It is an Autumn morning in the city centre of Birmingham. The sky is the colour of weak tea, the sun a cheap teabag that nobody’s squeezed. The streets are empty and it is too early for the Agency to be open. Vince, a driver, waits outside. He clutches a clipboard, sucks down a fag.
Vince doesn’t mind waiting. He’s ex-army and he’s always waited. To be old enough to join the army, to fight. To leave the army, to find a job. Waiting comes with the territory. They’ll catch the bacon, that’s the main thing. He’ll make sure of that. Every morning the lads are late, every morning they give him stick about missing out on the canteen scran and every morning he gets them there in time for the bacon.
The shift starts to arrive and Vince ticks them in. He’s supposed to put a mark against their name when they’re late. He never does. The Agency gives them enough stick without him putting his oar in. The lads are chancers, but so was he at their age. He knows what it’s like. And they’re not a bad bunch, deep down.
Dave arrives first, followed by Graham. Dave’s a bit of a DJ. Likes the sound of his own voice but he’s OK. Graham’s older than most of the lads, in his late-thirties, an ex-rockabilly with a thinning barnet. Married with two kids. He reads, does Graham, books and everything. Next it’s Little Pete. Vince doesn’t mind Little Pete. He’s the babby of the bus. There’s always one. Lives at home with his mom, turns up for work pretending to be hungover. One of the boys. Then just sits there, not smoking and nervous. It’s not his fault. It’s his first time on a job like this. And he takes his stick, doesn’t go blarting.
Then it’s Tommo and Adam and Lee. The three amigos. The last to show, as usual. Adam and Lee arguing like brothers, words flying like ricochets, Tommo wearing a face. The three of them grew up on the same estate. Tommo’s a bit of a legend to Adam and Lee. He’s settled down and he still goes out. He’s got it all. This suits Vince. Tommo keeps Adam and Lee on the straight and narrow. At least when it comes to making it into work.
- Good night was it last night? says Vince
- Just drive the bus, bus driver, says Adam. You know. What you’re paid for.
- We’re not still at school you know, says Lee.
Vince grins. He has to. The abuse comes with the territory. He’s not bothered. Adam and Lee are a pair of lollipops. All front. They don’t know shit from pudding. He could snap them in two if he wants. They’ll learn. He starts the van. The rain comes as they drive out of town. The one-way system squeezes them along narrow streets. Vince thinks of canteen lunch turds.
Dave looks out of the window. He’s impatient today. Needs the day to go quickly.
- Vince? I’ve left me wallet at home, he says. We’re going to have to go back for it.
- You’re joking aren’t you? says Vince.
- Yeah, says Dave.
- Sometimes Dave, you’re about as funny as herpes.
Dave doesn’t mind this. He’s humouring Vince. He’s humouring all of them. He’s only in this for a bit longer now. He’s got two gigs coming up, one at the TASCO’s Social, one at the Cadbury Club. The first one is this weekend and he’s impatient. It goes alright and he’ll be made. It’s all about momentum, you see. He’s had gigs before. But now he’s getting on a roll. You get on a roll in this business and it’s hard to stop.
- Wouldn’t matter if we were late anyway, says Dave. Time it takes them to sign us in. 10 minutes yesterday. I missed the bacon. I’m pissed off, I can tell you.
They don’t treat us right. They think we’re just skivvies.
- Yeah? Adam comes back at Dave. Don’t know what you’re moaning about. You should be working in the freezers like me and Lee.
- Ennit? says Lee. Shifting meat and that. They give you gloves but it was that cold, we did half a day and then fucked it off. Got put back upstairs with the clothes. It’s a doss up there.
Vince listens. Nods. Dave’s a berk. But there’s always someone doesn’t know they’re onto a good thing. The chance of some steady work. The lads should take a leaf out of Tommo’s book. Tommo knows this job, knows it comes up every year. Knows that if they like you they keep you on after Christmas. Not to be sniffed at, that. So you do your time, keep your head down. Simple as. Vince hasn’t seen his wife for more than an hour at a time since he started but you have to take what you can with temping. That’s the price you pay for freedom. At least you aren’t stuck in a 9-5.
The money isn’t great though. So in between jobs Vince does bits, here and there. Just like the rest of the lads. Everyone’s at it. They might not know he knows but he does. He knows that Adam and Lee sell bits of gear, fence the odd bit of kit. Dave does his music. Graham’s got three Agencies on the go, cherrypicks the best of them. Tommo gets by. Only Pete doesn’t have a clue. When he isn’t working he signs on. And scratching’s a mug’s game unless you’ve got something on the side.
In the outskirts of Brum, the rain is heavier. It batters on the windows of the van. The city is misted and blurred. The houses are brown. Water is coming up through the drains. Pulling on a spliff on the back seat, Tommo thinks of his doris, Sara. He fucked her last night, tired and nasty. He could tell she didn’t like it and now he feels bad. He wants to text her but doesn’t know what to say. It’s the job, getting him down. He’s been doing it too long. But he’s promised Sara he’s taking her away this year. To Gran Canaria. Without the job how’s he going to pay for that?
The van hits the motorway. Its engine sounds bad, like a pain in the chest. Inside it is smoky and close. Vince hears people stop talking, sees them fall asleep. Curl up and stretch out on the plastic seats. Work is an hour’s drive away, through flat land.
Vince sits in the van in the car park, as the evening closes in. The sky sags. Over Swindon, everything is sinking. He looks across at the depot, a huge square windowless block and he waits for the lads to show. As a driver, all he has to do all day is sweep up and he gets off ten minutes earlier than everybody else but he is still tired. The whites of his eyes are grey.
