Kayla brushed her thick brown and blonde highlighted hair from her face as she applied foundation to her cheeks.
She stopped what she was doing and immediately picked up the phone to answer the social media notification that was so pressing.
Half an hour later, when her phone ran out of charge, she looked at the time and rushed to cram into her bag- sans the out of battery phone.
“Oh no!” Kayla shouted disdainfully to herself as the folders crashed out of her schoolbag.
It was the third time that week she’d been late for school and she was petrified of being given a warning- that would do her job prospects no good after she left the place she loathed so much.
Gathering her folders, she quickly shut the flat door and hurriedly pushed the call button on the lift.
Just a few minutes earlier, Corporal Percy Wilkins had opened his only letter that day- a telegram from the Queen. It may have been his 100th birthday, but Corporal Wilkins didn’t feel much like celebrating- he had no one to celebrate with- but he had decided to make an effort to go for a peaceful walk to the cemetery to honour his lost friends. The stout, thinly haired old man walked with purpose but the look of gloom was unmistakeable
Pinning his five war medals to the pocket of his starched suit jacket, he too headed towards the lift and met a young woman waiting for the lift.
By fate or coincidence, this is the point where the worlds of Kayla Simmonds and Corporal Percy Wilkins collided.
“Hullo lass.” Wilkins said, faking cheeriness and jollity.
“Hi.” Kayla muttered in perfunctory greeting, letting her eyes betray her mild annoyance at having a lift companion this early in the morning.
The arrived and both stepped in and selected the ground floor without exchanging another word.
The lift started to move but stopped again with a stomach turning thud and broke.
Kayla immediately screamed out but the former solider knew exactly what to do.
“Stay calm! If you don’t, you’ll hyperventilate and if you do that in here, we’re both in trouble.” Corporal Wilkins said with authority.
The commanding presence had a strangely calming influence on Kayla.
“What do we do?”
“Push the alarm and wait for help.”
“And in the meantime?”
“Doubtless you’ll go on your phone and I’ll stand here in silence.” Corporal Wilkins said, the contempt obvious in his voice.
Kayla gave a hard stony stare.
“I don’t have a phone, sir, and I think I would like to chat. Silence really isn’t helping my claustrophobia. What’s your name?”
“Kayla. Where did you get your medals Percy?”
For the first time that day, the cheeriness and jollity Percy had been faking became genuine as he spoke.
“World War Two, my dear.” Percy said with a hint of pride in his eyes.
Kayla was about to ask him another question but was interrupted by a metallic grind like nails being dragged down a blackboard. She inhaled deeply and gripped onto the handrail so tight that her knuckles turned bright white. She tried to keep her hands behind her so that Percy couldn’t see.
“I know you think I can’t see your fear,” Percy said, as sharp as a button, “but I can. Serving in the RAF for six years during World War Two allows me to recognise emotions with unprecedented precision.”
Each of them held the other’s glance and with a knowing almost imperceptible nod, Percy granted Kayla permission to release her emotions. The spell of composure that had been over Kayla broke.
“Just keep talking please.” Kayla said, nearly wailing.
“What do you want me to talk about?”
“I don’t know! I only met you five minutes ago!”
“Fine. I’ll just keep talking about the medals.”
Kayla flashed a grateful smile. Never in a million years did she think she would be interested in war medals but right now they were the thing she was giving her undivided attention to. Percy held up his first medal- a tarnished gold coloured star with a King George V Coat of Arms embossed on the front held up by a slightly worn vertically striped ribbon of dark blue, red and light blue, indicating its age.
“This is the 1939-1945 Star. I have to wear this at the right hand side of my medal display because the government deems it the most important of my medals. It was awarded to me for over 60 days active service in the RAF as aircrew. I’ve got a couple of clasps tucked under the bar too which means I did more than 180 days.”
Kayla’s eyes grew wide.
“Wait, you put yourself in danger for more than half a year?”
Percy nodded in a way which was impossible to interpret- the lowered eyes could have been to disguise emotion or a mark of silent respect.
“Aye, but not really just for 180 days. We were under constant threat from an assault from the Germans. Being in the military made you feel as though you had a target on your back. Didn’t mean I wasn’t proud to wear the uniform, mind. I had the respect from my wife’s family and my colleagues at the butcher’s as soon as I put it on. I’d never had that before- I was always beneath them until that first day of service.”
Percy looked around wistfully, a wry smile exaggerating the stoutness of his face. For the first time since Kayla had met Percy, she recognised his vulnerability. Even though, she couldn’t suppress the snort that had been building up inside. This jolted Percy out of his trance.
“What’s funny about that, young lady?” Percy said sharply.
Kayla looked sheepish.
