A Short Story by Nasir Ali Hussain
He was driving from London to Somerset. When Barry Naylor had got into his red Ford Cortina that morning the sky had been silver, blue and gold. It had begun to rain as soon as he got off the A40 for the motorway towards the west country and had been raining heavily for the last hour. He was tired, maybe even a little annoyed as well. The windscreen wipers would make a heavy ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh’ sound as they slashed mercilessly away at the rain. The front window would clear up for a second or two and then thick drops of rain would trickle down the front window again in multitudinous determined streaks and slivers.
A happy-go-lucky toe tapper of a song by some new pop group called A-Ha had just been playing over the car radio. He had played guitar in a band once, but it went nowhere fast, and he quickly realised he was an appreciator rather than a maker of music. Popular music seemed to be all synthesisers and drum machines now. Instruments like proper drums and bass guitars were taking a backseat to Lin drums and Roland Keyboards, but he liked this little tune. The weather had robbed him of his full pleasure from his virgin listen to the song. It was 11.am or thereabouts. He knew this because Nino Rota’s compelling love theme from the 1968 Franco Zaffereli film version of Romeo and Juliet had just started to play over the radio to herald the popular show ‘Our Tune’ and Simon Bates deep, sonorous voice came over the airwaves.
“Ba da da da. They met, they fell in love, da da da daaa, they spoke about getting married… but one week before they were to be married he told her that he had something important to tell her…. And then, it went very, very wrong.”
The trace of a tight, sly smile crept across Barry’s face. He loved this show, but for all the wrong reasons.
He was on the last stretch of the large road before coming into the town of Nether Stowey when he saw her and slowed down. She was standing at a lonely, nondescript bus stop not far from a bend in the road. There was nothing to be seen besides the road but the greenery of shrubs and trees. The nearest houses were at least a hundred yards away. And there were only three of those as far as he could tell. She wore a long, black coat that came almost down to her ankles revealing a pair of purple colored bell bottoms underneath. Her pale, white face was framed by long, straight black hair that flowed down her sides like dark rivulets and there was a headband with a ringlet of tiny rose flowers on her head. She stood with her hands clenched at her sides. Water dripped from her head and shoulders like the weather meant nothing to her. He drove ahead for a few seconds, then brought the car to a halt. The engine made purring sounds like a relaxed jungle cat while he decided what to do.
“Cor blimey,” he said to himself like he we actually talking to a second person in the car. He had given a sort of involuntary gasp as he had drawn close and caught proper sight of her face. She had very large turquoise eyes, wide red lips and a perfectly formed straight nose that was neither large nor small. He momentarily marvelled at the wonderful symmetry of her face.
He hurriedly checked himself in the front mirror. His light brown hair was neatly combed, his blue eyes were not so tired looking from driving. His nose wasn’t running and his blue Aran jumper and grey Farah trousers were neat and pressed. “Right, time to move it or lose,” he thought popping a Polo mint into his mouth. He reversed back, paused at the bus stop and lowered the window on the passenger’s seat. “It’s a strange sight to see someone standing at such a lonely bus stop in this kind of weather. I’m even surprised to see a bus stop here,” he said smiling like a used car salesman.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” she said almost imperceptibly as her lips hadn’t seemed to move and her body also seemed to stand rock still against the angry weather without seemingly moving an inch.”
“Don’t you have an umbrella? You must be cold, standing there soaking like that.” Barry said, almost having to shout above the din of the rain and what seemed to be a coming storm.
“I’m always cold,” she said looking blankly at him as the rain dripped off her and formed a small puddle at her feet.
He looked at her again and she stared back without blinking. She seemed roughly the same age as him, give or take a year or two, around her mid-twenties, but definitely under thirty.
“Can I give you a lift?” He said. “I’m heading into Nether Stowey, but I can drop you where you like.”
“I’d like that. I’d like that a lot. It’s been a long time,” she added with a smile that exposed a set of wonderfully white teeth.
“It’s been a long time since what?” He asked.
