Bridget watched Amy approach the house from the window. There was something cat-like in the girl’s loose movement across the street, the easy twist of her body to check for cars, the swing of her arms, the lightness of her tread. It’s as if she has not a care in the world - thought Bridget, yet she’s a truant and a thief likely to end up behind bars if she doesn’t respond to the mentoring. She really is a most perplexing child.
Bridget had always been a good child. School prefect, Head Girl, Queen’s Guide - highly unqualified her husband has said, to be a mentor for a girl like Amy. Dan had quizzed her quite closely about why she had put herself forward for such a task. Bridget had found it hard to avoid saying she wanted to put something back, because it sounded so lame and because, strictly speaking, it wasn’t wholly true. She did feel that their own material comfort brought with it some responsibility to the society that provided it - how pompous that sounded even as she voiced it - the fact was something in her liked the excitement of being round such an anarchic character. She hadn’t shared this with Dan because she wasn’t completely comfortable with it. Perhaps such a feeling indicated something lacking in their lives. Her own life was organised around routine and structures, people who treated each other with respect, people who worked towards maintaining order. Bridget was a librarian. Dan was a solicitor. Amy was a cold shower in Bridget’s existence. Shocking. Refreshing.
Not that it had started well. A scruffy office, used by many agencies in a nondescript building. A temporary board on the door with ‘Fresh Start 3.00-4.00 pm’ - the door still locked at five to three. Bridget was checking her phone diary when footsteps on the stairs made her turn.
‘Lordy - sorry, running late as usual. Not entirely my fault.’ The social worker cast a glance at the girl behind her. ‘Oh damn, is it locked? I’ll just nip down to reception and get the key. Amy, this is Bridget. Bridget, Amy.’ And was gone leaving Bridget and Amy staring at each other. It was Amy who broke the silence.
‘Are you going to be my mummy?’
‘Don’t worry - only kidding. I know what a mentor is.’
Bridget gathered herself.
‘Glad to hear it. Glad to meet you.’
‘Wonder how long that’ll last.’ but with a smile.
The social worker returned, key in hand, breathing hard.
‘You want to get more exercise, Pam - it’s only two flights.’
“Oh shhhh, Amy, where’s your manners?’
Pam unlocked the door, flicked the lights and hastily drew three worn office chairs round the empty desk. Amy put her leather jacket on another chair on top of Bridget’s coat. She took a file from her bag and spent a while reminding them about the scheme. Twelve months mentoring at weekly intervals. Regular reports, two outside assessments. Fresh Start only dealt with teenagers deemed to be at risk of deteriorating home circumstance. Bridget knew the bare bones of Amy’s life. Mother with four younger children and poor health. Absent father. Amy, at sixteen found the night-time streets more interesting than school, the day time streets good for shop-lifting. One court appearance for stealing denims. One recommendation that she be successfully mentored for a year instead of probation. To be reviewed. So to today.
Pam shut the folder. She turned to Bridget.
‘Amy knows the terms and conditions of this arrangement, Bridget. She realises it’s a second chance for her.’
‘A Fresh Start!’ from Amy, sarcastic ‘Why do you talk as if I’m not here, Pam? I can tell her all this myself.’
‘No need to kick off. I have to be sure you both know where you’re starting from.’ Pam glared at Amy. Amy folded her arms and turned half away.
‘I think I’ve got all that, thanks. Why don’t Amy and I go and have a coffee somewhere. Too nice a day to be cooped up in an office. Should I bring her back here or take her home?’
Amy turned back.
‘Take me home. Please.’
Pam seemed suddenly cool. She put the file away and picked up her coat.
‘Fine. Take her home. I’ll be in touch during the week, Bridget. and we’ll talk tomorrow, Amy. Goodbye.’
‘Goodbye, Pam.’ Amy handed Bridget her coat and put her jacket on, heading for the door. ‘Are you coming?’ to Bridget.
They sat in a cafe, Amy with coke and ice, Bridget with a cappucinno.
‘You don’t have to like them, you know. Your social worker.’ Amy clacked the ice cubes round the glass with her straw.
‘She seemed quite pleasant to me.’ Bridget spoke as mildly as she could, sculpting the froth of her drink with a spoon.
‘She will be to you. You’re taking on her workload.’
‘That’s not quite right. She’s not a mentor. Speaking of which - when we meet next week I’d like to draw up a plan with you. For school attendance and for other activities you might like.’
‘OK.’ Amy stared around the cafe.
‘Do you like my jacket?’ she looked at Bridget directly for the first time.
‘Very smart. Is it real leather?’
‘Hmm. Do you want to smell it? ‘
‘No, it’s fine. I can see it is.’
