On Your Way Son
It’s a time of wonderful transition in anyone’s life. High school exams a recent memory, a feeling of euphoric relief washing over a never before felt trepidation as we stand on the edge of the daunting void, the unknown entity that is the future.
For me, the time came in 1997. Facing my future alone for the first time in my life. No school friend sense of solidarity, nobody to tell me what to do. Just me and a headful of well-meaning advice.
“It’s what we call independence,” my Father would say. He should know. He left school at 14, started work the day after. Followed his own burning ambition to the UK and climbed his own personal career path right to the top, plaudits and media glare never far behind. A tough act to follow? You can sing it.
His standards were high, but he was supportive in every way. University wasn’t for me. My education was important to me, but the avenue would have to change. And anyway I was 17, it was 1997, my self-perceptions were built upon the foundations of the trendy, north of England Britpop swagger, the outward confidence inspired by an Oasis-led working class revolution, and I wanted cash in my pocket.
My confidence was purely outward. This was a colossal transition – far too big for self-assurance. I was inwardly uncertain bordering on nervous as I applied for what I described as my dream position. An apprenticeship in graphic design. My teenage brain said “yeah. This is cool, arty. I could do this!”
Dressing formally for an interview at 17 years of age only adds to the nerves. That feeling of buttoning the shirt all the way to the top, before stifling yourself with a tie. My heart was pounding as my father ran his mock interview questions by me in the car. In reality he wasn’t helping, only adding to the overwhelming sense of foreboding as our destination limbered into view. We stopped outside the entrance and my Dad left the engine running. I guess I was somehow expecting him to lead me in and do the talking for me. For the first time that day my Father looked me in the eye. “Well, are you ready?” His smile was reassuring, he was good at that. “Just be yourself, be natural. I’ll be waiting for you when you come out, we’ll get lunch, my treat.” I smiled and nodded. “Go on then” he said, “on your way son.” That was his line when he trusted me.
I paused before I entered, facing nothing more than a mere prospect. I was genuinely scared as I pulled the glass door open, my CV providing an unlikely comfort screen as I took my seat in reception. For the first time in my life I could actually see my heart beat – my shirt pulsing as I sat waiting. I glanced up at the wall mounted clock. I comforted myself with the fact that when the big hand got all the way around I’d be outta there. Childish but reassuring at a moment when I needed something.
“Five minutes!” The gruff female voice punctured the calm air and startled me from my semi-daydream. “Sorry?” I replied. “Gerry will be with you in five minutes love!”
I had heard of Gerry Davitt. He was one of those entrepreneurial brain boxes with a hand in everything. He was a businessman – a name.
I glanced at the array of awards and plaques decorating the walls with no idea what they represented. It was a rather unassuming place, dusty blinds allowed shards of September sun to emanate from the window over which they hung. There was a radio playing somewhere behind the receptionist’s desk, a tin-like muffled sound which provided more irritation than entertainment. The volume was low enough to allow the dull ticking of the clock to filter through. It carried a soothing charm and unlikely source of temporary escape.
“Now then, you must be Craig.” I looked up alarmed. How did I not hear him approaching? Not a sound. No door opening, no footsteps – nothing! I stood and offered my hand. “Thanks for coming, I’m Gerry” he smiled. “Sorry for keeping you waiting.” The Yorkshire accent when spoken with the correct tone is wonderfully warm and welcoming, as was his handshake.
He was a short man in stature. He had grey hair and cheeks which seemed to glow in the artificial heat of his office as we sat. His clothes were average, smart trousers and shoes topped with the kind of knitwear everyone’s Dad wears.
As we spoke I felt welcome. I seemed to fit here, and all because of the demeanour of a man I’d met only a few minutes ago. We discussed our Irish family connections, no mistaking the origins of our surnames. Gerry reminisced as he reflected upon childhood memories of holidays spent in Kerry. His memories mirrored those of my own, conjuring rustic images of a quaint and quiet place of tranquillity as we sat in a Bradford industrial estate.
There was a warmth about this man’s eyes that invited trust, not a quality I’d seen in many people up to that point in my life.
I left with the job secured and my sense of pride exploding outward. I carried a real sense of mission accomplished as I opened the car door to retake my place beside my father. I was smiling. “How did you get on?” he enquired. “Did they say they’ll phone you”? He didn’t appear concerned, it was more by way of welcoming me back into the car I guess.
