This tale was written some time ago, as an offering in one of Jake Rivers' famous invitations for a story based on a country music song. Being a melancholy old bleeder, I chose this number that can often be heard playing in my study. Usually quietly in the background whilst I'm writing. The version I have is by Tom T Hall, I have no idea if anyone else has recorded it.
Thanks to LadyCibelle and my friend SH for sorting my foul-ups and editing for me.
Clarification: Pally - from pal or friend. To get all pally can have a variety of deferent meanings in this case it means becoming close friend.
I suppose a lot of folks would have put it down to the old midlife crisis kind of thing. Or maybe, after all those years, one might say it was the seven-year itch, running a little on the late side after fourteen years of marriage. Anyway the truth is that at thirty-eight I had those niggling questions beginning to come to the forefront of my mind.
After sharing the last sixteen years of my life with my wife Christina – Tina to most folks, mum to our three little tykes and Babe to me - I was beginning to wonder what it was all about and maybe what could have been.
Well that's a lie really. I think that – somewhere, tucked away in the back of my mind, where we all fear to tread, most of the time – maybe, I had always been asking myself the "what if?" question.
You remember what it was like when we were teenagers. How you first found the girl of your dreams, and kind of developed ideas about where your life was going with them.
For some folks it was a quiet life in a nice little house in the country. For others it was to become a big man in a big house, with a big high fence all around; read becoming rich, and leading the life of Reilly.
I can't say for sure what happened to all those dreams I'd had as a young man. I always did have myself a good job, even if I could never understand why they put up with me lately. I'd become a bit of a grouch, around the office of late. Maybe I was feeling pretty bored with it, after all those years. I figured that I'd reached the peak of where I was going to get to with my employer and there was sweet FA to look forward too.
A couple of times over the years, I had thought that maybe a change of employer would get the ball rolling again, and ... well, I don't know what really.
But that would have meant a move to another part of the country and ... Well, there was the kids' schooling to take into account, and all the rest of the upheaval a move would have caused in family life, to take into consideration.
No, a change of employment and all that involved just weren't on the cards. Well not at that time; it would probably have led to an abrupt end of what was left of my marriage, anyway.
Yeah, all right I've got to admit that life at home wasn't what it should have been. I know Tina found it hard sometimes, what with those three little urchins, and the house to look after. Well yeah, she did find time to do some charity work, she was on the children's school board of governors and had been a member of the PTA before that.
Okay, and I'll admit that I wasn't always as supportive around the house as I could have been. But then, I was working my socks off earning the cash to pay the mortgage and feed and clothe the little buggers. And give Tina almost everything any woman could want in life. I'd always thought that that was my part of the bargain.
Generally Tina was out at her charity things, two nights a week and I stayed home watching the kids. I usually went down the Band Club, Mondays and Thursdays to practice snooker on a full size competition table; I got a three-quarter size one tucked away in the garage.
I ain't half-bad on the old green baize; not up to professional standards, so you won't see me at the Crucible. But I've won a good few bob in amateur competitions over the years.
Before the children came along, Tina would come and watch me play in competition. Hey, she's no slouch with a snooker cue herself; well she was, when she had time to practice with me.
If you get the idea that things had sort-a cooled down in our relationship, you wouldn't be too far wrong. I kind-a got the feeling, that like quite a few married couples, we were just going through the motions by then. Yeah, we went out together – just Tina and I – a couple of times a month. And yeah, we generally had – some pretty basic - sex most Saturday nights. But most of the time our social life together was revolving around the kids and their needs.
I sort-a had it figured that Tina and me, were both killing time until the kids were old enough to fly the coop, and then ... Well then, maybe we'd go our own separate ways.
Anyway I hope these revelations give you some insight into my state of mind that bright sunny summer morning, as I sat in my office pushing papers around and wishing that I was anywhere else in the world but there.
I was pulled out of my day dreaming funk, when quite unexpectedly, there was a sharp tap on my office door.
