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She was still pretending to sleep when the driver turned off the road and pulled up in front of a motel. She had hitched a ride with him that morning. Since then she had learned his name was either Sam or Stan, that he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, and that he liked jazz stations on a low volume. Four hours in his car and she had not heard a song she recognised.
He sold things for a living, she knew that too. There were glossy brochures in boxes on the back seat of the car. The words ‘Discover The Magic!’ were written across the cover in bold red letters, over a picture of a metal device with plastic handles that looked like it was for dicing vegetables, or maybe making pasta.
When he switched off the engine, she opened her eyes and stretched. The driver said this was his night stop. She could try to get another lift, he said. He licked his thumb and rubbed hard at a mark on the dashboard. Or if she wanted, she could take the extra bed in the room he had booked.
She knew, of course, where this kind of offer from a man could lead. But she was weary of the road. Weary and hungry and very much needing to pee, because the baby had moved inside her again.
“Well…” she said and looked through the window. A dusk the colour of old cement was drawing down. She remembered, as if it were a shopping list item, that it was her 40th birthday next week.
“No pressure,” the man said. “It’s your choice.” He got out of the car and walked into the motel’s office.
She could have gone then, into the night to thumb down another ride. But it would be dark soon and the evenings were cold. It was just one different risk from another. She smoothed a hand across her belly, over and over, with the rhythm of a paddle sliding through water. It made her feel sick, all these decisions, the constant weighing up.
The motel was called The Thoroughbred Inn. At the front was weatherworn sign depicting a horse rearing up, the front legs bent into the shape of a G. It reminded her of a book she read as a child that had illustrated stories about princesses and tomboys and girls who nurtured crushes on dreamy boys. The centre pages were devoted to a single drawing – a black horse with a chevron of white between its eyes, about to leap a fence while a young girl dressed in a show jumping outfit, watched with a look of amazement on her face. The story itself eluded her, but the picture had stayed.
The driver returned and leant into the car. It was the first time she had looked at him properly. His nose was sunburnt. He had unruly eyebrows and thinned out hair and his breath smelled of the peppermints he chewed after each cigarette.
“So, what’s the decision?”
She stroked her belly again: “Do you snore?”
He shrugged. “I have no idea.”
She couldn’t think about it too much. She didn’t have the energy to look for another lift and saving money was a priority now. Besides, her bladder was ready to burst. She thanked him and said yes.
He fetched their bags from the back seat and slung them over his shoulder. When she tried to struggle from the car, he cupped his hand under her elbow, as though helping a blind person. It felt strange to be touched there. The boy who got her pregnant had placed his palms on her collarbone when he pushed inside her. The boy’s touch was gentle, but he didn’t look at her. He was not much more than half her age. He kept his trousers around his ankles while they did it, like he didn’t want to undress completely, like he was ready to hitch them up and run away. She kept smiling, just in case he did look. They hadn’t used a condom and she knew as soon as he was done, no matter how absurd the idea, that she would finally fall pregnant.
The motel room smelled of old cigarette smoke, topped out with spray can citrus. The bed covers were patterned with dark, faded flowers and on the wall behind the headboards were paintings of seaside scenes, even though they were a long, long way from the coast. Between the beds was a small table, its surface scorched with ring marks from hot cups. There was a pile of thin coasters on the table with writing on them. The man picked one up.
“The Drinks Are On Me,” he read out loud. He ran his finger round one of the dark circles on the table. “Too late for that.”
She went into the bathroom and put toilet paper in the bowl so he wouldn’t hear her pee. Her hair hung in greasy ropes around her face and she could smell the ripeness of her armpits. Maybe, she thought, he was one of those men who found pregnant women attractive. Then she remembered she had left her bag in the other room and gave out a little gasp of panic, thinking that he would look through it.
When she came out of the bathroom, he was sitting on the side of his bed. He had taken off his tie and shirt. He wore a sleeved vest and the roundness of his midriff pressed over the top of his trousers. Her pregnant belly had been that shape only a few weeks before and the similarity seemed strange – disturbing and funny at the same time.
“You can take the first shower,” he said.
