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Past Imperfect

by Graham Debenham

part 1 of 10

A chance encounter whilst commuting to work gives Nigel the opportunity to go back and change his past for the better or the worse.

We have all, at one time or another, wondered how things might have turned out for us if our lives had taken a different course. If, for example, we had tried just a little harder at school or perhaps moved in different circles we may have evolved into an entirely different person. Indeed, the older we become the farther back we probe in order to find out exactly where it was that things started to go wrong.

Nigel Compton knew when his life took a turn for the worse. It was the day his parents named him Nigel. Poor Nigel was convinced that his name was the deciding factor in all of his life’s failures. Of course there are many successful people named Nigel. Actors, novelists, scientists, the list is endless. But when your whole life, all fifty-odd years of it, has been one failure after another, you begin to wonder what life might have been like if your parents had named you John, Paul or even Ringo.

Our story begins on a September morning, not too long ago. Nigel sat in his usual seat on the 7:37 from East Croydon to Victoria, reading his usual copy of the Daily Express, wearing his usual Wednesday suit: a grey three-piece wool-polyester, with a faint pinstripe.

Nigel had a different suit for each day of the week: navy blue on Monday, bottle green on Tuesday, grey on Wednesday, brown on Thursday, and navy blue again on Friday. It was not the same suit as Monday, but it was strikingly similar, as were the rest. Nigel liked to finish the week as he started it, on a sober note.

So, we have established that Nigel was a man of habit. One might even say, obsessive, though not quite compulsive. Naturally he thought himself quite normal, although his wife Cynthia, though unique in her own way, thought him somewhat anal.

Nigel and Cynthia had known each other since primary school, where they became friends on their first day. This was not due so much to magnetic attraction between the two of them but more to the magnetic repulsion by the rest of the class. As I mentioned before, both Nigel and Cynthia had their own idiosyncrasies. To be perfectly honest, they were both odd.

On the first day that they met, back in the dreary fifties, Nigel and Cynthia were themselves quite dreary. Even as five-year olds they both had the certain lack of childish zest and spirit that makes parents limit their progeny to one or possibly two.

They both wore spectacles, the National Health Service ones with pink plastic frames; he for short sight, she for long sight. But visual acuity aside, the spectacles gave them both an owlish look which made them appear, to other children at least, to be intellectually superior, hence their isolation from their peers.

Children can be so unkind.

With the sixties came that glorious period in their lives known as secondary education; also known by most normal children at that time as purgatory.

Of course, with no outside influences such as friends or other extracurricular activities to distract them, they soon lived up to their appearance. Due to their outstanding scores in the eleven-plus examination, they were given a choice of the finest Grammar Schools in London. Naturally they opted for one of the few co-educational schools around at the time, not Grammar but Comprehensive, so that they could stay together.

Six years later, after obtaining remarkable results in their GCE ‘O’ levels and subsequent ‘A’ levels they were whisked away to university (yes, of course the same one!), where up against students of their own calibre their academic progress slowed to a more normal rate.

They left university at the start of the seventies with a B.A and a B.Sc each, married, and with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, looked forward to nothing but good times and success from here on in.

Here’s where things get a little bit iffy.

Cynthia joined a law firm in the City as a legal secretary, and Nigel started working for an insurance underwriter in Westminster. It was the first time they had been separated on a daily basis since they had met. Cynthia seemed to handle the separation better than Nigel, who seemed to become somewhat dysfunctional without Cynthia’s presence.

Three decades later Cynthia was one of the country’s top barristers, a partner in the busiest law firm in the Inns of Court. On top of all that, she was currently being considered for a position on the Bench.

Meanwhile, Nigel was still working for an insurance underwriter in Westminster.

Life can be very cruel.

And so, it was destined to be. Thrown together by the rejection of their peers, they became, as they say, an item and remained that way for life in much the same way as the penguin.

Their domestic lifestyle improved in direct proportion to Cynthia’s advancement. From humble beginnings in a flat over a news agency in Streatham Hill, they moved farther and farther out of London and into the upwardly mobile inner suburbs of Surrey. They eventually settled in a five-bedroom, multi-bathroom mock Georgian detached house in an up-market housing development just outside Croydon.

The ground floor boasted, among other things, a spacious study from which Cynthia conducted her business four days a week, travelling into the city only on Monday mornings for the weekly meeting of the senior partners.

On this weekly commute, she would travel with Nigel as far as Victoria, then change on to the District Line to Chancery Lane.

Weekends were strictly for entertaining, either at their home or at the homes of Cynthia’s partners or clients. Invariably Nigel would end up sitting in a corner cradling a glass of embarrassingly overpriced champagne or a balloon glass of equally expensive cognac. Nigel, you see, found it difficult to talk to people, other than those with whom he worked. Consequently, and in spite of Cynthia’s regular soirees, he had only the vaguest knowledge of the people with whom she worked.

Unfortunately for Nigel, the morning in question was a Wednesday, and he was alone. Apart from the rest of the regular commuters, that is.

