The original plan had been for two weeks in Italy. A romantic hideaway up in the hills. That might still be Emma’s plan but I neither knew nor cared. She could do what she liked, where she liked, with whomever she liked. The break-up had come as a complete shock but, just a fortnight on, I’d already convinced myself I was better off without her. Maybe I was, maybe not. We’d been together for five years but weren’t engaged and neither of us had ever mentioned the M word. There was a good reason for that, I supposed and the good reason had, as it turned out, been called Damian.
So here I was, with two weeks spare and Italy no longer on the agenda, driving around Scotland by myself in the Mondeo instead. Taking in the magnificent scenery, enjoying the unexpectedly sunny weather, staying at small inns I happened across, with no fixed itinerary and no plans that couldn’t be changed by whatever was around the next corner.
And what was around the next corner turned out to be an artic. A big one, thirty tonnes or more, so what exactly it was doing careering around this minor road snaking through the high Cairngorms I had no idea. It appeared out of nowhere, swinging wide onto my side of the road just as I entered the bridge. I had literally nowhere to go.
Well, that wasn’t quite true. I had one place to go and that, unfortunately for me, was through the crash barrier and over the side of the bridge, the barrier failing dismally to do the job for which it was designed. Unlike the artic, I hadn’t been driving particularly fast but the car carried on for a surprisingly long time before gravity came to the party and persuaded the bonnet to start dipping downwards. As it did so, the river three hundred feet below came into view through the windscreen. It was a magnificent view, all things considered, but I wasn’t in the best position to appreciate it, especially as it was a view that was getting rapidly closer. I tried to think coherently, although I couldn’t see any way that a bad few weeks wasn’t about to get drastically worse. I switched the engine off. I’m not sure why, maybe I thought the car would be less likely to explode on impact, as if that would make a material difference to my chances of staying alive, which were, frankly, zero in any possible scenario I could come up with. I also undid my seatbelt, thinking, ridiculously, that I could make a leap for safety just before the car hit the ground. I wouldn’t kill myself jumping from, say, six feet up, would I? You can probably tell that physics was never my strongest subject.
By the time I’d done both those things, the river was much, much nearer, so I shut my eyes and prayed. Not that I believe in anything or anybody worth praying to. Still, now seemed a good time to find out if I’d been wrong about that all my life. That would be the life about to be extinguished at the distressingly early age of thirty. Half a second later, I opened them again, firstly because I realised I needed to be able to judge the right moment if I was going to make the aforesaid jump for it. And secondly, because something about the car’s downward plunge had altered. For a moment I couldn’t work out what the change was, but I quickly realised that my headlong descent into the valley had slowed. And not just a little either; it had slowed dramatically. If it hadn’t, I’d already have made landfall. Even with my sketchy physics, I suspected that mass times gravity would do its stuff in a few seconds tops.
Also, the car was levelling out. It made no sense at all but it was undeniably true. The magnificent, if incredibly frightening view of the river through the windscreen had gone, to be replaced by the sight of clear blue sky. I turned my head and it was the same through the side windows. Sky, nothing but sky, although the mountain from which I’d just been ejected filled the rear window. I could feel the downward momentum of the Mondeo continuing to slow until it was barely moving at all. I appeared to be sitting in a flying car, pretty much a hovering car. But how? A wave of dizziness swept over me and I started sweating. I gripped the sides of my seat tightly and found I was holding my breath. I could now see the tree covered slopes of the lower valley through the windows as the car floated gently downwards. And then, finally, with the softest of bumps, it came to rest on the ground.
I sat where I was for perhaps half a minute, still sweating and waiting for my breathing to return to something like normal. I could see the river through the windscreen, very close now but no longer rushing towards me. In fact I was parked – although parked didn’t seem like the right word – on a small, shingle beach and as the ground didn’t look particularly firm, I thought it would be best if I got out of the car.
I opened the door and stepped gingerly out on to the rough shingle which ran down to the river about fifteen feet away. My legs threatened to give way but holding on to the door for support I made it to an upright position and stood there for a few seconds staring at the river rushing past, wondering what the hell had just happened and almost as importantly, given that I was still alive, what I should do next. Those thoughts were interrupted by a small cough from behind me.
