Fifty, Going On Thursday

When I turned fifty, a few weeks ago, I got lots of good wishes, both in real life and on that social media thing. That was all really nice. 

I didn’t say very much about it though. The whole ‘Turning Fifty’ thing. The reasons for this were none-too-deep or impenetrable. I really had nothing to say, that’s all.

Fifty turned out to be just another day, another leaf peeled off the calendar, that’s all. 

I sat up late and got up early on the day I turned fifty, perhaps in the hope that some new insight would come out and show itself. But the dawn didn’t bring any great new philosophy or wisdom for me to share with you. I quietly slipped into my sixth decade on the planet and on we go. Slow days and lightning-fast years. Just the same as it has always been.

Perhaps now, though, a few weeks in, I can offer a line or two on what it feels like to be fifty, for me at least. Don’t get all excited or anything like that, it’s not going to be much.

My little insight (if that is indeed what it turns out to be) came about because I took a week off with my family. Just the four of us. It was lovely. No, you don’t need to know where, it’s not relevant. We packed up and went away and we lived in each other’s ears for the whole week. Like I said, it was nice, it was lovely. 

Here’s what I concluded. 

Being fifty is like arriving at Wednesday on your week off. 

Just that.

When Wednesday comes, in the span of your week off, it is like a hill has been crested and the time remaining now lies spread out before you much more clearly than the wonderful mysterious first part ever did. You can see the route before you and it is a downhill route which means that the journey will unfold more quickly now and, most likely, there will be more stumbles.

There is now a niggling feeling. Although there is plenty of time left in your holiday, and although you have learned in those first awkward days how to appreciate the days of your week, still the niggle remains that those long carefree days before the end came into view are now finally over and, no matter how much fun and how much joy is still to be had, that end will always be there, visible, on the horizon. It is no longer obscure.

Maybe it’s just me. The second part of anything has never been the best part for me. Some tiny tic in my brain always seems to know when the centre point of something has been passed and when the latter half begins. So it has always been. Time gets counted, split into two factions. The ‘up’ and the ‘back-down’. I know, I know, that this life-week of mine probably reached its actual zenith way back when I hit forty or even thirty-five. This fifty-thing is actually to-hell-and-gone past my half-way-point. I know. But still my life now feels like the hump-of-the-week to me. Not necessarily in a negative way but, honestly, not entirely in a positive way either. 

Such is life.

That’s all I got on the subject.

Oh. That’s almost all I got.

One other observation for now. Memories seem to become easier to identify when you get beyond fifty. When you were young, you had no idea what things would embed themselves as deep, valued, memories. Some random word, some fleeting tune, the smell of the inside of a bus on a summer’s day… who the hell knew what would stick?

Now, at fifty, things present themselves as memories almost at the exact moment they happen. You see/hear/smell something unfold before you and you say to yourself, “This… this will be a memory to warm the heart when the Winter comes around again… and the Winter after that and the Winter after that.”

People, your most treasured people, huddled close together in early-evening sparkling water which is so bright that they are reduced to nothing more than laughing silhouettes in the dazzling golden gleam. "This will be a memory," you say, "I will remember this."

You spot these memories, when you are over fifty, and you store them away and then you hope a little that you may be around to sup on them, to let them sustain you, even when many other things have gone. 


Jack and Tom have Gone

The butcher’s shop is sad. So is the solicitor’s office and the charity shop and the auctioneer’s and all the restaurants and the public houses… and me. I’m sad too.

Jack and Tom have gone and now all the people on our street are so terribly sad.

Jack and Tom lived on the street where we all work. There has never been two quieter, gentler, elusively-glimpsed men in all the long history of our town.

They were torn from our streetscape in the middle of last week, swept away by a blinding avalanche of violent force which they neither sought nor deserved. Now isn't the time for me to dwell, in writing at least, on that. The facts will come out over time. For now the only thing to know for sure is that Jack and Tom have gone and we won’t ever see them around our street again.

Jack and Tom were elderly brothers who lived in a small house with a front door that opened straight out onto the street. They were silent, simple people. They didn't really interact much at all but they seemed to gain diversion from keeping a weather eye on their immediate surroundings; seeing who was coming and going up and down the street, checking what was happening behind the shop doors, buying chips for themselves and drinking tea. Mostly, though, just keeping themselves to themselves. Existing very quietly. Being allowed to do their own thing while being subtlety looked after by those closest to them.

They were simple men but not in any derogatory sense of that word. It is the fate of some of us to be – or to become - simple people and that fate may come to any of us at any time, be it through old age, infirmity, injury, or birth. Our world needs the simple folk as much, if not more, than it needs the complicated ones.

Tom rarely seemed to move further than within a small radius of his front door. He would sometimes peer quietly in the windows of the restaurants which adjoined his little house, occasionally starting the diners a little. Jack’s travels took him much further up and down the town and it is he who was the most visible of the two. Jack had a mannerism which involved silently ‘praying’ at many of the doors and shop fronts of the town. His unobtrusive ‘devotions’ would often extend to a post box or a signpost or even to a car hurriedly parked on the street, sometimes to the bemusement of the driver within.

