This short story was written by our Autumn Chickens editor Claire Baldry

Hotel Key

“Be ready at six,” he had instructed, commanded even. “Wear a smart dress.”

A longstanding habit of compliance had prevented argument. Catherine chose her outfit with care… smart, feminine, flattering, but not seductive. She wanted to make a point.

The taxi arrived promptly, and Catherine hurried outside before Tom had time to reach her front door. He ran his eyes over her figure.  “Nice dress, you buy it specially?”

Catherine tried not to show her irritation. “No, Tom. I’ve had this dress for ages.”

Ever since Tom had appeared in her kitchen the day before, Catherine had been apprehensive about his unexpected invitation to dinner. She felt the heavy weight of former anxieties. She wondered about the reasons behind Tom’s sudden return to the UK. She anticipated the pressure of a forced dialogue between two estranged lovers within the confines of the back seat of a taxi.

But once the taxi arrived her worries began to diminish. He showed no outward signs of contrition or obvious desire for reconciliation, brought no flowers or chocolates.  And once Catherine was seated in the car, Tom scarcely seemed to notice her. The taxi accelerated from the kerbside before Catherine even had time to secure her seatbelt. Tom looked totally relaxed as he launched into a monologue apparently directed at the driver, though Catherine suspected his speech was also intended for her. He offered details of his property venture in Spain, its ‘huge’ financial success, the numerous time-share clients, the investments, and why, with Brexit, he had decided that the time had come to cash in his assets. He didn’t mention Lucinda, but Catherine speculated whether, in reality, it might be Lucinda who had cashed Tom in.

The half hour journey transported them to a nearby village. Catherine felt relieved as a glimpse of white lights twinkling through a dense, but manicured, covering of ivy promised rescue from Tom’s monologue. The welcoming fairy-like entrance to the eatery created a magical approach to the restaurant as the pair stepped through the subtle illumination of the wooden veranda. Tom’s distant manner towards Catherine suddenly transformed into overt attention as they drew nearer to possible scrutiny from the high-end restaurant staff. Coats were taken, booking discreetly checked, and the couple were guided to a table for two.

A young assistant helped to move Catherine’s chair closer to the polished oak table. A linen serviette was lifted and placed on Catherine’s lap. “Is there a menu?” asked Catherine.

“It’s one of their tasting evenings,” Tom interrupted, “A special offer including wine. I pre-ordered the set menu of meat and seafood. You haven’t become vegetarian have you?”

“No, but I’d have enjoyed choosing.”

“You’ll love it. You always used to let me select your food.”

“So I did, but I’d begun to forget.”

Wine was tasted and poured, then two suited waiters brought several sharing dishes of hot aromatic seafood, each describing the ingredients in detail before finally leaving the diners to savour their starters.  Tom allowed Catherine to take a small portion from each bowl before filling his own plate. “What d’you think?” he asked.

Catherine slowly sampled the food and immersed herself in the exquisite combinations of flavours before venturing to reply. “The food is gorgeous,” she conceded and allowed a waiter to refill her glass.

“I knew you’d like it,” responded Tom. “Bet you’re fed up with ready meals after living on your own for so long.”

“I manage,” she muttered.

“Well, now I’m back, you can indulge yourself in a bit more luxury.” The empty dishes were removed, leaving space at the empty table for further conversation.

Catherine dared to speak. “You seem to assume that I’ll have you back.”

“Why wouldn’t you? You’re not getting any younger and you must have been lonely without me, not to mention struggling for money.”

“I have my own income, Tom, and friends, and, yes, I did feel isolated at first, but I coped.”

A second set of dishes saved the couple from further dialogue. Catherine surveyed the tender pieces of pork topped with bubbled crackling and accompanied by swirls of cherry sauce. She stared at the soft rolled pancakes filled with shredded lamb and the beautifully crafted circles of pink venison and sculptures of piped pureed vegetables. “It looks almost too good to disturb,” remarked Catherine as she carefully cut into the venison. And Catherine’s annoyance with Tom began to subside as she gradually tasted a small sample of every element from each stunning plate of food.

