Later that evening I forcibly drag myself from the sofa. I’ve been lolling here for the last hour, reminiscing about the love I lost, or the love that technically ran off with a young blond girl but nevertheless. I need to clear my head of all thoughts so I head for the shower to wash off the glum veil that has swamped and suffocated me since I saw Chris and his new girlfriend sharing cake and kisses in their world of loved-up happiness. Wallowing in self-pity really is becoming too frequent an activity, and an annoying one, and I’m pleased to have the distraction of dinner with Dad and Margaret at their house this evening.
After a quick shower I pull on clean clothes and feel instantly refreshed. A sweep of blusher and mascara and a quick spray of perfume and I’m nearly ready to go. I collect my handbag and keys, swirling on a slick of pink lip gloss with my spare hand as I head for the door. It’s surprisingly cold and I shudder as I climb into the car, quickly switching the engine on and turning the heat up to full blast. An old Madonna song plays on the radio and I find myself singing along to the words as I rub my hands together until I can feel warm air coming through the front vents. The numb, sick feeling that took hold of me earlier starts to lift as I drive, and my stomach grumbles loudly, reminding me that I’ve survived on only coffee and cake today, and even if they have both been in large quantities, it’s not enough. It’s dusk and a grey haze appears to be hovering just below the skyline causing an eerie gloominess but the street lights haven’t switched on yet so I press on the break and take it slow as my mind begins to wonder to what Margaret will have made for tea. Her home cooking is fantastic. Dad has put on a good stone of weight since they’ve been together, but he’s happy and that’s all that really matters. I guess at their age a few extra pounds is expected and irrelevant. Why can’t the rest of us live in a world without –?
I slam the brakes on as a loud bang comes from the front of the car and a streak of fluorescent yellow flashes across my bonnet. I think my heart has actually stopped beating.
What the hell was that? My hands are still gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles, despite the car being stationary, and I daren’t make a move to get out. My eyes are staring into the grey night so fiercely that they feel like they’re going to pop right out of my head, but it’s so dark on this lane that I can’t see anything.
Then I hear a groan, like an animal that’s in pain. Oh God, what if I’ve maimed and injured a poor animal? Oh no, I can’t possibly look at that.
It takes my brain a second or two to realise that very few animals, if any, are fluorescent yellow. I open the door and take a deep breath before sliding cautiously out of the car. I can still feel my whole body, particularly my legs, shaking like a jelly from the shock.
Oh my God! I’ve killed someone. I’ve actually killed someone!
A man clad completely in black and yellow Lycra is sprawled in front of my car.
Hang on...hang on, I think I see movement.
‘Are you alright?’ I bend down next to him.
‘I think I’m okay.’ He sits up gingerly and I take in the black cycling helmet. ‘Just a bit stunned.’
‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,’ I ramble, seriously panicked now. ‘I just didn’t see you at all. You came out of nowhere.’
My heart is thumping heavily in my chest. I could have killed this guy. I shouldn’t have been so busy singing along to the eighties’ Madonna track, trying to forget my stupid excuse for a love life, and simply not concentrating. A shiver shoots up my spine at the thought of the potential consequences. I really could have killed him.
‘It’s okay, it’s okay.’ He’s on his hands and knees now, trying to stand up. ‘It was my fault.’
‘No, no, I wasn’t paying attention.’ I reach out my hand but then pull it back. ‘Maybe you should just rest for a minute.’
‘Neither was I – paying attention.’ He points to his ears as he sits back down and I see small black wires protruding from under his helmet. ‘I have a terrible habit of listening to Iron Maiden on full blast while cycling,’ he laughs.
I crouch down further until I’m at the same height as him, and I see that he’s only about my age. He unclips the strap on his helmet and gently pulls it off his head, and I just watch him helplessly, thinking what a surreal situation this is.
‘I think I should call an ambulance.’ Slightly delayed reaction by me – how useless am I in an emergency? ‘You’ve obviously had a bump to the head,’ I continue while standing up to go and get my mobile phone from the car, ‘and, well, pretty much everywhere else too.’
‘No, please. I don’t need an ambulance. It’s just a few bruises, I think, particularly to my ego, but no blood, see?’ He points to his knee where the Lycra is torn.
