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Because he wasn't wearing his spectacles, he didn't see her pedalling painfully along the gutter beside him in the dark and the rain, and in consequence, he knocked her gently off her bicycle. He stopped the car at once, dead, and the rush-hour queue in Beaumont Street leant angrily on its collective horn, and blasted him.
He sprang out of the car, and hurried round the bonnet.
'I'm so sorry,'James said, stooping over her. 'I'm so desperately sorry.' Lit by his headlamps, she glared up at him from the wet pavement. He saw, with a shock of tenderness, that she was a true Oxford spinster, one of that dwindling band of elderly, dignified, clever women living out frugal lives in small flats and rooms, sustained by thinking. He seized the handlebars of her bicycle, to free her, and, in so doing, emptied out the contents of her wicker bicycle basket.
'Oh God,' he said in despair. He attempted to pick the objects up; a plastic carrier bag of books, a bicycle lock and chain, a tin of cat food.
'Should you be driving?' she said furiously, struggling to her feet. She peered at him in the rain, through Schubert spectacles. Her glance travelled to his grey hair. 'Are you safe to drive?'
Holding her bicycle awkwardly with one hand, he grasped her arm with the other.
'Are you hurt? Have I hurt you?'
'Only my feelings,' she said with emphasis.
'I forgot my glasses --'
'I'm not interested!' she cried, her voice sharp with shock. 'Why should I care?'
'Let me drive you to it.'
'It's here. It's in Beaumont Street. I have an appointment with the doctor - '
'Then let me take you in andexplain.'
She said something incoherent, scrabbling in her pocket. 'My handkerchief - '
'Take mine. Out of my breast pocket. I'd give it to you, only my hands are full.'
She shook her head. He began, with infinite tenderness, to guide her. and her bicycle along the pavement.
A man wound down his car window and yelled, 'You just leaving that bloody thing there?' jabbing his thumb angrily at James's car.
'Oh dear,' the woman said suddenly. 'Oh dear, oh dear. I do so detest upsets, disagreeableness -
'Me too. Even more if I've caused them.' He remembered he had left his spectacles in the lavatory at home, on the pile of old copies of Private Eye. He could hardly confess this.
'It's here,' she said, pausing at a doorway, and pressing a plastic bell.
'Will you tell me your name? And where you live? May I come and see you, to apologise, to see if you are all right?
She hesitated. Fright had made her cross and then tremulous. 'My name is Bachelor. Beatrice Bachelor.' She paused and then added, 'I live in Cardigan Street.'
James said, 'I live close to you, so close -
The door opened. A receptionist in a jersey so vibrantly patterned it quite overshadowed her face said, 'Oh Miss Bachelor, what a night, whatever have you done to yourself?'
'It was my fault,' James said. 'I knocked her over.' He looked down at Miss Bachelor in the light. She had mud on her cheek and her headscarf had fallen back exposing thin grey hair that was escaping from its knot. 'My name,' said James, feeling the need to confess it as a pointless act of contrition, 'is James Mallow.'
'Yes,' said the receptionist taking Miss Bachelor firmly by the arm. 'Yes, I expect it is.' Then she shut the door on him.
When James got home, the house was still dark, except for Uncle Leonard's window on the first floor, which glowed redly. When Leonard Mallow had come to live with them five years before, Kate had asked him what colour curtains he would like and he had said at once, 'Oh red, dear. Really red. As red as you can get them.' He was a man of decided tastes. He loved cricket and the works of John Buchan and anchovy paste and Mrs Cheng, the small, impassive Chinese woman who helped Kate with the cleaning; he hated progress and materialism and girls with short hair. He had been a schoolmaster for almost fifty years of his long bachelor life and said, with the utmost benevolence, that he was sick of boys.
James let himself in. The hall was dark, but there was a line of light under the kitchen door and the thump of rock music. Uncle Leonard hallooed from upstairs. 'That you?'
'It's me. It's James.'
'Sodding awful night -
'Telling me. I'll be up in a sec.'
'No hurry,' Leonard shouted amiably. 'Take your time. Never any hurry.'
James opened the door on the left and switched on the light. His study - his study now for over a quarter of a century - sprang to familiar and beloved life; the wide sash windows at either end, the green carpet, the lamps and cluttered little tables, the scuffed leather armchairs, the desk (his father's mahogany desk, brought from South Africa), and the books, the shelves and shelves and shelves of books, floor to ceiling, running unbroken down the two long walls of the room except for a space above his desk where a painting hung, a painting which Kate loved, of a sleek Mogul prince in a flowered coat and silver shoes. James went from one window to the other, pulling curtains. Mrs Cheng had hoovered the carpet today, and the grass-green pile lay in stripes, like a lawn, The room smelled as he liked it to, of leather and paper and polish. He looked at the leather chairs, and wished that Miss Bachelor was in one of them, warming her spinstery limbs at his gas fire, cradling a cup of tea or a glass of brandy in her not quite steady hands. He felt miserable with remorse. If he was going to knock someone over, why couldn't it have been a robust, resilient person who sprang up from the pavement and yelled healthy abuse at him? Why did it have to be a Miss Beatrice Bachelor in woolly gloves with legs like brittle sticks? He sighed. He wished Kate was at home; he needed her warmth and understanding.