No matter how much I try to keep up, I always end up needing to slow down to catch my breath. It's not that she's particularly fast, it's just that everyone seems to have longer strides than I do. She stops to look back.
'You were telling me about this hill,' she says.
'Was I?' It sounds about right, I do have some strong opinions. 'Yes, well. I think it used to be steeper.'
'Really? The cobbles look old.'
'Cobblestones always look old. Perhaps the first week they look new, but then they get trod on and covered in whatever's on the soles of passing shoes. Mud. Chewing gum. Other things that stick. Then the rain comes.'
'I was going to say.'
'Yes. Sorry about that image.'
'I was the one who made it up in my head.'
'But I prompted you.'
'Yes, I suppose you did. It's your fault.'
I like this girl but when she says stuff like that, makes jokes as believable as that, I really don't know where I am with her. 'Where are we again?'
'On this hill. That used to be steeper.'
'Let me rephrase: where are we going again?'
She pauses while I catch up. 'You're escorting me home.'
'Oh, yes.' I don't even remember her name. I check the time. It's dark out but then it's always dark when I set off home from work. We must have been walking for an hour. 'Wow.'
'Don't worry about it,' she says. 'We're almost to my house.'
'Sorry. I just completely lost track there.'
'Do you usually keep to a tight schedule?'
'Nah. I just notice that the time I get back is roughly the same each day. One of the benefits of walking, you rarely need to take a detour.'
'I'm new to the area.'
'Yes. I think you said.'
She clutches her cardigan around her waist. I'm in my tatty jacket.
'Are you cold?' I say. 'I can always give you my coat.'
She smiles. 'You keep it. I'll be fine, I'm just a wuss.'
'If you're sure.'
'That I'm a wuss? Yeah, I'm definitely one of those.'
'Don't bring yourself down. You have a lovely taste in cardigans.'
'Thank you.' She's ahead of me again. 'So don't you drive then? At all?'
'No. Never even took the test.'
'Ever thought about it?'
'Yes. I just don't think I'm co-ordinated enough.' I search for the peak of the hill. 'Also walking is healthier. Better for me.'
'You are looking nice and trim.'
'Thanks. A hard slog is good for the figure.'
'Slog.' She chuckles. 'What a word. It's a very English word. Northern English.'
'You mean Yorkshire? Well I don't know about you but I am bred that way.'
'I was too but then I lost my accent. All this travelling about.'
'Travelling where exactly?'
'Here and there. I tend to stick to Europe though, move all over it.' She sighs and turns to me. 'That's a hard slog if there ever was one.'
'So have you been to Italy?'
'That's where 'slog' comes from, I think. Latin.'
'It's just it sounds so Northern.'
We've reached the top of the hill at last. She turns right so I follow. If memory serves this leads to a cul de sac so it can't be much longer before we get to wherever we're going.
'It was on a night like this...' I say for no discernible reason. I just like the sound of it.
She frowns. 'Is this the beginning of a story?'
'Hang on, just let me think. It was on a night like this...that I saw a spaceship.'
'You knew it was a spaceship? Not just a UFO?'
'Well I like to think it was a spaceship. It was probably just like one of the things they always say it is: light on gas or a prototype for something.'
'I don't know why people aren't more excited about that second option. They're usually supposedly prototypes for new aircrafts, aren't they? I think that's more intriguing.'
'I suppose so. Why would they be testing at night though? Are these night-flyers of a sort? Are they meant to operate on shadow as opposed to light?'
'Possibly. But you were saying about a UFO...?'
'Yes. The UFO. It was on a night like this that I saw it. I was passing Drucker Drive, which is somewhere back there, and I just looked up and saw something weaving through the trees.'
'Possibly. It changed lights. Blue to white.'
'Crikey. Perhaps it was the police.'
'Flying that low?'
'Or floating that high?'
'I didn't really see enough of it to say one way or another,' I say. 'I just kept my distance.'
'Were you following your usual route home?'
'Yes, actually.' I cough. 'To think, all the people who say they've experienced something and they really haven't. It must be terrible to not have other witnesses.'
'Did you have witnesses?'
'Not that I know of.'
'Do you feel mad?'
'Like I just made it up?'
'Oh, yes. That's why I make jokes whenever I mention it.'
She looks me in the eye. 'You have a good sense of humour.'
'You must too to keep walking and talking with a UFO enthusiast.'
