Peter Masters found his reserved seat on the train, hoisted his old green bergen rucksack up onto the luggage rack, and sat down with a sigh of relief.
It had been another long and tedious week in the City, and he was really looking forward to spending the weekend with his best friend Mark and Claire, his wife. He'd quickly changed out of his work suit into cords and a pullover before leaving the office dead on four o'clock, earning the odd curious or envious look on the way out.
The pay was pretty good for a commodities analyst – nothing outrageous, but more than enough to keep him interested if not one-hundred-percent excited – but the work was often repetitive, with an eye for detail essential. He specialised in mining activities, and with the current worldwide recession affecting metal and commodity prices, only the companies with the easiest extraction were trading profitably. That meant that the market was very volatile; the slightest news about industrial confidence or commodity prices was enough to spark a sudden wave of buying or selling mining shares, which in turn required great concentration on the part of an analyst paid to be on top of things.
His speciality also required paying special attention to the Far Eastern markets, because the slightest sign of any drop in the crazy rate of growth of the Chinese economy pushed back commodity prices (and vice-versa), and that meant early starts in the office, so that he was on the ball with the overnight moves by the time the London Stock Exchange started trading each morning around eight o'clock. The effects of working too many hours built up, and he was often knackered by Friday, and in dire need of a break. At least this weekend would be different!
It was absolutely great to get well away from the office for a couple of days, even better to be staying with old friends out of London. He had been looking forward to this weekend ever since they'd invited him to stay. Peter had been the Best Man a couple of years earlier at Mark and Claire's wedding, and had got on very well with Claire from the start. They hadn't met up for a few months, not since Mark's last move, and it would be great to see them again.
He quickly composed and sent a text to say that he was on the train, and almost immediately received an acknowledgement from Mark that he'd see him at the station as arranged.
The train out of London was packed, no more than usual for a Friday night, but at least he had a seat and could doze for a while. There was the usual jolt as the engine took up the slack, and the train slipped slowly out of Paddington, gathering speed as it reached the end of the platform.
It was always interesting to look out of the windows at the streets of London moving past; although the view was frequently interrupted by a local service running past the express, it was fascinating to see what people did with their tiny back gardens. Some were riots of colour, others a wilderness of weeds, abandoned furniture, building materials or old cars. There were private roof gardens, balconies and window boxes, and always that sea of chimney pots going off into the distance. It always reminded him of the scene in 'Mary Poppins' where the sweeps danced on the roofs, or indeed 'The Aristocats' looking out over the sleeping town.
The train eventually left London and wound up to cruising speed, and Peter closed his eyes. He wouldn't sleep, but he could relax and unwind. It would be good to catch up with his previous career. Mark had recently been posted to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps headquarters at the former RAF Innsworth north of Gloucester for two years; from what he had said, the job was actually really interesting and, best of all, didn't involve working weekends.
Mark had met Claire at a family wedding during one of the periods of leave after returning from Iraq; they had immediately hit it off, and had themselves got married the next year. That ceremony was the last time that Peter had worn his Blues, sword and medals; he had left the Army a month later. Claire had put her own career on hold to stay with Mark; with internet access she could at least keep working instead of having to actually give up the job to move to wherever the powers that be sent her husband, better than the lack of options open to most Service wives – and of course husbands these days!
Peter occasionally wondered what his life would have been like if he too had chosen to stay in the Army, but then remembered the all-too frequent tours in Iraq and Afghanistan that had put him off extending his commission as his CO had encouraged him to do. He was getting to the stage where he wanted to settle down, find a wife and raise a family, and sitting in a fortified bunker for more than half the year, living in a Portacabin behind wriggly tin and razor wire, was no way to meet Miss Right.
He smiled to himself. His current routine of getting into the office by half past six in the morning, and often staying past seven at night wasn't going to find Miss or Ms Right either! Mind you, at the age of twenty-nine there was still plenty of time; or so he kept telling his mother and smugly married younger sister!
Two hours after leaving Paddington, in a much less crowded carriage, came the conductor's announcement for Gloucester station. It was ridiculous how, given all the advances in digital technology, the on-board tannoy system was still almost as inaudible as it had been when he'd first been on a train almost two decades earlier. The trains were now really showing their age, and Great Western Trains weren't known for spending money without a very good reason.
Peter stood up, picked down his bergen, and moved towards the door as he felt the train slow.
It was sometimes hard to believe that a new and unrelated 'Great Western' franchise now ran the routes that Isambard Kingdom Brunel had built. One of the reasons Peter had wanted to be a civil engineer was a childhood holiday spent at Saltash in Cornwall, where the Royal Albert Bridge took the railway line over the River Tamar. Peter still vividly remembered looking up at the bold lettering over the entrance arch "I K Brunel – Engineer – 1859" and marvelling at the structure. He'd done a school dissertation on Brunel, and the amazing variety of problems that he'd tackled – bridges, tunnels, ships and railway stations, almost all of which were still in use – if you counted the S.S. Great Britain safely restored to Bristol Harbour. Peter hadn't been born in 1970 when the hulk of Brunel's greatest ship was towed back from the Falkland Islands, but when he'd read the story of her rescue and conservation, he'd been sufficiently enthused to make a special trip to see the old lady in her custom-built shelter in the dry dock. Crikey, dry was the word – they'd told him that the humidity inside the enclosure was now similar to the Arizona desert.
He wasn't sufficiently lost in his thoughts to not be ready to leap out onto the platform as soon as the train came to a halt. Mark was waiting for him outside the station as arranged, and after they had greeted each other, he led him towards the car.
"Great to see you! It's been far too long!"
"Too right! How's Claire?"
"Good, thanks. She's almost finished personalising the quarter, and she'll be delighted to have some guests."
"Guests with a plural s?"
"Yup, she's invited a friend of hers down. I'm afraid that it's a bit of matchmaking on Claire's part, but she's a really nice girl, so I hope you'll not be offended?"
"No, as long as Claire doesn't expect us to ride off into the sunset together tomorrow night!"
"Hmmmm. I THINK Claire vaguely realises that the two of us were rather unusual in realising that we had something special so quickly, but part of her still firmly believes in love at first sight for everyone. Don't for heavens sake disappoint her by not even trying to chat her friend up!"
"Oh well, I'll try to let her down gently. Mind you, if both of you like the girl, that's a good sign. My love life is pretty non-existent at the moment!"
"What, no gorgeous young secretaries after you for your money?"
"Nah, as a lowly analyst I'm near the bottom of the salary ladder, and even the most desperate gold-digger will aim higher than me. Not that we have that many young women working in my section – most of them are older and more stable; analysis is too important to be left to the impulsive type – or too boring to attract them."
Mark was quiet for a moment as he negotiated the City Centre junctions and some roadworks, and then started talking again once they were clear of the obstacles.
"Anyway, apart from the lack of available tottie, how is the wonderful world of international finance?"
"Not very international at the moment! No freebie fact-finding trips anywhere, and the time difference with New York means that I'm often in the office well into the evening if anything important is going on! I got a few glares for sloping off this afternoon before the Stock Exchange closed, but nothing I can influence is going to happen in the last hour of trading for this week, and anything that pops up tonight in New York I'll deal with before business opens on Monday, when I'm looking at the Far East and you're still fast asleep in your bed."
"So not a lot of change from the Army then?"
"Better money, every weekend off, and nobody shooting at us, yet."
"I think there was a time when a lot of people wanted to line everyone who worked in the City up against a wall!"
"That time may not yet have passed! The gossip is that there's a lot more behind the LIBOR rate-rigging scandal than has come out so far."
.... There is more of this story ...