In Kevin's experience, previous road trips from Lyndesfarne to Manchester had fallen into two categories. Either it had apparently taken no time at all, which happened when he had some interesting technical problem to think about and the traffic had been light, or it had seemed interminably long and boring. Normally, Kevin would have driven non-stop, except perhaps to fill the car with overpriced petrol from a service station or grab a take-away coffee from a "Costa-Bomba" outlet. And one other function, perhaps; "take a comfort break" was the code phrase used in his professional meetings to indicate that the internal pressures on the male bladder were becoming unbearable.
This time, with Tanji in the car, he felt like a tourist guide in his own country. He found himself chatting lightly and fluently about the world, answering Tanji's questions. Her questions varied from the naive to the penetrating, and sometimes he was hard pushed to distinguish between the two.
As they drove along, Tanji asked about the electricity pylons they could see striding across the landscape. It was clear that she did not really understand what they were for. Kevin explained about centralised power generation and the grid distribution network that eventually delivered electricity to every home in the land. Waxing lyrical about an engineering topic, as he sometimes did, he explained how the construction of the National Grid was a technological marvel. It had been completed as the result of heroic efforts to get pylons erected in some of the most inhospitable parts of the country, and sometimes in the face of terrible weather conditions.
Kevin had long suspected that few people even in this world understood anything about the wonders and complexities that surrounded them, the chains of cause and effect, the intricate web of interactions that linked, for example, the natural world with its unpredictable behaviour, and the engineering of buildings and the protection and comforts they offered. So many people were inured by familiarity, and Tanji's questions had a way of bringing the complexity and excitement of his world into sharp relief.
Kevin also noticed that Tanji was a very nervous passenger. She seemed unused to the idea of high-speed travel. After a while, once it had become clear to her that she was not in any immediate danger of a collision, she stopped flinching every time a vehicle appeared travelling in the opposite direction. It was Kevin's attempt to distract her that had led to his "history of technology guide" chatter.
After less than an hour's driving, the excitement and danger of the morning suddenly seemed very far away to Kevin, and equally suddenly he started feeling hungry.
"Do you fancy a bite of lunch?" he asked Tanji.
Tanji smiled widely.
"Feeling hungry, are you?" she responded, "I suppose I'm not surprised after this morning's adventure. And, yes, now that you mention it, I'm famished too."
The weather had brightened considerably since the sudden storm, although it was still a little breezy. Kevin drove off the motorway at random, joining the older road that led back towards the coast. They chanced upon a inn, nestled up against the hillside and overlooking a small bay. The bay included a small harbour with a quay which looked almost assertively picturesque, with boats tied up and bobbing on the tide, and the quay itself decorated with lobster pots. The sun glistened on the white paintwork of the old pub building and it looked enormously attractive as a place to stop.
The pub restaurant was small and low-ceilinged, and already nearly full of diners. Kevin was worried for a short while that they would not be able to find a place. Fortunately, in spite of the breeze, they were able to sit at a table outside, sheltered by an old stone wall and a heavily overgrown hedge. The sun warmed them both, and they could watch the sea in the tiny harbour below. Tanji seemed to like the ambience, and she relaxed visibly.
They both ordered and enjoyed some nicely-cooked fish that was delightfully fresh and finely flavoured. This was, as Kevin explained, not because it had been caught somewhere nearby but because many people associated seaside restaurants with fresh fish and ordered it from the menu frequently. So, the management were able to source plentiful and high-quality supplies at reasonable prices.
The restaurant garden was quiet and secluded, and there were few others there - just a small number of elderly couples evidently enjoying a quiet luncheon with their friends in the sunshine. Kevin was rapidly convinced that none of the people present were watching them, or indeed paying them even the slightest bit of attention.
As they were about to leave the fish restaurant, Kevin signalled for the bill, and produced a credit card to pay for it. This was a concept which appeared to intrigue Tanji. She watched fascinated as the waiter swiped the card and produced a chit for Kevin to sign. While they continued their drive south, Kevin tried to explain to Tanji about Electronic Funds Transfer. He outlined how financial accounts were maintained by computers in banks, and that it was possible to authorise payment by the possession of the card and a signature.
"But couldn't anyone just write your name?" asked Tanji.
"Well, they're supposed to check the shape of your signature," he replied, "but fraud is certainly possible. Besides, these days, the old cards are being replaced by PIN cards, where you have to remember a special number."
Tanji looked confused at this, and Kevin explained further. This evolved into a more discursive exploration about the use of computers, which did not appear to be helping her understanding very much. Now I know, thought Kevin, how Professor Alan must feel.
After a while, Tanji fell quiet, and Kevin noticed that she was dozing. He was also feeling very relaxed and was driving very sedately, trying not to wake Tanji with sudden movements. He felt like he was playing hooky, taking a vacation and enjoying life when he should be working for a living. Then he remembered the long hours he had put in during numerous evenings and weekends, and suddenly felt much less guilty.
The rest of the four-hour journey seemed to fly by, and it seemed no time at all before Kevin drew the Volvo up onto the private parking spot just outside his flat. Tanji was still sleeping, and he sat for a moment looking at her before gently nudging her awake. She yawned and stretched, cat-like, and then looked around while Kevin got out of the car and opened the front door.
She gathered her bag and followed him through the door.
"You live here on your own?" she asked.
"Yes, just me," he replied, "It's very small, but quite enough for me."
He guided her down the short corridor, and into the living room. She still looked a little mussed from her nap in the car.
"Do you want to freshen up, take a shower, maybe?" he asked.
"Mmm. Yes, please."
