Something of a new venture for me: a (very) short story.
Jake had worked for the firm for as long as anyone on the present work force could recall. Most of them, had you asked around, would have spoken warmly of him, maybe said they had a soft spot for him. To say he was popular, though, would be grossly overstating the situation. Dissent went with him the way flies go with cattle. There were those who called the bosses bloody angels for giving him a job at all, believing that in any practical sense of the word, he was unemployable. The firm was doing him a massive favour. Others thought them to be taking an unfair advantage, both overworking and underpaying him. Certainly it is true that any other worker doing what Jake did would have been paid more. (This was in the days before the minimum wage, you understand.)
Jake, you see, had mental problems. Mild ones, to be sure, nothing that would ever rock the boat (they all thought), but of the sort that might be inconvenient at times, could make life just that little bit more difficult than it might otherwise have been. For example, he didn't speak. He could speak, but mute was his preferred mode. He rarely even said Hello to folk; just nodded - and occasionally smiled. If he did acknowledge someone verbally, it would be because protocol demanded it. He would make it very formal. Sir or Ma'am if they were bosses; otherwise it would be Mr Curtis, Mr Hills and so on. No one had ever heard him address anyone by their first name.
Jake signed on in the factory at half past eight each morning and, but for breaks, odd jobbed his way through to the five o'clock whistle. Then he walked the quarter of a mile or so to the firm's offices. At half-past five the office staff began to leave, and Jake would make a start on his cleaning duties. (Hence the overworking charge: two jobs, one salary.)
Then there was Jack, a recent replacement for George who had been as garrulous and chirpy as Jack was dour and retiring. Jack had moved south from Bolton some months earlier at the death of his sister, Ruth. He appeared to have no further relatives or significant others, as the saying is, a fact which had made him something of a target for the motherly types in the office, who rather vied to take him under their various wings. The opportunities for doing so were sparse, however, and Jack was having none of it. Then again, no one could quite get over the extraordinary fact of having two such characters on the staff. Except for the fact that Jack wasn't actually on the staff... still, that's how they thought of him: as one of them. In truth, he worked, as had George before him, for Lunch Box, an outfit which, as its name implies, supplied the local workers with the necessary sustenance to last them through the day. Somewhere around mid-morning, Jack would appear, pushing his trolley from office to office (For some reason he didn't cater to the factory), tempting the workers with his different coffees, sticky buns and doughnuts. At lunchtime he would be back with sandwiches, sausage rolls, pies, yogurts, fruit and soft drinks and in the afternoon with biscuits, soft drinks, tea and cake. It will come as no surprise, perhaps, to hear that, by any way of reckoning it, the majority regarded Jack with a degree of warmth and even affection that was not accorded Jake. The popular wisdom was that Jake was buttoned up, surly even, whilst Jack was shy. He, too, was mildly afflicted, but whereas his contribution to the working day was looked forward to and thoroughly enjoyed by all, they tended not to appreciate the way Jake cleaned (or didn't clean) the toilets.
It follows from what I have told you of their duties and their timetables, that Jack, a relative newcomer, and Jake, had never actually met. That, however, was to change. They were to meet on the occasion of the firm's Christmas party. Jack, of course, was not eligible to attend the party, not in his own right, but he had been invited by Maggie from R and D to be her escort. Jake didn't do parties, but was asked if he would stay on after his cleaning stint to help prepare the boardroom for the coming fun and frolics. Which is how it came about that he happened to be leaving by the front door as Jake entered. They met just inside - and greeted each other: a cheery Hello Jake! eliciting a nod of the head and a grunt that sounded a bit like Jack! Now, whoever it is in the universe who organises such things, must have organised it so that there was, standing nearby, mere yards away, outside the ladies' loos, well within earshot, Stan from accounts, who was married to Rose, one of the office gossips. A few moments later, Rose made her reappearance. Stan greeted her with:
You get a surprise a day here, don't you?
What's happened now? asked Rose with that peculiar mix of tiredness and enthusiasm which is the trait of a gossip on the trail of what she hopes will be a tale worth telling.
Did you know that Jack and Jake know each other? he asked.
No - and I don't believe it either! How could they?
There came a moment's silence. Then:
I dunno how, but I know they do. They've just greeted each other very warmly and by their Christian names, said Stan, exaggerating a tad and stressing the last two words.
