To celebrate the up-coming release of my new novel, The Dark Road, I am going to be posting a chapter a day for the rest of this week. I hope you’ll take the time to read it and I would love to hear your thoughts!
Chapter One: The Arrival
When the phone rang Sasha Mills was tucked-up comfortably on the sofa, a half-drunk glass of wine sitting on the side
table, and Merlin, her Siamese cat, curled up beside her. It was a call she had been expecting. She still felt all of her muscles tighten in anticipation as she reached across and picked up the receiver.
“Hi baby.” The sound of Nick’s voice was starting to become more familiar than his face, but that didn’t stop her smiling.
“Hi you,” she said, squashing the phone between her ear and shoulder, settling back into the comforting arms of the sofa. “When are you coming home?”
Sasha asked every time he called, usually she was just teasing him, but this time, however, she was serious.
For the past twelve months, Nick had been teaching English to children in Cambodia. In a week, he was due to fly home to the flat they shared in London or at least they used to share. Sasha had been living alone in their flat while Nick's previous incarnation as a stockbroker still paid the rent.
They had been together for almost a year before he left. They had been happy, but Nick had become disillusioned with the rat race and decided he wanted to do something that made a difference to people’s lives. Having gone straight from university into work and she thought it was a great idea for him to spend a few months discovering that there was a world outside of London.Sasha supported his decision fully and she was the one who had suggested Cambodia. Having spent a number of months travelling there in her early twenties she’d been left with a lasting impression of the innocence and strength of the children.
A few months! That was all it was supposed to have been. Sasha could have gone with him; Nick wanted her to. However, she felt she had already finished that chapter of her life and she didn't want to retrace old steps. Naturally, she was upset when he left, but she truly believed that it would be good for him, good for them. He would return more fulfilled, more settled. Sasha never even contemplated the idea that he wouldn't want to come back.
When only silence answered her question, a horrible, sickening feeling churned with the wine she’d already drunk. Her right hand flicked unconsciously to her left and she nervously twisted the solitaire diamond band that bound her third finger.
"Nick?" She heard him sigh down the phone.
"Look Sash,” he said, “I've been thinking. Why don't you come out and join me for a bit? You could work out here. They are always looking for more teachers…"
The acid rose from her stomach and burnt the back of her throat, as they’d had this conversation before. The first time had been six months earlier when he was first due to come home.
"Please don't do this to me, Nick. You know I can't."
"Of course you can Sash." The enthusiasm in his voice only depressed her. "We can short-let the flat and your mum would look after Merlin. You know how she dotes on that cat."
"It's not about that, and you know it. My life is here and I don't want to go away again. It would be like putting my life on hold.”
"Well, it's not much of a life is it, Sash? You go to work, watch telly and go out drinking in bars. No one is exactly going to notice if you are gone."
Sasha felt herself bristle and she clenched her teeth. "I may not be out changing the world, but I happen to love my life."
"More than me you mean." The bitterness in his voice was clear.
"You are the one who left me Nick, don't forget that!"
"I wanted to make a difference."
"How very noble..."
They fell silent, their hurt and anger buzzing down the phone line.
Eventually Sasha said, "So what are you really saying, Nick? That you don't want to come home?"
"I'm saying that I want you here."
"Just be fucking straight with me will you,” Sasha yelled. “Are you coming home or not?"
"I can't leave here, Sash. These people mean too much to me."
"And I don't mean shit!" She swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the burning lump that seemed to be choking her.
"Don't be ridiculous."
"I am not ridiculous!" She was shaking now. "It is not ridiculous to want my fiancé in the same country as me and it is not ridiculous to not want to go traipsing off to some foreign country at the drop of a hat."
When he spoke again, his voice was level and distant. "You know what Sasha, I don't know why I am even bothering to discuss this with you. I am not coming back, not yet at least, but I do want you here. I've changed my flight back to London to go to Bali for a couple of week’s holiday. I want you to come, but if you’re not here by the time I leave then I’ll just have to assume you don't want me enough to make the effort."
He hung up.
Sasha was left red-faced and furious, her mouth opening and closing, her fingers gripping the phone so tightly she thought she might need a chisel to prise them off it.
He was going to bloody Bali!
The sheer cheek of it. He could have come home for a couple of weeks, spent some time with her. Now, not only was he not coming home, but he also expected her to give up her life to fly out to him and he was going to bloody Bali!