“I got the job. He told me already.” My Dad didn’t smile, he opened his eyes slightly wider. “Well, you must have made quite an impression on him. Well done, congratulations on your first real job. Lunch?” I laughed under my breath. “You’re starving aren’t you Dad?” His reaction was immediate, “yep, McDonalds,” he smirked as the car pulled away.
Time passes in such a way that is defined by events and our feelings toward the people who partake in them. Before I knew it I was settling into my new job and I loved it. It was a small workforce which suited my bashful nature, I was crippled by shyness and the thought of integrating with established people proved far more intimidating than the thought of what my actual work would entail. But my fears would subside as I was welcomed into the close-knit unit. There was more a sense of family than team, bonded by the common respect each individual had for Gerry Davitt.
The weeks blended into months, my responsibility grew along with my character. I felt trusted. Learning a craft which I adored immensely, my will to develop ensured that I put my heart into every task. My mentor would remind me that by undertaking a task, you have committed yourself to it. Therefore that task, regardless of how trivial, should reflect your commitment to it. To a 17 year old apprentice these are wise words indeed, and ones which would resonate within me forever.
Gerry was meticulous in ensuring that I was always ok. He would appear at the window of my van as I departed. “All set?” he’d ask. It was easy to put his mind at rest. “Are you serious?” I’d smile. He always chuckled, “Just checking in, now on your way son.” That was his way of saying “I trust you” before he’d tap the roof of the van twice to send me on my way.
It was a routine which had developed as the professional respect between us had grown. Upon my return to base we’d sit in his office and review the task I had just completed. It was always informal, and always drifted into a discussion about football, especially if the weekend was approaching. And it was through football that Gerry would meet and befriend my father. He would get us tickets to join him at games on a Saturday.
During school holidays his daughter would sit on the work bench and I would give her paper and paints to amuse herself. My wall would creak under the weight of the artwork she produced for me, insisting beyond reason that I display it. I would pretend that I didn’t have the space for her latest offering, she would laugh and insist that I did. My mock protest never lasted long and in truth I loved the array of colours with which my workspace was now awash. They framed my window adding glorious contrast to the grey, industrial, cold and soulless wasteland beyond the glass.
I would reflect, reminding myself of the pressure under which I would desperately attempt to single out a profession for myself. I would count my blessings that I was comfortable and protected. I was working with friends – I was working for a friend. I took nothing for granted but I prayed it would last forever.
Often Gerry would be away on business or pleasure. He led quite a jet-set lifestyle and was an accomplished pilot, seen most of the world from the air yet had little interest in the cultural diversities of exotic locations. His interest was only what these great cities and regions looked like from above. He was an aviator in every sense. He would speak about the journeys he had made and views he had witnessed with almost as much love and enthusiasm as when speaking about his family. And his enthusiasm was truly a joy to behold, whether it be on the eve of a family trip to Ireland or golfing weekend in Europe. Even business trips were met with an almost child-like excitement, not because of the actual occasion, but because of the flight to get there. Gerry seldom boarded an aircraft unless he was piloting it himself. His flying had won him awards and commendations from his peers for many years. He was rightly proud but seldom made reference to any of this.
Bank holiday weekends were always his time to fly. Of course, Gerry being a hands-on kind of man, was always a presence. If he wasn’t in work he would always phone. He often did this from the cockpit of his single engine Piper as he sat on the airstrip awaiting clearance to soar. I had to strain my ears in an attempt to hear him above the droning, monotone buzz of the engine. He would always “check in” with me, and I would offer the same kind of reassurance as though he were standing at the window of my van. It was more than just simple routine, and it worked for us.
Likewise, upon his return he would “check in” with me just as soon as his wheels touched the grass, and I would be expecting his call. It came without fail and followed an almost scripted template each and every time.
Even if routine isn’t dictated by a schedule, it is routine none the less. A familiarity which we miss when we stray from the path with which we have grown unknowingly accustomed. It was following one of many business excursions that our routine was broken. Gerry’s time to call came and went. I wasn’t concerned, but it was different. He had spoken with me from his cockpit only two days earlier as I was about to leave on a job. I assured him I was prepared and offered him the peace of mind that his client would be more than satisfied. His answer was always the same. “Glad to hear it. Now, on your way son.”
