Countdown – Week 10 of the 52 week short story challenge

luteray80

‘Twenty – come on – you can do this!’

I was never really sporty at school. I enjoyed hockey but lost interest when they stopped using the bully off. My skills on the tennis court were non-existent; I would still be looking for the ball long after it had gone bouncing across the playground.  It was at netball that I was completely useless however; on the one occasion that I was given the red tabard with ‘GS’ on it I failed miserably to put the ball through the net. The exasperated games teacher sent the other team in to get showered and it still took me another twenty minutes to score. I now know that my problem with hand-eye coordination may have something to do with my ability to use my left hand almost as well as my right.  Due to my extreme short-sightedness, I never learned to swim in school lessons either because I couldn’t see where I was going and wasn’t allowed to wear my specs in the water.  As a consequence of my sporting failures in my final school year I was asked if I would prefer to go into town and attend drama classes at the tech college instead. Freedom!

‘Nineteen – pull your core muscles in.’

I became so enamoured with the tech college that I opted to go there and do my ‘A’ levels instead of attending a nice sixth form college like most of my contemporaries. Wednesday afternoons were earmarked for games-related activities but I found out that I could do ‘A’ level Art instead. So I did. The only other vaguely sporty stuff I indulged in took place at the rugby ground on Saturday afternoons. I went to cheer on my mates, take charge of the oranges  and look after the sponge and water bucket. The high spot of those chilly afternoons was hearing the screams of agony coming from the changing room as the worst player had his nether regions anointed with Deep Heat.  I would cut a few moves at the students’ union disco but then it was very dark and we were all rather uncoordinated due to drink.

‘Eighteen – you are doing really well.’

My time at drama school required a host of talents that I didn’t possess. Exasperated by my inability to put my best foot forward, one of my dance teachers insisted that I wear a bell tied with a red ribbon on my right ballet shoe. Whilst this method stimulated sight and sound reactions, it also caused me huge embarrassment when my classmates giggled. Sufficient to say, I enjoyed the more constructive aspects of stage management and avoided the dancing wherever possible.

‘Seventeen – keep going!’

Once I had accepted that I was not an actress, singer or dancer; and that an enjoyment of stage management, wasn’t preparation for having sex with the director in order to get a job, I changed tack abruptly. A brief dalliance with bar work ended wetly and with much bad feeling, so I moved on to residential social work in children’s homes. This kept me rather busy and I had no need for any other source of sport until the day that my left knee was attacked by a size seven Doc Martin boot wielded by an aggressive young man called ‘Spam’. It put me out of action for several weeks – my recovery was hampered by having to  limp up the four flights of stairs to the maisonette where I lived in with my parents. My GP referred me to a specialist who prescribed ultrasound  – which didn’t work, infrared – which didn’t work either, and as a last resort – circuit training. I got to watch some very attractive  and athletic young men during this last activity but my knee continued to clunk. The specialist sighed and advised me that my knee could ‘go’ tomorrow or it might last out another thirty years. That was thirty-five years ago so I assume I am on borrowed time.

‘Sixteen.’

Moving on a couple of years I was persuaded to accompany two friends to something described as ‘Limbering Class’. Both friends were a good deal thinner than me, and I had the uncharitable thought that I had only been invited to make them look thinner. Limbering classes took place in a loft at the top of an old warehouse that was in the process of being gentrified. The builders hadn’t got beyond the ground floor at that time and the six flights of stairs to the loft were rickety and steep. Not good for an overweight woman with a clunking knee. Imagine my surprise and total delight when I discovered that despite the weight and left/right confusion, I was actually the most limber person in the class – far more bendy than either of my skinny friends. I could get my leg (right OR left) up on the ballet barre. Not only could I touch my toes but I could also put my hands flat on the floor. I became the teacher’s pet because I had the straightest back in the room. My glory was short-lived. I was relying on my friends for a lift to limbering and disappointed at not being bendy enough, they both dropped out after a month.

‘Fifteen – come on!’

My next flirtation with a sporting activity was many years later when I was pregnant with our eldest son and was encouraged to attend Aqua natal classes.  We were all bounteously bumpy ladies and particularly unwieldy when climbing the unsteady metal ladder in and out of the pool.   I am still a non-swimmer with a penchant for swimming pools with steps rather than wobbly ladders.

