‘Do you want to know another of the bitter ironies of life?’ ‘Probably not,’ said Rachel. The weariness of her tone was not lost on Amiss. ‘But carry on if you must. It might be one I hadn’t heard of yet.’
‘It’s that people who take principled decisions that cost them money are always those who can’t afford to. Catch any of those sods with fat savings accounts and a twenty-year build-up of pension entitlements walking out on a safe job.’
Rachel eyed him levelly. He could see her lips contracting into thin lines. When they opened and he heard her teeth snap he warded off trouble hastily.
‘OK, OK. You’re about to point out that I walked out in a fit of rage, that principle had nothing to do with it and that I could have returned if I hadn’t been too proud. And, knowing you, I expect you’ve got a list up your sleeve of well-heeled people who gave up all for honour.’ He stubbed out his cigarette savagely.
‘Good guesses,’ said Rachel. ‘You, on the other hand, will now point out that not everyone should be expected to be accurate and objective in times of crisis. You’ll add that at a time like this a chap needs a woman who’ll bolster up his ego rather than one who subjects his every remark to rigorous logical scrutiny. You may even go on to elaborate on why, being only a gentile, you can’t be expected—’
‘Will you shut up?’ yelled Amiss. ‘You’re talking like a bloody civil servant.’
‘I am a bloody civil servant. I thought the whole problem was that you wished you still were.’
‘Not me,’ declared Amiss, leaping to his feet and striding up and down the room purposefully. ‘I can’t wait to embark on an exciting new career. You’ll see. I’ll become a nasty, greedy insider dealer and drive a nasty, flashy Porsche.’
‘Fine,’ said Rachel. ‘In the meantime, don’t forget to sign on the dole. I suppose if you can’t find a job you can become a Foreign Office spouse. It’ll do wonders for my career if you’re free to travel with me, protect me from liaisons with dubious foreigners and engage in intelligent small-talk at cocktail parties. Most of my competitors have liberated wives who object to doing that kind of thing. You’ll be a great asset.’
‘Is that a proposal of immediate marriage?’ asked Amiss hopefully.
‘Call it a statement of long-term intent.’
They looked at each other and Amiss grinned first.
‘You’re an impossible cow,’ he said, ‘but I love you. I can’t wait till you’re stationed back in London. Now before you bugger off back to Paris, take me out, buy me a wonderful dinner and let’s get down to considering seriously how I go about finding a decent job in Thatcher’s Britain.’
Amiss arrived at the Unemployment Benefit office five minutes before his nine o’clock appointment and was delighted to be interviewed punctually by a motherly Jamaican of such cheerfulness and optimism as to mitigate the effect of the bad news she conveyed. She helped him fill in his claim form and then surveyed the result.
“Sorry, love. Nothin’ doin’. I can tell you now you won’t get no dole for about six months. From what you’ve said you’re sure to be classified “Voluntarily unemployed without a good reason.”’
‘Six months? I thought it was six weeks.’
‘That was in the old days. Didn’t you know there’s been reforms? This is one o’ them.’ She grinned so disarmingly that Amiss was forced to grin back.
‘’Course you’ll be able to appeal.’ ‘No point. I’ve no case.’
‘Why’d you jus’ walk out?’ she asked with unprofessional curiosity.
‘Bad temper mainly, I suppose. I got fed up with stupid bureaucracy. And I’m too proud to go back. Besides, I need a change.’
‘I didn’t think high-ups did that sort of thing.’ ‘I didn’t think of myself as a high-up.’
‘Well, compared to me you were.’
She took pity on Amiss’s embarrassment.
‘Cheer up, love. With your looks and your brains you’ll be fixed up in no time.’
‘But in the meantime I haven’t any money.’
‘Go on. What were you doin’ with it?’
‘Don’t know really. Taxis? Eating out? Going abroad? I was never the saving type.’
‘Well I suppose if you’re really stuck, Social Security’ll help. But you’ll be lucky to get the rent and enough for one night a week out at McDonalds. The good days is over.’
‘Well, anything helps when you’ve got nothing,’ said Amiss lugubriously.