Two hours passed before I decided to make an enquiry. I waited until lunch when the lads would be assembled around the table. I didn’t always eat in there, I had my own office so would often eat at my desk. I walked somewhat sheepishly into the small room. They were surprised to see me. We laughed and chatted rowdily until a natural pause fell over the conversation. “So, any word from Gerry?” I wasn’t directing the question at any individual in particular, but I knew where the response would come from. “He’s due back tomorrow” answered Jason. He was the foreman from the manufacturing floor, a big guy with the kind of bristly stubble that never seemed to change length. His large frame and domineering scowl made him the unelected spokesperson for the group. “Yeah, but have you spoke to him today? Like, have you heard from him?” I knew when he was due back in his office, but that wasn’t my concern. Jason picked up his mug and took an audible slurp before answering me for a second time. “He’s home, I know that. If he hasn’t phoned you it’s probably because he’s tired. If I were you I’d leave him until he’s in here tomorrow.” That was more than I needed to hear at that time. It was Jason’s first two words which brought instant relief to me. I didn’t need to speak to Gerry that day, I was just thrown by the fact that I hadn’t.
I was in first the following morning as I was every day. I would unlock the place, hit the lights and make myself a cup of coffee whilst I waited for the bulbs to illuminate fully so I may inspect how my previous evening’s paintwork had dried. By 6am I would have everything rolled, packed and ready for delivery. I used to sit in my office and observe the others trudging into work in almost the same order day after day.
I waited until after 9 to visit the office and deliver my report. I was looking forward to the usual catch up, but he seemed different. He barely glanced up at me. He was distracted. “Craig, good morning son. I have to take a phone call. Listen, I’m going to call everyone together in ten or fifteen minutes. Can you go to your office and wait for the call?” This was an unexpected diversion. “Sure,” I answered. “I have some sketches to work on anyway.”
“No” he said sharply. At last he made eye contact. “Don’t do anything, just wait.” I was unsettled. “Sure thing.” His eyes were heavy and sympathetic. “Thank you,” he paused momentarily, then lowered his voice to almost whisper. “Go on son, I’ll call everyone.”
I can’t remember the call, or even waiting for it. We stood in our usual semi-circle formation facing the man we respected so much. His posture was different, verging upon the apologetic. We were silent as he spoke.
“Guys. Look. Okay, I’m gonna cut to the chase here. Financially we’ve fallen behind. The graphics department is booming, but it isn’t enough to support our manufacturing side. Not when the only orders are for repairs.”
He glanced at us, appearing to pause for comment. It wasn’t forthcoming so he continued.
“You see, I think it’s our location. Lancashire has it sewed up. If we were even at the far side of Leeds then maybe, but here? No.”
I didn’t fully understand, but I knew my job was gone. Knew it.
“I’m not closing the doors” he continued. “I’ve sold up. This weekend we were bought out. Mudfords have taken us, so we stay in business. But.”
We all looked to the floor. “They’re downsizing. They’re not interested in it all. Ten of you have to go.” This was clearly breaking the man’s heart. “I’ll call you in individually.” His voice had cracked under the emotional strain. He turned and walked away. I don’t think anyone looked up from the floor as the echo of his footsteps gradually faded.
My father offered generous reassurance over the phone as I waited. I can’t remember his words, but I do remember the feeling of my first heavy heart.
I don’t recall the lonely walk. I was faced with Gerry, his glasses lay upside down on his desk as he rubbed his eyes with his index finger and thumb. “Well, what do you make of all this then? Big shock, eh? What does your Dad think? I take it you’ve phoned him.”
The man looked exhausted. I wanted to lighten his load. “These things happen Gerry” I said in the weakest tone I’ve ever heard coming from my mouth. “I’m barely 19, I have my whole life. No mortgage, no bills. Gerry, its fine! I’m gonna be fine! No worries, honestly!”
He put his glasses back on and sat upright. “Son, if you think I’m letting you go you’re very much mistaken.” I was stunned. “I’ve had apprentices strut in through that door since Jesus was a lad. All the same, young, brash, cocky. They’re ten a penny. But not you Son. You’re going nowhere. Now, let’s phone your Dad again.”
I sat and tried desperately to hold back tears as my lip quivered. “Cat got your tongue eh?”
He knew me, he knew my nature. “Listen to me now Son. You’re a good worker. You’ve put your heart into everything for me. I can tell you this, as long as I’m looking over you, you’ll be fine Son. Things will fall into place. Things will work out. You won’t have to worry about your future. I guarantee that.”
The intensity of that day would ensure no memory of the days or weeks which followed.
The routine fell back into place and we carried on. I continued to learn, in truth I was thriving. I worked well with Gerry – everyone did, it was easy. Again he came and went. Business, pleasure, whatever. It didn’t matter to me, as long as he checked in I felt I was doing well by him.
