Issue Twenty - Summer 2012

Last Afternoon

By Katherine sand

‘Good Luck and Have a Nice Life’ read the handwritten message in the middle of the card. Anyone examining it would be left in no doubt that the well-wisher, who signed herself ‘loadsaluv Jasmine,’ had gone to particular trouble in composing and presenting her greeting. The handwriting style was large, and round – you might say ‘exuberant’ if you were inclined to be charitable, and ‘scrawled’ if you weren’t. Each ‘i’ was dotted with a smiley face, the signature beneath embellished with curlicues and flowers. Jasmine had also managed to hog the card’s centre stage, right underneath the cheery printed exhortation to ‘Have a Relaxing Retirement, You Deserve it’, leaving only skimpy margins of blank space for the other signatures. Linda sat in the crowded tube carriage on her long, slow journey home and dredged her memory, wondering exactly which of the new girls in the office Jasmine might be.

Derek, Linda’s boss, had been in avuncular mood as he delivered his farewell remarks from a little bundle of index cards, at a gathering of the staff at on that last afternoon. Clearing his throat noisily, he launched into his tribute.

“Linda, you have been a stalwart employee of Patterson’s Travel since 1969. Of course that was several decades before the young people here were even born, but believe it or not, back in prehistoric times – ha ha – dinosaurs like Linda – and myself I might add – were pioneers in the travel business. You can’t possibly imagine it now, but back then we travel agents had no computers, no internet, no nasty low-budget airlines charging you to use the loo on the plane. We had to be creative back then – I always like to say that travel as we knew it back then was not just a business but also an ‘art form.” Derek underlined the significance of this statement by crooking the index and middle fingers of his right hand into quotation marks and pausing meaningfully.

Linda had already noticed a gaggle of younger staff members slinking off behind one of the partitions with a wine box and a bowl of crisps. But when delivering a farewell encomium of this kind, Derek always persisted in ploughing through the full set of index cards even if his audience was fraying at the edges. He was in full flow now, expansive, reflective, almost as though he was propping up the bar in his local, pint in hand. Linda had put up with Derek boring on for most of her 40 years at Patterson’s and had become practiced in adopting a polite smile, directed into the middle-distance on such occasions, and she did so now.

“It’s been a bit like being married, me and Linda,” he rambled on, although in her opinion, as a homosexual and a permanent bachelor, Derek had no idea what marriage might actually feel like. Still, they’d rubbed along well enough all these years and listening to him now, droning on, Linda felt kindly towards the old boy. He’d be off too before long, no doubt – the company would certainly see to that if their new perky uniforms and the grating pop music playing in the shop didn’t get him first. But who on earth would bother to make a farewell speech for him?

The few remaining staff members shifted around and looked at their watches. One or two of them were staring at Derek in a vacant way that suggested they found him about as exciting as an exhibit in some fusty museum. Well, he was a bit old-fashioned, perhaps even embarrassingly so. Linda worried that they might look at her the same way. She probably ought to have left Patterson’s years ago when all her friends did, before it all went to the dogs and became this nasty neon-lit place selling weekend booze cruises, mini-breaks and mobile phone plans. Even back then it was obvious that proper travel agents were on the way out. If the writing was on the wall, surely you owed it to yourself to read it?

So why on earth had she stuck it out? Not for the money, that’s for sure. And in any case with Ron being a Certified Accountant, they were quite comfortable. The truth was, she’d always worried she’d be bored, stuck at home alone all day. And to be fair, no-one could say that life at Patterson’s had been boring, even if it was everyone else who actually got to travel and see the world rather than Linda. Her mind flitted back to Ron. Always working, always busy and distracted, too busy even to want to have a proper holiday, something longer and more exotic than their annual week in Torquay. Too busy to even remember that this was Linda’s last day at Patterson’s – he’d not so much as mentioned it at breakfast. She’d thought about reminding him this morning, but what was the point? But he’d be retiring himself in a couple of months and then what would life be like, the two of them knocking around all day together at home? Things would have been different, of course, if they’d managed to have kids. Distant yet familiar feelings of sadness and resentment seeped into Linda’s thoughts as she pictured other peoples’ busy retirements, filled with grandparental obligations and handbags full of those endless family snapshots.