I turned quickly, too quickly really, as a wave of nausea swept over me. Luckily I was still holding on to the door. Looking at me from the other side of the car was a girl, well, young woman really, probably in her early twenties. She was leaning on the car roof with her arms folded and had a smile playing about her lips. I looked at the smile and then I looked at the rest of her, or at least that part which I could see above the folded arms and the car roof. She had strawberry blonde hair, long, tousled and blowing in the breeze off the river. Her green eyes were staring at me unblinkingly and were set in a lightly tanned face of quite breathtaking loveliness. I could see the thin straps of a white vest stretched over broad shoulders, but the vest itself was hidden by the crossed arms, also tanned; toned as well, as though she spent a long time in the gym.
‘Hi,’ she said. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Yes,’ I replied. I was quite surprised that I was able to speak. ‘I think so. At least, I’m a lot more all right than I thought I was going to be a couple of minutes ago.’
‘Good,’ she said, nodding. ‘You were lucky.’
I looked around. She was the only person in sight, and I couldn’t quite work out where she had come from or how she had arrived at the shingle beach. There were no obvious paths through the thick undergrowth that stretched all the way back to the foot of the cliff. Far above me the road and bridge were empty. I could see the hole in the crash barrier caused by the Mondeo plunging through it. I couldn’t see the artic, so the driver had clearly not considered that driving me off the road and into a three-hundred foot gorge to my certain death had been good enough reason to stop. Except of course that it hadn’t been my certain death as I was, demonstrably, still alive. I had yet to discover how.
The girl had followed my gaze. ‘Ah, yes,’ she said. ‘The lorry driver. Well, we can deal with him later.’ It seemed a strange thing to say. ‘If you want to, of course,’ she added even more strangely.
‘Did you see what happened?’ I ventured.
She screwed up her face, her nose wrinkling in an appealing way. ‘Well, of course,’ she said. ‘As I say, it was lucky for you I did.’
Now, by this point you’re probably ahead of me. You’re probably screaming “Supergirl!” or something like that at the page. But put yourself in my shoes. As far as I knew, and whilst admitting once again my thin knowledge of physics, “supergirls” don’t exist outside a comic book or a cinema screen, although some thoughts along those lines were beginning to seep their way into my understandably befuddled brain. However, I wasn’t sure how to go about suggesting to this lovely girl – young woman, rather – who was still leaning, cross-armed on the roof of the Mondeo five feet away, that she might possess the sort of superhuman abilities of flight and enhanced strength that would enable her to catch a ton and a half of falling family saloon and carry it gently three hundred feet down to ground level. It was likely that she’d laugh and say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. I was just out for a walk. I think a gust of wind caught you.’
All in all, I was taking quite a while to work out the least fatuous thing to say and, to be fair, she wasn’t trying to hurry me. If patience was a super power, she certainly had that one down to a T. She carried on smiling at me across the car roof.
‘Umm,’ I said eventually. My ability to speak, as well as think, coherently was becoming disappointingly compromised.
I think she took pity at that point. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
‘Stuart,’ I said. Saying my name prompted my mouth to start working again so I responded in time-honoured fashion. ‘And yours?’
‘Samantha. Or Sam, usually.’ It wasn’t what I was expecting. It seemed a little bland for a superheroine, if indeed that’s what she was. She may have read my thoughts. ‘Nice to meet you, Stuart. And, to put you out of your misery, the answer’s yes.’
‘Yes?’ My ability to speak in whole sentences was still taking its time to return.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It was me who caught you and stopped you squishing yourself on those rocks over there.’ She pointed behind her at the rocks lining the foot of the cliff. It was the first time she’d uncrossed her arms since I’d got out of the car and in so doing, she’d straightened up to give me a sight of her white vest. And the chest it covered. You won’t be surprised to hear that the chest didn’t disappoint. Standing straight, she was about the same height as me, five foot ten or thereabouts. She carried on, suddenly sounding quite businesslike. ‘You can thank me later. Perhaps I’ll let you buy me a drink. I think I deserve one. Especially as you’re my first rescue. Before that though, I think we need to deal with that bastard who drove you off the road.’
