In 1997, flying to Europe, I came across what I thought was another one of those “time-waster” stories in an otherwise-forgettable inflight magazine. At first glance, it seemed light and fluff-filled, but when I finished, I found myself carefully tearing out the pages, bringing them home several weeks later and placing the pages in a folder I maintain of writings that move me; writings that remind me why I love the impact of the written word.
Maybe it’s because we’ve moved into the Holidays, with everyone focusing on the importance of family, friends, and what brings value to their lives, that I again found myself rereading “A Schedule to Keep.” Author Frederick Waterman went on to write 16 additional short stories based upon the premise of “two strangers on a plane” which were compiled into a book, “Row 22, Seats A & B.” It’s still available via Amazon here.
With friends and acquaintances all seemingly building their own “Bucket Lists,” “A Schedule to Keep” still strikes a particular cord with me about priorities and the source of true happiness and accomplishment. I know that it still helps frame my life.
So check it out. It’s worth a 5-minute read.
A Schedule to Keep
By Frederick Waterman
ROW 22, SEATS A&B
The flight from London to New York was 160 miles from Heathrow when it leveled off at its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.
In row 22, seat B, a tanned young man in his early 20s, wearing blue jeans and a clean but wrinkled white button down shirt, leaned forward and from the knapsack at his feet withdrew a thin, leather bound book. Straightening up, he opened the book to the middle, spread it wide, and shook it slightly, causing a slender pen to slip out of the spine, followed by a photo that had been tucked between the pages. He picked up the photo and regarded it for several minutes, then pulled down the tray in front of him and carefully placed the picture along the right side. Reopening the book, he flipped through its pages until he reached the back where, on the first blank page, he wrote the day’s date and, beneath it, “Somewhere Over the Atlantic.” On the next line, he began writing in the small, firm script that had already filled the journal’s first 200 pages.
In row 22, seat A, Brian Allbeck sighed and closed the paperback book he’d bought from the newsagent at the airport. In the first 34 pages, the suspense thriller had offered one detailed sex scene, two gruesome murders, and absolute proof that its plot was stolen from another book. Only Shakespeare could get away with doing that, Allbeck thought, depositing the paperback into the seat pocket before him.
Six foot two, lean and fit, Allbeck had turned 60 the week before, an occasion that his wife insisted upon celebrating with “a small soirée,” as she termed it, which meant 200 people at a catered cocktail party he could not avoid. Possessed of the talent but not the taste for society, Allbeck was handsome in a weathered, craggy way that implied he knew a rougher side of life, an impression that contributed to his dominating presence and, he knew, helped immeasurably in business. His full head of white hair, combed straight back, added to his leonine looks and contrasted sharply with the well tailored, blue pinstripe suit.
Allbeck was aware that he looked rather grand for coach class, but this morning’s “quick meeting” with his team of solicitors had turned into a three hour strategy session after the firm’s latest takeover target, a family controlled French textile business, announced its plan to fight him in the courts. By the time Allbeck arrived at Heathrow, his scheduled flight had departed. The only available seat on the next New York bound airliner was 22A and he was glad to have it.
As Allbeck glanced out the oval window next to him, his right hand spun the wedding band on his left ring finger. The stunning vista of white clouds and blue sky held no appeal because in the past 10 days he’d done enough high altitude sightseeing on flights to Munich, Milan, and Barcelona. Resigning himself to a sooner than expected start on the files in his briefcase, he turned to his seatmate to gain access to the overhead storage bin when the photo on the tray caught his eye.
The picture showed an extraordinarily beautiful woman looking over her shoulder at the camera. She had reddish brown hair and large brown eyes that possessed both an uncomplicated friendliness and a welcoming sexuality. Trying not to be obvious, Allbeck craned his neck slightly to get a better angle.
Without looking directly at the young man, Allbeck noted the clean-shaven face, and combed, sun-bleached hair. An upper class American, he was sure, and judging from the speed and intensity of the writing, one of the high energy, highly organized, very ambitious types – a description, Allbeck realized, that would have fit himself perfectly at the same age. Bored enough to be uncharacteristically intrusive, he cleared his throat and said, “She is a very pretty woman.”
