After the job in the Chinese kitchen, but before the job with JCB, Ollie did seven months at Morrisons where the assistant manager liked his glasses.
“Makes you look smart,” Barry said.
“I am smart,” Ollie replied.
“Yeah, sure you are, son,” Barry said as he handed Ollie his name badge. He waved Ollie out of the office.
Ollie spent his first paycheck from the store on a loaf of bread from the sales bin, three tins of beans, a pound of butter, a package of bacon, two polyester ties and a haircut. When he got back to the flat, he realized that he was out of brown sauce, but nothing doing. He could eat sandwiches without sauce just fine, but he couldn’t wear the same tie every day.
Whenever Phil or Dave grumbled about the pay they were getting, Ollie thought about those lean years, and the year before those, when he wouldn’t throw out a tea bag before using it twice, when breakfast was four aspirin tablets and lunch was half a packet of McVities. But he stopped himself from thinking any further back, to the bonfire and the letter.
“Just, shut up,” he said, instead. “We’re getting to do something we love and you two had better well be grateful for it.”
Dave usually walked out at that point, so it would be Phil standing there, hands in his pockets, slouching against whatever furniture was available, or the wall if there was none, looking at Ollie with that ridiculous wounded expression.
Sometimes the schools didn’t have the money to pay them at all, although they normally didn’t find this out until after they’d wasted the petrol to drive out to Hayfield or Chisworth or wherever and done the bloody programme. Sometimes the payments were simply slow to come, Ollie on the phone with the Head, cajoling, then brisk, before the inevitable yelling. He hated yelling.
He learned to be friends with the welcome clerk at the Premier Inn, and Ollie went in whenever it became necessary, to make long-distance calls from the lobby phone. Mid-level Leeds business men in brown suits stood in clumps just off his peripheral vision, complaining about how the steak was overdone in the adjoining restaurant while Ollie screamed into someone else’s phone for what amounted to minimum wages. If it was just for him, he might not bother.
Ollie met Linda in an evening drama class. He’d always thought that the idea of love was a bit ridiculous, the silly symbolism of it all: the fat, perverted baby with an arrow, the shining baubles. But then he saw Linda, her curtain of black hair, the pink shells of her oddly large ears, the slight dimple in the middle of her chin, where he learned to bite her playfully whenever she started looking off into the distance. It surprised him every time, how the soft skin of her belly was always warm to the touch. And the way she played the piano, her long fingers moving along the keys, effortless, the way water curled over stones.
They were doing a scene from a Hugh Grant film of all things, in the basement of a church on a Wednesday evening. The class was made up of twenty-somethings, mostly university drop-outs, except for him because he’d technically never gone. Ollie sat in the folding chair, tie in his back pocket, hem of his khakis wet from having run through the puddles after his shift, as Linda shivered under the pretence of a downpour and her partner failed miserably at quarrying an ounce of the charm of England’s most famous stammerer. It was a scene that Ollie had actually snickered through at the cinema, but Linda hugged herself, a shield against the chill or against the tumult of emotions she was feeling, a head above everyone else in the room, including him, and Ollie watched her and forgot to laugh.
“You’re almost as tall as Phil,” Dave said when Ollie introduced her to the lads.
Phil elbowed Dave out of the way and kissed both of Linda’s cheeks.
“These are the boys I’ve been telling you about,” Ollie said. “We’re putting together a theatre company, what do you think of that?”
“Brilliant,” Linda said, leaning into him.
“Write what you know,” his teachers had always told him whenever he submitted a story about intergalactic warriors or road trips across Texas. Problem was, he didn’t know anything about love, so he spent his last paycheck from Morrisons on a diamond and wove her promises from other stories he had read.
“Oh, Ollie, yes, of course,” Linda said, and she didn’t hesitate even a little bit, which only proved he’d done the right thing. They spent the rest of the night moving all his possessions into her bigger flat and collapsed on the bed, exhausted and happy, falling asleep with their clothes still on, her hand clasped in his.
When he woke up, he went on his first travelling show, all the way out in Poynton, passing the time by bickering about the directions, about politics, about anything.
“I’ve asked Linda to marry me,” Ollie said, two hours into the drive.
“Right, I’m out for a slash,” Dave said, the van bouncing off the tarmac and on to the field.
“What?” Ollie said, knowing his confusion was coming out as annoyance. “Your motivation in this scene is that you’re happy for your friend.”
Phil seemed to be counting the cars as they passed, and then all he said was, “Are you certain about this, Ollie?”
“Of course I am, what – “
“Or, are you pretending to be certain?”
“What does that even mean?” Somehow, he couldn't hit the right tone. He was always better with a full audience.
Phil looked at him then, seemed to be counting up Ollie, too. “Nothing,” he said. And then, gaze back to the windshield, “congratulations.”
Ollie got out of the car to find Dave standing so far afield he was knee deep in the grasses.
