The Passenger

This story was entered for the Frome Festival Short Story Competition but failed to make the long list:

Reaching for his phone, he switched off the alarm. It surely could not be seven already. A friend’s birthday the previous day had meant a night out and a late return, maybe it had been after three. Those with Monday to Friday jobs could now sleep until lunchtime; he needed to be in work by half past eight.

Going to the kitchen, he met his mother, already busy with the day’s tasks. A stern look told him that it was wiser not to complain about the pounding in his head for no sympathy would be forthcoming. “Much to do at work today?” she asked.

“The usual,” he said, “always the usual.”

He poured tea from the pot his mother handed to him. There was a silence between them. The conversation could proceed no further without re-opening old and painful arguments. He had done well at school, got a place on a good course at a good college, but had stuck it for only two years. To complain about his life as it was would only have started his mother on her usual train of thought that he might use the money he had saved to go back to college, to finish his course, and then he wouldn’t have to go to a job which demanded his presence six days of the week. He didn’t like the argument, and they had had it many times, because it was one he always lost. Of course, his mother was right. In student days, his job had been a good one for weekends and holidays, it meant he had money when many of his friends depended on their parents for cash, but he had never imagined that it would be his future.

Shaved, showered and dressed, it was near eight by the time he was leaving the house. Traffic on a Saturday morning was always light and the drive leisurely. The music station on the radio was playing a song he had heard less than six hours previously; loud and strongly syncopated, it was not good for his headache. He pressed the “off” button and took in the silence.

It was a good time of the year. He had always liked the month of May, the lengthening days and the promise of summer. The horse chestnut trees were in blossom. He laughed at memories of being maybe eight or nine years old and telling other boys in the class to stay away from those trees because those conkers belonged to him. Did boys of eight still play conkers? He didn’t know.

Ahead there was a bus stop where the bus for the airport picked up passengers from the town. The man stood there waiting, as he did on a Saturday morning each fortnight. He often thought about the man, wondered what he did, where he was going. He often wished he was like the man, able to jet off somewhere every second week, instead of heading off to work.

Drawing closer, he looked closely at the man. It was hard to guess what the man did, or where he might be going. He seemed too old to still be working, though it was hard to know, he knew there were many people, particularly farmers, who worked long beyond the normal retirement age. This man was definitely not a farmer, though; no farmer went to the airport once a fortnight. The mild weather meant that the man held his usual black coat over his arm; he wore a brown jacket, grey trousers and had neatly combed grey hair. Beside him stood the small brown suitcase he always took with him.

Passing by, he looked again at the man in the rear view mirror. What destination drew such a man to this bus stop on every second Saturday morning throughout the year? He had decided that the man’s small suitcase meant that he must be going somewhere which did not require him to carry much luggage. There must be a house or an apartment to which he travelled each fortnight, a place in which he would find all that he needed. It could not be the Mediterranean or anywhere hot though, for the man would hardly be travelling to a warm country in May carrying the overcoat he wore in the winter. As well as that, the man never showed any sign of having been in the sunshine, never a hint of the tan that was surely inescapable if one spent half the year in a hot climate.

But if it wasn’t somewhere hot, where could he be going that meant he travelled every second week? It must be somewhere where the climate was similar to that at home, because just as he never dressed for the heat; nor in the winter time did he carry the extra suitcase that would have been necessary to carry the clothing he would have needed if he was going somewhere cold. He had concluded that the man must be going to Ireland, or maybe to Belgium, or to Holland, or to Germany.

Would anyone go to any of those places every second week? Maybe, if the man owned property, he might need to travel regularly to manage it, and he must own property, for he surely couldn’t afford to spend half the year in a hotel?

The idea of the man as a property owner brought the thought that maybe the man was one of those aristocratic types who had great wealth but lived as cheaply as possible. Maybe the man caught the bus every second Saturday morning when he could have had a chauffeur to drive him to the airport. Sometimes the newspapers carried stories about such people, people who might have a grand house and thousands of acres, but who wore worn out jackets, and jerseys with frayed sleeves, and who drove around in twenty year old cars; people who might serve you beans on toast on expensive plates with silver knives and forks. Perhaps the man was such a landowner, but if he was, everyone in their town would recognize him; it was hard to be a stranger in their community, and, anyway, there were no grand houses in the area.

The man was mystery, but, mystery or not, he must lead an interesting life, flying off once a fortnight, it was a life very different from his own, a life that he envied.

It was six weeks before he thought about the man again. He had saved all year for a holiday and the morning had come. He had not left the country since the unhappy days in college and had spent much of the previous evening searching for his passport; it had been tucked in among long unopened books. He had hastily pushed the books back into the cupboard where they had been since he had turned his back on being a student.

The seven o’clock alarm had been welcome. His mother insisted that he might not be properly fed on his journey and had cooked him a full breakfast. The sausages, bacon and eggs had never tasted so good, maybe food tasted different according to how you felt.

The airport bus was at 8.30 and he gathered up his bag to walk to the bus stop. His mother fussed around him, insisting he check for a third time everything he needed for the trip. He reassured her that nothing had been forgotten, that he would be careful during the week away, and that he would call her when he arrived.

