"It was a dark & stormy night..." A cliché, but true: the rain was pouring from the dark sky in sheets of sodden misery that made the lights shine blurrily back from the flooded tarmac of the car park and reflected too the people hurrying for shelter with their coats over their heads. Within the warm brightness of the motorway services’ restaurant, Keri and Gillian sat over their coffee and looked at the scene outside through steamy windows.
‘If it keeps on like this, it will take us hours to reach your aunts’ bungalow,’ observed Gillian gloomily, watching the water sheeting down the glass. ‘What’s the time now?’
Keri looked at her watch. ‘A few minutes to nine. We should be there well before eleven, we’re practically in Cornwall now.’
‘Cornwall is long and slender like you, not short and fat like me. You can be in Cornwall an awful long time before you get where you’re going.’
‘Not this time. I haven’t been there since I was a child, but I do know where the bay is. It’s up in the North, the widest bit. If we head west from here, down towards Bodmin on the A30, we’re nearly there. We turn off left onto a slip road, although we’re actually going somewhere to the right, and it’s not that far to the coast then, or that’s what Aunt Margaret said, and only about another three miles after that.’
Gillian looked doubtful. ‘Bodmin is in the middle of a moor,’ she objected.
‘No, really?’ Keri smiled at her across the table. ‘What are you trying to say, Gill? Are you hungry again, or something?’
‘No, not really.’ Gillian put down her cup. ‘Only, I was thinking, eleven o’clock will be awfully late to be getting supper, and in a strange kitchen too.’
Keri’s brows drew together in a delicate frown. ‘Why in a strange kitchen, particularly?’ she asked, curiously. Gillian’s reasoning processes sometimes lost their crisp edge during the journey from her brain to her mouth. Gillian giggled.
‘You know what I mean,’ she said, mistakenly. ‘And I do see that it’ll be better to get there without wasting any more time, so have you finished? Shall we go? The longer we sit around here, the later we shall be in the end.’
They left the bright warmth of the restaurant with reluctance, and made a quick, wet dash across to Keri’s car.
‘Ugh,’ said Gillian, sliding into the passenger seat and shaking the drops from her short blonde hair like a spaniel drying its ears. ‘I hope it isn’t going to be like this all week! What a way to spend a hard-earned holiday, sitting indoors with only you - I mean,’ she ended hurriedly, ‘I didn’t mean that exactly. You know I didn’t.’
‘One of these days you’re going to make one of your famous remarks to someone who doesn’t know you, and then what?’ said Keri, un-offended. Friends of Gillian very quickly learned not to take too much notice of her occasionally cataclysmic remarks. Once, she recalled with wonder, she had hated her. It seemed impossible; they were now the best of friends.
‘We shall see, won’t we?’ said Gillian comfortably. ‘Now where’re you going? The way out is over there.’ She pointed.
‘You may not have noticed,’ said Keri, ‘but there’s a big problem with this car, it stops if you don’t put petrol in it. It won’t take a minute, you can take the map and if you look on the coast between Padstow and Newquay, you’ll find Tregothen Bay along there somewhere. It’ll keep you out of mischief until I’ve done.’
It only took a few minutes to fill the tank and pay, but as they pulled away from the pumps again, Keri gave an exclamation. Gillian, who had been searching in vain for their destination along the wrong bit of coast, looked up. ‘Now why’re you stopping? Honestly, Keri -’
’No lights,’ said Keri.
The next two hours were long. The patrolman from the motoring organisation summoned to their aid via Gillian’s mobile phone took twenty minutes to arrive, which Keri spent in giving her friend a geography lesson, but even when he did finally appear things didn’t get noticeably better. Total electrical failure, he diagnosed. Maybe a fuse had gone.
Ten minutes later he suggested that it was perhaps the bulbs.
‘What, all of them?’ asked Gillian, startled; she was watching his performance with interest from the shelter of the car through a half-open window. He shrugged his shoulders.
