IT WAS a bitterly cold mid-February evening when Russ locked up his Mazda dealership; 5pm was admittedly very early, but Russ had plans – a carefully mapped-out sequence of events that would, in all likelihood, change his mundane existence forever.
Freezing fog diluted what little light there remained of this typical winter’s day, the rows of stationary cars on the forecourt gradually took on a ghostly quality, as darkness crept over the valley, the surrounding hilltops melting away to become one with the bleak Yorkshire night. Soon, the seemingly floating pools of hazy orange light, created by distant roadside lanterns, formed the only interruptions to the endless blackness encroaching upon the lonely figure stooped over the front gate padlock.
Russ hated Yorkshire at this time of the year – in fact, he felt little love for his native county at the best of times, and it was normally only the certain knowledge that the festive period had passed once more, allowing him to get on with his life, that gave him any grounds to acknowledge the remotest sense of optimism. This year was going to be different. The following day represented the first day of the rest of his life, a new existence away from here, in another part of the world. And he intended to get married. Russ was convinced that he was locking his car lot for the very last time.
At 9am the next morning, he stood in Manchester Airport’s departure lounge, having crossed the Pennines as dawn almost indistinguishably crept over the horizon. He was three hours early. easyJet to Brussels, then onward, westbound, he remembered. The route had seemed absurd, but the girl at the travel agents had explained that the detour would save 40 pounds sterling on the airfare – he felt his face flush at the memory of the hurried lunchtime visit to Thomas Cook in Leeds, during which he flustered so badly that he even failed to come up with the name of his destination. All he could offer in terms of guidance was “a short word ending in ‘o’ in Portugal” – it had been a frustrating moment of memory loss, but the girl had pointed him in the right direction. Now Russ was on his way.
The treasured black cowboy boots were polished to a high sheen, the very tight stonewashed jeans perfectly complemented by a beautiful pleated white shirt, ironed to perfection by his mother. Abbot, his two-year-old Great Dane, had been found an adequate home at the local kennels, but Russ was already missing his loyal companion. The dog was, after all, his only true friend. Russ and Abbot, together against the world. The temptation to slip on the headphones of his Discman was great, but the intrepid traveller resisted, fearful of missing the first call for his flight – the seat next to the emergency exit was going to be his. Anyway, he didn’t need to hear the music, the words were constantly in his head: Like walking in the rain and the snow and there is nowhere to go …that would now be over forever.
When the ‘Fasten your seatbelts’ sign lit up five long, torturous hours later, the restraining device was all that kept Russ pinned to his seat. His excitement was such that he would dearly have loved to jump up and command the pilot to hurry up as the plane circled above the city below.
He had ‘met’ Pat on a lonely hearts website, the ensuing relationship involving endless hours glued to screen and keyboard. She had become the focal point of his existence, the embodiment of all he craved for and dreamt of, the gateway to his future, his happiness. Now she was waiting for him 2,000ft below, hopefully just as anxious to meet her Prince in shining armour as he his Princess. It never occurred to Russ that it could be any other way.
The landing, immigration formalities and baggage reclaim all passed in a blur, as Russ found himself emerging through the oblique arrivals doors. Initially part of a joyous throng of passengers reunited with friends and relatives, Russ soon found himself alone as the last of these little groups drifted away. Pat was nowhere to be seen.
Two hours later, the realisation that she was not going to appear had finally sunk in. He felt seriously let down, but did not despair. Perhaps something unforeseen had occurred, a crisis at work, a flat tire. He delved into his holdall, producing Pat’s address and headed for the taxi rank. It was only 4.30pm in the afternoon and Pat had told him that she lived 40 miles away from the airport – he would make his own way there and find out what had gone wrong.
The first attempts at communicating proved frustrating. The driver did not speak English and only shook his head in non-comprehension to Russ’s repeated demands to be taken to Praia da Rocha. According to Pat, this place was a well-known seaside resort and, by the time he had entered and exited the third vehicle under similar circumstances, Russ was beginning to suspect that Portuguese taxi drivers did not like foreigners – something, he thought, was surely detrimental to their profession.
His fourth conversation was to be more fruitful. The driver dug out a map and showed Russ just how far he had erred. Praia da Rocha did feature prominently, but at the opposite end of the elongated country depicted. He had landed in Porto, the man explained, not in Faro as he should have done – a minor difference of 400 miles!
Russ felt panic welling up, threatening to drown his hopes and expectations. Had he only taken his time that fateful lunch hour at Thomas Cook instead of worrying about missing his next sale at the dealership. It was no wonder Pat had not been there to meet him as arranged – God only knew what she must be thinking at this moment. He seriously regretted leaving his mobile phone at home, now feeling almost naked without it. But, somehow, this demonstrative act had been an important part of leaving the past behind.
After some moments of consideration, the driver suggested a nearby hotel, where the lost Englishman could spend the night before continuing his odyssey south by train the following morning. Russ acquiesced, resigning himself to his fate. His spirits were revived somewhat upon arrival, however, when he discovered that hotel guests were offered internet access in their rooms. By the time room service had delivered his double cheeseburger, a link to Pat had been re-established by the now familiar means, explanations given and accepted, and the next day’s modus operandi decided upon. He would take the first commuter express to Lisbon and then travel on to Portimão by coach to hopefully fall into ‘her’ arms 24 hours later, exhausted but happy.
He spent the journey either asleep or daydreaming, as the increasingly arid landscape rushed past, but the trip went relatively smoothly. However, finding the correct bus terminal in the chaotic city centre of Portugal’s capital proved something of a challenge. Following two hours of hectic rushing to and fro, an English speaking traffic policeman had finally taken pity on the dishevelled and now profusely perspiring foreigner, and taken him to his point of departure. Now, the Renex bus was approaching what the irate driver had assured Russ on no less than three occasions was the ‘promised land’: Portimão, a picturesque town of which Praia da Rocha formed a part.
Dismounting, he almost immediately spotted the halo-like blond fringe deeply etched into his mind. The digital images downloaded on countless occasions suddenly sprang to life and his heart started beating uncontrollably as he walked towards her. Eyebrows twitching involuntarily, hands shaking, they ultimately came face-to-face, stopping perhaps a yard from each other. Russ slowly raised his red-rimmed eyes, watering with fatigue, gazing utterly entranced at the features dreamt of during many a lonely night. His inability to distinguish anything but a golden angel, however, was not reciprocated.
Pat saw a tall, somehow ill-proportioned boy-man in front of her, apparently suffering from a high fever, his face impossibly flushed. The gangling legs ending in a pair of pointed boots were held prisoner by the tightest drainpipes she had ever seen. An impossibly large belt buckle was partly obscured by the billowing folds of a button-down Western style shirt. Where did he lose his Stetson, spurs and quick-draw holster she wondered? Had the airport metal detector stripped this latter day saloon hound of his ornamental regalia? If so, how did the Texas longhorn decorating his midriff pass inspection?
“Howdy, cowboy”, Patricia said. She watched in horror as the tightly pursed lips attempted to produce a sound. Nothing was forthcoming. Resolutely, she grabbed the apparition’s tasselled sleeve and steered him towards the short-term car park. This was going to be a nightmare.
To be continued….
The characters, places and events in this story are all purely fictional. All similarities to actual living people are merely coincidental. In the words of Evelyn Waugh, I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they.
BY Skip Bandele