Deirdre takes off the black silk shirt. It’s the third time she’s tried it. It makes her look like Cruella Deville. She prefers Doris Day. She opens the cupboard, scans the clothes still on the hangers. Nothing seems right. On the bed, the seven outfits she’s already tried are tumbled together.
The Radio 4 announcer starts reading out the weird poetry of the reports from coastal stations. ‘Tyree. One mile. One thousand and three. Falling.’ Her interview’s at two thirty. Decision time. She steps back, narrows her eyes and picks the most striking colour. It’s the red of an Agnes B jacket she bought in Exeter. The only shirt she can possibly wear underneath it is the cream one. Brushed cotton with a high collar. She pulls it on, tucks it into her skirt, smoothes out the creases around the waist, puts on the jacket and her silver drop ear-rings with the zircon inlay and goes into the bathroom to look at the effect in the full length mirror.
She looks like a hostess for one of the less successful airlines.
She rushes back to the bedroom, flings it all off, puts on the black silk shirt and a linen jacket from Liberty’s Edinburgh sale. Avoiding all her mirrors, she grabs her bag and hurries out to the car.
For the factual record, Deirdre’s five feet six inches tall, has a good, maybe even excellent figure, auburn hair, brown eyes, a quick smile and a gift for mimicry that makes her very entertaining company. She’s in her mid thirties and considers herself to be fat, unattractive and generally destined to fail. This gap between the facts and her self-image must have been created by some murky childhood trauma or perhaps an unguarded remark from a teacher or parent that’s festered into an impenetrable layer of insecurity. What makes it worse today is that she knows that interviews are all about posing and she finds it very difficult to lie.
She’s two minutes early as she walks up to the receptionist sitting behind a desk of smoked glass.
‘Sorry I’m late’, she says. ‘Deirdre Marshall. I’ve got an interview. Mr Winterbourne. Two thirty.’
The receptionist smiles. Deirdre sees poise, elegance, assurance. The receptionist sneezes and grabs for a tissue in a box on her desk.
‘’Scuse me,’ she says and dabs at a nose whose redness Deirdre has missed completely. She drops the tissue into a bin behind her desk and kicks the bin back into place.
‘Mr Winterbourne’s running a bit late. He was due to see Mr Cairney at two, then you. If you go through there, he’ll be with you as soon as possible.’
Deirdre goes into a small waiting room. It contains more smoked glass, two racks carrying magazines about the oil industry and a young man.
He turns and smiles. He’s tall, good looking, well dressed.
Deirdre feels like a bag lady.
‘Hello,’ he says, moving towards her.
His handshake feels like both a threat and a caress.
‘Ms Marshall, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘I’m Jack Cairney. We’re after the same job.’
There’s a trace of Scotland in his accent, but the Scotland of grouse and heather, not pints of heavy and football terraces.
Deirdre’s quick smile sparks and disappears.
‘I knew there were other … applicants,’ she says, her throat tightening because she almost said ‘apples’ instead.
‘I think you’ll find it’s just us,’ says Cairney, waving his hand at a chair as if they were in his office. ‘I’m glad you’ve come. I was getting a wee bit bored.’
Obediently, Deirdre sits down. She’s ready to go home. A straight fight with this Rupert Everett lookalike is a waste of time. The company specialises in supplying security packages to the oil and gas industries. The job they’re competing for is in the public relations department. Cairney is PR personified.
‘Been in security long?’ he asks, with seemingly genuine interest.
‘Um, not really,’ says Deirdre. ‘Mostly education. I was with the university for six years. Then the cuts came so …’
She shrugs. Now he knows she’s been made redundant, too.
‘Ivory towers, eh?’ says Cairney. ‘Not a lot of crime there. Not indictable anyway.’
He laughs at his wit. Deirdre’s quicksilver smile flashes.
‘Crazy, really,’ he goes on, ‘I mean, all the research they do, all the great minds beavering away there. How much of it’s relevant, though?’
