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    Mawgrim
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Fellow Travellers - 1. Chapter 1

Life is a journey that must be traveled, no matter how bad the roads and accommodations. Oliver Goldsmith

Craig tapped his fingers impatiently against the steering wheel, craning his neck to try and see how far the jam extended. As winter dusk fell, all that was visible was a long, snaking trail of red taillights, disappearing around the curve of the motorway. He glanced at the clock again. Four-thirty. He’d got the call from the Operations Centre just after two and had left Birmingham as quickly as he could. He knew exactly how far it was from junction five to Lethbridge. On a good day, the journey should take no more than forty minutes. He’d been sitting in this queue for longer than that, aware all the while of time ticking away and the cinema still being off screen.

He knew it was doing all sorts of bad things to his stress levels. One of his fellow cinema engineers - only three years older than himself at forty-five - had suffered a minor heart attack recently and another was being treated for high blood pressure. Was it any wonder?

His phone rang. The number displayed started with +46, the code for Sweden. The Operations Centre again. He pressed the button on his steering wheel to answer. ‘Craig Surtees.’

‘Ah, Craig. This is Anders. How’s it going at Lethbridge?’

He sighed. ‘I haven’t even got there yet. I’m stuck in traffic and I’ve gone less than two miles in the last half hour.’

There was a pause. ‘That is a pity,’ Anders said, not sounding sympathetic at all.

Craig imagined him, sitting in a comfortable chair in front of his bank of computer monitors, probably with a decent cup of coffee on his desk. Lucky sod.

‘Well, I’ve just had another call and I was hoping you’d be able to get to them later on.’

‘Who is it?’ Any hope of an evening at home had just vanished.

‘Mileford. They have a sound issue in their screen two. I have dialled in but can’t find any problem on the server or sound processor.

Mileford was a good ninety miles further west than Lethbridge. If he got there in time to save the last show tonight it would be a miracle. The best bet would be to try and talk them through some diagnostics and if that didn’t solve things, book a hotel tonight and get the job done first thing in the morning. ‘I’ll ring them.’

‘That would be good. Thank you.’ The call finished.

The silver BMW in front began to move again, although he could see brake lights several cars ahead. He pushed the gear lever into first and crawled another few metres, searching through his contacts for Mileford’s phone number. It wasn’t one of his regular sites, but as he was on emergency cover this week, he could end up anywhere. At last he found it and pressed to dial. It rang several times before the phone was answered by a male voice.

‘Mileford Crest Cinema. Good afternoon. Can I help you?’

‘Yes, this is Craig Surtees, cinema engineer. May I speak to your duty manager?’

‘She’s busy at the moment. We’ve got a problem in screen two.’

‘I know. That’s what I’m calling about.’ Sometimes you just had to take a deep breath and count to three.

‘Hold on and I’ll try and get her.’ He was treated to the awful hold music; a tormented version of Greensleeves that seemed the default tune in nearly every cinema on the circuit. Five excruciating verses later, the phone was picked up again. ‘I’m sorry, she’s not answering. Can I ask her to call you back later?’

The traffic was moving a little faster. He changed gear, into second. Could it be they’d cleared the obstruction ahead? ‘Do you know how to get to the projection room?’

‘Er, yes…’

‘Then maybe you could go and tell your manager I’d like to speak with her now. Of course, she may be able to solve the problem herself, but as she’s already called the Operations Centre, I’m guessing it’s not something straightforward and she might be glad of a little help.’ Mike had told him that when he’d been fitted with a twenty-four hour blood pressure monitor, it had reached its highest point not when he was trying to fix something, but when he was on the phone to a cinema.

‘Er, right.’ The unknown member of staff seemed unsure what to do. ‘But I’m not supposed to leave the retail area.’

Craig remembered that Mileford was only a two-screen cinema. Well, just one at present, due to the sound problem. ‘Do you have any customers waiting to be served right now?’

‘No.’

‘Then it won’t do any harm, will it?’ This would make a good story at the next engineers meeting. They had an unofficial award for the most clueless member of staff. Whoever this one was, he was in the running for it.

Evidently he made up his mind to go, for the awful music started up again. In the mean time, the motorway was beginning to unclog itself. The car had got up to twenty-five miles an hour. It felt like flying.

He waited for what seemed an eternity. Once this call was done, he needed to ring Madge, his next-door neighbour. Whenever he was on emergency cover, she was on standby to feed Jerry, his cat. If he actually did get home this evening, it would be very late and these days there was no-one else there to take care of things.

‘Hello?’ At last, the music stopped and a female voice answered his call.

‘Hi. Am I speaking to the duty manager?’ Please let it be yes this time, he prayed.

‘That’s right. Phil told me you’re the engineer.’

Phil! He made a mental note of the name. Phil from Mileford, you are definitely up for an award. ‘That’s right. The OC called and said you had a problem with the sound.’

‘Yes.’ She sounded stressed. ‘I’m in the projection room now, but I can’t see what’s wrong.’

He put on the steady tone of voice he used when talking someone through fault finding. ‘Do you know what a sound rack looks like?’ Ever since the company decided to get rid of projectionists, it was down to the managers to sort things out. Many of them weren’t at all technically inclined. Not their fault, of course, but it didn’t help.

‘Would it be on the wall, next to the projector? It’s blue,’ she said.

It was an improvement on some of them. ‘That sounds like it. Now, at the top is the processor. Is it lit up?’

‘Er, yes.’

‘Below it you should see two - or maybe three - amplifiers. Can you check if they’re powered up as well?’

‘They look like it. There’s a little green light glowing on the left-hand side.’

‘OK.’ So, it wasn’t a breaker that had tripped out. He thought quickly. ‘Was the sound working properly when you opened up today?’

‘Oh, yes. It was about halfway through the film when a customer came out to say there was something wrong. I went and checked myself before I called the OC.’

‘So, could you hear any sound at all?’

‘Well, now you mention it, there was background noise, but nothing when the actors spoke.’

Some useful information at last. The OC should have asked all of this, but they were IT experts, not cinema engineers. ‘I’m guessing you’ve either got a faulty amplifier or a blown speaker. Do you have any spares on site?’

There was a long pause. ‘I’m not sure.’

