ALICE NOEL – NOVEL EXTRACT
His coffee was cold.
Time seemed to stop within the grim roadside café. The world rushed past outside the window. Andrew looked down at the mug, staring at the brown liquid inside. He didn’t like coffee, but it was something to look at, to think about, even if he’d never had any intention of drinking it. His eyes wandered across the table, over the stains and patches of stickiness from spilt Cokes and lemonades, travelling up, around the almost empty room. There was only one other customer, and that girl at the till who kept looking over at him with a glare that said, “That coffee took thirty seconds of my time to make—you better drink it.” His eyes returned to the grey-white mug in front of him, and he sighed.
Em had known he hated coffee. She often used to tease him about it, pretending to ward him off with the jar of granules, like he was one of those evil ghosts from the horror films she’d loved so much. Or the time she’d given him a slice of cake she’d made, only telling him after he had taken a bite that it was coffee. With that wide, mischievous grin he’d adored spreading over her face, her bright auburn hair hanging in her eyes.
Turned out that was the same grin she gave the other guy.
These days, he doubted that Em would even recognise him in the street. The only thing she had ever really cared about was Charlie, their—no, his—daughter. Even that wasn’t enough. His ex had relinquished her right to Charlie the minute she stopped answering his daughter’s calls.
Stop it, he thought, that was years ago—it’s over. Go and visit Charlie and get this over with. He wrung his hands before drumming his fingers on the table, trying to distract himself. His shrewd nineteen-year-old wouldn’t approve. She’d tell him that Em wasn’t worth it, that being alone with a load of crappy memories is better. But the worst part was that she’d be right, which would hurt. Still drumming on the table, he looked around again, and began to understand why people only stopped in these places when in desperate need of food or a slash. He didn’t blame them. The chipped and cracking tables, added to the faded walls and washed-out blinds, hardly made the badly-lit space inviting. The ashen sky outside had become jet; rain beating down on the windows, making the room even darker. He looked at his watch, 5:57pm. He was going to arrive at Charlie’s house even later if he didn’t make a move; there were still three hours of the drive left to go until Sheffield. The weather outside told him it wasn’t going to be the easiest of journeys.
But he didn’t want to go. It wasn’t that he was avoiding Charlie, but in recent years she had looked more like her mother. So much so, that when his brother, Michael, had last visited, he had greeted her with a cold look, mistaking her bright green eyes and wide smile for Emma—they’d laughed so hard afterwards. That had been a good night: beer, Charlie and Michael. Father, daughter, uncle, watching Star Wars together. He smiled as he rose from his chair, checking his phone as he heard the café door open, glimpsing the digits of 18:00. He looked up, as the others did, and saw the man in the doorway, the wires running around his stomach, to the rectangle on his chest. The stranger smiled. Everything flashed. Then black.
A white mug lay shattered among the rubble.
Alice is from Norwich and studies English and History at the University of York.