Step Forward, Harry Salt: Part II
Harry’s bottom was starting to itch. His plaid trousers were still somewhat sodden, and he couldn’t be sure whether steam was rising from his damp groin to obscure his view of his computer monitor, or if it was just that the screen itself needed a damn good clean. There was no Doreen Twigge and her wiping hanky in the offices of Chegwin and Blunt, he reflected to himself, and he shifted his clammy arse on his seat before turning his attention back to his murky spreadsheet.
Chegwin and Blunt was a small and uninspiring transport firm that operated a fleet of small and uninspiring shuttle buses throughout the county of Derbyshire. The fleet consisted of thirty ‘Shoppa Boppa’ buses, on a good week. Upon encountering a Shoppa Boppa for the first time, one was usually overwhelmed by the lack of any aesthetically pleasing features within or without it whatsoever. The white vehicles were always caked in traffic filth, apart from every third Sunday when they received a cursory wipe at Washees, the local ‘drive-in, while you wait, cash only, thank you’ Eastern European hand wash. The wipe had once been a fortnightly affair until a recent company budget review had revealed that Chegwin and Blunt needed to tighten their already restrictive financial belts, given the current climate and all that.
The next thing you would notice, once the beleaguered driver had clambered into his or her seat and turned the key, was the sound of the engine. This particular sound lay somewhere on an aural spectrum between ‘traumatised elephant’ and ‘randy pterodactyl’. This hideous noise would eventually steady into a slightly more agreeable but nonetheless wrong combination of chugs, with the occasional clunk thrown in for good measure, which would continue until that unfortunate vehicle had finished its duties for the day.
Harry was one of a team of four charged with the duty of maintaining and plotting the working timetables of the bus drivers. He’d been at the company for almost three years and, frankly, that was enough. A few faces had come, frowned and gone again in that time, and Harry was now keen to head for the door himself and close it on this particular chapter of his life. He’d been secretly having a number of job interviews recently, but so far none of his applications had ended with an offer, so things were to remain as they were for the time being.
The current staff who sat around him in the office had been in place for the last six months or so. Ben, who sat at Harry’s left, had been the most recent addition. Young, spiky-haired and clearly enjoying wearing a tie, Ben was overly enthusiastic when it came to stapling documents together. He was a nice lad, and Harry had enjoyed showing him the ropes, of which there were roughly four.
Opposite Harry sat Roxanne, who – like Ben – was young, spiky-haired and fresh from college. She was an artist and lacked Ben’s perky enthusiasm for the job, clearly marking time before she found work elsewhere. But she had a wicked sense of humour and an unwillingness to play by the rules, which Harry adored. He had to admit that he had really quite fancied her at first, which was a fact that Roxy was now very aware of and was more than happy to exploit when necessary. Nowadays, while Harry still fully appreciated her humour, he also fully appreciated the fact that her interest in him only ever extended as far as a smile in return for a cup of badly made tea, which happened to be Harry’s speciality.
The final member of the team, Alan, was a former soldier with a permanently ruddy complexion, a roaring laugh and an awful taste in shirts. His particular favourite was a bright-orange and short-sleeved affair. It set off his ginger toupee horribly and was often as much of a distraction as Roxanne’s wardrobe choices, if not more so. The toupee (which Harry secretly called ‘Paul’) had a life of its own and would often move independently of the rest of Alan’s reddened cranium. Underneath the swivelling wig and garish attire, Alan was – in his own way – quite a likeable bloke, if only for his unfortunate habit of putting both his feet into things at precisely the wrong time, when others would normally deftly swerve out of the way.
And then there was Alice. From her orthopaedic leather swivel chair in the corner, office supervisor Alice Miggington kept two beady eyes on proceedings from within her owl-like swivelling head. Her jam-jar spectacles gave her already sizeable pupils a larger-than-believable appearance, and Harry was almost certain he’d only seen her blink six times since he’d started work there. No one was quite sure how long she’d been employed by Chegwin and Blunt, but she preceded all four of the current roster-planners. In fact, very little was known about Alice other than that the management of a slick and efficient office was of paramount importance to her. She spoke rarely, if at all, about life outside of work, which led to much speculation among the team.
Alan’s speculating never got much further than the belief that Alice was not in possession of a vagina or indeed a ‘winkle’ and was therefore neither woman nor man. A thought along these lines appeared to be close to being aired to all in the office at this very moment, as Alice strode meaningfully towards Alan’s desk brandishing a sheaf of reports.
“Alan, you’re missing the point,” she declared.
