As I drove down the muddy track the thunderstorm broke, the car went out of control and I lurched into the ditch.
The satnav had broken a few miles back, and travelling to this rural part of Devon to my new job was turning out to be a nightmare. The rain lashed across the windscreen like a wave from the sea, blanking out the world. As I revved the engine in the ‘drive’ gear, the wheels span and I was going nowhere. All I could see in the rear-view mirror was a torrent of Devon’s bright red mud churned up by the back wheels that were spinning uselessly.
Not for the first time I wondered if it had been a good idea to accept this post in the back of beyond. Everything had gone wrong so far, from my streaming flu that had started two days ago, to the flat tyre earlier on the journey. Now at midnight, six hours later than expected, I was stuck in a ditch in the worst thunderstorm I can ever remember in my life.
My phone had run out of battery. I was hungry and tired and couldn’t stop coughing, and my sore throat was burning. Plus it was freezing cold in the car.
There was only one thing to do: fight my way outside and see if I could find somewhere to seek shelter – or at least a house with a phone, so I could summon help.
I pushed the car door open against the the lashing rain, staggered into the road and was instantly drenched. Undaunted, I plodded along for a few yards, searching the horizon for lights, to see anywhere the was inhabited. Finally, after a ten-minute walk, when I was on the point of collapse, I saw a light in the distance, and shuffled towards it.
Down a lane to the right I found the tiny cottage with a light in its window. In the rain it was hard to see details, but I got the impression of an old house with a thatched roof. I knocked on the door, praying that someone was in.
After a long time it was opened a crack.
“Yes? Who is it?” said the young woman, whose face I could just make out: a narrow forehead and a grim set to the wide mouth.
“My car’s broken down and I’m stranded,” I appealed to her. “Could I use your phone? Please, I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’m in real trouble. Please!” I was taken over by a fit of coughing, and I leaned against the doorframe.
“Of course, come in, come in, poor you,” the lady said, opening the door wide and ushering me inside. When I saw her face I could see that she was actually strikingly attractive, indeed quite beautiful. I also noticed that one eye was blue and the other was brown. Her eyes were quite captivating actually, and I was instantly bewitched by them.
She led me into her living room, and helped me take off my coat. The roaring log fire was more welcome than I could have imagined, and when she offered me something to eat I refused, because my throat was so sore I couldn’t have swallowed anything.
“I’m sorry but the phone lines are down,” she apologised.
I assumed for some reason she didn’t want me to use her mobile, but I was past caring. I couldn’t face going back out into the storm to meet an RAC man anyway, in fact I could barely move, my cold was so bad.
“You must stay the night,” she insisted. “You’ll catch your death if you go out in the cold again. I can make up a bed here, on the sofa.”
“Thank you so much.”
The lady had introduced herself as Molly, and she started talking to me.
“I’m so glad you came,” she began. “To be honest, tonight is the hardest night of my life. I really didn’t want to be alone. Earlier today I was told that my husband had died. I’ve just been sitting here ever since, stunned, unsure what to do.”
“How awful, and I’m imposing on you at a time like this—”
“No really , I mean it! I’m glad you’re here. If you hadn’t come I’m not sure if I could have resisted taking all the tablets I’ve got in the house. You see, without Walter my life really has no meaning. I was going to end it all, but now I know that would have been wrong. He wouldn’t have wanted me to do it. Walter was always kind, always thinking of other people. . . ”
She went on for hours, telling me about Walter. How they’d met, what a fine man he was, how brave, how decent, how kind he was to her. She didn’t go into how he had been killed, and I didn’t like to ask. She was so upset, crying every now and again, that I felt it was wrong to interrupt her flow, and it seemed as if she really wanted to talk to someone, even a stranger like me.
I don’t remember falling asleep, or even how I came to be on the sofa, without my raincoat, but otherwise fully dressed. But I woke up to full daylight and the sunlight streaming into the room. I got up and went into the tiny hallway, and called out. But no one answered.
My flu seemed to be a bit better too. I went upstairs, looking for my kind host, but I couldn’t find her anywhere.
I went out of the front door, and looked out to see a fine sunny day. Taking a final tour of the house, I concluded that she must have gone out. I found a scrap of paper in my pocket and left a note, thanking her for her kindness, and wishing her well.
Then I went out again and ten minutes later found my car. It started, and with a bit of careful toing and froing, with low engine revs, I managed to get back onto the road.
To my delight it seemed as if Nether Bottom, the village where I’d been headed for my new job, was only a couple of miles away, and I drove there, feeling refreshed, and, for the first time in days, I wasn’t coughing, nor was my throat sore.
The Fairlawns Home for the Elderly was a quaint Victorian manor house set in several acres of beautiful countryside and I reached the huge semi circular front drive, parked and got out and entered the imposing doorway.
Albert Chinnery, the director, welcomed me at the reception desk, taking my bags and chattering away.
“Well Dr Somerville, it’ll be nice to have another resident medical director. We all miss dear old Dr Hathaway, hasn’t been the same here since he retired,” Albert said as we began our rounds, meeting the elderly residents. “We get the occasional emergency, but mostly it’s managing ongoing problems, sorting out drugs and so on. It’s a happy place, I always think. I’ve always enjoyed working here, and we’re a friendly team.”
As we turned a corner, one of the doors of the private rooms was firmly closed.
“Ah.” Albert looked unhappy, taking the key from his pocket, unlocking the door and leading me into the room. “I meant to tell you downstairs. I’m afraid we had a death in the early hours. The storm was so bad the roads were closed so we couldn’t get an ambulance out. I hope you don’t mind officially declaring her dead and filling in the forms? Horrible thing to ask you on your first day, I’m very sorry.”
We walked inside the room and I looked at the body of the little old lady in the bed.
“Molly was very frail and I’m afraid she suddenly took a turn for the worse. Sweet old soul, everyone liked her. In fact she lived a stone’s throw away from here for most of her life. Apparently her husband was killed in the Second World War, and she never got over it. She always told this story about how on the night he died, she’d decided to kill herself but this stranger came to stay in her house, and he gave her the will to go on living. She never forgot that man, she even tried to find out who he was, but she never did. And it was strange. She never even knew his name.”
I stepped closer and looked at the old lady. No one had yet closed her eyes, and with a shock I saw that one of them was brown and the other was blue.
I even recognised how beautiful her face still was, despite the ravages of time.
And as I looked down at her dead face it looked as if she gave me one last smile.