At least ten minutes had passed since that had happened and, even driving thirty tonnes of artic along narrow Cairngorms roads, the driver must have been four or five miles away by now. ‘But how…?’ I started to say, but stopped immediately as Sam began to rise slowly into the air, revealing the rest of the white vest and a pair of tight, pale blue jeans encasing predictably long and shapely legs. White trainers completed the ensemble.
She could see what I was thinking. Maybe telepathy was one of her super powers. ‘Yes, I know,’ she said, indicating her clothing. ‘It’s not the most appropriate outfit, is it? I’ve not decided what to do about that yet.’ I’m ashamed to admit that a picture of Sam, not in a blue one-piece with a billowing red cape, but in a bikini, flashed through my mind at that point. ‘No, not that,’ she said. So that was a definite yes to the telepathy then. But at least she was smiling as she said it. I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to turn me to ashes with those green eyes but it looked like I was safe for now.
And then she was gone. She literally disappeared from in front of my eyes. I looked up but there was no trace of her. It was as if she had never existed. Only the gap in the crash barrier three hundred feet above me and the fact that I was marooned next to a fast-flowing Highland river with no obvious way of making my way back to the road gave any indication that something out of the ordinary had just occurred. And of course the Mondeo, sitting in on a shingle beach and retrievable only by helicopter.
Or a supergirl.
I could imagine the response I’d get were I to make it to a police station to report the afternoon’s events. ‘Yes, sir, and what exactly happened after you were driven off the bridge by the lorry?’
I was already starting to convince myself that Sam, “Super Sam”, was a figment of my imagination. Perhaps I had been caught by an improbably strong gust of wind. Perhaps I’d knocked myself unconscious on the way down or when I’d landed, and my brain was playing tricks on me.
Anyway, figment or real, I had no way of knowing if Sam was going to return. True, she’d suggested I buy her a drink later but she wouldn’t be the first girl who’d said that and not followed through. She’d gone to find the lorry, she’d said, but it could be anywhere by now. The mountains and trees hid a multitude of possible turnings. There was no knowing where it was headed: Aberdeen? Inverness? Perth? Anywhere. Even for a supergirl, locating it seemed a difficult task. And what then? She’d called the driver a bastard. I certainly agreed with her there but it did suggest she was going to be quite angry if she actually caught up with him (or her, I found myself thinking; I’d had no time to spot the driver’s gender before driving through the crash barrier). What was she planning to do? Kill him or her?
It was a concern but there was nothing I could do about it and, with no certainty that she hadn’t just flown home for her tea, and with evening approaching, I realised I needed to make a move before it got too dark. In terms of which way to move, I only had two choices. Upstream or downstream. I chose downstream, roughly eastwards. It made more sense. There were definitely towns in that direction although only Braemar came to mind. It was where they held the Highland Games, I recalled, although the game I’d been involved in this afternoon was unlike anything they’d ever come up with there.
I shrugged on the thin windcheater I had in my suitcase in the boot of the car, shoved a few essentials into my pockets and began walking. The essentials didn’t include any food or water, unfortunately. I hadn’t planned on any long walks when I’d set out this morning. Still, I’d had a decent pub lunch a few hours earlier so I wasn’t starving.
I started off alongside the river, tripping and sliding over the jumbled rocks, loose gravel and slippery, occasionally spiky, undergrowth that lined its banks. Immediately I could see that progress would be very slow and very difficult; and I had no idea how far I’d have to walk. All without food or water.
Still, I reflected, it was a lot better than, to use Sam’s phrase, being squished on the rocks at the foot of the cliff.
I’d been trudging along, cursing frequently, for about ten minutes when I heard Sam’s voice again. ‘Language, Stuart!’ it said, scoldingly. I hadn’t heard her arrive so the sound of her voice, welcome though it was, made me jump. The jump made me slip on a damp rock – I wasn’t really wearing the correct footwear for this kind of exercise – and I toppled six feet down into the river on my left.
Well, what I should say was that I started to topple six feet down into the river. I’d only fallen about four of the six feet though when the back of my collar was gripped firmly and my downward plunge was arrested. For a second I found myself hanging stationary in mid-air two feet above the uninviting water, choking as my collar bit into my neck. Then I floated up and sideways and was deposited gently back on to the rock from which I’d slipped.