‘Still, I think you should be checked out by someone. At least let me get you, and your slightly crumpled bike’ – I cringe inwardly as I look at the front tyre, which is no longer in line with the rest of the bike – ‘to the hospital.’
‘Really, there’s no need,’ he protests again.
Headlights suddenly appear, lighting up the road and nearly blinding me, and I shield my eyes as another car pulls up. A middle-aged man with thick grey hair and a larger than average beer belly climbs out of his car with some difficulty and ambles over to us.
‘Are you both okay?’ he asks, a little out of breath from the minute amount of exertion he’s just used.
‘I’m fine, thanks.’ Bicycle Man looks up at him. ‘It looks worse than it is, honestly.’
‘You don’t need any help?’ The grey haired man looks at me and I flounder for a minute.
I’m not sure whether we need help or not. I’m not sure exactly what to do in this type of situation, and I’m not sure whether I should accept help from a total stranger, Good Samaritan or not. I’ve seen too many horror movies where the Good Samaritan turns out to be the serial killer, and although the guy in front of me may not fulfil that role, he has all the attributes of a middle-aged flasher; he just needs a beige waterproof mac.
‘We’re fine, thanks, and thank you for stopping and enquiring,’ Bicycle Man responds very politely.
‘Well, if you’re sure.’ The man shrugs his shoulders and wanders back to his car.
‘So…hospital?’ I prompt once Flasher Man is safely out of earshot.
‘No need,’ Bicycle Man reiterates again.
‘Yeah, well, I say there is. I mean, from a personal, selfish point of view I’ll not be satisfied until a medical professional says you’re not going to drop dead from internal bleeding or something a few hours from now.’
‘That wouldn’t be good.’ He smiles and I notice cute little dimples forming. I like dimples. Wait...no...um...déjà vu…
‘No, it wouldn’t be good.’ I shake my head. ‘My life is already pretty disastrous at the moment without adding manslaughter into the equation.’
He looks at me a little suspiciously before raising his eyebrows. ‘Alright, if you’re sure it isn’t too much trouble then I guess it can’t hurt to get checked out.’
‘Right.’ I nod. ‘Let me help you up. It’s freezing and you’re only wearing Lycra. Don’t you have a coat?’ Oh God, now I sound like Sophie.
‘Um, no. It makes riding the bike a bit more difficult if I’m wearing my three-quarter-length wool blend.’
Hmm, is that a hint of sarcasm or humour?
‘Never mind, I have a blanket in the boot of my car.’
He leans slightly on my shoulder, for my benefit more than his, I think, and I push upwards until we’re both upright. He’s taller than me and his physique is clearly impressive even through the thick layer of Lycra.
‘We’d better inspect the damage to your car.’ He glances towards the bonnet.
‘My car?’ I’d forgotten all about the fact that the bike hit the front driver’s side of my car and that his body then bounced across my bonnet like a giant ping-pong ball.
‘Oh dear, there’s a bit of a dent.’
He leans over, touching the car, and I just stare at him for a second. He could be half-dead with a ruptured spleen or something and all he’s bothered about is a dent in my five-year-old car. Mmm...He’s quite cute really, though. Totally opposite from what I usually go for in a guy – he’s got really dark brown hair for a start and I like blond guys – but his warm brown eyes have a seductive pull to them and yep, I have to admit he’s attractive.
He glances at me and I’m almost positive he caught me checking him out. Way to play it cool, Emma! ‘Yes, well, never mind that. I have insurance,’ I say, flustered, feeling my cheeks starting to burn up. ‘Right. Well, we can sort all that out. I’ll give you my details and stuff so they can claim off my bike insurance. It was my fault. I wasn’t looking at the road ahead and I couldn’t hear your car coming because of the heavy metal music turned up so loud in my earphones.’
‘We can sort out the technicalities of who did what once we know you aren’t going to drop dead on me, okay?’ I usher him closer to the car door.
‘Okay, okay.’ He holds up his hands. ‘Let’s get my bike into your car.’
I need to put the back seats down to have any hope of getting the bent bike frame in the car, but together we manage to squeeze it in. He wanders around to the passenger door and climbs awkwardly into the car while I rummage around in the boot for the blanket. Then I remember that Sophie spilled red wine on it last Bonfire Night while we huddled under it watching fireworks and it’s still loitering at the bottom of my laundry basket. Shit.
I climb into the driver’s seat.