‘Fourteen.’

We exposed our both our boys to the joys of Tumble Tots.  Our younger son proved more of a handful as he wanted to do everything at once and not in the order that the teacher wanted him to. Luckily he was ready to start at nursery anyway so we took him out before he got ejected. Inspired by the agility of my children, I agreed to sign up at the local gym with a friend. On paper it looked good; ladies only in the daytime, men only in the evening, mixed groups at weekends. It was a small gym, over the top of a couple of shops down at our local precinct and within walking or staggering distance. Suitably attired in leggings and baggy tee-shirts, we signed up and were shown the ropes – and weights. Arriving first thing in the morning was a tad unpleasant as most of the equipment still smelled strongly of man sweat from the night before. After we had been attending happily for a couple of weeks, a group of very thin, very fit, Lycra-clad ladies joined up. They giggled at us. They made audibly rude comments. We complained to the manageress only to find that they were dear friends of hers. We left.

‘Thirteen – stop looking at that man in tights!’

Once both the boys were at school full-time, I went back to work and was lured into joining a ‘ladies only’ gym a short walk away from my office. Despite having to climb two flights of stairs, it was a lovely place. There was no sniggering, no rude comments, they had toning tables that moved all your limbs for you and the whole place smelled of oranges. I found that I could fit a session in during my lunch hour and come back to the office feeling ready to take on the world – or at least my colleagues.

‘Twelve – stay controlled.’

Crisis struck when the gym went bust. Before I could slide into despondency however, the staff at the gym clubbed together and took over. There was a name change but otherwise it remained the same, and to make life even better, our office moved to a building just across the road from the gym. I didn’t lose vast amounts of weight but I was undoubtedly fitter and my knee stopped clunking. It couldn’t last though and it didn’t. The lease was up on the lovely old building and although the gym staff had found new premises, they were outside the town AND up five flights of stairs in an old warehouse.

‘Eleven – one more and you are halfway.’

After a period of inactivity, I joined another gym in town and with the added ‘benefit’ of a pool. The gym was run by a well-known sports company and was next door to one of their stores. It didn’t have the ambiance of my previous gym; the range of equipment was limited, no toning tables and a host of sweaty male equipment-hogs that made it almost impossible to carry out the programme hastily put together for me by a nice, but harassed young instructor. I stuck it out for a couple of months but frustration and the smell drove me away. The company went bust.

‘Ten! Yes!’

After another period of lethargy I spotted a sign saying ‘Motorcise’ when I was getting off the bus to walk to my office.  The notice also stated that this was a gym specifically for older women with mobility issues and consisted of a range of toning tables. I signed up. I was the youngest member and I was in my forties by this time. The sole route to Motorcise was up a flight of stairs – so it didn’t actually cater for ALL women with mobility issues. For many of the members, it was more than a place to exercise; it was a social club where they drank coffee, ate biscuits and cakes, had regular raffles and tombola mornings. It gave them a new lease of life. They were very kind to me and knowing that I was attending in my lunch hour, would always step aside in order to let me use the tables first. It couldn’t last.

‘Nine – right down to the floor.’

It didn’t. Expiration of the lease – again. A light glimmered however. One of the girls who worked there said that she was moving to another gym with a similar set-up – called ‘Gymphobics’. It was still in town , had toning tables and I would forego the joining fee because of her recommendation.  It was a curious place; set in an arch under the railway bridge and sandwiched between an adult bookstore and a tattoo parlour. It was on the ground floor however and smelled of oranges. It was nice for a couple of months. That didn’t last either. The manageress ran off with the takings and I turned up one day to find a ‘closed’ notice on the door.

‘Eight.’

Rescue came in the form of an after-work course in Tai Chi, offered specifically for staff who had diabetes and/or arthritis. The course was run by an NHS physio  – a lovely man who had infinite patience. Half of us attended because we liked the idea of learning Tai Chi and hoped that it would help relieve our physical symptoms as well as making us less stressed. The other half of the class consisted of workers who had long histories of sick leave, and had been told by the Occupational Health department that they HAD to attend. I loved Tai Chi classes and took to it so well that the instructor asked me if I wanted to go on an NHS course to learn to be a teacher. The only proviso was that I had a first aid qualification. My three-year qualification had lapsed so I asked my manager if I could update it – and explained why. He refused. For no particular reason other than he didn’t see the value in losing me for three days or more, and then having to accommodate my taking further Tai Chi classes. Apparently some of my colleagues had complained about me leaving work on time to attend. The last class I went to consisted of me and the instructor. It was lovely but yet again – it didn’t last. For some strange reason my cack-handed and footedness was able to cope with Tai Chi and I still do the odd half an hour in my kitchen when I need to relax.