Vince takes a swig from a litre bottle of cola. The drive back starts here. He knows he has to stay alert. He’s responsible for everyone on the bus. The Agency hasn’t said so, not in so many words. But someone has to be. The other two shifts have sometimes left people behind at the end of a day and each time it happens it costs the Agency a night in a B&B for a turbo fucked-off temp. This isn’t going to happen on Vince’s watch. He is too good at what he does. Been driving since he left the army. Buses, forklifts, wagons, you name it. Vince is no skivvy. Vince is a pro.
The lads drift back, dragging themselves across the car park like they’ve just finished a ten mile bash. Vince ticks the names off on his clipboard, one by one. Adam and Lee, the first to arrive, as usual. Next Tommo, Little Pete, Graham. Then Dave. One time, Vince had to go looking for Dave. Found him handing out business cards by the lockers. He’s a pro is Vince but he has to admit he nearly said something then...
- Vincey boy, says Lee, you’d better burn some rubber tonight. And I mean burn.
- We’ll see, says Vince. Got to stay safe.
- Fuck safe, says Adam. I want a beer.
Vince grins. He starts the van as the rain comes. Heads off around roundabouts, through industrial estates, around the ring road. Now it is dark.
- Where were you today, Tommo? says Lee.
- On the ground floor, says Tommo. Goods-in. It’s a bit cold but you get used to it. It’s the best spot if you want to stay on after Christmas, there’s always work there. What about you? You going to try and stop on?
- I reckon, says Adam. The money’s OK...
- I’m not, interrupts Dave. I’m too busy. Got too much on.
- Hey boy, says Lee.
- Hey girl, says Adam.
- Superstar DJ...
- Turn it up!
Lee starts singing ‘I’m going to Ibiza’. Adam laughs, Tommo too. Dave and Pete sit there. Pete thinks about saying something, then keeps quiet. He’s told his mom he gets on with all the lads, but he doesn’t. There’s something about Lee that reminds him of someone from school and it makes him edgy.
On the back seat, Tommo passes Graham a spliff. He doesn’t take it. He looks out of the window at passing cars. Inside each car a world. Graham doesn’t mind temping. The travel, the cold. He can’t can he? It’s all he’s done for five years. Besides, his wife is pregnant again and with another babby on the way they need the cash. But he’s tired. If he smokes he’ll think of other worlds.
The rain gets heavier as the van hits the motorway. Vince watches the road and the cars, ploughing on and on. He can’t hear the lads in the back. They have most likely gone to sleep again. He is finding it hard to concentrate. He has days like this. Maybe he has had too much caffeine. Maybe it is the weed. He doesn’t mind the lads smoking. It comes with the territory and the Agency turn a blind eye to it. But the smoke is making his eyes smart. He blinks and drives on.
- Y’know I thought this was going to be a right doss, says Lee to Adam. In a bus, a bunch of lads.
- Yeah, says Adam. Tell me about it.
They are nearly home. Then, coming off the motorway by the old car plant and onto the dual carriageway into town, the van splutters. Vince tenses. Something is wrong.
- Aye aye, that’s torn it, he says, stamping on the brake pedal.
There is no response.
- Brakes have gone an’ all.
The dual carriageway is badly lit. The van is doing fifty with no way of stopping. Vince wrestles the steering wheel, veers, throwing the lads from side to side. Cars swerve, horns sound. There is confusion in the back, then understanding. The van is going too fast, they hit anything at this speed, they’ll die. Pete thinks of his mom - who’s going to look after her, pay the rent when he’s gone? - Lee smacks his head on a window, Tommo wishes he’d bought the holiday, so Sara would know he cared. Sort it out boss, pleads Adam, bricking it, and Graham agrees. The van switches lanes and an ambulance brakes as they smash through a red light. Now there is orange and white dazzling out of the dark, car and street lights cutting the night like tracers. Time stops and the van is thick with fear, the smell of burning rubber...
Only Vince is calm. He has to be. And he’s concentrating now alright. He changes lanes and then changes back again. They are doing thirty now, slowing down, now twenty-five. He sees the yellow sign of a garage up ahead. They slide through standing water. They’re going to be OK - that’s that sorted he says - slows to fifteen – that’s better – ten, five.
Vince coaxes the van onto the forecourt of the garage. It stops. It is broken. Smoke is coming from under the bonnet. He sits for a minute, takes a deep breath. He’s done a good job. He’s pleased with his day’s work. It was difficult back there, but he’s a pro: it’ll take more than a knackered van to get the better of him. He climbs down and opens the side door.
- There you go. Show’s over. Everyone OK?
There is no answer. The forecourt is empty. The only sound is from the rain, the traffic on the road. The lads clamber out of the van. Adam is texting someone, Tommo and Graham too. They are dazed. Getting their heads around what just happened, letting it sink in. Thinking about how they’ll get home, what they’ll say to their girlfriends and friends. Thinking about dying suddenly. Or living a long time.
Vince looks them over. There’ll be a few bumps and bruises but there’s no real damage done. They’ll all be back in the morning, that’s what matters. The lads head off to the bus stop into town. No-one thanks him, but Vince doesn’t mind. He knows what shock can do.
- They’ll be buying another van in a bit, he says. The Agency. So we’ve only got this one a bit longer.
He calls after the figures retreating into the cold and drenching night.
- I say. Only for a bit longer now.
About the author: Charlie Hill is a writer from Birmingham. He has previously published short stories in Ambit and Stand. His first novel was described by the Times as 'wonderfully observed' and by the Observer as 'funny and linguistically dexterous...an inventive work that shows much promise'
Photos: (c) S. Marcu and Wes Peck