It took some time to remove and test all the bulbs; they all worked perfectly until they were returned to the car. The rain stopped and a rift appeared in the clouds, dark and studded with stars. Gillian left the shelter of the passenger seat and joined Keri beside the open bonnet, her shoulders hunched into her waterproof jacket and her hands deep in her pockets.
‘I’m cold,’ she complained. ‘What’s happening?’
‘Not a lot,’ Keri told her. They stood together and watched, as with increasing desperation the young patrolman searched for answers. The wind got up and began to howl through the telegraph wires overhead, and the rift in the clouds disappeared. It began to rain again. The young man asked, without much hope, if there was another fuse box somewhere, but Keri didn’t know. She had lost the handbook, she said, or maybe it hadn’t been there when she bought the car secondhand last year. The world seemed suddenly purged of cars of the same very popular make and model as her own, as a procession of Fords, Austins, Toyotas, Volvos and even a Rolls pulled up at the pumps and drove away again.
The rain had begun to run down Gillian’s neck. She got back into the car.
At half-past ten, the patrolman threw in the towel. He fetched a piece of wire from his truck and by-passed the elusive fault, wished them a good journey and drove away.
‘This time, I really am starving,’ said Gillian, through the wound-down window. ‘And I flatly refuse to wait until one o’clock in the morning to get fed. Let’s go back and eat.’
They did a circuit, re-parked the car, and were about to start the walk back to the restaurant when an Aston Martin DBS, its offside dented and slathered with mud, flounced into the space next to them, stopped with a jerk, and a girl flung herself out of the driving seat, slamming the door, crowding them on the walk to the services building and pushing rudely past them at the doors before heading for the cloakrooms, stopping half way and looking around her as if she had lost something - or maybe, someone. She was fair and tall, a little too dressed-up for travelling, and she would have been beautiful had her face not been distorted with deep emotion, had tears not glittered in her fine grey eyes. Gillian, staggering from a determined elbow, remarked to the empty air, ‘Ooh, who got out the wrong side of the bed this morning?’
‘Ssh,’ whispered Keri, looking anxiously at the retreating back swinging through the door to the Ladies. ‘Something’s upset her, you can see. It looks as if she’s had a close encounter with a wall or something with her lovely car.’
‘No reason for barging about like a mad cow, stamping on the masses,’ Gillian retorted, reasonably enough. She rubbed her arm, more as a gesture than because it hurt her. ‘Anyway, that chicken wasn’t upset the way you mean. She was after somebody’s blood!’
‘Well, it wasn’t ours,’ Keri pointed out mildly. ‘I need a wash - so do you - come on.’
They followed the girl into the cloakroom, but she had barricaded herself into one of the cubicles and must have emerged when they did the same, for she was standing by the slot machines as they went back through the doors. She looked disorientated, and whether she was angry or not, at a loss. Keri gave her a shy smile, which was ignored. Whatever Gillian’s opinion, she still felt the girl was not simply angry. Her carefully applied make-up inadequately covered sore and reddened eyes, and surely nobody allowed themselves to lose control like that in public unless there was a very good reason? She had an odd, fleeting feeling that she had seen the girl before somewhere and couldn’t pin it down, but when she said this to Gillian, as they sat down at a table to eat their belated meal, Gillian only laughed.
‘All done up like someone out of a soap!’ she jeered, mockingly. ‘She’s a clone, that’s all.’
Keri’s mother was a big fan of a soap called Docksiders, she referred to it, not entirely correctly, as her only vice. There was justice in Gillian’s assertion, she had to admit, she only had to look around her now. Nevertheless, the odd feeling of familiarity remained with her.