He forced himself to stay calm. ‘Well, maybe you could have a look when you aren’t too busy. I’ve got another call to attend first. What time’s your last show tonight?’

‘Eight thirty.’

‘In that case, I doubt I’ll get to you in time. I’ll book a hotel and look at it first thing tomorrow.’

‘Oh, that’s great. Thank you.’ The relief in her voice was obvious.

Now for the next problem. ‘What time can I get in?’

‘There’s no one here until nine.’

It would have to do. Smaller cinemas only had two managers and whoever opened up was probably on until the end, somewhere around eleven at night. Once again, not their fault, but it made his job harder. ‘Okay. I’ll see you then. And if you can find a spare amplifier, that would be great.’ He doubted that she would.

He called Madge, while he remembered. ‘Won’t be home tonight, I’m afraid. So Jerry would appreciate it if you dropped in and gave him some dinner.’

‘He must have known,’ she said. ‘He was meowing outside my back door earlier.’

‘Should be back tomorrow sometime.’ Hopefully it would be an easier day than this one had been, but you could never tell.

‘Right-ho,’ she said. ‘Take care. You never know, there might be some nice young men in that hotel.’

‘Chance would be a fine thing.’ Madge was always trying to persuade him that he needed to find a new partner. Trouble was, he just didn’t have the time, not with how crazy his life had become in this new, digital age. ’See you tomorrow.’

‘Bye, then.’

He arrived at Lethbridge just before five-thirty. The issue turned out to be fairly simple. No one had cleared the server of old features in a while. Just like the hard drive on a computer, if there was insufficient space, it couldn’t function properly. To make matters worse, they had tried to upload yet another film, making the whole thing grind to a halt. A reboot followed by multiple deletions got it working again.

‘You know you could have done that yourself, don’t you?’ he said to the manager. As part of his newly revised job description, he was supposed to train the cinema management to prevent reoccurrences of the same problems.

‘If I wasn’t trying to give out re-admission tickets to a hundred angry pensioners it might be easier. How they expect us to do everything, I don’t know.’

‘It’s because digital never goes wrong,’ Craig joked. That had been the major selling point; no more breakdowns. Everything could be solved remotely. Yeah, right. ‘Anyway, just keep an eye on the amount of content you leave on there in future.’

It was nearly six thirty. Time to get on the road again and drive to Mileford. He’d not had anything to eat since breakfast, apart from a couple of bags of crisps and a KitKat. Ah well, the Deluxe Inn would have a restaurant and he’d eaten his way through the entire menu enough times to know what were the best choices.

They were all the same, Deluxe Inns. Same corporate carpet, same pale varnished doors to the rooms. The only anticipation was trying to guess which picture would be on the magnolia painted wall opposite the bed. There were three different designs, which he’d given his own titles. Blue lollipop trees, standing in a neat row next to an equally blue river. The squiggles of doom; a multicoloured mess on a pastel background. His own personal favourite; attack chrysanthemums. Bright red blooms flying through the air, as if on a mission.

He paused outside the door to 308. Which would it be this time? Squiggles, he guessed. That was the most common of the three. He opened the door, breathed in the inoffensive scent of the products they used to clean the rooms and turned on the light. Attack chrysanthemums blazed across the wall. That had to be a good omen. Maybe tomorrow things would go more smoothly?

The next day brought another full English breakfast in the usual bland dining room, surrounded by other business travellers. Everyone took refuge in their phone screens so that they didn’t have to look at their fellow guests over the fried eggs. Craig wondered if any of them had partners at home or if they lived solitary lives like himself. He knew all too well his job wasn’t conducive to keeping a relationship going. You could never rely on being home at a particular time and when you were there, you mostly slept, before getting up the next day to do it all over again. It had been almost a year since he and Matt had split up and since then he’d had three anonymous encounters in different Deluxe Inns. After sex, they’d gone back to their own rooms, ignored each other studiously at breakfast, then driven off knowing that their paths would probably never cross again. It took care of his physical needs, but nothing else.

Craig checked his emails to make sure the OC hadn’t sent in any other emergency requests overnight. Clear, thank goodness. He went back to the room, brushed his teeth and checked to make sure he’d not left any trace of his existence behind. ‘Here’s another hotel room I won’t see again,’ he murmured as he shut the door.

The cinema was easy to find; one of those massive nineteen-thirties brick built edifices, with a car park attached. The manager was on time, too, which was good, as the weather had turned decidedly chilly. She handed him the keys to projection and pointed him in the right direction to find it. On the way upstairs he admired the architecture; all those curvy Art Deco mouldings from an era when cinemas tried to be as glamorous as the Hollywood stars on screen.

The projection box had a parquet floor. In the old days, when there was a chief and a team of projectionists it would have been polished until it gleamed. Now it was dusty and unloved. Scars showed where the old film projection equipment had stood. There were still a few curling posters on the walls, and more poignantly, a calendar, left showing the date when the last projectionist had closed the door on their career forever.

It didn’t take very long to find the problem. The amplifier feeding the centre channel - from which all the on-screen dialogue came - was faulty. It still powered up, but something must have failed internally, meaning it would need to be sent back for repair. A spare had been left lying on the floor next to the sound rack but when he tried that, he found it also didn’t work. He reconfigured the wiring, sacrificing the surround channel for the essential centre, then boxed up the useless spare and arranged for it to be picked up. Then he locked the box door and returned to the foyer, where the manager was busily re-stocking the pick and mix.

‘All done. Well, temporarily.’ He tried to explain the fix he’d made, then as her eyes began to glaze over, realised there was no point. ‘Just make sure they pick up your spare and get it fixed. Tariq’s your usual engineer, isn’t he?’

She nodded.

‘I’ll call him and let him know what needs doing.’

‘Would you? I’m going to be run off my feet today. Two of the staff have called in sick so it looks like I’m on my own until five this evening.’

He left the cinema. The wind cut straight through his coat. The sky was a dull, even grey. Heavy with snow, his mother would say. He hoped not. Snow was a menace. People drove like idiots, making it take twice as long to get anywhere. Back in the car, he planned out the rest of his day. He had a couple of hours worth of admin to complete - the new boss liked all the trackers to be regularly updated - which he could either do at home or in his workshop at Colesworth cinema. Home would be more comfortable, but Colesworth was closer to the centre of the area he was meant to cover. If he had another call, it would make more sense to start from there.

