The first thing I felt when I woke up on the floor of the cold communal hallway was someone poking me. I pulled a squirrel teddy away from my face and saw Gladys inspecting my mascara-stained cheeks.
‘Grace, what happened? Why are you out here in the dark, asleep?’
‘They kicked me out.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Well, I only found out yesterday.’
‘Yesterday? They’re supposed to give you six months’ notice. They can’t do that.’
‘They did. It’s just that—’
‘You never read their letters, did you?’
‘Or answer their calls?’
Gladys went very, very quiet and began further inspecting all of my belonging that were strewn all over the communal walkway.
‘It was the Californian Squirrel Reserve. They’ve been taking all this money and I—’
‘Get up, Grace,’ Gladys said in a slow voice.
I threw my teddies off me and stood up straight, watching as Gladys turned her back to me and shuffled towards her apartment.
‘Well, I suppose I will see you around,’ I said, whilst pressing my light-up trainers into the concrete floor.
Gladys stopped and turned back to face me. ‘Pick up your stuff and follow me.’
‘Are you not going to—’
‘No, I am bloody well not!’
It was worth a try.
Inside Gladys’ apartment, I sat hanging on the edge of her couch, squeezing my bum in and doing my absolute darndest to look as comfortable as possible amidst all of my crap which I had piled high on the couch.
From the living room, I could hear the clatter of pots and pans and the boiling of water as Gladys made tea in the kitchen.
I loved it when Gladys made a cup of tea. I’m a no-nonsense tea maker: wham-bam-tea, that’s how I make it. Not Gladys. Oh, no, I swear she’s been trained by Buddhist monks in the art of tea making.
It arrives in a pot with a body warmer, there’s sugar in a separate bowl, separate spoons for sugar and stirring, a milk jug, flowery cups with—would you believe it—saucers, and my favourite bit of all, Jaffa Cakes. It always feels good when Gladys makes a cup of tea.
As I drank my tea and chomped on Jaffa Cakes, I told Gladys all about my disastrous few days and how she came to find me asleep on the communal walkway with all my belongings.
She listened quietly and intently, reserving her right to devour Jaffa Cakes in favour of paying attention to every last word that I had to say. She was such a great listener and by the time I had finished, I was sure that my epic tale of sorrow and unfortunate circumstances had pulled on a few heartstrings.
‘… and so I glitter bombed one of the guys and glued him to the bathroom taps. As for the other nine, well, I gave them all a good shouting at and hurled a couple of pigeons at them. But, well, they had the keys and I couldn’t hold them off, and I’m just a small, small-ish, woman. I didn’t stand a chance. In the end, I was just so tired and I didn’t know what to do, I said to Gladys.
Gladys remained stoic.
‘Em, Gladys, did you hear me?’
‘Then, well …’
‘So, let me get this straight.’ Gladys sat her cup down on the small tray which was clipped to the arm of the chair. ‘You’ve been breeding pigeons?’
‘No, no, I just enlisted them to fight off the bad people. Should have stolen a cat though, now I think about it.’
‘So, is the bad guy still glued to your sink?’
‘No, Gladys. He escaped.’
‘And who’s Macaulay Pulkin? Where does he come into all of this?’
‘He’s just the kid who gave me all the good ideas.’
‘Ahh, now I get it.’ Gladys took another swig of her tea and placed it back down. ‘So there are teenagers running the bank,’ she said whilst rubbing her chin. ‘That explains everything.’
‘No, Gladys, that’s not the point of the story, the point is—’
‘You have nowhere to live. I get that point.’
‘And the Californian Squirrel Reserve …’
‘Yes, them. Can you believe it? There’s a bunch of squirrels in California living like the Kardashians because of me.’
‘But you love squirrels, right?’
‘Yeah, but not all my wages …’
‘It could have been worse.’
‘How, how could this be worse?’
‘You know, gorillas, apes, monkeys—’
‘Oh, oh, you know what, it so could be. Imagine if I had been funding a rockstar lifestyle for a bunch of gorillas, that would have been terrible. Have you seen that Planet of the Apes yet?’
‘It’s on my list.’
‘We will so have to watch that together, Gladys. Honestly, I know I keep saying this but you will never feel the same about gorillas or apes ever again. They’re so clever, like scarily clever, they are so going to evolve and take over the world one day. Did you know, if we left a bunch of monkeys with some typewriters that they would eventually be able to type up the entire collection of Harry Potter books. Rowling would be seething. We seriously need to stop them. And keep them away from typewriters.’
