Exit Seven

“Which is best, six or eight?”
“There is no seven.”
“There is if you look hard enough.”
She’d been drinking. So had he. He thought it was possible that he should not be driving. She certainly shouldn’t, which is why he was, even though it was her car. His insurance covered him, though not if he’d been drinking. The exit for Junction Six was signposted ahead. “Seriously, which is best?”
“They never made a Junction Seven on the M61.”
“I’ll show you,” she said, flashing him a cocktail grin.
He decided to humour her, and accelerated past the slip road of Junction Six. Her smile switched to smug.

The leaving lunch had been good enough. The food had been acceptable, especially after the drink. That bothered him a bit. He wasn’t over the limit, was he? He eased back to stay below seventy.
She’d been hired to step into Anthony’s role, and he’d invited her to his leaving do; he was that kind of guy. He was gone now. Jon was sorry that Anthony had left and wished he had the guts to do the same. It was as if she read his mind.
“You should leave.”
“Thanks very much,” he said sarcastically. “Can’t I have a probationary period?”
“You’ve had one.”
“Not under you.”  He regretted that remark as soon as he’d said it. She was to be his new boss. He regretted the remark, regretted that he’d confided in her, regretted that he’d offered to give her a lift home, regretted that he couldn’t remember how much he’d had to drink and regretted that he hadn’t left at Junction Six. Rivington Services were just ahead. He could leave there.
“I don’t want you to be unhappy,” she said.
“I’m not unhappy,” said Jon, “just unfulfilled.”
“Aren’t we all?”
“Are you?”
He wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He checked his speed. Eighty. He eased off the accelerator. They swept past the slip road to the services. Damn! He should have pulled off, parked up, ordered a taxi. Too late. “Well, I hope your new job proves more fulfilling.”
“It won’t.”
“It might.”
“If I can move you on.”
He wasn’t sure what she meant by that, and thought he’d better think before he spoke. He checked his speed. Eighty-one. He swore. She smiled, this time not so much cocktail as cocky. 
“About a minute or so,” she said.
“To what?”
“Your exit.”
“My exit?”
“Exit Seven.”
“There is no Exit Seven.”
“Trust me,” she said.
“I drive this way every day.”
“Look more carefully.”
He looked at her.
“Not at me. Look where you’re going.”
He looked where he was going.  All he could see was the tail of a truck as it gouged a fold in the car bonnet and converted the windscreen into pebbledash.

The kaleidoscope twisted about him. The fragments were silver and yellow and green and blue. Then they all shuffled into shades of pink and swept themselves away. He was the right way up but the world was upside down. The air beneath his bum was pushing him against his seatbelt. A pillowcase furled vertically from the steering wheel to the crumpled ceiling.  Another draped upwards from the glove compartment in front of her. Something smelled fusty. He hoped it wasn’t part of him.

Work boots and buff trousers with fluorescent bands walked across the tarmac sky. Then a helmeted head poked up from below and spoke very fuzzily but far too cheerfully. “There you are. Have you out in a jiffy.”  His mind unravelled the remark. A jiffy was a bag, wasn’t it?

He looked towards his new boss. Her eyes were closed, and her arms were limply held aloft against the car roof, as if she were a passenger in a picture of a roller coaster painted by Salvador Dali during his ‘soft watches’ period. Talking of time, it seemed to be going sideways, or was that the car?

 His arms fell down, the pink kaleidoscope came back and the jostling fragments in his eyes candy-flossed into cherry blossom. Wrong time of year surely?  Certainly. The time was wrong but the place was right. He’d been to the Japanese garden at Rivington many times before, though he’d never noticed the blossom or, for that matter, the cherry trees.

The geisha was flawlessly attired. Geisha girls always were, he understood. The wine glasses on her tray were impeccably geometrical in their arrangement. There was no way he dare disturb them.
“I really can’t have any more,” he said.
She bowed. “But these are low alcohol,” she said. “You wouldn’t be having more; you would be having less.”
He realised that if he took the middle glass the pattern would still be preserved, and started to reach for it. 
“I’ll have one,” said a voice from over his shoulder. It was his new boss. She too, was impeccably presented, but clearly intoxicated. 
“Are you sure?” he asked. “You don’t want to have too much.”
“You’re right,” she said, raising a finger that she clearly thought was gear-stick steady but was actually windscreen wiper wavy. “I need to let you go.”
“I was just leaving,” he said.
“I’ll show you the way,” she said and set off towards her car. 

They didn’t let cars this far up Rivington Pike, did they?  Her car was there and she was snaking towards it.  He ran to cut her off.
“You can’t,” he said. “You’re not fit to take control.”
She pursed her eyes and squinted her lips. “Fine way to speak to your new boss,” she squeaked.
“I just don’t want you to come to any harm.”
“Ditto,” she said, her face and voice reverting to normal.
“I’ll drive,” he said.
“Are you fully comprehensive?” she asked.
“I am,” he claimed.
She leaned towards him and peered into his cranium. “Then you are far too generic. You must sharpen.”
“It’s keyless.” 
“What is?”
“The car.”
She opened the passenger side and got in. He sat behind the wheel. She indicated which way he should go. 

He told her he did not recognise the road. She said that was the most fulfilling way to move on. He followed her directions until they joined the M61 at Junction Five. She told him she lived between six and eight.
“Which is best?” he asked.
“There is no seven,” he said.
“There is if you look hard enough,” she said.

This story was first published in The Lancashire Post on Saturday August 13th 2022

More stories like this can be found in Papertcuts:

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