Harry thought he noticed a discernible rotation of a few degrees in a clockwise direction by the toupee, but it could have been the light.
“I’m sorry, Alice? The point being…?” queried Alan.
“The point. The decimal point. It’s missing.”
There followed a steely silence during which it felt like, for a moment at least, everyone in the world had stopped what they were doing and had zeroed their attention in on the office.
“The decimal point? Which decimal point are we referring to here then, Alice? The one on my payslip that separates the numbers representing happiness and despair?” Alan enquired.
Harry bit his lip, Roxanne let out an audible giggle and Ben touched his tie to steady himself.
Alice’s eyes bulged a little, which was saying something. “I have nothing to do with your payslips, Alan. They are dealt with by the payroll department. This is the driver-roster department. Look around you. See it. Become more aware of it.”
A frond of Paul the Toupee was caught in a shaft of light from the morning sun as it emerged from behind a raincloud outside and shone in through the window. It appeared that, at that very moment, Alan had a laser mounted on his head, primed and ready to end this confrontation in a ball of fire and carnage. Alan opened his mouth as if to say something venomous. The sun went behind another cloud, the light dimmed, and he thought better of it.
“I’m sorry Alice, I was just being… I was just being… well, I was just being,” Alan mumbled.
For a brief second, Alice looked puzzled before carrying on as before. “Sheet 469A. No decimal point. According to your figures, driver David Belton worked 830 hours on 5th January.”
“I bet that’s how he felt, the poor bastard.”
“Alan, ‘bastard’ is a swear word.”
“Yes. Yes, it is Alice. I apologise and will use something different next time, a gesticulation perhaps or maybe a strangled sigh. Do go on.”
“Sheet 502B,” continued Alice, getting into her stride. “Driver Brian Hard worked for a total of 4,029 hours during the first week of February, and took a lunch break of 115 hours on the Tuesday. This is incorrect.”
“Yes. Yes, it is Alan.”
Harry was certain he saw Alan’s toupee bristle at this, priming for attack.
“You must make sure that this level of carelessness does not happen again. If it does, then I will have to speak to my superiors,” Alice warned.
By now, Alice was leaning forwards, inches away from Alan’s face. His jaw was set and his gaze matched hers. Everyone else in the room was focussed in upon this titanic conflict between Brown Owl and the Iraq veteran.
A further moment of silence was finally broken as Alan said, through clenched teeth, “Et woan a’en agen.”
Unclenching his teeth and drawing in a deep breath through the hairy caverns of his nose, the former soldier repeated, “It won’t happen again.”
Alice studied him intently for a moment, as if he were a wounded shrew, blinked her beady eyes (to Harry’s amazement), nodded slightly and then rotated her head to face the others in a hideous slow turn that had Ben reaching for his tie again. “This conversation is complete. You should all be working. Work.”
And with that, Alice stood up straight and returned to her computer desk in the corner of the office, seemingly oblivious to the increasing air of malevolence emanating from Alan’s seething form, and the ferocity with which he was now pressing the decimal-point key on his keyboard as he stared at her.
Enough, said Harry to himself. Enough. There had to be more to life, more purpose than this. He knew he should be glad just to have a job, given the way things were in regard to the current high levels of unemployment, the worries of an impending fertility crisis biting into the economy, and so on. Not to mention the massive uncertainties surrounding The Change, which was only weeks away.
But Harry wanted a role that employed more than just 0.001% of his brain, which was something that only happened once in a blue moon at Chegwin and Blunt. He couldn’t stand to be in an office with Alice any longer. There was something odd about her lately, something that put him on edge. He didn’t care much for the way she stared at him, as if she were trying to see into his thoughts.
There was, however, a possibility of salvation. His job hunt was still live, and as it happened, there was a jobs fair that very evening at the local college. In fact, he’d been counting down the days to it, mentally ticking them off on his calendar at home. Only eight hours to go, he told himself. Eight hours, that was all.
Another wave of tiredness hit him. There’d been something he was supposed to remember, something he’d been trying to recall recently. Something gnawing at the edge of his thoughts, but he couldn’t quite reach it. He tried to focus his mind on it, his pulse-rate rising as he did so, trying to will the memory back. But it wouldn’t come.
There was a black blur at the window, and Harry’s attention was suddenly snatched back from the internal and given to the external, the office and his working day. He turned to look at where the black shape had been, but there was nothing there now save for the usual grey skyline of the town and the twisted church spire in the distance. He took a deep breath, looking to see if anyone else had seen anything outside, but they were each working away at their computer terminals.
