A bitter and ruthless wind engulfed and rocked my Land Rover on the bypass leading to the Farmer’s Arms. The bypass ran like a river through a valley, with tall grassy embankments on either side, making it like a wind tunnel. The pub was perched on the outside of town and surrounded by farmers’ fields on all sides.
I parked close to the door and hurried inside the old country-style pub, shielded in my black overcoat, and I wore my navy blue woolen beanie to cover my shaven head. For some reason I wasn’t ready for Rachel to see my crew cut, and plus the hat did a really good job of keeping my head warm.
The inside of the pub resembled two or three barns that had been melded together, and was a mix of thick wooden pillars, red brick walls, and Victorian farming tools that were hung up on display. The floor was cobbled and slightly uneven, but one was always welcomed and the locals were mostly friendly.
Jennifer, the short dark haired bartender wearing a red Christmas jumper, greeted me at the bar. “Evening, Matthew. Guinness?”
I nodded. “Yeah, please.”
A sparkly banner with red lettering on a golden background read ‘Merry Christmas’ above the spirit bottles. “Ready for Christmas?” I asked, as she topped off my pint. “Yeah, I am,” she replied. “But it always takes so long to get here, and then is over so quickly.”
I counted out my change. “Ain’t that the truth.” I paid and took my seat in the small alcove at my usual table. I lifted the drink up to my lips and the smooth velveteen Guinness flowed over my tongue and slipped thick and foamy down into my stomach in a smooth and satisfying embrace. When I returned the glass to the table and heard the gentle knock against the wood, it further reinforced that I was home.
Rachel entered the pub with her face buried in the collar of her thick green coat, the hem falling just below the knee above her small black heels. She muttered something to Jennifer and then reached into her small red handbag for her purse. She paid and bought her glass of white wine over to the table.
“I’m glad you’re back, Matthew,” she said, taking a seat. “When I didn’t hear anything, I became worried.” I shrugged and sipped my drink. I drew a breath to make some light hearted remark, when it suddenly hit me that I had only invited her out for a drink to see someone familiar. She sipped her drink. “So, how was the trip?” she asked and put her glass down.
My face flushed. “Yeah, about the trip. There’re a few things you should know.”
I told Rachel everything, from the dead body to leaving Julie disoriented in the Emergency Room a few days later. Her face quickly glossed over and became whiter the longer I talked. By the time I was finished I wasn’t sure if she’d mentally checked out. Neither one of us had touched our drinks.
“So, I’m not going lie, Rachel,” I concluded. “I’m really glad to be home.”
Rachel stared vacantly out of the window behind the table. “I should’ve sent Moira and Philip,” she said out loud to herself. “Stuff like that never happened when they went on a business trip.”
I picked up my Guinness for a toast. “Well, here’s to you bledy sending them in the future.” I gulped down a quarter of my pint.
Rachel met my eyes. “I’m sorry, Matthew.”
“For what? It wasn’t your fault.”
Her voice lowered into a soft whine. “No, I’m sorry you went through all of that.” She bought her hands up to her mouth. “What if you’d have died? Oh, my God!”
I shook my head. “I never would’ve died. Thomas actually took really good care of me.”
“I’m so surprised. I thought you’d have been the one to take care of him.”
I shifted in my seat. “Me too, before we left. But it turns out he’s really resourceful in a pinch. And I had no idea he was so good at Kung Fu.”
“So, Myers was dead?”
“Yeah. What does that mean for you?”
Rachel’s eyes flittered around the pub. “I have no idea.” She shook her head. “I’ll have to let Sophie know and then go from there.” Her elbows came up to the table and she sat her head in her hands. “You didn’t go to the police?”
“No. We debated it, but everything was so crazy. I can’t even really describe it. It’s like a bomb had gone off in our lives, and we just had to make the best of a bad situation and get home. I think the police know who was responsible. I mean, they chased the car we were in, and Thomas saw the culprit was wanted on the news.” I deliberately omitted Thomas’ penchant for event modification.
“This was the lady Thomas ninja’d and threw into the car boot?”
I nodded, “Yeah. I should’ve known something was up with him when they confiscated his nunchuks at Gatwick.”
Rachel’s eyes flew open and her head pivoted to the side. She raised her voice. “He had nunchuks at the airport?”
“They were in his hand luggage, but they just confiscated them and let him through.” I sipped my drink and also decided to omit that he had had another pair of nunchuks in his suitcase.
Rachel circled her fingers around her temples. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” she repeated. “I had no idea. I just thought it could be a great career move for you two. Meet a client. Get to have some fun and travel. I’m never going to send anyone on a business trip again.” She finished her wine in one long gulp.
“When do you meet with Sophie?” I asked.
“We have a directors meeting on Monday. We were just going to discuss performance and productivity before we closed for the holidays. Now we’re going to be talking about nunchuks and dead people.”
I picked up our glasses. “Well, it’ll be like a martial arts ‘A Christmas Carol special.’ You want another glass?” I moved to stand up, but Rachel reached over and placed her hand on my arm.
“I’m serious, Matthew. You have to be prepared to go back and talk to the police.”
