Under My Umbrella by Eirin Thompson
Who could have taken her lovely new umbrella? And on such a day!
NATALIE looked up from her desk and sighed. Raindrops were pelting the office window relentlessly. It felt like it had been pouring all morning. All week, in fact.
This was her least favourite time of year, weatherwise.
Everyone loved the bright, hopeful days of spring – with the possible exception of hay-fever sufferers. Summer sunshine put a smile on most people’s faces.
She even liked the chill of winter, with mugs of hot chocolate to warm your hands and the possibility of a flurry of fluffy snow.
Autumn was rain, wind and storms. Mainly rain.
“When I can afford it, I’m going to buy a car,” she told Marmaduke, her ginger tom. “Not a new one, or a very flash one. Something to get me about without getting soaked in yet another shower.”
She imagined herself sitting cosily in the driver’s seat, windows wound up, wipers swishing from side to side, heater on full blast.
How safe and dry she’d be in her own little world.
She could park in the multi-storey with a covered walkway right to her office. Never again would she turn up at work with frizzy hair and dripping mascara. She would arrive in the mornings looking groomed.
But not yet. She sighed. Her car fund was growing steadily, but very slowly.
This autumn, at least, she would have to battle on as a pedestrian.
“I do have one thing to be thankful for,” she said, picturing her top-of-therange, really rather wonderful umbrella.
She had just bought it online, after wearing out a series of cheaper brollies.
“Somebody, somewhere, must have invented an umbrella that doesn’t blow inside out in the first strong breeze and doesn’t wimp out after half a dozen uses,” she’d argued.
After searching diligently, she discovered that, indeed, someone claimed to have the umbrella that avoided both those things.
Utmost Umbrellas offered objects that were both resilient and beautiful, in different colours of canvas and with a choice of wooden handles.
Natalie chose midnight blue, with maple.
“You are beautiful,” she told it when she first opened it.
With satisfaction she thought of it, resting in the umbrella stand by the office front door.
She was going to need it to brave the weather soon, to pop out in her lunchbreak to post a birthday card to her best friend, Danielle.
When one o’clock came, Natalie buckled her trench-coat, trotted downstairs and went to collect the brolly.
The stand was empty – all the umbrellas had gone.
It was lashing down outside, she had to get Danielle’s card in the post this afternoon and some selfish person had taken her lovely umbrella!
“It was Dylan,” a nasal voice said.
Natalie turned, to see a tall young man.
“Dylan took your umbrella. It’s a new one, isn’t it? I was admiring it earlier, when you arrived.” “Oh! Em . . .” “Michael. And you’re Natalie, from upstairs. You’ve gone through a number of brollies, haven’t you? But this one was a cut above.”
Was? Surely Michael meant “is”. The umbrella thief would bring it back, wouldn’t he?
“I’m afraid Dylan won’t return for a while,” Michael went on. “He’s only just gone, and he never comes back early. I suppose you’ll just have to use your hood.”
“I don’t have a hood,” she snapped. “I didn’t think I’d need one, since I had my umbrella.”
“And now you don’t,” Michael observed. “And now I don’t.”
She stepped towards the front doors and peered out. The rain was cascading down in torrents and the nearest post-box was a five-minute walk away.
Had it been any other errand, Natalie would have put it off for another day, but this
card was important.
Natalie and Danielle had been best friends ever since they were nine years old.
Unlucky in their family lives, they met when they ended up in the same children’s home.
They weren’t there for long, as both girls were soon placed with foster families, but they stayed in touch through a special youth club.
Through their teens, the pair e-mailed each other regularly, sharing worries about school, gripes about foster families, crushes on boys and ambitions for the future.
They encouraged each other to work hard, do well in their exams and embark on careers.
Neither had family to help financially, but when they started earning they clubbed together and managed to rent their own snug two-bedroom flat in the top of a Victorian terraced house.
“It’s perfect!” Danielle had hugged her friend. “I could stay here for ever.”
Their new home was a source of great joy. It had a fire escape where they could sit out in the summer sun and a living-room with an open fire they lit in winter.
The girls took it in turns to cook for each other. They stayed in touch with both foster families, who regularly had them round, accepting them as a “double act”.
But the girls agreed that they were each other’s family now.
Their landlord let them put their own stamp on the flat, and they decorated with gusto, getting rid of the old carpets that made Danielle sneeze.
They completed the picture with a little ginger kitten they called Marmaduke.
Things seemed to be going their way when Danielle suddenly became ill.
Sensibly, she consulted her GP. Just as sensibly, the GP referred her to a specialist.
“It’ll be fine,” Danielle reassured Natalie. “I’m young and strong and the doctors know exactly what to do. But I need treatment, and I’ll have to stay in hospital for a while.”
“I’ll come and see you every day.”
