Chapter Six

The weekend flew by. Although I did little with my time - as usual - the two days that I had away from the office seemed to disappear within the blinking of an eye. It seemed that one minute it was Friday evening and the next it was Monday morning.

The temperature had risen continually over the two days I had spent at home. I looked back in the morning papers and noticed that it had been increasing almost uniformly at the rate of one degree centigrade each day and on Monday it had climbed to a staggering twenty-six degrees. The only thing that kept me going through the first long day back at the office was the thought of going out for a cool, relaxing drink that night with Mark. Typically, however, things did not go according to plan and at half-past seven I was still rushing to get ready so that I could pick him up at eight.

My lateness would have normally put me in a bad mood but today, unusually, it did not seem to matter - everything else was going well. Earlier in the day I had telephoned head office. The best part of a week had passed since I had interviewed Samantha and had sent her application up to be processed and I was growing tired of waiting for a decision. Once I had managed to locate the person who was dealing with Samantha's case (and after they had left me hanging on the telephone line for almost a quarter of an hour) they assured me that everything had been agreed and that the agreements which needed to be signed would be waiting on my desk first thing in the morning. I hoped that a couple of drinks tonight would give me enough confidence and the Dutch courage that I would need to be able to ask her out.

As I readied myself to leave, I could not help feeling like a lovesick adolescent about to ask his sweetheart to his first school dance. Since seeing Samantha the previous week, I had thought about her almost constantly and I was having difficulty in trying to keep my burgeoning feelings in perspective. Although I felt as if I knew her well, we had only spent a little time together and I knew that I had to try and stop my excited imagination from running away with itself.

I looked in the wardrobe for something decent to wear and eventually settled on a light T-shirt and a pair of old jeans. Although they were far from fashionable, they were the best clothes I could find which would be comfortable in the searing heat outside. Outside of working hours, I had spent the last week wearing little more than a pair of worn, threadbare shorts and the incredible conditions were starting to become a real worry. It was difficult to believe that it would be November in just over a week's time and I dared not imagine how hot it might be then.

When I arrived at Mark's house, he was sat in the shadows of a downstairs window, waiting impatiently for me. Although I was only fifteen minutes later than planned, he still took every available opportunity to criticise my lack of punctuality.

The drive to our usual pub took only a couple of minutes but, as we approached, we saw that there were many more people there than was normal for a Monday night. I pulled onto the carpark and the light from my headlamps illuminated crowds of drinkers slumped against the walls of the old building.

'Christ,' Mark said. 'We're never going to get served if we stop here.'

I looked around and could not see a single space in the crowded carpark.

'What do you want to do?' I asked.

'We could try somewhere else. I would say we could go back to my place but I really need a drink tonight.'

I reversed the car back onto the road and pointed it back in the direction from which we had just come. I drove back towards my house.

'Want to try the Cheshire Cat?' I asked. It was not our favourite pub but it would do.

'All right,' Mark replied. 'It would have been quicker for you to have walked there!'

He was right - I could see the pub from the back of my house. We were there in a couple of minutes as there was little traffic of any note on the usually busy roads. Thankfully, as I was tired and suddenly very thirsty, there were spaces in the carpark.

The pub's beer garden (which was normally only used on the very hottest of summer days) was full of people. They sat huddled in groups on makeshift seats around improvised tables and basked in bright illumination from security lamps and from the dull electric light which spilled out through windows. I locked the car and we went inside. It was much quieter there and we were served quickly.

'A pint of bitter and a pint of mild,' I said to the barmaid as I dug deep into my pockets in search of money.

I watched as the large, elderly woman shuffled from one end of the bar to the other in a search for empty pint glasses. She put one glass under the bitter pump in front of me and pulled the heavy handle towards her. For a moment thick brown beer surged from the faucet and into the glass before being replaced with spitting, gassy foam. The barmaid looked to the heavens and rested the half-filled glass on the bar.

'Barrel's empty,' she said apologetically. 'I'm sorry, love. I'll have to get it changed.'

She grabbed a passing member of staff by the arm and asked him to take care of the problem. She then moved along to her left and poured Mark's mild from a second, working pump. As soon as his drink was ready and had settled, he took it from the bar and swallowed a large, thirsty gulp. He wiped his mouth dry and looked across at me.

'That's better,' he said. 'Christ, I really needed that.'

'Had a hard week?' I asked.

'No, not really,' Mark replied 'What about you? Anything interesting happened in the last few days?'

