The Armchair.

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95

The agency deployed its workers throughout a broad chain of hospices and care homes, rather like a militaristic empire sending out its troops to different provinces. Perhaps the new girl had only just enlisted at the agency, for she was not a usual face from around these other venues. Nonetheless, a faction had emerged in the kitchen which maintained that something needed to be said to their employer. The injustice of the new girl’s dismissal was big enough to merit at least a ceremonial protest.

When conferring about this in the kitchen, however, it turned out that many workers who were normally kindly and helpful looked upon the new girl’s plight with a disconcerting absence of sentimentality. Yes, she had a difficult job, but they all had difficult jobs. You had to do your job and not make trouble. And so only a small, discouraged delegation of the staff pressed on into the dazzling lights with their complaint.

Andrew Worthington arrived home that evening with his shoes still reeking of polish, as if he had just left for work. This figure looked strangely frail and faded once he was through the front door, as if all that was left of him now was a kind of baffled ghost. But on sighting the delegation which was waiting for him in the drawing room, he resumed the alertness which he thought he had discarded for the day.

They all look very serious, he noticed mildly. He thought about how unfair this was and he momentarily wanted to wrench off his tie and kick away his shoes and sprawl in front of them on the sofa, whilst they rigidly set out their grievances. Instead he perched himself politely in an armchair and looked up at them.

They were nervous and they had not coordinated who was going to speak first. It took some gentle prompting to embolden one of them to make a start. Janet, it was suddenly said to his face, had gone too far. They had always put up with her bullying and, indeed, it had been hitherto considered a rite of passage to submit to this without answering back. Now, however, she had been breaking into their rooms and meddling with their private things. Someone would have to speak to her. She would have to be telt.

This was a Scottish word, reflected Andrew, and it was comical to hear these Polacks parroting it without being aware that it was not Standard English. He smiled beneficently and committed himself to a rare remark: yes, it was always good to have these things out in the open. Janet was summoned.

A wretched gibbering figure, with her eyes staring about and her wisps of hair in disarray. She was squealing under her breath that it was not her fault and she seemed to be gradually losing her shape and solidity, like an ice cube which is collapsing on its axis.

Andrew grew tense at his mother’s appearance. With the house turned upside down this afternoon, had nobody been looking after her? He sat up and hissed instructions – wipe her face, comb her hair, for Christ’s sake calm her down before dinner. Yes, Ted would probably phone the agency tomorrow about the dismissed girl. With this, Janet was spirited away.

Andrew sank into his armchair and wakefulness was lifted from his shoulders. He nodded, his mind mumbling to itself, content that he was still observing a sort of propriety. There were discreet movements around him and then his son and John McIntyre, the family’s legal advisor, were standing at a respectful distance, as if waiting to be conducted into his consciousness. He looked up and smiled at them without comprehension.

Andrew was happy to see that his son was dressed in his pyjamas. Appearing in pyjamas was one of the few original things which Ted, to Andrew’s mind, ever did these days. It seemed to connect him immediately to his childhood, that time when every boy is charming and tumbles about in a state of perfect beauty. The pyjamas were sky-blue and made of cotton; they were printed with a pattern that looked like little swarming aeroplanes. It was amazing that they could have been made for an adult, in an adult’s size. His face blazed with that look it always had of having being scrubbed by a rigorous old woman with a flannel. Waving a lit cigar about like a toy which he was showing off, Ted looked fresh and wonderfully wholesome. But his eyes were dark and beady.

John McIntyre was a meek little man who was always clad in woodlouse grey. He was a persistently anonymous figure and great lakes of his life were still unknown to Andrew. He had once taken care to mention to Andrew that he had a wife, but, on reflection, this had been more to explain that he was not a bachelor. What kind of woman was wedded to John McIntyre was as guessable to Andrew as what authentic extraterrestrials looked like. John McIntyre must have had a personal history full of interesting occurrences, in common with other people who had lived past fifty. Yet if Andrew’s mind ever turned to consider the high deeds of John McIntyre, they would picture a watercolour wash of uneventful study and conscientious administration. It did not help that his voice was slightly too silky, a few thin bends and scrapes in the air, and that people were always unthinkingly talking across him and cutting him off. On those singular occasions when he had the floor, nobody could consequently remember what he had said. They were just left with a feeling of annoyance that he had not spoken loudly enough.

“I hope your trip was a success, Pa,” Ted ventured. There was no interest in his voice and Andrew ignored him.

After a definite impression that he was sitting in an armchair under the sea, Andrew raised his head and he was awake without so much as a blink. “Ted, John, tell me about the trove,” he commanded pleasantly.

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