Bridget looked at the jacket again, wondering where Amy had got the money for such a thing. Amy was watching her, reading her.
‘My Dad bought it for me.’
‘Oh - I thought your Dad was...not around.’
‘But you’re not to tell. We’ve been in touch for ages. But my Mum doesn’t know. She’d be upset. And don’t tell Pam. She thinks he’s evil.’
Gain their trust: one of the first objectives on the Mentoring course. Amy was stroking the jacket. Bridget smiled to herself. She could keep a secret and once Amy knew that, things could develop really well between them.
‘How did you explain the jacket though...?’
‘Told my Mum the Social bought it. Told the Social my Mum had a Bingo win. Kept them both sweet. They don’t talk much. Mum doesn’t like the Social. Always poking around. She thinks they might take the boys away.’
‘Do you see him often?’ Bridget spoke quietly in case the girl clammed up but Amy answered cheerfully enough.
‘No - he doesn’t live round here, just visits now and then. He bought me this phone too, so we can stay in touch.’
She took a phone, a smart phone from the jacket pocket and held it up. Bridget reached for it but Amy pulled back.
‘Private.’ she murmured, pocketing the phone.
Respect their privacy: another objective. Still, that was a couple of hundred pounds worth of phone, and the jacket...? It wasn’t a cheap one. Another hundred ? Still she wouldn’t be so open if she was lying, surely ? And she really hadn’t expected to start this relationship in an atmosphere of suspicion. She wasn’t a fool after all. She knew very well that the ‘clients’ of Fresh Start were hardly likely to be angelic or honest, but something about Amy’s openness reassured her.
‘Don’t suppose a jacket or a phone is any big deal to you. You’ve got an iPhone and that handbag must have cost a packet...’
Amy was looking her all over, pricing her coat, her glasses, her shoes. A flush of recognition passed through her. Of course that was true. What could Amy know of her life ? Or how little her iPhone and jacket meant to her, but that of course was because she could replace them without a thought.
Empathise: so Bridget tried to remember what wanting felt like. She’s been a pretty penniless student, but then so had everyone else and it had been fun to seek out the cheapest cafes, buy end of the day vegetables, make huge pots of curry for the whole flat and their boyfriends. And everyone wore jeans and jumpers. So perhaps she had to go back to schooldays when one end-of-term dance, and one special boy who had smiled at her, meant she longed for the red dress in the window at C&A. Her longing was a pain in her sides. She went to look at it every day and every day it looked more red, more soft, more desirable. Her parents had smiled but said it couldn’t be afforded, not this month, not before the dance. Maybe for Christmas. Bridget remembered the pain and the anger she felt at their inability to understand how vital it was to her.
‘It’s nice to have good things, isn’t it?’ was how she expressed it to Amy.
‘Especially when they’re hard to come by,’ Amy said. ‘Can I go home now?’
Things progressed. They met each week. They went to the cinema - Bridget introduced Amy to ‘good’ films (not art films - just films with intelligent dialogue as she judged) and Amy introduced her to vampire films, which Bridget found surprisingly erotic. Dan was the beneficiary of a new exploratory approach from Bridget in bed, though she never explained why she had started to bite him, not always gently. Amy was genuinely pleased that Bridget allowed her to chose at least half of their outings. She took Bridget to a boisterous youth club dance after spending two hours adjusting her makeup - which Bridget had washed off hastily before going home, half deafened and dizzy with the spiked cola Amy had given her. Bridget invited Amy to the library and sat her down for the afternoon in the teenage fiction section, though later she found that Amy had drifted into the art section where she looked at some figure studies. She didn’t mind if Amy wanted to expand her horizons. Bridget thought the teenage fiction was a bit patronising anyway. Amy had finally moved into the psychology section which really surprised Bridget but she was obviously engaged in whatever she was reading. She stayed until closing time.
Empathise: In the cafe once more after a satisfying afternoon on the council tennis courts (Amy had just won) they sat in companionable silence. Bridget felt this silence was a good thing, it indicated relaxation, far from anxiety to fill all the speaking space they had both felt at the beginning. Amy leant forward, smiling.
‘So, were you ever in trouble, Bridget?’
Bridget laughed, sure that whatever she confessed to would be small beer in Amy’s world.
‘Not really.’ It sounded lame anyway.
'I mean - I think you’re a really nice person and you’re doing your best, but you can’t really understand my life, can you - you can’t know what it’s like to be me , so it’s a bit of a kid-on.’ Amy sounded regretful.
‘Well, I’m supposed to be offering you different choices.’
‘But you don’t know where I’m starting from. You’ve never been in trouble. You don’t know what an effort it takes. If you haven’t ever been in trouble.‘ Now she sounded downright sad.