“Since I’ve been in a car,” she said in her soft voice that curiously had very little of the West country accent in it.” he reached over and unlocked the car door to let her in. She sat down, said thank you and looking straight ahead said, “Can you drop me off just as we near Nether Stowey?” He gave her a wink, turned his key in the ignition and they were off with a mighty roar.
The wheels spun in silence for a while, with only the sound of the rain and the windscreen wipers to accompany them.
“I like your hippy look, very retro,” he said.
“Retro?” She said, looking at the disappearing road in front of them.
“Yeah, retro,” he smiled at her, turning to look at her for an instant. “Christ, she’s beautiful,” he thought to himself, “poor girl probably doesn’t even know the meaning of the word retro.”
“I’ve never been here before, but I’m going to be here for a few days to spend some time with my dad. He had a stroke a few weeks ago and I’m here to spend some time with him. I’m coming up from London,” he said venturing the information without being asked. She said nothing, just sat there with her hands in her lap and gave a slight nod to convey she’d heard.
Before long they reached the outskirts of the village, he could see archaic looking houses and shops and, in the distance, the Quantocks Hills. It was here that she asked to be let out.
She got out of the car and began to walk away, seemingly back in the direction they had come from when he was suddenly seized by a strange, unfamiliar impulse.
“Wait!” he shouted at her departing figure. She turned around and stood looking at him with that same odd, unblinking manner. “Yes?”
“Look, I’m going to be here for a few days and I don’t know anybody else. How about you meeting me tomorrow and we go somewhere nice? Go on, say yes. It’ll mean a lot to me. You can show me around and we can have a gay old time as the Flintstones used to sing.What do you say?”
She laughed and almost at that exact moment the rain seemed to stop and the sun came out. She bit her lip and looked hard at him.
“I say yes.”
“Where shall I pick you up?”
“Meet me at the bus stop tomorrow at 7 o’clock tomorrow evening?”
He nodded, all eagerness. “What’s your name?”
“Alright then Penelope, see you tomorrow at seven,” he said with a wide grin and spun off with the radio turned up before she could change her mind.
It was always a wonder to him as to why his dad, Roy, had moved to Somerset ten years ago. Roy’s wife and Barry’s mother had died almost fifteen years ago and it had completely taken the wind out of his dad’s sails. Externally at least, he had always been a laugh and soul of the party type, but the passing of his wife left a deep hole in him that only seemed to get bigger with time and absence. Roy had never tried to meet anyone new. He would chat about her to anybody who would listen or pore through the photo album when he was alone- which was a lot of the time. Or listen to their favourite songs like “If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot or “Feelings” by Matt Monroe. It was a steep incline from what he had once been. Roy had set up his own self employed business in tune with the spirit of the entrepreneurial time and away from the workaday world of larger 1970s management man types. He had taken up golf too when he felt he had sufficiently gone up in the world. It was a world away from his days as a long distance lorry driver in the 1960s.
Roy had been involved in an accident in this part of the world back in 1968. He had packed in the long distance lorry driving after a serious incident on the road landed him in court. He was too full of guilt and remorse over the poor girl he had mown down. He was lucky not to have gone inside over what had happened, especially if they had checked his alcohol levels at the time. In time he got over it and focused his energies on three things; his business, his family and golf. Roy was an obsessive golfer and seemed to treat it as another form of work. Barry recalled him standing in the living room perfecting his swing. “I’ve got it,” he would say with a fist raised in the air. On Saturday at 12 he would come in with a face like thunder.
“Oh, did you lose ha ha?” Barry would say. “Mum, dad lost again.”
“Did he now?” She would answer from the kitchen.
“Shut it…”…Roy would go to the fridge, take a beer and pour it into a glass. He would down it in 4 seconds flat, burp slightly and march upstairs until the evening sulking.
He would try to teach Barry golf too and complain when he did not follow the exact instructions.”The grip is vital. If the grip slips, all is lost.”