And so, he sat in his regular seat next to the aisle, reading his regular newspaper, completing his regular crossword puzzle; blissfully unaware that his hitherto regular life was about to become decidedly irregular.

As usual the train had been almost empty when it left East Croydon, which had allowed Nigel to assume his usual seat. Thus everybody in his carriage was relatively comfortable until the express train reached the first station, at Balham.

As the train pulled into the platform, Nigel squirmed uncomfortably.

There were only two stations between East Croydon and Victoria on this service. The first was Balham, the second Clapham Junction. He always felt uncomfortable being seated, with so many other commuters standing in the aisles and between the seats. He always felt that they were looking at him, waiting for him to offer up his seat, which he would do without hesitation for anybody older than himself.

In fact, if pressed, he would probably offer his seat to a teenager, just to avoid a confrontation. So, in order to preserve his dignity, and possibly his health, he would spend the rest of his journey completing his crossword without looking up from the page.

In the unlikely event that the crossword might be successfully completed before the train reached Victoria, he could always revert to plan B. Pretend to be asleep. This plan worked on the premise that if he had his eyes closed, nobody could see him, a plan that had served him well as a small child but had yet to be fully tested since reaching adulthood.

The train came to a stop and, although a significant number of passengers alighted, far more joined to take their place. Whereas the trip from East Croydon had been merely crowded, the journey on to Victoria was about to be positively claustrophobic.

The new passengers joining the train pushed those already in the carriage farther over to Nigel’s side. As the last irate passenger squeezed himself into the carriage and slammed the door behind him, the train slowly moved off. Nigel began to perspire. He was used to the train being crowded, but this train was unusually crowded.

The train picked up speed and he started to get a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t like crowds at the best of times, but usually he had the option of either putting up with them or not. Stuck here in this carriage, he felt that the choice had been taken out of his hands.

To make matters worse, the scruffy middle-aged man standing directly in front of him had a particularly offensive body odour. This was exacerbated by the fact that it was a cold morning and the train crew, in their infinite wisdom, had turned up the heating system in an attempt, no doubt, to try to make up for the lack of service in other areas.

Added to this, the man seemed to be continually muttering to himself, which gave the impression that he was either intoxicated or deranged. Given the early hour, Nigel was inclined to assume the latter, although the former was not entirely improbable.

What happened next was, in hindsight, probably the least intelligent thing that Nigel had ever done in his entire life. However Nigel did not, at this stage at least, have the benefit of hindsight. Looking up from his newspaper, he looked directly at the man.

A few moments passed before the man noticed Nigel staring at him. “Whaddya lookin’ at, four eyes?”

Nigel had long ago resigned himself to the fact that he was, and always would be, myopic. The years of wearing National Health glasses at school had done nothing to improve his vision. Consequently, whilst Cynthia had progressed from spectacles to contact lenses and, finally laser correction, he had stayed with spectacles, his current pair being of the black horn-rimmed variety.

Realizing that he had been inadvertently staring at the man’s disheveled appearance, Nigel immediately looked back at his newspaper in embarrassment.

The man looked down at Nigel with a quizzical expression. “Are you lookin’ at me, you poncy little git?” he said slowly, and somewhat menacingly.

Nigel looked back at the man nervously. He knew that whatever he said would be immediately misconstrued as confrontational, even hostile. He could feel the eyes of the other commuters zeroing in on him from around the carriage. Although he only knew most of them as nodding acquaintances, he felt that they were waiting for a reaction from him.

These were all people whom Nigel regarded as his ‘commuter family’; people who, just like him, lived by a daily routine, Monday to Friday. People who, just like him, thought this behaviour was an affront to their peaceful existence.

Who did this upstart think he was, trying to ruin the daily routine of so many people? Somebody should teach him a serious lesson in manners!

Somebody else perhaps, but not Nigel.

He looked up and the man’s face was inches from his own, his fetid breath wafting up into Nigel’s nose and threatening to completely close his sinuses. “I’m talkin’ to you, four eyes.”

Nigel started to perspire, and not just because of the heat in the carriage. He felt his stomach begin to churn, just as it had done so many times in the past. And, just as he had done so many times in the past, he began to make excuses for his own existence.

“I er... I’m sorry. Truly I am,” he muttered. “I didn’t realize I was staring.” He looked up into the other man’s eyes. The frightened stare of a man who has lived his entire life being afraid. “I apologise.”

The man looked at him long and hard for several seconds which, to Nigel, seemed an eternity. He grinned, showing the remains of what were once two rows of healthy teeth. Not a happy grin, but the humourless grin of a bully who has once again achieved his objective. He looked around at the other commuters who, one by one lowered their heads and resumed their own business.

He looked back at Nigel. “You bloody loser,” he hissed venomously. Then he straightened up and turned his back on Nigel.

Nigel sat with his eyes downcast. His pen was held poised over the crossword, but the rest of the clues remained unfinished.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Graham Debenham

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