Pam Clowes, one of my fellow support workers, pats my shoulder as I head out for the evening, giving me one of her kindly smiles that tells me we can’t win them all.
In truth, we can’t win all that many of them, not with so many factors stacked against us. We really are just small cogs in a big social machine, and our jurisdiction doesn’t carry all that much weight. Support, that’s all we can offer – giving kids an ear and a voice through us when it’s needed, but what difference can that really make to a girl who doesn’t want either?
Carrie told me once that the only home she’ll ever have is on the road. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen her face truly light up, and the image is burned in my memory for all time.
I’m strangely tempted to withdraw my savings and buy her a wagon, but even if she’d accept it, that would never do. It would be against every safeguarding practice in our handbook and then some.
Being fired would be incomprehensible – both for me and all the kids who need me. But just occasionally, in bed at night, I wonder if a wild spark like Carrie would be worth dropping everything for. You couldn’t get more cliché a description of a mid-life crisis, so it’s just as well I have my stable best friend, Jack, to talk me down.
I told him once, after too many whiskies, that if I was ten years younger – alright, fifteen years younger – I’d run away with a girl like Carrie. We could travel around on some magical gypsy adventure, she and I, in a little wagon working the land and selling sprigs of heather.
Jack told me I was a fucking idiot and sent me back to my apartment to sleep off my crazy admission, of course. I took it all back in the morning, but there’s no fooling that guy. He knows me far too well.
His astuteness and his sensibilities are exactly the reasons I message him tonight.
He replies to my text before I’m even through the office doors.
My reply is hard even to type. Gone. Done. Off my books.
I can imagine his sharp inhalation of breath. My phone pings a few seconds later.
Drury’s Tavern. I’ll be there in fifteen.
I loosen my tie as I head across the street. Our little town of Lydney is only a small place but it’s all I’ve ever known. Jack and I grew up around these parts, went to the same school then college, but I stayed local, studying social care while he aimed for the stars and landed a business management degree at Warwick.
I’m surprised he came back here, but it turns out it was a good career move on his part. He set up an insurance agency the best part of a decade ago and it’s doing great. Big premiums in agriculture, he tells me, a niche market he’s done well to crack. Just as well he’s around, considering how much I’ve needed his sound words these past few months.
On the face of it our lives are very different now. I’m still living in a bland apartment in the centre of town – he has a sprawling house on the outskirts with plenty of land. I’m driving a safe old Ford, whereas he has a Range Rover with all the optional extras.
Jack’s made it financially, but my work matters, at least that’s what I tell myself.
I see him heading down the high street in the opposite direction before I’ve even made it to Drury’s. He cuts a fine image in his tailored suit. The dark grey matches the salt and pepper of his hair, a stylish bastard even though he’s ageing more noticeably than me. I guess that’s what building up a business does to you.
I hold the door until he joins me, and he slaps me on the back as we head inside. Drury’s is one of those typical small-town drinking holes. A dimly lit bar with a good selection of local ales and a random collection of tables and chairs that don’t match, but it suits the place. We head to the bar, and Jack orders. The first slug of ale goes down a treat, and we head over to a table in the corner by the open fire. Jack kicks back and takes off his tie. He rolls it around his fist and slips it into his inside pocket, then he eyes me with that easy smile I’ve come to know so well over the years.
“Rough day, then?”
I breathe out a sigh. “Can’t win ‘em all.”
“No,” he says. “You can’t. What’s going to become of the little madam?”
I shrug. “Hopefully she’ll be able to stay where she is. Hopefully she’ll even change her mind about college.”