By Steve Laker
Eric knew it must be up ahead somewhere. He knew that this was a personal thing and that he’d recognise it when he saw it.
How different things looked on foot, and in the dark. He often drove down this lane, but always during the day, and it was a good fifty years since he and Elsie had last parked in the lay-by, near the bridge that crossed the stream, when they were courting and this was their “lovers’ lane”.
As he walked, Eric reminisced over his courting days, when he would pick Elsie up from the chip shop in town where she worked every Saturday afternoon. He’d drive out here in his old Morris Minor and they’d park up for a bit of “slap and tickle”, as his dad had called it, before taking a romantic moonlit walk down the old lane.
Elsie had passed on almost a year ago and today would have seen them into their forty-second year of marriage. Eric had missed her every day since she’d gone and tonight, the only way he could think to celebrate their anniversary, if “celebrate” was the right word, was to come out to their old lane. He’d parked in their lay-by and was now walking their old walk alone.
This was probably the furthest he’d walked for as long as he cared to remember. He felt full of life now though, his legs strong beneath him and his walking stick a mere prop as he swung it purposefully beside him. With his long black coat and his bowler hat, he felt the proper city gent.
There was a new moon tonight, it was almost pitch dark, and the wind blowing fine, misty rain in his eyes made it difficult to see ahead.
The brow of the hill ahead began to glow a dull white, as if about to give a sign. The glow intensified and the light was scattered by the damp air, before concentrating into two beams as the headlights of a car appeared over the hill. The car approached cautiously and its lights picked out a lone female figure, standing on the side of the road ahead of him, then slowly passed. Eric turned and watched the car move away, its red rear lights intensifying as it braked at the corner ahead of it. He noticed the silhouette of a passenger in the back seat.
Eric approached the only other person now in this cold, dark and lonely lane. She was a young woman, probably only in her early twenties. Had she not been there, he would have walked straight past the bus stop, as the sign to indicate its existence was mostly obscured by overgrown foliage. In all the times he’d travelled down this lane, he never knew it was even there. He smiled at the woman, clutching her long black coat around her to protect her from the elements. Her peroxide blonde hair was damp and clung to her face, and her make up was starting to run. He tried to think of something to say, but somehow “waiting for a bus?” seemed a little daft. He had no need to worry. “Hello”, she said, and her crimson lips formed a smile, revealing unkempt teeth. Otherwise, she was an attractive girl; they didn’t look like that in his day, Eric thought.
“Hello,” said Eric. “Been waiting long?”
“Three weeks?” Eric’s tone was exaggerated for disbelieving effect.
“Not here.” The woman laughed. “That’s how long it’s taken me to get everything in place so I can go. How about you?”
“A bit of a spur-of-the-moment thing really. I’m Eric by the way.” He extended his hand.
“Me too.” She stopped and chuckled, rolling her eyes up into her head, as she realised what she’d just said. “Excited, I mean. My name’s Tanya.” She darted her hand quickly out of her coat pocket, gently and quickly shaking Eric’s before hurriedly returning it to the pocket.
The two of them stood silent for a while, each unsure of what to say next. Eric wondered if they might have anything at all in common, as he was probably more than three times Tanya’s age. “So, what was it that you needed to sort out?” Eric asked.
“Oh, a few things. I had to make sure Mum and Dad were okay, and they came round in the end. I don’t think a couple of my friends wanted me to go either, but they’re okay now. Gary was the hardest one.”
“No, boyfriend. He’s got his hands full with Gemma, our two-year-old, but he seems to be coping. I suppose it takes different people different times. And you?”
“No, no-one. I just felt the time was right. Your family and friends are all local?”
“Yes, we’re all from around here.” Tanya moved her head in an arc, as if to demonstrate the boundaries of a family territory. Just then a light illuminated her face. Eric turned to look behind him, from the direction he’d walked, as a car rounded the corner. It slowed down as it approached them and the driver wound down the window.
Tanya started to reach for the passenger door handle before Eric took gently hold of her by the elbow and took one step towards the car.
“Need a lift anywhere?” asked the driver. The warmth from the heated interior of the car wafted out into the cold air and turned to steam. Eric leaned down and peered inside the car. The man in the back seat looked unwell.
“No thanks. The bus should be here soon. Is he okay?” he asked, pointing to the passenger with his eyebrows.
“He’s not feeling too good. I’m taking him downtown. I can drop you off if you like.”
“It’s okay. We’re going the other way. Wouldn’t want to take you out of your way. Thanks all the same though.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want you to be late for anything. The buses can be pretty unreliable around here.”
“It’ll be here soon.” Eric smiled and stood up, close beside Tanya.
“Okay, if you’re sure.” The driver smiled back, wound up the window and drove off up the hill.
The rear lights of the car disappeared over the brow of the hill. The mist draped over the hill glowed brightly red for a second, then turned pink and then white as another vehicle’s headlights shone from the other side of the hill. Gradually it appeared over the brow as many windows, lit with a golden glow from the inside emerged over the hill.
“Here we go then!” Exclaimed Eric. The bus lit up the hedges on either side of the lane as they both watched it draw nearer.
“Here we go,” repeated Tanya, her words appearing in the air as the headlights of the bus caught the mist from her mouth.
“Are you meeting anyone when we get there?” Eric asked.
“I’ve got a couple of old friends I want to look up.” Tanya stepped back as the bus pulled in and the doors swung open. The driver smiled a friendly smile as though he knew them and announced, “Uptown,” as they boarded.
Inside, the bus was scrupulously clean, and the aisle was carpeted in white. Smiling faces looked up at them as they made their way to the last two empty seats. Ever the gentleman, Eric stood aside as he beckoned Tanya to the seat by the window. He sat down next to her, looked down the aisle and watched the road light up before them as the bus pulled away. As they turned the corner and crossed the bridge, Tanya looked down at the glistening stream below. “Are you meeting anyone?” she asked.
“Yes, my wife,” said Eric as they passed an old Morris Minor. The car’s windows were misted but Tanya could just make out an old man slumped over the steering wheel.
© Steve Laker, 2002.