Phineas Wilson McGregory was not a particularly kind man. Perhaps it had something to do with his not particularly normal name. No one really knew the reason behind his permanent scowl, though popular lore leaned toward a ghastly childhood trauma involving a tea kettle, red wheelbarrow, and the always unfortunate Uncle Matheson.
In any case, Mr. McGregory—as he preferred to be called—was seated on a train. A train with fourteen cars, thirteen restrooms, seven attendants, seventy-two passengers, and one disgruntled Pomeranian. The train was on its way to Wellesley Station in England, set to arrive at approximately 2:22 pm that Thursday afternoon, February the 17th.
However, it appeared as though they would be late. Bloody railway system, Mr. McGregory thought. Always bumbling around whenever they please. Without the slightest consideration to the other unfortunate human beings who depend on them.
He glanced down at his heavy silver pocket watch. A bit too showy for his liking, but it was a gift from his perpetually optimistic mother-in-law, who insisted he lighten up now and again. Mr. McGregory found her company quite taxing, to say the least. Fortunately for him, he was not headed for the old one-story cottage in the Highlands, with the sagging porch and leaky roof in the spare bedroom. No, Mr. McGregory was on his way to the National Veterinary Conference in Manchester, one that never ceased to find “new” ways of reiterating old lessons.
Presently, Mr. McGregory turned his attention to the Politics column of The Times. He pursed his lips. It appeared as though the election would be a messy one this year. “Wouldn’t expect anything less from those blind idiots up there,” he muttered.
As he perused the rest of the paper, the train hit a crooked track, jostling the car. There was a muffled thump behind his feet. The “World News” section was on the next page. But a small cough disrupted his beratement of the foreign diplomatic policies. Folding the paper carefully in his lap, Mr. McGregory peered severely down his nose at the boy before him.
“’Scuse me, sir. But can I get my ball back?” he asked.
“May you what, sir?”
“May I get my ball back. That’s the correct phrasing of the question. Of course you can get the ball back, it’s physically possible. But are you allowed to get your ball back? That is the question.”
“Mr. McGregory is my name, and you will refer to me only as such. Understand?” He pushed his wire-rimmed glasses further up the bridge of his nose.
“Yes s—Mr. McGregory.”
“Good.” He deftly unfolded his newspaper and continued to read. But he still felt the boy’s gaze on him. Mr. McGregory tilted the paper down slightly. “May I help you?”
“Well—er—Mr. McGregory, can I—I mean, may I have my ball back, please?” He pointed between the man’s feet.
Mr. McGregory looked from his paper, to the boy’s pleading blue eyes, to the ball. He sighed. “Very well.”
The boy scrambled to pick up the little red ball and plopped himself down beside Mr. McGregory.
Pushing his cap up on his head, he swiped a hand across his forehead, tangling his sandy colored hair in the process, and pushed the cap firmly down on his head once more.
“Mighty hot on this train, isn’t it, Mr. McGregory?”
“Not particularly,” he replied, eyes scanning the paper once more.
“William,” the boy said, after a few minutes of observing his feet dangle from the seat, a good inch away from the ground.
“Excuse me?” Mr. McGregory asked. “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“William’s my name, Mr. McGregory.”
“Brilliant,” he mumbled.
William rolled the ball around between his palms for a few moments. “Why are you reading that?”
He snorted. “That not an answer, now is it, Mr. McGregory.”
Mr. McGregory huffed. “Because I enjoy it.”
“Doesn’t look like you enjoy it. It looks like you’re sad…Why are you said, Mr. McGregory?” He glanced up curiously at him.
“I am not sad.”
“Then why do you look it?”
“I am not sad.” Mr. McGregory glowered at him.
William was silent, his face contorted in deep thought. “Did you lose something, Mr. McGregory?”
The old man’s eye twitched as his whole body stiffened. “No, I did not lose anything.”
“Oh…did someone pick on you? Because my mum always says—“
“Where is she?”
“My mum? She’s working.”
“Then why don’t you go join her?”
“Well, she’s working. I can’t do that. She’d be awful cross if I bothered her, especially since she always says for me to stay in my seat, even though she gets to walk around while the train’s moving but it’s not dangerous for her since that’s her job, but—”
“Enough.” Mr. McGregory held up a hand, and William fell silent.
“Mr. McGregory? When do you think we’ll get there?”
“I haven’t the foggiest.”
“I hope it’s soon. I’m supposed to meet my dad at the station at 2:30. You wouldn’t happen to have the time, Mr. McGregory, would you?”
With a sigh, Mr. McGregory slammed his paper shut and flicked open his pocket watch. “2:34,” he read.
William let out a forlorn breath, turning his attention to the countryside zipping past out the window. “Who was that, Mr. McGregory?”
“Who was who?”
“That girl. In the picture on your watch.”
Mr. McGregory paused. “My wife.”
“Oh, well she’s right pretty, Mr. McGregory,” William replied.
“Yes,” Mr. McGregory said, “She was.”
William turned to look at him, brow furrowed, face questioning. “How do you mean?”
Mr. McGregory sighed, brushing his thumb over the worn photograph. A lump began to form in his throat. “She—” he cleared his throat. “She died two and a half years ago.
William’s face fell; his eyes dropped to the floor. “Oh. I’m sorry, Mr. McGregory, I really am.”
Mr. McGregory’s face softened. “Thank you.”
“Is that why you’re so sad?” William asked.
He shrugged. “I suppose so.”
William glanced from his red rubber ball to Mr. McGregory, then pushed it into his hands. “My grandmother just died a few days ago,” he explained. “We’re on the way to the funeral, my mum says. This was the last thing she gave me. But I want you to have it.”
Mr. McGregory’s jaw dropped. He was about to protest when suddenly William squealed, pressing his nose to the glass and staring wide-eyed as the platform zoomed into view and the train screeched to a stop. “We’re here! We’re here, Mr. McGregory! Look, we’re here!”
The whistle blew and Mr. McGregory couldn’t resist a smile. William whirled around to face him, excitement and wonder lighting up his features. “You know, you really should smile more, Mr. McGregory,” he said, jumping out of his seat and handing Mr. McGregory his briefcase. “It gives you wrinkles around your eyes that makes you look like Santa.”
They opened the door of the railcar and Mr. McGregory stepped out onto the platform, into the sea of hustling and bustling people.
“Besides, Mr. McGregory, like my grandmother always said, ‘There’s plenty in the world to smile about, if only you’d take the time to look for it.’” William grinned; Mr. McGregory grinned back.
“Goodbye, Mr. McGregory!” William called, turning to go back inside.
“Goodbye, William,” said Mr. McGregory.
And with that, Phineas Wilson McGregory turned, placed his hat on his head, the ball in his pocket, and a smile on his face, and walked out of the station.