Two nights before Daria was due to leave, just as she was bent over her printed route alongside a travel guide on the floor, bits of paper and pictures strewn about, the doorbell rang. Her immediate reaction was to frown at being disturbed. She glanced round the room and felt somewhat mortified that she may have to invite somebody in to the tip she had inadvertently created. She wasn’t expecting anyone and was inclined to ignore it. The bell rang again. Sighing, she stood up and quickly glanced in the mirror to make sure she wasn’t looking too dishevelled. She ruffled her newly cut hair and rubbed a blob of eye make-up off her cheek.
‘Paul,’ Daria felt shocked, stunned to see her ex-husband standing there when she opened the door. Her heart thumped and her mouth went dry, ‘what are you doing here? I mean, hello.’
Daria felt confused, muddled, bewildered. And puzzled that she was reacting like an idiot.
‘Hey’ said Paul, cheerily ‘wow, I like the hair. I always said you should go short and sexy. It works.’
‘Thank you. I only got it done a couple of days ago, or weeks ago, sort of. Anyway. Yes. Thanks’ Daria said, running her hand over her head whilst wondering why she wasn’t stringing sentences together very well.
‘So’ he said, and raised his eyebrows, ‘can I come in then?’
‘Yes, of course. Sorry. Come in.’
He led the way into Daria’s front room. She lingered at the hall mirror to check how she looked, then frowned as she wondered what she was doing.
‘So, it’s true then?’ he said.
‘What?’ she said.
‘This’ he said, and waved an arm at her pages and pages of pictures and print.
‘Err. Yes. I leave on Thursday morning. Yes. This Thursday.’
Daria watched him as he looked over her papers, gently nodding his head with a pursed smile on his face. She didn’t want to see that. She knew what that particular gesture meant. He disapproved and was being patronising. As if she was expecting too much of herself, indulging in a fantasy that she wasn’t capable of realising. She remembered that particular gesture. And her stomach churned at the amount of memories that came gushing. Each memory of a time when she had deferred to him. Each memory a moment when she had backed down, when she had thought his opinion of a greater value than hers. When she had given in.
‘Tea? Coffee? Wine?’ Daria said, trying to sound calmer than she felt.
‘Yes, I see you’ve been drinking’ he said, gesturing to her half empty glass. And Daria felt immediately indignant, defensive. But said nothing.
‘But not for me. Can we sit and have a quick chat?’ he said, already sitting down. And Daria noticed that his condescending smile had not gone.
She obediently sat.
‘Well, you certainly are looking amazing, at the moment. I do like the new look. So, how are you keeping, Daria? I thought of calling so many times, you know. I just didn’t know how you’d react. Particularly after, well after everything, you know. How you would interpret my sincere condolences. It must have been incredibly hard for you, Opa dying, I mean. I know how close you two were.’
Daria felt her hackles rise. She didn’t want to hear him say anything about Opa. She didn’t want to hear Opa’s name pass his lips. She remembered how Paul really felt about him. And she remembered how Opa felt about Paul. But it wasn’t that simple either. Contradictory emotions spiralled and clashed. She felt attracted to that intangible quality of his that made her want to hand over her troubles and her cares to him, to let him guide her, reassure her. That tone of voice; that slight frown that appeared on his brow when he didn’t understand something. ‘Oh god’ she thought ‘what am I doing. I can’t do this again.’
‘And now this’ he continued, ‘a little trip abroad. Well I never. I really thought there must have been some mistake.’
‘No’ she said, then coughed because her voice didn’t sound normal in her head, ‘no mistake.’
And he smiled with pursed lips and gently nodded his head again.
‘Oh Daria. Don’t you see this for what it really is?’
‘What? I don’t know what you mean.’ Daria knew she sounded abrupt.
‘Now. Just stop and think. Don’t you think this is a slight over-reaction to grief?’
‘I know how much, how very deeply you cared for him. But this?’ and he pointed to the papers, ‘wouldn’t it be simpler just to sell online and be done with it all?’
And Daria just sat and looked at him. Her heart banged, reverberating throughout her body.
‘Have you really thought about your job? This house? Travelling that far and on your own? In a foreign country you’ve never been to before? I needed to see you. I needed to make sure you’re alright. You know this can’t really happen and I still care, Daria. You can’t just wipe the heart clear, no matter what happens. I’ve always cared. And you do know that.’
