Deepak walked in the door of the Toolbox. It was the in-between hours of Wednesday evening, which meant the days workers were strolling home to their respective homes after a "cheeky one or two" and the bar staff were trying to look industrious with only a few customers in the bar and the lounge empty. They chatted in hushed, almost reverential tones, like deciding who would be going to go for a smoke first, before the evenings rush that brought the darts team and the pub quiz players that sat in the lounge and would argue over the finer points of the Greek Mythology section that laid them low last week.
The Engineers Toolbox was the most popular pub in New Hill. It opened not long after the aerospace factory started production after the Second World War. It was toward the centre of Cheapside, on the main road that led out to the factory gates. Those gates had once been open, with hundreds of proud workers pouring in and out, on shift and making parts for planes all over the world. The workers from the factory adopted the pub as their own and at the height of production at the factory, boasted three football teams, two rugby sides, pool teams, skittles teams, darts teams, quiz sides, a choir and a hotly contested cribbage league. It was set off from the road with a large beer garden with a swing set and slide for kids to play on. There was a car park which had seen it's fair share of drunken brawls and fumbles after kicking out time.
Inside Deepak noticed that since his last visit the pub had seen some decoration. Gone were the melamine tables with the shelf underneath and cheap chairs with plastic upholstery. The yellow (brown in places) smoke stained walls had been repainted an eggshell blue, long pine tables with stools and chairs ran along the length of the bar room, with leather sofas in the corners and low tables boasting menus for pub food and jugs of very alcoholic cocktails, propped up by shining metal condiment sets. The walls were adorned with black and white photographs of the factory in its heyday, glass frames filled with spanners and screwdrivers. Blueprints and aeroplane switch gear were sealed into the low tables in glass boxes. Two large propellers hung from the high ceiling, and painted on the wall in neat italics next to the bar was a short story of the factory which was bittersweet at best. The factory had been closed for fifteen years now and developers had been threatening to build a new housing estate on the land, but due to the credit crunch, things had gone quiet on that front.
Deepak walked to the bar where a young woman with pink dye in her blonde hair was waiting impatiently for the other member of the bar staff to come back from his cigarette so she could phone her friends while smoking. He thought he saw her eyes roll imperceptibly as he approached, but was greeted with a cheery hello and "What could I get you?"
"I'll have a Guinness please." he said. "This place has changed a bit since I was last here. New owners or something?" The natural salesman in Deepak was always near the surface, looking for the pertinent information and filing it away for later use, when he had something to sell. He had already noticed that the snacks behind the bar were ones he carried in his stores and was sure he could cut a better deal than the owner currently had.
The barmaid poured the drink and didn't look up while replying, telling Deepak that she had answered this question a few times before. "The landlords father used to work at the factory and left a large amount of money in his will to his son with the specific request that it was used for redecoration here. I like it, do you?"
"It's certainly a lot more upmarket than what it was when I used to drink illegally here back in the day. Thanks" He handed her a ten pound note and with a smile said "Keep the change, one for yourself, yes?" He knew he'd caught her eye. Instinct told him that a couple more tips might get him some blonde and pink haired company in the guest house he was staying in near the centre of town. Deepak enjoyed women immensely. He loved the chase and conquest. He was good at it too, but always lost interest after the fact. Once the sex part was over, he started to compare and contrast with Elaine and that always favoured the schoolboy love affair. He walked to one of the benches and sat down to wait for his old Newey mates and found himself referring to The Rule. The rule was easy; you can only sleep with women that were half your age plus eight years. So, the youngest woman that Deepak could sleep with according to The Rule was twenty eight. Pink Highlights looked barely older than twenty one, so he decided to rein it in and pursue it no longer. The Rule kept you honest and out of a lot of awkward mornings after, when both parties realised that after sex, there was absolutely no common ground for conversation, just a "Well, that was great... We should do it again sometime... Do you need cab fare?"