It was around mid-afternoon that his phone went off. The number on the display began with +46. Shit! It was bound to be an emergency at this time of day. He answered quickly, to get the suspense over with.

‘Ah, Craig. This is Rolf from the OC. Are you busy?’

‘Not right now. Just doing some admin.’ He took a drink of his coffee, which had gone cold. There was something symbolic about that.

‘That is good. I have a job for you. Can you pop over to Langthorpe?’

Langthorpe. He checked the map pinned up on the wall. It was a good hundred or so miles, on the northern edge of his area. A ten screen multiplex. ‘What’s their problem?’

‘The picture in their screen four has green lines over it. They’ve tried a reboot, but it won’t clear. I’m thinking the boards may need re-seating.’

That was often the case and of course, not something that could be done remotely. ‘Okay. I’ll be on my way. Should be there in around two hours, traffic permitting.’

‘I’ll let them know.’

He gathered his things together and left the warmth of the cinema. Outside, the weather was still undecided about what it would do. If anything, it felt colder than it had earlier. He quickly checked the forecast on his phone. Another ‘beast from the east’ was predicted, with snow almost certain to arrive within the next few hours. Just what he needed.

It was snug in the car, once the heater warmed up. As he headed further north, snow began to fall; small, light flakes sliding off the windscreen to skitter across the road ahead. Fortunately the traffic kept moving and he reached his destination by four thirty. Snow had started to settle in the car park, piling up against the raised planters. He parked as close to the door as he could get and rushed inside, out of the freezing wind.

It was another straightforward job. Reseating the boards and the connections worked its usual magic. He reckoned it would only take him around two and a half hours to get home; sometime around eight, if he was lucky. Hopefully, tomorrow would be an easier day.

In the hour or so he’d been inside, the snow had carried on falling. Staff stood at the front doors, gazing out at a transformed world. It did look very pretty, with the neon lighting reflecting off the pristine white surface covering the car park.

He swept the windows clear and headed off. It was rush hour, so it took him a while to get out of the suburbs onto the main roads. Even there, the traffic was irritatingly slow. Although gritting lorries must have been out - he’d seen a few on his way - the snow had already become deep enough to cause problems. It always amazed him how other countries never seemed to have any trouble even when there were huge drifts and sub zero temperatures for weeks on end, whereas in the UK everything ground to a halt with just a couple of centimetres of the stuff.

At last, he reached the motorway. All three lanes were moving, albeit slowly. He joined, keeping a safe distance from the car ahead, the wipers clearing the screen. For several miles they kept at a steady speed, although he couldn’t help noticing how the snow was beginning to settle on the road surface, even with the volume of traffic. Occasional flashes of brake lights pulled him from the almost hypnotic state caused by watching the flakes whirl in his headlights. Thirty miles an hour gave way to twenty, then ten. The outside lane slowed to a crawl. A few impatient drivers decided to try and change lanes. One car, leaving the deep tracks made by all those that had preceded it, bogged down on the banked-up snow between the lanes. A white van ran into it, then another car slid into that. Craig had to brake abruptly and felt the ABS kick in as the tyres lost purchase, but thankfully he’d left enough of a gap and managed to stop without hitting anything.

People tooted their horns as the motorway rapidly became a car park. The driver of the van and first car got out and started shouting at each other. Snow fell impassively as the drivers gradually calmed down enough to swap numbers. Having vented their rage, they tried to get the bogged down car free with no luck. Others started helping. That wasn’t a bad idea; might get them moving again. He reached onto the back seat for his coat, glad he was wearing fairly warm clothing and boots. Some of those helping were in business attire; suits and shoes that wouldn’t keep the snow out for very long.

The cold hit him like a punch as soon as he got out of the car. The wind was bitter, with gritty snow abrading his face. He joined in with a couple of others who were attempting to push the car, but underfoot was too slippery and they couldn’t get enough traction. The tyres spun with a despairing whine.

‘This is hopeless.’ One of the drivers wiped snow from his face as they contemplated the stuck car. ‘Might as well wait until the police arrive with a tow truck.’

‘That could be hours,’ the van driver said. ‘Bet they’ll be busy tonight. Come on, let’s have another go. Better than sitting around, ain’t it?’

‘Dunno if there’s any point, mate,’ someone else said. ‘Look what’s happened up the road.’

Just a few hundred metres ahead there was another jam, red taillights stretching into the distance. Even if you managed to get past this obstruction, it wouldn’t be very far. Craig realised they might be in for a long wait and it would be sensible to get back inside the car and keep warm. The other drivers evidently thought the same and gradually, they returned to their own spaces.

While he waited, he rang Madge. ‘Don’t think I’m going to be home until late tonight, if at all. I’m currently stuck on a snowbound motorway.’

‘It’s been on the news, dearie. Lots of people are in the same boat. They said the emergency services have been rescuing stranded drivers all over the country.’

‘Oh well, at least I’m not alone.’ He hoped rescue wouldn’t take too long. He didn’t have anything to eat in the car and only a small bottle of water he’d mostly drunk earlier. Not having been home today, he’d had no opportunity to restock his provisions.

‘You take care and keep warm.’ She rang off.

Time dragged, as it always does when you’re waiting with no distractions. He wondered if he should ring the emergency services. They were probably inundated with calls. Everyone stuck here probably had the same idea and would be trying to get through. But then, he reasoned, maybe they were all thinking along the same lines; assuming someone else had already called. It would be ironic if they all perished due to everyone thinking someone else was taking responsibility for reporting the jam. He remembered showing ‘Titanic’. The survivors were those who helped themselves.

Waiting for the call to be answered killed some more time. It was something of a relief to be told the incident had been logged and help was on the way, although given the severe weather, it might not be along as quickly as normal. He listened to a short play on the radio, which got him through another twenty minutes. Snow was settling on the cars around him. He checked the Internet to find advice for surviving a snowstorm in your car. It suggested only running the engine for ten minutes every hour, to avoid a buildup of carbon monoxide should the exhaust become blocked. Judging by the depth of snow around the other vehicles, that was a distinct possibility, so he turned off the engine and put his coat back on. He bet very few people had thought to put a snow shovel, sleeping bags or a gallon of drinking water in their cars before setting out, as the website had advised. Living in a country which rarely experienced any kind of extreme weather made you complacent. Like him, all of the other drivers had just been expecting a normal day’s commute, little thinking they’d end up stranded.

