by Chrissie Gittins
Frank had never had a new car before. At the age of seventy-four he reckoned he deserved a new model with a view to a carefree future. The engine cut out at the traffic lights.
‘Where’s the engine gone?’ said his wife Myra as they waited for the lights to change.
‘It’s doing its electric thing. Saving petrol.’
‘Are we going home?’
‘No – we’re going to have a look at the viaduct. Remember?’
‘Oh yes.’ Frank was never sure if she did actually remember, but he was glad that she wanted to appear to.
They pulled away and the steep hills reared up behind Settle. The road wound round through Langcliff, Stainforth and Selside. The sky was overcast but puddles of sunlight moved fleetingly across the valleys.
‘Look, there it is,’ said Frank.
The viaduct appeared from behind a spur and lengthened as they got closer. The shadows inside the arches pushed down into the tussocked grass.
‘I’ll drive by then come back the other way.’
‘Then we’ll get a different view.’
Frank drove alongside the dry gouged ridge, which rose to Whernside, looking for somewhere to turn round. Scree slipped down the scar. There were fields yellowed with buttercups, and others where it was hard to tell the boulders from the sheep.
Frank pulled in.
‘There’s a train coming. I’m going to take a photograph. You stay here.’
Frank pointed his camera towards the viaduct, and kept checking back to see that Myra was still in the car. When the train reached the middle of the viaduct he took his shot.
‘That wasn’t much of a train,’ said Myra when he got back in the car.
‘No. Only two carriages.’
‘I could murder a cup of tea.’
‘We could stop at Horton on the way back?’
‘That would be nice.’
Frank turned round and drove back, carefully avoiding the walkers and their dogs who were trickling down from Peny-y-ghent.
‘He wasn’t looking,’ said Frank, swerving slightly.
The café was on a bend in the road. Cyclists were already sitting at the outside tables. They parked in the car park opposite. Frank extricated Myra from her seatbelt and took her arm to guide her across the road. Inside they had their choice of tables. The room was loaded with a dresser, a cabinet, a piano and display shelves.
‘Here?’ asked Frank, picking a table for four next to the window.
Straight away a tall woman holding a notepad came to take their order.
‘What can I get you?’
‘Cup of tea for me,’ said Myra.
‘Coffee for me please,’ said Frank.
‘No thanks,’ Myra and Frank said in unison. The woman didn’t write anything down and went back to the kitchen. Frank got up to inspect the merchandise on sale.
‘There’s no end of jams and marmalade.’ He picked out a pair of red scallop shell earrings from a wicker basket. ‘You can have these for £3.’ Myra laughed.
The tall woman brought through their drinks in matching floral china teacups.
‘Could you tell me where the facilities are, please?’ asked Frank.
‘Over the road in the car park.’
As they sipped their drinks another couple took seats at a far table. Frank and Myra looked into each other’s eyes and smiled. Myra’s complexion was drained of any colour, which made her cornflower blue eyes shine all the more.
‘How are you doing?’ asked Frank.
‘I’m doing fine.’
‘I’ll go and excavate the facilities.’
Frank wove through the chairs and tables and crossed back over the road. It wasn’t clear which of the outbuildings was the toilet. The first door he tried was locked, the second one wasn’t. The traffic was building on the road as the day reached towards lunchtime. Frank put his hand up to thank a coach driver for slowing down to let him cross. The tall woman was watering the hanging baskets around the entrance to the café.
Frank could see immediately that the seat where Myra had been sitting was empty. But still he went up to the chair and stared at it. Their forty-nine years together tripped through him. Their three children, their home, their pets, their holidays. He could see Myra’s hair flicking back from her face as they sailed past the Doge’s Palace towards Venice’s Grand Canal.
‘Did you see where my wife went?’ Frank asked the couple at the other table.
‘No, sorry,’ said the man.
‘She was there a minute ago,’ said the woman.
Frank rushed out to the road. All was quiet.
‘Have you seen my wife?’ he asked the woman who was still watering the hanging baskets.
‘No, I haven’t.’
‘I just left her for a few minutes.’
‘She might have gone round the back. Come through to the kitchen.’
Frank followed her back into the house and up the steps to the kitchen. The back door was open. Beyond the flowerbeds was a play area with a swing and a small sandpit filled with brightly coloured buckets and spades. There was Myra, swinging backwards and forwards; stretching her legs out towards the smooth emerald hills.
Chrissie Gittins’ short fiction has appeared in The London Magazine, The Guardian and on BBC Radio 4. Her short stories collections are ‘Family Connections’ (Salt) and ‘Between Here and Knitwear’ (Unthank Books). She also writes poetry, poetry for children, and radio drama. She is represented in the British Council Writers’ Directory.
Learn more at www.chrissiegittins.co.uk.