One Hour Before

One hour before the opening page of Going Back, Andrew is concluding the meeting. He has once again drunk too much of the bitter coffee, and as he shakes hands with an assortment of Germans who have roughly equivalent jobs to his, he is remembering where the bathroom on this floor is; this is the fourth meeting room they have used in three days, and he’s a little disoriented. His laptop is synchronising with the server back in London, and he is staring at the screen to try and deflect some of the small talk he is so bad at – someone wants to ask him about Chelsea’s new owner, and while he is vaguely aware that this has been a news story, he has no interest in football, and is afraid of sounding idiotic.

He finds and uses the bathroom, then goes back to the now empty meeting room, collects his laptop, which has finally completed its sync with the usual errors, and, stuffing the computer into his tan-coloured canvas bag, heads down to find his rented car.

He opens the tailgate and carefully wedges his laptop in beside his suitcase, then stands, hands on the small of his back, for a moment, contemplating the journey ahead. He has driven this car for no more than five or six kilometers so far – from the airport to the hotel, and then virtually next door to this building – and he is a little anxious about the traffic he’s about to face.


One hour before the opening page of Going Back, Matthias is pacing nervously around his classroom at the school. He has no more plausible reasons for being here on a Friday afternoon; all work for the day is marked, and only the cleaners are left in the building. But he does not want to go home just yet; his wife knows how stressful this evening will be for him, and he does not want her to fuss. He thinks for the fourth or fifth time about calling his sister, but dismisses the idea again as soon as he has it – perhaps she will never have to know.

He stuffs his newspaper and a textbook into his shoulder bag – leather; a gift from his children last Christmas – and makes for the door, being careful to turn off the lights as he goes. As always, he ducks his head back into the room to make sure he turned the monitor of his computer off, then walks slowly, almost reluctantly, down the corridor towards the side entrance he habitually uses.


One hour before the opening page of Going Back, Anne is dealing with a particularly difficult library patron. Anne doesn’t know her name, but has seen her most Fridays since she took this job, and is cross with herself for the uncharitable things she thinks about someone who is, most likely, hard of hearing, lonely and relies on her library to brighten her day.

There is some confusion about an unreturned book – it isn’t overdue, but the patron is adamant that she had intended to return it today – and Anne has one eye on the clock as it ticks past three o’clock. Her children will soon be walking home from school, and Anne is still not yet accustomed to not being there to greet them, ask them about their day, and encourage them to do any homework there and then, to avoid the Sunday afternoon battles which she so hates.


One hour before the opening page of Going Back, Karla is kneeling on the floor of her office, cradling the head of a distraught teenage boy she only met an hour before. He has already used up his allotted time, but she is unable to stem his sobbing, and she is more than a little tempted to snap at him that he has it easy compared to how she was at his age, and that what he really needs to do is snap out of it and grow up.

She does none of these things, however, remembering her training and slowly coaxing him back to coherence, realises that his tears have dampened the front of her shirt, and that his apparent need to be cradled against her chest may have had more than one motivation. Disgusted momentarily with her client and herself, she pushes him upright more roughly than she had intended, and ends their session with a curt promise of another appointment next Friday.


One hour before the opening pages of Going Back, Clare is walking slowly back to her desk with a fresh cup of tea. The rules on hot drinks at the desk were relaxed recently, and Clare misses the gossip of the coffee room. She smiles at a passing undersecretary, and tries in vain to remember his name. Her desk is in an open-plan area of the third floor, much to her disgust, as she has to continually borrow offices to make telephone calls, and she knows that time is running out for her to make one final call to Berlin this afternoon.

Happily, she finds a free office, goes in, and shuts the door behind her. She eases her shoes off, as she always does before calling, and effortlessly summons the long number required from memory. She dials with the phone on loudspeaker, but picks up the handset as soon as she hears a familiar voice on the other end. Pleasantries are exchanged in German, before Clare asks to switch to English, as she is tired and the document they are to discuss is complex.

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