Tuesday, 12 May 2015
'Clients fight amongst themselves to hand over thousands of dollars to get you to look at their site and these schmucks have you working for free?!' Barkus held the phone away from his ear as his old friend burst into laughter. He was sitting on the bed in a motel room, his suitcase still lying on the dresser.
'You better make the best of this Roger,' he warned when the hoots turned into wheezes. 'If I come back up there and I'm still lapping you on projects there will be no mercy.'
'At least I know what's going on in my projects John,' Roger batted back. 'Do you even know when they're breaking ground on most of yours?'
'Hey, by the time they break ground my job's done,' Barkus said airily. The returning snort travelled 700 kilometres and lost none of its derision.
'So how are you doing down there John?' Roger asked carefully after a pause. Barkus lay back and stared at the ceiling fan.
'Its so weird being back in a small town again.' he confessed. 'I know you wouldn't get it, big city boy that you are.' Barkus could imagine the shrug and half-smile that would have been delivered with Roger's 'meh'. 'And thanks to this bloody Judge I'm stuck here until the job gets done.' He was expecting a jibe or maybe another howl of laughter but all he got was a pregnant silence. 'What's going on Rog?'
'Lots of things are going on John, that's what life in the big city is all about.' Barkus could hear the clink of ice in glass, hear the rhythm of cigar-smoking and suddenly wanted more than anything to be sitting in Roger's study with nothing to do but drink and discuss whatever topics two old friends could devise. He sighed.
'What's going on that you don't want to tell me about?'
'There are a lot of things in the big..'
'Gina came to see me today.'
'She's looking, well. She's healing well. She was asking about you.'
In the ringing silence, Barkus closed his eyes.
'So I told her the news.' They snapped open.
'You did what?'
'Well, I should say that I corrected her version of events.' Barkus groaned and covered his eyes with his elbow. 'There's a hundred and one stories for your apparent disappearance up here you know. Some serious damage control has been necessary.'
'Nope, you got them all covered before you left, so that side has been okay. The number of future clients looking specifically for you has dropped but that's what happens when people hear that you're on a sabbatical.'
'Oh yeah? Is that what I'm on?' Barkus started breathing again.
'Officially, yes. Much easier to gloss over, you know.'
'So what about Gina, Roger?' Pause. Sigh.
'She wanted to talk to you John. She wouldn't tell me why, just that she needed to talk to you when you're ready for it.'
'When I'm ready for it?' Barkus paused, staring at himself in the mirror, then turned his back and downed the whole thing, throwing it in the trashcan.
'Yeah, I'd say she remembers the hospital pretty clearly, despite the pain meds she was on.' Silence. Roger sighed. 'Look John, I'm not going to pretend that I know what you're going through. I'm not going to pretend that I have any answers for you.' Barkus stared at the cracks on the wall. 'But you need to start resolving this. I don't care who you find yourself able to talk to, you have got to start getting this shit off your chest. I know that you cant talk to me like you need to,' Barkus winced at the gentle reproach. 'But you need to talk to somebody.'
Roger, sitting 700 kilometres away in his comfortable study with his feet towards the fire, finest scotch in his hand and a top-dollar cigar smouldering in the ashtray, listened to his friend sigh down the phone.
'Thanks Roger, I'll call tomorrow when I have a more permanent spot.'
'Alright John. Sleep well.'
'You too.' Click.
Barkus sighed as he hung up and stared out at the glowing MOTEL sign, looked around the sparse, darkened room, grabbed his coat and slammed the door behind him.
'Well there's the fella you want right there Sheryl,' Barkus heard when he sat down at the bar. He looked around and saw Jim leading a scrawny woman towards him. 'This guy is in charge of the new beds, so I'm sure he'll resolve your problems. John Barkus, this is Sheryl Monroe, she's got something to talk about with you.' Barkus looked apprehensively at the woman who stood, staring at him while Jim continued to his post. She was clutching books to her chest and “clutch” was the word. When they were placed lovingly on the bar, Barkus half expected to find nail-prints on the covers.
'I hear you're the man re-doing the beds,' she said without preamble, almost perching on a stool, giving the impression of trying to keep as far away from Barkus as possible while still speaking to him. 'I have a design for you.' Barkus paused at this, he hadn't really thought about it in any depth yet.
'Oh yes,' he said noncommittally, accepting a beer from Jim with a nod. She was, he decided, almost like a rabbit that was determined to stare down a rattlesnake. All nerves, but she clearly had something on her mind that was keeping her there.
'Yes, you see there's a bit of a dilemma here,' she told him seriously.
'Yes, and the dilemma is, we as a town need a functional, useful square and you as a stranger coerced into a distasteful task, are determined to get out as soon as possible.' Barkus paused with the beer at his lips, then shrugged and said;
'That's as accurate a summary as any I suppose.' He took a pull and noticed that she relaxed slightly when he wasn't looking directly at her. So he kept his gaze in the middle distance of the bar and asked, 'So what kind of design are we talking about here, doodles? Text descriptions?' He only realized after he said it how harsh he was being, but the woman pulled a sheaf of papers out of a briefcase like she hadn't noticed.
