“You know what you are, Aldo? You’re a fuckin loose cannon.”
Sitting in the cramped HR office - which isn’t much bigger than his own cubicle - Aldo Evans grins as he imagines himself as a maverick law enforcer raising hell on the streets of Glasgow, leaving a trail of mayhem in his wake as he tracks down bad guys with much high-speed car chasing and helicopter skid-riding while wearing a devil-may-care smile.
“Is the commissioner on yer arse, Deso?” he asks Desmond Graham, his HR manager. “The mayor giving you heat?” He can’t help but smile, even though he’s pretty sure he’s about to be fired.
“Aye, he bloody well is,” Des says, clearly not seeing the funny side in all this. “The boss has had enough. Your stats are good, Aldo. Really good in fact, but you cannae just make up the rules as you go along. You’ve got to follow the script, mate.”
“Dude, we’re doing market research cold calls. It’s not Hamlet.”
“Disane matter. You’ve got to read all the questions on the survey. That’s the job. I know it’s a shite job, but it’s a canter, and that’s the deal.”
Deso was a good guy. Loved his Johnny Cash, and Aldo often went for a pint with him after work and they’d shoot the shit about music. Deso had spent a while in a blues band playing keys, but chucked it when he got married. And he understood fine well what the job in Data Location was and wasn’t.
“Deso, the old boy on the phone was ninety-four years old,” Aldo says reasonably. “What’s the point in asking if he wants a credit card? I can get more surveys done if I don’t ask questions that clearly don’t need to be asked.”
“Disnae matter,” Deso says again. “When you just skip questions, that’s data fraud.”
Aldo gasps in exaggerated horror. “Well shit in ma hat! Not data fraud? Sweet Jesus, what’ve I done?”
“Aldo, I’m sorry, but that’s it, mate.” Deso looks genuinely upset. “You were warned.”
It’s getting harder for Aldo to continue seeing the funny side as the reality of the situation starts to dawn on him. Sure, it was ridiculous, hilariously so, but to a point. As stupid as the whole episode was, the consequences start to announce themselves in his head like a grim shopping list of things he suddenly can’t afford. Rent. Food. The wee man’s child support. The grand’s worth of store debt he’d just racked up less than an hour ago while on his lunch break, treating himself to a new guitar – a Gibson Les Paul Studio Pro in glorious cherry sunburst - all the while thinking how great it was to finally have a proper full time permanent job that enabled him to get store credit. The last call centre job had been a week to week contract, and for three years he’d lived poorer than a particularly impoverished church mouse, only just making rent and doing his best to keep his temperamental Epiphone six string in tune. That guitar would detune if you looked at it the wrong way.
“C’mon, Deso,” he says. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m fired? For this?”
Deso just shrugs. “Sorry, mate. Not my call. Listen, meet me in the pub when I’m finished. I know a couple of guys in other call centres…”
“You know what? Don’t bother yourself,” Aldo snaps, getting up and heading for the HR office door, a slow panic swelling in his guts like a black balloon.
He knows it’s not Deso’s fault. He knew fine well that he could get bagged for skipping survey questions, no matter how ridiculous they were, and like the standard recorded message said, all calls were recorded for training and quality purposes. Such had been his downfall. As Deso had said, he’d been pulled up for it before, and he’d been warned it was a sackable offence. Aldo figures that despite the inevitable upshot, he actually wanted to be fired, and who could blame him, really? Spending nine hours a day making market research cold calls for minimum wage had to be about a step above being an equine fluffer in a horse porn movie in terms of job satisfaction. Still though, as bad as the job with Data Location was, it was money in the bank at the end of the month. A laughable amount, a pittance in all honestly, but still enough to survive on.
He walks over to his tiny work cubicle, takes his ID badge from around his neck and places it on the desk next to the keyboard. He briefly considers leaving a parting message as a flashing screen saver. Something like Fuck you and this brain numbing soul destroying low paying dignity stripping excuse for a job! Or maybe he could drop his breeks and take a big steaming shite on the desk.
Instead, he shrugs into his battered leather jacket, picks up the padded gig bag containing his expensive and unpaid for new guitar, and heads for the door. The Les Paul Studio Pro features a weight relief chambered mahogany body, and only weighs around six pounds in total, but at that moment, it’s the monetary measure of pounds Aldo feels on his shoulder; the thousand pounds he owes for the instrument, and now has no way of paying.
As he makes his way across the call centre floor toward the exit, he’s aware of several of his now ex-colleagues watching him leave with mixed expressions of curiosity, sympathy and bovine disinterest. He rolls his eyes and tips a little blasé salute to no one in particular, forcing a bemused smile onto his lips, trying to be all cool and dignified.
I don’t need this. I’m better than this. This is great. No more itchy, uncomfortable headset. No more stupid survey lists. No more getting called all sorts by the poor bastards on the other end of the phone for interrupting their dinner with my questions about their favoured brand of washing up liquid.
But all the while that black panic balloon is squeezing the air from his lungs. Familiar feelings of shame, embarrassment and failure boil and bubble in his guts.
You’ve fucked up, ya dick. Again. What you gonnae do now, eh? No job. No money. No qualifications except three Highers and an HND in Music, which is worth the grand total of hee-haw in terms of employability. What’s that make it now? Fired or quit from your last three call centre jobs? Bravo, son. Bra-fuckin-vo. You da man. You’re on fire. When you going to grow the fuck up?
Aldo literally doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Crying seems more likely.