Sasha let out a yell and flung the phone across the room. It landed with a crash and Merlin, who had been sleeping soundly, oblivious to the drama unfolding around him, shot out of his seat like a bullet.
"Oh, I'm sorry Merlin! I'm sorry baby. I didn't mean to scare you."
Sasha got up and tried to coax her shivering cat out from under the television stand. He let out a pitiful Siamese yowl. She reached under and pulled him out by the scruff of his neck. Clutching him in her arms, she buried her face into his soft fur and cried.
Despite the fact that they had not seen each other for a year Sasha still believed that Nick was her future. She had thought it from the moment they had met, but now she could see that future disintegrating. She was hurt by what he’d said about her life and she was bitterly disappointed that she would not have him back with her in London. Was she being selfish for not going? Was Nick right in thinking that her simple, normal life was not enough for her, not enough for them, or was he the one being selfish asking her to give up everything to be with him?
She didn't know what to think.
She had less than eight days to decide what to do. In eight days, she could be sitting at home, crying, while he was boarding a plane to fly away from her for good or she could be on a plane herself, going to meet him.
Her boss would go mad.
Was she seriously contemplating this?
Yes, she thought. Why not?
She could fly to Cambodia, then on to Bali, spend a couple of weeks with Nick--remind him what he was missing and then come home again. After all, it didn't have to be forever, just long enough to save their relationship. Perhaps it wasn't such hardship; she imagined there were loads of women who would love to be in her place. Sasha's tears subsided and she wiped her face in her cat's already damp fur.
The next morning Sasha jumped on the tube for the short ride to Angel Station, where her office was based. She had been working there as a recruitment consultant for almost three years now and had a good track record, but she couldn’t ignore the nerves that were tugging at her insides. She caught herself chewing at her nails, a habit she had dropped years ago. Disgusted, she pulled her hand away.
Her boss, Alison Killery, was only a few years older than Sasha, but she was one of those focused, career-minded women who always made Sasha feel slightly inferior and intimidated.
Sasha went to her own desk and sat down. She waited for Alison to drink her first cup of coffee and trawl through her emails before she got up the courage to approach her.
Alison looked up before Sasha reached her desk.
“Hey Sasha,” Alison said, smiling. “Everything alright?”
Sasha smiled back, nervously. Her heart was thumping audibly and the palms of her hands were sweaty.
“Actually,” she said, “I have a huge favour to ask.”
“That sounds ominous,” Alison said, raising her eyebrows.
Sasha took a deep breath. “I need the next three weeks off.” She hurried on before Alison could cut her off. “I’ve not had a holiday since last year and I know I’ve got days that I need to use up or else I could lose them, and Nick is still in Cambodia…”
“Nick is still in Cambodia?” Alison looked at her intently. “Isn’t he supposed to be coming back next week or something?”
“Yeah, but he’s sick.” The lie slipped out from nowhere. Sasha’s cheeks flushed with shame that she had just lied to her boss.
“Oh no,” Alison’s genuine dismay made Sasha feel even worse. “The poor thing. It’s nothing serious I hope.”
Sasha shook her head. “They don’t know yet.” Her mind ran through all of the sicknesses she could think of. “I think they’re testing for malaria.”
“When do you need to go?”
“As soon as possible,” Sasha said.
Alison leaned forwards and tapped out some keys on her computer. She frowned at the screen.
“Tony is supposed to be taking a long weekend next week. No one else is off, so I guess we can survive without you.”
Sasha had to stop herself hopping up and down, and clapping with excitement. Instead, she tried to put on a concerned, and yet, relieved face of a worried fiancé.
“Thanks Alison, I really appreciate it.”
She turned away from the desk and walked back to her own, keeping her smile tightly locked behind her lips. The small lie would mean she couldn’t exactly start raving about her trip to her colleagues, and she would have to tell everyone that Nick didn’t have malaria when she got back, but she would manage.
At least she was able to go.
Sasha spent the rest of the day trawling the Internet trying to find a flight. She was able to secure a flight from London to Bangkok, but then she would have to wait three days before she could fly into Siem Reap where Nick was.
When she had travelled to Cambodia before she had 'cheated' and flown from Bangkok, but that had been several years ago and it had not been as safe to travel overland as it was now.
