With a surge of revs and a crunching of gears the coach lurched reluctantly into motion and pulled away leaving a filthy cloud of dirty diesel smoke in its wake. The unpleasant clattering of valves and knocking of pistons from the old engine grew quieter as the labouring bus made slow, lumbering progress up the highway and disappeared around a tree lined bend. Soon afterwards silence enveloped the landscape and I was left alone standing there at the side of the road, staring at the ramshackle collection of buildings opposite.
I should have known what to expect. The scene was exactly as it had looked in the photographs I’d been shown just a few weeks ago back in Germany. But standing there with the bags containing my entire worldly goods at my feet and trying to take it all in, the enormity of the decision I’d made hit me hard.
I heard a shrill cry and looking up I saw an eagle float serenely across the sky directly above me, its pure white head and tail catching the sun. Without so much as a single wing beat the majestic bird wheeled in a perfect arc and then accelerated like an arrow from a bow, over the high tree tops to the north and disappeared towards the far away mountain peaks. Watching the huge bird go I found myself wondering if it was some sort of portent. Members of the Skagit tribes and Wenatchi Indians I’d read about that had inhabited these mountains for centuries past might have read something into it. Alas, my own natural instincts that my Celtic ancestors had passed down to me had been dulled by a few centuries of ‘civilised’ living and cynicism, not to mention lashings of duty free malt whisky.
When I lowered my gaze from the sky and looked back across the road, a person had materialised, standing opposite me in front of the buildings. It was a woman, at first glimpse a beautiful one. I couldn’t quite make out her face as long whisps of dark reddish brown hair played across it, wafted by the gentle late afternoon breeze. Dressed in a chunky roll necked white woollen figure-hugging sweater over blue jeans tucked into heavy duty leather boots, she looked completely at home in the surroundings. The woman self consciously brushed away the unruly locks of hair from her face, looked across at me and smiled a gorgeous Irish smile. Recognition hit me like a freight train. Bloody hell, it was Kathleen Woolf!
I’d only briefly met Kathleen on a couple of occasions and couldn’t say that I knew her well, but she wasn’t the sort of woman you forgot easily. She strode across the now deserted highway with confident, lithe paces that gave an impression of fitness and agility. She moved with an almost feline gait until she was standing right in front of me.
“Peter! You made it at last.” She pronounced my name ‘Peederr’ in her broad Belfast dialect. She shook my hand then pulled me closer and kissed my cheek before picking up one of my kit bags and hefting it onto her shoulder effortlessly.
“Come on in, my Peter is around the back chopping some logs for the fire. You must be shattered after that journey. I’ll get the kettle on. I’ve got some stew on the stove, that’ll sort you out.”
She chattered away cheerfully as if she’d known me forever, striding back across the road and talking to me over her shoulder.
“It’s going to get confusing having two Peters here. Can I call you Will?”
I just stood there like an idiot, mouth open, totally gob smacked as the cogs within my jet-lagged brain slowly turned and fought to make sense of the situation.
“Yeah, sure, anything you like.” I replied.
“Well come on then Will!” she said. “Peter will be thrilled to see you.”
I snapped out of my trance, picked up my remaining bags and followed her across the road and around the side of the workshop building. Another pleasant surprise presented itself in the form of a small single story house tucked away behind the garage which hadn’t shown up in the photographs as I recalled. This must have been where old Hank Kirby had resided, and now it was the home of Peter and Kathleen. Pleasantly aromatic wood smoke drifted from a stone chimney protruding from the shingled roof. There was a pile of logs stacked against the back wall, sheltered from the elements by a small wooden lean-to. Peter was there, sleeves rolled up and sweat on his brow. Oblivious to my arrival he was wielding a long handled axe and splitting logs expertly on a tree stump, he looked as though he’d been doing it all his life.
When he spotted me he swung the axe one last time leaving it embedded in the tree stump and came over. I went for the hand shake but he grabbed me by both shoulders, pulled me close and got me in a muscular bear hug, holding me firmly a bit longer than I felt comfortable with to be honest. I’d never been the touchy feely type of guy but I was obviously a welcome sight.
“Peter! Es ist gut dich zu sehen” he bellowed.
“Erm.... call me Will. Yeah. Good to see you too.” I replied.
What I really wanted to know was what the hell was going on. We hadn’t factored in bringing a third person with us. Certainly not a woman who was married to a bloke one brick short of a full hod. A bloke who put the fear of god into everyone that knew him. Peter had certainly kept this one to himself, he’d not given me the slightest inkling about it and I was his closest friend. Now wasn’t the time to ask though and anyway I was totally knackered. We all went into the house.
