"At least you'll get a change of scene."
"I'm not looking for a change of scene. All I want is to get there."
"Do you know your way after the M5?"
"The junction numbers?"
"I think so."
He looked at her for a moment, without saying anything. She got the feeling he didn't believe her. Then he said, "Why don't you write those down, too? You don't want to get lost on a motorway."
He pulled his phone close to his face as he squinted a little and slowly read out the motorway exits she needed, plus the directions from there. There was no irritation in his voice. If anything, he seemed worried that he might get one of them wrong and mislead her. He shook his head as if he couldn't believe she was going to drive all that distance by herself, and in one day. "It's so far," he kept saying.
"Thank you," she told him, once he finished. "And I'm sorry if I woke you."
"That's okay. I shouldn't be asleep."
She thought he might be smiling behind his mask, so she smiled too. "You've been kind."
"Huh." He shoved his hands into his pockets and turned to gaze out of the window. She was still on one side of the cabin and he was on the other, but their reflections were caught against the dark outside, like two see-through people, he so big, and she so short and trim, with her cap of white hair. "That's not what most people call me."
It came out of the blue. An honesty she didn't expect. She would have liked to be able to say something to make him feel better—she would have liked to be that kind of person, if only so that she could get back into her car and drive on with his instructions, without feeling she had failed. But she couldn't. She couldn't find it. That fleeting moment of goodness. People imagined they might reach each other, but it wasn't true. No one understood another's grief or another's joy. People were not see-through at all.
Maureen pursed her mouth. The young man gazed sadly at something or nothing in the dark. The silence seemed to go on and on. She looked at the floor and took in his black lace-ups again. They were such earnest shoes, like someone trying really hard.
"Well," he said, "I guess you should be okay now."
"Yes," she said.
"What's your name?"
"It was nice to meet you, Mrs. Fry. Just don't go shouting at people that you're lost. And drive carefully. It's cold out there."
"I'm going to see our son," she said. Then she left and got into the car and made a U-turn to get back to the road.
The World's Guest
Ten years ago, Harold had gone into the world without Maureen. He had left to post a letter to his dying friend Queenie and, on the spur of the moment, made up his mind to walk the 627 miles to her instead. He had met many people along the way. Given up his wallet and slept in the wild. The story even hit the news and briefly made him famous. Left behind, Maureen had gone on a journey, too, but hers wasn't the kind people talked about or bought postcards of to send home. She 'was' at home. That was the whole point. Harold was walking the length of England to save a woman he had worked with once, while Maureen cleaned the kitchen sink. And when she had finished cleaning the sink, she was upstairs, squirting circles of polish at his bedroom furniture. Keeping herself as busy as possible when there was absolutely nothing left to do. She was even washing things she had already washed, just to find a little more washing inside them. And there were also days—though, again, who had known about them but her?—when she couldn't think how to get up in the morning. When she crawled out of bed and stared for hours at the laundry and the sink, and asked what was the point in washing or scrubbing when it made not one shred of difference? She was so alone she didn't know where to look or what to think about. She wasn't even sure that Harold would come home. The panic that had engulfed her was unfamiliar and frightening.
This excerpt is from the paperback edition.
Monday we begin the book ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld.