They seek out the confused, the timid, the lazy.
Are you still feeling frightened? they ask, mock concern on their faces. After all this time? Really! How can that be?
Get a grip, they cry. If only you could just make up your mind! This indecision can’t go on forever, you know.
Channel that introspection into strategy, is our advice. Your goals will be your stepping stones to greatness.
There’s no room for uncertainty now. Just pick an objective. Follow the necessary path to realise your ambition. We will be here to guide you.
The lost ones scour their bedrooms, their cupboards, their gardens, for an idea or a clue: anything that might have weight, have longevity.
That? That’s your ambition? You can’t be serious!
The lost ones bow their heads in shame and recognition.
I cross the city to see my mentor in the area where he lives. I have to travel east to west, going past the institute and taking another bus out further still. It is an ordeal. I once queried this arrangement, but it was not possible to change what we had agreed in the past.
Today we are meeting in a park. It is an unreal summer day, hazy at the edges so that the appearance of things cannot be trusted. I can’t shake the feeling that the children who hang off the climbing frame are fakes. The racket of their voices is like a cloud that casts a quick shadow over a garden, appearing near and far away at the same time. Their noise seems to waver in the air, like it is unconnected to their bodies, a time delay between the movement of their mouths and the release of their garbled words. The parents who sit on the benches observing, hands spread defensively on their laps, are probably fakes too.
The banners don’t help. Around the perimeter of the park, they are strung up, sagging in places, showing the warped faces of familiar-looking children and parents, but more attractive, more ecstatic. They play tennis, run and hug. They laugh, mouths open to show substantial white teeth. The foliage they pose in front of looks glossy and dense, almost plastic, while the real park looks yellowed and spent.
I greet my mentor with a handshake as firm as I can muster.
‘So, what’s up with you?’ he says, settling himself beside me on the bench. ‘Nice outfit by the way. Red really is very dramatic on you.’
He is wearing blue jeans, a navy fine-knit sweater and an orange gilet. Eco-brand running shoes are on his feet. His ankles are bare, but I glimpse that he is wearing trainer liners. He is trim, optimistic.
‘How have your exercises been going? Those affirmations having any effect?’ he asks.
‘Oh yes,’ I say. ‘I can definitely feel something occurring.’
‘Now I’ll admit, it can be hard to see the tangible results in the early days. But don’t let that deter you,’ he says. ‘The benefits are myriad. I can promise you that.’
‘I can’t wait,’ I say.
‘Now, let’s take a look at your scenarios.’ His face is open, expectant, like he might be willing to change his mind about me. I wonder if it’s possible he has forgotten last week’s ineptitudes. I reach inside my bag and pull out the sheets of paper on which I have attempted to answer the following:
1. You become aware that a colleague fulfilling the same role as you is earning 15% more a month. How would you react?
2. Your child confides that they want to be a ‘painter’ when they grow up. What actions would you take?
3. A parent expects you to care for them in their old age. How would this interfere with your personal goals?
And a final one, a squint into a future where anything is possible:
4. You have been invited to attend a school reunion. Imagine it’s a fresh slate. What’s your story?
He reads my answers quietly, then frowns, folding up the piece of paper and sliding it into his satchel.
‘Ok Rachel, so what I’m seeing, when I look at these responses, is a lack of confidence. And I hate to say it, but I see a worrying lack of ambition too. I’ve said it before: you are your only obstacle.’
I let my eyes linger on the banners, on the faces, while he speaks. I find his voice soothing, like the whir of a motor, and I think of machinery, of no machinery in particular, just the typical thrumming and clicking into place, cogs engaging, teeth grinding, the relentless lurching movement. Then I picture the spinning wheels of a cassette.
‘Now, you may not feel comfortable taking charge of your situation. Assertiveness is a new experience for you, I get that. But you’re not here to drift around, thinking and dreaming. We learn by doing Rachel. Are you ready to learn?’
