It had been a long time coming. Six months ago it was the garish earring under the kitchen table that had given him away. Grace had never had her ears pierced and when her husband threw her case onto the backseat of the taxi she knew she would not be coming back. This time there were no feelings of sadness when the train pulled out the station, the sun had burned the clouds away and she read it as a good omen.
Within an hour the train had passed the grand house, he had often said he would buy when he reached retirement. And then she had discovered it was owned by his mistress of five years and the marital bank account had been plundered to buy lavish gifts to keep up the pretence of being a man from the same income bracket as his mistress.
With an hour before her connecting train arrived, she sat in a corporate coffee bar with the small case beside her. Just as she took out her book, the calm was fractured by two boisterous young men entering a side door. The dark haired male looked like her husband when he was younger; he had the same captivating blue eyes. While his companion ordered, he seated himself next to Grace and she could smell the tantalising aroma of roast lamb emanating from a box he had set in front of him.
He noted her quizzical look and, flipping the lid, said ‘It’s a roast dinner, you want some?’
Grace marvelled at how advanced take away meals had become. It was so different from the newspaper wrapped fish and chips her mother used to bring home after a shift in the restaurant below the rundown one bed apartment her family had once lived.
‘No thanks, I’ve already had food.’ she replied spitting crumbs across his collar and left shoulder.
He seemed not to notice as she wiped them away. Perhaps he was too polite to mention it.
‘What’s that you’re reading?’ he asked
‘A book by Joe Roberts, a travel writer.’
‘You like travel? Me, I’ve just finished a tour in Afghanistan.’
His companion staggered from the cashiers desk mumbling.
‘Take no notice of him,’ the young man said ‘he’s wasted.’
His friend was sweating profusely and had a blankness in his eyes.
‘I guess it stems from the Army culture of work and play hard,’ she said ‘have you ever read any of Hemmingway’s novels?’
‘It’s much the same in A Farewell to Arms, the protagonist’s life revolves around drinking and visits to brothels to escape the disillusionment of war.’
‘We felt the same way, when we were out there. We were in a country we had no business being there in the first place. It didn’t help that the Islamic life was so different to our own. We were like aliens from another planet. Our lads couldn’t get a handle on anything.’
‘My father was the same when he served in Tripoli before Gaddafi came to power. When he left the forces he couldn’t stop drinking.’ Grace said.
‘It’s a ghetto, full of potheads, drunks and worse. Nobody works and everyone knows someone who’s dying from some sort of a disease.’
‘It sounds like where I used to live,’ Grace said ‘now I’m making a new life for myself.’
‘Really? I got the impression you weren’t from around here.’
She stared at the lamb roast on top of an outsize Yorkshire pudding in the box and then looked into his eyes. ‘Never be deceived by appearances, I’ve cooked a lot of Sunday roasts which went cold because my husband didn’t come home on time…’
Grace stopped talking; she noticed he was looking at her cleavage. Her heart rate increased. It felt odd that a man in his early thirties seemed to find her sexually attractive.
‘Look, I have to go now. My train is due soon.’ she said
He stood up and closed the lid of the box. ‘Here, let me help you with your case,’ he said.
Grace followed him out onto the platform admiring his taut physique and then thought about the wreck of a man she was leaving, who knew nothing about her yearlong secret life.
‘Coach F’ she said to her escort.
‘The train’s in. Get on and walk through it.’ he said.
He repeated his instruction several times. Determined to make an easy transition into her new life she walked along the platform ignoring him. It was a long train. Had she boarded when he said she should, she would found herself amid the oppressive havoc of frenetic passengers.
She stepped up onto lighting board, then into the cabin space and turned to face the man she had come to know as Jason.
‘Thanks and good luck.’ She said taking her case from him.
He leaned in to kiss her and she turned her head ensuring his lips made contact with her cheek.
‘When you get to where you are going, call me, please.’ He said pressing a card into her palm.
He leaned in again and held her head between his hands. This time his kiss found its target. Grace could taste an odd combination of mint and salt on his lips and realised why his eyes were ablaze with sparkling energy. In that moment she knew he would have to fight another battle after he left the army; one he would probably lose.
The train pulled away from the platform and in her reserved seat she unzipped her case, lifted a layer of clothing to reveal the banded wads of fifty pound notes she had kept hidden under the mattress. She closed the case, opened her book and removed the letter from a publishing company. The first paragraph read:
Dear Ms Linton,
Please find enclosed the first advance for your novel Snow-blind. We anticipate your completed manuscript within six months from the date of this letter.