‘Here, you must be freezing.’ I grab my scarf from the back seat and hand it to him. ‘Put this around you; you might be going into shock or something. Sorry, my friend...borrowed my blanket and she hasn’t returned it.’
He looks at the scarf with blatant amusement. ‘I think the only shock will be if I turn up at hospital encased in leopard print,’ he chuckles.
I glare at him with my ‘Just do as I say’ face and he seems to take the hint. He pulls the scarf begrudgingly from me and wraps it around his shoulders.
‘Much.’ He replies with a hint of humour. ‘Where were you on your way to anyway? I hope all this isn’t keeping you from anything?’
Oh…tea with Dad and Margaret. Damn it!
‘Give me two seconds.’ I rummage around in my bag for my phone again. ‘Then we’ll be on our way, I promise.’
I dial Dad’s number and shake my head, thinking about how this conversation is going to go. Most of the time I try to hide the crazy stuff I get into from him.
‘Hello?’ Dad’s gruff voice answers.
‘Hi, Dad, it’s me.’
‘Hey, Emmie.’ He always calls me my childhood nickname, which used to make me feel warm and comforted, but now my breath catches in my throat as I think of Connor sneering as he mockingly called me Emmie. ‘Are you on your way?’
‘Um, not exactly. I’ve had a little…’ I glance at my injured passenger. ‘…a little incident.’
‘Emmie, is everything okay?’
‘Yes, fine. I’m fine. I’m just not going to make dinner tonight. I’m sorry.’
‘Oh.’ I can hear the disappointment in his voice. ‘Margaret made Hotpot, your favourite.’
‘I’m sorry, Dad. I’ll make it up to you.’
‘No worries, Emmie. I know it must be important for you to cancel at such short notice. How about the same time tomorrow evening instead?’
‘See you then, honey, and take care of yourself.’
‘Thanks, Dad. Bye.’ I hang up the phone and start the engine. ‘Right, let’s go.’
We arrive at the hospital within ten minutes, and once I’ve finally found somewhere to park – I mean, how many people are actually in this hospital at any one time? – I manage to half help, half hinder getting him from the car to the reception area of the A&E department as despite being knocked off his bike he seems reluctant to accept my offer assist him.
‘Hello. How can I help you?’ mutters an incredibly large black woman sitting behind a Perspex shield without even lifting her head.
‘Um, we need to see a doctor,’ I state, rather agitated by her somewhat blasé approach.
‘Name?’ She shoves a form and clipboard under the sliver between the Perspex window and the desk.
Ah…well…a name? I glance sideways and realise that, rather embarrassingly, I don’t know his name. In the panic from running him over, scraping him off the road and into my car, and then driving erratically to the hospital I forgot the formalities of introductions.
‘Joseph. Joe Stark,’ he offers.
Right. Joe. That’s a nice name.
‘And what appears to be the problem, Joe?’ The receptionist just sounds bored now, which is hovering on downright rude.
‘Well, this young lady here knocked me off my bike,’ he says flatly.
‘Oh, no…I didn’t…well, that might have actually happened but…’
My head feels like it’s going to explode as the receptionist looks at me with a look of utter disgust, raising her eyebrows so high you can barely see them any more under her fringe. I look nervously at Joe and see just a hint of his dimples again.
‘I’m just kidding,’ he laughs. ‘I happened to not be paying attention and I fell off my bike. This nice young lady…’ He gestures at me but I’ve no idea what he wants. ‘If she’d just tell me her name too…’
Oh, right. Of course.
‘Thank you. This nice young lady, Emma, picked me up off the ground and was kind enough to bring me here.’
‘I see.’ The receptionist is still looking at me like I’m a monster with three heads.
‘I think it’s just bruising.’
‘You’re in luck, Mr Stark. We have a nurse on duty who can see you shortly, if it’s just as a precaution and we’re not that busy yet. The rush usually starts at kicking-out time on a Sunday night.’
I glance around the waiting room and see a variety of people with bumps and cuts and the odd sling. For an A&E department it does feel unusually quiet. But if the receptionist is right then this is the calm before the almighty storm.
‘She’ll call you in a minute. If you want to just take a seat?’
Joe points to the right and we head towards the nearest Formica chairs. Well, I walk; Joe hobbles, still refusing my offer of help.