‘I’d say that’s two drinks you owe me now, Stuart,’ Sam said from behind me as she released the grip she’d had on my collar. ‘You really should be more careful.’ Gulping air, I turned to face her. She was hovering a foot above the ground and, I kid you not, holding my Mondeo casually over her head in her right hand. I took an involuntary step back, luckily away from the river, out from under the shadow of the car. Sam laughed. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I’m not going to drop it. I doubt if your insurance company would pay up and I don’t want you suing me for the cost. It’s fortunate for you that I had a spare hand to stop you getting wet.’ She floated down to earth again, a ton and a half of car still held over her head as if she was completely unaware of the weight. ‘You’re beginning to take quite a lot of looking out for. I was hoping for something a little less complicated for a first job.’
‘Thank you,’ I stammered. ‘Again.’ I pointed to the car. ‘What are you going to do with that?’ I was finding the whole concept of having a car hanging over me quite disconcerting.
She looked up as if noticing the Mondeo for the first time. ‘This?’ she said. ‘Well, you seemed to have left it behind when you started walking so I thought I’d better bring it along.’ She paused again, her nose once more crinkling up as she smiled, a set of impossibly perfect, white teeth lightening the gloom caused by the sun beginning to disappear behind the mountain, not to mention the deeper shadow of the car. ‘Anyway,’ she continued. ‘Where did you think you were going? I can tell you, you’d have been in for at least a ten mile hike before you reached any sort of road and then another five miles to the nearest village. I told you I’d be coming back.’
She hadn’t actually but I let it go. Probably best not to contradict a supergirl, I thought. So far, she’d been nothing but friendly but she had called the lorry driver a bastard so you never knew if her mood could switch and I didn’t want the Mondeo dropped on my head. Talking of the lorry driver… ‘So, erm,’ I said, ‘did you find the artic, by any chance?’
‘Oh, yes,’ she said. ‘He hadn’t gone very far.’ So it was a he, then.
‘And, erm, did you, er…’ I stopped, unsure what to say but I didn’t need to go any further because Sam’s by now obvious telepathic abilities kicked in again.
‘What?’ she said, the nose uncrinkling and her brows knitting together. For the first time, she looked quite cross. ‘Stuart, how could you? Kill him? What do you take me for?’
It was no good pretending that hadn’t been what I’d been thinking. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘But you did call him a bastard.’
‘Yes, and that’s nothing to what I called him when I caught up with him. I doubt he’ll be driving like that again.’ She paused and laughed. ‘Actually, he’s going to find it quite hard to drive at all for a while. I’m not entirely sure how he’s going to get his lorry off the mountain.’
‘Mountain?’ I said, my eyes looking up at the one above us. There was no sign of an articulated lorry on it.
‘Ben Nevis,’ she clarified. ‘It seemed like a suitable punishment. I imagine he’ll be rescued sooner or later – he definitely has a phone – but it won’t be by me.’
‘Ben Nevis?’ I said. ‘But that’s miles away, sixty or seventy at least.’
‘If you say so,’ she said. ‘Geography’s not really my strong point. It’s the only Scottish mountain I know the name of.’
‘But you were only gone about ten minutes,’ I said. She shrugged, causing the Mondeo to wobble alarmingly in her right hand. I took another step back. I tried to picture a thirty-tonne artic being flown seventy miles across the middle of Scotland by the beautiful girl – no, woman, damn it – in front of me in a matter of a few minutes but my brain couldn’t really cope with the image.
‘Did anyone see you?’ I asked. If so, I could picture the headlines on the ten o’clock news. My brain had no difficulty with that image.
Sam shrugged again and again the car wobbled. Still, I was pretty certain by now that she was unlikely to drop it. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Probably not. There was no one around when I stopped him. His name’s Derek Thomson, by the way, if you feel like pressing charges, although I think he’s probably been punished enough…‘
‘By being marooned on the top of Ben Nevis,’ I said. ‘Yes, that should do it.’
