The Life Of Times
John Briggs slowly raised the caked, distorted lashes from his heavy eyes as the alarm emitted its’ incessant high-pitched tone, telling him that it was four o’clock and time to drag himself from the warm sheets. He glanced across at Barbara. He would miss her, but not much.
These business trips were slowly wearing him down. He was fifty-six. “Could he really survive another ten years of this until retirement?” he thought to himself as he brought the BMW to life on the front driveway.
Arriving at the airport he continued to develop those unhelpful thoughts about his future retirement and the things with which he would occupy himself, once he had the time. He just needed more time. “Who knows? If he wasn’t so bloody tired all the time maybe even his erections would return.” At this thought a sad smirk flowed across his face. “Maybe if his wife would make some kind of effort his erections might return too. God, what a shit life.”
He hated Heathrow. He always had the crazy feeling that to get anywhere one had to walk four hundred metres, turn left, then another four hundred metres, and so on, four times until he was back where he started, but probably only the other side of a wall. He imagined that the airport designers had gained some sadistic pleasure from such designs, or maybe it was just to keep the punters busy during the long waiting times.
Waiting was the worst part. He bought a Times newspaper to help him to get through the two hour wait for his flight to Hong Kong, where he would travel on to Melbourne. “Damn it”, he muttered to himself as he spilt some of his coffee over the front page, then grinned stupidly as he realised that the stain looked like a small beard on a picture of Ed Milliband’s face. Not resisting the temptation, he took a black ball-point from his jacket pocket and drew a small moustache to finish the job. His spirits heartened as he realised that he still maintained a degree of childishness. This kept him sane during difficult moments.
On hearing the call for boarding over the loudspeaker, he threw the newspaper down onto the seat next to him and made his way to the departure gate. His two-week trip to Australia was to be one of his longer ones. Already, he couldn’t wait to get back home.
Sarah Mountford had decided to return to her native country of South Africa. With heavy heart but also mixed with a burning optimism, she was returning to the nest which had been her family, until seven years ago, when she had emigrated to England with her new husband. He had swept her off her feet. James had been rich, well connected and loved her as no other ever had, or so she thought.
She had known that he had some difficult business deals and consequently had developed a number of enemies. She had always assumed that this was simply part of the territory of success. Then, one day, James just disappeared. He left the house as usual, in the morning. She heard nothing more.
The police finally, after three years, decided to close the case. It was assumed that he had been murdered due to one of his many business deals going wrong. The worst part for Sarah was the ‘not knowing’. There was no closure. After his disappearance it was found that James had not been as rich as his life indicated. His debts were colossal. There was little left for Sarah to start building her new life.
She imagined that the seven years had been one long tragic film epic at the cinema. Now the film was ended, she would go back to her old life as though nothing had happened.
Sitting down in the waiting lounge, she smiled to herself as she saw the silly face of Ed Milliband. Someone had drawn a moustache, just as she used to do as a child. She picked up the newspaper and began to read. “Just my luck!” she thought to herself, as she realised that it was a copy of the Times. She found it rather boring and figured that politics or business were not the correct recipe for her in this frame of mind. She needed something light that would relieve her sadness.
Then she noticed that there was a special eight page insert covering yesterday’s London Marathon. This was more like it. She took out the insert and tossed the remaining newspaper aside, onto another seat.
In the café, with the large broadsheet spread across the table she looked through the pictures of runners, especially her most admired athlete, Paula Radcliffe. Sarah had once attempted a marathon, but blew up at twenty-two miles. She knew how hard it was to complete such a feat, and had respect for all who did.
There were many pictures of people in fancy dress. She giggled at a picture of big fat man in a nappy, wondering how much time he would have needed to complete the course with so much weight. Then her face turned to stone. She began to shake violently, uncontrolled, without realizing that she was shouting his name over and over again. “James. James. James.”
In the picture, behind the fat, almost naked runner, was a house with balcony. On the balcony she saw the sinister face of her lost husband. James was laughing, but worse, he had his arm firmly round the shoulders of a woman. They appeared to be a couple.
The waitress rushed over to offer assistance. “Madam, are you ok? Can I help you?”
Sarah tried to answer but could find no words. The next thing she woke up in the airport first aid centre.
“Really, I just had a terrible shock. I am fine”, she insisted to the nurse. “I don’t want to go to hospital. I want no fuss.”
She left the airport, heading back into London centre. She could not go back to South Africa with the knowledge that James was still alive.
