Glancing at the time on the cooker Colin stuffed the last piece of toast into his mouth. "I don't want to be late," he said and stood up.
Pam snorted. "You're never late for anything. You're a twirly."
Colin ignored his wife's jibe. He never argued with Pam or anyone else for that matter. He didn't like arguments. Yes, he was a twirly. It was her favourite insult but, in his view, there was nothing wrong with being punctual. It was good manners to be on time. "Better to be too-early than late," he mumbled and shuffled upstairs to clean his teeth.
Colin, a modest insignificant man, small in stature and quiet in voice had never been late for anything and today, particularly today, would be no exception. He rinsed his mouth, pulled on a yellow high-viz coat, looked at himself in the wardrobe mirror, placed a peaked cap on his head and checked his badge was straight. He patted the badge, stuck out his chest, read, "'Colin Prowse John Street Parking Supervisor," smiled and went downstairs.
Pam was standing in the hall. "Here you are Mr Twirly." She said handing him a thermos flask and a plastic margarine tub containing his sandwiches. "Cheese and tomato. Off you go. You don't want to be late." She smirked, opened the front door and stood back.
Colin nodded, checked his watch, slipped the thermos and sandwiches into a briefcase, and stepped into the sunshine.
"Seven-thirty. It's Wednesday, liver and bacon tonight," called Pam. "Don't be late," she added and shut the door.
Colin walked quickly counting the steps. "One, two three..." Years ago he'd done the sums. Twenty-six minutes it took him to walk to John Street. At two steps a second, one hundred and twenty steps a minute it was three thousand one hundred and twenty steps to work. It was the same going home. In the sixteen years he'd been a car park attendant he'd have walked over 36 million paces going to and from work.
The sky was clear. It was going to be a hot day. Colin had stopped counting by the time he reached the corner of John Street. The greengrocer, Mr Evans who was setting up a display of vegetables outside his shop, waved cheerfully. "Morning Colin."
Colin waved back. "Morning Mr Evans. Lovely day. Can't stop." He hurried on. Reaching the car park he took a key-ring from his briefcase and unlocked a chain stretched across the entrance. He pulled the chain to the side and wound it neatly around a post next to a wooden hut. The hut was his office, his personal domain his refuge from his wife's invective barbs. He unlocked the door, placed his lunch on the little table by the window and tucked the briefcase under it. He took a leather money bag from a peg on the back of the door, hung it over his shoulder, stood a folding chair outside the door and sat down ready for his first customer of the day.
A black BMW came along the road and turned into the car park. The driver's window opened. "Morning Colin." A hand held out a five pound note.
"Morning Mr Lucas," said Colin. He took the money, placed it in his money bag, handed Mr Lucas a ticket and watched as he reversed into a parking space behind the hut.
Mr Lucas, grey haired wearing a business suit a red tie and a flamboyant matching handkerchief in his breast pocket, got out of the car and collected a document bag from the boot.
"You're looking very smart this morning," said Colin.
"I'm in court this morning. Must look the part."
"Oh. Is it an interesting case?"
"Speeding. I'm defending. De facto culpa of course but one has to live." The solicitor pressed a key fob locking his car and hurried away.
Other cars began to arrive. Drivers greeted Colin cheerfully, like he was an old friend and the car park quickly filled. Colin helped late comers guiding them to empty spaces. Some stopped to chat while Colin smiled and listened politely.
Gwen arrived. Colin particularly liked Gwen. She was an attractive woman who always smiled at him, a cheeky smile that made him feel special. Gwen sold holidays in Mr Thomas' travel agents across the road.
"Don't forget," said Colin.
"I haven't forgotten. I'll bring the tickets over later today." She crossed the road, gave Colin a little wave and went into the travel agents.
A man driving a red sports car pulled into the car park. He gunned the engine and glared as Colin approached.
"Five pounds please." Colin pointed. "There's a space in the corner over there."
"I'm not paying five quid! You can get stuffed you bloody robber. Look, I'm in court in a few minutes. I'll only be here a couple of hours."
A hatchback pulled up behind the red sports car.
"Just a minute," said Colin. "I need to speak to the driver of that car." He went over to the hatchback, took five pounds from the driver's outstretched hand, said something to the driver and stood back. As he did so the hatchback squeezed past the sports car and parked in the last remaining space.
"I'm sorry we're full. If you're not going to be long you can park on the road," said Colin to the driver of the sports car.
