In the distance he could hear the dinner bell ringing and roused himself. Feeling the dampness of the pillow, and fearing the ravages of pent up emotion, he considered not going down but thought it best not to upset Mrs. Mac, especially after he said he would be dining.
In the event, he wished he had reneged, especially when he discovered he was not the only guest staying at the hotel.
Whilst he’d been reminiscing, another guest, a young lady, had arrived. He’d heard her and Mrs. Mac coming up the stairs, and then shown to a room on the same floor, perhaps at the other end of the passage.
Henry caught his first glimpse of her when she appeared at the door to the dining room, waiting for Mrs. Mac to show her to a table.
She was about mid-twenties, slim, long brown hair, and the grace and elegance of a woman associated with countless fashion magazines. She was, he thought, stunningly beautiful with not a hair out of place, and make-up flawlessly applied. Her clothes were black, simple, elegant, and expensive, the sort an heiress or wife of a millionaire might condescend to wear to a lesser occasion than dinner.
Then there was her expression; cold, forbidding, almost frightening in its intensity. And her eyes, piercingly blue and yet laced with pain. Dracula’s daughter was his immediate description of her.
All in all, he considered, the only thing they had in common was, like him, she seemed totally out of place.
Mrs. Mac came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. She was, she informed him earlier, chef, waitress, hotelier, barmaid, and cleaner all rolled into one. Coming up to the new arrival she said, “Ah, Miss Andrews, I’m glad you decided to have dinner. Would you like to sit with Mr. Henshaw, or would you like to have a table of your own?”
Henry could feel her icy stare as she sized up his appeal as a dining companion, making the hair on the back on his neck stand up. He purposely didn’t look back. In his estimation, his appeal rating was minus six. Out of a thousand!
“If Mr. Henshaw doesn’t mind….” She looked at him, leaving the query in mid-air.
He didn’t mind and said so. Perhaps he’d underestimated his rating.
“Good.” Mrs. Mac promptly ushered her over. Henry stood, made sure she was seated properly and sat.
“Thank you. You are most kind.” The way she said it suggested snobbish overtones.
“I try to be when I can.” It was supposed to nullify her sarcastic tone but made him sound a little silly, and when she gave him another of her icy glares, he regretted it.
Mrs. Mac quickly intervened, asking, “Would you care for the soup?”
They did, and, after writing the order on her pad, she gave them each a look, imperceptibly shook her head, and returned to the kitchen.
Before Michelle spoke to him again, she had another quick look at him, trying to fathom who and what he might be. There was something about him.
His eyes, they mirrored the same sadness she felt, and, yes, there was something else, that it looked like he had been crying? There was a tinge of redness.
Perhaps, she thought, he was here for the same reason she was.
No. That wasn’t possible.
Then she said, without thinking, “Do you have any particular reason for coming here?” Seconds later she realized she’s spoken it out loud, had hadn’t meant to actually ask, it just came out.
It took him by surprise, obviously not the first question he was expecting her to ask of him.
“No, other than it is as far from civilization, and home, as I could get.”
At least we agree on that, she thought.
It was obvious he was running away from something as well.
Given the isolation of the village and lack of geographic hospitality, it was, from her point of view, ideal. All she had to do was avoid him, and that wouldn’t be difficult.
After getting through this evening first.
“Yes,” she agreed. “It is that.”
A few seconds passed, and she thought she could feel his eyes on her and wasn’t going to look up.
Until he asked, “What’s your reason?”
Slight abrupt in manner, perhaps as a result of her question, and the manner in which she asked it.
She looked up. “Rest. And have some time to myself.”
She hoped he would notice the emphasis she had placed on the word ‘herself’ and take due note. No doubt, she thought, she had completely different ideas of what constituted a holiday than he, not that she had actually said she was here for a holiday.
Mrs. Mac arrived at a fortuitous moment to save them from further conversation.
Over the entree, she wondered if she had made a mistake coming to the hotel. Of course, there had been no possible way she could know than anyone else might have booked the same hotel, but realized it was foolish to think she might end up in it by herself.
Was that what she was expecting?
Not a mistake then, but an unfortunate set of circumstances, which could be overcome by being sensible.
Yet, there he was, and it made her curious, not that he was a man, by himself, in the middle of nowhere, hiding like she was, but for very different reasons.
On discreet observance whilst they ate, she gained the impression his air of light-heartedness was forced and he had no sense of humor.