‘You like that, do you? You like the idea of being the boss? Well then, you have to behave like one. You have to go after what you want. And you’ve got to be direct. Direct.’
His hand swipes the air like a barrier coming down. Direct. I hear the word and think of a window snapping shut.
When I get up to go, he has a weary look on his face, like I have depleted him. His eyes say: My god, aren’t you a failure. Not only are you slow to learn but you remain fundamentally ignorant of the way things are done. Haven’t you learned a thing? Forgive me, it was probably a gross misjudgement on my part to believe you were capable of improvement. This stuff isn’t just floating around, easy breezy, free for the taking, don’t you know? You have to really apply yourself. You have to want it badly.
His hands fall to his sides, exhausted, as if they have tried to signal a change of course that is so radical, so out of my reach, it might as well be hopeless. What made me think I could be anything different than what I am? Perhaps I’m not hungry enough, after all.
I call in at my friend Amy’s on the way home. We talk about our mentors:
‘I have this cup he gave me,’ Amy says, walking over to her desk, unearthing something from beneath the clutter, then comes towards me, hands outstretched. She twists the cup round in her hands so that I can see the animals, blindly parading one after the other. Pig, sheep, chicken, cow, horse, dog. There is something off about them, the way they are drawn, too serious, kind of diagrammatic.
‘Every time we email or text, I have to mention one of the animals. You know, just drop it into conversation. He said it was a game but now I think it might be more important than that. He gave it to me after our first meeting. I think it might belong to his child.’
I haven’t been given anything by my mentor, but I think the cup seems babyish anyway. Unless the whole animal thing is some kind of code that needs cracking.
‘Do you think it means something?’ Amy asks, as if reading my mind.
‘What do you want it to mean?’
‘Oh, well, you hear things. That they sometimes give you signs when you’re making progress. Like when Emily got the bike.’
I am relieved. There is obviously nothing going on here for me to worry about. I mean, Emily was talented. Amy wants a gold star just for showing up.
‘Surely he would give you something better than that? I mean, if you were really getting closer.’ I frown at the cup. Amy looks hurt.
‘I know he must have given it to me for a reason. I just haven’t figured it out yet.’
‘Okay. Good luck with that,’ I say, and then, because I feel bad: ‘But I’m sure you know him better than I do.’
I stuff aubergines and bake them while I wait around for Daniel to come home. The meeting has really taken it out of me. I feel ragged and wrung dry, my body untethered, as I sit on the sofa, drinking steadily from a bottle of white wine. Fragments of voices and laughter come to me through the living room walls as if through a grate, as if I am slumped in a basement, feeling the thud of boots on the metal bars overhead. I have this fantasy often, the fantasy of being locked in a basement. I’ve had it since I was a child, when the threat had first seemed real. I’d heard stories on the news of children camping out in their back gardens, tents being pried apart, the children snatched and taken to a neighbouring town to have god knows what done to them. I take a breath, burp my wine. They make my heart hammer, these thoughts, but I never can exercise enough restraint to keep them at bay. They are like bitter lozenges I suck on in order to remember who I am.
I think of my mentor tucked up in his bed with his wife. I think of their angry little children. My mentor had once brought the boy along to one of our meetings and the child had gone blue with rage, turned feral by a tantrum. It seemed that he was ready to die rather than give in. Yes, I believe the boy would have writhed about on the floor and suffocated himself if his father had let him. So dissatisfied was the boy with his situation that he wanted to thrash his way into blue oblivion.
Daniel arrives, looking forlorn, looking as if he has unlocked the wrong door, as though the room he tiptoes into is not the one he left this morning.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ he murmurs, finally shutting the door behind him.
Daniel is stage two. This means he has gained an entry-level position within the institute, but his progress is still being closely monitored. He says he likes the authenticity of a stage one girlfriend. He is keeping it real, he jokes. There aren’t so many of us left on stage one. Is it possible that makes me special?