Daria knew that tone of voice, those gestures, that smile and how they all used to be irresistible to her. She remembered how she saw and felt love and caring in his charm. She remembered how she admired his intellect, his prowess and how she hung on his words, his ideas and his actions. Her heart thumped. ‘What’s he doing, what does this mean and why do I feel as if I want it’ she thought.
Then, she remembered how belittled she’d felt each time she gave in to him, how undermined and how unappreciated. She took a deep breath. She knew what she had to do even though some tiny bit of her still wanted the sort of safety that deferral brought. But she brushed newly forming doubts away. Daria stood.
‘Paul’ she said, not totally convinced or convincing, ‘I don’t know why you’re here, so if you’re going to be like this, then please go. Just go.’
‘Daria, you don’t know what you’re saying. Be like what? How am I being? Other than caring for you? God, it’s been so hard for you since Opa...’ and Paul stood next to her.
‘Stop. Don’t even mention his name,’ the final bits of doubt rushed away as she grew angry again at his mentioning Opa. ‘What I do is absolutely nothing to do with you. I don’t need to explain anything to you. Why are you here, anyway? Please go. I have things to do.’
‘But Daria, you know...’
‘I don’t care what you think I know, or know I think. Or whatever,’ Daria knew her voice was getting louder and she struggled against shouting with the rising anger and anxiety.
‘Daria, Daria. Oh you are so over-wrought. Here, let me...’ and he stepped closer, arms outstretched as if going to hold her. Daria side stepped out of his way. Now she was angry. Now she wasn’t going to struggle against it.
‘How dare you. How dare you come in here and start telling me to think about what I’m doing. How dare you even think that I haven’t considered every little aspect of what I’m about to do. Get out. You chose to leave me and I have never even so much as glanced back. Not once. You did me a real favour. Now get out.’
Paul was clearly startled and Daria noticed him flounder with his movements.
‘But Daria, I’m...’
‘Get out. I don’t care. I don’t care about what you think or what you say. Just fuck off and get out. Good bye Paul.’
And much to her surprise, he went. He didn’t say another word and was visibly shaken by her. She slammed the front door behind him and burst into tears.
′ Oh god, oh god, oh god’ she said amid anger and frustration ‘the fucking shit bag. The bastard, Shit, shit, fucking shit. Fuck. Shit.’
And then she laughed. Laughed at her outburst and at her language. And she laughed because she absolutely knew Opa would be laughing with her if he had been a witness to the scene. And he’d have been proud of her for standing up to Paul. And then she cried because Opa wasn’t there, beaming at her with his sparkly brown eyes.
Blowing her nose and wiping her eyes, she stared at image in the mirror.
‘Would you?’ she asked herself, ‘would you have listened if he hadn’t mentioned Opa?’ She paused and couldn’t find the answer. ‘Would you have allowed yourself to be manipulated all over again?’
She sat down and took a gulp of wine. She still trembled, the result of confrontation which she hated and had spent a lifetime avoiding. Then she breathed deeply to regain control and, as she was doing so, felt better. And felt good about herself. She’d stood up to him, she really had. God that felt good, she thought, but what on earth was that all about.
The evening before her final departure was filled with visitors, phone calls and last minute organising and packing. After Anthony called by, Sandra and Amy popped round and she told them about her unexpected and unwelcomed visitor. She hadn’t told Anthony, although she was tempted. But she tried to keep her and Paul’s relationship with their children separate. Not that she’d had much of a relationship with Paul since he’d left. It had all been done through solicitors. She’d only seen him three times in nearly three years and each one she thought an accident. The first time, she’d bumped into him in a supermarket. She’d never used that supermarket again. The second was when she was going into a cafe in town. She saw him and his new wife at a table so turned round and went out. The third was the summer before Opa died. He’d called round, ostensibly to collect something and they’d ended up in bed. Daria could never quite make up her mind whether that one was an accident or not.
The three women laughed when Daria told them she’d sworn at Paul.
‘My god, what a nerve that man has. After all he put you through and then he thinks he can just come swimming in here and...sorry Daria. But bloody hell, I’m proud of you. I wish I’d been a fly on the wall’ said Amy, realising that a lighter tone was required, ‘how did he know anyway? Oh god, you didn’t end up in bed with him again, did you?’