Unexpected, because, Betty - who acted as my secretary - normally called me on the intercom if I had a visitor; and if she wanted to see me, I usually went out to her. Betty wasn't my exclusive secretary and looked after all the rest of the guys in the department as well. Although, I held seniority over nearly all of them except the department head; but as he rarely ventured into the section anyway ... Yeah you get the idea.
I'll add, most of my colleagues had learnt by then, that I wasn't the most sociable of people first thing in the morning. So if they had any problems that they'd rather bring to me than the department head, then they knew it was best left until after I'd had my lunch.
Anyway, there was this sudden rap on my door, then it burst open and Martin Goldman strolled in like he owned the place. Which, to be perfectly honest, he did; so, I couldn't very-well tell him to eff-off, could I?
Old man Goldman - whose father had started the company way back in the days of yore, during or just after WW2 – had kind-a grown up in the organisation, and for years run it with an iron fist. Anyway the old bugger had died about eight months previous and his only son Martin had come back home - from wherever he'd been hiding-out for more years than I care to recall – to take over the reigns.
Martin and I had history, - of sorts - we'd grown up together. Well kind-of, during our formative years, we just happened to live not too far away from each other. And as we'd got older - coincidently - gone to the same college for a while, and hung around the same teenage hangouts. But not, what you might describe as together.
We even drank in the same pubs and went to the same dances and clubs etc. But we'd never been what you might call mates. Martin's education – as you might expect, being the son of a rich Jewish businessman – had mostly been in the private sector, and I'd struggled along in the State system.
Sometimes, we'd even dated the same birds in our younger days; at different times off course. So you can understand that we'd always known one-another, even if in a rather tenuous way. I'd always known who he was and he was well aware of my existence, although we had never actually run with the same crowd. At that time, I'd have doubted we'd ever said more the half a dozen words to each other in our whole lives.
Martin Goldman, was now the 'big cheese' in the company I worked for, and his arrival at my lowly door was completely unexpected.
As Martin entered my little office, I went to stand – to show the subservience that's expected when the big boss man pays an unexpected call on one of his lowly minions – but much to my surprise Martin gestured for me to remain seated and plonked his Jacksie on the seat opposite me. He took a quick look down -- and frowned -- at the cheap typist's chair he found himself sitting upon, and then glanced around my little domain, with an expression of some distain on his face; before leaning back in the seat and fixing me with a long stare.
For what seemed to be an eternity, Martin Goldman didn't say a word, he just sat there staring at me.
To be completely truthful, I feared exactly what the bugger was about to say to me. Word had gone around the company that Martin had been making some big changes upstairs, and the rumour was that he seemed to take pleasure in doing the required firing personally. Or, to give the man the benefit of the doubt, at least he took the responsibility for doing the actual deed himself, rather than delegating the task to one of the many brown-nose's he'd inherited from his old man since he'd returned.
"Long time no see Josh." Goldman finally said; with a smile on his face, just as if he was an old friend I'd run into in the pub.
I'm not sure why, I was extremely suspicious of this casual greeting, but decided it would be diplomatic to follow his relaxed lead.
"Well Mr Goldman, some of us had to stay in town and keep the home fires burning." I replied trying my best to smile back at him.
"Good lord, Josh; cut out all that formal crap. We've known each other long enough for you to call me Marty; at least when we are in private."
"Cheers, Marty. But to be honest; we never..."
"Don't give me all that bullshit, Josh. I still remember the night of the Cup Final, just before I went off to Oxford. If you and your mates hadn't backed us up, those wankers would have had our guts for garters."
Martin was referring to a night many years before that I'd almost entirely forgotten about.
A group of friends and I, had gone to the Cup Final at Wembley. On our way home – and by complete chance - we'd come across Marty and a couple of his friends, just as they were confronted by a little group of Neanderthal skinhead thugs, masquerading as football supporters.
Anyway three Jewish boys wearing the wrong colour scarves were probably just what the half dozen or so, numbskulls had been looking for that day.