Meanwhile, Derek was soldiering on with his speech, although Linda suspected she might be the only person tuning in at this point. “Ah, yes, back then people didn’t arrange their own travel, they really needed our expertise. Those were the golden days, when a travel agent was a trusted, respected professional, days when we employed patience, persistence and a cool head in times of crisis. If the customer needed a special itinerary, we would stop at nothing, absolutely nothing to accomplish their desires. If they became stranded, we alone had the skills and the patience to bring them home. And it is we, the professional travel agents, who opened up the world to our customers and gave them the greatest pleasure and education they would ever know in their lifetimes.” Derek paused in mid-oratorical flight to clear his throat again. Linda felt her face strain under the polite rictus. Derek had never known when enough was enough. Surprisingly, however, a part of her didn’t want it to end.

“So, back to our Linda. Well, thank you Linda, for your many decades of service and best wishes for your retirement. We are all most grateful to you, and have had a bit of a whip round. Wish it could be more, but what with the Credit Crunch, well, you know how it is,” and Derek produced an envelope and a small wrapped present. Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, Linda guessed. Derek must have picked up a job lot in the duty free or something, it was his standard gift to women on such occasions. Her turn for one now.

“In honour of Linda’s departure we will close up shop a full fifteen minutes early this afternoon!” One or two staff members applauded enthusiastically. “I will sign off by saying, on behalf of Patterson’s Travel and the new Parent Company who cannot be here but have asked me to represent them today, thank you Linda, and we wish you all the best for the future. No doubt you’ll leave with Patterson’s new Mission Statement ringing in your ears: ‘From Comfort Zone to Adventure Zone!’ And now ladies and gentlemen, please charge your glasses and join me in toasting Linda. To Linda! Chocks Away!”

And that was it. Over and Out. The End. Linda’s forty years of loyal service to the traveling public and to Patterson’s Travel ended with a glass of warm Sauvignon Blanc and a couple of awkward hugs.

Half an hour later, there she was, squashed into her seat on a train overflowing with bad-tempered Friday afternoon commuters which had come to a stop in a tunnel and showed no sign of going anywhere. She’d emptied the knicknacks and photos from her desk into a bulging plastic carrier bag which was now wedged unpleasantly between her knees. The train was sweltering, and Linda’s legs felt sticky against the plastic. There was a forest of sweaty people, some of them standing inches from her face, every one of them clutching their own bags, briefcases, books and papers, willing the bloody train to get a move on. There was no hope of reaching down and moving the bag. Nowhere for it to go anyway, thought Linda, hoping it hadn’t split and wishing she’d packed it better. She had her handbag on her lap, and from its depths she could smell her retirement gift through its box, a sickly, out-of-date sort of smell. What on earth would she do when she got up on Monday morning with no job to go to? How would she fill the days? The driver’s officious voice came over the intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Customer Service Representative and Driver. There seems to be a a signal failure at Golders Green. I would ask you all to bear with us as we endeavor to find out exactly what is happening. I shall shortly be contacting the Northern Line controller to see if he has any information. Thank you.”

“Just bloody get on with it and ask him then,” piped up one of the passengers testily.

Linda shifted uncomfortably. Her polyester work clothes dug unpleasantly into her middle. She loosened the jaunty patterned scarf Patterson’s now expected them to wear around their necks as part of the new uniform, experiencing a strange jolt when she remembered that this was the last day she’d ever have to wear the horrid thing. Linda spared a brief thought – and not for the first time recently – for her earliest days at Patterson’s, when she had trained under the formidable Yvonne. She’d have been horrified to see Linda and the other agents in uniforms and silly neck scarves, part of the latest re-branding thing Patterson’s had gone through trying to be trendy and ironic, or relevant to youth – as if youth gave a damn. Gone were the demure but professional twin sets that Yvonne had always preferred. They all sat there now behind their computers looking foolish, more like fake stewardesses than travel agents. But then again apart from Linda and Derek, who had both attended evening classes, none of them really knew anything about the travel business. Linda had noticed that most of them spent the day emailing their friends or messing around on the internet. “Computer monkeys, that’s all they are,”complained Derek and he probably wasn’t far wrong. But at least working at Patterson’s had given her something to talk to Ron about in the evenings. There was always some shocking story about the staff, or some outrageous behavior by a customer to regale him with over dinner. The emptiness ahead yawned before her and despite herself, Linda began to weep silently. The woman sitting next to her gave a sympathetic glance and handed her a tissue. God, what must I look like? thought Linda and along with everyone else in the hot, crowded carriage, prayed for the train to get a move on.