He had an accent she couldn’t quite place. It didn’t fit with what she thought he was, or the way he said things. It made her wary. But she really did need a shower – it had been two days since her last one. Two days since she walked barefoot down the street just before dawn, leaving her old house and her old life and everything she had ever known.
“If you’re sure?” she said.
“Go steady,” he said. “Cubicles in these places are slippery.”
He took a chair from in front of the dresser and set it down outside, then closed the door. She heard the click of his lighter and the smell of tobacco smoke seeped back into the room. She went into the bathroom, made sure the door was locked, then stepped out of her clothes.
In the mirror, she studied the sun-caught part of her chest just above the heavy breasts and the dark spread of her nipples. The freckles and moles and tan lines and creases reminded her of a tidemark on a beach. It was where the boy had looked as he came. When he pulled out, he was already soft. Below her breasts was the miracle of her pregnancy, the skin around her bump as shiny and hard and tight as it had been when she was young.
The shower water was good and hot, and she took a long time to scrub herself clean with two little bars of soap mashed into one. As the water fell over her belly, she imagined herself the prow of a boat, parting waves, waiting for the light of a port to show itself. She remembered how her husband would bang at the bathroom door if she took too long. Then she closed her eyes and lifted her chin towards the shower head, letting the hot water pink her face until the memory was gone.
When she was dried and dressed, she went back into the room and called out: “I’m done”. There was a scrape of chair legs and she saw the shadow of his head lean close to the window.
“I can come in?”
“You can come in,” she said.
She realised then that she had left some clothes on the bathroom floor. Her bag was open, and clothes were strewn around from that too.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. “I’m not normally this messy. I’m just so tired.”
The man nodded, then stooped and picked up her clothes and placed them on a chair. The way he did it, the way he touched her clothes so lightly, made her think he must have children of his own, maybe daughters who flung their clothes around, and that he had spent much time picking up clothes from floors and laying them gently across the backs of chairs.
The man opened his case and took out a washbag and a towel, then went into the bathroom, closing the door slowly so it shut with a soft click. There was a long silence and then she heard the water gush. She listened to the sound of the water splashing on the tiles and the little coughing sound he made. It felt too intimate, listening to a stranger taking a shower.
Strange how before all this, she had craved that kind of intimacy more than anything else. There had been others before the boy who got her pregnant. There was a cook who boiled lobsters and crabs all night in a restaurant, then came to her smelling of the sea and tasting of it too, the creases of his skin rimed with sweat salt. And the mathematics teacher who asked her about her fantasies, then pushed her onto a hotel bed and bound her hands with his tie. He was a small-boned, nervous man, but even so, he shoved his thumb into her mouth and levered her jaw open like he was a dentist inspecting molars.
The boy was less than half her age. She had been shocked by the mass of dark hair on his chest, on his arms and shoulders, as if they belonged to a much older man. A man the age of her own husband.
When she was far enough into her pregnancy that it didn’t matter anymore, she waited outside the garage where the boy worked, planning to tell him – because she thought he had the right to know – that the baby was his and that she was keeping it. When he saw her, he leaned against the garage doors and wiped his fingers on his overalls a couple of times. He had the same sleepy expression as he did on the night they met, drooping eyelids and long, handsome lashes. He raised his hand in something like a wave, then turned back inside. She heard laughter. An engine started and revved hard. He did not come back out and she knew then it was time to leave.
While the driver showered, she went outside, thinking to dry her hair in the last of the evening sunshine. The room was the last in the block and beyond it was open country, a vast sky pinning down the thin seam of land.
Beyond the building was a wooden fence that ran along the edge of a field. It was quieter here, away from the thud and roar of the road. She could still smell petrol fumes and fried food and tarmac. But there was something else, the scent of dew-damp earth and the night coming. An in-between smell that didn’t belong in one place or another. She breathed it in deep.
Further down the field was a horse, its mane draped loose across its neck, dark eyes empty of light. It stood very still, only the slightest rise and fall in its flanks.
“I wonder if you’re the horse on the sign,” she said.
At the sound of her voice, the horse’s ears flicked up and it turned its head, easy and slow. Then it bent its neck and tore at a swatch of grass and chewed it while she looked on.
“Come on,” she said. “Come to me.”