I stepped into a narrow hallway that opened out into a larger space where winter coats hung from pegs and several pairs of boots were lined up along the wall. Kathleen disappeared through an open door into the kitchen to check on the stew simmering away in a pan the size of a bathtub. The kitchen was fairly basic with just a few stripped pine cupboards and shelves but large enough to accommodate a small matching table with four chairs where I assumed we’d be eating all of our meals. There was a worktop running along one wall that housed a sink and there was an old stove in one corner which looked like it had been liberated from the Ponderosa ranch house in Bonanza. There was a back door leading out of the kitchen and into what looked like a utility room. A deliciously rich aroma wafted back to me in her wake as I followed Kathleen into the kitchen and I realised just how hungry I was.
“Folge mir Will” said Peter and led me back out to the hallway, through another door and into a pleasantly bright living room where natural daylight poured in through a large picture window. This room was furnished with a wooden sideboard and a low coffee table surrounded by an old sofa that had seen better days and a couple of equally well worn, matching armchairs. A brightly coloured Indian style blanket covered the back of the sofa and almost, but not quite matching blankets adorned the armchairs. They were placed close to a generously sized fireplace where burning logs cheerfully crackled and spat boiling sap all over the hearth while above it a magnificent pair of elk antlers were nailed crudely to the wall. On the floor in front of the fireplace was a thick, darkly coloured rug which looked to me like a bear skin. I would have expected nothing less but it was a bit too worn and shabby to be certain. I’m not a vegetarian, perish the thought but I have never understood the attraction of adorning one’s living space with the dismembered body parts of wild creatures. But each to their own and apart from that it was a comfortable looking, homely room which gave off a welcoming aura. Unless of course you happened to be a bear. Or an elk.
The exploration of the house continued through another door off the hall where Peter showed me the main bedroom, just about large enough for the double bed and wardrobe which it contained. Next to it on one side was a shower come bathroom while on the other side there was a small box room stuffed to the rafters with boxes and piles of junk. I assumed most of this stuff was what remained of uncle Hank’s personal possessions and clothing which had yet to be disposed of.
Our tour of the house came to its conclusion when Kathleen yelled to us from the kitchen that our meal was on the table. It was very welcome and most excellent. Richly flavoured thick gravy containing huge chunks of unidentifiable dark meat, vegetables, corn and loads of spuds. I thought it would be rude to ask what the meat was but assumed it was some kind of game which I’d never eaten before. It didn’t really matter what it was, I just tucked in ravenously. It was the most satisfying and hearty meal I’d had for a long time. One thing was for sure, Kathleen certainly knew how to cook. The catering arrangements had been something that had concerned me a lot before I’d arrived. My culinary skills all revolved around a frying pan and anything that came out of a tin. I didn’t suspect that Peter’s were much better. I was well aware that the first few months of our joint endeavour were going to involve some serious hard work and resolve. I’d visualised there not being much to look forward to at the end of each long and physically gruelling day, not until we got the diner properly up and running anyway and perhaps had employed a cook. At least now there was the prospect of being looked after a lot better in that respect and we were going to need someone to take charge of that side of the business once we were ready. Perhaps the lovely Kathleen was a pretty good candidate for the job.
I demolished an enormous bowl full of the delicious stew, accompanied by a slab of crusty fresh bread the size of a door stop spread generously with rich yellow butter. Surprisingly for someone with such a slim figure, Kathleen had served herself an equally large portion and tucked in with as much gusto as Peter and I. Once all of our bowls had been mopped clean with the bread, she ladled another helping into her own bowl and polished that off as well. The stew was followed by an apple pie still hot from the oven and drizzled with creamy custard. Looking at Kathleen sitting at the table shovelling down more food than I could ever manage in one sitting, as slim and beautiful a woman as I had ever laid eyes on, I thought to myself that she must have a metabolism akin to a nuclear power plant.
After dinner I felt completely rejuvenated but needed to stretch my legs. We left our dirty plates on the table and both Kathleen and Peter took me on a tour of the rest of the property, starting with the chalets. I felt a little deflated as soon as we entered the nearest one to the house. Even though the rooms were never meant to be anything very luxurious being just a hostel aimed at offering short term accommodation for passing truck drivers or tourists, I could see a lot of work would be required to bring them back up to scratch. The potential was there though.