Now, on the street outside the glass-walled offices of Data Location, Aldo stands in a daze, trying to order his thoughts and come to terms with his new state of unemployment. He turns his head left and right, looking up and down a rainy Sauchiehall Street as if expecting someone to come running up, lucrative contract of employment in hand, offering him a new job right off the bat.
That doesn’t happen of course, and he can only stand there in the drizzle of Glasgow city centre, a wet, jobless chump, while a bustling river of umbrella wielding humanity flows around him, heedless of his distress, going about their own business, living their own lives. He wants to grab hold of random strangers and yell at them, Don’t you know what’s just happened? I’m fucked! Fucked I tells ya!
He feels an unreasonable surge of anger and jealousy toward the uncaring passers-by, most of whom seem to be carrying plastic bags emblazoned with high-street logos. Everywhere he looks, people are sporting carrier bags from HMV, Schuh, New Look, M&S. It’s like they’re mocking him.
Take a swatch at all this snazzy expensive gear I just bought, ya penniless fanny! It’s great being able to purchase Dr Dre Beats headphones with my wages, it really is. Looks like it’s Tesco Value beans on Tesco Value toast for dinner for you, though, Aldo, and oh yeah, you can forget about taking Dylan to that Frozen stage show when you see him at the weekend, like you promised him you would.
Guilt like something rotten sticking in his throat, Aldo breathes deeply, closing his eyes, trying to slow and silence the hard knocking of his heart in his chest, which sounds all too much like an implacable debt collector resolutely pounding on his front door. A debt collector with his ex-girlfriend’s face.
Right, keep the heid. Break it down into manageable chunks. Adapt and overcome. Get somewhere quiet and work it out.
He opens his eyes and sees Squinty Ginty’s, the pub across the street. It’s just gone two pm, and the bar should be relatively quiet now the lunchtime crowds have gone back to work. A quick check of the change in his pocket confirms he has just enough for a pint. Probably not the wisest expense given the circumstances, but fuck it. Fuck it directly in the nose. A quick swally is just the ticket to get his thoughts in order while he plans his next move.
Aldo Evans squares his shoulders and makes his way across the busy pedestrian precinct, gamely resisting the urge to flying kick one slow moving old lady blethering into an iPhone as she makes her way up the crowded street.
“I tell you what, son, escaping from Stalag was easier than getting out of this place. Food was better as well.”
“I don’t doubt it, Duncy,” Ross McArthur says to the old man in the wheelchair he’s pushing. “There’s a few nurses in here I imagine would’ve been right at home on Hitler’s staff.”
“Aye, yer no kiddin there,” Duncy Brown agrees. “Coupe of wee crackers as well though, eh? If I was a few years younger I’d be rattling them left right and centre.” He lets out a lascivious Sid James-esque cackle, thumping the padded armrest of the wheelchair a couple of times with his large bony fist for emphasis. “Young lad like you must do alright in that department, working here, eh?” He cranes his head round and looks over his shoulder at Ross, waggling his busy white eyebrows suggestively, a knowing grin on his deeply wrinkled face.
Ross laughs. “Ach, mon now, Duncy. A gentleman never tells. Though I’ve heard the big redhead nurse in your ward’s mad for it, and has a thing for older guys. Can get a hold of a couple of Viagra for you if you fancy your chances?”
Duncy cackles again “Cheeky wee bugger!” he crows, throwing a playful but hard elbow backward into Ross’s midriff. “I’ll fuckin Viagra ye! The amount of bullets I’ve taken in ma time, son, there’s enough lead in ma pencil to stock a Staedtler factory.”
A young dark haired nurse passing them in the corridor bursts out laughing.
“Aye, you know it, sweetheart,” Duncy says, tipping her a saucy wink as she goes by. Ross rolls his eyes apologetically at the nurse. She favours him with a pretty smile in response. Claire, he thinks her name is. One of the student nurses down from Strathclyde Uni.
“Christ sake, Duncy,” he says as they roll on down the corridor toward the X-Ray department. “Leave some for the rest of us, eh?”
Ross had got to know and like Sergeant Duncan Brown immensely in the two weeks he’d been in the Inverclyde Royal recovering from his knee surgery. The old boy, who’d spent much of his life as an active member of the 51st Highland Division, 1st Battalion of the Black Watch, had an endless store of anecdotes and war stories. Some that made you laugh, others that made you want to weep. Eighty-three years old, but lacking none of his mental faculties, and still possessed of a thousand yard stare that could wither an oak tree. The medals he’d shown Ross, the bullet wound scars that pocked his wiry body in alarming numbers, they were evidence of the depths of the old soldier’s life. The faded military emblem tattooed on his right forearm, its blurred, barely legible Latin scrollwork reading the motto of the Black Watch. Nemo me impune lacessit.
They’re passing by the A&E department when Ross hears the raised voice from the waiting room.
“How much longer is this gonnae take? Ah’ve got shit tae dae!”
He pauses for a moment, looking through the doorway into the waiting area. Pretty busy for a Tuesday afternoon. There are six people in there, spaced out among the cheap chairs, most of which are badly worn and leaking padding from tears in the seats like yellow foam hernias. At the reception window is a big guy who looks like he’s stepped out of the Neds R Us summer catalogue, resplendent in sovereign rings, a hand drawn neck tattoo, and wearing an expensive tracksuit, though he doesn’t look like any sort of athlete. He’s glaring through the glass at Linda, the wee receptionist on the other side. She’s calmly telling him it shouldn’t be too much longer, but they’re busier than normal today.