“Turn left and proceed on the route for twenty-five miles,” says my iPhone.
Damn it! Jerry wasn’t joking about tonight’s road closure. He warned me I’d have to go cross-country this evening. I never know when to take him seriously. Commuting this way is never an option unless I’ve an hour to waste. I mean, who’d choose to take the scenic route to work, anyway? And what kind of prankster picked July to dig up the roads? We’re in the middle of a heatwave, for God’s sake.
Everyone knows the Singleton district for its endless meadows of grazing cattle, picturesque cottages and the army barracks. The military train their personnel locally and it’s not uncommon to see a tank manoeuvring past a herd of Friesians or camouflaged squaddies enjoying an ice cream on the village green next to a brood of ducklings. This evening, there’s no obvious troop movement; the air is still and dry, and the sun is melting into a marmalade puddle on the horizon. I dial through the radio stations on the car’s tuner. The reception is unreliable here. I’ve got either choral classics or easy listening arrangements of middle of the road favourites.
In the distance are two orange hazard lights winking at me. There’s a stationary sedan on the grass verge. Some poor soul is standing beside it. It’s a lonely place to wait for recovery. Tyres screech and there’s a whirl of smoke and grit. The powerful old Mercedes charges towards me and passes in a blur of metallic-blue. The young woman darts across the tarmac flapping her arms like a broken windmill in a force ten gale.
I decelerate and check my rear-view mirror.
The Mercedes is disappearing into the shimmering haze.
Her blotchy red face appeals to me as I pass by.
I pull over fifty yards away and wind down the window.
“Thank you, thank you,” she says, catching her breath as she runs up to my car. “Thank you so much for---”
“Are you all right?” Her eyes are swollen. “I mean, you look---”
“I can’t believe he just lost it--”
“God, that looks painful.” I say. “Do you want---”
“I had to get out,” she says, wiping her tears with the collar of her sleeveless shirt. “We’d argued all day.” She sniffs. “It’s always about money, isn’t it?”
“Look,” I say, “I’m heading to work but---”
“I told him it’s over and I never---”
“Can you speak to him and---”
“No way’s he coming back for me.” She frowns. “Besides, my phone’s dead.”
“I’ll call the police and---”
“No, don’t!” she says, eyeing me. “I just need to get home and be safe and---”
“How about a train station?” I ask. “Is that helpful?”
“You mean in your car?” she says, looking up and down the road. “With you?”
“Well,” I say, “if it would help then I---”
“I‘ll promise not to eat you.” She smiles. “As long as you’re not some weirdo.”
She opens the near-side door and I shift my belongings to the rear seat.
“I’m Della,” she says, flicking down the vanity mirror. “Ugh, what a mess.”
“So where’s home, Della?”
“Manchester,” she says, “but I don’t know how far away---”
“So you two were taking the scenic route as well?”
“What’s that then?” she says, examining her reflection.
“Welcome to the scenic route.” I chuckle and reset the map for the nearest station.
“Is Poulton station any good for you?”
“You know these roads round here then?” She attends to the smudged mascara.
“Not really,” I say. “I never come this way, if I can help it.”
“The diversion sent us this way, and we missed a turning---”
“The Poulton train can take you to Preston, you can change there for Manchester.”
“I need to call my Dad,” she says, reaching for my iPhone on its cradle.
“Sure,” I say. “I hope he’s not in Australia?”
“He’s in Preston, silly.” She smiles and taps out a number.
“Well, that’s all right as long as---”
“I can never remember his number.” She grimaces. “It begins with zero seven---”
“Don’t you have it written somewhere?”
“If only I could charge my phone, I---”
“Sorry,” I say, “it’s all I’ve got.”
“Hello, hello, Dad… It’s Della… Oh, sorry wrong number.”
“Is there anyone else?”
“I told you,” she says, returning my device. “My numbers are in my phone.”
“Who writes numbers nowadays?” she says, rooting around her bag.
“I thought maybe---”
“What star sign are you, by the way?” She smears coffee coloured foundation under her eyes and around the swollen right temple.
“Aquarius,” I say, squinting my mouth to one-side. “February the fifteenth.”
