"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

In memory of Caroline Henderson Short story from Belgium.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

In the autumn of 2004 I found myself suddenly relocating to Belgium, at the expense of an attractive job offer in Italy. It was one of those major forks in the road, the kind of big decision that could transform a life. Which, for better or for worse, is exactly what it did.  


“Get out Henderson!” I snapped, with my usual grimace, “you truly sicken me!” Typing up another delivery request on Paktel’s clunky old computer system, I poked my head out from behind the screen to peek at her in the gap between our computers. As expected she was grinning right back at me, shaking her head and rising above it all in the admirable way Henderson always did.  

“Henderson, you’re fired!” I’d announce, at least two to three times a day. Sometimes while she was on the phone trying to deal with a customer. This would invariably result in the corners of her mouth creasing up as she struggled against the urge to laugh out loud. Then, having finally hung up and removed her headphones, she’d let it all out. “Mr. Jobsworth!” … came her protest in that melodious Scottish accent. “I’ve done nothing wrong! Why do you continue to persecute me?”

“I despise you Henderson!” was another favourite, my eyes raised to the ceiling, a cup of coffee clutched in my hands. “I despise you in ways Claude Monet would be unable to express with his favourite paintbrush”.

“Ooh Mr. Jobsworth!” she’d cry, wringing her hands. 

“Your disdain is palpable”.

Caroline Henderson RIP.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

It’s amazing the lengths Caroline and I would go to in order to relieve the mind-numbing dullness of our Paktel jobs. Not that it was always boring. Sometimes the pendulum swung between tedious and unspeakably stressful. Depending, you see, on the vitriol of each day’s customer complaints.

In any case Mr. Jobsworth and Henderson were characters we’d invented to keep ourselves entertained. To “av a larf” as Nikki would have put it. I have no idea how it all got started, but our alter egos were born from a mix of comedy influences.

Captain Edmund Blackadder.

Captain Edmund Blackadder.

Mr. Jobsworth, the so-called Chief Warlord of Paktel Electronics, was a pernickety dwarf of a man both feared and loathed by his underpaid workforce. Part Gordon Brittas, part David Brent, there were also liberal sprinklings of Edmund Blackadder and Mr. Burns.

I had enormous fun inhabiting him, from his ratty indignant expression to the high-pitched squeal of a voice. Henderson meanwhile was a long-suffering call operative who Caroline played as a working class, salt-of-the-earth type. With more than a touch of Barbara Windsor to her theatrics.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

Young Barbara windsor black and white photo

Barbara Windsor: “Mr. Jobsworth!!!”

“Henderson. You. Are. Sacked” came my vicious outburst one day, as we waded through the morning emails. “Really?” she replied merrily, “that’s the fourth time this week”.

Putting all tomfoolery to one side, Caroline had been incredibly kind since my arrival at Paktel. In fact, nobody had done more to help me settle in. She showed me the ropes and gave me tips on dealing with irate customers. She was also more than happy to pitch in with my workload when she found herself with a quiet moment.

Short story from Belgium

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

When Lucie and I split up and I moved out of our comfy apartment into a small student room, it was Caro who could see I was feeling down. Furthermore, she was the only one who offered me a genuine and sympathetic ear.

As a Paktel veteran, Caro qualified for the supermarket vouchers that came with each month’s pay check. Knowing I was short of cash, she thought nothing of it to slip me one of her shiny 10 Euro notes. Or say treat me to lunch down in the office canteen. Genuinely kind-hearted and generous, she expected nothing in return and would have done it for anyone in the same boat.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

On those rare but glorious days when the phone lines were quiet, Caro and I would put the world to rights with discussions about music, film, literature, current affairs, travel and all things Belgium.

Her natural curiosity, open-mindedness and love for life was inspiring and our conversations never failed to make me smile. I loaned her my Mansun CDs and after a few days she came back to me with her detailed thoughts. In turn, she got me into the author Margaret Atwood, gifting me her treasured copies of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Though I knew Caro lived in Brussels with her partner Roland and their two beloved dogs Jinty and Morag, she wasn’t exactly an open book and it took time for me to get to know the woman behind the cheery exterior. Eventually, I learned that she had a sister who was a published novelist. Moreover, I met her affable brother John one evening for dinner when he and his family came over from Scotland for a visit.

