Death was the first member of the reunion guests to arrive at the Cabin Lodge Resort. He'd been there long before Tom who was somewhat startled to see Death standing right in the middle of the central lounge as he opened the door. Tom stared into Death’s deep, cold, grey, steely eyes, and instinctively accepted the clammy vice that was Death’s hand of friendship. Death’s chilly smile sent a tremor down Tom’s spine, but he quickly realized that it was a well-meaning smile - A smile that he would find to be increasingly alluring as Tom saw more of it during the course of their short spell at the resort.
Death did not need to introduce himself; he had a mysterious presence that could neither be mistaken nor faked. His wiry, middle-aged, face was etched with the evidence of time, and his lips were pressed together in a formidable expression of profound gravity. But he often permitted a glimmer of mischievous humour to flit randomly across his face, and this could be noticed only by a keen observer.
Tom nervously introduced himself as the “Events Manager”, and assured Death that he would do his very best to ensure that he and his chums had a fantastic time at the resort.
“Although I don't know exactly how many people are coming tonight”, Tom said, cautiously fishing for information, “but I have been assured by top management that no expense has been spared towards making your stay an absolute success.”
“I'm afraid”, Death replied “I don't know how many of us will be coming, either. I'd been tipped off anonymously about the reunion. I’d decided to come only at the last minute.”
As Tom began opening the front windows, Death offered to help Tom with his chores, since he’d let slip that he was going to be the only member of staff on duty during their stay. Tom thanked Death, and hastily assured him that he could handle everything on his own. At that time, Tom was still quite wary of owing Death a favour. However, he gradually found Death to be genuinely personable.
Tom was already starting to relax in Death’s cordial company when Fear arrived unexpectedly. Tom had his back turned at the time, so he was caught totally unawares when Fear said “Hi, there!” in a high pitched voice that resembled a frightened child’s.
Fear was in a dark green crepeline silk top, and a pair of brown, baggy trousers. Her small crop of black hair was whipped up and knotted at the top, giving her pale, oblong face a strange look, and exaggerating the size of her brown glistening eyes that seemed to glower suspiciously at you, and then, just when you began to feel uncomfortable, her face relaxed into a tepid smile.
Tom was quick to regain his composure and he promptly recited his previously rehearsed courtesies.
“Of course I had no problem finding the place at all.” She said,” I've been here a couple of times in the past.”
Fear declined Tom’s offer to help with her suitcase. “It’s okay, dear; I can manage on my own.” She said. However, she still sounded out of breath. She wheeled her luggage past Death without as much as a glance. Death did not acknowledge her presence either, but, somehow, Tom got the impression that they knew each other.
Tom wondered who had brought Fear. He glanced out of the window, but there was no sign of a vehicle anywhere in sight.
Next, Tom went to check that everything was in order in each of the rooms. It was just as the proprietor, Mr Morris F Ainsworth, had told him on the phone. The rooms were sparsely furnished, and the beds had already been made. The smell of old wood hung over the place, and it was clear that the rooms were rarely used. Tom had been given specific instructions so, although he'd never been to the place, he knew where everything was and exactly what to do. The only things he didn't know was the identity of the guests and how many of them to expect. He’d been forewarned that they were a “rather eccentric bunch” and, whatever he did, he was to show no sign of surprise or bafflement at their appearance or behaviour. In any event, he'd been assured that, as long as he played his part, everything would be okay.
Right until the time he’d set out for the assignment, he was still pinching himself. He could not comprehend how lucky he'd been to have landed such a fabulous job. He’d all but lost all hope on almost everything. He’d been unemployed for more than two years and stopped applying. He’d begun to get used to the dole money, and resigned himself to living out the rest of his days at the ground floor council flat with his rapidly ageing and increasingly despondent mother. It was already looking as if, with his lack of skill, intelligence or any form of experience, and his lack of motivation, a life of shame and failure was his irrevocable portion in life.
