Freddie Page turned to see Hester Collyer waving at him from behind the barrier. He froze for a moment, wondering why she was here but it had been at least four years since he had last seen her, she surely couldn't expect anything from him after all that time, could she?
He approached her but the smile he gave was hesitant.
"Hes, it's been a long time."
"It has," she grinned. She looked healthy, and happy. He could hardly remember her cheerful, there were too many dark times that had overshadowed his early memories of their relationship.
"What are you doing here, Old Fruit?" he asked.
"I don't know, really. I've been reading about your racing career and when I heard you'd be racing here, I just wanted to come and say 'Hello'. So, Hello."
He smiled. "Did you come alone?"
"I- No, I-"
"Freddie! Laing wants you now," a member of the pit crew said, jogging over to where he stood.
"Can't it wait?" he asked.
"Apparently it's waited, since yesterday lunchtime. Laing said if you don't come now, they'll do it anyway, your approval is just a courtesy."
"All right, fine." Freddie sighed and the crewman headed back the way he'd come. He looked to Hester, unwilling to say goodbye just yet. Things had ended badly between them and if he could talk to her for long enough to know that she was all right, it would salve his conscience. "Did you say you were with someone?"
"Yes, but he's in the bar with his friends. Why?"
"I've got to see the crew manager but you could come with me, if you want."
Her smile widened. "I'd like that."
Even as he helped her over the barrier, he knew this was a bad idea. Terrible, awful, but like so much in his life, he was unable to stop himself. At least he didn't take her hand as he led her to the garage.
Hester looked around with interest as they walked over the race ground concourse, at all the sights and sounds around them. She had never been to a motor race before and she had to admit, it was rather thrilling. The race itself was still hours away, this afternoon, but the place was alive with activity.
She entered the L&D garage and saw two mechanics in overalls by the car and bent over one of the work benches, were another two overalled mechanics. One was side on to her and appeared quite stout, while the other had their back to the door, but he had quite a slight build compared to the others.
"Is there a problem?" Freddie asked as they entered.
The mechanic with the slight build straightened up and turned to them, and Hester realised it was a woman in the overalls, not a man. Her face was ringed by a halo of dark curls, a short for a woman's style but long for a man. She noted Hester's presence but only for a moment.
"I just want to run these changes by you before we do anything." She said in a very refined English accent.
"Very well. This is an old friend of mine, Hester. Hes, this is Cathy Laing," he gestured to the woman, who was obviously the manager the crewman had spoken about. "This is Pete, and that's Archie and Tim over there."
"Pleased to meet you all," Hester smiled at them all.
Cathy Laing gestured with a bob of her head for him to move and he went over to the workbench they were at. Hester stood a few feet behind as Cathy began to point to the blueprints.
"If we use a-" The rest of what the woman said went over Hester's head, something about fuel efficiency and weight reduction. "So, are you happy with that?"
"That all sounds fine," Freddie assured her and with a nod from Cathy, the other three got to work on the car.
"Sorry about that," Cathy said to Hester, wiping her hands on a rag. The rag did little to remove the grease and grime on her hands though, so she shrugged and threw the cloth down. "I would shake your hand but…" she held the palm up as proof that it was too dirty to shake.
"Oh, no, it's fine, really," Hester assured her. "So do you manage this team?"
"For my sins." Cathy grinned and turned to Freddie. "Look, you're not really needed around here for a couple of hours, why don't you two go and catch up, just be back here an hour before the race starts."
"You sure?" Freddie asked.
"Positive. Besides, you'll only get those nice duds greasy," she said with a sly smile. Now that she thought about it, Freddie was the only one here who wasn't in overalls.
Freddie gestured for Hester to leave first and he followed her out.
"Oh and Freddie?" They turned back to see that Cathy was laying on a board with wheels, spanner in hand and it looked as if she was about to manoeuvre under the car. "No drinking before the race."
Freddie saluted her but didn't reply and with an eye roll. Cathy lowered her head and scooted under the vehicle.
Hester and Freddie walked away in silence for a few paces.
"Shall we go to the bar?" Freddie asked. "It's early but they should be open."
"What about not drinking?"
"It's tradition; she always says that, and I always ignore her," he said with a smile. "But I only have one before the race, it helps to calm the nerves."
"All right then." Hester nodded. "So is she a mechanic?" Hester asked
"She is, and a damn good one," Freddie sounded proud.
