It was something of a standing joke that when Steve Beech said he was going to be somewhere at 8 oâclock, he would be there at half past. When he said he would be couple of minutes late, it meant he would be ten minutes late, and when the estimate was more than ten minutes late there was a realistic possibility that he wouldnât in fact turn up at all. It had cost him his job on more than a few occasions.
Now, it seemed it may cost him his girlfriend.
They sat in the park, the sky above threatening rain, both hunched on a graffiti covered bench with a distance between them that was measured in more than just the few obvious uncomfortable inches.
âI canât take it any more.â Amy said in a flat voice that cut through Steve like a surgeonâs scalpel. âItâs been two years now, and I swear to God you havenât been at my house, or met me somewhere, or been ready when Iâve come to yours, on one single occasion. No, donât interrupt. Let me finish. Itâs just not on, Steve. And itâs not like this is the first time Iâve told you I felt like this.â
He guessed her pause was his cue, and leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees he turned to her and managed a thin, apologetic smile. âIâm sorry, Ame. I donât know what to say. Itâs not like I mean to be late all the time. Itâs likeâ¦ I dunno. Itâs like itâs part of who I am.â
She cut him off with an exasperated sigh. âBut thatâs such a rubbish excuse, Steve. Youâve lost two great jobs because you canât get in on time in a morning. You were late to your brotherâs wedding. And what was your excuse that time? That you forgot the rings and had to go back for them! Itâs not just about you always being late, itâs the excuses. What about when we were going to Alton Towers and you said you had to stop to see that UFO?â
Steve sat upright. âWell I thought it was. It was barely daylight and those lights looked odd.â
Amy gasped. âSteve! You were driving under East Midlands Airportâs flight path. What did you honestly think youâd see other than a plane?â She paused, glaring at him to dare answer that. âItâs just no good. I love you to bits, but youâre going nowhere in life, and when you do go somewhere in life itâs always on your terms, in your timeframe, and at your leisure. I just canât take it any more.â
He saw for the first time that she had tears on her cheeks, and that those cheeks were flushed with the intensity of the emotion. With her head tilted forwards her long, curly brown hair hung like a veil as the wind blew strong from behind them, cooling the autumn air further. He saw her shiver, and tentatively put his arm around her shoulder, grateful that she didnât pull away.
âI am going somewhere.â He said, but with little confidence. âThat first aid course I did at work, thatâs just a start. Iâm really proving myself there, and I reckon I could make supervisor if-â
âIf you can just be a little more reliable.â Amy interrupted, wiping her cheek and giving him a wry smile.
He dropped his chin to his chest and bit his bottom lip. âI was going to say âif they expand our departmentâ, but youâre right. But I can prove it to them that I can be reliable. I mean I work hard, and I get good results. All the pieces are there, but youâre right. Iâm totally aware I need to prove my reliability.â
âIt will be so good for you if you do,â Amy agreed. âYouâre better than those idiots you work with.â
Steve placed his hand firmly on her knee. âAmy, Iâm going to ask you now: will you give me one last chance to prove myself reliable? If I can prove it at work, then I can prove it to you. I know this isnât like a âplease give me a chanceâ plea, because Iâve let you down before. Iâm asking you just to give me an opportunity to in some way prove to you that you can rely on me. Some big way. Some important way. If Iâm dumped, Iâm dumped. But if you love me, let me have that chance. I wonât let you down.â
Amy stood up, hugging her hands across her chest against the growing cold. She leant down, without smiling, and kissed him delicately on the forehead.
âIâll think about it.â
Then she walked away.
Steve hadnât seen Amy, or had a reply from any of his text messages, emails, or calls, for three days, when out of the blue he got a text in the middle of his shift:
MY SIS IS GETIN NGAGED!!! PARTY SAT. YR SIS IS COMIN. R U? :-)
His heart leapt. Heâd heard rumour that Amyâs sister Shannon was going to marry her long-term partner, but guessed that since there was to be an engagement party the coming Saturday that it may well have been something planned some time beforehand. Since his older sister was going, Steve felt right away that this might be his chance to prove he could be somewhere on time that Amy would be at. The fact the message was punctuated with a smiley cheered him up no end.
