There were plenty of seats on the tube. At least that was one good thing about leaving the office at ten o’clock in the morning.
Leaving the office for good, carrying a cardboard box. One small box, was that really all he had to show for five years of his life? One small box and the smallest redundancy payment the bank could get away with.
Charlie knew the recession had begun to bite, even in his rather obscure corner of the City, and if they were going to make people redundant, he was always going to be right up there at the top of the list. Charles (as he was known in the office) had never been what you would call a high flier. He knew, and they knew, that he was only really there because his father had been a senior partner back in the day. He just wasn’t cut out for the ruthless wheeling and dealing, he was just too nice. Now that Charles senior had retired, the bank had no reason to keep him.
Charlie sat down in the half empty carriage, put his box on his knees and closed his eyes. His first thoughts were of his father. How on earth was he going to tell his parents that he was a failure, again. He’d already failed his Common Entrance, failed to get into the first fifteen and failed to follow his brothers up to Cambridge. He opened his eyes and gazed down glumly at his feet.
There was mud on his shiny black shoes from when he’d scuttled across the scruffy park between his office and the Underground. He stared at it, suddenly fascinated. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been muddy. He used to love playing outside as a child, sneaking through the gate at the bottom of the garden and into the fields and woods beyond. Now his only playground was the wine bar on a Friday night, and he couldn’t go back there. The friends he’d always suspected of laughing at him behind his back wouldn’t bother to hide their contempt if he showed his face there now.
The automated announcement interrupted his thoughts:
“The next station is Kings Cross. Change here for mainline rail services”
Mainline rail, brilliant, he’d catch a train. He couldn’t face going back to the flat and he didn’t even like London particularly.
Charlie’s heart was beating faster now and he felt a shiver run through him that could be fear or excitement, he wasn’t sure which. He got off the tube and made his way up the escalator, still clutching his box. It was awkward getting it through the barrier, and when he reached the station concourse he peered into it with fresh eyes. Did he really need the leather bound desk diary or crystal paperweight?
He spotted a young lad sitting on the ground with a dirty hat containing a few coins laid out optimistically in front of him.
“Here you are,” Charlie gave the startled youth the box, and then his BlackBerry vibrated in his pocket.
“Hang on a sec,” he struggled with bitten nails to pull the phone apart and extract the SIM card, “you might as well have this too.” He tossed the phone into the box.
“Cheers mate,” the lad grinned at Charlie who walked off happily unencumbered.
Charlie looked up at the departure board for inspiration. Cambridge? Definitely not; but a Grand Central train to Yorkshire, that sounded more promising. He bought a ticket for an astonishing sum. When did it start costing hundreds of pounds to go on a train?
The train had a name “Ashley Jackson – The Yorkshire Artist” which made Charlie smile though he’d never heard of the man. There were only a few people scattered about the carriage and Charlie paused to study the scenic print screwed to the wall before making himself comfortable in a window seat. The train company’s magazine lay on the table in front of him and he flicked through it, contemplating the pictures of glorious scenery promoting “James Herriott Country”. It was warm and quiet and the movement of the carriage as the train left London and headed north soon rocked Charlie into a gentle doze. As usual he’d been up since before six to reach the office at the unnecessarily early hour demanded by his boss. Charlie could never understand why long hours were worn as a badge of honour and not a sign that you were inefficient.
He woke with a start when the snack trolley rattled down the aisle. He bought a coffee and a sandwich and blew on the scalding drink thoughtfully as he looked out of the window. There were fields as far as the eye could see, some with crops that he could not identify (what was the difference between wheat and barley?) and others with animals that he could – definitely cows.
He felt better already, released from the confines of the city, all he needed now was a plan. He picked up the magazine again.
By the time the train pulled into Wakefield Westgate he had a plan, of sorts anyway. At the back of the magazine was a feature on this Ashley Jackson, who was apparently famous for painting the moors around his home village of Holmfirth. If Charlie believed in signs, they seemed seemed to be pointing in one direction, so Holmfirth it was. Quite what he’d do when he got there was another matter.
He found the bus he needed, an elderly double decker. He was the only passenger in a three piece suit and brogues, and he got some strange looks as he boarded. He sat by the window and waited to see what would happen.
The bus swayed alarmingly as it pulled out of the station. Charlie settled back to watch the foreign world of dark stone buildings and dramatic hills unfolding outside. He soon became aware that he himself was being watched. A small boy in the seat in front had turned around and fixed him with a solemn gaze. Charlie gazed back, then felt in his pocket, and extracted a packet of Polos. He offered one to the boy who grinned and quickly put it in his mouth. Charlie worried he’d done the wrong thing when the boy’s mother turned her head, but she just smiled and made him say thank you.
The gaps between stops grew longer and the bus was heading up onto the moors. Just when it felt like the engine must surely expire with the strain of the climb they reached the top of the pass and Charlie stared out, entranced. The hills stretched on forever, green and brown and purple under the leaden sky, and the bus began to descend again.
The next stop was a stone shelter seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but the woman and her child looked like they were getting off. She stood the boy in the aisle as she picked up her shopping but he did not follow her to the door. Instead he took his thumb out of his mouth and held out his hand to Charlie.
“Come on mister,” he said, so Charlie took the sticky hand and went. The boy jumped from the bus and pulled Charlie down with him, so that he stumbled untidily at the woman’s feet.
She put down her bags and looked at him with eyebrows raised.
“Is this Holmfirth?” Charlie ventured hopefully. All he could see around him was moorland and a long low dry stone wall with an open gate set into it.
“Not quite.” She pointed past the rapidly receding bus towards the valley several miles away.
The little boy tugged at his raincoat. “We live down there,” he said.
Charlie looked through the gate down a muddy track to a cluster of small farm buildings. An old man emerged from a barn and stomped up the track towards them. The wooden gate had the words Top Farm carved into it, and propped up against it was a handwritten sign that said simply “help wanted”.
“Grandad!” the boy smiled happily as the man reached the gate. He picked up the shopping and then turned to Charlie, looking him up and down but saying nothing.
Charlie took a deep breath and then stepped forwards. He sank ankle deep into the glorious, rich mud which covered his shiny shoes and silk socks. He grinned at the stunned farmer and stretched out his hand:
“My name is Charlie, I’m here about the job.”