Learning golf with him was torture for Barry. Looking back he could see that Roy meant well for the family in everything he tried. But there was always something solitary about him when he was not performing for the public. It was as if everything depended on him and his ability to do something and if others did not do as he said he would warn of dangers and ruin. The good side were the rewards and the constant striving for security and providing, as well as keeping up with trends in cars and holidays abroad.
Roy was one of the first tourists to Majorca in 1958. Set menus were important and a la carte was considered too risky abroad. In Britain, there was the Riverside restaurant. By 1977 the family were going there every fortnight. This was all a la carte. The cost was not an issue because he put it under expenses (his favourite word). Barry fondly remembered having French pate starters, good soups, beef stroganoff, black-tie waiter service and so on. All cooked on premises by the chef; with mints and brandy at the end. Barry now believed that Roy staged this not just because he liked it but also because he wanted to show his teenage son what life could offer. Roy was a showman, both in public and in private. Barry remembered constant impersonations, impromptu dance routines and music hall stuff coming out of him when he was really excited or worked up over something. He used to impersonate people so well that Barry would think Roy often thought he became the people he was impersonating in the course of telephone conversations.
It was all so different now. That all went out the window when he became a widower. When he saw his dad that evening at the hospital he could barely recognise him. The left eye was tightly closed. The right was open wide and permanently incensed. It was an expression that reminded Barry of the actor James Finlayson from the Laurel and Hardy films looking exasperatedly into the camera.
“He’s getting better, he’s on the mend.” The nurse told him.
He got to the bus stop the next day at the agreed time and found Penelope there waiting for him, standing in the same statue-like manner with the same hippy rose flower ringlets in her hair and wearing the same long coat and flared purple pants.
“Watcha,” He said.
“Hello Barry,” she said.
They drove into town, had dinner and then went dancing. She had a slightly old fashioned way of dancing a generation or two out of place and seemed to know little to nothing about modern music. As they sat chatting, he gently nursing a pint of Carslsberg whilst she sat sucking Babycham through a straw, he laughingly told her that he had got his car painted red and got the long white streaks at the sides in homage to Starsky and Hutch. She smiled, but the way she looked at him made him wonder for a moment whether she knew who Starsky and Hutch were.
“You know you don’t look like a Barry. Boys with names like Barry are usually louts. You look and sound like a David, or a Jim, but definitely not a Barry and certainly not a Tony.” She said. They had laughed at that. It had been a brilliant evening. “Just what I needed,” he thought.
As he dropped her off that evening at the bus stop they shared a long kiss. He asked if she would meet him again the next day.
“Maybe we can go to Glastonbury, see the Tor? And have a picnic afterwards?”
“Sure, I’d like that,” she said. “Meet me here at noon tomorrow?”
“You bet.” he said and once again got into his car and sped away before she could change her mind on him.
That night his sleep was punctuated by vivid images that made his dreams seem like strange sleep movies. There was no sound other than a rising chiming sound, like tiny bells ringing in the far distance. He dreamt he saw his dad, younger and healthier driving in the rain on a familiar and yet unfamiliar stretch of road. His eyes looked woozy as he swigged from a can of Mcewans Ale. And then everything seemed to go misty. In the mist he heard a loud scream and a long screeching sound followed by immense wailing. And then everything went pitch black. When he could see again he saw himself lying on the road with his eyes staring lifelessly up at the moonless sky.
The next day he picked up Penelope again and they went to Glastonbury Tor. As they made the long winding walk she would repeatedly grip his hand and gasp and smile like a child. He liked that.
“You know Penelope,” Barry said, gasping slightly. “During the plague in the middle ages people had know idea what was happening to them. Many thought it came from foreigners and many more thought it was a punishment from God. One bright priest from the nearby Abbey thought that if he and his flock should climb to the top and wait things out they would be able to escape what was going on around them.”
“And what happened?” She asked furrowing her eyebrows at him.
“Every single one of them died.”
“All of them?” He nodded.
“How do you know so much anyway?” She asked.
“I teach History in a London High School. Mr Barry Naylor B.A” he said trying to sound modest.