Dave toed his cigarette into the ground, burying it deep. “All sorted?”
“I thought you liked Linda,” Ollie said.
“Good, let’s head out, then,” Dave said as he walked past Ollie towards the car.
It was deep into winter, a scrum of mud along the entire length of Bessie’s bumper, water leaking from the roof of the flat, but the radiator was stuck on high and Ollie’s hands were dry enough to sand away splinters, cracked and bleeding at the cuticles. After a full day of Ollie hissing in pain, Phil brought him a tube of ointment, but he called it “moisturizer” and the argument started off the same way it always started off, with Ollie saying, “you’re such a poof,” except this time it doesn’t end with Phil telling him off, or worse, digging into his endless supply of diatribes about civil rights and the arbitrary signification of normalcy. It ended with Phil saying, “I’ve had an offer, Ollie – I’m going to be on telly.”
“You’ve been out on auditions?” Ollie said, and he didn’t know why, but he thought about the bonfire.
“Yeah, Ollie, I’m an actor, I audition,” Phil said. He seemed angry, except what did he have to be angry about?
And then Phil said the name of the biggest fucking queen in any territory outside of California, whose cushy salaries were almost as comfortable as his casting couch. Ollie saw the fire in front him, all of his mum’s things burning, the letter in his hand and then not in his hand. His hand, which had hurt before where the skin had pulled away from the bed of his nails, but it really hurt after he punched Phil, catching Phil’s jaw right on the corner.
It was the middle of the day but he went home. There was a bottle of whiskey left in the cupboard and another of Stoli, but the only thing Linda wouldn’t drink was the champagne he bought for their one year anniversary because champagne gave her headaches. He popped the cork and poured himself a pint glass. He wasn’t even half way through the glass when he heard the noise from the bedroom.
As he walked down the hallway, it was just like that afternoon when he’d found his mum with an empty bottle of pills on her side table. The next day he’d gotten his acceptance letter from Selwyn College. He’d headed for the hills, sweating in the fog, up and up until he’d fallen over, hands fisting the sooty earth and refusing to cry. He didn’t get up until he’d finally decided that going to university was the only rational choice. He’d come home to find his dad burning all of mum’s things in the backyard, the flames threatening to reach the branches of the apple tree, the neighbors pouring out of their homes in panic.
“I’m glad you’re here,” his dad said.
Ollie had never been a very good son, but he tossed the letter into the fire. By the end of the week, he was working at Peking Palace, mincing garlic and slicing mushrooms from 5 to 9, taking back cartons of leftover food to share with his father.
This time, when he opened the door, the scene before him was a blur of pale limbs and twisted sheets and at first, his brain couldn’t comprehend why his old restart officer was in his bed or why she was naked. And then Linda was fumbling for her blouse and crying, “Ollie, Ollie, don’t, please – let me explain, love –". They stared back at him, Linda’s lipstick smeared across her upper lip, Pauline’s unfamiliar look of chagrin. It didn’t smell like sex at all in the room, like it had never even happened.
He finished the rest of the wine. “Phil’s leaving the company,” he said. And then he threw up.
“I’m happy with who I am and what I am,” Phil said, tapping his pen against his notebook. “That’s what we should end with, that’s the central message we’re trying to get across, yeah?”
“That’s foul,” Ollie said. “These are kids, Phil, we have to engage with them at their level. It’s got to be real. Gritty, that’s what it’s all about these days, hand-held cameras and shadowy lighting on all the shows.”
“I’m happy with who I am,” Dave said, hand to his heart. “And what I am – even if the neighbors throw turds at me while I walk down the street.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Phil said.
“I’m happy with who I am,” Ollie said, chewing on the end of his pencil, “and what I am – and – and if people don’t like it, they can go kill themselves, like mum did.”
Dave sucked in his breath. “Ollie, your mum – that wasn’t because – “
Phil was practically falling out of his seat. “Your mum wasn’t happy with herself, Ollie.”
“Guys, this is writing,” Ollie said, impatiently. “This is what we’re supposed to do! Take situations from our own lives and change them to suit the circumstances of the story.”
Phil laid his hand on Ollie’s shoulder, but Ollie shrugged it off.
“Anyways,” he said, “it’s fine. She was the one who got me into theatre, you know.”
“I didn’t know that,” Dave said.
“I did,” said Phil.
Ollie can still remember the first time he’d shown up for tryouts for the school play. They had handed him a page from Copenhagen and he looked out into the empty seats, closed his mind to everything else but the words he had been given. He didn’t even have to try very hard. They gave him the lead with a handshake and a smile, like he’d done something amazing. Later, when they put the wig and make-up on him, he looked into the mirror at his brown hair and his beard, and he opened his mouth and his voice was wrong, but it was what everyone wanted. He knew then that this is what he was going to do for the rest of his life. He stepped out on to the stage and became somebody else.