Judy was aware of the usual low-lying drone of Ralph’s voice, matched, this time, by the more mechanical sound of the café’s ventilation system; but she was transfixed by the soft white contours of the oversized, plastic replica of an ice-cream cone, set in a rickety bracket on the pebble-dash wall near their table; lost in its folds – the way each spiralled layer reduced in size all the way up to a soft peak. She was wondering if she could reproduce the same effect in linen as a hat: enjoying the challenge of creating ‘wearable art’ - her latest self-taught obsession.
'Are you listening to me, Judy?' The words struck from the side – like a stick of chocolate plunging into the ice-cream of her mind.
'Sorry, darling,' she quickly responded, 'I got distracted...'
Ralph sighed: 'What was it this time?'
'Oh, nothing, darling…you were saying?'
Ralph held her eyes a moment then cleared his throat and looked away. 'It’s just that - I’ve met someone,' he said quietly and evenly.
A gasp caught in the centre of Judy’s throat, quickly becoming the padded head of a stick beating a timpani in a percussion of unspoken thoughts as they gathered momentum.
'Judy,' said Ralph. 'Judy,' he repeated, for measured effect. 'I insist you listen when I’m speaking to you.'
'I’m listening,' Judy whispered. 'Who is she? Do I know her?'
Ralph cleared his throat again. 'Darling, I just wanted to be sure you were listening to me. For once. There isn’t anyone – I just wanted you to pay attention.'
Judy turned her head to look directly at Ralph’s face; saw how the slightly droopy eyelids folded like cold lava over pale grey eyes with their tiny dark islands floating in wetness; then looked down to the moist foam corners of his mouth. All of a sudden his features blurred and swam alarmingly: she'd risen abruptly – propelled out of the fixed wooden bench attached to the table between them. Snatching her handbag, she ran from the café into the car park. A young man was stooping to get into his car. She raised her hand and voice: Excuse me!
'Yes?' The young man quickly straightened up, his expression changing in an instant to a look of concern. 'Can I help you?'
'Yes! I’m – I’m not sure. I don’t know.'
'Are you feeling unwell? Would you like me to take you somewhere – er, hospital, or…'
'I need to go home: I’ve had a shock. I’ve had a shock.'
Throughout the short drive they didn’t speak of anything other than directions until they arrived outside the house.
'Would you like me to come in with you, or make a call for you, perhaps?' he asked.
'You’ve been so very kind; I had no right to stop you like that, I’m sorry.'
'I’m happy to help,' he assured her, 'I’d just rather know you’re OK before I leave.'
'I think – I think – Yes, you've got it - that's exactly what I need to do – Leave!' she said, surprised at her own revelation.
The words hung in the air between them, still fresh, like the green, pine-tree air-freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror.
'I can wait,' he said.
Fifteen minutes later she was back in the car securing the clasp of her seat-belt with hands still shaking. She’d packed two bags at lightning speed with a cold clarity that seemed in stark contrast to how she viewed her usual self. Somehow she’d known exactly what to take, and could put her hand to each thing in turn without any fuss or delay, with seemingly little decision-making required – just a crazy, shuttling carriage running through each room, cupboard and drawer as though on well-worn fair-ground tracks on their accustomed trajectory, although the ride was entirely new to her. Nerves buzzed; heart, lurched and jumped. She could barely breathe. With all senses speeded up, there wasn’t time to stop and question her actions the way she habitually did.
Judy stopped short - caught up with herself; hadn’t given it a thought; hadn’t yet reached that point. She turned to look at the driver - saw him struggle to batten down the hint of a smile. It was absurd: she'd flagged down a stranger; asked him to drive her home, and now like a taxi-service he was awaiting instruction on their next destination. Bewildered, she looked away.
What could she say?
Turning slightly she caught sight of the pine-tree air-freshener dangling from the centre of his windscreen, and said: Scotland!
Madness! Too far! Too wild a choice; and yet, somehow appropriate. She turned to look at his face once more - no hint of shock, or even a half-smile; he appeared to be looking straight ahead, with his hands gripping the steering-wheel. Silent.
It was midday in a small town on the south coast of Britain. They did not know each other, coming from, and inhabiting, different worlds; each the product of different eras.
'Why not?' he said, more to himself than her; then: 'Why not?' he repeated. 'Give me fifteen minutes.'
Judy leaned back into the contoured head-rest as the car started up.
In the pine-tree mirror she caught sight of Ralph’s car just as it was turning into the end of the road. Pulling away from the kerb, she smiled.
About the author
Janina Aza Karpinska is a Writer-Poet from the south coast of England. Her flash fiction has appeared in: The Sunshine Review; 3 Drops Poetry, and was highly commended in the Dulwich Festival Flash Fiction Competition. Predominately a poet, she writes every day, and is happy to explore other genres.
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