I’ve been seeing the magistrate for three years. More or less weekly, I have gone to his office to explain why I don’t work. He asks me the set questions, then nods and types as I reply. At first, my answers were ever so long and rambling, but now he’s got to know me I can quickly sum it up: the attempts I have made before and how they ended. The spells of dread panic that seize my mind.
‘And these spells can come on at any moment?’
Even though the questions are simple to answer, they still make me so nervous, my innards rope up. I can never relax in this office. The door I come in by, the chair where I sit, the magistrate’s desk, the window on the world behind him, they’re like this narrow gauntlet. The room extends, otherwise featureless, for many metres either side. Just years upon years of box files.
‘Yes, any moment,’ I echo.
‘Okay. Thank you, Susan.’
My chair has no arms and it feels like I’m overflowing. Sometimes, the sun comes through the slats of the blinds behind the magistrate’s head. It follows a slightly different pattern each week.
All that time ago, they sent me a letter, setting out what the arrangement would be. Promising me that I could get some support, as long as I justified myself to this man every seven days. He had a forgettable English name and a job title that meant nothing to me, yet he had the authority to decide on my entitlement. Basically, that meant he had control over my fate.
‘Like a magistrate,’ I whispered, as I folded the letter into my pocket.
You’re probably imagining him as some ancient judge-type person, but no. His body is angular and strong. He is fitter than you. This morning, he had a new clay figure on his desk. It was like an item out of Nina’s Oxfam, and I noticed it as soon as I arrived. The most beautiful collie. She had a noble, searching face and was hyper with love.
Nina gets rather wound up these days, when I’m in her Oxfam. Her cheeks itch and her eyes dart. I like to touch objects she knows I can’t buy, and she’s convinced herself I would steal something, even though this would be an act against charity. It’s since that time she caught me, trying out how a clock might feel, cloaked in my chest, ticking the seconds against my heart. The way she dealt with me, then, thinking she’d laid bare my plot to beat life, by selling stolen goods from under my jumper.
I tried to explain, without success, why I have to touch and hold things to myself. Is it any wonder, when this is the only way that I can stop feeling leaden and deadened, by having a presence there that I can pretend is alive and shivering for me? Whatever you might think, it is not easy going through day, day, day, day, day, in the way I do.
Sometimes the magistrate is in a joking mood and will ask a question like, ‘Can you stand up for me?’, and then, when I stand up, he’ll say, ‘I’ll take that as a yes.’ I have no way of knowing what it is that puts him in this mood, just as I can’t say what kind of music he listens to or how long it takes him in the bathroom each morning. I always picture him arriving at the big, greyed-out office block in this mood of his, clicking heels and clapping hands, tossing a £20 note to the old gentleman who sits outside playing the recorder, giving random members of staff the rest of the day off.
This morning, though, he didn’t deviate from the routine. Except he kept inserting great pauses between questions. It made me so restless, I started ticking the seconds past with my tongue.
‘I’m transferring your files, by the way,’ he told me at the end of the session. ‘Another capability assessor will be taking your case forward.’
‘Oh,’ I replied. ‘Never mind.’
He could at least have put on a joking mood, I thought, for our last session.
I discovered Nina’s Oxfam the first warm morning of spring. The Grove Garden was already full when I arrived, its benches all taken, its lawns crammed with kids. I watched a family of geese having a fight, then meandered along the paths in my own time, awakening myself. Splashes and cheers drifted up from bathers by the lake. Finding nowhere at all to rest, I plodded through the side streets, overheating in my bulky coat. It felt like I was trapped inside an animal costume. As if that morning I’d chosen to dress up as a Siberian husky.
The first thing I remember about the shop is how cool it was when I pushed through the door. It was nearly empty, too – Nina had nobody else to deal with. She let me take off my coat and told me I could sit down on a stacking stool for a few minutes. Then I had a long look round the shelves. All the time, she spoke to me softly and with patience. It hurts to think that I’m so unwelcome there now.
The magistrate had turned his back and started fussing around in his filing cabinet. My moment was open. I leaned forward in my seat and grabbed the sheepdog. Soon as I touched her to my skin, her love erupted into me. I wriggled her through my clothes, pressed her hard on my tummy. It took me a moment before I realised that the magistrate was facing me again.
‘Right. This is one of your spells, I suppose.’
I pulled both hands out from my jumper. The collie stayed nestled inside my waistband. Sitting still like a good girl.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘Would you put it back, please?’
Honestly, I’d meant to return the collie straight away. So it was a surprise to hear myself ask, ‘Put what back?’
‘For pity’s sake, Susan. You simply must stop with this kind of behaviour.’
As he moved towards me, I stood up from the chair, trying to disguise the dog shaped lump in my groin. His hands closed around the shoulder pads of my jacket, tender but powerful.
‘Come on.’ His handgrip got a little firmer with each word. ‘Stop playing –’
The sheepdog leapt for his face. The thud ran down through my elbow, like touching a voltage wire, and the magistrate fell away. He landed in a pile of clutter on the desk.
‘You bloody maniac!’ he cried.
His mouth was cramped into a painful sneer, and the words were badly formed. First, I thought maybe because he was so angry. Then I thought maybe I’d broken his jaw.
‘I’m disgusted,’ he drawled, cradling his chin. ‘You really think I can approve your entitlement, after this?’
‘Never mind,’ I said quickly.
‘Wait there.’ He leaned over the desk and reached for his phone. ‘Wait – there.’
I glanced down, fixing my eyes on the sheepdog’s loyal face. Run, she told me, with an invisible twitch of the snout. Run, female idiot. I sprinted out the room and into the hallway. There were doors the whole way along it, and behind each one, through a long, upright window, another strip lit hall of doors. Other than the magistrate’s room, the entire bloody building seemed to be corridors. I ignored the way I had come, to avoid the reception desk, and chose another route at random, scuffing along the carpet to soften my tread. My heart was pumping acid through me, the magistrate’s words echoing in my brain.
‘What are you going to do now?’ I could hear Nina demand, too, as my skirt flapped at my ankles down the carpark stairwell. ‘Is this how you’re going to survive? Selling china dogs from under your jumper?’ She’s right, though: I don’t know where I’m going to go. Not back to the hostel. Ever since the bricking there’ve been so many police there. Us hostellers are visible as glow-sticks at dusk.
The old gentleman on the bench outside was eating a cake. It must have been his hundredth birthday. The air had gone an alarming white-purple, and I sensed it was going to snow soon. That wasn’t what I would have asked for myself, not knowing where I was going to sleep and all, but I couldn’t feel aggrieved: it was going to snow for his hundredth birthday. As I bolted past him with a pottery dog clutched to my heart, he was nibbling at the chocolate icing. You’d think that I wasn’t the most everyday sight, but he hardly seemed to notice me.