“Coo-eee!” Chris blinked away from his laptop and tugged his headphones out of his ears with one hand. He looked up at Naomi, who was still waving her hand in the small space between his face and the luminous screen. Instinctively he pushed himself away from her on the wheels of his office chair, trying to regain some personal space. She raised a slither of an overplucked eyebrow. “So?” “What?” The attempt to keep his irritation out of his voice was only partially successful. He shrugged away the thin, mocking smile he received in response. “We’re going to Nando’s. You coming?” Chris looked passed her at the rest of the office. The usual suspects were pulling on coats, gloves and a whole ensemble of other knitted items in order to brave the cold. It was April, but still bitter, and threatening snow. Chris repressed a shiver, and wondered if it was at the thought going out into the cold or at spending his precious lunch break with Naomi and her crew. “Er, no thanks. I’m meeting a friend. Another friend. But maybe next time?” Naomi’s smile widened. He turned back to his work, hoping the glare from his screen might blanche the blush that had crept across his face. Why did he have to sound like such an idiot? Naomi knew as well as he did that no-one in the office would categorise him as a friend. Not that it really bothered him – the contempt many of his colleagues seemed to feel for him was more than reciprocated. Whilst they seemed to delight in making condescending remarks about his serious nature, he struggled to understand how they could take their job any other way. Although of a similar age, he couldn’t help but bristle at the apparent immaturity of most the team as they threw away judgements about the young people they were supposed to be supporting yet failed to show any attempt of understanding. “Sure. Have fun with your friend.” Chris felt his jaw tense as a snort and childish snigger escaped from the gaggle as they shuffled into the lift. He glanced up to see Naomi jog towards them, her held up hands indiscreetly illustrating her indifference. As the doors of the lift swept closed, he took of his glasses and massaged the corners of his eyes. You really shouldn’t let them get to you. If you just made a bit of an effort... Beatrice had gently berated him when he told her about his woes. He smiled fondly and shook his head at the memory. She was right, but even she didn’t seem to remember why he had taken this path in his career. It was over ten – no, fifteen – years ago that she had realised how bad things were for him at home and taken him under her wing. Chris had later learned that she had got a lot of flak from the school when they found out he had been staying with her, and had even tried to force her to “take advantage” of the early retirement package available to her as a “mature” teacher. She had chuckled years later when she had told him, but at the time she had stood firm and proud. I wasn’t about to let them send you off to some foster home. And she hadn’t. Her flat, small and heavy with a scent of age from all the textiles, artefacts and knick-knacks she had picked up on her travels, had been a wonderful haven from home. If it wasn’t for her, he could have ended up like his sister, maybe worse. Chris closed his eyes at the thought. He had told Beatrice this many a time, certainly as he had gotten older, but she had always waved it off. These days she seemed to have all but forgotten how their lives had become so entwined, something which worried him. But not as much as Matt did.
