However noncommittally Arthur grunted, the man seemed determined to talk to him. He wondered if he should get up and move to another table, but there didn't seem to be one free in the whole cafeteria. He stirred his coffee fiercely.
``Bloody April showers. Hate hate hate.''
Arthur stared, frowning, out of the window. A light, sunny spray of rain hung over the motorway. Two months he'd been back now. Slipping back into his old life had in fact been laughably easy. People had such extraordinarily short memories, including him. Eight years of crazed wanderings round the Galaxy now seemed to him not so much like a bad dream as like a film he had videotaped from the tv and now kept in the back of a cupboard without bothering to watch.
One effect that still lingered though, was his joy at being back. Now that the Earth's atmosphere had closed over his head for good, he thought, wrongly, everything within it gave him extraordinary pleasure. Looking at the silvery sparkle of the raindrops he felt he had to protest.
``Well, I like them,'' he said suddenly, ``and for all the obvious reasons. They're light and refreshing. They sparkle and make you feel good.''
The man snorted derisively.
``That's what they all say,'' he said, and glowered darkly from his corner seat.
He was a lorry driver. Arthur knew this because his opening, unprovoked remark had been, ``I'm a lorry driver. I hate driving in the rain. Ironic isn't it? Bloody ironic.''
If there was a sequitur hidden in this remark, Arthur had not been able to divine it and had merely given a little grunt, affable but not encouraging.
But the man had not been deterred then, and was not deterred now. ``They all say that about bloody April showers,'' he said. ``So bloody nice, so bloody refreshing, such charming bloody weather.''
He leaned forward, screwing his face up as if he was going to say something about the government.
``What I want to know is this,'' he said, ``if it's going to be nice weather, why,'' he almost spat, ``can't it be nice without bloody raining?''
Arthur gave up. He decided to leave his coffee, which was too hot to drink quickly and too nasty to drink cold.
``Well, there you go,'' he said and instead got up himself. ``Bye.''
He stopped off at the service station shop, then walked back through the car park, making a point of enjoying the fine play of rain on his face. There was even, he noticed, a faint rainbow glistening over the Devon hills. He enjoyed that too.
He climbed into his battered but adored old black Golf GTi, squealed the tyres, and headed out past the islands of petrol pumps and on to the slip road back towards the motorway.
He was wrong in thinking that the atmosphere of the Earth had closed finally and for ever above his head.
He was wrong to think that it would ever be possible to put behind him the tangled web of irresolutions into which his galactic travels had dragged him.
He was wrong to think he could now forget that the big, hard, oily, dirty, rainbow-hung Earth on which he lived was a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot lost in the unimaginable infinity of the Universe.
He drove on, humming, being wrong about all these things.
The reason he was wrong was standing by the slip road under a small umbrella.
His jaw sagged. He sprained his ankle against the brake pedal and skidded so hard he very nearly turned the car over.
``Fenny!'' he shouted.
Having narrowly avoided hitting her with the actual car, he hit her instead with the car door as he leant across and flung it open at her.
It caught her hand and knocked away her umbrella, which then bowled wildly away across the road.
``Shit!'' yelled Arthur as helpfully as he cold, leapt out of his own door, narrowly avoided being run down by McKeena's All-Weather Haulage, and watched in horror as it ran down Fenny's umbrella instead. The lorry swept along the motorway and away.
The umbrella lay like a recently swatted daddy-long-legs, expiring sadly on the ground. Tiny gusts of wind made it twitch a little.
He picked it up.
``Er,'' he said. There didn't seem to be a lot of point in offering the thing back to her.
``How did you know my name?'' she said.
``Er, well,'' he said. ``Look, I'll get you another one ...''
He looked at her and tailed off.
She was tallish with dark hair which fell in waves around a pale and serious face. Standing still, alone, she seemed almost sombre, like a statue to some important but unpopular virtue in a formal garden. She seemed to be looking at something other than what she looked as if she was looking at.
But when she smiled, as she did now, it was as if she suddenly arrived from somewhere. Warmth and life flooded into her face, and impossibly graceful movement into her body. The effect was very disconcerting, and it disconcerted Arthur like hell.
