The 21-year journey home
Michael Lucas sat on the 12:35 from Paddington, folded his father’s secret information into his inside pocket and squinted into the tree lines of the Hampshire downs. He concentrated hard on pushing away any unwanted thoughts of the day ahead. He reminded himself of Aston Villa’s defeat that week and his job at the Bracewell call-centre. His mobile phone vibrated interrupting these thoughts, it was followed a rising hip-hop growl. He answered the only person in his contact list.
‘Just checking in, babe.’ his girlfriend said
‘You never just ‘check in’, Tracy. What do you want?’
He saw a smouldering escarpment ahead and, when he passed, some men were beating the flames with sticks. He could smell the countryside from inside the sealed window. It smelt like an escape from an escape.
‘Just making sure you made the train and that you’re feeling okay. I hear there’s been delays today…’ Tracy’s voice trailed off when she ran out of concern.
‘We can't afford silences on mobile phones, Tracy. Tell me what you want or hang up.’
‘Well, Michael, I’m just worried…’
‘You think I’ve backed out?’
‘Just tell me you haven’t lost that letter, Michael.’
‘I haven’t, Tracy. When I find out who he is, I’ll give it to him. Okay?’
‘You’ll know who he is, Michael – he’ll be the one dressed like a groom.’
‘Then I’ll give it to the fucking groom...’
Her face entered his mind. She’d be on the sofa snacking with Neighbours on mute. He thought of how her lips moved whenever she schemed or read something to herself. And that whenever she scolded, she did so loudly.
‘You’ve got two rules to follow and one fucking chance, Michael Lucas.’
He felt for the letter in his inside pocket and allowed Tracy to fester a moment longer. ‘‘Hang-on …’, he said.
He glanced across the fields toward the horizon and the blue sky stretching out.
‘Hel…lo? - I’m going through….tunnel…’
Michael held the phone away from his ear, waited a few seconds and hung up. In his reflection, he smoothed his fringe down to one side to make himself appear younger than his twenty-one years. He straightened the collar of his only work suit. It smelt of coffee and was growing shiny at the elbows. His task for the day was really just a chore – a Saturday away-day from London, the flat and a supermarket shop with Tracy from which he’d return home laden, with plastic bag lines gouged through the fingers of both hands.
Having contact with Sean Matthews, the father he never knew, did not concern Michael. He wasn’t numb or wildly interested in any great result either. It could be a free dinner. Maybe a few drinks. The return journey later on that day would mean that his part of the deal would be officially over. From that point on it would be up, or rather down, to Tracy.
The deal, so to speak, was limited to Tracy’s amateur online searches and gave clear instructions of his movements throughout the day. According to her analysis, it would be the day Michael would put any personal interests or questions to one side. The day was only about the money.
Homesley Ridge railway station was an old-school affair, decked out with hanging baskets and painted benches with a deserted tea-shop built into the ticket office like in the old English films. Outside the station, on the lid of a rubbish bin, Michael spread out the printed map upon which Tracy had drawn his final walking route to the house in florescent marker. It formed part of the pack she’d collated into a Zip-lock bag which included the map he held onto, a random article relating to Sean Matthews from a medical site, a single line local reference about society weddings of 2007 and an email from a non-existing catering company. In the corresponding pocket he carried what Tracy considered to be her meisterstuck – the threat of a letter addressed to Dr. Sean. D. Matthews.
He saw the house during the final mile and stood to watch it glimmer in the heat of that fierce July. The English summer rain had stopped one month before and the country was turning lush-green which was significant for a boy who never left the city. As he walked, Michael breathed in the scents of the hedgerows and dodged the honking cars that roared past. Occasionally, he’d stop to catch his breath or stroke the head of the cow who’d forced her head through a wire fence. He cow-mooed back, laughing as they scattered across the paddock.
The house presented itself fully when he passed a thicket of trees on a ridge. Around the Red brick and white stucco, he could see Ivy and flowering plants covering one side of the building. A uniformed security guard stood ahead of a crowd of bystanders at the small gate of a manicured lawn. Larger gates admitted a slow line of invited guests cars which were ushered past by a small army in matching T-Shirts. He smoothed his hair across his forehead and crushed his way through the locals toward the guard.
‘Is this the Matthews wedding?’ Michael waved Tracy’s bogus contract above his head.
The guard took the catering email and held it up against the sunlight. He lifted his walkie-talkie to his mouth and whispered into it. Michael waved his hand in the guard’s face.
‘I’m late... please. I’ll be sacked…’
Michael thought of vaulting a rear fence, when rescue came in the form of a commis-chef hauling a wooden crate across the lawn.
‘You’re an hour late,’ The chef yelled at him.
‘I’m trying to get in…,’ Michael shouted back, snatching the paper from the guard and heading out across the lawn.
‘Just take the other end of this and follow me.’ The chef snapped when he reached him.
Michael hauled the crate around the side of the house which was as deep as it was wide. Ivy and wisteria surrounded each window. Passing two marquee tents they arrived at an encampment of several catering vans and support vehicles hidden behind a Cyprus hedgerow. Michael dropped the crate and looked up at the rear of the house, then across the lawn extending into the edges of the countryside. It was not the footballer’s en-suite Mac mansions that Tracy envisioned. He’d seen those places in crib interviews between matches on telly. Millionaires, the same age as himself, with blonde wives in full makeup and toddlers, all sat on L-shaped leather couches in front of never-lit fires. Underused swimming pools beyond lines of French windows. He suspected that here in the Wiltshire countryside, at the rear of the home of Dr S. Matthews, what he witnessed was something different. Here it was about breeding and taste, and all the premier-league, six-figure deals on the planet couldn’t ever buy it. This stuff came inherited as a natural birth right from the old rich.
The commis-chef broke Michael’s gaze.
‘They need you in service. Change and ask for the head waiter,’ he threw an apron at him and gave Michael’s work suit the once-over. ‘Just change in the honey wagon...’ The chef pointed at a double-ended toilet trailer at the edge of the support vehicles, ‘… In your own time...’
Michael sponged-down the arms and front panels of his suit and stretched them out to dry under the hand dryer. He slicked his hair with gel he’d found in a waiter’s back-pack and stared at his own reflection, making faces and studying his profile. He rubbed his overlapping front teeth, testimony of school fights and substandard Northern dentistry. He took a hit from the hip flask he’d hidden from Tracy and departed the stinking van for the floral wedding.
He distinguished himself as a guest by breaking the first of the two rules that Tracy demanded. Taking two champagne flutes from a waiter’s tray, he drank the first in one nervous hit. He placed the empty glass down and held onto the other with the intention of keeping it full. From the side-lines, he watched the smarter guests arrive - wealthy types he tried to avoid but bumped into as he meandered between the house and the marquees.
In one of the tents Michael stood upright against the bar checking the exit points. As with the showy-off footballers houses, he held no interest with formal society weddings he unofficially attended, either. He’d seen pictures of these in the magazines Tracy commandeered from doctors waiting rooms and maternity clinics - weddings of politicians and the like - but he could never understand what all the fuss was about. He was however grateful Tracy hadn’t witnessed this version of the high-end as it would give her another impossible goal with his already spent, but unclaimed inheritance. He also knew that here she would only stand out like a clown at a funeral.
He leant against the bar, swallowed the second glass of Champagne and looked for distinguishing characteristics in the guests faces. A middle-aged woman smiled and beckoned him over from across the lawn. Michael waved back and moved away, still sober enough to remember Tracy’s second rule about not entering into small talk with the guests. Even as a key player in this most intimate of family gatherings he knew nobody, and nobody knew him.
Thanks for reading The man who wan*ked his way to Greece! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.