He’s gone now. The drivers won’t be consterned any more.

Jack and Tom have gone but one thing I can say with some certainly is that they will not be forgotten. They will be long-remembered and not, primarily, for the awful way in which they went away. I believe that they will be remembered for themselves.

There were simple people in my town when I was growing up, just as there doubtless were simple people in yours. I still remember these people and my friends from the old town, who I sometimes talk to, remember them too. Their names come up naturally and often in conversations and we remember them warmly and without guile or condescension. 

So it will be with Jack and Tom, wait and see. When we, the dressed-up, running-around, smart, worried, scared people, are long gone and largely forgotten, Jack and Tom will still be thought-of and remembered and smiled about with warmth and affection.

I think, in our hearts, we can’t help but feel that the simple person may know and see so very much more than we do. With the coloured fabrics and the tinted glass screens of the world drawn aside, perhaps the truth of life sits clearer in their eyes than it ever does in ours. Perhaps this is just romantic fancy but who are we to know? Who are we to know anything for sure in this swirling dangerous world we move through together.

Jack and Tom are gone, yes, but we will remember them and keep their memories safe, I believe that. 

And for those lucky ones who may believe more than that. For those who may believe that there may be some other place beyond this one, some better place. Well, for you, if devotion and quiet prayer are required to gain access to that place then you may be comforted. Jack will surely have done enough, on the streets of our own little town, to gain his brother and himself immediate and unquestioning entrance to that place.

A place, you can hope, where the chips are freshly cooked, the mugs of tea are always hot and sweet, and the shopfront doors are forever open and welcoming. 


My friend, and wonderful photographer, Alison Laredo, has also posted about Tom and Jack. You can read her post here.

A Memory of the Evening Train

This little memory popped into my head a week or two ago and it made me smile so I thought I would share it with you.

Back in ’84, when I first moved to live in England, I got a job in Bracknell. Every weekday I used to travel in and out of London to work.  After I was there for a while (and I was there for quite a while) they gave me a company car. That was pretty bloody amazing I can tell you but, before that, I commuted in and out every day on the train. 

I would grab the Tube down to Richmond then hop on the 8.12 out to Bracknell (Woking, Winnersh, Early and Reading – it’s funny the things you remember, thirty years on…). It was a whole new world for me but I seemed to slip into it fairly effortlessly and enjoy it enormously. We were young and quite flexible then, weren't we? 

Anyway, this tiny little memory doesn't relate to the morning train to Bracknell, which was usually a foggy-brained exercise in time-and-space travel. Rather, it takes me back to the journey back home in the evening.

We finished work at 5.30 and there was a train to Richmond at 5.46 so catching this required a timely exit from the office and a fairly-curt march through the concrete vagaries of Bracknell Town Centre.

There was a small cohort of us who rushed for that train every weekday evening and we generally claimed one of those old-fashioned compartments which had their own door and a long couch of seating, the whole train wide, on either side. There was enough of us to retain one of these compartments all for ourselves and that was nice.

One of the people who got the evening train with me was Brian. Let’s call him Brian anyway, for anonymity (it’s actually his real name). This little memory, which I promise I am just getting to, concerns him.

Brian was a young man from Wales. Port Talbot if I recall correctly. He was a 'Man’s Man'. He enjoyed his sport and his pints and he seemed particularly fond of girls and all things related to them. Just your average early-twenty-year-old guy then and that’s really the point I’m trying to make. Brian was great and smart and all but he didn’t seem like a man particularly given to deep thought and philosophical considerations. Everything he did in his average working day seemed to bear this impression out.

What I’m trying to say, as politely as possible, is that he wasn't 'Deep'.

Except on the train.

On that evening train back to Richmond, Brian seemed to transform from a full-of-life Jack-The-Lad to an introspective, introverted, virtual shell-of-a-man. He invariably chose a window seat and then he just sat there, staring out into the winter darkness, silent and serious, as if contemplating the full depths of the human condition.  I would sometimes watch him for a while, in between all the comradely banter, and wonder what was going on in his head at these times.

One Friday evening, Brian and I made it to the 5.46 train but nobody else did so it was just me and him in the isolated compartment. I thought he would be more chatty and outgoing, it being Friday evening and it being just the two of us in the little enclosure but no. As soon as the train rolled out of the station, Brian leaned himself in towards the glass pane and every fibre of his being directed itself out of the window and into the gloom.

I tried to read my book but the conundrum was preying on me large now. Why did such an open outgoing lad turn into this brooding husk whenever he boarded the evening train?

After the journey was about half-way complete, I could bear it no more. I had to ask him.

“Brian?”

Brian snapped out of his daze and gazed over at me, bleary-eyed,” Eh? What?”

“Brian. Sorry to bother you I just can’t help wondering…”

“Yes?”

“… when you look out of that window every evening, what do you see?”

Brian looked more serious that I had ever seen him look before. He leaned over to me. “It’s the most amazing thing,” he whispered, “there’s all these windows going by out there, you know, in the dark…”

“Yes?”

“… and there’s so many people in them with fuck-all on.”