Mr. Capstick’s Armistice Day
by JS Watts
“Right, I think that will be all for this morning, other than a quick run through today’s appointments,” Mr. Gregory Capstick, solicitor and senior partner in Capstick and Johnson (Solicitors) said to his secretary on the morning of Tuesday 11th November.
The secretary, a person of female persuasion, name unimportant as far as Mr. Capstick was concerned (she had, after all, only worked for Capstick and Johnson for a little over nine months), put down the papers she had just gathered up, picked up the diary she had previously put down and opened it at the day’s date.
“Mr. Peabody at 10.00am, Miss….” a noticeable pause, “ ….I’m afraid I can’t quite make out the name at 11.00am and then nothing until 3.00pm when Mr. Wilson is coming in to review his will,” a less noticeable pause, “again.”
Mr. Capstick was fast becoming an unhappy man. He had noticed the second, less noticeable, pause and did not appreciate the implied comment on one of his oldest, most changeable and therefore most lucrative clients. More disturbing however, were the complex series of issues relating to the earlier unequivocally obvious pause. It was beyond belief that the secretary had arranged an appointment in his, as far as he was concerned, all too full schedule, without being clear as to the name of the client. It was then adding insult to injury that she could not read her own handwriting in order to clarify the name of the uncertain client, but most perplexing of all was the fact that the appointment was for eleven o’clock, precisely the time when Mr. Capstick would be commencing his strict annual observance of the two minute silence for the dead servicemen of two world wars and subsequent fatality producing skirmishes.
Mr. Capstick had religiously maintained a precisely two minute silence, starting punctually at eleven o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, for every year of his adult life and it was inconceivable that he would not do so again this year. It was, however, equally inconceivable that Mr. Capstick should not receive a punctual client at precisely the hour appointed. If Miss annoyingly unnamed was herself punctual, Mr. Capstick would be faced with an insoluble dilemma.
“What exactly is the problem with determining the name of my eleven o’clock client?” said Mr. Capstick in a tone of voice that made it clear to even helplessly incompetent secretaries that he was not happy.
“I am sorry Mr. Capstick, but I really cannot decipher the name written in your diary.”
“Ignoring the fact that it is your own handwriting you are failing to “decipher”, please explain to me why you cannot remember the name of a client for whom you have arranged an appointment?”
The secretary pulled herself together, “I feel I can do that fairly easily Mr. Capstick, sir. It isn’t my own handwriting. Presumably it is the handwriting of the person who arranged the appointment, who wasn’t me, as it happens.”
“So how, exactly, did the appointment find its way into my diary; the diary which you maintain on my behalf and which only you and I are permitted to make changes to?” She was not going to shrug off her obvious failings that easily.
“I suggest you speak to one of my predecessors, sir. The entry was already in your diary when I joined the partnership and you personally handed the diary to me. I assumed you were aware of it and that there would eventually be something in the brought forward system to clarify the appointment details and purpose, but there has been nothing and, as you are apparently unable to help, I really don’t know anymore than what is written down in the diary.”
Mr.Capstick did not appreciate the tone of voice now being used by the secretary and was not minded to let the matter drop.
“Clearly there is a problem, but it is not a problem that I, as the most senior partner in this partnership, should have to resolve. As my secretary, however, it is patently your responsibility to identify the name of the eleven o’clock client in advance of the meeting, along with the purpose of her visit, and to advise me of it. I also expect you to handle her arrival within these offices so that she does not feel she has been kept waiting beyond the precisely appointed time, or that the senior partner is less than courteous or efficient, but so that she does not arrive directly outside of this office door any earlier than three minutes past the hour. How you resolve this matter is entirely down to you, but you will resolve it. You are now leaving my office in the clear knowledge of my requirements and expectations. Good morning.”
The secretary closed the diary and her mouth simultaneously, gathered up the papers she had previously put down and exited the office of Mr. Capstick, senior partner, mentally drafting her increasingly acerbic letter of resignation.