I shrugged my shoulders, racking my brain and trying desperately to think of anything that might be of even the slightest interest to my friend. It was an impossible task - the week had, on the whole, been an utter waste of time.

'Nothing really. Just your average week.'

I suddenly remembered the one part of the last seven days which had been worth going to work for and could not help letting a broad smile spread across my face.

'I met an incredible girl though.'

'Oh yes,' Mark said, his interest having quickly been aroused at the mention of the opposite sex.

'She's fantastic,' I continued. 'She's about to go into business, came into the office after some help with her finances. Honestly, she's amazing - young, single and really good looking.'

'And is financial assistance all she's going to get from you?' Mark asked, prompting me for a sexist answer. Before I could reply, there was a tap on my shoulder and I turned quickly around to see Samantha stood in front of me. I panicked and prayed that she had not heard me talking about her.

'Hi, Steve. How are you?' she asked.

I picked up Mark's pint and took a large gulp from it before I could answer.    

'I'm fine. You?'

'Oh, I'm not too bad. Can I get you a drink?'

'Let me get you one,' I mumbled 'I was in the middle of a round anyway.'

Samantha nodded and smiled.

'Okay, I'll have half a lager and lime please.'

I asked the barmaid for the extra drink and, as she was pouring it, a voice floated up from the bowels of the pub cellar which was unintelligible but which was obviously conveying the message that the barrel of bitter had been changed. My pint was finally poured.

Samantha left us for a moment and I watched her as she walked across the room towards a quiet little table, around which sat two men and a woman, all of a similar age to her. My heart sank as I assumed the obvious (that she was with one of the men) and Mark looked at me with an expression on his face which seemed to be trying to say, 'better luck next time'.

Sam returned and took her drink from me.

'Do you want to come and join us?' she asked.

With the fear that my heart was about to be broken growing more and more intense with each passing moment, I tried to politely decline her invitation.

'We wouldn't want to intrude,' I said, meekly.

'Don't worry, you won't,' she replied. 'It's just my cousin and a couple of his university mates.'

I felt myself relax and I was sure that my sudden relief must have been clearly visible.

'To be honest,' Samantha continued, 'I'll be glad of a little company. All I've heard all night is what a great time they're having at college and how I've missed out by not going. It's starting to get tedious.'

'They're right, you know. It is good,' Mark said.

'Oh, I'm sorry,' I interrupted, remembering that I had not introduced him to Samantha. 'This is Mark, he lectures at the university so he would say that!'

'I'm pleased to meet you,' he said, smiling broadly.

'Mark, this is Samantha, the one I've...'

'...the one you've been telling me about,' he interrupted.

I took an embarrassed sip from my pint and we followed Sam as she walked over to the table where her friends waited. They looked up as we approached.

'This is Mark and Steve.' she said to her companions. She turned to me and introduced them. 'This is Claire, Daniel and Tom.'

We sat down. Mark sat in the place where Samantha had been sitting before we had arrived and that meant that I was left sitting opposite her at the far end of the table. Mark immediately struck up a conversation with his fellow academics and, to my delight, that left me free and alone to talk to Sam

'Have you heard if everything's been agreed?' she asked. 'I don't want you to think that I'm being pushy or anything, it's just that I need to know so that I...'

'Don't worry,' I interrupted. 'Everything's fine I spoke to head office this afternoon and they've assured me that all the forms will be waiting on my desk in the morning. Can you come up and sign them?'

'I can't,' she replied with a look of real disappointment on her face. 'I've got workmen in the shop all day tomorrow and I'd rather not leave them there on their own.'

'That's all right,' I said, trying desperately to think of a solution to our problem. I had been counting on seeing Samantha again. I suddenly had an idea. 'I could bring them over to you in my lunch hour, if that's all right.'

'Could you?' she wondered excitedly. 'God, that would be brilliant.' She thought for a moment. 'Isn't it a bit out of your way though?'

It was, but I could not let her know that.

'Not really,' I lied.

'I'll make something to eat, shall I? We can celebrate.'

I smiled and nodded approval and, as I looked once more into Samantha's deep and mesmerising eyes, she reached out across the table and gently squeezed my hand.

The evening progressed enjoyably. Mark was content to sit and talk to Samantha's friends while I was more than happy to relax and talk to Sam herself. I was equally pleased that she seemed just as happy to spend her time with me.

