She was glad the section of the coach in which she found herself was relatively empty, and for the first part of the journey she wept quietly intermittently for the loss of what she had experienced the last couple of days. As the train began to fill up, the nearer they got to the city, she forced herself to take control of her breathing, so that it no longer came in sudden hiccoughs, and by the time they arrived at the city terminal, she was more or less recovered. Sad, but recovered.
She took a bus to the office and settled behind her desk to begin the day's work. Checking her diary she was relieved to see that she had no appointments for today. Cecilia, her boss, passed by her desk with a cheerful good morning, and gave her a quick look when she replied in somewhat subdued fashion. As usual, she was alone in the office she shared with three colleagues, as the other editors usually worked from home, although one of them came in for a meeting with Cecilia just before coffee time.
The three of them took coffee together after the meeting, and Cecilia wafted a packet of biscuits under her nose, but she waved them away. Coffee over, the colleague left to get back to his editing work at home, and Cecilia called her into her office.
"Ok, Sandra," she began. "Do you want to tell Auntie Cec all about it? You look like you lost a pound and found a penny."
"I don't really want to talk about it yet," said Sandra. "Not until I've come to terms with it myself."
"Alright, I can accept that. But I have the feeling that you're so out of sorts today that you won't be doing your best work, and you'll almost certainly have to do it all over again later. So why don't you take the day off again?"
"I'm not sure I could stand being by myself today. I'd much rather be occupied with something, anything, even if I have to do it all over again tomorrow or whenever."
"This is serious. Do you have a friend you can spend some time with today?"
Sandra shook her head. Tears welled up in her eyes despite herself and she dashed the back of her hand across them.
"Right, then this is what we'll do. We'll go to the sandwich bar and buy some lunch, then we'll take my car to a place I know where we can be more or less alone. We can walk and talk, or sit and talk, or walk and sit without talking, but at least you'll have company. Go and get your coat."
Whilst Sandra unwillingly did as she was told, Cecilia went in to the receptionist, told her that she and Sandra were off to a meeting at short notice, to handle what she could of any callers, and ask the ones she couldn't handle to call back tomorrow. She went back for Sandra and the two of them left the office.
Cecilia drove to a large park on the outskirts of the city, once part of a private estate, now partly the municipal horticultural centre and partly just open community parkland. They wandered more or less aimlessly about on the footpaths, Cecilia making small talk which she suspected Sandra was not concentrating on.
"It was here that I murdered my first three husbands," she said finally, and Sandra nodded. "I poisoned the first one, the second one I stabbed and the third I hit on the head with a hammer."
"That must have been painful," replied Sandra.
Cecilia stopped, and Sandra perforce followed suit.
"Now where was I?" asked Cecilia, as though she had lost the thread.
Sandra struggled with her thoughts.
"About how you hit yourself on the head with a hammer."
"Not quite, but a good try. Let's sit down on this bench."
They seated themselves, and Cecilia took up the two café lattes she had in the paper bag containing their lunches. She gave one to Sandra.
"Now," she said. "The day before yesterday, late in the evening, you phoned me up to tell me that something had come up and that you needed to take yesterday off. No explanation, just the bald facts. Today you come in looking like the woman who discovered she's lost the winning lottery ticket. I think I can be forgiven for assuming that these two rare events are somehow related."
Sandra smiled sadly.
"You can," she said. "I forgive you."
"So what was the 'something' that had come up? I have to say you didn't sound like the loser of a lottery ticket then. Rather the reverse. It sounded more like you'd won the jackpot."
"It felt like it, too, some of the time. I was moonlighting in the concert hall cloakroom, and a man came up to me. He had the most outrageous line."
"What did he say?"
"'I'd love to wake up beside you every morning for the rest of my life. Do I have a chance?' Something like that. I didn't know whether to laugh or be angry."
She told Cecilia how he had stared at her almost from the moment he had come in, changed his direction to come straight to her, handed her his coat, and delivered his line.
"Sounds like a romantic proposal of marriage to me."
"Except that I didn't know him. Never seen him before in my life. And he said the same; he'd never seen me before either."
That was not all he had said. "Would I have forgotten you?" were his words. "I come regularly to these concerts, but I've never seen you here before." And it was true, for she had only that month begun her part-time job which had as its main perk free entry to all concerts.
"Ah. Strange," said Cecilia. "Now, I can see you might want to laugh, but why would you be angry? And was this before your 'something' that came up or after?"
"Before. And I was angry because . . . well, because I don't get a lot of interaction with men. I mean, I'm not your average wilting flower."
She indicated her nearly 190 centimetres, which made her much taller than most men, her heavy build with full bosom and hips.
"Most of the time I'm no longer bothered by the fact that it's difficult to find fashionable clothes in my size. In my teens I took a night-school class in dress-making, and now make most of my own clothes.
