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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One Response to The Passenger

  1. Timbotoo says:

    We see faces, not hearts.

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