Companion Required by Brian Lancaster
Four o’clock in the afternoon and Kieran West was tapping out a rhythm on a textbook with the rubber end of his pencil, trying to distract himself from the whiny voice across the room. If he didn’t get his postgrad social science essay on perestroika and glasnost in by Friday, there was no way the lecturer, who had already been more than lenient, would give him another stay of execution.
Thursday afternoons in Sam’s Coffee House was his haven, his little slice of peace and quiet away from university, where he could concentrate in peace.
Not today, though.
Despite efforts to tune them out, he found distracting snippets of the interview being held by the smart-looking businessman across the room far more interesting than the transcript of Gorbachev’s 1986 speech at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party. However, the inane responses for some kind of personal assistant role, by either effeminate or muscled—but all essentially clueless—men, had begun to irritate.
Four candidates later and Kieran had managed to surmise that the man needed an assistant to join him on a business trip to Southeast Asia. Phrases like ‘all expenses paid’ and ‘five thousand pounds cash in hand’ had really piqued his interest. What with his recent redundancy from the estate agents’, and still trying to support his own as well as his brother’s studies, and funds were running desperately low. Across the coffee shop, the loud whiny voice once again rose above everything.
“I don’t know, do I?”
“Do you at least have an up-to-date passport? With seven months outstanding.”
The question seemed reasonable enough, but the girlishly pretty blond appeared to have an issue with this. Sharp nose and lips constantly pouting, his dyed hair had been styled almost Mohican fashion, with both sides rising into an untidy ridge in the middle from front to back, leaving him looking like a fair-haired chicken.
“Seven months what outstanding?”
“When’s the expiry date? The date the passport runs out?”
“How should I know?”
“In order to travel, you need to have at least six months remaining on your passport, plus an extra month to cover the four weeks away. I explained all of this in the advert. Did you bring your passport with you as I asked?”
“‘Cos I bought a photocopy, didn’t I?” said the skinny blond, getting hostile. By now, Kieran would have told the little shit to take a hike. The older man appeared to have the patience of a nursery school teacher.
“Can I take a look?”
Almost reluctantly, the blond pulled a piece of paper out from his trouser pocket and tossed the crumpled mess across the table. Calmly, the man unravelled the sheet and peered at the information. Satisfied, he nodded once and jotted something down in his notepad.
“Do you get seasick?”
“How should I know?”
This time the man squeezed his eyes shut, pinched the bridge of his nose, paused and inhaled deeply before continuing.
“If you’re going to be on a cruise ship for fourteen days, you really ought to consider getting seasickness medication, just in case. There’s nothing worse than having motion sickness on a rocking ship with nowhere to hide.”
“Can’t I skip the boat part? Just meet you in Bali.”
“The job is for a holiday companion, for the whole duration. Either all the way, or none. Are you in, or are you out?”
“In, I suppose.”
As soon as the interview ended and the candidate sashayed out of the coffee shop, Kieran decided to make his move. Dumping himself into the recently vacated seat gave the man—who had been on his phone—a start, although, credit where it was due, he recovered quickly. After ending the call, he stared quizzically at Kieran, who began talking before the man had a chance to speak.
“My name’s Kieran. Kieran West. I know this might sound a little unorthodox—or maybe even a little presumptuous—but I couldn’t help but overhear you interviewing for a personal assistant. I just wondered if I might be considered. I have a ten-year passport which has nine years outstanding and I can travel at any time.” That wasn’t strictly true. He would need to check with his tutor, to defer the next module of his master’s, as well as with his brother and mother to make sure they could do without him for four weeks. But he tucked those thoughts away and continued to smile. “And I have never suffered from seasickness.”
While the man began to process Kieran’s words, his face went through a series of expressions, starting with incredulity, to irritation, and ending with what Kieran assumed to be humour.
“Do you know what I’m advertising for?”
“I think so. A personal assistant, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But a very specific kind of personal assistant. More of a specialised travelling companion.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Maybe if I ask you a few questions first, to determine your suitability?”
“Fire away,” said Kieran, grinning and leaning back in his seat, arms folded.
“Smoker or non-smoker?”
“Good. Do you drink? Alcohol?”
“Occasionally, but not to excess.”
“Excellent. How old are you?”
“Hmm, I see. How tall are you?”
“Okay. And how long have you been out of the closet?”
“I—I’m sorry?” stuttered Kieran.
“How long have you known you were gay?”
“I’m not gay,” said Kieran, quietly.
Folding his arms, the man let out a sigh and leaned back. At first he appeared to be waiting for Kieran to clarify, until something across Kieran’s shoulder caught his attention.
“I believe my four o’clock has just arrived,” he said, pulling a document from a file. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you take this printed copy of the advertisement and this list of other requirements. I’m sure you’ll find it helps clarify certain critical elements of the role.”
While Kieran stood, the man beckoned the new arrival over. A buff, good-looking candidate came to a halt next to him and gave him a coolly assessing once-over. This one had curly golden hair—clearly dyed—and looked to be a biracial mix of Caucasian and West Indian. Kieran moved back to his seat across the shop and began to skim the details, starting with the advertisement.
Even before the end of the first paragraph, he let out a huff, knowing he didn’t fit the bill—not even close. The problem was, once Kieran West made up his mind to go for something, nothing short of an alien invasion could stop him. Besides, his funds had all but dried up. Five thousand pounds would keep the wolves from the door for a good while. He might even, finally, be able to offer his sister something for allowing him to doss down on her couch for the past three weeks. It was far from perfect, but better that than being on the streets. His girlfriend, Jennifer, had kicked him out of her apartment because he would not—could not—commit to anything more serious. ‘Ring or road’ had been her mantra. Wisely or not, he had chosen the road.
As he scanned the last page—details of the cruise and places they’d be visiting along the way—the cold trickle of premonition stopped him. The ship would be stopping at the island of Koh Samui in Thailand. Although he would never tell another living soul about the experience, would never admit to being intrigued by something so fanciful, when he was twelve his group of four friends had taken turns to see the fortune teller at a school fete. Even now he remembered the old woman’s crinkled face. She had been the grandmother of one of the friends, wearing a red silk scarf around her head, silver hoops like curtain rings in her ears, and using an upturned fishbowl as a crystal ball. He remembered sitting patiently opposite as she spouted a lot of vague nonsense until she stopped and took a sharp, surprised breath before looking up, deep into his eyes.
‘I know this may sound strange and might not make sense right now, but there is something you must always remember. It doesn’t happen often, but I have just glimpsed an image of you from the future. You are on an island in Asia standing beneath a giant Buddha. You are waiting to meet your destiny.’
One way or another, he had to get this job.