Friday, 14 October 2011

Friday Flash - Late

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?”

"It’s 7:45."

"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?"

"What?"

"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.

"Yes?"

"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!

18 comments:

Tony Noland said...

This was a great twist - caught me off guard. The hurrying feel was pitch-perfect.

Sam Pennington said...

Oh wow, I hadn't realised that was why he was hurrying, that's a brilliant twist. Made me feel quite shaken up xx

Tim VanSant Writes said...

I was thinking "Sliding Doors" most of the way through. Great twist on this one.

FARfetched said...

Brilliant twist indeed! Good thing Mr. Coker caught him before the train did.

One thing: "child" is something a Deep South woman might say to a younger man, but not a man. He'd say "boy" or "fella."

John Wiswell said...

Ha, that's what "my train" meant. I didn't see that coming. In this economy, I can see how a good job is a miracle.

Craig Smith said...

It's odd how a stranger can change your day. I was glum, and walking through the street one day and someone said, "Hey, it's not the end of the world."

Felt oddly better after that.

Beautiful story and twist.

"I'd often thought that the apocalypse would begin during that eerie pre-dawn, witnessed by no one but lonely commuters." - my favourite line :).

Aidan Fritz said...

When we discover he was considering suicide, it casts the earlier scene with the old man in a different light. As if the world cares in a way and works in mischievous ways.

I agree with Craig, the apocalypse line was stellar.

Helen said...

I think it's a good thing Mr. Coker held him up - nice ending to the story.

Stephen said...

Good thing for him that he missed the train. And a good thing that he finally landed the job. A nice story with a happy ending, Icy. The economy can certainly take its toll on people. I look forward to the day when things are brighter for everyone.

flyingscribbler said...

The thing I love most about your story Icy, is that the old guy teaches us that it's ok to sit (or stand, or lie) and look. Look at what other people are doing and how they are coping, taking some time just to contemplate and stop doing. He understands that and recognised someone in trouble. Perhaps because he'd been there himself?

Icy Sedgwick said...

Tony - Glad you liked it. And I like wrong-footing people.

Sam - Glad you liked it!

Tim - I love Sliding Doors!

FAR - Ah, rightio! He calls Pippa 'child' a lot in my Chinese Whisperings story and I guess I carried it over!

John - It's just something to bear in mind...you never know what's around the corner.

Craig - I've been one of those lonely commuters out in the pre-dawn, and I've often thought that's when the apocalypse would kick off!

Aidan - Thanks.

Helen - Sometimes we do have to stop hurrying.

Stephen - I've been in that position, waiting for a call about a job that I thought would never come, but thankfully I've never felt the need to catch the train.

Justin - There's a bit more to ol' JR...but I have a feeling we'll be seeing more of him.

KjM said...

"...A handful of people sat in their bus seats, dead eyes staring into space. Early mornings will do that to you..."

This really set the tone for this piece. Even so, I was caught off guard by the final clause. I had to go back and look again at the train, the bridge and where Mr. Johnson was standing.

Great story Icy.

afullnessinbrevity said...

A lovely twist, providing hope in such a bleak situation. Rereading gives me the creeps when you think about what he was going to do, but moments of divine intervention bring joy.
Adam B @revhappiness

JC Rosen said...

Loved this, Icy. Even as I saw what he intended, even as I watched his plan going awry, the phone call was a welcome relief. One never knows if an HEA is in the works, after all. The feather was a lovely touch. Such a pleasure to read. Thanks, Icy.

Take care,
JC

emmakerry said...

Wow. I love this. A great twist - I had a feeling that things weren't what they seemed, but never guessed that. Also, quite a feel-goos ending. No matter how bad things get, you never know what's around the corner.

daniellelapaglia said...

I knew a twist was coming, but that's not what I expected at all. Beautifully written as always, Ms. Icy.

Raven Corinn Carluk said...

That's great. Almost life reaffirming great.

storytreasury said...

Beautiful twist! I am thinking the old man was an angel. Also, really like the description of the train car.

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