I rested my forehead on the cool glass of the coach window and closed my eyes against my own dispirited reflection. Beyond the glass, the winter night had wiped out the world, apart from the odd shock of headlights which sporadically cut through the moonless black.
This was a very uncomfortable position. I was over the wheel. It was hot and stuffy and to make things really unbearable, I discovered that my seat was damp as soon as I sat down. I didn’t like to consider why, but I felt I shouldn’t really complain.From the moment I had boarded the coach, I knew that discomfort was going to be part of the package. On some level I think I welcomed it. Though in all honesty, that part, the part that seemed to keep insisting on punishment of some kind, had definitely fallen out of favor with the rest of me. Waking ten minutes later to find I was now the only passenger on this journey and my handbag had been stolen was just about the limit.
Yesterday’s argument with Pete ran through my mind over and over like a broken CD. I longed to turn it off but I just couldn’t summon enough energy.
“I’m not putting up with it!” I remembered spitting at him as soon as he walked through the door. Poor Pete – poor long suffering Pete, who’ll do anything for a quiet life. He just shrugged and sighed and did that helpless thing with his eyebrows that used to be so cute but lately had grown into an irritation so great that now I have to fight off the urge to open an artery. His, or mine, it didn’t matter which.
“For Christ’s sake,” I’d gone on, “No wonder Adam does as he pleases. You just never back me up.”
“Come on Annie – he’s our son. He’s 16. What are we supposed to do? Throw him out into the street? Warn him never to darken our door again?”
“Tempting”; I wanted to say but bit my tongue, stepping out of the way while he slid his comfortable body past me to get to the kettle. It was a good thing one of us was thin, considering the pokie confines of that damned kitchen. I slithered sideways, cursing the faded lino, the drab worktops, and the general dissatisfactory nature of my life.
“You’ve only yourself to blame,” the little demon voice in my head hissed. Had it always been so loud? It seemed to me that there must have been a time when it was less insistent, more Jiminy Cricket than Terminator. Maybe it was just that my resistance had been worn down with time. Maybe it’s just that you just don’t get away with anything forever.
The coach drivers’ voice dragged me out of my reverie. The coach was pulling up. For some while now, I had been vaguely aware of city lights encroaching on my gloom. I looked out now onto Carmouth bus station.
The last time I was here I was twenty, and I was boarding a bus out, my little son, the centre of my hopes and dreams tucked snugly into my coat against the night air.I remembered looking down at his tiny new born face and thrilling with excitement. As he curled a minute hand around my finger, my heart melted.Not for a single moment did it feel bad or wrong. I knew with an aching certainty that nothing would ever feel bad again.
Even if someone had told me then that my journey home, gazing into that scrunched up little face, wondering at those tiny perfect fingernails, was to bethe most peace that Adam and I were ever going to share together, I would never have believed them.
Now as I stepped off the coach and looked about me, I just felt sick. What the hell was I doing here, hundreds of miles from home, on a chilly December evening? I felt in my coat pocket and found my crumpled bus ticket and a fifty pence piece. The wind whipped along the concourse, stirring up stray leaves and bits of stuff that other travelers had left behind. Ahead of me the driver was waddling towards a door that would lead to a rest room or café or whatever little oasis was required for long distance drivers. I panicked.
‘Hey!’ I shouted, running after him. He stopped and turned, a great bull of a man. A man who looked as though a lifetime of sitting at the wheel had caused everything he had ever eaten to settle under his skin.
‘Yes m’ lover?’ a thick, soft voice, issued from thick soft lips. It was a kind voice, a voice that was so Cornish, I could almost hear the sea.
‘When’s the next bus back to Bristol?’
His deep black brows met in confusion across his fleshy forehead. ‘Didn’ you just get off ma bus?’ He was watching me as though I might do something touristy, whip out a camera, or ask for the recipe for the real Cornish pasty.
‘That’s right. But I want to go home. I’ve changed my mind.’
A snort, a shrug. ‘There b’aint no buses goin’ out now girl. Least wise, not till the mornin’.
I hung my head. Of course there wouldn’t be, would there. I’d come to the end of the world. I was about to turn when he checked me.
‘You got somewhere to stay?’
I shook my head. It didn’t matter, the voice in my head told me that allI deservedwas a ditch, and I shouldn’t go expecting it to be too dry.
‘You got any money?’
‘I’m ok,’ I said, but I wasn’t very convincing.
We stood for a moment awkwardly with me trying not to meet his eyes. I wanted to walk away, but where was I going to go. I could feel him looking me up and down. It didn’t have that letchy feel. He just seemed to be concerned, and it was oddly like being in the glow of a warm log fire. I pulled myself together. I was thirty six for God’s sake not twelve. I knew that people often took me for younger, but I didn’t need any one to rescue me.
‘Sorry, I said briskly, I’m ok really, just a bit confused. I didn’t really plan any of this.’ Story of my life, I thought. It will probably be inscribed on my tombstone, ANNIE HOWARD, SHE NEVER PLANNED AHEAD.
‘ Bit of a spur of the moment jaunt,’ the bus driver said kindly, adding, ‘No luggage?’
I shook my head. ‘Someone took my bag while I was asleep.’ I could feel tears in my throat. I shook them off.‘But I’ll be ok. Really!’ I said it again, with what I hoped was a little more conviction than before.
‘You had your bag taken?’
