It was not that Margaret was superstitious; but thirteen was quite simply the wrong number.
Twelve would have been right. Twelve was six times two and two lots of six, three times four, and four sets of three. And most crucially, it was seven plus five, because her car took five and David’s took seven.
Margaret was a systems designer and programmer and she knew the value of forward planning. She had organised a weekend party for her friends, and she had it all worked out, right down to the last detail.
There were six double bedrooms in her cousin’s weekend cottage: one for each of the five couples and a sixth for herself and Sarah who was also single.
For Saturday morning she had reserved twelve horses at the stables and for the afternoon two sailboats each for six people. For Sunday morning she had booked twelve mountain bikes, for the afternoon, twelve canoes, and for lunch, a restaurant table for the same number. She had bought twelve fish fillets for Friday’s supper, twelve chicken cordon bleus for Saturday’s, two dozen eggs and twenty-four rashers of bacon for the two breakfasts, six bottles of wine, two gateaux and an appropriate quantity of vegetables.
She was aware people called her a control-freak. Some even suggested she had a phobia about losing control, but she thought that unkind. She was proud of her organisational skills and she did all she could to make sure things ran smoothly. She knew how easily it would all unravel if she let anything slip.
Anthony announced at the last minute that he had split up with Lorraine and she was not coming, but that was all right because Margaret could deal with contingencies. She promptly invited Claire, who, she reasoned, could share with Sarah, while she herself could move in with Anthony. He would be lonely after the split-up, and she did find him very congenial.
But Anthony made up with Lorraine and turned up at the train station with her after all.
Now there were thirteen of them and her carefully-made plans were being thrown into disarray. They were one too many for everything. In the evening they would no longer be able to play the game she had devised requiring four teams of three, they could no longer make three bridge tables, she would now have to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room, and catastrophically, thirteen people would not fit into the two cars.
It also upset the catering. Thirteen into twelve simply didn’t go. And how did one cut a gateau into thirteen equal slices without a protractor?
‘What’s lacking in food can be made up for with drink,’ said Jamie on the Friday evening, opening the fourth bottle, which Margaret had really meant for Saturday. Sarah had just announced she was not very hungry and would only have vegetables. This made things simpler, but the after-dinner games were the problem.
‘Never mind, we can play charades, instead,’ said David.
That irritated Margaret. ‘No. I have a better idea,’ she said quickly. ‘Let’s make up a story. I’ll say the first sentence and each person in turn has to supply the next sentence.’
She took a breath. She had it worked out already. ‘Once there were thirteen people who got together for the weekend in a country cottage.’ She gestured that Sarah should continue.
Sarah giggled. She had drunk a lot of wine. ‘They were all going to have a lovely time, because the one who had organised it had it all worked out because she was very good at organising people.’
‘Unfortunately,’ continued David, slurring slightly, because he was also drunk, ‘some of the people didn’t like being organised….’
Nervous titters went round the room…
Margaret got up. ‘Oh, I see! You’re talking about me.’ She went through to the kitchen and started the washing up.
‘Come back, Margaret, we were only joking,’ called Anthony.
She came back through, but only to pick up the empty glasses.
‘Oh, I’m so tired,’ she yawned. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to evict you all now. I want to go to bed and I’m sleeping on the sofa.’
‘Oh, but we haven’t discussed tomorrow,’ said Naomi. ‘What are we going to do?’
‘You can all go without me. Take my car. I’ll stay behind.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Margaret, we can’t leave you….’
‘I insist! Anyway, I have something else to do. I’ll have the evening meal ready for you when you get back.’
Margaret refused to listen to any further protest and when the sitting room had been vacated and the last plate had been put away she made up her bed on the sofa and fell asleep promptly.
All was quiet when she awoke the next morning. The others had already gone. She got up. She would need to walk down to the village and buy more food. She’d had to miss out on the day’s activities but she would lay on a lovely meal. The others would be grateful.
Just as she was ready to leave the doorbell rang.
‘Hello,’ she said, staring at a young man, a backpacker…
Margaret waited but he seemed at a loss for further words. Young, thin, long dark curly hair, faded jeans, designer tear, scruffy boots, tanned skin, piercing, designer stubble.
‘Er – you’re number thirteen, right?’ he said eventually.
‘You could say that, yes.’ How did he know?
‘Er – so, this is the Jacksons’ house?’
‘Oh, I see! You’re looking for house number thirteen. You’ve got the wrong number. This is a hundred and thirty. Thirteen must be near the top of the hill.’
She led him back to the gate where she saw that the zero had fallen off the gatepost leaving numbers one and three. She shrugged, and smiled at him.
He grinned back and she took in his liquid, dark chocolate eyes, his silky long lashes, and his collarless neck, bare and vulnerable.
‘I’ll come up with you. I’m Margaret, by the way.’
‘Nick.’ He too had come for the weekend.
‘But you can’t possibly stay in that!’ They were staring at number thirteen. It was a chicken shack.
‘No, it’s cool. A place to put my head. I’ll be all right.’