Deirdre considers the question. There’s no need. It’s intended for himself. He waves an arm to indicate the building they’re sitting in.
‘The work they’re doing here, now that’s relevant. Security. Thefts, vandalism, they’re quantifiable. Ripe for a wee spot of research, eh?.’
Deirdre nods. She can’t think of what to say. Why is he asking her things like this?
‘Did you know that crimes increased by over a million and a quarter between 1980 and 1990?’
Deirdre shakes her head. Cairney barely notices.
‘The number of stolen cars has doubled in two years. Exponential. By this time tomorrow, there’ll have been two murders, ten rapes, fifty sexual assaults, fifty cases of grievous bodily harm, 113 muggings, 2800 burglaries and 1200 cars stolen.’
Deirdre is amazed. Not by the figures but at the fact that he’s saying all this. One minute, he’s a matinee idol, the next a computer. She listens with astonishment to the news that, at both ends of the scale of murder methods, there is an apparent equality of the sexes, 32% of both males and females being despatched with sharp instruments and 7% being burned or shot. Blunt instruments account for another 12% of each, but while 22% of men are hit or kicked to death, only 11% of women go the same way, and, with strangulation, men are pathetic, mustering only 8% compared with 26% for women.
The litany continues. By the time he’s progressed to specific details about the security industry itself, Deirdre is totally convinced that she has no chance against such a combination of looks and information.
‘Take intruder alarms. Fastest growing sector of the whole industry. Mid eighties, sales around 70 million pounds a year. By 1990, nearly two hundred million! It’s reflected in insurance premiums of course. For example, did you know that …’
The door opens. Mr Winterbourne’s arrived at last. Tall, grey-haired and very, very apologetic. Unavoidable business with the Chief Constable. He takes Cairney through to his office, promising Deirdre that they won’t be long.
She’s left sitting in what is suddenly a huge silence. Why is she here? She knows absolutely nothing about security. She feels the black silk of her shirt sticking between her shoulder blades and knows that, by the time she gets into Winterbourne’s office, she’ll be looking like a member of the Addams family. She picks up a magazine, Oil Today, letting her eyes skim over it and feeling a genuine misery at the fact that she seems so unsuited for so many of the things she comes up against.
Only ten minutes later, she’s called into Winterbourne’s office. Its size impresses her and deepens her misery by several notches. She imagines she can still hear Cairney’s voice echoing about the place, identifying trends in anti-personnel device designs, enumerating the incidence of criminal damage in the West Midlands, comparing age-related vulnerability ratios. Winterbourne’s question makes her jump.
‘Well then, where shall we start?’
Her skull is full of space. Her lips sketch her characteristic smile and a page of Oil Today swims into sight.
‘A wee statistic maybe,’ she says, her voice migrating from her native Warwickshire towards Inverness. ‘Did you know that the potential in that new field off Shetland is over 190 million barrels of oil and 12 billion cubic feet of gas? They’re expecting a 73% yield in the first five years with exponential increases well beyond 2000.’
She can’t believe what she’s saying. Winterbourne looks up sharply. Panic floods her with adrenaline. She smiles. Winterbourne sits back in his chair, his fingers lifted to hide the laugh on his lips.
The following Thursday, Deirdre is comparing the four sweaters on her bed with the St Michael cardigan in her left hand when the phone rings. It’s Meston Securities. They’re offering her the job.
Maybe the cardigan’s too green for the skirt.
Bill Kirton was born in Plymouth, but has lived in Aberdeen for most of his life. He has written stage and radio plays, songs and sketches for revues, flash fiction, short stories, novels, stories for children and books aimed at helping students to write effective academic essays and dissertations and get the most out of university and work. He has been a university lecturer, actor, director, TV presenter, visiting professor and artist at the University of Rhode Island and spent a few years as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow in universities in Aberdeen, Dundee and St Andrews.