THE SILVER CAR
with thanks to Judy Davies
It had been a mistake, perhaps, to go up to London. A bright sunny day like today might have been better spent in the garden. And heaven knows the garden needed attention. Ian seemed to have given up entirely on the lawn. It was hardly worth mentioning these days: simpler just to mow it herself, even though it was becoming such an effort, what with her dodgy right shoulder. And as for the depredations wrought by Scarlett three days a week… Emma had been brought up to learn that you don’t pick the flowers in public parks or other people’s gardens, but she had failed to carry this rule through to her own daughter. The bitter blend of irritation and mild grief of yesterday – Jill had swallowed that down quickly as she bent to pick up the heads of dahlias, snapdragons and potted geraniums scattered in a trail from lawn to terrace to kitchen floor.
Thinking about Scarlett’s little pools of chaos reminded her why she’d gone to London today. Her day off! On Mondays and Fridays Emma ‘worked from home’ – or, as it seemed to her mother, worked not at all, her time spent heaping on Scarlett all that blind, guilty love which had turned the child – still sweet as ever – just slightly rotten. So it was to celebrate her Friday freedom that Jill had taken the train to Waterloo and made her way, buoyed by the dazzle of city sunshine, cheered on by office workers and tourists sitting at pavement cafés, to Harvey Nichols. For some time now she’d been searching for a handbag cunning enough to hold her necessary life in its many zipped compartments, but light enough not to put pressure on her painful shoulder. She could find nothing locally, which came as no surprise. But Harvey Nicks did the trick: the shocking pink bag with its silver buckle whistled to her as she glided towards it – almost swinging on its hook, so it seemed, as though to say ‘Come here now, - yes, now – and pull me down, take me away!’
So she corrected herself as they pulled into the station and, gathering up the swanky carrier (what a delight it was going to be to transfer everything from one bag to the other, maybe casting out the odd unwanted item in the process!), she stepped off the train. Today’s expedition hadn’t been a mistake. It had been the correct thing to do. She’d decided on impulse after breakfast, having slipped and almost fallen on an overlooked snapdragon head. So often these spontaneous decisions are the right ones.
Blinking slightly in the still strong late afternoon sun, she walked down the platform, over the railway bridge and out through the station exit. The place was busy with commuters and early weekenders. A woman in a tailored navy suit pitching orders into her mobile almost collided with her. Jill felt the rich mood of the day begin to drain away. It was with a splash of panic that she reached out to plug back that goodness. She glanced at her watch. The train had arrived on time. And she hoped to goodness that Ian would be punctual too. Sometimes on a Friday he was kept late at the surgery. It had been kind of him to say ‘yes’ immediately when she rang him this morning and asked him to pick her up from the station. Still, it was only round the corner from his practice, and as one of the ‘bosses’ he was allowed surely to pluck a few privileges. Jill found herself sighing as she scanned the station car park. She wasn’t quite certain why she sighed.
The first thing that struck her when she spotted the silver Golf was that Ian still hadn’t removed the roof rack. They’d got back from Wales nearly two weeks ago. She’d already mentioned it at least three times. The lawnmower all over again. Strange, though: she couldn’t recall noticing the roof rack when Ian drove off this morning. Anyway, he’d found a nice parking spot in the shade, just next to the hedge that ran alongside the adjoining park. Casting a sharp glance at Ms. Navy Suit, who, still busy on her phone, had almost got herself run over by stepping into the car park without looking, weaving through people and cars, Jill made her way over to the silver Golf.
‘Thank you for coming, darling!’ She’d opened the passenger door with her left arm, to protect the dodgy right shoulder, so was facing away from the driver’s seat as she stepped in. She registered Scarlett’s child seat at the back – though couldn’t help wondering for a split second why it looked different – and then swung into her seat, hitting her knee on the hung-open door of the glove compartment as she did so. She felt her smile grow as she turned to face Ian.
But it wasn’t Ian.
She took in the man’s thick dark hair – a similar colour to Ian’s, but more plentiful, less severely barbered and much less plundered by grey, his startled blue-green eyes, almond-shaped and slightly hooded. She heard herself gasp, looked down quickly. The air was sharp with the scent of peppermint.
Then she noticed his hands, which had risen to grip the steering wheel as she turned to him. The wedding ring on his left hand she barely took in. But she let her eyes feast on that left hand. It was the missing middle finger that beckoned to her. She felt her insides flip over. It was like plunging over a cliff in a runaway car. And it didn’t occur to her to jump out.