Sasha typed an email to Nick telling him she was sorry and letting him know what her plans were. She knew that he normally picked up his emails on a Sunday, but as it was Monday today she realised that he would only get the email the day before, or even on the day she arrived. It wasn't ideal, but she had no other way of contacting him. Maybe he would have enough sense to check his emails sooner considering the circumstances. If he really did want her to come, and missed her, like he said he did, then surely he would be checking it every day hoping to hear from her.
Sasha pushed away the uncomfortable thought that he would have better things to do. She hoped there was a seat left for her on the fight to Bali.
That evening Sasha picked up the phone to her mother. After three rings her mum answered.
“Hi mum, it’s me.”
“Hello, Sasha-love. How are you?”
“I’ve got a favour to ask,” she said for the second time that day.
“Nick has asked me to go away with him for three weeks and I wondered if you would like to flat-sit?”
“What do you mean, ‘Nick has asked you to go away’? Isn’t he supposed to be coming home?”
Sasha inwardly cringed. She didn’t want to have to explain things to her mother. Her mum wouldn’t hesitate to point out Nick’s flaws and right now Sasha didn’t want to hear them.
“Yes, but there has been a change of plan. He thought it would be nice for us to have a holiday together before he came home.”
She tried to tell herself that she wasn’t telling another lie; technically it would just be a holiday and Nick was still going to come home at some point.
Her mother’s pause told her more than words could, her disapproval radiating down the phone.
“Please Mum. Merlin would hate to be here by himself for three weeks and it’s just not the same getting someone to pop in and feed him. You know how he hates to be left by himself.”
Her mother huffed air out of her nose, snorting down the phone. “Well I suppose it would be nice to have some time away from your father.” She lowered her voice. “He’s caught a cold and he’s had the bloody football on all day. All he seems to do these days is sit in front of the telly and whinge.”
Sasha smiled. She knew her parents loved each other, but they’d been married over thirty years and even they needed time apart.
“So, is that a yes?”
“When are you supposed to be leaving?”
“In two days.”
“Wow, Sasha!” her mother didn’t even try to hide her surprise. “That’s short notice.”
“I know, but it’s been a bit of last minute thing. You won’t need to get here until the day after I leave. You’ve still got your keys haven’t you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“So will you do it?”
“I suppose so.”
“Thanks Mum,” Sasha said in relief. “I love you, and tell Dad I said I hope he gets better soon.”
She didn’t wait for her mum to say anything else. She didn’t want to push her luck.
The following two days passed in a blur. By the time Sasha had washed and packed all of the clothes she needed to take, then unpacked and repacked about four times, and tidied up any loose ends at work, the days flew by. Before she registered what she was doing, she was at the airport with her oversized rucksack adorning her back like the shell of a giant turtle.
The flight was pleasant enough. Years of long haul trips to the States, Australia, and New Zealand had quickly grown her immunity to boredom and she was able to enjoy sitting back with a paperback and relaxing after the past few days of frantic activity. She put the uncomfortable niggling feeling in the pit of her belly down to nerves over seeing Nick again for the first time in a year; nerves and excitement.
Once they landed, Sasha jumped on a bus taking her to the Khao San Road. She was much better off financially than in her backpacking days, but still, Sasha found herself heading back to the guesthouse where she had stayed years before.
Sasha walked up the street and was delighted to discover that very little had changed.
The guesthouse was off the main drag, but the street was still full of people. Backpackers were everywhere Sasha looked, standing in small groups talking, or buying things from the stalls that lined the street. The stalls sold everything from clothing and food, to burnt CDs and DVDs. Most of the stalls had music blasting from small stereo systems and the different songs jostled over one another. Underlying it all was the faint smell of stale beer and urine; an unpleasant reminder of the party that had, not only, happened the night before, but happened every night.
Ahead of Sasha was the guesthouse. The ground floor of the building opened onto the street with tables and chairs spilling out into the gutter. Inside scruffy travellers lazed on cushions chatting to each other, reading, or staring at the movie that was showing on a couple of televisions attached to the walls. A wall of large windows partitioned off a room filled with computers, where people sat, typing their stories to those they’d left back home.
That part was new, Sasha noted. No one had really used email when she had been travelling everything had been sent on postcards. She still believed that postcards were a much more personal way to let people know what was happening; there was something more intimate about actually writing to someone. Even so, she had to admit that it was much easier to stay in touch now than it had been only a few years ago. The use of Internet social networking sites meant that everyone could know exactly what everyone else was doing, wherever in the world.