He’d been wrong about attack chrysanthemums being a good omen, after all. Sometimes, life just sucked. He wished, as he often did these days, that he could find a different job. Once, he’d loved working in the cinema business. Now, it was tolerable at best. Matt had told him often enough he should look for something else. He’d not been ready to admit defeat then, in the early days of digital. ‘It’ll get better,’ he’d said. But it hadn’t.

Without the engine running, the interior of the car soon became cold. Snow piled up on the windscreen and condensation formed on the inside of the windows. Although it hadn’t been anywhere near an hour, he re-started it to clear the screen and to try and warm his fingers over the air vents. He wished he had a flask of coffee. Well, anything hot to drink, really.

A film review programme started. Most of the titles reviewed would never get to be shown on any of Crest Cinema’s screens. They dealt in mainstream, commercial fare. Another selling point for digital had been the increased opportunity to show small-budget independent films. That hadn’t happened, of course. The industry was full of broken promises. As the programme came to a close, he became aware of flashing blue lights over on the hard shoulder, illuminating the white road surface. Help had arrived, at last.

Others had noticed, too. People began to get out of their vehicles, glad of the chance to move and stretch, even if it was bitterly cold. Craig thought he might as well join them. It felt more like you were doing something, rather than just sitting passively in the car waiting for rescue. Although even if the police had got here, what would they be able to do? There must be at least a hundred vehicles on this stretch of road alone. Either side of the motorway there seemed to be nothing but darkness; no dwellings of any kind. He didn’t even know how far it was to the nearest town, his knowledge of this part of the country being limited to places where there was a Crest Cinema.

A group of drivers had already congregated around the two hi-vis clad police officers. He joined them, straining to hear what was being said.

‘…road won’t be re-opened until tomorrow at the earliest,’ the older of the two was saying.

‘So, are we expected to sleep in our cars or what?’ A smartly dressed woman clutched her coat tighter at the neck as she spoke. She sounded as if she was used to getting things done.

‘No, ma’am,’ the officer said. ‘We’ve already started to evacuate motorists and we’ll get to you as soon as possible.’

‘Evacuate us? Where to?’ The woman voiced Craig’s own thoughts.

‘Somewhere you can get a hot drink and some food. Now, in the mean time, you’d best get back inside your vehicles and stay warm.’

There were a few grumbles. ‘How long are we gonna have to sit here?’ someone asked. Craig felt a bit sorry for the police. They were trying to do their job and it was obvious they were under a lot of pressure. Still, knowing there was a plan made the waiting slightly more tolerable.

Back in the car, he called his boss to explain where he was and that it looked unlikely he’d be able to work the following day.

‘I’ll ask Paul to take over emergency cover for tomorrow. Let me know when you’re back on the road again, all right?’

It was a good half hour before several more police officers arrived and began going around the individual vehicles. ‘Bring any valuables with you and lock up your vehicle. Then walk over to the hard shoulder. Transport’s waiting further along the road.’

Officers with torches showed the way. It was like an incongruous parody of being taken to your seats in the cinema. The snow crunched underfoot. Just ahead, a couple of small children scooped up handfuls of it, giggling. This must seem like a big adventure to them. For everyone else it was just an unwelcome disruption to their usual routine. Craig wished he was back at home, feet up on the sofa with a mug of coffee and the cat on his knee, watching some mindless TV show.

He’d wondered what kind of transport they’d managed to find that would be capable of carrying a large number of people without getting stuck in the snow. As they drew closer, it turned out to be army trucks, with canvas covers over the back for shelter. They were fitted with benches down each side and another in the centre. People who were already seated didn’t take too kindly when they had to move along so that more motorists could squeeze in.

‘Just how many people are they trying to get in this thing?’ he heard someone complain as he found a space on the right hand bench. He wondered if this experience could get any worse.

‘This reminds me of a party I went to once, when we tried to see how many we could get inside a Mini Metro.’ The man next to him on the bench had the sort of face that never looks miserable. Even under the circumstances, the corners of his mouth were turned up slightly in a half-smile.

Craig imagined he was the sort who would find something uplifting in any situation. ‘Mini Metro? That was a while ago, then.’

‘Back in the nineties, when I was at uni.’ He turned slightly to offer a hand to shake. ‘James Maynard.’

Craig did a quick mental calculation. If he was talking about the late nineties, they’d be near to the same age. ‘Craig Surtees,’ he said, almost adding ‘cinema engineer’ by force of habit, but stopping himself just in time.

‘Can you all move up.’ One of the soldiers stood on the tailgate, counting heads. ‘We should be able to fit in another fifteen.’

‘Looks like we’re all going to get better acquainted,’ James said, shifting along a couple of millimetres. The woman to his right glared at him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he added. ‘Just trying to do as they asked.’

She made a disapproving noise and turned her head firmly to the front. Not that it did her a lot of good as a huge lorry driver wearing grubby green overalls blocked her view.

‘Wonder where they’re taking us?’ James turned as best he could to speak to Craig.

Evidently he was the chatty type. Craig thought he’d better respond, so as not to seem unfriendly. ‘Wherever it is it’s got to be better than spending the night in a car.’

‘Typical this should happen now.’

’Oh? Why’s that?’

‘It’s my last week on the road. I’m finishing this Friday.’

Craig was formulating a reply when the tailgate slammed shut. The lorry revved with a growl from the powerful diesel engine and they were off. As the noise increased, any further conversation became impossible. Squished so close together he couldn’t help noticing James smelled nice. Probably had a job where he didn’t need to exert himself too much. He became uncomfortably aware that his morning shower at the Deluxe Inn had been a long time ago at the other end of a fairly active day.