When they left the restaurant half an hour later, the girl was walking up and down the foyer, forlorn now and still alone. She didn’t look the kind of girl used to being on her own. As they passed her, she appeared to come to a decision, pushed between them for the second time, and went out through the doors ahead of them, and as they followed more slowly, she was standing on the step with a mobile phone clapped to her ear, talking. Her voice, the words inaudible, was shrill with distress - or temper. She wiped her eyelashes carefully with the edge of a hand with French-manicured nails, and gave them a furious look as they passed her
‘Silly witch,’ said Gillian, a little too loudly, as they went by. ‘That’s the way to lose ’em.’ The girl turned her back, ostentatiously.
All in all, it was well on the way to midnight before they finally left Exeter, driving through steadily deteriorating weather, with a rising wind and wet roads that made driving conditions appalling even though the rain had stopped again for the moment, and a couple of stars once more peered down through the murk. Keri drove with care, her eyes on the road, and Gillian sat silent in the passenger seat, yawning and not speaking. It was turning into a really filthy night.
Once the motorway was behind them, the road was practically empty, only the odd lorry pounding through the night every now and again, few cars at this hour. Because of the weather, they made poor time. The time display on the dash ticked slowly onwards. Half-past twelve, and the stars had vanished again, and the rain had resumed its battering of the dark landscape, harder than ever now if that were possible. Gillian yawned again, more loudly.
‘Want me to drive?’ she asked, for she considered that Keri was driving unnecessarily slowly and she longed for a warm, comfortable bed somewhere.
‘No thanks,’ said Keri, who knew that Gillian would drive dangerously fast.
‘I’m tired,’ Gillian grumbled, although she had already made that obvious. ‘Do you think we shall ever get to bed tonight?’
Keri smiled in the darkness, and didn’t answer. She needed all her attention for the road, and after another mile or two it seemed that Gillian had given in to her need for sleep. At any rate, she had stopped grumbling and yawning. Keri drove on, mile after mile of empty road, running with water and awash with huge puddles that sent fans of spray up under the wheels. Heavy gusts of wind shook the car and made it swerve on the wet road, rain streamed down the windows so that it was difficult to see ahead. Launceston was behind them now, and she was tired herself, it was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate; she took one hand from the wheel and rubbed at her eyes. They were at least in Cornwall now, just.
The man appeared unexpectedly out of the murky night, standing by the side of the road with his hand held out urgently, caught and lit up by the headlamps as the car swept past. What a night to be out hitching a lift! Keri thought, and glanced casually into her mirror. He was still standing there, hunched against the rain and wind, looking after her without hope, soaked and despondent. Quite suddenly, Keri knew she couldn’t do it. She knew all about the things that happened to girls who picked up chance hitchhikers, but for every story that hit the headlines there must surely be a hundred innocent people left standing by the roadside, maybe in distress even, so the odds were with her and Gillian. She brought the car to a halt by the side of the road, slammed it into reverse, and only when she had travelled half the distance between herself and the object of her compassion did it occur to her that it was now well past one o’clock in the morning and on a presently deserted dual carriageway, surely the strangest time and place for anyone to be out hitching a lift that there had ever been.
By then, it was too late for second thoughts. Not the most hard-hearted and callous motorist could have driven away a second time on such a night. She stopped the car just short of him, and Gillian woke up.
‘Are we there?’ she asked, and then, as she saw in the wing mirror the man walking towards them along the verge, she said in disbelief, ‘Keri, are you out of your tiny mind?’
‘It’s so wet,’ apologised Keri, a little shocked herself now at her behaviour, and then, since Gillian seemed stunned into immobility, lowered the nearside window. Gillian gave her a speaking look, and shrugged her shoulders. She leaned forward to peer through the wind and rain and felt the rain-soaked wind, chilly and damp on her face. Oh well, maybe Keri was right, it was pretty awful weather.
‘Want a lift?’ she asked, unnecessarily. The man was a dark shape against the whirling night, she couldn’t make out any details. ‘Hang on -’ She opened the door. ‘I’ll get in the back.’
