Brief Encounter (February story)

Brief Encounter

 What a day, Katie thought as she packed up and left the office. First the photocopier had chewed up the Conveyance documents she was working on, then her friend Penny rang to cancel the after-work girls-night-out they’d planned and to cap it all it the incessant rain had turned into a full blown storm. At least it was the end of the week and she had the weekend to look forward to.

Damned rain, Katie thought as she dashed to the bus stop. A fresh torrent lashed against the shop windows. She dived into a doorway for cover and collided with a man already sheltering there.

‘Damn. Oh, sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t see you.’

‘No problem.’  He said, moving over to make room for her.

‘Thanks.’  She glanced out. ‘Cats and dogs weather my gran used to call it, though God knows why, it’s not fit for either.’

She saw the corners of his mouth curve into an ‘almost’ smile. Blue eyes twinkled beneath his floppy blonde hair.

‘Are you waiting for the bus too?’ she asked.

‘Me? No, going to the station to get a train, although…’ he raised his arm to check his watch, a heavy gold one, ‘looks like I’ve probably missed it.’

Katie sighed. Would this rain never stop?  ‘Got far to go?’ she asked – anything to relieve the boredom of what promised to be a long, wet wait.

‘Spangler’s Mead. Don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of it. It’s small village, out of town.’ His voice was cultured, or cut glass as Katie called it. Upper class anyway. She smiled at the incongruity of it. He sounded like he was more used to chauffeur driven Bentleys than bus stops.

She frowned. ‘Spangler’s Mead! That’s where I live. I get the bus. It takes longer but it’s cheaper.’ She stared at him, trying to place his face. He was younger than her but she was surprised she didn’t recognise him. ‘It’s a wonder I haven’t seen you in the village. Place is smaller than a postage stamp. I thought I knew everyone. What’s your name?’

‘Clive.’

‘I’m Katie, how do you do?’ She extended her hand. Now he’ll think I’m trying to pick him up, she thought. ‘Have you lived there long?’

‘All my life.’

‘Me too. I went to the local school. You?’

‘’Fraid not.’

No, Katie thought, posh public school I bet. Still¸ talking to him helped pass the time and, if she was honest, it was the nicest thing that had happened to her today. ‘Well you must know some people in the village,’ she said.

‘Err…um…well. I guess I know the woman who runs the post office. Ghastly woman, quite beastly. Keeps everyone waiting while she gossips with the old dears collecting their pensions. Never has a good word to say about anybody. Miserable old baggage.’

‘The Postmistress, Gladys?’ she said. ‘She’s my aunt.’

It was difficult to see in the shadow but Katie thought she felt the heat from his reddening face as he shuffled his feet in his shiny, rain-spattered shoes. ‘Oh sorry. Didn’t mean…’ but it was too late; his words were out and couldn’t be sucked back. He looked as if he wanted to melt into the floor.

Katie laughed. ‘She’s not really. I was joking, but you should see your face.’ She jumped as thunder cracked overhead, lightning flashed and a fresh onslaught of rain lashed against the windows. ‘So, what do you do for living? Anything interesting?’

He grimaced. ‘I work in the Bank.’

‘Oh, a banker. Shouldn’t you have a bowler hat and an umbrella?’

‘Well, yes. I do actually, but we only wear them on ceremonial occasions, along with the pinstriped trousers and frock coat. What about you?’

She immediately warmed to him. ‘I never wear a bowler hat, nor a frock coat. I work in a solicitor’s office.’ She glanced out at the rain. ‘An umbrella would be handy. Then you wouldn’t have to shelter in shop doorways with the hoi polloi.’

‘Don’t you have one in that portmanteau of a bag you’re carrying? My mother never goes anywhere without an umbrella. Says you can’t trust the British weather.’

‘Pity she’s not here then isn’t it?’

Another clap of thunder and burst of lightning rent the sky. Katie banged her hands together and stamped her feet. The gloves she was wearing did nothing to keep her hands warm, her shoulder-length chestnut hair was beginning to frizz and her nose was turning blue. She noticed his good quality overcoat and wished she had worn something warmer.

‘It doesn’t look as if it’s going to let up any time soon,’ he said, gazing out. ‘There’s a café down the road. Do you fancy a coffee? At least it’ll be dry and warm inside.’

Katie smiled, she had nothing else to do, nothing to rush home for. What the hell, she thought. ‘Good idea,’ she said ‘Let’s make a run for it.’

 

Inside the café, the windows drizzled condensation, but the warming smell of coffee and cake filled the air. Katie breathed it in, glad to be in the dry.  She glanced around at the dark wood and soft amber lighting. It looked cosy and inviting. Clive shook the rain from his coat. ‘You find a table and I’ll get the coffee. What’ll it be?’

She gazed up at the menu. Should she go for cappuccino, or something more exotic? He moved impatiently from foot to foot, almost huffing but not quite.

‘Cappuccino please,’ she said eventually.

She found a table at the back, peeled off her gloves, took off her coat and shook the rain from it. The café was warm and the seat comfortable; a definite improvement on the shop doorway. She rubbed her hands together, suddenly conscious of the ring sparkling on her finger.

He arrived with the coffee and she embraced the cup with her hands to warm them. ‘So, how old are you and what made you take up banking?’

‘Twenty-three and my father. You?’

