And so it was that Julia found herself driving through a frosty autumn morning on the following Saturday to a large country house hotel on the outskirts of Chester. It certainly looked as picturesque in real life as it did in the brochure; set in forested grounds with a white-painted wooden veranda running the length of the building, overlooking immaculately tended lawns. She spotted Angela’s car in the reasonably well-filled car park; not that Angela’s car was hard to spot as there weren’t that many baby-pink Smart car convertibles on the road. Rod, Angela’s doting and much older husband indulged her every whim but drew the line at ever setting foot in what he termed her ‘dodgem’. It suited Angela however and was ideal for someone who had difficulty parking or even finding her car in crowded supermarket car parks.
Julia looked around the shabby but comfortable interior of her cherished BMW; far too big now that the children had left home and had cars of their own but she loved the smell of the leather upholstery and the feel of the walnut dash, the essence of another era. It had always been her car rather than Andy’s, even when they were together he went for the kind of sports car that most hairdressers would be proud to be seen in and poured scorn on her stately silver monster. It was hell to park though.
She picked up her holdall and handbag from the passenger seat, locked the car and headed toward reception where she was relieved to see Angela waiting for her.
“You just need to register and then we can have a look at our room. Twin beds with a picture window overlooking the lawns. I thought you’d like that.”
As requested, Julia checked in at the desk and scanned the agenda for the weekend ahead. The morning promised a guest speaker who interested her very much and who, if she wasn’t mistaken was currently being given a bit of a hard time by the receptionist. It appeared that he had arrived without any identification and the receptionist, who was very young and not particularly blessed, was saying that she couldn’t allow him to attend the conference. Julia could see from his posture that he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and liable to bolt at any moment. She had an urge to do something, and her urges were usually unstoppable. Julia walked purposefully over to the desk and waved her hand at the receptionist.
“Perhaps I can help? You’ve just seen my ID and signed me in for this conference. Yes?”
The girl nodded because she had indeed seen Julia’s ID and knew enough to realise that she was not someone to be argued with because there were lots of letters after her name.
“That’s good, so if I tell you that one of the main reasons I’m attending this event is because I’m very much looking forward to hearing this gentleman speak you’ll understand why you need to book him in. However, if you don’t know who he is and you won’t book him in, you will give all three of us a problem – not to mention all the other people attending the event who also want to hear him speak, and your management who have taken good money from us. I don’t think they will be very pleased if people start asking for their money back because you won’t let the main speaker sign in – do you?”
The girl shook her head and looked bewildered.
“Will it help if I say that I can confirm that this gentleman is who he says he is and that I will vouch for him?”
The girl took a deep breath and nodded emphatically, as she pushed the key card and register toward the now slightly less anxious guest in front of her. He turned to Julia first, a very shy smile on his face, and extended his hand.
“You obviously know who I am.”
“Julia Agnew,” she replied shaking his hand gently but firmly, “It’s a great pleasure to make your acquaintance. I won’t hold you up because I know you’ll want to settle in and so do I.”
“Yes,” he said, and Julia could see the look of relief spread across his face as he realised that she had freed him from the burden of making polite conversation. He let go her hand and smiled again. “Thank you, thank you so much.”
She walked back to Angela who was standing by the bags with her mouth open. Julia gently pushed it shut. “It’s rude to stare, come on, and leave the poor man in peace. He’ll be okay now.”
“But it’s…you’ve just …Julia!”
“Come on, let’s go and look at the room, coffee and introductions in fifteen minutes and I want to unpack first.” She ushered Angela toward the lift which was already filling up. As the doors closed she saw him heading for the stairs as she knew he would. He wouldn’t do lifts if he could take the stairs.
As Angela had promised, their room was light and airy with a charming view over the vast stretch of lawn. Julia busied herself hanging up her clothes, unpacking her toothbrush and cosmetics and trying not to catch Angela’s eye. Angela’s bag was left unpacked; she didn’t have Julia’s need for order and would undoubtedly end up rummaging around through her crumpled clothes looking for mascara later on. She lay on her bed, gently bouncing to test for springiness, then raising herself up on one elbow, turned to Angela who was scanning the agenda again.
“He’s even more cute in the flesh. I would – if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m happily married and go for older men anyway. He looked exceptionally grateful.”
Julia looked up from the sheaf of papers, “Are you suggesting that I have to go hunting for toy boys who are pathetically grateful to me? I am not a cougar and I would have done the same for anyone under the circumstances. I know enough about him to realise that in that situation his first instinct would be to run in the opposite direction or get very angry. I find him a very clever and entertaining man and I’m definitely looking forward to hearing his talk. If you aren’t going to unpack shall we go back downstairs? It’s been a long time since breakfast and the coffee smells good. I think I saw Danish pastries too.”
Angela jumped off the bed, fluffed her hair in the mirror, bared her teeth to make sure there was no lipstick on them and stood to mock attention. Julia smiled, slightly envious of Angela’s youth, her energy and a metabolism that could demolish several trays of Danish pastries without putting on a pound. She cast a cursory glance at her own reflection and decided that she looked exactly what she was, a nice middle-aged woman with good teeth, reasonable hair and a Botticelli body.
“Come on Trouble!” she laughed as she picked up her capacious handbag and ushered Angela toward the door.