The Good Long Friday by Adrian Paul Fayter
Death threats are a daily occurrence down here at the Jobcentre, so they don’t tend to cause much alarm. At worst you might find one of the new girls sobbing in the toilets and have to give them the afternoon off to recover. Herman is usually around to see them safely to the bus stop (or the wine bar if they’re really vulnerable); then it’s back to the business of getting benefits paid accurately and on time. That’s our mission, after all, and if we fail there will only be more threats to come in the morning.
But that particular Friday was different. I was slouching past the big bowl of narcissi on top of Diana’s claim cabinets when she looked up from her desk and said, ‘Springer’s out. Have you heard?’
Yes,’ I said. ‘Very nice. From your garden, or did you nick them from the park?’
‘For God’s sake, Larry. Keep up! Not spring. Springer. You were the one who put him away, remember? He’s out and he’s on his way here.’
Springer. Springer. I had a short dizzy spell and a spasm somewhere in my small intestine, and then I pulled myself together.
‘It’s all around the office. Val was the one who picked up the message.’
I tried to act cool and said I supposed I had better see Will, our centre manager. But apparently Will had already left, suffering from a sudden attack of nausea, probably a virus, not one he wanted to spread to his staff if he could help it. Everyone was advised to wash their hands at regular intervals, just in case.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Well, you can’t deny that this time he’s leading by example.’
‘Which means you are the senior practitioner present, Larry,’ Di reminded me needlessly. ‘You’re in charge.’
Gervaise ‘Gerry’ Springer. Wife-beater, shed-burglar, dealer in cheap smuggled cigarettes. Long term unemployed benefit claimant. To say I’d put him away was pushing it, really. He’d been referred to me as Senior Fraud Investigator on suspicion of claiming benefits while working as a night security guard at the dog biscuit factory. I interviewed him under caution twice, but there was never enough evidence to even suspend his payments. And then my old pal Detective Sergeant Wodehouse told me that they wanted to pick him up in connection with a failed armed robbery at the Double Happiness Chinese takeaway.
Well, you know how arrests at the Jobcentre work. The suspect comes in to sign on, is told to sit and wait for the benefit supervisor or fraud officer. Gets nervous and aggressive. Starts shouting out at anyone who walks by. Quickly clears the whole place of claimants, jobseekers and confused pensioners who have come in to try and pay the gas bill. After twenty minutes the cops finally show up and collar him. Then he repeatedly shouts that he’s going to crucify everyone while the police are trying to drag him to the van. The words ‘I’ll be back,’ and ‘I’ll close you down for f*cking good’ are the last we hear as the Senior Fraud Investigator goes out the back of the office for a fag. End of drama.
All very exciting and a good way to show off to your friends about how brave you have to be while you’re at work.
Until you hear that he has been convicted of shooting Mr Fong in the head with a sawn-off shotgun. At point blank range.
I went to see Val on the switchboard. She was busy, but passed me a message pad sheet and a pitying look while she dealt with her callers. I noted the irony of receiving a death threat on official stationery, and phoned DS Wodehouse. To my amazement, he was available right away.
‘Yes,’ he said sympathetically, ‘I’d heard. It turned out to be an unsafe conviction.’
‘You mean he’s innocent?’
‘Oh, no. Sprung on a technicality. It was his shotgun alright. The twelve good men and true had it right in the first place. But he won’t do anything to make trouble now, Larry, he’ll just be relieved to be out.’
‘Can’t you send some officers down anyway?’
‘What do you think we’re doing here? Sitting around drinking tea and waiting for something to do? We haven’t got the resources, mate. I told you, he won’t show up.’
‘But what if he does?’
‘Well, you’ve got CCTV, haven’t you?’
‘Oh, thanks. I must make sure we keep a copy so they can play it as a tribute at my funeral.’
‘Well,’ said Wodehouse, ‘if Di’s still working there, you’ll have plenty of seasonal flowers on your coffin. I hear the hyacinths are lovely at this time of year.’
I rang Regional, who told me to put the office on Black Alert. As far as I know, we’ve been on Black Alert since the IRA were active; all it specifies is that staff should be ‘especially vigilant’ and perhaps look out for unusually shaped parcels left under the seats. I decided to take the initiative and I went downstairs with a view to closing for the day. It was too late. There were queues at all three signing desks; it would have taken hours to explain to all these people that they had to leave, let alone to promise them that they would still get their money. And of course, I couldn’t promise: Regional Office hadn’t agreed to me advancing all payments, had they? No, whatever happened, we were stuck with staying open as normal…
I stood and watched the clerks for a while. Ravi was working with his usual calm efficiency, and still managing to ask a friendly question about children, dogs or football results according to each individual’s interests. Ralph was sweating and dropping his pen every few moments; Martine appeared to by crying. I walked across and whispered in her ear: ‘It’s OK. I’ve spoken to the police. No way is he coming in.’