‘Seven – stop giggling.’

Whilst I was busy mourning the end of my Tai Chi classes, I was offered another post within the company that meant I was no longer working in town. Still angry with my manager I took the leap and left. Not having to wander around town in my lunch hour and having an onsite canteen meant that my waistline was expanding again. I got a call from my Tai Chi teacher asking me if I wanted to join a local gym – with a medical discount that would apply to my husband as well. We visited the gym. It was HUGE. Not only did it have an indoor running track but it also had two swimming pools, a sauna and a hydrotherapy pool. We signed up. There were a few disadvantages; it was a family gym and at certain times of day there were too many screaming toddlers and unattended youths who hogged the equipment and dive bombed each other in the pools – until a brave lifeguard tooted a whistle at them.

‘Six – come on!’

We spent a happy couple of years working out in the upstairs gym and then wallowing in the warm bubbles of the hydrotherapy pool. Then we began to notice the signs that all was not well. Equipment was out-of-order, the changing rooms were grubby, classes were cancelled at short notice. We made enquiries and were told that the parent company had backed out and the staff had clubbed together to take over the gym. This was sounding ominously familiar. We stumbled on for another couple of months and then the local newspaper revealed that the lease on the building had expired and the gym was no more. The building was being taken over by a well-known store. Another gym bit the dust.

‘Five more – well done!’

I managed to find my old Tai Chi teacher and fit in some classes (specifically for pensioners but he made an exception in my case). I learnt the other half of the routine and spent some very mellow Friday afternoons there. Then it was decided that our office would be moving back into the town centre and the leisure centre that had been hosting the Tai Chi classes was being demolished. Shortly before the office move I was involved in an accident at work which resulted in my foot being damaged, nine months of sick leave and an acrimonious parting of the ways between my employer and me. I couldn’t go out alone for fear of falling over and I developed arthritis in my right knee as well due to the pressure put on it whilst my foot was healing.

‘Four!’

I registered as self-employed once I had shed the shackles of office life, and used some of my tax rebate to buy a pair of Nordik Walking Poles – a friend had recommended them as a way of improving my mobility and my confidence. Slightly nervous, I took to accompanying my husband and our dog on night-time walks round the neighbourhood.  I was still relying on an ordinary walking stick to help me get around – except for supermarket trips when a trolley was essential however small the shopping. I had acupuncture to help ease the sciatic pain that kept me awake at night and finally had an MRI scan that confirmed that I had stenosis of the five lumbar discs. The skills of our osteopath – the Phizzard – put me back on my feet when things got bad but a more permanent solution to my mobility issues had to be found.

‘Three – keep going!’

When my ex-employers finally accepted responsibility for the accident and paid the damages claim, my husband and I decided it was time to join a gym again. We had been looking at a branch of a national chain that had opened less than a mile away, was open 24/7, had plenty of equipment, catered for over-16’s only and had excellent security. We applied online, got free three-day passes and went down for a visit. It was SO clean. Air conditioned. Loads of equipment, all on one level, NO STAIRS and the manager assured us that there was no chance of them going bust – fingers crossed.

‘Two – nearly there!’

We went for our induction visit. My instructor and I hit it off immediately. She is now my personal trainer and she makes this knackered body do things that I could never have imagined it would do. In my first month I have lost seven inches. I haven’t had to use my walking stick for weeks and I look forward to going to the gym so much that even a viral infection and sinusitis didn’t stop me.

‘One! You did it!’

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‘Bacon and Egg’

This story takes place in the days before mobile phones and smoking bans.  Local authorities had a policy of placing children in small group homes staffed by male and female houseparents.  Sometimes the staff and the children had a good time, sometimes it was hellish. There were some very dedicated staff who genuinely wanted to make a difference but there were also those who saw the job as a good skyve, or worse still, the opportunity to work out their own issues on children and young people who deserved far better.

