“Where did you say you were from again?” the interviewer’s eyes reduced to slits as she looked closely at the girl sitting before her.
“Oh, I’m from Ayr. It’s a town in Ayrshire – South West Scotland.” The girl nodded vigorously. She had been crossing and uncrossing her legs for the last half hour to relieve her nervous tension, and now she felt cramp fizzle up her left calf. She tried not to wince.
“You’re going to have to speak slower love,” the interviewer said in her crisp R.P. accent, “I’ll admit it’s been a struggle to understand you so far!”
“I – I’m sorry.” The girl took a deep breath. “Ayrshire. I’m – from – Ayrshire.”
“Ayrshire…Ayrshire…” the interview pronounced ‘Ayr’ as one pronounces ‘air’. She said ‘shire’ as if she were talking about the place inhabited by Hobbits in Lord of the Rings; not as the girl pronounced it with one quick ‘shur’.
“Isn’t that…” the interviewer glanced down at her iPad and swiped the screen to bring up a map.
“Ah yes, the ‘spare bit’ of Scotland, as they say.” She chuckled. “Well, we’ll be using you as a bit of a spare bit if I take you on as an intern, won’t we?” The girl nodded slowly, following the interviewer’s eyes. Underneath the desk, her manicured fingernails gouged into her thighs.
It seemed that all her recent interviews had followed a similar pattern to this. She had thought that in London, you could walk into any job. Of course, she knew that she would have to be a P.A first to get a leg up into her chosen industry, but she had not known that an unpaid internship was necessary to entertain thoughts of even being a P.A. She was also unaware that, to Londoners at least, her accent was impenetrably thick. Interviewers had looked hopefully at her well-fitting suit and groomed blonde hair when she walked in, but as soon as she opened her mouth to speak she could see them visibly wince. They did not understand her at all, and the indignity of it cut her deeply.
She got a job eventually. It was a good year or so later that the girl found herself at 10pm on a Friday night, alone in a cramped office where she couldn’t see the walls for the amount of paper that was stacked everywhere. There was a deadline to get things sorted before Monday. Not just things: everything. There were documents to be filed, records to be stacked, numbers to crunch, papers to shred and fold and stuff in envelopes. As always, the watery taste of stamps on her tongue mingled with the acidic tang of Red Bull that lingered in the back of her throat.
She thought, then, of the sea – Ayr – the smell of salt stinging her eyes. Somewhere distant, different and beautiful. The cobbled street that led down to the shore and the old boat moored up by the new flats, where as a teenager she used to drink. You could walk from one end of the town to the other in half an hour; you could stand at the harbour wall and feel part of the vastness of the extending ocean. The warm glow that came off the Gulf Stream and flooded her veins like home.
In the office, the caffeine was making her nerves tremble. She took deep breaths and tried to stand up, but doing so upset a cascade of paper around her. The girl’s heart was juddering in her chest, sending stabbing pains up to her head. She slammed the door of the office behind her and rushed over to the nearest window for air. The last cleaner had switched the heating off hours ago now, and the open space of the main office billowed with various icy drafts. The dust made her sneeze as she thrust open the window, climbing into the ledge behind the blinds that collapsed around her. She could not get the window open further than a few centimetres.
Still, she looked out to the skyline that ran on endlessly: terrifying and sublime. She wondered whether she would ever feel happy here; happy, at least, in the way she thought she would. In every glittering window she saw the glint of possible success. There was hope and grandeur in these buildings. They were built for it: every one and all. And yet, as she sat there, cramped and shivering, she had never felt so small.
(Prompts: map of British regional stereotypes)
by Maria Rose Sledmere