He stood in front of the full length mirror inside his wardrobe and sucked in his gut. Not bad he thought for sixty and a month. He still had most of his hair though rather grey now and the recently adopted salt and pepper beard trimmed short seemed to suit his face. He tried a smile, not so youthful; he needed to get his teeth cleaned. He shrugged and reached for the ubiquitous white shirt of which there were ten hung up in the wardrobe, like a serried rank of carcasses in an abattoir and changed his mind.
For nigh on forty years he had worn a white shirt to work Monday to Friday, the same style of blazer and slacks, the changing tie the only noticeable difference. He did own a suit, two in fact but they were rarely worn, and almost never to the office. He had kept nearly all the ties he had ever worn, from the hideous kipper, to the knitted and there in the last rack the several plain black for hatches, matches and despatches; though there had been a lot more of the third than the first recently and weddings were never really his thing anyway. There they all were in three tie racks, a history of fashion through the years, telling the tale of his working life in silk, wool and polyester; reminders of a life half lived.
Jonathan Alexander Nicholson, middle ranking civil servant in a nondescript department was about to retire. This was his last day in the office and he hoped never to see it again. He was shrugging off the tyranny of usefulness and was about to commit the cardinal sin of going to work in denims and a tartan shirt. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to don the casual shoes and white socks just yet. The outfit, so out of keeping with his usual persona was newly bought, encouraged strongly by his wife, in an effort to slough off a few years. He eyed the black leather jacket on the bed, the price tag still attached, with a mixture of joy and trepidation, at once a symbol of his new found freedom and a mark of his impending irrelevancy.
” Jon! Jon, are you ready yet?” His wife’s voice came from the bottom of the stairs.
“Just about.” he replied.
Jonathan turned back to the mirror; he pulled a black leather belt through the loops in the jeans’ waistband, sucked his gut in again and pulled it an extra hole tighter. He might be retiring but no one would accuse him of being a slouch. Unbidden, his long dead fathers’ oft spoken words came back to him “Shoulders back, stomach in, fingers in the palm of the hands thumbs in front!” Lord how had loathed that refrain as a teenager. Now however it seemed prophetic and, despite his hatred of it, he wished he had yelled the same at his slovenly son in his teenage years. Perhaps if he had things would have turned out differently; so many regrets, so little time. He took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds before blowing out his cheeks and exhaling, Jonathan lifted the leather jacket from the bed, tugged off the price tag and slipped it on.
Geraldine was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs.”There you are. What took you so long?” She tutted and brushed an imaginary piece of fluff from the shoulder of his jacket. Geraldine took a pace back and inspected him from head to foot.
“You’ll do.” She smiled and kissed him on the cheek, “Come on then let’s get this over with.”
For the millionth time in his life Jonathan wondered how he had managed to capture this exquisite woman. Even at fifty seven and after thirty five years of marriage she still held him in thrall. She could have done so much better than him, the boring civil servant; he imagined her on a yacht in Monaco, or strolling down the red carpet for a film premiere. But here she was, in a bland three bedroom semi about to accompany him to his dull retirement party in a middle of the road restaurant in one of Slough’s ubiquitous shopping malls..
Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over Death!
The only piece of poetry he ever remembered from his distant school days. How they had laughed when he first told her of it. He had been posted to the town not long after they were married and in the search for somewhere to live the poem resurfaced. Despite this they were happy to move there, get away from his family’s spare room to a place of their own. They had aspirations, ambitions and this was the first rung on the ladder to fulfillment of their dreams; a house in the country, two beautiful children and a shiny car in the driveway. Not a lot to ask, but somehow they never quite got there, never quite managed to free themselves from Slough’s clutches. Over the years the town went through so many changes around them but they hadn’t really moved with it.
In the first flush of wedded excitement Jonathan started to study, he signed up with the Open University and got his head down. Business studies would stand him in good stead; he didn’t expect to stay in the civil service or Slough forever. He was young, with a gorgeous wife, a mortgage and a career, the world was his to conquer, his to take by the lapels and shake till it revealed its secrets to him. All he needed was a chance to shine and he would blaze a path to greatness, soar across the firmament in glorious technicolour, his Geraldine by his side a luminous vision of beauty and perfection.
