Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Psychology · #1838709
"I am the master of my fate." Inspired by Kate Castle's poem, "A Fork In The Road"
Harry Smith was average, a fact that he acknowledged to himself rather ruefully. Average height, average weight, average intelligence, average name, even. And he came from an average family—mother, father, older sister and a dog. He had an average sort of job; he was a clerk in an insurance company, and was engaged to, he had to admit it, an average girl. He had known Sally Miller since kindergarten then primary school and through high school and by some coincidence she worked close by Harry’s office, so they met regularly for lunch. Sally was a nice girl—they’d been going out together for years, and while she permitted some tongue in their kisses, anything more than some furtive stroking was strictly forbidden. Sally made it quite clear that sex was for married couples.
Harry had recently celebrated his twenty second birthday and during the birthday celebration, they had announced the wedding date—in eighteen months time. Harry accepted this with some private misgivings; over the past few months, he had started to feel some stirrings of uncertainty. Nothing serious, he tried to reassure himself; his future was laid out with both his parents and Sally’s prepared to help finance a small unit for the newlyweds’ independence. Everything looked secure, and Harry went his almost merry way without a great deal of thought about the future. Well, except, perhaps, how it would be to make love to Sally.
Harry had two close friends, Jason and Troy. They had been mates since high school, and regularly hung out together, although most of the hanging out these days tended to be at the local pub, the Maxton Hotel. Harry reflected on these friendships; Jason was in a so-called “committed relationship” and his partner was expecting a baby in a few months time. Jason’s conversation tended to focus on the joys and challenges of parenthood—with a great deal more emphasis on the challenges than the joys. Troy, on the other hand, bragged about playing the field and his numerous sexual conquests. Harry had his doubts about this as he had seen Troy try his luck with girls and watched him get rebuffed quite quickly. He also knew that Troy was a gambler who believed he had foolproof ways of winning on the horses, although Harry had never seen any real evidence of Troy’s success.
One Friday evening, the three mates had been drinking at the pub, although none of them was in particularly high spirits. Jason and Troy finished their beer and left with unconvincing excuses, while Harry remained briefly to finish his drink. As he picked up his glass, the guy standing on his right moved suddenly, jogging Harry’s arm, causing him to spill the remains of his beer. Harry turned abruptly to his right to see a tall, weather-beaten, rugged man with hands the size of dinner plates. Harry gulped, but the other guy looked at him, expecting an outburst then said, “Sorry, sport, my fault,” but with some caution in his voice. Harry half-smiled and replied, “That’s okay, mate, stuff happens.”
His new companion smiled in return, and said, “Ya know, some places I’ve been, spilling another guy’s beer will earn you a punch on the nose.”
“Not here, and not from me,” Harry commented, “In any case, the beer was getting warm and I was losing interest.”
“Well, let me buy you a coldie,” the other offered. “By the way, I’m Sam Dexter, but my friends call me Dex.”
“Well, thanks, Dex, that’s very generous of you. I’m Harry—Harry Smith” Harry was intrigued by this friendly stranger.
“Least I could do, mate,” Dex replied. “How come you’re drinking alone?”
“Well, we’d just about finished, and they shot through while I decided to drink up before going home.,” Harry replied.
“Not a big drinker, then?” Dex seemed increasingly curious about Harry.
“Nah, never really got the taste for it,” Harry revealed.
“Hmm,” Dex continued, “what sort of work d’ya do, then, Harry?”
“Oh, I’m just an insurance clerk,” Harry sounded as if he was making a confession.
“Hmm—enjoyable sort of work?” Dex continued his interrogation.
“I guess so – keeps me off the streets, anyway,” Harry wondered why he was so willing to share his thoughts and feelings with this stranger.
“Hmm—got yourself a girl?” Dex’s questions started to become more personal.
“Oh yeah—we’re engaged; wedding’s in eighteen months.” For some reason, Harry now started to feel more comfortable revealing his mind to his new friend.
Dex probed more closely, “Hmm—love of your life, is she? Can’t bear the thought of living without her?”
“I guess,” replied Harry, but without real conviction. “Sally’s a lovely girl—we’ve known each other since kindergarten, our families are close, so it seemed the sensible thing to do. In fact, she’s the only girlfriend I’ve ever had.”
