Christine was stuck in the mud.
It was dark, and cold, and she was standing, shivering, outside her car on the side of some godforsaken, anonymous, winding forest road. She pursed her lips and blew a flyaway curl away from her forehead, took a deep breath to steady herself, and then quickly shone her torch down at her rickety little red Mirage for what must have been the tenth time in as many minutes. Each time Christine surveyed the car’s predicament, it was an unpleasant shock, but of course not a surprise. Similar to when one knew there was nothing but expired milk and a half-frozen head of iceberg lettuce in the fridge, but continued to check it anyway, in the vague hope that something delicious might spontaneously appear. Sadly, a solution to this problem had yet to spontaneously appear. The car, which had been on its last legs even before Christine unwittingly drove it to its doom, was firmly planted in at least a foot of thick, oozing mud, twigs, and leaf matter.
Christine shuddered as a freezing wind effortlessly swept through her fraying green coat, and cast her eyes up to the tall trees above her, which were swaying eerily in the gloom. She couldn’t help a flutter of panic rising in her, was anyone else likely to be coming by here at this hour? She wasn’t overly familiar with the area. It was approaching 10 pm, and Christine quietly cursed herself. She should never have left it this late to leave; her destination, a tiny coastal town called Wemberly was barely a two hour drive from the little flat she and her father had been renting in a poorer area of Greater London, but amongst urgent last-minute changes to packing decisions, final phone calls and drop-ins from some teary University friends, (and let’s face it, a mini-breakdown from the general stress of the whole messy situation) Christine had left significantly later than planned.
And now she was here. Stuck in the dark and the cold and the mud.
As if to taunt her, the mud under the front right wheel of the Mirage gurgled suddenly and the damned car lurched several inches deeper into the mire.
“No…no, no no! Why are you making this worse!?” Christine cried out, grasping awkwardly at the side of the car, attempting to halt its decent, succeeding only in losing her balance and slipping suddenly, arms flailing in a futile attempt for balance. Her landing was soft, thankfully, but the cold, wet, squelching mud quickly started to seep through her worn out jeans and tatted shoes.
I guess things could be worse, Christine thought dully.
She tried several times in vain to get up, but the mud was slippery and sucked at her limbs as she tried to free them, and she couldn’t seem get enough grip on anything to heave herself up. Her muddy fingers slipped helplessly on the back door of the car. Cursing, Christine felt hot tears of frustration start to slide down her cheeks and gave up for a moment, simply sitting and fuming.
A screeching car suddenly rounded the bend and hurtled towards Christine.
“THINGS ARE WORSE”, She shrieked out loud to no one in particular, but thankfully the car shuddered to a halt several metres in front of her.
Christine exhaled, heart hammering. Shakily, she wiped the now cold tears from her eyes, past caring that her hands were covered with the black gooey sludge which on her face now resembled some sort of tribal markings. The car door slammed and the crunching of heavy boots on the gravel road filled the silence, as the silhouette of a man appeared in front of the light from his maddeningly bright headlights. Christine put up a hand to shield herself from the light.
They observed each other in silence for a moment.
Tall. Extremely tall. Or was it just because she was on the ground looking up at him? Skinny too, almost skeletal, and wearing a long trench coat that fell to his knees. Dark hair, dark, furrowed brows, and- was that a mask? Christine squinted, and concluded that it was. A white mask, with long, angular features, made even more severe by the harsh shadows cast by the car lights behind him.
Christine realised she was gawking.
The man didn’t move or speak and she guessed he was gawking too.
She did look pretty bloody ridiculous, she realised, suddenly conscious of the itchy streaks of mud down each cheek from where she had wiped her tears. And of her car behind her, clearly bogged, not exactly advertising her abilities behind the wheel. And of her person, of course, sitting cross-legged in a muddy ditch.
Sadly, Christine reminisced, she had in fact been caught looking more ridiculous. (Christmas 2014, two false beards, an adventurous breast and a carton of eggnog.)
The stranger appeared to be too astonished by the situation in front of him to speak, so Christine figured she would get the conversational ball rolling.
“Well, um, hi-”.
“Why on earth are you sitting in the mud?” The tall masked man said, at the same time.
Christine gawped at the absurdity of such a question, noting on some lesser level of awareness that his voice was, well…rather startlingly attractive, almost sensually low and resonant.
On a much more conspicuous level, however, she was all too aware that he sounded like a bit of a twat.
“Funnily enough, I’m not actually here by choice.”
He stared at her for another few moments as if she was insane.
“In the past-” he lifted up his arm to glance at his wrist watch, “Twenty-four seconds, you’ve made no effort to remove yourself from the ground. Despite being, from what I can observe, nearly saturated with mud.”
Bloody hell. She hadn’t expected a warm cup of cocoa and a blanket, but some basic bloody manners and maybe an, “Are you alright?”, would have been appreciated.
What an arsehole.
“Now I think of it,” Christine said, gritting her teeth and finally finding the strength to clamber up out of the mud- though she did slip again and he reached out automatically as if to steady her, but she was pissed and cold and muddy and he wasn’t helping and so she swatted his hand away angrily, “ That may in fact be because some… madman just recently decided to hurtle down this road and nearly plough into me, and I think a bit of paralysing shock is a fairly normal reaction to a near-death experience, actually!”
