Copyright 2008 Hilary C. T. Walker All rights reserved
Chapter 1: Raw Deals and Raw Heels
Matt Goldworth stormed out of Monument plc’s offices that afternoon. Within an hour he had kicked a dog, been bitten by its owner, missed his train, and met a dying priest.
As usual, the mangy black poodle huddled near the office doorway like a pile of squashed crows beside his decomposing tramp. Matt had often wanted to punish the dog for looking so pathetic, and this evening he had the perfect excuse. But as his expensive shoe touched the animal’s ribs, the vagrant grabbed his ankle, tearing dirty teeth into his Achilles tendon. Matt howled more loudly than the poodle.
The bum released his jaws but not Matt’s leg, and yelled, “That’ll larn yer, yer toffee-nosed git!”
Cursing, Matt tugged himself free and hobbled off to the London Underground, pursued by mocking guffaws. He limped onto Paddington’s Main Line Station twenty minutes later, and watched his Express train push slowly towards the West Country without him.
At 6.55 p.m. a casual observer might have noticed the abrupt entrance of a tall, slightly lame man into a bistro near the station. The newcomer was in his mid-thirties, sporting an expensive suit and angry eyes, and his mood contrasted sharply with the bistro’s cozy atmosphere. Along the walls subdued lights glowed over sepia photographs of steam locomotives, and cigarette smoke swirled like lethargic ghosts towards the ceiling.
Trying to hide his limp, an irate Matt strode through the room past chatty clientele laughing and relaxing in their booths on seats plundered from old trains. Working-class warthogs at the watering hole, he thought wryly. He hadn’t wanted to come in, but needed to rest his sore tendon while waiting for the next train home.
The last booth was free. Self-pity seized his throat as he sank into a seat facing the rear wall to blot out the TGIF crowd toasting the end of their working week. This was the last time he’d be taking – or missing – the 6.45 p.m. from Paddington.
A stiff drink was called for.
Several irritating minutes elapsed before a figure appeared at his table and Matt barked, “I’ll ha – ”
But instead of the waiter, a lofty old man smiled down at him. He wore smart jeans, and a black polo collar showed under his tweed jacket. It was clear he wished to share this booth, so Matt ignored him and slowly studied the menu. A tall man himself, he knew how that game went; he’d used his height many times to intimidate others.
The intruder cleared his throat.
Matt continued reading.
An educated voice followed a second cough. “I wonder if you’d mind my joining you? There are no other seats available, and I’ve a long wait before my train.”
The man waited for an answer, and Matt let him. “I’d really appreciate your allowing me to sit here,” he persevered.
God, he was insistent! Reluctantly and without looking up, Matt nodded.
“Thank you,” the fellow said without a trace of irony, as he slid into the seat opposite. Matt noticed sourly how a waitress appeared as soon as the old guy picked up the drinks list. He asked for a glass of red wine and Matt ordered a double gin and tonic.
The waitress departed and the other observed, “Strong drink.”
Matt glared at him.
“That drink you ordered – pretty strong stuff.”
“I need it,” Matt snarled, looking round for his gin and drumming his fingers impatiently on the table.
The waitress returned. “Here we are! A glass of red wine for you, sir, and a strong g and t for you.” No ‘sir’ for him, Matt noted as she held the bill in the air. “Who wants this, then?”
Matt snatched it: there’d be no more comments about his ‘strong drink’ if he paid for both of them.
But the grey-haired guy was too quick for him. “Thanks, I’ll get mine. How much is the wine, my dear?” He tendered cash to the girl, leaving Matt with just his share to pay and his companion’s tip to outdo. She left, pleased with her reward.
Matt attacked his drink with its plastic stirrer and took several deep draughts.
The old man was lost in thought. With the stem slipped between his fingers, he cradled the bulbous wineglass in both palms, as if awaiting a microwave-style ‘ping’ when his wine reached room temperature. Gradually becoming aware of Matt’s sullen curiosity, he looked straight at him.
Matt was taken by surprise. Conscious of his nearly empty glass, he said acidly, “Not everyone drinks as slowly as you do, you know.”
“Of course not. Each to his own, wouldn’t you say?”
Matt grunted, took another long swig and caught the waitress’s eye.
“Another one, sir?”
Now he was ‘sir.’ Matt nodded, then stared gloomily at the flotsam of lemon and ice-cubes in his glass.
“What train are you waiting for?” his companion asked.
“The 8 o’clock to Gloucester, if you must know.”
“Nice part of the country. Do you live in Gloucester itself?”
Exasperated, Matt rolled his eyes. “No, I get off at Strawford. And before you ask, I live in Brotherton, a village exactly two miles by car from Strawford station and probably shorter as the crow flies, but not being a crow, I can’t be sure. Does that answer everything to your satisfaction?”
“Oh, admirably thanks.” The other grinned and Matt glowered at him.
Unconcerned, the man took a careful sip of his wine and was silent. But when Matt’s second gin and tonic arrived, he spoke again. “Care to talk about it?”