“Mr Barry, with green mud on the seat of his pants,” she said.
“Have I got mud on my pants?” he said, half turning round to inspect his blue jeans. She gave him a mighty push that had him roll several feet down the hillside and laughingly hollered down at his sliding figure. “You do now!”
At the top of the Tor they sipped tea from the flask Barry had brought along with him and gazed down admiringly at the magnificent natural view below them. There seemed to be a form of natural terracing around the Tor. Barry had heard it was a maze based on an ancient mystical pattern. But he said nothing further about the place for fear of looking like a know-it-all. He also didn’t tell her that two thousand years ago there had been a vast lake at it’s foot called “Ynys-witrin”, The Island Of Glass, that was known as a meeting place of the dead. He looked at her staring down and his head felt all heavy and light at the same time.
That night he had had another fitful night’s sleep. Again he saw that long, dark lane. Only this time it was he who was doing the driving with those tall grim trees dotting the landscape. Again he heard that rising, chiming sound steadily ringing and growing in his ears. He could have sworn it was the same road on which he had met Penelope on. Only this time it was evening and he was tired. So tired that he had nodded off at the wall for a few seconds. When his eyes opened he found himself careening into a tall female figure holding her hands up in fright. There was a piercing shriek and a dull, sickening thud. He woke up gasping and terrified.
He went to see Roy earlier that day. He was feeling better now he said and gave Barry a cheery wave when he came in to see him. “He’s getting better,” the nurse told him. Barry had got a carer for his father to help him rehab back to health over the next few months and he of course would do his best to see him perhaps once every week if things with Penelope kept going as well as they did. He left around 12 oclock and told his dad that he would be back again later around 7pm.
He had a picnic planned for Penelope that afternoon. He picked her up at the bus stop again. He always seemed to be either picking her up or dropping her off at that remote out of the way location. He took the A39 between Lynmouth and Blackmoor Gate and made towards Lee Bay near Lynton. It was a beautiful place. There was plenty of open grassland on which sheep happily grazed and chewed grass against the backdrop of Lee Abbey. Way down below them lay the beach and the soothing sounds of the blue sea.
As they walked towards Lee Abbey and rows of roses and other flowers came into view she became almost wild with joy- and perhaps even some kind of hope. Of what though he had no idea. She let go of his hand and rushed into the flowerbeds and gently fondled the red roses. At that moment he just stood back and watched. Barry knew that he had lost her to a world of her own and he just stood at a distance happily watching her. Something about the scene made him come to terms with the fact that he would never truly know or understand her. She would always be a sweet little mystery.
“I never knew anyone to display that kind of reaction to flowers and things that grow from out of the ground as you did.”
“Guilty as charged your honour. I adore flowers, roses mostly,” she said holding one up to her finely pointed nose. “Flowers are as unique as people, maybe more so. They come to perfection for one day… And then they are gone,” she said kissing her fingers like someone admiring the merits of a meal. “It just goes to show that there can be no true beauty without decay. I used to grow flowers and mint in my garden. I had a little rose pot on my upstairs patio,” She added with an exaggerated sigh and what he thought may have been a touch of wistfulness. He wondered why she just didn’t start growing again if that’s how she felt, but decided to say no more about it. She looked happier than he had ever seen her, and he did not want to say anything that might aggravate the alchemy.
He had brought along cheese and cucumber sandwiches, a victoria sponge, fruit, tea and Robinsons Orange Barley water as well as an old fashioned kind of transistor radio for the picnic. A lot of old 60’s songs played that afternoon on Radio 2.
“I love you more than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow,” sang a female soul voice with genuine passion over an upbeat backing track as they first lay side by side on the grass. Their fingers were knotted into the other’s hand as they squinted up at the clouds in the sky floating lazily across the blue horizon like misshapen alabaster palaces. As the song reached its apogee they looked at each other. In that instant her deep turquoise eyes bore deeply into his and for the first time they deeply kissed.
