SAME TIME NEXT YEAR ?
(First 10 pages only)
J M HAMPSHIRE
‘For Chrissake, stop looking at the skirt and pay attention to what you’re doing!’
‘Sorry, Chilly,’ Jamie replied, but his supervisor wasn’t finished.
‘Jesus, maybe I should have worn a bloody skirt, then you might listen to me instead of eyeing up the local talent all the time.’
Again, ‘Sorry, Chilly.’ Jamie took a deep breath and tried to commit to the task in front of him. He needed this job.
He was aware of giggling from off to his right and knew he was being watched but steeled himself not to look. His supervisor, Len Winterbottom, would only take so much and Jamie could see he was close to breaking point. They had two installations to complete in the day, and delays with the services had meant that they were already behind schedule.
For obvious reasons, Len had earned the nickname ‘Chilly-Arse’, which was then shortened to ‘Chilly’ by his workmates and which he seemed quite comfortable with. It was probably better than some of the names the other installation engineers were called.
Jamie felt himself drifting off again and forced himself to concentrate. He was holding the foot and leg of a large piece of process equipment aligned and together while Chilly tightened the securing bolts.
‘Do each one up finger tight first,’ Chilly instructed, ‘then go round and check they’re all in the right position and not rucking up the carpet. Then go round them all again and tighten them up.’ Jamie liked Chilly; he acted gruff, but he was a big-hearted man and a good mentor.
He heard another giggle from his right, coming from the four girls on the stand opposite. Oh, please don’t let Chilly’s arse crack be on show, he thought. Chilly had a habit of not pulling his trousers up properly, and when he bent over—which in this profession was frequently—his white Y-fronts and the cleft of his buttocks would make a guest appearance. Jamie tried not to smirk at the thought, but his face must have registered some amusement.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ Chilly reprimanded, ‘is something funny?’
‘No, no, not at all, Chilly,’ Jamie stammered. ‘Just getting cramp in my thigh,’ he lied.
Chilly shook his head, and the two of them moved on to the next leg. Jamie was pleased to see him hoist his trousers up as they moved round. From this, the final leg, he could see the four girls on the stand opposite. He had heard them laughing as they walked towards the stand a few minutes earlier. With no carpet down yet along the walkways, their high heels had clicked noisily, and his well-tuned young male ear had picked up the sound from a long way away.
He had watched them approaching as Chilly rattled on about the difference between coarse and fine threads. Each girl had a takeaway coffee and was laughing openly; they all looked so happy and carefree that Jamie found himself smiling at them. All four were dressed in some kind of uniform, with a logo and company name emblazoned across their tight shirts above short, bright-red skirts. They looked like American college cheerleaders and appeared very out of place in this dirty environment.
Both the skirts and shirts were very revealing. The V necklines were low cut, showing cleavage, and the skirts barely covered their dignity. They had obviously been designed – and the girls chosen – to entice the male contingent at the show onto their stand. Jamie looked up at the stand above them; the main signage told him the company name was ‘Wow!’ then, in smaller letters, said ‘for all your catering needs’. With a company name like that, it was no wonder they had decided to go with models as front-of-house. He looked back at the four girls, only one of whom was now facing him, and could see the ‘Wow!’ logo on the shirt across her chest, with ‘for all your catering needs’ in smaller lettering underneath. In fact the word ‘catering’ was very small, and he had to squint to see it clearly.
The girl noticed Jamie peering at her shirt, and to his horror she tugged it downwards with her free hand so that he could read it. The other three girls saw her gesture and looked to see who it was for. There was no escape; he had been caught staring. He had genuinely been trying to read the wording, nothing more, but he guessed that wasn’t how it looked. He smiled back at her, the smile of someone caught in the act—part guilt, part courtesy. He pointedly turned away to watch what Chilly was doing. Thankfully, the older man’s face was pressed against the cold stainless steel, looking in the opposite direction, and he hadn’t seen this interaction across the walkway.
