It was just past five o’clock when Leonard Ward strutted into the “Lion and Byline” and slammed his briefcase on the counter.
“Scotch,” he said to no one in particular and rapped on the bar. As he waited, he studied the faces around him; the suits, shoes, the hair (and lack of it), until his gaze fell on a man hunched over the pages of a broadsheet newspaper. His eyes narrowed. “McCubbin!” he said and slapped his thigh. “I thought that was your head wrapped in that commie rag. Still drinking in halves I see.”
McCubbin uncoiled and squinted over his glasses. “Leonard?”
“Leonard! It is you. Why, it’s been—“
“More than three years!”
“That long? We… I thought I’d never set eyes on you again. How long have you been back?”
Leonard massaged a silver watch from his coat pocket. “Exactly… fifty-seven minutes.”
“Picked up quite the accent.”
“Really? One doesn’t notice. I see by your fingers that you’ve not abandoned the game. Don’t tell me you’re still printing dailies for that miser Hatchett.”
McCubbin whipped his hands behind his back. “You might say that.”
“Getting fired from that museum was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Right next to meeting my Megan.”
“Have you seen her? She answered not one of my letters.” Leonard tugged at his moustache. “I sent hundreds. Don’t get me wrong, McCubbin—there were maidens, plenty of them. But I never stopped thinking about my little apricot. When Hatchett ordered me to stay away from her… well, it nearly sent me mad.”
“We heard you were… unwell. How long are you staying on?”
“Stay? I’ve returned! I plan to revolutionise the industry and claim back my love. Hatchett won’t know what to save first: his business or his daughter. Mark my words, McCubbin. And I’ll need good men around me too, if you’re interested.”
“That’s mighty kind, Leonard, but you see… a good while after you moved on, Mr Hatchett retired. Handed over the reins.”
“To whom? To Megan? That girl doesn’t know one end of an ink pot from the other!”
“She’s a fast learner… I’ve heard.”
Leonard stroked the leather seams of his briefcase for a moment, then he snapped to attention. “But that’s perfect!”
“Don’t you see? This is better news than I could have hoped for. By marrying the head of Hatchett and Co Printers, I’ll be in an ideal position to negotiate a merger. How could the new Mrs Leonard Ward refuse her husband?”
“If she’s already taken? Or marr—”
“And as soon as we’re wed, I’ll have an instant work force and factory space, by Jove! Here, have a dram with me to celebrate.”
“Nonsense. What’s become of you, McCubbin? I remember Megan saying you were the reliable sort. Come now, have a drink and—wait… Good heavens! McCubbin’s found himself a wife! That’s why he’s so glum.”
“What gave you that idea?”
“The old stick won’t mind—it’s just a wee dram. Imagine how proud she’ll be when her husband bags the top job at ‘Ward and Ward Printing’. You know, it really is rather fortuitous us running into each other.”
“Aye, indeed a fortunate coincidence.”
“I’d planned to storm Hatchett’s office and demand his daughter’s hand in marriage, among other things. One obstacle less…”
“Is Megs—I mean, Mr Hatchett’s daughter expecting you?”
“How could she be? Anyway, I know how much she enjoys surprises. Not all of us move like a tortoise with a bad hip, McCubbin. Do come by tomorrow and wish us well.”
“I must run. Things to organise, people to mobilise.” Leonard winked and tugged at his moustache before leaving.
McCubbin relaxed his ink-stained hands. The gold ring shone as brightly as the day she’d placed it on his finger.
“Anything else I can get you, Mr McCubbin?” the barman said.
“No thanks, Henry,” McCubbin replied. “Write up a tab, will you? ‘McCubbin and McCubbin Printers’.”