When he dropped her off later that evening he asked her if they could meet again the next day as he had something he really wanted to tell her. She shrugged and said that she would love to. All he had to do was say what time and they would meet at the bus stop, as they always did.
“Okay great, but where do you live? Where do you go after you leave me?”
“I live over there,” she said pointing to one of three houses standing in a green clearing. It was like a bungalow, but had a kind of patio on the roof.
“Okay, see you at noon tomorrow then?”
“See you at noon.” she said with a merry lilt in her voice and she stood waving at him as he drove off. She continued waving at him till she had disappeared from his rear view window.
When he got to the hospital that night there was an empty bed where his father had been. He had suffered a massive heart attack and was gone before anyone knew what happened. All he was told was that he had sat bolt upright in the bed gasping and pointing at the door like he wanted to say something.
“Before that, he was alright and seemed to be in a good mood. We don’t know what happened. It was like he was trying to say sorry, but could not manage to get the word fully out of his mouth. I am really sorry.”
Barry took his father’s things and went back to his father’s house. That night he dreamt again, but it was a pleasant dream this time. He dreamt he was driving out of Somerset and going back to London, with Penelope sat at his side dressed in her hippy white dress and red, rose ringlets in her hair. The next day was taken up with dealing with the hospital and arrangements with his fathers belongings and funeral plans. He did drive to the bus stop to see Penelope. He was almost an hour late and there was nothing waiting for him except the silence of the road and the trees.
The day after that he went to the bus stop again at noon, only this time with a bunch of red roses.But nobody there. Then he remembered that he knew where she lived and decided to pay her visit.
He knocked on the door and stood waiting there nervously holding onto his bunch of flowers. After a while the door was opened and he was surprised to see an older woman with the same turquoise eyes as penelope open the door. Obviously her mother, he thought to himself.
“Hello, my name is Barry. Maybe Penelope told you about me. I was supposed to meet her yesterday at the bus stop near your home, but I could not make it. I just wanted to apologise and see if she’s alright.”
The woman looked at him like he had said something very strange. “ I am Penelope’s mother,” she said in a slow, almost careful voice. “Why don’t you come in.”
He said he would like that very much, wiped his feet, handed her the flowers and went inside. On the mantle in the front room was a picture of Penelope standing as a bridesmaid and looking as happy as she had that day among the flowers. “There she is,” Barry said, “That picture looks just like her, only a little bit younger.”
“It did once. That picture was taken when she was around the age you are now. A few days later she was waiting in the rain at that bus stop when she was run over by a passing lorry in a hit and run.”
Barry heard every word of what she said, but they were too much to absorb and in a sense it was almost like he had both heard and not heard her. “Do you know who did it?” He asked. Barry’s legs suddenly felt weak and he was beginning to feel the room spin.
“Yes,” the woman said in an almost matter of fact manner. Though she looked sad, earnest and kind of helpless as she stood there in her patterned cardigan and pale house slippers. “The matter went to court, but it was all a waste. He got off on a technicality. Something to do with a blind spot.” She then paused as she closed her eyes to remember better. “Yes, I remember now. He was a young man, shaggy dark hair and long sideburns. His name was Roy. Yes, that was the name. Roy Naylor…..And pardon me, but I don’t remember what you said your name was young man?”
Barry felt his head swim. He left in a daze without identifying himself. Later that week as he drove back to London he thought of Simon Bates and how he would have told his story on his show.
“They met, they went out on several dates, they started developing feelings for each other. He didn’t show up one day- and then it went very, very wrong.” Penelope’s mother had also told him that her daughter had been growing some roses in a small pot on that patio he saw on the roof. The pot had fallen to the floor, as if by itself, and smashed into pieces about an hour after she had been knocked over and killed by that passing lorry seventeen years ago.
By Nasir Ali Hussain Copyright 2021
2 thoughts on “Penelope”
Ah, The English Rose… Penelope… this story is like the joy you get cutting that fresh fragrant rose from your garden… enjoying its beauty… until it starts to weep and disappear … you are always surprised in the end;) A delight!
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Nice blog thanks for postinng