if she’d been told what I’d done. Maybe I made good break room gossip. I’d been charged with fair near everything back on that cold morning so long ago. They’d let me put my jeans on, but that was about it. Aggravated assault, GBH, possession of a firearm, reckless driving, tax evasion. They’d even done me for the ounce of weed two flats over. But the big one, accepting money for a contract killing. That one had piled up the years like a stack of American pancakes. It was a good job that was as far as the police had got on their own. I wasn’t going to hand out any more rope.
I grinned hesitantly at the girl. She was probably wondering how this shrivelled old prune in his blue jeans and dirty jacket could intimidate a hamster.
“We open at 11:30,” she told me unnecessarily. “You need to be done by then.”
“Uh-huh.” I said. She unlocked the turnstiles.
“Oh,” She said as I turned for the white-tiled hall beyond. “and Mr Baxter said you can’t park in the staff car park anymore. You’re not um …”
I looked over my shoulder at her. She at least looked guilty. And maybe a little hopeful. That I’d rip off her boss’s toupee and make him eat it. But she had the wrong man.
“No worries.” I said.
I had to change in little more than a broom closet. The musty darkness and the smell of cleaning fluid brought back memories of lights out, the air pregnant with howls unuttered. I dressed quickly, my heart beating hard in my chest.
I felt better when I got to the pool.
The hall was long and wide, mostly dominated by the main pool, thirty metres long. My trainers squeaked on the wet beige tile as I wheeled the cart along behind me. The smell of chlorine was strong, and one of the overhead speakers, set high into the ceiling, was crackling with occasional static.
I liked this room the best. I always meant to save it for last, but I always gave in to temptation, and cleaned in here first. To my right, swing doors opened onto the smaller kid’s pool. I could see a blur of orange rubber through the translucent glass. A duck float, maybe. Which I should have stuck Eleanor in and felt her little hands slide panic-stricken over my forearms. That room was always harder.
I whistled faintly as I worked, conscious of the bay window and the viewing gallery behind me. Baxter always seemed to find an excuse to be up there whenever I was working. I could see the top of his sandy headpiece nodding along, a phone pressed to his ear. Perhaps he was worried I was going to steal the water.
It was tempting. I worked slowly and methodically, picking fragments of nail and strands of hair, both fake and real, out of the grates lining the pool’s edge. I mopped up sticky patches and hoovered dry patches with the little handheld on the back of my cart.
Like always, I felt myself relax as I stared into the cool blue water, lapping occasionally at my shoes. The bottom of the pool was lost in whatever chemicals they pumped in to keep it that lovely shade of blue, and I liked that. It was like falling forever, in a crystal blue expanse. Freedom, in a place where they couldn’t chase up your rent or dock your pay because you were two minutes late. Where you were unknown, anonymous, free.
The blue had held me throughout those fourteen years. I hadn’t had a favourite colour before I’d gone in. I’d thought that stuff was for kids. Ellie – Eleanor had had one of course. Back then. I figured that question now would get me a shrug and a yawn, if she was in a good mood.
The rain trickled down the glass, falling away down the muddy hill on the other side of the window from the pool. The brown shade of clogged toilets and smug screws. I looked back at the blue.
There had been a window in my cell. Not really much more than a wedge of toughened plastic three inches thick. It got dirty in the winter. Sometimes people cleaned it from the outside. Sometimes not.
But in the summers, I used to lie back on my bed and watch that little slice of blue deepen in colour as the day wore on. Not thinking about anything, not feeling anything. Imagining what it would be like to reach out and touch it. Feel it on my tongue. It was the one spark of colour in that place.
I’d had a phone in there. I’d had to trade all my fags and my first sloppy blowjob to get the thing. It was small, one of those old Nokias that could survive an H-bomb. Lucky for me. I’d had to hide the fucking thing up my arse for a decade. I was sad to leave it behind when I left. It knew me more intimately than my wife had done, before Stephen and his five Rembrandts in a row.
It got me through the winters. I’d take a picture on a shining July afternoon, when I was sure the screws were busy screwing somewhere else. Every year, I’d make sure I got a different one. I put a piece of dark cloth over the window when the sky turned and pretended it wasn’t there. Then I’d shit out my phone at 2 a.m. and look at that blue. And dream.
I’d painted the walls of the flat blue on the day I moved in. It helped with the yawning expanse of the bathroom, the living room that Eleanor called a rat trap, and I called a concert hall. I worried sometimes that the space would eat me up. The blue helped with that. It helped with everything.
I looked down at the pool as I finished up, the water seeming to call out to me. I wondered what Baxter would think if I stepped in, fully clothed, and let it wash over me. I could probably get a full thirty seconds before he came barrelling down the stairs on his little legs and sent me back to Derek with a sore backside. No matter. I was content to look.
The kid’s pool only took half as long. Baxter remarked on my report sheet that I did a much better job with the adult pool, and suggested I save it until last to avoid “slackness”, underlined in red. But he didn’t see the echoes in there. The life rafts that might have been, the grinning inflatable tigers that never were, the rings decorated like sugared doughnuts.
Maybe I’d buy her a pack on the way home. Stephen was a harsh task master. Scrambled egg on a half-slice of wholemeal toast every morning, and a glass full of pureed kale. It wasn’t saving his hairline, or Eleanor’s imagination. I’d just about choked it down on that morning he’d had me over, for a “man-to-man” after Nicole had gone off to the nursery. I considered that morning a testament to how well I could swallow bullshit.
I left the centre as the first families were beginning to spill down its throat, still in my uniform. A little girl was holding a young mother and father by the index fingers of each hand, the fire of life in her eyes. I smiled at her, but she didn’t see me. The crowd parted briefly to admit me, and then closed again. Just another prop in the show.
I looked at my car in the forbidden car park. It was blue too, an ancient Corsa my first few wage packets had bought. Inside it, I felt at peace. Harmless. Free. The rest of the day was mine to do with as I saw fit. Whatever that meant now. Eleanor was free to come over after school, if she wanted. She just had to text me, and I’d pick her up. As long as I asked Stephen first, of course.
I drove aimlessly for a while, before the grey sky made me anxious again. Then I headed for home.
I lived over a kebab shop now, and as such I never wanted to eat another kebab again. I pulled into my parking space and looked inside. Lunchtime, and the place was bustling. People laughing, dripping grease onto the complementary copies of the Sun. They scared me too. I wanted to get upstairs and look at the walls for a while.
I was about to make my move when my phone buzzed again. I considered leaving it. Probably Derek again, asking me how my day was, with another of those fucking smiley faces. But I had to appease the man. At least until the man got a new fish he preferred the taste of.
My heart stopped in my chest as I read the message. I hadn’t saved the contact. Because typing out the name hurt me. And Stephen had given me the number. But I knew it, as well as I knew that wedge of blue in the sky. Eleanor wasn’t a wordy girl. They said she was better at maths. As such, she’d economised. The text read simply: “u there”
And suddenly, in that blue car, under a grey sky, fourteen years later, I was there. I was finally there. I reached out, fingers shaking on the sweaty glass of the phone, and I told her so.