You can find the first installment, Invitation Accepted Chapter One, here
“Have you put on some weight?” Surjit asked.
Gareth, his mind occupied as he got to work, looked blankly at the Receptionist, who blushed. “I think I’ve put on a bit, but I’m still okay,” he said.
“No! I didn’t mean that!” Surjit said. “It’s just you look like you’ve filled out and maybe put on some muscle.”
“I’ve been working out,” Gareth said. “It’s good to know that I’m getting results.”
“I’ll have to come with you one day,” Surjit said. “It would be great to see your routine.”
“I’m very quiet at the gym,” Gareth said. “I just keep my head down and get on with it. Have you got the post?”
“Here it is.” Surjit smiled at him. “And it looks like there are a lot of orders on the website after you set up that link.”
“Great.” Gareth managed a smile back. “It’s good to be busy.”
Vague panic filled him as he left reception. He couldn’t go to the gym with Surjit – he didn’t know what to do there! His body seemed to go without him being present. He had even found his membership card, tucked behind his library card in his wallet. But he had never consciously gone in his life. His shirts were getting tighter around the shoulders, though, and the waist. of his trousers and jeans were looser. When he looked in the bathroom mirror, he could see muscles. He had been avoiding looking in the mirror for a while.
Gareth tossed the bundle of letters onto his desk, oblivious to how much his aim had improved over the last few weeks, and headed into the kitchen to make his morning tea. Syed was there, waiting for the kettle to boil. Gareth smiled and nodded and dropped a teabag into his mug.
“Are you coming out with the lads on Friday?” Syed asked. “We’re having a bit of a drink to celebrate the new campaign. Luke’s paying for the first £100 at the Red Lion. We’ll probably get a kebab after.”
Gareth’s brain froze. This was uncharted territory. He was just the admin boy, the gopher, and he was far too quiet to even be noticed by the larger than life sales team. He wouldn’t know what to say or do. Besides, he hadn’t remembered anything between Friday night and Sunday evening for the last three weekends and he wasn’t sure what was happening. To his horror, his mouth opened. “That would be great. Look forward to it,” he heard himself say.
“Awesome. Tomorrow night, straight from work, bring some decent kit.” Syed grinned as he tugged on Gareth’s well washed white office shirt. “There are a couple of lasses there that would be more than happy to meet you.”
To Gareth’s relief, the kettle snapped off and Syed poured the hot water into his mug and walked out. Gareth sagged a little as he poured his tea. What was going on? He’d wanted more confidence and perhaps the courage to go for a better job. Now he was… Gareth’s mind skittered away from the implications of what he was becoming and the time he was missing. He would open his washer to put in clothes and would find newly washed gym kit. He had bruises he couldn’t explain and his muscles were aching. The fridge was always full of meat.
Gareth took his mug slowly back to his desk. His knuckles were now a mass of scabs and his pockets had unexplained money in them. He started flicking through the post without really thinking about things. It didn’t take a genius to sort out invoices from payments and to toss the flyers, and with his mind occupied with more worrying matters, Gareth got the post done with greater efficiency every day.
Maybe he was going mad? He’d done a little browsing at home, ignoring the ads for protein bars and replica weapons, and perhaps it was a disassociation disorder. Gareth picked up the sorted pile, took a mouthful of tea, and headed off to hand out the post. A large stack for the accounts department, a wedge of orders for the sales team and a box of thread samples for Luke that he balanced easily as he jogged around the office.
Luke was looking out of his window and across the factory floor, but looked around as Gareth tapped the door and came in, dropping the samples neatly on his desk. “Thanks, Gareth,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Gareth, shut the door and sit down.”
Gareth wondered what he had done. The door sounded like a rifle shot as he gently pulled it closed and then he sat in the hard chair across from Luke’s desk and waited.
“That idea for the new flyers took off,” Luke said. “And the way it’s spread on the internet advertising has really opened up some doors. We’ve got a lot of interest. There’s even some big chains asking questions here.”
“That’s great,” Gareth said into the following silence.
“I suppose so,” Luke said. He paced over to the window again. His huge office had two windows, but Luke always ignored the view over the car park and instead was usually found staring down at the mill floor beneath. “This company is one of the few left in Yorkshire, you know. We are still hanging on here, despite competition, with reasonably priced knitwear for all ages. We still have our old reliables that have been keeping the lights on since the sixties.” Luke leant against the glass. “And they are still doing okay. But now Carli has been coming up with some new designs, and they seem to be hitting the mark.”
Gareth kept quiet. The whole mill had been shocked when Luke hired a new designer to add to, as well as update, the catalogue of cosy cardigans and sweaters. She had smoothed the ruffled feathers of the machinists and weavers, though, and the new items were moving well.
“I really need a proper advertising man,” Luke said. “Someone who’s been to college for it. But I can’t afford someone like that.” He shook his head as he watched the floor crew unload drums of dye onto the mill floor. “I’m going to have to go down there and sort it out in a minute.” He turned back to Gareth. “You came up with something worth having. How about, I pay you to go to evening school and get some qualifications in advertising, and you take on some of that on top of the office work? I get tax deductible on paying for you to take a course, you get a certificate and we see where we go from there, right?”
