If Grim was ever given the opportunity to join The Jet Set, he would politely decline the invitation.
Perhaps he had gone into the flight with unrealistic expectations. He’d always viewed air travel as something vaguely glamorous. But Grim had not, in fact, loved flying any more than he would have loved riding in the back of a hog trailer for 20 hours.
His first clue should have been the fact that didn’t really like airports. On the few occasions that he’d accompanied his parents to the Idaho Falls Airport to pick someone up or drop someone off, it had seemed to him as if everything about the airport was temporary and unconnected…as if nobody really belonged there, not even the employees. He found the same thing to be true of airplanes. As passengers, they were just a bunch of solitary transients packed into a cramped, dark, noisy, ill-smelling, metal tube.
The flight from New York to London had been particularly unpleasant. Grim’s seat was unbelievably narrow and when the man in front of him reclined his seat Grim felt like a little kid in “time out” who was required to sit for 12 hours with his nose against the wall. He’d never 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 the middle seat of the center section, whenever he needed to get up he had to climb over the two sleeping travelers on either side, trying not to wake them in the process. So to avoid disturbing his seat mates, he spent much of the flight pacing the aisles.
The flight attendants were brusque and uninterested, the food tasted like the plastic it came in, and the air in the cabin wasn’t recirculated as much as it was exhumed. Even peanuts couldn’t have salvaged the flight.
By the time he staggered off the plane in London, his ears were numb, his eyes were bloodshot, he had a raging headache, and he hadn’t slept in far too long.
As he made his way down to the baggage claim area, he saw his Uncle Richard hanging back near the edge of the crowd greeting the new arrivals. When he saw Grim he came forward with a huge smile and gave Grim a suffocating hug.
Grim’s Great Uncle Richard was the epitome of the phrase “a bear of a man.” He had always reminded Grim of Baloo the Bear (from Disney’s The Jungle Book), but with a British accent. Grim’s Great Aunt Barbara had first met him 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 worked as the estate manager for the Queen’s summer residence.
Since they had no children of their own, they had sort of “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 England was essentially dormant, and spent the holidays with Grim’s family. The holiday season was never complete until Aunt Barbara made her legendary trifle.
Grim had always looked up to his Uncle Richard. He was a strong, kind, 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.
The previous Christmas, as Grim was leaving to plow 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 annuals 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 state.
After he’d finished plowing, Grim took his uncle on a tour and talked about the work he’d done over the past three years. For over an hour they walked the grounds, Grim answering his uncle’s questions about his design choices, native plants, and the challenges of gardening at high altitude.
On the way home, his uncle said, “You know, Grim, I think you’ve done a brilliant job there. Whenever you’ve talked about your work in the past you’ve always dismissed it as mere ‘lawn mowing,’ but you’ve really done yourself a disservice. That is marvelous work, really.”
Grim thanked his uncle for the compliment, thinking he was just being polite, but as they were preparing to return to England, his uncle pulled Grim aside.
“Grim,” he said. “As you may have heard, your aunt and I will be doing some major work on one of the queen’s other residences this summer, and I have a big favor to ask of you. I was wondering if you would be willing to come to England this summer and help out at the new place?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Not at all. I could use someone with your skills…and muscle, quite honestly. They’ve had a few lads retire this past year and the remaining staff are getting along in years too. We could use some new blood, a strong back, and some fresh ideas.”
Grim was a little off balance. “I’d…have to ask my parents,” he said hesitantly.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve already taken the liberty of speaking with your parents about it and they think it’s a brilliant idea, too”
“But I’m…I’m not sure I could afford the airfare,” Grim stammered, as if he was trying to talk himself or his uncle out of it.
“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 a look of doubt in Grim’s eyes.
“Honestly, Grim, I’m not just asking you out of kindness or any sense of familial obligation. I could really use your help this summer. What do you say?”
“Yes?” Grim said, as if it was a question. Then, “Yes!” he reiterated, a little more enthusiastically.
So, there he was, in England, jet-lagged, red-eyed, and barely able to breathe in his uncle’s bear hug.
“How was your flight?” Uncle Richard asked.
“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. Grim made his way to the right-side passenger door.
His uncle smiled. “Guess again, 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 the left 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 just the last day or two the situation at Wickham has changed rather significantly.”
“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.”
If Grim had been drinking water at that moment, he would have done a respectable spit take. He stifled a laugh as he remembered the conversation he’d had with Todd and Brent 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 supposed to spend her summer on the French Riviera,” his uncle continued, “but there were some security concerns. I don’t know the specifics, but they wanted her someplace they could keep an eye on her. 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 the details until you’ve had a chance to rest,” he continued, “but I’ve got a question for you,” he continued.
“What is it?” Grim asked.
“Because of the heightened security, they did background checks on everyone working at the castle and it seems that Terrence, the stable lad, had a bit of a green thumb because they found over two 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’ve helped him out every once in a while.”
“I just need someone to take care of the daily chores. It shouldn’t require much work since Victoria’s horse will be the only tenant 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 virtuous living and propriety,” 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.