Encounter by Nicky Wells
‘That woman is freaking me out. She’s been staring at me the whole evening.’ Elaine nudged her husband gently and motioned for him to take a surreptitious look.
‘Who?’ Peter strained to see.
‘That old woman at the table back there. Grey hair, ethnic scarf, fake fur bolero…’ Elaine craned her neck but stopped herself from pointing. They were in a Michelin-starred restaurant after all.
Peter dropped his napkin and took a good look around while he bent to retrieve it. Elaine suppressed a giggle at the obvious ploy. She felt slightly light-headed after their delightful meal, and for the first time since the baby was born, she had allowed herself to drink not one but two glasses of wine.
‘Nope. I don’t know who you’re talking about.’
‘Peter, she’s right behind you. She’s still—’ Elaine frowned. ‘She’s gone! How weird. I swear she was looking at me. She had the most unusual blue eyes.’
Peter half turned again, emboldened now that he was unlikely to cause offense by staring. ‘Well, whoever she was, she’s not there.’
‘Quit worrying. You always see omens in the most random places.’ He took her hand and smiled. ‘Have you enjoyed our evening out so far?’
Elaine giggled softly. ‘It’s been lovely. I feel like we’re on a first date after all this time.’
‘Me too. I hope the theatre is just as good.’
‘Bound to be. “We Will Rock You” has been getting great reviews. In fact, it’s nearly time to go. Would you excuse me while I visit the powder room?’
Elaine rose, but Peter tugged at her arm to hold her back. ‘I love you, sweetie.’
‘I love you too.’ She blew him a gentle kiss as she swayed her way between the tables. It was wonderfully liberating to have a night out. She had rung the babysitter earlier, and everything was just fine and dandy. The show would be great, and they would be home all too soon.
‘Better enjoy it,’ Elaine whispered to herself as she pushed open the door to the ladies’ room. ‘Who knows when we’ll next get the chance.’
‘Better go home.’
The soft but raspy voice greeted her as soon as the door closed behind her, and Elaine gave a start. There she was, the old lady with the piercing eyes. She had wound her colourful scarf tightly around her neck and stared a challenge at Elaine.
‘Who are you?’
‘Doesn’t matter who I am. I’m telling you to go home.’
‘Why? What’s it to you?’
Despite her air of insouciance, Elaine felt chilled to the bone. Peter was right. She did believe in omens and strange appearances, and this was definitely one of them. But still, her husband’s more pragmatic nature had rubbed off on her a little, and she made herself express doubt.
‘You’re not real. I’m dreaming you. My husband couldn’t see you.’
The woman laughed. ‘I’m as real as your heartbeat. I’m as real as your deepest fears. And I am telling you, go home. Now.’ She swept majestically past Elaine, tapping her lightly on the arm as she went, and Elaine recoiled from the unexpected heat of her touch. The door closed and Elaine was alone. She breathed deeply.
Fear. The woman had mentioned fear, and there was lots of it in Elaine’s heart. Right now, she was in the grip of the most powerful premonition. She knew that Peter wouldn’t believe her, but she would have to obey the lady’s command and go home.
Elaine rushed out of the restroom, up the stairs and back into the restaurant, nearly colliding with a waiter. There was no sign of the woman, but Peter looked at her in alarm.
‘Elaine. Darling! You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘That woman… the old lady. Did you see her? She must have come past here.’
‘Sweetheart, nobody’s come up the stairs but you and the nearly unfortunate waiter. Are you all right?’
‘Peter, please don’t be cross with me, but I want to go home. I’ve got the most awful feeling…’
‘Did you have one of your visions again? You know they don’t mean anything.’
‘No. Yes!’ Elaine didn’t let her husband finish. ‘Trust me. I know something’s wrong. She said to go home and… Look, please. If everything’s okay, we can still catch the show, and I promise I’ll never, ever believe in omens ever again. Ever. But please let’s go. I’m scared.’
Peter looked at his wife of ten years for a long, long time. He knew her superstitions. He understood that their baby daughter was the most precious thing in her life, having taken years to conceive. Real fear was radiating from Elaine’s every pore. Even though he believed strongly that giving in to her anxieties would make them worse in the long run, he didn’t have it in his heart to deny her request.
‘Okay. Let’s go.’ He forced a smile that didn’t quite hide his disappointment at having his evening cut short.
‘Thank you. I promise, if this is a wild goose chase, I’ll make it up to you.’ Elaine nearly wept with relief.
Peter settled the bill and they claimed their car. The drive home was silent and tense. Elaine’s mouth was dry, and her heart beat high in her throat. If anything had happened…
She jumped out of the car before Peter had even engaged the handbrake. In her great haste, she nearly tripped on the garden path, and her hands were shaking so badly that she couldn’t undo the front lock. Peter caught up with her and gently took the keys out of her hands. Together, they entered their home.
The hallway was dark, and there was no sound. The baby had to be asleep. As for the sitter, Elaine had thought that Dora would be watching TV, but the lounge was dark and deserted.
‘I’ll check on Jemmy,’ Elaine whispered, already halfway up the stairs. ‘You check on Dora.’
Elaine tiptoed towards the nursery but was distracted by soft moaning from the other side of the landing. Uncertain where to turn first, she sneaked a quick look at her sleeping daughter before venturing into the bathroom, where the moaning was growing more urgent.
‘Oh my gosh, Dora!’ Elaine switched the light on and knelt by the babysitter, who was curled up on the floor. She was drenched in sweat, very pale, and hot to the touch.
‘Tummy…ache…’ Dora whispered between painful breaths. ‘Tried to ring…but…couldn’t… get you.’
‘You need a doctor,’ Elaine pronounced. ‘I’ll be right back.’
She rushed down the stairs to call an ambulance, switching on more lights as she did so. ‘Peter,’ she whispered urgently. ‘Peter, where are you? Dora’s been taken ill!’
Peter emerged from the kitchen. Shock was written all over his face. ‘Elaine, I’m so sorry. I’ll never doubt you again.’
‘It’s okay,’ Elaine soothed. ‘I’m sure she’ll be fine. But she does need a doctor. I’m calling an ambulance.’
Peter swallowed hard. ‘Okay. But that’s not what I mean.’
‘Why? What? Peter, what’s the matter?’
By way of response, Peter pushed the kitchen door open wide. The acrid smell of burned plastic assaulted Elaine’s nostrils, and she struggled to comprehend the scene. Her hob was a black, sooty mess covered in what looked like their erstwhile fire blanket.
‘Dora must have been taken ill while she was heating some soup. Looks like she never came back downstairs.’ Peter’s voice was hoarse with the aftershock of finding a fire in his kitchen. ‘If we’d come back even ten minutes later, the whole house would have been ablaze.’
‘Oh my God.’
‘Oh my God, indeed.’ Peter wrapped his arms around his shaking wife. ‘But we’re here. And everything’s fine. Now we must call an ambulance for Dora. And thank goodness for your strange encounter.’
‘Better go home,’ Elaine repeated the lady’s words. ‘Thank you, whoever you are.’