The horse shook its head, looked away and looked back, then began a slow walk towards her. When it was close the horse stopped, huffed through huge, flared nostrils, then took another step. She could smell the thick richness of its hide, a mix of sweat and sweet hay and manure. Never, in all her life, had she been this close to a horse. She had never been pregnant before or left the country or swam in an open sea. She’d never had a job worth anything more than coming home and sitting in front of the television to forget it. She had never been alone like she was now.
“I see you’ve found my friend.”
It was the man. He carried a paper bag and took from it a small, red apple. He held it out over the fence and the horse took it and chewed for a while then looked towards the bag for another.
“Don’t tell anyone, but the only reason I stop at this place is for the horse,” he said.
“I can understand that.”
“Do you want to try?”
He showed her how to put the apple in her hand, palm up, fingers flat. The horse huffed a few times then dipped its head. For a moment she was scared that it would bite, but all she felt was the thick, dry brush of its lips. At that moment the baby kicked hard inside her and she laughed.
They took turns to feed the horse, speaking to it softly until there were no apples left.
“Go on then beautiful,” said the man and the horse turned and galloped away through the scrub, kicking out its back legs, running and swerving, the long mane electric about its neck.
“Look at it go,” she said. “Do you ever wonder if it gets lonely in that field all by itself?”
She turned to the man and he was smiling, but his eyes were bright and had tears in them.
“I sometimes wonder,” he said. “That if there was no one here, it wouldn’t do any of this.”
“I know what you mean,” she said.
“But then I think, even if it was alone, would it be any less beautiful?”
They made a silent audience for the horse until the dusk gathered suddenly into darkness, then they walked back to the room. The man sat in the chair outside and took out his cigarettes, but didn’t light one until she had gone inside.
She got into her bed and thought about how things might go. Before they watched the horse, she’d expected something would happen, that he might sit on the side of the bed and ask her if she was awake and then his hand would reach out for her. Or that he would lift up his sheets and ask if she wanted to keep him company. But now she wasn’t so sure.
It was dark in the room, except for a thin wash of streetlight through the curtains. The man came in a little later, and there was the smell of his cigarettes and his mints, the slap of his feet on the floor, metal springs squeaking and settling as he got into his bed.
She lay with her hands clutched around her belly until his breathing was steady and deep. In the gloom, she could just make out he was lying with his head propped against the headboard, his chest rising and falling in regular waves, four counts up, four counts down. The warm bed and the darkness and his steady breathing made things small enough that she could let go and fall asleep.
A bang woke her, voices outside the room. Shouts and a quick sharp cry, then the slam of a car door and more shouts. The man got up in the darkness and she heard the slap of his feet again. He stood by the window, near her bed, and peered out round the curtains. Someone swore and there was a screech of metal, something heavy being dragged across the car park.
“Are you awake?” the man asked.
“It’s the middle of the night,” she said. “What’s going on?”
“Probably the end of something.”
She heard a woman’s voice now, a raw voice, her own throat hurt at the rawness of it. “Listen! Listen to me! Why can’t you just listen to me!”
The man grabbed the door handle, as if he were going to open the door, then let go and moved to the window again. He breathed deep and said in a whisper, “I don’t know. I don’t know”. He stood at the window, looking out, until there was another shout. He turned and opened the door. She could see him clearly then, against the hard glare of the outside lights. She could see how out of shape he was and the way his head came forward from his shoulders, giving him the look of a mole. The man stepped out and closed the door behind him.
She didn’t know whether to get up or stay in bed. The woman outside was still roaring but from further away. She heard a man shout “No!” and glass breaking and footsteps that broke into a run, heavy, a man’s. The woman’s voice shouted, “Listen to me!” once more and then nothing.
She sat up in bed and strained to hear. There was a murmur of voices and she knew the man, her man, was talking. Though she could not make out the words she knew his tone, the calmness of a voice that might have sounded like weariness in another place. And then there was silence again.
“Okay then,” said a voice she didn’t recognise.
“Okay then,” the man said.
