Those of you familiar with my other works will know this is a long one, and that I write characters, not porn-scripts, though this makes a change from my usual category.
I hope, as always, you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
I was wryly amused that seven years of my life could be packed into three cardboard boxes and a small suitcase, but there it was. I'd donated most of my books to the local council library, and had sold some clothes and other items to various charity stores dotted around Lambeth. I wanted to be rid of as much as I could; starting over would be hard enough without the constant memories.
Sue would be keeping the lease, the desktop computer, and pretty much all the appliances I'd bought in our time together. We'd parted ways but that didn't mean I wanted her destitute. I'd made sure she'd have enough money to cover her rent for the next few months; I doubted she'd struggle to find a room-mate, as several of her friends had already indicated an interest in moving into the flat.
The flat - that I'd miss. It was a rare find in London, a nice, relatively quiet and not-too-old third-floor twin with a reasonable amount of sun in summer and a only-partly-obstructed view of Battersea park. Common sense told me there'd be other, nicer flats, but I'd miss this one.
"No sense in delaying the inevitable," I observed. I carried the boxes downstairs, and used one to prop open the building door while I loaded the other two into my dented, banged-up old Defender. I loaded the final box, locked the Landy, and then took a breath.
It was a mostly-grey Saturday morning, with the occasional hint of sun brushing the stone and brick facades around me. I realised that I'd miss London. Or this part of it, anyway. I shook my head, and climbed the stairs back to the flat.
I did one more brief search through our bedroom, the bathroom and the study, rescued a framed photograph of the Monument that I'd taken the previous year, grabbed my laptop bag and suitcase, and then on a whim put them down again. I uncapped a pen and took a small post-it.
Dear Sue. Sorry it didn't work for us. Good luck with the business, and all the best. You'll be fine. Jamie
I left the note on the kitchen counter, grabbed my bags, and let myself out. The keys went into the postbox, and I let the front door of the building close gently behind me.
I turned the Landy's heater up, and let her idle a bit before setting off. I had a day to kill before I was due home, and I decided to take a roundabout route through the centre of London before striking out to the northwest. I knew I would be back sooner rather than later, but I still wanted to say goodbye to this part of my life.
So I drove down through Battersea park, watching all the thin girls jogging along the river, feeling a pang of loss. I crossed the Thames at Battersea bridge, then wove my way northeast through Chelsea and Knightsbridge, driving a slow, extended loop around Hyde Park and its early morning tourists, then outward bound on the Westway.
Gentle accompaniment from Classic FM formed the soundtrack for my departure, and Wagner and Holst eased the gradual transformation of the the row houses of London into the emerald green of Buckinghamshire.
I turned off the M40 motorway as soon as I could, and after filling up and grabbing some sandwiches at a service station I spent an enjoyable hour or two finding the most disused roads that I could. One of the joys of owning an old 4x4 is that you really feel nothing for the paintwork; it's basically there to tell you that the green lane you're in is too narrow for your car.
And so I amused myself finding farm tracks, rutted rights-of-way, and forestry paths through new and old woodland. I ate my sandwiches as an early lunch at Ivinghoe beacon, where I watched three old men flying radio control gliders for a while from my perch on the roof of my Defender.
Brief patches of sunlight lit the brilliant yellow flowers of the rapeseed fields, and I caught myself grinning. England in spring, even a cold spring like this one, is a beautiful country.
Mum fussed around me, and Dad was his quiet, unimposing self, but I knew he was glad to have me home. We sat in the garden, watching the stars come out, and I gave them the cliff notes on the breakdown of my relationship with Sue. Mum had organised a leg of lamb and roast potatoes, and we drank one of Dad's bottles of Burgundy and the better part of one of Mum's boxes of plonk.
"I'd forgotten how quiet it was here," I said after a while.
"Not much has changed," Mum agreed. "We got a new Sainsbury's"
"And a few more pubs and clubs," Dad added. "I'm not sure how busy they are."
"Still going to the Black Dog then?" I asked.
"Still," he answered. "Hard to change a habit of four decades, James. Besides, I like their ale."
I laughed at that, and Mum smiled at him.
"So what are you going to do now, Jamie?" she asked.