‘Don’t we descend from apes?’
‘Do. We. What?’
‘I know, let’s talk about what you’re going to do for work.’
‘Gladys. You haven’t seriously been watching that TV show again, have you? That, what’s it called, “Unbelievable Animals on This Planet”.’
I threw my hands in the air. ‘Are you crazy?’
‘No, Gladys, I am telling you, you have to stop that. Saying there’s like blue fish in the sea, ones that light up under water, things with eight legs. I mean, come on, the title has got to give it away.’
‘Let’s move on. So, what are you going to do now?’
I grabbed another Jaffa Cake and shoved it into my mouth. ‘A bumeless swhelter, mabeesh.’
‘What did you say?’
‘A hummshi …’
‘Finish what’s in your mouth first.’
I chewed fast and swallowed. ‘A homeless shelter, probably.’
There was a long silence before Gladys next spoke, so I grabbed a squirrel teddy and hugged it to kill the awkwardness.
‘Grace, how about you stay here?’
‘Just till you find a job.’
‘That would be amazing.’
‘But you have to find a job and then find somewhere else to live.’
‘But where am I going to put all my squirrel teddies?’
‘But you have to find a job, right?’
‘Yes. But what about my squirrel teddies? Your flat is tiny. Do you have any spare cupboards?’
‘We could give some—’
‘No, absolutely no way.’
‘Just a few.’
‘Grace, they’re piled up everywhere. How many do you have?’
‘One hundred and forty-eight, no, hang on, one hundred and forty-seven. I threw my favourite one with the red bow tie at the weird guy next door. Damn, I need to get that back.’
‘Could he keep it?’
‘Okay, here’s what we will do. You can sleep on the couch but you are going to need to sort through those teddies otherwise you are not going to have anywhere to sleep. Grace, honestly, I don’t think I can cope with that amount of teddies around here. This flat is a tiny one bedroom and you’ve already filled half the front room. You need to deal with them.’
I sank backwards into my squirrels. ‘A Nobel Peace Prize though, eh. Just think of all the things I can do with that.’
I don’t know about you, but night time is when I feel like I come alive. It’s like a wave of powerful electricity surges through my body, firing up my brain into a super-sharp thinking machine and rendering my body the most efficient, highly- organised vessel on the planet.
Not Gladys; she was asleep before Planet of the Apes was even halfway through. Not that I hold it against her, of course. It had gone 9:30 pm and she did say she went to bed at 9 pm.
So, when she finally turned in for the night, I got straight to work—right after I finished Planet of the Apes.
First on the agenda, I had to deal with the squirrel teddy issue. Gladys had spent the entire evening sporadically making it perfectly clear that my squirrels were a major issue: ‘I’ve just tripped over one. Am I sitting on one? Is that one staring me out? I’m never going to sleep tonight. I don’t care what you named them. Don’t tell me’. She was very cold about the whole thing and, quite frankly, I didn’t think I could take another night of her whining: I needed a plan.
Two hours later, I slammed my bum back down on the couch and admired my handy work. And it was impressive, even if I say so myself.
Overhead, I had wired in two million fairy lights and formed a web pattern across the entire front room ceiling which hung down to about halfway down the room. You had to duck to walk but Gladys was pretty short so that wasn’t going to be an issue. Then I managed to dangle approximately sixty squirrels overhead and it was beautiful. I could have fitted more in but there were too many lights.
Next, I set to work strategically planting stuffed squirrel teddies in the most unobvious places, making sure that they blended in with Gladys’ belongings so that she wouldn’t notice them.
I got five on the mantelpiece, two of which fitted straight into her peach vases from the eighties, and three hugging a scary doll each, a load on the bottom level of her drinks trolley, three in her chequered folding shopping trolley with wheels, two underneath her rocking chair, two in her bathroom cabinet, two in her washing basket, some around the bath, one tied to the hoover, one to the mop, one hanging off the long light switch in the bathroom, four on top of her wardrobe (thank goodness she was a heavy sleeper), forty on her bed (thank goodness she was the size of an Alsatian and had a double bed), three in her dresser drawers and then scattered the rest inside the cupboards in the kitchen. My couch bed was finally clear and I began to really look forward to sleeping like a dead person in it.
