Ruption by Sarah Evans
Madrid airport heaved; the screens were blank of information.
Damn it! Why now, why here, why him?
Nigel flipped his mobile phone open and brought up his home number again. ‘Marianne?’
‘Any more news?’
‘No. None at all. I’m going to find out about hotels. Doesn’t look like I’ll be back anytime soon.’
She was silent a moment and he felt it as a reproach. As if that damned volcano with the unpronounceable name was his fault. As if he could’ve foreseen this. As if he was – somehow – being exceptionally dim in failing to figure out an alternative route home.
‘OK,’ she said finally.
‘Look, I’m sorry.’ As in sorry this had to happen, not in terms of apology. ‘Nothing I can do right now.’ It was hard to fathom how, in the modern world, the eruption of a far away volcano could cause such chaos.
The timing was awful. No time would have been good, but the day before his tenth wedding anniversary was unfortunate. He’d have to ring and cancel the overpriced restaurant he’d felt obliged to book.
He closed his eyes a moment, steeling himself against the coming hassle, then walked through the revolving doors, out from the air-conditioned cool and into the warmth of the afternoon. He joined the trailing queue for taxis and rang his PA.
The only hotel Yelena could find was several miles from the city centre. His room had the same blank anonymity of chain-hotels everywhere. The window provided a view of a brick wall with a palm-sized patch of blue sky above. He thought of volcano ash clogging up the upper atmosphere, imagining its shade of pewter, which, according to Marianne’s instructions, was used traditionally to symbolise a decade’s worth of marriage.
It was dull sort of metal. Deliberate, perhaps: after ten years, most marriages had lost their shine. He and Marianne seemed to have settled into an irritable companionability, which reminded him of his parents.
He ate the lacklustre offerings of the hotel restaurant, the menu determinedly pan-European, leaving it rootless and bland. It was still early. He was not so much tired as bored, lacking the enthusiasm even to flick through the hundred channels on the TV. Pulling back the flimsy covers on the wide bed, he seemed to feel all that ash weighing down on him, making it difficult to breathe.
Next morning, he rang the airline and listened to the recorded message, the same one they had played all day yesterday. All flights are cancelled for the moment; please check back later.
The hotel breakfast buffet was vast. Normally, he did no more than grab a roll and coffee and riffle through the papers needed for his meeting. Today he could take his time.
He filled up several plates, sampling the full array of fruit, cereal, rolls and accompaniments. He sipped his coffee – dark and rich – savouring the promise of a caffeine boost. It was pleasant to allow his mind to drift and simply people-watch.
On a table next to his sat two women. Sisters perhaps, or close friends, or possibly lovers; he was never good at figuring out that sort of thing. He watched them up at the buffet, collaborating over what to pick, one of them creating a Jenga-tower of different breads and the other choosing cheeses and meats. Their lips seemed ever ready with a smile and their hands darted like dragonflies as they conversed. He didn’t recognise their language, something East European he guessed, one of those places riven by ethnic conflict.
One of them was quite strikingly attractive, with fine fair hair and high cheekbones. The other was darker, slightly younger, her plainness heightened by the contrast at her side. Both of them were a decade younger than him, making him think back to Marianne when he’d first known her, the fresh faced verve which had dimmed with the passing years.
It was the plainer one who caught him out in watching them, her return gaze direct and challenging, an air of amusement playing on her lips. She turned to her companion to whisper something, their joint laughter bringing a flush to his cheeks, causing him to stare determinedly downwards into his bowl which contained five types of cereal.
A waitress came by his table to gather up his discarded dishes and ask for his room number.
‘Four-zero-one.’ He articulated it slowly to make sure she would understand. The two women were back at the buffet collecting more food.
He buttered a piece of bread and piled on both ham and cheese, grateful not to have Marianne admonishing him about salt and saturated fat. He went and poured another cup of coffee.
Four. Oh. One.
It took a moment for him to register what he was hearing as he sat back down, his brain operating in slow motion. The woman at the table next to him, the fair one, was giving hisroom number to one of the white-aproned waitresses. The darker woman looked his way defiantly, as if daring him to protest. Her mouth curled upwards into slow smile as his opportunity to intervene passed on by.
Likely the two of them were stuck the same way he was but without a company to pick up the tab. He was happy enough to sub them breakfast. The darker woman said something to her companion and then leant his way. ‘I am Yana,’ she said. ‘And this is my sister, Alena.’
The three of them left the breakfast room together and arranged to meet back in the hotel lobby in fifteen minutes. As he brushed his teeth, he looked at his reflection, his hair beginning to recede, the scattering of grey, the lines across his forehead. He wiped gobs of toothpaste off his chin and wondered quite what he was doing, arranging a day’s sightseeing with two much younger woman; it had all the hallmarks of a scam.
