New Year Fiction: Extract. The Year of Familiar Strangers

16.             Spain. August 1990.

To round up this month of fiction, I’m finishing with a chapter of my novel, ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’ [available to read here:https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=9CMNW442QEAC&keywords=the+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1642020119&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C117&sr=8-1] Helen’s husband, Robert disappears as they are about to embark on the return ferry from Spain after their holiday. In this chapter Helen and Lydia try to ascertain his whereabouts and work out what they should do…

Spain. August 1990           

The world appeared to drop away in a swooning, sickening drag as Helen stood motionless beside the abandoned car staring at the space in the open boot. She shouted to Lydia.

“He must be ill. He must be in the toilets or something. We have to find him!”

“He’s taken his bag, though. Why would he take his bag to the loo?”

Helen slammed the boot closed, went to pull the keys from the ignition and closed the door.

“Come on. We’ve got to find him.”

They ran back across to the building. Lydia pulled at her sleeve.

“We can’t just walk into the men’s loo. We’ll have to ask someone.”

A couple were standing beside a tall table drinking machine-bought coffees from plastic cups. Helen imposed a calm, rational expression on to her panicky face before addressing the man.

“Senor…”

He broke in. “It’s ok, we’re English.”

She began again. “I’m so sorry to interrupt you,” she glanced at the woman then back to the man. “It’s just that my husband left the car to visit the toilet some time ago and hasn’t come back yet. I wonder…I mean would you mind very much checking to see if he’s in there and if he’s alright?”

He put his cup on the table. “Of course I’ll look.” The woman had adopted a sympathetic smile.

“I expect he’s gone to stretch his legs. Have you had a long drive, dear?” She was a little older than Helen, who thought she would not be able to tolerate the woman’s well-meaning, motherly platitudes and could only give a weak nod. Robert had not gone to ‘stretch his legs’ taking his suitcase along. The husband emerged from the gents.

“No one in there. I looked in the cubicles just to make sure, but it’s empty.”

“Well, thanks anyway.” She grabbed Lydia’s arm and propelled her away and out of the building to stand in the bright sunlight, where more vehicles had joined the lines of waiting cars and caravans.

“We’ll have to talk to an official. Let’s go to the ticket office and find someone in charge. They can do a proper search of the terminal buildings.”

“Wait, Mum!” ‘Mum’ was a term she seldom used. “Dad’s taken his case. He won’t still be here, will he? He’s gone off somewhere. We don’t know where or why. What can the officials do about it?”

“I know! I know he has his case!” Helen snapped at her and saw her flinch at the unaccustomed rebuke. “But he must be ill, surely. His mind must be unbalanced, or he’s had a lapse of memory. We have to find him. What else can we do?”

            They were escorted into an office and invited to sit in front of a desk. A bearded man in a blue, short-sleeved shirt appeared a few minutes later, greeted them and sat down behind the desk.

“Senora…?”

“Thurrock, Mrs Thurrock.”

“You have a problem, Senora?”

            Behind him on the wall a clock in the shape of a ship’s tiller ticked away. Helen glanced at Lydia and was rewarded by an expression of consternation before looking across at the ticket office manager.

“Yes. It’s my husband, Robert; Robert Thurrock.” She paused, expecting that he might need to write it down, but he sat immobile, waiting for her to continue.

“He has disappeared. He was in the car, in the queue for the ferry. My daughter and I came into the passenger building and when we came out he was not there.”

He shrugged. “Senora, your husband has gone, perhaps to the toilets or he has seen an acquaintance, or to walk.”

Feeling that she wanted to shake, or to slap him, Helen narrowed her eyes and was aware of Lydia watching her, fearfully.

“Senor, my husband has taken his luggage from the car.” She chewed her lip, looking down at her hands twisted together in her lap then met his concentrated gaze. He leaned his elbows on the desk, steepling his fingers together. The clock’s ticking filled the ensuing moments like a dripping tap. At last he spoke again, matter of fact but not unkind.

“Senor Thurrock must have an appointment; somewhere he has to go. Perhaps he forgot to say to you, or you have not understood? If he takes the luggage then he needs it for his appointment, no?”

“We cannot leave without my husband.”

The clock’s ticking seemed louder, insistent. The bearded manager sat back in his chair.

“Senora, if you do not depart on the next ship your ticket will be lost. You will have to reserve a new departure. What can we do? It will be best, I think, if you embark with the next sailing. Your husband can follow when he returns.” He stood and held out his hand. The interview was over.

            They returned to the waiting line of vehicles which extended to three new lanes now, as the shadows began to lengthen. A woman got out of the car in front of theirs. Lydia nudged her mother.

“It’s her; from the passenger lounge.”

The coffee-drinking couple were in the adjacent car and had spotted them. The woman came round.

“Any luck, dear?” They uttered a simultaneous ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

“He went to get a shower,” said Helen. “He’ll be back in a bit.” Lydia turned on her as they got into the car. “They’ll see he isn’t with us when we drive on to the ferry!”

“What does it matter? I don’t care about them. What are we going to do?” She got into the passenger seat as if Robert would be occupying the driver’s place. Lydia came around and opened the door to sit next to her, sitting at an angle where she could see her mother’s face.

“We have to go. We have to get on the ferry when it loads. We can’t do anything else.”

