The Return – a short story

Last week I wrote a story about a hitch-hiker in which the driver was a beautiful woman in a luxurious car and the hiker dirty and messy. I enjoyed the juxtaposition and so I kept the formula but attempted to turn the tables, with messy driver and more-or-less elegant rider; however, as I wrote, the story took on a life of its own.

After the bride and groom departed, the bride’s parents, her only family present, announced that they were also leaving but that they had mislaid their bag containing their Nikon camera, lenses and movie equipment. All responded to this revelation by speaking at once and scrambling around searching under tables and chairs. After a few minutes, when they had failed to find even a missing lens cap, the general consensus was that someone, maybe a member of the kitchen staff, must have made off with the bag. No-one used the word theft because the groom’s family and friends didn’t want to have their bride’s parents think poorly of them. They had pride, these East-End Londoners and most were reluctant to face the thought that someone had ripped off their rich American guests; visitors, who had traveled so far.

Mary, the only bridesmaid, had intended to catch a ride with the bride’s parents, but somehow the commotion, due to the lost bag, separated her from them, and they left without her. After their departure the party in that pub upper room, which had begun as a sober enough wedding reception, quickly degenerated into a noisy melee with free drinking, dancing and a good deal of smooching. Mary was as out-of-place as the Americans had been, and knew that she had to escape; so she went into the tiny women’s cloakroom, put on her coat and slipped down the dark stairs and opened the exterior door.

When she stepped outside onto the East End London street a cold blast of 1965 December night-air bit into her face and she realized that it had started to rain. For a moment the cold and wet caused her to pause to re-evaluate her options. She could hear the noise in the upstairs room and thought that it was getting louder. With no telephone available and no-one sober enough to give her a ride it offered little incentive to her to return. Indeed the noise confirmed her belief that the sooner she put it behind her the better. ‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘staying is worse than walking home in the rain and cold. I’ve made the right choice.’

She glanced up and down the empty wet street and started to walk. The red brick houses were unlit and the street lights barely illuminated the pavement. It looked dark, wet and Dickensian sinister. It was a daunting beginning of a long, seven-or-more mile hike, to her flat in Earl’s Court. She knew that, at this late hour past midnight, the tube had already closed and taxis few and far between. She had no umbrella or raincoat and her dyed pumps were unsuitable for walking. The improbability of it all crossed her mind. Who would have thought that she, a London University, art history student, from an upper middle class English Family, would be attending the wedding of, Cliff, an East-End London high-school drop-out whose family had never seen education beyond middle school?

She walked with a brisk tread, wondering if one could move fast enough to avoid some of the raindrops. As she turned this over in her mind she realized the stupidity of such an assumption even though the realization didn’t slow down her pace. Again she reviewed the improbability of her situation, for; of course her contact was Clara, the bride, not Cliff, the groom. But Clara’s background was as different from Cliff’s as Mary’s. Clara, a Californian girl, had met Mary the previous year at a one week Art history conference. During her visit to London she had also met Cliff when he bagged her groceries at a Sainsbury’s store. Upon her return to California she had taken up a brisk correspondence with Cliff, and, the next year, defying her PhD parents, returned to London to scope him out. Their courtship was quick, and now they were married.

The magnitude of her proposed trek had truly sunk in when Mary heard a car behind her and turned to see a beat-up old Ford. Her heart began to race; and she tried to walk faster without appearing to run. Her fear intensified when the car slowed down to match her pace. It was then that she was able to see the driver, quickly recognizing him as George, the best man, from the wedding party. He opened his window, and lent over, “Want a ride?”

Logic and experience warned her that she shouldn’t accept, but the cold and wet trumped caution and she said, “Yes, please.”

He hastily cleared papers, Coke cans and beer bottles off the passenger seat exposing dirty upholstery. She stepped in and he pulled off, a little too fast she thought. She already knew that she shouldn’t be there, the car smelt of beer, and rotten eggs. Mary deduced that it was his breath which carried the rotten egg odor and shuddered. The rain seemed to have intensified and now she watched his windshield wiper flicking back and forth scraping his windshield. The cone of light from his headlights cast eerie shadows on the buildings as they passed. Now he slowed down and drove as a man who knows that he has had too much drives in an attempt to avoid detection. She wondered how she was going to get out and decided that she might as well stay inside as long as possible.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’m going to take you wherever you need to go.” Mary hadn’t expected such chivalry and attempted to re-evaluate his intentions.

“I live in Earl’s Court – that’ll be way out of your way. But, it’d be great if you dropped me off at a station or a large hotel; somewhere where I can get a cab.”

George put his hand on Mary’s knee, which confirmed her fears, but she lifted it off and gently placed it on the steering wheel. She spoke in a matter-of-fact tone while trying to disguise her fear, “George, don’t you need to concentrate on your driving?” He nodded and for several blocks concentrated on the road. Then he hiccupped and turned toward her and commented, “I was looking for you.”

‘You were looking for me?”

“Well yes, after the Americans left we needed to wrap things up and then I saw you sneaking off. Of course I knew that you would need a ride – perhaps more.” He wheezed a little. They passed Liverpool Street station and he didn’t stop. ‘He really is going to take me home,’ thought Mary. ‘So perhaps I should be polite, and make some conversation.’

“Known Cliff long?”

“Best friends, all our lives. I’ll miss him now that he is married and he’ll be going to America.”

“It was a nice wedding,” Mary lied “but I felt sorry for Clara’s parents they were so uncomfortable the whole time.”

“Yes, they didn’t seem too happy. It was their first time to London, wasn’t it?”

“I think so but, of course, the final straw was when her dad realized that someone had stolen his bag of cameras and stuff.”