Despite the lateness of the hour, however, there was still one last squirrel teddy who I simply couldn’t forget about, my favourite one of them all: the one with the red bow tie that I had thrown at my weird neighbour’s face. His name was Mr Nutty McNutnut and his favourite place was next to Miss Bushy McBushbush on my couch.
I hated to think of him out there, all alone, with my weird excuse for a neighbour. I cursed myself for giving him that feather duster. I should have known not to get that layabout loser involved and now I had gone and got Mr Nutty McNutnut into a terrible situation. There was nothing for it—I was going to have to save him.
The stars and moon were out as I crept towards the weird bloke’s apartment along the open communal hallway. The emergency light had gone so I used my trainers in a gentle tapping motion to light the way as I made my way through the dark. It wasn’t far, only a few doors away, a ten-second walk at a fast pace, but the shadows seemed to loom as I gripped the metal railings along the edge of the walkway and heel tapped my way forward. On the other side of the railings, there was nothing but a vast blackness of night which looked poised to consume me.
I had rather expected to see Mr Nutty McNutnut sitting on the doorstep of weird guy’s flat looking happy to see me, but as I approached there didn’t seem to be anything in front of his door. It was difficult to see through; the moon was helping a bit but I still struggled.
Then I heard a noise, maybe a footstep, maybe a laugh. I turned to face the blackness on the other side of the railings but I couldn’t see anything. Then I checked along the long concrete walkway. Left, then right. Nothing. The moon had just allowed me to make out the length of the path too, but still there remained areas of darkness which I couldn’t make out.
The coast was clear though, so using my trainers in a quiet tapping motion, I lit the ground in front of weird guy’s front door and scoured it with each flash of light. ‘Mr Nutty McNutnut, where are you?’ I whispered.
I then moonwalked in a westerly direction and began thoroughly checking underneath the long window of weird guy’s apartment. About halfway down, by chance, I looked up as a flash of light went off and caught sight of something absolutely terrifying at eye level.
My body froze. It couldn’t be. I tapped my right trainer on the floor and raised my foot to about shoulder, all right, boob level, just as another flash lit up the window for a few seconds, and gasped. There, dangling right before my eyes, Mr Nutty McNutnut was hanging by a noose on the inside of weird guy’s apartment.
I tapped my foot again on the floor and held up my right leg. ‘It’s okay, Mr Nutty McNutnut,’ I said. ‘I will save you.’
Then I did something that I’d not done in a long while: I broke protocol and made a deathly honest promise. This was at least a level five threat to my favourite squirrel so all I can say about it is, it just felt right.
‘Weird guy in flat fifty-two,’ I said in my best Satan voice. ‘Get ready to feel my wrath you son of a wet fart.’
With the rage of the Devil burning inside me, I, Hulk, stomped back to Gladys’ apartment, only to hear, as I was halfway there, another noise which made me stand very, very still. It sounded a bit like ‘eeh-eeh-ooh-ooh-eeh-eeh-aah-aah’, which was very strange considering weird guy’s cat usually meowed.
Only a few steps more though and the sound of ‘eeh-eeh-ooh-ooh-eeh-eeh-aah-aah’ rang out again, but this time very, very clearly.
Then, in what I thought I explained in a rather eloquent way when I recalled the incident to the police and the doctors at the hospital later on, the rest of the events seemed to morph into something out of a movie, you know, when the camera is up at a high angle and it swoops down along the misty corridor towards the back of my head. As it reaches me, the ‘eeh-eeh-ooh-ooh-eeh-eeh-aah-aah’ sound bellows down the corridor and I spin my head around to face the camera full on, my No7 Stay Perfect lips in Love Red quivering as a huge gust of wind blasts through my hair.
After that, I can’t really remember what I said, but the police said they got numerous calls from concerned residents who said they’d heard someone screaming ‘killer gorillas’ followed by a blood-curdling wail. I literally couldn’t come up with another rational explanation so I had to own that one.
The next bit I do remember though: I’d locked the fucking door.
As the gorilla in the shadows approached me along the communal hallway, I shook the door handle with all my life before catching sight of my feet and shouting ‘motherfucker’ at the top my lungs.
