Buongiorno, friends. We’re back for Story Press 55 where a young man named John, a conscientious hard worker in a recently acquired job, has a strange encounter with an old man who bears a cryptic, profound message.
Your accompanying listening for this story is Dry Cleaning’s hotly-pressed, frequent flyer: Scratchcard Lanyard (with an excellent music video).
For more stories by me, skate the bowl of the archives.
#55 Encounters With An Old Man
I have to leave. I can’t take it any longer. All the shouting, the behind-the-back games, the favouritism and the nepotism. I’ve been here two-and-a-half years and it’s time for me to get out of this job.
The truth is, I’ve been relatively successful. Some would say I’m one of the favourites. I’ve been promoted twice. The CEO likes me. He invited me to play golf with him. He took me to the posh restaurant around the corner for lunch, on the company card.
I grab my coat and head for the door. 11:42 am and I’m already fed up.
‘Where are you going?’ Lisa, my manager, asks.
‘Fresh air. Feel a bit sick.’
‘Don’t be long, we need to finish that paper.’
Lisa… lovely person, decent manager, but last week everyone heard that she’d been sleeping with one of the directors. One who’s married. Yeah, she’s pretty, but he’s seventeen years older than her. Why do they do it? Everyone in this situation has embarrassed themselves and for what? Is it about the sex or is it about power? Promotions? Do I even want to know?
There’s a park next to the office but it’s a little too close. I don’t want to be seen by anyone. I walk along the Thames to the little gardens by the police headquarters. There’s a scattering of pigeons atop a statue, a few oddballs sitting on the grass. A homeless man lying along a bench, his face hidden.
Last week, this new director started: Martin. He’d previously worked in a different sector, construction or gambling or something like that. He’s a man’s man. Meaning he’s short and loud and in your face. You can see him already. On his second day, he took me for a meeting and told me his plans to take over the business: ‘You and me, mate. We can turn this pile of shit into something good.’ And then he took me on a tour of his career history. Quite a long list for a fairly young guy. Red flags all over. Some quick maths told me he’d been at each company for an average of seven months. Over the course of about 16 years, give or take.
This morning, he told me to drop everything I had going on and to provide a one-page report on what had caused the recent changes in the stock of Amazon, Apple and Google. Amazon, Apple and Google? Really? He told me it was for a new client he’d brought on and that it was urgent. Naturally, I dropped everything and got to work. When I finished, he stood in front of me, reading it diligently. His little wiry glasses were a superficial attempt at making himself seem like an intellectual. Next thing, he scrunched the paper up, tossed it in the bin and said: ‘Good work. It wasn’t actually for a client. I just wanted to test you. Make sure you were worth your salt. But this is really good work. Thank you, mate.’
Turning back to his laptop, he started aggressively tapping away as though I’d never existed.
Are you serious?
I had a client deadline I missed for that. A real client deadline. One with real consequences. Lisa, now, is telling me we need to move along this report. We’re late and we need to get it out.
I know, Lisa.
In the park, I find a bench away from its other inhabitants. One tucked away, where I can see people but, really, they can’t see me. It’s hidden behind a thick tree trunk and a branch that sweeps forward. You’d have to be really looking to see me there. With my hands tucked into my coat pockets, I sit, my legs rattling with adrenaline, with anger. A pigeon flutters down and lands in front of me, gawking in my direction before strutting back and forth aimlessly. It starts to make its way towards me, before I flick a foot out, sending its wings aflutter.
A young, attractive girl walks past and I half wonder what will happen if she turns to look at me, and I’m just sitting here staring at her. But she doesn’t. She’s got her headphones on. She’s in her own little world. She’s gone before I can really even comprehend it. I look down at my shoes and it suddenly seems so absurd to me that I’m here. On my own. For absolutely no reason, with absolutely nothing to do.