‘No I did not. And I still don’t know why I did then.’
‘Well I think I know why you did last time. How long had it been since...’ laughed Amy.
‘Enough Amy’ interrupted Sandra. ‘And so what if she did?’
’Ha ha, love ’em and leave ‘em, eh Daria?’ said Amy.
‘I am now going to ignore you, you wicked friend’ laughed Daria ‘I shall not miss your outrages.’
‘You will and you know it’ said Amy, who then paused and stared at Daria, ‘but, oh god, I wonder if it’s true then?’
‘What?’ said Daria and Sandra in unison.
‘About Paul? Haven’t I told you?’
‘What?’ they said again.
‘Paul and what’s her name, Felicity is it? Anyway, I bumped into Jane and you know what a gossip she is...’
‘But what about Paul and Felicity? And who’s Jane?’ interrupted Daria.
‘Felicity’s threatening to move out. Jane doesn’t know why but it’s her sister who went to school with Felicity. And she told her.’
‘Oh my god, he wanted to find out how available you were. He wants you back’ said Sandra ‘that’s why he came round.’
‘He can’t live without a woman, you mean. Suring up his odds, that’s what he was doing. My god, the bastard’ said Daria, a hint of shock in her voice ‘who does he think I am? What does he think I am like? Was I that easy to turn? He thought he could come here and try to flannel me. Oh god.’
‘But hang on Daria, don’t forget you threw him out. You didn’t succumb to him’ said Sandra.
‘Absolutely. Who cares what you were like? What you may have done six months or a year ago? It’s now that counts, woman. Now’ said Amy.
‘He must think I’m an idiot’ said Daria.
‘Ha ha, but as you told him. It doesn’t matter what he thinks. Unless you want him back’ said Amy, getting concerned that her friend was beginning to be dragged down by Paul’s visit.
‘I don’t. Not a bit of me. Not at all. Not now.’
‘Anyway, who do you think told him you were off?’ said Sandra.
‘Oh I expect one of the boys probably told him. Or maybe he bumped into one of the neighbours. I don’t know. I don’t expect anybody thought that he’d come round,’ said Daria.
‘But did he really think he could stop you?’ said Sandra, ‘anyway I bet he really couldn’t believe it all, you know, you going to France and had to see for himself. And he’s right about your new hair cut, it does look great. God, you look so young. I wish I could hate you.’
‘What if he hadn’t mentioned Opa, though? It was only that that made me angry,’ said Daria.
‘To be honest Daria, it doesn’t matter. He did. And because of the circumstances of you going, he was bound to,’ said Sandra.
‘Too right’ said Amy ‘and you’d have got shot of him in the end anyway. You wouldn’t have cancelled your trip. You’ve come too far for that. You do know that, really.’
‘And don’t forget, Daria, this is a huge thing you’re doing. I bet he was fancying this strong independent woman all over again’ said Sandra.
‘Absolutely’ said Amy.
‘And so the worm finally turned’ said Sandra, ‘oh, I didn’t mean it like that. That sounded dreadful.’
‘A worm, am I?’ said Daria, enjoying the moment to tease her friend, ‘well, thank you very much. And here was I thinking that we were all going to miss each other and...’
‘Ha ha. Good for you, Daria. Standing up to two tyrants in one week’ said Amy.
And Daria knew she’d been right in deciding to spend her final evening with these two women.
She was already awake when her alarm went off at six the following morning, but she’d been determined to stay in bed until then. As she lay in the dark, she wondered when she’d be sleeping in her bed again and what would she have seen and done in between those times. The radio alarm clock entered her thoughts and her seeming calmness disappeared. She could hear her heart thumping as she went downstairs to put the coffee on while she had a quick shower. Daria felt too fidgety for breakfast. Her movements gained a restless quality, her thoughts an urgency as she went through her mental list of what was to be done. An hour later, she was ready and so saw no reason to delay. Giving everywhere a last glance, she thought ‘well, this is it. No turning back now.’ And she wasn’t sure if she felt terrified or euphoric.