But he felt the need for some sort of amusement to get him through the day. So long as he was vigilant, he didn’t see what disaster could befall him. His natural cynicism was good defence against harm.
They took a cab into the city centre, asking the driver to drop them at the main square. ‘We must go explore,’ Yana, or was it Alena, had said, the plan for the day remaining open. He thought of Marianne and her bullet-point itineraries in which the objective seemed to be to tick off top ten tourist lists as efficiently as possible. And of business trips when he saw nothing other than airport lounges, hotels and offices.
Plaza Mayor was precisely square, its buildings uniform along each edge: red brick with white windows above a line of arches giving access to cloistered walkways edged with boutique windows. Tables and wicker chairs spilled out into the square and waiters plied their trade, inviting you to sit down the second you lingered. He overheard a tour-guide describing how the square was formerly the scene of bullfights, executions, tournaments and Inquisition trials. Today the space thronged with tourists, street performers and people on the hustle. Despite being only April, already the air was warm, but he kept his jacket firmly zipped, his wallet tucked away inside.
The three of them walked round slowly, the women entranced by the tiny shops selling everything from ancient coins and military memorabilia to overpriced trinkets and perfumes whose heady fragrance filled the air. A sudden whim seized him; he could seek out a gift for Marianne, something more romantic than a pewter vase. But almost immediately an image formed – ten years worth of presents being exchanged.Did you keep the receipt? He could almost hear her. He quelled the impulse.
Alena had taken hold of one of his arms and Yana the other as they sidestepped the gaudily dressed human statues and walked a second meandering circuit within the square itself. He wondered what the pressed-close crowds would see. A group of friends, with him a little older than his companions. An uncle out with nieces, or an older brother with younger siblings. A couple plus one add-on, a friend or sister they’d been kind enough to invite along. A successful man with not one, but two lovers.
A middle-aged business man being taken for a fool.
‘Is all very old, no?’ Alena said, ‘old and beautiful.’ But there seemed no need to stop and consult guidebooks regarding exact age and history. ‘What next?’
The hours passed pleasantly, his mind half in reverie, spooling back to younger days, summers spent inter-railing as a student, when there was no expectation or agenda other than pursuing the enjoyment of the present. When chance encounters might lead anywhere.
In answer to his probing, Yana said, ‘We are students. From the university. These days we are just tourists. On holidays. Visiting from our home in Kosovo. We go home soon.’ Neither of the sisters directly avoided his quizzing, nor did they expand on their brief replies, both of them shrugging shoulders in a simultaneous gesture, as if there was nothing very interesting in their circumstance. They did not question him.
The three of them drifted where their feet and eyes took them. ‘Look!’ one of the women would say and they’d stop to gaze upwards at towers and spires, or turn to investigate a quaint alleyway smelling of garlic and hot oil. They stopped in outdoor cafes, the prime-location tourist traps that Marianne would have vetoed. Mid-morning, they ordered crisp churros, dipping them in thick, hot chocolate. Lunch was a relaxed affair, a sharp Rioja accompanying a never ending stream of tapas. Come afternoon, they lingered over café con leche and marzipan rolls, Saint’s bones. He wondered at the amount the two women could consume, when each was so slender. He thought of Marianne strictly rationing not only her own calories, but his. It seemed natural for him to pick up the bills and if he was in some sense paying for the pleasure of their company, well it felt an easy enough exchange.
Day gave way to evening. His phone rang and he picked up the call from Marianne.
‘There’s still no information,’ he said, uncomfortably aware that he had not checked with the airline for some time. ‘I’ve had a bit of a walk round the centre.’
‘Not having too bad a time then.’ Her voice was a little sarcastic, or was that his own projection, a cover for the guilt he must surely be feeling somewhere. Except he had not done anything wrong. ‘You’ll have to tell me more when you get back.’
‘Of course.’ He thought how his account might fall short of her expectations. She’d have expected him to spend time in the Prada, contemplating Spanish art through the centuries and might well quiz him on what he thought of Guernica in the original.
Very powerful. He’d have to do better than that.
‘I’ve spent time in my room working too,’ he added.
It seemed natural to remain in the centre for the evening.
‘Perhaps we can eat here?’ Yana said, her smile coy, and he was uncertain whether her choice of somewhere ostentatious and correspondingly pricy was innocence or guile.
‘Sure.’ What the hell.
