The jet touched down at JFK International Airport, having left Heathrow in London six hours before. The small retractable wheels tautened under the sudden weight. They skidded ever so slightly on the greasy surface of the tarmac, but squeakily regained their grip, before the pilot taxied the jet off of the runway towards Terminal Two. Carter had been used to planes. He had been on them quite a lot as a kid; his family being wealthy enough to afford regular trips to Hawaii, the Bahamas and also to Europe. Therefore, he did not look up from his book as the great white shape soared out of the sky, the ceiling lights dimmed, and those tiny wheels took the strain. As the plane eventually ground to a halt beside the terminal, he did finally look up, instinctively searching for his baggage with tired eyes. The seat-belt lights extinguished, and the pilot relayed a final message over the intercom, before the rush to disembark ensued.
He only had his rucksack, which had been too large to tuck beneath the seat in front, so Carter had grudgingly shoved it into the terrible overhead compartments. He waited as an old guy retrieved his carry-case, before he hooked the bag strap with his hand and hoisted it down onto his shoulder. Rubbing his eyes, Carter smiled at the pretty flight attendant and descended the steps, down to a wet and weary dusk, which hung over New York depressingly like a shawl. But at least he was back.
As he had no large luggage to collect, Carter quickly found his way out of the crowded terminal and into the white zone, where he looked to hail a cab. When he saw that there were none in the vicinity, he pulled a cellphone from his pocket, switched it on, and rang a local Yellow Cab service. Slightly annoyed that he would have to wait, Carter thanked the cab service guy, and rammed the phone back into his jeans pocket.
It was a handsome and full-faced Carter who leant casually against a pillar as he waited for the ride that would take him away from the dreadful rush of the airport. His time in Edinburgh had left him pale; perhaps even a little peaky, but his muscular build was good, and he stood steady and confident. A young man reaching for his prime, as one of his tutors back in Scotland had put it.
Carter thought it very depressing that he had arrived in very much the same sort of weather that he had left Heathrow Airport in. Some of the days in Scotland had been horrendous, with driving gales throwing rain and hail at his uncle’s house. Leaf litter and loose branches would cascade from the sprawling oak that grew, for its sentimental value, in the property’s garden. One time, a window had been smashed in such a gale, and Oliver had told him that such damage was not all that unusual. The place had, Carter decided, the worst weather of anywhere on the planet. Apart from JFK it seemed. The rain seemed to intensify as Carter thought this, and he suppressed a shiver.
The cab pulled up soon after, and whisked him into the city. A brief monetary check told him that he had only enough cash to stay somewhere cheap; a motel or something. He therefore instructed the driver to keep on down the highway, away from the towering lights of New York City, which had never held much appeal to him anyway, and towards the glittering, boiling mass of cars and trucks. It wasn’t long before he spotted a slightly run-down place as the cab passed a steaming freighter, and he pointed it out to his driver, who swerved off of the highway onto a slip-road, which encircled a dark garden clearly introduced to liven the turn-off up a little. It hadn’t worked, or at least it didn’t on a rainy night like this. The motel loomed out of the darkness, and the cab pulled up outside. Carter paid and then ran for it, as fresh rain hammered down on him. He reached the reception soaked, and swore vehemently.
The place was fronted by a double-pillared forecourt, clearly modelled on The Grand Hotel or something else upmarket, though significantly downsized. Still, it provided relief from the rain. The motel seemed to Carter’s eye to be less run-down than he had first thought, and he wondered whether he had been harsh to adjudge it so through the steamed-up window of the cab. He pushed his way through double doors into a plush and overheated reception, where he negotiated a room for the night out of a large-breasted girl behind the counter.
It had been a long couple of days. What with the journey from Edinburgh to London, the subsequent time-change, the rush of JFK and the dark journey in the taxi, Carter was all but ready to get his head down for the night. Only instinct made him ask the receptionist for directions to the bar. He wasn’t even thirsty, although the depressing weather did make a couple of rounds of bourbon sound a good idea. It was something his father recommended he try from a young age. Carter checked his watch as he sidled down a narrow corridor in the direction the girl had pointed. It had gone ten. He wondered if there would even be anyone serving.