“Hmm.” This time Dex didn’t have anything to add, but seemed to be thinking deeply before he continued, “Look, Harry, if you’ve got a few minutes, I’d like to have a bit of a chat. But don’t feel you have to; if you think I’m interfering, tell me to mind my own business—I shan’t be offended.”
Harry was intrigued. “Okay, Dex, let’s find a seat,” and after they did so, Dex opened up.
“Harry, you seem like a decent sort of bloke. I heard some of your conversation with your mates, and you seemed to be the voice of reason, so I want to tell you something. First, though, I should tell you that I don’t have that much longer to live. Cancer is a bastard, and it’s got its fangs into me. But, do you know what? I don’t care. I’ve had a truly wonderful life and I’m not afraid to go.”
“I’m sorry to hear that Dex,” Harry replied, unsure of exactly what to say.
“Yeah, well, as you said, stuff happens,” Dex grinned, “but I want to tell you a story. When I was your age, maybe a bit younger, I ran away to sea on a tramp steamer as a deck hand, doing just about anything. Pay was lousy, but the experience was amazing and I learnt a whole heap about life.” Her Dex paused and reflected reminiscently.
“You know the saying about a girl in every port, Harry? Well, for me it was just about true. I met some of the hottest, most willing and enthusiastic young ladies in my career—still keep in touch with one or two,” he smiled to himself.
Harry didn’t want to interrupt what he found to be an increasingly interesting narrative.
“Accumulated a fair bit of loot in my time, too,” Dex enthused,” trading this and that, although I never touched drugs. Some of my deals weren’t, shall we say, entirely legitimate, but I managed to get away with it, and as I moved up in the ranks so to speak, I was able to expand my activities, although sometimes I had to cut the captain in. That left me with a nice little nest egg that I took with me when I finally came ashore. I invested it wisely some in gold bullion, some in property, and that allowed me to roam around Australia for many years, seeing what this country of ours has to offer. I can tell you that it has a lot!”
Harry was fascinated but still not sure where the conversation was headed. “So what’s the point you’re making, Dex?” he queried.
“Simply this, son. Long experience has shown me time and again that there is no such thing as security in this life, except the security you make for yourself. What may be secure today goes pear shaped tomorrow. Insurance companies fold, relationships break down, and new technologies may make your job obsolete. You have to rely on yourself; don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying be totally selfish, but until you can be comfortable with who you are, you won’t be much use to anyone else.”
Harry looked at Dex thoughtfully. “You know, I’ve never really looked at it that way before.”
“Maybe not,” his companion responded wryly, “You and most other people. I read somewhere that if this life is all we’ve got, and that all the time it seems senseless to the point of insanity, then our only choice is to get our act together and grab life by the short hairs, shake it and make it sing something that at least resembles our tune. One thing about that, though. For every choice we make there are consequences. You’d better have enough smarts to think through those consequences in advance.”
Harry sat silent until Dex eventually asked, “You okay, son?”
“Yeah … yeah, I think I’m more okay now than I’ve been for a long time. What you just said made so much sense to me. I’ve had this nagging feeling for a while now that things aren’t working out as they should, but I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. You know, Dex, you’ve re-opened a door for me that was slammed shut a couple of years ago.”
“Is that so?” Dex responded with interest.
“Yeah,” Harry responded. “I was around twenty and bored with the job, and I made some enquiries about going up north to work in the mines for a while. I’ve got an uncle and a cousin up there, and they reckoned they could get me a job—hard work, long hours, stinking hot and you start right at the bottom. On the credit side, though, the pay’s good, and they reckoned that if I was careful, I could put aside a nice little nest egg.”
“So what stopped you, as if I couldn’t guess?” Dex challenged him.
“Yeah, you’re right. Mum and Dad listed all the reasons for me not going, and Sally hinted that she might be a bit more liberal with her favours. Never happened but.” Harry looked introspective. “They waved the “security” flag at me and put enough pressure on to make me change my mind, hinting that they were going to convince my uncle to withdraw his support. So I caved in.”
“Hmm, and?” Dex was back to his enquiring best.
“I’ve regretted it ever since, but I haven’t had the guts to express that regret,” Harry said, firmly.
