Gareth stuck his head around his boss’s door. “I’m off now to drop the post off,” he said.
Luke grunted. “See you tomorrow.”
Gareth swiped his key card, shrugged on his jacket and picked up the bundle of outgoing post. If he got a move on, he’d make the box before the last collection. He tried to find the motivation to pick up his pace. The day had been deadly dull, his boss had been in a foul mood and he owed a duty call to his mother. It took all his will power to quicken his pace. He slowed once he shoved the letters in the box and trudged towards his car. Leeds was supposed to be a bustling city, but his tiny studio flat on the edge of Yeadon and the obscure cloth mill on the edge of Horsforth where he worked seemed far from the glamour of the city centre.
Still he had the notebook waiting for him. His mother had extracted a promise that he would leave the flat on Sunday and he had ended up at the car boot sale at the airport. The weather had been grim and the place had been almost empty.
“You look like you need these, mate,” a stallholder had called.
Gareth had managed a weak smile as he saw the bundle of self help books. But for once there wasn’t mockery in the man’s eyes. Instead there was sympathy. “How much are they?” he asked.
The man had looked at the tag on the bundle. “It says £3 on the ticket, but you look like you need a break. It’s yours for a quid.”
Gareth had handed over £1 and lugged the half dozen books back to his car. He’d meant to look at them straight away, but he had got caught up in a phone call from his mother that had lasted for over an hour and left him so mentally exhausted that he had been fit for nothing more than mindless internet browsing. That was yesterday. Now he had the evening to check it all out.
Gareth’s mind was so brimming over the next morning that he walked into the break room without realising that the lads from sales were there. Automatically he shrank into himself and pulled a mug from the cupboard. He knew that they were a good bunch, but they were so overwhelming. Gareth carefully avoided looking at them as he dropped a teabag into his mug.
“…and then she said, ‘I’m going to need more than a packet of crisps if you want me to do that.’ And she walked out!” Syed said, laughing. “And the lass behind the bar said she’d charge me double if I mentioned it again.”
“Excuse me,” Gareth murmured as he pushed his way to the kettle.
“Morning, Gareth,” Syed said cheerfully. “I was just talking about what happened on Friday. You would have laughed yourself sick.”
“You’re going to get into trouble one day,” said Jed. “Mind you, I’ll never forget the look on her face.”
Gareth nodded at the two salesmen and topped up his tea with milk before escaping to his corner in the office. Perhaps that was a warrior spirit, like the booklet talked about. That’s what he had to do, summon a warrior spirit. They were certainly a lot more outgoing than him.
His mind was still full the next day. The symbols were hard work. There wasn’t anything quite like them on the internet. He hardly noticed sorting the post and handing out the orders, his mind was still tussling with the conundrums in the notebook. Luke noticed, though.
“You can’t be sitting around daydreaming, lad,” the boss boomed. “Have you finally got yourself a girlfriend?”
Gareth couldn’t stop the colour rising in his face, but he shook his head. “I could go into the archives,” he said. “They are all over the place.”
“You’re not wrong,” Luke said. “But I want you to help Carli. She’s setting up her office so you can help her carry stuff.” He looked at Gareth’s slight frame. “And you can ask the lads in the warehouse for a hand if they’ve finished the post.”
“Yes, I’m happy to help,” Gareth said. “It’s the old dyer’s clerk office, isn’t it?”
Luke nodded. “It’s been cleaned up, but it’s a mess. And show her the archive afterwards. No funny business, mind,” he added. “Be respectful.”
“Of course,” Gareth said, keeping his face blank.
Carli was the new designer that had just joined the company. Shock had rippled through the company, but everyone knew that it was overdue. Ossett & Co had been on this site since 1843, when Lukes great-great-great-great-great grandfather had bought one of the new-fangled steam engines to power a factory. It had been supplying reliable, competitively priced knitwear ever since. The current best sellers had been designed some time before Gareth’s mother had been born, but with times getting hard, Luke had decided to take a risk. Now they had a designer.
“Those pattern cards need to go on the shelves in the exact order,” Carli said. “If you get on with them, I’ll work on the shade cards.”
Gareth nodded and started unloading the boxes. “Is this the list that I follow?” he asked.
Carli nodded. “Please don’t mess it up. Those things are in that order for a reason.”