‘Thanks,’ he said briefly. He sounded young, and carried a biggish overnight bag slung on a strap over his shoulder, which gave the reassuring, although possibly misleading, appearance of a genuinely benighted traveller rather than a rape artist/murderer, but of course, one could never be sure and particularly given the circumstances. Without thinking it out in so many words, Gillian knew that she would feel safer in the back of the car, since she had to get out anyway for him to get in; in that position he could hardly attack both herself and Keri at the same time, which gave them a chance to retaliate - her a chance, anyway. She nipped out of the front seat and tilting it forward, squeezed into the back, even in that short time she felt the bitter cold lash of the rain. The traveller slipped into her vacated seat and slammed the door, pushing his bag down between his knees. He sat facing forward, wiping the wet from his face with a handkerchief, saying nothing.
‘Where are you heading?’ Keri asked, putting the car in gear. She might have added, at this unearthly hour, and the unspoken words seemed to her to hang glowing in the darkness between them. If he saw them there, he ignored them.
‘Anywhere. I don’t mind, so long as it’s out of the wet. Where you like.’ His voice wasn’t reassuring. Pleasant enough, but with a soft Irish lilt that for some reason lent it an air of unreliability. Both Gillian and Keri, although they couldn’t have defined why, would happily have exchanged its leprechaun charm for a touch of robust native Cornish.
‘But you must want to go somewhere,’ objected Gillian. ‘It’s two in the morning!’ Which was an exaggeration, but near enough. He shrugged, fumbling to fasten his seatbelt, impeded by his luggage.
‘I was heading back down Helston way, but I won’t get there tonight.’
‘Not with us, you won’t’ agreed Gillian. Keri, content to let her manage the discussion, said nothing.
‘It doesn’t matter.’ He had turned his head to speak to Gillian behind him, and she could see his face dimly in the light reflecting up from the dashboard; an impression of an age to match the voice, young- youngish anyway, but not juvenile, dark hair that might have curled had it not been soaked, dark eyes that could be any colour in the dimness, a clean-shaven chin more triangular than square. Nice looking, if she could see him clearly, she thought, but she wouldn’t put it higher yet.
‘So what do we do, put you down in the first place where we see a light?’ she asked, puzzled.
‘That’ll do fine.’ He hesitated. ‘Somewhere with access to a phone might be good. A couple gave me a lift, and their car broke down. I said I’d ring the recovery service for them when I got somewhere, and I can ring for a taxi then and take myself off your hands.’
He looked - as far as she could make him out - like a man who would have his own mobile phone, Gillian thought - and come to that, didn’t everyone, these days? She had one herself, although she wasn’t going to trust him with that information unless he actually asked, but Keri probably hadn’t; Keri lived on another planet from most people. He didn’t though, she was sure of it. The back of her neck prickled. Although an accident might explain why he was on the road so late she thought hastily, seeking comfort, but her subconscious would have none of it; perhaps on the other hand, it didn’t. There was something faintly rehearsed about his explanation and she couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t the correct one. She bit at the inside of her lower lip and made no comment, and a few miles went past in silence.
They went on for a while without seeing any lights: no convenient all-night garage appeared out of the murk. On the other hand, the rain stopped for a few minutes, and Keri pulled into a lay-by.
‘I’m not sure, actually, that there are any service stations or anything before we turn off. Gillian’s got a phone - haven’t you, Gill? You can ring the breakdown service at least. It won’t help you with a taxi, but it’s the best we can do.’ She proffered her AA card from the glove compartment ‘You can use this if you don’t have one of your own on you.’ He didn’t say whether he had or he hadn’t, but took it with murmured thanks along with Gillian’s reluctantly surrendered mobile, and slightly to their surprise reached for the door handle, saying, ‘This won’t take me a moment.’ He had the door open and was out in a flash, leaving his bag in the footwell. Gillian found herself wishing he had taken it with him, then they could have driven away and left him here, and forget her mobile! She could have got herself another, and he would have been fine with all the world and its taxis at his fingertips on the end of a phone. She still said nothing to Keri. Where was the point? What was done, was done.
