When Worlds Collide
If it hadn’t been for that telephone call I’d have been out of the house and down the road twenty minutes earlier, but I can’t ignore a ringing phone. Can you? Anyone could be at the other end of the line with the most exciting, surprising news. That unexpected call could be the beginning of an adventure that will take you around the world. Okay, that’s not likely, but you never know. In thousands of parallel worlds I ignored the phone, went out, and never knew what I missed. In this one, I answered.
Moira says I’m too soft. “You need some backbone,” she declares, as though I’m one of her unwilling recruits in the high school hockey team. “You need to stand up for yourself.” Then she tells me what we’re doing for the evening and why I can’t wear that jacket. Maybe I am too soft. That’s why I spent twenty minutes listening to a fitted kitchen salesman rabbiting on about his firm’s never-to-be-repeated special offers even though I’d no desire for any of his bargains. By the time I got off the phone I was late. “Punctuality is the politeness of princes,” Moira says. That’s why I rushed out of the house and through the gate without looking, straight into the path of the woman on the bicycle.
It’s fortunate I live on a quiet street – with my shoulder bag caught in her handlebars and her shopping bag wrapped around my wrist it was a while before we were disentangled. Then we’d bread, rice and cans of cat food to pick up before I could put her bike on the pavement and apologise. She beat me to it.
“I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t listen to the iPod when I’m cycling. It’s a miracle I’ve not been under a bus before now.”
“No, it was my fault. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Really. I hope there’s nothing fragile in your bag.”
“Forget the bag. What about your hand? You’ll have to get that cleaned up.”
She looked down, as if noticing for the first time the graze that disfigured her right hand. Her fingers were long, elegant. I could imagine them caressing a flute or an oboe. I hoped I’d not wrecked a musical career.
“It’s only a scratch. Anyway, you look like you need to be somewhere in a hurry.”
“Nowhere that can’t wait.”
I wheeled her bike up the path to my front door before she could reply, unlocked the door and went inside. She followed, the bag of groceries clutched to her chest.
“The bathroom’s at the top of the stairs. There’s plasters and ointment in the cabinet. I’ll put the kettle on. Do you want me to take those?”
She surrendered the groceries and walked upstairs in that tentative way you do in a strange house.
I put her shopping in a corner, unslung my shoulder bag and set about making tea. I’d just poured when she entered the kitchen, the duffle coat she’d been wearing carried over her arm. Her figure was as shapely as her fingers: she appeared about thirty-five, which would make her five years younger than me, but carried off the bare midriff look much better than any of the podgy teenagers who pose around the town centre at weekends. Short auburn hair suited a face that, as far as I could tell, bore no make-up; not that any was needed.
She accepted a mug, sat at the kitchen table and sipped.
“How’s the hand?”
“Amputation won’t be required.”
She grinned. She had a beautiful smile.
“Julia. How do you do? Do you make a habit of flinging yourself in front of strange women?”
“It’s something I’m working on.”
She grinned again. Her teeth were white and even; laughter lines appeared, adding even more character to her face.
“Did your bag survive the excitement?”
“It’s had worse knocks than that.” I picked it up, undid buckles and slipped the clasp to show her a well-padded interior filled with cameras, lenses and all the rest of the paraphernalia, each item snug in a custom-made slot.
“Wow! This looks like serious gear. Are you allowed to talk to someone who’s never got beyond a point-and-click compact?”
“The chairman may want to snap my tripod over his knee and have me drummed out of the camera club but I’ll take that risk.”
“So those are your pictures on the stairs?”
“Some of the least worst.”
“Don’t be so modest. They’re brilliant! How do you get landscapes to come out like that? And the one of the tree in the snowy field with all the shadows. Fantastic. Are you a professional?”
“If only! I’m a surveyor in the council’s housing department and that’s as exciting as it sounds. Photography’s the only thing that’s stopped me taking a high-powered rifle up a tall building most Monday mornings. What about you?”
“Ward sister at the infirmary. Don’t mention bed pans, adolescent junior doctors or self-important consultants and we’ll get along fine. Some Mondays I could be right behind you on the stairs.”
“You can carry my bag any time.”
“I might hold you to that.”
“I hope you do.”
Julia didn’t reply, contenting herself with a raised eyebrow and a sip of tea as she looked around the kitchen. I followed her gaze, seeing the place through her eyes, and how dowdy and old-fashioned it was.
My mother died four years ago, six months after my father, at the same time that my marriage ran out of steam following two years of unadventurous harmony and three of disillusion and argument. Neither of us was to blame: after five years we’d found there was nothing, including children, to hold us together. Angela kept the house and I moved back into my childhood home which had last been decorated in the Seventies and still had furniture to match. If the house was a man it would be dressed in flares and a kipper tie. I’d never got around to the makeover, and in the last year I’d spent more time at Moira’s than at home. She’d never expressed an opinion about my living space. She didn’t need to.
“I know, I know.”
“You’re ahead of the game, Peter. This will be back in fashion one day. In the meantime you could open it as a living museum and sell tickets. All you need is a Ford Capri parked outside. You’d make a fortune.”
“So you teach interior design when you’re not tending to the sick and wounded. It’s a pleasure to meet a woman with such diverse skills.”
Her smile warmed the room.
“You think that tending the sick leaves time for anything else? I’m lucky if I’ve time to feed Cleo before I get to my bed.”
“That’s a pity. I was planning to take the camera round Henshaw Manor at the weekend. I thought I’d make use of your generous offer of bag-carrying services.”
“They don’t come free, you know, and I wouldn’t want to put any of my patients at risk of a relapse while I’m away, but if you’re planning to eat there too I may be able to clear a space in my social diary.”
“I’m sure that could be arranged.”
“Then it’s a date.”
“It’s a date.”
She had clear grey eyes, crinkled at the edges by the beginnings of crow’s feet I’m sure she hated. I thought they were perfect.
My phone shrilled in the living room. Moira.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?”
“No. I’m not supposed to be here, anyway.”
“What if it’s something important?”
“Then they’ll ring back.”
She laughed. I hoped I’d make her laugh again. Soon.
“Much as I’d love to stay and discuss home decorating I’ll have to go. Cleo’s not had her tea yet. I’ll be in trouble when I’m back.”
“We can’t have that. I wouldn’t want to get in her bad books before we’ve even met.” I passed her a scrap of paper and a pen. “Eleven on Saturday? Is that okay? Leave me your address and I’ll pick you up.”
Julia didn’t answer. My stomach knotted in a way I’d not experienced since I was seventeen and for a moment I felt dizzy. Then she looked me in the eye and smiled. It was like the sun coming out.
“Eleven it is.”
We walked outside where she retrieved her bike.
“You take care on that thing.”
“I will.” She turned to go, stopped, and swung back to face me. “Just think – in thousands of parallel worlds you came rushing out of your house a few seconds earlier or later. I’m glad I’m in this one.” She brushed my cheek with her fingertips. “You’ve a lovely face,” she whispered and kissed me on the lips.
I watched her ride away until she turned on to the road at the end of the street and was lost from view.
Back inside the house I leafed through the phone book. That kitchen salesman might have found himself a customer.