New friends are found in unlikely circumstances in this atmospheric short story by Rebecca Holmes.
IT was supposed to have been a perfect day out at the beach. Lorna had taken time off work during the last week of the school holidays, and she and her son Matt had driven along in the Devon sunshine, revelling in the freedom as they left the outskirts of Plymouth behind them.
They headed down country lanes, edged with picturesque cottages, to the field that served as a car park for the hidden cove, where her little car bumped along, finding the terrain a challenge – a little as she was finding life at the moment.
Then the sun in the wing mirror blinded her as she reversed into a space.
She braked, but not quickly enough.
“Mum! You’ve hit something!”
Lorna groaned and got out to inspect the damage. Her car had a dent in the bumper.
“Never mind. It’ll survive.” The other car sported a similar injury, only this model was the sort where even a blemish was an insult. Although not new, it was in pristine condition and doubtless purred along motorways.
The owner wouldn’t be purring when they saw what she’d done.
She rummaged in her bag for some paper and a pen to write down her phone number.
“You could just drive away,” Matt said. “No-one has noticed.”
“It’s true. How do you know the owner won’t claim you did more damage and try to get more money out of you?”
Her son had changed so much over the past year. He was no longer the quiet boy he’d been at primary school.
Jonathan, her exhusband, had always said secondary school would toughen him up.
“About time, too,” he’d added. “It’s no good being a dreamer, like you. It’s a harsh world out there.”
In fact, for the fleetest of seconds, Lorna had been tempted to drive away, but that would have been dishonest, as well as a terrible example to set.
She had had something similar happen to her in the past, at a time when she’d felt dented emotionally after the split from Jonathan, so knew what it was like to be the victim.
That driver hadn’t left any details, and although the damage had been minor, it had added to her lack of faith in human nature at the time.
“I was brought up to believe that honesty is the best policy. I was also taught that it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
She took some photographs of the damage with her phone and slipped a piece of paper with her number under one of the windscreen wipers.
“Now, let’s enjoy our day.” The path to the beach led through some woods, where sunlight filtered green and other-worldly through the leaves, before the trees gave way as if by magic to a sandy cove.
As a girl, Lorna used to think she heard the trees whispering and the sea carrying on the conversation. She never knew what they were saying, but was sure they must have a lot to tell.
The two of them emerged to find the beach busy but not overcrowded. Lorna glanced around, wondering which of their neighbours owned the car.
Sun-worshippers basked on the warm sand. A man was building an intricate sandcastle for his daughter, about Matt’s age, who looked too old for such entertainment but seemed to be humouring him.
A young couple had made a heart shape from shells. Teenagers screeched as they chased each other with seaweed.
The rest of the day passed contentedly, chatting, eating their sandwiches and swimming. Lorna tried not to think about the car and its owner’s likely reaction.
When the sun, lower in the sky, cast a mellow glow on the water, people started to drift away. After a while, Lorna and Matt, too, walked through the woods, already cloaked in evening hush.
The trip was off to a bad start. Would the rest of the day make up for it?
They got back to the field to find the other car’s owner, piece of paper in hand, checking the damage.
Lorna recognised the sandcastle-building man and his daughter. He’d seemed nice enough on the beach.
Now, though, his jaw was set.
She took a deep breath. “I see you’ve found my note.”
The man looked at her and raised one eyebrow.
“I’m impressed by your honesty, if not your parking.”
“Sorry. Hopefully the damage isn’t too bad.”
“It’s something I could have done without, but should be repairable without too much expense.
“I know someone reliable who can do the work very reasonably, probably for less than your insurance excess, saving us both a lot of hassle in the process.
“I can get him to look at it on my way home and phone you later, if that suits you? Then we can take it from there.”
Lorna’s heart thudded a little less loudly. Maybe honesty was indeed the best policy.
“Thank you. That would be very helpful.”
When he smiled, the thudding changed to a flutter. Relief was a wonderful thing.
“Good. Now, if you don’t mind, perhaps I should drive off first. Best to avoid any more bumps, eh?”
“Dad!” The girl glared at her father. “That is so sexist.”
“Sorry. You decide,” he told Lorna, looking resigned.
“That’s fine. You go first.” “I still bet he claims lots of money,” Matt said once they’d gone.
“Matt, not everyone’s out to cheat other people. And I have photos, remember.”
She couldn’t help feeling saddened at his attitude. Surely twelve was too young to be so suspicious? If anyone had cause to be suspicious of people – and life – it was her.
She and Jonathan had made the mistake of marrying too young, before they knew themselves properly, never mind each other. He was ultrarational, while she was more of a dreamer.
Still, they had managed, or so Lorna had thought, until Jonathan announced they should part. Looking back, he had been right, but it had felt like having the rug pulled from under her feet at the time.
