Chance meeting

Standard disclaimer: My acknowledgement to Carlton plc as the copyright holders of the 'Thunderbirds' characters, and my thanks to Gerry Anderson and co. for creating them

Jeff drove his father's battered old pick-up truck towards town, looking round at the familiar sight of the rolling green countryside of his childhood. He was glad he had chosen to spend a few days with his folks before he started this new job. He would be sorry to leave the air force but being selected at the age of twenty-five by the Space Agency for their new astronaut training programme was too good an opportunity to miss, especially with all the talk of a lunar expedition before the end of the decade.

Just then he noticed that the small green car that had passed him only a few minutes ago was now pulled in at the side of the road. As he got closer he saw a young woman climbing out of the driver's seat, and realised that there was steam emerging from under the hood.

He pulled in behind the stricken car just as the young woman was crouching down in front of the car, presumably looking for the hood catch. He stuck his head out of the window. "No," he yelled, "get back!"

The woman jumped back in alarm. Jeff opened the cab door and climbed down, grabbing the cloth that his father kept for wiping the windscreen. "Sorry, miss," he said as he approached, as the woman was looking at him warily, "but you nearly got a face full of steam – you could have been injured. Would you like some help?"

"Please," she replied, "that would be very kind of you."

Jeff wrapped the cloth round his fingers and reached under the hood for the catch then, turning his head away he raised the hood. A cloud of steam gushed out, which he fanned away with the cloth before peering cautiously in. "I can see what's happened," he said after a minute. "One of your radiator hoses has a small split and is squirting water onto the hot parts of the engine. I think there should be some tape in the truck I can use to bind it up – that should hold it until we reach town and can get you to a garage. We'll have to let it cool down first, though." Using the cloth again he carefully unscrewed the radiator cap, jumping back as a spurt of steam emerged. "Right, now we let everything cool down for a few minutes."

He turned towards the young woman, only now getting a good look at her for the first time. He judged she was in her early twenties, slim, pretty, with short curly auburn hair. Her eyes were a startling shade of brown – not the dark brown common to most people, but the golden colour of honey, as if they were lit from within. Jeff found himself trying to think of the name of that stuff that you sometimes found insects in – amber, yes that was it. "Hi," he said, "I don't think we've met. I'm Jeff Tracy." He held out his hand, then looking at it, wiped it on his shirt before offering it again.

"Lucille Maloney" she answered, laughing as she took the offered hand. "Do you live round here?"

"My parents have a farm a few miles back down the road, so I grew up here, but I've been away lately in the air force."

"That explains why I haven't seen you before. We only moved here last year."

"You and your family live in town, do you?" he asked, surreptitiously trying to see if she was wearing a wedding ring.

"There's just me and my mother. She works in the local bank, I teach music at the Junior High." She looked at him. "Thank you for stopping to help me. You certainly seem to know about cars."

Jeff shrugged. "I've always been good with mechanical things, and growing up on a farm, with a lot of machinery, you learn how to fix things when they break down."

He touched the radiator block cautiously. "I think that should be cool enough for me to work on now." He disappeared back to the truck and after a few minutes rummaging around, came back with a roll of tape. After he had finished wrapping this round the split hose he turned to her. "Do you have any water in your car that we could use to top up the radiator?"

"Yes," she answered, "I keep a bottle of drinking water for when I'm driving long distances." She retrieved the bottle and watched as Jeff carefully dribbled it into the radiator, before screwing the cap back on. "I'm very grateful for you doing all this. If you hadn't come past I would have faced a long wait for the recovery truck."

Jeff took a deep breath. 'Now or never,' he thought to himself. "In that case would you come out to dinner with me tonight?"

She looked at this tall, handsome young man, with his broad shoulders, dark hair, grey blue eyes and charming manner, and she liked what she saw. Then she realised what day it was. "Oh, Jeff, I'm sorry, I'd love to come, but I can't tonight. The school orchestra is giving a concert and I'm conducting. How about tomorrow night?"

Jeff's face fell. "I'm leaving tomorrow morning for Florida."

Thinking quickly she said "Well, why don't you come along to the concert, then we can go for a coffee afterwards. I'll leave you a ticket at the door."

Attending a school concert would not have been Jeff's choice of the way to spend his last night's leave, but the attraction of this gorgeous girl's company was too good to miss. After she had told him the details of when and where the concert would take place he followed her car as she drove cautiously into town and saw her to the local garage, where she thanked him again. Jeff then carried out the errands he had been on his way to do for his father, then drove home, still thinking about this girl with the golden eyes.

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Over supper Jeff announced his plan to drive back into town that evening to attend a concert His mother was very amused. "You, Jeff Tracy! You don't even like music!"

"That's not true, mother," he protested, "I like jazz."

"You listen to it on the radio, you mean. That's about as far as it goes. You haven't got a musical bone in your body!" She looked at her son shrewdly. "So, what's her name?"

"Who?" he replied, nearly choking on his apple pie.

"Don't come all innocent with me, young man, I've known you too long for that. If you start acting like this, then there's a girl involved."

Jeff sighed. He should have known he couldn't fool his mother. He told his parents about the incident at the roadside.

"Lucille Maloney?" said his mother. "I think I've met her mother. Bright girl, from what I've heard. Very talented."

Jeff winced. That was the trouble with small towns. Everyone knew everyone else.

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Later that evening Jeff sat at the concert, looking round. He couldn't see anyone he recognised, for which he was grateful – he wouldn't really want any of his old school friends to see him here. He looked at the programme again. His mother had been right – classical music was not really his sort of thing. The first piece the children had played had been Handel's 'Water music'. Now they were performing the 1812 overture with some enthusiasm. The only redeeming feature was being able to watch the slim figure with the conductor's baton. When they had met at the roadside, Lucille had been wearing jeans. Now she was dressed in a green dress, which went well with her hair, and as well as showing off her trim waist, also revealing that she had a lovely pair of legs. The view had kept him entertained for most of the evening.

