My first attempt at Friday Flash fiction....
9 to 5
“This is a customer announcement. Please step back from the edge of the platform. The next train does not stop at this station.”
As the Manchester Piccadilly express thundered through the station, Mark folded the free tabloid, slipped it into his laptop bag for later reading and rose to his feet in anticipation of the arrival of the somewhat more leisurely 7.27. It always amused him to think that the passengers on the fast train could cover 40 miles in less than half an hour, whilst for he and his suburban compatriots a journey of no more than ten miles took the same if not longer time. He’d considered cycling to work, but had always looked with some disdain at those commuters who rock up at their office encased in lycra and beaded with sweat like some kind of Olympic hopeful only to make a Superman-like transformation into just another suit.
Mark had never wanted to be just another suit, his student days – and nights – were passed with guitar in hand and books on shelf, academic study always taking second place to dreams of rock stardom. He’d had plenty of dreams in those days, dreams and ambitions of becoming a household name, of living a life outside of the 9 to 5 box. Dreams, however, do not keep food on the table, whereas a respectable job in a bank –not just a job, as his mother always reminded him, but a career – pays the bills.
Mark’s mother was terribly proud, telling everyone she met how her son worked in banking in the City. She never elaborated further, leaving her audience to make their own assumption of a glamorous London career, work hard play hard, pinstripes, braces and big fat bonuses. The reality of the Northern Bank regional office in Manchester was nowhere near as exciting, so she tended to keep these details to herself. Mark himself quickly gave up on correcting her and instead would play along; “Oh yes, it’s a very important role, so much responsibility, I’d tell you more but it really is very complicated. They call us the unelected rulers of the world, you know, and it’s true. It would all fall apart without us, that’s the honest truth.” Then, of course, it did all fall apart, and whilst his mother’s pride did not diminish whatsoever, the story was all of a sudden spun in a somewhat different way; “Our Mark works in financial administration. He’s a manager you know, six people working for him. We always knew he’d do well, our Mark. Takes after his father, rest his soul; always such a clever man. Only twenty-four and six people working for him, imagine that!”
The train was relatively empty so Mark slid into a window seat and dumped his bag beside him. As the train lurched forward he retrieved his laptop from its case and fired it up. When the background photo of Rosalie appeared he smiled; he’d always loved this picture, taken at sunset overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on their first holiday together three years ago. She looked so happy, cocktail in hand, sun-bleached hair swept in a messy ponytail, strappy dress revealing a deep tan. His Mum had a photo of the two of them taken on the same holiday sat pride of place on her mantelpiece. “Such a beautiful looking girl;” she would tell her guests, gesticulating towards the documentary evidence in the mahogany frame. Mark often wondered what his Dad would have made of Rosalie. “Beautiful girl like that, what’s she doing with our Mark? Can’t be for his looks!” Five years now and it never got easier. Day in day out Mark would wonder what his Dad would have thought of particular situations, would imagine the advice that he would have dished out in his usual stoic, unjudgemental style.
For the past four months since the unusually balmy day in September when he waved her off at Manchester Airport, photos were as close as Mark had got to seeing Rosalie in the flesh.
"Such a pity she’s working abroad at the moment;” his Mum would tell visitors. “Six months she’s going to be out there, helping to set up a branch in Spain. They must think very highly of her, she’s only been at there a year and she’s in charge of their operations in a whole country. Thirty years I’ve been working at the supermarket and I’ve never even crossed the threshold of the manager’s office, not that it bothers me. Such a shame she’s away though; it’s not like me to speak too soon but I wouldn’t be surprised if an engagement was on the cards when she gets back, you mark my words.”
Mark initially moved the computer cursor towards the folder marked ‘Work’, but after a brief moment’s hesitation redirected it to the icon for the game Solitaire. Immersed in the game, it seemed as if barely minutes had passed when the intercom crackled into life and announced that they would shortly be arriving at their final stop. Frustrated at having failed to successfully complete the game, Mark snapped the laptop shut and wandered towards the carriage door, negotiating the usual obstacle course of buggies and suitcases en route.
