Fiction - The Layby
Andrea swerves into the lay-by and parks up. Usually she avoids these roadside cafes as a health hazard but her stomach’s been rumbling so long she’s prepared to chance it. Plus it’ll give her a chance to check her map again and make sure she’s on the right road.
“Coffee and a bacon bap, please,” she orders.
“Andrea?” She gasps. She doesn’t need to look around to know who has spoken. The voice reaches out from the past and grabs her by the heart.
“Ben.” The blood drains from her face, rooting her feet to the ground. “Ben,” she repeats, turning to face him and smiling as brightly as she can. “What are you doing here?” She’s imagined this accidental meeting many times. Different places, different circumstances. But a roadside cafe was never in her script.
“Business trip. What about you?” he asks.
“Visiting an old school friend,” she replies. The blood’s returned to her face and she’s furious with herself. Whenever she pictured this, she never blushed but remained calm and poised. Instead she’s crimson and, she’s irritated to see, he’s noticed.
“Another coffee,” he says to the waiter, who carelessly fills and passes him a polystyrene cup. Ben pays. “Want to sit?” he asks Andrea. Without waiting for her answer, he picks up the coffees and her roll and carries them to a white plastic table and chairs that have been set out in the lay-by.
Silently, like an old married couple, they sit and watch the passing traffic that roars by at sixty miles an hour just a few feet away from them. Andrea bites into her bacon bap. It is tough and chewy but she chokes it down, aware he’s watching her.
“How’ve you been?” he asks. How can she answer such a loaded question?
“Fine,” she replies, turning her concentration to her coffee. Anything is better than having to meet those dark eyes again. His pain is still visible in them. Hers reflect it back.
“You look good,” he says and she smiles.
“You always had a way with women,” she replies, but she’s pleased by his comment. “You’re going a bit grey,” she observes in return.
He shrugs. “It’s been a long time.” He hesitates, frowns. “How’s Paul?”
“Pretty much the same. Bit older. A lot nicer. What about ...Tina?” Even now, she doesn’t like to mention that name.
He stares into his coffee. “We didn’t make it. Divorced two summers ago.”
“Ben. I’m sorry.” Automatically, she puts out her hand to touch him, to offer some comfort. Then she remembers she has no right and withdraws it.
Again, the nonchalant shrug. “For the best. I’ve been seeing a girl for a few months now. You’d like her.”
“Unmarried, I hope.”
He meets her eyes and grins that lopsided smile that even now makes her pulse go faster. “Definitely,” he replies.
They are both skirting around the one question he must ask. The one she’s rehearsed answering in her imagination. In the privacy of her mind, she’s cold and unforgiving, lying to make him hurt. Now, she realises she doesn't have that prerogative.
“Did you...? What did...?” Poor Ben. She realises he can’t bring himself to ask.
She puts him out of his discomfort. “A little girl. Charlotte.”
His eyes light up. “Is she at school? I mean, she must be by now.” Andrea notices that the surface of his coffee is turbulent, as if a storm is passing over a miniature lake.
“Started in September. I’ve got a picture of her on her first day.” She digs in her overstuffed handbag for the photograph and passes it to him. In the silence, Andrea looks away from him, instead watches the traffic screaming past the lay-by.
At last, he’s had his fill of the photograph and hands it back to her. “You and Paul are very lucky,” he says thickly.
She pretends not to notice how bright his eyes are shining. She’d like to let him keep the photograph but it’s the only copy she has. It goes back into the handbag with the loose change, tissues and other accumulated junk.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says abruptly. “She looks just like you.”
He actually jumps. “Does Paul know?” he asks. She’s asked herself a similar question many times. Not ‘does he know?’ but ‘when did he realise?’
“It isn’t mentioned,” she tells him with a sigh. “It’s our penance. We’ve buried the past and to talk about it now would be too painful. But she’s the image of you, Ben. Right down to that wonky smile of yours.”
“But he’s okay with her?” Ben frowns, looking concerned and she wonders what he’d have been like as a father.
“Adores her,” she replies.
He looks relieved. “Perhaps, one day...” he begins.
“You’re right.” He throws away the remnants of his cold coffee.
“I have to get going,” she says, standing up. “Am I heading the right way for the motorway?” The stark reality of the question shoves them back into the present. There are other lives they must get back to.
“Sure. About two miles and you’ll pick up the road signs.” He stands up too and they walk slowly towards her car.
“It’s been great to see you, Ben. I hope everything works out for you.” She really means it, more than she’d ever imagined.
“I guess this is goodbye, then,” he says.
She nods. “Again,” she adds. They exchange a glance. She wants to kiss his cheek in farewell but to inhale the familiar scent of his skin would be too much. They shake hands instead, like polite strangers.
“Look after her,” he whispers.
“Ben...” She hesitates. There's so much she wants to say but what would be the point? She rummages around the handbag again and passes over the photograph to him.
“Thanks.” His voice is choked and thick.
She nods and gets into her car before her tears can betray her. As she pulls out of the lay-by into the flow of the traffic, she allows herself a brief glance in the rear-view mirror. He stands alone, shrinking into the distance. She sighs for what might have been and points the car towards home.