The Test Drive

_PPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP000000000000000Bright pink small car, Fiat 500, parked by the sea on a sunny day

To Lara it was an annoyance, but to Vikki, suddenly the little pink car represented freedom and individuality…

What a gorgeous May morning, Vikki thought as she waited for her lift. She was sitting on the wall at the entrance to her block of flats beneath a cherry tree and warm sunlight filtered down through the branches.

She gazed at the cornflower blue sky and a wave of optimism surged through her. Today will be a good day, she told herself, inhaling the fresh spring air. The first day of the rest of her life; her first proper morning living in Penny Street.

The sound of a rapidly approaching engine interrupted her thoughts and she looked up to see Lara waving at her through the windscreen of her car. Vikki jumped up and as soon as the car came to a halt, she opened the passenger door and climbed in.

“Thanks so much for picking me up,” she said, smiling at her old friend and fastening her seatbelt.

“Any time, love, I told you,” Lara insisted.

She tossed back her dark hair and flashed her a grin.

“Besides, having you to talk to on the drive to school will distract me from the forthcoming appointment with Year Eight first thing.”

“Ouch, and on a Monday too.” Vikki winced in sympathy as Lara pulled away from the kerb, performed a jerky three-point turn and headed off at speed.

As much as Vikki loved being a teacher again after several years spent living abroad, Year Eights were a challenge. They seemed to morph from sweet, biddable children in Year Seven to uber-confident cocky pre-teens only a few short months later.

Lara would handle them brilliantly though; she was the deputy head and loved by the staff and kids alike for her blend of straight talking no-nonsense and infectious sense of fun.

“Let’s not talk about work, I want to know all about your new flat. How was your first night as queen of all you survey?”

Vikki let out a long, happy sigh.

“Wonderful. I didn’t get told off for leaving lights on, or not putting my mug in the sink, and I didn’t have to leave it five minutes before going in the bathroom after Dad this morning.”

Lara gave a snort of laughter.

“That’s not a good way to start the day.”

“No,” Vikki agreed. “I mean, I love my parents and I’m really grateful to them, but…”

“You need your own space.”

“Exactly,” said Vikki, “and I need to start moving forward, put Alistair behind me.”

“Amen to that, sister.”

Lara tapped at her phone which was clamped in a cradle between the two women and the car filled with the unmistakable voice of Cher singing about turning back time.

If only, Vikki mused, smiling as Lara belted out the tune with a great deal enthusiasm.

She turned her gaze to the view beyond the car window and let her thoughts drift.

Mum and Dad had been fantastic; as soon as they’d realised the extent of Vikki’s misery and prised out some of the more sordid details of her marriage which Vikki had been too ashamed to admit, they’d stepped in to help her untangle her life from her husband’s and insisted that she stay with them until she got back on her feet.

That had been a year ago.

It had taken three months to sleep through without waking up in the middle of a nightmare, drenched in sweat.

Another three for her heart to stop racing every time there was an unexpected knock on the door.

And now, twelve months after packing a small case, taking nothing but essentials with her, and flying home from Adelaide on a one-way ticket, she’d taken the first step to a new, independent life as a single woman.

“You’ve done brilliantly since you’ve been back, you know,” said Lara, reading her thoughts. “You’ve got a job, which—”

“Which I’ve got you to thank for,” Vikki put in.

Last summer, Lara had told phoned her to say that one of the English teachers was pregnant and would Vikki please apply for the maternity cover post because she’d be doing the school a massive favour.

Which was how the two of them had ended up as colleagues fifteen years after graduating together with their teaching degrees.

The new mum had decided not to return to work, so Vikki had been interviewed for the job and was now a permanent member of staff.

Right place at the right time, thought Vikki, counting her lucky stars.

“You wally!” Lara rolled her eyes. “You got the job on your own merit, nothing to do with me.”

Vikki opened her mouth to object and shut it again, her counsellor’s words running through her mind: try to accept complements, instead of disputing them.

