Thursday, April 22, 2021

Always Closer Than You Think by Jo Winwood

Cora skipped through the crunchy autumn leaves tossing her auburn hair across her shoulders. The sweet soft rain dampened her cheeks and her heart felt full. She pulled her rust coloured wool coat tightly around her to keep out the first of the autumn’s chills.  A light breeze stirred the leaves as she strolled through the park in the distance she heard the sweet song of a robin ...

No, no, no. That’s not how it was at all.

Cora cursed as she peeled the plastic carrier bag from around her old boots, wishing that she had bought a new pair as she felt the cold rain seep through the broken stitching. She also wished she’d remembered to pick up her umbrella when she left the house as the rain was trickling down her back and making her even more cold and miserable. Her hair clung to her face as the rain stung her cheeks and the wind ripped her coat open to soak her jumper once again. She muttered several words she’d never use in front of her mother and sprinted for the refreshment van parked between the swings and the toilet block.  

As she drew closer she noticed a man standing at the counter chatting to the vendor. He was tall, dark hair curling at his collar and he was wearing sensible shoes and a warm camel coloured coat. She slowed down to catch her breath before she arrived and strolled casually under the awning. Carefully avoiding eye contact she ordered a mug of tea and tossed her Titian locks from her shoulders before turning towards him and unleashing her most dazzling smile. He gazed at her, keeping eye contact for a second too long, causing Cora to flush gently. He leaned in and pushed a wayward tendril of hair behind her ear. His warm hand caressed her cheek and he whispered in her ear ...

No, no, no. That’s not how it was at all.

Cora sneezed violently, sending a shower across the counter. Her hair flopped fully across her face and she peered out to see the disgust on the vendor’s face.

‘Sorry, run out of tissues, terrible cold, lousy weather.’ she mumbled.

The two men exchanged a look she was only too familiar with. She’d been getting those looks from men since she was about six years old. Her mother called them the ‘poor Cora’ looks and she knew if she lived to be ninety she’d still be getting them from the men she encountered.

Cora wrapped her fingers round the mug of tea and blew on it for a long time. She peeped through her fringe at the man standing at the other end of the counter. He was not the tall handsome stranger she had taken him for but he was rather pleasant looking. If only she was more like her sister then she would dazzle him with her smile and engage him in witty conversation before arranging a date later in the week. But Cora wasn’t like her sister so she sipped her still too hot tea and tried not to cough or sneeze again.

She became aware of someone standing close to her and, turning her head slightly saw that the stranger had moved closer. Cora gulped and stood very still. He coughed politely and she turned to face him.

‘I’m sorry, I don’t usually do this but you seem rather sad and lonely. My name’s Francois and I am a visitor to your wonderful city. Could I impose upon you to be my tour guide this afternoon?’

Cora blinked hard and her mouth fell open, showing her perfect pearly teeth. She smiled shyly and brushed a wisp of hair from her face. Blushing, she nodded and lowered her eyes before raising them and staring fiercely into his icy blue ones ...

No, no, no. That’s not how it was at all.

Cora smelled the aroma of wet dog as the man shuffled up to stand next to her. His cheap wool coat was dripping and creating a puddle to match the one underneath where she was standing. As he spoke she smelled peppermint masking his most recent cigarette. She heard the rustling of paper as he struggled to unfold a map of the city.

‘Excuse me love, I’m a stranger round here and I wondered if you could...’

Cora jumped as he spoke and knocked her tea over. She squealed, leapt back and turned away from the man. The hot brown liquid poured over the counter and mixed with the muddy rainwater as she splashed away from the refreshment van. The cold water squelched out of her boots as she ran out of the park and jumped on the first bus that she saw. Panting, she flung herself into a vacant seat and rummaged through her bag for some change to pay the fare.

‘Allow me, miss.’ A deep throaty voice from the seat behind and a large hand appeared thrusting a £5 note at her.

‘Oh no, I couldn’t, really...’ she stammered, swivelling in the seat to get a look at her knight in shining armour. Dark chocolatey eyes stared into hers and without thinking she grasped the money and mumbled her thanks. After paying her fare she felt the heat of another’s eyes on her neck, her hair, everywhere. Cora stole a glance in the window reflection just in time to see him rise from his seat to leave. As he passed her he slipped a piece of paper into her hand, smiled and melted her heart as he jumped athletically from the still moving bus ...

No, no, no. That’s not how it was at all.

Cora turned to face the man who had offered to pay her fare and was surprised to see Brian from the office. He’d started a few weeks ago and was painfully shy. All the girls in the typing pool loved teasing him and getting him to blush or stammer or, best of all, drop the files he was delivering. She felt sorry for him and tried not to join in. Cora knew what it was like to be new and clumsy, to be teased and ribbed, to cry in the toilet during breaks. When she had started at the firm she’d been the butt of the cool girls’ jokes, just as she had been at school. She smiled at Brian when he dropped files off at her desk, asked how he was settling in, offered him a mint from her tin.

Cora smiled at Brian and saw the beginning of redness creeping over his collar. He looked down and she noticed that his hair had a wave to it, that there were coppery highlights glinting in the light, that he was wringing his hands in a familiar gesture. She stood up, swung round the pole of the bus and plopped down on the seat next to him. He peeped at her and a slight smile played briefly across his lips. Cora smiled back, patted his hand briefly, and whispered her thanks.

The rain swept down the windows of the bus and the condensation ran down the inside. Neither of them noticed when they missed their stops, neither of them noticed when the lights came on across town, neither of them cared when they had to pay extra fare to go round again. They chatted like old friends, any embarrassment evaporating along with the rain on their clothes. When the bus returned to the city centre they got off and began to walk, hand in hand, through the soaking streets as the rain seeped into their clothes and dripped off their hair.

 And that’s just how it was.

© Jo Winwood

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