‘How was it?’ he asks.
‘He liked my coat,’ I say.
‘Well, that’s a positive.’
‘Care to join me?’
My voice is too jaunty. I hold up the near-empty bottle; it gleams green in the light of the TV. I pat the seat and he comes, flopping down, his various outer layers and bags scattering around him like buoyancy aids. He is quiet for a while. I know he doesn’t like how much I drink.
‘Want to know something funny?’ he says.
‘I got approached.’ He hesitates. ‘For stage three.’
It is hard to disguise my incredulity; it has been almost a year since the last time. I am moved that he still has the ability to surprise me.
He squirms a little, then gaining confidence, opens his mouth.
‘One of the associates.’
‘I know, I know. But I’m pretty sure she’s one of the sweeter ones. It’s funny, I’ve seen her in the canteen at the institute actually. She brings in a packed lunch, in a little box with all these little compartments. And she offered me a…’
He trails off.
‘What level is she?’ I ask. I can feel my cheeks getting hot.
‘She’s got great experience, and she’s got some interesting things to say about technique. She could really add value to my profile.’
‘What level is she?’ My body is cold though my face is burning.
‘She’s a four, Rach. She’s made mentor. Junior mentor but still.’
I have the urge to shower, to shed away my skin.
‘But think of the credit they’ll give you for raising my status,’ I say, not really joking. My hands are still slick with oil from cooking dinner. It is unbearable.
‘I’m not giving up on you, Rach. But it would be stupid of me not to at least consider this opportunity.’
‘I get it, ok,’ I say, my voice quiet.
‘It’s not like I want to move on without you.’
‘I know that. So, are you thinking of saying yes?’
He looks blank.
‘Are you going to say yes to her?’
I am laughing at the confusion on his face. He is not.
‘I already did, Rach.’
My father taught me how to roast a chicken. See, he would say, as he pulled the bird from the oven and showed me the way the skin puffed and crisped, and underneath, how the flesh was white and juicy, because he had basted it so carefully, not cooked it for too long or too little. I’m telling you, Rach. Being thorough pays off, he said, pride swelling his cheeks.
I lie on my bed, in a t-shirt and pants. The t-shirt is covered with winged hearts with long eyelashes and pouty mouths, but I can’t bring myself to throw it away. I always make 9 Daniel stay in the living room while I complete my various rituals before bed – the careful physical examinations and the affirmations to the face in the mirror – and he seems to understand. Perhaps he is bored of me after all these years and wants some time to himself too. Often now, it seems like we are strangers thrown together by circumstance, like we have ended up in the same elevator and it has got stuck. The smell is getting bad; we are both trying not to notice.
I have taken to cataloguing my memories of my father recently, writing down things he used to say and do, but I find it hard to keep thoughts about the future from distracting me.
He was a good man, I say aloud to myself, seconds before Daniel opens the door and climbs on top of me.
When I met Daniel, I had been too young to commit, but so had he, and we blundered our way through the awkwardness and the not knowing. As he helped me out of my clothes the first time we slept together, his hands clumsy and his eyes disbelieving, I had determined not to cry even though I was frightened. It was not that I was afraid of getting hurt or pregnant. It was the sensation of being caught I did not enjoy; it seemed to me my choices were being narrowed. I felt my myself shrink and tighten as he wrestled his hand between my legs.
But I quickly found that Daniel meant more to me than I had anticipated. Almost immediately, I cared about whether I pleased him, about whether he seemed happy to see me, or too eager to leave. I hadn’t expected this kind of attachment, but there it was.
Last year, when he told me he had progressed to stage two, I had been struck down by the pain of it. But as he spoke gently, as if to an animal – reminding me about the way things were, the reasons why we were here – I too softened. I realised I had been aware of his 10 promise since the beginning, recognised the ease with which he navigated the necessary milestones. That was surely why I loved him, wasn’t it? His acceleration was to be expected. Just know that you are my first priority, he had said.
