Stephen walked out of the rear entrance and made his way across the tiny, puddle-strewn car park to the street. The car park only had a dozen spaces and they had all been taken by writer’s club members. Stephen wondered what time he would have to get there to claim one of the spaces. He suspected he would need to be there a good half hour before the meeting started.
The club was situated at the bottom of a narrow street on a steep hill. Close to town, the street was popular with drivers as it was one of the few places left without yellow lines and parking meters. Pedestrians splashed their way along the pavement eager to get to their destination and out of the gathering storm.
Stephen held his plastic document folder above his head and jogged up the hill to his car. By the time he reached it the rain had begun in earnest. A clap of thunder rattled the windows of the taller buildings, a few seconds later a crazy zig-zag of lightning lit up the night sky.
Stephen fired up the engine and switched on the headlights. The music of Snow Patrol roared out from the speakers. He began to sing along as he flicked the indicator and eased his way through narrow gap between the lines of parked cars.
Half way up the street he noticed two figures struggling with an umbrella. Stephen hit a button and the window was lowered.
‘Can I give you a lift?’ he called.
Mick glared from under the peak of his cap.
‘No thanks, we’re fine.’
‘You may be fine, Mick, but I’m getting soaked,’ said Mary. ‘Thank you, young man.’
Mick opened the back door and waited for Mary to get into the car. To his annoyance she opened the front door and climbed in next to Stephen. She snapped on her seat belt as Mick grudgingly threw himself into the rear seat.
‘Where to?’ asked Stephen.
‘Can you drop us by the station in town? Our bus leaves from there,’ said Mary. ‘Thank you so much for this,’ she added.
‘It’s not a problem, where are you heading from there?’
‘Redvale, do you know it?’
‘ I do, It’s more or less on my way.’
Stephen took a right turn and eased his way along the High Street.
‘Can you turn the bloody noise down, I can’t hear a bloody thing back here,’ called Mick.
Stephen touched the paddle on his steering wheel and Snow Patrol lowered the decibels. He gave Mary a quick glance and nodded towards the console.
‘Snow, Patrol,’ he said.
‘Thank God for that, what a racket,’ said Mick. He rubbed his ears for effect.
‘I like it,’ said Mary, ‘it has a nice beat. You’ll have to remind me who it is before I get out, I might buy this.’
‘You’ll be deaf inside a week,’ said Mick. ‘What’s wrong with Frank all of a sudden?’
Mary looked over her shoulder.
‘There’s nothing wrong with Sinatra, and there’s nothing wrong with Slow Parole,’ she argued. ‘You have to move with the times, Mick, you’re stuck in the fifties.’
‘It’s Snow Patrol, ‘ said Stephen. You can borrow the CD if you like.’
‘Thank you, Stephen,’ said Mary. ‘I intend to grow old disgracefully and if heavy pop music helps me do that, then I’m all for it.’
‘Good for you,’ laughed Stephen.
The rain intensified. Stephen switched the wipers to full speed. Up ahead a bus had skidded into the back of a lorry. A policeman directed the traffic around the accident.
‘That’s going to take a while to clear,’ said Stephen. ‘I’ll take you to Redvale, it isn’t far out of my way.’
‘That really is very kind,’ said Mary. ‘We’re very grateful, aren’t we Mick?’
Mick muttered something under his breath and wiped the window with the back of his hand.
Fifteen minutes later, Stephen turned off the dual carriageway and drove through the council estate.
‘Don’t stop at the traffic lights for too long,’ advised Mick. ‘They’ll have your bloody wheels.’
‘You’ve become a bit of a snob, Mick. I’m sure we’re quite safe,’ said Mary.
Mick shook his grey head. ‘I’m from round these parts, it’s nothing to do with being a snob. I know what goes on here. You aren’t safe after dark these days. It didn’t used to be like that.’
‘ I bet there’s still a lot of decent people living here,’ said Stephen.
‘What would you know about council estates, ‘ sneered Mick.
‘I grew up on one,’ said Stephen, ‘over at Scarlington.’
‘The pit estate? you’re having me on.’
‘My dad was a miner, so was my eldest brother. I’d probably have ended up down the mine if they hadn’t shut it,’ said Stephen.
‘That was a sad day,’ said Mary. ‘I remember the miner’s brass band playing as they pulled down the pit head.’
‘My dad was in the colliery band,’ said Stephen. ‘We all went to listen that day. I’ve never seen so many grown men cry.’
By the time they reached Redvale, the rain had eased to a steady drizzle. Mary guided Stephen through the village and directed him to a small bungalow across the road from the post office.
As he pulled up, she leant across and kissed him on the cheek.
‘You’re an angel,’ she said. ‘It would have taken us hours to get home tonight.’
Mick opened the door for her and she climbed out.
‘Can I drop you anywhere, Mick?’ asked Stephen.
His question was answered by the sound of the door as it slammed shut.
Stephen parked his car on the road outside a small block of flats and let himself in the communal front door. He checked his post box, retrieved his mail, then climbed the single flight of stairs to his flat.
Stephen looked across the landing to see Charlotte grinning at him from her front door. She wore a long bath robe and a turban made from a towel.
‘Hi, Charlie,’ he grinned. ‘ Nice to see you. How did you find Africa?’
‘I just got off the plane and there it was.’ said Charlotte.
‘You know what I meant.’ he laughed.
‘It was big and hot.’ I’ve got a million photos and a thousand stories just waiting for some poor, unsuspecting neighbour.’
‘Not sure about the million photos, but I’d certainly like to hear about your trip.’
‘Safari,’ said Charlotte, ‘a trip is what you take when you go to the zoo.’
She released the turban, her dark blonde hair dropped to her shoulders.
‘Isn’t it the same thing, just bigger?’ Stephen teased.
Charlotte screwed up her face and threw the wet towel at him.
‘Are you busy now?’ she asked.
‘Not particularly, I was going to have an hour on my novel, but that can wait if you’re bringing a bottle of chateau d’Afrique over.’
‘You’ll have to provide the wine, and a bit of food if you’ve got any, I’ve only been back an hour. I haven’t had time to shop yet.’
Stephen looked unsure.
‘Not sure if my cooking is good enough for a seasoned traveller like you.’
‘I’m so hungry I could eat anything, hot, cold, burnt to a crisp, raw…’
‘You’re likely to get all four at once with me,’ he laughed. ‘Give me twenty minutes and I’ll see what I can rustle up.’
‘It’s a date,’ she said.
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