He was lost in this reverie when someone put a shiny new ten and a five pence piece on the table, next to his drink. "'Ullo Dee. Got sweets?" Dee smiled and without looking up, fished in his jacket pocket and pulled out a small white paper bag filled with an assortment of jelly sweets and put them next to the coins then palmed the silver coins into his jeans in a movement that even though had not been used in years, was so deeply entrenched in muscle memory took a second at best. "You can have two bags for 25 pence, four for 40. That's good discount. What do you say?" He looked up.
Looming large in his vision was the formidable figure of Kevin Jones. Six feet four, about 17 and a half stone with hands like spades. A gigantic smile shone through his bearded face and before Dee knew it he was picked up in an immense bear hug with the shout of "Mate! Bloody good to see you!" Kevin Jones, or Rugby Kev as he was better known in Newey was as his nickname suggested, an ex rugby player. Mother from south wales valleys mining stock and father from a long line of english farmers, he was born to play rugby and did to a professional level. Captain of the rugby team from the age of 14 (the youngest ever pupil to be named so as he was six feet tall even then) he left Newey with a professional contract with Gloucester RFC and played there at Loose Head Prop till his retirement about five years ago. He never got to play for a national side much to his mother and fathers chagrin, but even when Kev was at the height of his career, the selectors for both Wales and England always seemed to pass him by. To this day, rugby fans in pubs the country over are still bemused as to why he never got an international cap.
"Let me go you big oaf!" laughed Deepak, as Kev finally relented, opened the sweets and tucked in with gusto. "Cola bottles! Champion Dee, just champion. So who else is coming?"
"Well, I put he feelers out and I think we'll see Susie Phillips, Ani Nakamura and Dave Brook. Maybe Derek Jordan too. Basically, I had a look at the list of the folk who had RSVP'd to the Reunion thing and left a message saying that I'd be here today and tomorrow asking if anyone fancied a pint or two to come along. Kind of a pre Reunion um... Reunion. For want of a better phrase. Those four and you were the only ones to confirm that they could make it."
"Sounds great, but well..." Kevin blushed furiously, "You see, Ani and I aren't really seeing eye to eye. I might have to make myself scarce if she comes. I wouldn't want to make things awkward you know." Even though Kev was well known as being completely uncompromising on a rugby pitch and had no qualms smashing opposition players asunder in rucks and mauls, he was actually quite a sensitive soul and could be quite shy at times. His enormous presence belied the gentle giant inside.
"Why Kev, what's the problem?" Deepak was concerned for his friend. Kevin was a diamond guy, he couldn't imagine him arguing with anyone ever, especially the tiny Ani Nakamura, genial host at the Bamboo Garden japanese restaurant just outside of town.
Kevin looked up from his drink, genuine sadness on his face. His brown eyes would have melted the heart of anyone at that moment. "Ani and I were an item a few years back and it was great you know? She's fantastic, funny... I know you haven't probably seen her since school, but she's really beautiful now. Runs her own business and well, she's everything I ever wanted. I'd marry her right now, this moment, if she'd let me."
"So what happened?"
"I fucked it up." Kev sighed. "I did something really stupid. We had been together for about three years and my career was coming to an end. My back and knees were creaking more and more every game and the doctors were begging me to stop. The club stepped in and well, basically enforced my retirement from the game. I have arthritis all over the shop now, and it's only going to get worse as I get older. Gloucester offered me a testimonial against an invitational side and there was a big party afterwards. Ani couldn't come as her restaurant was just taking off and she was working all hours. The booze was flowing and there was this girl, she's the receptionist at the club office. I knew she had a soft spot for me, but I never did anything, she was a bit too young you know? Maybe about ten - twelve years younger?"
"Oh Kev, you tit." Deepak could see where this was going.
"I know! Don't you think I know?" Kev raised his voice, prompting a raised eyebrow from his friend.
"Sorry Dee." he stared into the middle distance. "We got caught by a couple of revellers in the changing rooms. The news shot around the party like wildfire. It was really sordid in the end. Trousers and knickers around our ankles, sweating and grunting on the cold floor. Natalie, that was her name, was mortified and resigned from the club the next Monday morning. She moved from Gloucester too. It was awful. It's such a shame too, she was a really nice person. It's amazing what wine and beer do to you and your inhibitions... That's why I've knocked it on the head completely now." He indicated the orange juice in front of him.