In what seemed to be far too quickly for Daria, she was driving off the train and onto French soil ‘or rather concrete’ she thought, immediately being glad of her van’s left hand drive as she followed the stream of traffic. She opened the window and felt relieved at the sight of sky and the smell of real air. She had begun to feel claustrophobic in the tunnel, so she’d studied her route plan to distract herself. A concise list of road numbers was taped to the dashboard and she smoothly drove off onto her first toll road. Stopping in the first lay-by she saw, she made her promised phone calls. Everyone answered immediately which amused her. They’d obviously been waiting. It felt so strange to be talking to them from France. Daria could barely believe the words she was saying. It made her want to laugh out loud she felt so happy.
Resisting an urge to make fresh coffee, she took a cold drink out of the tiny fridge and set off again. As she drove she felt as if she was just bursting with all the good wishes she’d just received. It was warm and everywhere looked green and flat and big. Such a contrast to Folkestone and so quickly. With gusts of a gentle breeze blowing through the windows, she thought everything even smelt differently. And then she remembered the promise she’d made herself about playing the Billie Holiday CD, even if there weren’t poplar trees. There was an Aire De Service she’d planned to stop at and Daria felt eager to reach the first self-designated stop.
The rest of the day went smoothly and she thought she managed everything really well. She felt proud that she hadn’t got lost, even negotiating the ring road round Paris. She found the service station and sat on the van’s step having a sandwich. She loved making it in the van, pottering around the different cupboards. Properly using everything for the first time. She couldn’t remember the last time making a lunch felt so special. As she sat, swinging her legs, cars, vans and lorries drove past and in and out and she enjoyed watching the bustle. Greetings from fellow travellers seemed to flow out of their windows and she had learnt enough basic French to understand the many compliments she received.
Daria reached her hotel in Orleans sooner than she’d anticipated. She’d spent the last hour or so of the journey listening to her English/French CD and wondered when she’d be confident enough to try it out. After checking into her hotel where the receptionist was clearly eager to use English, she looked around her room and delighted in the view over the river Loire. Daria remembered how this had felt exotic, unreal somehow, when she’d first booked her room. Yet here she was. Eager to look around the old town, she quickly showered and changed. She wanted to explore bits that she’d researched online and buy some provisions for the following day. She had also wondered how she would feel being alone, eating alone, walking alone in a strange place. But she felt elated, confident and proud that she had made it so far. And alone. That felt important to her, especially after Paul’s visit. She was still surprised at her reactions to him and felt glad that she’d been too busy, had too much on her mind to dwell on it since then.
Daria strolled round the historic part of the town, wandered in and out of shops and was enchanted by the architecture. She loved the smells of French cigarettes that lingered in the background and the sound of the conversations when she passed bars and cafes with tables outside, even though she couldn’t understand most of it. Everywhere felt so relaxed, everyone so friendly. As she’d lingered outside the window of a patisserie trying to choose a treat for later, she got into a rather odd conversation with a rather charming man whose English was not much better than her French. And, much to her amazement, he asked her out for dinner. She turned him down without hesitation, but with a great deal of pleasure at having been asked. What Daria didn’t realise was that the pleasure she was experiencing and the confidence with which she wore that mantel of enjoyment exuded from her every pore. And others were finding that attractive.
Sipping a glass of red wine outside a cafe on the bank of the river, Daria felt herself deeply relax. Although she’d had no problems getting so far, this night had somehow been a landmark on her journey. If she made it to here, she’d make it anywhere. The first hurdle had turned out to be not that bad at all. Quite the opposite in fact, Daria thought, smiling at herself. She pulled the shawl that she’d just bought from a delightful little second hand shop, around her shoulders as a slight chill settled with the oncoming dusk. She watched lights reflecting on the rippling water as small boats meandered by and saw a heron gracefully and powerfully fly by. The cries of birds pierced the usual soundscape of a small town at dusk. Tiredness soon swept over her and she walked back to her hotel for cake, then sleep.
Daria woke early again, feeling refreshed and energised and was eager to be off. Although it would have been possible to arrive in Ayen that day, she decided that she wanted to take her time, look around and spend the night in the van and so took several detours off the main roads on the way. In this way, Daria was also giving herself time to prepare herself for what she would discover in Ayen. She was aware of a rising nervousness as she got closer to her destination. Part of her wanted to rush there straight away, but Daria knew she needed time, she needed to do this slowly. There were so many questions still buzzing around in her head. How and when did Opa buy the house? Who had been looking after it, and why? Who are the family? Is there anyone there who remembers him? What was his connection with the area? And she was excited too. Discovering the trunk had meant she was filling in some of the gaps of what she knew about Opa’s life, she was getting to know more about him.