‘How’s it going, Chilly?’ Jamie asked, to try to close off the incident. In the background he heard the girls laughing, and it took all his willpower not to look back at them.
‘Yep, that’s it,’ Chilly confirmed. He put the spanner down on the carpet next to the foot and took a deep breath. ‘Time for a cup of tea, I think, don’t you?’
‘What about the compressed air?’ Jamie wanted to keep the conversation going, aware that the four girls were trying to distract him, but he purposely didn’t look. Surely they would lose interest in him soon.
‘Doesn’t look like they’re in a rush to come and fit it, does it? So we’ll have a cuppa and go start the other job, then come back to this one later. It’s in the next hall.’
Jamie was pleased that he would be taken away from this stand, even if only temporarily. He risked a quick glance across the walkway, under the guise of looking around. A forklift truck carrying a crate hummed past and blasted some diesel fumes at him, making him cough. Beyond the carpet of the stand, the walkways were littered with plastic, pallets and debris. Workmen like himself were bustling to and fro, carrying tools and boxes, each with their own mission. It was warming up inside the hall, and without air conditioning it would be hot later working on the stands.
Everything around him was drab, noisy and smelly. It was hard to imagine that the show opened in under twenty-four hours and that all this would be clean, tidy and salesy. The girls on the stand opposite stood out as an oasis of bright colours, neat and attractive. As the forklift passed, Jamie could see that another lady had appeared on their stand and seemed to be talking to them as a group. She had the look of a supervisor and was probably giving them their instructions, he thought.
He could now get a good look at them. All were about the same height—quite tall, but that was probably thanks to their ridiculously high heels. He wondered why they were here today, on the set-up day—maybe to practice their sales patter? There were two blonde girls—one with long straight hair, the other shoulder-length—one Black girl with outlandish eye make-up, and the pretty brunette who had pulled her shirt down for him.
Chilly patted him on the shoulder. ‘Come on, boy, tea for me, cold shower for you,’ he said with a smile, noticing Jamie studying the four girls again.
As he got to his feet, Jamie got a quick whiff of Chilly’s body odour, which concerned him. The day was still young and would inevitably get hotter, and the work had only just begun.
The delays had only got worse. When Jamie and Chilly had reached the other stand that they had to set up, the crates hadn’t even arrived. Chilly had shouted profanities and looked quite frustrated before going off to chase the forwarder in the main office. Jamie had been left to wire up some three-phase plugs, which he was happy to do. He had done plenty of these, and he could sit comfortably on the carpet and do them one at a time.
He had been with Haywood Installations now for just over a month and was really beginning to enjoy the work. It was the first ‘real’ job he had had since leaving technical college the previous September. Bob Haywood, who owned the business, was one of his neighbours and had seen him working in McDonalds. Bob had asked Jamie why he didn’t have a ‘proper job’—a question that hadn’t gone down well with the McDonalds manager who was serving him—and the conversation had led to Jamie being offered the position of apprentice fitter, starting the following week. It was one of those lucky meetings. Jamie had been for over twenty interviews for similar roles, but he was nervous and quiet and hadn’t been able to sell himself. Bob had known him for many years, and in fact Jamie used to mow his lawn while Bob and his wife, Judy, were away at their holiday home in Florida.
The pay wasn’t great, but it was better than cleaning tables and toilets and it was a job with genuine prospects. In his month so far, he had spent two weeks in the workshop, learning the tools, and since then had been out on-site. He had helped to install a blister packing machine in Widnes and take away some scrap equipment from a warehouse in Eccles. Now he was spending a day and a night in Birmingham at the National Exhibition Centre, setting up these two sales stands and related equipment with his supervisor, Chilly.
He finished the plugs and got to his feet, picking up the wire strands he had left on the carpet, and dropped them in a cardboard box that had become a temporary bin. There was no one else on the stand, just him, some flat-packed brochure racks, a table, some stacked chairs and the blue carpet. He looked at the sign on the front of the stand, which said ‘Steelfab Ltd’ and the stand number, ‘L4’. He guessed he and Chilly would be uncrating some kind of steel equipment and wiring it up to run during the show.