He replied: COOL. WOT TIME? :-D
Her reply: 8. N I MEAN 8 NOT 9 LOL
He found something very encouraging in the fact that she had added âlolâ. His lateness had ended their relationship, yet he couldnât help but feel there was some deeper meaning in how sheâd phrased her message, so he rang her right back.
âHi Steve.â She said.
Right away he could sense she was pleased to hear his voice, although it never occurred to him that she was pleased that heâd called her so quickly, rather than doing something else, forgetting about her, and then remembering some ridiculous length of time later.
âHi babe!â He replied, trying not to sound too excited. âI can still call you âbabeâ, right? I mean, youâll always be âbabeâ to me, whether weâre together or not!â
She managed a laugh. âYeah you can call me what you like right now, Iâm just so excited!â The last word was an ecstatic squeal.
Steve laughed too. And in the moment, he decided heâd chance his arm. He had nothing to lose, and having endured three days of misery without her, now might be the best opportunity he could ask for.
âListen, Ame. You can tell me a big fat ânoâ on this, and youâd have every right to. But, umm, how about I pick you up for the party?â
The phone went quiet for a moment, and then when Amy spoke again it was no longer in the excitable tone of moments ago, but of the stern, serious voice she had used on him for reprimands and arguments. âSteve, Iâd love to say that would be okay, but I donât think so. Weâve got family coming up from Devon who I donât get to see that much, and I mean no offence but, I want to be there at the start. You just come when youâre ready.â
His heart sank, but he pressed on. âI can do this, babe. I can get you there on time. I like your family, and itâll be a chance to impress them too. Please, Ame. Let me take you.â
He used his most serious voice, what he thought of as his interview voice. âIâm serious Amy. Whereâs the party at?â
She replied, her voice uncertain. âThe community hall.â
âOn College Street?â
âThatâs the one.â
âIâm serious. Iâll be at your Mumâs to pick you up at 7.30.â
She quietly agreed. Steveâs colleagues laughed at him as he danced around the factory floor singing âIâm gonna get my girl back!â
At precisely seven oâclock Steve put the Xbox controller down, satisfied that he had managed to single-handedly guide Derby County to a third successive Premier League and Champions League double. He checked his watch, muttered a short curse, and rushed to the shower. It was fortunate that Amy only lived in a village ten minutes away, he considered.
At a little past twenty past seven Steve was racing along the narrow country lane to the village where Amy lived, his neck showing a cut from a rushed shave, and his hair still damp from the shower. It was as he rounded a bend just over a mile from his destination that he got the shock of his life.
He braked hard, his ancient Mini sliding to a halt just before he smashed into the back end of the car stopped in front of him.
He had never considered this to be a particularly dangerous road to drive fast on, as it was a fairly steep hill down into the village, making it easy to see if there were vehicles coming the other way despite the tall hedges on either side. However, if someone was stopped in the road at this bend, the hedges obscured them enough to make it nigh on impossible to know they were there.
In front of him was a small Rover; skewed in the road by the impact it had taken from the big Ford that had clearly hit it head on at quite a considerable speed. Steve jumped out of his car, his heart racing. The immediate thing going through his mind at that moment was how if he didnât get out of here soon his girlfriend would never speak to him again, but once he saw the fact that all three people in the two cars were in a bad way his mind was immediately occupied by everything he had learnt at the three day first aid course.
The driver of the Ford was conscious, but clearly in some pain. Steve quickly looked him over and half-listened as the man babbled about not seeing them, of not being on his phone, and of not having driven fast. He turned to the Rover, shocked to see blood pouring from the face of the elderly driver, his silver-haired female companion in the passenger seat slumped forward, seemingly lifeless.
The old man was stirring, groaning. But Steve knew from the course that you deal with the quiet ones first. The old lady could be knocked out, or she could have a broken neck, or worse. He wrenched the passenger door open, noting right away that the car had airbags that had deployed and deflated just as they should do. He immediately hoped they had served their purpose as he took the old womanâs wrist and felt for a pulse.