Martine wiped her eyes. ‘Thank God. How many officers are they sending?’
Ralph turned towards us with an unstable gleam in his eyes. ‘It doesn’t matter how many. Given how long it took them to turn up for the original arrest, I don’t imagine they could get a SWAT team here until about half past four.’
‘Try to relax. I’m in charge…’ All three clerks gave me incredulous looks. ‘Which means he’ll be gunning for me, not you. OK?’
Strangely the second half of my sentence didn’t seem to reassure them all that much.
I took over Will’s office as a centre of operations so I could commandeer his flip chart and posh coffee-maker. In conference: myself, Phil the union rep, Chris from Adjudication, Ravi. John B wasn’t too happy having to cover the front desk, but Rav has a sort of photographic memory for clients and their claim records; if we wanted to know anything undocumented about Springer, Ravi was our man.
We brainstormed some ideas.
Ravi: check the batteries in the front desk personal alarms.
Phil: move the ‘Abuse-will-not-be-tolerated’ posters to a more prominent position.
Chris: set up an immediate crash course for staff in unarmed combat.
Chris: check online for sales of second-hand Tazers.
Chris: put a trusted colleague out on the street to warn us of Springer’s arrival.
‘OK,’ I said, ‘but how many of us even know what Springer looks like?’
All eyes turned to Ravi. ‘Blond hair. Dimple in his chin. Stubble. Gold ring in his left ear.’ I nodded at him; it fitted with what I remembered. ‘But,’ he went on, ‘he might have changed his appearance while he was in prison.’
‘No problem,’ suggested Chris. ‘It doesn’t matter what he looks like. He could be a master of disguise; he could be in drag for all we care. Whoever is on sentry duty just needs to phone in when they see someone coming our way, carrying a gun.’
There were queues outside both sets of staff toilets, so I crossed my legs and signed a petty cash authorisation for six sets of alkaline batteries and a new two-hour videotape. I went slowly downstairs. I could think of nothing useful to do except take a desk near the public area and confront Springer myself, if and when he did appear. It didn’t seem much of a strategy, but no-one had come up with any better ideas. I heard Phil on the phone discussing our employee ‘Benefits-in-case-of-Death-at-Work’ insurance policy, and I passed Chris looking at second-hand flak jackets for sale on Ebay. I saw Diana reading a holiday brochure about the hot springs near Reykyavík and Val drinking quickly from a bottle inside a brown paper bag. I supposed that when you are in danger – however tenuously – your real priorities come to the fore. They should all have been getting on with what they were being paid for, but who was going to worry about that now?
I took a deep breath, set a determined expression and marched out from the base of the stairwell. Ravi materialised beside me. ‘Larry,’ he asked, ‘what exactly did the Springer phone message say?’
I fumbled in my pocket for the damp and crumpled message pad sheet. Ravi stopped and read out, ‘“I’ll be back for closure.”’ He looked at me with a wide-eyed, innocent expression. It’s the one he uses when he wants a client to agree to go on a training scheme or to sign up for a course in functional skills. ‘I know, I know,’ I said. ‘That’s why the police won’t do anything. It’s much too vague-’
‘I knew it!’ Ravi gave me a quick, understated grin. ‘Come and look at this.’ He led me over to the nearest computer terminal and opened the records for Gervaise Springer. I stared at the screen. There were two things that you could immediately tell were missing: an archive reference number and the word ‘Dormant.’ Springer’s benefit claim had never been closed.
‘He was arrested, but due to a computer glitch, the claim has stayed open since then. There should have been any number of closure alerts, but nothing has ever showed up on his records. His claim is open, and in theory he is owed at least two weeks payment of benefit. Maybe that is what he is coming for. Not revenge, but to demand his final payment! The payment on closure of the claim.’
‘Ravi,’ I said sincerely, ‘You are an amazing guy, and you are totally wasted as a benefit clerk. And as I am nervous as hell at the moment, I am going to cling to your idea and convince myself that you are right on the ball. Now, one last favour: get me another mug of coffee, and ask Val if she can spare a splash of something nice to go in it, would you? It’s going to be a good long wait, I think.’
I wasn’t wrong. We sweated out the afternoon like we’d all gone down with the flu; we watched the clock as if we’d never done it before. I was certainly getting use of my new fake Rolex with chunky, platinum-effect strap…
I had to tell Martine three times that there was no danger, and I don’t think I convinced her; I certainly didn’t convince myself. I went upstairs and even Herman was pacing feverishly around the training suite. Maybe he was thinking about updating his course on ‘Dealing with Aggressive Customers.’ Maybe a module on First Aid for gunshot wounds was the next logical addition…
The afternoon passed slowly. Some became more and more nervous as time went by; others began to get their hopes up. By five o’clock there was still no sign of Springer. Diana went to lock up pretending she’d never been concerned in the first place, although several dark patches around her clothes suggested otherwise. Martine wiped her eyes for the last time, and even Ravi had the look of a man who had finally got through a difficult exam and wasn’t in a hurry to repeat it. I saw Ralph surreptitiously cross himself before starting to load his claim drawers onto the trolley.
