Strolling down the street, swinging his umbrella and minding his own business, Richard pulled up abruptly on finding that a favorite pub, the Crab and Crow, had been razed to the ground. Where years earlier, he and his buddies had caroused, a commercial sign advertised soon-to-be-built condos and business opportunities. Good news that. Perhaps the local job prospects weren’t as bad as he had feared.
He was jarred from his optimistic daydream when a hulk from behind plowed into him. The men faced one another, primed for a shouting match, but the attacker, with a jerk of the head, wacked Richard on the back and shouted. “It’s you! For the love of God.”
Stumbling to regain his balance, Richard scraped his memory to find a picture of the hefty man of about his age, decked out in low-slung mustard colored jogging pants. The guy was bouncing from leg to leg, a smile cracking to his ears. “You’re looking good. Glad you’re back on your feet.”
This was the moment that Richard had dreaded when he and his wife Sara considered escaping to his hometown to live at his parent’s old place.
“They may be off the beaten track but they read the papers,” he’d said. “Those who haven’t escaped the town gloat when things turn out badly for those who have.”
“Nonsense, charges were dropped. You overestimate your celebrity,” his wife had snapped.
The stranger, seemingly aware of, but not put off by, Richard’s recent notoriety, tossed back his black mane in delight. “I never expected to see you again alive.”
“Alive?” Richard squeaked. Had the media suggested a disgruntled shareholder would bump him off?
“I wouldn’t have missed your memorial.’’
Maybe this guy was an ambulance chaser whose only social activity was attending funerals thought Richard, relieved when the stranger continued, “However long it’s been, I never miss an old pal’s funeral. It’s the one time the old gang surfaces.”
Like crabs from under a stone, Richard—no sentimentalist—sighed.
“What’ya up to?” the stranger asked and, before Richard had time to reply, volunteered: “I was in the Middle East, but when my contract ran out we came back to the old homestead.”
“Still active?” Richard asked, hoping to get a hint about providence.
“Not like we were. Always up to something, eh? Remember the pig incident?”
He did not.
“More fun than the memory lapses of age,” he should have said and admitted, with his roguish smile, that he didn’t know the guy’s name or the school or whatever. Instead, on glancing at his watch, he gasped as if horrified he was going to be late for an important appointment (not his actual destination: the dry cleaner), and muttered, “Great to see you. Crazy day, no time to chat.”
“Let’s get together. Talk about old times,” the stranger said.
“We missed you at the reunion.”
Richard couldn’t remember hearing about a reunion but he would have avoided it had he been invited.
As Richard attempted to slip off, the stranger grabbed him by the arm.
“Whoa there buddy. Where do you live?”
Next thing he knew, Richard had given out his address and phone number.
Freed at last, he rushed home to tell Sara he’d been recognized, even with the glasses and stubble. She was one step ahead of him; someone had already rung their unlisted number. An hour later there was another call with a message that the caller would try again at suppertime.
Primed to lunge for phone calls from possible employers, Richard answered the third call briskly and succumbed when Mr. Unknown insisted on meeting for coffee with a flexibility of when and where impossible to sidestep.
All evening Richard and Sara kept returning to the question of the stranger’s identity: Was he a forgotten acquaintance who considered himself a friend or was he a journalist hoping for a juicy story?
Next morning, when Richard arrived at the Eat-Here Diner, his ‘old mate’, was hidden in a back booth. “Small towns are hotbeds for gossip, which we don’t want. Right!”
“You’re probably wondering why I was so anxious to get together.”
“Yes, I am,” Richard confessed, waiting for the shoe to drop.
“I could use you.”
“Use me?” Did the guy know he’d been exonerated of charges?
“Thought we could work together,” the stranger said, causing Richard to wonder if the fellow had been in the Middle East when he was given the tarnished handshake.
“You don’t have to take a high profile. I’ll use your brains not your mug!” That followed by a volcanic laugh.
Over 55, near bankruptcy and worried he’d never get another job, Richard went for the stranger’s offer. Sara was less eager.
“Who is he? Ask for his webpage?”
“It’s apparently under his name, which I don’t know.”
“Insist on a contract. Check him up before you commit.”
“He’s drafting something which I’m to sign when we meet for lunch.”
“Hasn’t he got an office?”
“Yes on Main Street but it’s being renovated.”
The next morning, for the first time in months, Richard woke eager to face the day. He checked his e-mail to find the promised job description, and there it was: short and sweet. He hadn’t done marketing since he moved up the ladder but he’d catch on quickly.
Once again at their Diner table, the stranger said, “I’ll have office space for you unless you prefer to work at home.”
“No, an office sounds great,” Richard said, pleased at the opportunity to get out from under Sara’s nose. He took the proffered contract, flipped over the front page and read the small print. All seemed okay.
“Check your address and put in your social insurance number,” his boss-to-be said.
Richard glanced at the front page: Contractor Tom Higgins. The name didn’t ring a bell. Obviously the recent stress had put a strain on his memory or this was an early “senior’s moment”. Never mind, at least his employer now had a name. With a sigh, Richard moved to the final line. Consultant: Hudson Clarke. Who the hell was that?
~ Melodie Corrigall
Published in Infective Ink March 3, 2016.