‘Off you go then. It’s two buses to get to the Security. Pity you’re called Amiss. The L-Z office is much nearer. Now if you’d been called Robert Mugabe you’d have it made.’ And giving him a crisp set of directions, she sent him off with a smile and a wave. With a lift in his step Amiss set off in search of the first bus.
He had been waiting for fifteen minutes when the rain began to fall. The woman in front of him struggled to pull up the rain hood on the baby buggy with one hand, while her elder child tugged at the other and screamed to be allowed to go to the playground. By the time the bus turned up, mother, children and Amiss were all suffering from fractured nerves. With difficulty he helped the family on to the conductorless bus and fled upstairs out of earshot.
A second lengthy wait in persistent rain finally put him in the appropriate mood for his first look at the Social Security office. It was an uncompromising piece of concrete neo-brutalism, whose barracks-like appearance was subtly enhanced by its perplexing adornments. The one piece of graffiti—BANK OF DRESDEN— was new to Amiss and only marginally more comprehensible than the three rows of posters each showing a clenched fist, a great deal of barbed wire and a lot of Arabic writing. Underneath these was a small poster picturing the late Shah of Iran, which accused the ‘Criminal English Freemasonry’ of having put their agent Khomeini in power and then concealed his death for years. The said freemasonry was additionally charged with being at the head of world terrorism. To raise further the spirits of its putative clientele—or perhaps to make the indigenous population feel at home—officialdom had put up a sequence of its own notices outside and immediately inside the glass door. The first explained that the building served another purpose: it was additionally a centre for artificial eyes, limbs and appliances. The second stated that no dogs were admitted, the third that no cycles or dogs were admitted and the fourth gave details of the correct procedure in the event of escaping gas. The fifth was the pièce de résistance:
MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC PLEASE NOTE
No person in possession of alcoholic liquor nor severely affected by drink or drugs will be admitted to these premises. The police will be asked to remove those who fail to comply with this notice.
The only positive note was struck by the friendly doorkeeper who confirmed that Amiss was in the right place at the right time and sent him to a door at the end of the corridor. He was less than surprised when he found himself in a room of dreary awfulness. It contained perhaps thirty bucket seats, all of them occupied, with a line of people standing waiting for the next vacancy. The dirty yellow walls contrasted startlingly with the floor-covering—a pock-marked reddish lino that erupted in places into what looked unnervingly like large black boils. There were expanses of scratched brown notice-board empty apart from a scattering of small leaflets about death grants. At the far end of the room Amiss could see three officials conducting interviews from behind their protective glass.
He stood at the end of the line and began to read. Every five minutes or so everyone would move up one place to make room for the newcomers. By midday Amiss felt as if he’d been there for half a lifetime. The wailing of the baby behind him was driving him madder even than the smell and incoherent mumblings of the two drunks immediately in front. He shifted uncomfortably on the plastic seat, leafed through his newspaper for the fifth time that morning and failed to find anything he hadn’t already digested. The previous time he had applied himself so thoroughly as to become au fait not only with the article on the current state of English ladies’ hockey, but even with the details of the Commons debate on EEC agricultural policy. He looked furtively at his neighbours to see if there was any chance of effecting a swap of newsprint. Number three down the line was still crouched over his racing paper; number five remained glued to a pictorial magazine engagingly titled Big Women; the woman immediately in front was immersed in a religious tract and the two Asians to his right scanned papers in their native languages. It was unlikely that any of them would be thrilled by an offer of the London Independent.
Not for the first time Amiss excoriated himself for being so pathetically reliant on reading matter. He searched through his pockets in pursuit of diversion, pulled out his bank manager’s letter and read it with a scowl.
PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL
Dear Mr Amos, Overdrawn £850
It is with disappointment that I learn from our Mr Kersse that far from making proposals to eradicate your overdraft you are now requesting an increased facility.
Since I understand that you have severed your connection with your employers and have no source of income I cannot permit you to increase the monies due to the bank.
In view of this situation we have had to recall your monthly direct debit to Wiggins. This incurs a bank charge of £15.
Please let me have your proposals for repayment as a matter of urgency.