“About what?” Matt snapped. “You a psychiatrist or something? No, I wouldn’t!” He took a gulp of his new drink.
“What exactly is it you don’t wish to discuss?”
Matt looked up sharply, poised to punch the old coot who was leaning back, highly amused. He registered Matt’s ire, however, and raised an apologetic palm.
It was only now that Matt noticed the man’s skin. It was tinged with grey, a hue he found chillingly familiar without knowing why – until, with a jolt, he remembered a close friend from many years back…
Drink and bitterness had erased what little tact he possessed. “You’re dying, aren’t you?” he blurted, with the sensitivity of a black widow spider who’s just bitten her mate.
The man’s white eyebrows shot up. He set his glass deliberately on the table between them like a barrier, and his words were laboured. “We’re all dying – the whole process of life leads towards death.”
“I’m not talking about all of us, dammit, I’m talking about you. I can see it in your face – you’ve got that cancer look – I’ve seen it before.”
The man picked up his wineglass. “No,” he said wearily, “I don’t think so. I’m just tired – it’s been a long day.” He took a sip of wine then added with a hollow laugh, “And I’m clearly not looking my best.”
Mischief made Matt ask, “Care to talk about it?”
The old man grimaced. “I suppose I deserve that.” He hesitated. “If you must know, I received some bad news this afternoon. Well, good news for the other person but bad news for me.”
Matt waved impatient circles in the air. “And – ?”
“And it was told me in confidence, end of story. What about your bad day?”
“Who says I had a bad day?”
“Those two gins.” He pointed at Matt’s half-empty second glass.
It was Matt’s turn to grimace. The alcohol had eroded his reserve, like acid eating into skin. So what if I tell old ash face, anyway? Hell, I’ll never see him again. What do I have to lose?
“All right, something did happen.” Matt took a deep breath. “I was fired today.” The harsh reality slumped him back in his seat.
His companion whistled in surprise. “Gosh, I’m sorry.” He leaned forward confidentially. “If you don’t mind my asking, what happened?”
Matt knew he should be confiding in Rosa, not some stranger, but couldn’t face the humiliation of admitting this defeat to his wife. He’d already confessed the worst to this guy, anyway, so why not carry on?
The vibrations in his sore tendon were dwindling: he decided to skip the undignified poodle episode.
He explained how Monument’s pot-bellied pig of a Managing Director was centralizing the company’s accounting. Instead of each unit overseeing its own finances, (as had worked perfectly well before) those functions were now moving to a shared services center in Dublin, Ireland. Of the eight Financial Directors of Monument’s divisions, only one would stay to head up the Irish center. Of course, Matt wasn’t chosen: he and six others were being axed.
“So you’re not alone in losing your job?”
Sod the others! “Have you ever lost your job?”
“No. I expect to have my job for life.”
“How nice for you! I thought I was secure with Monument, too. Length of service means nothing, let me tell you. How would you feel if you got fired?”
The old man looked puzzled. He placed his elbows on the table and rested his chin on steepled fingers.
Matt sneered over the rim of his glass. Ha! That’s worried you!
The answer came after a long pause. “I suppose if I lost my job it would be my own fault.” He added hastily, “You see, my work is different from yours. I can imagine making an error of judgment through false pride. Yes,” he said, almost to himself, “that could happen.” He raised his voice again and spoke quickly. “How would I feel? Devastated. My whole life’s work would be in vain.”
“Well, what would you do?”
“I’d seek comfort and wisdom in my Bible.”
“Are you serious?” Matt’s voice went up a decibel. “What possible good could that do? The Bible is for weak people who can’t stand on their own two feet.”
“All of us are weak at various times in our lives and need the Word of God to sustain us.”
Matt stared. He’d just bared his soul to this person, thinking the man was sane. It was like biting into a delicious steak which turns out to be a lump of brown earwax. “Do you really believe that rubbish?”
“It’s far from rubbish, I assure you – it’s seen me through many rough periods in my life.”
“Tell me one thing from the Bible that’s helped you.”
“If you answer this: Do you believe in God?”
“As a child I did, but I grew out of all that nonsense,” Matt answered defiantly.
“What a shame. For those of us for whom God is real there’s a lot of comfort to be gleaned from His Word.”
“Alright, then, what does God say about unemployment?” As far as Matt knew, God had never mentioned unemployment.
“‘The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.’ ”
“How’s that supposed to help?”
“Maybe God created this situation to guide you back to Him?”
In one move Matt bolted his drink. “I need to buy a book,” he said tersely and rose, leaving the religious maniac to finish his wine alone.
* * * *
Seated in an empty carriage on the last train to Strawford, and thus avoiding his irascible drinking partner who’d taken the earlier express, Father Peter Chartwell wondered about the man. They hadn’t exchanged names and maybe it was better so: for sure their paths would cross again and he hoped it would be later rather than earlier. The confiding turn of their conversation made it desirable.
That abrasive comment about dying had given him a nasty jar, for today had already hit him hard.