There had been times since she had decided to embark on her journey that she wished Opa was with her. He would have made it all such fun and would have prevented her flustering and fretting. She had felt certain of that.
She made lunch just outside a tiny village and walked alongside the river that curved around it. She found a tree stump at the water’s edge and, flipping off her pumps, dangled her feet in the water. It was colder than she expected and she gasped as she splashed. Daria remembered the last time she had splashed in water outdoors and she smiled thinking of her boys reactions to her unexpected behaviour after Opa’s funeral. How long ago that all feels, Daria thought, a lifetime ago. So much has happened. But then, Daria suddenly felt a bit homesick and lonely. Not because of the time she’d spent away from all she loved, she’d barely been gone for more than a day, but because of the distance. She quickly put her pumps back on, wanting to distract herself from getting maudlin, and walked along the water’s edge. Daria looked around her and absorbed the beauty. Forests and hills all around; scatterings of small hamlets and villages in the distance, along with the lone farmhouse or barn; a tractor and some people walking on the horizon. And Daria marvelled that everywhere looked so green and she just let herself revel in the experience of just looking and listening, pushing thoughts of family and friends out of her head. The silence was only broken by the sounds of grasshoppers and the breeze in the trees. Daria felt she could almost touch the serenity.
Daria sat once more, wanting to breathe in her surroundings. And as she looked she knew why Opa must have loved it around here. She wondered why he didn’t chose to live in France, but was glad he hadn’t. But, after all, he had a house and this was just the sort of countryside he adored. She could hear him ‘so much to feast the eyes on’ and he was right. She sighed, thinking that there wasn’t much she wouldn’t do to have him back with her. Right here. Right now. And to hear him explain it all.
‘But that was the point, wasn’t it Opa?’ she was talking to him aloud, ‘you wanted me to work this out for myself. There was no guarantee I’d come across that trunk, was there? Had you hidden that cupboard on purpose? Maybe. To give me this opportunity. You’d shown me round every single nook and cranny in that house over the years. So why not that one? And then there was no guarantee I’d realise anything, follow anything through. And no guarantee that I’d want to go to Ayen, rather than just sell at a distance. Would that have mattered? But I know what you were up to, you mad old bugger. You took a chance on me. You have given me the opportunity to choose to take a chance.’ And Daria laughed, feeling Opa and his twinkling brown eyes close to her ‘And that’s what you were always telling me to do. Take a chance and I never did, really. Till now. You always were a mad old bugger, you know. I wonder if you knew I’d follow the trail? And what will I find? Oh thank you for this, Opa. From the bottom of my heart. And I miss you and I want you to be with me now.’ Daria just let the tears gently fall down her cheek, feeling overcome with loss and grief and overwhelmed by the absolute love she knew they shared for each other.
Then she thought of their times together, his humour and his outrages. Once, and she thought she’d been about twelve at the time, he’d told her parents she’d be spending the weekend at his house. But when he picked her up from school, they drove off to London instead and she’d had two incredible days of hotels, galleries, a West End show, meals out and shopping. She didn’t think her mum and dad had ever found out, they certainly would never have approved or let her go. She remembered sneaking her London purchases she’d kept at Opa’s house into her bedroom one item at a time. So they all just slowly blended in.
Then Daria had a thought. Maybe her life hadn’t really been as conventional as she had always assumed. When she was with Opa, the weird, the unusual and the unexpected generally happened. And her life was always enriched because of that. He was an enabler, she decided. He’d shown her, allowed her to experience how to be impulsive, how to take a chance, how to live.
Feeling much better, Daria walked back into the van. She had worked out the route to a national park where she thought she’d spend the night. Daria had no idea whether or not it was allowed or if she’d find a place, but the views online had looked so stunning that she thought it worth a try. If she didn’t have any luck, she would backtrack a bit to drive to a service station where she knew she could park overnight. Daria didn’t know why she felt quite so adamant about wanting to wild camp in her van this way. She’d come across a website all about wild camping when searching for photos of Limousin online. She felt that that was part of the reason she’d bought the van from Jack, it was a tiny house on wheels and as Daria had never even been in a caravan, she felt this would be another unique experience in her life. Daria wanted to fully exploit the van’s resources, she thought that that was what it was really made for. She wanted sounds of nature at night without traffic, a real deep darkness that would reveal a night sky full of stars, she wanted to see a sunrise against hills and trees. And she wanted it all alone.