Gareth glanced over the list and then checked the boxes. When Luke told the staff that there would be a designer, they had been expecting someone with wild hair and big earrings. Gareth glanced over briefly and noticed that, despite her business suit and her dark hair neatly bobbed, she was a lot younger than she had first appeared. He mentally filed that information away before slotting the pattern cards onto the shelves. It was mindless work and left plenty of time for him to consider the meanings in the notebook.
By the end of the week, Gareth had, he thought, worked out the notebook. It was a ritual of sorts to summon up a warrior like spirit into someone. That’s what he needed, to get out of this dead end job and the dead end corner of Leeds. He picked up the last bundle of post and headed for the door, when Luke called him into his office. “Are you okay, mate?” he asked.
Gareth had been thinking about the meaning of the second set of symbols he had copied out last night. “Hmm? Yes, Luke, I’m fine, thanks,” he said.
Luke frowned. “You’ve not been yourself this week,” he said. “I can’t complain about your work, it’s been spot on, and I’ve never seen your desk so clear. Carli said that you’d been a real help as well and I know that you’ve helped out in the warehouse, but you’ve not really been with us.”
“I’ve just had something on my mind,” Gareth said.
“Is your mum okay?” Luke asked, shuffling some of the invoices scattered across his desk.
“Yes, she’s fine,” Gareth said. “Listen, I’d better get a move on or I’ll miss the post.”
“Okay,” Luke tried a smile and almost managed it. “But let me know if there’s anything wrong. You know you can come to me – any time.”
“Thanks, Luke.” Gareth tried to look grateful as he backed out of Luke’s office. He caught sight of his desk as he strode out of the office and into the small car park. He hadn’t really thought about work at all but slid through the week on autopilot. Gareth dismissed the thought as he dropped the post into the box and got into his car. Tonight he was going to try something out. He’d got everything stashed in the boot. Now he had to see what happened.
Gareth drove up to Otley Chevin and headed for the Surprise View. It was after six now, and the sun was getting low. Dog walkers were sticking to the lower paths as the light faded and the late September wind was cold. Gareth barely noticed it as he strode up the steep trail and onto the rocky outcrop. There were still a few people around so he worked his way west along the ridge and found a small dip in the ground. Oblivious to the magnificent view, he ducked into the shelter of a large boulder out of sight of the main path and unobserved. He pulled some charcoal out of his back pack and a small packet of red ochre. He glanced around and pulled out his notebook. It was cheap and spiral bound but it held his notes and a quick set of prompts for this evening.
Gareth looked around again. He wasn’t going to risk standing up and shouting all this stuff, not where any dog walker could hear him. But he muttered the words and traced the symbols in charcoal and red ochre on the gritty rock in front of him, and he painted the red ochre mixed with cooking oil onto his arms, tracing the symbols there instead of on his face. Then he sat back. The last of the light was draining out of the grey sky and he watched the houses and streetlights spark into life across the wide valley in front of him. Nothing happened. Perhaps he should have taken this a little more seriously. He could have picked up some olive oil from the supermarket yesterday and found somewhere a little quieter so he could stand up and paint stuff on his face. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to summon the spirit of a warrior into himself. Gareth carefully washed the rock with water from his bottle and, pulling his thin hoodie around him, trudged back to the car.
Back at the flat, Gareth went over the notebooks again. He could see so many places where he went wrong. This might be harder than he thought, but he was not giving up. Getting a warrior spirit could only be a good start, and of course it would need effort. That was always the way. The more effort you put in, the more rewards you got out. It made sense. An alarm went off on his phone. Time to ring his mum.
Gareth listened dutifully to his mother as she covered the issues with the neighbours and the difficulties with his stepdad, but after half an hour he broke into the monologue. “I’m sorry, mum, but I have to go. I’ve something for work to finish up. Give my love to Matt,” he said.
“Oh sweetheart! You called him by his name! We’re going to have to meet up soon. We can come up and have a nice meal. It will be marvellous,” his mum exclaimed.
Gareth couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting across from his mother’s relentless chattering and his stepdad’s helpless silence. “Great. I’ll call soon. Love you.” And he hung up. He paused and looked at his phone. Maybe he was getting a little spirit just reading the notebooks. He put his phone away. It didn’t matter. He was starving and the pasta he had planned didn’t appeal. He really craved a burger, with extra fries and double cheese. He grabbed his keys. The pizza shop down the road sold quarter pound burgers, and he could ask for an extra patty.
