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.

Fiction Month. Unmanned on a Wednesday-part 1

It’s Fiction Month on Anecdotage. This is the third year I’ve celebrated National Novel Writing Month by posting up a month of stories. Here’s part one of the first story- ‘Unmanned on a Wednesday’- a tale of two women, a launderette and a shirt known to both of them.

Muriel stood outside on the pavement and examined the information on display, mouthing the words: opening hours, the management accepts no responsibility…

Shielding her eyes against reflection, she peered into the gloom, scanning for signs of life, hoping for an efficient counter assistant to relieve her of her bulky bundle; someone who was familiar with the machines and the vagaries of washing one’s dirty linen in public. Inside she could make out a figure, bending to pull open a circular door.

She inhaled, grasped the handle of the bag with one hand and pushed the door with the other, hearing its incongruous jangle as she dragged the holdall in through the entrance to the launderette.

The figure straightened, turned to acknowledge her presence with a smiling ‘Hello’ then continued to feed clothing into the open mouth of the washer, flicking items or turning them inside out.

Muriel looked around. The atmosphere was oppressive with the stifling damp of detergent fumes and hummed with churning dryers and the whirring of front loaders as they went into intermittent, furious spins. She approached an idle machine warily as if it were a stray dog and studied the instructions. It needed some pound coins. She dug into her bag for her purse.

A voice hailed her from the row of chairs opposite.

“There’s a coin dispenser if you need change. It’s on the wall by the service counter.” It was a lilting, youthful voice, the words coloured with a tint of accent.

Muriel turned to face the voice, the young woman having sat down, a dog eared magazine unopened on her lap.

“A coin dispenser?” she replied, “Oh, I see-for pounds to go in the slot. Sorry! You must think I’m an idiot! I’m not used to these places. I thought there would be someone here, to take the laundry and deal with it.”

In the ensuing pause she became aware that she’d spewed out her inadequacy like an over indulgence of champagne.

The seated woman smiled again. She had an elegant, restful face; a long nose above a wide mouth accustomed to laughter.

“It’s unmanned on a Wednesday and in the evenings,” she informed the older woman. “Don’t worry. It’s quite easy when you get the hang of it, as it were.” She grinned, extracting an inadvertent smile from Muriel, who negotiated the change machine, returned to the machine and stuffed as much of the contents of the bag as she could into its gaping aperture.

“They don’t like being overloaded,” cautioned her companion. “It might be better to split the load between two machines.”

Once the two appliances were humming in harmonious tandem Muriel sat down next to her mentor and the two watched the revolving drums in a shared trance.

“You must be a regular at this,” she ventured. “You seem to be an expert.”

The young woman shrugged.  “I’ve no washing machine in my tiny flat. I don’t mind it; in fact I enjoy coming. I get to read the trashy magazines I wouldn’t buy or admit to enjoying.”

“Except for tonight!”

She laughed; a light, infectious laugh.

“Oh no, I didn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying some company for a change! I come from a large family back in Ireland so talking is what I’m used to. But what brings you here? Has your home machine broken down?”

Muriel sighed. “The new one can’t be delivered until next week. I may have to visit a second time before it comes. You might have to suffer my company again.”

“I’d like that! What’s your name?”

“Muriel.”

“I’m Niamh.” She put a slender hand out to shake.

They watched the circulating fabrics in silence. Muriel thought it curious how an item would present itself at the front in the spotlight for a few seconds then withdraw to make way for a different article’s display. One of the dryers ground to a halt, prompting Niamh to stand, pull the door open and inspect the progress of its contents. Muriel continued to watch the revolving laundry behind the doors, her attention drawn to an item, the colours of which seemed familiar. Perhaps she had an identical tablecloth or bed linen; a coincidence. The piece of laundry came and went, teasing her in its intermittent exhibition.

Having reinvigorated the dryer with more coins, Niamh returned to sit.

“I see you’re married,” she said. “Do you have children?”

Muriel flushed. Accustomed to her own company or the stilted, polite society of her husband’s associates and their wives she was unused to striking up spontaneous conversations with strangers on subjects of a personal matter. Not for her the inconsequential chatter of the supermarket queue or the doctor’s waiting room. Her groceries were delivered, her healthcare private. But she was both flattered and warmed by this beautiful young woman’s attention and besides, she’d brought nothing to do or to read, not having considered she would have to undertake the task of washing the laundry herself.

She nodded. “I do, though they’ve flown the nest. The youngest is at university.”

“So you’ve more time to spend with your husband now, is that it?”

The older woman raised her eyebrows. “You would think so, but no. My husband spends more time at work since the children grew up and left; late evenings and overnight to different cities, for training sessions, he says. So I’m on my own most of the time.”

“This is a night out for you then!”

Infected by her familiarity, Muriel felt emboldened.

“You are not married yourself?”

She hesitated. “No. I am kind of seeing someone though.”

“Kind of?”

Check in next week for Part 2-the conclusion

Fiction Month 5

Fiction month concludes with the prologue from my novel, The Year of Familiar Strangers, a tale of trust and betrayal, a friendship forged then mired in deceit. It is written by my alter ego, Jane Deans and available to download from Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417341020&sr=1-1&keywords=the+year+of+familiar+strangers

Prologue

“Look round” he whispers. “Look back! Please!”

He stares out at the receding figures as they cross the tarmac; the urgency of his whispered request growing weaker with their diminishing size. He stays, leaning forward in the seat, craning, until they reach the building, a squat, ugly concrete block. They are in profile now, moving along the side towards the entrance. In a heartbeat the two tiny figures will disappear. He holds his breath.

“If you turn and look back I can’t do it.”

Then they are gone.

For a moment he cannot shift his gaze and continues to sit motionless as the audacity of the act he is about to undertake seals him into a rigid inertia. A second later he is out of the vehicle, heart pounding, slamming the door shut with a force that sends a few prowling seagulls into the air in a corporate flurry of panic.

He dives to the back of the car to wrench the boot open. Beneath him the assorted bags and cases glare back in silent accusation. He reaches in. As he withdraws the case the surrounding luggage sags into the space it has left, as if his absence, as yet unmarked, has already begun to be obscured.

He drops the case on to the tarmac, closes the boot, fumbles in his pocket for his keys then realises he must not lock the car. He glances over to the terminal once more to check that they have not emerged and opens the driver’s door to reinsert the keys into the ignition.

He must be quick now. A rapid scan of the loading area reveals little cover except for  a couple of container lorries further along the quayside and it is these he makes for, imposing a fast, business like stride upon his flight while his instincts scream at him to run. When he has gained the shadow of the lorries he looks again at the terminal building before scuttling through the gap between them. He pauses, trembling. His shirt is soaked with perspiration. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his face. The sun is high, unforgiving. There is a stifling smell of mingled diesel fumes and metallic tarmac.

The lorries provide a barrier between him and the car. He continues towards the street, squinting against the glare, cursing his forgetful abandonment of his sunglasses on the car’s dashboard. At the pavement he halts to look over his shoulder once more but is unable to see the vehicle lanes from here. He wonders if they’ve returned to the car, although it’s only been a few minutes and he wonders what they will do. The thought that they may come running to find him spurs him to make haste with his disappearance and he hurries across the busy road, looking up and down as he goes, seeking a taxi. On the opposite side he manages to flag one down, leaning in to give his directions.

“Atesa-alquiler de coches, por favour.”

He throws the case on to the back seat of the cab before scrambling in. As the cab pulls away he allows himself a long intake of breath, closing his eyes to exhale, smiling a little in acknowledgement of the anticipation that is growing inside him like a slow, insistent flame.