A car door slammed. She heard a woman, crying softly, the pain-filled kind of crying that she recognised so well. Then another car door closed. The car’s engine started up and revved high and tyres scattering gravel. Then a final kind of quiet. She stayed, tense, in her bed a long while until the sound of the night began to return, slow traffic passing on the road and the tick and hum of radiators and fridges and air conditioning units. She felt empty of everything but the fullness of the unborn child and for the first time in a long time, she felt calm.
The man had not come back in, but she knew where he was. The high, thin window along the back wall was cranked open and she could smell the scent of his tobacco and imagine the twisting tail of smoke rising from his cigarette as he rested his hands on the fence. She settled back onto her pillows and when she closed her eyes, she could see quite clearly in her mind the man and his horse, standing still in the stock stillness of night, both together and alone.
She woke again and didn’t know if she had been asleep for a long time or just a few moments. The street lights were out now and the room completely dark. She stirred in her bed and sighed.
“How long have you got before the baby comes?” the man said from the darkness.
“Plenty of time yet,” he said.
She felt her bump and realised the man was the first person she had talked to, properly talked to, for days. She turned to face his bed.
“I wanted to ask, what’s so special about that thing you sell, Discover The Magic? What even is it?”
She heard him snort. Then he explained what it was for. She was surprised.
“Does it work?” she asked.
He didn’t answer for a long time, then he said, “I suppose, you could say it gives the illusion of working.”
“And is that enough?” she said.
“It is. For most people,” he replied.
She was quiet for a while, thinking of something to say. She didn’t want to stop talking just yet because she felt good, comfortable in the bed, half-asleep, the baby easy inside her. Her mother used to call it a “wiggle your toes” moment. Like when you are on the beach, or having an ice-cream, or lying on the sofa and watching your favourite TV programme, you just look at your toes and wiggle them because you feel good. She missed her mother.
“You like books?” she asked.
“Not so much, I got out of the habit,” he said.
“I read all kinds,” she said. “Mostly romance or murder mysteries. But sometimes I like the ones about real people, the stuff they believe in. The last one of those I read was about reincarnation.”
She heard him shift in the bed. “I can go along with that,” he said.
“Okay, then two questions. First, what do you think you were in a previous life?”
“Now there’s something you don’t get asked much,” he said. “Whatever I was, I bet I wasn’t much good at being it. Not bad as such, just not much use to anyone.”
“Oh, like one of those moths that come from nowhere and fly around your room at night,” she said. “Or a gnat. Those tiny ones that get in your mouth and up your nose. Or a mosquito. Or a bat that only lives in a cave…”
He laughed. It was the first time she had heard his proper laugh and she liked the sound of it. Her mother would have called it full. A full laugh.
“And the second question?” he said.
“What do you want to come back as?” she asked.
There was no response for a while, then he said: “Something really different. Like one of those little dinky dogs, the ones that look like they’ve never grown up. Getting to ride in the front basket of a bicycle and being fed little treats, that’s the life.”
“I suppose anything that wags its tail so much must be worth coming back as,” she said.
“Yes, they always get a lot of loving, those dogs,” he said. “What about you?”
In the past, she had thought she would come back as something insignificant – a grey fish among a vast shoal, a bluebottle exhausting itself against a hot window. But now, pregnant, she thought more of her own soul. If she did good with her baby, maybe it would be easier next time.
“I’d like to come back like that horse outside,” she said. “I know it’s alone out there, but it has something. It’s got that joy, you know, in just being what it is.”
She could sense him gazing right at her, but she wasn’t scared anymore. She knew that he would not do anything to her. She knew he was a good man.
“Maybe we’re just late bloomers, you and me,” he said. “Like an album where all the good songs are towards the end. Maybe we’re just stacked that way.”
“I like that idea. I like it a lot,” she said.
“Do you mind if I put the television on low. It helps me sleep,” he said.
“Yes, I’d like that too.”
That rest of the night she slept in small knots of time against the whisper of the television. And somewhere between waking and sleep she thought not of the boy who had made her pregnant, or of her husband or their house, or her friends, or the life she had led. She thought, instead, of the horse in the cold night outside under the tall, black sky. The horse breathing slowly, with its mane fallen down one side of its neck, a hind-hoof tilted, patient through the cold of the night, half-asleep and motionless, alone but not lost.