I was more than a little surprised to discover Caroline had once been married. This came out of nowhere one day during a chat about relationships. While details remained thin on the ground, she did reveal that he was “a gentle Welshman” and that things “just didn’t work out”. “Where is he now?” I asked. “I have no idea” she responded, with one of her motherly smiles. And that was that, we never spoke of it again.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

The Big C.

The biggest revelation though, and one that literally left me speechless, came from the tail end of a conversation I overhead between two colleagues, Ian and Nikki. “A wig?!” I blurted out, a few heads craning inquisitively in our direction.

“Why does Caro wear a wig?” I continued, lowering my voice.

I’d never seen Nikki look so sheepish and for once there was no snappy comeback. “Oh sorry, I just presumed she’d told you”. Retiring to the kitchen, I stood and listened as Nikki talked, unable to fully process what I was hearing. Never once had it crossed my mind that Caro’s full head of wavy blond hair was not her own. I’d have also had trouble believing she’d been in any kind of ill health, let alone a two-time cancer survivor. 

Heading back to Leuven that night, I tried to imagine what my friend had gone through. And couldn’t help but admire her strength and courage. Not only to beat her illnesses, but that she’d remained such a kind, positive, life-affirming person that always thought of others ahead of herself. I also found myself wondering whether I should tell her that I knew. What would I say? Would it be of any use? After a restless night I decided that I wouldn’t bring it up. That if she wanted to tell me she would in her own time.

A Single Man a short story from Belgium

With Caro (bottom left) Nikki and Ian at Paktel.

“Good moooooorning!” Caro sang, breezing into the office, her matronly frame wrapped up in a thick winter’s coat, wooly hat and rainbow scarf. “I despise you Henderson” I replied, heading for the kitchen to make us some hot chocolate. 

“I despise you in ways the death metal band Slayer would be unable to express through their signature brand of hateful music”.

“Oooh Mr. Jobsworth, that’s a particularly cutting jibe today!” Settling down with our drinks, Caro leaned in, still a bit breathless from the morning commute. “Ere Leighton, did you see The Antiques Roadshow last night?”

Caroline Henderson Belgium.

Caro with an ever present cuppa.

Caro and I spent a great deal of time obsessing over British TV shows. Not just any old programmes I should add, but the amusingly twee shows aimed at old people. The Antiques Roadshow was one such program, a long running format in which 78 year old Doris from Bognor Regis might bring in her old collection of teapots, hoping they were worth a few quid. “Oooh lov-lee!” she’d exclaim, upon receiving a favorable valuation.

The Antiques Roadshow.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

Similarly, we had long discussions about the UK soap opera Emmerdale Farm and our favourite characters Seth and Amos. They were two grumpy old dinosaurs who’d been in the program for as long as we could remember. Nothing much ever happened to them and indeed they seemed to sail through each episode via a series of incomprehensible exclamations and manly grunts. A pint of warm northern beers resting between their wrinkled fingers.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

Seth and Amos Emmerdale Farm.

Amos (left) and Seth (right) in Emmerdale Farm.

One particularly tedious day at work Caroline and I came up with the idea of a TV sitcom about a local radio program for senior citizens. Simply called The Show, we imagined it presented by two crusty C-list celebrities who offered knitting advice. There’d also be a slot where listeners could call in to complain about their illnesses.

Bitter couples that hated each other could get free counselling live on air. And there would be a wistful section called Memories From the War. After much discussion, we agreed on a studio audience format, a bunch of half-comatose old dears wheeled in each week from the local nursing home. There would be chaos one episode when one of these regulars, Ethel, quietly died in the middle of a communal singalong.

Henderson a short story from Belgium

A promo postcard of ‘The Show’ by Caroline Henderson.

We imagined The Show as a black comedy shot in the style of The Office. The whole thing was in such bad taste there wasn’t a broadcaster in the world that would have touched it. Not that this stopped us! Having scripted a six episode series, Caro and I drafted in a Belgian guy called Martin as producer. Martin was a kooky introvert who worked at Paktel, his bright orange hair, scholarly spectacles and geography teacher beard never failing to make me smile.

He also had an insatiable appetite for weed, which saw him permanently stoned. No matter what I said or asked, he always replied “nooo proooblem” with a hazy nod. When Martin suggested we use his Antwerp apartment as a recording studio, I knew The Show was on its way. 

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

Henderson a short story from Belgium

Martin trying to remember what day of the week it is.