On the opposite side of the street, food carts filled the air with their exotic spices and hissing steam. Noodles mixed with tiny fiery chillies, fried rice thrown onto searing skillets, indeterminable meats stuffed into rolls. All made and sold from the carts. Pancake mix cooked in front of the passers-by; chocolate and banana bound within crepe cases and served on thin paper plates. An elderly Thai woman nursed a cart stuffed full of fresh oranges, ice, and bottles of fresh juice.
"Orange juice ten baht…" she cried over and over again, her English words blending together causing people to frown in their efforts to decipher her – 'Onj-jue ten bah'. She must have said it a million times a day, always with a huge toothy smile, earnestly beckoning people over.
Despite the simplicity of their food preparation Sasha noticed how clean everything was – how clean everyone was – unlike some of the countries she had been to.
Sasha's stomach grumbled. She promised herself some Pad Thai noodles as soon as she had checked in.
Sasha made her way through the maze of travellers and up to the reception desk, which was situated on the back wall of the guesthouse. A young Thai girl was manning the desk. She looked up as Sasha approached.
“Hello,” the girl greeted her with a smile. “Welcome to Sun-Hi Guesthouse.”
“Hello,” Sasha said, putting her passport and three hundred Baht on the counter. “I need a room for the night.”
"You want room one night?" the girl said in surprise.
"I’ve been here before," Sasha said. “And I have to get to Cambodia tomorrow."
"You have visa?" she asked smiling, picking up Sasha’s passport and the money. She turned to where the room keys were hanging on a wooden board and selected one. Sasha stared at the girls back and then slowly raised her hand to her forehead in dismay.
Shit, shit, shit. She hadn’t even thought about needing a visa..
"How long does it normally take?" Sasha asked, hoping the desperation she felt wasn’t showing in her voice. Years ago she’d travelled to Cambodia from Vietnam, but she couldn’t remember getting a visa. It had been a long time ago and things had probably changed since then.
The girl placed the room key on the counter and then shrugged. "Two, maybe three days."
"No." Suddenly she felt like she was going to cry. "I have to get there before then. It’s really important."
"Maybe you pay extra money and you get quicker…?"
"Yes, yes,” she said, resisting the urge to reach across the counter and shake the girl by her shoulders. "I'll pay anything."
A smile tugged at the girl’s mouth and her delicate eyebrows rose at Sasha's outburst. She pointed to a man sitting behind a desk in the corner of the room.
"You talk to Dang. He will help you."
"Thank you so much. You've been really helpful." Sasha picked up the key and dragged her bags across the room.
The man behind the desk had looked more like a boy from a distance, but as she got closer she realised he was actually middle-aged. She marvelled at how people aged here, they either looked young or ancient and there didn't seem to be any in-between.
Dang looked up from his newspaper.
“Please, sit.” He smiled.
“Thank you.” Sasha sank onto a red plastic chair opposite. “I need a visa for Cambodia and I need it today. I have to travel tomorrow.” She leant forward, gripping the edge of the desk.
“Visa no problem,” Dang said, folding up his newspaper. “I can get visa, but tomorrow not good day to travel. Can get you to border, but not Siem Reap.”
Sasha sat back surprised.
"But you have notices everywhere advertising trips to Siem Reap." She glanced up at one hanging directly above his head. "And it says they run every day of the week."
"Yes, yes, but not tomorrow."
"Well…” she felt at a loss about what to say. “Why not tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow not good day to travel."
Sasha felt like she was going round in circles. She tried again.
"But is there a particular reason I cannot travel to Siem Reap tomorrow?"
Was it her imagination or was Dang looking uncomfortable? He shifted in his seat and fiddled with a pen on his desk, staring at it intently. Sasha bent her head and peered up under him, trying to catch his eye. She wondered if he didn't know the English for it.
"Is it a public holiday?" she suggested.
Dang looked up immediately, relief clear on his face. He nodded enthusiastically, a smile, once again, lighting his face.
"Yes, it is public holiday. No travel tomorrow."
"But I have to," Sasha said, starting to feel desperate. If she didn't travel tomorrow she would almost certainly miss Nick. The journey was a long one, twelve hours in Thai time, which meant about fifteen in English. If she couldn’t leave tomorrow her chances of catching him would be disappearing by the hour.
Her eyes burnt with hot tears. She was going to lose him.
"What about extra money?" she asked, thinking about the visa. "If I pay extra money can I go tomorrow?"