Five years of marriage had eroded her self-esteem and it was time to start building it again.

“Thanks, you’re a good friend,” she said simply.

“And now you’re back on the property ladder,” Lara continued.

“Yep,” Vikki said proudly. “Onwards and upwards.”

The one-bedroomed flat was a fraction of the size of their — his — house in Adelaide.

But this was all hers, her sanctuary, she alone had the keys and she could do what she liked, when she liked.

Cher belted out the chorus one last time and Vikki turned back to Lara, who was grimacing determinedly as she overtook a van at breakneck speed.

“Next on my list is —”

“A new man?” Lara waggled her eyebrows mischievously. “Is it time?”

“Too early.” Vikki shook her head.

Not that she was ruling out relationships forever; in fact, she’d even got a double bed on order. After all, she was only thirty-six.

But next time, she told herself firmly, she would not rush into anything.

Marry in haste, repent at leisure, she remembered Gran saying when she’d phoned to tell her the news about Alistair’s romantic proposal.

“Probably wise,” said Lara kindly. “You don’t want to rush these things.”

“I meant a new car,” she said, discreetly gripping the door handle to steady herself as Lara put her foot down again and raced to get in front of a bus.

She wound down the window to let in some fresh air. For someone dreading her first lesson, Lara seemed in an awful hurry to get to school.

“I can help with that,” Lara offered. “I love car shopping. Especially when the car salesman – always a man – asks if I need to check with my husband before deciding.”

Vikki laughed, imagining Lara’s razor-sharp response to that sort of comment. She almost pitied the poor out-of-touch men in question.

“That’s kind of you, but I’m a bit restricted budget-wise,” she said, flicking her eye over Lara’s fancy music system and relishing the luxury of her leather seats. “I just want something small and efficient, nothing flash.”

Lara slowed down as they approached a set of traffic lights when a little pink car cut in front of them, causing Lara to stamp on the brakes.

“Cheeky sod!” Lara gasped. “Did you see that!”

“I did.” Vikki grinned at the indignation on her friend’s face.

According to the badge on the back of the offending vehicle it was a Fiat 500.

She didn’t know a huge amount about cars, but she knew from the throaty roar of Lara’s engine that it must be a bit bigger than that.

Someone had arranged bright floral stickers in a cluster above the bumper. It was kitsch and quirky and brought an instant smile to Vikki’s face.

Stuck in the rear windscreen was a small handwritten notice which read For sale – £800 and below it was a mobile phone number. Her smile widened.

“That car,” Vikki said leaning forward to get a closer look, “would be perfect.”

Lara groaned. “Nooo! I’d rather chauffeur you to school every day than have you driving around in that pink tin can.”

Vikki’s eyes sparkled with the challenge.

“Tough. Because I like it. I like the colour and I like the flowery stickers and from now on I’m going to stand up for myself.”

Lara was quiet for a moment.

“Good for you,” she said, her voice catching. “Good for you. Anyway, at least you’ll be a better driver than her.”

“Her?” Vikki arched an eyebrow. “Now who’s making sexist judgements?”

“Whoops,” said Lara sheepishly. “Good point. Although I can’t see many blokes decorating their Barbie-pink passion wagons with flowers.”

Ahead, the lights changed and the traffic moved off. On the other side of the junction, the road split into two lanes and Lara indicated to overtake.

But the pink car beat her to it, so Lara still ended up behind it.

“Right,” Lara muttered. “She and I need to have words. I could easily have gone into the back of her.”

“Or him,” Vikki put in. “Quite nippy for a little car, isn’t it?”

Lara pointed to her mobile phone, mounted hands-free between them. “Ring this number for me, would you? Zero-seven-seven… ”

Vikki did as she was asked and a ringing tone cut into Cher’s music. It was only when she looked straight ahead again that she realised whose number she’d just dialled.

“You’re not seriously ringing the driver of the car?” Vikki stared at her.

Lara tilted her chin up defiantly; Vikki groaned. So much for a harmonious start to the day.

