Past & Present: Chapter One – Perfect Stranger

“I’ve arranged to pick up the house keys from Adam,” Richard Hale announced conversationally as he steered the car off the heaving motorway and onto a relatively quieter main road which, if he had followed his great friend, Adam Bell’s directions, would lead them directly into the heart of Milton. His voice, a gentle boom in the interior of the car, tore through the silence which had accompanied them for much of the long journey, drawing the attention of both his wife and daughter simultaneously. “He said he’d be in the office all day so we won’t have to worry about him not being there.”

As he spoke, Margaret could not help but smile. It had been a long time since her father had sounded so upbeat, so optimistic about the future. In fact, it was as though losing his job at the small accounting firm just outside Helstone had shaken off a thick layer of dust under which he had been stagnating for far too long. She knew that he was looking forward to beginning his new job with Adam’s team of accountants here in Milton. It had given him a new lease of life, the tiredness and worry that had dogged him since his redundancy now completely evaporated as though they had never been etched into his features at all.

The only shadow that cast itself over his present mood was, she knew, her mother’s feelings about moving.  Such feelings were always going to prove difficult to alter and although, after much discussion and gentle persuasion, Maria had eventually relented and agreed to make the move, still there lingered a certain resistance to fully embrace their new life.

However, if Richard’s enthusiasm eluded his wife, it was certainly not the case in respect of his daughter, for over the past few weeks Margaret had come to think very much along the lines of her father. She had only very recently allowed herself to acknowledge the need to break away from Helstone’s cloistered community, hearing at last those whispers of disquiet that echoed on the periphery of consciousness which her relationship with Henry had all but obliterated. It was only now that she realised just how much of her identity had been overshadowed by Henry; and how little she actually really knew herself. Yet she had adored him – adored him with all the anguish and vivacity of first love. He had been her first and only boyfriend, central to her whole world for so many years. When the end had come it had been like that world had come crashing down around her. He had inevitably grown away from her and from the village he said he could no longer bear, his desire and determination to remove himself from the latter impossible to derail.  She had had no choice but to watch him go….

“You’re sure that he knows we’re coming today?” Her mother’s somewhat doubting words rang through Margaret’s thoughts, dissembling the image of Henry from her mind and bringing her once more into the present.

“Of course, of course,” her father responded, his tone placating. “You don’t have to worry about that.” He took one hand from the steering wheel briefly, just long enough to pat his wife’s hand that lay lifelessly in her lap, perceiving in her expression a general lack of enthusiasm or unwillingness to believe that all the plans that had been made would run smoothly. “It will be all right, Maria. Everything will fall into place. I’ve made sure that everything is ready at the house.”

Maria nodded her head fractionally, although she did not verbalise her acknowledgement of his words.

Silence once again wrapped itself around them. Margaret, lapsing into thought, stared out of the window idly contemplating the changing scenery gliding past. The open countryside gave way to the true beginnings of urbanisation as they entered the outskirts of the town. Interminable residential streets abounded on every side, interposed by the sporadic flourish of a parade of shops. The steady and unmistakable build up of traffic was held in strict check by an army of traffic lights that had been erected seemingly with the intention of driving every motorist who came upon them to distraction. Margaret heard her mother’s weary sigh, the resignation in it seeming almost amplified to her ears. She saw her father look and look away, a troubled frown clouding his expression as the sure and certain knowledge that it would be Maria who found it difficult adapting to their new home passed across it. Her mother, after all, had known little else but the slow, rural ambience of Helstone with its hourly bus service, only venturing into the neighbouring town a couple of miles away a couple of times a week or when necessity dictated. Milton, in comparison, was almost heathen and brutal in its atmosphere, the constant bombardment of groaning cars and swarming pavements an unwelcome assault upon the senses.

Finally, turning the car into a side street off the main road, her father began to slow down, peering more closely at the surrounding buildings. “It should be just down here,” he said.

Sure enough, a few hundred yards along the road Margaret noticed the simple italics of Bell Associates embellished on one of the large sheet glass windows that lay on either side of the simple glass-panelled front door of a building, the interior of the office effectively masked by the presence of cream coloured Venetian blinds. There was nowhere to park directly outside which forced her father to draw the car to a standstill on some double yellow lines just a stone’s throw away.