We also recruited Kristof, an eccentric, lovable chap known in Paktel circles as Projector Man! (He ran Paktel’s one-man projector department). Kristof played the minor but pivotal role of Kristof, The Show’s general dogsbody. It was Kristof who made tea for everyone, who manned the phone lines, cleaned the toilets and wiped Mavis’ chin when she was dribbling.

Caroline and I had a great time recording The Show. Every Sunday we’d drive over to Martin’s place from Brussels in her car. I’d make a mixtape of tunes for the ride, while Caro would whip up a home-cooked batch of deliciousness.

One day it was a box of peanut cookies, another time a dark, cream-filled chocolate cake. On one infamous occasion we arrived in Antwerp only to find the notoriously unreliable Martin had forgotten we were recording and gone to visit friends in Bruges. “Oh well!” chirped an unflustered Caro, as I sat there seething.

“Ere Leighton” she whispered conspiratorially, “Let’s get to work on this Vanilla fudge”.

Caroline Henderson Scotland RIP.

Recording ‘The Show’ in Antwerp.

I was approaching the 16 month mark at Paktel when life at the company started going from bad to worse. The once jovial us against them bond between us all had begun to rot. People came and went and a new department manager called Franco arrived to kick off a new era of unprecedented arrogance and incompetence. There had always been a culture of gossip and backstabbing, but the more disillusioned everyone became the more tension and conflict there was pulsating through the office.

Drama at the office.

It was all really stupid stuff. He said, she said paranoia that quickly spiralled out of control. If I’d been a bit more mature and experienced I’d have handled it better. But I didn’t. I let people get to me, allowed my motivation and work ethic to be eroded by game-playing individuals with toxic agendas. Like relentless woodpeckers they kept chipping away until I was at the end of my rope. 

Most disappointing of all was when I clashed with Caroline. To this day I simply cannot remember the details of our fallout. All I do know is that it was nothing important, a veritable storm in a teacup. Hence I decided to take some time off work and a few months later I left the company altogether. While Caro and I did eventually make our peace, the relationship never fully recovered and we stopped hanging out.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

Losing touch with friends.

Over the next few years Caro and I would occasionally check in with each other by email or on Facebook. But sadly communication petered out when I left Belgium for China in the summer of 2009. In fact, we didn’t get back in touch until the following summer when I moved to Amsterdam.

“How are things at Paktel?” I asked. “Oh, it’s still crappy. But you know, pays the bills” she typed with a smiley face. “Have you spoken to Mr. Jobsworth recently?” she inquired with an emoticon wink. “Yeah, he’s the same old miserable git he always was” I replied.

“Does he despise me in ways Freddie Krueger would be unable to express via his razor-sharp fingers?” “That is EXACTLY what he said when I last talked to him” I wrote, laughing out loud.

In memory of Caroline Henderson Short story from Belgium.

Some months later I got a surprise message from Kristof, who told me Caroline’s cancer had come back and that she’d gone on extended sick leave. I immediately tried getting in touch, both on Facebook and through email. But I received no reply. It took repeated messages before she finally got back to me. And when she did, in typical Caro fashion, she was keen to place the focus firmly on me.

What’s it like in Amsterdam?” “Your China photographs are great!” “Have you finished writing your short stories?” When I gently pressed Caro on her own situation, she remained characteristically positive and stoic. But as she talked about chemo and abdo scans and explained what metastases were, I knew that things were not looking good. Over the next weeks I tried to arrange a time to go and see her in Brussels, but all I got back was radio silence.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

Henderson a short story from Belgium

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

I’d just recorded the movie news at work one morning when I returned to my desk to check email. There was a message from Ian, an old Paktel colleague. As I sat there reading it, I felt my heart drop through my stomach and splatter all over the floor. In the few months since we’d last spoken, Caro’s doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do and a few days later she moved to a hospice to see out her final days.

Feeling physically sick, I almost broke down right there on the production floor in front of all my colleagues. Thankfully, I managed to make my way up to the office rooftop, where I stood awhile gazing out over Amsterdam, thinking about the old Paktel days. I relived some of our ridiculous conversations and thought of our recording sessions in Antwerp. Of the many nights out, dinners, birthdays, Christmases and a memorable New Year’s Day party at her place in Brussels.

Henderson a short story from Belgium

Caroline Henderson.

I felt deeply for Roland, a man I’d only met a few times, but who’d always come across as a perfect gentleman who’d clearly been crazy about Caro. What’s more, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of regret and shame over how we’d fallen out. It had been so silly, so unnecessary and our friendship had never been the same.

