A KNOCK ON A GARLIC FARMER’S DOOR

(Winner of 1st Prize, Writers’ Forum #240)

He readies his papers upon the kitchen counter as his wife guzzles down her coffee, grabs her keys, and says, ‘Let’s go.’ Mark huffs, not particularly wanting to go to work, never particularly wanting to go to work, as he places his blue transparent plastic file into an off-white 2012 conference tote, folded dot-matrix printout paper sticking out, its tear-away side strips of holes curling yet still intact, the ink fading yet still legible. Reading it in bed last night he’d had to suppress his laughter, his wife’s response as normal, touchy: ‘I’m trying to sleep!’ These alternate multiverses infiltrating his dreams, waking him to the thought that he should’ve considered them more seriously at the time. That things’d be different. Such questionnaires are of course more prevalent today, even if of different format, they’re online, everywhere. But not then. This mid-80s computer paper, akin to papyrus, how ancient but visionary its algorithm and methodology must once have been.


    Mark clicks in his safety belt on the passenger seat, takes out a copy of the original pamphlet used to formulate the recommendations. It must’ve been ’87 when he took this test, shading in the boxes with gnawed dark green Staedtler 2B pencil. No, not a test, a questionnaire. Though it felt like a test. Its different sections playing the variable of one activity off against another, pressuring him into thinking there was a correct choice. 

    He reads the first question. Does he prefer to repair holes in roads or lift potatoes from fields? Well, that should’ve been easy enough; does he prefer to breathe in hot asphalt or freshly upturned earth?

    Alter hems or take people up in a lift? Not so easy. He wonders if he had any inkling of what the former involved back then. Now he has a slight inkling more, but not much. The latter, if say in Harrods, might not be so bad for tips. But come end of shift, how difficult would it be to balance, to walk upon the level ground of the street? He gives this serious consideration.

    Set out a salad nicely or brand some sheep? He does a double-take. The two choices so seemingly disparate, bizarre.

    Some are easier to answer now he’s lived life, some less so because he has lived life. 

He wonders how he answered aged 14. He has the outcome print-out, the suggestions, and this questionnaire he obtained later, but not the original input he gave.

    ‘Work?’ his wife half-asks.

    ‘Something like that,’ he replies.

    Call out Bingo numbers or dig with pick and shovel? 

    Forgive or don’t?

    Polish furniture or grease a machine? This one he knows. Machines fascinate him little.    Feed people unable to feed themselves or wrap gifts in a store? He wonders how many kids opted for the former given the difference in patience. And the mess.

    ‘Don’t forget to pick up the car from the garage,’ says his wife.

    ‘I’m hardly going to do that, am I?’

    ‘Just saying.’

    Type and send out bills or milk cows? Surely a no-brainer.

    His wife turns up her music in her car. A song she knows full well he can’t stand. What he calls indie lite. The Beautiful South.

    ‘You know your problem,’ she sings, ignores the pissed-off look he directs at her, wondering why she wears those ridiculous reflective wraparound sunglasses for mountaineers, whether she genuinely thinks she looks good in them. 

    For fuck’s sake, she voted for Brexit.

    He puts in his ear buds for his phone, plays some proper stuff. 

    ‘No, I’ve never had a job,’ wails Morrissey so comfortingly, ‘because I’ve never wanted one.’

    Use a photocopier or rescue people?

    Remain or leave?


    The sun glints off the water in a small sinkhole in the road. Someone must’ve opted to shift  potatoes instead. He thinks back on those summer jobs during uni, they weren’t so far off some of these. Often more mundane. Boxing fireworks, checking camera apertures for QC, washing up in an old people’s home, mopping blood off a pie factory floor.

    It was fresh after uni they took that trip to France, Nick and him, the furthest he travelled with the intention of employment.

    ‘We drive out to France, find work at a vineyard or farm of some sort,’ his tall, gangly best mate with tight black curls proposed as he supped his pint. ‘Picking work, that kinda thing.’

    Despite their friendship being only a few years old, Mark felt comfortable around Nick, believing him to be in control, to know what he was doing.