What on earth had I been thinking? Gorillas love rave lights which meant I had been a sitting duck all along. Who knew how many gorillas I had attracted in the dark by now. With no option left and at least one gorilla, for sure, hot on my tail, I took the only reasonable course of action that one can expect when you realise you’re a walking gorilla beacon and about to die: I ran head first through Gladys’ bedroom window.
Oddly enough, I was absolutely fine, but Gladys, on the other hand, described her ordeal as one of the top scariest moments of her life, next to being held captive for twelve hours and the brakes going on her car. I thought that was a bit excessive considering my squirrel teddies were so cute, but she did look pretty shaken at the hospital so I decided to hold onto that opinion for a later date.
Anyway, considering Gladys was so old, and despite the tumble out of bed and a touch of shock, Gladys was fine and she insisted that the doctors discharged her into my care. The doctors, being all overprotective and trying to keep people in like they usually do, refused to let her go, but after Gladys had a quiet word with them in another room, they soon changed their minds. She could be pretty scary when she wanted to be.
It was 5 am before we made it back to the apartment. Gladys wasn’t able to sleep in her bedroom because of the broken window so I gave her my spot on the couch and I took the floor. I assured her she would sleep like a dead person in it after all my hard work and she seemed very relieved at the thought of that. She was also impressed with my ability to make the squirrel teddies blend into the background of her apartment, and even gave special mention to how the squirrels on the mantelpiece were practically invisible next to her bisque dolls.
I, on the other hand, took quite a while to fall asleep. Between the scary bisque dolls, the uncomfortable floor and Gladys, who I was horrified to discover slept with her eyes wide open (shudder).
* * *
Over the course of the next few weeks, I seemed to bounce from one job interview to the next. My life felt like it had cascaded into an endless reel of waiting rooms, uncomfortable skirts and stupid questions.
I mean, honestly, aside from the fact that everyone who interviewed me had practically just left school, the questions they asked were about as thought-provoking as a pebble:
What are my weaknesses? (Everyone lies about this.)
Why should we hire you? (Ditto.)
Why do you want to work here? (Pfft.)
What are your strengths? (*Sticks fingers down throat and vomits out lies*)
I hate stupid interview questions, they always land me in trouble, like, once, I got a job as a delivery driver for Tesco—because I’d basically told them everything they wanted to hear and at the same time read some book that told me that everything would just fall into place if I thought positive thoughts. So I had figured, quite rightly, that the universe would set in motion a sequence of events that would ultimately result in my turning into the Stig on my first day, so I didn’t have anything to worry about.
It didn’t, and I discovered, to my horror, on my first day, that reversing everywhere (because it’s easier than operating the gears) was frowned upon by other motorists and the police.
My life was fine before I read that book, but now all I think about every time I have a “bad day” is that it’s the universe’s way of letting me know that it’s already begun plotting to kill me.
I even got barred from every single Tesco in Liverpool cos of it—and in the surrounding areas. Which is a total nightmare really, because I absolutely love Tesco. They are literally the only shop on earth where the staff go ‘well then, that’s Christmas over with, let’s get the Easter eggs out’.
And I got eight points on my licence. I didn’t even own a licence.
I tell you one little-known job hunting tip that you should deffo file in your back pocket for a rainy day though: tech companies. They’re so much fun that I pop in for an interview with them even when I’m not looking for a job.
Every city has them and they tend to hang out in packs, so they’re easy to find. You can pretty much tell when you’ve wandered into a tech district because the level of graffiti in the surrounding areas begins to rise, there’s a sharp increase in the number of expensive cafés that serve avocados, and everyone’s dress sense, along with the average age of the public, nosedives dramatically.
In Liverpool specifically, their answer to Silicon Valley is located down at the Albert Docks where there’s so many of them, you don’t even need an appointment. Just pick a building, any building, wander in and I guarantee you that there will be at least five interviews taking place.
The trick is to loudly call the receptionist an ‘idiot for messing up what could be potentially the best day of my life’ when she/he tries to question you. Tech companies have a super-strict policy when it comes to hiring receptionists: they only employ organised, highly efficient ones who operate exceptionally well under pressure. Which is totally stupid really, because the pressure they feel when they think they’ve just messed up is comparable to an atom bomb exploding, and their ability to fix said issue I liken to a toilet flushing.
Before you’ve even had time to put the lid down, you will find yourself sitting in the waiting room enjoying free cappuccinos, accompanied by some European white truffle biscuit thingys, whale noises and filtered air conditioning that’s been shipped in from the Amazon Jungle.
