From the abyss to fast track
He endured the unfriendly London air blowing. Looking down, you could not see the ripples on the calm, inky water as the westerly wind blew ominously along the river. The bright radiance of the buildings along the Thames flickered, although in a foggy drink induced haze. There was little traffic at this time of night, and the sky was overcast. Even though the street lamps were candescent, the light was engulfed by the water’s blackness and Johnny’s castigated condition.
The man had been wandering around the edge of Bushy Park for about an hour, trying to avoid the inevitable, a visit to the off-license. However, his mood spiraled drastically as the cognizance of unfortunate events resurfaced. Life had been agreeable for the most part since marriage, then his wife’s razor-sharp words echoed inside the skull. She was right; he will always be a loser, and that pushed him over the threshold into the liquor store. As he drank, despondency expanded. Impounded by the collected stares from pedestrians, they didn’t see the man behind the clothes or the bottle. Johnny was labeled as a degenerate once again.
Who could blame them? His self-confidence plummeted; they were right; he was a failure. Johnny perused pleading to his departed mother; she was up there somewhere. Could someone rescue him? Or should he save himself and others from disgrace and anguish by taking the only recourse available? If he perished, his family would be unharmed. They were the only ones he had faith in, and now they were damned because of his actions. They were decent, honest people and deserved better. Before he knew it, he was on a red-bricked bridge resting against the white portland stone railings. The breeze slapping his face sobered him somewhat, but affliction rather than hope appeared in the clarity. Johnny retrieved the phone and commenced to type the final message.
The gloom of the situation circled like vultures around a dying kill. He was at a loss as the weight of bankruptcy, criminal charges, and humiliation demolished his existence. Tonight his wife had discovered the predicament reacting in the most logical way possible, bestowing an ultimatum - fix the situation, or she and the kids are gone for good! The embarrassment of police knocking on their door earlier and the reality of losing his children crushed his very spirit. Johnny tried desperately to find jobs to keep food on the table and conceal how the charity project ruined their financial security. He felt like a dead man walking for the past few weeks.
The disposition was in opposition to a place a few hundred meters away. In the warm, inviting pub, she had polished off a glass of Pinot Grigio with a meal. It was after-hours. Magners was out of character, yet Oliver insisted she sample it while they sat at the bar, curtains closed, and the staff cleaning. The drink was as agreeable as the company. It was around midnight when she decamped from “Prince of Wales.” A satisfying, hearty meal, followed by a few drinks and shameless banter, had been an excellent diversion.
As she slipped into the London streets, subcurrent shifted. The local humidity and cold were in absurd contrast to Arizona, where she had departed from recently. Thinking about calling a cab for a minute yet dismissed the idea. Stuffed and still in contemplation of her new quandary, she strolled towards the Hampton Court Bridge. Walking was meditative and helped her ruminate, and the cool air flowing down the river would extinguish the flames inside. Being near one of the most prominent rivers in Europe made her feel in-tune to this continent.
Back on the bridge, the emotional darkness enveloped. Johnny was about to step on the span’s ledge, yet catching women’s heels approaching, retreated. The moment footsteps halted, he inhaled a pleasant presence. Strangers stood in united silence for a moment, six feet apart.
“Can you swim?” a woman with an accent inquired.
“Not very well.”
“Maybe you should rethink your hobbies then?” she chuckled. It made him smile, yet his eyes reverted to the phone in his hands. << BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS. I WILL BE WASHED UP BOTH FINANCIALLY AND LITERALLY. SORRY. I TRIED TO CHANGE. TELL THE KIDS I LOVE THEM… >> Sensing something was amiss, she stepped closer, and he quickly hid the phone in the pocket. Her nose detected whiskey on his breath as the wind gusted. The quietude became weightier.
“How long have you been here?”
“Don’t you have anywhere to be, like home with the wife and kids?”
“They are the least of my problems right now,” he replied painfully.
“That bad, huh?” The man nodded, and the silence stretched out.
“Penny, for your thoughts, but I have a feeling you need more than that.”
He chortled, “Have a couple of extra mill on you, love? That would help! ”
“Darn it! Left it in my other purse!”