So he couldn't have been more overjoyed and surprised when the letter arrived. It was an offer for a job that he hadn't even applied for. And, to top it all, the pay was more than agreeable - Better than any of the jobs he’d actually sought for.
He could not wait to tell Sally about it. But he was flabbergasted that she did not take it in the congratulatory spirit that he'd envisaged. Instead, she was full of nothing but scepticism about the whole thing.
He found her attitude to be pretty depressing because he’d hoped that the announcement would certainly cheer her up, and get him into her good books. Unfortunately, they weren't exactly “an item”, so to speak. But she was the nearest thing to a girlfriend he’d probably ever have - or any other kind of friend, for that matter. He was painfully aware, of course, that his affection for her was wasted and would never be returned. He'd never had any conversation with Sally during which she was not trying to get away. She was always on her way to something more important or more urgent, and Tom was often under the impression that she was eager for them never to be seen together.
But he’d genuinely thought that his impending change of fortune would get him a spot on her busy schedule and perhaps lead to the substantial romance of his dreams.
“I'm not convinced about this fantastic new job of yours, Tom. Nobody hands out a responsible appointment like that to a jerk without any experience whatsoever. Besides, I've googled up the name of the company, and I can't find them anywhere on the internet.”
Tom’s heart sank at the ferocity of her scepticism but; nevertheless, she carried on like a runaway train. “Have they asked for your bank details, to send your wages? ...you haven't even signed a contract with them yet, and you're starting tomorrow?”
All that, when she hadn’t even asked to see the appointment letter, if she had, she would have wondered why it was handwritten, and the envelope was not postmarked.
Even Tom’s Mom was full of doubt and misgivings instead of relief, joy and pride. And, typically, she hadn’t bothered to ask for the appointment letter either. A more caring mother would want to show it off to her friends and brag about her son’s success. Tom was far from encouraged by the worried look she gave him and the edge in her voice.
“Be careful, Thomas, will you. Don't go chasing after shadows. You will only get yourself into trouble.”
Back, in the Cabin Resort, Laziness, Incompetence and Sickness were the next to arrive. Although it looked as if they'd come in convoy, chatting excitedly among themselves as they entered, it was soon clear from their conversations that they'd arrived separately.
Laziness had on a pink T-shirt with the symbol of a clenched fist. He also had on a pair of black trousers that fell around his hips, revealing the top of his boxer shorts. Clearly in his early twenties he carried himself with a nonchalant aplomb that immediately put distance between him and some of his older counterparts at the lodge.
Incompetence followed closely on Laziness’s heels. Probably in his late forties, he had on a dark grey suit and a, stripped, blue and white cotton shirt. When he spoke it became instantly obvious that he was a politician.
Sickness was a plump, glum-faced, woman also in her late forties. She had on a frilly, green dress and a brown silk scarf, and she had a whiny, sulky voice that made you cringe and lean away from her when she spoke. It transpired during one of the conversations that Sickness was always actively on the lookout for a long-term companion, and even though Laziness was much younger, she admitted openly that he was her latest crush.
Sickness allowed Tom to carry her luggage to her room, which was the farthest away from the lounge, and they both chatted as he led the way. Once in her room Tom quickly left because he did not want to be there when she opened her suitcase.
After Tom had finished attended to Sickness, the next three guests arrived. Honesty, Kindness and Selfishness, again, entered in a convoy. All three of them appeared to be in a jolly mood and in their mid to late fifties. Both Honesty and Kindness had the good-natured, friendly face of a benevolent Santa Claus. But Selfishness, despite her apparent pleasant mood at the time, had a countenance that was more suited to grumpiness. She was a tall, chubby woman who spoke in a gruff, gabbled, accent that took much time and effort for Tom’s brain to process.
At 5pm, all the guests were sitting in the large common room. Some of the blokes were watching the Grand Prix, and the others sat at the long table making small talk.