The April bank holiday weekend was upon us. Thursday morning and Gerry was heading away on a golfing weekend with his father and brother on the Dutch island of Texel. I wouldn’t see him that day. My office phone rang at five to nine. I could hear that familiar hum and background chat from the cockpit. I was heading to Manchester that morning and my mentor needed peace of mind before we both departed. Our conversation was routine and brief. I gave my usual confident report before he chuckled and signed off. “Drive carefully won’t you? Go on, on your way Son.” And that was that.
I carried my small tool box to the van. I had a map with directions scribbled in Gerry’s handwriting. I plugged my phone into the charger and put the key into the stiff ignition. I was abruptly disturbed by Jason’s fist at the window. I popped the door open. “Quick, listen to this. Seriously!”
I followed him back inside. The lads were all transfixed on the radio. I heard sketchy reports, nothing more. “Plane crash,” announced Jason. “Gerry.” He was always to the point. I was confused. Jason looked at me directly. “Simon reckons its Gerry’s plane. It’s right where he would have been flying.” I turned to Simon. He just nodded slowly. “No lads” I said. “I’ve just spoken to him!” The guys looked at me open eyed in unison. Jason stood from the bench on which he perched. “When?” It was more of a demand than a question. I gazed at the clock. “Twenty minutes ago” I mumbled. The sombre realisation washed over me from the cold floor. Jason sat once again.
“What about his phone?” I dashed into the office and hit his speed dial button. Nothing. “But if he’s flying?” Jason took the phone out of my hand. “Sit down lad. Nothing we can do.”
We stood in small groups. We made anxious conversation with empty words. Jason emerged from the office. “Christine is on her way in. Good God. What do I say to her?”
Christine was Gerry’s wife, we knew her well. She arrived shortly after with her sister. We stood as a group in silence as the two closed the office door behind them. They were ashen faced and made no reference to us.
The air was uncertain. People need confirmation before a genuine acceptance and that was my position. Time was at a standstill and I could not function.
Two police officers entered, removing their hats as they walked into the office. I retreated to my own and slumped in the chair. This was my confirmation, now for acceptance. I picked up my phone to call my Dad.
“Hi Craig. You alright?” it was unusual for me to phone him during the day from work. “Not really Dad.” My throat closed. No air, no words. I closed my eyes as tight as I could. I tried to force a coherent sentence, mindful of the fact that my Dad had lost a friend. All I could muster was a pathetic whisper. “Gerry’s dead.” I’ll never be able to recall his reaction. I can’t remember a single word. I could feel the tears burning my right cheek as I stood in silence trying to control my breathing. I didn’t know what loss was up to this point. I knew now. People speak about the end of a chapter, the curtain coming down, but at that moment in time nothing metaphorical was relevant. It was much too human for that. I was in a room filled with Gerry’s aftershave. His jacket hung on the back of my door, yet he was gone. I scanned my eyes across the bright artwork of his little girl. Christ.
As we stood ceremoniously watching Jason pull the shutter down, I wondered if I would ever walk through that door again – I wondered if I wanted to.
It never dawned on me that my prospects may have been fading along with the light that day. The void was different now, it wasn’t the gaping hole of uncertainty it had been in 1997. It was a once brimming chest of hope, now gone.
I knew that nothing would be the same again, and it wasn’t. I realised that I had been prised from my comfort zone and I’d lost the protective arm of a mentor who had my best interests at heart. I knew that he had cared, and I hurt that he was gone.
The dawn brought with it my re-evaluation. The first step towards my latest transition. But I was a different me now, I had grown.
Life moves so fast when you’re young, becoming a blurred reflection distorted by highlights.
I got my move to Ireland. I settled, married and became a proud father to three beautiful daughters. I meandered through life with my focus firmly upon the future, yet one eye glancing at a warm past. I was blessed to fall on my feet and never miss a day’s work. My ethic remains the same and harks back to the faith that one man placed in me.
Life throws challenges at us all. Family, work, health. It isn’t simple, it takes work. Some of us excel, some of us falter. We all have days when it’s too much but we come through.
We each face our own voids, our own uncertainties and challenges, but I have an advantage. As I stand and face my latest obstacle, my latest uncertainty, the trust of that man burns within. He had told me that my future is in safe hands, he told me that he would take care of that. I believe that he did, that he does.
They say every journey begins with a single step. Sometimes we need a nudge in the right direction to affirm that what we are doing and where we are going is the right place for us. My affirmation comes from his voice – still there, still clear.
Before I take my first step I pause and wait.
It’s our routine. And like clockwork, there it is. The warmth, the faith, the trust. The voice.
“On your way Son.”
Craig O Shea