‘I’m sorry you feel like that. What do you suggest, Amy - that I accompany you on a shop-lifting spree?’
Amy looked surprised, then amused.
‘You wouldn’t do that though, would you? That’s a bit over the top.’
Bridget had been thinking that somewhere, deep inside, Amy was nursing a core of misery. Her steps were not always light and graceful. She had said as much to Dan. His comment - hardly surprising - had annoyed her. The more captivated she was with the task of mentoring Amy, the more she saw that this truculent child/woman was not nearly as self-possessed as she pretended to be. Amy’s nails were bitten. Her clothes were not always clean. Her hair was sometimes greasy. In the early days when Amy seemed perpetually angry, when she wanted to push Bridget’s resolve to the limit she would arrive with her hair scraped back from her forehead tight and flat, smelling of tobacco, with love-bites up and down her neck, daring Bridget to show disgust. Bridget was proud that she had weathered these early manifestations with patience. Seven months into the year Amy didn’t bother with these tactics anymore.
‘Tell me about the shoplifting then.’ She really wanted to surprise Amy, show her she could empathise even that far. Amy sat back in her chair. Bridget ordered another coke and cappuccino, and two flapjacks. ‘Go on then.’
‘What do you mean, tell you about the shoplifting? Do you mean why I do it?’ Amy was definitely taken aback. Bridget smiled.
‘That’ll do for a start.’
‘Because I want stuff and I don’t have any money.’ Amy’s voice was rough, full of feeling.
‘But it’s not always personal stuff. What was it last time ? Garden shears. Did you really want them?’
Amy didn’t speak for a while but looked at Bridget over the top of her tumbler. Bridget sipped her coffee.
‘If I tell you, will you not tell Pam, or any of them? If I tell you what it’s really like.’
She started and stopped several times before Bridget’s quiet attention made a big enough silence for her.
‘It’s about winning. Beating the system. They fill their shops with stuff, pile it up all over the place, put it close to the doors. Sixty pairs of knickers, who’s going to miss one? Anyway they add the price of what’s shop-lifted to the price of the next lot so nobody loses. So it’s a game, isn’t it? And once you can do the shopping centres, the small shops, the expensive shops, the shops with counters - they’re much harder so that’s why I nicked the garden shears. They were in a hardware shop with proper assistants in brown coats. I don’t look like a gardener, do I? So that was hard. And I wanted to give you a present.’
Amy was lit up.
Bridget smiled. She was going to take Amy and the garden shears back to the shop and take it from there. She was reasonable confident that such a rare occurrence would charm the shop keeper into being content with issuing a warning. And Amy needed to understand that even altruistic stealing was stealing.
‘I’d like us to take them back. You and me, Amy.’
Amy’s face fell, darkened.
‘Don’t you like them? They’re the best kind, the most expensive.’
‘I like them very much but I don’t want them on that basis.’
Amy spoke very quietly.
‘I thought you liked me’
‘I do. But I don’t like you stealing.’
‘But that’s me. So you don’t really - like me, I mean. I’m going home now.’
She sounded heartbroken. Her head was down. She stood up slowly, picked up her jacket and began to move away.
‘Don’t go, Amy. Let’s talk about it.’
‘You’re going to turn me in.’
‘No, we’re going to take them back.’
‘Couldn’t do that. Humiliating.’
‘I’ll be with you.’
‘But not on my side.’
‘Yes, on your side but on the shopkeeper’s too.’
‘How about we sneak them back? Then I don’t get humiliated and he gets his shears. Everybody’s happy. I could show you how. We’d be a team.’
Empathise: Bridget is extremely nervous. Amy has the shears with plastic case and labels intact, under her leather jacket, pinned to her body by her arm. They are standing at the end of the street where the garden shop is, its frontage all buckets of flowers and sacks of compost. It is Saturday lunchtime, a point in the day when Amy assures Bridget that there will be lots of shoppers about and it’s Spring, so lots of the shoppers will be heading for the garden shop. Bridget is trembling. Amy is quietly buzzing.
‘Best if you distract him while I hang the shears up. You look more like a gardener. You can think of something complicated to ask him.’
‘What if he sees you? How many are there? It doesn’t look very busy to me.’
‘Stop worrying, will you - we won’t go in together. You go first, then I’ll slip in. The tool rack is right by the door. I’ll be seconds.’
