Life is full of choices. Big ones are easy to spot. But little ones change your life.
Smoothing his tie Edward hoped the little changes would make the difference. He looked through the window glass. Not too many today. He checked himself one more time then pushed through the door.
Three other men sat on the chairs provided. Waiting. Three men and a tramp. Without appearing to, the other men checked Edward out. Competitors.
The door opened and the factory foreman entered. All the men except the tramp stood up.
The foreman looked above their heads. “I need two men today. Today I will choose…” He scanned the group.
Edward stood tall. Hoping.
“You. And you.”
The men who were chosen went to the desk to fill out their employment forms. There was a buzz of energy about them. Tonight they would see pay. Tomorrow their prospects would be better because they had experience. Because the foreman knew them.
Edward fought the stab in his chest. What would he bring home to his wife today?
She would kiss him before the question. He longed to have the right answer so he could dip more than his tongue into her secret curves.
When she knew she would say, “We can’t have a baby yet. Think of the Wilsons.”
The Wilsons lived next door. A year ago Mr. Wilson went to the city looking for work. He never came back. Then Mrs. Wilson took work as a live-in nanny. She left her oldest, then fourteen, in charge. When the recruiter came he lied about his age and enlisted, leaving his twelve year old sister raising four children.
Poverty broke up families.
The chosen left with the foreman.
Edward went to the woman at the desk. “Is anyone else coming today?”
The woman consulted her list. “The professor from DentalGo. And the recruiter.”
The professor was new in town. Did some kind of sleep research using X-rays.
A man in a shabby mackintosh came in holding a brown envelope.
The woman at the desk smiled. “Professor.”
Edward applied for the job the first day the advertisement went up in the window. So far. Nothing.
“I look for Edward Brown.”
The professor inspected him. “You are looking to be working?”
The tramp started laughing. “Still up to your tricks?”
The woman at the desk frowned. “Sir. If you aren’t looking for employment I must ask you to leave.”
The tramp thrust his face close to Edward. “I used to work for him. I was young and beautiful once.”
Edward stepped back from the animal smell. The matted curls escaping the ruined hat. Any beauty had long since disappeared.
The professor waited until the tramp was hustled outside. “Before taking you I am checking.”
The professor flashed a smile at Edward’s eagerness. “Do you have bicycle?”
Edward started that day. Afterwards he cycled home.
His mother-in-law didn’t look up from the potatoes she was peeling. One of the Wilson children crouched under the table. “Joy is in the shop.”
Edward went to the front and jangled through the bakery door.
And there she was, smiling at him over the cakes, white apron pinned to her breast. “Oh Eddy, where have you been? Father’s missed you all afternoon.”
“He’ll miss me some more. I’ve got a job.”
She came round the counter to him. She tasted of icing sugar. Edward took her to the fields beyond town. They celebrated under trees springing their first leaves.
The work was easy. Writing addresses from an account book onto little brown packages. Taking the packages to the post office twice a day.
Spring turned into summer. The world was falling apart but Edward was happy. By the end of summer he was saving for a deposit on furnished rooms. The baby Joy wanted so badly was on the way.
By now the professor was using Edward in his experiments.
It started when the professor said, “No subject today. Will you?”
“What do I have to do?”
“I take X-ray. Of you.”
“I find new clerk?”
Edward put the lid on his pen and stood up.
The professor led him to a room fitted out like a lounge. “You undress.”
“Hospital gown. I wait outside.”
The professor stepped out. He left the door ajar.
The professor called through the door . “Edward. You have wife?”
Edward tried not to think about Joy while naked.
“Take off wedding ring. No metal for X-ray.”
Edward slipped the gold band from his finger and put it in his trouser pocket. He found the hospital gown under the Ottoman.
The procedure became part of his work. X-ray. Label packages. Cycle to post office. Break for lunch. Repeat.
One morning outside the post office Edward saw the constable taking the tramp away.
“Don’t forget what I told you boy,” the tramp shouted at Edward. “You’ll end up like me.”
The incident distracted Edward. He was looking back and missed the pot hole in the road. The bicycle went over, spilling packages on the street. Edward picked them up. One had broken its string and unwrapped. Its contents scattered. Edward had never seen what he posted. Not before now. Indecent photos. Of women. Men. Himself. And that youth with the curly hair committing a criminal act on the Ottoman. Could it be?
“Everything alright, Edward?” The constable was close by, holding the giggling tramp.
“Fine.” Edward held the photos face down against his thigh. He felt sick. How could he explain that he was innocent? That his involvement was involuntary?
Where could he find another job?
After the constable had gone Edward tied up the package. Took it with the rest of them to the post office. Posted them. Then went home for lunch.
He would have to tell Joy about the job. Sorrow twisted his gut.
Everyone was in the kitchen, including the Wilson children.
Joy rushed to him. “Oh Eddy, have you heard? We’re at war.” She wrapped her soft arms about his neck. “You aren’t going to enlist are you?”
“Of course I am, Joy. I must serve my country.”
Joy began to sob.
He was going to war. May never know his child. Little choices step by step. Leading to this big one.