Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Mike Hickman

They were called woods. And you were supposed to roll them. Not bowl them. The name of the game was somewhat of a misnomer. And the white ball at the end, that was the target.

            If any of it had mattered anymore, Derek would have been taking notes.

            Jeff got himself into the box, over the box, sort of somewhere in the vicinity of the box, and that long, long arm of his came up behind him and anyone could see that he wasn’t following the advice the patient gentleman in beige was trying to give him. It should have been obvious to anyone watching that what was going to happen was – yes – right now going to happen, as wood or ball or bowl flew from Jeff’s hand and crumped back down onto the mat. Behind him.

            “Never mind, never mind, never mind,” said the patient gentleman in beige. Eighty years old, if he was a day, and yet agile and spritely and any number of other nauseating attributes when viewed by an overweight failure of a thirty-something watching from the sidelines. “Let’s give it another go, shall we?”

            “Let’s give it another go, shall we?” If any of it had mattered anymore, Derek would have been taking notes.

            This man thought you were allowed another go.

            And people did not laugh and point.

            Although Derek was, right now, the only one watching other than Mr Beige. Jeff himself was back to counting light fittings. The others who came here every week with their “workers” for the Friday “special” session were equally interested in anything other than bowls. But, then, they had just had their hake and chips, and the bar was still open.

            The bar where the majority of the support workers were now clustered, sizing each other up, loathing each other for having failed so profoundly as to have the job in the first place, or just scrolling distractedly through their phones as they prayed for the inevitable Friday evening piss-up in Wetherspoons.

            Once again, Jeff was loaded up with the not so spherical object. Once again, the patient gentleman in beige turned it round, pointing out that there was a right way and a wrong way, but not saying it loudly enough for Derek to properly pick it up.

            “What you want is to have it arc…arc…towards your target,” said the man in beige with accompanying arm movements. From a distance, Derek was having to do a fair bit of lip-reading. He was reasonably sure he had got the words right.

            Arc towards your target.

            Almost like you didn’t mean to hit it.

            Almost like you didn’t care if you did hit it.

            If Derek had still had his notebook, he might have given that some thought.

            The patient man in beige decided to demonstrate with a spare…no, Derek was not comfortable calling it a wood. It glided across the artificial green towards its target, slicing effortlessly through the other bowls or balls or – alright, let beige man have it his way – woods that were clustered around the small white ball that was going to remain the target no matter where Jeff thought he ought to be chucking things.

            And the bloody thing clinked against the white ball and, from the expression on patient beige gentleman’s face, this was good. But he didn’t need to fist pump or do that “Woot! Woot!” thing that Support Worker Cynthia did whenever she played. Whenever she had exhausted her inexhaustable craving for Candy Crush and actually bothered to come onto the artificial green with her charges.

            When she bloody monstered them all and had to win.

            No, Beige Man just looked quietly pleased with himself, not even looking for validation from Jeff, and not because he didn’t expect it. He wasn’t that type.

            “Now you,” he said to Jeff.

            And so up went the long, long arm and out went the long, long arm and up went the ball or bowl or wood.

            And down it came again with a crump behind him.

            “Never mind,” said patient beige gentleman. “Tell you what, tell you what, why don’t we get your friend here to have a go?”

“It was a good session, then,” Agatha said, taking off her glasses and pinching her nose before reaching not so idly for the paracetamol in her desk drawer.

            Jon ought to have some sympathy. He had written the session sheet, even after Agatha’s criticism last time about his writing. And he had listened to her, even through his inherited disdain. It wasn’t necessary to use quite so many words, she had said. And that was before he had attempted to describe the events of Jeff’s Friday bowling session.

            “’cos that’s what I see here,” Agatha said, rolling her uncertain chair back across the uneven lino so she could better appraise the “young” man sitting at her desk. “A good session. Jeff had lunch with his friends… Even spoke to some of them.” And, indeed, Jeff had exchanged two or three words with William. Some of them even intended for William. “…and then he had a nice bowling session. Lovely.” The glasses went back on and the wonky bloodshot eyes went for a wander around Jon’s forehead. “You know what I am going to say, don’t you?”

            Jon looked up at the board behind her. At the very roughly laminated posters that advertised the charity’s “values”. Most of which were around getting people back into work. Not at all coincidentally due to the modest grant they received from the Department for Work and Pensions for coming somewhere close to never actually achieving anything like their targets. There was a tally on the left-hand side of the board, indicating the number of work placement interviews attended and the number of jobs attained. Jon cringed at the sight of it. He couldn’t understand why no one else did. Perhaps they had given up looking. There was, after all, quite a bit in the organisation that went unscrutinised.

            “You’re going to say that it’s a tad overwritten,” Jon said.

            Agatha nodded. “You’re not paid for writing up, so it’s really not in your best interest to spend so much time on the session sheets.”