Chris pressed the doorbell and took a step back. He quickly straightened his hair and brushed away any crumples in his shirt. He knew it was silly and that she wouldn’t really care what he looked like, but it was somehow respectful - and he wanted her to be proud. He squinted through the textured glass of the front door to see her in the hallway, hobbling slowly towards him. He looked away, not wanting to think about her age, and instead scanned the concrete grey housing estate. It was quiet, eerily so bearing in mind how many people lived in such a confined space, the only souls in sight being the caretaker brushing down a stairwell and some middle aged guy walking through with his Asda bags. Chris looked around Beatrice’s small garden, smiling at the pristine effort she still made despite her arthritis and the cold winter months. He frowned when he spotted some large shards of glass in a planter underneath her bedroom window. “Well, hello young man!” She was reaching up to his shoulders to pull him down for the usual shaky kiss on each cheek. He gently hugged her frail body, glancing back at the debris before following her through the dark hallway into the front room. It hadn’t changed much since he had stayed with her all those years ago, although the photos on her window sill had been updated as her nieces and nephews had gotten older, smiling into the room dressed in graduation gowns and wedding dresses. He spotted his own awkward portrait amongst them and winced. “You didn’t think I wouldn’t put that one up did you?” She was pouring him a cuppa from the tea set she had already laid out for them. The coffee table was a little low for her, but, like everything, it didn’t seem to stop her doing what she wanted. He looked at the lunch spread – neat triangles of sandwiches on white and brown bread, a generous bowl of crisps and his old favourite – Dundee cake. “I’m sure your tastes are much more sophisticated now, but I’m afraid we’ve just got plain old ham and cheese.” He winced again at the accuracy of her statement, but smiled. “That’s okay Bea. It wouldn’t be the same if you started giving me chicken and chorizo or falafel wraps.” Her laugh rattled in her chest. “Well, it would never be as good as the real thing, would it? We can’t really compete with the Spanish and the Lebanese… which reminds me, when are you going to go travelling?” Chris shook his head as he eased himself into one of her armchairs, still smiling. While most people got hassle about getting a good job, finding a partner and buying a flat, Bea was much more interested in seeing him explore the world and experience life beyond the 9 to 5. “I’ll go when you going to stop badgering me about it.” She rolled her eyes dramatically as she gingerly lowered herself into the chair opposite him. He looked away, knowing better than to ask after her health. It’s called old age, Christopher. It’s not an illness, it’s a part of life. I’m not sure why people get so worried about it. He looked over at the window again. “Have the Council finally got around to replacing your windows then?” She looked at in over the rim of her cup of tea. “They had to. Someone broke them.” Chris couldn’t keep the shock from his face. She waved a dismissive hand. “Not all of them. Just the one in the bedroom.” She let out half a laugh. “It made for an interesting evening, I can tell you.” “Were you hurt? And who did it? Why didn’t you call me?” Beatrice rolled her eyes again and shook her head as she settled her cup and saucer down and began to load a delicate china plate with food. “Honestly, you really do worry too much. No, I wasn’t hurt and I’m absolutely fine,” a point she emphasised with a hard look from under raised eyebrows, “And besides, I’m lucky enough to have good neighbours who look out for each other. You don’t get that in London very much nowadays.” Chris stifled a laugh through his mouthful. “Bea, you’re usually complaining that this estate is full of busy-bodies!” She wrinkled her nose. “I suppose. But things have got bad around here, Chris. Maybe we need people like that otherwise nothing gets done. Some of the kids in this area are just running riot - don’t get me wrong, I’ve been young before, but they could be a bit more discreet about what they are smoking, let alone who they are selling it to. And the noise,” she looked up to the heavens, “Almost every night. Late at night too. Fighting and cursing. And now my window…” Beatrice’s eyes dropped down to the plate balanced on her knees. Chris looked down at his lunch too. Bea wasn’t one to complain for no reason and had an admirable ability to brush most things to one side without letting them bother her, but this was clearly another matter. “I’m sorry Bea.” He hesitated. “Do they know who broke your window?” Part of him really wanted to know, whilst another really didn’t. “No, dear, they don’t. They think it was one of the boys who lives up the top of the estate, or one of his cronies. But they don’t know for sure. The Police are investigating…” “Which number? Which flat does he live in?” She shook her head in confusion. “I don’t remember, but…” she stopped and looked up. “Why? Why do you want to know? You’re not planning on turning all vigilante