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|The Best Laid Plans
by Ron Luikart
The dream was always the same. It started with a feeling of cold. Not just cold that one would feel on a wintry day while sled riding, but a cold that knifed into the very core of the body and began to freeze life from it. While the cold was working on the inside, a great pressure was pushing on the outside trying to force the body into a teacup. There was also a sensation of wetness. It was a suffocating wetness that worked with the pressure and cold to smash and stamp out any life in the body. All of these forces were enveloped in a deep, black void, so black that the brain was not sure if the eyes were opened or closed.
" Walter!" a voice screeched.
"Walter! You awake?" the voice shouted.
Walter Sheraton sat straight up in his bed, and the first thing he saw was his wife, Agnes. She leaned against the door of their bedroom in a pink and green robe that she clutched tightly around her skinny neck. The robe hung straight down until only her slippered toes protruded. She wore no makeup. Curlers and bobby pins stuck out from under the red scarf on her head. An unlit cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth.
"You been havin' that dream again?" she demanded.
Walter felt guilty.
"I guess so." he stammered.
"Look at yerself. Yer a mess."
Walter's hands felt his face and pajama top. It was as if he had been swimming in his nightclothes.
"Get ready for breakfast. You'll be late for work," she ordered.
Walter got up and stumbled into the bathroom. He placed his hands on the rust stained sink, leaned forward, and looked at himself in the mirror. His hair was a shambles, and the blood-shot eyes looking back were surrounded with dark circles. They had been like that ever since the dream began. A ghostly face encircled his eyes. Not enough sun, he decided. Then, Walter really looked at himself. He looked deeply into the gray eyes in the mirror, and what he saw made him sad. He was a clerk. He had given the accounting firm of Harrison and Harrison fifteen years of his life, and what did he have to show for it? His stomach bulged, and his hair was not covering as much of his scalp as it use to. He rode the tram to work six days a week, and lived in a four room flat with his wife. The eyes in the mirror told him he wasn't going anywhere, and he wasn't going to be anybody. Just, Walter Sheraton, clerk.
"Get out here, Walter! Your breakfast is ready!" Agnes's voice grated through his ears.
Walter hurried through his morning routine. From his closet, he selected a fairly clean, white shirt to go with his only black suit that he obligingly wore to work and church. He would like to have had a new one, but Agnes thought one suit was enough. He selected a blue tie and began tying it as he headed toward the kitchen.
He sat in his assigned place and waited for breakfast. "Good Mornings" had never been part of Walter and Agnes's morning conversation, just a cold silence. Agnes dropped a plate in front of Walter with one watery egg staring at him. It was surrounded by two pieces of burnt toast. The coffee she placed at his right hand had a film on the surface that reflected the colors of the rainbow.
"Look at the calendar, Walter. See what today is?"
Walter obediently looked to where Agnes was pointing. The calendar read April 8, 1912. Nothing came to his mind. He began to feel uneasy in his stomach. He should know something about that date, but he just couldn't remember what. He glanced back to his wife with a questioning look. Agnes's eyes clouded over. Here it comes he thought.
"Ya' mean ya' fergot already? Ya' fergot that wer' havin' dinner at mother's tonight?"
"Walter, I wish ya' wouldn't be so dumb about rememberin' stuff. We've had this planned fer a couple of days now. Yer so dense sometimes." Her voice began to go to the next octave. "Be home early! We have to be there by six. You know that Mother doesn't like us bein' late, and traffic will be terrible. So, don't be late!"
Walter picked up one piece of toast and left the other to keep the egg company. Agnes didn't kiss Walter good bye; he didn't expect it. He grabbed his brown lunch bag, walked out the front door, down the steps, and caught the 7:30 tram to work.
The tram seemed more crowed than usual. People shoved and pushed and shouted at one another in angry voices. Walter fought his way on and beat an old man carrying a cane, to the last seat by a window. Walter smiled triumphantly up at him. The old man whacked Walter on the shins with his cane and melted into the rest of the crowd. Walter rose angrily to chase the old man, but he noticed two people ready to pounce into his seat as soon as it was vacant. So, he just sat back and rubbed his shin until the pain subsided. He found himself sitting next to a fat woman dressed in ripped and tattered clothes, smelling like perspiration and urine. She looked at Walter and smiled, revealing a row of rotting teeth.