“Look,” Dex wanted to make himself very clear. “The last thing I’m going to do is to break up a comfortable little suburban dream, if that’s what you REALLY want. Somehow, though, I don’t think it is.”
Harry looked levelly at Dex with a smile on his face. “No, mate, it’s not. As we’ve been talking, a plan has been building in my mind. A couple of years in the mines, a bit of a nest egg, spend a year or two working my way around Australia, then go to university and study psychology.”
“Oh my god,” Dex rolled his eyes in an exaggerated display. “Not another head doctor!”
Harry laughed. “Too bad, Dex, you let the genie out of the bottle.”
“What about Sally, Harry, how do you think she’ll take it?”
“Not too good at first, maybe,” Harry replied, “it’s always been assumed we’d get married, and I went along with the assumption, probably for a quiet life. Then you asked the question ‘is she the love of your life’? I realised what has been just under the surface for a while. She’s not. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a lovely young lady who will make someone a wonderful wife. But not me.”
“Break it to her as gently as you can, then, sport,” Dex continued. “I’d like to add a warning about the mines; there are two huge traps up there, gambling and alcohol. The gamblers will take your money and the booze will take your health. Just be careful.”
“Yeah, I know. Uncle Ted has already warned me about that,” Harry sounded confident.
“One last thing, then, Harry, and it may sound a bit odd,” Dex had a half-smile on his face. “Are you into music in any way?”
Harry looked a bit surprised. “Yeah. I enjoy country and folk music particularly, but anything with a decent tune. Why do you ask?”
“Do you play an instrument?” Dex continued his enquiry.
“Nah, never had the time, I guess.”
“Well, let me give you a tip. Get yourself a guitar and learn to play it. Have a few lessons to learn the basics then practise until your fingertips bleed. Then practice some more. You can carry a guitar on your back, and in places where there’s not much entertainment, like mining camps, you can make a bit of a name for yourself.”
Harry’s smile turned into a broad grin. “Dex, you’re a bloody genius, mate. How can I possibly thank you?”
“No thanks needed, son,” Dex smiled back, with the faintest hint of sadness in his rugged face. “Just do me one favour, though, if you can.”
“Name it, Dex,” Harry replied.
“Well, when the time comes, and it will come, pass this message onto some other young guy who looks as if he might get bogged down in a hunt for security. Name Helen Keller mean anything to you?”
Harry thought for a moment. “Yeah, she was that American woman born blind and deaf, wasn’t she?”
“Almost right, son,” Dex replied, “Blind and deaf from about eighteen months, but through pure guts and determination, and people who cared very much about her, she learned to communicate well. But the point is, she also said, ‘Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature … Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.’ Make yours a daring adventure.”
They both stood up and Harry stuck his hand out and grabbed Dex’s huge paw. “Thanks, mate, you’ve given me the kick in the pants that I’ve needed. I’ll never forget this.”
Dex smiled and they left the hotel, going in different directions.
The next day was Saturday, and Harry was up and out early, going into town to find himself a guitar. He also arranged some lessons, and over time, discovered that he had something of a talent, and very soon could pick out increasingly detailed tunes. On the day in question, however, he hurried home to face the music, so to speak.
Sally was distinctly frosty when she saw and heard what Harry had done. “Oh Harry, how could you waste your money on that thing”, she complained. “I thought we were saving all our dollars for the wedding.”
“Well, yes,” Harry didn’t want to appear too defensive, but he wasn’t prepared to back down. “I understand all that, but this isn’t a huge expense, and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
“It’s not something we’ve ever talked about,” Sally was determined to keep up the pressure.
“Sal, you’ve never really showed a great deal of interest in music, but if I practice hard enough, maybe I’ll be able to serenade you on our wedding night.” Harry was aware of the hypocrisy in his statement, but it served its purpose for the time being.
“Hmph, I don’t think that’s a very good excuse,” Sally wasn’t about to be mollified and stalked out of the room.
This was the start of a completely new direction for Harry. He rang his Uncle Ted, who was enthusiastic and encouraged Harry to let him know when he was about to arrive, leaving Harry with the comment, “Whatever you do, don’t call me uncle. I’m Ted up here, and any suggestion that we’re related will cause us both too much grief.”
“Okay Unc … Ted,” Harry laughed and rang off. Next day, he gave in his notice to the insurance company; his boss tried, rather half-heartedly to get Harry to change his mind, but he was to finish in two week’s time.
