All for Fair Trade Roses
The thing with Scottish winters is the eternal darkness that tries to visit your soul. A winter time when the clocks go back signal a visceral love of scarves and central heating. Neil Preston thought as much on this second Thursday in November as he crossed the Asda car park. The town seemed cowed as few cars moved on the nearby main road and only a few hippo-shaped people carriers occupied the far corner of the mammoth space. It was ten o’clock at night. Steve, who gave him his usual lift was AOWD-Absent on Wife Duty. This was Gary’s sexist epithet on any missing 5-a-side football teammates. He never missed the Thursday night football. Not everyone had a mistress which was a growling sports car and who couldn’t sustain any relationship with a human female online or otherwise.
Neil felt that his five-a-side football insert of release time was at risk. The number of hours he spent after six on work projects was growing. Earlier, during the interminable County Council meeting he had set, clarified and re-clarified what his planning department was doing in the latest round of ‘savings’ that were being implemented. No not savings. They were cuts. Because that was what the redundant men and women would say were wide-ranging. People Fraser would never meet.
‘What are the greatest savings you can make in the coming financial year, Neil? I do not want you to go over the great service and value the different officers have to your department and the council at large. Tell me the bottom line.’Fraser-the financial manager had demanded greater savings and remits to be shelved out to almost double some people’s workload.
He spoke then as you answered would speak over you as the second word fell from your lips.
Capacity, margins and targets poured from his thin mouth above a growing double chin. Neil had felt his headache grow again and tried to set the actual, not the target number of redundancies he-and his department could live with.
It hadn’t worked he was made to talk to the very lowest staffing ratios in all scenarios. He felt like a baby rabbit to Fraser’s rapacious black crow. Brute desires to eat and destroy. In his compliance he felt a thread of self-disgust that was the threat of his own job being re-assigned. A possibility that had made clear through the grapevine which Fraser fed into through his small clique of lackeys.
By the end of the meeting he was being made to give yes or no answers.
Fraser. Almost five years ago he had cried on Neil’s shoulder. An audit of social services demanded by an external inspection had been ‘lost’ on his computer. Neil, who had specialised in computing science as well as town planning at Edinburgh University had helped him work through the night re-do his files. His wife had left him and Neil had put an arm round him as he sobbed. The hills beyond the high-rise office block they were in looked like a black wave waiting to engulf the matchstick buildings below. He had been promoted a year later. Since then any going for a pint before holidays hit vanished as did enquiries about shared friends and both their sets of parents.
‘I will never forget this Neil. Never. You ever need something that needs me to do something it is done.’ Neil could remember the words.
After making him go way below what he could live with in terms of redundancies a small Machiavellian twist was put on at the end.‘Well, Steve. The full round of jobs cuts may not happen…you never know with these bloody councillors fighting for who is cock o the walk on every bloody issue.’ He meant come next year and the Scottish local council elections the goal posts might change. In reality the figures created would be kept to rigidly.
It was windy so the main doors of the supermarket were closed. The lurid green signs of the supermarket blocked one entrance. An American owned grocery behemoth was no match for a Scottish wind born in hell. And, he thought, the frozen pizzas were miles away after he had another blast of wind through the folds of his ancient Adidas top.
Opening the boot to throw it, and the batch of diet coke tins in, he jumped out of his skin. Before hearing the voice he saw a red rose petal and shock of black hair-still vivid in the light of the car park lamps.
The woman’s face was pained and the eyes wild. She seemed about fifty but could have been thirty-five. The weariness and slouched shoulders suggested as much and now she was bending round the corner of Steve’s blue Clio as he held the boot of the car open. Her unsteadiness and slight swaying at the hips were at odds to the eyes. He noticed a lick of grey at the end of the sickly strands of hair that hung under her left ear.
‘Some Fair Trade roses for your wife, son?’
Before his finger tips could even fully leave the plastic skin of the pack of diet coke tin she continued.
‘I have nae money to get hame to ma kids. I’m only looking for a couple of pounds you know?’
The car park was desolate the plague yellow arcs of the huge supermarket lights beaming down through the rain.
He, with the sweat of the five-a-side football game becoming dangerously chilled and clammy inside and out his skin had been frightened. He thought he must look daft with large nylon sport shorts and a Dundee United football shirt on.
‘I haven’t got my wallet,’ he said while getting his head out from the boot’s door that was working as an umbrella. He was beginning to get over the shock of having this woman seemingly delivered by the winter wind.
‘They are guid Fair Trade roses you ken. Are you sure the Mrs wouldnae like them in the front them?’ She pointed unsteadily to the largest blooms. There seemed about four small bunches in her clenched fists.
He stood the chill and sensation of wet spreading to every millimetre of skin. As usual in times of freezing his right toe began to lose all feeling. Beyond the car park the small towers of the council housing of the local estate looked like speckled and glass pocked teeth. Both of them stood and the rain seemed to intensify to Steve.
He lifted up with both hands the tubular six pack of diet cokes.
He felt that she was in charge of the timing. How this selling and bartering of need and time would go or end or change.
With that she left.
Sitting in the driver’s seat he lifted a rain drop from his forehead where his short black hair and stuck to it. The lie had made him warm. He had his wallet. It was in the right hand side of the tracksuit jacket.
Driving past the flats he wondered if anyone could stop their Judas moments. He tried to make a mental note not to filter all Fraser’s comments through his anger. He saw the huge pupils of her eyes as he went past the windows of the bank next to the supermarket. They were his not hers. He turned the corner onto the main road. He passed the car park. The hippos were still there parked in the disabled bays. The rest was empty space.