“I’m a Libra,” she says. “I’m a peacemaker, I’m non-confrontational and I have a strong sense of justice.”
“Ah, so…” I tap my teeth together and inhale. “What am I?”
“You’re just a weirdo.” She smiles. “Don’t take it to heart.”
“You’re an expert in these matters?”
“We’re as compatible as it gets, darling.”
“But, I thought you said---”
“No, don’t be daft,” she says, “This is no coincidence.”
“You read your horoscope today and---”
“You bet I did,” she says. “The stars told me a handsome older man would save me from danger and transport me to safety.”
“That’s all very well, but I’m late and---”
“Please don’t burst my bubble.” She downturns the sides of her mouth and lolls her head to one side. “You were doing ever so well.”
“Turn right at the next junction and follow the route to Poulton Station.”
“Hey, do you have money for the train or a taxi---”
“Of course, you don’t think I’d…”
“No, no, of course not,” I say. “It’s just that I don’t know you and---”
“I know I’ve got two twenties,” she says, rummaging through her purse.
“Sorry, I meant nothing by that, of course I---”
“I’m sure they were here…”
“Is there a problem?” I ask. “Have you lost---”
“You didn’t say you worked nights.”
“I head through town most evenings but tonight---”
“That jerk has taken my money,” she says, “I swear I’ll get even.”
“Tonight’s diversion has made me late and---”
“You’ve got to help me or at least drive me to my Dad’s place---”
“Your destination is in eight hundred yards on the right.”
“My jackets on the back seat.”
Della reaches over for it and feels inside for my wallet.
“I can give you my number and my Dad’s details and---”
“I should have two twenties in there and---”
“You’re such a star,” she says, dipping her fingers into my wallet. “I knew you were a kind person.”
“I’ve got a pen in my pocket, look,” I say, pointing to an overhead sign. “We’re almost there now.”
“I don’t know what I would’ve done without you,” she says, replacing my jacket on the back seat. “They’d have found me curled up by the side of the road.”
“Grab a scrap of paper from the glove-box---”
“No worries,” she says, “I’ve got a post-it.”
“Here we go,” I say, parking on the crescent approach outside the ticket office.
“That’s my number,” she says, slapping the note on the fascia panel. “You’ve got my Dad’s address too.”
“That’s fine,” I say, retrieving the pen from her fingers. “I’ll call you later.”
“Thank you so much for everything.” She leans forward and pecks me on the cheek.
“Don’t forget your make up, Della.”
“Oh, silly me.” Della laughs, grabbing her clutch bag as she steps onto the pavement. “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on.”
She slams the door and saunters off, hesitating only to check pockets and zip-up her bag.
I’m stationary in congested traffic outside the station. Taxis are blocking the thoroughfare. A station porter is orchestrating vehicle movements, and I’m caught in a holding pattern. I call work while I have a chance. At least I’ve a good excuse for my late arrival. Forgetting about the roadworks would never wash with Jerry; he really can’t take a joke.
I pick up my phone and dial the work number. The station porter approaches me as I wait to be connected. He motions me to wind down my window.
“Sorry for the delay, sir, but…”
“What seems to be the problem?” I cancel the work call.
“I don’t know how to put this,” he says, biting his lip. “I couldn’t help noticing your companion, sir.”
“She needed help,” I say, “she was miles away and wanted to---”
“Get a train to Manchester, by any chance, sir?”
“Well, yes, however she---”
“Needed to borrow money and gave you her number?”
“But she was in tears and bruised and---”
“Did you check your wallet, sir?”
“It was in my jacket and she took two twenties---”
“I believe this might be yours.”
I recognise the brown tanned grain, the corner scuff and the scratched brass clip.
“It must have dropped out when…” I say, blinking.
“I’m afraid it’ll be empty,” he says.
“How did you---”
“I suspect,” he says, pointing beyond the static traffic, “that’s her partner’s car, sir.”
There’s a glint of metallic-blue steel under the flickering streetlights. The powerful old Mercedes’ three-litre engine throbs and roars. A young woman waves her arm out of the near-side window as it speeds up down the road.
Della must have an explanation.
I’ll call the number and talk to her.
The phone rings twice and connects.
“At the third stroke, the time will be nine forty-four and thirty seconds.”