On a bright morning like this the walk across the city centre was almost pleasant, although the bitter wind meant that Mark walked at a swift pace, not resting on his favourite park bench or lingering to look in estate agents windows as he had done in the autumn. In the absence of Rosalie Mark could not single-handedly afford to keep up the rent on the apartment that they had shared, and so it was that he had found himself like many of his generation back in the home that he had grown up in, slipping back into old habits and reaping the benefits of a home-cooked meal on the table and a freshly laundered shirt folded neatly at the end of his bed each night. The department stores that Mark sauntered past loudly proclaimed ‘Final Sale, Everything Must Go!’; however the promised bargains failed to stir his interest as he marched onwards in the direction of the office. The journey took about ten minutes, and with his fingers having become numb with cold Mark was relieved when he reached his destination.
Stood outside the bank, Mark looked up to the third floor window next to his desk, or rather next to where his desk used to be. Turning his back on his former place of employment, Mark entered the coffee shop where he’d spent the past twelve weeks trying to make an Americano last as long as possible whilst listlessly searching for jobs, composing (but never sending) lengthy heartfelt emails begging Rosalie to rethink her decision and take him back, and losing game after game of Solitaire. Loosening his tie he sank back into his usual seat and closed his eyes. Since his father had passed away, his Mum had taken so much comfort from her son’s successful life and perfect relationship. Hiding the truth had, at first, come so easily, but with several months’ efforts having failed to secure a single interview and his savings almost all gone, it felt as if he were drowning in the lies that were keeping his mother afloat. Of one thing he was sure, he could not go on like this much longer, but whenever he contemplating telling the truth he could not help but picture the disappointment on his mother’s face. She’d been through so much having nursed his dad for all those years; she didn’t deserve this.
“Please step back from the edge of the platform. The next train does not stop at this station”.
Eyes still closed Mark pictured stepping forward into the 80mph embrace of the Manchester Piccadilly Express; a disturbingly comforting vision that had been invading his mind with increased frequency of late. However this time, instead of experiencing the usual falling sensation, Mark was jolted awake by a female voice.
“Hope you don’t mind but I’ve bought over your usual. It’s on the house.”
Mark looked up to see a young woman holding out a steaming mug of coffee. He had seen the girl before, but never really paid her much attention.
“Thanks, that’s kind of you;” he replied gratefully.
“No worries. Apologies if I’m intruding, but I’ve seen you here a fair bit recently and wondered if you’d perhaps be interested in this?”. She held out a sheet of A4 paper which Mark instantly recognised as a poster that he’d seen on many occasions but, like the girl, never really looked at, never given the attention that it deserved.
‘SITUATION VACANT – ATHENA COFFEE, ASSISTANT MANAGER’
“What, me?” He shook his head. “Why do you think I’d be interested in this?”
“Well, you clearly know the menu inside out, and as you spend a lot of time here anyway....” She paused. “Look, I’m sorry, I’ve clearly got the wrong end of the stick. But what about meeting for a drink, not now obviously, but later, after I’ve finished my shift?”
Mark was about to knock her back, tell her that he was overqualified to work in a second rate Starbucks clone and not looking for a relationship, when his mind flicked once again back to 7.26;
“Please step back from the edge of the platform. The next train does not stop at this station”.
Mark folded the poster and slipped it into his briefcase.
“No apologies necessary. A drink sounds great and the other thing – well, I’ll think about it. Come and get me at the end of your shift – you know where to find me.”
As the girl walked back towards the counter and a building queue of thirsty customers, Mark smiled to himself. Maybe it was time to stop lying and start actually living again. Maybe, just maybe, he would keep heeding that warning and stand back from the platform. And, he considered whilst paying extremely close attention to how his future colleague’s pencil skirt and blouse clung tightly to pin-up curves, maybe he’d actually been wrong all along. Maybe working 9 to 5 wouldn’t be so bad a way to make a living after all.