He could put the bill on his company expenses credit card. The woman in accounts might well spot that the amount was outside usual guidelines, but he could claim absentmindedness and pay the excess back. Just as long as nothing appeared on the matrimonial card which Marianne scrutinised down to every last trifling item.
The two women ordered freely and expensively – caviar, champagne, the chef’s special. Solicitous waiters delivered a succession of dishes, each beautifully presented, combining unexpected textures and explosions of flavour. He felt aware of the openness of the evening, the night, how this was a world away from his regular behaviour of always needing to know what came next, a universe apart from his usual moral code. Being marooned in a foreign city seemed to have disrupted his routines not just physically, but more fundamentally, providing an intermission in his life during which he no longer felt accountable.
Back at the hotel, he was the only one to ask for a room key, and as the three of them took the lift – the confined space filling with the fecund, floral scent of the two women – he realised that not only were the pair scamming breakfast, but quite likely they were not paying guests at all. The thought was unaccountably thrilling.
They had appeared warm and affectionate all day, the two of them so easy with their casual touches, the innocent brushing together of limbs. Yet he had no idea what they had in mind in coming up to his room. Perhaps they were simply counting on his kindness for a warm and comfortable place to sleep. Yet, surely it wasn’t unreasonable to expect they offer him a little something in return for all his trouble. The thought of some kind of threesome provoked a predictable physical response, along with a vague anxiety. There were certain issues of logistics and stamina. Never mind his English reserve.
He pushed the thoughts away, remembering how perhaps, after all, they were simply seeking to fleece him. It occurred to him that being vigilant with this amount of alcohol fugging his brain was going to be a tall order. That being watchful was not compatible with being asleep.
In his room, the two of them made themselves at home, breaking out bottles from the mini-bar, turning the cable television to a pay-per-view channel and draping their slender bodies over the bed. As he joined them, ending sandwiched between the two, an arm over each of their shoulders, he remembered how tonight was the actual night of his anniversary.
Marianne hadn’t wanted to sleep with him before their wedding. He could no longer recall, not precisely, how she had persuaded him that that was reasonable. It would make their wedding night special, she had said.
Except it hadn’t. The long day, endlessly being on show, smiling and chit-chatting to the hoards Marianne had insisted on inviting, the on-off alcohol for a solid twelve hours, it all served as an appalling turn-off. Yet it was their wedding night and they had waited, so it was unthinkable that they postpone. He remembered a tired, fumbling attempt, in which it took him forever to come and she of course didn’t come at all.
She rarely did.
He wondered if they’d have got married at all, if he’d realised how sexually incompatible they were and whether she had known all along. He wondered whether after ten years they might not be better arranging for an amicable dissolution, rather than buying dull metal trinkets for one another.
All of these thoughts went through his mind as Alena, or was it Yana, stroked his thigh, her hand moving steadily higher.
Waking from heavy sleep, he felt disorientated, failing to remember who or where he was. He had a throbbing headache, a dry mouth and a sense of something missing.
The room was quiet. It was empty of anyone but himself.
He forced his eyes to focus on the red glow of the clock confirming that much of the morning had gone, along with the two women.
It was possible of course that the pair had simply woken early and gone down to breakfast, leaving him to sleep.
Possible, but unlikely.
Quickly, he did an inventory of the room. His wallet had disappeared, together with his smart phone, laptop and the expensive watch that Marianne had bought him for his fortieth birthday and which he had never liked.
He still had his passport with its photo taken shortly after his honeymoon and him looking so impossibly young; that was something at least.
He thought of the coming hassle. Of having to come up with a plausible story of how he came to be robbed, one which did not involve him inviting two much younger women back to his room and which would be convincing for the police, the hotel and card companies. And Marianne, of course. Even the thought of the last failed to induce dismay.
He’d figure something out, he supposed; this was all part of his current adventure of impersonating someone else. The guy who had exotic encounters with East European women – who had lain down between two of them on the wide bed, luxuriating in the sense of possibilities – was the sort who’d come up with something. As his mind started spooling through practicalities, he tried to cling onto this glimpse of how he could be. The sort of guy who would erupt from the suffocating stasis of hearth and home and set himself free.
© Sarah Evans, 2014
Sarah Evans has had dozens of stories published in magazines, competition anthologies and online. Highlights include: appearing in the 2008 Bridport anthology; having several stories published in the acclaimed Unthology series; and winning a competition run by Spoken Ink who also recorded her story. Her stories have been performed at events in Faversham, UK and by Liars’ League Hong Kong. She recently won the inaugural Winston Fletcher Prize with her story ‘Acclimatising.’
Ruption was read by Sarah Evans on 3rd October 2014 for Hearth & Home