During my school days, we didn’t know exactly what was happening. You heard things but you didn’t know whether to believe them. People had a habit of making things sound worse than they were in reality. But there were systems in place already. The practice of target setting was popular even then.
I was eleven, then a determined pupil. It was the weekend and I was lying on my stomach on my bed, reading a magazine which contained articles such as: Obedience techniques for wayward dogs, The unexpected benefits of jogging and How to land a breakthrough internship. My mother came in and sat down ever so gently on the end of the bed. She usually knocked, so at first, I thought that she must be in a hurry to tell me something, but the way she sat quietly, staring at the floor, it didn’t seem like it was anything urgent.
‘You know. It’s ok to not know what you want to do,’ she said, her eyes falling on the pages I had been examining. The spread showed a woman sitting on top of a desk. Next to her, there were objects arranged on the desk: pretty, shiny things like vases and bottles of different sizes and an egg-shaped paperweight. The things weren’t fussy. Even then, I understood such things were tasteful. They were smooth and glassy; they caught the light with their careful colours. The woman was wearing a white shift dress that showed her toned limbs and tasteful heels. I had read the article and it said the woman was an astronomer. She had made several important discoveries.
‘You might find that you don’t need to plan so much. You might want to try out a few different things. And that’s okay.’ A little smile was on her lips now.
‘Our teacher says there are many jobs to choose from. We don’t need to be afraid.’
My mother looked at me, spoke slowly.
‘Why ever would you be afraid?’ She sighed, continued. ‘But it’s true, there are all sorts. Just try not to be so hard on yourself. Look at me. I mean, I turned out alright, didn’t I?’
‘Hard to say.’ I grinned at her.
My mother laughed. ‘I’ve known people with all kinds of jobs. Bus drivers and librarians, cooks and cleaners. I even knew a writer who was a lollypop lady on the side! They do a bit of this and a bit of that. It keeps it interesting. That’s where the best artists get their inspiration, so I’ve heard. They keep their eyes and ears open. Open-minded! That’s the word.’
‘They say travel expands the mind,’ I said, my hand smoothing the bedcover.
‘Now, that is true.’ My mother looked at me intently. I had known she would be impressed by that.
‘I think I’d like to move away.’
‘You would? Where to?’ she asked, brightly now.
‘To another country.’
‘Any particular one?’
‘Not sure yet.’
‘Alright. Well, keep me posted. You might want to take some notes when you have these sorts of ideas. Just so you don’t forget. Your dreams are just as important as your studies.’
‘Okay,’ I said. It was true I wanted to please my mother, but I didn’t think I would bother with the notetaking. It sounded like keeping a diary which I also thought was a pointless activity.
There were other signs that my mother wanted another life for me, or at least, to hang onto the life she thought would be available to me, as it had been for her. I once caught her in the garage, the door raised, rummaging through boxes of our old things. She was muttering to herself, It has to be here, it has to be here, over and over again. She was crying. Old paperbacks, saucepans, the spray-painted pine cones we decorated the house with at Christmas – lay strewn across the floor. Her hands were shaking. She pulled a whole box to the ground and it fell sideways, the crayons inside spilling out and rolling away from her. ‘Fuck!’ she screamed. ‘Fuuuuuuuck!’
My father came into the garage from the house, stared at the mess. He looked at me – I was standing still in the driveway – and he calmly lowered the door.
They come for you in the day. That’s what our teacher told us, though we already knew it. Some of us had already seen it happen.
The daytime enrolments made it seem more normal, more official. They were trying to help us after all. They understood that hiding things in the dark was a sure-fire way to get people excited. The coming in the day made people take notice, though. They could see it happening right in front of them. They couldn’t avoid it.
You might lock eyes with a person as they were being led away. Some yelled and struggled of course, but they were in the minority. Most people had got used to the idea of it. But, still there were people among us then who wanted to keep their options open. We heard about them too: the uninspired.