Tom finished his main course quickly and was impatient to speak while Catherine lingered over each bite. “I’ve brought an overnight bag, so can stay with you this evening, but I left my other cases at the hotel. I will collect them in the morning.”

Catherine hastily finished her mouthful. She could wait no longer. “Tom, you walked out on me for a younger woman two years ago after almost thirty years of marriage. What on earth makes you think I want you back?”

Tom looked surprised. “I thought you’d be pleased to see me. I looked after you for thirty years before I left, so you must have missed me.” He gesticulated to a waiter to remove the dishes.

Catherine held up the palm of her hand to the waiter, “I haven’t finished.” She lifted a spoon dramatically and began to scrape away the last of the cherry sauce.

“Would you like some bread, madam?” The waiter asked with a slight grin.

“Yes, please, I need to rescue whatever I can from this evening.”

The waiter brought a basket of soft home-made bread sticks, and Tom watched in silence as Catherine slowly wiped every dish clean, dramatically posting small sauce filled pieces of bread into her mouth. She finally spoke. “I admit, I miss being part of a couple, but I don’t miss you. I don’t miss picking up your dirty clothes from the floor. I don’t miss waking up every night while you noisily climb out of bed for a pee. I don’t miss you trying to control me all the time.”

“That won’t happen anymore.”

“The way you try to control me?”

“No, the night-time peeing. I’ve had a prostate op.”

Catherine rolled her eyes “You’re completely missing the point Tom. I don’t want you back.” She articulated each word.  “I’ve got used to living on my own. I enjoy the freedom. You can’t just return after two years and assume nothing has changed”.

A waiter reappeared “Would you like to see the dessert menu?”

For once Tom and Catherine agreed “No thank you”

Tom paid the bill, and coats were brought. He put his arm across Catherine’s shoulder as she leaned towards the front desk and casually picked up a business card. They walked to the waiting taxi. Catherine turned to admire the subtle lighting at the front of the restaurant, but Tom blocked her view. He stood uncomfortably close to her face. “I know you want me back really,” he announced.

She stepped backwards. “What on earth gave you that idea?”

Tom grinned in triumph. “When I arrived at the house yesterday, I let myself in with my old key. You never changed the locks.”

Catherine pushed him away, but deliberately held the taxi door closed. “For six months after you left I kept a locked chain secured on every door. After that I didn’t bother because I assumed you wouldn’t have the audacity to return.” She opened the rear taxi door, and Tom climbed in. Catherine walked round to the other side of the taxi and addressed the driver. “I’ll sit in the front, and will you please drop him at his hotel first.”

The journey home was monologue free. Catherine tried to focus her thoughts on the meal she had just eaten, until the taxi stopped outside his hotel. She watched Tom walk into the lobby and ignored his wave.

Once back at her own front door, Catherine rummaged through her bag and pulled out the key. She rubbed it between her finger and thumb before letting herself in to the hallway. For the first time in eighteen months she clicked the catch on the indoor safety chain into place and checked it was secure. The house began to feel calmer, once more a place of safety. Catherine picked up the restaurant card and examined it with a sigh. “Great food, shame about the company,” she expressed her thoughts out loud.

Catherine sank into the comfort of her favourite chair, opened her laptop and switched it on. She watched the familiar picture on the desktop emerge on the screen and typed a word into the search box. Several phone numbers began to be listed, and Catherine scribbled down some details. She lifted her mobile phone from her bag and entered one of the numbers. An efficient female voice answered almost immediately. Catherine waited for a pause.

“Is that the emergency locksmith’s office?”

“It is.”

“I need help urgently. Can someone come round tonight and change my locks?”

You can find our more about Claire's writing by clicking on the covers below....