She found the park quite quickly and made for the remotest car park she could find on the map at the entrance. She felt relieved that the map coincided with the one she had printed from the parks website. Things were going to plan, so far so good. The late afternoon sky was taking on hues of yellows, greens and oranges and Daria parked the van facing the horizon to get the best view of the sunset. From her vantage point, she could not see any buildings or roads, which considering her view was so vast, seemed surprising to her. She almost felt overwhelmed. The sky, the view was huge.
It was still early evening and quite warm as there was no wind, so Daria decided to go for a walk and eat later. She’d bought some local soft cheese and brioche and she’d planned to make a salad. Her appetite had not been great that day which she thought was due to the leisurely day of only driving then strolling along the riverbank. Stepping outside her van, the first thing that struck Daria was the silence. It seemed to her that the silence was as huge as the vista and was all around her. For several moments, Daria just stood, looking and listening. She craned her head for sound but found none. And at that moment not even a bird was singing. Daria wasn’t sure she’d ever heard such a silence before. And she smiled as she wondered if you could hear silence. Then gentle gusts of wind and rustles of leaves in trees broke the moment and Daria pulled her cardigan around her. She wandered across the car park and followed a footpath that led through the woods behind her van. She felt as if she just wanted to stretch in the mild fresh air for a few minutes, to get the hours of sitting and driving out of her body.
After a while, Daria became aware of every scrunch of leaf and crunch of twig underfoot as she strolled. She saw flowers everywhere and was struck by how far advanced Spring was compared to home, as emerging colour seemed to be in full flow. Bird song seemed to abruptly fill the air, then finished almost as soon as it had begun and then gusts of wind grew strong. The sudden contrasts struck Daria as a bit strange, she frowned as she looked around her. The silence brought an anguish that she couldn’t explain. ‘Stop it’ Daria berated herself aloud ′ stop spooking yourself’ and she walked on, attempting to laugh off her feelings of uneasiness. Attempts to distract herself, of trying to become lost in the absolute beauty of her surroundings, of letting nature sweep over her as she had intended, failed. She stopped, stood still and listened but her imagination escalated in its wildness. Convinced she was hearing stomping and rustling nearby, her head raced with uncontrollable thoughts that gained in extremity. She suddenly feared she might be lost and became alarmed at the thought of wandering round a huge forest all night: she wasn’t dressed for it; she didn’t have her mobile with her; all the maps were in the van. Breathlessly, she wondered about what animals lived in the woods, what predators. Foxes? Wolves? Wild boars? Were there bears in France? Were they nocturnal? She rapidly looked around her, seeking answers from something, from anything as her nervousness increased.
Just then, a darkness suddenly fell and Daria looked up through the trees to see halos of sky filled with black clouds. And just as she looked, the rain began. But not just small drops. It seemed to Daria that a torrent of water had just started falling on her. And without warning. Not quite believing how quickly the storm had seemed to appear, Daria turned and felt startled that she couldn’t see the edge of the woods. Although Daria was sure she hadn’t walked far, she suddenly panicked, then spun round again. She wanted to make sure she was facing the right direction, but doubt jostled with alarm for first place. She thought she saw a break in the trees and headed in that direction. The rain was hurtling through the branches, landing on her in huge drops and she realised she’d got drenched incredibly quickly even though the trees must have offered some shelter.
Then the break in the trees, where Daria felt sure the car park must be, seemed to disappear and she realised she’d inadvertently wandered off the footpath in the dim light. She looked around, trying to locate herself, and felt her heart rate increase as she stared through dripping eyelashes at trees that looked the same no matter what direction she looked in. Daria felt a dread rise. She felt her body begin to shiver with anxiety and she felt frozen in time and space. Rain drops fell on her face. From her hair, from branches and from the sky and she felt as if they were all gluing her to the spot. For one blind moment, Daria had absolutely no idea what to do. And she felt so totally alone and scared in the gloomy light. Heavily, she began to walk, following gaps between trees, not noticing puddles and slipping in mud. She grasped out for branches to steady herself, scraping her hands and cried with frustration and pain as she tried to run. She felt each puddle, every scrape was another indicator of her ineptitude. Her absolute uselessness. Paul was right. They’d all been right. Of course she couldn’t do something like this. Why hadn’t she listened? Why didn’t she take any notice? Of course they were all concerned for her. They all knew she couldn’t do this. Wild thoughts of doubt and despair found a voice with her misery and fear as she blindly stumbled on. Half running, half tripping on undergrowth.