The two of them sat in the car and watched him in the light from the headlights. They had a good view of him, or to be more precise, of his back as he made his call - calls; he seemed to make at least two, and they both noticed, but didn’t say, that he looked at Keri’s AA card for neither of them. But at least he wasn’t seven feet tall and four feet wide, said Gillian, and Keri grinned in the darkness.
‘Why should he be?’
‘We’d have no chance at all if he was.’
‘He isn’t going to hurt us. He just needed help.’
‘You must have been completely out to lunch to stop at all!’
‘I couldn’t have left him,’ said Keri, and perhaps that was true, from one angle at least, although Gillian still wasn’t convinced. ‘We hadn’t been passed by another car for miles, and it’s such an awful night.’
‘Someone would have stopped for him eventually.’ A big, muscular lorry driver might be first choice, except that they weren’t allowed to these days, were they?
Keri didn’t reply to this, there were two sides to everything and she didn’t feel that she was standing on very firm ground. One of her father’s basic rules for the survival of pretty girls was, never offer lifts to strangers, and a stranger who was standing by the roadside on a dual carriageway during a heavy storm, in the small hours of an April morning, was very strange indeed. But she had done it now, and she wished that Gillian would stop calamity-howling there on the back seat.
‘He might be a burglar,’ continued the Job’s comforter behind her. ‘That bag might be full of swag.’
‘And he might just be an innocent hitch-hiker whose lift broke down, just like he said,’ countered Keri.
‘No.’ Gillian had been leaning forward, doing a visual investigation of the bag in question in the restricted light shed by the dashboard, and was unreassured by what she saw. ‘Hitchhikers don’t have their things in designer holdalls. Nylon backpacks is what hitchhikers have.’
‘So what do burglars have?’ asked Keri. ‘Do shut up, Gillian. We can dump him at the first opportunity we get, and you’re making me nervous.’
He had finished his call, and was turning to come back to the car. For a moment, they saw him clearly in the headlights.
‘Wow!’ said Gillian reverently, for nice-looking was an understatement. Not above medium height, certainly, but neatly-made and frankly, gorgeous! The sort of man that wise mothers warn their daughters about - Keri’s mother probably had, for all the good it seemed to have done. ‘When you decide to make a mistake, you certainly make it worth it,’ she added admiringly.
Then he was back in the car with them just as the first few sullen drops of the renewed rain began to fall, passing Gillian both the phone and the card as he slipped back into the front seat, and they were on their way once more. It was coming down harder than ever now; the windscreen wipers could hardly cope. Gillian became quiet as they came nearer to the slip road to St Columb; it seemed to her that with every turn of the wheels, every lash of the rain, they were getting deeper and deeper in the mire. There only seemed to be lorries using the road with them; they wouldn’t pick up a hitchhiker. Probably nobody would - except for Keri, of course. It wasn’t very safe to stop on a dual carriageway in any case, and she had a feeling it was probably illegal, too.
Dark villages, sleeping farms, open fields with young crops bending under the force of the storm, everywhere shuttered and closed, asleep. It began to be obvious that short of hammering on the door of some silent hostelry, which would hardly be popular and might well have no effect, their unwanted passenger was likely to spend the night in the open - and not, tonight, romantically under the stars
They had reached the slip road all too soon, and Keri slowed and stopped. ‘What do you want to do now?’ she asked. ‘We turn off here - of course, you can come with us a bit further if you want, or we could put you down here, on the main road, you might have a better chance of picking up a lift into Bodmin, or somewhere.’ A sheet of water blew across the windscreen as she spoke, driven on a furious gust of wind. She caught the glint of his eyes in the dashboard light as he turned to her.
‘Where is it you are going yourselves?’
‘A little bay, about five miles beyond Padstow. We’re staying in a bungalow belonging to two of my aunts. We’d be there now if we hadn’t been delayed.’ She hesitated, knowing that to say any more would be foolish. ‘I suppose...’