“You can’t,” Danielle told her gently. “I have to go away to a special unit. But I’ll have my tablet and my phone, so we won’t really be far apart.”
The unit was miles away. Danielle’s former foster parents drove her there, with Natalie sitting beside her in the rear seat.
This wasn’t a journey Natalie was going to be able to undertake easily on buses and trains without an overnight stop, and she couldn’t leave Marmaduke that long.
“I’ll come back every time I possibly can,” she told her friend.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got a telly in my room and a trolley comes round with newspapers and magazines. And I’ll see you on Facebook every day.”
“You will, I promise,” Natalie said determinedly.
She kept her word, but hated being apart from Danielle. Once, she put Marmaduke in cat kennels so she could visit, but when she returned to collect him the kennel-maid said he had cried incessantly and wouldn’t eat.
“Oh, Marmaduke, this is hard enough already,” Natalie whispered into his ginger neck. “Don’t make it even worse.”
Between work and flat and cat, Natalie realised that she was not going to be able to see Danielle on her birthday this year – the first time this had happened since they met.
They agreed via Facebook exchanges that they would go out for a celebratory meal when Danielle came home from hospital, and save presents for then.
But Natalie intended to send a card, not just a greeting that would pop up on a screen. An actual card with a long, handwritten message of love and encouragement.
At the last minute it occurred to her that this might need an extra day to get through the hospital’s internal mail system in order to arrive on time, which was why it was vital that she put it in the post this afternoon.
She looked out at the rain in anguish, but there was nothing else for it. Pulling her coat collar up around her ears, she gripped her bag tightly, shoved open the door and made a dash for it.
The rain was so heavy it almost blinded her, and she had to fight to keep her eyes open.
It quickly plastered her hair to her head and ran down her cheeks, over her jaw and all the way down her neck.
“I don’t think these shoes are waterproof, either,” she muttered as she felt the toes of her tights starting to squelch.
The footpaths weren’t busy – most people had decided to stay indoors. Those who were out and about were beneath brollies, and Natalie had to dodge the spokes.
Crossing the roads wasn’t easy, either. As she waited at the pedestrian crossing a lorry drove into a road-side flood, splashing Natalie from her feet to her waist.
“Oh!” She jumped back too late and shook herself like a wet dog.
The crossing was still showing the “red man” signal. As she willed it to change, Natalie spotted something on the opposite side of the street: an umbrella, huge and midnight blue with a maple handle.
The green man appeared and the umbrella started bobbing towards her.
“Hey!” she shouted. “Hey, you!”
The person carried on, stepping on to the kerb beside her.
How dare they? How dare someone take her umbrella and then ignore her when she tried to speak to them?
Natalie thrust out a soggy arm and grabbed the maple handle.
“Excuse me!” a voice said.
Natalie tugged the handle harder, but the other person had a firm grip.
“Really, I know it’s very wet, but I cannot let you take this umbrella – it isn’t even mine.”
“You’re dead right!” Natalie cried, rain dripping off her eyebrows. “That’s because it’s mine! You stole it!”
The umbrella handle moved, and Natalie saw that her opponent was raising it so he could properly see out from under it.
This meant she could now see whom she was confronting.
Before her stood a young man with blue eyes, dark wavy hair and a well-cut navy blue suit.
On any other day she would have said he was handsome, but right now she noticed only how very dry he looked.
He wasn’t even slightly damp.
“Ah,” he said.
“Give it back!”
“I’m not sure I can,” he said. “I mean, how do I know it’s really yours? It’s clearly very expensive, and I think the best thing to do is to put it back exactly where I got it.
“Besides, you’re wet already – is there any point in both of us ending up drenched?”
Natalie blinked at him in disbelief.
“I’m Dylan,” he said. “And you are?”
“Me? I’m furious!” “Ah,” he said again. “Look, say where you’re going and we can share the umbrella.”
“Share my own umbrella? How generous of you,” Natalie said sarcastically.
It was vital that the card be posted today!
But it wasn’t doing her any good standing there, getting wetter and wetter.
“I have to get to the post-box on William Street,” she muttered.
“That sounds urgent. A post-box – what, one of those old red things? I can’t remember the last time I used one.”
“My friend is in hospital and it’s going to be her birthday,” Natalie said, hoping to shame him. “That’s why it was so important that I come out in this downpour.”
“I see,” Dylan said. “Except I don’t, really. Why don’t you just bring it with you when you visit her?”
“I can’t visit her. The hospital is too far away.”
With all the rain running down her face there was no reason that Dylan should have noticed a few hot, salty tears suddenly among them.
Yet he did.
“Hey, let’s get you inside. This coffee bar behind us is really nice. We can get something to warm you up.”
To her surprise, Natalie allowed Dylan to usher her in, folding up the umbrella and giving it a shake as they went.