I look up again, and then it happens. The weirdest thing. An old man, whose age I can’t tell you (he could be fifty and just look terrible, or he could be the oldest man on earth), sidles along in front of the open passage beside my tree trunk, and turns and looks at me.
He’s so old, he’s got two walking sticks, and his hands shake violently as he rests his weight on them. His back hunches over so far I’m surprised he can look at anything but the floor. His head is bald and scabby, like he’s suffered centuries of bad weather. He’s wearing a big, mahogany cloak, with folds of fabric wrapping around his neck and head, like a monk. Through a gap in the bottom of his cloak, I can see his muddy boots, though I’m not sure they warrant the name ‘boots’: cloth wrapped tightly with string about his ankles.
He looks at me for a while, perhaps thirty seconds, and I look back. Neither of us move, and then the old man sighs, and puts one stick before the other as he takes a seat next to me on the bench.
‘Can I help you?’ I ask. I feel guilty for sounding so rude, but his long stare and his sigh… it’s no coincidence. He’s here to say something to me.
A little smirk creeps around the old man’s mouth, but I don’t look too long in case he thinks I’m staring.
‘What is your name?’
I nod. He doesn’t look at me, he only stares out to the gardens.
‘Why are you here?’ he asks.
‘Here as in, in the gardens?’
The old man nods slowly. His lips look painfully dry and cracked.
‘Had to get out of work, they were driving me up the wall. What’s it to you?’
‘Hmm,’ he grunts. He doesn’t say anything, merely rests his forehead on the back of his hand which is, in turn, resting on one of the sticks.
‘Sorry, I think I’m going to go.’
‘No,’ he grunts. ‘I’ve travelled a long way to be here.’ The old man coughs. It’s all phlegmy, like he’s going to cough up a lung. He pulls a cloth out of a fold in his cloak I hadn’t seen, and covers his mouth.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve travelled a long way to be here…’
‘To be here?’ I point at the bench, at the gardens - like, what is he talking about?
‘Mmhmm,’ he grunts, before coughing again.
‘I’ve come to tell you, John, to change everything in your life. You need to change it all. You were not built for this life. You had another purpose.’
‘How do you know anything about my life?’
‘Oh, son, stop asking questions of me and ask them of yourself. You’re getting on my nerves.’
‘Oh, well, sorry,’ I say, sarcastically. ‘So, who are you? How do you know anything about me?’
‘Don’t you listen?’ He sounds like he’s got more to say, but he stops to cough again. ‘Don’t you hear anything I say?’
‘Okay, I’m leaving.’ I stand. ‘Nice to meet you, old man.’
He waves a closed hand at me, gripping his coughing cloth, and I walk out of the little area tucked away with the bench.
What a strange old man?
Maybe he had dementia. Maybe he was just losing it and thought I was someone else. Maybe he’d come to London to visit a grandchild or something, and got confused when he saw me sitting there. But then, what was he wearing? He looked like he’d been dropped out of another century.
Wind knocks a few raindrops out of a tree and onto me, and I skip forward. Is that old man just going to sit out here on his own? I turn around to see if he’s there, perhaps walking in the other direction.
No, no sign of him.
Just as I get to the gate, I have this urge to turn around. I can’t leave him on his own, can I? What if he really is unwell? What if he stumbles in front of a car, or has a fall?
I scale the gardens and approach the bench from the other side. He must still be there, sitting on his own.
When I approach the bench, I come around the other side of the tree and the space opens up, but there’s no old man. No sticks, no man, no sign of anyone having been there at all. Only a bench without an occupant, inviting someone in to join it.
For what reason, I don’t know, but a wave of sadness comes over me and I’m suddenly aware of being cold and alone. I pull my jacket tight, thrust my hands in my pockets, and slowly meander back towards the office.
The old man’s voice is scratching at the back of my mind: ‘I’ve come to tell you to change everything in your life… You were not built for this life… You had another purpose.’
Dark clouds circle overhead so I pick up my pace and get back to the office, where work has now seeped in to occupy my mind.