So I thought it must be a line, designed purely to get me inte bed. I've experienced that before, too: men who wonder whether such a large body will give them a 'ride 'em cowboy' thrill and decide to try it once, just for fun, never to be seen again. The strange thing was that he should try it on me, a complete stranger. It's the sort of line he might use at a pub, when he had been chatting me up for a while."
"I'm more of an amazon," she went on. "I don't know whether I frighten them or what it is, but I don't arouse a lot of interest. I worked it out, it's nearly two years since I had a relationship which lasted long enough to include sex. I thought he was making fun of me, or at the very best was just out for sex and, I don't know, maybe I look sex-starved."
"So, did you laugh or did you slap his face?"
"In the end, I laughed. I made a joke of it. Just as you suggested, I said 'That sounds like a proposal of marriage. But I have a rule never to get married to strangers.'
'Then we'll have to become friends. Quickly.'
'I just told you. I want to start waking up beside you every day.'
'So you want to get me into bed quickly? Is that it?'
'That sinks it down a bit from what I had in mind. Let's change it to 'I want you on the other side of the breakfast table'.'
'And there's a semantic difference in there somewhere?'
He pulled me over to a mirror and asked me what I saw. A big, fat woman, I said. You're not fat, he said. Tall, yes, but in perfect proportion. You're beautiful. He took me out to dinner."
"You went out to dinner with a man you'd never met before? He could have been a serial killer."
"He didn't look like one or act like one."
"And how much do you know about how serial killers look or act? Alright, you went for dinner. Why?"
"He actually made me feel good about myself. My size. And I thought I might turn the tables on him. As I said, it's a long time since I had any sex. So I thought if he wants to use me, why can't I use him at the same time? I feel so ashamed just saying it out loud like that, but that's how it struck me at the time."
"OK, so you're having dinner with a serial killer and decide to have a bit of rumpy pumpy. Don't tell me you went to his apartment or I'll handcuff you and take you to the nearest shrink."
"No, he was staying at a hotel. We ate there, in fact."
"So he's not from around here?"
"No. He'd come in for the concert. Apparently he does that about once a month."
"Well, I pointed out how hard it would be to wake up beside me every day if he lived a hundred kilometres away, and how was he going to get over that obstacle. He asked me what I did, and I told him and he suggested that maybe I could work from home for the most part and merely go in to the office on occasion."
"We're still a long way from gratuitous sex or losing a lottery ticket."
"Anyway, he suggested I could work from home at his place, and that I could maybe take the day off and come and see the place."
"Ah, your 'something' just came up!"
"Exactly. And he suggested that I could come to the hotel after breakfast, and we could drive out to his place."
"What, no gratuitous sex? What sort of a serial killer is he?"
"It was I who suggested that if I stayed at the hotel, we could go directly from there in the morning."
"You shameless hussy!"
"Yes. But ... it was good."
"I'll bet it was after two years!"
"Can you be here for breakfast?" he had said. "We can leave straight away afterwards."
"I thought you were going to seduce me to stay with you tonight."
"I'm not that desperate. No, that didn't sound quite right. I can wait for the chance to make love to you."
"How nice. But I am a bit desperate. Can I stay here tonight and we can stop at my apartment in the morning to pick up some bits and pieces."
He looked at her for a long time. She could not read the expression on his face. Finally he spoke.
"So every day for the rest of my life might just start tomorrow," he said finally.
"I think so."
"What do you mean by desperate?"
"I'll tell you some other time."
"Ok. Now, how do we fix this with the hotel?"
"You came to town to meet me tomorrow but I arrived today so you have to turn your single room to a double."
"You see? I said you were intelligent."
She gave a sphinx-like smile. During the rest of the meal she had asked him about his life, his work, his interests, and he held nothing back. Over liqueurs he left her and spoke to the reception. There was no problem. He was already in a double room paying single rate. They would simply upgrade the booking and give him an extra key. In five minutes he was back at their table.
"I can't believe this," he said as they stood up to leave the restaurant. She smiled.
Once in their room she turned and faced him, suddenly shy. She had been basking in his purported admiration, not least of her fully clothed body, all evening. She wondered how the sight of her naked body would affect that admiration.
He came over to her, took hold of her waist. It was the first time he had touched her deliberately. He pulled her to him, leaned in and kissed her, just a light touch of his lips on hers. So soft his lips were. Then he kissed her again, and this time it was longer and she lost count of time.
"Now I'm going to undress you," he said.
Oh God, she thought, let this be a two-night stand.
Breakfast. They did not sit on opposite sides of the table. They sat on adjacent sides. He could reach out and touch her hand and she his. When they did, they smiled at each other. She was aware of a delightful sensation in her loins, the physical memory of their love-making. He had not shown any sign of regret at the sight of her naked body. On the contrary, he had stroked it all over, kissed it all over, made love to it all over, until for the second time that night a little cry of ecstasy had passed her lips and they had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion, their legs intertwined, he lying where he had landed when he rolled off her, and she holding him, half turning as he rolled off so that he should not escape. And he had not escaped, but had woken up beside her, just as he had promised. And started again. Gosh, did I ever get my itch scratched, she thought.