Assuring you of our best attention at all times. Yours sincerely,
N M MACERLEAN
‘Scots git,’ muttered Amiss sourly, trying once again to comprehend a system of operation which thought it sensible to levy a charge of fifteen pounds for bouncing a debit of ten pounds. Still, the silver lining was that not the most suspicious dispenser of Her Majesty’s welfare benefits could claim that he didn’t need money.
It was fifteen minutes later that he realised the line had slowed up so much that he would probably be stuck for at least another half hour. There were six people ahead of him and only two interviewers. And Detective Superintendent Jim Milton, who was due to meet him for lunch at one at a venue half an hour away, was a very busy man.
After a couple of moments of dither Amiss abandoned his seat. The line moved up one behind him. As he opened the door he turned back for a moment to survey the scene. The two men being interviewed finished together, rose and shuffled towards the back of the room. One vacant seat was taken by the woman first in line; the second by a man behind whom the next four people formed a semicircle. With a low moan of disbelief Amiss realised that he had failed to spot that they were a family. He debated trying to regain his place at the top of the pecking-order, thought about stories of punch-ups and murders in the Social Security office, and muttering a curse, left for Milton and the winebar.
# # #
‘Poor old Robert.’ As so often in the course of their friendship— forged during the police investigation into the murder of Amiss’s Civil Service boss—Milton found himself simultaneously laughing at and sympathising with Amiss’s latest mishap. ‘Will you go back this afternoon?’
‘God, no. I couldn’t face it twice in one day. I’ll go back tomorrow morning bearing a hipflask and a complete set of Trollope.’ ‘You won’t get enough to do more than survive, you know.
Let me lend you a few hundred until you get a job.’
‘Thanks, Jim. I do appreciate the offer, and I promise I’ll take it up if I’m starving, but I’m curious to see if I can get through this by myself. You can buy lunch, though.’
‘Well, make the most of it. I won’t be able to entertain you again for a couple of months. I’m being sent to Staff College.’
‘Does that mean your promotion is on?’
‘It certainly does. You’ll be able to call me Chief Superintendent before long.’
‘You’d better buy us champagne then.’
‘Cheeky sod,’ said Milton, summoning the waitress. ‘Lucky for you I’ve been working since two this morning and am on my way home to bed. Otherwise it would be sparkling mineral water.’ ‘Yeh. Same for me in the days when I worked. I can see advantages to being unemployed. You can get pissed at lunch-time.’ ‘On what you’re likely to get from Social Security,’ said Milton cheerfully, ‘all you’ll be able to afford is meths.’
# # #
Amiss was still hot and cold with a mixture of rage and shame when he got home from the Social Security office the following day. It had been one thing to learn that if anything Milton had been over-optimistic: meths would be way beyond his budget if he had to subsist on what the state was offering. That he had taken in his stride. What had caused the trouble was the attitude of the tiny narg behind the reinforced glass.
‘Well, of course it’s not for me to say, but you have been very irresponsible, haven’t you?’ had been bad enough. ‘If I were you I’d make a serious effort to get a job soon,’ had been marginally worse. Then, when the state of Amiss’s overdraft had been discussed, had come, in the same unctuous tone: ‘You’re sure you didn’t put something aside in a building society for a rainy day? We can find out, you know. It’s better to be honest.’
‘That’s what did it,’ he wailed to Rachel over the phone. ‘Did what?’
‘I shouted that no one should ever deal with a man under five feet two and stormed out.’
‘And now I’m awash with liberal guilt at mocking the unfor- tunate.’
‘And haven’t any Social Security money.’ ‘Precisely.’
‘Can’t I send you a cheque?’
‘Please, no. All this is my own fault and I’ve got to get myself out of it. I can live on credit until I pick up a temporary job.’
‘I can’t wait to hear the next instalment. A row with your landlord? Or the credit card companies?’
‘Actually it’ll probably be the bank. I wrote a letter yesterday afternoon which I rather regret.’
‘Splenetic is more like it.’
‘Robert, darling, I don’t think misfortune agrees with you.
Let’s hope your luck turns soon.’
‘Don’t you worry. I’m about to tear into the appointments sections and find my new career. You’ll see. I’ll be draping you in ermine and pearls yet.’
‘Until then I’ll settle for a share of a bed in London. Preferably not under the arches at Waterloo.’