"Ol' Pete's a mean sum' bitch ain't he?" she chuckled.
Walter ignored the comment and looked around. Nobody smiled. Nobody talked. Everyone had the same vacant look in their eyes. They saw nothing. Walter made eye contact with a fairly attractive young girl sitting across from him. She might have been a secretary on her way to work. Walter smiled at her.
"What the bloody hell you lookin' at, mate? Tryin' to look up my dress?"
Several people heard and laughed. Walter tried to disappear into his seat. He knew his face was bright red.
"Sorry. Didn't mean anything."
"Well, keep yer bloody eyes to yerself!"
The fat woman chuckled.
The rocking and swaying of the car soon caused Walter's eyes to grow heavy and he drifted into a fitful doze. The dream came onto him, complete with the darkness, wetness, and pressure that had accompanied the morning one. The people on the tram were aware that something had happened to Walter because when he jerked awake, they were all looking at him strangely.
The fat woman chuckled and farted.
"Kingsley Station," the p.a. in the car announced loudly.
The fat woman put her hand on Walter's left knee and pushed herself out of the seat. The smell of urine once again assaulted Walter's nose. He waited until he was the last one to leave. He looked around for his lunch bag. It was gone. Walter forced himself out of the car and up the steps to the street and stood in front of the place that had help to suck the spirit from his life.
The Harrison and Harrison building was a dismal place. The outside was streaked from years of dirty air beating against it. The pigeons had left signs of their visits on the windowsills, and the glass ached to be cleaned. Walter crossed the street and spoke to the old pensioner who served as the doorman.
The inside of the building was no better than the outside. The wooden floors were worn and warped. Huge dust balls lay in most every corner. The ceiling plaster had fallen from some places, and in other areas ugly, brown spots showed that the water from the roof was working to bring down more. The room in which Walter worked was a large one. It was crammed with twelve full-size office desks. Each desk had partitions two feet high attached to three sides of it, so when the occupant sat in his chair, all he could see was the desk and its three walls. Harrison and Harrison discouraged fraternization and expected a full days work from its employees.
Walter brushed fallen plaster from his desk and chair before he sat down. The walls of his desk seemed to jump higher as he looked at the work piled on his desk. A stack of accounting files threatened to bury the top of his desk should it fall, and a small mound of messages demanded his attention. The dream, his wife, and the job all seemed to be caving in on him. He was suffocating. His hand opened the center drawer of his desk and brought out a picture. It was a beach with palm trees and the ocean washing gently onto white sand. Walter couldn't recall where he had gotten the picture, or how long he had had it, but looking at it always gave him a sense of peace.
"If only I could go there," he thought.
A movement over his right shoulder caused Walter a moment of panic. He hurriedly shoved the picture back into the desk drawer.
"Easy, Walter. It's only me."
Walter looked to see one of his few friends.
"Hi, David. You startled me," Walter said.
"You're awful tense, Walter. I hope you don't mind me saying so, but you could use a vacation."
"Do you think old man Harrison would let me have some time off?"
"Not likely this time of year," replied David, "but it's a nice idea."
Somewhere in the building a bell rang to signal the start of the workday. Walter turned back to his desk and absently reached for one of the folders from the stack. But, Walter wasn't thinking about the folder or his job at that minute, because in the back of his mind an idea began to form. After a few more minutes of thought, the idea blossomed into a plan. Walter took a quick look outside of his cubicle. Satisfied that no one was interested in what he was doing Walter reached for his phone and dialed the number of his bank. He gave the voice on the other end the appropriate identification and numbers and asked how much money was in his account. The figure was larger than he had thought. He thanked the voice and rang off. Walter didn't want to appear suspicious, so he began to work again on the pile of folders. The more he thought about the fine points of the plan, the happier he became. Soon he was actually humming to himself. Walter worked almost two hours before he decided to risk another call. A polite voice answered after two rings.
"Yes. May I help you?"
Walter explained what he wanted. A trip. A chance to get away, across the ocean. He could leave in the next few days if there was anything available.
The voice responded, that, yes, there was something for Walter.