Both ate a hearty breakfast.
"So after breakfast we drove over to my place . . ."
"So I could pack a bag with a few clothes and things, and so he could see my apartment. He was talking about how we could use it when we were in town."
"Well, he keeps to his story at any rate. So then you drove away into the sunset, and . . ?"
"He has a fantastic place in a little village. He plays the piano with his family. Oh, not professionally. All of them play instruments, and give the occasional concert in the village hall. He discovered that I'd once played the clarinet and said how pleased his sister would be to be able to arrange music which included a clarinet. I met his sister. She's an artist. And I met his mother and father and his sister's husband. They all live in the same village."
"So now you've won the jackpot. When did you lose the lottery ticket?"
"This morning, after . . ."
". . . more sex?"
Sandra nodded glumly.
"I was going to say breakfast," she said, as if excusing herself. "I felt trapped," she went on. "He wanted to wake up beside me for the rest of his life. His family wanted me to play the clarinet with them. It seemed like the whole damn village came over to our table at the pub yesterday evening to say hello to me."
"You all went to the pub?"
"Yes. They put on a fabulous boeuf bourguignon on Wednesdays. People apparently come in their droves from miles around. And everybody came to our table to say hello, and welcome me."
"So they're obviously popular in the village."
"I suppose so."
She remembered how Richard had left her with his family whilst he went over to the bar, leaving her to run the gauntlet of family curiosity. For her a difficult period had now followed, with questions such as 'how long have you known each another' and statements about Richard followed by 'but of course you'll know that already', which had forced replies such as "not long" and sometimes 'yes' and sometimes 'no, actually I didn't', but she believed that she had given a good account of herself by the time Richard returned with their drinks.
"So what's the problem?" asked Cecilia. "Don't tell me you've had enough of him to last you another two years but you don't really like him."
"I like him a lot. I just feel . . . smothered. It's all happening too quickly. I feel as though if I go home to him this evening - and he expects that - he'll take me over to see the vicar and arrange for reading of the banns. With a man I met for the first time the day before yesterday."
"Ah! I think I see the problem."
"Yes. You've lived alone all your adult life. YOu're what, thirty something?"
"And from what I know of you and what you've said today, I'd guess you've never lived in a relationship."
"I've never had a relationship which lasted long enough."
"Exactly. You're suffering from a kind of xenophobia. The thought of someone else having a say in what you do, when or how you do it, is scaring you to death. You've had it all your own way up to now. Think, he may want to watch another tv channel or - God forbid - get you pregnant, and that'll slow you down for nine months and impose someone else's will on you for at least eighteen years after that."
Sandra was silent, studying her.
"I don't think so," she said finally.
"I do. We've all been there. Living on your own is addictive. But most of us have been immunised by the occasional bout of living together. By your own admission you haven't."
"So what do you suggest?" asked Sandra after another long silence.
"Why don't you give it a try. You work from home - his home - for a test period. You come into the office when necessary or when you feel the need for some space. You may or may not take up the clarinet again. You go to Wednesday nights at the pub, maybe other nights as well. See how everything works out. Maybe he'll get tired of you. Maybe you'll get tired of him. Or maybe you won't be good enough on the clarinet and the family'll tip you the black spot. Or maybe, just maybe, you'll find you get to like family life again. You must have had a family life once upon a time. Have you no family left?"
"Yes, but I got tired of being told how big I was and to go on this or that diet. I haven't seen them for years."
"Don't you have any contact at all?"
"Very little. A card on my birthday and at Christmas. The occasional phone call from my mother."
"Well, take your serial killer up there and show them what you managed without their diet suggestions. Maybe you'll reinstate diplomatic relations. You'll have to invite them to the wedding, and introduce them to your first-born."
Sandra smiled sadly.
"You're taking a lot for granted."
"Yeah, well, maybe there won't be a wedding and/or children. But at least you'll know what's on offer and whether it's worth it. And don't forget all that gratuitous sex."
"Alright," she said. "I'll give him a call and tell him when to expect me."
Her face clouded over.
"What?" asked Cecilia.
"I don't have his phone number. I've known him less than two days. We haven't had time to exchange numbers yet."
"Well, look him up in the telephone book." She looked at Sandra's dismayed face. "You don't know his surname."
It was a statement rather than a question.
"No," admitted Sandra in a small voice.
"Do you know where he lives?"
"Stoke something or other."
"Well, let's see. How did you get into work today?"
"Still got the ticket?"
Sandra rooted through her handbag and all her pockets.