Henderson, a short story from Belgium.

I miss my friend.

I’m not a religious man and I suspect I never will be. Nor have I ever held much belief in any kind of afterlife. But if by some small miracle there is something out there and Caro is able to read this, then there are a few things I’d like her to know. Mainly that she was a fantastic friend who did so much to help me settle in Belgium. I’d also tell her that I haven’t laughed so much or so consistently since those Paktel days. And that I deeply regret not seeing her again after I left.

Finally, I’d explain how I bumped into Mr. Jobsworth the other day and that we’d had a long chat. Touchingly, he told me that he’d never really despised Henderson, that it was all a big joke. He also gave me his solemn word that she’d never be fired again… that she had a job for life.

‘Henderson’ is the fourth chapter of my short story collection Based In Belgium.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

Leighton Travels logo travel reports and short stories.


  • Tippi

    a beautiful tribute

    January 31, 2016 - 2:35 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading, she was a special lady.

      April 3, 2022 - 5:30 pm Reply
  • natty4t

    Reblogged this on natty4t's Blog.

    January 31, 2016 - 7:57 pm Reply
  • Virginia

    What a lovely tribute! You never forget the true friends in life who made an impact in your life.

    April 5, 2019 - 12:27 am Reply
    • leightonliterature

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I hope in some way this has helped you to process what you’re going through. As cliched as it sounds, time really is a healer.

      April 5, 2019 - 12:40 am Reply
  • Team Leisure

    I reckon Caro would have laughed and cried at your tribute. Maybe she has……Nice one 👍

    April 3, 2020 - 10:52 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      17 years later and I still have great memories of our time working together and hanging out.

      April 3, 2022 - 5:32 pm Reply
  • Sheree

    A fitting homage.

    April 3, 2022 - 12:37 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Sheree.

      April 3, 2022 - 12:37 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    It is not the job that makes the people, it is the people that make the job. That is the one thing retirement taught me to miss the most. The people I shared laughs, tears, work hardship, moments with. Everyone has a story at work. Some tell their story every day and others never tell it. Thanks for your beautiful tribute to Caroline. Stay well. Allan

    April 3, 2022 - 2:24 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks a lot for reading this one and for appreciating it, as you obviously do. It was a tough story too tell in many ways, but it feels good to have it “out there”. I can well imagine your feelings about retirement, it makes perfect sense.

      April 3, 2022 - 2:27 pm Reply
  • NattyTravels

    Such a lovely tribute to your friend. Thanks for sharing this lovely touching story

    April 3, 2022 - 2:49 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Natty for taking the time to read about Caroline. She was an incredible woman.

      April 3, 2022 - 2:51 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    Oh … I’m feeling a bit emotional after reading your lovely tribute to Caroline 🌼.
    Some friends come at a time when we really need them (and then, it just so happens that they disappear again) … and maybe that is just how it was with you and Caroline. You needed that friend at Paktel (otherwise I think you would have been long gone – or crazy). And it doesn’t matter how it ended, it’s the wonderful memories you have of her.
    Thanks for a lovely and honest post about a dear friend.

    April 3, 2022 - 3:18 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Corna, for reading, and for your lovely message. It still saddens me to think of all the pain she went through and what a long hard battle she fought. But I take a slither of solace from the fact that she is now at peace. And that there are many others like me who will always remember her.

      April 3, 2022 - 5:35 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    This is a beautiful tribute to your friend Caro. Sorry for your loss. Maggie

    April 3, 2022 - 3:19 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Maggie, I appreciate that. She is more than worthy of such a tribute and then some. Hope you’ve had a good weekend and that all is well with you and your loved ones.

      April 3, 2022 - 5:37 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    I’ll say that mind-numbing job didn’t damage your creativity. You and Caroline had quite a routine going. It was good for both of you, I think, that you renewed your relationship even though it was a changed one. Caroline’s legacy lives. There are many lessons in this sad story.

    April 3, 2022 - 3:52 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading John and for your thoughtful response. It was an innocent time in many respects and we certainly did the most with our tedious professional environment. And yes, I’m glad that we patched things up in the end and managed to stay in touch during her last years.

      April 3, 2022 - 5:41 pm Reply
  • Nic

    This is a lovely post, Leighton. Thank you for sharing this story!