‘But there’s no furniture!’ Nick had now opened the door and they were staring inside.
‘I’ve got my camping mat and sleeping bag, there’s a roof and a floor, running water, sanitation, and, hey, electricity!’ Nick flicked a light-switch but nothing happened.
Margaret exhaled at the impossibility of it all. She looked questioningly at this happy-go-lucky young man. Then she inhaled at the possibilities.
‘What will you do about eating?’
‘I’ll get something.’
‘Why don’t you eat with us? I have to buy food at the village first.’
They walked down the road together and into the village.
Who was he? Where did he come from? What did he do? And how old was he? He must have been a good ten years younger than her thirty-five. She asked him.
Here and there, this and that, and nineteen and a half, he told her.
’I can see I’m not going to get a straight answer out of you.’
‘My name is mud,’ she explained in turn. ‘They complained I organise them too much, so I’ve spared them my company.’
‘Their freedom and yours.’
The sun was unusually strong for late September, and it made them hot and thirsty. The village inn beckoned.
‘Can I invite you to a cup of tea?’ she asked him.
‘Actually, I’d rather have cider,’ said Nick, as they sat down at an old oak table.
‘Cider. There’s not much alcohol in that, is there?
‘Well, just a bit.’
‘Then I had better not,’ she said automatically. ‘Of course – I’m not driving – ‘.
‘Maggie, you may,’ said Nick.
Margaret smiled at his boldness. No one called her Maggie.
The shops had already closed by the time they lurched along the street.
‘Oh, drat! I forgot! Shaturday’s a half day. What on earth shall I do? – Oh well, they got to go riding and sailing and I didn’t.’
‘Hey, we could go riding, too.’
‘Now, what ARE you shuggeshting?’ she giggled.
He was pointing to a pack of white horses galloping in a circle in slow motion, to barrel-organ music. It was a carousel. He pulled her over to it.
‘Oh, don’t be sho shilly! This is for children.’
Nick mounted a horse and pulled Margaret on behind him.
Round and round, they went, up and down. The world flashed past them in a blur. The horse was a Pegasus; it flew to the sky. Wild and free, they raced mares’ tails, their hair and the horse’s mane billowing in the breeze. Margaret’s arms hugged Nick’s waist, her thighs, his hips.
Then they landed. But her head still spun. They got off giggling.
‘Oh, that was wonderful, but now I’m so hot.’
‘Let’s cool down in the river,’ said Nick, pulling her down the bank of the stream.
‘Oh, don’t be sho shilly,’ she said, tumbling down after him.
‘All right, I suppose I can put my feet in… .’
Margaret screamed as Nick pulled her right in. She slithered on pebbles as she tried to get out. She screamed and laughed, screamed and laughed.
‘Oh, now what are we going to do? Our clothes are soaking!’ Margaret cried, horrified yet ecstatic.
‘We’ll dry them at the launderette,’ said Nick.
And so they did, taking turns to shield the other’s naked body from curious spectators.
It was dark when they staggered up the road. Margaret decided that the others could sort out their own meal, and they carried on past number 130 to the chicken-shack at number 13 where they fell into each others arms.
‘Wake up, Maggie, I really got something to say to you / It’s late September an’ I really should be back at school…’
‘Oh, you are so silly,’ murmured Margaret, and she turned to put her arm around Nick who was now beside her on the sofa at her own cottage. Then she went back to sleep.
When she woke up again she was alone. Nick was gone, and so were the others, she realised, when she saw that both cars were gone. She thought it rather rude of them to go off without saying anything. The plans for Sunday had not been renegotiated. She dressed quickly and went to look for Nick.
Margaret paced several times between the buildings numbered eleven and fifteen. All three, including the one distinctly numbered thirteen, were modern blocks of flats. Not a chicken-shack in sight. Bewildered, she grabbed her mobile and called Anthony.
‘Hello, I haven’t seen you for a long time.’
‘Must be all of twenty minutes,’ replied Anthony.
‘You left without me.’
‘Well, you did insist. We didn’t want to disturb you this morning. You were sleeping soundly.’
‘Was Nick still there?’
‘The boy – beside me on the sofa?’
‘No, I didn’t see a boy. Been having sweet dreams?’
Margaret kicked herself. ‘Oh, well,’ she said quickly. ‘Have a nice time without me.’
‘You want to come after all, don’t you? We’ll come back for you. We’ll squeeze you in. And you can have a horse. Lorraine doesn’t want one.’
‘No, you can’t possibly! And what do you mean ‘horse’. The riding was yesterday. Today’s Sunday. It’s mountain bikes today.’
‘Today is Saturday, Margaret. We’re going horse-riding.’
Margaret snatched her mobile from her ear to check the display. It was Saturday.
She sat down on the garden wall behind her and stared, stunned, into space. A pale grey dove fluttered to the ground beside her, pecked around for titbits at her feet, and then flew off again.
‘Maggie?’ Anthony shouted through her mobile.
‘We’re coming back to get you, OK?’
‘Whatever you like, Anthony.’