"Well, I had some time and leave saved up, so I decided to take it all and amuse myself just getting lost here and further north for a month or so. After that I guess I'll head back down to London, find somewhere to live, and get back into things."
"It will be nice to have you home for a while. It's lonely here with just the two of us."
I smiled, and refilled my glass. "It will be nice to be a child again for a while."
That night, I slept better than I had in a long time.
I woke up early, put on my running shoes, and before long was crossing fields, ducking through small copses, and generally having the best run of my year. I crested a small rise and paused to catch my breath. Tendrils of mist drifted just above the ground, and I could hear birds in the hedgerows around me.
I stretched, then straightened as I heard the sound of a bicycle from behind me. A slender girl gave me a wide grin and a cheerful "Hello!" as she flew by. I stood, watching her as she disappeared around a corner. She'd had a lovely smile, and it had been a while since anyone smiled at me.
I shook my head, and looked around. A small hill in the distance sheltered what could be a pond, and it made as good a landmark as any. I set off again, pushing hard for the fifteen minutes or so it took me. The anticipated pond turned out to be an old abandoned millrace, with a broken down stone mill adjacent to it. I could see small fingerlings swimming in the water.
On a whim, I pulled my phone out of my trail-running backpack and took a GPS fix in case I wanted to return. Then I set a rough course for home, as there was no point in injuring myself by pushing too far.
Partway home, I caught sight of the girl again through a gap in the hedgerows. She was cycling hard up a single track, and I silently wished her a good time and a nice view from the top of it.
I didn't manage to run all the way home, but I put in what I felt was a decent showing, and my chest was burning by the time I did get back to the house. I climbed the front drive on shaky legs, and grinned at my mum as she laughed at me from the kitchen. She'd baked fresh bread, and I stole a slice of the loaf which I inhaled as I made my way to my room.
A quick shower, and some comfortable pants and a shirt. and I was ready for the day.
I spent a good portion of the remainder of the morning doing some basic maintenance on the Defender. Dad had an extensive collection of automotive tooling from his past attempts to build kit cars, and I abused his largess mercilessly. The Landrover had needed an oil and transmission fluid change for months, but I'd somehow never had time to do it in London.
While I was arms-deep in her I spent some time tidying up the cabling in the engine bay, and also rerouted the twelve volt extension socket I'd jury-rigged in the back. I then spent a while cleaning months worth of accumulated dirt and papers from the interior, and gave it a reasonably vacuuming. The Defender looked a whole lot better, and I felt a sense of accomplishment as I stretched the kinks out of my back.
Lunch was bread and cheese. I checked my work email out of habit, then caught up on local and international news. I realised that I was bored, and on a whim decided that since it was a Saturday afternoon, I could do worse than go down and see if there was any football showing at the Black Dog.
Clouds had drifted in during the morning, so I bundled myself into a coat for the mile or so I'd have to walk. I ambled, looking at the changes to houses that I recalled from my youth, and noting where others had been replaced by new builds belonging to families moving out of London. The park was the same, but the fence around it was new.
The Black Dog, however, looked unchanged. A large, double story building that had been a coaching in in the middle ages, it had undergone countless renovations over the years, but it still managed to exude an aura of timelessness. Stepping through the double doors brought me back into my youth, when Dad had brought me here on Sunday afternoons, and my treat for good behaviour had been lemonade and, occasionally, beer shandy.
The interior was as dim as I remembered it, and a fire was burning in the central hearth to warm the building. There was a small scattering of people; families eating a late lunch, and some teenage boys watching a league match on the telly. I hung my jacket on the rack in the entrance hall, gave a brief glance around, and then stepped over to the bar. It was an ale day, and I was trying to decide which one to have when she stepped out from the service area.
"Hello," I said.
She gave me a distracted smile, then stopped and gave me a harder look. "Well, hello. Weren't you running up Combe Hill this morning?"
I nodded. "I was out running, and it must have been Combe Hill, because I remember you passing me. It was a good day to be outside."
She smiled a small, pretty smile. "It was. What can I get you?"
"Um, not sure," I hazarded. "I'm an ale man. What do you recommend?"
"Doombar," she said without hesitation. "It's the best of what we have here."
"I'll have a pint of that then, please."