She grinned, tossed her bag into the back and swivelled herself into the front seat.
``Don't worry about the umbrella,'' she said to him as she climbed in. ``It was my brother's and he can't have liked it or he wouldn't have given it to me.'' She laughed and pulled on her seatbelt. ``You're not a friend of my brother's are you?''
Her voice was the only part of her which didn't say ``Good''.
Her physical presence there in the car, his car, was quite extraordinary to Arthur. He felt, as he let the car pull slowly away, that he could hardly think or breathe, and hoped that neither of these functions were vital to his driving or they were in trouble.
So what he had experienced in the other car, her brother's car, the night he had returned exhausted and bewildered from his nightmare years in the stars had not been the unbalance of the moment, or, if it had been, he was at least twice as unbalanced now, and quite liable to fall off whatever it is that well-balanced people are supposed to be balancing on.
``So ...'' he said, hoping to kick the conversation off to an exciting start.
``He was meant to pick me up --- my brother --- but phoned to say he couldn't make it. I asked about buses but the man started to look at the calendar rather than a timetable, so I decided to hitch. So.''
``So here I am. And what I would like to know, is how you know my name.''
``Perhaps we ought to first sort out,'' said Arthur, looking back over his shoulder as he eased his car into the motorway traffic, ``where I'm taking you.''
Very close, he hoped, or long away. Close would mean she lived near him, a long way would mean he could drive her there.
``I'd like to go to Taunton,'' she said, ``please. If that's all right. It's not far. You can drop me at ...''
``You live in Taunton?'' he said, hoping that he'd managed to sound merely curious rather than ecstatic. Taunton was wonderfully close to him. He could ...
``No, London,'' she said. ``There's a train in just under an hour.''
It was the worst thing possible. Taunton was only minutes away up the motorway. He wondered what to do, and while he was wondering with horror heard himself saying, ``Oh, I can take you to London. Let me take you to London ...''
Bungling idiot. Why on Earth had he said ``let'' in that stupid way? He was behaving like a twelve-year-old.
``Are you going to London?'' she asked.
``I wasn't,'' he said, ``but ...'' Bungling idiot.
``It's very kind of you,'' she said, ``but really no. I like to go by train.'' And suddenly she was gone. Or rather, that part of her which brought her to life was gone. She looked rather distantly out of the window and hummed lightly to herself.
He couldn't believe it.
Thirty seconds into the conversation, and already he'd blown it.
Grown men, he told himself, in flat contradiction of centuries of accumulated evidence about the way grown men behave, do not behave like this.
Taunton 5 miles, said the signpost.
He gripped the steering wheel so tightly the car wobbled. He was going to have to do something dramatic.
``Fenny,'' he said.
She glanced round sharply at him.
``You still haven't told me how ...''
``Listen,'' said Arthur, ``I will tell you, though the story is rather strange. Very strange.''
She was still looking at him, but said nothing.
``You said that.''
``Did I? Oh. There are things I must talk to you about, and things I must tell you ... a story I must tell you which would ...'' He was thrashing about. He wanted something along the lines of ``Thy knotted and combined locks to part, and each particular quill to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine'' but didn't think he could carry it off and didn't like the hedgehog reference.
``... which would take more than five miles,'' he settled for in the end, rather lamely he was afraid.
``Just supposing,'' he said, ``just supposing'' --- he didn't know what was coming next, so he thought he'd just sit back and listen --- ``that there was some extraordinary way in which you were very important to me, and that, though you didn't know it, I was very important to you, but it all went for nothing because we only had five miles and I was a stupid idiot at knowing how to say something very important to someone I've only just met and not crash into lorries at the same time, what would you say ...'' he paused helplessly, and looked at her, ``I ... should do?''
``Watch the road!'' she yelped.
He narrowly avoided careering into the side of a hundred Italian washing machines in a German lorry.
``I think,'' she said, with a momentary sigh of relief, ``you should buy me a drink before my train goes.''