‘You don’t have to hang around, you know. I’m sure you have better things to do on an evening than sit in a hospital waiting room.’
‘Actually my plans got kind of side-tracked,’ I say jokingly, hoping it’s not too soon to make light of the whole incident.
‘How inconsiderate are some people?’
He looks at me with a cheeky expression and I decide that I quite like Joe. He seems like an ordinary guy with no stupid agenda and no hidden demonic personality. Okay, so I don’t actually know that for sure, but his name is definitely Joe as he’s put it on an important medical form – no need for an alias here.
‘And I also have, on the back seat of my car, what remains of your bike, which I’m guessing you might actually want to keep,’ I state.
‘Ah, yes, I’d kind of like that back.’
‘So, I guess I’ll stay here and give you and your bike a lift home once the nurse has given you the all clear.’
As if on cue a nurse suddenly appears. ‘Mr Stark?’
‘Well, I guess that’s me.’
Joe struggles to a standing position and shuffles off down the corridor with the nurse. At the door he turns around and smiles at me, just for a second, and I find myself smiling broadly back at him before the door closes and he disappears from sight.
I look at my watch. Eight o’clock on a Saturday night, and what an eventful night it’s been. I can’t quite believe that I’ve knocked a cyclist clean off their bike. My fault or not, it could have been so much worse. I think I need caffeine. Glancing around the waiting room, I see a vending machine which looks like it serves hot drinks.
A few minutes later, as I flick through a three-year-old copy of Good Housekeeping, I realise my mistake and instantly regret it. This is not coffee. It’s not even palatable. In fact, the dark brown, sloshy liquid which has cleverly disguised itself as a warm, caffeinated drink tastes more like engine oil mixed with windscreen wash. I discard it on the small table beside me and continue to flick through scone recipes and the most fashionable tablecloth patterns.
I don’t know how long I sit there, but it feels like the land that time forgot. People come in and go out, more come in, and are all greeted with the same cheery reception. In the middle of my trying, and failing, to complete the Good Housekeeping crossword I look up to see Joe hobbling, if slightly easier than before, back down the corridor towards me and I feel a weird sensation of…guilt? Excitement? Fear? I don’t have time to decide before he’s standing right in front of me.
‘So, are you still in one piece or am I really in trouble?’ I stand up nervously.
‘Calm down. It’s just as I thought, some bruising and swelling but nothing’s broken and my head is fine thanks to my shockingly expensive helmet. I guess I owe the sales guy on that one – it was worth every penny.’
‘Good.’ I exhale, relieved. ‘I’m so glad you’re okay.’
We stand there in weird, awkward silence.
‘I think I’ve taken up too much of your evening already.’ He cocks his head to one side and grins sheepishly. ‘Shall we get me, my dented pride and my bike home?’
‘Here’s a copy of the hospital form with my contact details on.’
I just stare at the piece of paper.
‘Just in case. For insurance purposes.’
‘Right, right; of course.’ I fold it up and slid it into my bag.
Once back in the car I attempt to make small talk for the short journey to Joe’s house in between him giving me directions. It’s just across the other side of town, only ten minutes or so from the hospital.
‘So how long have you been cycling?’ I ask. ‘I’m guessing you take it pretty seriously given you have all the kit and stuff.’ I glance discreetly at his Lycra-clad body again. I always thought that men wearing tight, stretchy clothes was a bad idea, but I might have to reconsider.
‘I’ve been cycling for a few years now.’ He sounds animated now. ‘I just love getting out in the fresh air and having that...freedom.’
‘I know what you mean.’
‘Oh, do you cycle too?’
What? Hell no.
‘No…um…no, but I do run.’ Okay, so I’ve been jogging once in the last thirty-two years, but it was in the last few weeks so it’s not a total lie, and it does count, surely?
‘That’s great. So you know what I mean? It feels good to get outside and stretch your legs.’
‘Mmm...great, yes, stretching legs, fresh air. Is this your house here?’ I pull up to the kerb alongside a small row of stone built terrace houses displaying neatly cut grass and a variety of colourful hanging baskets. They look cosy and quaint.
‘Ah, yes, it is. Thank you for getting me home.’
‘It’s the least I could do under the circumstances.’
There’s a slight pause as we sit in the car and Joe looks at me with an expression that I can’t read.