Gillian stirred on the back seat; she didn’t want to say it either, but there was really no alternative. ‘How can we just abandon him?’ she asked, uneasily, because it had to be faced.. ‘Even if you ran him into Padstow, the place would be shut down until morning. We can’t drive around all night, and we can’t just dump him in a bus shelter either.’
‘Look, you don’t have to worry about me. A bus shelter would be fine’ Perhaps he had heard the doubt in their voices; he went on more reasonably. ‘Honestly, I’ll be all right. Just dump me off in the next village we come to, I’ll find something.’
In an odd sort of way, it was his willingness to be dumped that tipped the scales. Keri signalled to pull out, although there was nothing in sight, and the car moved forward again. She said, ‘Oh, this is silly. You’ll have to come with us for tonight, at least there’s plenty of room.’ She thought she heard a faint protest from the back, but pretended that she had not. ‘We can run you into Padstow in the morning, or you can get the bus, I know there is one.’
‘No, but look here -’ He stopped, and started again. ‘It’s kind of you, don’t think I don’t appreciate it, but -’
Gillian leaned her arms on the backs of each of the front seats, so that her head came between his and Keri’s.
‘Have you any lustful designs on our bodies?’
‘Good God, no!’ He sounded unflatteringly horrified, but of course, thought the cynical Gillian, that could be an act.
‘He’d hardly tell us if he had,’ suggested Keri. Gillian didn’t want to hear that kind of subversion and ignored her.
‘In that case, isn’t it more sensible to stay with us, who are already wide awake, and getting wider awake every minute thanks to you, than to knock up some poor tired villager? You can’t sleep in a bus shelter, so don’t talk rubbish. You’d end up dying of pneumonia or something, you must be soaked to the skin already.’
‘Oh...’ The reluctance in his voice was so obvious that Gillian began to wonder why, but there was no sensible alternative or at least, not one that she could think of. He said, ‘Oh well... if you’re quite sure. Thank you.’
The minor road they were now on was exchanged, in time, for a lane, the lane in its turn for a track leading through farmland that brought them unexpectedly to a left-handed turn into a wider lane with houses showing, widely spaced, to the right. There was a sense of open air and emptiness. Not a light showed.
‘It should be the third house along,’ said Keri, slowing to a walking pace. ‘It’s called St Petroc - there it is!’
She turned the car through the open gate into a short drive, and pulled up outside closed garage doors. To their left, set back from a small lawn, the front of the bungalow seemed entirely composed of windows. Dark windows. Keri fumbled in her bag for the keys.
‘Here we are,’ she said, recognising the triteness of the words as she spoke. ‘Now let’s get the car unloaded, and go to bed!’ Immediately the words were out of her mouth, they seemed to hold a double meaning that made them light up the inside the car in fluorescent lights. She hurriedly opened her door and got out, feeling the heat rushing up under her skin. Gillian giggled, which didn’t help, and made their unwanted passenger look hurriedly down at his hands, tightly locked together in his lap.
Outside the car, the slashing rain seemed to have eased just a little, but the wind still blew, carrying with it the scent of the sea. It whistled in the wires over their heads, howled through the hedges of tamarisk that bowed and wavered against the faint lighter arc of a stormy sky. Beyond the little house, the land appeared to fall away abruptly, there was a suggestion of glinting dark sea, white-capped waves, grasses flattening in the gale. Keri shivered.
‘I’ll get the door open and put some lights on,’ she said. ‘Can you be getting stuff out of the car?’ She didn’t wait for an answer and walked to the front door. Gillian opened the boot; her own and Keri’s cases, a holdall full of sheets and towels, a large cardboard box full of stores. She was uncomfortably aware of the man standing at her elbow. Her heart began to beat faster and she was ashamed of herself. She, streetwise Gillian from London, dithering because a stranger was looking at her? It wasn’t even as if she could see the look on his face.
