The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 16 Markus The Work Experience Lad

IT’S A WELL known, well-established fact that men can’t iron clothes in general and shirts in particular. They have a genetic predisposition to create scorch marks and are incapable of laying a shirt out in an orderly fashion on an ironing board so as to avoid unwanted creases. Everyone knows this. It’s etched into the DNA of ninety-nine point nine per cent of males. If you ever meet a man who says he can iron shirts, then check closely to make sure he has real human blood running through his veins and not some fluid resembling cobalt blue printer’s ink; that he’s not a silicon-based life form that’s just dropped in from the other side of the universe.

So when I notice that our young and rather lovely work experience lad, Markus, appears to be quite scruffy with black marks round the cuffs and collar of his shirt and rather obvious underarm stains, not to mention that said garment looks as though it hasn’t been near an ironing board since coming off the shelves at Harrods (in his case), I offer to launder his shirts for him. I seem to have plenty of spare time these days and no shirts to iron myself so it’s the obvious solution and he jumps at it. Though I ask him out of curiosity whether his mother doesn’t do his washing and ironing for him which, after all, is what mothers are for ‒ well mine was anyway. He says he’s dossing with a mate while doing this work experience and his family live too far away for a laundry run to be made at regular intervals.

When I found out that Markus was coming to be with us, before he went off to do his degree at Oxford, and heard that his parents were mega-loaded so that he didn’t need to get a job during his gap year, I was a bit put off. I thought he’d be posh and haughty and superior. Actually, he is very well-spoken though in fact he couldn’t be nicer. He’s not sure what he wants to do and is spending a few months at a time with different types of businesses to see what he’s most cut out for. His father knows the senior partner from his own university days and that’s how young Markus has unwittingly landed in this maelstrom of chaos masquerading as a legal practice. I have little doubt that a few weeks with us will put him off the law forever. I wish I’d done the same thing instead of getting through all my exams first before hardly setting foot inside a solicitor’s office when I was nine-tenths committed and it was too late.

Markus is spending time in each department at our office and it was decreed that I should be the one to give him a rudimentary insight into residential property practice because ‘you have a way about you when it comes to handling men’. I was surprised to be told this. I’d always thought it was the other way round, i.e. that men for the most part had their way with me before I worked out what was going on. And I don’t particularly mean sex either. Just being rather ambiguous and/or vague in their dealings with me. Of course there was Justine too who very definitely did try to have non-consensual sex with me, however I’ve forgiven her. And she did save my life ‒ notwithstanding that she also got me into the mess (literally) in the first place. I don’t know if I’d be quite so ready to forgive a man for trying to rape me, whatever mistake of fact he might have been labouring under or whatever amends may have been made. But with another woman, it’s different.

So I am charged with trying to give a positive spin to this unsuspecting young man and at least make his time with us tolerably pleasant. In days gone by, the pupil/trainee used to sit at a small desk in a corner of the room of the trainer absorbing knowledge by the dubious hit-and-miss method of listening to the telephone conversations of the trainer. Sometimes the phone would be put onto speak or the trainee could listen into an extension so as to prove that the trainer really was laying it on the line to the other party’s solicitor and wasn’t mindlessly ranting away at the speaking clock or the dialling tone in an effort to impress.

Nowadays, most communications are carried out by email because it doesn’t cost anything and is less hassle than looking up people’s telephone numbers. Gone are the days when you could call the receptionist and say: “Get me so and so.” We don’t have a regular receptionist any longer. We have our own extensions and calls come straight through to us. We have to fumble about ourselves to find telephone numbers if we haven’t efficiently marked up the files already with all the necessary contact details.

So blessed silence rules the day mostly. Even estate agents generally demand updates by email.

Therefore, in some desperation I set Markus to answering a proportion of the mountain of emails I now receive, resulting only in counter-responses within a few minutes wanting more information and so on with the result that, in the end, I usually email clients saying “Just call me!” Otherwise Markus and I spend our time chatting to one another. I must say that for a nineteen-year-old he’s very mature. He tells me about his previous girlfriends and there seem to be a singularly large number of them for one so young. It doesn’t quite come to having lost his virginity at the age of thirteen to the buxom chambermaid but pretty close.

Naturally, I have to reciprocate with an account of the Arsehole’s betrayal plus a few of my recent experiences. I’m not sure he believes some of them and of course I don’t tell him about Justine. I do let on that I have an unrequited passion for a gentleman I’ve met since the Arsehole left me and who now features large in my hopes and dreams, though with very little probability of coming to any serious fruition.

