The Consolation Prize
Chrissie wondered what on earth she was letting herself in for. It was 5.00 am on a cold November morning and she was dressing in the most uncomfortable, impractical and totally ridiculous outfit.
A ring at the doorbell brought her up with a start. She checked her watch. He was early. Tina had said Neil would pick her up but she didn’t say it would be in the middle of the night.
It was all Tina’s fault. Tina was a spark of colour in a grey world, but she could be a tad outrageous. “It’ll be fun,” Tina promised. “A bit out of the ordinary. Something you can brag to your work mates about. I bet none of them have done anything like it.”
Well, you didn’t need to be Einstein to work that one out, Chrissie thought. She worked in the library. Then Tina mentioned Neil. “You’ll love Neil,” she said. “He’s a great guy and one of Charlie’s best friends. He’s broken up with his girlfriend and we need someone to make up a foursome. You’ll be doing us a favour.”
Her heart sank as she recalled all the other blind dates Tina had set her up with in the six months since she’d split from Matt. There was Kevin who spent the entire evening talking about his medical problems, then there was Gary, the Star Wars fanatic looking for a Princess Leia to compliment his Luke Skywalker persona and she hadn’t forgotten Tyler, who she swore was hardly out of romper suits.
Chrissie braced herself for disappointment. She opened the door and stared. He actually looked, apart from the down-to-the-ground overcoat and cloth cap, quite normal. Early thirties, she thought, tall and, well, handsome.
“Hi, I’m Neil,” he said holding out a leather-gloved hand.
“Chrissie,” she breathed. “Hi.”
They stood appraising each other for what felt like ages. From the approving look in his eyes Chrissie guessed he liked what he saw.
“You look fantastic,” he said. “It’s good of you to go to so much trouble.”
“It’ no trouble,” she lied. “I’ll get my hat.”
Indoors she breathed again. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be such a terrible day after all. She put on the wide brimmed hat Tina had picked out and tied it into place with a chiffon scarf. A thick travelling cloak completed the outfit.
Outside Neil had the car engine running. Chrissie gasped. “Is this it?” she said, staring at the yellow painted wheels and bonnet of the 1905 Wolseley.
“Yes,” Neil grinned. “Isn’t she a beauty?” He jumped down and came round to help Chrissie as she lifted her skirt to step onto the wide black running board.
“Are you sure it’s safe?”she asked.
“Of course,” he said, helping her up onto the padded leather passenger seat. He climbed up beside her. “Brighton here we come.”
An hour later they were at the meeting point in Hyde Park where they met up with Tina and Charlie. Charlie was driving his 1904 Cadillac. Apart from being shiny and red with a double row of seats and no running board, this didn’t look any more reliable than Neil’s Wolseley. Both cars looked decidedly chilly.
“Are you looking forward to the run?” Charlie asked. “I guarantee you an experience you’ll never forget.”
“That’s for sure,” Chrissie said. She still wasn’t convinced that agreeing to a sixty mile journey in an open topped car with no heater was the right thing to do. She recalled Tina telling her how she’d met Charlie at a reception at the National Gallery and that she only agreed to go out with him because he said he had a Cadillac convertible. She wasn’t to know it was a Vintage 1904 model and when she found out it was too late. She was smitten and they’d been together ever since.
“It’ll get better,” Neil said. “When the sun comes out.” He frowned. “As long as it doesn’t rain.”
“It’s over a hundred and twenty years since the first London to Brighton, when they tore up the red flag that had to be carried by a man on foot in front of the car. There are over four hundred cars taking part,” Charlie said.
Glancing around Chrissie saw the colourful line up of vintage vehicles ready to start. She smiled at their enthusiasm. “Not everyone will make it to the finish,” Charlie said. “But we will, won’t we Neil?”
Neil nodded. Obviously pride was at stake if they failed to finish.
They took their places in the queue to start. Charlie departed first. Then, a few minutes later Chrissie and Neil were on their way.
It wasn’t long before they left the grey dampness of London behind them. As they drove through the countryside the air was crisp and sharp. Chrissie was glad of the blanket Neil had wrapped around her legs and the thick scarf he’d placed gently around her neck. A pale winter sun did its best to light up the perfect blue of the sky.
Conversation was difficult over the noise of the engine and the wind whipping the words away as soon as Chrissie said them. Every now and then she caught Neil’s eye and he’d grin and give a thumbs up. Chrissie gritted her teeth and gave a thumbs up back.
They made good time over the Surrey Hills. Whenever Neil saw a veteran stranded by the side of the road he stopped to help. One time he helped by providing water to top up the radiator when the engine had overheated, another time he rummaged in his tool-bag to find the right spanner to tighten the nuts on a loose wheel. He had a cheery word for everyone and was clearly well liked by the other drivers.
“Do you so this often?” Chrissie asked, when he returned from helping one driver.