            “And while we are on the subject,” Agatha continued, her fingers pulling at a stray hair on her chin that, it turned out, wasn’t all that keen on being plucked from its fellows, “the bowling is really very good for Jeff.”

            What little bowling he actually did, Jon thought.

            “If he’s happy with the bowling, and he’s meeting his friends, then that’s good.”

            The crime here was Jon’s effort to get Jeff to talk about what he might want to achieve. Again. He might even have used the word “outcomes”. He had certainly needed to explain it. But he had remembered to apologise for having been a school teacher. And Jeff had looked at him with newfound pity when he had told him.

            “We don’t need to push him any further than he’s happy with…”

            Of course, what Agatha didn’t – perhaps couldn’t – consider was how Jeff’s support worker felt at the prospect of the same thing every Friday until the end of the world. Which, as ever, was not arriving soon enough. Primarily because he was already long past it.

            The chin hair came away and Jon tried not to watch Agatha as she examined it between chipped fingernails. “But, you know,” she said, before flicking the hair away onto the mouldering lino, “it is good that you have made such a bond with him.”

            Was it good? Did he believe that? He had, perhaps, for a week or so, when he had been relieved that someone might employ him again.

            “And it’s good to see that you’re settling in here,” Agatha continued, reaching this time for her perfume spritzer which always came out when she was concerned that the fag smell was too oppressive in the stifling misery of her shared office. Although, of course, Jon had smoked at least three cigars on the back from returning Jeff to the House where he sort of perhaps somehow lived. “How long has it been now?”

            Jon did not deal in time anymore. There was before and there was after. This was some time after. But the words wouldn’t mean anything to Agatha, and he knew he could give her any number and she would believe him. He gave her a very exact number of days, rather than weeks.

            “Really? Really? Impressive.” Agatha returned the spritzer to her drawer. Somewhere in the corner of the room, the young hipster gentleman who thought his job was to draw up the support worker schedules coughed a few times before subsiding back into the nothingness that was his every day. “Well, I think now’s the time we started looking at…” And she rooted around in the kind of card document wallet that had gone out with the Old Testament.

            Jon knew what she was about to produce. He had seen it in his induction pack. His bile had already been provoked at that first sight, and now here it was, smoothed out as much as it was possible to smooth it out with Agatha’s nicotine-stained fingers on the corner of the desk.

            A single A4 sheet with a cartoon of a butterfly on it. Because, you know, that’s what he was here. A butterfly. And they were, dear God, going to develop him, and now was the time for him to discuss his own goals. As if any of this was what he wanted.

            “Now, don’t write too much, will you?” Agatha said, and Jon promised he wouldn’t. Jon knew that he wouldn’t write, “I’m a bloody doctor of philosophy,” thirty-two times on the sheet before decapitating the butterfly and using the sheet the next time he had especially explosive diarrhoea.

            He knew that. Because, as much as, right now, he despised the job and Agatha but never, never the people he worked with, he hated the man who had forced himself into the position where he had to complete this sheet so very much more.

            Most especially because of what he had done.

            Because he hadn’t arced his metaphorical ball or bowl or wood towards his target. He hadn’t acted as if he hadn’t meant to hit it. He had acted as if he wasn’t going to get a second go. He had thrown the bloody thing like he was in imminent danger of being taken out by a sniper, and he had cleared the green of balls or bowls or woods. Cleared the green of players, too.

            And he had been left standing there, empty handed, without the prospect of another chance because his first attempt had been designed to rob him of another chance.

            Agatha wasn’t going to thank him for writing all of that on his sheet, now, was she? She didn’t need to hear again how it was that someone from his background came to be slumming it with the likes of Jeff. Came to feel humiliated at the idea he could be so small-minded as to feel he was in competition with the likes of Jeff.

            She didn’t need to know that this was what passed for his second chance, but that – had he known he was actually permitted one, and hadn’t just been punishing himself with anything that might conceivably be mistaken for employment – he wouldn’t be sitting here in the first place.

            She didn’t need to know that.

            That wasn’t how butterflies behaved.

            And neither was it any kind of arc towards any kind of target.

            So, what to write then?

            It was obvious, really.

            Derek started with the targets at the end of the form.

            Derek wrote, in his best cursive, “next time, I won’t turn the offer down. Next time, I will make sure to take my turn to bowl.”


Mike Hickman is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including 2018’s “Not So Funny Now” about Groucho Marx and Erin Fleming. His co-written play (with Mark Wakeman), “Lonesome Pine”, progressed to the second round of the All England Theatre Festival, 2011. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, Dwelling Literary, Bandit Fiction, Nymphs, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brown Bag, and the Daily Drunk. His work can be found on Medium @sirhenryatrawlinsonend

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