That made Johnny laugh.
“How come you are so short of change?”
“Charity work … Supplies for Syrians ...” he took a long deep breath before blurting out, “Got royally screwed over and just left an Interpol tea party.”
They both sniggled.
“So, now you know why I am out here at this hour. What’s your story?”
Johnny sensed that it never ended well for backstabbers in her world.
“Preaching to the choir!” he conceded. The woman intuited that he wasn’t just another drunk fishing for a pity party, despising whiny people.
“Do you gamble?” she inquired. Johnny was taken aback by the random question shaking his head. The lady opened the purse before speaking again. “Call me. I have a job opportunity that might be of interest to you. Life is too precious to let others screw it away from you. Let’s see if this meeting could be beneficial to us both.” Placing the card next to him and bidding a goodnight. Afraid the wind would blow it away, he stuffed it into the coat pocket with trembling hands.
Johnny stood by the bridge’s ledge, holding one hand over his phone and the other on her card. The wind felt different. He picked up the bottle from the pavement, gulping the last swig of the now sour brown liquid, and tossed it far into the river. The mysterious woman was long gone when he looked in the direction she had disappeared. His brain reiterated “Call me” with an American twang. Something stirred in his soul. He did not know her yet grasped she was a personality of distinction. What could a lady like that want with somebody like him?
It felt like hours until Johnny mustered the fortitude to leave the bridge and trudged in the same direction the kind stranger had vanished. He resolved to walk through Bushy Park instead of taking the big streets back to his parish dwellings as the safest route this late. The mind sobered up, and numbness was replaced by prideful hurt. Why didn’t she try to talk him out of jumping off the bridge as a normal person would? Then again, how normal was he standing there in the middle of the night himself, foolishly waiting for anybody to save him? He ticked past Diana Fountain, hearing some ducks in the background protesting against being awakened. Reaching the St. James’s Church, he speculated about spending the night inside rather than returning to the place that didn’t feel like home anymore. Yet, the necessity for proper sleep and clean clothes was greater than emotional discomfort. Tiptoeing into the house, he crashed on the living room couch.
Johnny slept deeply, missing the morning bustle with the kids and waking around eleven o’clock. Alarmed by the time he went into a pre-programmed routine. He had already missed two scheduled interviews and was rushing to make other appointments. And as we know, when you are in a hurry, the law of Murphy reappears. Johnny felt like pushing against the tide all day long. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
He was exhausted and considered taking a cab back but was short on cash and made his way home on foot. However, his legs transported him to a place he liked to frequent. I’ll have just one; he reassured himself, entering “The Red Lion.” Sitting darkly in the corner, he mulled over his misfortunes. Middrink, he pulled out a black business card with just one name on it in red letters “Miss. A,” on the other side was a number. Thinking he had nothing to lose, he dialed. It went straight to voicemail, and her voice greeted him, “Thanks for calling. Interviews for the PA position are ongoing. Visit Hampton Court Road, KT8 “The Oaks” by 7 o’clock to be considered. Ciao!” Johnny hung up. It was not the message that shook him; it was the clicking of her heels in the background. He immediately glanced at his watch. It was 6:30, and he flew through that door like the house was on fire!
Breathing heavy and sweating from the sprint, he now stood in front of a three-story Edwardian-style building on the town’s upper side. On the way, many thoughts drummed along with his steps. For one, he disliked working for anyone else, especially if it was a woman. Second, he had never been a personal assistant and could not envision himself as a bootlicking on-demand coffee delivering pomp. Yet, he needed money gravely. Was his pride worth a good paycheck? The frustration of a dire financial and family situation fueled the application.
He banged on the door, and soon a smartly dressed man answered it. Johnny was welcomed and guided upstairs. There were other men of various backgrounds, yet all very distinguished, sitting in the hallway. There was no spare seat. Johnny grew conscious of his patched-up old blue suit and worn out shoes. It took all of him not to fidget in the propinquity of the other candidates. Johnny considered withdrawing, not fitting into this beauty pageant! At that moment, the door opened, and a gentleman departed. Johnny’s eyes peeped back into the room; she was sitting behind a large mahogany desk. Their eyes met, smiling at him like a long lost friend. “Come on in!” Miss. A waved. Wasn’t there some sort of waiting line? Johnny peered at the other men, and they acknowledged that it was him who was invited. Unsure still, he moseyed into the room.