Utterly bedraggled, her pumps were soaking and muddy. Her jeans and t-shirt clung to her body, her cardigan hung off her shoulders with the weight of the water. Hair stuck to her face; make-up dribbled down her cheeks from rain and tears. And somehow Daria suddenly stumbled across the car park, just in front of her van. And at that moment, the rain disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. Within what only felt a couple of seconds to Daria, a blazing yellow sun in a bright blue and orange sky poured a warm light on her and she just stood, mouth half open, shoulders hunched and legs trembling, barely unable to believe what had just happened and how it seemed to be so suddenly, so unexpectedly over.
And also at that moment, a car that appeared to be bulging with youngsters drove through the car park, circled round and went away again. She could hear hoots of derisive laughter coming from the car as they stared and pointed at her. Her eyes just followed the car as it came and went, her total disbelief ultimately sweeping her into motion and she ran towards the van. She fumbled with the keys and pulled on the wide door handle with anger when it wouldn’t open, cursing the world and her misfortune in having bought a rubbish van. With a final huge yank, the handle broke off and Daria fell, landing heavily on her bottom. She put her face in her hands and wept.
When she felt she couldn’t cry anymore, when her body felt wracked with emotional exhaustion, she lifted her heavy head and slowly adjusted her eyes to the light. Rubbing her face, she slowly stood and felt her muscles ache and her scratches sting. She stretched, then shivered in the failing light and noticed that the van door was open. Sighing, she felt as if she dragged her body into the van, as she heavily sat down and shut the door behind her. Still feeling numbed by her experiences, she took off her sodden clothes and, leaving them in a heap on the floor, reached for her towel. She was quite violently shivering and her teeth literally chattered with the cold. For several minutes, Daria sat, wrapped in her towel, feeling too exhausted to even think. She felt utterly desolate and had no idea what to do next. So she flung a blanket over herself, curled up on the bench seat and went to sleep.
It was pitch black and several hours later when Daria woke. A spectacular sunset had been and gone and Daria could hear owls and other unfamiliar animal noises all around. She felt cold, stiff and drained, and the only lights she could see were from a sky that was so enormous and brilliant with stars, it made her feel tiny. She hurriedly drew all the curtains and turned the heater on full blast. Warming some milk for a hot chocolate, Daria got out the brioche and put on her pyjamas as well as pulling on several layers of clothing, including some fingerless gloves and a woolly hat. She felt chilled to the bone, her head felt blurry, her thoughts dazed. The layers of clothes, the heater, the food and drink eventually revived her body, but not her spirits. Her experiences still numbed her. Daria felt battered and disorientated. Clutching her mug of steaming chocolate and tearing off some brioche, she looked around the van. She stared at her wet clothes in a heap on the floor, a puddle having seeped out around them. Spurred into needing to do something, Daria dried the floor with her towel, grabbed a black sack and shoved everything that was wet into it. She tidied up, pulled out her bed and got it ready, but felt too awake to sleep. For the first time, she glanced at the clock and was bewildered at it being nearly three thirty. She thought maybe she’d wanted it to be midnight or six a.m., then she’d know that it was time to sleep or time to get up. She suddenly felt she was in a nowhere place at a nowhere time.
‘A brandy, that’s what I want. A huge brandy’ Daria said aloud and she clattered around looking for a glass and the bottle, as she felt frustration and anger re-emerging and re-intensifying inside her. She poured and gulped it down. She coughed. She poured again and gulped again. Daria felt the warmth slowly pervade and she began to think about what had happened. Her thoughts still raced, she found it hard to focus. She felt that she had experienced joy, terror, humiliation and despair in a whirlwind of a moment. And it was too much to cope with. So she made another decision.