Life Is A Journey

Allison Hay © Illustration of woman in looking out over balcony from uplifting short story.


Ali didn’t know how to cope without her routine. That was until she decided to embrace opportunities…

Although she hated the idea of being defined by her career, Ali had to admit that since retiring from her job as a primary school headteacher, she wasn’t quite sure of who she was any more.

She had become accustomed (institutionalised?) to the school routine, with its fixed terms, academic holidays and seasonal calendar, and without them, things felt slightly… odd.

No more early morning alarms, staff meetings or budgetary discussions; no more stern faces for misbehaving pupils or warm smiles for those who had done well in a test; no more having somewhere to be or something to do for every hour of the working day.

Ali had been retired for over a month now, since her fifty-eighth birthday in April, and was still coming to terms with the idea that every day was her own, to do with as she pleased. Her life had changed so much. Where once she’d had a packed diary, with countless tasks every day, she now had an empty journal.

In all honesty, Ali wasn’t quite sure how to fill it.

The only two things she had put in her daily schedule so far were a half-hour language lesson via an app on her phone (trying to learn Italian after vowing to do so for years!) and a regular fifteen-minute exercise session, lifting light weights to strengthen her posture.

So… not exactly a hectic routine.

Yet what Ali had discovered was that, despite being happy to be retired after serving thirty-five years on the frontline of education, being a headteacher was something that was proving quite difficult to let go of.

She still expected to hear a bell ring to signify morning break or lunchtime – and she still woke early every morning, accustomed to being in school by eight am at the latest.

Hence the reason Ali was today, once again, fed, showered and dressed before most retired people were even out of bed. And getting ready so early merely made each day feel even longer.

Most days, she would text her mum or pop by her house to see if she needed anything – Ali suspected this was more for her own benefit than her mum, who was a fit and healthy eighty-year-old and had announced the previous day that she was heading south to visit her sister for a few days.

“You should think about getting away somewhere, too, love,” her mum had commented as they’d had a cup of tea together. “You can’t mope about here all day, just because you’ve lost your job.”

Ali sighed. “Mum, for the tenth time, I didn’t lose my job – I took retirement! And I’m not moping – I’m just going through a period of readjustment.”

Her mum narrowed her eyes with a mischievous smile.

“Yes, I know, love – but how long do you think this period will last? I’ve got too much going on in my life to hang around all day with you.”

Ouch! Ali knew her mum was just winding her up – they always reverted to this teasing behaviour with each other, no matter how mature and organised they both were with other people. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t an element of truth in what was being said.

So without her mum, and since it was a beautiful morning, Ali decided to go for a walk. She had to get used to not living by fixed timetables – today would be a day of impulse decisions!

And as it was, she had only been walking for fifteen minutes or so when she passed a small, stylish hair salon on the corner of a street just outside the town centre. A teenage girl was standing in the doorway, looking right and left with an anxious expression.

Don’t suppose you fancy having your hair done for free, do you?

The girl asked Ali as she walked by.

“It’s my training day and my model hasn’t turned up.”

Normally, Ali would politely decline an offer like this and keep walking. However the poor girl looked so worried that she decided to help.

“As it happens, I’m free today,” she said with a smile. “What exactly would you like to do with my hair?”

The young girl’s face was transformed by a broad grin.

“You’re in luck! It’s highlights day.”

Three hours later (yes, three hours, the poor girl was still learning her trade!) Ali walked out of the salon with her hair two inches shorter and a whole lot blonder. She was like a new woman and she loved it!

She realised that her three hours in the stylist’s chair was probably the longest period she’d sat still in ages and felt quite relaxed. But hungry! Breakfast had been quite a while ago.

Ali decided (on impulse) to go for an early lunch at a small cafe that was squeezed in between two larger stores on the High Street. She’d never noticed it before, which was surprising, as its exterior was painted bright yellow.

“What can I get you?” the friendly young man behind the counter asked when she walked in, and Ali realised she didn’t have a clue. She noticed a Specials board on the wall, so simply smiled and said she’d have the lunch special.

This turned out to be a home-made stone-baked pizza, with fresh tomatoes, peppers and chilli oil. It was something Ali wouldn’t normally have picked but which turned out to be delicious, and
she wolfed it down.

She’d forgotten how much she enjoyed fresh pizza – frozen ones in supermarkets were nothing like this.

She complimented the young man behind the counter.

“Yeah, you can’t beat a real pizza, freshly-made – it really hits the spot, doesn’t it?” he said with a smile. “They’re not that hard to make from scratch, you know,” he added. “I know frozen ones are really convenient but they can’t match home-made for taste.”