‘Twenty-nine and hoping to marry a rich solicitor before I’m thirty.’

‘And will you?’

She wiggled her finger; the diamonds sparkled in the light. ‘Half-way there already,’ she said. She sipped her coffee and beamed him a mischievous grin. He looked like a fun guy, unlike her fiancé, Richard, who wore his gravitas like an all-enveloping shield. ‘So, what would you be doing if your father hadn’t made you go into the bank?’

‘Er…um…well… Something creative I suppose. In my spare time I…No, you’ll laugh.’

‘No I won’t.’ She looked serious. ‘Everyone has a dream, what’s yours?’

He shook his head. ‘Promise you won’t laugh.’

‘I promise.’ Katie licked her fingers and crossed her heart.

He swallowed a gulp of coffee. ‘I can’t believe I’m telling you this,’ he said. ‘In my spare time I design t-shirts. You know, front and back: logos, slogans, pictures.’ His eyes shone with excitement as he spoke. ‘Some are really quite good.’

‘So – why don’t you do it professionally, if that’s what you want?’

He sighed. ‘My father would go ballistic if he knew. It’s my secret vice – designing t-shirts.’ He held his head in his hands. ‘Pathetic aren’t I?’

‘No, you’re not. I think it’s great. Listen. I have a sister…’ she saw sudden fear on his face. ‘No not that. She’s at Art College doing Textiles and Design. She could print out your designs and sell them in the market along with hers. It’d be great.’

Clive looked aghast. ‘Good heavens, no. I could never do that, not in a million years. My father’d have my guts for garters.’

‘So, bankers wear garter do they? I always suspected they did.’ She giggled. ‘And made of guts – wouldn’t surprise me. Seriously though, you should follow your dream. You never know what’s around the corner.’

As she said it, Katie recalled how her and her sister’s world had been turned upside down five years ago when their parents died with months of each other and she’d been left to look after Zizzi. She adored Zizzi beyond reason. They’d helped each other through the bad times and clung together like limpets tossed on a stormy sea. But now she worried about her; she was wild and unpredictable. Crazy as only teenagers finding their feet can be. She was always pushing boundaries and Katie worried that one day she’d push too far.

Clive gazed out of the window. Katie noticed the dreamy faraway look in his eyes but said nothing. The rain had subsided to a steady downpour.

He smiled at her. ‘Look, instead of the train or the bus why don’t we share a taxi? It won’t cost much more than the train fare.’

Katie’s eyes widened. ‘You’ll never get a taxi on a Friday night in the rain. They all hibernate you know – most of them won’t come out again until spring.’

Clive grinned, took out his mobile phone and pressed a couple of buttons. ‘Clive Barrington-Smythe here. I need a pick-up ASAP at…’ he picked up the café menu, ‘The Copper Pot, 16 High Street… Yes… ten minutes…fine.’

‘Wow. A taxi firm on speed dial. I’m impressed.’

In the taxi, Katie insisted on paying her share although Clive said it didn’t matter.

‘No. I insist, after all you got the coffee.’ She dived into her bag and rummaged around. After a few moments of burrowing through the bag’s contents, she said, ‘Sorry. I’ve forgotten my purse. Must have left it at work. Give me your address and I’ll pop the money round in the morning.’

‘There’s really no need.’

‘I insist.’

Clive shrugged, wrote his address on a piece of paper and handed it to her. Her eyebrows rose. ‘Daddy owns the Bank then?’ she said.

When they arrived in Spangler’s Mead Katie said, ‘You can drop me off at the Post Office.’ She chuckled when she saw the look of horror on his face. ‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘She’s not my aunt, I live around the corner.’ She got out of the taxi and waved the paper in the air. ‘I’ll drop the cash round in the morning.’

 

The next morning Clive was in the kitchen when the doorbell rang. His father was in his study and his mother in the garden. ‘I’ll get it,’ he called hurrying to the door. He almost choked when he opened it. A girl, dressed in purple striped leggings, the shortest skirt on record and a jacket that would put Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat to shame stood on the doorstep. His pulses raced. Orange and yellow feathers stuck out of the knot of rainbow coloured hair on top of her head. Blue and green tendrils framed a face pale as an angel’s wing. Zing went his heart-strings. He could hardly breathe.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘I’m Zizzi, Katie’s sister.’ Her eyes, outlined in iridescent indigo, held the promise of pleasures unknown. ‘She asked me to give you this.’ She pulled an envelope out of her gold-fringed bag. He noticed her violet nails, painted to match her lipstick. He stared.

‘Can I use your khasi?’ she said. ‘I’m dying for a pee.’

Stunned, he opened the door wider to let her in.

‘Katie said there’d be a chance of coffee an’ all.’

Clive swallowed. It took all his inner resources to recover himself sufficiently to say, ‘Yes, yes, of course. How crass of me. Come in. Loo’s there, kitchen at the end of the hall. I’ll put the coffee on.’ A broad grin lit up his face.

In the kitchen, he struggled to control his excitement. He filled the coffee maker and switched it on. Wow, he thought, Katie’s right, you never know what’s around the corner. One thing he did know for sure though – his parents would go BALLISTIC.

(First published in Take-a-Break Fiction Feast)

If you enjoyed this story there are more in The Cappuccino Collection available here.