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Friday, 13 March 2009

Jack and Jake

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!

How's that?

Some little bird or other tells us you and Jake know each other!

Might do.

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.

No more?

Definitely, no more!

1940

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?

Was.

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...

No?

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?

Carries?

'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?

Silence

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?

'Bout 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!

That's incredible!

No 'taint, if e'd tried to kill you, you'd recognise 'im ok, wouldn't you?

What!

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.

31 comments:

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff... said...

Fantastic short story Dave. I hope that you'll bless us with more of your talent.
I'm going to drop by for tea next time I'm over that way.......you are one of the most interest people :)
(and just kidding, I'd never invite myself to anyone's house for tea, lol)
Hope your weekend is filled with love, joy and laughter and......

Steady On
Reggie Girl

Annie Wicking said...

Great story! a wonderful read, Mr King

Patrice said...

Fascinating tale... a mystery through and through.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Good story Dave. It kept me interested to the end, because you had no idea what the outcome was going to be. Super stuff.

Stephen Dell'Aria said...

Great post Dave. Intriguing and suspenseful. A real creative glimpse into the lives of those social oddities we always find around us. That the man who seemed the most outgoing turns out to be borderline homicidal was a good twist. You should post more of these. It brightened my day.

Linda Sue said...

LOVE THIS STORY, Dave! I have read it three times and will read it probably a few more times and there goes my day! Thank you for writing this - excellent, I appreciate the no fuss "quietly discontinued"..it's the British way afterall.

Derrick said...

Hi Dave,

I was intrigued to the end!

Helen said...

Please, keep your work coming ... I so enjoy it.

Snowbrush said...

It was a wonderful story.

Cecile/DreamCreateRepeat said...

I love short stories! The quick character development, broad brush strokes and clever twists. This was a fun read: the further in I read, the more I was pulled to get to the revelation. Well done!

Lucas said...

Excellent story - the thread of the outsider taking us through a really strange narrative: nail biting right to the end. I like the dialogue - brings out the characters in just a few takes.

Natalie said...

I LOVED this story! Thanks,Dave.

Jeanne said...

Strong dialogue, suspense builds nicely and very good character arc for Jake.

I understand (I think) what you're doing with Jack and Jake that makes naming them so similarly valuable, but it also made keeping which one is which straight in my head difficult.

Excellent story!

CLAY said...

"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."--ha! Brilliant Dave--this part sticks out for me--splendid piece sir.

Cloudia said...

Talent at play.
Marvelous, Dave.
Aloha-

lakeviewer said...

Dave,
Everyone pretty much said everything I would come up with, except this: You really ought to share more of these stories. Except for the work of Hemingway and Dos Passos, wars are skirted over, too hot to handle for most current writers. Maybe the boys and girls from Iraq will begin to see these stories of yours and open up. We ought to create websites for them to get help opening up, retelling their personal narratives.

I missed your last post because my computer was causing me similar problems. You say it is because of the firewalls? My computer guru thinks it is the gunk/ imagery accumulating after we visit all the other places, our browsing history. He ran a diagnostic through Mcafee, and cleaned up quite a bit. But, now, I'm adding more gunk.

Dave King said...

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff
I assume it was the bit about me being interesting that was the subject of your kidding!
The weekend's going very well so far. Thanks for all that and many blessings to you.

Annie
My thanks for your visit and the comment. Always welcome.

Patrice
Thanks for that. Much appreciated.

Weaver of Grass
Good of you to say so. Thanks for that.

Stephen
My thanks for the compliment. I might try my hand again, you never can tell!

Linda Sue
Many thanks - hope you didn't read it three times because you couldn't understand it, though!

Derrick
Thanks for the encouragement.

Helen
Very n ice of you to offer that comment. Much appreciated.


Snowbrush
Welcome and many thanks.

Cecil Dream Create Repeat
Thanks for the useful response.

Lucas
As always, a useful comment. Thanks.

Natalie
And thanks for the response.

Jeanne
Point taken, thanks for making it - and for the other comments also.

Clay
Interesting feedback. Thanks very much.

Cloudia
Appreciate that.

LakeViewer
The only reason I don't share more is that I don't have any more. That was my first ever. Who knows if there'll be more water in the well? I do feel encouraged enough to go have a look, though: everyone has been so kind.

I think your guru is probably correct. I didn't mean to suggest that it was the firewall; I think it was the browser that was infected.

delphine said...

well ! fascinating writing, cannot believe you don't have another story bursting to get out!

The Clever Pup said...

Most excellent story. My parents were adolescents in Kent during the war.

Thanks for visiting my site. Your kind words have buoyed me for the day.

Lisa said...

Hi Dave-I have been reading your blog for a while now and have decided to show my face and follow along.
I loved your short story.
Lisa x

Dave King said...

Delphine
Hi! and welcome. Nothing straining at the leash just now, I'm afraid. Thanks for visiting and for the comment.

The Clever Pup
Welcome to my blog and many thanks for the feedback. I much enjoyed my visit to you.

Lisa
Welcome and thanks for the interest shown to date. Great to have you aboard.

Janie at Sounding Forth said...

Love the story! Thanks for following, I'll be back!

lakeviewer said...

David King,

I need your fine mind this morning. On my post regarding rules I commented that we need a special award for people who show good breeding, promote civilized behavior and are an examplar for their part of the world. I can play with the words portion, the ditty part; but, I need help with the graphics, the picture that represents the intention of the award.

I thought that you'd be the best one to consult with. Please, please think about it and get back to me with suggestions. Thank you in advance for the time and energy that you will invest in this pursuit.

Dave King said...

Janie
Much thanks for that.

LakeViewer
I will do my best. Am now off for a think!

Adrian LaRoque said...

Fantastic story Dave, congratulations!

lakeviewer said...

Dave,

Thanks for giving it a think moment.

Dave King said...

Adrian
Many thanks

Rachel Cotterill said...

Fascinating! An enjoyable - if somewhat dark - read.

I should be writing right now, not reading... :)

Gwen Buchanan said...

Dave, you drew me in ...I really enjoyed this! I wanted to know about these guys.. I wanted to keep reading... You are Good!!! Thanks!!!

Jenn said...

Oh wow Dave, this is fantastic! I am not one who generally is drawn into stories about war but this is really a story about men who happened to be in a war. You have built up the suspense so well and nailed down the scene and characters to a T. I want to know what happened to make Jack react in such a way. This is an excellent story!

A Cuban In London said...

A good short story. I loved the way you described the main character in the first paragraph. Loved the build up towards the denouement. Look forward to more.

Greetings from London.