He was driving home, not for the first but the third time this week, and he was tired.
Paul’s weariness was an insidious thing, . It had begun not weeks but months since, an insistent fatigue beyond sleep’s cure with roots that grew a little deeper each day, spread a little wider each week; so now it invaded his very bones. He felt older, much older than his forty-two years. Today he had worked late and far from home, swaddling that tiredness in a further layer of exhaustion.
Almost as indistinct, the traffic of the motorway processed about him in sound and rhythm, fast and vast, marauding or crawling, assertive or furtive. A tune – a slow ballad – a lullaby to woo him into sleep. His eyelids were heavy, his reason was blurring.
The mile-post for a service area found him just in time: even then he almost missed it, sinking eyelids hiding the warnings, an articulated trailer unit veiling the essential final sign until he was forced into an ugly lane-change. The car park beckoned him and he fell into it, slumping back in his seat. With the tensions of the road dispersed nothing could arrest the orderly march of slumber. Recognising the futility of defence, he surrendered unconditionally.
“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look absolutely wrecked.”
At some point he must have wakened then taken a decision to leave his cocoon in search of food. His steps must have led him to this café, his payment app to the stack of meat, cheese and mayo which leered back at him from this plate.
“You aren’t actually going to eat that, are you?”
He couldn’t remember ordering the food, although it seemed sustaining enough to answer a need. Clearly, he had slept for some hours, a simple truth his digestive tract insisted he acknowledge.
“I rather think I might,” he said, and “Who are you?”
He must have dozed again, that was the explanation. While he was in a torpid state this young woman must have slipped into the seat across from his, but why? The café was less than crowded. There were whole tables to spare.
“Hi,” She said brightly, “I’m Seph. Nice to meet you!” She removed the heavy-looking spectacles through which she had been conducting her examination of his choice of comestible and extended a hand so absolutely inviting that, caught unawares, he almost kissed it. Convention stepped into the line of fire just in time with an admonishing finger. He shook the hand. “Paul,” he said. “I’m sorry, how did …?”
“You needed me.”
The forthrightness of the statement alerted prickling, suspicious hairs on the back of Paul’s neck.
Awake now and thinking, it didn’t take much working out, really, did it? Easy to watch for such travellers as he: Mercedes in the car park, expensive business suit, new, high-end ‘phone… She was certainly convincing, he told himself, allowing his eyes free rein; a ‘class act’, her hair darkly frizzed to emphasize the portrait of a perfectly-featured face, the widest of soft mouths, the bluest of blue eyes. A pale blue cloud-blue shift dress draped over shoulders otherwise bare, free of straps and encumbrances. But still…
“I needed you. Really.” He placed some cynicism behind the words.
“Yes,” She said. And when she said it, when her eyes insisted his should meet with them, he felt himself melting. “You’re not happy, are you?”
Now what on earth would make her say that? “I’m on my way home,” he replied defensively. “When I get home, I’ll be happy enough.”
It was a lie. He dreaded going home. “You’re very direct,” he accused her.
Home? A very expensive roof protecting a string of complex and irresolvable debts; remortgaged many times in the cause of his his business activities. The domain of Adrienne, his wife; very much her domain, her furniture, her colours, her choices – bought without sanction because he was never there, always working.
“Is it my home?” did he say that aloud? Seph’s smile of understanding seemed to suggest she had heard everything, even the thoughts he was sure he had not spoken aloud.
“There’s someone waiting for you there?” She coaxed, settling her hand on the table so her fingers played gently with the tips of his own.
“My wife. Are you conducting some kind of confessional?”
“Do you love her, your wife?”
He wanted to frown, to show he was affronted, but somehow he was drawn into an answer: “This is getting a little too personal, isn’t it? What was your name? Seph? I mean, considering we’ve never met before, Seph.”
Seph leaned her elbows on the table, letting her chin rest prettily upon her interlocked fingers, “I’m genuinely afraid for you, Paul. It’s three o’clock in the morning, it’s a summer dawn; if love and happiness are waiting at the end of your journey, what are you doing here?”
“I had to pull over to rest.” Just by reminding himself, he stirred a cloying mist of sleep. Why was he so, so tired? Adrienne slipped back into his thoughts, bringing contemplation and silence…
Oh, there was a presumption of love. There was a history, a time when there had been something between them they could excuse as love, when Paul was the beautiful young man and Adrienne his feminine equal, courted by an eager succession of suitors. Perhaps Paul was the man Adrienne had been looking for, then. Perhaps his relentless energy, his quiet, distant manner satisfied her, for she was never a passionate woman and she had few sexual needs. Salivating young grads with nervous, uncertain eyes who danced on her strings amused her, but never tempted. Paul saw her as she was, focussed; and she was drawn to his perspicacity.