The sixteen semi-pissed and extremely noisy, genuine football supporters who confidently strolled up to stand with the three Jewish lads, wasn't! The skinheads beat a hasty strategic withdrawal, and then all nineteen of us, staggered off in the direction of nearest pub, to continue our celebrations.
After that, things become a bit hazy for me; I have little clear recollection of much of what happened later that evening, if any.
But, I do know that I awoke in my own bed sometime late on the Sunday afternoon. And in one piece, but with a hangover that beats all the others I've ever had, before or since!
Exactly where, the "Ladies Changing Room" sign, the pair of frilly ladies panties - or the yellow reflective jacket with the words Metropolitan Police printed across the back of it - came from, I have no idea. The Jacket, I ditched a bit sharp-ish; the sign still hangs in my garage at home. The knickers? God only knows!
"Boy was that a night, I'd never been as drunk as I got that night." Marty was saying when I realised that he was still talking.
"Yeah, I kind-a remember the hangover. Damn thing lasted nearly all week." I added when he stopped to take a breath.
"That was my old man's wine. You were knocking it back like there was no tomorrow; they say that you shouldn't mix grape and grain." Martin grinned, "You know, he went ballistic at me; we nearly emptied his wine cupboard and we did clear the cocktail cabinet."
"Eh ... we were at your house that night?" I asked. That must have been part of the evening that I'd lost completely.
"My parents' place, the old man ran a bunch of you home in his car, the rest he shipped home by taxi; don't you remember?"
"Don't remember much about that evening Martin. Well, not after that mate of yours started ordering the shorts in the pub anyway."
"My friends call me Marty, Josh. Yeah, it was a hell of a night, but I'm not here to talk about old times; I'm here to talk about you." Marty said changing the subject and with the seriousness of his tone, I began to get worried again.
"My spies tell me, that you're out of sorts lately and not your normal happy-go-lucky self. You're not feeling unwell or anything, are you?"
"No, I'm feeling fine health-wise, Marty. I don't know where you got that idea."
"Oh come on, Josh. Betty's known you long enough to know that something's not kosher. She tells me that for the last few months you've been really down. What is it, money troubles? You know that if I can help out financially, I will. We might not have been bosom buddies in the old days, but I owe you big time."
"Hey no, I've never had any money problems. Never had to complain about my salary."
"I would hope not! The old man was very appreciative of what you and your friends did for me that night, you know. You've been on the top of the wage bracket here, from the day you started."
Suddenly I realised why I had been trapped in that bloody job for so long. Although I'd only spoken to the old guy a couple of times since I'd worked for the company; Marty's father must have recognised me -- or my name on the staff list -- and put the word out that I should be looked after, financially.
Every other job that I'd ever gone after ... Well, I'd found that I was earning more – or at least as much as – the top of their wage bracket for the position, before I started.
I have no idea what expression I must have had on my face as I realised the fact.
"You never knew did you? My dad looked after folks who looked after him or his own, Josh. But anyway, going through your personnel file I was wondering, how come you've never tried for advancement out of this shit-hole of a department?"
"Well what, Josh?" Marty asked, but then his facial expression changed some. "Surely you never thought ... Dam it, you did, didn't you? You thought that the only way to the top in this company was if you were Jewish, or kissed the right persons arse, didn't you?" -- "Bleeding hell, you disappoint me, Josh."
Marty stopped speaking for a few moments and sat there with a thoughtful expression on his face; but then the smiled returned again.
"Sorry, yeah. I suppose that from where you've been sitting, it might seem that way. Nearly all the top brass are, now that I come to think of it ... So, I suppose it's only natural for you to think that way.
"But that isn't the way I do business, Josh. Or intend to run this company in the future. As a matter of fact, we've been thinking that you might fancy taking over as head of human resources."
"Sorry?" I replied.
I've got to admit I wasn't sure that I caught the correct gist of what Martin had just said to me.
