Streams of rainwater flowed relentlessly across the cracked grey pavement towards the gutters, reflecting the pale glare of the streetlights.
This had once been a busy street in a buzzing and vibrant northern English town, whose textile mills produced high fashion garments for export world-wide. But Carbington was now a broken relic of a bygone era, its heart pierced by grimy, deserted tenement buildings, potholed roads and boarded up shops brooding in the twilight of the late afternoon.
Years ago this part of the town would have been crammed with thousands of men and women, hurrying to and from their places of work. Hustle and bustle had been the order of the day, but the streets were quiet now. Depression and despair were the new watchwords. Many had moved away in search of work elsewhere and those who remained eked out a living from a combination of benefit payments from the government and black economy jobs that paid cash in hand. There were no signs of even a minor economic revival.
Autumn was throwing its last dark and rainy farewell party before fleeing in the face of winter's plunging temperatures and Kenny Macdonald knew it was going to be a cold and wet night. Maybe Stella was already home and had turned the heating up. She had been in a sour mood all week and he hoped she would brighten up a bit this evening. It was Friday and every Friday since they got married three years ago he had brought home chocolates or flowers for his wife as a token of his love and appreciation. Whether it was flowers or chocolates depended on what was on offer in the only shop in their part of town that wasn't boarded up.
A tiny Aladdin's cave of essential household supplies, the shop was owned and run by Balbir, an elderly entrepreneurial Indian, who managed to survive by selling newspapers, fresh bread, groceries, toiletries and tickets for the national lottery. Balbir's smart white shirt and black trousers contrasted with the colourful traditional dresses and shawls worn by his rotund and friendly wife, Meena.
Kenny had no idea whether the shop ever actually closed. It was open whenever he passed by, day or night. Balbir always greeted Kenny with a smile and their standing joke on a Friday evening was always the same. Kenny would place a small box of chocolates or a bunch of flowers on the counter. Balbir would then ask, "Anything else, Mr Mac?" and Kenny would reply, "Yes, please. I'd like to pay the idiot tax."
A lucky dip ticket for the national lottery didn't cost much, but the odds of winning were tens of millions to one. The way Kenny saw it, only an idiot would buy a ticket and expect to win. He didn't mind being one of the idiots every now and again, because the government used some of the income from the lottery to fund community development projects and other worthwhile causes.
Kenny usually had a few lottery tickets in his wallet from the previous weeks' draws. His attitude to life was 'glass half full', rather than 'glass half empty'. Inspired by the paradox of Schroedinger's cat, Kenny opted to believe that he had the winning ticket in his wallet. Of course, that was only until he checked the numbers, but he wouldn't ever check the numbers straight away, on the day of the draw, or even the next day. That would have spoiled the fun. Carrying the lottery tickets around for a few weeks until he got around to checking them gave him a nice, positive feeling that just maybe he might be lucky and he would be able to change things for the better. Never mind the jackpot, a million would be more than enough as far as Kenny was concerned.
Kenny clutched a small box of Stella's favourite dark chocolates to his chest as he hurried homewards through the driving rain that evening. At the corner of the street of tenements where they lived was a building that had once been a branch office of a large national bank. Long since closed, the deep and generous arched entranceway to the former bank offered some protection against the elements. Kenny was nevertheless surprised to see that a beggar had taken up temporary residence there. Beggars were a rare sight in this town. They simply couldn't survive in a place where the population itself was on the breadline.
Stopping to fish in his pocket for some loose change, Kenny looked down at the beggar, squatting in the shadows of the immense doorway. Cocooned in a dark coloured sleeping bag, some sort of hooded garment and a scarf, the beggar sat with head bowed behind a bowl and a cardboard sign that was propped up on the damp paving stones. Kenny couldn't quite make out the scrawled lettering on the sign, but it was probably the same sort of message any beggar might use to persuade the more fortunate to part with their money.
