The Commuter

1. THE LOYAL EMPLOYEE

Jack Harman had been a commuter for most of his working life, in fact for over forty years. Leaving school at 15, he’d started as an Errand Boy for a large insurance company in Leadenhall Street, replenishing inkwells and fitting new sheets of blotting paper into the frames that were on the desks of anyone in the firm that mattered. Jack’s good humour and willingness soon led to his promotion to Messenger, delivering correspondence around the close-knit community known as the City. Slow but steady advancement had led to his current position of Senior Account Manager.

In fact, Jack was the last person to hold that title and it would cease when he retired, aged 65, within a few weeks. Like every other major insurer, Consolidated Fire and Life had seen undreamt-of changes during the time of its oldest and longest serving employee. Automation, computerisation, direct telephone selling and the Internet meant that nothing stood still for long in the cut-throat business of insurance. Jack fondly recalled when insurance was a matter for gentlemen, a deal done on a handshake and paying a claim without a quibble. The business was now run by the actuaries and cost accountants, coarse young men from the eastern suburbs who wore baggy suits and “dressed down” on Fridays.

Jack adhered to the traditional City uniform of black jacket, striped trousers, bowler hat and rolled umbrella, the latter moth-eaten and no earthly use against even the lightest shower, let alone a downpour. As the years went by, fewer and fewer “City Gents” persisted with this antediluvian garb and, during the ‘eighties, Jack was frequently the subject of the mirth of the Essex Men who filled the City to put their market-trading abilities to something more profitable than fruit and vegetables.

As time went by, the mockers achieved senior status and began to accord something approaching respect to Jack. One even tried to recruit him on the condition that he worked in public view, sitting behind the ground-floor window, lending a traditional air to the company. Even a doubling of Jack’s salary failed to budge him from CFL, his loyalty placed him firmly in the Old School. Just as well that he hadn’t, as things turned out. The dot.com company had failed spectacularly, putting investors out-of-pocket and employees out-of-work. The suave CEO from Romford disappeared without trace, though there had been unconfirmed sightings of him on one of the lesser Cayman Islands.

There had been an attempt some ten years earlier to make Jack redundant but CFL hadn’t reckoned on the opposition of one of their major clients whose account happened to be managed by him. A large private company whose stores were a household name, it was controlled by an eighty-something matriarch who shared Jack’s old-fashioned business philosophy. When word reached the old lady of Jack’s impending departure, she phoned the MD in person to make it clear that her company’s business would go if Jack did.

Because the client’s business was extremely profitable and contributed over ten percent of CFL’s premium income, the MD quickly saw the sense of withdrawing Jack’s redundancy and adopting the long game. The old boy would have to retire at 65 - that was the rule - and the client couldn’t possibly object. In any case, the old girl would probably be long gone by then.

The years had passed and Jack’s retirement was on the horizon. That particular MD was long gone, replaced by two more, but the matriarch still ruled the roost, albeit part-time. She had sent Jack a card and a gift on behalf of her family company - he’d liked that. The current MD, who’d upset Jack at their first meeting by using his first name, had suggested that he take some gardening leave rather than work right up to his official retirement date. Predictably, Jack declined the offer. He had no use for gardening leave - Maureen tended the flowerbeds and he mowed the lawn every Saturday morning as he’d always done, thank you very much!

2. FROM SMALL BEGINNINGS

Jack had been born a Londoner, within the sound of Bow Bells, but he’d have been mortified if anyone had called him a Cockney. He fondly remembered the old days, when there had been a job for anyone prepared to look for one and Londoners were known for their community spirit. His family had moved to one of the LCC’s post-war housing estates not long before he started work.

As a result, Jack knew the outer reaches of the Central Line as well as he knew himself. Over the years he’d contributed tens of thousands of pounds in fares to London Transport, only now he was supposed to call it Transport for London. It was another gem from the marketing machine, the triumph of presentation over substance, along with slogans such as “It’s YOUR Tube”. Of course it was - funded by the taxes on poor souls like him who had no choice, whether or not they actually used what was fancifully called the service. The man who wreaked havoc on the capital’s finances had even been elected Mayor, much to the chagrin of the advocates of big government who’d invented the office as a sinecure for one of its placemen. O tempera! O mores!

There was one thing that Jack owed the Tube - his wife Maureen. In those days, there was competition between young men to give up their seats to women during busy times, especially young, pretty women. He’d leapt up at Fairlop when the tyro copy typist had just entered the car. A newcomer to the commuting game, she thanked him profusely, unaware of his true intentions. By the time they reached Liverpool Street, he’d arranged to meet her for lunch at a popular snack bar near Bank station. So reluctant was he to leave his newfound friend that he had to prise the train doors open or be carried on with the object of his attention. To do so would risk lateness, a serious matter in those days before self-certification excused any feigned illness.