The journey seemed to last for hours. Once they left the motorway and were on the smaller, local roads, the twists and turns had everyone swaying and grabbing hold of the struts to avoid sliding off the benches or invading their neighbour’s space any more than they were doing already. As they were mostly all British, people were constantly apologising. Craig said, ‘sorry’ quite a few times himself. Occasionally, flurries of snow from overhanging branches blew in through the partly open back of the lorry, making him grateful he’d not been one of the last to get on board. Although it was far less comfortable, he was reminded of the experience of being taken to your accommodation when you arrived at a holiday resort. There was the same sense of fatigued anticipation.

At last they halted. One of the soldiers let down the tailgate. ‘We’ve arrived, ladies and gents. There's hot drinks waiting for you inside.'

As he climbed out, he saw they were in the middle of a village. The snow covered what must surely be the village green. It was bordered by a row of old cottages and looked like something from a Christmas card. The truck had parked next to a church hall, ablaze with light and breathing warmth from the open door. Trestle tables had been set out and two middle-aged ladies were dispensing teas and coffees. Forget holidays, this reminded him of old wartime films when evacuees from the cities arrived at their rural destinations.

Craig asked for a tea, and warmed his hands around the plastic cup as he took in his new and unexpected surroundings. Stackable chairs had been put out around the room and people were starting to settle in. The earliest arrivals had already bagged the best spots next to the big, old-fashioned radiators. All around the hall, strangers were beginning to talk. It was the English way; to steadfastly ignore each other until you were thrown together in a crisis.

‘Well, this is a turn up. Never thought I’d end up in a church hall tonight.’ James joined him, cradling a cup of coffee. ‘They've got their act together pretty quickly, all things considered.’

James had evidently picked him to chat with, probably due to sharing the same space on the journey. Craig took a better look at him now they were in the light. They were of similar height. James’s dark blond hair was beginning to thin on top, but then so was Craig’s own; the curse of middle age. He had a pleasant face, not stunningly good-looking by any means but definitely not ugly. His best feature was undoubtedly those merry blue eyes that seemed to light up as he talked. ‘I was hoping to get home tonight,’ he said. ‘Although at least it’s not another Deluxe Inn.’

James sipped his coffee before replying. ‘I know what you mean. I reckon I’ve eaten everything on their menu by now.’

‘Ah, so your company must have an account with them, too.’

‘Well, there seems to be one in every major town. Pity they all look exactly the same. Don’t think I’m going to miss them much.’

That reminded Craig of when they’d been interrupted. ’So what was it you were saying. About this being your last week?’

He smiled. ‘That's right. I’m getting out of the rat race. Bought a little place in Derbyshire. The village isn't dissimilar to this, although my cottage is a mile or so out from the centre.’

‘Sounds good.’ Craig absently wondered if he had anyone to share it with, although asking at this stage might seem a little forward. Even though he found the man attractive there was no reason to think it might be reciprocated. ‘Wish I could do something like that. This job isn’t what it used to be.’

‘What job is that?’

‘Cinema engineer.’

‘Funny, you never think about people working in a cinema, when you go there. I mean, apart from the ones who try to sell you huge buckets of cola and popcorn.’

It was Craig's turn to smile. ‘I started off as a projectionist, back in the days they still existed. Now it’s all digital. Hence me having to drive all over the country to fix things. What about you?’

‘My company maintains control systems. I was on my way back from an upgrade we're doing when I was caught in this.’

Someone rapped on the table a few times and coughed politely. A very tall, thin elderly man whom Craig immediately labelled the retired Colonel, spoke up. ‘I'm afraid you'll be staying the night in our little village and although we can’t promise four star accommodation, we're rustling up bedding and food’s on the way. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the volunteers from our local branch of the WI…’

Polite applause followed as the two ladies basked in their moment of fame. The Colonel carried on, obviously enjoying his opportunity. ‘So please, make yourselves at home. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask myself or these good ladies.’ When he finished a few more people clapped. Others started to make calls, now that they finally accepted they weren’t going to be getting home tonight.

Craig and James perched on the edge of the stage, leaving the chairs to those older and less able than themselves. The conversation picked up again from where they’d stopped.

‘So, why don’t you just leave, if it’s not what you want anymore?’

Craig sighed. It was the question he’d asked himself increasingly often over the past few months. ‘I’ve been working in the cinema business since I left school. It would be hard to get a job in a different industry. What I do is fairly specialised…’ He tailed off, not wanting to be a bore.

James looked at him with an open expression, seemingly encouraging him to elaborate.

‘I know it’s not Hollywood, but you still feel as if you’re in the entertainment business. I remember when I used to be a projectionist, putting on a big film to a packed auditorium. It really felt like something special.’ It was those memories he hung on to, even though they were part of a vanished era. ‘I suppose it’s what I’m used to, as well.’

‘Everyone’s afraid of change,’ James agreed. ‘It took me a few years and a failed relationship before I realised I didn’t really need to be doing this anymore. Driving all over the country is fine when you’re in your twenties, but when you get to my age you start to feel it’s all a bit futile.’

Craig could definitely identify with that. His job had been a contributory factor to his own breakup. As Matt had said to him, what was the point of living with someone when you never really saw each other? ‘I know what you mean.’

James was evidently on a roll. ‘I suppose what finally made my decision was when one of my colleagues died. He’d worked for our company all of his life. He and his wife had all these plans about what they’d do when they retired. Then, one afternoon, he had a massive heart attack and…’ He clicked his fingers. ‘Gone. Just like that. Everyone said how tragic it was; how they’d never forget him. But five months later, everyone had. Forgotten him, that is. Business just carries on, whether you’re there or not. No-one’s irreplaceable.’

Matt had said something similar, too. Craig felt as if he had to put his case forward. ‘But when you can make a difference by being there, it must count for something…’

‘All it counts for is profit to whatever company you’re working for. If it wasn’t you doing the job, it’d be someone else. Ultimately, they don’t really care. So why should you or I?’

Craig knew, deep down, that everything he was saying was right. It was just hard to admit to himself.

James must have picked up on his downcast expression. ‘Sorry if I tend to go on. I’ve been thinking about all this quite a bit recently.’

‘Tea, coffee!’ One of the ladies banged a spoon on a saucepan lid. ‘Would anyone like a refill?’