It was only when the bus stop came in sight that he realized that this was the Saturday when the man would be travelling. Sure enough, there he was, the coat had been left at home, but he wore the familiar jacket and trousers and the usual brown suitcase stood beside him.

Reaching the stop, he nodded at the man; the man raised a hand in response, but said nothing. There was a silence as they stood and waited, he wanted to ask the man about the fascinating life he must lead, flying out twenty-six times a year, but could not think of words that might open up such a conversation.

The bus arrived and there was a bleeping sound as the door to the luggage hold opened automatically. He stood back to allow the man to put in his brown suitcase before lifting in his own bag.

It was a summer Saturday morning, it was holiday time, and the bus was almost full. Just two seats remained, near the back. The man walked up the aisle and slid across the vacant seat to sit beside the window; there being no other seat available, he sat beside the man.

The man smiled at him. “I think I recognize you,” he said, “I see you driving by the bus stop when I am waiting on a Saturday. You must tell me what you do.”

He started to explain his job, and then said it really wasn’t what he had planned to do, that he had been in college for two years, but had dropped out. He explained that his mother wanted him to go back to complete his course and that there had been many arguments in their house.

The man smiled again. “Sometimes we miss our opportunities and then spend a long time regretting it. Let’s think positive thoughts, tell me about the exciting holiday you’re going to have.”

He told the man about the place he would be visiting in Spain, how he would be travelling with friends, how he had been saving up for the trip.

He watched the man. Someone as well-travelled as the man must be amused at someone being excited at going to Spain for a week. A silence fell between them.

The bus drew closer to the airport. A couple of miles before they arrived, the man began to arise from his seat. “Please, excuse me.”

“Oh, we’re not there yet.”

“We’re at my stop, though. My sister’s house is just over there. I come up once a fortnight to help care for my brother-in-law; sadly he has been housebound for some years.”

“You mean you don’t go to the airport?”

“Oh no, I have never been in an aeroplane in my life. I did go to France on the ferry a few times, but that was a long time ago now. This bus journey is the furthest I ever travel, up one Saturday and back on the next.”

“I thought you were flying somewhere. I thought . . .” His words tailed off, how silly his thoughts seemed.

“Do you know,” said the man, “I envy you – a young man heading off on his holidays. If I had had such a chance . . .” The bus came to a halt and he stepped off, raising his hand as he turned toward his sister’s house.

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The tyranny of nostalgia

Two lorries passed along the country road, one a greengrocer’s van and one from an oil merchant. The first was pale green with lettering in yellow, the second a deep red with blue and white detail, both probably dated from the 1950s. At a time of year when there are festivals and fairs all across the country, they might have been returning from a gathering almost anywhere, although at the speed at which they travelled, their presence had probably been in a field somewhere not too far distant. It would not be hard to imagine lines of vehicles of a similar vintage, and stalls where people might buy memorabilia and spare parts, and a show ring for the different classes of transport, and ice cream vans and chip vans, and a voice making announcement over the public address system, and white marquees and coloured bunting, and car parks filled with visitors.

Such gatherings are always a delight to visit, good days out, reminders of how things once were. Sometimes, though, there is the troubling suggestion that these things belonged to some lost golden age and that we are somehow poorer than those who rode around the country at thirty-five miles per hour.

My father, who was born in the 1930s, is sceptical about the enthusiasm for steam railways. “How many of those who are so enthusiastic about them had to travel on them?” The answer, of course, is very few; steam locomotives were withdrawn more than fifty years ago. “Steam trains were dirty and smelly, you brushed against one and you were covered in soot.” Perhaps there was a certain truth in the fact that the Somerset and Dorset Railway was known as “the slow and dirty.” People who had to rely on small and slow lorries for their groceries and their fuel would probably express a similar scepticism. Had such transport been reliable and efficient, it would still be in service.

Nostalgia is good for an afternoon out with a “99” cone and tea from a cardboard cup, it is not good when it becomes a mindset, when former times were always better than the present time. There has never been a better time to live than the present. Whether in the field of economic development, medical science, personal freedom, communications capacity, travel options, or any of a range of other measures, we are living in the best of times. Would anyone wish to return to the living standards of the 1950s, or the 1970s, or even the 1990s? Almost any index to which one might turn will demonstrate the past times were worse times.

The sight of sixty year old lorries travelling a country road should prompt a feeling of appreciation that we do not depend on technology of such an age.



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It has been a good week for Theresa May

The Guardian newspaper described it as “a bruising week in a difficult year” for Prime Minister Theresa May. Were I the prime minister sitting down to Sunday lunch in Downing Street or Chequers, I think I would feel rather contented at the previous seven days.

Within the party, the fragile unity of the disparate elements was retained, they might mutter and grumble,  but when it comes to going into the lobbies for House of Commons votes, the whips have been effective in their role. The dozen or so Europhile members of parliament were reconciled with a form of words while Jacob Rees Mogg, leader of the Eurosceptics, will have been discomfited by Twitter feeds announcing his company’s movement of funds to Dublin, to remain within the European Union. Of course, he may be at arm’s length from the decisions of the company, but that did not prevent a stream of online accusations of hypocrisy.