Harry sighed. It was time for the first badly made brew of the morning.
I can just about see the grass outside. The flimsy curtains are still drawn across on the piece of washing-line cord stitched in over the crinkled, clear, plastic rectangle that makes up the tent window, but they don’t quite reach fully across, thus allowing me a peep into the morning light. As I watch, Dad wanders across in his flannel shirt and cloth shorts.
His sandals. The buckles on them clink as he pads across the groundsheet.
“Watch your eyes, son,” he says, smiling down at me, and he pulls the curtains apart. The sunlight pours into the tent, and from behind me, the kettle on the camping stove begins to whistle.
“Just look at that! That’s a sunny day and a half!” he exclaims. He picks me up and holds me up to the window, before giving me a kiss on the forehead and setting me down again. The kettle’s whistle dies rapidly as he takes it off the flame and first pours himself a cup of tea, then some orange juice for me, using the blue, plastic mugs that form part of our holiday kit. He comes over and stands beside me with his steaming mug and takes in the view.
Other tents of varying sizes are pitched outside in neat rows, framed along one side by a wooden fence running the length of the field. The sun beats down on them from a cloudless, aqua-blue sky, and the green carpet of the campsite stretches away on all sides, with other tents dotted here and there, each coupled with a gleaming car: larger tents with family-sized saloons, and smaller tents cosying up to more diminutive vehicles. Round and about, people are heading to the shower blocks, towels slung over their shoulders, and washbags dangling from their hands.
Half an hour later, we’re heading out too. Dad has packed a bag with sandwiches and fruit, which sits in the boot. He’s driving the car, looking handsome and healthy, with his top two buttons undone and his sunglasses on. He’s already starting to tan, thanks to this glorious summer. The man on the radio is saying something about hosepipe bans.
From where I’m strapped in on the back seat, I can see high hedgerows and lush, green trees whistling past the opened car windows. Here and there are telegraph poles, and I follow the rising and sinking motion that the wires make between the poles as we whizz along the lanes. Small birds swoop and dart about, as if playing in the heat, as the wonderful sun shines on above them. There’s something magical about this part of Wales. Something mystical about the very landscape itself. Something ancient. Something alive. Somewhere there are castles. Castles with kings. Somewhere there are stone circles and a priestess, chanting. Somewhere there are wind turbines. Indefatigable, silent sentinels atop the ridges of the hills. Watching. Waiting. Turning. Hypnotising. Even at that age, I could feel it. I could. I can. I always have.
“I can see the sea!” exclaims Dad. “Can you see it too, son?”
I peer between the seats and through the windscreen. We’re high on a hill and descending. As the landscape changes and our car weaves its way through it, I work my eyesight over the patchwork of fields to a church spire, the roofs of little houses in the very distance and on to a glimmering band of ocean beyond, which joins the overarching sky. I can even make out the dark silhouette of a tanker sitting on the horizon.
It’s later still. The noise of the sea, shushing against the shore, is a background to the chatter and laughter of the voices of people crammed onto the sunny beach. I’m filling a bright-orange, plastic bucket with sand and making sandcastles. Three conical mounds already stand before me, and into the middle one Dad has placed a flag made from a lolly stick and a square of newspaper. Half an article about Europe and whether bananas should be bendy or not flaps in the breeze. The sand is warm under my feet, and I dig slightly down with my toes, through the grains, to where it’s cooler and more compacted beneath. Dad sits behind me, soaking up the sun rays in a hired deckchair, and to our far right a Victorian pier juts out into the sparkling sea.
I turn round to look at my dad. Something is different. He looks sad.
“Son, we need to talk about the crash.”
This doesn’t make sense because it hasn’t happened yet.
A slight breeze gently whips the loose sand to my left, and there’s a small cry of consternation from an adult somewhere. Someone calls nearer, and there’s a sudden blur of colours in the crowd nearby. Among the colours is a dark shape. I’m aware of a huge, black movement next to and in front of me, and a sudden noise. It’s not right. It’s not right, and it shouldn’t be there.
Now my sandcastles are ruined, and I’m being grabbed roughly and quickly by the shoulders, picked up, crying, held up and crushed tightly against my father’s chest. He’s holding me and rocking me gently as I sob over my obliterated sandcastles.
“Shush, son; it’s okay. We’ll make them again,” he says into my ear, his eyes darting around us. His voice sounds different again. “Shush, now… There we are… We’ll build them again just as they were before.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons