The woman stepped back from the chipped and smudged mirror in the service station toilets. Her mismatched ensemble – navy blue pants, black jacket and plain white blouse – felt like an extension of her discombobulated self. She blotted at the sheen of sweat on her face and neck, and hurried back to the bus.
Brown and wrinkled as well-worn leather, the driver made a show of looking at his watch, and opened the door for her. She had barely sat before the bus pulled away. She was the only passenger. He did not think her worth the trouble.
After several hours, during which the woman napped fitfully, she was dropped off at the gate. The afternoon sun blasted her as she walked up the drive and into the building.
The security guard was stout, balding. 'Photo ID,' he barked. She passed him her drivers licence. He looked through her as he passed it back. Pointed to a small camera. 'Iris scan,' he said, slightly more gently.
The next guard gestured her through a metal detector, her belongings X-rayed, then she was made to walk down a corridor where air puffed at her body for concealed drugs. The doors slammed shut behind her, making her jump. Finally, she was patted down and allowed into the Visitor Reception Centre.
'Sorry, no food allowed,' said the receptionist.
'But it’s sealed in plastic, it’s a gift,' said the woman. 'I've carried it all day, I can show you the receipt.'
'Doesn’t anyone read the website? No food without prior approval.' He passed her a key. 'Put your stuff in a locker. You’ll be called soon.'
Summarily dismissed, the woman scanned the rows of moulded plastic chairs, and found one that faced away from the television.
'Meredith Black,' called the receptionist, after half an hour. 'You can go through that door now.'
She walked into a controlled hubbub, a young mother trying to soothe a crying baby, two toddlers and an older woman, a priest, an elderly couple. The walls were painted in an uninspiring shade of beige, a handful of children’s drawings providing welcome splashes of colour. It reminded her of an eighties school classroom. She sat at the remaining free table and waited.
She knew it was him even though it had been years. He shuffled towards her, lean and lanky, and sat opposite her. His back was hunched, head bowed, palms down on the table.
'Joe,' she said, gently placed her hand over his cold one.
He did not look up. She could see his breathing was quick, shallow.
'It’s okay, I don’t know what to do either. Here’s the deal. We’ll muddle along together, all right?'
He slipped his hand away, stole a furtive look around him, then returned to his slumped posture. He looked even younger than his thirty years.
'How’re you doing?' Silence. 'You hungry?'
'You want something from the vending machine? I brought you a cake but the bastards took it away for themselves.' She whispered the last part, and her heart leapt when he grinned shyly back at her. 'Chocolate, soda?'
He seemed to be more relaxed when she returned to the table with a small mound of snacks and a can of Coke.
'Thanks,' he said, and proceeded to tear open a chocolate bar wrapper.
'You eat,' she said, 'I wanna say something, all right?'
END OF PREVIEW
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