He retracted his hand quickly, and scowled at her.
“I’d hate to make any rash judgements,” he began with a sort of mock politeness, “But the state of your vehicle at the present time is not exactly providing a glowing review of your own driving abilities.”
She jutted out her chin, not really having a comeback, having thought the same thing not moments ago.
“You… were definitely exceeding the speed limit!” She eventually said lamely.
He ignored this, and did not break eye contact with her.
“What are you doing in the ditch?”
“I saw a deer. I swerved. Only problem was, there was a muddy trench waiting for me.”
“Because you were going too fast to simply decelerate?” He cocked his visible eyebrow.
She glared at him.
There was a moment of tense silence and then they both spoke at once.
“Now you listen here buddy, it’s been a long day-”
“I have a rope in the car.”
Fury turned to fear in an instant.
“What?” She said shrilly. Did this strange masked man intend to strangle her and bury her body in the woods?
“A rope… which I will use to tow you out of the mud.” He said slowly, as if conversing with the very young, or mentally challenged. “Or were you planning on staying there all night?”
“No, I- yes, uh, thanks, I guess.” She said, irritated by his tone, but definitely requiring his help.
He walked back to his car, opened the trunk and rummaged for a moment before extracting a long, sturdy looking rope. After watching him fasten each end of the rope to her back bumper and his front- carefully and with a kind of annoying precision- they each stepped into their respective cars, Christine wincing as she drenched her poor car seat in mud.
As it turns out, extracting a car from the mud can be extremely tricky business, and consequently, cause tempers to run high.
“You are reversing too impatiently!” He yelled out of the front window of his car. Christine could barely hear him over the awful sounds of the two engines straining, and mud splattering against her windscreen. “You have to do it slowly- there is no friction at the moment, you are just kicking up more mud! No, that’s exactly what I said not to do, that’s not slowly! Christ!”
“I’m not an idiot!” She snarled. “I am reversing ‘slowly’- you need to pull harder!”
“Oh, you aren’t?” He snapped back. “You had me fooled. Can you smell that? Those are my very expensive tires burning from the strain of trying to get you out. I can’t pull harder. No, not that slowly- there is a medium, you need to find it.”
“Oh, your ‘very expensive tires.’” She mocked him, a stray curly tendril of hair falling onto her now clammy brow. She brushed it away angrily. “I’m so sorry my accident is inconveniencing your-”
“Accident?’ He echoed incredulously, “You’re completely unhurt! And also, quite remarkably ungrateful for the person I’m wasting my time and money bailing out of a mess she walked into head first herself!”
At that moment the strains on each of the engines lessened slightly, and slowly, achingly, the red Mirage began to emerge from its boggy prison, and back onto the road.
“Well, thanks.” Christine said stiffly from inside the car, as the masked man climbed out of his seat, engine still running, to untie the rope joining their vehicles.
“Just start driving so we can both be done here as soon as bloody possible.” He said, angrily.
“Oh, come on.” Christine snapped. “You could at least say ‘you’re welcome’ and make this slightly less unpleasant than it already is for us both.”
“Well, you’re not welcome, actually. This encounter with you has been astonishingly unpleasant.” He said bluntly, winding up the rope into a neat bundle.
“ ‘Astoundingly unpleasant?’” She cried in disbelief. “Well screw you, I think your entire personality can be summed up as ‘astoundingly unpleasant’?”
“In that case,” He snarled, the neat, tight bundle of rope becoming slightly less neat and tight as he shook it in his fist, “ Next time, I’ll just take the longer route home and leave you to sort out your own driving incompetency issues on your own, fair?”
“Driving incompetency?” She shrieked, nearly catapulting herself out of the car window to yell at him. “You arsehole, you could have killed me! I can’t believe my luck right now! That of everyone in the world who might have been on the road to help me tonight… and I had to get you! ”
“You should consider yourself bloody lucky to have seen me; no one drives around these parts at this time of night. You’d have frozen in the cold if I hadn’t found you.” He growled.
“Potentially a more desirable fate.” She spat. “And, the words “lucky” and “to see you” should never be used in the same sentence.”
He was really pissed off now; he whirled around and stalked back to his car, throwing the rope into the back seat, before slamming the door behind himself as he slipped behind the wheel.
And they both drove off, fuming.
Which would have been infinitely less awkward if they had not just so happened to be going in the exact same direction for almost the entire remaining thirty-minute journey.
Mrs Anna Valerius, an old friend of Christine’s father and aspiring nonagenarian, answered her door remarkably quickly for a woman of her age. The chime of the doorbell had not even completely finished its melody- Greensleeves- before the old woman had flung the door open, and thrust herself into Christine’s arms.
“Ooft!” Christine was pushed back slightly with the force of the woman who did not even make it up to her belly button in height. Her hair was in curlers and her glasses were slightly askew as she pulled back to survey Christine with her enormous bulging eyes. The view could not be too fantastic from down there, Christine thought, slightly self-consciously, as she was creating several additional chins just to look at the tiny woman.
