Service Of Life

Entry by: Annechen

26th April 2018


Dr Glendenning was old. He was so old he was called Norman, he reflected sadly.

Dorothy had always told him he looked young for his age, but she was gone and there was no-one now who loved him enough to lie to him.

That autumn evening dusk was falling as Norman said a brief and final goodnight to his practice receptionist – young and new to the job. He picked up his battered old Gladstone bag and carried it for the last time out of his surgery to his car. He was a cliché-ridden old fool, he knew, but he had feelings for that bag. It was like a faithful friend who had served him day in day out as he tended his patients, working tirelessly to extend their lives, to make them more comfortable, more liveable.

“We’ve devoted ourselves to the service of life, you and I. That’s what we’ve done, my old friend.” And he placed the bag carefully on the passenger seat.

Now his own life felt unliveable, and he knew there was nothing in that bag of tricks, faithful servant though it was, that could change that. Over the coming days he would do his best to downsize. That’s what they called it these days, wasn’t it? No point hanging on to stuff. Dorothy’s belongings should have been gone through 3 years ago when she’d died. Now it would be far more painful; but it had to be done.

Dr Glendenning was facing a lonely retirement.

At the other side of town Jean Barker was carefully wrapping up her old dinner service in newspaper and placing the little parcels carefully into two so-called Bags For Life, though it was never clear to her quite WHOSE life - hers or theirs. If it was hers then, yes, they had served her well for a couple of years now, and played their part in saving life on the planet. But, like the dinner service, they were going to the local charity shop with her this morning.

The service had been her wedding china, first wish on Joe’s and her wedding list back in the days when people still asked for such things. It was meant to be her dinner service for life, but since Joe had gone she couldn’t bear to look at it, and in any case all she needed now was a single place setting. Her meagre pension didn’t stretch to dinner guests and anyway she had so few friends left. No-one she could share a meal with.

So, arriving at the High Street, she pulled up sharply and drew in her breath. She knew she shouldn’t have been looking in the shop window, let alone swiftly digging her purse out of the depths of her bag, but she’d spotted a briefcase. It was beautiful. Crafted from the butteriest soft tan leather, pre-owned, clearly well-loved and, like a favourite pet, regularly fed to keep it supple and with a glowing patina to its coat – “Well,” Jean thought, “I mean its hide, of course.” Endowing the bag with puppy dog properties before she’d even touched it was a sure sign of love. Yet it was twenty pounds, her food budget for the week.

The bell over the shop door tinkled like pennies falling from heaven and Jean watched herself walk in. There was no-one at the counter, neither in front of nor behind it, but she could hear rustling and busy chatter in the back. Clearly the assistants were sifting through sacks for treasure and she wondered whether every morning for them was like the Christmas mornings she remembered from being a child, so long ago. A sturdier bell sat on the counter, more redolent of For Whom The Bell Tolls. Jean rang it and thought, “it tolls for thee”. She was beginning to feel rather jaunty.

A busy, smiley woman appeared, looking as though she had just found the treasure of Tutankhamun’s tomb. She greeted Jean cheerfully, and in response Jean carefully handed over her donation and received the woman’s effusive thanks.

“Also…….could I look at the briefcase in the window, please? The lovely soft tan leather one”.
Jean breathed in deeply, feeling the desire to describe it to please her own ears, even though there was just the one bag on display.

“It is twenty pounds, but isn’t it beautiful,” said the assistant, and she carried it carefully from the window and laid it before Jean, who made a show of opening it up, looking inside and checking out the zips and closings. She knew immediately that even had every fastening been broken beyond repair, it would have made no difference to her. Once she held the case it was hers and, flinging caution to the wind, she thought, “Food! Who needs it anyway!”

“No need to wrap it,” she said. “It’s fine just as it is. It’s a bag so it’s made to be carried.” She paid up with her weekly budget, said a very cheerful goodbye to the woman and strode off, swinging her purchase as she went.

Briefcase and Jean continued to swing happily along the High Street home, both of them tipping a wink at any passing stranger whose eye they happened to catch.

Once back behind her front door, Jean touched the bag again. Stroked it. It was her bag now and, although she might go a bit hungry for a few days, she had no regrets. She knew her parents had always hoped for better things for her. A career where such a bag might be a requirement. A solicitor or a teacher. But she’d ended up being an ordinary school dinner lady, serving hot meals to the children in the hope she was giving them nourishing food for life, just as much as the teachers themselves were.