The first good thing was that it turned out you didn’t have to wait for winter frosts to cup cold hands around a mug of hot chocolate.
“I asked for extra marshmallows,” he said kindly.
The second good thing was that Dylan wasn’t as horrible as she’d thought.
“My mum says it’s an eldest child thing,” he confided. “She says I have a perpetual sense of entitlement. If I see something I want, I just assume it’s OK for me to have it.
“It’s a terrible form of selfishness, I know, but I don’t even realise I’m doing it.
“I forget to think about my impact on other people, but when I do realise I’m absolutely mortified. Like I am now.
“In my favour, I’m always keen to put right my wrongs – also like I am now.”
“Oh, so this here is recompense, is it?”
“Good grief, no!” Dylan answered in surprise. “No, as recompense I’ll drive you to see your friend in hospital on her birthday, of course.
“And wait for you and bring you home.”
“You can’t!” she exclaimed. “It would take hours!”
“Think of it as a public service on your part – teaching this man a lesson.” He grinned.
“And don’t say no. Talk to anyone from my team back at the office – they’ll tell you I’m all right. Then say yes.”
Dylan’s team had been part of Natalie’s firm for some time, but in a different part of the building. Now that they were on the floor just below her, she did take the opportunity to enquire about him.
A few people rolled their eyes and asked what he’d done now, for which he had to apologise.
But everyone smiled and said he was one of the good guys – so long as he wasn’t eating the yogurt you’d left in the office fridge for later, or reading your newspaper before you’d read it yourself.
“He’s been with us five years, and although he can be infuriating at times, he’s actually got a heart of gold,” his line manager confirmed.
“Right, Marmaduke,” Natalie told her little cat the night before the trip. “I’m trusting you to pace yourself when I leave you out two meals in one go. And don’t forget your litter tray’s in the corner. I’m going to be late, so don’t wait up.”
She had finished work early, and shot home in a cab so she could pick up a bag of things she wanted to take to Danielle and leave out Marmaduke’s two dishes.
When the doorbell rang, she blew Marmaduke a kiss and hurried downstairs.
“Wow! Nice wheels,” she said when she saw the car.
“My uncle’s,” Dylan said, adding quickly, “but I promise I asked him. I didn’t just take it.”
Clambering into the front passenger seat, Natalie was startled by a greeting from the back.
“Good afternoon, Natalie,” a nasal voice said.
“Michael! How are you?” “Fine.” “Michael’s coming with us. Hope you don’t mind,” Dylan said, hopping in. “He’s my special project at the minute.
“Michael is a lovely person, but not what you’d call charming – are you, Michael?”
“Not especially, no,” he agreed.
“So he’s going to hang out with me, see if I can loosen him up a bit.”
“You don’t find it rather patronising, being somebody’s project?” she asked.
“There are worse things than being patronised,” Michael said. “Like being lonely. Dylan’s going to help me fix that, I hope.”
“Yup. He’s going to chat up some of the nurses, as practice. Nurses are almost always good sorts, I’ve found.”
The journey went surprisingly quickly, with Natalie and Dylan chatting easily and both making sure to include Michael.
When they got to the hospital, Natalie assumed the guys would go to the cafeteria.
“And miss meeting the famous Danielle? No way!” Dylan strode towards the lifts. “Which floor?”
“You realise you’re being presumptuous all over again,” Natalie said, but she was smiling.
Luckily, Danielle was thrilled to have a visit from not only her best friend on her birthday, but also two new faces, after some weeks of isolation.
“I’ll chase them away in a bit,” Natalie whispered.
“Don’t,” Danielle insisted. “I’m having fun. And I like the one you brought for me – he looks a bit like a dark-haired Eddie Redmayne with glasses.
“And he’s so funny about his allergies – makes my house-dust problem seem less of a pain.”
Personally, Natalie thought Michael looked like Jacob Rees-mogg and she didn’t find his sinus stories exactly hilarious, but if he made Danielle happy, then she was definitely a fan.
Natalie didn’t know whether Michael really fell asleep on the long drive home, or if that was a bit of diplomatic snoring, but it left Dylan and her to chat on their own for most of the journey.
“Thank you for giving up your Friday night to ferry me about,” Natalie said. “I think you can consider any debt repaid now.”
“It was my pleasure. If you’re not completely sick of my company, could I see you again tomorrow?”
Natalie thought she would like that.
“What should we do?” he asked. “If you check out the weather forecast, it might give us an idea.”
Natalie checked on her phone.
“Rain. All day.” “Well, that’s not good,” Dylan said.
“It’s not so bad. I used to hate autumn weather,” Natalie said pensively. “But now I’m having second thoughts.”
She turned up the heater, put on some music and leaned her head against the window with a little smile.
It was rain that had brought them together in the first place, after all, and she already knew her umbrella was big enough for two. ■