Judith Callaghan

Doors Closing

Judith Callaghan

illustration by Judith Callaghan for Mad in Wirral. A white background with a train in grey, brown and green passing between trees, rocks and grasses

My name is Fred Furlong.  I’m an ordinary sort of bloke.  You wouldn’t notice me in a crowd.  But, yesterday, I think that you would have.  I was on a Merseyrail train on my way into Liverpool for the funeral of an ex-colleague.  I retired about a year ago but my mate, Bill, who was a bit younger than me was still ‘at the coal face’ when he died suddenly.  As you can imagine, I’m upset about that.  When someone who’s been in your life for so long isn’t there anymore it’s a major blow to your system.  Knocks you for six.

But, yesterday, there was more to it than that.  I was in a right old state.  Thinking about it now, while it’s still raw, I could say that yesterday changed my life.  That sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?  Okay, there weren’t any flashing lights or angels or anything like that, but stuff certainly happened.  I’m still taking it in and haven’t told anyone about it yet, but I’m thinking that getting it down on paper will help sort my head out.  So, here goes.

I was sat on the train and my hands were shaking uncontrollably and my body temperature kept going up and down like a yoyo.  I felt as though everyone was looking at me and wondering what on earth was wrong.

To help calm myself down, I started to try and work out why I was in such a mess. I wasn’t sure what it was all about; I just knew my body was in panic mode and I needed to trigger some sort of escape mechanism without getting even more twitchy and weird looking.  Anyway, what I did was take a few deep breathes, closed my eyes, and started off by dealing with the facts.

Fact One:  After Bill died, his wife got in touch with me and asked me if I’d do the eulogy at the funeral.  I was chuffed and said I was honoured to be asked and that I’d do my bit to help give him a really good send off.  He deserved it.  She seemed pleased, and I got down to getting ideas together. That wasn’t hard as I had plenty I wanted to say; the difficult bit

was how to keep it to a reasonable length.  He and I had, in the past, moaned about eulogies that were boring, inappropriate, or had people looking at their watches.  Anyway, after a few hours work I ended up with something I and his widow were happy with. Job done.

Fact Two.  Yesterday morning, it hit me that I had to stand up in the church and deliver my words to a, probably, large congregation.  But then I quickly realised that wasn’t the problem.  I’ve been standing up in front of groups of people in all sorts of situations for many years at work.  I’ve got nerves of steel for that sort of thing.

Then Fact Three surfaced.  From some dark place in my memory a long hidden door opened.  There was one major difference about this group.  No, it wasn’t what you’d expect; that I’d be overcome by emotion because of my sadness at Bill’s death.  It was because I realised that I’d known subconsciously all the time I’d been drafting the eulogy that Audrey Grimshaw would certainly be there at the funeral.  Audrey who, even now, I still had nightmares about.  Audrey, who was my boss for the two worst years of my working life.  Audrey, who used to call me Furry Fred in front of my colleagues, senior and junior.  Audrey, who for those two horrific years broke my spirit and was the reason I ended up at the doctor’s asking to for help to keep me sane.

Fact Four.  I’ve always had very hairy arms.  I wasn’t bothered about them and nobody had every commented on them before.  On hot days, I rolled up my sleeves; no problem.  That is until, one hot day in our open plan office, Audrey let out a dramatic squeal, flailed around, and pretended to faint because of the hairiness of my arms.  From that day on, she called me Furry Fred and made some comment about my arms every day.  I was Furry Fred to everyone, even the most junior member of my staff.  The thought of her made my blood run cold, and I hated myself for never having faced up to her.  I was ashamed of that and I felt an idiot for never having dealt with it.  She would be there, eyeballing me as I stood in front of everyone trying to do my best for Bill and his widow.  I realised that I was terrified that if I caught Audrey’s eye I would mess the whole thing up by drying and, at worst, even bursting into tears.

All that thinking took a couple of station stops and though I’d put my finger on the problem I hadn’t solved it. I tried looking at my notes, but they didn’t make sense anymore.  I felt as though everyone around me on the train could read my thoughts and knew I was a wimp.  A wimp with hairy arms. Or maybe they were wondering whether I was going to do anything embarrassing or even threatening.  I was almost wondering that myself.

There was a young woman sitting across the aisle from me.  In the midst of my angst, I subconsciously noticed how absorbed she was in putting on her make up and pouting into her mobile phone.  It was taking her ages to paint various potions onto her face.  She was pretty and I thought that she didn’t need all that gunk.

My next thought was, oh God, she’s looking at me.  I’ve been staring at her and she’s annoyed and probably scared because a twitching, flushed old man seems to be obsessed with watching her toilette.  I looked away and stared out of the window at the unpretty back-of-Birkenhead dock landscape.