She didnât seem to be breathing either. The rush of the panic almost overwhelmed Steve, but everything seemed to come to him automatically. He remembered that the elderly didnât always have a strong pulse in their wrist, but he was no more encouraged to find no pulse in the neck. This womanâs heart had stopped, he realized. There was no other option but to perform CPR.
Steve called out to the old man. âAre you okay? Can you hear me?â
The pensioner cried out, trying to focus on the young man who seemed to be lifting his wife out of his car. âMy leg! I think itâs broken! Is she okay? Please God let her be okay!â
Steve thought it strange that the man didnât even seem to be aware that blood was pouring from his nose, but then he had already guessed that the woman was his wife, that they had probably been together forever, and he was now shocked to see her limp and lifeless in the arms of a total stranger.
Steve remembered the course: Be positive. Reassure the patient.
He looked at the old man as calmly as he could. âItâs going to be alright mate. Trust me. Do you know how long youâve been here?â
The old man didnât know, but he now seemed to be swinging from the shock of pain to the madness of anger. âThat bloody idiot. He didnât even see us, he was using one of them damn phones!â
Steve looked up to see the driver of the other car staggering from his own car and collapsing onto the grass verge clutching his shoulder.
âI think Iâve broke my collar bone! Help me!â The Ford driver said, his voice cracked and reedier than his broad masculine frame and shaved head would suggest.
âIâll be with you in a minute,â Steve called out. âI need to concentrate on this lady first.â
He ignored the guttural shouts of the old man as he alternated between the pain of his injuries and the anger at the other driver.
The process of dealing with the old woman was a blur. It seemed to Steve that one minute he was clearing her airway and tilting her head back, and the next he was feeling an overwhelming sense of amazement, surprise, and ecstasy that her chest was rising and falling of its own accord, while a faint but healthy pulse emanated from her neck.
She was alive.
âCall 999,â Steve ordered to the Ford driver.
âI canât. My phone got broke in the crash,â came the reply. âMy shoulder! Aaaagh!â
Steveâs heart leapt into his mouth.
Oh my Godâ¦ Amy!
He glanced at his watch. It was almost a quarter to eight. Even if she had waited for him, her journey to the party would be out of the village the other way, so she would not even know he was here, dealing with this accident all by himself.
Feeling strangely detached from the situation he rushed to his car, thankful that heâd had the foresight to buy a first aid kit when he did the course, and set about tending to the old man. Once he was satisfied that the bleeding from the manâs nose was nothing more than a broken nose from the airbag going off, and that the leg injury wasnât life threatening, he made a sling for the Ford driver, and headed back to his car to get his own phone to call the emergency services.
His screen flashed: 2 New Messages
The first read: WERE R U???
The second almost destroyed him: ITS OVA. I NEVA WANA C U AGEN
How could he explain? He knew she wouldnât believe him. What if she did? He had made a promise, and that promise had been broken. He had toyed with the idea of actually getting there early and really surprising her. He cursed himself. You had to finish that damn game, he thought. Now itâs lost you the thing that mattered most.
He dialled 999.
âIâm on Back Lane near Kegworth. Thereâs been a terrible accident!â
He travelled behind the police car to the hospital, his heart numb and his mind empty of all thought except that Amyâs phone went straight to the answering service. His misery was compounded by the fact that heâd had to explain his circumstances to the police and admit heâd almost joined the collision due to the rush he was in himself. Yes, they had seen his own skidmarks and determined he too must have been travelling at an inappropriate speed for the road he was on.
But he had almost certainly saved the old womanâs life. There was little encouragement in that, because in doing so he had lost his own woman. His life.
They arrived at the hospital, and in a daze he had joined the police, listening to the protests from the Ford driver that he hadnât been using his phone as he hit the corner, that he had definitely not been doing in excess of sixty miles per hour before having to brake sharply once he saw the other car, and that the older driver must have not reacted quickly enough to the situation because he was, well, letâs face it: old.