All that Kenny found in his pocket was his house keys. He had spent the last of his loose change at Balbir's shop, so he pulled out his wallet. He had nothing smaller than a twenty pound note, but he dropped it in the begging bowl anyway. Kenny believed that everyone made their own choices, but that fate might have dealt you a tough hand. He hoped his money would help and that it would not be spent on drink or drugs. The beggar glanced up in surprise and Kenny found himself looking into a pair of dark brown eyes in a dark-skinned complexion. Just for a moment, Kenny sensed anxiety and sadness, before the beggar swiftly looked down again, nodding briefly in acknowledgement of the gift. Kenny turned away, slipping his wallet back inside his jacket.
The lights were on in the small apartment when Kenny got home. He hung his dripping wet jacket in the bathroom to dry out before heading for the kitchen, where he found his wife stirring a pot of tomato sauce. She looked up and tilted her head, allowing him a brief kiss on her cheek.
"I got you some chocolates," he said.
"Pasta and ragu?" he asked, breathing in the rich aroma of tomato and oregano.
"Yeah. Same old, same old," she muttered. "What did you expect? Lobster and caviar? Maybe a T-bone steak?"
"I like your home-made pasta and ragu," he told her.
"Well," she said, pausing to look him in the eye, "It might be different if you got a job that paid decent money, instead of working as a cowboy plumber."
Kenny was disappointed. Instead of replying, he turned and made his way to the lounge. This theme of the better paid job had featured more frequently in his conversations with Stella over the past few months. She seemed to have conveniently forgotten that she had wanted to be close to her family and had been firmly against moving away in pursuit of more promising job prospects.
Kenny enjoyed his work, even if he did get called out at short notice to deal with burst pipes or blocked toilets. Most of the people that required his services were grateful to see him and he was no cowboy. The "cowboys" were the tradesmen who rode in, screwed up and then rode off into the sunset, never to be seen again, with no quality guarantees, no warranties and no refunds.
Kenny worked for a reputable firm and he was good at his job. The pay wasn't great, but sometimes he got cash in hand, which he put into a savings account towards a down payment on a house. He had managed to stash away nearly two grand and he was waiting until the time was ripe before telling Stella about it. As for getting a better job, Kenny was also keeping his cards close to his chest, but his employers were considering paying to get him trained up to become a fully qualified and registered gas engineer. Whether the glass was half full or half empty, Kenny was sure it would get fuller in just a few months' time. Early next year they would both turn twenty five and could have a serious conversation about new jobs, a house and children.
Kenny reckoned they should have had some spare cash, because they were a 'DINKY' couple - Double Income and No Kids Yet, but Stella's job in the housing benefits section of the local government offices didn't pay much and they seemed to spend as much as they earned. Kenny was careful to avoid mentioning how much was getting spent on clothes, but Stella's wardrobe was bursting at the seams and she had annexed one side of Kenny's wardrobe.
Kenny had few indulgences, apart from hill-walking, watching the local Sunday league amateur football team, his occasional flutter on the national lottery and a few beers in the Nag's Head pub every couple of weeks with some old pals from his school days.
After dinner that evening Kenny and Stella settled down to watch the usual frothy Friday evening quiz and chat shows on television, finishing off a bottle of cheap Italian Sangiovese. The late night chat show featured a line up of nonentity celebrities and Kenny suggested it might be bedtime. Stella made it clear she wasn't in the mood. "Why don't you go ahead? You're looking a bit tired. I'll not be too long." Of course, Kenny was sound asleep by the time she got to bed.
Kenny woke refreshed on Saturday morning. He had been dreaming that someone was sawing down a tree he had climbed up. Beside him, Stella was snoring lightly. Moving carefully to avoid disturbing her, he went through to the kitchen to make some fresh coffee. From experience he knew that she would sleep on for a couple of hours and it would not be a wise idea to wake her. She was definitely not a morning person. As far as Kenny could tell, quite often she wasn't an evening person either, but the lynchpin in their relationship was Saturday night, when they had an unspoken agreement to make the beast with two backs. Stella loved doing it with inspirational mood music playing through the sound system in their bedroom. She had a playlist that featured an eclectic mix of artistes, from Marvin Gaye to Lana del Rey via Led Zeppelin.