Bridget is thinking this is the stupidest thing she had ever done. Her feet are fighting with her resolve. She knows she should walk away but she wants to show Amy that she’s on her side. That she’s willing to take a risk to help her. Amy’s suppressed excitement does not reassure her. Bridget is quite certain that she will either be unable to speak or will speak too much, her face will be terrified white or shame-filled red and her hands will just not stop trembling. How the slip of a girl beside her can be so poised, so alert yet still, amazes her. Amy’s face is quite beautiful in its focus, her eyes on the dawdling shoppers as they sniff the flowers then move on or into the shop. When a group of four enter the shop, Amy moves.
‘Now.’ is all she says.
Bridget makes herself walk towards the shop, Amy just behind her.
I’m walking too fast. Bridget thinks and slows her pace to what she thinks is a casual shopper’s speed. She pauses by the flowers, sniffs some odourless roses and pulls a dripping bunch out of the bucket getting water all over her feet. She heads for the doorway, looking back to see where Amy is. She’s at the next door shop window, a bakery, wetting her lips over the cakes and fancies. She doesn’t look at Bridget.
Now. Bridget makes herself go through the door, past the four shoppers who are discussing the right shape for a trowel, and towards the counter. Potash, ask for potash. It’s what my Dad used to use. Out of the corner of her eye she thinks she detects a darkening at the doorway where Amy now is.
‘Good day, madam - can I help you?’
Oh God, he looks like my Dad, thinks Bridget. He wears a brown overall, has outdoor skin, a warm smile.
‘I wanted to ask about potash. Do you have any?’ she asks.
‘Of course. Any particular amount, madam. Can I ask what it’s for?’
‘And what sort of area of soil are you planting?’
‘Oh...about half the back garden.’
‘Half the garden - you really like carrots then ? Can I ask where you live?'
‘Which part of the town? Soil’s different at the east side and above the river. Have to be careful with the proportions. So which is it?’
Bridget winces. Curses his expertise, his helpfulness.
‘I just want some potash. A box. A bag. I’ll read the instructions.’
‘Fine. Just trying to be helpful.’ Stung, he turns towards the shelves.
Bridget glances round too but can’t see past the shoppers still examining trowels. She can just see the top of the tool rack beyond them but not Amy.
‘That’ll be £3.80. Anything else?’
Is it enough time? Behind her the four shoppers suddenly split up, two to the right to look at plant foods, two to the left to laugh at the garden gnomes. They leave a perfectly empty aisle to the doorway and just a very slightly swinging pair of shears on the tool rack.
‘I said is there anything else?’ He bangs the box on the counter, not bothering to hide his annoyance.
Bridget’s relief releases her body. Her breath flubbers her cheeks. Her legs tremble. She smiles an idiotic smile.
‘Yes, very good. I’ll take two.‘ She beams at him. He mutters something as he turns to take down another box.
‘Sorry, what did you say?’ she leans forward, anxious to please now.
‘You never looked at the label.’
‘So how do you know how much you need?'
Bridget is suddenly angry at him making it personal.
‘Well that’s my business, isn’t it?’
‘Might as well go to the garden centre if you’re just buying things without a plan.’
‘I might just do that next time.’
‘Please yourself. That’ll be £7.60.’
He is getting stiffer by the minute. Bridget pauses. Curses herself for not thinking to take some cash out of the ATM. She only has a fiver and some loose coins. Not enough. She isn’t going to use a card.
‘Actually, I’ll just take the one box. Here.’ She puts the fiver on the counter. Oh God, he is certainly going to remember me. I’ll never be able to shop here again, not even in this street.
He bangs the change down on the counter with a sniff. Bridget scoops it up, fuming. He pushes the box of potash towards her an inch. She snatches that too, well aware that she’s going to relive these moments over and over as she struggles to sleep. She wonders what Dan will say and decides right that moment that she won’t be telling him. He would be shocked, then angry, then make some comment about getting some real excitement in her life other than the library. She’s at the doorway now, looking to see where Amy will be waiting.
Amy is back at the cake shop window. At Bridget’s approach she smiles.
‘See. Told you.’ she crows. ‘Gonna buy me a cake to celebrate?’
‘That man!’ Bridget blurts out.
‘Gave you a hard time, did he? Never mind. We’ve done it. We’re a team.’
And Amy hugs Bridget and Bridget hugs back. Then they go into the cake shop and Bridget buys two fresh cream cakes and they eat them on the street, getting bits of meringue and sprinkles all down their fronts and the pavement. Bridget is about to lecture Amy on the two-way nature of loyalty when an echo sounds in her head. We’re a team. Amy’s words act on Bridget like a straight slug of gin. She has gone the extra mile, taken a risk, empathised. No telling where it will go from here. They fairly skip down to the riverside together, laughing like teenagers at nothing and everything, and Bridget feels to her own astonishment that something is coursing through her body and making it weightless.