The young man looked up with the quick, easy smile that is so distinctively American. Then he followed the older man’s eyes to the photo. “She is beautiful, isn’t she? And she’s even better looking than that. I’m a lousy photographer.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, how old is she?”
“No,” the young man grinned, “and she won’t be unless the fashion world moves from Paris and New York to the Yorkshire Dales. She’s a Yorkshire girl who’s never been to London and hasn’t any interest in going there either.”
“You’re joking,” Allbeck replied.
“It’s absolutely true. Two men who’ve known her all her live vouched for it.”
“I take it that you just met her.”
“Right, eight days ago.”
“And I hope that you spent every day since then with her.”
“No, actually, I didn’t. I had a schedule to keep.”
“A schedule! What are you, mad?” he said in mock dismay. “What in blazes were you doing that was so important?”
“Bicycling from London to Edinburgh It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s on my list.”
“Your list?” Allbeck repeated, the humor draining from his voice.
The young man flipped to the front of the journal. Inside the cover, below the name Thomas Landers, was a neatly typed list. He handed the journal to the older man.
Allbeck read the 11 lines to himself:
“1. Win Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. 2. Graduate in top three from law school. 3. Clerk for a Supreme Court Justice. 4. Own a new Mercedes Benz. 5. Run own law firm by the age of 37. 6. Take the Trans Siberian Express across Russia. 7. Be a judge by the age of 50. 8. Bicycle through England and Scotland. 9. Understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. 10. Learn to fly a plane. 11. Own a Picasso.”
He read through it twice in silence, his face revealing nothing, then handed the journal back. Thomas Landers’ attempt at restraint gave way to curiosity. “What do you think?”
Allbeck sidestepped the query. “The red check marks, are they what I assume?”
“Yep. Three down, eight to go. I won the Rhodes Scholarship two years ago and learned Einstein’s Theory of Relativity last year. This spring, I got my degree from Oxford in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, and two weeks later started the bicycle trip.” Landers’ confidence was losing some of its bounce. The absence of the expected admiration was unsettling.
“How old were you when you drew up the list?” Allbeck’s voice was subdued.
“Eighteen. You’ve got to set goals and these are mine.” Landers tapped a finger against the list. “This is my future.”
Allbeck nodded thoughtfully. “Tell me about the girl. What’s her name?”
“Cinda.” The conversation’s abrupt change caught Landers by surprise.
“And how did you meet her?”
“Well, you know it’s been a cold, rainy summer in England and that slowed me down a lot, especially going through the Cotswolds. Bicycling in the rain is just plain stupid, you understand,” Landers said, wondering why he felt a need to explain. “You never get far, you always, get sick, and cars can’t see you. Anyway, I finally reached Yorkshire just as another downpour began. I stayed dry under an oak tree, but the rain never let up. For the next five hours the wind kept getting colder and colder.
“At about 6 o’clock, the rain finally stopped, but I didn’t even make another mile before it started again. I was passing through this village, and there was a small pub, so I put my bike behind it and ducked inside. It was like I’d stepped into another century. Inside that pub it could have been the 1890s or the 1790s. The ceiling was low with thick beams and the walls were all made of wood that wasn’t cut by any modern machinery. Most of the light came from the fire in this great, stone fireplace.”
“About 20 men were there, and most of them looked like farmers. When I walked in, they all turned and looked at me as if I’d just barged into their house, not their pub. It felt like a scene out of a Western where the stranger comes into town and everyone just watches him. Anyway, I sat down next to the fire to get warm, and this beautiful woman appeared. She asked what I wanted to drink, but when she saw I was shivering, she brought me a hot buttered rum. ‘We don’t make a lot of these in the summer, but I think I still remember how,’ she said, then pulled up a chair in front of me and made sure that I drank it all.
“When I got warm enough to put together coherent sentences, we started talking. She said that her name was Cinda and that her father owned the pub, just like his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather, but he was off that night. She asked me what an American was doing in Yorkshire in the rain, and I explained that I was on my way from London to Edinburgh. That’s when she said she’d never been to either city or even gone more than 100 miles from Yorkshire. Despite that, as she spoke, you could tell she was smart. And when we talked about the English country¬side, she was the one who could quote Tennyson, Wordsworth, and Keats.