"The Personnel Department, Josh! Morris (the then-current personnel manager) is coming up for retirement in a few months time, and we thought that we'd like to replace him with someone who isn't quite so ... narrow-minded. I figured you'd fit the bill very nicely."
"But I know sod-all about being a personnel manager, Marty."
"Neither does lard-arse Morris, but that hasn't stopped him from keeping that seat warm for lord knows how long. Look Josh, things have changed in the last few years. Surely you've noticed that the company has a shortage of ... er, ethnic minorities on the payroll. There are laws about that kind of thing nowadays and eventually some bugger's going to give us some real stick over it. Anyway, I thought that you're just the kind-of bloke we need to sort that situation out."
"Well, I'd have thought that was pretty obvious. That crowd you ran with when we were younger wasn't far short of a league of nations. You must have had just about every race and nationality in the district in it. And I'll bet you still hang around with most of them now, don't you?"
"Yeah well, those who still go down the Band Club to play snooker. You weren't the only one who spread their wings, Marty; some of the guys are all over the country now."
"Anyway the point is, no bugger could accuse you of being prejudiced and that's the sort of person I need running Human Resources here. I want this place to have a broad spectrum of staff, which reflects the local population."
"But surely you need someone who's qualified to do the job."
"No! I need someone who I can trust to do as I ask. I don't want bodies just to make up the numbers; I want people who will do their jobs well. Jetta and I thought..."
"Jetta?" I repeated in surprise, interrupting him.
The name Jetta had instantly rung a bell in the back of my head somewhere. It isn't what you'd call a common name, and our town wasn't all that big. There'd been a young woman named Jetta who used to frequent some of the dance clubs both Marty and I had gone to in our younger days.
My problem was, - and I'm not sure why, I'd read into Marty's body language that the Jetta he was referring too, was his wife. The young woman I remembered had been of Indian decent.
Marty grinned at me.
"Yeah Josh, Jetta's my wife ... and Betty's step-sister; just in case you thought Betty and I were misbehaving out of business hours. I could see you were puzzling over how-come I was so pally with Betty."
I didn't say anything in reply to the pally comment, because something else was bugging me.
"But Jetta's... !" I began to say.
"And Jewish by birth, Josh." Martin ginned, anticipating the rest of my comment.
Then he went on to explain. "Historically, there's not a large Jewish community in India, but it does exist. Kind of handy really; what my parents would have made of our relationship had Jetta been a Hindu or Sikh, or something, I have no idea."
Marty grinned at me again, and then explained that Jetta's mother had died when she was very young. The family had been living in East Africa, when her father had run into a recently widowed Betty's mother. I got the impression that maybe Jetta's father had employed Betty's mother as a children's nanny or something to begin with. Although Betty's mother was Irish – and Roman Catholic - eventually they'd married and come to live in the UK.
The odd point was, that although I'd remembered seeing Jetta around town quite a lot when we were younger – Christ, I'd dated the girl myself a couple of times - but I could never remember seeing Betty about much, if at all.
But then again, Betty was a few years older than Jetta, Martin or myself; she probably ran with a different peer group.
I suppose it also explained why Betty had been so pally with old man Goldman over the years. At one time or another, rumours had gone around the company that the old boy had been banging Betty on the quiet. But that had never quite explained why - at the odd company social gatherings etc - Betty and her husband had so often been all-cosy, with old man Goldman's wife and Martin's sister.
Marty went on to explain that he and Jetta had run into each other at Oxford and kind-a hit it off straight away. They got married before they finished their studies, and on graduating, had moved to the States to live; until Marty's father had his heart attack.
"We'd have been at each other throats if I'd come back to the company whilst he was here." Marty commented with a grin. "He was kind-a stuck back in the fifties somewhere.
"Look, we've got off the subject here, Josh. It's going to be a few months before Morris retires, but how's the job sound to you?" Marty asked, bringing us back on track.