He’d been munching on peppermints, groping inside the glove compartment every few minutes without really noticing what he was doing. He’d arrived early, Hannah having more or less chased him out of the house to launch him on his errand, and of course it would seem now that their train from Reading was running late. It would have been considerate of Jason to send him a quick text – but there again, Greg reminded himself, reaching out and helping himself to another Extra Strong Mint, his nephew-in-law wasn’t like that. It wouldn’t occur to him to do anything as helpful as tell his uncle how far away they were. Greg sucked on his mint, pressed its icy sweetness into his tongue, found himself biting it in half… There again – and he rolled the two halves between his molars – Jason had other things on his mind. He gathered from Hannah that the baby was difficult, the wife anxious. Hold on – she wasn’t his wife, was she? All right then, his ‘partner’. No, there definitely hadn’t been a wedding. If there had been, he might have been able to remember her name. As for the name of the baby… He should have asked Hannah to remind him at least of its sex. The encounter promised to be not only very late but also rather awkward. He pricked another Extra Strong Mint from its roll. This time he didn’t even bother to shut the glove compartment.
Fitting that wretched child seat at the back, and them the roof rack for their weekend away together, had taken him more than an hour. Hannah had borrowed the seat from one of her ‘Ask me about my grandchildren’ friends. Greg sucked hard on his sweet. Well, nephew Jason might be an irritant, a disappointment even. But, compared to their son, that was nothing. Their son Matt. Batty Matty his friends used to call him. Not so far off the mark. They hadn’t heard from him for such a long time, for all they knew he might have been sectioned and placed in some institution. He might, of course, have fathered The Grandchild without their even knowing. Greg pressed the button to open the window a little further. It really was surprisingly hot still for (he glanced at his watch, focusing his eyes as always on the wrist, not on the hand with its missing finger) gone 5 o’clock. Yes, they were very late indeed.
Perhaps it was the wider open window that alerted Greg to the louder sounds around him. He registered the growl of engines starting up, the screech of turning tyres, the buzz of departing cars. At last their train had arrived. Peering out of the window to catch sight of a young family struggling under its load of superfluous baby baggage, ready to leap out and assist, Greg spotted Mike Sumner from two doors away, jacket slung over his shoulder and tie lolling at half mast, making his way over to his Audi. So it was the London train that had just come in. He sighed. Hardly surprising that he sighed. He’d tried hard to be good.
About to grab another mint, he was stopped in his tracks by the sudden and confident opening of the passenger door. He jerked round – almost there, almost ready to welcome his wife’s young relatives. The two trains must have come in simultaneously.
The woman who, in a low, light voice – so much lower and lighter than Hannah’s – said to him ‘Thanks for coming, darling!’ was already sitting in the passenger seat, wincing slightly, he noticed, as the open glove compartment door banged her knee. Instinctively, his hands sprang to the steering wheel. She’d spotted the missing finger. He could tell from the hardness that had already slammed into her eyes when he looked at her. They were light brown eyes – almost yellow, like a cat’s. And her slim, sharp little face, rose-pink silk collar at her neck and sleek hair were neat as a cat’s too. A beautifully groomed but slightly wild creature had penetrated his car and was now just sitting there, staring at his hand, then again at his face. She made no move to get out.
They smiled at each other.
The low, light voice again: ‘I seem to have made a mistake.’
Still, she didn’t move – apart from dropping into the passenger well the carrier bag she’d been holding.
‘What’s in that bag?’ He hoped the Extra Strong Mint smell didn’t overpower when he spoke.
For a moment, she paused; then smiled again. ‘Just a handbag. But quite a large one. We could buy some overnight things on the way and stuff them in.’
‘If we need a bit more than that, we can put it in the roof rack.’ Raising his eyes as he made the suggestion, Greg could barely suppress the laughter. A great gust of amazed happiness whirled up inside him. Then he turned round to tackle his intruder face on. ‘I’m Greg. Pleased to meet you.’ And he extended his hand – his left hand – in greeting.
‘Hello Greg. I’m Jill.’ She seized his hand, immediately running her fingers around the gap in the middle of it, pressing on it, smoothing it, grasping and squeezing the palm.
He bent down and kissed her fingers. Then he slammed shut the glove compartment, opened both windows wide, sparked the ignition and started to head out of his slot.
Looking up momentarily from his phone – he’d been texting Jill, who hadn’t shown up at the station – Ian noticed a silver Golf, identical to his own, though with the addition of a roof rack (he’d at last got round to removing theirs yesterday evening) driving out of the car park. It was going a bit too fast. So many silvers VWs around these days. Perhaps he ought to go for something different.