"Can you be in Southampton by April 10?" the voice asked.
"Yes, I think so." Walter replied.
"How would you like to travel?"
"First class, second class, or steerage?
"What's the cost?" asked Walter.
The voice gave him the prices, and Walter wrote them on a sheet of paper. After some thought, he decided upon second class. He thought that would give him passage and money to spend.
"How many tickets would you like, and under whose name will they be?"
Walter hesitated. A patch of sweat formed under his armpits, and he began to feel uncomfortable. Minutes seemed to pass.
"Sir, are you still there?"
"Yes, I'm here. I'd like one ticket under the name of Jonathan Ross." Walter said slowly.
"Very well, Mr. Ross. Can you pick up your ticket today?"
"Not possible today. Tomorrow at noon I could."
"Fine, sir. We'll see you then."
During the lunch hour, Walter moved quickly to run two errands. First, he stopped at his bank and withdrew all but two hundred pounds from his and Agnes's account. Next, he stopped at a nearby luggage shop, purchased two suitcases, and made the necessary arrangements to pick them up after work. He returned to his desk just as the one o'clock bell rang. Walter worked at a fanatical pace for most of the afternoon until he realized that suspicions might arise should he break his normal work pattern. He had the reputation of being slower that the other clerks, but his work was always free of mistakes. He slowed his pace, and by quitting time, he still had a satisfactory pile of folders on his desk for tomorrow. The quick stop at the luggage shop took longer than Walter planned. An inquisitive clerk wanted to know all about his trip.
As he carried the two suitcases home, Walter thought about what he was going to tell Agnes. The wheels turned, and by the time he was walking up the front steps of his flat, he had a story ready.
"Agnes, I'm home," he announced as he walked through the front door.
"Where have you been?" she shouted from the bedroom. "Have you forgotten about dinner at mother's tonight? Why are you late?"
"I had an unexpected errand," he replied meekly.
His wife appeared at the bedroom door in the same robe that she had on when he had left for work. She glanced at the suitcases.
"What are those for?"
"Well, old man Harrison is going on a combination vacation and business trip on Wednesday."
"Where's he goin'? What for?" He seldom leaves the city." Agnes challenged suspiciously.
"He's going to Southwold where there is an opportunity to buy another firm. Mr. Harrison thinks it might be good business to branch out. So, we at the firm, took up a collection and bought these as sort of a traveling present."
Agnes wanted to ask more questions, but she realized how late it was.
"Get dressed, Walter. Mother expected us fifteen minutes ago."
The dinner and evening went by in a blur. Walter didn't remember much about it, except that he was in an unusually happy mood. It might have been the wine or the realization that this was the last time he would have to have dinner with Agnes and her mother. Whatever it was, he felt a new confidence in himself.
After returning to their flat, sleep alluded Walter. He kept thinking about what he was going to do. Eventually his eyes grew heavy, and he fell into a deep sleep. The dream came on him in a rush, and he struggled to escape. It seemed to press down upon him like a great weight. He couldn't breathe. Walter opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out. As suddenly as it had come, the dream left, and Walter shook himself awake. He sat up and took in great gulps of air. He glanced at Agnes, but soft snoring sounds indicated that he hadn't disturbed her. Walter slid out of bed and made his way slowly to the kitchen. He fixed himself a glass of warm milk and sat at the kitchen table. Soon, his head nodded and fell forward onto the table, and he was asleep again. That's how Agnes found him when she came to make breakfast.
Walter was nervous and edgy at work. When lunchtime came, he went to pick up his ticket. The cab stopped in front of a smug looking building that had two large flags on either side of a very ornate door. One was the British flag, and the other was a red one with a white star in the middle. Walter went through the entrance and down a marbled hall that echoed his footsteps. At the end of the hall was a counter where several clerks were working. One looked up as Walter approached.
"Yes, sir. May I help you?"
"I'm here to pick up a ticket."
"Walt.... Uh, I mean Jonathan Ross."
The clerk began to sort through a pile of forms. Found nothing, and began again. She glanced quickly at Walter. He was beginning to feel uneasy and a small ribbon of sweat formed under his nose. The clerk moved to another counter and started through another stack of forms. Still nothing. Walter began to feel the room closing in on him.