Fwhump! Barkus' jaw dropped when he examined the first page, then the second and finally rifled through the whole pile. There were minutely detailed AutoCAD plans including power, sewer and phone lines, sun angles, wind directions, preferential views, lists of plant species and best locations and even, near the end, a deceptively delicate pagoda with materials lists and recommendations for suppliers.
'What, what is all this?'
'My design.' She said it matter-of-factly. 'Its an improved version of what I submitted to the Committee last time. When Paul Taylor did it.' Her voice went flat on the last sentence.
'I thought Gus did the work,' Barkus glanced up as he continued exploring the papers.
'Oh, he set up and planted the beds with the local kids from the school and did his best to maintain it but it was all Paul's.' Barkus' fingers caressed a diagram of a water feature that would provide the sound and sparkle of rushing water and still be useful as part of an irrigation system. In his minds eye, he could see it all as a complete unit and made his decision. But first...
'How did you get the idea for all of this?' She motioned to the set of books on the bar.
'Its an, interest of mine.' Barkus glanced at one of the books as she went on, but it was the design he was interested in. 'It's a design concept called Permaculture. It's, a great many things to a great many people and can be adapted to any space and human need. In this instance I'm taking the unused space in the middle of the town and adapting it so that people will want to spend time there together.' Barkus nodded absently, but he had already seen that in the diagrams. Each part of the large-ish space was occupied and yet seemed open. The central pagoda, big enough to contain a band of musicians, drew the eye towards it from every angle without jarring into view and when a band played, people would be able to see them from nearly everywhere on the green.
'This is, ' he rifled through the pages continuously as he sought the right word. 'Stunning.' He looked up to see... 'I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name.'
'Sheryl,' she said through the pleased blushes. 'Sheryl Monroe. And thank you.'
'I'm only telling it like I see it. But I'm not familiar with some of these terms here,' he automatically moved towards her to show what he meant, but she suddenly hopped up and started moving towards the door.
'The, the books I brought will explain everything.' she looked down at the briefcase in her hands and thrust it towards Barkus. He took it gently and she flushed red. 'You, you m-might find that useful.' Without another word, she turned and ran for it. Barkus stared at the swinging door, then looked at the briefcase, and then at the books.
'What a town.'
'Sheryl gave you some of her books?' Jim asked, astonished when Barkus recounted the events.
'Yes, but then she up and ran.'
'But she actually gave you, her books?' Jim persevered. Barkus paused for a moment.
'Tell me why that's the most interesting part of the story.'
'Cos she never lets anyone so much as touch her books.'
'The whole, up and running bit is, a bit more common then?' Jim looked pensively at the door, then round at the otherwise empty bar.
'Sheryl grew up here. Her mama ran off when she was three, her dad did a good job of raising her, for a while anyway. When she was 10, a drunk driver pushed him off the road. Grandparents took over full-time until she was 15, when they died. Ethel, the Gramma fell and broke her hip, though it was being stuck in the hospital that killed her. He followed her three weeks later.' Jim sighed. 'Never saw the heart being cored so thoroughly out of a man until I saw Zachariah Monroe without Ethel by his side.' Jim shook his head and the hollow place twinged in Barkus' chest. 'Sheryl took it as best as you could hope for, really. She went to live with Lynn and her parents. They were such best friends at that point that she was like Marie Robert's daughter already. She went to get legal custody of Sheryl since no-one could reach the mother or even knew if she was alive or dead. ' Jim stopped and sighed.
'She didn't get custody, I take it.'
'The Judge was about to give Sheryl to Marie, when the mother walked in and demanded custody, right there and then. What could the Judge do? The law is weighed towards biological parents, he had to hand Sheryl over. The mother didn't even let the poor girl say goodbye properly, just grabbed a bag of clothes and took her off.'
'When did she come back?' Barkus prompted gently when Jim seemed to get lost in thought.
'About 8 years ago,' Jim sighed again and Barkus felt the shadows get darker. 'She came back, different.' He got up and went to get Barkus another beer, even though there was still a third in his bottle. Barkus thought the man just needed a distraction right that minute. 'I went to school with Sheryl Monroe, she was one of those kids that got enthusiastic about everything, like everything. And wanted everyone to have fun. She was so friendly, and open and caring, and just wanted...' Jim's words trailed off, his eyes watching those times with a faint smile on his lips. 'And then she left,' he finished abruptly. 'And when she came back,' Jim's voice turned cold and hard. 'I don't know what happened to her, but there's a few things I can guess and if I ever catch hold of anyone who did those things to her, I'll go to Hell smiling.'
Right on cue, engines roared outside and were shut down and suddenly, the dark atmosphere was gone. Jim moved to where some glasses were drying and, grabbing a cloth, started polishing them to a brilliant shine.
'How's Jim?' roared a huge, redheaded man in biker leathers, leading a straggling group of fellow leather-wearers. Immediately the bar became full of light and laughter. Barkus gathered the papers and books together, picked up the briefcase and moved to a booth table with a decent pool of light. In setting up, he noticed that there was more in the case and pulled out...
'A writing pad?' Also, highlighters, an assortment of pens and page markers. On pulling out the post-it pad, he saw that written on the top sheet was a short note. 'I thought these may prove useful. In return I ask that you do not write on my books. Sheryl.'
John grinned, opened the fresh writing pad, took up a pen and began going through the papers properly.