Maewyn's Prophecy: A Heart Aflame, page 7
He dropped his bag and settled back upon the sagging bed redolent of stale smoke and the faint sweetness of vomit not completely washed away. Charming. Despite hours of droning, nodding sleep along the way, he felt himself sinking fast.
The morning revealed itself as an unavoidable new beginning, a trial, but not one that could be denied. He’d decided to come back into his body first to hide from Roman’s advances and then to flee. He was stuck with that choice, as cowardly as it might be.
He found the shared bathroom, the door helpfully labeled in broad felt-tip pen. A shower, dirty enough not to linger in, and a change of underwear left him prepared for breakfast. His body’s influence re-established, he was actually hungry for the first time in weeks.
The matronly proprietress nodded a terse welcome and shuffled out back. A couple sat at the other table, necking in a way no man needs to see that early, making wet sucking noises and breaking off only to mutter plans to visit the ‘plague’ museum display, or see the “Book of Kells.”
Breakfast was a fixed menu, it seemed. But Archer’s salivary glands sprang to life with painful haste at the surprising palatability of what arrived on a plain white plate. Two buttered baps, eggs over-easy, and thick rashers of good bacon. He tried to take enough time to enjoy it, but hunger prevailed. Stuffing the bacon in each roll melted the thick layer of real butter, and the lot was gone in moments. He managed to pour a cup of coffee and fill it up with as much milk and sugar as he dared before dealing with the egg. He could have eaten twice as much, but he had to concede it was a fair breakfast. With another, slower coffee, he hoped that would be enough that he would feel full ’til way after lunch.
He stepped out onto the street with only the vaguest of ideas, heading into town. Somewhere there he could find an employment office. He couldn’t go for the unemployment benefit, not with a domestic partner on the record, but he could use the job listings. Anything would do so long as it paid quick cash.
Somewhere on the bending road, he took a wrong turn and ended up on a suburban street that only seemed to cant further off course. He paused a moment, digging in his pocket for the folded-up map. There was a white truck parked beside him, and a man coming round from the back all but ran him over with a wheelbarrow. It was loaded up with far too many flagstones, which immediately started to slide loose.
Archer made a grab for the stack. “Easy, mate,” he said. “Back it up a bit.” He tried to steady the pile, but there was no way this guy was getting it to the house like that. “You’d better take some of those off,” he said. “Better than breaking some if they come off.”
The young man set the legs of the wheelbarrow down flat and looked at his impossible load with consternation.
“Oh, hell,” mumbled an older guy coming around from behind the house. “Show some sense, Kerry. We may have no time to waste, but smashing up the flags isn’t going to help any.” This all delivered in an amiable rumble that robbed it of any hint of threat or rebuke.
“I could, ah, help out?” Archer offered hesitantly.
“Oh, yeah?” The older bloke fixed him with appraising eyes set in deep, baggy sockets.
“Forty bucks for all day; if you don’t think I earned it, you don’t have to pay up.”
“Got any training or experience with construction?”
“No, but I’m fit and pretty good at figuring things out.” Archer all but bit his lip, trying not to push it. He could hardly believe his luck. The old guy reached out his hand; it enveloped Archer’s like a sandpaper-covered mitt.
“You might want to use work gloves. There’s some in the cab. Kerry, here, will tell you what needs shifting. Tell me when it’s done. I’ll be out back.”
Archer guessed his price had been a bit low, but if one day’s work paid for two days lodgings, he would be ahead of the game, at least, with the job centre still there as a backup.
“Hey,” Archer said to Kerry, watching for any sign his intrusion was resented. But Kerry’s open face suggested nothing of the sort.
“This ’un and the rest in the back need to go and be stacked on the back patio. Then I’ll get the stone for the folly.”
Folly? Well, he didn’t really need to know.
“How ’bout we get them all out on the pavement. Then you can take the van for the stone while I get these out back.”
Kerry gave that logical suggestion a long moment of contemplation, then smiled. “Okay. ’Specially if it means I’m driving, not lugging these bastard things around.”
They took most of the wide, flat slabs of textured concrete out of the barrow and then worked side by side getting ten times as many out of the back of the van. Archer began to see why Kerry had been trying to cut down the number of trips he’d need to make, especially as just loading them off was getting him a bit winded. Kerry was one of those blokes who looked big but more of it was flab than muscle.
He was also, despite being amiable enough, obviously one of ‘those’ men. Kerry would get seven or eight flags at a time and grunt and strain moving them, rather than just take the four or five that could be carried without strain. Archer paid him no mind; if the guy wanted to think Archer was a wimp, he really didn’t give a damn -- Kerry clearly wasn’t the boss.
With a cursory “see ya,” Kerry jumped into the van and was off with a roar of showy acceleration. Archer shook his head as he settled a reasonable load flat on the old wheelbarrow and headed off down the side of the house. He was starting to sweat after a few loads and realized he’d let the van go off before getting any gloves. His hands were already starting to blister up, and he didn’t want to let it go too far. Nothing worse than broken, weeping blisters.
