Quick to dismiss the weather forecast as the usual rubbish, I now regretted my decision as thick flakes of snow fell against the windscreen. I slowed down, joining a queue of red lights on the motorway. Oppressive clouds, the colour of smoke, hung above. Now visibility was limited to a few clear spots on the windscreen as the snow began to fall more heavily. Within minutes we had slowed to a crawl and I kept some distance behind the vehicle in front, knowing my brakes might not work. I hoped the driver behind me had the same idea.
I’d been heading north on a cold, grey afternoon, ostensibly to perform my poetry at a literary festival in St. Olave’s. I’d been happy, excited even, to have been chosen, though the festival itself was no big deal, an amateur thing. But there’d be a few published poets and authors on hand to offer advice on publishing and agents and all that boring stuff. Now, with the heavy snow, my presence was growing increasingly unlikely.
Suddenly realising the vehicle in front had stopped, I slammed my brakes on and felt the jolt through the pedal of the brakes slipping. I began to skid and through the layer of snow on the windscreen could see the approaching red rear lights of a van. There was a dull thud as I hit it. I got out of the car to the shock of cold air and wet flakes of snow on my face.
A huge man got out and stood, examining his rear bumper. “Looks like there’s no damage.” He smiled and held out a hand. “George Empringham.”
“John Ladly.” I shook his hand and was surprised at the warmth of it.
“Look,” he said, “the traffic’s stopped, maybe there’s been a collision ahead. Come into my van, I’ve got a flask of coffee.”
He told me he was a butcher, he had a shop in St. Olave’s and was heading there to hang some lamb carcasses he had in the back of the van. Even in the eerie light of the snow-encircled vehicle, I could see his face was pink and healthy, and his enormous shoes were of highly polished black leather.
“What do you do?” he asked.
“Well, my day job, if you like, is teaching at a special school. You know, kids with various disabilities. But I write poetry, I was on my way to read some at the literary festival in your town hall.”
He poured me a cup of steaming coffee. “It’s fresh ground, I grind it myself. It’s got sugar in it, is that OK?”
Well, there wasn’t much I could do about it. “Yes, that’s fine, thank you.”
“My sister Maisie’s an author. Writes romantic stuff for what d’you call ‘em, Mills and Boon. Lot of nonsense!”
“It’s good she’s got a publisher though.”
He hesitated. “You married, John?”
“Me, no, … well, divorced.”
George laughed. “I’m on my third. Dolly her name is, bless her soul. And can you believe she’s a ruddy vegetarian and me a butcher by trade!”
I sipped some coffee. It was delicious. I relaxed, content to listen to this friendly, jovial character. Then he showed me a photograph of a woman. In the dim light, I could see she had long hair, glasses and a pleasant face.
“This is Maisie.”
“She looks nice,” I said out of politeness. It was hard to tell.
“She’s hard done by, John. Her old man, Honza, he’s off on container ships for months at a time. Reckon he’s got birds in ports all over the world. Hardly sees my poor sis.”
“One of them Moravians, you know, Czech.” He took a swig of coffee. “Look, where are you staying tonight?”
“Well, I was thinking I’d find a hotel in St. Olave’s”
He laughed. “There’s only two hotels and they’ll be booked solid with stranded motorists. Look, Maisie runs a ‘bed and breakfast’ not far from the town hall. Why don’t I give her a call and tell her you’ll stay tonight? She’ll keep a room free for you. You could chat about writing, maybe read her some of your poetry.”
“Thanks, George, that sounds good!”
“Oh, look out, John, traffic’s moving up ahead.”
In the distance, we could see lights slowly moving away. I ran back to my car and started the engine. As we slowly motored along in the swirling snow, I realised I had neither Maisie’s address nor phone number.
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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One thought on “In the Van”
Great little tale about ships passing in the night – or in this case cars crashing in the snow! I can so easily see this happening; one minute you’re having a relaxing conversation and the next you’re on the move, forgetting to ask a very important question. Well, if John is resourceful, and I think he is, he’ll find a way to locate Maisie’s bed and breakfast situated not far from town hall. How many could there be? Everything will work out just fine. A charming and entertaining peek into the lives of two strangers passing the time. Well done indeed! ❄️