Benny put the key in the ignition and nursed the old Ford van into reluctant life. He looked over his shoulder at the boxes and piles of clothes and books shaking in the back with the vibration of the engine.
It had turned into the saddest night of his life so far. The end of his first supposedly permanent live-in relationship. He tried to comfort himself with the thought that it had really ended a long time ago, when the good bits had faded away and the bickering had turned to ugly recrimination and long dark silences.
He was certain that he had not been without fault in the way that it had soured, but he deserved better than to be told to pack up and leave at ten o'clock on a rainy November night. He wished that he could be properly angry with her but in his heart he could find only this heaviness and this need to be swiftly gone. He knew that he would not be coming back.
He eased the van out into a space between two lumbering lorries on the dual carriageway and matched his speed to theirs. The regular swish of the windscreen wipers seeped into his thoughts and calmed him a little.
Across the wide grass verges tall ugly blocks of flats drifted by, yellow light flooding from some of the windows, most of them in total darkness. He passed a cemetery, the gravestones dimly and intermittently visible behind a neglected screen of winter-naked trees. Houses, more flats, a school with a playing field. He seldom paid this much attention to his surroundings when he was driving, but tonight he had nowhere to go and hoped that somehow a particular place or thing would suggest itself to him as a destination.
It was a senseless exercise, he realised, it was all the same. The suburbs went on forever, there was no reason to choose any one place over another. He randomly picked a particular housing development with an accessible car park and drove into it. The blocks rose all around the central courtyard and a row of jemmied and vandalised garage doors lined the far wall. It would do as well as anywhere else. He selected a place next to the shell of an abandoned car and switched off the engine and the lights. This would not be the first night he had spent in the van, indeed he had camped two summer holidays in it, one of them alone, the other not, but he knew that tonight would be cold when the last vestiges of the engine heat died away. He climbed through the familiar gap between the front seats into the back and busied himself pulling the crude curtains across the rear windows.
By the far corner of the courtyard, near to some large black refuse bins, his eyes caught the movement of a small human figure. Instinctively he glanced at his wristwatch and confirmed that it was after midnight. It was a woman, dressed in a dark flowing dress and carrying a bulging white plastic carrier bag, but she was no bag-lady. Her movements were too graceful, her demeanour too alert. What would a woman be doing out in the rain at those refuse bins in the middle of the night? She was looking in his direction; she had heard him drive in. Was she expecting someone? He remained still and watched.
Slowly, hesitantly at first, the slight figure began to walk towards the van. Probably a drug thing, he thought. Most likely the dealers drive in here and park and the people who want to buy come up to them. Or could it be a pick-up spot? Was she going to ask him if he wanted to do business? She walked steadily towards him through the gloom. As she drew nearer he saw that she was quite young and undoubtedly Asian. Her dark dress was a traditional costume, he assumed it to be Pakistani but he was no expert. There was a separate headscarf that enclosed her hair such as many Moslem women in England seemed to wear. He dismissed his theories about drugs and other bad things.
There seemed no point in concealment so he pulled himself into the front of the van and opened the door to greet her. She was dripping wet but smiled up at him in a manner that he could only think of as radiant. "Are you... real?" she asked in a reverential, slightly foreign-sounding voice.
It was not the question that Benny had expected. "Am I real? What do you mean by that?" He felt vaguely sorry for her, standing so small and forlorn in the rain, looking up at him as though he were a pop star or a holy man.
"I know who you are," she said quietly, "you don't have to pretend."
"You do? Well, you can come in out of the rain if you like. I'm afraid I can't say the same about you."
He reached out and she took his hand and allowed him to help her up the high step into the passenger seat. He closed the door gently behind her. She sat with the carrier bag on her knee, still looking at him in that wide-eyed, worshipful way. He found it downright unnerving.
"What can I do for you?" he asked in a tone as conversational as he could muster.
"Save me," she said with a quiet confidence.
Benny stared at her. She was small, probably about his own age, quite pretty, evidently entirely insane. Why did he always have to get landed with the fruitcakes? "If I could save someone," he said evenly, trying not to sound harsh, because he didn't want to offend the girl, "I would save myself."
"Do you really not know who you are?" she asked calmly.
"I thought I did. Okay, who am I then?"
"You're an angel. And you have been sent to save me."
Benny sighed. Fruitcakes. The whole world was teeming with fruitcakes. European ones, Asian ones, black ones... Where did they all come from? Why did they all pick on him? "Sweetheart, you seem very nice, and if I was in the saving business I would be happy to oblige. But I am not an angel and I have not been sent by anybody to do anything. My name is Benny Harper. I study Electrical Engineering at the University of the South Bank. My parents live in Wiltshire. I haven't been to church since I was about twelve years old. Trust me, I would know if I was an angel."
