Rain rattled on his large black umbrella, as Mark Dexter leaned over the promenade wall. It had pelted down non-stop since early that Sunday morning and looked set in for the day, accompanied by a gusty breeze.
Below him, the sand was hardened all the way to the seawall. Now, the exceptional tide had receded to reveal normally unseen rocks and bladder rack seaweed that were further testament to how heavy the tide had been. Apart from one lone dog-walker in the far distance, the beach was deserted.
Mark glanced at his watch. It was two o’clock, so, where was the red umbrella? Disappointment threatened. Every Sunday since early summer and maybe before that, it had moved west to east along this section of beach, exactly at this time. Most sunny days, although too big and wide, it was a parasol. Not really a delicate sunshade, but when the downpours came, like today, it came into its own.
He had first noticed it mid-June when taking his Sunday afternoon break from writing his third novel. From this spot on the promenade, his eyes had been drawn by the vivid red, ludicrously overdone attempt at shading from the sun. He became fascinated to see just how regular the appearances were.
At first, all he could define was the fact that it was a lady with neat, tanned ankles under the shade, and it was always at this time. But, he had to admit now that it wasn’t the red umbrella he lingered at this viewpoint to see. Initial curiosity satisfied he may have moved on.
Then, after two weeks, he was gifted with a glimpse of the face beneath the umbrella. That Sunday she had moved up the steps, as she always did, some twenty yards from where he stood. Overhead, threatening clouds moved over the sun, causing her to lower the umbrella.
Very briefly, as she moved on past him on that day, their eyes had met. Deep brown eyes, in a face, with high cheekbones, fine skin which enhanced her delicate loveliness. And what had she seen with her one brief glance? A gaping-mouthed idiot, unable to speak in his confusion at her appearance.
What annoyed him more than anything, almost unmanning him, was that this dumb confusion persisted whenever he encountered her. Hell, he was twenty-eight years old, never had he been short of ready words of introduction when he met an attractive lady. But the sight of this lady had him acting like a shy, adolescent schoolboy.
Between Sundays, he had tried to analyse his unnatural reaction to her. He could produce only one conclusion—fear! That was it, pure unadulterated fear. He was scared that he would say the wrong thing or do something stupid that would drive her away. So, every Sunday rain or shine, he would watch her saunter by, tanned and beautiful, even occasionally giving this doltish oaf a casual glance.
He knew he had to do something, say something, sometime, that might open the door to his future. At one time, his future had been geared only to becoming an accomplished author. Now, this lady impinged on much of that consideration.
Suddenly, as the rain pattered even more heavily on his umbrella, and the wind increased to make him cling ever tighter to the handle, it was there. The red umbrella. Tilted against the harsh weather, it was making its usual passage west to east.
Beneath it was light blue jeans, dressed for the weather, obviously, but nevertheless, his heartbeat quickened, as the jeans trudged doggedly through the sand directly below him.
All too soon, the umbrella moved out of sight beyond a promontory of cliffside as was usual. Mark had quickly learned that it was ten minutes before the umbrella reappeared. Strangely, these last few Sundays though, there had been only a short lapse of time before it returned.
Previously, while it was out of sight, he had tried to eliminate this crazy inhibition that the lady had provoked in him. It was all in his mind, wasn’t it? All he had to do was—what? Come on, Don Juan, find some inspiration. You have some experience. What about those times with walkaway Jenny, who wouldn’t tolerate the time you spent on his writing?
Think of all the love scenes you’ve written. Yes, but they were fiction. His feelings about this unknown lady might be completely misplaced, but they were so very real.
With even less delay on this day, maybe because of the weather, the red umbrella reappeared and headed for the steps close to the cliff wall, which would bring her up to the promenade, less than twenty yards away from him. Was the wind jerking at the umbrella he held? Or was he really trembling?
Anxious, about his own foggy state of mind, he watched the lady’s slow progress as she struggled up the steps, her red umbrella, pressing against the strong wind and rain.
And then! The event that could resolve everything. With one more step to take, two things happened simultaneously. A gust suddenly struck the cliff wall diverting its original direction. The lady moved the position of the umbrella to counter the new blast but left her red umbrella vulnerable to the rebounding wind, which encroached with considerable force on the underside of the umbrella turning it inside out.