With twenty minutes still to go before his appointment with Mr. Peabody, Mr. Capstick passed the time ensuring the perfect organisation of his desk, adjusting the position of the red poppy on his dark pinstripe suit and contemplating, with his habitual satisfaction, the glow of his success and achievements in rising to be the most senior of the partners in Capstick and Johnson from an inauspicious start in the grim environment of a county orphanage. He had permitted nothing to stand in the way of his ascent to his current position as a veritable pillar of local society, as the ex-Mrs Capstick and numerous former secretaries could vouch for. Nor was he willing to climb down from this elevated and hard earned position to occupy the lower pedestal of senior partner (retired) in the way that his former partner, Mr. Johnson, had apparently been so eager to do once he had achieved sixty five years of age. Mr Capstick would retire only when he was ready to do so, not when the arbitrary accumulation of years or public expectation regarding the same indicated that he might. For this reason both his sixty fifth and sixty sixth birthdays had passed by without any change to the senior partners of Capstick and Johnson. Johnson junior might regard his business practices as old fashioned and from time to time hint that fresh blood at senior partner level would be good for business, but Mr. Capstick was sure of what was right and his imminent sixty seventh birthday would therefore bring as little change to the world of Capstick and Johnson (Solicitors) as had his sixty sixth and sixty fifth.
Mr. Capstick had a satisfying period of time in which to reflect upon his lifetime of achievement as Mr. Peabody was an annoying seven minutes late, but that was not an insurmountable problem for Mr. Capstick. The unpunctuality was the client’s alone and Mr. Capstick had started the clock for the calculation of hours and half hours to be charged to Mr. Peabody at ten o’clock precisely, as per the agreed appointment time.
Despite his late arrival, Mr. Peabody’s business was transacted and completed efficiently and he had departed from Mr. Capstick’s office by 10.50 am, leaving Mr. Capstick a full ten minutes to achieve the right and proper state of mind in which to observe the traditional two minute silence starting at eleven o’clock. Indeed, ten minutes was probably nine minutes and thirty seconds in excess of the time actually required by Mr. Capstick; a man who never like to complicate matters unnecessarily. His habitual preparation, apart from adjusting his poppy once more, was to call to mind the million or so British servicemen killed gloriously during the Great War and the four hundred thousand British combatants (including his father) who had sacrificed themselves for the glory of King and country during the Second World War and then he was ready. To his mind, those were the only pertinent statistics. There was no point in losing focus by contemplating the seventy thousand British civilians (including his mother), six million European Jews or unknown numbers of other non-British nationals, whether combatant or civilian, who had perished ingloriously as a result of World War II, let alone the incalculable dead of other allegedly lesser conflicts. Mr. Capstick was a man who prided himself on his focus. He could always count on himself to know what really mattered.
At one minute to eleven he was focussing assiduously on what really mattered when he was disturbed by a loud knock on his office door, the opening of the said door and the unheralded incursion of a young female in, Mr. Capstick calculated, her late twenties wearing a particularly utilitarian and ill fitting grey suit. Whilst far from being a ladies man, Mr. Capstick liked women to be well turned out and easy on the eye. The entrant to his office struck him as neither of these, plus she was about to interfere with Mr. Capstick’s anticipated and imminent two minute silence.
“Yes?” If Mr. Capstick’s greeting was less than welcoming it was the fault of the incompetent secretary, who had neither prevented access to his office at this inconvenient time, nor announced the arrival of the inconvenient female visitor in the time honoured fashion and as specifically instructed by him.
The lack of welcome did not appear to faze the visitor. “Mr. Capstick, nice to meet you. We have an eleven o’clock appointment.” She stretched out her arm a tad too rapidly, shook Mr. Capstick’s less than enthusiastic hand in an overly familiar manner and seated herself in the visitor’s chair without waiting to be invited. From this position she looked at him expectantly.
Mr. Capstick realised with impotent fury that the problem he had earlier and so accurately identified had not been resolved by the secretary as instructed, but had arrived in his office sanctum ready and, indeed, already beginning, to damage the simple but pleasurable satisfaction of his Armistice Day observations. He could not now ask the woman to leave without appearing discourteous, but neither could he embark on his traditional two minute silence without first inviting her to join him in the same and the simple process of asking her to do so, even assuming she were to agree without any discussion, would eat into the precision of the two minute timeframe. Moreover, his ability to extend such an invitation both correctly and politely was impeded by his inability to address her formally, as he still had no idea what her name was and had only the secretary’s, clearly unreliable, word that she was a Miss and not a Mrs, or that objectionable non-word, Ms.