“There’s still more than three hours left. Let’s walk. I’ll go crazy if I have to stay in this car and wait!”

Across the road from the queuing lanes there was a formal park laid out with palm trees and a network of paths punctuated by wooden benches in the shade. They wandered into the park and sat on a bench; a cool, green space away from the desultory, tarmac, fume-laden ferry queue. Silent, they stared unseeing at the mottled shadows dancing on the path, each lost in respective thoughts. Helen chewed her lip, trying to decide what their course of action should be, but came to the same, desperate, hopeless conclusion every time. They would have to go without him.

“Supposing he’s ill…” She looked at Lydia, who shook her head.

“He isn’t ill, at least, not desperately ill like he needs hospitalisation. He can’t be because he was fine driving here, wasn’t he? Apart from the speeding and the risky overtaking, I mean.” She stood up. “I’m dying for a coke or something. Can we find a bar? There must be one around here.”

They exited the park to walk along a road next to the quayside where there were a number of seafood cafés with plastic tables out on the pavement, none of them much patronised although peering through the open doors into the gloom there were figures standing at the bar in each of them; sipping late afternoon brandies or small glasses of lager. Seeing them made Helen think that she, too, would very much like a brandy and she stopped at a small bar on a corner, leading the way to a table outside in a patch of sun. A waitress bustled out with menus.

“Just drinks please,” Helen told her. “A brandy for me and… a coke?” she asked Lydia. Her daughter pouted, leaning her arms on the table. “Better make it a brandy and coke.”

The fiery liquid trickled a burning trail down into her churning stomach, laying a protective coating over the raw, painful reality of the day’s events. She finished it and ordered another, her daughter eyeing her with a nervous glance.

“Do you want another one?”

Lydia shook her head. A semblance of rational thought took shape in Helen’s mind, in that nothing could be done until they got home, then telephone calls could be made and questions asked.

            The second brandy came. She sipped it, leaning back and closing her eyes; feeling the evening sun’s warmth, wondering how a sensation could feel pleasant under circumstances so dire.

“Alright,” she said, “We’ll have to go without him.”

            The queuing lanes were full of vehicles now. As they approached the car Helen began to realise with a tremor of nerves that she would have to drive Robert’s car up the ramp and on to the ship, a task that seemed impossible in her shredded, light-headed state. She rested her elbows on the BMW’s roof, her face dropping into her hands in a turmoil of frustration and anger. How could he do this? How could he disappear without explanation, leaving them alone at the quayside? Tears coursed down between her fingers and dripped on to the black roof of the car, creating streaky runnels in the dust. She felt a hand on her shoulder. “Oh, Mami!”

She turned to her daughter. “How am I going to get this thing on to the ferry?”

Lydia put her arms around her. “It’s OK. Don’t worry. I can do it. I’ll drive it on.” She walked round to the driver’s side and got in. “Give me the keys. It’s not as if I haven’t driven it before.”

Half an hour later the lines of cars began to move. The girl started the engine and followed the car in front, concentration frozen on her face in her rigid stare and the determined set of her lips. Helen remained silent while they moved along on their way to the ramp then began to inch up it; hoping they wouldn’t have to stop the BMW on the slope and have to use the handbrake. As they gained the top she let out a breath, not realising she’d been holding it in. They rolled on into the position the deck hand wanted before stopping as he held up his hand. Perfect. She turned to Lydia, who had now relaxed in a slump, allowing herself a small smile of triumph.

“God! That was brilliant! Well done, love!” She reached over to pat her on the back, receiving a delighted grin in return.

“Right, come on Mami, let’s get our bags out. We can go and find the cabins. Don’t forget to bring the tickets!”

Helen found she was moving like an automaton, acting on her daughter’s instructions in a bizarre role reversal, although she was grateful for the direction in her confused and brandy-soaked state.

“I want to go outside and look,” she said as they ascended the stairs to the passenger decks. “One more look along the quay, just in case he’s there. We’ll be able to see more from up on deck.”

Standing at the rail a breeze ruffled her hair and made her shiver. The last of the vehicles were crawling up the ramp like beetles and getting swallowed up by the mouth of the car deck; a stream of container lorries continuing to rumble their way into the hold. She scanned the whole of the quayside, emptying now of traffic; looked further to the road. Was he out there somewhere watching, waiting for the vessel to depart? Was he searching the ship for them as she searched the area around it for him? Or was he long gone into another journey to who knew where?

            An announcement over the tannoy about collecting cabin keys from the purser’s office prompted them to go inside, where they waited in line and picked up the two keys; a double and a single. They located the corridor, unlocked the door to the double, threw the bags then themselves onto the beds. Helen lay on her back and stared at the low ceiling.

“We may as well share this one. It will only be more miserable if we’re on our own.” Lydia swung her legs down and sat up.

“We might be able to get the money back for the single cabin. Shall we try?” Helen shook her head, eyes still on the ceiling.

“Let’s not. We have enough to deal with.”

“Well I’m going to get a shower then. You might feel a bit better, Mami, if you do the same.”

Helen looked across at the girl-woman who was taking charge. “Shower,” she agreed, “then the bar. I anticipate the need for another brandy, and you must eat!” She lay down, closing her eyes, seeing again the empty space in the car boot like a gaping chasm.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

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