Then came the hardest part of all, but it was helped to some extent by Sally herself. “Harry, we need to talk,” she said one evening as they were sitting together in Harry’s parents’ lounge. “What’s got into you lately,” she continued. “You don’t seem yourself at all.”
Harry bit the bullet. “No, Sally, maybe I’m not. Or maybe I am myself for the first time ever.”
Sally looked at him with a puzzled expression and Harry went on, “Sally, I really do hate to do this, but I think it’s time for a parting of the ways. I do love you, Sally, but not enough to commit myself to you for the next fifty or sixty years.”
Tears began flowing down Sally’s face. “Why, Harry, why is this happening? Is it another woman? Why do you want to walk out on me when we’re planning our wedding?”
“I think that might have something to do with it, Sally. I’m just not willing to go through a marriage when I’m not certain it’s the right thing to do.”
“Is it because I won’t let you have sex with me Harry? If it’s that important to you, we can make love right away if you’ll just stay with me.” Sally was now sounding desperate.
“No, Sally, it really isn’t that, and, in any case, I won’t let you compromise your principles. I just don’t think I can see you as the everlasting love of my life.
Sally’s face suffused with anger, and she stood and lunged at Harry, slapping him hard across the face. “You bastard,” she screamed and ran from the house with tears streaming down her face, slamming the door as she went.
Harry’s parents returned home shortly afterwards, and his mother asked, “Oh has Sally gone already? I wanted to talk to her about the wedding.”
“Sorry, mum, but there isn’t going to be a wedding. Sally and I have broken up—to be more precise, I’ve broken off our relationship,” Harry was casual but firm in his voice.
His mother gave a short scream. “Oh Harry, what happened. You two were such a perfect couple.”
“No we weren’t, mum; it’s just that it’s taken me too long to realise that,” he replied.
“So what happens now, son?” Harry’s father enquired.
“Yes, well, that’s the other challenge. I’m going to work in the mines for a couple of years, then after I’ve accumulated a little nest egg, I intend to work my way around Australia for a while before I come back and study psychology at university.”
“You’ve got it all worked out, haven’t you?” Harry’s mother sounded bitter and reproachful. What about the rest of the family? What about poor Sally. What about her family? What about …”
Harry jumped in with some directness. “Look, mum, I just want you to understand. If I can’t be true to myself, I can’t be true to anyone else. Sally will get over it. She’s a lovely young woman and I’m sure she’ll find someone who can love her the way she needs to be loved. As to the rest of the family, well, I hope you’ll understand that I need to do this; it’s not aimed at hurting you, but at being the best me that I can.”
“Well, I suppose you will do as you please, regardless of what anyone else says. But I will give that Ted a piece of my mind when I next see him. I blame him for putting these fancy notions into your head.” With that she left the room in tears.
Harry’s father also left, but returned a few minutes later. “Harry,” he said, “What I have to say must never leave this room, but I envy you.”
“Really?” Harry was totally surprised.
“Yes, son, I just wish I had done something like that when I was your age. Too late now, of course, but I’d like you to have this.” So saying, he pressed ten fifty dollar notes into Harry’s hand. “Might make the start of your journey a little easier.”
“Geez, thanks so much, Dad, I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t say anything—particularly to your mother. Do keep in touch and let us know how you’re faring. If the worst comes to the worst, your room will still be here”
“Mmm,” Harry mused, “Along with a big serve of humble pie, no doubt. No, dad, I’m determined to make this work,” and probably for the first time in his adult life, he put his arms round his father and gave him a big hug.
Harry spent the following week tying up loose ends before he left on the following Monday morning. His mother had cried and begged him to look after himself and his father shook his hand solemnly and wished him good luck. Sally was conspicuous by her absence—not that Harry had expected anything else, but it would have been nice. He had neither seen nor spoken to her since the big bust-up.
Harry headed for the airport, kit bag in hand and his guitar across his back. He was met by his uncle and cousin at the airstrip nearest the mine and they drove the rest of the way to the site. Harry soon went through all the necessary induction processes and started work soon after. The first six moths were purgatory or worse. The heat, dust and flies made working condition highly demanding, and the work was hard, repetitive, dangerous and dirty. Several times during that period, Harry gave serious thought to quitting and returning with his tail between his legs. At those times, Harry remembered Dex’s words and stuck it out.
