A double bed for one; Newly widowed and on holiday, Alice wasn't interested in finding love again.
'Just go,' said her sister-in-law Rita. 'You'll be out on tours every day, there'll be like-minded people to talk to.'
'Why don't you come with me and share the room?'A dark-'
She had blurted it out without thinking it through - Rita was anally tidy and a little bit overbearing Luckily, Rita had shuddered, almost imperceptibly, at the prospect of sharing with the slovenly Alice, who was infamous for never putting the top back on half-squeezed tubes of suntan cream.
Now, taking the plunge, Alice signed up for a coach trip to the salt flats, about six miles from the hotel. Apparently, they turned all the colours of the rainbow in the sun and you could buy a layered selection in a bottle.
To be honest, she wasn't that interested in a kitschy souvenir, but it was a chance to stretch her legs. She recognised a few others from her hotel as she hurried to the back of the coach, relieved to see there was plenty of room to spread out.
But when the coach stopped for lunch, she was dismayed to find all the restaurant tables set for two. Surely some should have been arranged for communal eating? 'You'd think so, wouldn't you?' said a voice behind her, as if reading her thoughts, and she turned to see a man with a hang-dog look and expressive dark eyes. 'I mean - I assume you're thinking the same as me - that you'd expect to find a vegetarian option on the menu board.' Never assume anything, Pete had urged, always fond of the crisp soundbite - always so sure of his opinion and its high value.
Alice scuttled off to the furthermost table, disconcerted when the dark-eyed stranger followed. He dropped into the seat opposite. 'You don't mind, do you? This lunch en masse lark seems to be a cunning ruse to pair us off over cheap Chianti, and I thought the whole point of a singles break was that you didn't have to pair off. I'm a bit scared of her at three o'clock with the beady come-hither look.' a and sat seat her ' Alice flamed bright red.
'I'm not with the singles group.' She'd seen the tour leader, a large Spanish lady with a green umbrella held high, yelling, 'My singles this way!' just to underline their holidaymaking status.
'Oops, it's hard to tell with all the coaches turning up at once. So you're not going to the salt flats?' 'Been. Heading back to the hotel via the pottery factory.' 'Oh, we're doing the trip in reverse. Suppose they're staggering us.' Somehow, they were now definitely sharing a table. Alice tried to feel annoyed, then gave up. She might not be on a singles holiday, but she was single. She even decided to be helpful. 'Oh look, it says in very small print on the menu that veggie options are available on request.' His name was Jimmy, and he was widowed, like her. Gradually, over that cheap Chianti, they opened up to each other.
Perhaps Jimmy more so, Alice listening keenly. Jimmy was a babbler, a seasoned single who hawked his potted life story to attentive (and captive audience) women like a resume to a prospective employer.
No, no, that wasn't fair, she reflected.
He was right to get the nitty gritty - kids, pets, interesting scar tissue - out of the way early doors. Cards on the table sort of thing, absolutely vital at their advanced age, according to Rita.
But really, how would she know? reflected Alice. Rita had never married, had lived at home with her father until his death, then set about remodelling her garden as her next project to displace all that unchannelled energy.
'I'm boring you,' said Jimmy sadly.
'No, no, I'm listening! You and Sarah would have liked children, but it never happened for you - such a shame - you've got a Red Setter called Max, you work in local government, you like real ale' 'Oh my God,' he laughed, 'I'm a walking cliche!' No, she thought, shaking her head, that's me. The battered wife. Or the lightly battered wife, she thought, revisiting an old joke she often told herself darkly. Pete's batterings were mostly emotional.
Throwing stuff at her she was able to dodge probably didn't count. He had called her useless, ineffectual, weak and stupid so many times that she would idly wonder what order today's list would fall in. He had called Rita plenty of names behind her back too; a leech on their father, a dried-up old biddy, a stupid old crone. And because Rita was none of these things, Alice had been able to face the truth about herself. She was all the things he'd accused her of - because she stayed with him.
'And what about you?' Jimmy asked her, watching her keenly. 'What do the life and times of Alice Hartfield consist of?' She thought for a minute. 'It's what they lead up to that counts, I think. I hope, anyway.' She couldn't stop thinking about Rita.
Alice had been out shopping, Rita busy in their back garden staking out some new flowerbeds, when Pete had his heart attack. Rita would have gone on working with her back to the window, while her brother died in his armchair, his unblinking gaze fixed on the telly.
She'd been doing the flowerbeds as a favour to Alice. She would regularly offer her services, or go out of her way to do favours for Alice, without ever speaking ill of her brother.
And there was something else Alice couldn't stop thinking about; Pete's suspicion that Rita might have eased their father's passage from life. 'Cold-blooded, that one,' Pete had grimaced. 'Couldn't wait to be shot of him, so she could live up on the insurance.' Their father had been ill for years, the pain increasing with each passing year Rita was capable of that, Alice felt. Capable of carrying out her father's last wish when the time came. Capable of loving that much.
'Have I totally bored you?' Jimmy asked with dread.
'Not at all,' she smiled. 'Let's go for a walk.' Later, when they sat in the sand and kissed, she told him what she was looking for: 'Just a kiss and a cuddle in the sunshine. Nothing more than that - no swapped phone numbers or addresses - if it's OK with you.' He said nothing for a long time. Then he kissed her again. 'You're right. I was being pushy. It's just this urge I have, to grab onto a good thing and not let go. You know?' She did.
A week later, his group was on the same flight as hers back to Gatwick.
She hadn't seen him since their kiss and subsequent departure on different coaches to different hotels, so now she waved to him across the plane aisle.
She was looking forward to getting home, to her double bed for one.
And then, looking across the aisle at Jimmy, she had an epiphany, a moment of clarity that took her by surprise with its daring and possible unlikelihood 'There you are! I was waiting over there, by the coffee stand.' Rita bustled into view to help her with her suitcase. 'I've got my car in stand F, and if we go now I won't have to pay for the next half oh, hello.' Alice made introductions. Rita pumping Jimmy's hand with over-excited vigour as a slow blush crept up his neck. 'Do you live far, Jimmy? I've plenty of room in the car if you'd like dropping off.
No, no, assuming it's not outer Mongolia, it's no trouble at all, and the trains are so erratic this time of night, so if you don't mind taking pot luck in the back seat with my sack of lawn seed, honestly, you're more than welcome.' Alice didn't know if she was capable of loving - truly loving - with the same capacity as Rita, whose energies were not poured into gardening and tidying and generally being overbearing because she no longer had her father to run up and down stairs for, or even because her great big capacity to love was going unused. It was being used.
On Alice, on garden plants, on her own bracing approach to self-care. Who was to say where Rita's capacity to love began and ended? And that it might not encompass the garrulous, lovable Jimmy? Her holiday had made Alice a very wise woman, if not yet a healed one.
In this, her most recent life and times, she wanted to indulge her restlessness, enjoy the singleton's heady power to be capricious, even wilful - and spread out in any direction she liked. | | GABRIELLE'S LATEST NOVEL, FOUR RIDDLES FOR JANE AUSTEN (AND HER ARTFUL MAID TILLY), OUT NOW WITH CORAZON BOOKS, BECAME THE NUMBER 1 BESTSELLER IN HISTORICAL REGENCY FICTION AT AMAZON.CO.UK. FOR MORE ABOUT GABRIELLE AND THE BOOK, VISIT GABRIELLEMULLARKEY.CO.UK.
A dark-eyed stranger followed Alice to a table and sat in the seat opposite her 'I just want a kiss and a cuddle in the sunshine - no swapped phone numbers'