By Vic, 18 July 2017 #
, he said. He cut a slightly awkward figure as he strode down the High Street, swinging his battered Gladstone bag in such a wide arc that he seemed to risk dislocation. The phrase, evidently a mantra, was repeated in time to the movement, or else the bag was swung in time to this music.
We were sat outside the pub having a post-work beer. It must have been just after half five. We craned our necks to follow him down the road, until we could no longer hear his charm and he ducked out of sight. Inevitably he had piqued our curiosity, and we set about speculating on his deadline.
“It has to be his last day at work. He’s the right age — I’d put him at early sixties. He’s clearly had that bag all his working life.”
His appearance was perfectly unremarkable, if a little dated. He had the overall look of a geography teacher, in his navy kagool, slacks and sensible walking shoes. His greying hair and beard were lush but not excessive or unkempt.
“Let’s work out the dates. A final working day would most likely be a Friday. Right? Today is Monday July the 3rd. Two hundred and twenty-eight days from today will be… Friday the 16th of Feb. That must be when he’s retiring.”
The next day as I was walking back from the office, he overtook me at speed just as I passed the pub. Clarion clear, “Two hundred and twenty-seven days to go/ Two hundred and twenty-seven days to go,” and again — “Two hundred and twenty-seven days to go.” Then he was gone, down the cut through to the estate, his theme tune fading into the distance.
“He looks like the kind of guy who’s done the same job all his life. I’m definitely going with teacher. You?”
“I reckon he works for the council. Planning officer, environmental, heritage — that kind of thing.”
So began our wager, and our sport. Over the next few months, we made it our business to keep an eye out for the man with the bag, whom we christened Gladstone Matey. He became for us a local character, joining the chap who wore very short shorts all year round to walk his two dogs, the implausibly glamourous nonagenarian former figure skater, and the scrote who liked to jump out in front of people on the Common. In that company, Gladstone was positively run of the mill. But he was an enigma for sure. We never saw him at any other time of day or in any other location, until Bonfire Night.
Uncharacteristically, we had decided to make an effort and had popped out to see the fireworks in the park. Gladstone was there, with a woman who could only have been his wife, but with whom we certainly wouldn’t have pictured him. Instead of the mousy floral librarian we had imagined, here was a pneumatic blonde two decades his junior and undeniably the centre of attention. While he wore his trademark garb, she was decked out from head to toe in sports luxe, more alpine Bond than Home Counties. She was above all else the kind of person you could imagine the average middle aged man counting down the days to spend more time with. It was dark, but you could tell they were besotted. They were all over each other, hands everywhere.
Needless to say, this amused us no end. We talked of nothing else on the walk home and for several days afterwards. We had taken to keeping a calendar, the easier to track Gladstone’s progress to his long-awaited goal. We continued to see him regularly, swinging his bag and marking time —
“86 days to go” [Wednesday November 22nd]
“74 days to go” [Monday December 4th]
“63 days to go” [Friday December 15th]
We didn’t see him in Christmas week, or the week after. That made sense. We were off, too.
“38 days to go” [Tuesday January 9th]
“22 days to go” [Thursday January 25th]
“9 days to go” [Wednesday February 7th]
At each sighting his stridency appeared to have increased, the bag’s arc more extreme than before. We conceded that this could have been wishful thinking on our part, a kind of projected anticipation. We imagined his excitement at the thrill of his well earned and fast approaching retirement, the plans he and his vivacious wife would be making for travel, hobbies and meals out — everything everyone works for always.
On D-Day we both left work early so as not to miss him, and settled into choice seats out the front of the pub. Five thirty came and went, as did six o’clock, and seven. At nine, several pints down and with enthusiasm waning, we called it a night.
“Maybe they let him finish early because it was his last day.”
“They probably had a leaving do for him in town. Why didn’t we think of that?”
By the weekend it was all over the papers. He had killed her, of course.
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