Then, I nearly jumped out of my seat and dropped my notes on the floor when I heard her saying, “hello, Mr Furlong.  Remember me?  Julie.  I used to be in your team at work, ages ago now.”  I scrabbled for the notes on the mucky train floor, my mind in turmoil.  She knew me.  She knew I was Furry Fred.  It was an omen.  The day was going to be even more disastrous than I had imagined.

I straightened up and looked sideways at her.

She added, “I was only with you for a year when I was first out of school, just a kid.  I’m not surprised you don’t recognise me now I’m a mature woman,” and she laughed and gave me a big lipsticky smile.

Through the jumble in my brain, the memory emerged of a raw recruit who had needed guidance about basic office procedures and really just support while she settled into what was a totally new scenario for her.  She’d turned out to be a really good worker and, once she knew her stuff, had taken quite a bit of the burden off me.  This was her, Julie, sitting just over the aisle from me.  A blast from the past.

Before I could say anything, she was piling all her make up back into a large floppy bag and had moved across to sit opposite me.  “I’m so glad to see you,” she said, and leant across and gave me a light tap on the wrist to make her point.  My head slowly stopped whirring and I started to focus on her.  That little mouse who had crept into our office all those years ago seemed to have developed into a handsome and confident woman, though I thought she’d look even better with a bit less gunge on her face.

I could feel my heartbeat calming down as she took my mind away from the horrors to come.  Julie said, “I’ve always hoped I’d bump into you one day so that I could thank you for all the trouble you took to make me welcome and train me up.  I didn’t know a thing about working life and you helped me no end.  You were so kind and you taught me loads.  I’ve got a really good job now and I’ve got you to thank for that.  I know how you helped others too; we often said how much we admired you.  And I tell my friends about you and now, guess what, I’m a manager myself so I try and be as good as you were with us.  You’re my role model.”

With that, she got up and gave me a big hug and announced to the other passengers, “This is Mr Furlong and he is my hero.”  After a short, surprised pause, people start to clap and I went bright red and did a bit of a regal wave.  Suddenly, life seemed different.  A bit crazy, but very nice indeed.

Julie asked me about how I was enjoying retirement and I said all the usual stuff about not having enough time to do all I wanted to.  Then she suddenly asked, “whatever happened to that ghastly Grimshaw woman?  She was everyone’s worst nightmare.  She used to make snidey jibes about people and upset everyone.  I hope she got her comeuppance in some way.”

“Mmmm,” I said.  I was trying to stay with this new and very welcome positive vibe and ditch all the Audrey stuff.  I changed the subject. “Actually, I’m off to a colleague’s funeral.  No one you would have known, but he and I worked closely together before I retired last year and we were good friends.  I’m doing the eulogy and I’ve been checking these notes one last time.”

Julie asked to see the notes and did a speed read through them.  “That’s lovely,” she said, “even though I didn’t know him your words really paint a vivid picture of him and his life.  I remember you were always brilliant with written work.  You’ve still got the gift.  You should write a book!”

I went a bit pink again, but it was a pleasant pink this time.  I was me again.  I thought, I’m Fred Furlong who’s enjoying retirement very much and I am on my way to tell everyone about my friend, Bill.

We arrived at Lime Street Station where I needed to change onto a bus.  There was just time for a double, warm handshake with Julie and a quick exchange of email addresses before the train doors closed and I was off up the escalator.  My original plan had been to go for a stiffener drink before catching the bus.  But that wasn’t needed any more.  I was firing on all cylinders and decided to go straight to the church, check out the layout and the mic and have a quiet sit before everyone arrived.  Which is what I did.

The funeral all went as well as these things can and I think I did pretty well with the eulogy.  Well, I know I did, because a few people told me that afterwards.  There was a really good turnout…including Audrey Grimshaw.  She was on the third row right in front of me. She looked older and stooped and I almost felt sorry for her.  Poor old thing; being horrible to people can’t have made for a happy life.  A couple of hours before that, my thoughts would have been quite different but, thanks to Julie, I was able to put the Audrey saga to one side and get on with the job to be done.

Afterwards, at the ‘wake’ which was all rather jolly as often happens, I noticed that she was on her own most of the time.  I guessed that, like me, quite a few ex colleagues were avoiding her and their bad memories.  But I’d ditched those and was okay.  I could see she was on the Prosecco, so I got a large glass from the bar, took it over to her and heard myself saying, “hello, Audrey.  Nice to see you.  How are you these days?”  I got the feeling she was grateful someone had come to talk to her and she launched into telling me all her troubles which were many.  I put on my best listening skills face and let her unload.  I felt good.  Good that I’d done Bill and his wife proud, good that I was truly relaxed and, most of all, good that Furry Fred was also laid to rest and I was a free man at last.

Williamson Art Gallery & Museum