“Hell-o?” A male voice answered cheerfully.

Lara stared at Vikki in surprise; Vikki gave her a I-told-you so look.

“Is this the owner of the pink car?” Lara asked.

“Um, yes. Or rather, no. Er, actually, who wants to know?” answered the man.

“The driver in the car behind you,” Lara said, crossly. “The one which nearly ran into the back of you.”

“Did you? I’m glad you didn’t, my sister would kill me.”

There was a pause.

“Blimey, I’m not surprised you almost hit me, any closer and you’d be in my boot.”

“You cut me up, that’s why!” Lara retorted through gritted teeth.

Vikki had to suppress a laugh; the man had a lovely voice, unhurried and laced with humour. She wondered what he looked like.

A moment later the pink car moved over into the slow lane, Lara drew up level with it and Vikki got her answer.

Tousled curly hair, broad, tanned arms and brown eyes the colour of dark chocolate. Best of all, a friendly, open smile which lit up his whole face.

There was a quickening in Vikki’s chest. Well hello, libido, welcome back.

The traffic ground to a halt and he flicked a quick glance in her direction. His window was wound down like hers.

“Hey,” he said. “Is your mate always this grumpy in the mornings?”

“Only when she’s shown up by pink tin cans on wheels.”

“Don’t listen, Tinkerbell,” he said, tapping the car’s steering wheel affectionately. “You’re not a tin can, you’re a… very lovely car.”

Lara cut off the phone call and gave a sigh of resignation, leaving Vikki to gaze at Tinkerbell’s driver.

“Is that your sister’s car, then?” Vikki asked.

The man nodded. “Yes. She swanned off on a gap year and left me holding the pink baby. It’s a good car, but,” he grinned, “it doesn’t do much for maintaining my image.”

Vikki summoned up all her courage. “I might be interested.”

“Really?” His eyes lit up. “In the pink peril or maintaining my image?”

She laughed. “Maybe both.”

Beside her, she was aware of Lara gasping in disbelief.

“How about tonight?” he suggested.

She nodded. “Why not.”

He grinned. “It’s a date.”

“It’s a test drive,” she corrected.

“We’ve got your number now, so I’ll phone you later to sort out the details.”

Just then the traffic started to move again.

“Our turning is coming up,” Lara hissed. “Get his name.”

“I’m Vikki, by the way.”

“Aidan.” He smiled shyly and a small thrill shot through her.

Lara’s car indicated to turn right. Vikki sighed as Aidan gave a wave and pulled away.

“He’s lovely,” she whispered.

Lara whistled under her breath. “I thought it was too early for a new man?”

Vikki made a show of checking her watch. “Oh, at least ten minutes has gone by since then…”

The next morning, Lara picked Vikki up from the front of her flat in Penny Street again.

“Well?” she demanded as Vikki settled into the passenger seat. “How did it go?”

Vikki’s insides gave a little flip as she remembered what a lovely evening they’d had driving along country lanes and stopping for a drink (non-alcoholic) at a pretty pub.

“Really well. In fact, I’m going to see him again tonight.”

Lara gave her a quizzical look.

“You’re giving it another test drive?”

“Oh no,” she replied airily. “I’ve bought the car.”

“I’m confused.”

“This time it’s Aidan I’m test driving before I agree to go on a real date with him.”

“Very wise,” said Lara, shaking her head in amusement. She turned the car round and headed out of Penny Street.

“I think so,” said Vikki. “I may even suggest another outing tomorrow. Just to be sure.”

“I’d say it’s imperative,” said Lara, just about keeping a straight face.

“Like you said yesterday, you can’t rush these things.” Vikki put on her sunglasses to disguise her happiness which still felt too good to be true.

Yesterday had been a good day, she mused, and maybe, just maybe, today would be too.

Catch our short interview with best-selling author Cathy Bramley in the latest issue of My Weekly, in shops today! You can read another of her uplifting short stories in our fabulous compilation of big-name fiction, Little Escapes, out now.