At around six months, however, Harry felt he had had enough and was about to see the boss to hand in his notice when the boss got in first and called Harry to see him. The boss was on the phone when Harry walked in, discussing some form of mine business. After the call was over, he looked up with a slightly puzzled air and said, “Harry? Yes, now why did I want to see you?”
Harry was about to tell the boss he was quitting when the boss said, “Oh yes, now I remember. Harry, you’ve stuck it out with us for about six months, and you seem to have done very well. I know it’s not easy, but how are you finding things up here?”
“Okay, I guess, Mr Hoffmann,” Harry replied cautiously.
“No need for the “Mr” bit, Harry, me name’s Carl. Now listen. We’ve noticed that you’ve done all the available training and got your tickets, and you seem like a sensible young guy. How would you like to move on to driving dumpers?”
“Hell yes, Carl, that would be a real buzz,” Harry was now wholly enthusiastic, with all thoughts of quitting gone from his mind.
“Good,” Carl replied. “We’ll start you Monday—you can let your uncle know,” Carl added with a grin.
“But … but, nobody’s supposed to know about my relationship to Ted!” Harry was now very worried.
“Don’t sweat it, son, there’s not much goes on here that I don’t know about.” Carl was obviously amused. “Neither of you has taken advantage of the fact, and so far as I’m concerned, it goes no further. Now, get in here first thing Monday, and we’ll start you off on the dumpers.”
From that day on, Harry’s world turned around. He found his niche driving the huge trucks and was soon a skilled operator. He fit in with the rest of the team and he also received one of the biggest accolades of all in the team, that of being given a nickname; “Tunes”, for his ability to entertain everyone with his guitar and songs that everyone could sing along with. Harry became accepted as “one of the family” and felt that he had made the best choice of his life in coming up to the mines.
Around two years later, an apparent stranger entered the front bar of the Maxton Hotel. He was average height but with a slim waist, broad shoulder and large hands that had clearly done a lot of hard work. He also wore a neatly trimmed black beard that gave him a vaguely piratical look and he carried a kitbag and a rather battered guitar slung across his shoulder. He approached the bar and said, “G’day, Leon, how are things with you?”
The barman looked a little surprised, and started to say, “Do I know you …?” when the penny dropped. “Wait a minute; you’re Harry Smith, aren’t you? Haven’t seen you for a long time.”
“S’right”, smiled Harry, “Like a piece of stale fish, long time no sea(see). So what’s happening over there?” he asked pointing to a group of guys round the bar.
Leon laughed. “You must remember Troy Savage,” and as Harry nodded in confirmation, continued, “Well, it’s his bucks night. Troy’s getting married tomorrow.”
“Married? Troy? So some lucky girl has caught him at last,” Harry laughed.
“Not quite,” Leon also laughed. “He got her in the family way and both families put the wood on him to do the right thing. So now he has a bride and a kid on the way, due in three months.”
“Well, well; give me a schooner, please, Leon and I’ll go and congratulate him.”
Harry moved round the bar and clapping Troy on the shoulder enquired, “Well hello again, Troy, how’re they hanging? I hear congratulations are in order.”
Troy looked up in astonishment and turned pale. “Jesus Christ … ,“ he started, but Harry just laughed and replied, “Close, but no cigar. What’s this I hear about you getting hitched? Congratulations, mate, who’s the lucky lady? Anyone I know? I’d like to at least stop off at the ceremony.”
Jason, Harry’s other mate who was standing close by, burst out laughing, but Troy looked as if he was about to burst into tears. “Go on, Troy, tell Harry who it is,” Jason could hardly control himself.
Troy looked thoroughly miserable, and Harry asked, “Okay, guys, what’s all the mystery?”
Troy was barely able to croak out a response, “Well, you see, Harry … well … to tell you the truth …” he hedged.
“Yes, Troy, I wish you would,” Harry was becoming increasingly confused.
“Okay, Harry, but please don’t get upset, Troy stammered, “You see, well, it’s Sally Miller.”
Harry’s eyes opened wide and a look of amazement crossed his face. “Well I’ll be …,” he started. Then his laughter could be heard throughout the whole of the pub.