This feeling was engendered by his looks, unruly dark hair, and permanent frown. And then there was his abysmal taste in clothes on a tall, lanky frame. They were quality but totally unsuited to the wearer.
Rebellion was written all over him.
The only other thought crossing her mind, and rather incongruously, was he could do with a decent feed. In that respect, she knew now from the mountain of food in front of her, he had come to the right place.
He looked up. “Henshaw is too formal. Henry sounds much better,” he said, with a slight hint of gruffness.
“Then my name is Michelle.”
Mrs. Mac came in to take their order for the only main course, gather up the entree dishes, then return to the kitchen.
“Staying long?” she asked.
“About three weeks. Yourself?”
“About the same.”
The conversation dried up.
Neither looked at the other, rather at the walls, out the window, towards the kitchen, anywhere. It was, she thought, almost unbearably awkward.
Mrs. Mac returned with a large tray with dishes on it, setting it down on the table next to theirs.
“Not as good as the usual cook,” she said, serving up the dinner expertly, “but it comes a good second, even if I do say so myself. Care for some wine?”
Henry looked at Michelle. “What do you think?”
“I’m used to my dining companions making the decision.”
You would, he thought. He couldn’t help but notice the cutting edge of her tone. Then, to Mrs. Mac, he named a particular White Burgundy he liked and she bustled off.
“I hope you like it,” he said, acknowledging her previous comment with a smile that had nothing to do with humor.
“Yes, so do I.”
Both made a start on the main course, a concoction of chicken and vegetables that were delicious, Henry thought, when compared to the bland food he received at home and sometimes aboard my ship.
It was five minutes before Mrs. Mac returned with the bottle and two glasses. After opening it and pouring the drinks, she left them alone again.
Henry resumed the conversation. “How did you arrive? I came by train.”
“Did you drive yourself?”
And he thought, a few seconds later, that was a silly question, otherwise she would not be alone, and certainly not sitting at this table. With him.
“After a fashion.”
He could see that she was formulating a retort in her mind, then changed it, instead, smiling for the first time, and it served to lighten the atmosphere.
And in doing so, it showed him she had another more pleasant side despite the fact she was trying not to look happy.
“My father reckons I’m just another of ‘those’ women drivers,” she added.
“The first and only time he came with me I had an accident. I ran up the back of another car. Of course, it didn’t matter to him the other driver was driving like a startled rabbit.”
“It doesn’t help,” he agreed.
“Do you drive?”
“Mostly people up the wall.” His attempt at humor failed. “Actually,” he added quickly, “I’ve got a very old Morris that manages to get me where I’m going.”
The apple pie and cream for dessert came and went and the rapport between them improved as the wine disappeared and the coffee came. Both had found, after getting to know each other better, their first impressions were not necessarily correct.
“Enjoy the food?” Mrs. Mac asked, suddenly reappearing.
“Beautifully cooked and delicious to eat,” Michelle said, and Henry endorsed her remarks.
“Ah, it does my heart good to hear such genuine compliments,” she said, smiling. She collected the last of the dishes and disappeared yet again.
“What do you do for a living,” Michelle asked in an off-hand manner.
He had a feeling she was not particularly interested and it was just making conversation.
“I’m a purser.”
“A purser. I work on a ship doing the paperwork, that sort of thing.”
“I was a model.”
“Until I had an accident, a rather bad one.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
So that explained the odd feeling he had about her.
As the evening had worn on, he began to think there might be something wrong, seriously wrong with her because she didn’t look too well. Even the carefully applied makeup, from close up, didn’t hide the very pale, and tired look, or the sunken, dark ringed eyes.
“I try not to think about it, but it doesn’t necessarily work. I’ve come here for peace and quiet, away from doctors and parents.”
“Then you will not have to worry about me annoying you. I’m one of those fall-asleep-reading-a-book types.”
Perhaps it would be like ships passing in the night and then smiled to himself about the analogy.
Dinner now over, they separated.
Henry went back to the lounge to read a few pages of his book before going to bed, and Michelle went up to her room to retire for the night.
But try as he might, he was unable to read, his mind dwelling on the unusual, yet the compellingly mysterious person he would be sharing the hotel with.
Overlaying that original blurred image of her standing in the doorway was another of her haunting expressions that had, he finally conceded, taken his breath away, and a look that had sent more than one tingle down his spine.
She may not have thought much of him, but she had certainly made an impression on him.
© Charles Heath 2015-2020