The table which we were gathered around was next to a little window, the lead-lined panes of which were open wide but offered virtually no respite from the suffocating heat. Occasionally, a light breeze fluttered into the room but, other than that, the night was still and humid. From my position at the end of the table I could see little outside other than the tops of the roofs of the buildings across the street and the moon burning brightly in the cloudless evening sky.

We had talked for a good hour (which had seemed to have only taken a few minutes to pass) and both Samantha and I had learned a lot about each other. The questions had not needed to be asked directly, instead we had willingly volunteered information to each other. I felt as if I subconsciously wanted her to know everything about me. Sam had been telling me about her plans to get a mortgage and to buy a home of her own when we were interrupted.

'...and then, once I've got the business really going,' she said, 'I'll be looking to try and find a little...' she stopped talking suddenly.

Through the open window, a hot and heavy wind started to blow indoors. The people gathered around tables and those sitting outside in the carpark quickly became quiet, and a deathly hush settled on the whole building as the jukebox stopped playing. The lights flickered and dimmed.

For a moment the air was choking and inescapably hot. I struggled to look through the tiny window and see what was happening outside but it was difficult from my awkward vantage point at the end of the table. I watched the sky above the pub and saw that it had slowly begun to change colour. As every pair of eyes in the crowded building strained to look skywards, we watched as the darkness of the sky melted away to become a muddy-red, an ember orange and then a yellow-white. Once the heavens had reached that colour, they worked their way back through the various shades until, moments later, they were back to their normal hue. The wind died, the lights brightened and then, after a second's silence, the jukebox began to play its thumping music again. Apart from the music, no-one else dared make a sound.

Mark was the first to speak

'Shit,' he said, simply.

'It was just like last week,' Sam's cousin Daniel said. 'Scary.'

The conversation ended as quickly as it had begun while we all paused to gather our thoughts and try and comprehend what we had just witnessed. Although I could not speak for any of the others, the heat and light had shaken me to the core and I was glad of the couple of drinks that I had had earlier to calm my nerves. It was not so much fright, it was more a sense of bewilderment and the lack of any warnings or explanations which had combined to unnerve me.

'Someone at work said that might happen,' Mark commented quietly. 'He said there could be more as well.'

'What was it though?' Daniel asked.

He shrugged his shoulders.

'I don't know. I don't think anybody knows.' He thought for a moment and ran his fingers nervously through his hair before speaking again. 'There are a few people at the university who are starting to get worried about what's been happening.'

I had been staring deep into the bottom of my glass and I looked up to see that all the faces around the table were fixed in Mark's direction. He seemed uncomfortable and looked at each of us in turn as he continued to speak.

'I've heard it said that things are going to get worse before they get any better.'

Mark swilled the dregs of his beer around in the bottom of his glass before drinking them down and wiping his mouth. I glanced anxiously across the table at Samantha and she returned my concerned expression. She shuffled to sit upright in her seat and, as she did, her foot rested against my leg. I was glad that she kept it there and did not move away - to feel her body next to mine was welcome and comforting.

A bell rang out and the landlord of the pub yelled for last orders in a deep, gruff voice. In an instant, the bemused quiet which had been so very evident in the building was replaced with sudden, frenzied activity as people rushed towards the bar to buy one final, nerve-settling drink. Mark nudged my arm.

'We'd better make a move, mate,' he whispered. 'I've got a busy day tomorrow.'

I nodded and stood to move away from the table. Samantha also got up and walked over to me.

'See you about half past one tomorrow?' she asked.

'Is that all right?' I replied rhetorically.

'It's fine,' she said. 'I'm looking forward to it.'

'I'll help take our minds off all of this,' I said, gesturing outside.

Sam smiled and I moved towards her and out of the way so that Mark could get past. Had we been alone, I would have kissed her goodnight but the presence of our friends managed to diminish the self-confidence that the little alcohol which I had consumed had built up within me.

'It was nice to have met you all,' Mark said to those who remained seated around the table. 'We'll have to do it again sometime, when it gets a little warmer perhaps!'

I shook my head in disbelief at my companion's bizarre sense of humour as he walked past Samantha and myself towards the exit. I said goodbye to Sam's friends before turning back to say goodnight to her.

'See you tomorrow then,' I said, not really wanting to leave. Mark and I walked out towards the carpark but, before we had even reached the door to leave the building, I could not stop myself from turning around and looking at Sam once more.

I felt as if I was floating on air as we staggered back to the car. Ignorant of the muggy heat and of Mark's tedious conversation, all that I could think of was the beautiful girl that I had just left.

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