He decided he may as well make himself useful until Chilly got back and set about assembling the brochure stands. As he did so, his mind drifted back to the four girls at the previous stand and how he had been caught out looking at one too closely. The thought made him cringe and smile in equal amounts. Hopefully he wouldn’t need to go back there.
Chilly reappeared and seemed a bit more cheery, though his pants had slipped down again and the crotch of his trousers wasn’t all that far above his knees. Jamie wondered how they actually stayed up.
‘Well done, son,’ he said, seeing the brochure stands and praising Jamie for his initiative. ‘The crates will be here in about thirty, and the compressed air is apparently on at the other stand.’ He reached Jamie, finally pulling his pants up. ‘They need to be signed for, so I’ll stay here; you go back to the other stand and connect the air up, then check it all works okay. Then come back here and give me a hand setting up.’
‘Okay, Chilly, will do,’ Jamie said eagerly, starting to leave the stand. It was the first time Chilly had trusted him with live equipment.
Chilly let him get a few metres from the stand before calling after him, ‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’
Jamie looked back to see him raising his eyebrows and holding out a toolbox.
Chilly handed him the metal box and shook his head. ‘Heaven bloody help me.’
Jamie really wanted to prove himself to Chilly, and lapses of concentration like this didn’t help his cause. He was annoyed with himself.
He was also worried that he would now see those four salesgirls again and made a pact with himself to try to completely ignore them.
At dinner that night, Jamie was relieved to see that Chilly had showered and changed into a decent shirt and jeans with a belt that seemed to be working—at least for now. They were staying at the Novotel right next door to the exhibition centre, and there was a half-decent steak house as part of the complex. Chilly had got them each a pint from the bar, which was very welcome, while they looked at the menu.
It had been a long day, but the equipment had all turned up and between the two of them, they had it all up and installed by about 6 pm. At one point in the late morning, Jamie had wondered if they would still be setting up at midnight. However, he was beginning to learn that Chilly’s estimates of time to finish these jobs did allow for these delays; it was what the hardened fitter referred to as ‘fuck-about time’. Both stands looked superb, all ready to go the next morning. The display equipment was running fine, and Jamie had been over the carpets with a vacuum cleaner he had borrowed, which seemed to please both Chilly and the stand manager.
Chilly had received the sign-off from both companies for their stands and had called Bob Haywood from a payphone to let him know. Jamie had overheard him say to Bob, ‘Yeah, the young fella did a great job,’ a comment he suspected he wasn’t meant to hear but was really pleased with. He ached a bit from moving heavy equipment out of crates and then holding it in position while Chilly fixed it in place, but all in all it had been a good day. He decided he would have the gammon steak and took a big swig of his beer.
On returning to the first stand, he had actually been disappointed to see the four girls had moved on—no sign of them anywhere. Although he had promised himself he would ignore them, he had secretly hoped there would be some more interaction, but it was not to be. He kept an eye out for them as he walked between the halls, but it was just the fitters and stand operators making last-minute adjustments to their layouts or covering things over with sheets in readiness for Day 1 the next morning. As he and Chilly left the bigger hall, the carpets were going down along the walkways, and it was really beginning to look like an expo.
The meals arrived, along with another round of beers. Jamie noticed that Chilly had quite a capacity to put it away. A different person once the jobs were signed off, Chilly was doing most of the talking but still managed to get through his pint faster than Jamie. In the middle of one large gulp, he stopped.
‘Aye aye,’ he commented, gesturing towards the door, ‘eyes right.’ Jamie recognised the laughter and looked round to see the four girls from earlier in the day, heading for the way out. They were dressed more normally now but still seemed to be having a lot of fun. Both men watched them, and Jamie noticed that most of the patrons in the restaurant were men and had been distracted by the activity at the doorway.
