David R Ewens

Journey of a Lifetime

15th April 2007

‘God, what a day!’Frank Jenkinson thought as the ticket barriers clacked symbolically shut behind him. At least he was leaving it all behind as he walked briskly to the front carriage of the 5.05 from Cannon Street to Whitstable as he had done every working day since 1st May 1990. His appraisal had been an unsettling experience. Frank by name, frank by nature was his motto, but it seemed curiously inappropriate subjected to the forensic, inquisitorial skills of his new manager.

‘You may be busy, but are you effective and efficient?’ Sylvia Burns had asked with her customary briskness. ‘We don’t just want activity; we want outcomes, measurable outcomes’. Her fervour was breathless, iconoclastic.

Himself a man of strong character and even stronger views, Frank Jenkinson felt uncomfortable in the company of strong, independent women. A woman who was strong, independent and his boss to boot was even more of a nightmare. Irritation with the day gone was matched by irritation that his favourite seat just inside the front carriage had already been taken by a hippy couple clearly on a cheap day return.Why on earth can’t commuter trains be for commuters, and not have any of the riff-raff who travelled up later in the day?

Gradually, though, anger with Sylvia Burns, with the awful day and even with the couple who’d pinched his rightful seat began to fade. His thoughts turned to the evening ahead. Anne would be waiting with his dinner and a slug of Scotch. The fire would be lit. All would be well with the world. An unsettling thought furrowed his brow. His dinner, the Scotch and the fire would be waiting, and so would Anne, his wife of nineteen years. But she had been distant and detached lately, her thoughts elsewhere, her actions and conversation mechanical. He knew that he was a brusque and impatient man. Anne’s family thought him overbearing. He dismissed all their implied criticisms, their tut-tutting, their disapproving looks. Who put the bread on the table in this marriage? Who had provided the cash for the lovely detached four-bedroomed house on Tankerton sea-front, looking over the wide expanse of the North Sea? Frank, that’s who – and the nice, new Audi coupe and the NISAs stashed away in the joint savings account.

He had the right to ‘minimum standards andexpectations’ as he termed them. They’d been unable to have children, he and Anne, so apart from his easy-to-fulfil needs, Anne was free as a bird. All marriages had their ups and downs, their pros and cons. If he could be overbearing and irascible, wasn’t that a small price for Anne to pay for all the advantages that came her way?He retrieved the Daily Mail from his briefcase, pleased at his success in justifying himself so easily. All he had to do was apply the technique to his workplace and he would be ‘home and dry’ (one of his all time favourite expressions). In the end, not even the hysterical tone of the newspaper, indignant at the flood of migrants, police softness on crime and the general malaise of society (according to the Mail and fully endorsed by him) could shake his new-found geniality.

The day was still suffused with brightness even as twilight approached. The playing fields of DulwichCollege had sparkled in the sunlight. The train arrived at Bromley South and pulled out a few moments later. Gradually, the suburbs fell away and London surrendered to the fields and pastures of North Kent. Home was getting inexorably closer. His heart lifted, as it always did, as the train moved through the rolling hills of the North Downs and swept round into the Medway Towns – Rochester, immortalised by Dickens, and Chatham, the obscure riverside village elevated by Henry VIII to major shipbuilding port. Frank always marvelled as the train negotiated the deep tunnels between Chatham and Gillingham, anticipating the panoramic view of Chatham’s terraces – row on row for all the world like some Lancastrian mill town.

Then the train stopped – not during the smooth glide into Gillingham station but a lurching, juddering halt. Silence filled the air. The carriage continued in its collective reverie; commuters rarely talk. Time elapsed too. Something wasn’t right. After five minutes Frank’s serenity and anticipation had been replaced by a rushing fury – well beyond the earlier irritation induced by his ‘awful day’. Hot fury was replaced by cold. The guard announced that the delay was caused by an accident – or rather, a suicide – up ahead. Someone had jumped onto the track in front of the train. Frank had never been a compassionate man. The news increased his sheer, silent rage.Why the hell must people throw themselves onto railway tracks? Do they have any conception of the inconvenience they cause to hundreds of people? Don’t they know that we have lives, and that time is precious to us, even if it isn’t to them?

His anger continued unabated, through three announcements, the snail’s pace crawl into Gillingham, and only the marginally quicker procession on to the Kent coast. Nothing could cool it – and his hatred of the despairing suicide.His gleaming car gave him no comfort at the station two hours later. His dinner would be ruined. The Scotch would have a bitter taste. The fire’s glow would give him no comfort. And if Anne was miserable and distant, woe betide her!

But when he pulled up into the drive, the house loomed over him in utter darkness. His puzzlement, and yes, his irritation boiled up once more.

‘What the hell is going on?’ he muttered to himself. ‘Is it Tuesday evening and that wretched, worthless ‘Creative writing’ evening class? Waste of time But no, it’s Wednesday ’

At that moment, the police car pulled up quietly behind, wheels scrunching the gravel.

‘What now?’ he spluttered, just as the cliché popped curiously into his head that policemen look so young these days. The young officer spent no time in prevarication.

‘Mr. Jenkinson?’

‘Yes’, said Frank Jenkinson with the confidence of an upstanding if opinionated citizen.

‘I’m afraid I have some bad news. It’s your wife, sir. She was found on the railway track beneath the London Roadbridge at Chatham in front of a Ramsgate-bound train. I’m sorry, sir.’

David R Ewens

 

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