When they came, you went. Just go, our teacher said. It can’t be avoided.
Sometimes, when it is summer and the weather is warm, Daniel and I take a trip to the coast. I have always loved the sea, with its perplexing tendencies to hold and to shatter. Daniel lets me swim out a little way, only as far as the distance he claims he can reach without drowning himself. He can’t swim well. It’s one of his weaknesses. Sometimes I tease him about it, saying, What will you do if you have to jump off the boat? What will you do if they are shooting people on the boat and the only way you can survive is to swim for your life?
Then I’ll drown and be eaten by the sharks, he smiles back, with his shark teeth.
I can hear him calling as I bob and duck or thrash about in the waves, depending on my mood and the temperament of the water that day. I can’t see you! Where can you be? he sings.
I can see him so he must be able to see me. And anyway, I know that if he ever really couldn’t see me, he would know immediately that I was gone. He wouldn’t even bother to shout. He’d know I had made it.
Daniel says he believes in my ability. It’s a game we play. I believe in you, he says, pointing at my chest, grinning, when I leave the flat to buy milk.
Once a month I get very sad; I yearn for the home that I cannot go back to. I go on a walk and I can’t be sure I’m not walking away. I can’t be sure I will come back.
Off on one of your walks? my neighbour sneers, whenever I go out, the nosey bitch. I answer by spitting on the ground under her window. I pull my hat down and strike off for the playing fields, where I can circle about for sometimes hours before Daniel comes to fetch me. Maybe the neighbour tips him off, or he just senses it, smells it when he comes back from work and finds me gone. I can’t hide it from him when I am in one of my moods. He knows me so well.
Lying in bed with Daniel on a good morning. We have made a little camp under the covers and he is being kind.
‘Did you ever pan for gold?’ I ask him. He is surprised by the sudden change of direction. We rarely talk about the past.
‘When you were a child, didn’t you ever learn to pan for gold?’
‘Can’t say I did, Rach.’
He doesn’t know what I’m talking about, but I hold my ground, remembering it was the most magical thing: to jiggle the tray, to scoop up more water, a little at a time, loosen the tiny rocks and silt, jiggle again, eyes peeled for a flicker of luck. A historical re-enactment, I think. It must have been the last of those places, the mock villages where you went to learn about the past. Now, they hid it from you, or you tried to forget it, or you could not remember.
‘Let’s get this over with,’ I say when the doorbell rings and we both know it is her standing outside. I want to make her stand in the rain a little longer. I hope she is soaked to the bone but then I think about Daniel and how much this means to him, so I push the buzzer and she is on her way up.
She is short and sturdy. Not what I had expected. I could out-run you, I think, seeing her coat which looks expensive. She is pretty but not sweet like Daniel had said. No, I can tell from the look on her face that she is as sly as they come. Daniel nudges me and I take her coat, glance at the label as I lay it on the bed. When I get back to the living room, it’s as if they are already sharing a secret.
‘How’s your training going?’ she asks me, smug in her stiff-collared dress.
‘My mentor thinks I’ll be ready by Christmas,’ I lie.
‘She’s working hard,’ Daniel says, though he is frowning.
‘That’s great.’ She smiles. ‘You’ll be on your way in no time then.’
We eat the dinner I have prepared and I have to stop myself from kicking her under the table. I am gnawing on the bones of the meat too loudly. I wipe my hands on the napkin I have spread across my lap. She hasn’t had to learn the ropes like me, I think. She seems like she was born with this knowingness, this natural ability. She owns the room, as my mentor would say.
‘Can’t I even have a second to think?’ I snap when she asks me the date I was enrolled.
I tell them I have a headache and go to my room. I hear them murmuring with pleasure as they eat the trifle I assembled with my bare hands. I climb into bed, get under the covers. I tell myself over and over:
I won’t disappoint you.
I won’t disappoint you.
I won’t disappoint you.