The group seemed to be splitting into two, the Black girl and the blonde with long hair telling the other two that they would see them in the morning. Outside the door, the two pairs went off in different directions, and almost as one, the men in the restaurant all turned back to their meals or took a mouthful of their drinks. Jamie did both, then noticed the look he was getting from Chilly.
‘What?’ he said defensively.
‘I guess you’re not married yet?’ Chilly enquired.
‘Ha, no,’ Jamie replied as if it were a ludicrous suggestion.
Chilly nodded sagely. ’Just be careful,’ he said, ‘girls like that in a place like this will chew you up and spit you out.’ The pair sat quietly for a while before the older man knocked back the rest of his beer and let out an exaggerated gasp.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m knackered, and I’m going to call it a day. Think I’ll go back, shed my clothes, crack open a cold one from the minibar and watch some shit on the KY.’ The prospect seemed to please him, but he noticed the quizzical look on Jamie’s face.
‘KY Jelly: telly,’ he explained with a smile. Jamie nodded. He really needed to get his head around this rhyming slang.
‘Well done today, you did a good job,’ Chilly added.
Jamie smiled back at him, pleased with the feedback.
‘See you here at 8 am for brekkie, then we’ll do a quick once-over at each stand, make it look like we care,’ Chilly smiled, ‘then we can piss off home.’
Chilly got out of his seat and pushed it back under the table. Jamie, now obsessed with his partner’s trousers, sneaked a quick look. They were low and the belt was straining, but they were holding in place—just. He had to stop this and reprimanded himself for his obsession with Chilly’s trousers.
‘Thanks, Chilly,’ he said. ‘Really enjoyed it,’ he added honestly. ‘See you in the morning.’
Chilly gave him a half-wave and patted his stomach appreciatively as he made his way for the exit. Jamie pictured him lying on his bed in his Y-fronts, film on the telly, beer out of the minibar on the bedside table, falling asleep and snoring loudly. The image made him smile.
He too was tired; it had been a long day. He looked at his beer: still half a pint left. He would knock that back and head off himself; he never really felt comfortable sitting at a table on his own. He took as big a sip as he could, but it had been a huge meal and he would need to take his time. He could leave it, but somehow that never seemed right.
A voice from behind him stirred him from his thoughts.
‘Hello, you must be Billy-no-mates.’
Jamie looked round to see two of the Wow! girls who’d left a few minutes before, standing at the side of his table—the pretty brunette and the girl with shoulder-length blonde hair. Jamie wasn’t sure what to say and just nodded awkwardly.
‘Where’s your friend?’ the brunette asked. Jamie nervously took a sip of his beer.
‘The walking arse crack,’ the blonde chipped in. This instantly made Jamie laugh, and he spat beer all over their shoes.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’ he cried, rushing to put his beer back down and grabbing a napkin off the table. He bent down and started to dab at their shoes.
The two girls laughed, both at the comment and Jamie’s reaction.
‘Wow, personal shoe cleaning service,’ said the brunette, pulling her foot away. ‘You don’t have to, it’s fine.’
Jamie looked up at her standing over him and caught his breath. She was really quite stunning. ‘Please stand up,’ she said, ‘people are starting to stare.’ The two giggled again.
Jamie stood up slowly, his eyes fixed on the brunette girl. ‘I thought you’d gone?’ He gestured towards the doorway out.
‘Yes, we did, but she forgot her bag.’ The blonde girl wiggled a small clutch bag at Jamie as if in proof, then turned back to her friend. ‘Right, shall we try the city, see what the Brum nightlife is like? I’ll find a taxi.’
The brunette looked at Jamie. ‘No, I won’t; you go. I’m going to stay.’
‘You sure?’ The blonde didn’t look affronted, more surprised, and looking at Jamie, she added, ‘Really?’
‘Yeah, you go, I’ll see you later.’ She leaned across and gave her friend a hug and a peck on the cheek, before they parted and the blonde walked out confidently.
‘Will she be okay?’ Jamie asked, concerned at the thought of a girl on her own in what he assumed from her comment was a strange city.