‘Could you manage the box?’ she asked. There was a fractional pause.
‘No,’ he said, coolly. Gillian turned to stare at him, startled.
Keri had the front door open and had found a light switch, the garden was suddenly flooded with yellow light. It lit up the small front lawn and the drive, but threw the hitchhiker into sharp silhouette while leaving his face in shadow. Gillian continued to stare at him indignantly.
More lights went on behind the big windows, as Keri moved about inside, exploring. The wind blew cold, funnelling between the house and garage, rain swept like heavy mist across the lawn, across their faces.
‘The car I told you broke down,’ he said, but casually as if it hardly mattered. ‘As a matter of fact, it skidded into a ditch.’
Gillian peered at him in the now striped and squared darkness. ‘Are you hurt, then?’
‘Nothing serious, a few bruises maybe. But I’d sooner not try to pick up that box, if you don’t mind.’
‘I see,’ said Gillian, wondering if she did. Safer, perhaps, to leave it at that. ‘Take one of the cases then, Keri and I can manage the box between us. You can manage that, I suppose?’
Keri came out of the house to help them unload, it took only a few minutes. Their unexpected - unwanted - guest took the cases, one at a time but apparently carrying them lightly and set them down inside the door, Gillian and Keri lifted the box between them, putting it onto a large oak chest that stood in the narrow, brightly lit hall, and Keri shut the door firmly on the weather. Together, they turned and took a long, clear look under the light at the man on whom they had staked their judgement, even if not their safety and there was no guarantee about the last, either.
Not a soothing sight, on the whole. The glimpse in the headlights had done him less than justice, he was indecently good-looking and, Gillian decided, probably knew it. Somewhere in
his late twenties probably, which made him very little older than themselves, dark hair curling wildly as it had begun to dry in the car, the eyes that had looked dark in the half-light only looking so because brows and lashes were dark, the irises a light, smoky blue; Irish eyes, smudged with the legendary sooty finger. A lively, intelligent face, vividly attractive more than conventionally handsome; good forehead, a strong nose, an unexpectedly sensitive mouth that looked as if it would smile easily, that triangular chin. An overall picture of a genuine Irish heart-throb, generating a pulsating aura of total unreliability and extreme tiredness. Non-committal clothes, not cheap but not flashy either; a leather blouson jacket that looked like the real thing, sweat-shirt with a collared shirt under it that showed at the neck, jeans and trainers, the latter items probably both designer, a uniform almost. An accent that would betray class only to another Irishman. A disquieting enigma, he could be anything from unfortunate traveller, as he himself said, to cat burglar. He returned stare for stare, and Keri wondered how he saw them. She pulled herself together, a good upbringing coming to her aid.
‘I’m Kerena Curran,’ she said. ‘My friend is Gillian Biggs.’
‘Everyone calls her Keri,’ added Gillian. ‘Nobody, ever, calls me Gill, except Keri when she wants to annoy me.’
There was another of those fractional pauses, full of unanswered questions.
‘Sean O’Herlihan,’ he said, and perhaps the hesitation had only been imagination.
‘So here we are, then,’ said Gillian brightly. ‘Keri darling, have you found the kitchen, I’d give my soul for a cup of tea! Let’s have some, and then we can -’ She broke off, finding the phrase go to bed as much of a minefield as Keri had done earlier on. She picked up her case. ‘Let’s get organised,’ she finished lamely.
