N.K. Woods worked in financial services for years but left the world of business behind to study Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.
She received her MSc in 2018 and has since had stories appear in The Honest Ulsterman, Storgy, Tir na nOg, The Galway Review, Silver Apples Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, The Cabinet of Heed, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Ogham Stone, and elsewhere. She lives in Ireland.
One for the Album
By the time Toby and Jack pulled their bikes into a gateway opposite a pub, a short line of cars had formed behind them. One driver threw a reproachful hand in the air as she whizzed by, while a man in a delivery van blasted his horn as he picked up speed.
‘Bloody numpties,’ muttered Jack. ‘What’s their rush? Don’t they know there’s nowhere to go?’
‘Could be they’re escaping,’ chuckled Toby, wiping sweat from his face. ‘It must’ve been zero craic round here even before-’ He broke off as he remembered what exercise and camaraderie had briefly pushed from his mind. Sighing, he propped his bike against the gate, removed his helmet and dropped onto the grassy verge. He flexed his sore muscles, glanced up at his friend – a cycling-club mate and neighbour – and asked, ‘How are you feeling?’
Jack didn’t reply. With the way he was standing, stock-still with his bike balanced between his legs and his head cocked to one side, he appeared to be listening intently, although not to his partner in crime. But there was nothing to hear apart from the occasional chirp from birds hidden in the trees that lined the road. There was nothing much to see either, only the pub, a pretty but unremarkable building with stone walls, green shutters, hanging baskets and a chalkboard by the door. Toby wished they could go inside. After 50km he needed a pick-me-up. Longing for a coffee, he reached for his water but stopped with the bottle at his lips when Jack asked if someone had died.
Before Toby could think of a reply that wasn’t depressing, Jack went on, ‘Someone important, I mean. The flag in the carpark is at half-mast.’
From his seated position, Toby had to strain his neck to get a proper look. He took off his sunglasses and studied the carpark. It was situated to the side of the pub and was empty; two of the three poles at its entrance were empty too, but the third carried the national flag. There was no breeze so the material lay lank against the pole.
‘Must’ve been a politician or a bigwig,’ said Jack, before listing a few likely candidates.
But there’d been nothing on the news about a public figure dying; Toby would have heard. He’d taken to keeping the radio on for company and turned the volume up every hour for the headlines. And at lunchtime, teatime and bedtime he watched the main TV bulletins. But could he have missed a breaking story since leaving the house? The thought of not knowing what was happening made him nervous so he pulled the waterproof pouch containing his phone from the pocket in the back of his jersey. He was unzipping the pouch when Jack erupted.
The belly laugh caught Toby by surprise. He couldn’t remember the last time Jack had found anything even slightly amusing.
‘Only in the sticks! Bloody hell, Tobes.’ Jack lowered his bike to the ground, squashing a patch of daffodils in the process. ‘It’d be offensive if it wasn’t so funny. A pub in mourning because no one’s getting served! I’ve got to get a picture. It’ll crack people up.’ He charged across the road with the enthusiasm of a teenager about to snag an image that would win him hundreds of likes.
Unconvinced by Jack’s interpretation of the flag situation, Toby took out his phone to do some research. First, though, he checked his messages. There was a new group WhatsApp – an invitation to a virtual quiz night sent by a colleague from the museum. He didn’t need to be asked twice. He responded with a thumbs up and then checked his email. Nothing from work. And no missed calls. No one needed him so he turned his attention to the news. As he scrolled though his favourite sites, he found plenty of breaking stories but there was nothing truly new to see.
Dragging himself back to the task at hand, he ran a search that combined the pub’s name with the keywords half-mast and flag. Seconds later he had his answer. With figures, predictions, advice and counter-advice dominating every publication, the story hadn’t made the actual news, but it featured on Twitter. He read a few posts, his heart sinking a little with each tribute. After a moment’s hesitation, he locked his phone and got to his feet.
‘Hang on,’ he shouted, crossing the now deserted road. ‘Best not share that.’
Jack was leaning against the wall of the pub, typing on his phone. He stopped and frowned. ‘Why not?’
It was the frown that gave Toby pause, and the memory of the call he’d received a few days earlier, the one from Helen – Jack’s wife. While she texted every evening to invite Toby out for a nightcap, she’d never phoned before. He’d answered on the first ring, afraid that someone was ill or dead.
‘You’ve got to do something, Tobes,’ she’d whispered after explaining that Jack was comatose on the sofa. ‘I’ve tried everything but he’s sinking deeper all the time. It’s the same thing every day. All he does is sleep and eat. He was already struggling with having to retire this year but now that his department’s been sent home, he’s terrified he’ll never get back to the office. The walls are closing in on him here. He thinks his life is over.’ After pausing briefly, she’d rushed on, almost tripping over the words as she said, ‘Take him out and cheer him up, please – before he loses the will to live. Bring him on a proper cycle. I know it’s wrong of me to ask but the pair of you should be grand if you avoid other people and stay outsi-’
That was as far as Helen got before Toby interrupted, saying to leave it with him. Considering how kind she and Jack had been, he felt he owed it to them to help. Without them, Toby suspected that he too would have been in danger of losing the will to live. It didn’t matter that Jack wasn’t exactly sparkling company; what mattered was that he never missed the nightcap ritual, a practice initiated by Helen when she realised Toby was alone all the time. Those pre-bed meetings – Jack and Helen on their patio and Toby on his lawn – were sanity savers. Talking to his neighbours, even while separated by the wooden fence that stood between their back gardens, was the high point of his day.
‘Why not?’ repeated Jack. ‘People will be wetting themselves when I tell them about a pub flying the flag at half-mast because it’s not allowed to open. It’s a great story.’
It was. Toby could easily imagine the caption that would accompany the picture if the story grew wings. Regulars in mourning over closed drinking hole! It was perfect clickbait, much more entertaining than the true headline, which he mentally wrote. Bachelor farmer (68) found a week after fatal fall: not missed because the pub he ate in every day was shut.
‘What makes you so sure the pub being closed and the flag being down are linked? Toby was genuinely interested in the answer but he also needed time to think. He had to keep Jack from sending out the picture as a lark but didn’t want to push him back into a funk by telling him the story of the dead farmer.
By way of answer, Jack gestured at the chalkboard. Toby hadn’t noticed the message from the other side of the road, but up close the words, written in capitals, practically jumped off the board.
WISH OUR DOORS HAD NEVER BEEN CLOSED TO YOU
‘Brilliant, isn’t it?’ said Jack, grinning. ‘Captures something, you know.’
‘It does, yeah, but maybe keep the joke to yourself.’ Before Jack could ask again for an explanation, Toby continued, ‘Think about it. There are no pubs with flagpoles close to our place, or anywhere that I know of in town. If you send that picture out, people will know you’ve been on the move. You could say someone else sent it to you, I suppose, but it’s not worth the risk. The club’s been suspending members for going too far from home. And then there’s your job. The last thing you want is the boss finding out what you’ve been up to today.’
The mention of his boss convinced Jack. He put his phone away but his grin didn’t fade. ‘Fair enough. It’s one for the album, though.’ He moved closer as if to slap Toby on the back but stopped before making contact.
‘Definitely,’ agreed Toby, settling for a thumbs up.
They retrieved their bikes from the gateway and wheeled them onto the road.
‘You okay to keep going?’ asked Jack brightly.
Toby nodded. His shoulders ached and his legs were stiff but he didn’t complain. Instead he secured his phone without checking it, put his sunglasses on and got back in the saddle.