Death was asking if anyone could help him decide which mobile phone to choose from between the Iphone 4 or the Samsung Galaxy S2. He liked the Iphone, but thought it was far too common. He just didn’t want to be another one in the crowd.
“I’ll take the Samsung any day” hollered Laziness, from the worn leather sofa where he remained perfectly comatose. “The camera on that thing is awesome.”
“You can't beat the apps on the Iphone”, Selfishness countered, “There are over a hundred thousand of them.”
“I have no use for a hundred thousand apps”, said Death. “I just want a Smartphone with a decent contact and calendar, so I can keep all my appointments in order. I’m tired of lugging my appointment book around with me everywhere I go” At that point the front door opened and, just when Tom thought there were no more guests to come, three more arrived.
The first to enter was dour-faced, slightly overweight and in her early forties. She wore her ash-blonde hair in a short, bouncy bob, firmly clipped in place with her ears. She was Misfortune.
The next was Guilt, a man in his late thirties. His dark grey shirt had large patches of sweat under the armpits. He looked around uncertainly and smiled shyly. He spoke in a slow and thoughtful manner, sometimes leaving his sentences unfinished.
Integrity, who was the last, was more amicable than the other two. Although he was casually dressed in white, short-sleeve shirt and black cotton trousers, he looked a lot more graceful than Incompetence who was more formally attired. He seemed quite friendly, but Tom still kept some distance, because he felt that to be in Integrity's excellent company he had to be of best behaviour.
The three new comers put away their luggage. They quickly blended in with the rest of the party. It was all going exceedingly well. Incompetence and Selfishness struck up an unlikely alliance with Integrity. They were both taking turns to brag about their charity work. It was plainly obvious that they were trying to outdo each other in their desperate attempt to impress Integrity.
Sickness was on all her own, sulking in the corner. She was pissed off because, despite her best effort with her makeup and cologne, Laziness was not giving her any attention. Instead, he was flirting outrageously with Misfortune who, once she’d cheered up, seemed to possess a sort of charm.
Fear and Guilt had struck up an astounding chemistry, and they got on like a house on fire. They chatted animatedly like long lost siblings.
Presently, Incompetence, in one final futile gesture to impress Integrity, offered to cook dinner for the entire crew. Tom showed him to the kitchen where everything was already in place. Incompetence stood uncertainly in the middle of the vast, cluttered kitchen for a while and then told Tom not to worry, that he could manage on his own. Tom left the kitchen reluctantly, resolved to check up on Incompetence at intervals of 30 minutes.
Everything remained in order at the lodge until about 7:30pm when there was a loud noise outside. Everyone rushed to the window to only to find the wheelie bins on their sides and their content scattered all over the cobbled driveway. Later, the culprit was seen walking towards the front door.
“Oh no”, Death groaned when he saw who had just arrived. It was Insanity who was renowned for her disruptiveness and foul temper. She was a slim middle aged woman with the fierce countenance of a demon prince and a shrill, loud voice. She had on a purple blouse and a pair of black slacks. Her hair, dyed flaming red, spilled over her shoulders and flowed down her back like a river of blood. Her eyes flashed with mischief and evil intent as they peered from beneath her copious fake brows.
Death whispered to Tom, “Whatever you do, don't look into those crazy eyes of hers”. But when Death chuckled and then winked at Tom, he immediately caught on to the idea that Death was only kidding, and it appeared that he did not hold Insanity in any such awe or high esteem after all.
As it turned out, Insanity had a few friends among the guests.
“Thought you wouldn't be able to make it”, shouted Honesty from across the hall.
“Come on here, sweetie”, Misfortune called, and then she embraced Insanity and made loud “Mwah!” as Insanity got within her reach.
Integrity took one look at Insanity and turned away. It was the first time Tom had seen him show any sign of disgust towards anyone.
Fear and Guilt waved at Insanity, and she duly waved back with the pretentious flourish of a Hollywood celebrity.
Meanwhile, Tom kept a safe distance and hoped he would not fall under Insanity’s intense search beam.