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Management usually appointed houseparents based on experience and how the candidate dealt with the interview but on this occasion the manager had invited one of the junior members of staff to attend the interviews and have a say in who got the job.

He was torn between two candidates; both men were experienced in the field of children’s residential care, both interviewed well but  one had considerably more charisma than the other.

The other staff members that had been on duty whilst the interviews were being held had made their own assessments when  showing the candidates in and offering refreshments. One of the men had been charming and pleasant, the other looked nervous and uncomfortable.

In the end the manager and the staff came to a stalemate over who should be appointed.  One of the male staff joked that at this rate it would have to come down to star signs.  Some of the staff scoffed at this but a quick list was drawn up nevertheless to establish the astrological make up of the team.  The quieter candidate was a Sagittarius, the other was a Taurus and in the end the dearth of earth signs was the clincher.   ‘J’ –  the happy guy in the cowboy boots was appointed and the balance of the heavens was restored – allegedly.

J worked out very well to start off with.  The kids seemed to get on with him although it was noted that some of the older boys were a bit hostile, even wary but this was put down to the alpha male effect.  The teenage girls were all over him like a swarm of bees and certain members of the female staff weren’t far behind, but he dealt with it sensibly and made it quite clear that he was very happily married.

There was something about him that made her feel uneasy when she met him but she did her best to ignore the feelings and concentrate on the job and the course that she was studying for. She was still one of the younger members of staff and didn’t want to make waves this early in her career.

Holidays with a group of ‘maladjusted adolescents‘ were not easy and the inevitable behaviour issues and subsequent damage often prevented a second visit. J suggested a week at Butlins because he had taken kids from his previous home there,  and a succession of coffee mornings, bring-and-buy sales and a sponsored silence (not very successful) raised enough money to subsidise the paltry holiday fund that the local authority provided.

Not all the staff wanted to go on the trip so it was easy enough for the manager to choose enough people who actually wanted to go.  J was amongst them. A couple of the kids couldn’t or wouldn’t go on the holiday but they had staff who were happy to take them on day trips and rent videos to keep them busy during the holiday week.

She had to admit that she enjoyed that week and the opportunity to get to know the children who stayed at home better.  The cook took the week off whilst the home was half-empty, and both staff and children had a chance to take over the cooking, introducing a healthy change from the usual fish and chips, Sunday roast and spaghetti bolognaise.  The high ratio of staff to kids, and the relaxed attitude of both groups during that week strengthened relationships as well as cooking skills.

The holidaymakers returned; high on a diet of cheap takeaway food, fizzy drinks, late nights in the ballroom and long days on the fun fair or watching the wrestling and knobbly knees competition. No one died or even got into a trouble as far as they knew, they weren’t thrown out and staff had even been offered a discount if they booked for the next year.

J was undoubtedly the hero of the moment and riding high on a wave of popularity.

That was when his guard dropped.

Prior to the holiday she hadn’t worked with J much, but when one of the male staff got promoted to deputy manager in another home, she found that her shift pattern had been changed to his.

Sleep-in shifts in a children’s home were often a flash point for staff to embark on short-lived flings or long-term relationships that usually led to one party having to work elsewhere.  She usually had a boyfriend in tow and hadn’t worked with anyone she even remotely fancied – J included.

He had seemed to be unusually friendly and talkative throughout the shift.  They parted ways around nine o’clock in order to get the kids through their baths and settled for the night. Around ten-thirty, she came back downstairs to write up the logs in the office, J joined her and instead of making himself a coffee as usual, he pulled two cans of lager out of his rucksack and offered her one.  She declined politely and carried on writing.

J finished the can, chucked it into the bin and opened a second, then a third and finally a fourth.  She knew that drinking on duty was frowned upon but she also knew that it was the unwritten rule not to tell anyone – there wasn’t anyone else on duty to tell anyway.  She finished up the logs and went into the kitchen to make sure everything was washed up and for Friday morning.

J followed her and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle as he leaned on the work top next to her. She could smell his breath; lager and cigarette-tainted.

He was far too close.

She moved away from him and busied herself with sorting out the cereal packets.

He put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her towards him.