‘Right.’ He unclips his seatbelt. ‘I guess we’d better get the remains of my bike out of the car.’
This is easier said than done. It went in with a lot less effort than it’s taking to get it back out. After a careful amount of nudging it this way and that, we finally manage to extract it from my back seat. As Joe stands on the pavement at the side of the car, clutching his bike frame like his dearest possession (maybe it is?), I suddenly remember.
‘Here.’ I reach into my handbag and pull out an envelope and a pen. I scrawl my contact details and car registration across the envelope before handing it to Joe. ‘These are my details; you know, to give to your insurance company.’
‘Oh. Thanks.’ He looks down, seemingly scrutinising the information.
It’s not getting any warmer out here and I really want to get back into my car now and go home and drown myself in a large glass – no, wait…maybe the whole bottle of wine – and try to erase yet another hideous evening in the life of Emma Storey. There seems to be a recurring pattern here – not with running people over, thankfully, but with me getting myself into trouble and drowning my sorrows. What is wrong with me?
‘So…I’ve got your number.’ Joe fiddles with the envelope, still limping slightly as he readjusts his bike frame that’s threatening to topple over.
‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure you have everything for the insurance claim, but just get them to call me if they need anything else.’
‘Right…and you have my details.’
‘Yep. I’ll pass them on to my insurance company too.’
I’m still feeling guilty as I take in the bump on his head and the torn Lycra hanging off his leg. He’s clutching the bent remains of his bike like a child with his teddy bear. I still can’t believe that I hit someone with my car tonight.
‘Right.’ He’s still doesn’t make a move towards his house.
Okay, this is getting a bit awkward now.
‘Would you like me to help you inside?’ I offer, wondering whether that’s what he’s waiting for.
‘Er…no.’ He laughs, looking down at the pavement, clearly embarrassed to be offered help again by a girl.
‘Then maybe I should get going.’
‘Absolutely. I’ve taken up your entire evening and ruined your dinner plans.’
‘Really, it’s fine. I’m just glad you aren’t seriously hurt. I can do without adding aggravated manslaughter to my list of hideous issues to deal with.’
‘I promise I’ll take more care in future.’
‘Good.’ I look at him one last time. ‘So will I.’ I smile and turn to walk away.
‘So, um, can I use this phone number?’ he calls after me.
I turn back around, confused. ‘Yes, if you need anything else then just give me a ring.’
‘Okay...so how about a date?’
What? I just nocked this guy off his bike resulting in a hospital visit and now he wants to take me out for dinner? Is there a whole new dating etiquette that I’m not aware of?
‘You’re asking me out on a date?’ I stand rooted to the spot and eye him suspiciously.
‘Sure…well, just dinner or something. To make up for your cancelled dinner plans tonight,’ he offers.
‘Did you bump your head harder than we thought? The nurse did say you were definitely okay to come home, didn’t she?’
‘Definitely.’ He takes a step forward with some difficulty, clearly still in pain and naturally still clutching his bike. ‘What’s so hard to believe? You seem like a nice girl, Emma – driving awareness issues aside.’ The corners of his mouth twitch.
‘I like you.’ He shrugs.
‘You don’t even know me. Just about all you do know about me is that I nearly flattened you tonight.’
‘So it’s not the most conventional way of meeting someone new, but still…’
I bite my lip. He is kind of cute. But this is the last thing I could have expected from the events of this evening.
‘Oh.’ He looks slightly embarrassed. ‘You have a boyfriend.’
‘No, no I don’t.’
‘In that case, why not? It’s just dinner, no pressure. We’ll simply celebrate that I’m still alive, and if you have a good time, I’ll let you take me out again.’ He grins now, showing his dimples in all their glory again. I’m a sucker for dimples, but that’s what got me into a whole heap of trouble last time.
Hmm. He’s quite nice, though, and has a sexy mouth and…oh, what the hell. What have I got to lose? Actually…let’s not go there again.
‘How’s Friday night?’ I cock my head to one side, trying to give the impression of being aloof.
‘Friday is good. I’ll text you on Thursday with where to meet.’
‘Okay.’ I agree a little too quickly to play it cool.
‘Okay.’ He holds my gaze for a second. ‘I’m going to go inside now because it’s freezing and I think I need to lie down.’
‘Oh God, certainly, go inside.’ I turn around and walk to the driver’s door of the car.
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