The food arrived a little while later. The local chippy had evidently done very well from the snow. As he ate, Craig considered again what James had said. It was true, even if he’d not wanted to face the facts before. If he dropped dead tomorrow, then everything would go on as usual. Sure, whoever took over his area might not be quite as conscientious, but would anyone really notice, or care? Some of the managers might miss him, but they’d soon get used to his replacement. And, face it, the cinema business now wasn’t the same as the one he’d joined, twenty-odd years ago.

Once he’d eaten, tiredness overwhelmed him. Judging by the yawns and eye-rubbing from his fellow refugees, many of them felt the same. Food and warmth after an unexpectedly stressful day had taken its toll. They were issued with a variety of different sleeping bags, presumably rustled up from various residents of the village, then left to find their own place to sleep. Craig reckoned it would be less draughty on the stage than the hall floor, so claimed a space in the wings, next to stacked scenery obviously made for the village pantomime. He wasn’t surprised when James unrolled his sleeping bag close by.

‘Don’t mind me going here?’

‘Not at all. It’s a bit different from a Deluxe Inn, isn’t it?’ He rolled up his coat to use as a pillow.

‘That’s not a bad idea.’ James copied him. ‘The beds definitely aren’t going to be as comfortable. Although the decor is a bit less bland.’ He gestured toward the palace ballroom scene against the wall.

‘No attack chrysanthemums.’ As Craig spoke, he realised James probably didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. ‘You know, those same three pictures they always have in the rooms. I call them blue lollipop trees, the squiggles of doom and attack chrysanthemums.’

James laughed. ‘Good names.’

‘I always try to guess which one it will be before opening the door.’

‘I’ll have to do that next time… oh, wait, there won’t be a next time for me.’ He grinned. ‘I’m not planning on staying in a Deluxe Inn ever again after Friday.’

Craig unzipped the sleeping bag. He examined the lining. Thankfully, it seemed clean enough. ‘Let’s hope whoever this belongs to doesn’t have fleas.’

‘In a nice village like this? I doubt it. Their dog might, though. Still, it’s got to be better than sleeping in the car.’

Craig went to find the loos. There was just one cubicle, two urinals and two sinks. He anticipated there would be a big queue in the morning; there was already one outside the ladies. By the time he returned, James was inside his sleeping bag and someone had turned off the main lights in the hall. Craig took off his boots and jeans before getting into his own sleeping bag. He couldn’t be sure in the dim lighting, but he thought James sneaked a glance at him. ‘Goodnight,’ he said.

‘Night, then.’

Even though he was tired, it took a while to fall asleep. Some people were still chatting. A small child began to cry, until consoled by its parents. Gradually, the noises died away as more people settled down. As Craig drifted off to sleep, he wondered if the snow was still falling.

He woke early; a habit he couldn’t break, even at weekends. On a normal workday morning, he’d be in the car somewhere between six and seven o’clock. It was clear that some of the other travellers had similar internal alarm clocks. He saw a few people moving in the hall below and decided it was a good a time as any to beat the rush and have as much of a wash as he could manage in a sink.

When he returned he found James was stirring. ‘Did you sleep well?’ he asked blearily.

‘Not badly at all, considering.’ Automatically, he checked his phone. The battery was down to thirty percent, which he knew from experience would probably not last the day. He’d brought the charger with him, but the people who’d slept nearest to the few power sockets had - naturally - got their phones plugged in first. There would be a long wait for everyone else. He had several notifications. Eight emails had arrived since he’d gone to sleep; about average for a weeknight. After nine, they’d begin coming in thick and fast.

‘I’m not even going to look at my emails,’ James said, climbing out of his sleeping bag. ‘Whatever’s happening at work, there’s nothing I can do about it.’

He was wearing just boxer briefs and a T shirt. The view distracted Craig from actually reading any messages. James looked pretty fit for his age; fitter certainly than he was. Driving for so many hours while snacking on crisps and chocolate bars wasn’t any way to keep in shape. Unconsciously, he tried to suck in his gut. Stupid really; he had no idea if James would even notice. ‘It’s a bad habit,’ he admitted. His phone addiction had been one of the things that had annoyed Matt the most. On their last holiday together, Craig had locked himself in the bathroom to read his emails, feeling furtive.

James turned away to pull on his trousers. Craig tried not to appear as if he was looking, although it had to be said the man had a shapely bum. This was foolish, he told himself. It was unlikely he was interested in Craig as anything other than someone to chat with while they were both stuck in this limbo. Although there had been that brief glance last night. He took refuge in his phone, scrolling through the email list until James went off down the stage stairs, presumably for the same reason Craig had gone earlier.

Gradually, more people woke up, yawning and stretching. Those who might have preferred to stay asleep for longer didn’t really stand a chance of a lie-in as the noise levels rose inside the hall and someone flicked on the main lights.

James returned. ‘It’s just getting light outside,’ he said. ‘It’s a winter wonderland out there; the snow’s deep and crisp and even.’

‘Wonder if we’ll get away today?’

‘Not for a while, I shouldn’t think. And to be honest, I don’t really care.’

It was all right for him. He was winding down on his way to freedom. Craig found himself feeling increasingly more envious. ‘What will you do with yourself, when you aren’t on the road every day?’

‘Plenty. I’ve the cottage to renovate first. It’s got around an acre of land. I’ll be able to grow my own fruit and vegetables. Maybe get some chickens or goats.’

‘Escape to the country, eh?’

James gave another of his dazzling smiles. ‘Return, more like. My parents lived in a village, but you know how it is. You always want what you don’t have.’

Craig had grown up in a London suburb. He enjoyed visiting the countryside, when he had the time. He’d often wondered what it would be like to live there. What did people do for work?

His phone pinged as another message arrived. He itched to look, but steeled himself to ignore it. As James had said, there was nothing he could do, stuck out here. Wherever ‘here’ was.

‘Fancy a walk before breakfast?’

‘If we get breakfast.’

‘I’m sure they’ll have organised something. They’ve done pretty well so far.’

Craig wasn’t sure if he wanted to go but as James put on his coat, he realised he’d rather be outside in the cold with him than sitting here on his own. They picked their way carefully through the maze of sleeping bags to the door. A few smokers huddled outside, shivering. As always, Craig wondered why they never bothered to take their coats when they went to get their nicotine fix.