Mr. Capstick’s bottled-up anger increased in pressure as he realised that his perfected habits of a lifetime were about to be irrevocably marred. His only consolation was going to be in the future when he would ensure that the secretary was made fully aware of her failings and grating incompetence. That, at least, would offer him some slight compensatory satisfaction.
He became aware that the unknown visitor was still smiling expectantly at him. He forced himself to smile back, although an impartial observer might have thought his watery smile to have been nearer to a grimace.
“So what can I do for you, my dear?” Mr. Capstick filled the embarrassing vacuum left by the absence of the woman’s name and title with his standard, catch-all term of address for young women of lower social standing. He would not usually use it for a client, but then his clients were not usually young women.
“I have come here to check on my legacy,” was the naively ambiguous response. Mr. Capstick waited briefly for further clarification. As this was clearly not going to be forthcoming, he tried again.
“Quite, my dear, quite, but are you here to draw up a will or are you a beneficiary to a will already drawn up by one of our clients? That’s what we need to know, you see.”
He was quite sure that he hadn’t seen her at the partnership before and therefore felt she was unlikely to be an existing client seeking to draw up a will (as the most senior of the partners, Mr. Capstick only ever saw important existing clients: it was the role of junior staff to deal with new or less important clients), but it was only courteous to give her the benefit of the doubt, at least initially.
“I, er, need to make sure about what I’m, um, leaving behind.” Mr. Capstick heard the lack of confidence and the absence of a higher level education in this statement and consigned the secretary to an even deeper circle of hell; this woman was clearly not an appropriate person for him to deal with. Woe betides the careless female who had entered her into his diary.
He checked the office clock. It was not yet two minutes past eleven, so it would be inappropriate to escort his unwanted visitor out of his office at this precise moment. Even if he could not observe the two minute silence in practice, it was important to maintain the impression of doing so to the junior staff; there were appearances to be maintained after all. He decided to keep the conversation going for a few minutes longer and until he could pass his visitor over to a less important member of staff.
“In a minute or two I can introduce you to one of my junior colleagues who will be able to take your specific instructions regarding your intended will, but before then why don’t you tell me a little more about the intended beneficiaries and what it is that you hope to bequeath to them?”
He noted the look of confusion on her face and tried again, “What is your “legacy”, exactly: property, money, antiques? Who are the people you are planning on leaving it to, dear? For example, do you have a husband or children whom you want to remember in your will?” Despite his best attempts at keeping things simple, she still looked confused.
“I, um err, have a son. His father’s no longer around. I think it’s good to remember people, don’t you? Isn’t that what we should be doing now? With the silence? Should we be quiet for a bit, do you think?”
The pressure levels inside Mr. Capstick’s head increased still further. Client or no, how dare this unwanted and clearly ill educated woman presume to remind him of the tradition of silent remembrance, when she was the very reason he had been forced to abandon tradition this year? He glanced at the office clock. Although the meeting already seemed to have dragged on for an eternity, it was still not two minutes past eleven. He stood up, cleared his throat and assumed the pose he always adopted for the silence. He didn’t check to see what the woman was doing. He maintained the pose and his silence for what he considered to be a reasonable period of time. There was no point in lasting out for the full two minutes; they had started late and therefore the action was no longer perfect. Then he cleared his throat again and looked across at his unknown visitor. She was still seated, but was now dabbing at her eyes with a suspiciously unpristine handkerchief and, to Mr, Capstick’s horror, was actually snivelling.
“Come, come, my dear. This is all quite unnecessary. There really is no need to get too emotional about this sort of thing.”
She dabbed her eyes still harder. “But so many dead, Mr. Capstick, so many dead. All those men, women and children. There have been too many wars and so much death and yet it’s still going on. Doesn’t the world ever learn? Doesn’t the thought of so many lives lost, and still being lost, upset you?”
“That’s really not the right way to think about it, you know. I certainly don’t and unlike yourself, I lost someone in the Second World War. My father gave his life for victory and, today, I remember him and the other fallen servicemen who died for King and country. I prefer to think of them as our glorious dead, taking as many of the enemy as possible with them as they went, which grounds for pride rather than upset. I don’t think you will find the names of too many women or children on our war memorials, eh?”
What was that look in his visitor’s eye? Mr. Capstick was uncertain, but he was convinced it was not appropriate.
