Un­der My Um­brella by Eirin Thomp­son

Who could have taken her lovely new um­brella? And on such a day!

The People's Friend - - Contents -

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.

“My um­brella!”

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. ■

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