It did – eventually – creaking and groaning to its final destination, Edgware, the last stop, all the way at the end of the Northern Line. Linda made her way from the station more slowly than usual, dragged down both by the bag and the strangeness of walking home for the last time as a commuter. Funny, thought Linda. She could have done it with her eyes closed, but this afternoon she felt like a stranger trekking through a foreign land, her senses heightened despite her tiredness. She took it all in as she walked; the scruffy off-licence, the rowdy teenagers permanently stationed outside it smoking and exchanging abuse and obscenities, the launderette and the tatty corner shop, the newly-installed CCTV camera towering menacingly over it all, the familiar rows of once-prim, semi-detached houses and gardens, far less kempt than when they’d moved in forty years ago, occupied now by people one barely recognized and never acknowledged. Everything seemed cracked and battered, the street was strewn with old kebab wrappers and bits of newspaper. There was no pride any more. And the new next door neighbours got her down too. When the old ones had moved on – Faye to a better place, Albert to sheltered accommodation – a fat man and his mousy wife had moved into their neat house, the mirror image of Linda and Ron’s. ‘Captain Calamity’ said the decal on the side of his Ford Focus. ‘Children’s Entertainer.’

“It looks like a bloody calamity alright,” Ron had observed sourly as the man carried in a strange assortment of possessions from the removal van, including racks of clown costumes and a number of brightly colored construction hard hats with toilet plungers fixed to their tops. The Captain was not the friendly soul his profession might imply. He didn’t even bother with the minimal nods generally expected of someone with whom one shared a wall. Maybe he suspected exactly how much Linda and Ron knew about him, for sounds of shouting and swearing could be heard through the wall even late at night, and Ron had noticed an unusually large number of empty bottles of Scotch left out in the recycling bin. Windsor Gardens didn’t feel the same since the Captain had moved in.

As she reached the house Linda caught sight of the bird on the ground by the garage door, noting absently that at least Ron was home early for a change, as his car was parked in the short driveway. It was a pigeon, a large one with greyish pink feathers and a sharp, pointy beak. It was so still, she’d assumed it was dead but as she approached, the bird lifted its head to look up at her in a piercing, anguished way and hopped off. Or rather staggered chaotically, trailing a large broken wing. Linda, like most people, preferred birds when they sat in trees and tweeted, so the reality of this large one weaving, torn feathers, a trail of messy white droppings on the crazy paving and that strange, unhinged expression in its beady eye was quite unnerving. Gingerly, she walked around the bird, fumbling for her front door key in the bottom of her handbag.

“Ro-on! Come out here, I need you, there’s a pigeon out here.” Ron appeared eventually in his work clothes and a pair of slippers, cup of tea in one hand, the sports section in the other.

“Christ, Linda. That’s bloody horrible. A cat must’ve got it or something,” he grumbled.

“We have to do something about it,” Linda said. “Let’s call the RSPCA. It’s not nice to leave it.”

They surveyed the pigeon, now dragging itself around in a desperate, deranged way through Ron’s rosebushes. Ron appeared reluctant to spring into action on behalf of the bird.

“What’s the point of calling the RSPCA? What are they going to do, put its wing in a sling? Someone should kill it quickly, that’d be kindest. Next door’s cat’ll be back to finish the job. Leave it, and let’s go into the house, Lin.”

As if on cue, the Captain’s large ginger tom appeared on his garage roof and looked down at the scene below. Linda had a vision of herself sitting at the kitchen table with her tea and a biscuit while outside a massacre took place with the cat strewing the mangled remains of the pigeon, bones and bits of feather, across the front garden. All her training told her that she must take charge, be responsible, act prudently to avert disaster. But the bird, possibly experiencing a bit of stage fright, was now flailing around even more erratically, yet making surprisingly effective progress across the crazy paving, considering its serious injuries, heading towards the low wall that separated Linda and Ron’s house from the Captain’s. Ron stood there impassively, staring at the thing.

“Christ, Ron, you’re absolutely useless,” complained Linda, now burrowing around in the garage, looking for some kind of as yet unspecified implement and emerging with a shovel. The clatter jolted Ron out of his trance.

“What the hell’s that for?” he asked.

“We can’t let it suffer,” said Linda grimly, summoning all the authority she could muster, reminding herself of one of Yvonne’s favorite adages, something Churchill had said about it not being enough to do your best, but having to do ‘What Was Required.’ Linda couldn’t remember the number of times she’d fallen back upon those bracing words when dealing with some nasty situation at work, a business traveler stranded in Istanbul or an airline going bust with customers stuck all over the place. However, this was the first time she had had to inflict euthanasia on a living creature, even if it was a somewhat revolting and increasingly desperate specimen. Even without the much-anticipated cup of tea, Linda experienced a sudden surge of energy and power. She was ready, equal to the gruesome task
“Deep breath, now girl,” she said to herself and lifted the shovel, the grim pigeon reaper, and advanced on the bird. The uniformed Linda must have presented an unfamiliar and terrifying spectacle to the already disorientated pigeon, which scuttled towards next-door and heaved itself desperately over the low wall, taking refuge underneath the Captain’s Ford Focus.

