HIGH HOPES ON THE HIGHWAY by Caroline Drew (3rd place Jan21)

Moments before he slammed the door behind him, Charles could hear the sound of his wife’s loud laughter rolling in his head. She’d describe it as having her giggle-mug on, but she had a tendency towards vulgarity and many times he’d admonished her about this. She’d once infuriated him by retorting ‘I’ll use my sauce-box how I like’. Baiting him. That was in the very early days, though, and he’d subdued some of that wildness since then. If he could harness the power of a full sixteen hands of proud Cleveland Bay with their thoroughbred blood and raw energy – in fact regularly hitch a team of four of them to his will and direction – then he was confident he could handle this woman he’d married on a whim.

He grimaced. His status-conscious family had warned him that she was beneath him and his mother had even gone so far as to enquire why he had chosen to take a guttersnipe for a wife. He’d been resolute, as he so often was when crossed. They hadn’t appreciated her charms. And he had to admit that she’d declined to allow him access to them after a very brief honeymoon period. When he’d forced her, she’d bitten him! Vixens should be subjugated, and a good whipping afterwards had silenced her to begin with. She was less voluble for a time but proved no less acid in her remarks – in fact, more venomous than ever after that punishment. He told himself he regretted his loss of temper, and gruffly petitioned for her forgiveness. A wary glint in her eyes indicated that she wasn’t ready to do so. She was a handful and a half.

On this occasion, the door slamming was not ill-meant but simply an indication of his hurry to adhere to his own strict rules of time-keeping. Indeed, he felt well-disposed towards his wife this morning. Not only was it his forty-ninth birthday, but also she’d presented him with a present! A promising change of heart, as she’d long since told him she didn’t care much for giving gifts (although, he noted, she wasn’t averse to receiving them).

Perhaps this gesture heralded her willingness to consider an amnesty between them. He was heartened and felt it right he should tell her so, unaccustomed though he was to voicing his feelings.

He admired the large, tapestry-covered cushion, popping up plush from its wrapping. ‘If you give me no other gift ever, I shall be content with this one, remember it until my dying day and consider myself well-rewarded, Gwendoline.’

She’d cocked her head low towards her shoulder and dimpled (how fetching he’d once found those dimples – still did in her more malleable moods) and her smile broke into a chuckle until she threw back her head, laughing, her auburn ringlets dancing like flames. Such merriment. Another encouraging sign? A harbinger of a less quarrelsome future? It would make his retirement so much more pleasant than he’d feared.

‘I shall use it in my favourite chair.’

She stopped laughing: ‘No. You must use it today. Prove to me you really like it. This is your last journey on that blasted stage coach and you should mark the occasion with something special. I’d be hurt, otherwise, Charles.’

‘I’d prefer you not to use profane language, Gwendoline. Also, I’m not supposed to add my own accoutrements to my uniform or position. As driver I have standards to uphold…’

‘On your last day? No, no, no. Well – use it at the beginning of your trip and when you reach the staging post you can hide it away if you’re ashamed of it. This accoutrement is a gift from your loving wife and you want to treat it like a poxy piece of trash! I’m very disappointed…’ her lower lip trembled.

This nonplussed him. Perhaps he should accommodate her in this since she had made an effort to be conciliatory. More than that: hadn’t she hinted at affection here? He swallowed hard and resolved to be gracious. ‘No, dear. You misunderstand me. I really value this. I shall certainly use it after all. On the first stage of the journey along the high-hedged lanes where I fly along at such a pace nobody can see detail anyway…’

‘Thank you, Charles. We both know that route so well and I’ll imagine every twist and turn of it with my cushion comforting you, reminding you of me and raising your … spirits.’

A hope hoved into view that they might live together with less acrimony in the future. Suppose he tried to be more yielding?  She might no longer accuse him of being a high-hatted snob, which taunts had generally given rise to him lashing out. Shrewishness became no woman, however attractive her dimples. She had to learn and it was his cross to bear that he must teach her.

Almost seven o’clock and the slight altercation with his wife had put him at risk of being late. Unacceptable. He prided himself on his punctuality, knowing that to arrive on duty early was essential if he was to receive good tips from the passengers travelling on the Royal Mail coach. He adjusted his coat collar to its best advantage and held his new cushion tightly, pressing it into the gleaming embossed buttons on his chest. He must create a good impression. These passengers’ tips would be his last and Gwendoline would miss the guinea a week he earned for his services to the Royal Mail.

He placed the cushion ready and hoisted himself up onto his seat. He towered. He smiled. This was an auspicious day and the gleaming red of the coach’s body, cradled in its black framework and bearing the gold crest with which he so associated the best hours of his life, fired him up with delight. He would break his records for speed today and may the devil take anyone who rankled at the jolts it must cause his passengers. This was his day! His birthday and his retirement day.

The hedgerows tore past him in a blur as the sun rose fully in the lemon light of morning. Exhilarated, joyful, he held the reins of the four horses lightly and laughed as the wind whipped his face. At least ten miles an hour, he reckoned. He would reach the Windmill Inn well ahead of time and the Guard in the well at the rear of the coach had better raise his key horn soon to bugle the notes warning of their approach. Charles considered the man a sluggard and, back there in the well at the rear of the coach was a position from which he’d never rise. Not to Charles’s heights.

The stretch of road descending into the village outskirts curved sharply. He remembered the imposing bridge that straddled the highway just beyond that bend. So low he only just flew beneath it. In the mist at the back of his mind a warning glimmered. He would face the bridge in seconds. He knew its height. Today he was higher than usual, plumped up high on his cushion. His birthday cushion. His wife’s unexpected gift. The one that she had so prettily beseeched him to use. The warning light flashed brighter.

He was well used to leaning into the camber of the road as he rounded the bend, manipulating the course of the four powerful horses with his dextrous hold on the reins. He would have no chance to shift his weight in any other direction, nor to stoop if he was to keep the beasts from careering sideways. He could not shift. He saw the stonework of the arch as its vault loomed. Stark. An unavoidable answer to the question that swung into his incredulous mind.

The bridge hung hard and low. Gwendoline’s words echoed. Moments before the masonry slammed into him, Charles could hear the sound of his wife’s loud laughter rolling in his head.

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