He made his statement to the police. He accepted the thanks from the old man as he was wheeled into the casualty department with his neck in a brace and his legs both splinted. He let a nurse quickly check him over, listening dispassionately as she commented on his quick thinking and level-headedness in such horrible circumstances. Eventually he left, to return to his flat at quite some considerable time after he knew the celebration of Shannonâs engagement would have ended.
As he got into his car, he had one message on his phone. It was from his sister, telling him what an idiot he was for ruining his relationship with as lovely a girl as Amy. He didnât reply. There was nothing to say. He was Unreliable Steve.
His phone rang at barely seven oâclock in the morning. Under normal circumstances he would ignore it, check who it was when he finally woke up, and then probably ring whoever it was back later, if he remembered. But the ringtone he was hearing was the pounding rhythm of Pendulumâs song, Slam. It was Amyâs favourite, and the tone that rang out specifically when she called.
âHello, babe.â He said, sleepily.
Her voice sounded weak and tired. âSteve. Iâve just got in. Literally just.â
Alert, and a little worried he was about to get the âI met someone elseâ statement, he said nothing.
She was almost sobbing now. âIt was horrible. My grandparents were in a car accident on the way to ours last night. Weâve been at the hospital all night. We had to cancel the party.â
In that moment, Steve knew exactly what had happened. It could be no coincidence. Yet he said nothing to reveal what he knew.
âOh babe, Iâm so sorry. Are they both okay?â
She sniffed. âGrandadâs broken both his legs and his nose is broken. Grannyâs cracked her pelvis and has severe bruising. They say she had a heart attack at the scene.â
âBut sheâs okay now? I mean, her heartâs gonna be okay?â He sat up, hoping above all hope that heâd done nothing detrimental in his attempts to save the womanâs life. The woman who he had no idea at all was his at-that-moment ex-girlfriendâs grandmother.
âShe is, Steve. They say that if you hadnât got there so quickly, sheâd have died.â
His heart jumped. âEh?â
She almost cried out now, with a strange tone of relief and happiness. âI know, Steve. I know! I know it was you. The police told Dad the name of the man that called the ambulance. And they told him you saved Grannyâs life. You saved my Grannyâs life Steve!â She started to cry, deeply and uncontrollably.
Steve didnât so much feel pride in hearing what she was saying, nor real relief. What he felt right now was another burst of hope. âIt was all I could do. I had to do it.â
Tearfully, Amy interrupted. âAnd I sent you that horrible text! I sent you that horrible text and you were saving my Grannyâs life! Oh Steve, Iâm so sorry!â
He smiled to himself, wishing that he could be there right now to hold her and stroke her hair and tell her everything was going to be alright.
âYou werenât to know,â He said, kindly. âHow could you know? I was late. After all, I am Unreliable Steve.â
He heard the little exasperated laugh. Then Amyâs voice sounded a little more cheerful. âYou always have been, havenât you? But in a moment when I would never have know you could be reliable, you proved yourself more reliable than any of us could ever have guessed. And my family are all so proud of you, you have no idea. We just canât thank you enough, Steve. Will you come around at lunch time, at one oâclock? Dad wants to thank you.â
Smiling, and getting an idea as he did so, he agreed, adding, âBut youâve got to promise me that when I finally get there, itâs you and you only that answers the door!â
Steve lay back, dropping the phone onto the bedside table. But he didnât go back to sleep.
It was exactly half past twelve when Amy heard the knock at the door. She hadnât been awake for more than a few minutes, but knowing her parents were both at the hospital still, she climbed out of bed, put on her dressing gown, and ventured downstairs. Despite it being a Saturday, she imagined it would probably be a parcel being delivered, so she didnât bother to comb her hair or in any way make herself look presentable. Certainly it wouldnât be Steve. He wouldnât be turning up for another hour, she was sure. Not that she cared. He was her hero!
She opened the door, and for a moment it didnât look like anyone was there because no one was present at eye level.
Steve was down on one knee. Held up in front of him was a box with a diamond ring in it.
âAmy, will you marry me?â