Content that things have held together for another week on her own benches, Theresa May will have experienced not a little schadenfreude at developments on the opposition benches. Inside the house, moderate  Labour MPs are now in open revolt against their leadership, and outside it the cult of Corbyn has stalled. The Labour Live festival this weekend became a cause for embarrassment in the closing days of the week as there was a scramble to give away tickets in order to achieve a reasonable attendance. Trade unions emailed members with codes that would allow them to go online and obtain free tickets for an event where prices had already been reduced by 70%. The so-called “Jezfest” has not the draw that was anticipated.

The real cause for delight this weekend, however, comes from a story barely noticed among the noise of Brexit. On Thursday, there was a by election in the parliamentary constituency of Lewisham East. There was a low turnout of just 33% and Labour won it with a 50% share of the vote, but there was a 19% swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. It is a story that is bad news for hopes of a Labour victory at a general election.

The surge in the Labour vote at the 2017  general election was against a background of low support for the Liberal Democrats, it was a two-party election. Results from the local government elections last month and now the Lewisham by election suggest a revival of support for the third party, a revival, that if continued, would take substantial number of votes from Labour candidates. Theresa May must have read the result with not a little satisfaction.

All in all, it has not been a bad week for her.



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Political pride

A neighbour who lived across the fields in rural Co Down used to tell of going to a horse race meeting at Downpatrick with a group of friends from work. Lurking around the entrance was a man offering brown envelopes at £1 each. These envelopes, he claimed, contained tips for the winner in each race on the card that day. Laughing among themselves, my neighbour and his workmates bought envelopes for the fun of it. When they opened the envelopes they discovered that each contained a different list of horses. He smiled as he told the story, “none of us would have admitted being taken in and backing a loser, but when we got a winner we would have said that the man was a great tipster”.

Political choices seems pretty much like horse race tipping, no-one is going to admit that they believed claims by politicians that proved to be completely unfounded. Research by psephologists suggests that people’s memories of how they voted at an election are influenced by how events unfold. When a political party proves to be successful in its policies, more people will claim to have voted for it than actually did; when the policies cause problems, the party’s voters will become amnesiac about how they voted.

The psephological studies are not a surprise, they are a reflection of ordinary human nature. It is not our natural inclination to admit that we were wrong, that we made a mistake. When things are clearly wrong, pride can sometimes make us more firmly entrenched, more determined we are right.  Contemporary politics has exacerbated problems caused by our natural inclinations, it affirms polemic over consensus, stridency over conciliation.

The politics of the centre ground might be a fudge, but at least they create space for pragmatism, they allow for the measurement of ideas against economic reality rather than against party ideology. The polarised politics that now characterise the exchanges in the House of Commons mean that there is little space for people on either side to say that their party’s approach is a dud, that there has been a mistake. Shout that the emperor has no clothes, and Twitter and Facebook will be filled with vile attacks on you, because people who cannot argue their ground on principle will always resort to ad hominem aggression. At root, no-one wants the embarrassment of admitting that they paid for bad tips.

Perhaps a return to reason and reasonable behaviour will come, it doesn’t seem likely soon.



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Among the dead

Walking among the headstones in the village cemetery, there is a realisation that the names of people I recognize, the names of people who lie beneath six feet of Somerset soil, now outnumber the names I know of living residents of the village. Living in Ireland for more than thirty years will have reduced my familiarity with the living members of the local community, but, even if one lives one’s whole life in a community, there comes a tipping point where the names of people whom one has known, who are now deceased, will outnumber the names of those who are still alive.

There is surprise at the ages some had reached. One’s own ageing process seems sometimes an easier thought than the ageing of others; there seems an odd feeling that some people should remain a certain age, that they should be forever an indeterminate age, an age just after retirement. The headstones in the cemetery testify that people who seemed sprightly sixty-somethings were twenty or thirty years beyond the age I had imagined them to be; sprightly and youthful farming people who lived into their eighties or their nineties.

There is always a moment of frustration at the grave of Miss Rabbage. The primary school teacher who taught me most of the things worth knowing retired from teaching and left the village at the Easter holidays of 1972. Aged sixty at the time, she seemed very old to a boy of eleven, but had not aged at all when I saw her ten years later, when she would have been seventy. By the time I had access to broadband internet in 2004, and could spend time online engaged in random searches, Miss Rabbage’s name was nowhere to be found among telephone directories or electoral registers. Her memorial stone above her ashes says that she died in 2003, at the age of ninety-one, dead just a year before it had occurred to me to look for her. Of course, I might have asked about her in the intervening years, but had never thought to do so.

The most alarming headstones mark the graves of those who did not reach the age that I am now, people who died when I was young and who seemed so much older than the forty or fifty-something years that they lived: warnings of the sudden and abrupt ends to which life can come.

On a Thursday night, there is always a pint of bitter in the local pub, in the company of a weekly gathering of those who could tell the story of each of the names inscribed on the cemetery stones. Perhaps an occasion for a raising of the glass and a toast in the enigmatic words of Rabbie Burns, “here’s to us, who’s like us damn few, and they’re all dead.”

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