    ‘Sure,’ he replied raising glass in hand, ‘let’s go.’


    Help tourists or raise chickens and ducks?

    Calculate house values or provide marriage guidance?

    

    Crossing the channel in Nick’s red Datsun and pulling into their first E. LeClerc supermarket with all the Kronenbourg 1664s and cheap red plonk, their plans quickly changed course. Drifting from campsite to campsite, they found they could live on the money they’d scraped together from those shitty summer jobs and the remnants of student loans, that they needn’t yet work.

    After hitting Parc Asterix, they drove south, taking a vague, circuitous route to random places. A guidebook discovery, and a dare thrown back and forth, directed them to Cap d’Agde on the south coast. Europe’s largest nudist colony, the entry had read. A popular place, yet they managed to get the only remaining spot, a small hard-soiled pitch of land by the toilets, where a middle-aged housewife from Surrey engaged them in chatter as though still in Surrey, minus the hedgerow and minus the clothes, telling them oh, how she came every year with her husband Phillip who’s in law, as Nick crouched down nude before the campfire stove, warming a tin of cassoulet – the cheapest food they could eat in a country so famed for its cuisine. They’d gone onto the beach. Afterwards, shoplifted postcards in the nude, reasoning they had nowhere to keep their money. 

    They left next morning both claiming how boring it was to be naked all the time. And as they drove away they both agreed funds were low, that really, maybe, it was time they should consider work.

    They’d tried before, always put it off. Sighing, Mark removed the uncreased work and travel book out from within the glove compartment dark as if just given birth.


    They pulled up outside a farmhouse in a village near Toulouse. Approached the door, light blue hydrangeas hanging by its side.

    ‘After you,’ Mark directed Nick with flat palm towards the door.

    ‘I drove.’

    Mark stared at the door as if something other than a door, then knocked upon it. But less a knock, more a faint tap.

    ‘Doesn’t look like anyone’s in.’ he proclaimed within a matter of seconds. 

    ‘Ah well, never mind.’

    ‘We tried.’

    ‘We did.’

    ‘One more time?’ He’s not sure why he proposed it. Perhaps to make them feel better, or make himself look better.

    ‘Okay.’

    ‘Please, you have a go.’

    Nick knocked upon the door, arguably lighter, quieter than Mark had.

    ‘Nope,’ said Nick. ‘Definitely no-one in.’

    They sauntered back towards the car.

    ‘Well, we tried,’ Mark repeated, ‘We knocked on a garlic farmer’s door but nobody was in.’

     ‘If nothing else we created a new idiom.’

    ‘Meaning?’

    ‘Oh, come on.’

    Mark didn’t respond as he ground the tiny pebbles beneath the treads of his trainers.

    ‘Well, we’d have knocked harder if we’d really wanted, wouldn’t we?’ followed up Nick.

    ‘Absolutely.’

    ‘I mean, how hard are we going to try not to try, Mark?’

    ‘Fuck it, you’re right. Shall we just stop pretending?’

    ‘Low on cash though,’ Nick reminded him.

    They stopped, looked at one another.

    ‘Let’s see it through, then–’

    ‘Head back home.’

    ‘You,’ said Nick, ‘are a mindreader.’


    They headed on up towards Clermont Ferrand simply because they liked the name. Its sounding all professorial. At breakfast the next day they warmed a tin of ratatouille for a change. Mark broke open a pack of Kronenbourgs.

    ‘A knock on a garlic farmer’s door,’ Mark laughed, ‘meaning we’re looking for work but we’re not really looking for work?’

    ‘Exactly.’

    ‘Pick garlic,’ he said passing Nick a bottle, ‘or drink beer?’

    They tipped their bottles towards one another.

    Then they talked, sunbathed, read books, drank some more.


    There could be a job in that now, Mark muses. Or at least a blog.


    He missed his graduation ceremony, never intending to go despite Michael Caine presiding. As much as Mark enjoyed History, he only ever became a student so he could postpone the real world, of having to work. It hadn’t much been about furthering the self. He felt fake going to pick up the degree, hearing his name being called out, wanting to avoid all that pomposity, that ridiculous gown. He always had trouble with tradition. And being singled out.