He glanced at Margaret over his shoulder, not bothering to release his seatbelt. “Can you collect the keys for me, Margaret? I’ll have to stay here and keep an eye out in case a traffic warden comes along. You don’t mind do you?”

“No, of course not,” Margaret replied, relishing the prospect of being able to stretch her legs after being cooped up in the car for hours on end. As she opened the door beside her and got out she felt the close, sultry air settle quickly around her. She had not realised how stuffy the weather had become or how ominous the clouds that had been so few and far between in the cornflower blue sky when they had left Helstone had grown. Vaguely, she wondered whether it might rain. Slamming the door lightly she walked briskly back in the direction of Adam Bell’s office, a tingling bell announcing her arrival as she ventured purposefully through the door.

A middle-aged woman, suitably austere as befitted the starkly furnished room in which she sat and formally attired in a simple black suit with her dark hair bound tightly into a knot at the back of her head, glanced up expectantly as Margaret made her entrance. “May I help you?”

“Yes, I was wondering if I could have a quick word with Mr Bell,” Margaret began, walking towards the spacious desk behind which the receptionist sat.

“Have you got an appointment?” Almost immediately a heavy red book was produced and flicked open, a perfectly manicured finger extending forward to hover over a list of names and times. “May I have your name?”

“Margaret! What a surprise!” The resonant and familiar voice of her godfather echoed through the room even before Margaret could form any sort of reply to the woman’s enquiry. She turned in automatic response to the call of her name, her attention swivelling from the receptionist’s questioning expression as her feet carried her instinctively towards her godfather to give him a quick affectionate hug.

“I’ve come for the keys to the house. Dad’s in the car, parked on double yellows.” Out of the corner of her eye she was aware of the receptionist’s quizzical regard of them, as though she were trying to fathom the exact nature of both their relationship and the reason for Margaret’s impromptu visit.

“Ah yes,” Adam said, one hand dipping into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and plucking out the keys that resided there. Three silver keys of varying sizes jangled from a key ring bearing the name of the Milton Hotel. “I’ve been carrying these around with me all day. Here you are, my dear.”

“Thank you.” She took the keys proffered her, her index finger brushing over the smooth enamelled surface of the ring as she did so. She eyed Adam speculatively. “Dad hasn’t rented a hotel has he?”

“Oh no, my dear, nothing like that,” Adam laughed jovially, although he offered no further explanation as to the reason why such a key ring should preside with the keys. “I’ll walk with you to the car and say hello to your parents,” he announced, not even glancing back at the receptionist who still sat watching them. He guided Margaret towards the door and held it open as she stepped out onto the pavement. “How’s your mother?”

“Quiet.”

“Mmm. She was never going to be completely happy having to leave her beloved Helstone was she?”

“No,” Margaret said with unguarded honesty, wondering how much her father had relayed of her mother’s reluctance to leave to the tall, lanky man walking companionably beside her.

They made their way back to where her parents were waiting and as Margaret once again climbed into the car there followed the hearty greetings and handshakes of the two men. Towards her mother she noticed that Adam seemed to adopt a more restrained approach, his perfunctory peck to her cheek through the open passenger window offered almost formally rather than with the casual affection borne from many years of knowing each other. It was little more than a cool and transient moment, however, for the conversation quickly enlivened as her father began regaling Adam of the journey and how the removals back in Helstone had gone. She quickly lost the gist of the conversation as she let her attention lapse and her gaze once more turned to the street they were parked in.

It was just an ordinary street, unremarkable and hackneyed, and yet she was aware of something intangible – some underlying energy which she could not altogether explain or comprehend. It was an energy that buzzed around her with unfathomable relentlessness. Through the open window it filled her lungs as she breathed it in. The road was not overly busy, although people ducked in and out of the various shops lacing the pavements. Idly, her gaze strayed further down the road. She was barely aware of herself even performing the action until she noticed, with an odd fluttering in her stomach, a man coming in their direction on the other side of the street. A frown rippled across her brow as she looked, her thoughts scattering like petals from a flower. Even though he was still a fair way away it was as though some powerful magnetism pulled her eyes irresistibly towards him, drawing her into his orbit. Utterly mesmerised she took him in, noting his dark almost ebony hair, the strong chiselled planes of his face, the tall and uncompromising strength of his figure swathed in the black suit he wore. He walked with an assured and unhurried step, his long legs covering the pavement with an almost effortless grace despite his obvious lack of haste, his jacket unbuttoned and flapping softly in time to the rhythm of his feet.