Without even thinking about it, Mark was moving fast towards the stricken lady who he’d heard mutter a shocked expletive, and whose shoulder-length auburn hair was already blowing wildly, before being plastered across her face, as she struggled with the useless umbrella.
It took him just three seconds, to hold out his own black shelter over her, even though, momentarily, he was sharing the soaking.
“My umbrella,” she raised her voice plaintively against the storm.
Mark, not fully realising the significance of the step he had taken, was thinking only of giving help, as he might have done for anyone in the circumstances. But now, as he held her elbow, and urged her across the promenade, telling her, “We need cover,” he was, at last, hoping that he had broken the ice.
The promenade provided covered seating areas every thirty yards or so, and the first one was conveniently close. Secure from wind and rain they shook themselves like a pair of shaggy dogs. Aware that every move he made, every word he said would be crucial to the extension of, and repeat of, this connection.
She sat on the bench and fingering her wind-blown, rain-soaked hair, she said quietly, “I must look a mess.”
As if it mattered, Mark was thinking.
Now, be careful, he warned himself, longing to deliver a compliment, but knowing it had to be somewhere between casual and kindly. “It doesn’t look that bad, and I’ll bet it will dry neatly.” Was that a grateful look she threw him?
Mark did not dare look into those lovely eyes, but held his hand out and said, “Let me see that red umbrella.”
Tentatively, her eyes downcast, she handed it over, “Oh, say it can be repaired. It’s so dear to me.”
This red umbrella that had haunted him for months was now in his hands. More importantly, the young lady who owned it was sitting close to him, while outside there was no relaxing of the downpour. Could life get any more promising?
Mark looked first at the umbrella for serious damage. All the spokes looked intact, and their joining points seemed fine. Nothing had pierced the canvas.
He looked up into her anxious face, trying to keep his voice level as he told her that it was fixable. “You trust me to try?” Anxious, wet, wind-blown it might be, but Mark would declare it was the most elegantly pretty face he had ever seen.
He was then delighted with the eagerness with which she accepted his offer. ”But please be careful. It was my grandfather’s. Call me Linda.”
Inside his churning brain, he was thinking, ‘I’ll call you Linda, not only by the way but, hopefully, all the way.’ But he said a simple, “I’m Mark.”
Then he bent to the work in hand, Two spokes were bent but he managed to straighten them and gradually worked around, refitting the spokes into their relevant sockets.
Linda, while watching anxiously, was surprisingly, eager to talk, and began telling him about her grandfather and this umbrella. “My parents were killed in a plane crash when I was nine years old.” She had such a soft tuneful voice.
Mark looked up at the lovely face, and said, “That’s terrible.”
The corners of her mouth had drooped as she went on, “Just a short hop from Paris to Rome. Fog over the Alps, my grandfather told me when he considered me old enough to understand. Pilot tried to turn back, but, apparently, miscalculated the height.”
Mark fitted the last spoke into its socket and then applying gentle force pushed at the sliding opener. To his delight, the red umbrella opened to its brilliant best.
He saw the relieved smile on Linda’s face, and it was like getting a writing award. He lowered the umbrella and tested it once more, just to be sure. As he handed her the downed umbrella he joked, “You do know what will go up a chimney down but won’t go up a chimney up, don’t you?”
She chuckled, “My grandfather told me that one years ago.” Such a pleasing laugh.
“I’m old-fashioned,” Mark said, happy at the more relaxed way they were conversing. He nodded at the umbrella, “Try it yourself.”
Linda raised it without any difficulty, and she was holding it over her head as she said, “Thank you so much. I’m very pleased you were here.”
Mark tried to keep his voice level as he admitted, “I’m often here.”
“I have noticed,” she said, and her voice seemed to be making a point, or was that his imagination in overdrive. But there was a gentle, extra pinkness on her cheek, wasn’t there? Very becoming.
When Linda moved as though she was about to step out with the red umbrella over her, Mark started to reach out to stop her, “You’re not going out in that, are you?”
The rain was lashing down, heavier than ever, and it was splashing up darts which the howling wind blew along the promenade like mini waves. Somewhere out there was the sea, but you would never know.
