“Bit grim here, isn’t it? All this grey.”
The man in the red hat had been trying to engage those around him for several hours, and Jennifer could feel her resolve cracking.
“Grey buildings, grey cars; I’ll bet they’ve even got grey socks on!”
As he gestured towards the guards, cautious snickers rippled down the line.
“Careful, he’ll hear you.”
“Aha! She speaks.”
Jennifer couldn’t help but smile. It had taken her three days of misery to travel to the line, and a friendly face warmed her more than a hot drink could.
“You need to be careful here, Sir. It’s not like the cities.”
“Please don’t call me Sir, never could stand it. Name’s Robert.”
They shook hands discreetly, but others shuffled away from them in the line.
“So, Jennifer. What brings you to the line?”
Jennifer winced at the directness.
“Ah, I apologise. Touchy subject for most, I suppose.”
“It’s okay, Sir, I mean, Robert. I have a son, Cass, and he’s been poorly – ” the words caught in her throat. “Very poorly, since he was born.”
“I was a sickly child myself, if you can believe it.”
Robert patted his ample belly, a sure sign of health and wealth in this district.
“My Cass, he’s not … he’s not got long left, so I’ve been told. By the medics, you understand. I wouldn’t bring him here.”
She stared at the concrete beneath her feet. She shouldn’t even be talking to a stranger about such personal business.
“I see, you’ve come to find out how long you’ve got left with your boy.”
“Not with him, for him. There’s no one else. If I’m due to go before him …”
Tears rolled freely down her face but Jennifer barely noticed. Crying was as much a part of her day as brushing her hair, or swiping her pass card.
“Shall I tell you why I’m here?”
Jennifer nodded, grateful for the change of subject. She’d been watching the man in the red hat and was curious why someone of his station would be here, in the line.
“Nothing so noble as your cause I’m afraid. Inheritance issues mostly. Want to put it all to bed while I can. I’m going overseas again next month – ”
“The seas! Is it as they say? Blue and calm and beautiful?”
“I’m afraid not, my dear girl. Mostly detritus now. Murky grey all through. Much like everything else in this world.”
Jennifer’s shoulders drooped.
“Ah, I’m sorry. I sometimes forget I’ve been fortunate to have experiences that others have not. Will you please forgive me?”
Jennifer smiled sadly.
“Of course. It’s just … I’m glad Cass isn’t here to hear it. I’ll keep it from him.”
“No harm in a little white lie for the little ones is there?”
Robert removed his hat and pulled at a thread.
“I had a little girl. Never got the ticket for her. Sometimes I wonder if I’d have done things differently had I known.”
He placed the red hat back on his head, and with it the boisterous personality reemerged.
“Still, here I am. Onwards and upwards. And here you are. Doing what’s best for your little boy. Aha! We’re moving a little quicker now. I’d heard it would. Silly how many people drop out after all this waiting.”
Jennifer’s eyes latched onto the steel door ahead.
“I’m not sure I can do this.”
She tried to turn, but a firm arm gripped her.
“Nonsense, my dear, what would your boy say?”
Their eyes locked and the warm reassurance there steadied her feet and her will. She nodded.
“You’re right, you’re right.”
“Atta girl. Oh. Looks like I’m next! Would you like me to wait here for you? After?” Jennifer just had time to nod as Robert was whisked towards the door. He righted the red hat as he was bustled along and raised a hand, but he did not turn around.
Jennifer walked into the light and tried to avoid the hundreds of eyes on her. This was her moment. Her joy. Not to share, except with darling Cass and maybe – Robert? She raised her eyes slightly but couldn’t see him in the exit area. Then she heard the shouts and turned, along with everyone else.
“NO. NO I tell you. I do not accept this, there has been a mistake. I am fit as a fiddle. Please, not today. Please.”
The red hat tumbled as Robert was manhandled away. They didn’t like anyone creating a scene. Jennifer watched the hat fall as if in slow motion then closed her eyes. There was nothing she could do for him now.
“Jennifer! Jennifer! What did yours say? Please they’re not right, they can’t be. We have to – we have to check them. Jennifer, please. Anybody, please.”
The voice cut off and Jennifer opened her eyes. She turned her back to the ticket line, stepped over the hat, and set off for home.
“Cassidy?” Jennifer gently pushed the door. Her stomach plummeted as she watched him, motionless and silent, but then he rolled over and blinked.
“Mummy? Mummy! You’re back!” He sat up, a tiny figure in a mountain of blankets. Mother and child embraced and Jennifer curled into the warm covers, breathing him in, until they lay face to face.
“Did you get it, Mummy? Did you get your ticket?”
Jennifer held out her hand. Cass peeled the fingers open and took out the small piece of plastic, then shrieked.
“That’s years away! Years and years!”
He wrapped himself around her and they laughed. Jennifer planted tiny kisses all over his head then held him close.
“Years and years.” She agreed. “So we’ll be together for a long time yet. Now, it’s time to go back to sleep. Cuddle up closer and let me tell you a story, about a brave man in a red hat, who travelled all over the beautiful bright blue seas.”
Gaynor Jones is a stay at home Mum and freelance writer from Manchester, UK, who loves writing short, flash and micro stories.