Kaksi koulumme kasiluokkalaista osallistuivat kieltenopettajien järjestämään, monea koulua koskevaan kirjoituskilpailuun, josta voittivat palkinno.Tässä palkittu teksti, aiheena oli ‘kulttuurien kohtaaminen’.
The Last Shift
If you’ve ever been in the middle of nowhere, sitting in the open 24/7 gas station café at night, you know what kind of atmosphere there is, how it feels like you’ve arrived in a different world. Outside it’s dark and cold and always raining when you have to go somewhere, when instead of leaving, you could stay in the warm and grease-smelling room full of meaningless souls. You can only see your tired eyes staring back from the dark air behind the glass. Feels like you’ve finally managed to escape all the fright in your life. Nothing can follow you into this small diner that is barely big enough to even be called a diner.
Or that’s what you think. But everything crawls back, every duty, every problem. There are certain things you can’t escape from, no matter where you are.
This gas station was located along a long road just like every one of them. Cars, vans and trucks were parked in front of it, the tired passengers drank coffee just to survive the rest of their trip and then left. No one ever stayed in this village or gas station longer than they had to – it wasn’t a surprise; the whole place was so tiny that people rumoured it wasn’t in any map of England. That of course wasn’t true. Aaron Johansson knew it too well. He had searched almost every little town in the country for a job. And finally, he’d found it here.
Aaron mopped the floor. He wasn’t good at it and a creep kept glaring at him. He accidentally stepped into a puddle and felt the water coming through his trainers, wetting his socks. Cleaning sure was not his best trait.
“Could I have more coffee, please?” asked a middle-aged woman politely. Aaron nodded and quickly rushed to get the coffee pot from behind the counter. He filled up the lady’s cup. Aaron quickly stuttered a response and fled. His Swedish accent was clear as he spoke, so he avoided talking the best he could. On his way back Aaron bumped into a table and spilled coffee on himself. It burned. He felt the strangers’ eyes in his back and tried not to blush.
“What is the problem with you teens?”
Aaron jolted and turned around to face an old man with harsh features. You could tell he was from Asia, but Aaron couldn’t think of an exact country. “I’m so sorry, sir”, he whispered.
Aaron had gotten used to customers being tired and mean this late into his night shift. Right now, there were three persons looking at him: the man who was apparently having a staring contest with him, the friendly lady, looking like she had stayed awake two days in a row and a straight-faced young woman in a business suit.
“You kids can not even do your jobs nowadays…”, muttered the old man. He had an accent like Aaron. It sounded terrifying when he pronounced everything clearly. Like he was talking to a misbehaving child. “Get out of my way and back to work.”
“Oh please, could you stop?” asked the tired looking woman. She hadn’t brushed her hair in ages, and you could tell that her eye bags had been there for a while. “None of us are at their best condition this time of the day. He probably studies the days and works here at night. Right, darling?”
Aaron felt even more uncomfortable. “No, I don’t.” He was quiet for a while.
“I didn’t get in to the school I tried.”
The creepily calm young woman finally spoke up. “What do you people even get from this conversation? Utter nonsense.” She then proceeded to take another cup of coffee from the pan and left money on the counter for him to collect. After that she walked into one of the booths with a power outlet and plugged her laptop in, sipping on the coffee.
The old man scoffed and left for the bathroom. Aaron took a deep breath and went to get the money. He immediately noticed that it was too much and walked back to the woman. “Here’s the change.” She glanced at his name tag and then looked right into his eyes. “I meant it for you, that old guy wasn’t cool. Keep it… Aaron.” Aaron blushed and thanked her quietly.
The tired-looking woman smirked but didn’t say anything.
“Well, tell me Aaron”, the young woman blurted. “Why are you rotting in here?”
“I already told… I didn’t get to the school I wanted”, Aaron stammered. The women were still staring at him, expecting to hear more. He wouldn’t have wanted to tell his whole, pathetic life story to complete strangers. “I came to England full of hope. I have always wanted to just – just do some good to this world, help to stop the climate change. Nowadays nobody cares about the future anymore. But I didn’t get to any university. I have no idea what to do so I came here.”
The room fell dead silent for a while. Aaron started to regret he had even opened his mouth. Nobody cared about his sob story. He couldn’t blame them – he was disappointed in himself too.