The sky was perfectly clear and still dark enough that a few stars twinkled brightly. A crescent moon was sinking into the upraised black arms of the trees bordering the village green. Almost opposite, in the south-eastern sky, the sun was rising, casting a magical pinky-orange tinge over the snow. The village looked even more like a Christmas card than it had the previous evening. Amber light spilled from the windows of the houses bordering the green, adding to the impression. Over on the far side, a heavily bundled up person strode along as their dog made tracks through the pristine whiteness.

James turned left and started walking. Craig kept pace with him. It wasn’t as chilly as he had anticipated, the wind having eased overnight. The untrodden snow crunched underfoot as they walked past a row of chocolate box cottages, a shop that was just opening up and the entrance to the churchyard. The sun climbed slowly above the horizon, making the snow sparkle.

‘This is the golden hour,’ James commented.

‘Eh?’

‘That’s what they call the hour after sunrise and the one before sunset. It’s a photographer’s favourite time of day.’

‘You like photography, then?’

‘It’s one of my hobbies. Painting, too, although I’m not very good at it. What about you?’

‘Hobbies? Don’t really have time for them.’ He felt slightly ashamed to admit it. He’d not been to the theatre for years and although he was aware of the current releases, he hadn’t watched a film at the cinema for a long time either. When you spent all of your working life there, the attraction palled. ‘Work and sleep is about it, these days. I used to enjoy getting out in the countryside, back when we had a dog…’ Matt had taken Baxter with him when they split up. He hadn’t thought it fair to keep a dog with his irregular hours. There had been no intention to get a cat either, but Jerry had turned up and decided to move in, as cats do.

James had evidently picked up on the ‘we’. ‘You’ve got someone at home, then?’

‘Not anymore. Matt and I split up a while ago.’ He watched carefully for a reaction to the name, but James just carried on walking. ‘How about you?’

‘No-one at the moment.’

That was fairly noncommittal. ’So you’re going it alone into your rural paradise?’

‘For now. Maybe I’ll meet someone.’ He glanced briefly over at Craig. ‘I have a theory that when something’s meant to happen, it just does. Like this, for example…’

‘Eh?’ Craig wondered what exactly he meant by the comment. Was he interested? He’d long since realised his gaydar was seriously defective; men had to make it fairly obvious for him to be sure they were attracted and it was embarrassing at best if you misinterpreted the signals.

‘This whole experience. Getting stuck in the snow, coming here. None of us would have met under normal circumstances, but here we are. And who knows how lives might be changed.’

It was quite a profound thought, although it didn’t make him any more sure James liked him. Craig paused to consider the chain of events that had led him to be stuck in that jam. ‘You believe in fate, then?’

‘Not fate exactly. I don’t think our lives are predestined. I just think there’s a right time and place for everything and sometimes the universe gives you a nudge; a gentle reminder, if you like, about what might be best for you. Ultimately, you’re free to ignore it.’

‘And if you do, bad things happen?’

James shrugged. ‘Not exactly. Although you might end up coming to the same point later in your life, then wondering why you’d wasted all that time. Most people are afraid of change.’

He’d said much the same the night before, Craig remembered. ‘But you weren’t afraid?’

‘Oh, I was. I had a well-paid, secure job, which I’d probably have stayed in until I retired, or dropped dead like poor old Pete. Making the decision to cut the safety net wasn’t easy.’

Craig voiced the question he’d already thought earlier. ‘So, how are you going to get by without a regular income?’

‘Well, the cottage cost me a lot less than I got for my house. I’ve never been extravagant, so I’ve a decent amount of savings and investments. But I have a few ideas how to make a living from the place. It’s in a part of the country people want to visit, and my piece of land includes a small wood. I’m going to build a couple of cabins there and rent them out for short breaks.’

It seemed as if he’d thought it through pretty well. It also sounded more idyllic by the minute. Craig allowed himself to wonder what it would be like not to be at the beck and call of his mobile phone; not to spend all those hours driving each week. To be able to step back and take time to think about things. As he was now, he suddenly realised.

They were almost at the edge of the village. Ahead was a small copse, the morning sun shining through snow covered branches. It was so quiet Craig could hear birdsong. ‘I envy you,’ he said. ‘I wish I could be so certain about where my life was heading.’

‘Oh, I’m not certain. I just knew I couldn’t carry on the way I was. We only have one life, after all. And we have to live it; to take chances. Otherwise, what’s the point?’

Maybe it was time to take a chance himself. He definitely found James attractive and needed to know if it was reciprocated. There might only be a few more hours before the roads were cleared and fate took them their own separate ways. ‘So, er, what made you start speaking to me? Apart from us being crammed together in the back of that lorry?’

‘You looked sad and stressed. It reminded me of how I was, back before I made my decision.’ He stopped walking and turned toward Craig. ‘Perhaps it was the universe giving me a nudge.’ His eyes twinkled and a small smile turned up the corners of his mouth. ‘And it seems we have more in common than I could be sure about when we first met.’ He extended a hand; just a small movement that could easily be ignored if that was how things were going to go.

Craig met it halfway. Their fingers curled around each other, warm in a cold world. It was strange how close he felt to this man he’d not even known for a day. Maybe there was such a thing as fate, after all. ‘I’m glad you feel the same. I wasn’t certain.’

‘I noticed how you were eyeing me up this morning.’

‘Was I that obvious?’

‘I was looking out for it.’

He gazed into James’s eyes; as blue and clear as the winter morning sky. It felt as if they were communing on some deeper level as they leaned together at the same time, brushing lips in a light kiss that quickly became more serious. Craig had always been nervous about public displays of affection, but all of a sudden, he didn’t care. Let them scandalise the village and any of the smokers still clustered outside the church hall. Once the roads were open, he’d never see any of these people again. Although he definitely wanted to see more of James. A lot more.

They broke off reluctantly, still close. ‘I enjoyed that,’ James said, his breath warm against Craig’s neck.

‘Me too.’

‘I’d like to do it again, but we might scare the locals.’ He glanced over Craig’s shoulder.