And the best bit of all, their interview questions are not even remotely like a pebble. In fact, their interview questions are so thought-provoking, I reckon they’re akin to finding a dead horse in the frozen aisle at Tesco. They ask questions like: ‘If you were a vegetable which one would you be?’, none of that ‘Why do you want to work here?’ nonsense like the Government or your lawyers ask for reassurance.
They’re so clever, too, that they can even work out if you’re a perfect match for the job just by asking you ‘If you were president of America, what would your first tweet be?’.
Once, I got a job as CEO of a tech start-up, just by yelling out the word ‘slay’ when they asked me what, in my opinion, should be the first word that we teach an alien race. The guy just pointed at me from across the room and was like ‘hired’, and everyone began jumping up and down and cheering—me too.
Obviously, my first day was a bit awkward and I didn’t last more than a month, but it was a pretty epic job title to stick on my résumé. In fact, for the first year I would say, at the very least, I landed a load of vice chairman, operational manager and chief technical officer jobs just like that one, simply by shouting out power words such as ‘belieber’, ‘boobs’ and ‘feminism’. After about a year though, word got around so my executive career in Liverpool ground to a halt, which was a real disappointment to both myself and my careers advisor.
From there on in though, I ended up on a first name basis with them all and they’ve always been so nice to me. They let me pop in for an interview at any time, and they let me use the facilities whenever.
And that’s where tech companies get even better, because attracting new staff comes down to perks, such as how big the bar is, free food and slides in the office. You see, all these tech companies use these perks to compete with each other to rake new staff in. That’s because no one ever stood outside a tech company and said ‘I want to work there cos they’ve got the best lines of code ever’. Everyone does, however, stand outside and say ‘There’s a bar on the roof, I don’t even care if they’ve got a pension’.
That means, if I fancy sliding down a fireman’s pole or going for a dip in a rooftop swimming pool in their fancy new offices then they let me. The only problem was, that wasn’t going to help me now. They made me promise that I wouldn’t actually go for a real job with them ever again if they let me do that—and I’m a woman of my word, especially when it comes to free slides—so by the third week at Gladys’ apartment, I was feeling pretty desperate.
It was a Tuesday afternoon when Gladys found me crouching in front of the curtain of her new bedroom window. I pulled the curtain back slightly, took a quick peek out and then fell on the floor laughing.
‘Grace. What on earth’s wrong?’
‘It’s the, the, oh my, the weird, the, I’m dying, the cat, my ribs …’
‘Let me look.’
Gladys walked over and whipped the curtains wide open. Outside in the communal hallway, weird guy from next door, looking all flustered and struggling to grip his cat, stopped in his tracks for a moment and stared back in, before running full pelt back into his apartment.
‘He’s, the cat, oh my, he’s no idea, it keeps running away, his face …’
‘Grace, what have you done?’
‘I swapped the—’
‘I did, he’s chasing it, he hasn’t got a clue, I can’t stop laughing, like, everything hurts.’
‘Grace. What the hell have you done with Fluffy? Get up now and stop messing around!’
I got up and sat on the edge of the bed, doing everything I possibly could to hold in the giggles. ‘So I remembered that one of the houses a couple of streets down had an identical cat, so I swapped their name tags and the cats. He’s been, like, I can’t stop laughing, sorry, well, he’s been chasing it for hours.’
‘That is the least funny thing I have heard in a long time.’
‘Yeah, but he deserves it. Every day now he’s torturing me with Mr Nutty McNutnut. You’ve seen him. I walked past today and Mr Nutty McNutnut is wearing a flapper dress and red heels. Yesterday a wedding dress, the day before—’
‘Right, you know what? I will sort this out but you have to get Fluffy back.’
‘How? The guy’s like a snake. Every time I set foot out this door he slithers back in his flat and disappears. He won’t answer the door even.’
‘Watch and learn, sunshine. Watch and learn,’ Gladys said as she stomped out of the apartment.
True to her word, Gladys returned with the new cat, so I spent the next six hours returning that one, tracking down Fluffy and swapping the tags back over. It was worth it though, and that evening I snuggled into Mr Nutty McNutnut on the couch and smiled. ‘Thanks, Gladys.’
‘You’re welcome. Now, get your coat on, we’re going out.’