The young business-like woman started asking again. “So why didn’t you-”
“Please”, Aaron stopped her, pain in his voice. “It’s too late. Your advice will do nothing good. I don’t even know your name.”
“Daisy Gusteau. Half French, half Brit, age 31, a freelance engineer”, declared Daisy. She had wavy, chocolate-brown hair that was cut at the jaw. Her makeup was dark and perfectly made and even though she was young, something in her appearance indicated a strong authority. But now she was smiling. Just slightly, but it counted. “I was only going to ask you why you work in a practically abandoned village instead of London or something like that.”
Aaron looked at the ground. “I’m clumsy and my Swedish accent is too strong.”
“Is that all?” Daisy’s dark eyes stared at him. She wasn’t smiling anymore. Aaron couldn’t say anything. How could he admit that he was scared? How could he tell how insecure he felt around big crowds?
“Oh, dear kids, let it go”, the tired woman was talking again. Aaron had nearly forgotten her existing since she hadn’t asked to fill her coffee mug. “What about you, miss Gusteau?”
“Just say Daisy, please.”
She flashed a tired smile. “Daisy, why won’t you tell us why you are in this lonely place at this time of the night?”
“Excuse me?” Daisy said. She looked surprised. “It’s a work trip of course. I was in Cambridge and now I’m heading home. What are you trying to say?”
“I’m just thinking”, said the woman. “Excuse me, if I’m being intrusive. It is indeed very late.” She sighed. “Could I have more coffee, please?” It was probably the sixth time Aaron had filled her cup but still she looked really, really exhausted.
“I’m warning you Daisy”, she said after a long sip. “My name is Amy Relish and I’ve gone through the same papers for my whole adult life. Now I’m the boss of the company and I couldn’t stress more. I have three small children and a wife back home but sometimes it feels like I can’t spend enough time with them.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Daisy looked quite annoyed at this point.
Amy laughed. “I’m so very tired, dear. One minute of sleep up to this point – but I must be in Cambridge for the morning. Isn’t it fun how you come from the city, and I go there?” She suddenly stopped giggling and was silent for a while. “I’m not crazy, I hope. I think I’ve only drank too much coffee.”
“Why don’t you go on a holiday?” asked Aaron. He kind of liked Amy, even thought she was being so weird. “Or take a break, I don’t know?”
“I have worked so hard when I was young”, she said. “Just like you Daisy. I became the head. My dream came true.”
“But it did not make you happy, didn’t it?” That was a new but familiar voice. The grandpa had come back and looked at Amy, apparently wanting an answer. His expression had softened a little.
“For a while it did”, continued Amy. “But at the end it just brought more stress. Working is important and great but if you do it too much…” She shook her head.
Seemed like Daisy had got interested too. “Why won’t you stop?”
“Everyone trusts in me, indeed. ‘Mrs. Relish, she always does her job.’ I’ve done so much to be in everyone’s favour, the one that makes sure everything goes well. I don’t have what it takes to just go.” She looked at her coffee cup like she had forgotten everyone was staring at her. “And maybe I don’t have the heart to leave everything. Even though I really want to do so. It just feels like I would be wasting my career after all the effort I’ve put into it. Goodness, I’m turning fifty bloody years next and I’ve only worked in one office. It would be so good for my head to do something like you, Aaron.”
Aaron looked surprised and Amy smiled at him.
“I guess I am a little bit scared too.” Daisy’s voice was weaker than before, and she was tapping the table with her fingers. “When I was young, I was alone. I scared everyone away on purpose. But in real life, you can’t do that.” She made a quick, shy look at Aaron. “In real life you have to get along with others. You can’t just decide that someone is horrible or annoying or mean or – or if you decide that they indeed are a demon on earth, you still have to work with them.”
Everyone was quiet for a while until Daisy continued. “There’s still a piece of that person deep inside of me. I don’t open up or seem easily approachable to people. I’m really scared that I will start being rude again and suddenly notice that all my friends – There aren’t many of them – have left me.”
Aaron was going to pat Daisy’s shoulder but didn’t find the courage to do that. He looked at the people around him. Just few minutes ago they were regular, faceless customers to him but know they all just sat there, talking about their biggest fears. He had even told them about his wish to help to heal the world. He hadn’t had anyone to talk to after he came to England.
Maybe it was easier to speak with strangers who you will never see again.