She shrugged him off and told him that she wasn’t interested, that she was tired and wanted to go to bed.

He told her that she was obviously frigid then and stomped off into the front room to roll himself a cigarette.

She ran up the stairs and pulled the chest of drawers in front of her door, her heart beating wildly.  She heard the distinctive sound of his cowboy boots clumping up the stairs and turned out the bedroom light.  The footsteps approached down the girls wing corridor and she held her breath as he tapped quietly on the door. The sound of her heart was deafening and she was sure he could hear it.

He tapped again but receiving no reply, cursed and stomped off down the corridor.

She lay on the bed fully dressed and dozing but woke at every sound, so she gave up around six o’clock and got up.

One of the boys was sitting on the landing.  He looked very pale.  He told her that J had come into his room and pushed him around a bit, then stormed off to the sleeping in room in the boys wing.

The boy told her that they were all scared because J had been crashing around in his room and shouting.  He managed to get onto the landing when the noise stopped and had been there curled up behind the bathroom door ever since.

She took him downstairs and decided that she should call the manager.

The phone  line was dead.

She could have gone out to the phone box to call for help but that would have meant leaving the children alone and unprotected.

They drank coffee and talked, the boy and herself, until the cleaners arrived at seven am.  They both lived nearby and one of them ran home to phone the manager.

There was still no sign of J, but when the manager arrived he went up to check with both the cleaners creeping behind him; they said they were there for his protection but they were just being nosey.

The room was wrecked: littered with more lager cans, the phone wires ripped out of the  socket and  heel marks all over the wall where J’s cowboy boots had kicked out again and again.  J was lying in a drunken stupor on the floor.

Other staff were called in; she was sent home and J’s wife came to collect him.

The official line was that he’d had a nervous breakdown due to stress.  She was disciplined for not contacting the manager when J started drinking, and her protestations that she had been too afraid to report her colleague fell on deaf ears.

J was suspended for six months but for most of that he was ‘off sick‘.  He was given a phased return with no sleep in duties and no working alone with female staff.  She did her best to be empathic toward him but the very sight of him made her skin crawl.

The local authority had instituted a policy of closing down most of their children’s homes, and over the next couple of months there were no replacements when children and staff left that particular establishment.

J kept his nose clean  for a while and his working restrictions were lifted.  The manager was replaced by a middle-aged woman who was not prey to J’s charms and had very strong feelings about staff drinking – or even smoking on duty. Addicted to his roll ups, J would find any excuse to take the one remaining girl out for a walk so he could satisfy his habit. She was a quiet bookish girl who prefered to stay in, watch videos and make things.

He became very solitary and those who would still do sleep in duties with him reported that he would sit downstairs for most of the night and cook meals that were found in the bin next morning, barely touched.

She was working with the last resident during the day; they had been painting glasses with stain to sell at a craft market.  The table was covered with newspaper and they’d had a lovely messy time of it.  Tidying up rapidly before getting ready for the evening meal, she had dumped the newspaper in the kitchen bin intending to empty it in the morning. She went home after the meal, leaving J, another female member of staff and the girl watching the TV.

She got a call at three in the morning.

The house was on fire. they all got out safely but J was ill because he ran back in to grab a fire extinguisher.

The female member of staff was hysterical after having had to get herself and the girl out of the house via the fire escape.  Desperate to do anything to help she was given special permission  for the girl to come and stay with her for the rest of the weekend.

They were allowed back in to look at the house on the Monday.  She walked through the smoked damaged rooms with the manager.  It transpired that J had decided to cook himself bacon and eggs after the others had gone to bed.  He also had a roll up which he threw  in the kitchen bin.  A bin very obviously full of newspaper.

The fire service couldn’t say for certain whether it was arson or an accident.  The contents of J’s stomach – barely digested bacon and eggs – were deposited outside the front door when he threw up after inhaling smoke.  He survived. The home was closed because it would have cost too much to repair the damage.

The girl and the staff were sent off to other homes, with the exception of J who was advised to resign quietly whilst off sick. His wife laid the blame for his decline at the door of the staff member who had rejected his drunken advances, but she walked out on his herself a couple of months later.

The young houseparent didn’t know what happened to him after that.  She didn’t want to.

It took a long time before she could stomach the smell of bacon and eggs.