"What was that name again?"
The clerk moved to a third stack.
"Ah, here we are, Mr. Ross. Sorry for the delay."
Relief washed over Walter like a cooling rain. "No, problem," he replied.
" Notice that your train will leave Waterloo Station tomorrow, April 10, at 7:30 A.M.
You'll get to Southampton by 9:30. Once there, report to Berth 44 with your luggage.
Scheduled sailing time will be 12:15. Any questions?"
"Good day then, and have a pleasant journey."
Walter returned to work and went through the motions for the remainder of the day. At quitting time, he left the usual amount of work on his desk like he had always done. On his way out, he turned at the door for one last look at the place that had encased him for the last fifteen years. The office looked like a maze for trained rats. He turned his back on Harrison and Harrison and left. On his way home, he stopped to buy several lengths of ribbon.
It was a quiet evening at home. Several times Walter found himself looking at his wife without her realizing it. He wondered how she would react when she finally understood what he had done. He toyed with the idea of telling her his plan and trying to persuade her to go with him, but he dismissed the idea. She would just yell and lecture him on responsibility. He had heard it all before, and right now, he just wanted to be free. Free of everything.
Close to bedtime, Walter walked into the bedroom and got out the new suitcases and began to pack. He was careful to take only necessary items so that Agnes wouldn't be suspicious. Besides, he could always buy what he needed later. When he heard Agnes finally coming to bed, he threw the suitcases onto the bed and began to tie ribbons to them.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, as she entered the room.
"Well, tomorrow is the day Mr. Harrison gets these gifts. I'm just trying to make them look like presents," Walter replied.
"Hurry and finish. It's late, and I'm tired," she snapped.
Agnes went into the bathroom. Walter finished his work and carried the cases to the front room. When he came back, Agnes was in bed and snoring softly. Walter put on his pajamas and got into bed. But, he fought the sleep, because he feared the dream. There were times when he felt that the dream would kill him if he couldn't wake up. Soon, he was out of bed, moving about the cold, dark, rooms trying to stay awake. He read, paced and looked out the window until he finally saw the eastern sky begin to lighten.
He went through his usual morning routine and finally stood at the door, ready to leave. He looked around the room. It was small and confining, just like his life. Agnes came out of the kitchen in her usual morning attire.
"Haven't you left yet?"
A sudden impulse carried him across the room. He looked at his wife, and suddenly kissed her on the forehead.
"Good bye, Agnes," he whispered.
A surprised look flashed across her face and just as quickly disappeared.
"Yeah, well, don't forget, we're going to Mother's for bridge tonight. Don't be late."
Walter nodded, turned, and walked out the front door.
Once on the train to Southampton, Walter decided to celebrate his new freedom, so he had a whiskey. He was a man of the world now. Even though it was still morning, he figured he could do what he wanted, when he wanted, so he had a couple more whiskeys. Walter didn't remember the train arriving at the station, or getting off, or getting his bags. But, he found himself in front of a cabby.
"Where to gov'ner"?
"Dock yards. Berth 44."
"Right y'ar. 'op in."
The cab careened through the streets until they arrived at their destination. The driver steadied Walter with one hand while he pulled luggage from the front seat with the other.
"Beauty ain't she?" the cabby said, as he paused and gazed toward the pier.
Walter followed the man's look. The ship was beautiful. It had a black hull and a dazzling white superstructure. The sides of the ship seemed to rise forever. Walter paid the cabby and walked down the pier until he came to a gangway that led up and into the ship. A group of officers waited at the top of the gangway for Walter to come to them. As Walter moved toward the group, he passed from the warm sun of the morning into the shadow of the ship. A sudden chill passed through Walter, and it caused him to shiver for an instant. At the top of the gangway, a young boy dressed in an impressive blue uniform trimmed in gold stopped Walter.
Walter presented it.
"Mr. Ross," the young officer said as he checked a clipboard, "your cabin will be on E deck, aft. I'll have someone show you the way."
"Our pleasure, sir," the young man said.
Walter began to follow his guide into the ship.
"Oh, sir!" the young man with the clipboard shouted.
"Yes," Walter said, as he turned and faced him.
"Welcome aboard Titanic!"
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