Craig looked in the same direction. The heavily bundled up dog walker was coming their way, revealed now as a middle-aged woman. Her golden retriever trotted up to them with doggy good humour. Craig reached down to rub behind his ears.

‘Beautiful morning, isn’t it?’ she said, once she was in earshot, seemingly unfazed that two strangers had just been kissing on her village green.

‘It certainly is,’ James replied.

‘I think your breakfast has arrived.’ She pointed back towards the hall, where a van was being unloaded.

‘Ah. Thanks.’

‘Don’t mention it. Come along, Freddy. Time for our breakfast too.’

They made their way back, retracing their footsteps through the snow. The morning had a magical stillness about it; as if this was a place outside of ordinary time. Craig felt as if he was on top of a rollercoaster; in that perfect, poised moment before the plunge. He realised he hadn’t felt so alive in a long time. Neither of them spoke; it wasn’t necessary. Although they didn’t hold hands, Craig was totally aware of his presence, their shoulders almost touching as they walked.

Back in the hall, amid the hustle and bustle of queuing for breakfast parcels - a mix of sandwiches and filled rolls - he felt as if he’d brought back something of that stillness. Even when the Colonel announced snowploughs had managed to get out and there was a good chance they’d be able to resume their journeys by lunchtime, it didn’t break the spell.

They sat together on the stage again. ‘I’m going to be thinking about you all the time I’m driving,’ Craig said.

‘Try not to crash.’ James gave him another of those little looks that sent shivers down his spine.

‘Definitely not.’ The sensible part of his mind kept telling him to stop behaving like a teenager in love for the first time; that the possibility anything lasting could come about from such unlikely beginnings was remote. He banished it.

James showed him pictures of the cottage and its overgrown garden. ‘It’s not had anything done to it for years. Needs totally modernising, so I’m tackling it a room at a time.’

‘It looks like a big project.’

‘I knew that when I bought it. But like I said, it gives me something to do. Just two more dreary days at work, then freedom.’

‘Lucky you.’

‘You could do the same, you know. If something isn’t right anymore, then change it.’

Craig’s phone pinged again, reminding him of his real life, lying in wait. ‘I don’t know. You have so much confidence. I’m not like that.’

‘You could be.’ James’s hand lightly brushed against his. ‘So, tell me. What are you planning for this weekend?’

‘Nothing much.’ Just the usual chores, before another week began. ‘I get a whole two days off after being on emergency cover. Then on Monday it’s back to the boring routine stuff.’

‘So, why don’t we meet up at my place. If you’d like to, that is.'

‘You’re inviting me over?’

‘Why not?’ His eyes twinkled. ‘Can always use another pair of hands.’

Craig smiled. ‘Sounds like fun.’ He could get through anything with the thought he’d soon be with James again. The prospect of another two days on emergency cover wasn’t anywhere near as depressing as it would have seemed previously.

They swapped numbers. The morning seemed to race by as they carried on talking. Craig felt as if he had to make the best of the time they had left together. All too soon it seemed, the army trucks returned and began taking people back to the motorway.

‘I’m really hoping I’m not going to wake up in some Deluxe Inn and find out this has all been a dream.’ He didn’t quite know how else to explain the feeling he’d slipped into an alternative reality. That everything could change so much in less than a day.

‘It’s definitely not a dream. Unless we’re both in the same one. But I don’t think so.’

They got on board the third truck. The noise of the engine and the constant need to brace yourself through the twisty lanes meant nothing further could be said until they disembarked.

’Well, I suppose this is it,’ Craig said, as they stood together on the hard shoulder. ‘Time to get back to work.’

‘Until the weekend, anyway. I’ll message you later with the address.’

‘That would be great.’ People were getting back into their cars, slamming doors and starting engines. He was reluctant to go. It felt as if the snowbound village was receding into an irretrievable past.

‘We’ll meet again…’ James began singing the well-known wartime song. Craig joined him for the chorus, laughing. A few fellow travellers looked askance at them, as if they might be drunk.

Police officers were already directing drivers to move away. The motorway was gradually clearing. Craig watched James trudging towards his vehicle, with one last wave. All too soon he was back in his own car, heading south, slowly at first, then gradually picking up speed. The road unspooled before him, as if the first reel of a long awaited feature had begun to play. He didn’t quite know where it would take him, but he knew he was going to enjoy the journey.

Copyright © 2021 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Comments

I agree with the comments above, a follow up to this wonderful tale would be very nice, and appreciated!!

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17 hours ago, Valkyrie said:

I live in an area known for major snowstorms, so I sympathize with the horrible driving and the road closure.  Thankfully, I've never been stranded (yet ;) ), but similar situations with stranded motorists happen every few years or so

Something similar to this happened to my cousin when he was travelling on business. They were stuck for two days until the road was cleared! 

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10 hours ago, Kitt said:

 

Only one word fit for this story. More!

 

Based on the number of comments saying much the same, I’d better start writing😀

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A lovely gentle ride. You certainly could continue this story, there's a lot more to be told. i enjoyed it very much.  Thanks.

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This story was moving. You set the scene with lovely descriptions. I remember hearing about this storm on the news and thinking about what it must have been like.

Sometimes life throws a wrench into our routines.  While uncomfortable, it gives us a chance to look at things from a new perspective. Instead of being at home kicking his feet up, Craig got to meet James, who opened his eyes to new possibilities for the direction he wants to take his life. 

At the end of the story I found myself taking a big sigh and hoping the best for Craig. I was really invested! Great work.

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I'm not a big lover of most fiction. I'm here mostly in support of my husband who posts his work here. he suggested I'd like this one. he was right. 

A very nice story. Believable and honest. I enjoyed it. 

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A great story.

I could feel Craig daring to dream while under the influence of James's disarming approach to life.

Though, like many have said, it does beg for more.

Well written. Thank you.

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In a word, lovely... and well written. It was a treat I thoroughly enjoyed, and yes, I think you should write more of these two. Still, this was enough if it is all you intended. Cheers! Gary....

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Your detailed description let me see everything. I'm so glad Craig met James. It looks like Madge was right. You never know... 

Even if you decide not to continue this story,  it makes my thoughts fly with what if.... I really enjoyed this story.

Edited by Aditus
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