By the time Jack arrived with his trolley the following morning, Frank, another newcomer, but the one deemed to have the closest relationship with him, had been detailed to investigate the mystery. His brief was to discover how two people, neither of whom seemed to know anyone, who certainly would not be expected to acknowledge anyone, and never by first names; one of which pair had worked at the firm since forever, while the other was a recent import from the north; two people who had had no opportunity to meet at work until the previous evening; and who lived miles from each other at opposite ends of the county... he was to discover how these two had come to know each other well enough to greet one another by first names. He plunged straight in:
Hey, you're a darken and no mistake, you are!
Some little bird or other tells us you and Jake know each other!
So how come…
We don't talk 'bout it. Private.
Well, fair enough, but you know what some of these bloodhounds are like. Just give me a snippet or so to satisfy them. Like where you met, or when. Just that. That'll be enough to do the trick.
Definitely, no more!
There came a slight but audible intake of breath as the eavesdroppers took in the information.
Yeah? Well that could have been in the war then, I s'pose?
So then, that solves their tiny mystery for them, don't it? All sorts of people who never would have buddied up in peace time, got together in the war. Had to. That must've been it?
Jack didn't reply, so Frank adjusted his approach:
That was right in the dirt, that was - the dark days of the war, and no mistake... 'ere, wait a minute though... just a tick, hold on... 1940? Wasn't that Dunkirk? I wonder, now... were you... by any chance... at Dunkirk, you and Jake?
Again no reply. So Frank went on:-
You were, weren't you? That's it! You were, the two of you! You only went and got yourself a bloody gong for bravery, one of you? That it?
Jack shook his head
Both of you then?
Another shake of the head.
So where did you meet - Oh, I know Dunkirk, but how at Dunkirk? Whereabouts?
There's only one possibility if they met at Dunkirk, said Joe, coming out of concealment: they met on the bloody beach!
That it? asked Frank, but Jack had clammed up. It was quite clear he had said more than he had ever meant to, and he was saying no more.
Frank, however, had not finished. He, too, could now sense there was a mystery to be unravelled. He waited for the appearance of Jake at the end of the afternoon.
Jack's been telling us 'bout you and him at Dunkirk! said Frank.
Shouldn't 'ave! growled Jake.
Oh, come on, no harm done, we're all mates here.
Shouldn't 'ave! Promised! Both promised!
So why all the secrecy?
Now it was Jake clamming-up.
Must 'ave been bloody hell! said Frank. And then, still with no response from Jake, but at least you both got back to Blighty in one piece - well, in two pieces, I s'pose, said Frank, laughing at his own weak joke.
So it seems. said Jake
What you mean, "so it seems"?
Well, didn't know, not 'till last night, did I...
Not 'till last night, no.
You didn't come back together?
No, didn't Jack say? They carries him off. Time they gets back for me, his boat's gone, ain' it?
'Sright. Stretcher cases, us. Three days on 'em with all that shit flying overhead.
Cripes, so when did you next see each other, then?
Last night acourse.
Wow, let's get this straight: you're side by side on stretchers... I s'pose you were side by side - that right?
We'll say side by side then, on the beach for three days, then you gets separated and you don't get to see each other from that day 'till last night, forty-odd years is that, and yet you recognise each other straight away, in spite of how much you must both have changed? That it?
Well, I think that's bloody marvellous!
Well it weren't, 'coz I'd seen his ugly mug every night from then on - and I'm still seein' it! Be seeing it for a long time to come, I shouldn't wonder. Course I recognised 'im!
No 'taint, if e'd tried to kill you, you'd recognise 'im ok, wouldn't you?
Yes. Tried to kill me! Woke up with 'is 'ands round me bleeding neck, didn't I? Day bloody one, that was. Gawd alone knew 'ow many more we'd got to go.
So what happened?
Weak, see, so couldn't fight 'im off...
So what happened?
Couldn't do it, could e? Nearly did an' all, but 'e was weak too, and couldn't finish me off.
So why? What made 'im?
Dunno. Worse thing there that was, him being one of us, like. Never asked him why. Never said anything 'bout it. We just spent the next two days pretending he'd had a bad dream. But we both knew it was no bad dream, he was wide awake and he meant it, right enough. Never tried it again, though. So that's it, that's the end of the matter!
Only it wasn't, no one in the office could ever see Jack in quite the same light again. The arrangement with Lunch Box was quietly discontinued.
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