That was then, and maybe it was a flawed foundation for a marriage, a mutual admiration rather than a friendship, a partnership rather than a passion: now it was a floor show, played out on their public stage. In private, it was ice.
“That will be cold,” Seph interrupted his thoughts, rescuing him from despondency. She directed his leaden eyes to the plated enormity stacked before him. “If there’s anything worse than grease, it’s cold grease.”
Paul had to agree. He was hungry. But the challenge which confronted him was, in construction, a burger, and he hesitated to engage in the two-handed assault that threatened to release missiles of gherkin and cascades of mayonnaise while under the scrutiny of this attractive companion. He was drawn to her, wasn’t he? He was intrigued.
“Knife,” She said, producing one from somewhere and sliding it across the table.
Paul accepted it. “Do you work here or something?”
“No. You hate her, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” his mouth was half-full. “Hate who?”
Paul stopped chewing, staring into Seph’s eyes as he sought some answer to a question so obvious he almost baulked at asking it; “How do you know my wife’s name? Do I talk in my sleep, or something? Have we met before?”
“Have we met before? Let me see…” Seph’s hands slipped below the table and came up with a small notebook. With her spectacles replaced halfway down her nose she flipped pages. “Well, no. No, we haven’t actually met. Do you think I look too stern in these? He says they make me look stuffy. What do you think?”
Had Paul been in a mood for honesty, he would have replied that in his opinion she looked beautiful, but he saw a small advantage. It seemed unlikely someone so lovely, and so overtly happy, would not be in a relationship. “’He’? Is ‘he’ your boyfriend?”
She pouted, an admission perhaps that she had been caught out? But then there was a trace of a smirk, “I wouldn’t call him that, exactly. Anyway, we were talking about you. I know all about you, Paul; you and Adrienne. I’ve been studying you both for a few months now.” She slid the spectacles right down to the end of her nose, treating him to a penetrating look over the top of them. “Stern, yes?”
Genuinely, Paul was beginning to feel a little out of his depth. Although this woman’s research begged explanation, he still favoured his initial theory. This was a pick-up; a very professional one, but nonetheless…“Is this a regular haunt of yours?” He asked brutally; “Cruising the motorway stops for tired professionals with fat wallets?”
“I see, sir,” Seph took off her glasses; “So I assume this is a practice of yours, trawling for chicks at night in tawdry dens of lust like Knutsford Services? Fat professionals with tired wallets?” But her eyes were liquid. She looked solemn and genuinely sad. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Paul, but I’m not for sale. Not even for rent.”
“Then what are you, what is it that you do? Where DO you work?”
“Wherever I am needed. At the moment, that’s here.”
“I don’t need you,” he tried to say it kindly. “Look, Seph, I’ve no idea where you’re coming from, so let’s agree to a moment of honesty, shall we? You seem, for reasons only you can explain, to be interested in the state of my marriage. Well, if I admit it isn’t the best marriage in the world, and from your perspective it must seem pretty depressing, can we close the subject and get down to whatever this conversation is really about? Can we dispense with the subtleties?”
“No!” Seph gripped his hand fiercely, then released it as quickly and sat back in her chair, “This is a one-time offer, Paul. One stop only, no repeats. Do you know what I see? Someone who’s ruled by life, Paul. A caged soul. It isn’t your fault, perhaps; you have the fast car but someone else is driving. Nor is the fault Adrienne’s, because a woman like her was raised with expectations and her choices have failed her. But you are not free and I must free you, yes? That’s why I sat down at this table. That’s why you have to take my hand, now, and let me guide you. Please?”
Paul felt he had to shake his head because the sleep was coming in storm clouds. Suddenly, it seemed imperative to think clearly, but clarity wouldn’t come. He strove for an answer. “See, Seph, that’s just how it is. It’s the life I’ve got. There are moments in it you could call happy. If I’m prepared to settle for that version, and I am, although you are the most wonderful-looking reminder of the youth I once had, you must accept I don’t want rescuing – even by you.”
“So,” Seph sighed,. “You don’t need my help, then. You’re going home and you’re ‘happy’, Paul.” She shrugged. “An opportunity missed. I’m very glad for you.”
“Thank you for the thought,” he replied generously, “It was nice to meet you, Seph.”
A slow smile of kindness, tinged with regret, played across her face. She rose gracefully from her seat, turning to follow the aisle to the doors, her blue dress floating about her – reeds in a stream, the rush of breeze in the willow. He watched her go.
What made him do it? Adrienne made him do it, the future in that hard voice, those acerbic jibes, waiting at the end of his road. The darkness made him do it.
Then out of the darkness came Seph, taking his hands, drawing him to her. “I was rather hoping you were going my way,” she said sweetly. “This is the very best thing! Thank you, Paul!”
“My car’s in the car park,” he said.
“We don’t need a car,” Seph replied.
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.