In the council chamber, every room looked like a waiting room, lined by low oblong benches and school chairs, one strip light flickering. It was hard to get up from the deep spongy bench when their mentors came through the double doors of 151.
Karl’s first thought was that they didn’t look any older than he or Genevieve, but then maybe there was only a decade or so in it. He had expected an aura of age and experience: authority figures, the way teachers looked when he was a pupil. Janna was angular and pretty, a white blouse tucked into a black leather pencil skirt. Her mouth was very small, like a china doll’s. Stu at least looked weathered. He was wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with a lightning bolt on it. He had a black-and-purple Mohawk, four inches tall, five spikes.
‘God, this place is depressing,’ said Stu. ‘Sorry they made you come here.’
‘Don’t get up,’ said Janna, once they were up. They exchanged air-kisses.
‘You probably weren’t expecting us to look like this,’ said Stu.
‘Oh, what, the Mohawk?’ said Karl.
‘The Mohawk actually wore a patch at the base of the skull and a patch at the forehead,’ said Stu. ‘This is closer to an Iro.’
‘Do you have any . . .’ said Genevieve. ‘Indian blood, I mean?’
‘Genevieve,’ said Stu, ‘I am merely an enthusiast.’
Stu busied himself collecting four flimsy cups of coffee from the machine in the corner. The two couples sat opposite one another over a pine-and-clapboard table too low for the seats.
‘Drink,’ he said. ‘It’s terrible, but, you know, ritual. Everything feels better when you’re holding something warm. You’re a primary-school teacher, I’m told?’
‘That’s right,’ said Genevieve.
‘That’s brilliant,’ said Stu. ‘You’re one of the most important people in the country. And Karl?’
‘You know those flyers you see stuck to lamp posts that say make £1,000 a week online without leaving your house?’ said Karl.
‘You stick those up?’ said Stu.
‘No,’ said Karl. ‘I make a thousand pounds a week online without leaving my house. Except it’s not really a thousand pounds a week.
I suppose it could be if you never went to sleep.’
‘So you’re self-employed,’ said Janna. ‘But what’s the work?’
‘Search engine evaluation, product reviews,’ said Karl. ‘Literature essays for rich students. It’s actually duller than it sounds.’
‘A fellow middle-class underachiever,’ said Stu.
‘You know the type.’
‘I was the type. Look, you don’t need to rush into anything, but this is a chance to do something with your life. The Transition isn’t
a punishment, it’s an opportunity.’
He took two thick, stapled forms out of his shoulder bag and
a blue pen.
‘You’ll be living with us as equals – we eat together, talk together, leave the house for work together. Or, well, Karl, in your case you’ll be staying in the house to work, but you get the point.’
Genevieve and Karl, who had never read a contract in their lives, both turned to the final page of their forms, wrote their names in block capitals, signed.
‘The thing is, with the hair, it’s a lightning conductor,’ said Stu. ‘People think, Oh, the guy with the hair. Or they think, In spite of the hair, he’s quite a nice guy. Any opinion that anyone ever holds about me is in the context of my hair. It’s the equivalent of being a beautiful woman.’
‘To be fair it is the most interesting thing about him,’ said Janna, giving Stu a friendly but very hard punch on the shoulder, which he rubbed, pouting. ‘The removal team are picking up your stuff now, so that’s taken care of. We’ll see you for the general meeting in the morning, okay?’
Stu folded up their contracts and slipped them back into his shoulder bag.
‘Tomorrow then,’ he said. ‘The Transition will send a car. Eight thirty.’
‘We want you to know that we don’t judge you,’ said Janna.
‘Oh,’ said Genevieve. ‘Thanks.’
‘What she means,’ said Stu, ‘is that we don’t expect you to be grateful for this . . . situation. But we hope you’ll be nicely surprised by the set-up tomorrow. We hope you have as brief, as useful and as mutually pleasant an experience as possible.’
‘Okay,’ said Genevieve. ‘Thank you for . . . Thanks.’
‘What made you sign up to this as mentors?’ said Karl. ‘If you don’t mind my asking. What’s in it for you?’
‘We love this company,’ said Janna. ‘We’re proud to work for the Transition.’
‘A few years ago my generation kicked the ladder away behind us,’ said Stu. ‘This is our chance to teach you to free-climb.’
‘Oh, God, always with the analogies,’ said Janna. ‘It’s so embarrassing.’
‘Besides which, and I’m going to be honest with you,’ said Stu, ‘only crazy people lie; we never wanted children –’
‘We never wanted babies,’ said Janna.
‘Right, babies,’ said Stu. ‘Or children, really. Or teenagers. Plenty of our friends did and I can’t say it appealed.’
‘But sometimes we’d be talking and Stu would say, “What if we’d had kids?” ’
‘What if we’d met each other at, say, twenty, and had kids?’
‘What would they be doing now? And it just got me thinking, What would my grown-up kids be doing now?’
‘What kind of advice would we give them?’ said Stu.
‘But you can’t adopt a 30-year-old,’ said Janna.
‘Until now,’ said Genevieve. ‘Well, if it’s the only way out of the fine mess my husband’s landed us in, consider yourselves in loco parentis.’
And Karl was surprised to see his wife put her arms around Janna who, a little disconcerted, patted her on the back, light and rapid as if tapping out a code.
They spent the night painting over Blu-Tack stains with Tipp-Ex. Then Genevieve scrubbed the floors with a hard brush and a cartoonish bucket of soap suds and Karl asked her why she was bothering.