    April 3, 2022 - 5:53 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      So nice yo hear from you Nic. I’m glad you enjoyed it, thanks for taking the time to read about my friend Caroline.

      April 3, 2022 - 6:03 pm Reply
      • Memo

        I was wishing you had kept copies of The Show when you stopped me and ripped my heart out. Like you I am not religious so you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that she knows how you feel.

        April 11, 2022 - 3:09 am
      • Leighton

        Ha, so this is something I left out of the story. Good old Maarten, Mr. Unreliable, recorded over everything we did before I managed to get my own copy. I was furious at the time.

        April 11, 2022 - 9:26 am
  • rkrontheroad

    A touching tribute to a dear friend. I’m glad you did have some connection later on. Relationships change but the affection was obviously still there. Best you got out of that job though and got back to teaching, what you do best and love doing.

    April 3, 2022 - 6:01 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    What a beautiful tribute to sweet Caroline! There are some people we meet that instantly have an impact on us, and I loved reading about your time with Caro.

    April 3, 2022 - 8:12 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Lyssy, I’m glad you got to “meet” Caroline. She was one of a kind.

      April 3, 2022 - 8:33 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Such a sad ending to your story but what a wonderful tribute to your dear colleague and friend sweet Caroline. All these characters we meet through our lives help to shape who we become ourselves.

    April 3, 2022 - 8:48 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Marion, it means a lot. Funnily enough, we used to jokingly sing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in between calls.

      April 3, 2022 - 8:52 pm Reply
      • Little Miss Traveller

        It’s an uplifting melody and seems to have found renewed fame in recent years at rugby stadiums!

        April 3, 2022 - 8:57 pm
      • Leighton

        Right! And it became England fans’ stadium song of choice at the Euros (football) last summer. Talk about an unlikely transition and after so many years.

        April 3, 2022 - 9:04 pm
  • Mikkel

    Been reading some of your travel stories and now this life story. you are a amazing writer with a way to bring people and places to life. Not like other travel blog for sure. sorry for my bad English, its not my mother tongue.

    April 3, 2022 - 9:01 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hi Mikkel, thanks for your encouragement. So glad you found my site and hope you enjoy more of my articles. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      April 3, 2022 - 9:05 pm Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    My favourite thing about my job is the people I work with. They become a second family in some ways. Sounds like you had a wonderful connection with Caroline, even if you did have a bit of a falling out. This was a lovely post in her memory and it’s clear that she’s had an impact on your life. Thanks for sharing. Linda

    April 4, 2022 - 12:28 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Linda and happy to hear that you work with a good bunch of people. That makes a huge difference.

      April 4, 2022 - 12:32 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    You took me on a wild ride of emotions here, Leighton, although I had an inkling that the bittersweet ending was coming. While I personally find there’s a fine line between coworkers and friendship, there’s always the possibility of both crossing and mixing together, to the point you establish meaningful relationships with them. From the past couple of jobs I’ve had (and even with my current one), I’ve made some lovely friends whom I make an effort to meet up with to this day. My heart goes out to Caro, and I can say that she appreciated you in her life, and her in yours. Another poignant post from you, thank you.

    April 4, 2022 - 1:56 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Rebecca for reading, as always, and for your considered thoughts. You’re right that the work colleague generally holds a strange place in our lives. After all, we didn’t choose to hang out with these people, it’s just the way the chips fell. I think that makes Caro all the more special, she was one in a million.

      April 4, 2022 - 9:34 am Reply
  • Lookoom

    As always it is well written with those moments of drama and emotion that make life worth living.

    April 4, 2022 - 2:15 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks, I appreciate that. I do wonder what Caroline would think about this story and all these responses. I’m guessing she’d be a little embarrassed by all the attention.

      April 4, 2022 - 9:30 am Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    A beautiful tribute to such a beautiful soul. Though not particularly religious myself, I do believe that those that pass on are still around us and offer us a gentle nudge here and there to let us know they are there. I would suspect that your dear friend heard what you said and anytime you laugh at those good old days that she is right there with you.

    April 4, 2022 - 3:24 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Meg, that’s a sentiment I’d happily jump on board with in this instance. Thanks for taking the time to read about Caroline, it means a lot.

      April 4, 2022 - 3:44 pm Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    Lovely tribute to a strong, positive and courageous woman. I’m sure Caroline would be deeply touched.

    April 4, 2022 - 4:09 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading and for your lovely words, much appreciated.

      April 4, 2022 - 9:13 pm Reply

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