At least Matt had seemed to take the split in his stride, facing the world and making her proud, even settling in quickly after moving up to secondary school.
Now she wondered whether he had been affected more than she had realised.
Thankfully, the car owner, true to his word, phoned that evening.
“I’ve seen the mechanic.” The figure he quoted was a pleasant surprise, even though it meant the rest of the month might be a struggle.
They arranged to meet in a café in the city centre the next day at lunchtime, when Lorna would be back at work and Matt busy with football again.
She was already sitting with a coffee, watching rain run down the window, when he arrived.
He nodded across the room and queued for a drink before joining her.
“It’s good to get out of the office and have a proper lunch break for a change,” he said. “You’ve done me a favour in that regard.”
She paid the agreed amount and in return was handed a letter confirming the matter wouldn’t be pursued.
“I know it seems a bit formal, but it does no harm. On a positive note, it showed my daughter that these situations can be dealt with civilly. They seem to think everything’s a drama at that age.”
“My son’s the same. He even texted my exhusband, who treated me to a mini-lecture about being too trusting.”
“In that case, it’s even nicer to know that there are people like us around. I’m Alastair.”
They shook hands. Alastair’s handshake was warm and firm.
“It must be a challenge, bringing up a young man on your own, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“It is,” Lorna admitted. “I expect coping with a daughter can’t be easy, either.”
“True. She stays with her mother most of the time. She’s growing up so quickly, though. I feel I’m way behind and an embarrassment to her.
“In retrospect, perhaps building sandcastles yesterday wasn’t the most entertaining activity. She was more interested in getting a tan. Mind you, I enjoyed myself. I hadn’t built a decent sandcastle in years.”
He drank some of his coffee.
“I saw you with your son. You seemed comfortable in each other’s company. I was a little envious.”
Lorna almost choked. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew the details.”
The conversation that followed felt like the deepest heart to heart she had had for a long time.
Like her, Alastair was divorced. Long hours working as an architect had taken their toll on family life.
“Before I realised, it was too late. My ex-wife has a good job, too, and we lost each other along the way. She’s always been a high achiever.” He looked thoughtful. “She seems to expect the same from Christie, complete with the accompanying pressure.
“That’s why I try to make our time together as much fun as possible. Sadly, I seem to be failing miserably.”
“I think we all feel like that sometimes,” Lorna assured him.
She found herself telling him about her background.
“All the more credit to you for being so honest, then,” Alistair said when she’d finished. “Which reminds me, your car didn’t escape unscathed.”
“It was only a small dent. She’s getting temperamental anyway. This warning light keeps coming up on the dashboard, and my local garage can’t find the cause.”
“You should see my mechanic friend, Josh. If you tell him you’ve met me he’ll do any work needed
Lorna was wary of any more complications in her life
for a very reasonable price. It’s better to check than leave it and risk something serious going wrong.”
He took two business cards out of his wallet.
“That’s his card. The other one is mine, if you fancy a coffee and chat some time. No pressure, and no need to read more into it.”
She took both cards. “Thank you. You have my number if you want to talk.”
He nodded before glancing at his watch.
“I’d better get back. Buildings don’t design themselves, you know.”
The meeting had gone well and, if she were honest, Lorna found Alastair more than a little attractive, but she didn’t want to intrude, and not only because she’d always been on the shy side.
Part of her wanted to see him again, but she was wary of more complications in her life, and sensed that he might feel the same, though that didn’t keep him out of her thoughts.
With the warning light on almost permanently, and the car juddering alarmingly a couple of times over the next few days, she followed his advice and contacted the mechanic.
The following Saturday morning saw her at a place that resembled a barn more than a
garage, by a farm down a track. She was greeted by a very bouncy Alsatian.
“Don’t mind Ralph, he’s soft as butter,” a friendlylooking man, presumably Josh, called out, wiping his hands on a rag.
“Al told me you might be in touch,” he said after they’d introduced themselves.
He looked about the same age as Alastair, but with a rounder face and cropped hair.
Perhaps because of Alastair’s recommendation, Lorna liked him straight away, even though his handshake left her flexing her fingers.
“Did you manage to fix the dent in his car?” she couldn’t help asking.
“Oh, yes. We get plenty of those. Car-park bumps are hardly rare. I wouldn’t feel bad about it. Now, you mentioned something about a warning light?”
“I don’t know if it’s anything to worry about.”
“Better safe than sorry. We’ve got a couple of chairs in the office, if you want to wait there. Our coffee’s only instant, but it’s better than nothing, and the milk’s in date.”
Lorna spent the next half hour flicking through motoring magazines, with Ralph dozing at her feet, birdsong outside and a radio playing in the main workshop, before Josh came back.