I went out the back and lit up at the end of the alleyway. I was telling myself that after this sort of day I shouldn’t feel guilty about a couple of emergency cigarettes, and then a voice beside me said, ‘Mr Di Palma? You probably won’t remember me, but-’
I coughed out an expletive and a half-lungful of cigarette smoke, turned my back to the brick wall and faced him. The blond hair was cut short and his face looked skinnier, more gaunt than I remembered, but it was Springer all right. He was wearing a smart jacket that looked a size or two too big. Perhaps he’d lost weight. On the plus side, I supposed, he wasn’t carrying a shotgun.
He shook his head sadly. ‘You’ll be dead if you’re not careful,’ he warned me. I stared at him in fear, but he didn’t meet my eye.
‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ he said. ‘I was working up the courage to come. And I went to the Chinese takeaway first.’
‘It’s shut down.’
‘Yes. I found out. It’s because of me, isn’t it? I shut it down.’
Springer had an odd, detached expression, and he spoke in a quiet and measured tone, as if both confused and mildly sedated. He was no longer the aggressive yob of before, but his new manner was just as unsettling. Whether he felt pleased or thwarted by the closure of Double Happiness was anybody’s guess. I hoped he hadn’t tried to wreak revenge at the computer repair shop that had replaced it.
‘You know we’re closed, right?’
‘Yes. I tried to look in through the window, but you’ve had mirrored glass put in. I couldn’t see if anyone was still about. That’s why I came round the back.’
I wondered if anyone inside had seen him looking, and whether, if they’d recognised him, help would be on the way. It didn’t seem likely. ‘Look,’ I suggested, ‘if I go straight back in, there’s still just time for me to authorise a payment for you.’
‘Payment? What payment?’
‘Any outstanding benefit from your previous claim.’
‘Oh, no. No. I didn’t come here for money, Mr Di Palma.’
He opened the front of his jacket and delved inside. Of course, I thought, Springer would have gone way beyond shed-looted antique shotguns by now; he probably had a Walther PPK in a cut-down shoulder holster waiting in there. I felt sweat or something running down the inside of my legs…
But what he pulled out of his inside pocket was a brightly coloured, laminated card. I took it from him and read the title: ‘Hampton Pentecostal Churches Outreach Group. Prayers for Forgiveness.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘Do you want me to beg for forgiveness or something?’
‘Of course not. I’m asking you to forgive me.’
‘I don’t think that’s how it works, is it?’ Pent up fear was making me bluster. ‘I mean, surely you get forgiven when you promise to mend your ways. Not when you’re about to go ahead with another crime, planned and premeditated…’
Springer was looking crushed, and angry. ‘What do you mean?’ he cried out, ‘another crime? You don’t believe I can change? Do you know how hard it was for me to come out today to the takeaway and to the Jobcentre? How hard it would be to face up to the people I had threatened or harmed?’
‘So now you want me to tell you how brave you are as well?’
‘I’m trying my best! But it feels like I’d be better off back in prison.’
‘You will be back in prison if you murder me!’
There was a long, long pause. Then Springer began to tremble. He leaned back against the rough brick of the alleyway, and rubbed at the tears in his eyes. He looked so suddenly frail that I thought I could take him down after all, and I was just slipping my watch strap over my knuckles when he said sadly, ‘It’s hopeless. I came all this way to start again and you’re all still judging me. That’s what you meant by premeditated… I’m not here for violence; how could I be? I’m a Christian now, don’t you get it? I’ve been saved! What on earth made you think I wanted to harm you?’
‘Well, for a start, you just told me I might end up dead.’
‘I was talking about the risks of smoking!’
Herman still refers to ‘Springer Madness’ when he’s running ‘Communication Skills in the Workplace,’ but it seems to me that there’s much more about the story than a mis-understanding about the meaning of the word ‘closure.’ Looking back, it seemed like an odd bout of mass hysteria had hit the Jobcentre, but what were we to think? We could only react according to our previous experience. Why wouldn’t I think that his odd manner was due to drugs or madness rather than nerves and shame? Why wouldn’t we assume the worst when all we had to go on was a short, incoherent voicemail message. No-one had told us that Gervaise Springer had changed, that he was a born-again Christian and a born-again non-smoker. No-one told us he’d been saved.
And so although quite soon afterwards we all began to feel foolish, confused or embarrassed, and we wanted to forget or ignore the whole incident, there was a short period of time, just after the end of a long, long Friday, when we all shared an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude. Because we felt like we had been saved too. And we all felt a bit differently about our most difficult customers from that day on. Some of us may have treated them differently, too.