“Your turn now”, Amy said to the older man. “Tell us, how did you end up here?”
“No, I do not talk”, he furrowed his eyebrows together. The room fell silent when a truck driver walked in, used the bathroom and then left. After he was gone, the old man opened his mouth again. “War. Now, do you sell alcohol here, young man?” Aaron felt his face turn bright red as he nodded slowly.
Daisy froze in the spot. “Please don’t.”
“Oh?” The man glared at her, clearly annoyed. “Do you have a problem with me drinking?”
“I just don’t think it’s -”
“Get out of here with your facts!”
Daisy flinched but didn’t say anything. Aaron would have wanted to tell the man to shut up but he rather hid underneath his employee-role and he asked: “So what would you like, sir?” The man kept staring at Daisy until he sighed. “Tea. Tea, please.” Then he shook his finger at Aaron. “But only because of this young lady over there.”
Aaron went to get some tea, Amy made an interrogative look at the old man, still visibly upset. “Did you escape war?”
“Yes, I did. A long time ago. But it is not your business.”
“Which war?” asked Daisy. She had got her courage back. The man sighed. “Vietnam. It was long ago like I said. Maybe too long, I do not think you even kn–”
“I do know what the Vietnam war is”, said Daisy – and probably noticed how unkind she sounded because she quickly added: “I’m sorry.”
“No, do not be. I was young back when I left. I did not want to kill anything.” He looked at the window, only able to see his own reflection, exhausted eyes and grey hair. “I am getting old and still haven’t gone back.”
Aaron passed him his tea and the man paid.
“My name is Chan Jakim. It is a Vietnamese name, Chan is the surname and Jakim is the first name.”
Aaron didn’t have the heart to ask Chan Jakim, why he didn’t ever return to Vietnam. He could already guess the answer: Jakim was scared. Quite like he was scared to go to the school he wanted, just like Amy was scared to leave her job and start something more real, just like Daisy was scared nobody will be able to love her as who she is. ‘A strange awareness took over Aaron. Everybody was frightened. The real world was hideous! You never knew what tomorrow would bring! But, if all people on Earth were scared to death of living or losing their lives, what made him any more of a failure than anyone else? Maybe he just had to face his fears and –
“I’m going to try to get into the school again”, Aaron said out loud. Everyone turned to look at him. “I’m trying to get to the school again!” He jumped to his feet, full of energy that had come from nowhere. “I’m going to quit my job, get a new one in London and start to study!”
“But Aaron.” Daisy looked surprised as she started smiling. “That’s actually really great!” Neither paid a thought, now they were hugging. Aaron quickly backed off when he realized and blushed, unable to look at anyone.
Daisy coughed. “I think I’m going now.”
“Yeah, me too”, said Amy and got up.
Jakim looked at everyone, a weird smile plastered on his face. “Are you not going to learn anything from this night? This young man here certainly did.” He pointed towards Aaron.
“Maybe I did learn after all”, the business woman admitted. Daisy quickly went through her black bag and took a laminated card out of it. “I’m usually really bad at making – friends since if it has nothing to do with my job. So, I’m defying my habits when”, she handled the card to Aaron, “I’m giving this to you, Aaron.”
Aaron looked at the card. It was Daisy’s business card, containing a bunch of information about her – including her number. Aaron’s blush became more intense, if that was possible.
“Okay, goodbye then.” And Daisy was gone. Jakim glanced at Amy with the same look and the woman sighed.
“You’re right”, she finally said. “I should relax more. After Cambridge I’ll go home and think what I actually want to do with my life. It was so nice to meet you, Mr. Chan. And you, Aaron.” She left a little extra tip for Aaron and then walked out of the door.
“Are you returning to Vietnam, then?” Aaron carefully asked Jakim.
The man shrugged. “I may never go back, it was horrible. But I am trying to get along with my fears – of the war. I saw my family dying, Aaron. It is a thing a man can never forget.”
Chan Jakim didn’t say anything more and then Aaron realised he was all alone again. Or maybe not that alone, he thought, looking at the card Daisy had given to him.
It was five o ‘clock on the morning. One hour and a half until the end of his last shift here. Then he would jump on the next train and go to London. He would do the things he was meaning to do a long time ago.
It was the first time in years Aaron Johansson wasn’t scared.