The driver swore, slammed his car into reverse, backed into the road and pulled into a short stay parking space.
Colin took a sign from the hut which read, "Car park Full" placed it in the entrance and poured a coffee from his flask. He sat at the table in his hut arranged the morning's taking into neat piles, counted it, put six hundred pounds of notes into his briefcase and locked it.
There was a knock. Someone was tapping on the side of the hut. "Are you in Colin?" It was a woman's voice. Colin looked through the window.
Gwen was standing outside. She held up an envelope. Colin opened the door.
"First class like you said." Gwen grinned and handed the envelope to him.
"Thanks Gwen. You won't regret it."
"I must get back. Mr Thomas is on his own."
A patrolling traffic warden stopped at the red car to record the registration and the time on her tablet.
Colin put his head out of the hut and called to her, "He's in court. Said he won't be long."
He watched the warden walk along John Street. After he'd eaten his sandwiches, Colin went to the bank and paid the morning's taking in. He chatted with the clerk as she counted the money.
There was shouting as Colin returned to the car park. "You stupid cow. I wasn't that long. I told you I was in court. It's not my fault." The driver of the red car was standing in the road yelling at the traffic warden.
She was typing on her tablet then went to the front of the red car and photographed it.
Colin continued walking towards them.
The driver followed her, raised a finger and wagged it in her face. "You can't give me a ticket. It's not fair."
The warden pressed print. "Don't you threaten me." A parking ticket emerged, from the printer hanging from her waist, which she placed in a yellow plastic bag and stuck on the windscreen.
"Stuff you," shouted the driver and tore the ticket from his car. "This is what you can do with your bloody fine," he said ripping it into pieces. He grabbed her hand and shoved the bits of paper into it. "Go on, stick it where the sun don't shine. I dare you."
Pieces of parking ticket fell to the ground.
By now Colin was level with them. "That's not a nice thing to say to a lady."
"You can get stuffed as well," said the driver.
"You should be in court charged with assaulting this poor woman. She's only doing her job. Are you alright dear?"
"No," replied the red faced warden.
"Christ. The court. I've got to get back. Look, I'll pay the bloody fine." The driver bent down and gathered up the scraps of paper. "There, I've said I'll pay it," he added and hurried away.
"What are you going to do now?" asked Colin.
"Watch and learn," replied the warden and got on her radio.
Colin went back to his hut and was reading a magazine when a flat bed lorry drove slowly along John Street. It stopped alongside the red sports car. The driver got out and, within minutes, the car was swung into the air and onto the lorry.
"Oh dear," said Colin and returned to his magazine. He tidied his hut. Motorists started returning to their cars and the car park slowly emptied. The solicitor Mr Lucas was the last.
"Stupid clerk of the court got the times messed up. Our case wasn't heard until four o'clock."There was a delay."
Did you win?" asked Colin.
I won. My client didn't. He was a nasty piece of work; deserved to lose," said Mr Lucas jubilantly adding, " Lawyers win some cases and lose some, but we get paid for all of them." He smiled. "I told the judge, 'My client instructs me to say he was not speeding'."
"What does that mean?"
"It's lawyer speak. I was telling the judge my client was a liar; that he was guilty. Judge fined him a thousand pounds."
"Oh. Is that him?" asked Colin and pointed to the driver of the red car who was standing on the pavement looking confused.
"Yes. That's him. What's he doing?" said the solicitor.
"He's looking for a little red motor that got towed away this afternoon."
"Serves him right." Mr Lucas got in his car and started the engine. "See you tomorrow Colin."
After Mr Lucas drove away Colin stretched the chain across the entrance, closing the car park for the night, locked his hut and set off along John Street. He stopped and deliberately dropped the keys into a drain hole. They vanished with a plop into the murky water.
Pam turned on the television news to check the time. It was twenty to eight. The unthinkable had happened. Twirly was late. She turned the gas under the frying pan down. Colin would have to come soon or his dinner would spoil. But Colin didn't come soon. At nine o'clock an angry Pam put the liver and bacon in the bin. How dare he keep her waiting. At ten o'clock she considered going to bed but no; she'd stay up and give him a piece of her mind. By eleven o'clock she was fuming. Colin was a selfish swine probably drinking in some tavern. It never occurred to her that he might have had an accident, be in some hospital somewhere or worse. As the clock struck midnight she decided enough was enough. For all she cared he could sleep in the hedge. She got up, double-locked the front door and went to bed. Tomorrow he'd have some explaining to do.