She studied him even more closely. "Is it possible that you really don't know?" She seemed to struggle for the right words. "Then perhaps I must tell you. Every night, before I go to sleep in the room with my two sisters, I pray to The Almighty to save me from this marriage to Rehan, my second cousin. It is what my family requires, I have no choice in the matter. I know that The Almighty is real and that he hears my prayers, but I believe that this marriage is the will of my father, not the will of The Almighty. I beg The Almighty, if it is his sacred will, to send one of his angels to save me from this loveless and unnatural match. Rehan repels me, he is old and bad-tempered and has bad skin. I have begged them all not to make me wed this man, now there is no one left to beg except The Almighty himself. But The Almighty knows all things and hears all things. And this night in my dream I heard the voice of The Almighty saying I must go outside at once, that the angel had been sent. I would see the angel arrive, all in blue. I made sure nobody saw and I came down the stairs, and as I opened the door I saw you arrive - all in blue."
"All in blue...? You mean, in a blue van?"
She nodded and smiled disarmingly.
"Sweetheart, this is terrible. I don't want to let you down, but I'm no angel and this van is no fiery chariot, and I have no power to save anybody from anything. I'm a student, damn it. And a part time nightclub bouncer. I don't do rescue missions. You've got it all wrong. See?" He turned his back momentarily. "No wings."
"The Almighty did not say anything about wings."
Benny felt lost. Completely out of his depth. He sat in silence for a few moments.
"What can I say to you that's going to convince you you've got the wrong person?"
She thought for a moment. "Very well, Mr. Benny. If you did not come for me, why did you come?"
Benny's brow furrowed as he considered the question. "I have no idea," he admitted at last.
"You do not know, but The Almighty knows," she assured him quietly.
He shook his head and looked at her sadly, and beyond her small trusting face at the rain that was still running in twisting rivulets down the side window. "What's your name, sweetheart?"
"Fatima. Right. That's a lovely name. Look, Fatima, this is crazy. I am not an angel. I'm not even a very good man. I've just had a flaming row with my girlfriend and I was thinking pretty damned uncharitable thoughts about her just before you showed up. I don't have anything to offer you. You've got to get that straight. You shouldn't be here. I'm sorry about Rehan but there's nothing I can do about it. You shouldn't trust... people like this. You don't know anything about me."
"If the Lord of the Universe trusts you I can trust you too."
For a moment they were both silent. Benny had been in some pretty weird situations but this one took the biscuit.
"Perhaps that's all that an angel is," Fatima volunteered at last. "An ordinary man that The Almighty trusts."
"Well, if that's so I'm not very impressed with him as a judge of character."
Fatima smiled. Across the courtyard Benny saw more figures appear close to the refuse bins - tall, striding male figures, talking in a mixture of English and a language that Benny did not know. Two of them. They were coming straight towards the van.
"My father," Fatima explained with a commendable calmness, "and Rehan. He came to our flat to speak with my parents tonight..."
Instinctively Benny reached for the ignition. The engine was still warm and started instantly. "I kind of think maybe it's time we weren't around," he said weakly.
"Please wait. Let my father speak." She rolled down her window and a few drops of rain blew across on to Benny's face.
The men stopped a few feet from the van and stared in open-mouthed disbelief. It was Rehan who spoke first. Benny could tell by his pitted, crater-like skin, probably the legacy of childhood smallpox. "Is this the daughter you would have me wed?" he intoned in a deep sepulchral bass, "a woman who meets alone with men in a public car park when her sisters have gone to sleep?"
Her father's jaw trembled but it took him a long time to find the words. "I have never felt such shame," he whispered. "Leave us, Rehan. I ask only that you will not talk of what you have seen tonight. Leave my home in peace and friendship. There is nothing for us to discuss. I can give you only my blessing. My eldest daughter is dead." So saying he turned to go.
"I have done nothing wrong, father," she shouted after him, but he was not listening. Benny watched the two of them out of sight. Fatima rolled her window up again. When Benny looked at her the tears were streaming silently down her face.
"Fatima," he put his hand on her shoulder, "that's a terrible thing for your father to say. I know you must feel awful... but, well, isn't it the will of The Almighty?"
She nodded and tried to dry her tears on the backs of her hands.
"It seems to be a night for break-ups," Benny said sadly. "Put on your seat belt, Fatima. This isn't the best place for us to be."
"Where are we going?"
"Don't ask me sweetheart. I haven't the foggiest. What have you got in that bag?" As he spoke he nosed the van out of the courtyard and rejoined the dual carriageway, which was now completely deserted.
"In this?" She held it up. "My passport, my Birth Certificate. My school reports and exam results... a little bit of money... my toothbrush... everything I thought I would need."
"You and The Almighty planned this between you, didn't you?"
She nodded. She was almost smiling.
"You are wrong about The Almighty," she scolded him gently, "he is a very good judge of character.
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