‘You’ll have another will ya, Jan?’ Siobhan asks over her shoulder on the way up to the bar, her glass empty but for creamy tidemarks of Beamish stout.
I nod as I tip my head back to drain my pint, which takes a while because the dregs have to trickle their way back down through thick foam, like soup. A couple of regulars turn round to watch. I think I’m styling it out.
Gazing down without really looking at the brown rings on my beermat, I tell myself I’ve still got time to prepare for my interview. I really need the promotion from Desk Officer to Senior Desk Officer because I’m not a student anymore but still have a sizeable student debt. Everyone seems to be talking about getting on the property ladder, before it’s too late, but obviously they’re mad because I’m only twenty-three, it’s 1988, I live in Brighton and anything feels possible. I take the 7.10 am train up to London every day and then the tube to Warren Street, which doesn’t always feel possible. My interview is in London at 9.45 am the next morning.
When I told my brother about my big chance he said, ‘Yeah, I can just see you in charge of Senior Desks, Sis. Absolute shoo-in.’
I stare through smoke at an engraved frosted window and fast-forward to the ‘Well done, Jan, you’ve got the job!’, which they might even come to tell me by tomorrow lunchtime.
Siobhan comes back with two pints of treacly beer and one packet of salt & vinegar crisps for the both of us. A lady with pink hair strides over to the jukebox and puts Yazz and the Plastic Population on for the third time. (Hold on) hold on … The only way is up, baby …
‘What should I wear tomorrow?’ I ask Siobhan.
‘Ah, I dunno. Wear what you have on now. Comb your hair, smile your smile and come up with at least one smart-arse idea for how to make the place work better. You’ll be grand.’
She says she came out for a laugh tonight, not to talk about boring old work. So, after three pints, I say wish me Irish luck. She rolls her eyes and says okay, but she’s not sure it works over here. We go our separate ways outside The Old Yeoman.
Back in my tiny shared flat I’m pleased to find some old cheese, even if it’s gone a bit see-through round the edges. There’s even butter and crackers behind three empty beer bottles on the sticky worktop. Just the job. Confident I can get undressed in only two moves, I pull my jumper and bra up over my head and push my trousers and knickers down to the floor. I set my alarm for 6 am, lift the corner of the duvet, and keel over onto the low mattress, closing my eyes to the gentle swaying of my bed at sea.
I wake to a tinny hollow crash on the pavement outside my window. A man yells ‘Whoaa!’ after his departing dustbin lorry. It’s 6.43 am. Shit. Too late now for a shower or breakfast, just a splash of cold water and a cream cracker to go. I tuck a clean non-iron blouse into my black trousers, brush off some fluff, zip up my swanky new ankle boots and dash for the station, which, thankfully, is downhill and only five minutes away. The cream cracker sets like cement under my top lip.
I arrive just as the guard’s whistle pierces through the diesel growl of train engines, and sprint, panting, onto the platform and up through the nearest carriage door. The train judders out of its grand Victorian shed along the mainline up to the capital.
A window seat is free, probably because there’s a gob of chewing gum stuck to the blue-checked upholstery. But I’m not worried because the gum’s been worn black and shiny by thousands of commuter bottoms. My nose sends smells of fuel, dust, sweat, stewed coffee, aftershave and Jeyes fluid to my brain, which tries to send them back. I close my eyes. A clean-shaven man gets on at Wivelsfield and shares his Daily Telegraph with me.
About an hour later, I open my eyes to the cheerful announcement that ‘Ladies and gentlemen we are approaching Victoria station, where this train terminates.’ I run over the smart-arse idea that came to me while I was trying to fall asleep: the Information Team could re-use the clients’ stamped addressed envelopes to send out a satisfaction/profiling questionnaire instead! They’ll love that one.
My new boots are chafing my heels and pinching my toes, but they’re worth it because at least three people have looked down to admire them on the tube ride between Green Park and Warren Street. This puts a spring in my step.
‘Hiya,’ says Sue on reception. ‘All ready for your interview? They’re up in the conference room. Good luck!’
‘Come on in, Jan,’ says Elaine from HR, showing me to a single seat in the middle of the fluorescent-lit meeting room. Three managers are seated behind a desk, shuffling papers.
‘Sooo, good morning everyone,’ says Trevor, Head of Information. ‘We all know each other, so let’s crack on, shall we?’
I think the first question is, ‘What is the most important thing you’ve learnt during your time as Desk Officer, Jan?’ but I’m not really sure because Elaine from HR and Helen from Accounts are both staring at my left foot. I look down and spot something poking out from under my trouser leg. A bit of off-white lace and, unmistakably, the elastic leg hole of my scrunched-up underwear.
Not on the way up.