I nodded, pulling my coat tightly around me.
‘On ma bus?’
I nodded again.
‘Oh my dear girl, I’m so sorry. You come with George an we’ll get you sorted.’
And with that he sort of swept me up the steps and through the door, into the inner sanctum, the world beyond the public view where he plonked me in an overstuffed leather arm chair while he went off to make coffee.
It was astonishing, like walking into a fairy grotto. I don’t think I have ever seen so many fairy lights and tinsel in one place before. It crackled, sparkled and coughed colour, oozing good will and peace on earth as though the opportunity would never present itself again. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at the tackiness or weep at the childlike enthusiasm.
I sat in the chair mesmerized, my fingers curling and uncurling around the fifty pence in my pocket. It was inescapable. This was Christmas. I’d run away from home, leaving my husband and my son at the worst possible time. What was I thinking? I should just call Pete now. In a couple of hours, he could be here. By morning at the latest, I could be home, sleeping in my own bed, buried back in my real life. It would be a bit awkward, but I could make some excuse.
The problem was I didn’t want to. I thought about the pretending, thought about the lies and I just couldn’t face it anymore. It’s crazy isn’t it? You can keep some secrets for years if you have to, because the consequences of not, are just too awful. But there’s a cost and there’s a point when keeping up that cost doesn’t seem possible either. That’s where I was.
My new friend appeared with a mug of steaming coffee. Surprise surprise, it had a picture of a big jolly Santa on it with a shiny red nose. I took it from him, grateful for the distraction and noticing for the first time that he had a sprig of plastic holly stuck in his button hole.
‘Right then,’ he said, ‘best phone the police.’
I was shocked, and terrified.’Why?Why do we have to phone the police?’
George patted my arm as though I was a bit simple. ’I ‘spect you had cards and stuff in that bag. You’ll want to make sure they’m cancelled.’
‘Oh yes of course.’ Relief flooded through me. My guilt was making me mad.
‘ Then we’m best find you a place.’
George smiled and nodded. When he spoke again, it was very slowly…’You ’ave to ‘ave a bed m’dear. Old George can’t see a poor maid like you out on the streets on a night like this’. And with that he handed me the phone and a telephone book with the page opened on BANKS and BANKING.
So I made the calls, finger trembling on the buttons, one to report the theft and collect the police reference, the other to the emergency bank number. While I gave them my details, I heard George’s deep rumbling. He was arranging something on another line. I couldn’t make out much but I caught the phrase, ‘poor mazed thing.’
Why should I be surprised that he clearly thought I was a little addled?
I sipped the coffee. It was hot and strong and very sweet. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the weird sense of being out of control. I was thinking that I should just sneak off when the door opened. A gust of freezing December sent the tinsel into a furious dance; sparks seemed to shoot about the room accompanied by a soft tinkle as baubles and trinkets clashed against each other.
’Can I help you?’The woman who stood over me asked in an officious voice. She looked as though someone had tied her into her inspectors’ uniform so tightly that her breasts had been forced almost up to her ears. I noticed too that her eyebrows had been painted on in surprised arches. She must have had a steady hand to apply them so neatly.
‘I had my bag stolen.’ I muttered. I didn’t want to explain myself and I was irritated that my escape had been cut off. At that moment George appeared, flapping his arms. He had taken off the blazer he had been wearing and looked much more presentable in an Aran sweater. ‘Nothin’ to panic about,’ he trilled, scooping me onto my feet and divesting me of the coffee mug in what felt like one magical movement. Then we were out of the door to the accompaniment of his hurried over- the- shoulder explanation of my predicament.
As the door slammed shut behind us and the icy wind clutched at whatever exposed part of us it could reach, he winced. ‘Passengers b’aint allowed back there. We don’ wan’ upset Val.’
‘No?’ I asked.
George shook his head, sucking air in between his teeth. ‘Best get off.’
Was I being dumped to fend for myself? Now that it looked likely, I decided I really did want rescuing, but I smiled in what I hoped was a brave manner and stuck out my hand. ‘Thanks George. For the coffee and the telephone and everything.’
‘And the room.’
‘Room?’ I asked stupidly. It was so cold now my teeth were beginning to chatter.
‘You don’t mind a bit of washing up?’
‘Maybe a spot of bed making?’
‘Mate o’ mine owes me a favour. He’ll put you up in his B. and B. in exchange for a bit o’ help.’
‘Oh George that’s great! I could kiss you!’
George stepped back in alarm. ’No need for drama!Anyways, it’s a bit of a trek to Ladysand. So we’d better get goin’. Me missus will be wondering where I’m to.’
We made our way to the car park, past the poor muttering, wandering souls who have no choice but to spend the night in an otherwise deserted bus station. There was ice on the puddles and a fine soft sleet was beginning to fall. As we passed the telephone booth, the fifty pence in my pocket seemed to jump into my hand. I paused, just for a moment. I really should phone Pete. Then I felt furious. How could he dare ignore me, after all I had said yesterday. How dare he let Adam move Natalie, his cow of a pregnant girlfriend, into our house, and how dare he leave it to Adam to tell me on the mobile while I was out Christmas shopping.
‘Bugger him’, I muttered to myself.
George gave me a quizzical look, but kept going.
‘Tomorrow.’ I told myself. ‘I’ll phone home tomorrow’. And I set off after him.