There was something rather pleasing about focusing on a clearly delineated job. He moved along smartly and had the lot moved before the truck had come back. He wiped his hands on his pants and looked around the overgrown back yard. It was obviously due for some serious work, with lines marked out in spray paint and string strung between short stakes driven into the ground.
At the back of the two-story stone house, there was a wood-framed conservatory. He could just see, through the reflections on the glass, that someone was inside. Putting his hand over his eyes, he tried to see who it was as he approached, then knocked gently on the door.
A stranger, a man, opened the door, but his employer was there, too, bending over some kind of plans spread out on a scarred wooden table.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Archer said. “But I’ve moved that load up here, and the truck isn’t back with the stone yet. So what should I do next?”
“Got an Aussie on the crew, Mr. Jensen?” the younger guy said. From his casual dress and expensive watch, Archer was guessing this was the client. “Good choice for casual labor; they work hard.”
“So I’ve heard. Here.” Jensen handed over a photocopied page that was clearly a plan for the garden conversion. “We need the sod cut where the flags will go so we can level and put down the sand base. Just follow the plans, and try not to damage the lawn in the areas we’re leaving to grass.”
He thrust out the paper and turned away. It seemed like a rather extensive piece of work for a guy who didn’t know a damn thing about the job, but Archer wasn’t inclined to argue. He took the copy of the plans and backed out, shutting the door behind him.
He stood and aligned the single A4 sheet to the house. This was clearly a much reduced copy of a larger blueprint. The flagstones were set out in a grid and then trailed off in three directions leading into paths that were marked with a scrawled note of ‘gravel’. At the rear of the yard, a large circular area was marked ‘gothic folly’. The positions were marks here and there in imperial units. The measurements already marked onto the lawn seemed to relate to the paths, the curved lines put done in paint and the straight ones with pegs and string.
Archer just tried to be logical about things. On one corner of the small plank deck sat a large plastic case and a few large shovels, a hoe, and implements he didn’t immediatel
Archer took a deep breath and set to it. A simple square made up the largest part of the design, so he figured he would start with that. The measurements were written in a cramped hand, but he checked he was reading them right by laboriously adding up the sixteenths and measuring the length of the deck, which was measured against the same scale. Then he marked out two ends of the squares. Considered it a moment and realized that allowed only for the exact size of the flags. Given that the joints between them wouldn’t meet exactly, an extra centimeter or so would surely be needed. He moved them out that far. Now, how to get the other points square? He pondered that a while before realizing that although there might be better ways to do it, if he made lengths of string equal to the width of the square, and another the distance it should be from the fence, the two of them ought to get him to the right place. It was a bit fiddly, but eventually he had it marked out, and it looked square and seemed to be at right angles on the corner.
Bloody hell, he hoped he’d down it right, because otherwise this guy’s lawn was going to be an awful mess. Archer grabbed the shovel with a flat, sharp-looking edge and started cutting out the edge of the shape, then sliding under to rip up the turf. After a haphazard start, he began cutting shovel-width strips and rolling the grass off. He guessed that way, if he’d fucked it up, at least he could put it back again.
Sweat had totally soaked most of his shirt, but he was working too hard to get cold. The bare brown square looked about right, but just to be sure, he laid out eight of the square flags along the deck and then down the other side. Thanks be to the gods, they seemed to fit snug inside, and if the hole was a little deep ... well, Jensen had said something about sand going in there as well.
Archer stretched his aching back and started as the boss came up behind him on the deck, holding two white mugs.
“I can tell you haven’t worked construction. You better learn better shovel technique, or you’ll do your spine in.”
Archer turned. “I, ah, hope that’s what you wanted. I was going to do the bits that go off to the paths next ...”
“I’d have stopped you if it wasn’t right. I think we can take a break now, and hopefully Kerry will find his way back so we can get the stone on site before lunch.”
He passed over a mug of what turned out to be coffee with plenty of milk and sugar. “I’m Joe Jensen,” he said by way of belated introduction. “I run a crew of two other stone masons, a couple of apprentices -- Kerry is one -- and a few regular laborers. We’re a bit stretched over three different sites right now, and I could use a bit of help, especially someone I don’t have to nanny. So tell me, how long will you be around? I’m assuming it would have to be under the table.”
“Ah, no. Actually my visa is on order to work. I’m a legal resident.”
Joe’s eyebrows crawled a fair way up his forehead. He said, “Oh, really?” in a way that suggested he was wondering what the catch was. “Well, you bring your papers in tomorrow, and we can go in the office and talk.”
By the time Kerry turned up again, they were out back of the house, and Joe was explaining what a decorative folly was. “What this bloke really needs is to see to get his chimney stack worked on before it up and falls down on someone walking past, but no, he wants a quote, Victorian folly, unquote,” Joe proclaimed, but only after making damn sure ‘he’ was nowhere within earshot. “And the talking I had to do to keep that nice oak there.”
“Do I get a coffee?” Kerry asked.
“For taking half a day to drive twelve miles? Not likely.”
Archer’s eyes had gone the oak, its girth wide enough to suggest it had a hundred years behind it, at least. And hanging on its lowest branch was a small fetish made of thread and a bored stone.
