It began at a sports bar, the kind of place the realtor would call "happy-go-lucky." In other words, if your barstool wasn't sticky, assume it had just been swabbed clean by CSI. There was graffiti ... [+]
Rob and I were down the pub, drinking Guinness. There was a woman in there with a face like a fox. The whiteness of it, along with the red hair, only strengthened the impression. She shot out surly looks at everyone, but there must have been something special about me. Anytime she looked at me, her eyes narrowed and she looked extra-surly.
"Rob, let's push off," I said.
"Are you kidding? It's bloody well snowing out there."
"What you need is an Irish coffee down your neck," he said.
He stood up, a bit unsteady on his feet, and put both hands down on the table.
"I can do this thing," he said.
"Let me get it, Rob," I said.
"I can . . . I can . . . "
He sat down heavily. Looked at me.
"Would you?" he said.
He plucked a tenner and a fiver out of his pocket and handed them over. It was his round.
At the bar, the woman with the fox face came up and stood next to me. A barmaid was making the coffees.
"You got any chicken-flavoured crisps?" she called out to the barman.
"I can do you smoky bacon, love," he said.
"How come you've never got chicken?" she said.
"It's not popular, love. We're going to try curry flavour next month."
He threw the crisps down on the counter.
"And a bottle of Mad Dog," she said.
As the barmaid came over with my drinks, the woman with the fox face turned to me.
"Why don't you come over to my table when your friend falls asleep," she said, "Julie's the name."
"Mark," I said.
As she walked away with her crisps and her bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale, I noticed her body. It was like a narrow piece of wood.
Rob took the coffee and his change.
"What was that all about?" he said. "You chatting her up, or what?"
"She wants me to go over to her table when you fall asleep," I said.
"Don't do it, mate!"
"Don't fall asleep, then."
"No chance of that. Not with this little beauty sitting in front of me."
He took a sip, let out a long, appreciative sigh. Two minutes later, he had his head down on the table and was snoring peacefully.
I went on over.
"What was my name?" she said.
She said she was studying to be a nurse, but was about to drop out and switch to an art college instead.
"You?" she said.
I told her about my dull job in Trafford Park. An office job for a large manufacturing company that produced pipes and other building materials. How I was also going to quit, go travelling for two months, then go to college and get myself some A levels. When last orders came, we looked at one another.
"Let's beat it," she said.
I looked over at Rob.
"He'll survive," she said.
"I guess so," I said.
She had a car. That took me by surprise. An old, beat-up Fiat Punto. Orange in colour.
"Smart," I said, "The colour disguises the rust."
"My Dad's promised me that if I get rid of it, he'll buy me an electric," she said.
We got in. On top of the dashboard, I spotted a mini cactus, a tube of lipstick (Dior Addict), mascara (Hypnôse), a book of poetry (Elizabeth Barret Browning), and a can of Heinz baked beans.
"Cute," I said, nodding at the items.
"I prefer small handbags, but there's always some spillage."
"I can see you've never had a handbag stolen."
We drove out of town. Suddenly we were out in the country. There was more snow out there. A thick blanket. It lay over cows, horses ran about wildly trying to shake it off. Sometimes a field seemed to be moving, like those moving sand hills you hear about, only it wasn't hills of snow, but lambs, sheep, and rams mulling about.
We turned off the main road onto on a narrow path. She put the lights out and pulled over. We kissed for a while by the light of a chrome yellow moon.
"You're not the worst kisser I ever met," she said, "Not absolutely the worst, at any rate."
She opened her door and got out. I did likewise, crunching down into the snow and gravel. She headed off. I followed.
We approached a farm. A dog came up to us, barking. A light went on in an upstairs window. Julie pulled some dog biscuits out of a pocket and threw them to the ground in front of us.
"Winalot," she said. "Pooches like it, for some reason. Never could stomach the taste myself."
The dog came up and worried the biscuits, then he looked up at us and started eating. "Attaboy," Julie said.
The light went out at the farmhouse.
"No talking," Julie said.
We went farther up the path, closer to the farmhouse. On the far side, I spotted some stables. I had this idea that she was looking for a barn. That we'd end up in a hayloft, making hay as they say.
She stopped me in my tracks by putting a hand on my chest and nodding to the near side of the farmhouse.
I looked. There was a chicken coop. Wooden, with a pen. The pen enclosed by a wire fence.
"Galvanised, non-toxic wire, fox-proof," Julie said.
The chicken ladder lay on the ground. Julie approached the chicken coop's door. She put her hand in her pocket and pulled out a freezer bag. There was some kitchen roll in it. She handed me the bag. She opened the door, started taking out eggs and passing them to me. The dog came over. She threw him some more biscuits.
She looked at me.
"How many so far?"
"I usually only take eight," she said.
She passed me one more egg.
"Be very careful with them," she said.
She reached in through the door. I heard a squawk. Could see her making a twisting motion with her hands, one above the other. She pulled out a dead chicken.
"Bloody hell, Julie!"
"Shhh! Back to the car!"
We walked quickly away. I tried not to trot. She put the dead chicken in the boot and the eggs into the glove compartment. Then she smiled at me. Her first smile.
"Your place or mine?" she said.