    Within less than a week, quicker than anticipated, they ran out of funds after getting fined by the trapdoor gendarme for crawling past a stop sign at two miles per hour. They drove straight back to Calais and onto Deptford, back to a flat of uni friends, arriving early in the day to partake of all the cheap beer they’d loaded up on in the car and two groggy mornings later they looked in Loot for somewhere to live, but ended up in Streatham. 

    Mark entered full-time employment as a sales assistant at a comics shop in Covent Garden. Some months later, fed up with his shifts of silver service waiting on lords and ladies at Twickenham, Nick left for China to go teach English. There were some letters, a few e-mails when their accounts were still fairly new, those years towards the end of the millennium when people made jokes by prefixing things with e-. But their friendship fizzled out. Nick’d tried to persuade Mark to come join him, but he didn’t. 

    Perhaps he should’ve.


    Estimate the age of a fish or read aloud to an audience?


    He’d heard Nick came home to their Midlands town some years back, Mark himself having returned much earlier after only a few years of London getting-by. But neither looked up the other. It having been far too long, their lives having diverged. They were men in their 40s.


    Thinking back on it, though perennially cash-strapped, the comics shop was great fun. Save Christmas, minimum work was ever done and much of their salaries was spent down the Lamb and Flag. He remembers rolling joints in the stockroom cellar beneath the small shop floor with Kate, the last woman he briefly, very nearly fell in love with before meeting and settling upon his wife. How that one winter evening, they locked up and emerged stoned and giggling to find the streets of London unnervingly deserted, turning to one another as if to ask, what was in that shit? Was this then how the world ended? They turned the corner to see Long Acre cordoned off. An IRA bomb warning and a false alarm. 

    Part of him had hoped for the end of the world. With Kate, it wouldn’t have been so bad.

    He thinks now that was the only job he ever enjoyed.

    After taking voluntary redundancy, Mark took Kate out one last time. She nipped into a Salsa club on Charing Cross, disappeared out of the toilet window, never to contact him again. She had real issues going on. 

    She’d escaped him.


    Work out exchange rates or make pottery?


     He returned to the Midlands town where he was born and raised, met his wife and got himself a real job – a career with training – and the century moved on. 



    Install electric wiring or arrange flowers?

    Draw book illustrations or improve fruit harvests?

    Design textile prints or run a farm?


    He recalls the school interview that followed the computer’s career suggestions, the same printout he now holds.

    ‘Come in,’ said one Mr. Brown, suited with neatly-trimmed beard. The very ordinariness of his name meant Mark remembered it. ‘So, did you read the questionnaire results?’

    ‘Yes, sir.’ His striped school tie knotted loose, kipper side tucked in between buttons, skinny length showing as was the trend.

    ‘Well, take a seat then,’ the careers advisor insisted.

    He’d always found it strange meeting adults who weren’t family or teachers, with whom he had no established relationship, but with whom he knew he had to maintain politeness.

     ‘So, anything grab you?’

    ‘Don’t know, sir.’

    The advisor synchronised his here-we-go-again sigh with a roll of the eyes.

    ‘Let’s take a look, shall we?’

    He remembers that introvert of a teenager he was, all quiet, wrapping himself within himself as though trying to squeeze his soul into the tiniest envelope.

    ‘How about probation officer? That had more of your likes than dislikes.’

    ‘Don’t know, sir.’ His face clearly expressing otherwise.

    ‘Okay. I know. What about social worker? The computer says you’re a match with the sympathetic and I can see you have the pleasant manner. And the… the patience.’

    ‘Don’t think so, sir.’ He felt the man was trying too hard. It was clear to see who of the two required patience.

    ‘Insurance underwriter. That’s here. You’re able to take responsibility, aren’t you?’

    ‘My mum says otherwise. In fact, everyone does. Besides, I’m not so keen on working with the dead.’