He was pleasantly surprised to find that the place was half-full. As he entered through a second set of double doors, it became apparent that this was because the bar was rather small, with only a smattering of tiny tables, and a long counter dominating the room. Carter sat slowly on a leather stool and ordered his bourbon from a bearded barman. Only one other woman actually sat at the bar; everyone else was seated at the small tables, and were all talking in pairs. It seemed that he and that woman at the bar were the only ones alone in the motel that night.
At first he didn’t remark on this. He was too tired. She could make the first move if she wanted. Carter took a draw from his drink, allowing the sensation of warmth to invigorate him. It took about five seconds, which were filled with just the hubbub of background chatter and the buzzing of music from hidden speakers.
Now he looked over. She was already looking at him. She had already come to the conclusion that he was here alone. Carter reckoned she wasn’t bad looking, even if she had had a few too many to drink. Her hair was blonde, and had a full quality to it, as if it had just been washed, and treated, and blow-dried. She wore a denim skirt, which nearly reached her knees, and a fitted jacket that hung to her waist. Could she be a hooker? No, she had that feeling of money about her. This was a girl on the run from a protective family and a guarded upbringing, out to spend her father’s money on fun. It did not, in Carter’s view, look like something she had done much before. She was perched relatively inexpertly on the barstool, and twice slipped off completely, which gave Carter an excuse for conversation to pounce upon.
“Sit back a bit.” The blonde girl ducked her head, sending the blonde locks tumbling over her face. Her hair was not so long that it didn’t hide a wide smile of amusement and embarrassment. She hoisted herself more firmly onto the stool, and eyed him critically, her cheeks flushed.
“You’re not looking so comfortable yourself,” she remarked, nodding her head towards Carter’s rear. He guessed something in his posture made it appear that he was uncomfortable, when really he was just slumped due to fatigue.
“Yeah, well, I hate these things. No offence.” he added, as the barman passed with some stacked glasses, “and I just flew in from Heathrow Airport, which is just about the most physically draining experience anyone will ever have the pleasure of suffering.”
The girl smiled, her face still red. Carter allowed himself the reckoning that there might be more to her than met the eye. He had thought her drunk, but really she was just out of place; a stranger in this dingy motel outside the city. She had a glass in front of her on the bar, with a clear liquid in the bottom. Martini, probably. Floozies seldom drank martinis, unless they were desperate or stupid. It was too grown-up, too sophisticated a drink to really be considered fashionable by the everyday working girl. Had there been something colourful and sticky in her glass, with a cherry on a stick, then it would be a different matter.
“Katy Allen,” she said, holding out a hand. Carter only hesitated for a second, to applaud his instinct for being correct, and then to scold himself for being so anal, before answering, “David Carter.”
“You’re from England? I thought your accent sounded…”
“Nah, I’m from Michigan, but I dropped out of Harvard, see? And I got family in Edinburgh, in Scotland, and one of them is a don at the University, and got me on the course I wanted. So I been living there, and everything, so y’know…”
“I see. Well, you don’t look all that Scottish?” The flush had faded from her cheeks now as she seemed to gain confidence. After all, it was all about him so far. There was no pressure on her to provide any sensitive or personal information to a stranger. She had tilted her head slightly, and inclined her tone to add that hint of suggestion, the question mark.
“Not at all, sorry.”
“Oh. Well. How does one look Scottish then?” Carter allowed a faint smile to cross his lips. He was glad now that he hadn’t just gone to his room.
“Well,” Katy started, feigning serious consideration, “you would need to be stocky, pale and ginger, for a start. You would need a deeper voice, and would have to keep saying ’Och laddie’ all the time, in an indistinguishable accent. Oh, and you are dressed far too well, you would have to wear a tartan kilt, stockings, and suspenders. And don’t forget the bagpipes.”
When he later thought about it, Carter had to admit that despite their later problems, and the fact that she was actually the second woman he would marry, Katy really had been his first true… sweetheart. She had that look that seemed to melt him; full cheeks, thin, prominent eyebrows, bright lips and mocking eyes that teased. Of course, he had forgotten all about that later on, after the marriage, after the terrible rows, and after the divorce settlements. She had become more of a drain on his life force than an invigorator of it, leeching money, effort, time and dignity. But if asked whether it would be worth changing things were he able to go back in time to that motel bar, Carter would have to have said that it wouldn’t be. She had shown him that even something innocent and attractive can still leave a poisonous aftertaste; what he considered to be a valuable lesson.