A jack. A wheel brace. Only then did he notice that one of the tyres was completely flat.
The woman dragged the spare tyre out of the boot and rolled it along to the front of the car, leant it up against the grill and attempted, rather comically, to get the dirt off her hands by shaking them and patting her palms.
‘Good girl,’ he muttered, with tears in his eyes from the onions, when he saw her sure movements. She seemed to know what she was doing, even if she was wearing a pure-white woollen coat and fancy shoes. Off with the hubcap in one swift movement. That’s it, take up the wheel brace and loosen the locking wheel-nut.
The last time he’d had to do that he’d begun by jacking up the car and then had to jack it back down so he could loosen the nuts. The shame of it hadn’t run very deep, it hadn’t wounded his male pride — he hadn’t been quite with it, that was all.
The woman pushed the wheel brace with her foot, but the nut didn’t budge. She stood on it as though it were the edge of a step, held onto the car roof with both hands and bounced up and down in a determined fashion, but nothing happened. She tried the nut above, but to no avail, then flung the brace onto the gravel, flopped her elbows down on the roof and buried her face in her hands.
She looked like she was about to burst into tears and, without thinking, he turned off the heat before heading for the door, rather too quickly as he then came over dizzy. On the way out, he determined to be friendly.
‘Is it stuck solid?’ he asked, and despite his voice sounding harsher than he’d intended she gave a lopsided smile.
‘Yes,’ she sighed, and judging from the sigh and the stoop of her shoulders she was almost as tired as he was. Her eyes were edged with crow’s feet, her eyebrows drawn as if she was permanently worried, and she had a sensitive mouth with a dimple on one side. ‘I thought breaking down outside a garage was too good to be true, but I see it’s not a garage any more,’ she said, and looked over at the neat almost weed-free lawn, with its newly sprouting grass which looked even greener than the surrounding vegetation.
‘They moved to bigger premises down the road ten years ago,’ he said, and bent down for the wheel brace, slotted it over the nut and applied his full weight. But nothing happened. He laughed in disbelief. ‘Who on earth can have done these up?’ he muttered.
‘Dad!’ she replied, the dimple becoming more pronounced as a shadow passed across her face. ‘He was a taxi driver and the European Seniors Bench Press Champion.’
‘I can well believe it,’ he said, and ran his eyes over her ample frame. There was certainly no shortage of flesh on the bones of this statuesque family. He looked back at her face again to contemplate her sorrowful smile, but it had already disappeared and her face was expressionless.
He couldn’t keep his eyes off her hands, without registering what was different about them. And her wrists; they were complex, alive. You could say they were practical. He recalled the blind musician — what was his name? Ray Charles, wasn’t it? — who would feel the wrists of women to see if they were beautiful. Clever of him. It wouldn’t have been very gentlemanly to run his fingers straight over their faces before asking their name. What would Ray have felt if he had slid his hands over those strong wrists?
She stuck her hands into her coat pockets and watched him, her face displaying expressions he could in no way decipher.
‘What?’ she asked.
She raised her eyebrows and glanced around as though searching for some alternative. At that, his head cleared and, with all the warmth he could muster, although he feared it sounded more like sarcasm or outright impatience, he added, ‘If you wouldn’t mind sitting with me in the kitchen in the meantime I guarantee you will be ready to go in an hour and a half.’
She followed him hesitantly, and he was grateful to her for sparing him the ‘Oh, I really shouldn’ts’ and other insincere protestations. It was best that way. He didn’t want her to leave immediately, for although he needed to unwind he was keenly aware that he hadn’t seen another human face for days. He wanted to look at a face that moved. It didn’t matter if she had nothing to say or was full of empty chatter — he didn’t have the energy to listen or make intelligent comments in any case.
The woman laid her coat over the back of a chair and flopped down on the one next to it. She glanced around with little sign of interest, didn’t say much and barely moved, evidently because she understood that he was hungry and tired. He didn’t want her to be understanding; the thought of understanding women made him shudder. Millions upon millions of understanding women throughout the world, who thought little and said even less.
He was taken aback by this thought, which had come to him unbidden and was so unlike him or, at least, so unlike the image he had of himself. It was as if he had a radio transmitter in his head and some unscrupulous type was dictating what was going on up there. He turned the heat back on under the pan, tossed some spices in and set the table for two, without bothering to say that his visitor was welcome to join him. He didn’t believe in wordy explanations, they always became nonsensical, and he didn’t believe in helping people to make decisions either. If a person was too reserved to help themselves, or so polite they left the food untouched, then that was their affair.