Cleaning toilets for a living was not Josh Timberlake’s idea of a good life. Dropping out of school at sixteen, he had been bumming around for eight years. Most of these years had been spent around the airport. There was money there. People needed their shoes cleaned, help with luggage. The early years had been spent doing such odd jobs, picking up a few tips here and there. It was surprising how much one could make in a week.
Two years ago he answered an advertisement for cleaner. “At least a regular pay”, he thought at the time. Now he had had enough of cleaning up other peoples waste. He imagined that the smell was slowly permeating through his whole body, slowly turning him into one large living turd.
Today was a good day. No toilets. He had been asked to fill in for a sickness in one of the general airport cleaning staff. He preferred this, as it gave him more contact with people and the stale smell was absent. Looking at his watch he realised that there was only fifteen minutes to go until his coffee break. Just enough time to do the bins before settling down to a half hour doze in the staff room.
“Why the hell can’t people use the bin provided?” he ranted, as he picked up two coffee cups and an old newspaper from the seats. On seeing the mustached face on a copy of the Times of someone who looked like some kind of politician, he slid it into the pocket of his overalls to read during his break. Reading was the best way to help him to drift into a soft catnap.
In the staff room, he poured himself a cup of coffee, with its usual four sugars, and found a quiet seat in the corner. He pulled out his pen and began scribbling beards and moustaches onto more of the faces. He even gave some bowler hats or flat caps. Jean, who was the senior cleaner, walked by and glanced at Josh’s work of art. “Christ Josh, are you never going to grow up?”, she tormented.
Josh was concentrating deeply and didn’t even look up to greet her. His eye had caught an advertisement. He was imagining what it would be like to work in a crematorium. He considered that his chances would be good. No-one wants to work with dead bodies. He would give them a call.
Immediately after his shift was over he went to the telephone box in the departures area. Not knowing exactly how to apply for a job, he just blurted it out when the call was connected.
“Hello. My name is Josh Timberlake. I am enquiring about the advertisement for Crematorium Technician. Is the vacancy still open?”
“Hello Mr Timberlake, I am George Wilson, the Crematorium General Manager. I can tell you that you are the first person to call regarding this vacancy in over a month. It seems that although we have many unemployed people here in London, being out of work seems preferable to working in a crematorium for most people. What is it that particularly interests you in this vacancy?”
The voice at the other end of the phone appeared friendly and welcoming. Josh had a good feeling.
“Well, er, I read that it involves being trained as Crematorium Technician within 6 months of appointment. I think that this could give me a new start in life, as I have no qualifications yet.”
“Oh hell, why did I need to say that?”, Josh reprimanded himself quietly.
“Don’t worry. There are no pre-requisite qualifications for this job, but your position would only become permanent after completing the course as stated. Are you okay with this? If so, I would like to meet you for an interview. Are you available tomorrow?”
Tomorrow was Josh’s day off. This was perfect. “Yes, any time”, he quickly replied.
“Right. Let me see. Can you come to the crematorium at ten o’clock? We can discuss the arrangements and if we are both happy, I can show you around at the same time.”
“Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
“I think that it is I who should be thanking you Josh. See you tomorrow.”
Josh was so excited. This could be his big chance to finally make something of himself.
He decided to hang on to his newspaper as it had the phone number in, just in case there was a problem.
The next day he was up early. He didn’t have a suit, but decided that his best trousers and corduroy jacket would be smart enough. After all, he wasn’t applying to become a big businessman.
At the entrance to the crematorium he took a deep breath, before climbing the steps. At the last minute he realised that the newspaper was still in his jacket pocket. Apart from looking a bit scruffy, he certainly didn’t want his potential new employer to see all of the scribbled faces. It would give a bad impression. So he tossed the newspaper into a nearby wastepaper bin.
Fingers crossed he entered the crematorium.
The gnarled, broken fingernails scratched into the rubbish. It was becoming colder. Summer was over and the nights were approaching those dreaded frosty temperatures. Jocky had been living on the streets of London for many years. At forty-two he looked more like sixty. He had long, matted hair, straggling down his shoulders. His stink trailed him like an invisible bubble of pure stench wherever he went. His belly hung out over the string, which he used as a belt, where an untreated hernia had allowed his guts to spill out, held together only by his flabby skin.
He knew that his days were severely numbered. He would live one more winter at most.
In the bin was a half-eaten ham sandwich. “Hey, it seems to be my lucky day,” he thought to himself.