Linda had looked out, before turning to Mark and thrilling him with a musical giggle, she said, “You don’t think I’m that stupid, do you?”
Mark, overcome with the emotion that almost girlish giggle provoked, could only say, “Then, please sit down and tell me about the fascination with your grandfather’s umbrella.”
Linda lowered it, sat down, and said, “I wouldn’t want to bore you.”
Finding some belated boldness, Mark told her, “I can’t imagine you ever boring me.”
“You hardly know me.”
No, but I’d like to. Dare he really say that? Chance. So, he said it.
This time, Linda really did blush. For Mark, it was glamour personified. “That’s kind of you,” she said, but made no other response, only gazed out into the wild weather, while Mark pondered whether he should build on his compliment.
No, best keep things on an even keel for now. So, he asked. “You were an only child?”
She turned to face him as though surprised at his question, “I was, and it was my grandparents who took me in. And after the despair of those first months, I was so grateful.”
For a moment, her face looked crestfallen as she lowered her eyes to the red umbrella she had propped against the bench. But when she looked up, her brightness shone through again, as she told him of her grandparent’s kindness, particularly her grandfather, “My mother was his daughter, and after the tragedy, I’m sure he blanketed me with the love he had for her.”
Mark decided to risk adding, “You sure it wasn’t pure grandfatherly love for you?”
Her dark eyes looked at him as though surprised at his observation, “I’m sure it must have been. He took me to all the interesting places around here. Told me about sights I should see around the world. He used to be in the merchant navy.”
Now her face took on an encouraging smile when Mark asked, “And was your grandmother just as kind.” He just wanted her to go on, to maintain these precious moments.
“Oh, yes, she was a seamstress and gave me my early lessons in sewing.”
“Sewing?” Mark didn’t dare say anything about how boring that sounded.
“Don’t look surprised,” Linda said. “Turned out I was good at it. And when it linked in with my girlish sketches of dresses and gowns, they both encouraged me to follow a university degree course in fashion designing.”
Outside, the rain had eased slightly, and the gale was no longing howling but was still blowing strongly.
“Fashion designing. That sounds so impressive.”
She laughed lightly, “I enjoy it. But enough about me. What do you do?”
Mark hesitated. He had always been reluctant to tell anyone that he was a writer. Conscious of sounding pompous. But, here and now, he felt the need to tell Linda.
“I’m writing my third novel.”
Her face showed surprise and some pleasing admiration, “I read a lot. Might I have read the other two? I have a Kindle.”
Mark laughed, “I doubt it. They didn’t exactly set the world on fire.”
“You write under your own name?”
Mark told her he did, gave her his surname, before Linda, eyes lowered, asked, “Your wife must be pleased.”
Was that a deliberate, searching question? Something close to hope had his nerve-ends tingling, but he had no hesitation in telling Linda about Jenny, and how she had walked out on him. “We weren’t married. So, no real hurt.”
Linda’s face showed no emotion as she said, “Walked out on you? She must have been---” She stopped, looked away, and then added, “—non-literary.”
Mark was warning himself not to read too much into her hesitation, “I can see you have no ring on your finger.”
Linda just shrugged, “Another lost cause.”
Pleased to hear that, Mark hurried on, “We’re exchanging life stories here, and you haven’t finished telling me about the umbrella.” He noticed how Linda had turned more towards him.
“So, you can write about it?” She giggled that girlish sound again. Mark reckoned that she had to be in her high twenties, no more than thirty.
“Only if it has a happy ending,” he said.
The lightness faded from her eyes as she said, “Not totally.”
“How does a grandfather come to possess such a colourful umbrella.?” Mark urged.
Linda nodded sadly, “He used to support a football team that wore that colour. Had the umbrella for as long as I can remember. He carried it wherever he went, especially--” she paused and turned her head away as though this part of her recall was painful.
“If it is unpleasant for you, you can just leave it,” Mark said sympathetically. So long as you just stay here, he was thinking.
Turning back to face him, she was looking tearful, “No, I can talk to you. need to talk about it. You see, my grandmother passed away five years ago. I thought my grandfather mightn’t get over it. Devastating time.”