"Is there any hurry for my answer, Marty? It's going to be one hell of a change for me, and I'm not sure yet whether I can handle the job." I began to say, but I gathered Marty wasn't prepared for me to say no.
"Of course you can. And I can understand that you might wish to discuss it with Christina first."
"Hmm," I commented, "as if she'd give a toss."
"I don't like the way you said that, Josh. Are there any problems at home that I don't know about? Is that why you've been out of sorts lately?"
"Oh come on, Marty, Tina and I have been married fourteen years and we've got three children."
"What the hell's that got to do with the price of apples?" Marty demanded.
"When kids come along Marty, relationships kind-a suffer a bit."
"They do? I find that surprising. I'd say all they did was strengthen Jetta and my relationship. Yeah, things had to change a bit, but if anything we're closer now than we've ever been."
"I wish Tina and I were. But in the last few years, I've got the feeling we've just been going through the motions."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, Tina's been more interested in the children than she is in me."
An expression of horror came over Marty's face
"Jesus Christ!" Sorry, Josh; one of Betty's blasphemies. Of course you have to take a back seat for a few years when children come along. But that don't mean that Tina doesn't love you just as much as she always has or anything; it's just how life develops. Give it a few more years and the children will be gone and Tina will still be there for you."
"Oh Christ, Marty, I don't think it's really Tina; it's me. In the last couple of years, I've been thinking that maybe I made a big mistake."
"What kind of a mistake? You haven't been playing away, and painted yourself into a corner, have you? Look my friend, having a little fun of the side is all right; not that I've ever been tempted. But it's stupid getting yourself in too deep."
"Hey, shit, no, it's nothing like that! I've just begun to think that I married the wrong woman."
I have no idea why I voiced my innermost concern to Marty. To be honest I hardly knew the guy; except that he was my boss and someone I hadn't talked to in ... well, someone I'd never spoken to personally before; I don't think. But he was someone who brought memories of my youth, back to mind.
"I'm sorry, Josh; I don't understand what your problem is?"
"I'm not sure that I do either, Marty. It's like I've got the seven-year-itch or something. Everything is kind-a mixed up in my head lately."
Marty placed his elbows on my desk and rested his chin on his hands for a while, obviously thinking.
"I'm not sure what to say to you, Josh. But maybe you should see a ... doctor or something."
"You said the word, Josh, not me. Look, I know a good man. He looked after my sister when she got divorced; straightened her out like greased lightning. If you're feeling as confused about your marriage as you sound, then it can't do any harm to have a word or two with him. What'd you say, shall I give the bugger a call?" Marty asked, but picking the telephone up anyway, before I'd had a chance to reply.
"I don't know, Marty. I don't know that I should have told you about this."
"Well I do. Look, Josh, you were there for me once, when I needed you. Now I ... and Jetta are going to be here for you ... and Tina." Marty was hitting buttons on the phone before he finished speaking.
I sat there in amazement whilst Marty called his sister and got the shrink's number from her. I noted that he never told her why he wanted the number.
Then he called the shrink in question whose name sounded foreign, Jewish and completely unpronounceable. Or in other words I have no intention of making a bigger fool of myself by trying to spell it here.
Marty asked me to go and get a couple of coffees, whilst he actually spoke to the man. When I returned from the department's small kitchen, I found that Betty had joined Marty in my office. But I was extremely aware that they stopped speaking and Betty turned to leave as I entered.
"I want you to clear Josh's diary for today, Betty, he's having the rest of the day off. Refer anyone who has any objections to me, will you?" Marty said to her before she closed the door.
Then he turned his attention back to me.
"Right, it's all fixed up, Josh. I want you to head off to town right away; charge a nice lunch to the company and be at the good doctors office at three o'clock sharp."
"No buts, Josh! I want our Human Resources manager to worry about our staff not himself ... or his marriage. You get yourself up town and see what the good doctor makes of your problem.