Each was open plan and furnished with a small wood burning stove, a little kitchen worktop with a bottled gas burner and a small sectioned off bathroom area with a shower. Peter had been on site for a couple of weeks already and he’d made a start on this first one, the only one without a leaky roof apparently. I could smell fresh paint and damp sawdust. He suggested that I took over and finished it myself so that I could have it as my own accommodation if I wanted. It seemed a good idea. I’d lived in far worse places in the past. It needed quite a bit of work but probably not as much as it would take to clear out that box room back at the house. It was certainly my preferred choice at least until the new season began when we might require all of the chalets to be available for rent. I liked the idea of my personal space and privacy. Thinking about it, I’d never had my own room in my entire life having grown up sharing with at least two of my brothers at a time until I’d left home aged seventeen. From then on it had been one army barrack room after another. This arrangement would certainly be more enjoyable than us all living on top of each other in the little house.
The bed was battered and creaky. I couldn’t help imagining what action it might have seen over the years, but it would do me for now. There were clean towels in the bathroom and some freshly laundered bedding neatly folded and left on the surprisingly comfortable mattress. I looked forward to crashing out on it later on. A comfortable looking easy chair, a pine chest of drawers and a matching pine wardrobe completed the furnishings but the best bit was the last. I pulled up the blind and opened the the small north facing window to reveal the most stunning view imaginable of the forest and mountains beyond. It was everything I could have dreamed of and more. By this time the low sun was dropping behind the tree tops to the west and painting everything with a rich, reddish gold hue. Absolutely magical. There was a chill in the air but I stood and drank in the sight for a minute or two longer. I was pretty sure that the magnificent, unspoiled vista before me was teeming with wildlife and I couldn’t wait to get out there and take a proper look.
Occasionally a lone vehicle cruised by. A huge logging truck, a coach, several cars, the odd motorcycle. We received a friendly acknowledgement from some as they passed but none pulled in. It served as a reminder that we weren’t totally alone out here, even though at times it felt like we were on another planet. As we explored the rest of the place, Peter explained that the nearest town was an old mining community named Macadam about ten miles down the road. I was told that there were a few smallholdings closer to town and off the beaten track but none closer than a couple of miles from us. I remembered that I’d passed the signpost for Macadam on my way in. Peter told me that it was quite well serviced with stores and every other facility we might need. There was a timber yard and sawmill on the outskirts where lumber was cheap and they could order in more or less anything we required if they didn’t have it in stock. He had already taken delivery of a whole load of stuff including insulation panels and roofing shingles. The chest freezer in the utility room was full and there we had a larder stuffed with groceries and booze. We were good to go.
Parked in the workshop was an old Ford pick-up truck, complete with a towing hook at the rear and a winch on the front. Its two tone paint job, cream over dark brown was peppered with rust patches, dents and scratches. The keys were still in the ignition so on a whim I climbed aboard and thumbed the starter. The engine turned over, coughed twice and then rumbled into life. At least it appeared to be in some semblance of running order and would certainly be put to good use. Along with the truck, scattered around the workshop was an impressive range of tools, welding gear, a compressor and various old bits of machinery. Some gauges mounted in a box on the wall showed that the underground fuel reservoirs which supplied the petrol and diesel pumps out front were still half full. As old Hank had dropped dead quite suddenly, the business had pretty much been shut down immediately and had been left frozen in time. It was like walking through the Marie Celeste, with tools and equipment left just where they had last been used apart from those that Peter had employed.
The whole place was run on batteries and generators which were housed in a dilapidated wooden lean-to building on the side of the workshop, next to a small laundry and utility shed which brought us back to the kitchen. The charging system was supplemented by a wind powered turbine on a pylon just off the road side. We appeared to be fairly self sufficient.
That evening, sat around the fire with a bottle of good schnapps that Peter had brought over from Germany and which gave me a bit of a second wind, we discussed a schedule of work to get things going. We brain stormed ideas for the business, prioritised jobs and allocated tasks. It was agreed that we would continue selling fuel for as long as the road remained open, but not concern ourselves with very much else until the following spring. Instead we would concentrate on getting the place sorted out and ready for when the weather warmed up again. There was enough money in the pot to see us through. I was to start work on the chalets and Peter would begin on the diner. Kathleen would serve the fuel as required and slot in wherever she was needed. Her input and advice would be invaluable regarding the diner and reorganising the kitchen which was to be totally renovated and eventually become her responsibility. The little store which up until that point had just stocked a few generic spare parts for vehicles and not much more, was going to be re-fitted out. We had plans to stock it up with outdoors gear and equipment, fishing tackle, the lot. All aimed at the influx of tourists we were hoping to attract to our little slice of commerce when we reopened for business properly the following spring.