It’s truly incredible how much personal information can be imparted during slack periods in a residential conveyancing department, January being a quiet time when most people are fully engaged recovering from the Christmas and New Year excesses and are feeling too poorly to want to bother about house sale and purchase.

Regarding my deepest hopes and dreams, Markus says enigmatically that if the object of one’s desires isn’t immediately available, perhaps some temporary substitute might make a reasonable alternative. I’m not sure what he’s getting at here but it’s five pm Friday evening and I’m sure a lad of Markus’s age has numerous fish to fry over the weekend. Accordingly, I shut up shop for the night and walk with Markus to our cars where he heaves a huge bin bag out of his boot and deposits it in mine. I must say it looks awfully full and heavy for a few shirts and I fiddle with the strong nylon cord securing it but the several knots are too tight and complicated for me to take a quick peek. Markus smiles at me winningly and I slam the boot shut. I give him my address and we agree a time on Sunday afternoon when he’ll come over and retrieve his hopefully spotless, creasefree shirts ready for next week.


I WOULDN’T say I’ve exactly lost my touch with shirts, nonetheless I’m definitely not as deft as I used to be. Not to mention underpants, socks and chinos. He’s even included several changes of bed linen in the bag. In fact what he managed to stuff into one highly aromatic, bulging bin bag, I’ve had to employ three bags to accommodate after being carefully laundered and neatly folded. It’s a bit of a cheek, I reckon, to land me with his whole wardrobe and everything else since he came to this town, especially his smalls. You could well be put right off a man, particularly one you don’t really know well, by having to wash his smalls, though Markus is so young and lovely and charming that I couldn’t say anything. I admit that I feel quite motherly towards him. I suppose that at a stretch, I could be his mother. I could have had a baby at fourteen. I expect I’d have made a terrible mother at that time, but it would have been possible certainly.

In truth I’ve enjoyed doing a load of ironing this winter weekend. It’s a chance to pour myself a glass of red wine and watch all the old episodes of series I used to love, oft now repeated on the freeview and other channels. I’d forgotten what a pleasure it was to iron and drink and watch all my old favourites. So much so that when Markus knocks at the front door at three-thirty Sunday afternoon as the light closes in outside, I’m fast asleep on the settee and it takes some heavy hammering by Markus to rouse me. Eventually I get up and stagger to the door. Markus is standing there swaying a little and holding a bottle. I crane my neck past him to see where he’s parked his car.

“Got lift here,” he says indistinctly. “Been s’where this lunchtime.”

“Oh good,” I say, “Come in then.”

Markus lurches past me and heads unerringly for the kitchen where he dumps a rucksack and stands in the middle of the floor and looks at me. I realise of a sudden that he expects to be fed. He thinks an older woman, a woman of my advanced years, will provide sustenance. Perhaps he even, in his obviously inebriated state, sees his mother before him, a willing slave, someone who doesn’t need to be told what precisely he wants to eat.

“All right then,” I say resignedly, “will cheese on toast do?”

“Oh, would you?”

“Would you like salad with it?”

“Tha’d be great. You’re a star.”

“You don’t have to say that. Beans?”

“Beans! I’d die for a helping of beans!”

“Right. Go and sit down in the lounge. I’ll join you in a minute. You can pour me a glass of that wine.”

“Oright.”

Actually I’m quite peckish myself. I make a ton of the stuff and we sit companionably together scoffing huge quantities of cheese on toast and knocking back the wine. He’s managed, despite the state he’s in, to locate the largest glasses in the cabinet and change the channel to football. And he’s poured us vast measures of the wine he was bearing on arrival.

I take a mouthful. It’s the best liquid I’ve tasted. Ever.

“Dad’s cellar,” he says, seeing my rapt expression. “I brought few cases with me when I left.”

“Wow. This is wonderful,” I say. “I’ve never tasted anything like it.”

“Prob’ly not,” he smiles. “It costs two n’arf grand a bottle.” I fall off my chair.

“Ashully iss lot more if y’don’ buy it in bulk.”

“I could happily die now,” I say.

“ You can’t. You’re too beautiful to die,” he says.

“I wish,” I say. “It must be the wine talking.”

“There’s this girl I fancy like mad,” he says looking at me soulfully. “She looks a bit like you. And my mum. She’s working at the Sod ‘n’ Shovel. I’ve never seen anyone so gorgeous.”

“Tell me what she looks like,” I say with interest.

“ Well. She’s got sort of honey-coloured hair. Quite long.” He looks into the coal effect gas fire cosily flickering away.