Mr Lucas looked at the clock on his dashboard; nine am. He drummed the steering wheel. Where was Colin? Other cars were queuing, behind him, waiting for the car park to open. Someone in the queue piped their horn. The hut was still closed and the chain still in place. Mr Lucas got out of his car, walked over to the hut and tried the door. It was locked. He looked at the other motorists and shrugged.
Mr Lucas got back into his car and rang the council. "Thank you for calling," said a digital voice, "Press one for recycling, press two for social services, press three for education and schools, press four for community information, press five for corporate services, six for accounts, seven for travel and parking, to make a complaint press eight, for media enquiries press nine..."
The solicitor pressed seven and waited.
"You are in a queue. Your call is important to us. Please hold or you can go on line at www.council services.gov." Discordant guitar music replaced the mechanical voice.
Mr Lucas held the phone away from his ear. "Bloody hell. I just want to talk to someone."
There was a click. "You're through to Fiona. How may I help you today?"
"Fiona, the car park on John Street hasn't opened. Your man Colin hasn't turned up. You need to send someone down to unlock and let us in."
"You need to speak to our complaints department," said Fiona, "I'll put you through. Is there anything else I can help you with today?"
"No. Just open the car park."
"Thank you for your call. Have a nice day," said Fiona. A ringing tone replaced her voice.
"I'm sorry," said a recorded message, "There is no one here to take your call. Please leave a message after the tone." There was a loud beep.
"My name is Lucas. I'm waiting to park at John Street car park and it's bloody well locked."
"To re-record you message press one," said the machine, "To finish your call hang up."
By now John Street was jammed with cars. Waiting cars blocked adjoining roads causing chaos and the town quickly became grid locked. Angry motorists shouted at each other. Some drove onto pavements to try and get past. Others gave up, abandoning their cars on yellow lines. Traffic wardens hurried back and forth issuing tickets with glee.
Mr Lucas accompanied by a police superintendent hurried to the town hall and demanded to see the mayor. "You have to open the car park."
The mayor sent for the chief executive. He arrived in reception with two assistants. "Who is in charge of car parking?" he asked.
"Mr Timms is head of transport and parking," replied an assistant.
Mr Timms was summoned to attend.
"Ah yes, parking! Mrs Howells is responsible for the car parks," said Mr Timms. "But she's on an efficiency and time management course."
"Does she have an assistant?" asked the mayor.
"Oh yes," replied Mr Timms, "She has an office junior. His name's Mark."
A phone call was made. Mark came hurrying down the stairs to reception.
"Do you have a set of keys for John Street car park?" asked the superintendent.
"No," replied Mark.
"This is ridiculous. Why not?"
The youth shrugged. "Why should we? The car park doesn't belong to the council."
A look of bewilderment appeared on Mr Timms' face. "I thought it was ours. So who does it belong to?"
"I dunno," said Mark.
Enquiries at the land registry revealed the concreted plot of land on John Street had never had a registered owner.
"That's impossible. So who did Colin work for?" asked Mr Lucas, "And who got the car park money he collected for all these years?"
No one knew the answer.
Leaning forward, Colin could see Christ the Redeemer rising through the haze. A wisp of steam, or perhaps smoke, drifted lazily past the statue. The aircraft banked and his first view of Rio de Janeiro vanished from sight. The plane lost height as it turned. Rays of sunshine made an arc through the cabin. A different landscape appeared. The plane was lower now, travelling faster it seemed, over the golden sands of Copacabana. The plane banked again. Sugar Loaf Mountain appeared and quickly vanished.
A stewardess came past and collected their champagne glasses. "We're about to land at Rio de Janeiro. The pilot has radioed ahead. Your limousine is waiting on the tarmac, Mr Prowse."
The aircraft was over the sea again on its final approach.
They passed the airfields perimeter fence. Colin tensed and shut his eyes, anticipating the moment the plane would touch the ground. It was his first time in an aeroplane.
"Are you OK?" A hand was holding Colin's clenched fist. He opened his eyes, looked at Gwen and relaxed. Gwen smiled reassuringly. "So do you enjoy flying first class?"
Colin nodded. "Oh yes," he said, "From now on Gwen we're doing everything first class."