The programme wound itself to a close, to the applause of all the proud parents. The headmaster stood up to make a final speech. Jeff remembered Mr Bates ('Old Betsy') from his own days at the school – the man always did love the sound of his own voice. "Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. The children have done us proud this year." He paused, "Most of the thanks should go to our new music teacher, Miss Maloney. She's only been with us since September, but I am sure you will all agree what a splendid job she has done." More applause, this time Jeff joining in. "Now, some of you may not know, but Miss Maloney is a very talented pianist herself, and I would like you all to have this opportunity to hear her." He turned to Lucille "If you wouldn't mind?"

Lucille seemed to be caught out by this unexpected turn of events. "I haven't got anything prepared," she protested.

There were cries of "Come on, Miss!" from some of the children in the orchestra, and to the applause of the crowd she went to the piano, then paused, looking across the audience and raised her hands for silence. "OK, everyone, I give in. I'm going to play Beethoven's 'Fur Elise', which is one of my favourite pieces." Catching Jeff's eye, she continued "and I would like to dedicate it to the young man who came to my rescue this afternoon."

She sat down and began to play. As the music started, Jeff was transfixed. He had never heard music like this before – music that set off firecrackers in his brain, and whose notes were like icy fingers running up and down his spine. He'd thought Lucille a lovely girl, but this was something else. Her face wore a faraway look, with an occasional tiny smile playing across her lips. Entranced, he watched, unable to take his eyes off her long, slender fingers as they ran across the keyboard. When the music finished he sat for a moment, still lost in its spell, before joining in the rapturous applause.

Once the concert had finished he waited until the crowd of parents and children surrounding her had at last dispersed. Finally, she turned and saw him. "Jeff, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to keep you waiting for so long."

"That's OK, I didn't mind," he replied. "Shall we go for that coffee now?"

As they left the hall, Jeff offered to carry the music case that Lucille had picked up. "I bet that's something you haven't done for a while," she said in a teasing tone, "carrying 'teacher's' bag for her."

"That's true," he answered, smiling, as they crossed the town square towards the coffee shop.

"Now I wonder, if I asked some of the older teachers at the school, what they'd have to tell me about a young Jeff Tracy, and what he got up to when he was there?"

"Oh, I don't suppose I was any worse than any other teenager."
"No? Well it's a good thing you can't talk to my teachers; when I think of some of the pranks I used to pull at school. I've got a mischievous streak in me - I was always getting into trouble!"

They sat down at a table and the waitress came and took their order. Lucille looked at Jeff. "Did you enjoy the concert?"

"I thought you were wonderful," he said with enthusiasm. "I've never heard anything like that piece you played tonight. And you're certainly good with all those kids – they all seem to like you."

"Yes," she replied. "I love children. If I ever get married I want to have lots of my own. I think it's something to do with being an 'only' child myself. That's one reason I took up music – it was like a constant companion for me."

"Yes, I could see that when you were playing. You looked like you were in a world of you own. I don't think you'd have noticed if the ceiling had fallen in behind you."

Over their coffee and cakes, Jeff watched the way Lucille's eyes seemed to glow as she talked about her music, and the habit she had of pushing back the curl of hair that fell forward across her forehead. He told her about his time in the air force, and how much he was looking forward to starting on the astronaut training programme.

"So, you want to be the first man on the moon?"

"If I could, yes. I'd certainly like to be part of it. I'm not afraid to try something just because no-one else has ever done it before."

They suddenly realised that the shop was getting ready to close. "Would you like me to give you a lift home?" offered Jeff.

"No, it's OK, I only live a couple of blocks away – I can walk from here."

"Well, please let me walk with you." Jeff was acutely conscious of the fact that he was leaving town on the 8 o'clock bus tomorrow morning, in order to catch the plane to Florida and didn't want to lose a minute of this girl's company. They walked along, still chatting and, far too soon for Jeff's liking, they reached Lucille's house.

Jeff turned to Lucille and put his arms round her waist. They seemed to fit just right there. "Oh, Lucille, it seems so unfair that we have to say goodbye now we've only just met. Why couldn't I have met you earlier in the week?"

"Well, if my car hadn't broken down just as you were driving past we might never have met at all. Maybe Fate had a hand in it."

"Look, I don't know when I'll be getting any leave, but I'll be back here as soon as I can. Will you wait for me?"

"Yes, of course I will." She could feel him hesitating. "What is it Jeff?"

"I'm not usually so fast on a first date – especially when I only met you this afternoon, but would you mind if I kissed you?"

She smiled. "I don't know. Let's see, shall we?" There was a pause. "No, I don't think I minded that. Perhaps we should check to make sure." There was another pause, even longer. "No, I didn't mind that at all". She gave him a little push. "I think we'd better stop now, before the neighbours' curtains start twitching. Goodbye, Jeff, I'll see you again when you come back."

"I'll write to you meanwhile, and as soon as I know when my leave is, I'll let you know."

After one final kiss, Lucille turned and went into the house, Jeff watched her until she was out of sight, before making his way back to the town square to collect his car. He walked with a spring in his step and a big smile across his face. He just about managed to get his features under control by the time he reached home – or so he had thought.

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The following morning, Harry Tracy returned from having dropped his son off at the bus station. "Well, I suppose that's the last we'll see of young Jeff until Thanksgiving."

"I don't know," replied his wife, smiling. "I've got a feeling he'll be home again a bit sooner than that."

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