“Nothing at all, really. I’m just thinking how long ago it is since you experienced that and how society hasn’t changed a jot since.”
Percy’s features softened.
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, I’m not good enough for most of my family. They’re all academic, you know the type- straight As in the toughest subjects, unconditional university places, companies literally jumping up and down when they see their CV after they’ve completed their degree…”
Kayla stopped momentarily because her companion looked confused.
“What’s a C…C- whatever it was you said?”
She laughed softly.
“A CV? It’s a document that you put all your qualifications and employment history on and basically try to sell yourself to the perspective employer. Have you never done one?”
“No, I worked behind the butcher’s counter, did my military service during the war, then went back to the butcher’s counter until I retired.”
“But surely someone must have come in looking for a job?”
“Yes, but it was mainly word of mouth where I worked. Reputations stuck much harder in those days. If you were known to have been a hard worker, you were hired and if not, you had no chance. All of this modern second chance stuff is rubbish! Anyway,” he said, “back to what you were saying.”
If Kayla were displaying an iota of the deep unease she was feeling at that last comment, Percy didn’t seem to notice.
“Yeah…I guess I’m just not one of them. I like working with my hands. Woodwork is the only subject I’m interested in. I think I’d like to make furniture when I start working.”
Percy smiled encouragingly.
“But the thing is I think I’ve messed my chance up.” Kayla said wearily, before quickly continuing, “You remember my family were academics? Well I rebelled. I started flunking classes, answering back, generally causing a nuisance of myself, and I’m on a final warning. I even moved in with my gran to see if the pressure would stop, but I keep mistiming the distance between the flat and the school and now I’m late today, I’ve blown it.”
Percy looked genuinely sad and Kayla suddenly felt a strong gratitude- it had been a long time since anyone had shown her anything but irritation and this man actually cared.
There was silence and Percy took a deep breath.
“You okay?” Kayla said, feeling truly concerned for her companion. The last thing they needed was for him to take a funny turn whilst stuck between floors in a lift.
Percy gave a rueful smile.
“Aye, I am hen. I was just deciding whether to tell you this or no.” Percy said, slipping into his native dialect, clearly nervous.
“Percy, trust me, whatever it is I’m in no position to judge you.”
“Okay, I believe you. I cannae believe I’m about to tell you this, but I plotted to run away from the RAF during the war.”
Kayla’s eyes involuntarily grew wide but she tried to make a conscious effort to hide her shock. She found herself willing the old man to get the story off his chest that had clearly been haunting him for so long.
“My squadron had been involved in the Battle of Britain a few weeks previously,” he continued in a reflective tone, “and compared tae all the others, we didn’t lose that many men. The men we did lose though, well they were just wee laddies really, and the guilt I felt…” He choked back a sob. “The thought of not being able to tell parents that their kiddies had died and them just receiving a telegram, it all seemed wrong and got too much. I packed a bag and tried to run from the life I was living but an air raid stopped me. I got my head together and stayed but the intention tae do that will always haunt me.”
He paused to blow his nose.
“Sorry lass. It’s just that I’ve reached my 100th birthday the day and I cannae stop thinking about those laddies, the wasted lives. I have nae family but I keep thinking about the families they could have hae.”
Kayla dabbed her eyes and realised that there was a film of tears. Each of them was lost in their own thoughts for a few moments before Kayla broke the silence.
“Happy birthday. Come to Flat 101 and I’ll make you a birthday tea, I don’t want you being on your own.”
All Percy could do was smile through his tears.
There was a sudden bang and the lift jolted back to life, taking them both to the ground floor. Each of them were asked questions by engineers as they emerged from the lift but neither had the time to answer them- Kayla had to run to school and Percy needed to go back to his flat. He had decided he had something pressing and important to do.
As Kayla ran into school and skidded up to the reception desk, she was told that she would have to go and see the headteacher, the very thing she was dreading.
“Come through, Kayla.” Mr McDonald, the headteacher, said after 15 torturous minutes.
“Look sir, I’m sorry and everything but y-”
Mr McDonald put a hand up to silence her. She braced herself for the killer blow of suspension.
“Kayla, you have a very poor track record at this school and you most definitely are not an easy student to teach. The words rude, obnoxious and temperamental are synonymous with your name. However, a Corporal Wilkins has just called me and explained the predicament that you and he found yourselves in this morning. More than that though, he gave you a glowing report. He said you listened to him with sensitivity when no one else has. It sounds to me as though you have helped combat the issue of elderly isolation in our society this morning. We are very proud of you, Kayla.”
With that, he opened the door and ushered Kayla out, who only managed to mumble half a thank you before the door slammed shut behind her.
As the shock wore off, she began to smile. She was looking forward to her evening with her new friend.