“It’s a surprise for his wife, I take it?” Archer asked.
“Yeah,” Kerry piped up. “How’d you know?”
Archer turned back and caught Joe’s eye. Joe didn’t have to ask how. The wife must be the pagan, and if she caught wind of this, there’d be no argument about keeping the tree. He knew it, and apparently Joe knew it, and now Joe knew that he knew. The one thing he hadn’t thought he’d be dealing with was practitioners -- surely if the magic doesn’t bloody work ...
Joe apparently decided not to make it a topic of conversation right off the bat.
“Let’s get that stone in,” he said.
The feeling of accomplishment flitted away in an instant when a picture of Roman flashed into Archer’s mind. The stone fetish swung accusingly on the branch. Well, if the gods existed, they oughta be able to see it anyway. He wished her luck with her entreaties. Forgetting was his plea, and he didn’t have high hopes for achieving it.
Chapter Eight: Labor
After a few days, Archer moved to a hostel near Jensen’s main office. Partly so he could catch a lift in each day, but mainly because a laborer’s wage didn’t cover a tourist’s accommodations. Jensen still didn’t seem to be getting around to the paperwork, but Archer was in no hurry. His days were starting to fall into a routine, with nothing much to spoil it but hot, sleepless nights plagued with memories -- sometimes the heat of lust, sometimes the horror of uncontrolled fire. There was also the matter of the apprentice, Kerry. He seemed nice enough, but hell, he was dumb. He didn’t seem to be able to go a whole day without making some mistake that ruined hundred of pounds worth of expensive materials, or adding another dent to the vital reinforced truck that was Jensen’s only way of moving the heavy blocks of stone he used in his building or repairs.
One of the other casuals was an Irish girl, Ingrid, who clued Archer in that Kerry was the son of one of Jensen’s old drinking buddies, but his incompetence was quickly causing a nasty rift. It was clearly weighing on the old man’s mind.
They were winding up a day’s work, adding an extension to a quaint but tiny cottage a few miles out of town. Jensen had managed to tack on a deal for a custom granite kitchen surface, and he sent Kerry back to the shop with the measurements to round the corners and cut the holes of the double sink and fixtures. He gave Kerry precise instructions and plans drawn on site with exact measurements. Kerry never seemed to quite be paying attention to anything, so Archer understood why Jensen repeated himself several times. “Make sure the rounded edges are on the correct side and the upper surface. The lower surface is not treated and so would be too porous. Make sure that before you cut, you have it right way up and right way round. We only have one slab, and we need to get it right.”
“All right, all right, I bloody heard you the first time.”
Archer winced inside, but kept well out of it. Kerry didn’t actually mean anything by his tone. It was pretty clear he’d started swearing when he’d started talking and never worked out that some people didn’t like it too much. Jensen, on the other hand, never cursed and called anyone past adolescence ‘sir’ in a manner so natural it didn’t seem at all odd.
After Kerry had driven off in the usual spray of gravel, Archer passed over the mortar he’d mixed for inspection and ventured a small observation. “You set him up.”
Jensen looked at him sharply, but after moment said, “If he ruins that stone, it’s the profit for two days gone and a delay on the job. That’s cause enough to drop him. I don’t need a prentice who’s never going to master the trade. If he does it right, then it shows I’ve been too hard on him.”
But he wasn’t going to get it right.
Jensen stirred the mortar and nodded. “It’ll do.”
Somewhere under Jensen’s quiet directions and approval, Archer had a feeling he was being measured for something. It made him pretty uncomfortable, partly because he’d pretty much sta
Together they sorted the stones and started to work on the river stone wall that would support the far side of the new garage. Fitting the natural stones together into a sturdy new shape was tricky, and the first few times Jensen let him select the next stone, Archer was quietly corrected. “Too small” “It’ll leave void here” “Not bad, but the color is too close to this one beside it.”
But after a while, he started to get a feel for it and make a few choices that were let through with just a “This one would have done as well” or grudging silence.
Then, quite casually, Jensen, stooping to shape the stiff mortar, said, “So what tradition were you raised in? My folks -- not all of them, mind -- tend towards the druid’s path, the Tyg.”
“I beg your pardon?” Archer at least knew not to say ‘what?’ or ‘huh?’ to the old man.
“You obviously came to the old ways. From your folks, or some new-age revival thing.”
“No, I just knew a guy once. He was ... is ...”
Well, just how much would it be possible to mention without risking either sounding completely fucking insane, or starting out talking about things he didn’t want to talk about?
Jensen stopped with his hand resting lightly on the humped back of the set stone. He was looking at Archer and seemed likely to keep doing it until he got the rest of the sentence.
“Um, elf,” Archer finally concluded, failing to find some other word to use. He started to smooth out the base and build up a thin layer to set the next stone into.
“Didn’t know they’d gone as far as Australia.”
“I don’t want to be rude, Mr. Jensen, but I don’t really want to talk about it.”
Jensen’s eyebrow crept up an eloquent millimeter, but he let it go at that. They worked together side by side, with hardly a word exchanged, until Kerry got back with the kitchen top custom cut, upside-down.
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