“Yeah, all real fancy, but they can afford to replace it – rich Americans! Besides, I’ll bet you that it was well insured.”

“Perhaps, but that isn’t the point.”

“What ‘ya mean?”

“I mean that all the wedding photographs were in that bag. There is so much emotional record there –something that money can’t replace. There is something called sentimental value which far exceeds monetary worth. No insurance in the world can replace it.”

“That’s all right for you to say when you have always had everything that you need but for some real cash trumps sentiment!”

George turned and looked at Mary, his face a dead-pan gaze. She thought that he looked longing, almost needy, and was glad when he turned his eyes back to the road. They were coming up Moorgate and the wet streets were still deserted. She caught a glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral shrouded in rain. Its familiarity reminded her of her concern about how this ride was going to end. She tried to distract herself by taking up their discussion, anything to avoid getting too personal.

“Well, I wish that we could find out who did it. It’s a bit like a ‘Who done it mystery’, isn’t it?”

“Well it had to be someone in the wedding party.”

“What about the kitchen staff?”

“No, didn’t you notice, they left right when the cake was brought out? He filmed the cake cutting and was snapping away while we were eating it.”

“Yep, you are right.” George again gave Mary one of his dead-pan looks. When he turned back to the road he hastily swerved to avoid jay-walkers in the otherwise empty Strand.

“I also think that it couldn’t have been taken from the room as the bag he kept everything in was quite bulky. That just about rules out all the female guests; it’s not like you could slip that bag into your purse.”

“You are a regular little Sherlock Holmes aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not, I’m just being logical.

For a while they were both silent, the only sounds; the engine, the rain on the roof and the swish-swish of the windshield wipers. A stream of drips began to come in over Mary’s door. She tried to move away to avoid them without appearing to get closer to George. He noticed her movement and reached and touched her knee, again she put his hand back on the steering wheel.

“I’m just moving away from the leak. Why don’t you drop me off at one of the West End hotels? You have done so much already and I am very grateful. Really, you have done enough.”

“Sorry about the leak. It is an old car worth less than those fancy cameras, but much more useful. Don’t worry; I’m going to take you home, right to Earl’s Court.” He paused, “So, Miss Holmes, what do you think?”

“Think?”

“Think about the missing bag of cameras and stuff?”

“I think that it was removed from the men’s cloak-room perhaps hidden in someone’s coat.

‘You have got to be joking – right?”

“Actually, no I’m dead serious. Perhaps you saw something and can now put two and two together?”

“NO I saw nothing.” George’s voice was raised and his response so quick that it took Mary by surprise.

She waited while she thought about his reaction. They were heading towards Hyde Park corner with more traffic on the road and the rain had stopped. She decided that his response could only be explained by the fact that he did know something. It reminded her of Hamlet’s comment ‘The lady doth protest too much.’

“So you DO know something?’ She noticed his hands clench on the steering wheel, “Yes, you do don’t you?”

“NO.”

Again George’s rapid denial was too quick, too emphatic, and too glib. Mary felt sure that he knew something. “But it’s yes isn’t it? Who? It would be great if we could at least retrieve the film – just the precious irreplaceable images. Maybe you could talk to them tell them to anonymously return the film – the sentimental value, the irreplaceable images.”

“What do you know? Did you see something Mary?”

“No George but I’m sure that you did. Don’t you want to exonerate Cliff’s family? Don’t you want to help retrieve his record of his wedding day? After all you were best man and he, your best friend.”

“It’s not that important.”

“Maybe that’s what you think but you are not married. One day when you have children I’m sure that you will want to show them pictures from your wedding. And,” Mary was on a roll, “then there’ll be grandchildren to impress. The thief deprives Cliff’s future family of his heritage from a 1965 East End London wedding. It is important.”

George didn’t respond, he seemed wrapped up in his own thoughts. Now they passed Hyde Park, most of Knightsbridge and Holland Park and were driving down Earl’s Court Road.

“Where do I go?”

“It is just past the tube station. There, that building opposite WH Smith.”

George pulled up and Mary looked at him, he returned her gaze with his lugubrious dead-pan  look. Instead of leaning over and grabbing her, as she fully expected, he held out his hand. His voice quavered with emotion. “I’ve got to go, have things to do.”

Mary shook his hand and got out of the car. As she left she thanked him profusely, adding one final appeal, “George, you are a nice guy, If you are able help your best friend, Cliff. At least help him get some pictures to show future offspring.

Several weeks later after Clara and Cliff had settled down into married life they invited Mary over to see their wedding pictures.

“But weren’t your Dad’s cameras and film lost?”

“We thought so, but the black bag with everything in it miraculously turned up at the front desk of their hotel. Apparently a young man delivered it in the wee hours of Sunday morning. There was a note with their name and the words, ‘Pictures to show future offspring.’”

© Copyright, August 2014, Jane Stansfeld

6 thoughts on “The Return – a short story

  1. I enjoyed comparing the car in this story with that in your previous tale of the hitch-hiker. The details are wonderfully vivid. Ditto with the potent scariness of that ride for Mary. We’ll never know if George himself was the thief (if he was, he was unpracticed and scared himself!). The building darkness of fear and then–pouf!–deflating it in the light of some ordinary explanation is vintage Jane Stansfield, I think. Kudos!..

    • Thank you for your take on this story. I’m glad that you enjoyed the contrast to ‘The Hitch-hiker.’ As usual, I aspired to tease with a minor ambiguity at the conclusion.
      Cheerio,
      Jane

      • You are right, Cynthia, ‘feld” and ‘field’ are frequently mixed up – so much so that I often don’t even notice. In fact, several hundred years ago, when not everyone could read and write it appears that the two endings were often interchanged! This time your android is in good company!
        Jane

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