Kenny was looking forward to that, but he had a full schedule before then. Come rain or shine, he almost always went hill-walking on Saturdays and today was no exception. While Stella lazed in bed, he breakfasted on toast and marmalade, orange juice and coffee, before making himself a packed lunch. His waterproof trousers and jacket and his sturdy boots were more than a match for the squally rain showers the weather forecast was predicting.
Stella woke not long after Kenny left and she lay in bed for a while, texting her friends to make arrangements for lunch and shopping.
Stella wasn't sure exactly how Dave Campbell had become more than just a colleague. He was in his mid forties, with a wife and two teenage daughters, so he was actually just about old enough to be her father. If she had been asked, she would probably have said that she took an initial liking to Dave simply because he was a good listener. She felt she could confide in him about all those little things that seemed to be getting in her way.
Stella and Dave would sit together at lunch in the office canteen and she felt safe and reassured in his company. Their conversations were usually a chance for Stella to have a moan about some minor irritant. As often as not, it would be something Kenny had said or done that she imagined was unhelpful or some sort of personal slight. She was annoyed if Kenny left the TV tuned to a sports channel, or if she had to load or unload the dishwasher, which she saw as one of his tasks. It didn't matter that he took his turn at cleaning the bathroom and was generally neat and tidy.
To Stella it always felt good to compare notes with Dave about what was bugging her and why everything could be so much better. Dave had encouraged her to open up to him and in return he told her all about how his wife had changed and was no longer the same person he had married. Stella felt flattered by Dave's attention, not thinking for a moment that he was only interested in getting into her knickers. Their colleagues were aware that the two of them had become close friends, but no one knew or cared whether there was anything more to it.
The turning point had been the office summer barbeque, when Dave carefully plied Stella with more than a few glasses of wine. The venue was a picnic area in the same local nature reserve where Kenny went hill-walking. Dave had guided Stella away from their colleagues to a sheltered spot next to a small lake and they sat down to watch the ducks and swans paddling around in the warm summer sunshine. It hadn't taken much effort to get Stella to kiss him. He simply asked her and she was persuaded as much by his charm as her desire. Dave was careful not to push things too far too quickly and they hadn't done anything other than cuddling and kissing that day.
The office stationery store was where things went further. Dave had taken to texting Stella a couple of times a day, flirting with her electronically, instead of chatting her up in front of their colleagues. A week or so after their make-out session at the barbeque he sent her a text late one afternoon, asking her to meet him in the stationery store at five o'clock.
"Why?" she texted back.
"I have something I need to tell you," he replied.
Low grade public servants rarely work overtime in England and Dave figured that no one was likely to disturb them in the stationery store of a housing benefits office after normal office hours. He was waiting for Stella and she didn't resist when he put his arms around her and kissed her deeply. They clung to each other, as he ran his hands over her backside and she held him tightly. Looking deeply into her eyes, he told her "I can't stop thinking about you."
Stella could feel his erection pressing firmly into her and she didn't resist. She was excited by the idea of fucking in the stationery store and she was aware that her knickers were already damp. Dave turned her round and she bent forwards over the stationery sorting table, while he pulled her dress up from behind and folded it over her back. He quickly unzipped his trousers, dropping them to the floor, pulled her knickers down to her knees and pushed into her from behind.
"Oh, God, that's so good, Dave!" she whimpered, as he reached around her with one hand and fingered her firmly as he thrust in and out of her, all the while holding her dress up with his other hand. The thrill was so great that it didn't take long for Stella to reach orgasm. Dave knew she was on the pill, so he didn't pull out and she could feel him coming inside her. She braced herself against the sorting table and stifled the urge to scream in ecstasy.
Throughout the late summer and autumn, Stella and Dave visited the stationery store once or twice a week at the end of the working day. Having to wait until everyone else in the department went home added to the thrill. Her knickers were always damp with anticipation by the time Dave got his hands on them and Stella revelled in the way he fucked her hard and fast, either on the floor or the table. For Stella it was wildly exciting to get a "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" in the stationery store, but she began to wonder what it would be like if she could have a longer session with Dave in more comfortable surroundings.