"Personally I think you are probably making a mountain out of a molehill. You've got yourself in a rut here in this damned pokey office, and you're making the mistake of taking the job home with you."
I wasn't at all sure that Martin had understood my problem at all. But I thought that his motive was good, consequently I agreed to go meet this shrink wally, he wanted me to see. Well, what harm could it do to talk to the guy?
After we drank our coffees, Marty walked me down to the office's main entrance; possibly to make sure that I actually left the building. I had left a great pile of work on my desk that I had indicated to Marty.
As it turned out I never did see the bleeding shrink anyway. Although we met him at a party at Marty and Jetta's house, some months later.
I was quite surprised to find that it was only eleven o'clock, when I boarded the train up town. Exactly why I got off the underground at Marble Arch and began to walk the length of Oxford Street - reputedly the longest shopping street in the world – I have no idea. Perhaps, I was subconsciously looking to waste some time; I had over three hours before my appointment.
Anyway, I'd probably walked half the roads length, causally looking into shop windows - and wondering whether some bugger was going to try to lift my wallet - when I caught sight of her coming out of a boutique; followed by a young sales assistant carrying several large carrier bags.
I recognised her straight away. Marion Holden looked almost exactly the same as she had the last time I'd seen her some seventeen or so years before.
The same long blond hair and short dress that showed off those shapely legs of hers.
The same almost permanent smile pasted onto her face.
And she had the same effect on me that she'd always had. My heart skipped a couple of beats.
I'm not sure how long I stood there like a dummy, whilst Marion waited at the curb, in the almost vain hope that an empty cab would come along; but eventually one did.
Marion opened the cab's door. Then - as she turned to take her purchases from the patient shop assistant - she must have caught sight of the idiot standing there, out of the corner of her eye.
For just a couple of seconds Marion looked directly at me. And then, losing her composure for almost exactly the same period of time. An expression of recognition came over her face and she screamed out, "Joshua!"
Marion shouted my name so loudly in fact, that everyone within a couple of hundred yards, turned to see who was getting murdered.
Then - ignoring the bags the young woman was proffering for her to take, and her cab – Marion closed the five-yard gap between us and stood before me smiling.
"It is you, isn't it, Joshua? My, it's been so long. What are you doing in town?" Marion said, in quick succession.
"Hi Marion. I didn't expect to run into you today."
To be honest I had some difficulty in knowing what to say to her. What do you say to the great love of your life when you unexpectedly rub into her after so many years?
I'm not sure I can tell you exactly when Marion and I first met. Much like Martin Goldman, it was like she'd always been around somewhere, when I'd been a kid. But as we got older and puberty raised its ugly head ... Well, let's just say that Marion developed rather suddenly and caught just about every young guy's eye well before most of the other local girls in our peer group did.
What made Marion first tilt her hat in my direction, I have no idea? She was just about the most desirable girl around. I have to admit that for a long time, I had no clue that she was interested in me.
But, by the time we were about fifteen or sixteen – or so I've been told – it was pretty obvious to just about everyone else in the world, except me!
All right, I'll admit it, I was a late developer. I was still into racing model cars and aircraft, or playing footy when most of my mates were enthusiastically – if-not a little tentatively – dating girls. And I don't think that their interest in the girls they dated had anything to do with intelligent conversation.
Anyway it was at – or rather after - a football match that Marion and I first got together. I'd just scored my third goal of a proverbial hat-trick in the match and was undergoing the usual enthusiastic congratulations from the rest of the team. Smacks on the back and – quite painful - punches on my arms etc; we didn't go in for all that hugging the guys seem to do nowadays.
When suddenly Marion appeared on the pitch, threw her arms around my neck and snogged me like it was going out of style.
Now by then I wasn't as completely inexperienced as you might have assumed - from what I said earlier - with females. I dated a couple of girls, basically just to fit in with the rest of the guys and avert any suggestion that I might sail up-wind. Things were different back then, and any young guy with reasonable looks, who didn't date girls, could find himself inappropriately labelled.