Sunday was another lazy day – Tom had had a lot of those recently – and most of it was spent at home with Siobhan. With the new term looming, Rob had caught a train into Drayton, then another on to Willsham and the university where he studied and worked. After an afternoon spent dozing in front of the TV after lunch, Siobhan too went home rather than stay the night with Tom. She had an early start at the office on Monday, with several clients to see and the realistic possibility of a flood of new work after the events of Friday afternoon. She’d been on the telephone to Mona already. Working in recruitment, they knew the suddenly swollen population of Drayton and the surrounding area would be ripe for exploiting.

After being surrounded by family and friends almost all of the time for the last few weeks, Tom’s small bungalow felt huge once they’d all gone and he was alone. He sat in front of the television with a sandwich and a few bottles of beer. He put a film on just after ten, but was asleep before the opening titles had finished. He woke up several hours later, the only light in the house coming from the TV. His neck was stiff, his back ached, and he’d knocked over his drink.

His planned lie-in the following morning didn’t happen either. He usually enjoyed Monday mornings and the smug satisfaction of staying in bed when pretty much everyone else was having to force themselves to get up and begin yet another week. This Monday, however, at some ridiculously early hour, the phone rang. It was James, scrounging a lift because his car had let him down (again). Much as he wanted to, Tom couldn’t bring himself to say no. He had no excuse and absolutely nothing else to do.

James worked in Drayton. The volume of traffic was just slightly heavier than usual rush hour levels and it wasn’t a particularly long journey, but before they’d covered more than a couple of miles, James had left Tom in absolutely no doubt as to why leaving his job in Birmingham had been the best move he’d made in a long time. Sure, his life might have been lacking a little purpose and direction since he’d moved out to the sticks, but it still seemed immeasurably preferable to the alternative.

‘So let me see if I’ve got this right,’ Tom said, feigning interest. ‘Your boss has said he wants you out.’

‘Not in so many words, but that’s the gist of it.’

‘There must be a reason, though. He can’t just sack you because he doesn’t like your face.’

‘We had a run-in last week.’


James paused before reluctantly answering. ‘And I might have said a few things I shouldn’t have. A few home truths. Nothing that wasn’t justified, mind.’

‘But that’s not the point. Bloody hell, bad mouthing your boss is never going to be a good idea, no matter how much of a shit he is.’

‘Well you don’t know Sachs.’

‘True, but I do know a fair bit about employment law and disciplinary procedures.’

‘Anyway, it’s all right for you.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘No offence, mate, but you don’t know what it’s like. You don’t understand the pressure. I’ve got a wife and three kids to support. I can’t afford to lose my job.’

Tom shot him a sideways glance. ‘Then don’t piss your boss off. Anyway, you forget, I do know what it’s like. I did have a job, remember? A frigging high pressured one at that.’

It was clear that James wasn’t listening. ‘Okay, here’s an example,’ he continued, unabated. ‘This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Last Wednesday we had this meeting about sales, and we all got given our targets. He gives me this ridiculous figure that we both know I’m never going to hit.’

‘And what about everybody else?’

‘What about them?’

‘Did they get similar figures?’

‘All us full-timers got the same.’

‘Then you don’t have a leg to stand on. Or he doesn’t. He can’t sack all of you if none of you hit the target.’

‘Whatever. Anyway, I told him it was impossible, especially at this time of the year. Holidaymakers come into our store for phone chargers and the like, not flat screen TVs. They buy those things when they’re back home. Then I told him I couldn’t do any extra hours this month because of the baby, and he starts going on about my lack of commitment. Bloody hell, my lack of commitment! I’ve been there longer than the rest of them combined, and he has the cheek to question my commitment.’

‘I know what you’re going through, actually. I had a similar situation myself. I always found the best thing to do was to overachieve. It really used to piss my boss off, and she couldn’t touch me. She’d set me a target, and I’d do everything I could to blitz it without making a noise about it. In the end she was the one who got kicked out, and I ended up being promoted into her role.’

‘Yeah, but it was probably easier where you worked, surrounded by all those fat cats and crooks.’

‘Is that right? Well you could try working somewhere else.’

‘Like where? There’s nothing else around here.’

‘You could move away.’

‘You trying to get rid of me now?’

‘Not at all…’

‘Anyway, how can I move? We can barely afford the house we’re in.’

Well, you could try hitting your targets, Tom thought but didn’t bother to say. ‘I know, mate. It’s a tough one.’

‘There was a supervisor job came up last week. Sachs went and gave it to Marie, and she’s only been working there a couple of months.’

‘Is she any good?’

‘Suppose. She’s got no commitments, though, that’s what it boils down to. She can put the time in, I can’t. And she’s not up all night with a baby before coming to work. Bloody hell, four o’clock I was up with Fliss this morning. Four o-bloody-clock!’

Tom pulled up at a set of traffic lights, willing them to change to green so he could deliver James to work and be shot of him. He knew it was probably just the Monday morning blues, or maybe even nerves, but he had little sympathy. He resisted the temptation to tell his friend a few home truths and avoided getting into a tit-for-tat game of ‘my job was harder than yours’, even though it clearly was. Christ, he’d had responsibility for a team of twenty-plus staff and a department with a budget running into millions. But he was glad that was all in the past. He didn’t miss it. He didn’t miss any of it.

‘Just here’ll be fine thanks,’ James said, and Tom pulled over into a bus lay-by. ‘Ah well, here we go again. The beginning of another shitty week at the coal face.’

‘Here’s looking on the bright side, eh?’

James shook his head. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are, Tom.’

Tom didn’t bite. He didn’t feel particularly lucky.

‘You sure you’re okay for getting home tonight?’

‘Fine, thanks. Steph should have the car back around lunchtime. She’ll come and get me later.’

‘Okay. Give me a shout if you have any problems,’ Tom said, hoping that he wouldn’t.

‘Will do. Cheers, mate.’

And with that the door slammed and he was gone.

Tom immediately felt the pressure lift. He watched James sloping dejectedly away towards the white goods store where he worked. He had a piss-easy job, and Tom was finding it increasingly difficult to stomach his perpetual whining. Again he remembered the pressures he’d had to deal with in his career, and the contrast was stark. As far as he could see, the only real responsibility James had was ensuring his brightly coloured uniform polo shirt was clean, and that he had his “My name’s James, how can I help you today?” badge on straight. Bloody waster.

He drove back home, looking forward to another day of doing fuck-all.