Sunday, July 8, 2007

Fiction by Zack Wilson

by Zack Wilson

Mark is unemployed and attends a privately run training scheme at a company called Employment Training Services, ostensibly to improve his literacy and numeracy, maybe his ‘soft’ skills too, every day. The people that work as tutors at the centre think he’s an idiot, but likeable. The managers at the centre think he’s a statistic.

He’s unemployed because he got caught stealing. It was when he worked as a cleaner in a gym. He explained to his tutor that he’d stolen the money because he had rent arrears on his South Yorkshire Housing Association flat. Then one evening at work, he’d looked in the big mirror that lined one wall of the manager’s office and seen another employee replacing a cash box in a secret place. He later stole the cash box. There was enough in it to cover his arrears. He was caught.

His employers sacked him. They wrote him a letter of dismissal following a ‘counselling’ session. The letter stated in bald, black type that he had heard two voices in his head. One telling him not steal it is wrong and the other tempting him into theft. According to the letter, he listened to the wrong voice.

He ended up in court. The judge said he should have sent him to prison, but he wouldn’t be able to handle it. The judge then said that he should therefore sentence him to community service, but he wouldn’t be able to cope. He then said that he couldn’t fine Mark because he’d never earn enough money to pay it. Mark would have to pay the stolen money back over several years instead.

Mark always seems quite proud when he relates this story, as though it demonstrates some kind of low cunning.

When Mark first started at Employment Training Services (ETS), he wore some old denims and a sweatshirt that smelt bad. He smelt as though he’d slept in them for a week without washing. His breath was stale and noxious. He got some new clothes for Christmas, some non-descript brown trousers and a strange jacket that looks like a countryman’s waxed jacket but isn’t waxed and is made of what looks like cheap khaki velvet. His tutors have told him several times to improve his appearance and cleanliness, but it is still a marginal thing from day to day.

Mark used to love Wilkinson’s. He still shops there, but some of his rank passion for the place has dissipated. He used to come to ETS with bags of things that he’d tell everyone in his nasal, immature whine were “Cheap at Wilkinson’s.” Sometimes the bags would contain packets of AA batteries or hundreds of tubes of fruity chewing gum. One time, he came into ETS and, from 9 o’clock until half past noon, he sat at a desk and consumed 25cl bottles of cola, accompanied with many packets of prawn cocktail and smoky bacon crisps. He’d got them cheap at Wilkinson’s.

Mark claims to have three young children. No one, I doubt even he, really believes they’re biologically his. They all look different in the photographs, and none of them have the peculiar heavy browed cast of Mark’s features. All three are quite tall too. Their mother would rather Mark didn’t see them. There are frequent disputes between her and Mark concerning this matter that have now become a legal matter. Mark is in court every two or three months now. He aggravated things by visiting the children at their mother’s house. Her new partner threatened to beat him up. There was an altercation, and Mark ran to his own father’s house. He was crying and his stumpy little legs didn’t carry him very fast. The new partner chased him for a bit, but felt too sorry for him to actually hit him.

Mark attends a family counselling group called ‘Father Figures’. This is designed to improve his self-esteem so that his children can begin to view him as a positive role model.

Things had begun to look up recently when ETS arranged a work experience placement for him. Although Mark had a CV detailing much experience of menial jobs, including a spell serving drinks at Sheffield Wednesday FC, his criminal conviction meant that many of his applications ended in frustration. The placement would allow him to build a positive profile with a potential employer. It was in the warehouse at Wilkinson’s for three days a week and there was a good chance of a permanent job at the end of it.

Mark was really happy that the placement was at Wilkinson’s. He liked to visit ETS after his 6am-1pm shift so that the other learners could see him in his red Wilkinson’s polo shirt. He said that it was to read the papers, because they were available free at ETS, but he used to stay until almost 4 o’clock. Wilkinson’s told ETS that they were impressed with his work.

The problems started after four weeks of his placement. He’d only had one day off sick until then. Then he started phoning in nearly every day. In three weeks he had six days off from Wilkinson’s. They said that they couldn’t reasonably be expected to put up with this anymore. Especially after he’d phoned in sick one morning and then visited the store in the afternoon to buy a bottle of budget cola.

Mark’s tutor had had to tell him that the placement was over. Tears had made Mark’s eyes look strangely tumescent and his voice had gone strangely high-pitched as though grief had frozen all his lower toned vocal chords. The tutor pointed out to Mark that he had been stupid to go in for a bottle of pop when he was meant to be ill. Mark had told him that he’d been gagging for a drink and he couldn’t afford the pop anywhere else, they cost 60 or 70p everywhere else but were only 20p in Wilkinson’s. Then he said that he’d left some pop and some deodorant in his locker and could he get them back. His tutor said that he’d have to speak to the Placement Supervisor.

The Placement Supervisor shouted at Mark because he got the blame for learners messing up placements. It made the stats look bad when they were tendering for more business from Job Centre Plus. The Supervisor told Mark that Wilkinson’s didn’t want to see him on site and only he could retrieve Mark’s possessions from his locker and he wouldn’t be doing that soon as Wilkinson’s weren’t too impressed with the quality of learners at ETS anymore. Anyway, the pop would go off soon and he could buy more deodorant. The Supervisor had been one of those who had complained loudest about Mark’s personal hygiene.

Mark was skint. He had to borrow deodorant from a tutor. After nearly three weeks the Placement Supervisor had made no attempt at all to retrieve Mark’s possessions and said publicly that it served him right.

Mark’s trying to grow his own carrots at home. In plant pots he says. He’s also trying to draft a complaint about the Supervisor. No one will take any notice. It will get treated with contempt and he’ll be blamed.

Mark’s a loser. No one gives a fuck.

Author bio:

Zack Wilson is British writer, based in Sheffield, in northern England, whose work has featured in a variety of places, including Gold Dust Magazine, The Quiet Feather and Zygote In My Coffee, amongst others. He is of no fixed occupation, being now a filing clerk, having been a labourer, an administrator, a cook, a teacher and a basic skills tutor.


Chris H said...

It's all 'meeting targets' and 'goals', nowadays. A friend who worked for Shelter left in disillusionment because 'the homeless' were simply numbers to be crunched. Humanity has been sold-out to the free marketeers. The poor sod in the story is all too common. Well constructed piece and a believable character, here.

Anonymous said...

I pity Mark but laugh at his foolishness. Most people are Marks.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff – once again!!