I sat back in my chair, screwed up my face and shook my head. “Nope. No way in hell,” I said. “If I can make it through the rest of my life without getting on another plane, I’ll consider that a job well done.”
Rachel smiled meekly on one side of her mouth. Her hand relaxed on my arm. “I can’t make you, Matthew, and neither can Hygiea.” She sighed. “Let’s see what Sophie says. At some point we’re going to have to reach out to Daeva Pharmaceuticals, after all, you were supposed to meet their sales rep.”
I frowned and became all too aware of the fire raging behind the curtain in my consciousness. Rachel forced a grin and shook my arm. “But let’s worry about all that on Monday. Go and get those drinks in. And welcome back, Matthew.”
I awoke in a daze on Sunday afternoon and when I half-stumbled down the stairs to the kitchen, I was reminded of the fact that I had precious little food. There was a handful of cereal, but no milk, no eggs or cheese, just a few cans of baked beans and two slices of bread with a light fur of green mold. I took the bread and scraped off the mold with a butter knife and stuck it in the toaster, and boiled some water in the microwave to make some milk-less tea.
When I sat down at the kitchen table with my breakfast of champions, I looked out through the kitchen window at my wasteland of a back garden. There were patches of frost clinging to the lumpy untilled soil, and brambles and thorns stretched out treacherously in all directions, begging to make a meal out of anyone who should stand on them. A stack of old wooden panel fences, many of them broken from when they were removed to build part of the garage, were also lying on the ground. I was terrified to know what might have nested underneath them. Large rocks also lie strewn around the garden, like a giant had been using them to play marbles.
The thoughts of how much work it would take to clean up and make it presentable usually gave me a headache. However, this time it just seemed the right thing to do, even though it was close to the middle of winter. It was the perfect distraction.
I ventured outside, wrapped up in my winter gear and wellies, and as a spur of the moment decision, brought out a bottle of Scotch, too. I thought I would treat myself to a sip every time I accomplished a task. The cold air stung my cheeks, but it felt good in a strange way, and I was happy to be outside in the fresh air.
My withered and aged shed, which was only semi-waterproof, housed all of my granddad’s old tools, and so I went inside to find a garden fork. The door creaked open and I was immediately reminded of the complete mess that I had promised myself I would clean up a good two years previous. Many tools, some that I didn’t even recognize, were stacked on top of each other, along with damp cardboard boxes that were full of old porcelain plates and cups that had belonged to my grandmother. It smelled, too, like a can of wood varnish had been spilt, but I couldn’t see the offending culprit and I wondered if it had anything to do with the two dead mice in the corner.
I traced the handles of a few tools, and saw that the garden fork was close to the bottom of one of the piles. However, after a sip of whiskey, I noticed a hand fork sitting in a broken mug, and decided it would be easier to use that instead.
I knelt down by a patch of bare ground, braced my arms, and attempted to push the fork through the surface. The prongs of the fork barely scratched the surface before my body yielded and the fork slid across the surface of the frozen mud. I sat back on my heels and sipped my whiskey. The frost stung my knees, and my winter jacket and boots limited my mobility. I compared the patch of ground in front of me to the rest of the garden, sipped my whiskey again, and decided that it was not the right time to till the soil. I just wasn’t in the right state of mind.
The rocks were easier to work with. Using a combination of rolling and carrying, I was able to pile them to one side of the garden. With the right motivation, I knew I could make a decent rockery out of them. Thomas was good at that sort of stuff. He had a rock garden out the back of his house, and it was always immaculate and perfect. I kicked the last rock into the pile, sat down on one of the larger ones, and sipped my whiskey.
I knew I should have called Thomas, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t even know why. We had had a great time together, and so it would’ve made perfect sense to give him a call, and see how he was doing. I ran the tip of my tongue over my chapped lips and took another sip from the bottle. It was then that I realized I was too afraid to speak to him. But that didn’t make any sense. I thought about what I would say to him if I did call, and the first words that came to mind were that I loved him, and I wanted us to be together.
I sipped my whiskey again and felt an ominous spiral of self-loathing whirring its way up from my stomach, tugging on my organs. It was the possibility of rejection, and it terrified me.
In an act of frustration, I stood from the rocks and marched over to the nearest thorn bush. I reached down and grasped the base with both of my hands and heaved, but the bush refused to budge. Arched over with my back strained, my gloved hands slipped along the sinuous arms of the thorns. I squeezed tighter and clenched my teeth, but my hands continued to slide along the branches until finally my feet gave out beneath me and I landed on the hard ground, on a rock I had failed to move. Thorns had stuck into and broken off in my gloves.
My head spun in drunken circles and as I pulled myself up to my feet I blamed the whiskey for the rage boiling through my blood. I stumbled to the green whiskey bottle and hurled it against the rocks, watching in demented glee as it shattered into hundreds of shards, and the twelve your old Scotch seeped and dripped into the sandstone. I then fell back onto the frozen ground and slid the gloves from my hands and threw them out of sight. There were red lines and pin pricks across my palms.
I pulled my knees up to my chest, folded my arms over them, and put my head down and sobbed.
When I had done weeping, I went inside to watch the football.