“Millions died, and are still dying, because of wars. Surely that is grounds enough for emotion? None of them asked to die, not even your heroes. None of them deserved to die. So many left loved ones behind; so many unfinished lives; so much love gone to waste, howling round the world with nowhere to go. Shouldn’t we remember all the dead equally? How can you choose to remember one group of souls above another?”
Mr. Capstick was not a happy man. How dare this young female person presume to question him, Gregory Capstick Esquire, over the propriety of his correct adherence to social tradition?
“I really think you will find, my dear, that the purpose of Armistice Day is to celebrate our fallen soldiers, not the inconsequential deaths of just any Tom, Dick or Harriet.”
“If that’s the case then it’s very sad, that’s all I can say, but regardless of its original purpose, can’t we just use the time, or any other time come to that, what does time really matter, to remember everyone who died as a result of war. At the end of the day, they are all equally dead. No death is inconsequential.”
“That’s hardly proper; hardly traditional.”
“Do you honestly think tradition matters once you are dead?”
Mr. Capstick felt a vein in his temple start to throb as a result of this wholly inappropriate comment from an equally inappropriate person. The throbbing grew steadily worse as his visitor went on, “What about your mum? You say your dad died during the war, but what about your mum? What does she have to say about remembering people on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday? I bet she remembers everyone she loved and lost, not just those who were in the military.”
“Not that it’s any of your business, missy, but she’s hardly in a position to remember anyone. She died in the war too. A doodle bug got her.”
The unknown visitor looked suitably and satisfyingly chastened. “Oh, I’m so sorry. How thoughtless of me to say such things when today of all days you must be remembering her alongside your dad.”
“Hardly. It’s most certainly not the day for it. This is the day for remembering our glorious war dead, as I said before. She doesn’t count. What did she do except die?”
A strange and not entirely welcome look had returned to the eye of the visitor. “So when is the day for it?”
“Well, there isn’t one. There’s no tradition for it.”
“What’s tradition got to do with it? You can always break from tradition. She was your mother; she loved you.”
“The correct focus is the fallen servicemen of this country and I believe in doing things correctly, not improperly”
“How about doing things because they mean something, because you care, because people and love matter more than tradition and being proper?”
The vein in Mr Capstick’s head was pumping furiously. How dare this creature talk to him like this, like an equal, let alone the impropriety of her ideas? Did she not know to whom she was talking? This was not how he expected things to be.
“But this was not how I thought things would be, Greg.”
What? What was she talking about? He hadn’t spoken out loud had he? He was sure he hadn’t, but he was finding it increasingly difficult to focus on anything. There was a military tattoo beating itself out in his head, but it was increasingly being drowned out by the rushing sound in his ears and both were being swallowed up by the green fog rapidly closing in on his vision. Fortunately he was unconscious by the time his body hit the floor with a resounding march finale crash.
At three minutes past eleven, Janice, the secretary to Mr Johnson junior, knocked timidly on Mr. Capstick’s door with a view to breaking it to him that his latest secretary had resigned, emptied her desk and walked out of the building without another word and that Miss Capstick (funny her having the same unusual name as Mr. Capstick), which was the best interpretation anyone had managed from the illegible scribble in the diary, his 11.00am appointment, had not yet arrived. She was not looking forward to any of these tasks given her equal dislike and fear of Mr. Capstick. Nevertheless, she felt the natural concern of any human being for another when she found Mr. Capstick lying stiff and unconscious on the floor of his empty office.
Being a caring soul, Janice continued to feel sorry for poor Mr. Capstick as he lay comatose in hospital for the next eleven days prior to his death from the last of a series of major strokes, which had begun in his office on Armistice Day. She might have grieved still further for him had she been able to know that, for all of the eleven days, his unconscious brain remained locked in its own unique circle of hell as it recalled, in a never ending guilt-expanding loop, the young Gregory’s terrifying inhumation and eventual salvation from the rubble of his war-time home. The one thing that had saved his young life and prevented him from dying there and then, rather than three months before his sixty seventh birthday, was the sacrifice and loving protection of his mother as she threw herself over him just before the doodle bug landed. It was her torn body, still dressed in its cheap, ill fitting, grey skirt and jacket that the ARP warden first noticed before he came across young Gregory. The memory of that same torn body was the last thing to accompany Gregory Capstick, deceased some-time solicitor and former senior partner, into the long and very final dark.
(‘Mr.Capstick’s Armistice Day’ by J.S.Watts was first published in First Edition Magazine in 2009.)