“Now you’ve gone and done it,” said Ron. “You can’t go and abandon it to the Captain. You know he’ll just bloody run the poor little bugger over. Miserable sod’ll probably enjoy doing it too.”

“Put down your tea and give me a hand then, Ron. We’ll have to get it out of there quickly before he comes out,” said Linda, now back in full rescue mode, all thoughts of murder forced out of her head by the image of the bird being crunched mercilessly under the wheels of the Captain’s car. Together they waded through a flowerbed and stepped over the wall, with only marginally more agility than the injured pigeon. Linda’s skirt was ripped, but hadn’t noticed, for by now she was on her knees trying to push the cowering creature out to the other side of the car with the shovel. Meanwhile Ron lay spread-eagled on his stomach, only his legs and slippers protruding from underneath the car, arms outstretched to receive the pigeon. It was all too inevitable that the Captain would choose this moment to emerge from his house, unshaven and dressed in baggy sweatpants and a stained t-shirt.

“What the hell are you doing under my car?” he demanded. Linda staggered to her feet although something in the Captain’s eye made her realize that he wasn’t really waiting for an explanation. She faltered, suddenly weak in the face of unprovoked belligerence. The Captain loomed towards Linda; “Are you deaf? I asked, what the hell are you two doing under my car?”

Even with all her years of experience dealing with members of the public, Linda found herself insufficiently prepared for being shouted at by a large, off-duty clown.

“I’m sorry,” she faltered. “I was just…”

“Actually we are in the process of rescuing an injured pigeon,” said Ron firmly, authoritatively, emerging from beneath the car with the bird, held securely in both hands. “It seems to be in some distress.”

“A pigeon?” repeated the Captain incredulously. “Bloody do-gooders. Get off my drive both of you, I’ll deal with it myself.”

“That’s quite alright, thank you,” said Ron, “The RSPCA have been informed about this bird and have asked us to capture it. For rehabilitation, you know.”

“You’ve got to be bloody joking!” laughed the Captain roughly. “What, are they going to get it a wheelchair or something? You’d better not have damaged my car with that shovel, either.”

“You needn’t worry, we’re leaving now,” Ron said. “And no thanks to you for your help. Frankly I’m a bit surprised that someone in your line of work wouldn’t show a bit more compassion to a helpless creature. Come on now Linda, we must be going.”

Without looking back at the Captain, Linda and Ron walked the three or four steps necessary to exit the Captain’s bit of driveway and the same again to enter their own, heads held high, breath held, with Ron cradling the pigeon to his chest and Linda holding the shovel.

Only once they were inside, with the pigeon safely tucked into a cardboard box in the garage to be taken off to the RSPCA, did Ron and Linda dare look at one another properly. As soon as they did, they collapsed on the settee in hysterics. When they’d recovered their breath, quite some time later, Ron made Linda an offer.

“Fancy going out for a bite, Lin? Somewhere nice, eh? We’ve got to celebrate tonight, haven’t we?” he asked.

“I should think so Ron. It isn’t every day that you see real acts of heroism in Windsor Gardens,” she replied. “Just as long as there’s no ‘you-know-what’ on the menu! Not sure I’d fancy that.”

“I actually meant that there was the small matter of your liberation from bloody Patterson’s to commemorate,” he said, looking at her meaningfully. “Time to start thinking about the future, eh? Now that you’re out of that prison. Maybe it’s time we thought about moving house? Maybe travel a bit? Lots to talk about Lin, lots to talk about and I’ve got a few ideas for us. Now that we’ll both have a bit more time on our hands.”

Linda found it all a bit hard to take in at first, the idea that Ron, apparently always so busy and preoccupied, had been shaping a future for them on the quiet. That made it twice he’d surprised her, all in the same afternoon. Just as strange, was the fact that she’d barely given so much as a thought to Patterson’s since getting home. And now, if she wanted, she never had to think about it again. Linda, sitting there, tea in hand, felt herself relax back into the familiarity of the couch. All those years of preparing for the unexpected, and there it was, right under her nose all the time.

Copyright Sand 2012