‘As I was saying,’ she gave me a sort of glare but clearly her heart wasn’t in it. ‘There was nobody there when I spoke to Derek to point out the error of his ways and, as you’ve just pointed out, the flight to Ben Nevis was quite quick – in fact, I think he may have blacked out briefly, but he was definitely OK when I left him – and I was flying pretty high. So the chances of anyone noticing are probably quite small and even if they did, would they report it? Would you go to the police and tell them you saw a girl flying overhead carrying a big lorry?’
She had a point so I thought I’d change the subject, especially as dusk was setting in and I was beginning to get cold. I was more and more grateful that Sam hadn’t just let me carry on struggling along the riverbank into the night. I was also grateful for the whole previous catching me and saving my life thing, of course. It was about time I confirmed my gratitude. ‘Thanks, again, Sam,’ I said. ‘You’re right, it was lucky you were in the same part of Scotland as me when Thomson drove me off the bridge. I owe you my life.’
‘Not a problem,’ she replied bobbing her head. Again the Mondeo wobbled slightly. I managed not to take another step back this time. ‘You’re wrong though. I wasn’t in Scotland when you went through the barrier. I was actually only just setting out from home.’
‘Oh?’ I said. This was confusing. ‘And where’s home?’
‘I’m not sure I should say.’ She frowned but the green eyes were smiling. ‘My mother told me it was dangerous to let strange men know where I live.’ Dangerous for whom? It was a fleeting thought but again she picked it up. ‘Well, yes, I agree, probably not for me, all things considered, but all mums worry, don’t they? If you must know, I live near Winchester.’
‘Winchester? But that must be five hundred miles away.’ This was another impossible thing to add to the growing list of impossible things that had happened this afternoon.
‘I’ll take your word for it. As I say, I’m not good with geography. Anyway, I’d just hit a sort of low orbit, fifty thousand feet or so up, when I heard the screech of metal, zoned in and saw you start to fall, so I thought it would be as good a way as any to start my new rescuing career. And well, you know the rest.’
I’d thought that flying to Ben Nevis and back in ten minutes was pretty good going but if she was telling the truth then she’d made it five hundred miles up from Hampshire in under two seconds to catch me and the Mondeo.
Obviously, she knew what I was thinking. ‘I hope you’re not calling me a liar, Stuart.’ For the second time her brows knitted together and she looked cross. Then she grimaced. ‘Although I can understand that it may seem unlikely from your point of view.’
‘Isn’t your arm getting tired?’ I asked, changing the subject and indicating the Mondeo which, in case you’ve forgotten, was still hanging about seven feet above the ground.
She glanced up, unconcernedly. ‘Not really,’ she said, ‘but neither do I want to be standing here holding this all night.’ She shook the hand holding the Mondeo slightly, making it sway a few feet from side to side and creak disconcertingly. ‘So, shall we get back up on to the road?’
‘Good idea,’ I said. ‘It’s getting chilly,’ and I was indeed beginning to shiver as the temperature dropped, despite wearing the windcheater I’d recovered from my suitcase, which, let us not forget, was still in the boot of the Mondeo. I doubted if I could have lifted the suitcase over my head, let alone the suitcase and the car it was in. Sam of course, was still wearing nothing but the white vest and blue jeans but she definitely wasn’t shivering.
‘Oh, of course,’ she said, a small look of concern passing across her face. ‘I don’t really feel the cold. Let’s get going.’ She glanced around briefly. ‘There’s nowhere to put your car down safely here so I think it best if I carry you up to the road with my spare arm, if that’s OK with you, and you can get back in it then. As long as you don’t think that’s too embarrassing.’
I agreed. I wasn’t in any fit state to attempt the sort of gymnastic manoeuvres required to clamber up nearly six feet of supergirl and into the Mondeo and I reckoned I could live with the embarrassment of being carried three hundred feet upwards by the lovely girl – well, that was how she’d referred to herself, after all – next to me. I moved closer, back into the deep shade that the car was now casting, and she wrapped her left arm around my waist, pulled me close – definitely the best feeling I could remember having, possibly ever – smiled at me from a distance of about six inches, and said, ‘Ready?’
