The thunder starts as we’re saying goodbye, leaving each other for the summer holidays ahead. A loud crack echoes off the ground, making Connie jump. John laughs, the hot air dense around us.
‘You need to hurry!’ he shouts.
With a quick wave I run to my car. As I reach it, my mobile starts ringing, its sound muffled by my bag. From the ringtone I know that it’s Matthew.
‘I’m on my way,’ I tell him, fumbling for the door handle in the dark. ‘I’m just getting in the car.’
‘Already?’ His voice comes down the line. ‘I thought you were going back to Connie’s.’
‘I was, but the thought of you waiting for me was too tempting,’ I tease. The flat tone to his voice registers. ‘Is everything all right?’ I ask.
‘Yes, it’s just that I’ve got an awful migraine. It started about an hour ago and it’s getting steadily worse. That’s why I’m phoning. Do you mind if I go up to bed?’
I feel the air heavy on my skin and think of the storm looming; no rain has arrived yet but instinct tells me it won’t be far behind. ‘Of course not. Have you taken anything for it?’
‘Yes, but it doesn’t seem to be shifting. I thought I’d go and lie down in the spare room; that way, if I do fall asleep, you won’t disturb me when you come in.’
‘I don’t really like going to bed without knowing you’re back safely.’
I smile at this. ‘I’ll be fine, it’ll only take me forty minutes. Unless I come back through the woods, by Blackwater Lane.’
‘Don’t you dare!’ I can almost sense a shaft of pain rocketing through his head at his raised tone. ‘Ouch, that hurt,’ he says, and I wince in sympathy. He lowers his voice to a more bearable level. ‘Cass, promise you won’t come back that way. First of all, I don’t want you driving through the woods on your own at night and, second, there’s a storm coming.’
‘OK, I won’t,’ I say hastily, folding myself onto the driver’s seat and dropping my bag onto the seat next to me.
‘Promise.’ I turn the key in the ignition and shift the car into gear, the phone now hot between my shoulder and ear.
‘Drive carefully,’ he cautions.
‘I will. Love you.’
‘Love you more.’
I put my phone in my bag, smiling at his insistence. As I manoeuvre out of the parking space, fat drops of rain splatter onto my windscreen. Here it comes, I think.
By the time I get to the dual carriageway, the rain is coming down hard. Stuck behind a huge lorry, my wipers are no match for the spray thrown up by its wheels. As I move out to pass it, lightning streaks across the sky and, falling back into a childhood habit, I begin a slow count in my head. The answering rumble of thunder comes when I get to four. Maybe I should have gone back to Connie’s with the others, after all. I could have waited out the storm there, while John amused us with his jokes and stories. I feel a sudden stab of guilt at the look in his eyes when I’d said I wouldn’t be joining them. It had been clumsy of me to mention Matthew. What I should have said was that I was tired, like Mary, our Head, had.
The rain becomes a torrent and the cars in the fast lane drop their speed accordingly. They converge around my little Mini and the sudden oppression makes me pull back into the slow lane. I lean forward in my seat, peering through the windscreen, wishing my wipers would work a little faster. A lorry thunders past, then another and when it cuts back into my lane without warning, causing me to brake sharply, it suddenly feels too dangerous to stay on this road. More lightning forks the sky and in its wake the sign for Nook’s Corner, the little hamlet where I live, looms into view. The black letters on the white background, caught in the headlights and glowing like a beacon in the dark, seem so inviting that, suddenly, at the very last minute, when it’s almost too late, I veer off to the left, taking the short cut that Matthew didn’t want me to take. A horn blares angrily behind me and as the sound chases me down the pitch-black lane into the woods, it feels like an omen.