As Grim stepped off the plane, he vowed that if someone ever accused him of being part of “The Jet Set,” he would punch them in the throat.
Contrary to Tim’s prediction, Grim had not loved flying any more than he would have loved riding in the back of one of Henry Olafson’s hog trailers for 18 hours.
Perhaps he had gone into the flight with unrealistic expectations. He’d always thought of air travel as something vaguely glamorous. He’d imagined gliding along moving walkways through soaring Pan Am Terminal-esque architectural marvels and then stepping aboard a sleek, spacious, proto-spacecraft where he would politely decline the glass of champagne that was offered to him as he took his seat in a body-hugging recliner.
Instead, he was herded through bland, beige, hospital-like environments that seemed to be constructed with the same materials and artisanal craftsmanship as Mrs. Stratton’s 40-year-old double-wide mobile home. And like Mrs. Stratton’s double-wide, everything about the airports seemed impermanent, temporary. As if nothing and nobody really belonged there. They were just a ragtag group of solitary transients, waiting for their turn to be packed into a cramped, dark, noisy, ill-smelling, flying metal tube.
The flight from New York to London had been particularly unpleasant. Grim’s seat, which seemed to be padded with nothing but a dozen wadded-up tissues, was unbelievably narrow and when the man in front of him reclined, Grim felt like a little kid in “time out” who was required to sit with his nose against the wall for eight hours. Everyone else seemed to be coping with the situation by sleeping for the duration of the flight, but he’d never really been able to fall asleep in cars and that turned out to be true of airplanes as well.
To make matters worse, since he was in a middle seat in the center section of the plane, whenever he needed to get up he had to gingerly step over the two sleeping travelers on either side of him, trying not to wake them in the process. So to avoid disturbing his seat mates repeatedly, he spent much of the flight pacing the aisles.
The flight attendants were brusque and officious, the $16 meal tasted like the plastic it came in, and the air in the plane’s cabin wasn’t recirculated as much as it was exhumed. By the time he staggered off the plane in London, his ears were numb, his eyes were bloodshot, and he had a raging headache.
As he made his way from the baggage claim area, he saw his Uncle Richard hanging back near the edge of the crowd that was greeting the new arrivals, but when he saw Grim he came forward with a huge smile and gave Grim a suffocating hug.
Grim’s Uncle Richard (or, to be more precise, his Great Uncle Richard) exemplified the phrase “a bear of a man,” although with his bushy white mustache and untamable shock of white hair (which, on this particular day, appeared to be mimicking the Crab Nebula), he was more “a polar bear of a man.” Grim’s Great Aunt Barbara had first met her future husband when she was stationed in England in the early 1960s as a nurse with the United States Air Force. It was, by all accounts, love at first sight, and shortly after they married they moved to Scotland where Uncle Richard managed the estate for the Queen’s summer residence.
Since they had no children of their own, they had, in a way, “adopted” Grim’s mother (their only niece) long-distance, and had always treated Grim and his brothers as if they were their own grandchildren. For years, they’d come to the States at Christmastime, when the estate in Scotland was essentially dormant, and spent the holidays with Grim’s family.
Grim had always admired his Uncle Richard. He was a big, open, kind, and intelligent man who had one of the deepest, most soothing voices Grim had ever heard. He was the sort of man who made you feel instantly at ease and he and Grim had always gotten along famously.
This last Christmas, as Grim was leaving to plow snow from the driveway at The Fortress, his Uncle Richard asked if he could tag along and see what Grim had been working on. It was a gray, overcast day and Grim hesitated for a moment. Showing off a landscape in the winter is a little like entering your dog’s skeleton in the Westminster Dog Show. With the flowers long gone, the grass brown, and the trees bare, you can only see the bones of the garden. It’s hard for most people to imagine what it looks like in its natural, fleshed-out state.
After he’d finished plowing, Grim took his uncle on a tour of the grounds and they talked about the work he’d done over the past three years. His uncle seemed genuinely interested, and for over an hour Grim answered his uncle’s stream of questions about everything from Grim’s landscape design choices, his use of native plants, and the challenges of gardening at high altitude and semi-arid conditions.
As they were about to leave, his uncle said, “You know, Grim, whenever you’ve talked about your work in the past you’ve always dismissed it as mere ‘lawn mowing,’ but you’ve done yourself a disservice. This is brilliant work, really!”
Grim blushed slightly and thanked his uncle for the compliment, but he just assumed that his uncle, ever the thoughtful guest, was just being polite. But as his aunt and uncle were preparing to return to England, his uncle pulled him aside.