I nodded, smiling back – it would have been impossible not to – and immediately we were floating gently upwards. She had obviously decided to take it slowly, at a rough guess, probably a billion times more slowly than her flight from Winchester; but it still only took a minute – a thoroughly enjoyable minute – to reach the road next to the bridge with the broken crash barrier. She placed me lightly on the ground and, equally easily, lowered the Mondeo to the roadside verge.
‘That was nice,’ I said. Master of understatement, me.
‘Yes,’ she said, smiling. She hadn’t made a move away from me after relieving herself of her twin burdens. Neither of which had, of course, been the slightest bit burdensome to her. ‘You’ll be off now, I guess.’
‘I suppose so,’ I said, stupidly. Her smile vanished, to be replaced by a look of what I can only call disappointment. Now I’ve never been particularly good at deciphering what women are thinking – witness Emma’s wholly unexpected departure from my life with Damian a fortnight ago – and I’d zero experience in that respect with supergirls, but it did look as if she was moderately unhappy at the thought of my driving off with a cheery “goodbye and thanks”. ‘Erm,’ I said, ‘mind you, Sam, I believe I owe you a couple of drinks. Would now be a good time? Unless you’ve got any more rescuing to do, of course.’
The smile was back on her face instantly and she leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. It was only a peck as kisses go but still infinitely more satisfying than any other kiss I’ve ever had. ‘Thank you, Stuart,’ she said. ‘That would be lovely. Now is the perfect time. I think I’ve done all the rescuing I can manage for one day.’ She paused and frowned. ‘Possibly ever.’
‘Ever?’ I said, astonished. ‘Speaking as an integral participant in the rescue, I can confirm you’re extremely good at it. Especially if that really was your first time.’
‘Yes, I was definitely a virgin in the field of rescuing crashing motorists until I met you,’ she said, smiling again. ‘But I’m not sure it’s really me. I’m quite a simple girl really with simple tastes. It’d be hard to keep it secret if I carry on and I don’t think I’d like all the publicity. My time would never be my own. Anyway,’ and she indicated her vest and jeans, ‘I don’t have the uniform.’
I grinned. ‘The uniform looks great to me,’ I said. ‘Anyway, drink it is. There must be a decent pub somewhere when we get off this mountain. Are we driving or flying?’
‘We can’t leave your car here,’ she said. ‘I’ve not gone to all this trouble just to have it totalled by the next lorry to drive round that corner. I’ll hop in with you.’ She turned to look at the broken crash barrier. ‘One moment, though. I ought to do something about that first. We don’t want anyone else to drive through the hole. I won’t be here to save them if I’ve retired and I’m having a drink with you.’ She walked over to the barrier and grasped the thick, badly bent and mangled metal in her right hand, straightened it easily and then fused the broken pieces together with casually applied pressure from her fingers. She stood back and admired her handiwork. ‘That should do it,’ she said. ‘At least temporarily.’
She looked at the hand she’d used to straighten the barrier, the same one that had previously lifted my car over her head for about fifteen minutes, and then held it up for me to see. It was covered in black grease. ‘When was the last time you had your car cleaned, Stuart?’ she said. ‘Look what it’s done to my hand. I hope the pub we find has a decent Ladies with soap and water.’
She laughed again and, rising into the air, floated over the Mondeo and landed softly next to the passenger door. Opening it, she got in and I followed suit behind the wheel. ‘Take me to these drinks,’ she commanded, ‘and if the pub serves food too, that would be really good. I’m famished. It’s been a busy day.’
I started the engine and turned to her. ‘You eat proper food then,’ I said. ‘No special supergirl diet?’
‘What do you think I eat?’ she asked indignantly. ‘Engine blocks? Steel girders? Hand grenades? What are you suggesting?’
‘Sorry,’ I said, letting out the clutch. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking.’
‘It’s OK, Stuart,’ she said, rubbing my left knee with her grease-covered right hand and leaving a smudge on my chinos that I thought I’d probably never bother to wash off. ‘Yes, I eat the same things as all you normal people. Mind you,’ and she paused and looked at me again, her nose once more crinkling sexily, ‘I’m quite expensive to feed. I eat like a horse. After all, a girl’s got to keep her strength up.’