"How did she…"
"Her father owns L&D Motorcars, it stands for Lang and Daughter. Cathy says he wanted sons and when he didn't get one, he taught her everything he knows. She still probably wouldn't have become an actual mechanic but they supplied vehicles to the army during the war and with so few men around, she enlisted and they put her to work servicing, repairing and fixing L&D trucks."
"And now she manages the racing team."
"It was her idea to get into racing actually, her father was against it but she was sure that if she could win a few races, it would improve sales. Her first year was a bit of a bust, the driver was awful, but we did well last year. She knows what she's doing and she's got the head for it."
"And has it helped sales?"
"It has," Freddie grinned. "Her father's as pleased as punch now, can't stop telling everyone that his daughter designed the car that came in second overall."
"And where do you come in? I thought planes were your thing."
"They were. I wasn't long back from Rio when a friend and I took part in a stock car race, just for fun. Cathy was touring racetracks, looking for a new driver, a diamond in the rough she said, and asked me if I wanted to try out."
"So the same things that make a good pilot make a good race car driver?"
"I suppose, and nerves of steel."
"So you enjoy it then?"
"What's not to enjoy?" he asked. "Fear and excitement, there's nothing like it. It's an irresistible combo."
"You seem happy."
"I am," he smiled.
They had reached the bar near the stands and he held the door open for her.
"You seem happy too," he noted as he followed her inside.
"I am. I, uh, I have a family now."
"You're married?" he asked with a hopeful smile as they paused just inside.
She considered stringing him along, maybe hoping he would flirt with her again; he was still the most attractive man she'd ever met, but deep down she knew she didn't want that kind of love again. She had found a happy medium with Rupert, a man who not only loved but wanted her, and they already had two children.
"I am," she smiled. "That's my husband over there," she pointed tot able to five men. Next to them sat a table of three women, their wives, save for her and one other, who was in bed with the flu.
"Which one?" he asked.
"The one in the blue tie."
"He looks nice," Freddie said. "Almost your age."
"And William offered you a divorce?"
"Um, well, yes, he did, but he died before… well."
"I'm sorry. I know you cared for him."
"I did," she gave him a sad smile.
"Let's get a drink," Freddie suggested.
Hester's smile widened but it was still sad, he was as afraid of emotions as ever.
"What'll you have, Old Fruit?" he asked.
"Just a cordial for me, it's a bit early."
"Your husband's on the hard stuff."
"Yes, but he doesn't drink much as a rule, so where's the harm."
"Oh, I wasn't judging."
"No, of course you weren't."
"What can I get for you?" the barmaid asked as she approached.
"Two lime cordials," Freddie said, bestowing a wonderful smile on the poor girl.
She seemed flustered as Freddie watched her and when she handed his change back, he winked.
"Thanks, sweetheart." He picked the glasses up and turned to Hester. "So, do you want to introduce me to him now or later?"
"He'll come over when he's ready." Hes assured him, so they headed for a separate table, although she did wave at her husband and her friends. "So, was I reading things incorrectly before, are you and Cathy not a couple?"
"Because I flirted with the barmaid?" he asked. "It's nothing, I'm just playing."
"With the barmaid or Cathy?"
"With the barmaid." He grinned. "Cheatings not my natural inclination and besides, I can't risk losing her."
Hester wanted to ask what it was that she had that Hester lacked, but she couldn't bring herself to. That was too much like the old Hester, the one who felt she would die without Freddie.
The bar slowly filled up as they chatted and her husband eventually came over to say hello and invite them to join, which they did. They pushed the wives table closer so both groups were now sitting together.
Hester didn't even notice Cathy enter. Nor did Freddie for a time, it wasn't until he frowned and excused himself that she even realised the other woman was here.
She turned to watch and saw Cathy, now dressed in a black suit and with clean hands, chatting with a suited gentleman and if Hester wasn't mistaken, flirting with him.
Freddie announced his arrival with a hand on Cathy's shoulder. Cathy grinned at Freddie, while the man she was chatting with looked momentarily disgruntled, but soon covered his feelings as Cathy introduced them.
With a quick kiss to Freddie's cheek, Cathy left him there and approached their tables.
"Afternoon," she grinned.
"This is the L&D manager," Hester explained, introducing everyone at the table.
"Pleased to meet you. The pre-race laps are about to start soon and I wondered if you'd like to come watch from the owners area; you get a much better view."
Hester saw her husband's face light up at the prospect.
"We came as a group," Hester answered before he could inadvertently snub their friends. He was a good man but rather insensitive at times.
"You're all welcome," Cathy assured them.