Ali was just about to say that she rarely had the time to make food from scratch, but she remembered this was no longer true. Perhaps it was time to start being more inventive in the kitchen!

She thanked the young man and then headed back out on to the street, amazed at how she was managing to fill the hours.

Next, she wandered absent-mindedly into a charity shop and somehow came out with a bag full of stuff, including two paperbacks she’d been meaning to read for ages, a white linen dress, a cute pair of silver sandals and a turquoise chunky beaded necklace.

She loved the colours on display and decided to begin dressing more adventurously on a daily basis.

Thinking back over her career, Ali suddenly realised she’d been dressing in ever more neutral shades as the years went by – greys, whites, creams – and worked out that it was because as her job became more stressful, she’d been trying to fade into the background a bit more.

Her days at school had been punctuated by constant requests – “Miss Webster, can you sign this?”, “Miss Webster, can you authorise this?”, “Miss Webster, can you deal with this?” – so that it began to feel as if she never got a second to herself. By the end, some days she’d wished she was invisible.

As she recalled how full and downright exhausting her working life had been, Ali smiled, finally beginning to appreciate retirement and all it would mean.

She continued walking along the street, checking her phone at the same time – not a single message for her! – and almost bumped into a woman pinning an advert to a display board outside a travel agent’s. Ali stopped to read the poster, written in large red letters.

Four-day city break in Naples! B&B at luxury boutique hotel! Price includes flights, transfers and accommodation – only £250! Don’t miss it!

“That’s a really good price” Ali beamed to the woman posting the notice. “So what’s the catch?”

The travel agent stood up, smiling.

“There’s always a catch, isn’t there?”

As it happens, this is quite a big one, hence the cheap price… The flight leaves tomorrow!

The travel agent laughed.

“Oh, I see,” Ali replied. “Still, it seems like a real bargain…”

The woman looked at Ali and grinned.

“Yeah, it definitely is – but let’s face it, who’s in the position to drop everything and head off to Italy with a day’s notice? Most people have kids to look after, jobs to go to, pets to feed, elderly parents to care for, appointments to attend…”

And as she reeled off an ever-growing lists of reasons why the average person would be unable to take advantage of this amazing bargain, Ali realised she was mentally ticking them off in her head: no kids to look after, Mum away for the week, no pets, no job, no appointments.

“I’ve never been to Naples,” she mused. “Is it nice?”

The woman’s face broke into a huge smile. “Honestly? It’s amazing! I’ve been three times and it’s like a different side of Italy – the history, the buildings, the seafront…” She sighed, no doubt lost in her memories of holidays gone by.

“Plus the food, of course,” she added. “Do you know Naples is supposedly the birthplace of pizza? You haven’t tasted real pizza till you’ve sampled an authentic Naples version!”

Ali remembered her newly-discovered love of pizza. She thought about her brand new hairdo, the lovely summery outfit she’d just bought, the pretty necklace and the books now in her bag, which would be perfect holiday reads…

“I’ll take it!” she suddenly announced, realising it was the most outrageous and impulsive thing she’d ever done.

The travel agent laughed, unsure whether this was a serious suggestion.

“Really? Are you sure?” she asked. “I’m not trying to talk you out of it but it is very short notice…”

Ali nodded, excited by this new impulsive version of herself.

“Yes! I am. A few days in Naples sounds wonderful.”

Delighted with her quick sale, the woman held the shop door open and pointed Ali in the direction of her desk where they sat together to fill in the details onscreen.

As she’d been to Naples before, she was able to give Ali recommendations for restaurants, day trips and shopping areas. The more Ali heard, the more she wondered why she’d never travelled to this part of Italy before.

That evening, she packed her small suitcase on wheels – compact enough to be taken on as hand luggage, to save time and hassle at the airport check-in – then had a lovely relaxing bath, where she carefully shaved and exfoliated her legs, looking forward to feeling the sun on her skin again.

The next morning, Ali woke up early as usual, before her alarm went off, and lay still for a couple of minutes, excitedly thinking about her day and all that it would bring. She pictured herself sitting at a pavement café in the sunshine, drinking a glass of chilled white wine, and watching the world go by.

She mentally discarded the packed workplace diary she’d once lived by and replaced it with her new journal, with nothing but blank pages.

She couldn’t wait to fill it…

More uplifting short stories:

Read The Sunflower Sisters, Isla’s Capri, and The Midnight Bakery, plus many more in our archives.

Georgia Grieve