Their relationship developed apace, mainly in the cinemas of Gants Hill, a convenient break point on their journey home, and Barkingside where Fairlop station was actually nearer the cinema than the station that bore the suburb’s name. Maureen was loath to accept Jack’s offer of walking her home, only relenting when he missed the last train because of a late-finishing performance. It was then that he discovered her family lived in the huts on the edge of the old wartime aerodrome. Maureen’s parents had a perceived sense of inferiority to the boy whose parents rented a three-bedroom semi on the new housing estate. This sense persisted even after they had moved into one of the smart modern prefabs not far away.

Courtship led to marriage and a two-bedroom end-of-terrace house within walking distance of Barkingside station, bought by courtesy of the low-interest mortgage that was a perk of Jack’s job. Maureen worked for two more years before their daughter Carol was born and she became a full-time mother and housewife. Not at all like the young women of today who worked almost up to the birth and expected, nay demanded, their jobs to be kept open for them! Despite their best efforts, Jack and Maureen had not been blessed with any more children. Consequently, they had never needed a bigger house and still occupied the home they’d moved into at the time of their marriage all those years ago.

Carol had grown up, married and had two children of her own. It was a matter of regret for her parents that they saw so little of their daughter, son-in-law or grandchildren. They lived in Gidea Park, not a million miles away in distance but light years from the now-shabby little house behind the High Street. Jack and Maureen had never owned a car - he always pointed out that their house had no garage - so a visit to Gidea Park involved a train trip via Stratford. He couldn’t help thinking that Carol was a bit ashamed of her old home.

The house had been paid for long ago and Jack’s salary could easily have afforded a move upmarket. Why would they want to move, Jack would say. They had all they’d ever wanted where they were. What Maureen thought about it never entered the equation.

If the truth were known, Jack would not take easily to his retirement; in fact he was dreading it. His work had been his life and, apart from his family, he’d had few interests outside it.

3. A BREAK FROM ROUTINE

Jack was standing on the familiar platform awaiting his train. Years ago there were well-kept flowerbeds but, like everything else on the line, they had been neglected. This morning though, the flowers were in the full bloom of early summer. The train arrived and Jack moved to the edge of the platform. The doors opened and he got in. To his surprise a uniformed waiter greeted him. “Mr Harman? We’re expecting you, follow me.”

Jack knew that new rolling stock was expected on the line but nothing like this. Instead of the normal hard functional seating, there were four tables laid for breakfast. The kitchen occupied the remainder of the car. The waiter led him to a table and Jack sat down. “It’s tea, sir, isn’t it, and Weetabix?” he said, “I’ll fetch them while you make your choice,” handing Jack a menu card.

"My goodness,” thought Jack, “this is something special. Maureen said nothing about it; perhaps it’s her surprise present. Or maybe it’s from the firm as an appreciation of my long service.” A horrible thought hit him. Perhaps it’s one of those silly stunt TV programmes where they set some innocent person up and poke fun at their hapless victim. Jack could never see the point of such programmes and found them distinctly unfunny. Nevertheless, he looked all around him, dreading the appearance of Jeremy Beadle.

The waiter returned with his tea and cereal. “A little milk and one spoonful, I believe.” Jack nodded; the waiter clearly knew his tastes. “May I recommend the Loch Fyne kippers, brought down fresh overnight?” Jack loved kippers but not the repeats after eating them. “No, thank you, I’ll take the boiled ham with two medium poached eggs”. “Very good sir,” the waiter replied and went away with Jack’s breakfast order.

Jack began his breakfast while the train made its familiar journey into town. It stopped at all the usual stations but the doors of his carriage did not open so he was the only dining passenger. As he finished his Weetabix the waiter arrived with his ham and eggs. Virginia ham carved off the bone with the eggs lightly glazed with butter; just the way he liked them.

Jack finished his main course just as the waiter returned. The train was now underground and approaching the City. Jack looked at the waiter’s name badge and said, “Peter - I hope you don’t mind me calling you by your first name - can I say how utterly delighted I’ve been with the meal and the service on this train. Someone’s really made an effort for me and I appreciate it. There are other tables but they’re vacant - do you cater for parties?”

"Sometimes,” replied the waiter, “although it’s more likely to be a collection of individuals travelling in our carriage. I’m glad you enjoyed the experience so much.”

Jack was feeling mellow after his breakfast and didn’t want the moment to end. To continue the conversation he asked the waiter “is this train heading for West Ruislip or Ealing Broadway?”

"Heaven actually - after forty years’ commuting on the underground we thought you’d had more than your fair share of Hell.”

© Brian Smith 2002

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