yearsman (noun): a labourer hired or paid by the year
Towards the end of his shift, Shaun reached into the drawer beneath the security desk and took out a stack of cards. One with a cartoon of an old man on a zimmer, another with a dinosaur drawn by his grandson, and one with ‘64’ on it in bubble writing. He propped that one at the front, so Mr Winterton would see it when he arrived for the day.
Shaun finished at eight in the morning, by which time he would have spent twelve hours alternating between strolling through the empty building and sitting in his swivel chair, by the monitors, with a novel. He was a voracious reader, Shaun, but quite particular in his tastes. He didn’t like crime or thrillers, and certainly not fantasy. It was writers like Maggie O’Farrell and Anne Tyler he loved; stories where the everyday seemed to fracture.
At twenty to eight, as normal, Winterton beeped himself into the lobby. He was Head of Fraud at the bank, up on the fourth floor. A man who constantly lost his tie-pin or misplaced his briefcase, but whose personal assistant simply ‘found’ them by visiting Fortnum & Mason. Winterton made a point of always greeting Shaun by name. It was almost enough to make Shaun feel guilty for lying.
Winterton paused, mid-stride. ‘Birthday today, is it?’
And here came the lie. ‘Yes.’
‘Many happy returns,’ Winterton smoothed his tie, and the tie-pin slipped down. ‘We’ll have to think about your retirement, I suppose.’
‘Plenty of time for that.’
Winterton nodded and made for the lifts. Shaun waited until they slid closed and then swept the cards from the desk. He’d been using the exact same ones for the last eight years now. It had indeed been his birthday yesterday, but he’d turned seventy-one.
The bank had a strict policy on employees retiring at sixty-five, but the job on the night-shift suited Shaun. Not just because the salary was more than the pittance of a pension, either, but also because he liked the reading time and the quiet thrum of the building while the city outside the glass underwent its night-time costume changes.
At the end of his shift, he went home and ate a fried breakfast. Then he slept through until the last bell at Tyler’s school. His grandson was too old for drawing dinosaurs now, but Shaun treasured the couple of hours they spent together before dinner. He took him go-karting on a Monday, swimming on a Tuesday, to football on a Wednesday, the cinema on a Thursday and, usually, out for some sort of special treat on a Friday. He didn’t see him at the weekends because that was Tyler’s time with his dad.
All of it was for Tyler, then, and Shaun knew that if he gave up the security gig then they wouldn’t be able to do even half the things they did now. Instead, he’d sit and watch the clock until school got out and then they’d sit and watch the telly until Tyler’s mum collected him on the way home from her work.
Two days after his seventy-first birthday, Shaun went into the office and found a card on his desk. Inside was a birthday message – ‘happy sixty-fourth’ – and a scribble of signatures from Winterton’s team. Most of them would have had to whisper-ask who the card was for and then, when told it was for Shaun, whisper-repeat who…? They all arrived at nine, after he’d gone home, and left at five, before he clocked in. The building was empty now, except for Grant from the day-shift, who was gathering his things to go home.
Tucked into the envelope was a thirty-pound book token. Winterton’s PA would have run out to get it. She was the most likely to catch on that his sixty-fourth birthday was repeating annually, but she’d only been around for three of them. Besides, her predecessor had been fired with the memorable line ‘you’re supposed to be the oil, not the bloody squeak’. Winterton didn’t like to be questioned or contradicted.
Satisfied that he’d stayed his execution for another year, Shaun slid the card into his drawer and took out his phone. He sent a single text, with the words ‘come at ten’, then folded open his copy of Saint Maybe until the spine cracked. As he began reading, Grant from the day-shift beeped himself out and Shaun was left to his own devices.
He paced out the fourth floor at half-nine, just to make sure, and then returned to the lobby and disabled the entry-gates. He clicked open the front door and then sat at his desk and looked at the monitors. He didn’t need to do anything about the camera feed; it would be taken care of.
At three-minutes to ten, two men pushed open the front door. Shaun recognised the one on the left, he’d been coming every year, but the one on the right was new. He was young and twitchy and had one of those undercut hairstyles where it was shaved on the sides and long on top. The man on the left gave Shaun a nod and then handed over an envelope. It was brown, the one with the birthday card had been peach.
The men stepped over to the lift. Shaun watched on the monitors, waiting for the moment that the doors slid open on the fourth floor. They used to bring equipment, a small case of tools, but now all they carried was a few USB drives. It was the younger man who busied himself on Winterton’s computer. While they were there they would fix the security feed and alter Shaun’s personnel file – flick his date of birth forward a year – so that he could enjoy his sixty-fourth birthday for a ninth time.
Shaun looked at his watch: five past. It would only take them ten minutes. If it was just the young guy, then Shaun would have been nervous about something being forgotten – the feed, the personnel file, a USB drive even – but the experienced guy was there to keep an eye. He didn’t need to worry. He sat back in his swivel-chair and opened the envelope to count the cash.
It was all there. He lifted his book from the desk and placed the envelope inside the front cover. He was almost finished this one, just a couple of chapters to go. He’d be done with it tonight and then, when he got home, it could go up on the shelf with the others.