“It’s a sort of tradition,” he said. “Rosebud was my grandfather’s car, named after my Gran. When he died Dad took it over and restored it. It was his pride and joy. He started doing the run. After he died I carried on. I thought it was something I could do to keep his memory alive.” He paused. “Silly really.”
“No it’s not,” Chrissie said. “It’s commendable.”
Half-an-hour later they pulled into the car park of the pub which was the half-way point. Tina and Charlie were already there.
Neil came round to help Chrissie down from the high seat. She stumbled and fell into his arms. “Oh, sorry,” she said. “My legs seem to have gone to sleep.”
“I could carry you,” he said.
“No, I’m fine,” she said, although the thought of being carried in Neil’s strong arms was quite appealing.
“What kept you?” Charlie called. “We’ve been here for ages.”
“We stopped to help some other drivers,” Chrissie said feeling she had to defend Neil.
“Oh, you shouldn’t do that,” Charlie said. “They’re supposed to get there under their own steam. You won’t catch me stopping for anyone. I’ll be in Brighton before you know it. We’re about to leave. Do you want us to book you a room in case you don’t make it by nightfall?” He laughed.
Neil’s face hardened. “We’ll make it,” he said.
“What about a small wager? Last one to Brighton buys dinner.”
“Isn’t that against the rules?” Tina said. “It’s not supposed to be a race.”
Charlie grinned. “An agreement between gentlemen, that’s all. How about it Neil?”
“I’ll even give you a fifteen minute start while we have coffee,” Neil said. “No worries.”’
“You’re on. Come on Tina, let’s go.”
“I need the loo,” Tina said. “You’ll just have to wait.”
Chrissie and Tina headed for the Ladies. In the powder room in the pub Chrissie had a chance to comb her hair and repair her make-up.
“So,” Tina said. “How are you getting on with Neil?”
Chrissie frowned. “He doesn’t say much does he?”
“Well, he’s not flashy or showy like Charlie, but I still think he’s a good guy.”
“What happened with him and his ex? Why the break-up?”
“Oh that. I’m not entirely sure. Charlie said she was a stunner. Real class but flirty. Neil found her cheating on him with a mate – something like that. He was devastated.” She paused in her efforts to re-apply her mascara. “Don’t get any ideas about him. He’s nursing a broken heart. You don’t want to end up the consolation prize.”
Chrissie shrugged. Perhaps Tina was right: he was a lost cause. She’d better put a lock on her heart.
They weren’t on the road long before they saw Charlie’s Cadillac ahead of them, stopped on the road by a farmer driving a tractor. Charlie was waving his arms about as though in a frantic argument. Neil’s granite face broke into a smile as they passed.
Once they were past Tina and Charlie the sun came out and the journey became surprisingly pleasant. Neil reached into the back seat and produced a hamper of sandwiches and a thermos of coffee which they enjoyed as they drove along.
Several miles further on, as they were passing a row of cottages the engine spluttered, coughed and died. Neil jumped down and lifted the bonnet. A cloud of steam engulfed him.
“We’re out of water,” he said. Chrissie recalled the water he’d given to the other stranded driver. “I don’t think we can go any further. I’ll not risk Rosebud’s engine seizing up.”
Chrissie jumped down from her seat. “Is it just water?”
“I’ll ask for some then.” She ran up to the door of the nearby cottage and a few minutes later came out accompanied by an elderly man with white hair and a grey beard. He carried a large jug of water. He stopped and gazed in amazement when he saw the car.
“By Jove! That’s an old Wolseley isn’t it? I don’t believe it. My dad had one of those. It must have been, let me think…” Chrissie took the jug of water and handed it to Neil to fill up the car’s radiator. He slammed the bonnet shut. The man was walking around the car, touching the mudguards and patting the boot. “It’s just like my dad’s.” he said. His eyes shone. “I don’t suppose I could…” he nodded to the driver’s seat.
At that moment, Charlie’s Cadillac swished past them, Tina and Charlie waving and tooting. Chrissie glanced at Neil.
Neil was smiling and nodding at the elderly gentleman and helping him up into the driver’s seat. A beam of pleasure flushed the man’s face. “This takes me back,” he said. He ran his hands over the seat, the dashboard and the wheel. “It’s a real beauty. I wish Dad was alive to see it. He’d be thrilled to bits.”
Neil waited patiently while the car’s admirer took his time inspecting every part of it. “Thanks lad,” he said “You’ve made an old man’s day.”
Neil swung the starting handle and the engine sprang into life.
“That was kind of you,” Chrissie said as she climbed up into her seat. “But there goes our chance of winning the race.”
Neil smiled at her. “Some things are more important than winning,” he said. Chrissie’s heart flipped. She moved closer to Neil and the gap between them closed. The November sun came out beaming what warmth it had upon them. If winning wasn’t the most important thing then perhaps being the consolation prize wouldn’t be so bad after all, Chrissie thought.
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