“Grim,” he said. “As you may have heard, your aunt and I will be moving to another of the Queen’s residences this summer. We’ve been asked to oversee the rather extensive renovations of not only the residence, but the grounds as well. And I’ve been thinking…”
He broke off and his eyes, which were always in some state of squinting — either as a result of good humor, bright sun, keen observation, or deep thought — squinted even more.
“…what would you say to the prospect of joining us in England this summer.”
“You can’t be serious,” he stammered.
“Oh, but I am. And I can assure you that, should you accept my offer, you’d be doing me a great favor. You see, quite a few of the lads have retired this past year and with the remaining staff getting along in years, I think we could use some new blood and, quite honestly, some new muscle.”
Grim was a little off balance. “I’d…have to ask my parents,” he said hesitantly.
“Perhaps I was taking a liberty, but I’ve already presented the scheme to your parents and they think it’s a brilliant idea.”
“But I’m…I’m not sure I could afford the airfare.”
“Oh, that would be taken care of,” his uncle said with a wave of the hand. “And you would be compensated, of course.”
His uncle could still see the look of doubt in Grim’s eyes.
“Grim, please understand that I am not asking for your help out of sheer kindness or any sense of familial obligation. I’ve been thinking about it for a quite some time now and seeing your work this past week has convinced me. You’d be doing me a great favor. What do you say?”
“Yes?” Grim replied, and then, realizing that it sounded more like a question than an answer, he reiterated, “Yes!” a little more enthusiastically.
So, here he was in England: jet-lagged, red-eyed, and barely able to breathe in his uncle’s ursine embrace.
“How was your flight?” Uncle Richard asked, finally releasing him.
“Oh, fine,” Grim lied.
“Your eyes say otherwise,” his uncle said, smiling.
Grim smiled wanly. “I’m exhausted.”
“Well, let’s get you home and you can sleep it off.”
They made their way to the car park where his uncle loaded Grim’s bag into the back of a large green Land Rover pickup that had a canvas top covering the truck bed and Grim circled around to the right-side passenger door.
His uncle smiled. “Welcome to Great Britain, Grim. You’re on the other side.”
It took Grim a second to realize what his uncle was talking about. He looked in the window and saw the steering wheel on the right-hand side of the truck. He laughed, made his way to the left side, and got in.
“It’s going to take a while to get used to that. It’s strange to be sitting on this side and not have a steering wheel in front of me.”
“Every time I visit The States it takes a few days for my brain to adapt, but you’ll get used to it soon enough.”
His uncle started the truck and they slowly made their way out of the car park. Once they were on one of the main thoroughfares, his uncle shifted a little in his seat and cleared his throat.
“Grim, I need to let you know that in the last day or two the situation at Wickham has changed remarkably.”
“How’s that?” Grim asked.
“Do you remember when I told you that we never have visitors at Wickham?”
“Well, we have a visitor at Wickham.”
“Who…?” Grim started to ask.
If Grim had been drinking water at that moment, he would have done a rather respectable spit take. He stifled a laugh as he remembered the conversation he’d had with his friends the night before. Or was it two nights ago? Grim shook his head as if trying to clear it. The jet lag was taking its toll.
“The princess was to spend the summer on the French Riviera,” his uncle continued, “but certain…security concerns…arose. I don’t know the specifics, but they wanted to keep a closer eye on her, so they gave her the option of staying in London or coming to Wickham, and…well…we now have a visitor at Wickham.”
“I won’t overwhelm you with details until you’ve had a chance to rest,” he continued, “but I’ve got a favor to ask of you.”
“What is it?” Grim asked.
“Due to the heightened security, they performed background checks on everyone working at the castle and it seems that Terrence, our previous stable lad, had a bit of a ‘green thumb.’ They found a few dozen cannabis plants in his flat. So, I’m going to need someone to fill in for him. You’ve worked with horses, haven’t you?”
“Sure,” Grim replied. “My friend, Brent, owns a few horses and I help him out every once in a while.”
“I just need someone to take care of the most basic of stable chores. And it really shouldn’t require much work since the Princess’ horse will be the only horse in the stables. Could you do that for me?”
“Sure, no problem,” Grim replied.
“Thanks,” his uncle said, sounding relieved.
Grim thought for a moment and then said, “Wait…did they do a background check on me?”
“Yes, they did.”
“…And you are, apparently, a model of propriety and virtuous living,” his uncle said with a grin.
“I think that’s a euphemism for ‘boring,’” Grim laughed.
Grim looked out the window at the passing landscape. They were out of the city now and it had started to rain.
“It’s so green,” he mumbled, as the exhaustion took hold. He leaned his head against the window and tried to stay awake by mentally cataloging the trees as they flashed across his field of vision, but it was no use.
“So, so green…” he thought. And for the first time since he was a baby, he fell asleep in a moving car.