Upon ingress and ready to close the door, she exclaimed, “Don’t!” Next, a bell rang, “Mrs. Jenkins!” An older woman with a kind but weathered face huffed into the room, “Yes, Miss. A?”
“My guest and I would like a cup of tea.” Still fixed by the entrance, he couldn’t help but stare, succumbing to the enchanting magnetism. She grinned, recognizing the usual reaction to her company.
“Please, sit! What’s your name, mon ami?”
“John Emmett Watts.”
“Ok, Johnny. Have you ever been a personal assistant before?”
“Any HR experience?”
“Do you like art?”
“Are you handy?”
“I think so,” sinking into the chair, knowing that none of the answers were qualifying to be anything more than a joke. She seemed to grow in thought when the door opened, and the servant lady delivered the tea. “Thank you, that will be all, Mrs. Jenkins.” She observed in taciturnity, eyes darting between a notebook and his countenance. The pause stretched, but Johnny didn’t feel negative pressure, convinced this was part of the interview, part of a test. Instinctively, without thinking of it as a chore, he proposed, “Tea?” She nodded knowingly, considering him with intelligent eyes.
Johnny leaned over, poured tea, placing it in front of her and Miss. A nodded in approval sipping Earl Gray. For some reason, he didn’t want any for himself. His hands were sweating and mildly trembling at this point.
Not looking at him, “I am glad you didn’t jump.”
“Oh! You remember me?” Johnny reacted in genuine amazement.
Her lips formed a grin. “Isn’t the Tube a more popular suicide option around here?”
“Yes, madam,” he retorted, abashed.
Miss. A beheld his hazel eyes. Johnny sensed that his whole being was exposed under her gaze, undressing everything expertly, yet in that vulnerability felt secure and safe. Miss. A broke eye contact, placing a cup on the tray.
The woman walked around the desk and sat on the edge, crossing her legs. For the first time, Johnny registered her feminine features. Perfect hourglass, sun-kissed skin, sparkling dark amber eyes, and silver highlights in her short dark hair. Ruby lips smiled while the man’s eyes wandered.
“Do you like what you see?”
Like a caught schoolboy, he stammered.
“It’s alright. You are just a man.” Her eyes penetrated through him firmly. “Let me assure you, my appearance is not the most striking part of me. There is more than one way to skin a cat.” She laughed. Johnny was embarrassed and hurt by the bluntness. Aching to bolt, for he would not have another woman humiliate him again! Sensing apprehension, she flashed a look that cemented him in place.
“I pay £40k for a six-month contract.”
His jaw dropped. Seeing his inability to speak, she proceeded, “This is a traveling art exhibit. We will be living on the road. You’ll receive commissions as well. I am estimating you could take home around £10k on top of your salary.”
Johnny just gawked while computing the information. Noting his reaction, she snickered.
“Do you have a valid passport?”
“Won’t it be too much for you to leave your life and family behind for half a year?”
Automatically shaking his head with a “No.”
“Then it’s settled! Job is yours.” She extended her hand for a handshake, sealing the deal.
“You start tomorrow at seven in the morning, sharp. How much advance do you want?” Johnny was confuddled and mumbled something with a five in it. Miss. A instantly flipped open her wallet and wrote a check.
“Mr. Coupar will give you further instructions and a contract to sign upon your departure. Please tell Mrs. Jenkins that interviews are over,” and dismissed him. Johnny blinked at Miss. A noticing the soon to be familiar demeanor of quirky playfulness.
Johnny didn’t come to his senses until reaching the family home. Standing at the threshold, his hand securely rested on the pocketed check. What the heck had he signed up for? Who was Miss. A? What was in that contract? It was all a blur. Johnny yanked out the piece of paper - £15K staring back! Had he made a deal with the devil herself? This was too easy!
“Am I ready to follow into the unknown this enigmatic woman who saved my life yesterday and bought me today?”