Donald collected comedy socks. It was an unusual hobby but a practical one. It gave him an edge, something to talk about, something to mark him out.
But Donald had always been marked out. His unruly mop of hair, thick bottle-end glasses, white nylon shirts, V-neck sleeveless jumpers and oversize trousers pulled together by an over-long belt hitched up over his protruding stomach made him a target, first for the school bullies and now for his sneering work colleagues at the Ministry for Pensions.
He'd finally left home at the age of 41, just two years ago. His ageing mother had no longer been able to cope with his eating and washing needs - she'd needed a carer herself - so he had bought a small flat in a block down the road and successfully learned to look after himself with the aid of a microwave, a supply of Wiltshire Farm ready meals and a washing and ironing service at the local launderette.
Donald hadn't seen Lola in ten years so it was quite a shock when she walked up the path to her mother's house as Donald walked down, with a cardboard box full of socks, out of his mother's former home. Donald's mother had shuffled off this mortal coil two weeks previously and he was clearing the hosue, readying it for sale.
The sight of Lola brought back a flood of emotion. He thought he was over it. They had been friends for so long. Each only had one friend - the other. Donald had known that he would marry Lola for ever. She collected china figurines, mainly Royal Doulton, but she was known to venture further afield from time to time.
11 years ago, when she told Donald that she'd met a collector of Royal memorabilia called Johnny and he'd asked her to marry him Donald's hurt was only superceded by his scorn at anyone who chose to collect such unoriginal items.
"Royal memorabilia," he'd spat at her, "how could you?"
But she had. Donald refused his invitation to the wedding due to 'previous commitments'. On the day he'd worn his 'I don't care' socks. But he did. Lola and Johnny moved to the other side of town, never to cross his path in a decade.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," said Lola, her eyes bulging with sympathy from behind her glasses. Her mass of frizzy hair was held back by her statutory Alice Band but her fine figure, Rubensesque thought Donald, was still intact.
"Thankyou," he said, deciding not to blank her. "It's not been easy."
"I'm sure," said Lola. "Would you like to come in for a cup of tea. Mum would love to see you."
Lola's mother and Donald's mother had been friends and rivals all their lives. Powerful and demanding women they'd both sent their husbands to early graves and had continued to compete in neatness of garden, set of curtain, choice of soft furnishings and the achievements of their children ever since.
A grandchild, they both knew, would have been the winning card but neither had been dealt that hand so Lola's mother considered that her neighbour's demise had left her the winner - and there was no-one left to dispute it.
She, and Mohammed from the corner shop, had been the only attendees apart from Donald at the funeral where he wore his 'I love you Mum' socks, so he thought he probably owed her the courtesy of a cup of tea.
Donald had in his arms a large cardboard box full of socks, one of 30 that still resided in his mother's attic. One by one he'd been transferring them to his flat and this was the last. At the bottom of the box was his secret collection, the one that must never see the light of day. There were rude socks there - and more. Socks that he hardly dare consider.
"I'll just pop these back in then," he said, "and I'll be right over."
"Put them down in our hall," she said. "I won't steal them."
"No, not these," he blurted and he spun on his heel, reached awkwardly in his pocket for the key whilst juggling the box on one hand and disappeared back inside.
Donald sat on the third step of the stairs and breathed heavily. 'Big deep breaths' his mother had always said, and that's what he did, in through the mouth and out through the nose, until he was back in control.
Some ten minutes later he rang the bell next door.
"Took your time," said Lola. "Never mind, come on in."
His tea came in a cup with a saucer and two custard creams on the side. Just right. Lola's Mum leant forward and patted his knee.
"Your poor Mum. She was my best friend, you know."
Your only one, though Donald, but he smiled and nodded and went through the motions.
"What socks you got on today?" she asked.
"Latvian flag," he said, rolling up his trouser leg. "It's their Independence Day."
"Ooh, Donald, you are a card."
It was always the same. He made the effort, day in, day out, and she was one of the few to appreciate it.
After half an hour he said he must be off and Lola saw him to the door. She leant forward and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
"Meet me, please," she whispered. "8 o'clock tonight in the Feathers at the end of the road. I really need your help."
And she pushed him out the door without waiting for his response and cheerily raised her voice for the benefit of her Ma.
"So long Donald, lovely to see you." And hastily shut it.
Donald trudged home with his box, heated a chilli con carne, checked his wallet, put on his 'here's hoping' socks and made for the Feathers.
He was ten minutes early but Lola was there before him. She had her own half of cider in front of her - and his pint of the local bitter alongside it. When she saw him enter she rose and stormed across the room to embrace him in a giant bear hug.
"Thankyou. Thankyou so much for coming - I was so worried that you wouldn't. I even bought your pint to send out the vibrations to make you come."
Donald grunted and sat down uncomfortably on the small three-legged stool at their table. Before he could ask, she was off.
"I've been such a fool. You knew Johnny was no good, didn't you? When I think what I did for him, the pieces I've bought for him and now he repays me by running off with Sandra from the Collectors Club. China dogs, that's what she collects. China dogs! How tacky can you get? They deserve each other, that's what I think, but it hurts, Donald, it hurts."