He put the sandwich in his pocket and also pulled out an old newspaper from the rubbish. He had long experience of the warmth that could be maintained when wrapping oneself in newspapers.
Jocky drifted through London all afternoon, trying to ignore the sneers and stares and, worst of all, the expressions of disgust at his finely developed aroma. He finally settled on a bench for the night in Hyde Park. One had to get in quite early, before the best ones were taken.
In the twilight, just before it became completely dark, he drained a quarter bottle of whisky that he had managed to pinch and ate the day’s findings. His ham sandwich was accompanied by two apples stolen from the vegetable market and a Cornish pasty that someone had accidentally dropped on the floor after taking only the first bite. He dined well that evening.
Wrapping himself in a number of newspapers and cardboard sheets, he settled down for the night. His sleep was the most pleasurable part of his life, where he could allow sweet dreams to drift into his weak body. Only his waking hours were his worst nightmare.
John Briggs woke with the thump of the landing gear on the hard tarmac. He couldn’t wait to get back home after two hard weeks wheeling and dealing in the summer heat of Melbourne.
He was looking forward to eating egg and chips, English breakfast or pizza, after so many exotic business lunches. He wanted to get back to basics.
He glanced at his watch. He would be home by eight o’clock, just in time to have breakfast with his wife before she went off to work. The rest of the day was free for him to relax.
Barbara had been doing some hard thinking while he had been away. She had also realised that it was not going so well between them and had decided to spend the two weeks trying to get back into shape. She had been to the manicurist, been waxed, bought some new clothes and was looking quite gorgeous as John came in through the front door.
“Wow! Barbara! Is this really you?”, he said, startled by the transformation.
“Hello John. This always was me. I have just been a bit too busy and tired these last months. Do you like it?” she asked as she did a twirl.
He wrapped his arms around her thinking, “maybe life is not so bad after all.”
“Tonight I think we must see what we can do about Mr. Wiggly”, she chuckled.
Once Barbara had left for work , despite feeling very tired from the jet lag, he wanted to go out for some fresh air. It was a cold crisp morning with signs of the first frost of the year. After slipping into his jeans and trainers, with an old pullover, he set off for a good brisk walk through London.
During the walk he pondered over his life. Only two weeks earlier he had felt trapped. Trapped by his job and trapped by his complacent wife. He had only a future of slowly growing old, with little to look forward to. How this had changed in such a short time. He thought about how easily our moods can flip-flop from happy to sad and back again. More deeply, he realised that life can so easily go downwards or upwards, depending often on a few uncontrollable circumstances. He felt, at that moment, like one of the luckier ones.
On walking through the park he came across one of the unlucky ones. An old man was lying on a bench, wrapped in all sorts or rubbish. At first John thought that he could have been dead, but saw him stir as he approached nearer. The old man opened his eyes, which met John’s. They were tired eyes, eyes of no hope, no pleasure, and no life.
In a sudden burst of deep empathy John pulled out his wallet and gave the old man a twenty pound note. “Here”, he said. “Make sure that you get yourself a good hot breakfast today.”
As the tramp reached up to take the money, John could not make out whether they were tears in his eyes or just the watery puss leaking out from beneath his lids. He wanted to do more, but knew that this wouldn’t help. The old man was soon to die.
When he turned to walk away a picture caught his eye. On a piece of newspaper, wrapped around the old man’s shoulders was a picture of Ed Milliband staring up at him. The face had a coffee stain, which looked like a beard and someone had drawn a silly moustache on him.
“Nah! It couldn’t be”, John dismissed the thought as quickly as it came into his mind.
Sarah Mountford found her lost husband. He had arranged his disappearance in order to avoid the huge debts that had been amassed, and to escape from his enemies. After informing the London police, he had been arrested, and is now serving twelve years in Wormwood scrubs for fraud and bigamy. Sarah has returned to South Africa as planned, after having the marriage annulled.
Josh Timberlake is now a fully trained Crematorium Technician, soon to be married. His life is on the up and he is working hard towards the next promotion to Crematorium Manager.
Jocky didn’t survive much longer due to a sudden cold spell. He was found only two days after his encounter with John Briggs, with a twenty pound note in his shirt pocket, still wrapped in an old copy of the Times newspaper. Ed Milliband had continued to look up with the same smile on his face.
John Briggs and his wife Barbara found each other again. All it had needed was a little effort from each of them to bring the love back into their lives. They would be happy together.