“Her eyes are sort of green but sort of grey too. She’s got a body to die for. Oh. And her mouth. Her mouth.” He looks down at his hands. “I’ve never felt like this about anyone.”

“Why don’t you ask her out then, Markus?”

“She’s oready got a boyfriend. This ’normous bloke who turns up on a motor bike and picks her up at the end of every shift.”

“Actually every shift?”

“Yes.” He looks glum. “I go there a lot.” He sniffs and eats his last toast crust, chewing it ponderously and swallowing it down with a large gulp of wine. He refills his glass, narrowly avoiding spilling the lot on my pale-coloured carpet. “You know you do look a lot like her. I suppose…”

“Hmm?” I say. I’m not listening. I’ve got up to clear our plates away and I carry them off to the kitchen, returning with a cloth to wipe the crumbs off the coffee table. I’m glad to see that Markus is smiling again as he looks up at me. He really does have a lovely smile.

“You know this bloke you told me about.”

“Hmm?” I’ve started to secure the bin bags up with elastic bands. The shirts are actually on hangers to keep them nice and unrumpled. There were over a dozen shirts and it’s practically cleared me out of spare hangers.

“Can you bring the hangers back to work, Markus,” I say.

“Hangers?” he frowns. “No, I was talking ’bout that bloke. You know the one you’ve got the hots for.”

“Oh. Oh well, yes but…”

“You know what I said last week. ’Bout a substitute.”

“Er, vaguely. How are you getting home?” I look out of the window. It’s dark now.

He flaps his hand. “Taxi or something. Anyway‒”

“Shall I phone for one?”

“One what?”

“A taxi, Markus.”

“Later. I thought, you know. I’m on my own. You’re on your own. It’s the obvious solution.”

I turn quickly in his direction. He’s smiling away. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. This is so ridiculous. The last man to proposition me was over twice my age. Now I’ve got a man nearly half my age doing it. I feel like bursting out laughing but it’d hurt his feelings. I continue to look at him.

“You know how the song goes,” he says. He shakily warbles a couple of lines: ‘You can’t always get what you waa-ant, but if you try, try, try, you get what you need’.”

I have to say he is rather lovely. He’s big and tall and handsome. I wonder what it’d be like to go to bed with a nineteen-year-old. It’s so long ago since I last did that I’ve forgotten, and as I was only nineteen myself at the time, I probably wasn’t focusing on the same things I would these days. At that age it was more along the lines of trying not to make a fool of myself and trying to appear more experienced than I actually was, to the extent that all the trying got in the way of the real purpose which was of course to enjoy it. If nothing else, age does make you less self-conscious and more able to have fun when the occasion arises.

“Markus, I’m flattered, I really am.” I nearly go and sit down next to him on the settee, then think better of it and perch on the arm of a chair instead. “But I don’t think we can. Or should.” I want to say that it’d be wrong of me, which is what I actually think, however that would sound patronising, as though he’s a child. “It wouldn’t work Markus. It’d be desperately awkward at work. And …er … I want to wait and see whether it’s possible to get together with this man I told you about. I don’t want to get close to anyone else. Maybe you should wait and see if the girl you’re interested in becomes free.” At their ages, it’s quite likely her romance won’t last. Similarly, I can’t voice this idea either.

Markus sighs. “I suppose so,” he says looking very downcast and he slumps back on the settee and yawns. I think I’d better call a taxi soon in case he falls asleep. Various platitudes run through my mind. At your age there’ll be plenty more opportunities, sleep on it and you’ll see that I’m right, it’ll all seem better in the morning (this isn’t true of course ‒ a hangover just makes you feel ten times worse). Again I hold my tongue. He wouldn’t thank me for preaching at him.

I go and make the call and very quickly his transport arrives. We take his laundry out together and distribute it around the interior of the taxi. There’s a difficult moment when Markus can’t remember his friend’s exact address and has to call him to find out. I wave him off and go indoors. I see that the sweet lad has left a couple of bottles of the ludicrously expensive plonk on the kitchen table and I add them to the few far cheaper models in the wine rack to keep for a special occasion.

As with the Michael incident, I wonder whether I made a mistake and should have grabbed a little comfort when offered. But I know I’m right, and of course I can’t go around sleeping with different men just by way of a diversion. Nevertheless, I start to feel depressed. The gravity of turning away a young man’s well-intentioned offer has quickly sobered me up. Therefore I dwell instead on my nutty New Year’s Eve with Justine and this always lifts my spirits. I make a cup of coffee and spend the rest of the evening watching back episodes of Desperate Housewives.

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