I suppose we looked ridiculous walking the streets of Lancaster on that summer morning. I am tall, six foot four and Jay must have been just over five foot.They were in one of their shapeless tracksuits, me in suit trousers and a short sleeved shirt, barely speaking to each other, all their responses to my question a yes or no, looking straight ahead, head down. What possible relation could we have to each other?
I was conscious that the the person we would be meeting at laundry was Christine, another person with eye-contact problem, and I half chuckled to myself as I imagined their meeting, Jay staring at Christine’s knees, her eyes drilling into the space just above Jay's permanently lowered head, A chuckle followed by a surge of irritation, faint despair. What a mess we were, what a spectacle, and I thought about the students I was teaching on the pre-sessional course. Some of them had problems of course, burned out by the Chinese or Korean education systems and wealthy enough to get sent over here to either hide from the shame of failure or still salvage some status from a respectable western university, but many were focused, conscientious, friendly, sociable, confident and highly intelligent.
I had worked with many of them back in London too, people who could thrive in the world as it was, young people filled with admirable qualities, self-disciplined, clear-sighted, tolerant of and curious, knowledgeable about other cultures, well-travelled speakers of multiple languages, and these were not the culminations of their engagement with the world but merely the preconditions of their future successes. They were already starting out ahead of where I would finish and there were times when I thought about myself at their age, or older, how maladapted I was, how limited my experience, how uncertain and faltering my progress toward any goal and yet how insistent I'd remained that the world was wrong and needed to change and I wondered why i had misdirected all my energy into these causes, wild dreams when I could have been trying to make something of myself, go with the flow, just quietly and fruitfully assent to it all.
And for someone like Jay? They were so far behind, the gulf in experience, in connection to the world so huge it was almost as if we were different species. No wonder they looked down on us, if they ever really saw us at all. I grew even more tense, self-conscious, silent as we approached the entrance to the laundry, pressed the buzzer.
Christine came out to let us in, ignoring me almost completely, perhaps a flash of acknowledgement from behind her thick glasses in my general direction.
Your Jay are you, nice to meet you would you like to come with me, few forms to fill in. Can you read and write?
I was stunned by the directness of the question.
If you can’t best to know now, saves time.
I’ll help you with the paperwork.
She turned and squeezed herself back in through the narrow doorway, Jay looking tiny and insubstantial in her wake. Hard to believe two people could be such contrasting sizes. A faint aroma of soapsuds through an internal door as I sat in a narrow lobby, started to read a book on the 2008 financial crisis that I had been trying to understand intermittently for the past five years or so. Twenty minutes passed and I wondered if they would be coming back out, whether I need have stayed and so I cracked open the internal door a little, saw it led into an empty office and beyond that, through a tinted window there were several huge washing machines humming, heaped bedding, on the desk the paperwork that Jay had just filled in. Feeling furtive, anxious that I would be caught trespassing somehow I took a few steps over to the desk. I was, I suppose perfectly naturally, keen to find out more about the waif I had somehow adopted.
Jay Alloway. A euphonious name. D.O.B. 12 08 1999. So it had been their birthday last week, perhaps the day they came down they had turned 17, stopped being a legal ward of whatever institution had been looking after them up in London. Then on to the larger mystery. Gender. Chris had been referring to Jay as he since he had grudgingly agreed to allow them to stay in his room, but I was still unsure somehow and the night before my temper had flared when the subject was raised again and he had said, in a mock sympathetic voice, "you gone and got yourself a little crush on a teenage boy now have you?" Then we had to sleep within a few feet of each other in silence, nerves jangling.
Gender? Male box ticked.
Was I disappointed? I suppose I was more confused by my own inability to see what was apparent to everyone else. Over a number of decades you have time to look back, see patterns, turn things over in your mind, examine your own motives. Secretly, I suppose, I had always imagined having a daughter. I suppose I wanted a relationship with a girl, a women that would be less compromised, less filled with disappointment than my own relationships had been. Perhaps I had simply projected that onto skinny, androgynous Jay. It's true that when he knocked at the door I had been turning over one of my last conversations with Ayako in my mind, one where I explained at length again why it was always a bad idea as far as I could see to have kids.
Suddenly Christine was re-entering the office and I stepped back from the desk a little startled.
He's started already, Ben's going to show him what to do she said. Was there something else you wanted? She looked and sounded suspicious, protective. Are you his guardian? You are all in a one bedder is that right?
There was a long pause as I realised that she and perhaps the others thought Chris and I were a couple and Jay, well, who knows what they thought his role was. I smiled, no I am not his guardian I said. And we're all crashing on the floor in the house, Jay has the upstairs room.
No acknowledgement back, Christine lowered herself into the chair.
Shift finishes at 8, she said.