Oh, those deep brown eyes on Mark, so sorrowful.
“There’s no doubt it did set him on the downward slope. But from that time, he would go nowhere, wet or fine, without his red umbrella. You see, my grandmother had bought it for him as a surprise birthday gift when he was keen on the football. In his final years, he clung to it like a security blanket. Even used it as a walking stick as his legs weakened.”
“He often visited the shop, but when that became difficult all we had left were short walks along the beach, always on a Sunday. For over a year he managed that, always with the red umbrella.” Linda paused, gathering herself for what Mark sensed was going to be difficult for her. Would making a distraction help?
“Shop?” he queried.
Her face creased in a sad smile as she told him, “Oh, the darling man had promised that if I managed a good degree he would set me up in business. Bought me the shop, and we called it, ‘Linda’s Boutique.’ It’s where I sell much general feminine clothing, but also advertise my own designs. Weddings, Christening gowns, anything really. I made a special shirt for my grandfather--” A shuddering breath, “--which he wore only once.”
Mark had seen the shop, right on the main street in town, an ideal location. He was about to tell her he knew it, when she suddenly burst out fast, as though she wanted rid of the pain.
“My grandfather passed away on the first of July last year.”
Now there were tears that she couldn’t hide, although she wiped furiously at her cheeks. Mark longed to reach out a consoling hand to hers but feared giving her further upset. He watched, fascinated as she regained her composure. To his surprise, she had more to say.
A determined look came to her face, “Pointless, I suppose, but as a final tribute to him, I resolved to walk our last route at the same time every Sunday, complete with his red umbrella. I intended to do it until the first anniversary of his passing, rain or shine. Then I’d hang it somewhere noticeable, in the shop or at home.”
Mark was puzzled in considering the facts Linda had just outlined. Something different was happening. Could it just be his imagination working overheating? The question that sprang from his lips would probably rid him of any hopes.
“You said you were doing a year’s tribute until the anniversary of--” Mark checked on mentioning details, and simply gave the date, “You said the first of July, but we’re in mid-August now.”
Had she moved closer? Certainly, her face was looking more alert, and her brown eyes fixed on his, as she said, “Something happened that I didn’t expect.”
“What happened?” Had his pulse quickened? No time for speculation now.
“You happened.” And the smile that lit her face was wonderful.
Mark was aware of the blood rushing into his face. God, he was the one blushing now. He felt he was back to being the dumb idiot of other days, but this was different.
Linda went on, “First I thought I had a stalker. A man standing, always in the same place, always on a Sunday, always at the same time always attracting my eyes, with his blue shirt and darkly handsome face. I thought I was fantasising. I even tried arriving on other days, at other times, but no, it was only on Sunday.”
For Mark it was like a dam of repression had been released, overjoyed at the freedom, he happily announced. “I feared you would see me as a complete dummy, but my first look at your face just took my breath away.”
“I did think you were as shy as I was. Didn’t you notice how I cut my walk shorter?”
“I did, but couldn’t, believe you’d noticed me.”
Their two knees were close together and they each had a hand on their respective knees. It was just a matter of time before---Mark’s racing thoughts were saying, ‘Boldness, be my friend,’ even as his hand covered hers.
Then it came, as Linda’s hand turned, their fingers intertwined, and their eyes looked warmly into each other, that moment so elusive, of true affection. Mark thought for a moment of leaning for a kiss, but at that point in time, they didn’t need it.
The rain had stopped, but the wind still blew, and Lisa said, “Should we stroll along to the café and have our first coffee together?”
“First of many,” Mark ventured, as they collected their umbrellas and strolled hand in hand towards the café.
“I’m hoping so,” she affirmed, and her fingers squeezed on his.
Overhead, the clouds were struggling to uncover the sun, and Mark was beginning to believe that was a positive sign for them.
“I must come to see your shop,” he told her.
“And I could make a shirt for you.”
He stopped, and drew her close, “If you made a shirt for me, I would never take it off.”
The seductive smile went with her meaningful response. “Oh, yes, you would.”
Mark, rejoicing inside, could hardly believe this could all stem from one simple object—
A red umbrella.