“While we were talking, I didn’t have to look around to know that the men at the bar were keeping their eyes on us, as if they were all Cinda’s uncles. It felt like I was on a date with 20 chaperons.
“Cinda got up occasionally to serve the men, but we weren’t interrupted too often because, as she put it, ‘They’re here for the talking more than the drinking.’ The evening passed and, well, you never know what people see in you, but at about 10 o’clock one of the men brought a pint of beer over to me and, eventually, all of us were sitting in front of the fire. When they left, each of them shook my hand and the last one, the biggest one, said in a real low voice, ‘Good night, young fella. You be careful with our Cinda.’ And there was no doubt that he meant it.
“When she began cleaning up, I helped because I didn’t know if I was expected to leave too though I didn’t want to. Afterward, Cinda put two thick logs on the fire and poured a full glass of brandy for me. Do you know those conversations you can have with only a very few people? Those times when every word’s understood just the way you meant it, and you never have to explain any¬thing? That’s what this was like. I told her about places I’d been, and she told me about the people in her town, and we told each other what we wanted in our lives.”
“We talked all night, and the funny thing is that I never got tired. Somehow, talking with her was restoring, almost restful. When it started to get light out¬side, she asked me what was the best dawn I’d ever seen. When I started to tell her about one, she just shook her head. ‘The best dawn you’ve ever seen is the one you’re about to see,’ she said.
“The rain had stopped during the night, the clouds had cleared out, and there was a perfectly blue sky. She took my hand, and we walked up a hill that seemed to go straight up until, from the top, you could see the whole valley, which was wet-green, perfectly still and quiet. Below us were the farmers’ fields, cottages and barns, and the roads winding around. The sun seemed to rise slowly; then suddenly it lit up all the mists in the valley and made them glow until they were iridescent.
After a while, Cinda looked at me and asked, ‘Why would I want to go anywhere? I might miss one of these.’ Then she let go of my hand, and I followed her down the hill. At the pub, she cooked me breakfast and I left an hour later.”
“And that’s the whole story?” Allbeck asked.
“Yes. That night and that dawn will always be a great memory.”
Allbeck considered the young man’s words, then reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his wallet. From a compartment behind the pound notes and dollar bills, he produced a yellowed, fragile piece of paper, pressed thin by its time in the wallet. Allbeck opened it carefully along the worn creases and handed it to the young man.
Landers’ eyes opened wide as he saw the first line. He kept reading, at times out loud: “Graduate with honors from Cambridge … Be a multimillionaire by 30 … Own a Bentley … Buy a suit at Gieves and Hawkes, I Savile Row … Meet the Queen … See the Great Wall of China.” He looked at Allbeck, open¬mouthed. “My God.”
“My life,” Allbeck said. “Planned and charted when I was 15 years old.”
“And the black Xs mean you did them? And the dates and places are the when and the where?”
Landers frowned. “You missed one,” he said. “Number nine.”
“I know,” Allbeck said softly. “That’s why I’m giving you the list. I want you to do it for me.”
Landers looked at the older man.
“I got too busy with all the others, Allbeck explained. “I let it slide, and then I began to think it didn’t matter. Will you do it for me?”
Landers twice began to speak, then answered with an uncertain nod.
Allbeck pulled an already opened envelope from a pocket, removed the letter, and pointed at the envelope’s address. “That’s where I live.” He took the fragile paper from Landers, slipped it inside, and handed the envelope to the young man.
Allbeck turned away and looked out the window at the clouds.
Eleven months later, Brian Allbeck was sitting in his library sorting the day’s mail, when his hands stopped. He picked up the envelope that he’d seen before, and, holding it at the corners, spun it once, twice, then a third time, considering what might be inside. He slipped the letter opener under the flap, carefully ripped through the adhesive tape, then, with two fingers, withdrew the yellowed piece of paper.
Allbeck took a deep breath and opened the page. His eyes swept down the column of black Xs and, for a moment, dread overcame him, then he saw the firm red check mark and “June 29, 1997, Yorkshire, England” on the ninth line, the line he hadn’t been able to cross off himself, the line that read “Marry for Love.”