'Hey,' she says though I don't quite know if this is to me or to her or to anyone in particular. She's looking down so she certainly isn't trying to get my attention. Obviously, she already has it.
My phone buzzes in my pocket. For some reason I've put it onto silent. Seems about right: no distractions whilst I'm talking to a pretty woman.
It's dad. He says Pollyanna has been rushed to the hospital. He sent two texts which were presumably meant to be one; the 'g' that should be at the end of 'bleeding' is at the start of the second text.
'What's wrong?' the woman says.
'My sister,' I say. 'She's bleeding.'
'I don't know.'
'But she's in hospital?'
'Well that's good. You can leave me here if you like. I think there was a bus stop back down that road.'
'I don't think any buses stop here at this time.'
'Then call a taxi.'
'To be honest, I'm not even sure where to say to pick me up.'
The woman blinks. 'All right. There's a sign right outside my house, you can ring from there. We're not far now.' She sighs. 'For a moment there, I thought you were just trying to get away from me. Absurd, I know.'
'I really don't think faking my sister being rushed to A&E would be something I'd lie about.'
'Of course not.'
'How far would you say we are now?'
'About five minutes.'
I check my watch again. 'Right.'
'Sorry. I only said that because of all the other texts.'
'The other texts?'
'You mentioned two other texts: one at the beginning of this walk and one about halfway through.'
'I don't think I did.'
'Well, I certainly didn't imagine them.'
I pull my phone back out. 'Did I say what they were about?'
'One was work and the other a friend, I think.'
I scroll down for the rest of my messages.
Curtis: 'Hi. You left your key in the machine again. Had to report it to Bill, he was right there. He wants to see you first thing tomorrow. Sorry, mate.'
Hannah: 'I need to talk. I've been thinking again. Not good thoughts.' Three missed calls.
'Oh shit,' I say.
'Are you having a bad night?'
'But how did you do that?'
'How did I do what?'
'How did I just forget?'
'I don't see how I'm to blame for that.'
'No, sorry. You're right. It's just a case of bad timing.'
'I didn't intend to distract you.'
'It just happened.'
'Yes, I know.'
'You're doing the gentlemanly thing here.'
'Maybe. I just don't tend to forget important things this quickly.'
'It's all right. You may have just blocked it out, it happens.'
'Well, I am usually pretty tense about work. And my friend only really contacts when she's contemplating...'
The woman looks down again. 'Oh God.'
'She has people there to watch her.' I put my phone away. 'So it's definitely only a couple of minutes away now?'
'The sign? Yes.'
'What road is it called again?'
She pauses. 'You know it's dropped out of my head too.'
'Yes. We've been talking for so long, I've forgotten. Whatever happened, it must have happened to both of us.'
'Then again it is work. Who really remembers the road that they work on? Unless you're in higher management, of course.'
'Didn't you say you were going home?'
'You said that you were going home. The long way round but still.'
She dithers. 'Home isn't far away from work.'
'Didn't you say you just got here?'
'I said I tended to travel but now I'm working in this area for a bit.'
'When did you start?'
'Tonight actually, I'm set to start tonight. That's probably why I forgot about it. Blocking out work stress, just like you.'
'How long have you lived nearby?'
'About a week.'
I look at her while she isn't looking at me. The rest of her is quite unassuming, a little frumpy in that cardigan but that doesn't really bother me. Right now it seems like I'm beside a real person, a woman who is at the very least pleasant to talk to if there is no other goal in sight. And yet when she looks me in the eyes...
That's a phrase I actually hate: 'And yet when she looks me in the eyes...', it's a cheap lyric, love song fodder usually followed by the inevitable rhyme of 'surprise'. Nevertheless when she looks me in the eyes, it's like I'm suddenly on a quest. I don't usually escort strange women to places. It's creepy and, like she said, I usually have a tight schedule. And yet one look and I'm stuck walking with her until she finally reaches her destination.
All I really know is that she has a cardigan and can walk for ages. She might have a bungalow, she might be working nearby. Only might.
As soon as a familiar landmark turns up, a street sign, I'm stopping and calling a taxi. She can't have much further to walk and besides, the streets tonight have been surprisingly quiet.
She turns to me and laughs. It's not the smile, the nose wrinkle or anything else, it's definitely those eyes.
'Sorry.' I shake my head and blink. 'What was I saying?'
'You were telling me about this cul de sac,' she says.