She drew it off for me, and I handed her a fiver. "Keep the change," I said, as she tried to hand the coins to me.
"You're not from around here, are you?" she observed, as she added them to a small tip jar.
"I actually grew up just down the road, but I've been in London for a while."
"Ah, that explains it," she murmured.
"Explains what?" I asked.
"Never mind," she answered with a a grin, and she turned away to serve a middle-aged woman a G&T.
She was beautiful. Not in the sense of a model, or a pinup... or... just... look. The easiest way to describe it is, she's the girl you see walking away from you in a crowd, or in a shop, the one you're compelled to watch till she's out of sight. She's the girl you see through the windows of the train as it slows for the station, but you know you can't get to the carriage she's in before the train leaves again.
I'd put her at a shade under six foot, with brown hair and blue eyes and a cyclist's slim figure camouflaged (criminally to my mind) under the demure black pants and collared shirt she was wearing now.
But her smile was what had captured me - slightly crooked-toothed, but so natural, so open. So warm.
I shook my head, retired to an empty table, and drank my ale slowly. I tried to watch the league game, but it was teams I didn't know and the match looked to be pretty pitiful stuff. Instead, I mostly watched the fire, listening to the occasional hiss and crack of the coals. I'd be lying if I denied sneaking frequent glances at her. She caught me looking once, and raised an amused eyebrow - I flushed and gave her a grin and a shrug. I finished my ale.
Then, strangely shy, I stood and ambled back to the bar.
"Back so soon?" she deadpanned, as she polished one of the taps.
"I'm a thirsty man. It's been a busy day for me."
"How so?" she asked, as she grabbed me a fresh glass. "You're in a pub on a Saturday afternoon; you can't be that busy."
"Well, I did go for a run.. I have witnesses. I did some overdue maintenance on my Landrover. I walked miles to a pub, and now I'm lifting beer. As I said, thirsty work."
"Uh huh," she murmured.
"I don't believe you," she returned. "Hang on."
She moved to the other end of the bar, and took a food order for a middle-aged man. I watched her push her hair out of her face, and thought I saw tiredness in the gesture and the way she rang his order up. But she was smiling as she returned to my side of the bar.
"Back so soon?" I quipped.
"It's a slow day, and you're amusing," she said. "I mean that in a nice way," she added, watching me.
"I'll take it as a compliment then," I answered. "I'm James. My friends call me Jamie."
"I'm Meg," she answered.
"Are you from around here?" I asked.
"Nah," she replied, shrugging. "I'm from down Devon way - moved up here to work, decided work sucked, so now I'm doing this while I wait for inspiration." She raised her arms in a half shrug.
"Not the easiest job," I said. "I did it a while. The hours are what killed me."
"The hours here aren't bad, and there's a big difference between here and a large town," she answered. "For starters, the boys who come here mostly behave themselves, which helps."
"How long have you been here?"
"Couple of months. Will move on at some point I guess, but I like it here. Nice weather, nice scenery, and it's safe."
"That it is," I agreed. "Nothing ever happens here."
"Except cows," she added, wide eyed. "Your cows here are crazy."
"It's the sheep," I answered. "They put the cows up to it."
She laughed at that, and I think I fell a little for her then.
"Do you cycle most mornings?" I asked her.
"Most, yes. The mornings are beautiful, and it's lovely to catch the sunrise."
"Maybe I'll see you out there sometime."
"Yeah. That would be nice," she answered. "It's nice to have company. I'll be in the same area tomorrow, I think."
"I don't have a bike," I said, "but I can orienteer pretty well, so we could always set a time and place to meet up... if you like, that is?"
"I like," she smiled. "So long as you're not some crazy psycho serial killer."
"I sometimes wear odd socks, if that helps."
She grinned at me. "7am at the top of Minton Hill. There's a nice view."
"Which one is Minton Hill again?"
"Two miles west of Combe. It has a trig point on top - you'll find it on any local map. Listen, I've got to go do inventory, so as much as I've enjoyed this I'm going to have to say ta-ta. Thanks for the chat... Jamie."
"See you later, Meg."
I walked home that evening with slightly more spring in my step than I'd had in the morning. The memory of Meg's sparkling eyes and easy, familiar manner warmed me far more than the ale had, and I hoped I'd see her again.
