Stewart Devitt was born in Belfast and now lives in New Zealand. He is an experienced training professional specialising in communication and personal development, http://www.sdtraining.co.nz. He holds a Masters Degree in Management Learning from Lancaster University, NLP Practitioner, from Bennett Stellar University, Seattle. With Professor Dory Reeves http://www.reevesassociates.co.uk he carried out research for the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland on Evaluating the Effectiveness of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Whilst still involved in the training field he now devotes more time to writing, a lifelong hobby and email@example.com.
A SENSE OF DUTY
By Stewart Devitt
Betty stopped at the corner of the street allowing the fresh wind, blowing in off the sea, to colour her cheeks. She marveled at the wondrous changing shapes of the waves, rolling in from the dark, enticing sea. She had made this journey every day now for more years than she cared to remember, and every morning at precisely a quarter to six she reached this same corner with her eyes focused on the tiny shop opposite.
It was the only shop in the neighbourhood, dwarfed by somber tenement blocks housing nameless people. An insignificant shape made even more anonymous by the faded fascia with the name long since washed away by the inclement weather.
As she approached the building that had taken over her life she stopped and, instead of putting the key in the lock, stared angrily at the padlock and large black grills that protected the windows and doors. They remained in place day and night and she served behind them, screwing up her eyes to catch glimpses of real people hurrying by enjoying the bustle of everyday life. The door itself was metal plated, windowless and bearing the scars of numerous attempted break-ins, as well as the graffiti that expressed the loyalties and loves of the local youth.
The harshness of the place suddenly came home to her and she thought back to her childhood when she used to press her nose against the cool glass and marvel at the range of goods within. Now it represented all the trappings of a prison, yet for all the years Betty had meticulously opened up every morning at six o’clock. She counted and displayed the newspapers and magazines and then settled into the dark confined space until early evening. Seldom did she leave the shop, even during the thirty minutes it closed for lunch. During this time she drank weak, milky coffee from her flask, ate tasteless sandwiches and listened half heartedly to the latest news.
She vividly remembered that telephone call at the solicitor’s office where she worked. Her father had suffered a stroke and could she go and look after the shop whilst her mother went to the hospital. She walked away from a promising secretarial career never to return. Her father died that night, and during all the trauma Betty promised to help her mother run the shop.
The shop had been in the family for over three generations and at one time, when her grandfather had owned it and most of the surrounding property, had been the centre of the community. It greatly disappointed their parents when both daughters early on expressed no interest in carrying on the tradition. Financial mismanagement and an obsession for gambling all but destroyed the business and their father, despite falling trade, steadfastly maintened old fashioned ways. From a lively meeting place it became nothing more than a convenient drop in point for those who had forgotten to shop elsewhere.
The old ink stained, mahogany counter took centre stage despite many plans to undergo a re-fit. All efforts to introduce some form of self selection faltered due to lack of money. The counter came to represent a hurdle, too high for her to jump over. It no longer kept customers in line, or offered a resting place for elbows, but perpetuated instead Betty’s solitary confinement.
Despite warnings from Hazel, her older sister, she began work behind the counter the day following the funeral. Even when her mother lost interest in the business, and slowly lost the will to live, Betty soldiered on. Now Hazel’s words trumpeted though her head;
“Never mind what you promised, sell the bloody shop.”
She prided herself on never failing to open on time and believed that this dedication maintained a loyal, although declining, customer base. Yet to-day she turned her back on the shop and just gazed at the rough waters of the sea. How long, she wondered, would it take those rolling waves to wash away someone like herself who couldn’t swim?
The bundles of newspapers blocked the entrance so she stacked them neatly to the side of the door before sitting on one of the smaller ones. As she fingered the key tears slowly filled her eyes. It was now ten minutes to six as she checked her watch and glanced expectantly up and down the street, determined at last to put an end to her misery.
The clock on the church tower struck six dull notes yet Betty remained seated on the bundle of papers, tears now streaming down both cheeks. A few regular customers passed by, looked surprised that the shop was closed, mumbled to themselves before moving on to make their purchases elsewhere. Those in cars didn’t even bother to open their doors, merely cruising past and then speeding up when noticing all was in darkness. It was as if she was invisible without her striped coat, and even Ruskin, the collie from across the road, ignored her as he lifted his leg against the papers before chasing the early morning traffic.
The key now lying at her feet seemed to have grown in size, its evil teeth silhouetted against the uneven grey slabs of the pavement. Suddenly she hated that key. Not only did it create ugly holes in her pockets and hung like a weight from her waist, it also ended up under her pillow at night. Often she woke in panic only to be reassured by fingering its rough metal contours.
It seemed to beckon Betty to reach out and pick it up and all her instincts told her she should do so. Yet she remained motionless, the collar of her blouse now damp with tears. To open late once was surely no crime. The life she lived flashed through her mind, a life hidden behind boxes of crisps, protected by the rusting black grills as she tuned into the outside world through a battered radio. Hazel always said she would be a prisoner to the lifestyle, trapped by her parents in a chasm from which there appeared no escape.
Pulling a large white handkerchief out of her pocket she blew her nose with unusual gusto and attempted to wipe away the tears. Deliberately raising herself from the temporary resting place she kicked the key into the gutter, followed its trajectory, then instinctively walked over, bent down and picked it up.
Taking time to finally survey the surrounding area Betty gave an audible sigh, took a deep breath and began to walk in the direction of the threatening sea. She knew she had promised to stay although she also knew that such a promise had been a terrible mistake. This time she wasn’t going to be led by an erroneous sense of duty
The telephone kiosk on the promenade looked as uninviting as the shop as she dialed Hazel’s number. She hated voice mails although felt obliged to leave a message believing her sister would rather hear the news from her rather than through some stranger.
There was awkwardness about her steps as she weaved across the road in and out of the traffic. Reaching the sea wall she took off her heavy black overcoat, slid out of her striped shop coat, rolled it into a tight ball and stuffed it unceremoniously into a nearby waste bin. Then stepping on top of the wall she jumped down to the shore, ran forward, flung back her arm and sent the key hurtling into the foam. Looking up at the sky she raised both arms and as fresh tears of happiness streamed down her face she at last knew what it was like to be free. A huge smile covered her face as she thought of the airline ticket back home on her table.