    ‘Right,’ replied Mr. Brown, his eyes narrowing, figuring out the meaning of Mark’s comments. He changed tack. ‘Do you like computers?’ Still a relatively niche question in ’87, coming as it did with its own stereotypes, misunderstandings, long before it became a standard in any skill set, and the internet an employer of millions.

    ‘I like to code Basic.’

    ‘Oh? For what?’

    ‘Games.’

    ‘Well, you can’t make games for a living, Mark, that’s not a serious occupation. Come on, what work do you really want to do? And please, please don’t say pop singer. Had enough of those already.’

    Mark looked at the floor, studied its black markings from the school shoes of others. He inhaled the one-note detergent of its scuffed vinyl tiles, raised his head.

    ‘A farmer,’ he replied.

    ‘Very funny,’ the man rubbed his eyes, trailed both his hands down along his nose and off from its tip. ‘Mark, it’s been a tiring day. A tiring and very, very trying day. You know one day you will have to go out and work. Nothing comes for free in this world. You have to contribute to society, and like me you’ll have to support your own family, feed them and clothe them. So, Mark I’ll ask you once again, what job do you think you can do?’

    Another don’t know, and he was dismissed. 

    He left that office never thinking for one moment that the job he’d do would be that of Mr. Brown’s.


    ‘Well, are you going to get out?’ asks his wife.

    ‘Sorry. Lost in thought.’

    ‘That makes a change,’ she says looking straight ahead. ‘Just don’t forget to pick up your car because I’m not your chauffeur. And I’ve got a meeting with an important client today.’

    ‘Oh? Good luck,’ he says getting out, his voice devoid of emotion. At least they don’t have any kids to feed. 

    He walks on into the high school to which he’s been assigned.


    No, he never wanted a job. But he got this one. Fell into it rather than chose it. Back then it seemed to be less of what he didn’t want to do. Or what he thought he didn’t want to do. 

    Tinker, tailor… careers advisor. 

    Such a joker is fate.

    

    One after another the sixth-formers come in, some sprightly, already knowing what they want to do; his least favourite. But most thankfully still unsure, else, second worse, directed by mum and dad.

    A knock on the door. The last before lunch.

    ‘Come in,’ Mark says.

    The seventeen year old enters, tie not properly tied, a muss of black hair.

    ‘So, I see you did the questionnaire.’

    ‘Yeah, I did the questionnaire and all that blah-blah.’

    ‘And what are you most interested in?’

    ‘Being a porn star,’ he answers all clever in and of himself. Goes on to tell Mark that all work is a con, that each and every job title is a euphemism for slave.

    Mark looks down at one of the suggestions on his own, ancient printout.

    ‘How would you feel about being an Assistant Prison Governor?’

    ‘Eh?’ 

    A welcome confusion results.

    ‘Okay, okay. Have you considered just getting away?’ 

    ‘Like a gap year? Backpacking or summat?’

    ‘Yes, but no. Longer. More Kronenbourg and cassoulet.’

    ‘What?’

    At which point Mark rises, leaves him a pamphlet on entrepreneurship and start-ups, tells him, ‘You probably know all this stuff already, but it’s the best I can do’; tells him he’s already got the right skill set and not to bother with LinkedIn, as he dismisses himself from his own temporary office. The student, bewildered at such events, calls out after him as if a teacher, ‘And where are you going?’

    

    Analyse blood or write a novel?

    Negotiate business contracts or paint portraits?

    Translate books or draw up wills?


    It’s a good twenty-minute walk to the garage, a good twenty minutes of thinking the same thoughts within his head. His black Nissan out front, another car parked beside it, one of the latest BMW series. All sparklingly silver and new, and expensive.

    He hands over the cash, signs the form, looks out the window, sees a familiar-looking man – tall, gangly and with grey tight curls – get into the Beamer and drive away. 

    ‘So, back to work now, is it?’ the receptionist asks.

    ‘Oh no,’ he replies, taking the keys. ‘Definitely not.’


    He starts the engine, checks his passport is in the blue file, pulls out onto the road and heads on down all the way to the coast, to cross the channel. He knows which box now to shade, knows exactly which option to choose, knows there’s a garlic farmer’s door that he needs to knock.