Jean drew herself back to the present, placed the briefcase gently on her sofa and considered what she would put in it. It didn’t really matter. She had fallen in love with it. That was all that mattered to her. She finally had the bag that might have been an accompaniment to a glittering career.

Jean’s lunch that day was a banana. Dinner was a tray meal of beans on toast. Most enjoyable, and she felt perfectly satisfied. The bag watched from the sofa and it felt like they were instant friends. The zipper seemed to turn up at the corners and form a smile. Jean’s bag was as happy as she was.

As the week wore on her kitchen cupboard began to look rather empty and her stomach felt the same way. By the time Friday came, she was reduced to an old can of asparagus soup a year or so past its sell-by. She had no bread to dip in it and as her bag watched her its zipper now turned down as if to say “Look what I’ve done to you by coming to live with you.”

Jean and the bag both knew it wasn’t the bag’s fault, but only she knew she had to return it to the shop and get her £20 back. She still had the receipt, though she hadn’t expected to need it.

That Friday night Jean comforted herself by hugging the leather to her one last time. She went to bed sad and hungry and waited for the morning to come. When it finally did come it was a sunny one, and Jean placed the bag carefully into an ordinary carrier. Returning it to the shop felt like a betrayal that she didn’t want the bag ever to see. She needed to hide its face.

Jean hung her head on their walk down the High Street and, reaching the shop, opened the door and stepped inside. Pennies from heaven tinkled, and For Whom The Bell Tolls and Tutankhamun’s treasure would await them inside. The mood of the shop would be unchanged, but impressions can fall on one in such different ways.

Jean’s mouth, this Saturday morning, was downturned and she daren’t even think about the bag’s zipper as she took it out of the carrier. So it was a surprise to her when, removing it very sadly, she saw that it was again smiling. “Unbearable,” she thought, and, returning to the puppy dog imagery, “like an unwanted Christmas pet, it doesn’t know it’s going to be returned.” And she waited for its zipper to droop as she approached the counter.

This time there was someone both in front of and behind it. Behind, the assistant had clearly not just found treasure this day, and was shaking her head apologetically at the man who stood in front. He was an unremarkable man, the most noticeable thing about him being the set of his shoulders as he clearly took in some bad news. He paused, and then he turned to leave, passing Jean without a glance, looking only at the floor. Pennies from heaven sounded again as he opened the door and left. It was her turn now. The assistant’s eyebrows went up interrogatively.

“I’d like to return this briefcase, please.” Jean lied. She didn’t like to at all, but she proffered the bag and the receipt.

“This is unbelievable,” said the assistant, and Jean could see it was, for the expression on the assistant’s face clearly said that the unbelievable had indeed happened. Jean couldn’t say she was really surprised, as it also seemed unfathomable to her that anyone should be returning such a beautiful thing. Then the woman was turning and running out of the shop, leaving the tinkling door open behind her. Jean stood perplexed, the bag still there on the counter quietly awaiting its fate.

There was some shouting in the street and – did time stand still? Did the universe hold its breath? Whatever was happening out there, the next thing she was aware of was the return of the woman shop assistant. She looked happy; she looked radiant; she beamed at Jean. Jean beamed back, out of sheer politeness, as she knew of no other reason to beam on this dismal day.

She cast a tentative glance at her bag, soon to be hers no more, and its zipped expression was inscrutable. However, she had the distinct feeling it was looking over her shoulder beyond her. Jean turned around and there behind her stood the man, the unremarkable man, who had left the shop minutes before in such obvious disappointment.

“I understand,” he spoke to Jean, “I understand that you are returning this bag to the shop.”

Jean inclined her head. “I love it,” she explained, “but I can’t afford it.”

He smiled his ordinary smile. “The bag was a cherished possession of my late wife, Dorothy. It sounds whimsical, I know, but she always felt that bag devoted itself to the service of her life. She was a teacher, you know. And, well, she just got these ideas. Anyway,” he said, suddenly recovering himself,” I thought I could part with it, but it turns out I can’t.”

Jean’s heart felt as though it would burst with compassion as she watched him buy back Dorothy’s faithful old briefcase with a crumpled twenty pound note. A charity shop never loses. The bag settled itself happily in the man’s hand and he smiled at her, a grateful smile and then a welcoming smile. It was sad but somehow hopeful.

He seemed to her a very unremarkable man. As ordinary as beans on toast. And yet, he looked most enjoyable. Yes, Jean felt sure she would be perfectly satisfied.

And the briefcase? Well, its zipper was hidden from view, but, as they told each other some years later, Jean and Norman had known it was smiling again, knowing it had once more been of service.