Geoff had been on his feet all day, and his arthritis was taking its toll on him. He swallowed a handful of aspirin with a cup of the vending machine’s scalding muddy water, and let his gaze drift back to the window. There had been few customers since morning, and now it was nearly supper time. Friday night always meant fish and chips and a can of Guinness in front of the telly. His stomach growled and he was just checking his watch to see if he could knock off a bit early when a shiny silver sedan pulled up and a woman got out. She started fiddling with the petrol pump nozzle.
‘Oh bugger it,’ he said under his breath. He flicked the bowser on and waited. After she’s done, home.
Out of habit, he watched her movements to check for any suspicious behaviour. He was a little paranoid as there had been a spate of people driving off without paying. Everything she did seemed jerky and fast, her foot tapping to an inaudible beat as she watched the numbers go up on the pricing display. Geoff looked away as she slammed the car door behind her, and less than a minute later, she entered Fast ‘N Friendly with a face as dark as the asphalt on the forecourt.
“Evening,” he said quietly, hoping to diffuse whatever bad energy she was carrying in with her.
She slapped her credit card on the counter. “Know any mechanics around here?’
‘Not till the next town,’ he said. ‘Problem with the car?’ He passed back the card and a receipt, trying his best to look sympathetic while battling visions of crunchy golden battered cod on a mound of greasy chips and a large side of mushy peas.
He didn’t much like her tone, customer or not. ‘There’s a garage at Bright, but they’ll be shut for the weekend by now, I’m afraid,’ he said.
She muttered something as she shoved her purse into her handbag. He saw her draw herself up and take a deep breath, then her eyes met his. ‘How far is this town, Bright? Please?’
Her name was Elaine, she was supposed to be attending a very important conference tomorrow and what was more, she was the keynote speaker. Whatever that meant. He grunted occasionally, but as he was driving her to Bright out of the goodness of his heart – her car refusing to start again was now his problem, she would have to put up in Bright overnight, and get the train to her conference, while he had said he would look after her car till the mechanic came on Monday. – his patience was fading fast, as was, no doubt, the likelihood of getting his chip dinner.
Finally, they navigated through a series of dizzying roundabouts leading to a supermarket, a railway station and to Elaine’s relief, a hotel. Geoff dropped her off after she promised she’d get a mechanic out first thing on Monday. Driving away, he thought she looked rather insignificant standing there on the pavement with her overnight bag beside her.
Elaine marched through the sliding glass door towards the receptionist, a young man with a touch too much hair gel, plus an earring, but despite her prejudices he smiled warmly as she approached. ‘Good evening, welcome to Happydays Inn. How can I help you?’
‘I’m after a room for tonight,’ she said. ‘I don’t have a reservation.’
‘Not a problem, Miss,’ he said, still smiling. ‘We always have a few rooms free, not exactly London here… Here you go, room twenty-four, first floor. Will you need one or two keycards?’
She was disgusted at the insinuation that she might be expecting a visitor and quickly shook her head.
He nodded. ‘Need a hand with your bag?’
‘No, I’ll manage,’ she said.
‘We don’t do food, but there’s a great restaurant on the high street which does everything from pizzas to -’
‘Thanks, I don’t need anything,’ she cut him off. ‘I don’t eat after six.’
‘Very good, Miss. Reception is always open, so please ring through if you need anything.’
She spent several hours reading over her notes, then decided to check on her work emails before turning in. Usually her smartphone would be beeping with numerous messages by this time. But there were no missed calls; in fact, there was no mobile reception. Which explained why she didn’t have any new messages. Irritated, she lay back on the bed, still her in her work clothes, and decided she would just have to catch up when she got back to the city on Monday. For now, it was probably best to get a good night’s sleep so she could get the first train to Nottingham to make it in time for the Annual Psychiatrists’ Symposium. Suddenly she felt quite tired, and quite out of character, forgot to brush her teeth or even change out of her clothes. Soon she was fast asleep on top of the bedspread.
Elaine took a brisk cool shower as soon as she awoke. This was not unusual for her, as she had been brought up to be frugal and grateful. She found an iron but no board, and made do with ironing her shirt and trousers on the chipboard desk. Her curly raven hair was secured with pins, and she was ten minutes early for the train, according to what Geoff had told her.
When no train came, she waited for another ten minutes, and returned to the hotel. The girl at reception informed her that there were no rail services at the weekend. Elaine felt her face grow hot and made her repeat what she had just said.