Yet it was his eyes, their colour indistinguishable from a distance, which had the power to captivate and enthral. Directed unwaveringly ahead, they penetrated the point in the distance that they were so rigidly fixed upon. She had never seen anyone with eyes like that, she realised with a jolt. The world narrowed. The everyday sounds of cars and voices faded completely away. She saw only him. A wave of emotion, wholly inexplicable, searing and intense, surged through her body, making her blood fizz with sudden energy. She could hardly understand it; it was like being wrenched from a deep sleep – a sleep that she’d had no knowledge, until this moment, of ever having been in.

Her whole body tingled, every nerve alive at just the thought that at any second he might become aware of her watching him and his gaze would gravitate towards hers. Her heart pulsed in her breast, its tumultuous melody, plucking at the strings of exquisite anticipation, echoing in her ears. It was completely irrational but she felt an overwhelming and incomprehensible desire to just jump out of the car and throw herself into his line of vision to feel what it would be like to actually experience his attention upon her…to see whether it was really possible for his eyes to do as she suspected and pierce her soul. But he didn’t notice or even sense her careful study upon him. Instead his journey along the street came to an abrupt halt outside a wine bar where he glanced down to check his watch before disappearing inside.

Suddenly he was gone. The dreamlike suspension in which she had found herself helplessly captured gave way abruptly, causing her to tumble headlong into the present again, the world around her coming back to life with staccato clarity. More amplified than before she heard the steady and prosaic drone of the cars as they passed and the jocular, booming voice of her godfather as he conversed with her parents. Yet she paid little attention to what was being said, having no desire to try to reclaim the thread of conversation. Feeling miserably, inexplicably dejected and oddly hollow inside, she threw her head lethargically back against the backseat, stifling a plaintive sigh as she did so. A strange feeling of bereavement clutched at her heart; it was as though she had lost something precious that could not be replaced. She didn’t altogether understand the feeling. It was too raw, too new; and yet she found herself clinging possessively to the memory of the man she had seen, reluctant to let his image pass from her mind.

It was not long, however, before reality and commonsense sought to intrude upon her thoughts. Rationally, she knew that she was unlikely to ever see him again – not unless she threw off her commonsense and natural reserve and went hurtling through the door of the wine bar and physically hurled herself at him. The very thought of doing so, however, brought a scarlet stain to her cheeks, for she knew that she would never do such a thing. She could never be that bold, that unthinking, that intrusive of someone else’s privacy. It wasn’t the way she was. What she had experienced had merely been a moment of complete and utter entrancement – serendipitous and unlikely to ever be repeated.

“See you soon, Margaret.”

She started as her godfather’s voice trespassed like a foghorn through her thoughts and as she swung her head around she saw that Adam was leaning down to the window next to her, smiling affably.

“Bye.” She conjured up an answering smile of her own, but when she spoke her reply was hoarse, as though the word had been dragged unwillingly from her throat, although Adam did not appear to notice that or her heightened colour. She was relieved; she didn’t know how she could even begin explain the fact that a total stranger, someone merely walking down the street going about his own business, had had such an overwhelming impact upon her.

The car stirred into life in the next instant and began to ease away from the curb, leaving Adam waving briefly before he turned and made his way back to the office.

Silence once more draped itself around the car interior. Neither of her parents spoke either to each other or to her, perhaps too busy thinking of the house that would be their final stop. Margaret could almost sense her father’s anticipation, her mother’s dread. Again she sighed, turning her gaze towards her open window. The air blew against her face like a warm, invisible caress. Flighty strands of hair, releasing blithely from the loose restraint of the ponytail she wore, danced against her cheek and forehead, tickling her skin, although she did not make any attempt to smooth them away. Her attention was too focused on the street around her, her eyes eagerly searching for the name of the wine bar into which the man had walked. As they moved past its entrance she felt again that strange pang of regret lance her body. The moment had gone. It could not be resurrected, however much she wished otherwise.

And yet, as she settled back against her seat she could not help but wonder whether she would ever think to come and find the place again and whether she would ever have the courage to walk inside on the off-chance of being able to see again, however fleetingly, the man who’d had the power to narrow her whole world down to just his brief and transitory presence…

 

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