Winter Challenge Story - Kindness Theme
Summer heat had baked the mud hard. It rose up in puffs under Theo’s boots and clung to him. His face was sticky and sore too, from the amount of times he’d drawn his sleeve across it to wipe away sweat. It hadn’t looked so far on the map – it hadn’t crossed his mind to think how much of the route was hills. Heat-haze wavered in the distance, turned the way ahead to a rippling sea. Parched trees bowed weary heads and all the grass that he could see was wilted, bleached by the sun.
Theo drank the last few sips of water left in the bottle. He thought of his destination - wished he were there already, sitting in cool shade, trickles of condensation from an icy-cold glass wetting his fingers as he lifted it to his lips.
Still, this was the country. In the country, things were different. He turned in at the gate on his left, feeling slightly apprehensive and foolish but also a little anticipatory, preparing to do something he would never dream of doing in the City. This was – to beg a refill of his water-bottle from a strange house.
The drive turned sharply left and went steeply upward, but as he crested the rise Theo saw the house that had previously been partially screened from him by its elevation and by the surrounding trees. It was a modern build. Possibly it had even been designed by the owners. If this was so then, in Theo’s opinion, they had displayed a remarkable lack of discretion and design flair. It looked as if the architect had relied too much on the set square, but had discovered a protractor gathering dust under the desk at the last minute, and ruined the dull but imposing rectangle by sticking a turret at one end. The drive widened into a large semicircle in front of the house and a new Land Rover and a newer Mercedes were parked there neatly aligned.
Theo hesitated. When it had first occurred to him he might ask someone for a refill, this was not the scene he’d imagined. He’d been thinking idly of the typical country cottage much depicted in postcards: The ancient stone hidden under ivy, the garden a riot of wildflowers, the picturesque bowed roof. He’d conjured up from paintings on biscuit-tin lids and other rural fictions a smiling, rosy-cheeked farmer’s wife with freckled arms and an apron, who would decant into his empty bottle freezing cold spring-water and maybe even offer him a slice of home-made cake. So much for fantasy, Theo thought, and had to smile at himself for entertaining such ridiculous notions.
This then, was the reality - an imposing house that looked as if it had been built by a banker.
Before he could make up his mind whether to approach and ring the doorbell, or beat a retreat and suffer until he came to the next house, the door opened and a woman emerged. She was very smart in a dark blue business-suit, her hair immaculate. Theo thought for a moment she was painfully and hideously contorted, and even felt a pang of sympathy for her before he realised she was using her shoulder to pin a phone close to her ear. She was bent almost double, not by a disabling condition, but due to the weight of a huge holdall. Towed behind her, juddering on its little wheels, came an enormous case. She neither looked Theo’s way nor acknowledged his presence, but made directly for the Land Rover, barking angrily into her phone.
He watched as she tried to find her keys without letting go of the phone, holdall or case. She dropped the keys, swore, dropped the phone, swore again, flung down the holdall in a rage and bent to retrieve the keys and phone. Rising, she caught her head against the spare on the back of the Land Rover, at which point she screamed and cursed at length and kicked the rear tire. Then she noticed Theo.
There was a heavy silence. The woman stared at Theo, her expression a combination of chagrin and annoyance. Theo stared back, rueful and embarrassed.
“Who are you?” she demanded finally. “What do you want?”
“I’ve been hiking. I just wanted to ask if I could get some water,” Theo said. He held out the empty bottle and shook it. “Would that be ok? If you’re too busy, it’s not a problem. I could always...”
“Alright,” she said, interrupting. “Yes. Sure. Fine. Just give me a minute would you?” She had found the keys, opened up the car and Theo watched as she bent and attempted to lift the case.
“Do you want a hand?” he asked.
She rose and frowned at him, considering. Then she let out a long breath. “Yes. Please.”
The case was heavy. It felt to Theo as if she’d packed it full of rubble. It took the two of them to heave it into the car, which immediately sank a little and bounced on its suspension. The holdall followed it and the woman straightened, massaging her back. She was older than Theo by maybe ten years, approaching forty perhaps. She stopped frowning and the lines of discontent fled, making her appear instantly much younger. She gazed down the drive and grinned triumphantly, jubilantly.
“Thank you,” she said to Theo and started getting into the car.
“My water...?” Theo said. He thought she was going to drive off and leave him standing there. “Sorry...you said...”
“Hannah, you said I could...?”
She turned on the CD player as he spoke, cranked it up to the highest volume and whooped. “Of course!” she yelled over the din. “Here!” She flung a key at him out through the open window. “Have fun. And I’ll take it as a personal favour if you track dirt everywhere. Put it through the letter-box when you go. Goodbye!”
She drove off, taking the bend in third gear, stripping a young tree of all its leaves. These rose up in the sudden gust to drift down like confetti on her tire-tracks. Theo stared after her, astonished. He wondered briefly if he was being filmed, and cast about for cameras before he bent to pick up the key.
The door opened into a quiet, spotless hallway, dim to his eyes so he had to blink and peer. The floor was tiled in chess-board squares, the walls pale cream. Theo stood on the step and called out. “Hello? Hello?”
No answer. He waited a few more seconds before stepping inside. It was beautifully cool, cold even, blissful after the searing heat of the sun. He shrugged off his backpack, laid it carefully down near the wall. His shirt was soaked, sticking to his back.
Running footsteps sounded, drumming hard, someone on the floor above. Theo’s heart gave a leap in his chest and he turned to the stairs. He felt caught. Was he breaking and entering? Would they think he was an intruder? He had a key, but the woman was gone. She couldn’t verify anything.
A man appeared at the top of the stairs, fortyish, slight belly pushing against the confines of his belt, a hank of dark hair flopping over one eye. He breathed out and stood still for a second before coming slowly down the stairs. The one eye Theo could see glittered like a pebble washed by rain.
“I was going to leave it,” the man said conversationally, “but I couldn’t, you know? I heard you call and I wanted to ignore it, I really did.” His left hand lay on the banister, stroking the wood, back and forth. The other he raised now, pointing a small handgun at Theo’s stomach.
Theo couldn’t speak. His throat was too dry, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Say something, say something! He told himself desperately. Another part of him insisted this couldn’t be real. He was hallucinating, dreaming. This can’t happen! He struggled, managed to make his tongue work. “Wait! Wait a minute.”
“Wait? She’s not coming back you know. Wait forever! She told me...” He looked down, seemed to notice the gun. “Oh god, sorry....” he laughed, dropped his hand and began to cry. “Wait!” he chuckled through his tears. “Wait for what? Who are you anyway?”
“Right. My wife’s left me.”
“Do you...do you want to put that gun down? Maybe you want to talk about it? Shall I call someone?” Theo said quickly. He wondered what the man would do if he tried to get his phone out. He was too far from the door to just back away. He felt sick, and wished he’d never come. He should have gone on. He wasn’t about to die of thirst. “I just wanted some water,” he heard himself say.
“Water?” the man stared at him, pebble-eyes swimming. “Here,” he offered Theo the gun. “Here take it! I was going to shoot myself. You can do it. It would be a kindness. Afterwards, you can have as much water as you like.” He laughed again, choked and waggled the gun.
Theo took it. He opened his backpack and dropped it in, pulled the drawstring tight and shouldered the strap. “No. I’m going to call someone for you. Who should I call?” He licked his dry lips and wondered if his knees would give out. “And then, I’m going to get some water.”