‘This won’t do,’ she said, her foot tapping involuntarily on the tiles. How would they manage without her at the conference? And what would they think of her is she just didn’t turn up? ‘I will need a taxi,’ she demanded.
The girl obliged and appeared to speed-dial using the reception landline. Elaine tried her best to wait patiently, but after several minutes had passed she could not hold back her agitation. ‘Look, I have to get to Nottingham. I have a conference, I’m the keynote speaker at nine o’clock, I’m the moderator for the discussions, it’s very important I get there early. What’s going on?’
The girl looked rueful. ‘I’ve tried the taxi firm but they’re not answering.’
‘Well, try another.’ She had a sinking feeling when the girl shook her head. ‘Don’t tell me, only one taxi company in Bright?’ The girl nodded. ‘Well, can I please pay someone to drive me there? It’s only two hours, and I’ll pay for the driver’s return trip too.’
‘I don’t know,’ said the girl as she shrugged. ‘I wish I could help but I don’t own a car yet, and I don’t know anyone who could drive you at this hour.’
‘For goodness’ sake,’ said Elaine, more loudly than she intended, ‘do you have any helpful suggestions? This is the twenty-first century! I can’t believe this is happening.’
‘Can I get you a cup of tea, Miss Sealby?’
‘No, you can’t. I want transport.’ She looked out of the window at the hotel car park. Empty. Of course.
Just then the telephone rang and Elaine’s heart leapt. But instead of giving Elaine’s pickup and destination details, the receptionist was nodding solemnly. She sucked in her lower lip, which was pierced by a stud. What was it with young people and piercings, Elaine wondered briefly. ‘Miss Sealby, I have some bad news.’
‘What now? Are we going to burn down? Or flood? Or is it the pestilence?’
The girl looked taken aback by Elaine’s retort. ‘The road out of Bright is not… accessible.’
Elaine smacked her palm against her forehead and then stamped her foot. This was worse than her worst nightmare, or was this a bad dream after all? She pinched herself and winced. No, this was a very real situation. ‘Please explain what that means.’ Don’t hyperventilate. Yet.
‘Emergency roadworks, apparently there’s been a gas leak and they think it’s a broken pipe.’ She didn’t look too bothered. Maybe this news was the most exciting thing that had ever happened around here, Elaine thought, despair beginning to set in.
‘At least let me ring the conference and tell them I may be late arriving,’ she said at last.
The girl shook her head and held out her hands, palms up. ‘I’m afraid this is only connected to local numbers, in Bright, I mean.’
‘Can I borrow your mobile?’
The girl said she didn’t have a mobile. Elaine didn’t believe her. What about the young man who was here last night? No, he wouldn’t be in till next week. No, she didn’t know where he lived.
‘Well, who’s in charge? I need an adult. This is ridiculous.’
‘I am the manager.’
‘What are you talking about? You don’t look more than sixteen.’
‘Nevertheless,’ said the girl, fixing her with a look that was not exactly hostile, but was less friendly than before.
Elaine decided to take a walk before she lost her cool completely. It didn’t matter that she knew more than twenty different ways of de-escalating angry patients. When it came to herself, nothing seemed to help when she got angry. Nothing.
She walked into town to think. Surely someone would be out and about and she could borrow their mobile, maybe even tempt them to drive her out of town once the road reopened. Although it was nearly nine, there was no one about, even on High Street, though it was lined with the usual shops and cafes. She decided that a large cup of tea and perhaps a bowl of muesli would help her think straight. No doubt she was low on blood sugar, burnt off in all the stress of the past day.
Something moving in one of the windows caught her attention. She felt a spark of hope. Normality would soon be restored, she told herself, as she entered the cafe to the sound of a tinkling bell above the door. There was an enticing aroma of coffee and warm croissants. Just this once she would allow herself a little luxury. She needed a lift, in more ways than one. Ha.
‘Good morning,’ beamed a slender redhead wearing a white apron over her T-shirt and jeans. ‘What can I get you?’
Elaine allowed herself to enjoy the sight of the croissants, cinnamon rolls, apple turnovers, and a variety of muffins that burst zealously and rudely over their paper cases. ‘Wow,’ she said, which made the woman’s mouth turn up even more. ‘I can’t decide. I usually go for muesli, but this…’
The redhead stood patiently, wiping down the counter, taking all the time in the world.
END OF PREVIEW
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