I pushed myself hard up the rise, and reached the top with plenty of time to spare. As I caught my breath, I looked around. Meg had been right - the small hill's top was mostly bare bar a small copse of what looked like birch and ash trees, and the granite triangulation point stood out starkly on its low cairn. I put my hands on my knees, and just breathed for a bit.
Then I stood, and turned. I could see several miles in every direction - occasional fields full of livestock, and some raptors and crows. Brilliant yellow fields of rapeseed flowers drew bright boundaries between hedgerows and the green of new wheat plants.
The sky was mostly clear, with high fluffy white cumulus proceeding slowly to the northwest. It was still early enough that mist hugged depressions, curling on an almost unnoticeable breeze.
I saw several birds start up from a hedgerow, and then a cyclist flashed into view around a corner. I watched, and realised as the bike approached that it was Meg. She was pushing hard, head down, standing on the pedals, and building speed on a slight downhill to carry her partway up the slope.
I walked slowly to the point on the crest where she'd appear, and waited for her. She was red in the face and gasping hard when she rounded the final corner in the path up. She saw me, and I saw her grin and push even harder. She crested the hill, stopped, stepped off her bike, and put it gently down. Then she gave me a brief wave, and slumped backwards onto the damp grass.
"Hello," I said, once she'd recovered slightly.
"Hi," she said. "Sorry if I don't get up, I'm pooped."
"You were pretty quick getting up here," I said.
"Been practising." She took a sip of water from her Camelpack, then squinted up at me. "Come down here, I'm going to get a crick in my neck if I have to crane to talk to you."
I took a seat near, but not too near, her. Her hair had the finest wave to it, and strands of it blew free from under her helmet. I could hear her breathing, and I tried not to notice how her shirt stretched over her breasts as she took a long, slow breath.
"So you do these rides often?" I asked. It wasn't the question I'd wanted to ask.
"Every morning, rain or shine. Well, that's a lie, if it's really horrible weather I do sometimes just sleep in." She unclipped her helmet and set it to one side. "But most mornings, yeah. It's a good way to start the day, with something positive for myself. Means that no matter how dull the day is I've been out in the fresh air and accomplished something for myself. You?"
"Every morning, so far."
"For how long?" She adjusted her ponytail, capturing the errant strands of her hair, and I tried not to watch her too closely. I couldn't help but admire her, but I didn't want it to be obvious.
"This is my second day." I tracked a crow as it passed us, soaring on the hill's updraft. "Trying to form my own positive morning activities".
"Only just started?" she asked, as she sat up to face me.
"I only arrived on Saturday." I pulled a stem of clover up, and nibbled it - a childhood habit of mine.
"You here on holiday, or business?"
"Actually more like a sabbatical," I answered, dropping the plant. "I needed a break from London, so I came home to get some distance."
"Mm," she said, leaning back and closing her eyes to enjoy a small puff of breeze. "Work, girl, early onset of of a midlife crisis?"
I took a breath. "Girl, life. Though the girl thing was a long time coming and a long time going."
"Hah, the best kind," she said quietly. "Bad breakup?" She opened her eyes. "Sorry, I'm nosey. Say if it's too personal."
"Nah, it's ancient history now anyway. Not bad so much as extended over way too long a period. Seven years that took a year or more to die."
"Ugh." She grimaced in sympathy. "I can understand wanting to get out of the area where all that happened. Seven years is a lot of memories."
"I needed a break, and where better than where the meals are free and the countryside is like this?"
She laughed. "Good reasons. How long are you here for?"
"Unknown as yet. My plans are fluid, I can work remotely if I need to, and to be honest some time in a small town might be what I need."
We sat in companionable silence for a while, then she sat up, sighing.
"Help me up," she said. "I've got to head back, I start at eleven." I stood, then reached down and took her hand, pulling her smoothly to her feet. She stumbled slightly and put up her hand to stop herself from colliding with me, pushing off my chest. I held her hand a breath longer than I strictly needed to, and her eyes sparkled as she stepped back with a small smile.
She fastened her helmet and tugged her ponytail free from under it. "So I guess I'll see you later?"
"Depends on the rest of my day, but all things going well I'll stop by to say hello... if you'd like me to?" I said hopefully.