Again Dang looked uncomfortable, he picked the pen back up and turned his attention back to his fiddling. Sasha reached across the desk and grabbed his hand. He looked up.
"Please," she begged. "Please help me it's a matter of life or death. I simply have to leave tomorrow."
Dang gave her a tight smile and picked up the phone.
"I must make calls. Come back in one hour."
"Thank you. Thank you so much."
She shook his hand furiously. Dang took his hand back and then raised it as though to dismiss her.
Sasha pushed her chair back, stood up, heaved her backpack onto her back and picked up her room key.
"Thank you," she said again, but Dang was already talking rapid Thai on the phone. He didn’t even acknowledge her, so she turned and walked back through the guesthouse.
Behind the reception desk was the flight of stairs leading to the rooms. At the bottom of the stairs was a notice listing the room numbers and the coordinating floors they were on. Sasha glanced at the large wooden label attached to the key for her room. The number seventy-four was carved into it.
She saw which floor her room was on and groaned, eight flights of stairs with her backpack, she would never make it. Sasha glanced around hoping they may have installed a lift since she was last there. She wasn’t surprised to see they hadn’t. The girl behind reception caught her eye and she gestured up the stairs. Sasha smiled weakly and nodded.
"Okay," she said to herself. "Come on feet."
She made it up the stairs, but by the time she reached the top the thirty kilos on her back was taking its toll. The humidity was causing beads of sweat to drip into her cleavage. Sasha wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, the salt was stinging her eyes.
Her chest heaved, as her lungs laboured over the effort of breathing through the thick and cloying heat. She paused at the top of the stairs, catching her breath, and hanging onto the railing to stop her legs collapsing beneath her.
The long flight and lack of sleep was taking its toll. She glanced up to see another, smaller notice pointing her towards her room number. Forcing her legs to move again, she headed down the narrow hallway. The floor was cheap linoleum, like a hospital floor, and it squeaked beneath her flip-flops as she walked.
The room was nothing more than a square box with a window that looked onto another corridor. The only item of furniture was the bed. It was narrow and hard, like a prison bed, but she had never seen anything so inviting. She flicked the switch for the overhead fan and flung herself onto the bed.
Practically asleep with her eyes open Sasha stared at a crack in the ceiling and the fan that was washing tepid air over her.
The rapid spinning of the fan blades caused the whole contraption to swing ominously and for a moment Sasha imagined the carnage that would ensue if it broke loose.
That woke her up.
Her stomach grumbled loudly. She remembered her promise to herself of noodles after she had checked in, but her skin was covered in a film of dirt from travelling and the heat, so she unpacked her toiletries and towel and made her way back down the hallway to the showers. She walked past door after identical door. Muted music blared out from one of the rooms.
Sasha smiled a hello at a young couple who were holding hands and walking toward her. They nodded back politely before brushing past. Sasha, in that one moment, was very lonely and felt a pang of longing for Nick.
The showers were basic, but clean enough and there were three of them lined up, with the toilets and sinks in separate cubicles next door. Attached to each of the doors was a notice warning about peeping Toms.
Sasha rolled her eyes. Nothing changed.
The water was cold, but she didn't mind, it was a relief from the heat. The grime and sleep washed away, and she left the shower feeling both refreshed and famished.
Food first, she thought and then she would find out what had happened about her visa and ride for tomorrow.
Sasha dressed quickly and made it back down the stairs a lot faster than she had made it up. She stepped out into the hazy Bangkok sunshine and smiled to herself. Glancing around she allowed reminiscences of her time here before to wash over her like the heat that rose from the street. She could barely believe she was back.
During the day, the streets of Bangkok bustled with life, filled with an eclectic mix of tourists, businessmen and locals, but it was at night that the city showed its true colours. In the evening, the city became an adult’s fairground. Elephants walked the street begging for the peanuts their owners sold to tourists. Old VW vans, their roofs removed, were transformed into street bars selling cheap shots and cocktails, while the lady-boys danced in them, as if they were on floats in a carnival. Carts trundled around the street selling fried crickets, cockroaches, even scorpions for people to snack on; the Thai version of pork scratchings.
The memories made Sasha's smile blossom and she looked forward to the evening ahead. Any doubts she’d had, about seeing Nick again, were pushed to the furthest corner of her heart.
I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for Chapter Two!
Copyright © 2010 Marissa Farrar
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.