In short order, the other wives opted to stay in the bar, not really being fans of racing, and the husbands and Hester agreed that they would like to accept her offer.
Freddie joined them at that point, draping his arm around Cathy's shoulders and kissing her cheek.
"You need to change and get to the car," she admonished him but she was smiling, seemingly used to having to chide him at times.
"I'm going," he said, holding his hands up in surrender and turning to Hester and her husband. "You should come watch from the owner's area," he suggested.
"I already offered," Cathy assured him. "Now go."
"All right, all right, I'm going." He backed up a few paces then with a jaunty wave, told everyone else he'd see them after the race.
Cathy ran to him before he could get too far and pulling his head down, whispered something that made him gulp and as she pulled away, he gave her a smug smile.
"I'll hold you to that." Then he turned and left.
"Come on. Leave your drinks, we have an open bar." Cathy said as she returned, and they followed her out.
The men soon found a prime spot from which to watch the warm up laps from but Cathy stayed a little apart, and Hester stayed with her.
"What did you say to Freddie in the bar?"
"That practically made his eyes pop out?" Cathy laughed. "I just told him how I'd reward him if he won."
Hester smiled. "And how long have you been together?"
"Almost two years now."
"And, I hope you don't mind me asking, but how do you make it work? Freddie… well, he's rather…"
"His heart is in the right place," Cathy assured her, her eyes on the window, watching the cars whizz by. "The thing with Freddie, is that you can't own him, he's a free spirit and trying to cling to him will make him fight harder to get away."
Hester couldn't deny the truth of that.
"If you love someone, set them free. If they return, they're yours, if they don't, they never were."
"So Freddie's free?" Hester asked.
"Absolutely. He's free to do anything, and anyone, he likes. And I'm free to kick him out of my bed if he does."
"So you're all right with him leaving one day?"
"I wouldn't say I'm all right with it. What I do know is that he always wants what he can't have. He doesn't have me, I won't give him that security, and he knows if he fouls up, I'll move on, leaving him for dust."
"Don't you love him?" Hester asked, and Cathy looked shocked by the question, her attention leaving the track for the first time since the race began.
"Of course I do," she said, giving Hester an incredulous look. "I would never hurt him."
"But you say you can move on so easily. How?"
Cathy relaxed and turned her attention back to the race.
"Losing Freddie would break my heart, but it won't break me. My Dad always told me that people will treat you how you allow them to treat you. I don't allow anyone to disrespect me."
"You make it sound so easy," Hester said with longing.
"I'm lucky," Cathy said with a sad smile. "I think because he wanted a boy, my Dad taught me how much I'm worth; he gave me self-resect and I value myself too much to allow anyone to debase me."
"But what if you want a family? Won't you marry then, isn't that a commitment?"
"I'm not a hundred percent sure I can have a family," Cathy admitted softly. "I got shot in the war, here." She pointed to a spot on her pelvis. "Reduced my chances of having kids by at least half, so I'm okay with it if it doesn't happen, I'm just grateful to be alive. We might still marry, of course, but marriages break down every day. Freddie knows that a piece of paper won't stop me leaving if he's a jerk and thanks to my family's company, I don't have to rely on him for money."
"Surely his being employed by your family ties him to you though, if he loses you, he loses his job."
Cathy laughed. "Oh, please, I'm not that petty. With hardly any training, Freddie finished in second place overall last year, and that's pretty damn amazing. This year we should win, barring any great catastrophes, and this team matters far too much to me to throw away the best driver I've ever seen."
"I wish I had your strength," Hester whispered.
Cathy turned to her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
"I think you're stronger than you realise," she said. "We don't know our strength until we're tested, and everything that doesn't kill us only makes us stronger."
"My dad didn't instil the same self-worth in me though."
"Self-belief alone doesn't make you strong, and it certainly doesn't mean you don't have to fight. I had to fight to be taken seriously in the army, and when I put together a racing team, most applicants laughed their way out of the interview. I was a joke in the national media and my father was just about ready to pull the plug on things at least half a dozen times, but I was just determined to show all the naysayers up and prove them wrong. Nothing worth having in this life comes easy."
"Does he love you?" Hester asked. She could leave happy if Freddie was happy.
"I think so."
"As much as you love him?"
"I think so."
"Doesn't he tell you?" Hester asked.
"Words mean little to me, less than a promise. His behaviour is what I judge on and yes, he acts like he loves me. That means more to me that a thousand 'I love you's."
"I know." Cathy flashed her a conspiratorial smile. " But don't tell him that, he thinks he's the lucky one."