“Christine, darling! Why on earth are you covered in mud? And why are you so late? It’s nearly eleven!”
Christine laughed awkwardly. “Car trouble, Mrs Valerius, I’m so sorry I’m late.”
“It’s not a problem, dear. I’m just glad you are ok. Well, we must get you into the bath first thing!”
“I will…I don’t want to get any mud on your carpets. It’s lovely to see you.”
“And you, dearie, and I’m glad it’s under slightly happier circumstances than the funeral.”
Christine became suddenly tense and attempted to change the subject. “Thanks so much for agreeing to have me, Mrs Valerius!”
“Darling, of course! Gustave was a wonderful man, but finances were never his forte and I know how difficult it must have been for a young student to support herself in London. Utterly unliveable, that city, you will be much happier in the countryside.”
Anna Valerius’ voice became softer and she gave Christine a gentle side-hug. “Everything is going to work out for you dear, I promise. I know it might not feel like it right now, but things always work out in the end. And you know, it will be nice for this lonely old woman to have some company in the house, as well!”
These words of comfort and gentle mothering brought a lump to Christine’s throat, which she tried to swallow down. Now was not the time for tears. That could come later when she was tucked away in bed. Now was the time to be led through the old familiar house she had spent many holidays in as a child, to the bath. The house was small and cramped, more so than she remembered, but in a charming way. The walls were a soft pink colour, decorated with watercolour artwork of woods and rivers, and numerous black and white photographs. There was even one of Christine herself, she remembered, in the living room, though she was only a baby. It was one of the few photos of Christine with her father and mother.
After her bath, and after Mrs Valerius had insisted on taking and washing her muddy clothes, despite Christine’s protests that she could do it herself in the morning, she gave Christine a tour of the renovations she had done to the house since Christine had been there last. The main change was one room…
“This is my pride and joy- the TV room!” Completely out of place in the rest of the old-fashioned little house, was an enormous plasma television. An exercise mat lay on the floor, along with several exercise balls, weights, towels and what looked like hundreds of fitness DVDs, a hefty percentage of which appeared to be martial arts. Playing on the screen at that moment was what Christine thought looked like a Zumba class led by a man with heavy facial hair and wearing extremely tight pants.
“I do love keeping fit and healthy!” The tiny, grey-haired lady beamed up at Christine.
“I can see that!” Christine said, impressed. Well, apparently the secret to a long, healthy life was tight-tights and tai kwon do.
“You’re going to love living in Wemberly, dearie.” Mrs Valerius said, leading Christine up the rickety stairs and into the second floor of the house. “I’m certain, such pretty woods and the sea is freezing of course this time of year but in the summer, it’s very swimmable, very swimmable, such a beautiful, tiny town, a lovely community, there’s a little church choir I thought you might like to join, it’s run by a dear friend of mine, Madeline Chevalier, absolutely delightful woman and I’ve already spoken to her and she says she would simply love to have you- and that you would be a welcome relief from all the fusty old bores who make up the choir- oh she’s a cheeky one Madeline, don’t tell her I told you she said that!”
“Oh.” Christine blinked. “Yes, sure, I guess, I’d love to.”
A community choir, Christine thought, intrigued. It hadn’t even occurred to Christine that she might still pursue music in Wemberly, in any capacity other than singing opera sadly to herself in the bath. She had been more or less resigned to living out her days working at the depressing part-time job she had manage to snag working at the town’s childcare centre, filling her days by collecting cats and drinking tea. Christine wondered if joining the choir would help to ease the blow of having to drop out of her place at the Royal College of Music, or make it worse by tantalizing her with the dreams she had had that would now never be realised. A significant step down from the College (Christine was disgusted with herself for the snooty thought). And yet…surely any practise of music could only bring her happiness?
Mrs Valerius stopped at one of the many rooms of the house, bringing Christine out of her reverie and into the present.
“And this is your bedroom, we had it renovated too, actually, only months before poor Thomas passed away, rest his soul, he was the love of my life you know, but one soldiers on…”
Christine had only hazy memories of Mrs Valerius’ husband, a tall, quiet man with a friendly smile. She vaguely recalled that he used to go fishing at the seaside with her father on the Daaé holiday trips. Sometimes Christine would go with them and play in the ocean.
She appreciated Thomas’ renovations, anyway. The bedroom was charming and cosy, the walls were painted a soft blue colour, and a large queen bed sat in the centre of the room with an enormous patchwork quilt draped over it. Each square of the quilt had been embroidered with variously coloured kittens. And sitting on the bed were two giant ginger tom cats.
“Oh yes, this is Gerald and Joel.”
Christine gave the cats a little pat.
“Well, it’s getting late dearie, and I know you start the new job tomorrow…you had better get your beauty sleep for the kiddies.”
“Thank you so much, Mrs Valerius.” Christine said, dragging her trunk into the corner of the room and starting to unpack. “Goodnight.”
One of the cats got up to stroke his chin against her hand. Christine sneezed about five times in quick succession. So, allergies were to become a part of her life now.
But, they didn’t bother her for long. After the long, stressful day, Christine fell into a peaceful sleep almost as soon as her heard hit her pillow.