"Collectors Club?" he asked. "What's the Collectors Club?"
"Oh Donald, of course, you don't know. I used to talk about you and it drove Johnny mad. 'Ruddy Donald', he'd say. 'Don't you mention his name again'. And he'd hit me, Donald, he'd hit me. And when we started the Collectors Club he forebade you from membership. 'He's blackballed,' he'd say, 'He's not coming in'."
"So what does it do?"
"We meet every month, upstairs at the Swivel and Shoot. And we swap info and look out for each other and we've got a website and a mailing list and links with other Clubs. But Johnny's our Chairman, Sandra's the Treasurer and I'm the Secretary. Or I was. I don't suppose I'll be going again."
Donald sat, silent. He looked at her. He was lonely, he knew that, and now Mum was gone he really didn't have anyone. But could he forgive her? Could he get over her defection?
The tears welled up in her eyes and he was lost, he knew it.
"Lola," he said, "we can sort this out, together. But you must never leave me. Never. I couldn't deal with that again."
And so it was fixed. They spent all their spare time together. She did her hours at the Co-op and he at the Ministry and the first thing she asked to see was his socks. It wasn't long until they moved into his flat together. And she could cook! Real stuff - Roast Chicken, Bacon and Eggs, Steak and Kidney Pie - with proper potatoes and veg. At first they had separate rooms but one night, after a whole bottle of Lambrusco, she took him to her bed and though he trembled and shook she knew what to do and he liked it. He liked it very much.
Life was good but Lola wanted revenge. For weeks they plotted. Johnny and Sandra lived for the Collectors Club. And Lola still had the full mailing list. On the night before the next scheduled meeting every member, except Johnny and Sandra, received an email telling them that due to a burst water pipe at the Swivel the venue had had to be changed to the Feathers. She even signed it from Johnny and Sandra and sent it from the website's info@ address.
Donald wore his 'a dish best served cold' socks and it was a triumph. When everyone was assembled Lola stood up and revealed her deception. She intimated that all was not well with the finances, that Johnny and Sandra had it all stitched up between them, that it was when she discovered it he'd made his choice and gone off with Sandra, that Johnny believed she was so scared of him that she'd never blab.
Much of this simply wasn't true. Donald was astounded that sweet, gentle Lola could find it in herself to tell such lies but then he thought of bedtime and Steak and Kidney Pie and he held his peace.
The next year was wonderful. Donald had a large new circle of friends. Collectors Club 2 had a new website and Donald's collection held a prime spot upon it. He found that he was not alone. Five people from around the world also collected comedy socks including Erhardt from Stuttgart in Germany. They did swapsies, they exchanged sock jokes. 'What did the left big toe say to the right big toe? Stand to attention and we'll meet in the middle.' That was Erhardt's favourite. Donald decided it was German humour. And they got on. Each day they exchanged information on what socks they were wearing.
So when Erhardt told him he was coming to the UK it was with a real sense of anticipation that Donald invited him to stay with them for a weekend - their first ever visitor.
Donald, wearing 'Welcome' socks, stood outside the station with a cardboard sign that read 'Erhardt' upon it and when the tall, elegant man in tweed three-piece suit and a trilby hat with a jaunty feather waving from the brim appeared Donald was delighted. They shook hands and Erhardt made a slight, jerky bow towards him. He then shook Lola's hand and she made a little curtsey. His socks read 'Guten Tag'.
There were new air fresheners in the flat. It was just hoovered and Lola had put little bunches of flowers on the table, on top of the TV and on his bedside table.
"Delightful," said Erhardt. "I am charmed."
And so were they. He came to Collectors Club 2 and loved it. He accompanied them on a tour of the town and loved it. He ate Steak and Kidney Pie and loved it. He drank English beer and loved it. And they loved him.
"So proper, so correct," said Lola.
"He knows as much if, dare I say it, not more than me about comedy socks," said Donald.
So when an invitation came to Donald and the charming Lola to visit him in Stuttgart they jumped at the chance. Passports were procured, flights were booked and a trembling couple duly arrived on their annual holiday.
Donald's health was, by and large, good. But he succumbed to a nasty bout of flu in Stuttgart. Erhardt was all concern. He procured medicine, bought chicken soup and made sure that Lola was entertained whilst Donald sweated and slept.
Lola regaled him each night, in minute detail, with their adventures. They climbed the spire at Ulm, they drank beer in a beer garden, they saw men slapping their thighs, they ate bratwurst and sauerkraut and they looked at Meissner china figurines.
Donald recovered in time to travel home in comfort but Lola couldn't stop. It was Erhardt this and Erhardt that and, finally, he became suspicious.
That was why he hacked into her email. He guessed her password - 'doulton' - and it was with horror that he saw a message from Erhardt. 'Your lovely face is still before me. Your laugh rings in my ears. Our time together is so precious to me. Your smell, your kiss...'
He could read no further. He knew what he must do. He made his preparations and sat down to await her return from work. But first he went to his special box and reached down right to the bottom. Then he put them on. His most secret socks, procured when the film came out, in a moment of gloom so many years ago and never worn. Around the top of each, in capital green lettering, they read: 'Run, Lola, Run'.
But she didn't.