Those once rose-tinted spectacles gradually darkened; Geraldine lost one then a second child early in pregnancy, both girls. He was distraught and missed several opportunities to be promoted he was so distracted by their predicament. He failed to notice as those younger, faster, brighter and better qualified were promoted ahead of him. Those he trained became his bosses before moving off to bigger and better things mainly in London. He was fading into the background; part of the office furniture, a grey presence in the corner becoming dustier with each passing year as the ever expanding filing cabinets increasingly walled him off from his colleagues.
Then a glimmer of hope, a spark of new life; Geraldine was pregnant again, he was ecstatic, she had waited until the first trimester was over before telling him. He insisted she stop work, they would manage somehow on his salary. He knuckled down and finally finished the OU degree, upper second not outstanding but good enough, he hoped, to get promoted. He re-engaged with his colleagues and a renewed sense of purpose infused his work. The manager of the office noticed him again, gave him more responsibility that ensured a small increase in salary and annual increments.
Jonathan believed this was his life back on track; optimism restored he bought a new car, redecorated the house and turned one of the three bedrooms into a nursery. Geraldine blossomed; almost a cliché but pregnancy suited her. She might be a “mature mother” by NHS standards but her skin glowed and her eyes sparkled, she smiled a lot and cooked superb dinners for the returning Jonathan. Back on track; his future looking brighter and when Jonathan junior was born he passed cigars and whisky around his workmates, hugging the women and shaking the hands of his male colleagues, his grin wider than the Grand Canyon, his spirits higher than the Empire State Building. He was, to himself at least, indestructible. Now, he just wished he could recapture that feeling for a day, even the next few hours would be sufficient.
However Jonathan Junior was born, sickly, jaundiced and under weight. Geraldine didn’t return to work, the baby took all of her time and effort. For five years she nursed him through the usual childhood illnesses and tantrums watching him gradually develop a personality of his own as he became more robust. He was never destined to be an athlete but by the time he went to school, she finally believed he would survive. Geraldine got a part time job at the school, poorly paid but the hours were manageable and it meant she could watch over her precious son. She lost the haunted look and smiled more often.
To Jonathan it was like she had come back to him after a five year illness; he had thrown himself into his work in the mistaken belief that this was the way to provide the best for his family. He missed the early years with his son, missed the comedy of Jonathan junior learning to walk; missed the birthday parties, the picnics in the park and watching his son laughing, running on the grass with his friends. He didn’t see the first snowman that Jonathan built and called dad, and he didn’t see him cry as it dissolved in the next day’s rain.
His life gradually settled into a comfortable tedium, the highs less lofty but to compensate the lows were shallower and short lived. It was as if the sound wave of his existence was receding to a low hum, mere background noise while the world moved on largely indifferent. Thirty or so years passed and now, in the car on the way to his retirement lunch he was wondering where the time had gone.
Geraldine drove the mile and a half to the restaurant, the car was shiny, and the interior smelled of polish overwhelming even her expensive cologne. The one he had bought her on her last birthday, Jo Malone, Pomegranate Noir, expensive but evocative, a hint of danger, an odoriferous moment of risk, a chance to overstep your limitations and reach just a little above the normal. She was immaculately turned out as usual; a fine fitted suit from a good non high street shop, not high fashion but classic, a white silk blouse, dark stockings and black patent court shoes. The perfect, dutiful civil servants wife; fully supporting her diligent husband, providing hearty food for colleagues and acquaintances alike when required and happily doling out the wine and canapés to his superiors on demand before clearing up the mess afterwards.
He looked across at his wife. He thought again how kind the years had been to her. Perhaps his spectacles were rosy again but to him she was still as beautiful as the day he met her.
“Fuck it!” he exclaimed.
“Jon?” her voice rising in concern, he almost never swore.
“I said, FUCK IT!” he slammed a hand on the dashboard and the car slowed.
“Don’t slow down!” he ordered, “Take a right at the roundabout!”
“Jon, what is it? What’s wrong?” She was worried this was so unlike him.
He grinned, “Stuff the retirement do! Have Barclaycard will travel – head for Heathrow.”
Geraldine smiled to herself and turned right. It’s taken a long time she thought but this was the Jonathan I married.