‘You kidding?’ the brunette said. ‘Look out, Brum!’
Aware they were both standing awkwardly at the side of the table, Jamie asked her if she would like a drink and they drifted across to the bar, which was empty except for a lone businessman at the far end who looked like he was drowning his sorrows. He noticed the two youngsters approach the bar and sneered bitterly, knocking back what looked like a neat bourbon.
‘Well, Billy,’ the brunette answered, continuing the ‘no-mates’ theme, ‘I thought you’d never ask, but since you have, I’d like a white wine spritzer, please.’ Jamie nodded, but the barman had overheard and he didn’t need to ask.
‘Another beer?’ the barman asked.
Jamie looked back at his almost-finished and rather sorry-looking pint still sitting on his table. ‘Yes, please,’ he said.
Jamie couldn’t work out what was waking him up. Light was streaming in through the open curtains, but it wasn’t the sunlight that had woken him up. It was a noise, over and over again … it must be his alarm clock. He swung his arm out of the bed and across to the bedside table, knocking the lamp and room telephone off onto the floor. The noise stopped. His alarm clock was still there, but it wasn’t making any noise. Peace and quiet. His brain struggled to interpret his situation … and then started to throb. Oh, did it start to throb!
Then he heard a voice, tinny and metallic. ‘Jamie, that you? What are you doing, you lazy bugger?’
Chilly … it was Chilly’s voice … he was calling on the room phone and Jamie had knocked the receiver off, answering it. He scrabbled about on the floor at the side of the bed and ended up falling out in a heap onto the bedside lamp.
‘Hi Chilly,’ he rasped, his mouth dry and gritty. He cleared his throat and tried to ignore the pounding in his head. ‘What time is it?’
‘I’ll tell you what bloody time it is, it’s nearly half past fucking eight!’ Chilly blasted back, and then continued to give Jamie a verbal roasting. Jamie had to hold the phone away from his ear.
‘Oh … I … err …’ he stammered, trying to think on the spot, ‘I’ll go without breakfast this morning. What time shall I meet you?’ He felt the nausea rising and knew he had to be quick.
‘Nine in the foyer,’ Chilly snapped back. ‘Don’t tell me—you got pissed last—’
He was cut off as Jamie hung up and promptly vomited all over the bed sheets that had been pulled off the bed when he had fallen out. He slumped back against the side of the bed, instantly feeling better, but his head was still humming. He licked his lips, but his mouth was dry and the vomit had left his teeth feeling gritty. He needed some water.
Gingerly, he staggered to his feet and only then saw the full state of his hotel bedroom. Panic-stricken, he looked at the other side of the bed, but there was no one there. The sunlight hurt his eyes, and with his arm across his face he stumbled to the window. He reached it quicker than he had thought and bumped his elbow and penis against the glass at the same time, causing him to jump. He pulled his arm away to see a couple of departing businessmen in the car park two floors below looking up at him. He was naked … he never slept naked. He cupped his genitals with one hand and whipped the curtain across with the other, feeling some relief from the sunlight and now able to open his eyes fully.
The room was a bombsite. There were clothes everywhere, and the contents of his minibar were on the floor, tables and desk—all empty—along with chocolate, nuts and, rather strangely, the contents of his toolbox.
‘Jesus Christ!’ he said out loud. ‘What happened here?’’
He started to remember and winced as the memories came flooding back to him. He and the girl, the brunette, had started out in the bar drinking beer and spritzers before moving on to shots, and then coming up to his room to drink the minibar dry. It had been a wild night—a night of laughter, fun, drinking … and sex. Lots of sex.
His head was spinning and, realising he was going to vomit again, he rushed into the bathroom and only just made it in time. He spent the next few minutes spitting into the toilet bowl before standing and moving across to the sink for water.
Resting in the sink was a twenty-pound note and, on Novotel paper, a short note in very neat handwriting.
Thank you, Billy
And then underneath, almost as an afterthought:
Same time next year?’