“Now let’s get this party on the road.” Insanity declared, “Can we have some decent music around here?” Insanity was staring at Tom who stammered, “I'm afraid, M’am, all we have is the TV... If-If the others don't mind, we-we can change to the music channel, if-if that is OK...."
But Insanity suddenly became distracted, by something else as her fake brows creased inquisitively, and her nostrils quivered. “Hmm... What is that smell?” she asked.
It was only then that Tom remembered that Incompetence was still in the kitchen. Tom was already halfway across the hall when the kitchen door burst open and Incompetence came running out, screaming on top of his choked lungs. The tails of his jacket were on fire, and billowing smoke trailed his path from the kitchen door.
Instant pandemonium broke out among the guests. They ran helter-skelter and bumped into one another like billiard balls. Insanity worsened the situation by deliberately shoving her other colleagues about and making a hideous racket with her high heel shoes. While others appeared scarred and confused, insanity seemed to be getting the utmost mileage out of the crisis. The whole place was saturated with smoke and the noise of desperate feet, dragging furniture and smashing glasses.
It become impossible for Tom to reach the kitchen, not just because of the furore, but also because it had gotten so hot in there that the heat singed his hair. It was clear that the flame that was already gutting the kitchen would soon engulf the lounge area.
"Come on everyone, follow me. This way please!” shouted Tom.
Honesty was the first to leave the building. She flew past Tom at the entrance, still carrying her hand bag. Laziness was next. Tom was surprised at his impressive agility, since he'd lain on his back for most of the time he'd been at the lodge. Others followed quickly, and even Insanity stopped fooling around once it was obvious that the entire building was going to be razed by the fire which had now gathered considerable momentum.
Tom led the guests to the open field, away from the heat of the fire and the threat of flying debris where they remained, hurdled together for comfort. Laziness tried to call 999 on his mobile, but he could not get any signal. The others had left their mobiles in the lodge except Incompetence who had his in his pocket. But he'd forgotten to charge it that morning, so it was of no use.
“Where the hell is Death?” Misfortune asked with an edge in her voice.
There was a collective gasp as each one frantically looked around. Sickness began to whimper uncontrollably. Laziness held her hand to comfort her. Tom felt a dull pain in his throat; it was clear that they’d left Death behind. It must have been when they were all rushing around. Perhaps Death had fallen, knocked his head and become unconscious. Tom was dismayed at the thought of Death lying there in the fire. Death was Tom’s favourite among them all, and he’d become strangely drawn to Death since they first met face to face. Tom sprang into action and leapt towards the burning lodge.
“No, Tom. Don’t do it” Wailed Fear at the top of her voice. But it was too late. Tom was on off like a truck out of control. He skipped over clumps of shrubs and fallen logs, and he bounded across the gullies on the foot path until he was right in front of the flames, then without a moment’s hesitation he leapt straight in.
Integrity heaved a mournful sigh. Fear shut her eyes tightly in shock and horror. When she opened her eyes, Tom was gone.
“What?” asked Death as he casually emerged from behind a nearby Acacia tree, holding his black notebook in his left hand.
“The kid thought you were in the fire. He went in to rescue you, Death”, Insanity accused Death in a strained, tearful voice.
“No”, said Death. “I assure you that at no time in my career have I ever taken anyone before their time or against their will. You go round and ask, and you will find that Tom already left a note for his Mom.” Death shrugged and then opened his notebook and crossed out the last entry in his appointment list for that day.
Due date: 20 Sep 2011
Working Title: It was not supposed to be their Honeymoon.
Ronald and Julia book their honeymoon trip to Libya (or Egypt - not yet sure which one to use) well in advance because they are determined that it is the one thing they don’t intend to get wrong.
News of riots and violent demonstrations in Syria surface just as they are about to set out. Ronald insists, against Julia's vigorous protestations, that there is no turning back. So, off they go into what will prove to be an unforgettable journey of a lifetime.