I left the house at 7:30am. I hauled the front gate shut, wincing as the hinge squealed. I glanced up at the window, worried the noise might have woken Barbara. The curtains hung untouched, and the room beyond stayed dark. I heaved a sigh of relief, and checked my watch for what felt like the fortieth time that morning. I had twenty nine minutes to catch my train. Perfect.
Mist hung heavy in the late December air. A bus rolled past, its yellow lights cutting a swathe across the road. A handful of people sat in their bus seats, dead eyes staring into space. Early mornings will do that to you. I'd often thought that the apocalypse would begin during that eerie pre-dawn, witnessed by no one but lonely commuters.
A shuffling in the darkness broke my train of thought. I'd heard that sound before, and I crossed the road to avoid one of the town's growing homeless population. I didn't have time for pleas. Not today.
The shuffling followed me, and a figure loomed out of the mist. Dozens of horror movies crowded my mind, and I gripped the handle of my briefcase. It was empty, except for my lunch, but I figured it might catch someone off guard.
"Excuse me, sir, but do you have the time?"
A voice floated through the quiet morning air, and the figure became a hunched old man. Eyes the colour of dark chocolate peered out of his pale brown face, and grey curls lurked in his tight crop of dark hair. The man carried a briefcase of his own, and a white label adorned the top corner. 'J R Coker' sprawled across the sticker in childish scrawl. His white shirt showed through holes in his threadbare brown jacket, and the battered briefcase matched his scuffed shoes.
“Sorry, I’m running late.”
“Hehe, sorry, sir, I meant to ask if you know what time it is?”
"Thank you, sir."
The man's accent threw me. He sounded American - Deep South, most likely. Not the sort of accent I heard in Surbiton.
"No problem." I moved forward but the old man blocked my path.
"You’re awful kind, sir. Say, where is it you're hurryin' off to at this hour?"
"You seem awful keen to get some place. You got somethin' important to do today?"
I thought of the stack of unpaid bills, and the train timetable floated in front of my eyes.
"Yes, I do, so if you don't mind, I'll just be on my way."
I made a show of looking at my watch, but the old man just pursed his lips at me.
"You young 'uns, you're all alike. Always so busy, always in a hurry. You ever jus’ gone for a walk? You ever stopped to see how beautiful the world is at this time in the mornin'?"
"I'm sorry, I really wish I could stop and chat, but I have somewhere I need to be."
"Yes, you do, child. You won't believe me, but you'll get there." The old man smiled, his skin wrinkling around those puppy dog eyes. My face returned the smile before I could stop myself.
"It's been a pleasure talkin' to you, Mr Johnson."
The old man shuffled away down the street. I watched him go until the mist swallowed him up, and I was left alone in the darkness.
Another bus rolled past, sending dry leaves skittering in its wake. I snapped out of my trance and looked at my watch. I was running late. I didn’t even realise that I’d never told Mr Coker my name.
I broke into a run and careered headlong through the empty streets. I reached the bridge as the train trundled along the rails below. Not just the train – my train. I watched the carriages disappear from sight, and looked down at the empty track. I was too late.
An electronic chirp sounded in the depths of my coat. I yanked off my right glove and fished around in my inside pocket. My fingers found my phone and I looked at the screen. I didn't recognise the number. The old man's warm smile drifted before my eyes, and I pressed 'Accept'.
"Hello, is this Eddie Johnson?" A female voice, vaguely familiar.
"Yes, it is."
"I'm so sorry for calling you this early, but it’s Stella, from JR Creatives? You came in for an interview a couple of weeks ago?"
I remembered. Stella was a bubbly, welcoming director at an advertising company. I thought the interview had gone well, but two weeks and three days passed without a word.
"I'm so sorry for not calling sooner but things went a bit manic in the office. I just wanted to say we'd love to hire you, if someone else hasn't snapped you up since we met!"
My lips refused to form words. I stared at the railway line below, mute with shock.
"Mr Johnson, are you still there? Do you still want to come and work with us? Oh please say yes, I think you're just what we're looking for."
"Yes, yes, I do. Sorry, it’s just a bit of a surprise."
"That’s alright! Listen, are you busy today?"
"No, nothing I can't postpone."
"Would you like to start this morning?"
"I'm on my way."
"Great! See you soon then!"
Stella hung up. I stared at the phone, and then my empty briefcase, and I sighed. I could finally stop lying to Barbara about going to the office every day. She'd never need to know that I'd spent my days at the JobCentre. Something white caught my eye, and I spotted a feather at my feet. I picked it up, and twirled it between my fingers.
I looked down at the tracks and tried to remember when the next train to London was. I stuck the feather in my buttonhole and smiled.
I was glad I’d missed my train, and glad I hadn’t jumped.
* * *
JR Coker is a character I've worked with before, and he appears in my short story, The Strangest Comfort, which you can find in The Yin and Yang Book!