It was well after dark when Kathleen decided to turn in. I thanked her for the meal and she left us to wash up the dishes and catch up with each other’s news. Once we were done in the kitchen Peter chucked a couple more logs on the fire and we both settled down in the easy chairs, setting about one of my bottles of whisky. It was Glenfiddich I’d brought with me which I knew translated from Scottish Gaelic to ‘Valley of the Deer’. The bottle was emblazoned with a stylised stag’s head which seemed appropriate given my surroundings. It was at that point, well out of the earshot of Kathleen, that I tackled him about the situation with her. I still couldn’t believe what had happened and couldn’t help wondering how Loopy was dealing with the fact that his wife had buggered off half way around the world, especially with a German civilian that he was acquainted with and who it seemed had been deceiving him for months.
“What the hell were you thinking! You know Loopy, he’s a bloody nut case. He’d kick the shit out of you just for looking at her the wrong way. Christ knows what he would have done to you if he’d found out you were shagging his missus behind his back.”
My opening salvo didn’t seem to phase Peter.
“Don’t worry Will,” he’d already followed Kathleen’s lead and got into the habit of calling me by my old nickname.
“He never knew anything. I told Kathleen to er... geschlossen zu halten ihren mund. She kept shut her mouth. Never told anyone anything. I told her, not even a farewell note to leave. Nothing. Loopy, he knows nothing. She is just gone. Disappeared. He will have no clue.”
He appeared confident, even a bit smug. I wondered if the aura of menace that Loopy exuded to the rest of us back in Bielefeld had been lost in translation somewhere along the line. I know I would never have risked interfering with anything he cared about, especially his marital affairs. I valued my health too much. It was bad enough knowing that Loopy would be raging. As far as I could see, the fact that his wife had disappeared into thin air was more likely to make things even worse.
“But don’t you think, if she’s just disappeared without any explanation, that she might be registered as a missing person? The police will be searching for her as well as Loopy.”
“No, things were not good for them. The neighbours would know. All will be thinking she has returned to her family in Ireland. We travelled by car to France and flew away from there so no one will know where she went.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. They would have passed through customs at the border and there would be records everywhere if she’d used her own passport, even if it was in her maiden name.
“You could have told me though mate. I think I had a right to know.” I replied, keeping a hard edge to my voice, getting a bit worked up. I didn’t want Peter to think he could just blunder along without including me in the details. We were business partners now after all.
“Die letzte minute. It was a last minute thing. You were already gone to England. She threatened. She was mad. She would not allow me to leave without her. I didn’t know what to do. She is a crazy woman you know.” he replied, shrugging his shoulders and flapping his arms around to accentuate how limited his options had been.
“Not as crazy as her bloody husband! It’s all the more reason why you should have steered clear of her Peter. I can see the attraction but Jesus! Just because she shouted a bit, you dragged her half way around the world to start a new life with you? You’re as mad as she is!”
“So what I should do. Send her back?” Peter shouted.
I’d never known him to lose his temper, but with the assistance of the best part of a bottle of schnapps and some of my whisky coursing through his veins he was getting a little annoyed now, feeling the need to defend his decision. There was a danger we were going to fall out over this and I didn’t want that to happen.
“I don’t want to. I like her. We need her too, she will be good here.” he continued.
I exhaled loudly, resigned to the situation and slumped back in my chair.
“No, it’s too late anyway now Peter,” I said. “If she went back Loopy would probably kill her and then come after you. Believe me I know him.”
That was it, end of story, we both went quiet. I hadn’t expected anything to change, I’d just needed to get things off my chest. In actual fact I couldn’t help but agree with Peter. It was obvious what an asset having Kathleen here was going to be. We had a monumental amount of work to do and an extra pair of hands was a no brainer. Besides, I already liked her a lot. I was even finding myself to be a little jealous of Peter and already beginning to miss my Chloë whom I’d walked away from back in Germany. I was still wondering whether I should have tried a bit harder with her as I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone else any time soon, not all the way out here in the wilderness that was for sure. That old expression is true, you never fully appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone.
We spent the rest of the evening catching up on news. I gave Peter a detailed account of my dealings with Loxley before my time in Bielefeld and how I’d recently doled out a healthy slice of retribution. This brought about a prolonged session of banter and soon our disagreement was forgotten. We were back on an even keel again.