The little bungalow was designed on the simplest possible lines, roughly divided into thirds. The right-hand third was two bedrooms, one with twin beds and the other with one single bed and a set of bunk beds. The centre third comprised the kitchen at the back, overlooking the bay, a bathroom in the centre with a vent to the roof, and the L-shaped entrance hall that gave access to all of these, plus a fifth door that opened on the left-hand third. This was living space, dining and living areas divided by a low granite wall with a slate top, ending in a central fireplace cunningly built so that the fire, when lit, could be seen and felt from both sides. The chimney went straight up to the roof. The front wall of the house, as they had already seen, was virtually all glass but the back overlooked the exposed cliff and the sea, and had much smaller windows, presumably against the gales roaring in from the Atlantic, as tonight. The furnishings were simple, sofa and chairs that turned into beds, television, a row of books on a shelf. A divan bed tucked into the corner of the dining room section, a big wardrobe against the wall. A holiday home, chosen with large families of nieces and nephews in mind, comfortable but not lavish. It took about three minutes to look over.
All of them were tired, the journey had been long and frustrating, and tension made both Keri and Gillian ill-at-ease; the tea was drunk speedily in the kitchen while Keri unpacked perishables, milk, butter, eggs, fresh foodstuffs like sausages and bacon, into the fridge from the box in the hall, walking to and fro while the other two perched silently on high stools at the table. Then the girls gave Sean O’Herlihan - or whoever he was, thought Gillian cynically - extra blankets from the chest in the hall, a sheet and a pillowcase from their own bag of bedding, and showed him the bunkroom, then shut themselves into the back bedroom. Once safely behind the closed door, they looked at each other in mutual query and doubt.
‘That’s quite something, to pick up and take home on a dark night,’ said Gillian, and tried to keep accusation out of her voice.
‘What else could we have done?’ asked Keri, knowing that she had been foolish but still unable to see an alternative.
‘Driven on?’ Gillian wasn’t handing out blame, she was simply trying to assess the situation. ‘He looks quite lethal - and that name! Sean O’Herlihan, I ask you! He’s probably a hit-man on the run!’
The words hung uncomfortably in the wind-filled silence. Keri reached for the holdall.
‘Don’t be so silly, all that’s over,’ she said, but her words lacked the conviction she would have liked. Gillian looked at the door, biting her lower lip thoughtfully.
‘There’s no keys,’ she said. ‘Do you think we should wedge a chair under the handle?’
Keri paused in her task of tipping linen out onto one of the beds.
‘Don’t be silly,’ she said, again. ‘You can’t have it all ways. Is he to be a terrorist or a rapist? Make up your mind, will you, and then we shall know what to dream about when we get to bed - if we ever do!’
Gillian began gathering up towels, dumping them beside the washbasin.
‘He could be both.’
A sheet unfolded with a disbelieving flap.
‘Nobody is that depraved! It takes two different kinds of wickedness.’
‘Is that the voice of your wide experience speaking?’asked Gillian, who believed otherwise. She took the other side of the sheet. ‘If you want my opinion, you’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life - of our lives.’
‘Want a lift?’ asked Kerry. ‘I’ll just get in the back...’
‘Oh well,’ said Gillian.
They finished the beds, Keri’s with one sheet folded double, undressed , cleaned their teeth, all in a thoughtful silence. Last of all, Gillian took her mobile from the pocket in which she had slipped it back there in the car to put it on the bedside table. With it, came Keri’s AA card. She looked at it for a moment, and then handed it to Keri. ‘Yours, I think.’
‘Yes.’ Keri took it and slid it into her bag. ‘Thanks.’
Gillian said, ‘He didn’t use it.’
‘No. Maybe he already knew the number.’
‘In your dreams, Keri! Who phones the AA often enough to memorise the number?’
Keri didn’t answer.
‘And I’ll tell you something else.’
‘What?’ asked Keri reluctantly, not sure if she wanted to hear.
‘He rang two numbers, and he deleted them both from my phone. I checked when he gave it me back.’
‘So? He probably didn’t think you’d want them cluttering up the space.’ Keri climbed into bed and pulled the blankets across with a flounce. ‘I’m used to a duvet, aren’t you?’
‘All right, have it your own way.’ Gillian got into her own bed, giving up. ‘Goodnight,’ she said.
‘Goodnight then,’ said Keri.
There was no chair wedged under the doorhandle.
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