"No, apparently not."
"Looks like you're not meant to test these waters," she said.
She thought for a minute.
"Where did you say you ate dinner last night?"
"The Stonemason's Arms."
Cecilia took out her smartphone, started the browser and googled the name. An immense number of hits came up. She did a search on the word 'Stoke' which narrowed the list to three, Stoke Fercroft, Stoke-on-Trent and Stoke Newington.
"Well, it's not the last two. You'd have remembered them. So it's Stoke Fercroft. Does that sound right?"
"Was the station in the village?"
"A bit outside, but, yes, basically in the village."
"So what are you going to do? Will you fight your xenophobia or give in to it?"
"If you think that's really my worry, then I'd like to fight it. I enjoyed myself so much with Richard and his family."
"So here's what we do. I drive you home first so you can find your clarinet and sling it and a few more clothes into a bag or bags, then we go back to the office and pack your current jobs into a briefcase. You take your laptop with you. Then I whisk you off to the station and put you on a train to Stoke Fercroft. How you get home from there is your problem. There must be a taxi or some friendly soul. There were apparently a lot of friendly souls last night. One of them can take you home. Then you spend the rest of the week getting yourself organised, and start work again. Come in to the office next Monday or Tuesday and we'll see how you're getting on. If there's anything you need, just give me a call."
"No problem. You're worth your weight in gold. Well, perhaps not your weight."
Sandra looked at her with shock.
"Just joking. Now let's eat these sandwiches and get under way."
* * * * *
Richard had had a hard day. He had been too distracted by the events of the last two days to be able to concentrate on the job, and had finally acknowledged the fact and told them he was going home. If he was needed they could phone him there, or there was always his cellphone.
Back at home he made himself a cup of coffee and decided to call Sandra. It was now that he discovered that he had no knowledge of her telephone number. He did not know her surname nor the name of the street where she lived, nor the name of her employer. That was bad enough, but it also struck him that she did not know his telephone number either, nor his surname. He hoped she knew the name of the village, but it might not have registered. Well, it would be on her train ticket.
There was nothing for it. He would have to leave it to her to make contact, but if she hadn't shown up by the time of the last train this evening, he would drive away to the city tomorrow and try to retrace the route from his hotel to her apartment.
This was going to be a long day. He wandered away through the village to his sister's house. Her son was asleep, and she was making use of her freedom, hard at work on a painting, and he realised he was interrupting. Eventually, to her relief, he left her and meandered further to the house of his parents.
They were both pleased to see him, and eased his ache by wanting to talk about Sandra. What a lovely girl, and how long had he kept her under wraps, and other questions which he had as much problem answering as she had had the evening before. Finally he was forced to admit that they had not known each other long, and that there was much discovery work to do for each of them in the days and weeks ahead and that he was looking forward to that voyage of discovery.
"And why aren't you at work today?" his mother asked at one point.
"Too excited," he admitted, and she smiled and patted him on the cheek.
"It'll wear off," she promised.
"It will?" asked her husband. "When?"
He ate lunch with his parents, then walked back to the old vicarage. He wandered into one of the rooms still undergoing renovation and studied the state of the work, and the next phases of the job, and began work when suddenly he had a brainstorm. The concert house. They must know her surname. And how was that going to help? Well, perhaps there weren't too many Sandra's with that surname in the city. He hoped it wasn't Smith or Jones or the like.
He went to his computer, did a search for the concert house in the city and dialled the telephone number which came up. He was put through to the office, and asked for the surname and address of the young lady, about thirty years old, very tall, who had been working in the cloakroom the day before yesterday. She was a new employee.
Unfortunately they could not release information of that nature.
"No, of course not," he said. "But perhaps you can get a message to her?"
What would that be, the person on the other end wondered.
"Simply ask her to contact me. My name is Richard Mason."
He gave his telephone number, and told them that she played the clarinet, and a small group of musicians wanted to include her in a quintet.
Very well, promised the voice, but she had called in sick yesterday, and they had not heard from her today, so it could be some time before she got the message.
"No problem," he said. "There's no panic."
What a lie, he thought. I'm very close to panic right now.
He had no idea how he got through the rest of the day. In the evening he went to the Stonemason's for a simple meal and a half pint of Death or Glory. Several of the customers and all of the staff commented on the lovely lady he had had with him yesterday evening and he thanked them.
Eventually he could no longer justify staying there and set off for home. As he turned up the driveway to the old vicarage, he discovered that he had apparently forgotten to turn off the lights, for the hall and music room windows were lit up. He opened the door and stopped in surprise. He had not left music playing when he went to the pub. He recognised the music. It was Mozart, the second movement of his clarinet concerto. Suddenly he heard a false note. In a recording? Impossible. He walked over to the music room, opened the door and there she sat, playing along to a recording. She waved gaily.
"Just practicing," she said.