I met met Jim Summons the other day. A nice old man with a gentle smile, a casual observer would say. Over the last eleven years I’d seen him faithfully and fastidiously operate the paper stall in Haverfordwest Station’s ticket hall but I’d never thought much about him.
This meeting was different. For the first time in nearly two years, I was about to make a train trip and pitched up to buy tickets in advance. It was hot, and Jim sat by his stall laden with an extraordinarily wide range of daily newspapers, periodicals and magazines. The ticket hall (a grand word for a space big enough for three socially-distanced people in these times of plague) was empty except for Jim. He sat in silence on a small stool leaning back against the wall next the entry doors. His white shirt matched the colour of his hair, and a well-worn leather cash bag which reminded me of the bag our co-op milkman used to carry on his rounds in the fifties hung on a strap diagonally across his body. In those days, it contained not only cash but a delivery note book full of pages, held open at the appropriate page by a rubber band, with details of the milk supplied and detachable sections which he left with his customers to confirm their weekly purchases. The bill was always hand-written in those pre-computer days.
But back to Jim, the subject of this epistle.
Whilst waiting for the ticket clerk to arrive from somewhere, I spoke to Jim as it seemed only courteous to acknowledge his presence in such as small space. ‘Hot isn’t it?’ I said through my Cambridge blue face-mask. He wasn’t wearing one.
‘Want a paper?’ he said.
‘You’ve been here a few years,’ I said to show him that I knew him, albeit slightly.
‘People don’t read now like they used to,’ he grumbled.
He hit a chord. I agreed with him, like a dying dinosaur as global temperatures declined, I refuse to accept the passing of reading newspapers on trains and the dance of folding and refolding them to turn to a new page so as not to disturb the adjacent passenger.
‘No, it’s all mobile phones and tablets, now,’ I said to explain the obvious.
His watery grey eyes seemed to acknowledge that his livelihood was in peril, yet he sat there quiet, calm, like a well-worn armchair that has provided comfort to many over the years but whose time has come for a new model. I noted that he raised his hand to place it behind his ear to discreetly tell me to speak up.
‘Do you know how long I’ve been doing this?’ he asked.
‘You’ve been here a long time,’ I said with exaggerated voulune, knowing that in the eleven years I’d lived at Haverfordwest I’d seen no other vendor in the cosy cubbyhole newspaper stand. I have a clear recollection of him unlocking the half-door beneath the counter and bending low to enter the cubicle. From inside he’d wind up the roller blind to reveal the dozens and dozens of magazines. Then he’d surface again from below the magazines and re-enter the ticket hall and unwrap the bundle of daily newspapers bound in a tape and start to arrange them for the morning commuters and travellers.
‘Sixty one years,’ he said to my complete astonishment. ‘Started at fifteen on 22 July 1961,’ he added seeing the look of incredulity on my face.
‘They’re all gone now.’
‘The news stands. No more at Carmarthen or Milford, or …’ and he reeled off the passing of news vendors down the line to Cardiff. ‘I’m the only one left.’ Last man standing in the Battle of the Somme. ‘Look, there’s my long service award.’
In corner and easily overlooked, a nondescript paper in a narrow frame leant against the wall. It read: 55 years (in a circle of flowers like an Olympic laurel wreath) Jim Summons (handwritten in italic script). In recognition of long service. Arriva Trains. 12 July 2016.
‘Where’s the one for sixty years?’
‘Haven’t got one. It’s Transport for Wales, now and they’re a disaster. Trains cancelled, trains late. The train from Carmarthen was cancelled and the bus arrived but didn’t go on to Milford Haven.’ He was getting technical now and I lost the thread.
‘I bet you must be able to recount a few stories,’ I said.
‘I could write a book.’
‘Bet you could. I’m an author,’ I said vaingloriously. At that moment I seriously considered returning with a note book to catch his memoirs. Of course I bought The Guardian and the Western Telegraph.
‘Thank you. £3.25. I’ve got change,’ he said. There was no indication of any electronic card machine – I didn’t ask – and secretly hoped he didn’t have one. I proffered a fiver and received the correct change.
At half past ten, I had brought a little happiness to a paper seller on a hot morning, he’d be closing in an hour or so, the morning rush (four trains in and out in two hours!) is over.
He had moved me.
Sixty one years! Twelve Prime Ministers, a Moon landing, and countless wars.
The same job.
Jim Summons paperboy supreme. Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave. I’ll not add atque vale, just yet, who knows how many more years?