on me are you?” The teasing glint in her eye filled Chris with relief. He pretended to ponder the question. “Well, I wasn’t going to, but now you mention it…” Beatrice clucked her tongue and chuckled as she carefully selected another triangle from her plate. “I’m glad to hear it… now go on. Why do you want to know?” Chris smiled and shook his head as he raised his cup to his lips. He knew she wouldn’t let it drop, but he needed time to figure out what to say – what he could say. He looked over at Bea, who was suddenly chewing furiously, her hand to her mouth and her eyes wide. She swallowed awkwardly before clearing her throat. “It’s one of yours, isn’t it?” Chris felt himself blush. She was always able to figure him out, which at times was infuriating, but at others, a relief. “Ah, so that explains it. I did think a mid-week visit was a little odd. Are you off to visit him after lunch, or have you already been there?” There was no point in trying to cover it up. “I’ve got a home visit booked for two.” Beatrice nodded slowly, her grey eyes, almost the same colour as her hair, regarding him closely. “I see.” She looked over to the window, still nodding, a forgotten mouthful of sandwich still in her hand. “Quite a delicate situation, I suppose.” Chris made a show of choosing another sandwich. “Not really. I mean, it’s useful to know what’s going on on the estate, but I can’t make any assumptions that he’s involved. And I certainly won’t let it affect how I work with him.” Taking a bite, he didn’t look up at her. He wanted her to drop the subject, but knew that she wouldn’t until she was thoroughly satisfied that she had got out of it everything that she needed. He frowned, nodding enthusiastically as he chewed. “Mmm, great cheese. Where did you get it?” “Marks and Sparks. West Country Cheddar. I’m sure you will do a great job with him Christopher.” She paused. “You’ve always been a sensitive boy. To other people’s needs too.” He glanced up. She was looking at him again, her face so soft that he couldn’t get annoyed at her for identifying the characteristic that he tried so hard to hide from others. She smiled gently. “That was a compliment, by the way.” She winked and returned her attention to her lunch. “So, tell me, are you dating anyone at the moment?”
Chris shivered as he closed the door behind him. He had hurried to leave, suddenly feel confined by the cramped flat. Bea’s enquiries into his life had been well measured, as usual, but there was something about her possible link to Matt that was almost… well, unbearable. He zipped up his jacket and fished out some Nicorette from his pocket as soon as he knew he was safely out of sight. He knew she wouldn’t nag at him for his ongoing nicotine addiction, but he didn’t want to give her any reason to worry about him either. She suddenly seemed so frail, so vulnerable, something that he hated and wished he could do something about. Chewing at the lacklustre mint gum, he longed for the acrid taste of a cigarette. The estate seemed to have slowly woken up. A couple of Asian women sat chatting on the benches in the communal garden, the Saris they wore under their heavy coats a welcome splash of colour. A handful of children were running around, laughing and shouting as they played together, their early attempts at socialising a stark contrast to the self-imposed isolation of mothers stood alone with nothing but their mobile phones for company. Chris buried his chin into his scarf and kept his head down as he walked through. Whilst it was unlikely, he didn’t want to get pulled into dialogue with any of Matt’s neighbours or answer any inquisitions about the purpose of his visit. Experience had taught him the pitfalls of such conversations and, with this visit more than most, he was keen to get it over and done with. He felt keenly Bea’s muted despair at what was happening in the immediate world around her. He felt his want to protect her pull against his desire to support yet another young person who had become lost, perhaps disillusioned – but causing harm to others in the process. Whilst logically he knew that the two were not mutually exclusive, he also knew that it was the kind of situation that made it all the harder for him to put forward his liberal arguments against the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” brigade. The flat was just where he had worked out it would be, it’s entrance concealed by a stairway up to yet another layer of homes designed to encourage social integration whilst in fact creating a pressure cooker of poverty and exclusion. He took a sharp intake of breath and blinked away his doubt. Matt, like every other kid on his case load, deserved the opportunity to find a way out from the life he had been born into, and Chris needed to make sure that any personal connection to a potential victim of his behaviour did not cloud his judgement. If it did, he would have no choice but to admit his subjectivity and hand over the case to one of the clowns that he worked with. And that wouldn’t help anyone. His resolve strengthened yet perhaps not fully restored, he wrapped his gum on an old tissue and thrust it in his pocket. Squaring his shoulders, he pressed the buzzer to number 99.