“All sorted, including the warning light. It only took me five minutes to fix.
“It could have caused problems if you’d left it longer, but I think you’ll find your car runs better than it has for a fair time, while the dent’s barely noticeable now.”
“Thank you so much. Alastair wasn’t exaggerating when he said you were a genius.”
“He said that? He must have been in a good mood. What did you do, bake him a cake?”
“We had a cup of coffee when I paid him for the damage.”
“Well, something must have done him good, and about time, too. I thought he seemed brighter.”
He nodded slowly, as if to himself.
“We were best friends at school, you know. He was the brainy one, while I liked messing about with engines.
“Anyway, I’ll tot up the bill and then shut up shop. I promised my wife and kids I’d take them for a pizza, and it’s more than my life’s worth to make them wait.”
Again, Lorna was pleasantly surprised at the amount.
“That’s a load off my mind. When you next see Alastair, can you thank him for me, for passing me on?”
“Aren’t you seeing him again?”
“Nothing’s arranged.” Josh rolled his eyes. “That’s so typical. No wonder he can’t move on.” He seemed to be about to say something else, then shrugged.
“You never know, you might bump into each other. Enjoy your day.”
The car ran perfectly. Lorna put Josh’s number into her phone for future reference.
As she transferred his business card to the drawer in the kitchen dresser where she kept useful items, she noticed Alastair’s card in her purse and remembered what Josh had said.
Was there a hint that he had had a difficult time? She could identify with that.
She looked at the card. It had an attractive but unfussy font, a little like Alastair himself.
What caught her attention was the logo consisting of a few lines that managed to suggest a quirky but not outlandish design of a house, and some wispy curves that represented trees nearby.
There seemed to be almost more detail in what hadn’t been drawn than what had.
“In case you need it,” he had said when he’d handed it to her.
At the time, she’d assumed he had meant problems with Josh or the car. Neither of those seemed likely now, nor that she would need to contact him in his professional capacity, however much she might love someone to design a secret house in the woods for her.
Maybe, as with the card, there had been more in what he hadn’t said than what he had.
He’d mentioned coffee and a chat, but she hadn’t pursued it.
He hadn’t phoned her, either; probably for the same reasons that had held her back.
The card had both office and mobile numbers. She entered the second into her contacts list.
Her thumb hovered over the screen. She could always ring and let him know all had gone well with the car.
“What are you doing, Mum?”
Matt’s voice made her jump.
“Just adding Josh and Alastair to the phone book in my mobile. Have you finished your homework?” she added, changing the subject.
She was alarmed when her son heaved a deep, heart-felt sigh.
“What’s the matter? Is everything all right at school? You seem different since you started there.” Matt rolled his eyes.
“I’m not a kid any more, Mum. School’s OK. But the work’s really hard. I don’t think I’ll get good marks.” He hesitated.
“Do you think Dad will be cross if I don’t want to be a scientist like him?”
Lorna remembered Alastair’s concerns about his daughter feeling under pressure. It seemed she wasn’t alone.
“Oh, I think he’ll live. We both just want you to do your best. All parents want that for their children, but we also want you to be happy. Always remember that.”
If Jonathan said any different, which she doubted, he would have her to answer to.
“Thanks, Mum. I want you to be happy, too. I’m sorry what I said about Alastair. There are nice people, and he’s one of them.”
An edge to the air hinted at the approach of autumn as Lorna sat on the beach for what might be the last time that year.
“I love this spot,” she told Alastair as they watched Matt and Christie splash each other in the sea, enjoying themselves. “Not just the beach, but the walk through the woods as well.”
Somehow she wasn’t surprised when Alastair nodded in agreement.
“When I was a boy, I was sure there were wolves in those woods. I dreamed that one day I’d tame them. I decided they must be frightened of people and only come out at night.
“I even tried to persuade my parents to let me stay on after dark so I could see them, and promised that I’d walk home the fifteen miles home in the morning.”
“Did you succeed?” Lorna asked when she’d stopped laughing.
“What do you think?” “I think we should explore the woods. If we really look, who knows what we might find?”
They held each other’s gaze.
Alastair spoke first.
“Why did you call? I’m glad you did, but what made you? Was it just to thank me for putting you on to Josh the magic mechanic?”
Lorna told him about the design on his card, how the house reminded her of the secret place in the woods she’d always dreamed of, and how there seemed to be more to it than met the eye.
“Fancy building a sandcastle in the style of a little cottage? You can approve the design, if you like.”
Lorna grinned back.
“That sounds perfect,” she replied.
From the way the trees whispered and the sea murmured back, she could tell they understood, too, and agreed with every word.