"Kev. I'm gutted for you. How did Ani find out?"
"I don't exactly know to be honest. We weren't living together even then. Planning to, been out to look at houses and everything. The next morning I went over with the full intention of telling her and begging her forgiveness. She already knew. One of the people who saw us took a photo and it had found it's way to her phone. I still don't know who sent it and she never told me. I wish I did though, I'd wring their bastard neck." Deepak shuddered inside at the thought of Rugby Kev coming at you, enormous fists clenched and in a bad mood. It didn't bear thinking about.
"All my stuff that was at Ani's was in the street when I got there. Everything I had ever bought her too. The tiniest things cut like knives; picture frames, keepsakes like theatre ticket stubs, my old Newey Rugby jersey she used to wear to bed." There were tears in his eyes now, Deepak could see he was completely heartbroken. "She was so furious, Dee. I had done the worst thing. We loved each other so much."
"Alright Kev, if this is difficult mate..." Kevin obviously hadn't talked about this to anyone at this length and wanted to finish the sad tale.
"I banged on the door, calling her name. I was in bits, you know? She came out eventually and after tearing me off a strip, fully deserved I know, she punched me full in the mouth. It hurt like merry hell and I have been hit hard a few times over the years let me tell you mate. Broke my tooth, too. Had to get a crown and everything."
"Bloody Hell Kev. That's awful. I'm really sorry. Look, if she comes, I'll speak to her and batter on about business stuff. You can chat to the other guys. I know Dave Brook used to be a rugby fan, probably still is. I'm sure he'd like a story or two." He patted his old friends shoulder and with a cheeky grin. "Come on sunshine, cheer up. I didn't come all the way here from the Big Smoke just to be bummed out by a lumpy old bastard like you."
"Cheeky shit." Kevin took a deep breath and wiped his eyes but managed a grin too.
Deepak looked at his watch, "Where is everyone? It can't be just us.." As he did the door swung open and several people came in at once. There was David Brook, Susie Phillips, blonde and laughing at some joke told by the diminutive, (but very attractive, Kev was right on the money there) Ani Nakamura on the other side of the door. Jane Beazer (now Green) was there too and Derek Jordan. Deepak and Kevin stood up and then there were shouts of recognition, hugs and kisses and talk of who wanted what to drink. Deepak made a bee line for Ani, gushing about being self employed and ushered her and Susie to the bar ordering red wine by the bottle. David, Jane and Derek were already showing photos of kids and family to each other on their phones. David it seemed, was still a big rugby fan and was pressing Kevin for stories already.
They settled down at the table and chatter continued for a few hours and one by one, as the evening drew to its close, folk took their leave and Dee and Kevin were left looking at each other over the table.
"Not so bad was it Kev?" said Deepak, finishing off a bag of cola bottles.
"Not really, no." Kevin smiled. "You know, she even said hello. Nothing else, but hello all the same."
"See? That's a good thing. Think time is a healer maybe?"
"Christ no." Kevin shook his head in resignation. "That ship has sailed."
"Glass half full, Rugby Kev. Glass half full." Deepak grinned at his old friend. "Come on mate, seeing as you are the only one that hasn't been drinking, you can give me a lift back to the guest house."
When Deepak got out of Kevin's car and bade him goodnight, exchanging phone numbers and sundry internet connection addresses he noticed a man in a Harrington jacket standing on the corner looking at his watch and holding a phone to his ear. Probably phoning a cab he thought. Harrington jackets, blimey. I used to have one of those he thought. And there was another kid in school who had one too. He couldn't remember his name though. No matter, he walked up to the front door of the guest house and went in.
The man in the Harrington jacket stayed on the corner for about five more minutes. Then he wrote something down on a small notepad that he put back in the inside pocket of his jacket. He crossed the road and got into a silver car. One you wouldn't even notice really. Nothing flashy. The lights of the car went on, then off, then on again. The car started and drove off.