Kevin presented Tanji with a couple of large warm fluffy white towels, taken from the airing cupboard, together with a spare dressing gown. Then, he led her to the bathroom, where he briefly demonstrated the use of the shower before politely retiring.
Twenty minutes later, Tanji emerged from the bathroom to find Kevin in the kitchen. She was wearing his dressing gown, which was much too big for her, and her hair was pulled up in a towel, which made her normally elfin features even more pronounced. Of course, thought Kevin, she did not have a chance to change her appearance before we left Lyndesfarne.
Kevin opened a bottle of a rather fine red Amarone that he had picked up somewhere, and was in fact the sole contents of the wine rack, and poured some into a couple of glasses. He handed one to Tanji, and swirled around and then sniffed the wine in other glass.
"Try this. I think you'll like it."
He pulled out a kitchen stool, taking her hand and offering her the seat. She sat, then sipped from the glass.
"Very nice," she sighed. "Thank you."
Despite the fact that his kitchen looked unused, Kevin was actually quite a capable Chef de Cuisine. It was just that, living on his own, he rarely had an opportunity to cook for anyone and, in any case, spent a considerable amount of time working away from home. Cooking was a skill he had picked up as a student, partially as a cheaper alternative to frequenting fast food outlets, and partially as a way of finding an excuse to spend time with members of the opposite sex. His cooking skills had been intermittently polished and honed over the subsequent couple of decades, and he was now able to be entirely relaxed and chatty while juggling the various cooking processes.
While Tanji was in the shower, Kevin had gone into the kitchen, donned his apron, and undertaken a short but determined rummage in the deepfreeze. He had pulled out a couple of skinless chicken breasts, which he set in a bowl of cold water under a running tap to thaw. He had also managed to find bags of new potatoes and pre-washed mixed green salad in the fridge which looked passable. He had put the potatoes in a pan to boil, and poured the salad into a large bowl he had acquired on a holiday in Tuscany.
While waiting for the spuds to boil, he had set out mats and napkins, cutlery, glasses and plates on the counter top for the two of them. He had then selected peppercorns, herbs and spices from the rack, and poured generous measures into a pestle and mortar to make a Cajun-style coating for the chicken.
"You seem to know what you are doing," remarked Tanji, as she sipped the red wine and watched Kevin moving purposefully around the kitchen.
"Well, yes, thank you. You know, I've always maintained that cooking is an ideal activity for men," he replied, flashing her a quirky smile.
"For men? How so?"
"Well, I find it's really therapeutic to come home after a long hard day at work," he continued, "And be able to take out your frustrations on an onion using a very large kitchen knife."
He wielded the aforementioned article. Tanji grinned widely.
"Besides," Kevin continued more expansively, while ticking off the points on his fingers, "In the kitchen, you can play with fire, use any number of sharp knives, and employ all the gadgets you can think of. And then when you've finished, with a bit of luck, you can eat the result. Obviously for men!" he concluded triumphantly.
Tanji laughed aloud, and the two of them toasted each other with the rich red wine.
"I'm thinking of taking a shower myself. Only be a few minutes. Are you OK to wait here?" he asked.
"Yes, of course. Don't rush for me."
Of course, Kevin did shower and change at top speed. When he returned to the kitchen, he found Tanji staring into space, leaning on the kitchen top and twirling the wineglass in her fingers. Acting on impulse, he moved close behind her, put both hands on her hips and kissed her lightly on the neck. He felt her press against him, prolonging the contact, then turned and returned his kiss, running her tongue over his lips in a way that made him tingle. They held each other for a long moment before separating, smiling at each other with a mixture of warmth and embarrassment.
"Shall I cook your dinner?" he asked.
"Yes please," she replied, "I think you should keep your strength up."
Kevin needed no more prompting. He drained the chicken and deftly sliced the fillets into thin goujons, then coated them in the peppery mixture he had prepared earlier.
He put a frying pan on the gas cooker to heat, adding just a splash of vegetable oil. Once it was hot, he threw the encrusted chicken breasts into the oil to sizzle. While the poultry was cooking, he vigorously combined Dijon mustard, oil and lemon juice to form a salad dressing, and tossed the salad in the bowl. Finally, he arranged the blackened chicken pieces, new potatoes and salad on a couple of plates, even remembering to add a slice of lemon as a garnish.
"Taa-daa," he exclaimed, delivering the plates to the settings he had arranged earlier. "Dinner is served."
She kissed him.
"It looks wonderful."
Over dinner, Tanji chattered about her past life, Kevin being content to sit and listen. He learned that she had been married, once, but this was now all over. She had been away from the Guild for a long time - over five years - trying unsuccessfully to start a family. Her ex-husband who, it appeared, had worked for the Board of Construction was very keen to have children, and Kevin got the impression that it was the stress of being unable to get pregnant that had at least partially caused the break-up of the relationship. Now that they were separated, she was back at work and trying to rebuild her life.
After dinner, Kevin suggested that they abandon the kitchen and the dirty dishes for later. Taking their wineglasses with them, they moved to the lounge-cum-study that was the main room in the flat. Slightly at a loss for something to talk about, Kevin suggested that she might like to look at his computer models for the New Bridge.
They sat together at the desk while Kevin booted up the laptop. It rapidly became clear to him that Tanji did not really understand the model, or even the idea of a computer. Even so, she seemed spellbound by the images of both sides of the bridge and the detailed descriptions of the joining section between the two worlds.
"It's fascinating," she breathed. "So clever."
She drew his hands away from the keyboard.
"Take me to your bed," she whispered.
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