Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Mr Jennings

(The first line of this story appeared from nowhere and stuck itself firmly in my mind. Not that I had any idea where it would go, let alone theme or premise, but I had to get it down on paper and let it develop. I thought of the twist around the middle of the second paragraph and thought, given the season, it would be an interesting exercise to see if I could maintain one direction while bearing another in mind. I'm not sure if I managed it :-)

Update: A version of this story won me 2nd place in the 2007 Basingstoke Music and Arts Festival! )

I don't remember the first time I saw Mr Jennings. He just seemed to always be there, in every Christmas photo and every birthday photo. Just one of those people who always seem to be there and no one questions it. He always bought useful things for my presents. Not big, expensive things, mind you, but the things I really needed, the things that other people forgot, or didn't have the time to look for, or didn't make the time to look for. It would be things like the rare action figure that completed the set Mum and Dad had gotten for me. The bulk pack of batteries that let me play my Space Invaders game for days on end until I had amassed such a high score that no one could beat me and had gained extremely sore thumbs.

He'd be there to congratulate me when I did well in a test or got good marks on my work. He'd tell me how proud he was of me, just like my parents did, but his praise was just that little more heartfelt, like he really meant it. He'd be there for the bad things too, holding me while I cried because of the bullies or the bee-sting. He held me the whole night when Granddad Jack died, telling me he had gone to a lovely place and he'd be fine, just fine.

Of course, I was curious about him. I asked Mum and Dad, but they just smiled and said nothing. Nonetheless, I asked. "Who is he?" "Is he my uncle?" As I got older, the questions changed, becoming more precise. "Why does he dress that way?" "Why does everyone seem to ignore him?"

Then one day, we moved, and just like that, he was gone. I lay awake the night before my birthday, hoping that he'd be there the next day, but he wasn't and my life felt emptier for it. Christmas Eve, I lay awake again, hoping and begging the Powers That Be to let him be there, but he wasn't.

I was worried that he'd been going to the wrong house, perhaps he hadn't gotten our change of address letter. So I trudged out in the January slush, wrapped up against the biting cold, the end of my nose red, fingers and toes going numb. I walked all the way back to our old house, knocking on that familiar wooden front door, with the familiar brass door knocker, with a stranger's face answering.

"Has Mr Jennings been here?", I asked, eagerly. The lady apologised and told me no one by that name had been there. I turned and walked away sadly, but something made me turn back. A shiver down my spine? A prickling on the back of my neck? I looked back and my heart soared with joy. He was there, standing in an upstairs window, waving slowly at me, a half-smile on his face. I waved back and started to run to the house, but a change in his demeanour stopped me in my tracks. My heart sank like a stone as his smile left his face, a look of sadness replacing it. He shook his head sadly and mouthed, "I'm sorry. Be a good boy for me, lil one."

And with that, as I watched, he faded into nothingness.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Epiphany

(The second course homework. We were asked to select a button from a selection. I went for a small, non-descript white button, which could have come from anything. I saw a man's shirt and started a description from that. The homework was to develop the character and write a story. I'd always had the feeling that the man getting ready for an interview or other job-related meeting. The investment banker stuff came after I read my first issue of G.Q., the one with Jude Law on the cover. The theme I went for was "Change" and the premise is "money can't make you happy")

I slide the shirt off the hanger, removing it from the protective plastic wrapped around it by the laundry service. I bring the crisp, clean cotton to my face and breath in the scent of the fabric conditioner. I grin and marvel at the brilliance of the cleaners; it would be hard to imagine that this shirt had been worn out all night, lipstick marks on the collar, splatters of some meal from 15 down the front.

I slip the shirt on, Thomas Pink's finest creation gliding over my arms, wrapping around my torso. I carefully do up the buttons, fingers and thumbs working in perfect harmony from bottom to top. Finishing, I flash a quick glance at the Breitling chronograph strapped around my left wrist. Plenty of time, even for London.

I tuck the shirt into the pressed trousers of my Hugo Boss suit and slide the monographed belt through the loops. Taking the tie from the rack, I quickly wrap it around my neck and tie a perfect knot, tucking the ends in and smoothing it down, the silk smooth and soft under my fingers.

I inspect the work so far. Clean-shaven, flawless features, a glint of anticipation in my eyes. Gelled, styled hair, the result of a half hour session at the salon. I flash a winning smile at the handsome guy in the mirror. Glancing down, I see Jude glowering from the cover of GQ.

"Sorry, mate, no contest", I murmur, sliding my wallet into the breast pocket of my suit jacket; did I mention it's a Hugo Boss? I step into my heavily polished loafers and pull the jacket from the back of the chair. I flip it over my head and pull it on

"Come on", I think to myself. "Jackson isn't any competition. He only made 750k last month. You've got this promotion in the bag. You're a winner, remember?"

I mentally run through my resume. Youngest investment banker at Fortnum, Lloyds and Mason. First person there to crack one and a half mil in a week. Head-hunted by Mutual Beneficial. That damn sexy Mercedes C.L.S. parked in the garage, bought with my latest bonus. The even sexier canary yellow Ducatti that I got with my first bonus. The girls. Oh god, the girls!

I shake my head, realising I'm veering way off course here.

"Concentrate", I mutter.

But the image of the last woman to cross the threshold, the latest of... how many? ... that I have held in my arms for a night, the image stays with me. Something deep down doesn't feel right. My brow furrows.

Yes, I have the car of my dreams. But no one to pile into it with, to run down to the coast and shack up somewhere for the weekend. Yes, I have fine designer suits, but no one who I can wear them for, no one who will be longing to get me out of it at the end of the night. Yes, my salary may be in six figures, but all I can do with it is buy more of the overpriced things shoved in my face by every magazine I read, buying solely so I have more than my workmates... no, not mates, there's no real friendship there, just a bunch of lonely men fighting without fists to get the most beautiful girl in the bar. And then again the next night. And the next. And the next.

I hear the sound of crying and realise it's me. My cheeks are wet; I reach to touch them, staring at my wet fingertips. I know now what I want.

The tie lands in a heap on the floor. I run my hands through my hair, wrecking the careful work of the stylist. I look at the wild man in the mirror and grin.

"Jackson wants the promotion, he can have it", I shout, loud and sure. I run for the door, throw it open and dash out. It swings shut, but not before another shout, full of anticipation.

"I want a life!"