They called me in for an interview on the day Dan was deported. It was rotten timing but, as Karen said, he’d left a vacancy and it was her job to fill it.
They ribbed me about my shiny brogues and funeral suit borrowed from my brother. Ours wasn’t the kind of work where you’d turn up in collar and tie at nine. But we were all relieved to have something to laugh about that day, even Karen. Took our minds off what they’d done to Dan.
Dan wasn’t his real name, of course. His real name was a spew of letters glimpsed now and then on the manila envelopes that housed his pay slip or other dispatches from HQ. Dan didn’t ask us to twist our tongues round the mismatched syllables. He’d been Dan so long I don’t think even he remembered how to pronounce the name he’d got from his mother.
I was the only one outside Karen’s office, waiting. They hadn’t bothered to open up the post to applicants from outside. As Karen said, that job had always had my name on it and the entire team was rooting for me. It’s just that no-one expected me to step into Dan’s shoes so soon.
Dan was as practical and unassuming as his footwear: worn-out trainers in the cabin, thick-soled boots to stomp across the moors. A pair of steel-capped workboots or wellies for the heavy jobs, chopping down rhododendrons or replacing a gate. He’d have raised an eyebrow at my polished shoes with their tracks of gimlet holes running through the leather.
Walking into Karen’s office, my fancy shoes pinched my toes. My collar bit into my neck like a noose. Sweating in my brother’s woollen suit, I relished my discomfort, as if, in some magical way, I could share Dan’s load.
I hadn’t been nervous about the interview until, seated across the desk from Karen, and Tony from HQ, my heart began to pound. I felt overdressed and alien in my city clothes, I wished, like them, I’d worn my everyday work gear of cargo pants and polo shirt with the logo of the reserve across the chest. When Tony launched into his first question, I could hardly hear for the buzzing in my ears.
I reminded myself I had nothing to worry about: if I phrased my answers as Dan would have done, I couldn’t go far wrong. For six years I’d been his deputy, six years immersed in his wisdom on everything from the nesting patterns of lapwings to the myriad species of moss. I aped his methods and strategies on everything from constructing a stile to brewing a mid-morning cup of tea. I might not have been sure of my own skills, but I’d always been sure of Dan.
Karen nodded in encouragement as I staggered over my replies. She’d told me the interview was a mere formality, but what if Tony didn’t see it that way?
What would you do, and what would you not to, if you got a report of a bunch of kids camped out in the reserve, pumping out music into the night? Don’t ask me about that, Tony. Today of all days, please don’t ask me that.
What Dan had done was to tramp over there to talk to them, to tell them it wasn’t allowed. Most people, confronted by his calm authority, would have packed up and gone home. But this lot were determined to party, whatever the rules might say.
When I arrived as back up, I thought it was all over and done. From the verge, where I pulled up behind a police car, there wasn’t a sound except the hooting of owl. I didn’t need the moon’s light to guide my steps to the lakeside; I knew that track like I knew the path to my own front door.
The kids were loading their gear into wheelbarrows, disappointed but resigned. But there’s always someone who won’t take a telling, someone with a grievance they won’t let go. And the police, well, they’ve got to act like they’re impartial, even though they’d rather take our side.
A guy with waist-length dreadlocks was shouting, pointing from a giant speaker back to Dan. “It’s malicious damage. Any fool knows not to tamper with the connections.”
Under an awning, a network of wires meandered between a generator, mixer and amplifier. I could see the temptation. Grinning, I turned to Dan, “You didn’t, did you?”
“That’s five hundred quid’s worth of equipment ruined,” said Dreadlocks.
“Should’ve left it safe at home then,” said one of the cops.
“It’s criminal damage. You’ve gotta arrest him. I know my rights.”
“More bloody paperwork,” said the other cop. He could hardly get his words out for laughing as he asked Dan to accompany him to the station.
I was laughing too, thinking how it would make for some jammy overtime, but Dan looked shit scared. I thought he was shamming it to appease Dreadlocks when I told the cops he liked two sugars in his tea.
We all went down the pub after my interview, after Tony told me I’d got Dan’s job. We went through the motions, but it was more of a wake than a celebration, given what had happened to Dan. Nobody blamed me; even had I known he’d overstayed his visa, I couldn’t have prevented the cops from taking him in. Although they’d never meant to charge him, they’d had their forms to complete and, when they found he wasn’t legal, they couldn’t let him go.
My workmates lined up the pints on the table and I poured them down my neck. Anything to blot out the thought of Dan being frogmarched onto that plane. But tomorrow, swapping these brogues for walking boots, I’d remember him, and every day after that until I retired.
Anne Goodwin is the author of over 60 short stories, including Stepping into Dan’s Shoes and A Dress for the Address published by Halfway Down the Stairs. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, which opens with the words “Halfway down the stairs”, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for May 2017.
© 2014, Anne Goodwin