The grass was wet round the back of the job centre; ten am here was a damp ass and frozen toes. Stella pulled a 70cl bottle of Gordon’s Sloe Gin that she didn’t pay for out of her bag, slotted it between her thighs, and rolled a cigarette she didn’t plan to smoke.
“Aren’t you worried they’ll see you here? The staff and that?” Jen said, nodding towards the back of the building. Stella had met Jen at nursery that morning. She’d just moved with her daughter from the town over. Jen’s daughter had one of those white-people names people make fun of like Maylee or Janieeee or something like that. Jen said she didn’t name her daughter. She wanted a nice, non-chavvy name, but her husband wouldn’t let her choose. He just beat her until she left with the kid. That’s why Stella invited Jen for a drink round the back of the job centre: because she didn’t name her daughter.
“Nah, they never come out the back way,” Stella said, “The door’s blocked off from the inside.”
“How d’you know that?”
Stella just smiled and rolled the lid off the bottle. “There’s a man that lives near here, about five minutes’ drive, in the posh end of Glastonbury. I know him, or- well, my dad does, and he’s rich.”
“What does he do?”
“Nothing now. He worked nights with Dad, back before Dad did his back in. Then his nan or someone died and they left him all their money. Now he’s so rich he could probably buy Clarks factory. Or at least all the shoes in it.”
“That’s mental. And he worked in Clarks?”
“On the third floor with dad.”
They sat quietly like that for a while, passing the gin back and forth.
Jen said, “Is Mavis named after your nan or someone?”
“Nah, I called her that because I was watching this film and there was an old lady called Mavis and she had a huge house with a load of books and shit in it, proper smart. Dad named me after beer, for fuck’s sake.”
“So you named her after that film?”
“No. Well- yeah, I did really. But mostly so people will treat her right.”
Jen nodded. “Did you love Mavis’s dad?”
“That guy, the rich one, you know? He once asked me out. Said Mavis wouldn’t have to worry about anything if I went out with him. He’d pay for her to do anything she wants.”
“Yeah. But he’s old.”
“Yeah. Rank, that is. That he even asked.”
“My baby’s gunna go to Oxford. I know she is. Julie from Tesco said her son went to Oxford and he grew up round here, so I know it happens sometimes. Mavis is proper smart. She’ll probably be famous.”
Jen leaned back on her hands. “I saw Nicholas Cage down the King Billy the other week.”
Stella nodded, wiped her nose with the sleeve of her jumper, then put the lid back on the bottle.
Jen nodded. Stella thought she was easily led, but she didn’t mind. Stella liked pushovers, she thought they were the best people in the world. She’d only just met Jen, but she knew Jen just loved her daughter and that was all she did. Stella loved people who just loved people and that’s all.
“Wish I had good ideas for Kaylee,” Jen said. “Just hope she’ll be alright, really. My mum knows someone who can get her a job at a care home in Wells. She’ll be good at looking after old people.”
Right then, a woman darted across the lane in front of them, heading to the estate behind the job centre. She was shoving a buggy in front of her and rocking backwards and forewords on Primark sandals with fat wedges. The baby was screaming, hitting both sides of the buggy when it rocked with its driver. The woman briefly looked up at Stella.
“Alright, love?” Stella shouted over to her.
“That’s Kelly Jones,” she said to Jen, “Went to school with her. She’s got three kids now.”
“Christ. How old is she?”
“She’s only our age. She got married right out of school but her husband left her with all the kids and joined the army. Don’t think he even broke up with her, just left to go to the army one day and she never saw him again.”
“Sometimes I see her in Morrison’s, talking her face off at Mandy on the tills. Kelly reckons he’s coming back for Christmas this year. Don’t know why she’s got that in her head. Ask Mandy, poor sod knows it all.”
“So she just gets on without him?” Jen asked like she needed to know.
“Hasn’t got no choice, has she?”
“That’s really sad. That she reckons he’s coming back and he’s not.”
Stella shrugged. “Just life, really, isn’t it.”
The two women tracked Kelly Jones’s journey with their eyes, watched her follow the lane until she turned a corner behind a fence and was gone. She left something in the air behind her, something like a thick, invisible dust that fell down on everyone’s deep failure.
“I’m gunna go see that guy tonight,” Stella said, “that one who worked with dad.”
“You’re never! And have sex with him?”
“Nah, no- Christ. Or, well… I don’t know, really.”
“I thought he was old and a bit rank?”
“He is a bit.”
“But imagine my baby at Oxford, Jen.”
Jen tried hard to imagine the little blonde girl she saw at nursery this morning, hanging her coat up with one hand while the other was busy in her mother’s tight, tobacco-fingered hold, growing up and walking through the gates at Oxford. The problem was Jen had never been to Oxford, or even Googled it to see what it looked like. She didn’t even know if it had gates.
“Yeah, I reckon I can see her there, love,” Jen said.
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