The pathways in the local nature reserve were muddy from the previous day's rain. Kenny's route took him over three hilltops, including the craggy ridge known locally as Lovers' Leap. He stopped for lunch at a shepherd's bothy, looking down to where the flinty terrain of the hilltop contrasted with the marshland below. The views westwards towards the Irish Sea were stunning, but the wind was freshening from the west and the dark, overcast sky held the promise of more rain to come.
It was late afternoon when Kenny got home and he was careful to take his boots off in the hallway before putting them in the airing cupboard to dry off. He was fortunate that it hadn't rained, but his boots were soaked from striding through the marshy grassland on the lower reaches of Bogside Fell.
He took a shower to freshen up and had changed into his favourite denim trousers and green and black checked shirt when Stella arrived home, clutching a couple of shopping bags emblazoned with designer store logos. She was grinning from ear to ear and was clearly pleased with her purchases. After giving him a quick kiss, she stowed the bags in the bedroom, then went off to the kitchen to set about making dinner. She might have put a dent in their finances, but the retail therapy had put Stella in a good mood and Kenny looked forward to an enjoyable evening.
Stella's late grandmother had been Italian and the old lady had passed on some of her culinary skills to Stella. That evening Stella made one of Kenny's favourites - loin of pork, stuffed with basil, parmesan and sun-dried tomato, wrapped up in parma ham coated with olive oil and baked in the oven. It is often said that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach and Kenny suspected Stella would want something in return. When they settled down after dinner to watch a film, Kenny was not surprised to find that Stella had chosen one of her favourites, "Sleepless in Seattle".
As Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan carried the love story towards its tear-jerking denouement, the thought occurred to Kenny that what happens in life depends on chance and timing. Who knows whether a lift will arrive just in time or just too late? After the credits had rolled and Stella had dried her eyes, he kissed her tenderly, took her by the hand and led her to the bedroom.
Lying in bed, Kenny held Stella in his arms and they kissed gently, looking deep into each other's eyes while Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" played through the sound system. He knew she liked to start off with plenty of cuddling, while he rubbed her everywhere he could reach. When she was ready, he moved round to spoon into her from behind and she lifted her leg to give him better access, pushing back at him as he slid his cock slowly into her moist folds.
She moaned quietly when he was fully inserted, one hand clutching the bedclothes and the other pulling on his thigh, urging him on. Slowly he withdrew from her then thrust back in, repeating the motion again and again, teasing her as she continued to moan. Kenny picked up the pace gradually, then moved on top of Stella, face-to-face, burying himself inside her as far as he could get. Stella's groans turned to whimpers and finally loud cries of passion as Kenny smothered her in kisses and Billy Joel crooned in the background.
Kenny slept like a log and was surprised to find he was alone when he eventually woke up. Stella preferred making love at night, but sometimes they would lie in bed on a Sunday morning, with his hands on her breasts and stomach as they spooned and her silky sheath clenched his morning wood.
Today was different. For whatever reason, Stella was up and about and Kenny could smell the aroma of fresh coffee wafting through from the kitchen. Stella was standing at the oven in her jeans and a tee shirt, grilling bacon when Kenny appeared. The Sunday newspaper and fresh bread rolls lay on the kitchen table and Kenny realised she had popped out to Balbir's shop while he was snoozing. Kenny gave her a quick kiss and helped himself to a glass of fresh orange juice from the fridge. He sat at the table and read the sports pages, as Stella fixed the coffee and bacon rolls.
"I thought I might go over and visit Maggie this afternoon," she said, putting the plate of bacon rolls down in front of him. "Would you mind?"
"She's your sister. Why would I mind?" he replied. "I'm planning to go over to the park to watch the Rovers this afternoon, otherwise I would come along. Tell her I said hello."
"What time will you be back?" she asked him. "Will you be stopping off with the lads for a beer or two in the clubhouse after the game?"
"Aye, lass, that's the idea. I should be back around six, I reckon."
"OK," she replied. "I'll put the chicken in the oven in time to be ready around seven."