December 15, 2006

The Man John Never Knew

By Nick Cantwell © 2006

John worked in his office on the third floor of the family townhouse that he and his wife occupied. He sat at his neat and tidy desk, shuffling his pile of neat and tidy papers, and watched the world go by through the large window to the right of his desk. John spent all day with one eye on the latest share prices, and his other eye fixed on the neighbourhood - and when his job became second nature to him, it was this other eye that he found much more captivating.

The school run mums were the first group to catch his eye daily, usually just after his second coffee. There was the tall, elegant lady with the young, equally elegant daughter who were always the first to pass, and this signaled the start of the school rush. In the next ten minutes, most of the kids and parents would shuffle past, and then finally the latecomers would speed past, in a funny half walk, half run. Then a few minutes later the same people, minus their children, would come back past, this time a little slower, normally in groups of two or three, deep in conversation.

Around eleven, John would always hear a car beep, and look down to see a small white van, and a few minutes later a shabbily dressed man would rush down the stairs of the house opposite - loudly apologise for taking so long, and then the van would accelerate away.

And a half hour after that, a green car with a ladder attached to the roof rack would pull up a few doors away. A short unshaven man would always get out, slick his hair back with his hand, and then wave with a newspaper up to the window of an apartment on the corner. Always standing in the window was an elderly lady, who would wave back, and then remain at the window, until the man, presumably her son, would enter the apartment building - at which point she would leave the window. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, the man would come out and drive off, with the elderly lady once again watching from the window, until the car was out of sight.

So this was John's morning routine, and he had been seeing the same people doing the same things for over two years now. And although life moved on, these little sub plots still carried on, with a pleasing regularity.

It was in March that all this changed. The school run was the same, the white van (now a newer model) was still beeping, but John stopped seeing the green car. For a couple of days John hadn't really noticed, there had been odd days before when the car hadn't turned up. Then after a week John realised that he hadn't seen it for a while, which he thought was a little strange.

One afternoon a couple of days after that, John was sitting at his desk, busy for once, when something in the street caught his eye. A hearse was driving slowly past, and in the car behind, peering distantly out of the window, was the unshaven man.

John never saw the man or the green car again.

Nick Cantwell is a writer from London, England.

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