It was dark now, but the streetlights kept everything bright, throwing immaculately sharp shadows across Gareth’s path as he strode briskly to the run down arcade. He was famished, really hungry. Perhaps he could get some onion rings as well. Then he saw them. A group of young lads, hoods pulled over their faces, hanging around with a sullen, restless energy. He knew what they were like. They caused trouble and he was going to have to run the gauntlet getting past them if he wanted the burger. Gareth weighed up his options. If he turned and walked back, there was a good chance that they would chase him. If he just kept his head, kept his pace and got the burger, he should be okay. At least, he would probably be okay. He kept his eyes down and his hands out of his pockets. That was the trick – don’t make eye contact and keep an even step.
Gareth drew nearer to the lads and he felt sick. They had seen him and they were bored. He was a skinny, 21 year old in a thin hoodie and thinner office trousers. He was a target. How much worse would it be if he ran? He forced himself forward. He wanted a warrior spirit. Now he could start earning it. He could hear them muttering and calling, but he didn’t look up, he didn’t dare. He was at the pizza shop and almost past them, when one of them shoved him hard in the back, sending him staggering wildly forward. Then everything went black.
Gareth rolled over and groaned. He ached. What the hell had happened? He threw back the covers and pushed himself out of bed. He couldn’t remember a thing. He must have had a kicking. He rubbed sore hands over his face and staggered to his tiny bathroom. His arms and legs ached and his hands throbbed. He turned on the cold tap and ran his hands under the cool water. He felt sick as he saw how red and swollen his knuckles were as they stung in the water. What had they done to him? With a jolt he realised that he had gone to bed naked, but as he craned his neck in the mirror and checked himself out, he couldn’t see bruises that would account for the aches. Maybe they had got hold of a taser. He had a couple of bruises on his forearms, with a long, shallow slash, and there were a couple of bruises on his shins, but nothing to explain the deep ache in his muscles. He climbed into the shower and turned the temperature up.
He took his time in there before grabbing a dressing gown and heading for the kitchen living room. He was ready for breakfast, despite the unaccustomed ache in his stomach muscles, and he needed coffee. He paused in the doorway. Scattered over the living room table was a drift of takeaway wrappers and cartons. There was a stack of empty cola cans next to what looked like a box from the giant all-you-can-eat bellybuster kebab. A couple of empty burger boxes and the remains of a couple of packets of the cheap fries sat on the counter next to a nearly untouched slice of their disgusting chocolate fudge cake.
On autopilot, Gareth switched on the kettle and got a mug from the cupboard, his shoulder aching as he reached up. His hands stung as he caught his knuckles on the edge of the drawer as he pulled out a spoon and he felt clumsy as he spooned the instant coffee into the mug. The kettle clicked off and Gareth carefully poured the boiling water on the granules before opening the fridge. There were pizza boxes in there. Gareth checked them carefully and then put the two meat feast pizzas and the garlic bread back into the fridge before getting out the milk. What had happened? What had happened? He took a sip of his coffee. He needed to think positive, to think with a warrior spirit. Whatever happened, he had cold pizza for breakfast, and there were worse things than that. Gareth nodded as confidently as he could manage and started up his laptop before getting out a plate and loading it with pizza.
His laptop had finally reached the home page and Gareth took a healthy bite of the pizza. He skipped over the news and opened Facebook. There was a message for him. “Hey, it’s Glyn, long time no see. Didn’t know you had it in you.”
He hadn’t worked with Glyn for at least two years. Gareth warily clicked the link, relieved to find a video clip. Then the world seemed to stop. The empty sound of the flat rang in his ears as he watched grainy, black and white CCTV footage of him being jumped by the lads outside the pizza shop – and fighting back. It was him, no doubt of it. It was his face, his hoodie, his scuffed shoes, but it wasn’t his expression. Instead there was a detached focus as the Gareth on the screen dealt with five young lads with a sort of clinical efficiency that you never saw in films. There were no fancy blocks or sweeping kicks. Instead that other Gareth handed out a systematic beating to each of them, not allowing them to flee until he had them crawling and retching on the ground. Gareth looked down at his knuckles. No wonder they were sore. He had hammered punch after punch into ribs, stomachs, backs and legs. No wonder his arms ached. He didn’t have the strength to lift a lad as big as him and throw him, but that’s what that other Gareth had done. The lads had hardly touched him. That other Gareth had blocked a few punches and kicks, but it had quickly become a lesson that those lads wouldn’t easily forget. Gareth hoped they were okay. What if the police came knocking? He put down the pizza slice he was holding and then carefully put the pizza box back in the fridge. He had lost his appetite.
I will be uploading this and subsequent chapters to Royal Road. TYRRFPA