Gareth blinked. This is what he wanted! This was his chance at getting a better job and qualifications! He opened his mouth to agree, but was horrified to hear himself say, “I’ve seen how many extra sales you’re getting on the back of the internet campaign I threw together. You’re getting a good deal there. I’m sure that you’re already getting back more than the cost of the course from the campaign. I’ve been taking through the orders, remember. Even if I don’t have the qualifications, shouldn’t I be on more than minimum wage? And how do I know that you’ll pay for the full course?”
Luke wasn’t paying full attention. “They’re doing it all wrong down there. And Carli isn’t helping. She doesn’t need to check the orders.” He turned around to Gareth. “You should be biting my hand off.” He waited for Gareth’s reply, but Gareth was too appalled to say anything. Luke shook his head. “I’ll pay for the course up front, but any pay rise will be as a monthly bonus. I’m not committing to anything long term,” he grumbled. “This could be just a flash in the pan, something or nothing. But fair’s fair, you’ve made a difference.” Luke held up a thick finger. “I want to see results.”
“You’ll get them,” Gareth heard himself say with horrifying confidence.
There was a sudden scream from the floor below, followed by shouts and running feet. Gareth had a sensation of being pushed aside as his body rushed towards the window. The stacked boxes and barrels of dyes had collapsed and Carli was trapped under a stack of Shade 73. The boxes around her were teetering and the men on the floor were desperately trying to push the overhanging stack back before they fell and completely crushed Carli. Others were hovering around him on the floor, trying to work out how to pull her out without sending the poised boxes crashing down.
Gareth dimly heard Luke swear, then watched himself glance around, open the big window and leap out, catching the rail below to swing downwards, managing his fall and bouncing off the bottom of the metal stairs before rolling to his feet in the corner. He grabbed the yard brooms and the long multicoloured poles that stirred the dye and raced across the floor. Helpless, Gareth watched himself throw poles and brooms at the men on the floor and rush to Carli’s side.
Luke was racing as fast as his bulk would allow, thundering down the metal stairs. Surjit had rushed in and was trying to keep her head as she called 999 for an ambulance. All the while Gareth watched himself as he snapped out orders and pushed his skinny muscles to the limit, using all the leverage he could, forcing the biggest barrel back and yelling to Surjit to put a wedge at the base. Surjit was sobbing in the corner, so it was Luke and Syed who jammed rags and broken boxes under the barrel to stop it rolling and took the strain so that Gareth, the other Gareth, could leap like lightning to knock boxes back from the top of the pile and then add his meagre strength to the men pushing the nearest packs of dye back onto their pallets, yelling hoarse directions as he did so. Then, with reflexes that Gareth didn’t know he had, the other Gareth yelled for everyone to get clear, grabbed Carli and dragged her away from the crumbling pile as it collapsed, skidding over the concrete floor and landing hard against the door.
Then Gareth was back in control of himself as Surjit, still sobbing, grabbed Carli and started checking her over. The dye settled into an untidy heap with coloured powder shooting out from corners of damaged packs in a grotesque rainbow. There was an awful silence, broken by the sniffs of Surjit as she focused on Carli and the panting of the men. Gareth forced himself upright on shaking legs.
“Excuse me,” he said and bolted. He just made it to the bathroom in time before vomiting violently, again and again. His legs, arms and back felt on fire and he was horrifically aware that it could all have gone so wrong. How had he done that? What if he hadn’t? His stomach heaved again, retching helplessly. He was vaguely aware of the hubbub back on the mill floor as he leant helplessly against the partition. What was happening?
Whatever was happening, he couldn’t stay in here. He pushed himself up and staggered over the to washbasin to rinse his face and swill out his mouth. The door was flung open and Luke strode in.
“Are you alright, lad?” the manager asked.
“Yeah,” Gareth said. He was on his own here. No other presence was helping him out. But that was what started it, the quest for the warrior spirit. He wasn’t going to collapse now. He pulled himself upright. “How’s Carli?” he asked.
“The paramedics are here,” Luke said. He ran a hand over his pale face. “It’s a bad do, I tell you. They say she’s just badly bruised, but it could have been worse. It would have been worse if it hadn’t been for you.”
Where was that missing voice when he needed it? “I just saw what was needed,” Gareth said and put a shaky but comforting hand on Luke’s shoulder. “As long as Carli is alright. That’s what matters.” Gareth managed a shaky grin. “I shouldn’t be in here, hiding from the work. We need to get it all cleared up.”
“I think you’ve earned a break,” Luke said.
“I think we all did the right thing, no-one sat on their hands,” Gareth said. He struggled to find the words. “I think we all deserve a medal, and maybe we can have one when it’s all cleared up and we’ve worked out how to store the dyes properly.” He could dimly hear sirens as an ambulance approached. Gareth pulled himself upright, ignoring the aching muscles and the heaving stomach. “Let’s get this sorted out.”
I will be uploading this and subsequent chapters to Royal Road. TYRRFPA