Highland Coffee High
by T. P. Keating
The moment our train crossed
the border from England to Scotland, the perennial fog gave way to low clouds and a steady drizzle. The further north we travelled,
the wilder and lonelier became the scenery. Rolling hills transformed into craggy peeks. Across the single, mile-wide span
of Loch Ness Bridge we sped, and although I fixed my gaze keenly on the grey waters below, nothing mysterious and/or prehistorical
broke the surface. On the mountainsides, the occasional small pony steadily grew into herds, while the sheep numbers fell.
Later that afternoon, with a loud toot on the whistle, we eased slowly into the small Western Highland station of Glenfirth.
Three people disembarked -
Malcolm, Jo-Beth and yours truly. Malcolm ushered us from the wet platform and into a tiny car park, which contained only
a solitary horse-drawn carriage. Both horse and carriage were midnight black. Malcolm opened the door and we clambered inside.
I didn't catch sight of the driver, but with a crack of the whip we were off. On a high road through dense forest, the gloaming
swiftly faded to night.
Before too long, we clattered
beneath a high stone arch and drew to a halt on the gravel courtyard of a large building. With no light in any window, I guessed
its impressive dimensions from the way it blocked out the background of stars.
Malcolm turned on a torch
and smiled. “Och, here we are, home. Castle Fairfax. Follow me and I'll put the kettle on.” Standing on the gravel
I stretched gratefully. Even the steady drizzle seemed refreshing. A whip cracked and the carriage rattled towards the arch.
I expected to enter Castle
Fairfax through an imposing front door. Instead, Malcolm took us to a side door and into a low, stone kitchen. He lit a flame
on the stove and filled a kettle, before taking the lid off a small tin. “Biscuit?” he suggested, offering us
the tin. “They're organic. Castle Fairfax's own original brand.” I took one of the square, oatmeal-covered contents,
as did Jo-Beth. The rain had made her long blonde hair ever so slightly frizzy. The kettle whistled.
“How are the cubs, Jo-Beth?”
“Happily settled with
their Uncle Rory, I'm pleased to say.” Without the cubs in tow, Joanne, Jodene, Jolene and Jojo, she looked relaxed
for the first occasion in ages. Malcolm handed out the cups of tea, and then helped himself to two biscuits.
“The ceremony begins
in the morning,” he reminded us, between nibbles, “so I suggest that we retire straight after tea and biscuits.”
“You sure you're not
related to the royal family?” said Jo-Beth, half way between serious and joking.
He smiled again. “I'll
show you to your rooms.” Which didn't answer her question. The ceremony was the reason why the cubs couldn't come with
us. Later, we were each ensconced in our own single bedroom above the kitchen. While the rain fell gently on my window, I
soon fell asleep.
A soggy wolf crouched next
to a large bowl, from which steam rose in lazy spirals. Steam that smelt delightfully of fresh coffee. Bowl upon bowl rested
on the grass, each attended by a manager from New Emperor Coffee. Each attended by a soggy werewolf, in fact. I howled to
bring silence beneath the full moon.
I began. Although the human larynx survived the transformation mostly intact, it still required a greater effort, to speak
clearly when in wolf form. “This extraordinary meeting of New Emperor Coffee has begun. Welcome. I'm Kimberly Duncan,
and I'll get straight to the point.”
I pressed a manicured paw
on a laptop, and on a large screen attached to a tall pine tree, the image of Malcolm Fairfax appeared. “In less than
two hours, Malcolm and I are to be married. However, there's a problem.”
Another paw press and the
image changed to a bouquet of flowers. “The wedding theme is Scottish floral. Here you can see Highland flowers of every
kind, along with plenty of heather. But no thistles. I ask you, what's the point of a Scottish floral theme without thistles?
Your priority is to pick all the thistles you can, and to get them back here within an hour. Got it?” They howled softly
in response. “Well, off you go.” Within a minute, I stood alone. With the plan in motion, I switched off the laptop
and lapped up the rest of my Kimberccino.
It didn't make sense. Not
the collecting thistles part, because heaven knows we've done some pointless exercises on so-called team building days. No,
it was an altogether different matter. The werewolves, they were the issue. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only werewolf
employed by the company. Mind you, I didn't work for the Personnel Department, so I could be wrong.
I awoke. The rain still splashed
against the window. No, neither the thistles nor the unreal werewolves were the problem. What didn't make sense was my marrying
Malcolm. I mean, Malcolm is a colleague. A friend. Could he be more? I blamed the biscuits. I bet they were well beyond their
sell by date, and had probably gone mouldy. One of those moulds that make you hallucinate too, I didn't wonder.
I sat up, pulled back the
heavy red drapes and peered outside. The night was impenetrably dark. Silly dream. Particularly in light of tomorrow's new
moon. Forget it. I let the drape go, lay down and drifted off once more.
I inspected a long carpet
of thistles. A unique plant, with flowers in a tartan of purple, yellow and black. The Glenfirth thistle, which only grew
in the extensive grounds of Castle Fairfax.
“Are you ready?”
Jo-Beth asked, rather anxiously.
“Let's find out.”
Taking a deep breath of morning
air, I walked forward with bare feet, determined to keep an even pace. I stepped on the nearest thistles. I couldn't shout.
No matter how much they hurt. Mustn't shout. I, who carried the wolf within. The pain rose through my legs and filled my whole
body. I would not howl. I'd made it half way across the tartan spread. Damn, I wished that my soles were covered. Surely my
feet were bloody stumps by now? No. Push the thought from your mind. Don't look. Three quarters of the way. Feet on fire.
Almost there. Almost. Done it.
Beyond the thistles, I stepped
into the waiting bowl of cool water. Laced with aloe vera and whatever else, it worked like magic. Ah, bliss. The pain vanished.
I was mostly human again.
“Why lassie, what a
sterling performance.” Malcolm took my hand and shook it vigorously. “You didn't utter a peep. That means you're
the only person to take the Glenfirth Thistle Walk Test without so much as whimpering.”
The sound of cheering came
from the laptop link to our Regent Street, London, HQ, where my stock had just risen sharply. With his customary lack of fuss,
Malcolm ended the broadcast.
“Hey, you did swell.”
Jo-Beth grinned at me. “Shall we head back to the biscuit tin and celebrate?”
“Lead the way.”
I followed, reluctantly leaving the bowl and slipping my sandals on. I peeked down. To my surprise, my feet were unblooded
and flame-free. Whatever was in the centuries old secret formula of the Fairfax's, its soothing ability couldn't be faulted.
I strongly suspected that I smelt Whisky in the mixture.
“Family legend has it
that the first Roman who took the test ran away screaming, and recommended the building of Hadrian's Wall.” Finally,
Malcolm had willingly offered up a little of his history. I had to admit, I found it intriguing.
This wasn't a dream, like
the previous night. This was the real ceremony. The one I'd insisted on, to prove that a werewolf had enough self-control
to run a modern coffee franchise. To prove the naysayers wrong. When I'd discovered the option of trial by ordeal in the staff
manual, my next step was clear.
I'd been utterly vindicated.
Tomorrow, in London, the full force of my power would be unleashed, starting with a hostile takeover of a rival company. Then
they'd discover what it was to be bitten by a werewolf on the rampage. Not even the continuing light shower and low clouds
could dampen my enthusiasm. With Malcolm on hand, all was possible.
P. Keating 2007