You wouldn't call Maidstone a pretty town. It used to be a market town, where local farmers brought their livestock and produce to sell. Little of the old town remains. The markets have long since been replaced by shopping malls and office blocks. The river, which is its most picturesque attraction, runs through the centre of the town; but on the whole people go to Maidstone to work or to shop.
None of this bothered Maria as she made her way from the station to the hotel. She was there for one purpose only, and the sooner it was over the sooner she could get back to her children. Male heads turned as she walked down the street, dragging her suitcase behind her. It's said that for men there are two types of women, the type you want to take to bed and the type you want to take home to meet your mother. Maria managed to get a foot in both camps. She was five foot six, taller in her heels, with a trim figure that belied the fact that she had borne two children. Her long, dark hair bounced off her shoulders, framing an oval face with piercing blue eyes. She had the elegant walk of a woman well used to high heels, and her hips swung as she walked. Today she wore a black skirt suit. The tailored jacket showed off her trim waist; the hem of her skirt fell to a little above her knees.
She first saw him as she approached the hotel. He was tall and broad shouldered, with a confident stride. Early forties, she thought as she looked at him. His hair was short and dark but starting to grey, not salt and pepper yet but it wouldn't be long. He wore a linen suit of an off white colour. The brown loafers on his feet completed the image of a man smartly dressed but relaxed. She tried to imagine her husband William wearing clothes like that. She thought it would have suited him but William, sometimes Will but never Bill, never looked relaxed. At his insistence, she even pressed creases into his jeans. Thinking about her husband brought a tear to her eye. It will soon be over, she told herself, knowing in her heart that it would never be over.
She reached the hotel entrance and pushed with her left hand. The door didn't budge. She changed hands so that her case was now in her left hand and pushed hard with her right. Still the door didn't move.
"Allow me" came the voice from behind her. A linen clad arm reached past her and pulled the door open.
She was overcome with embarrassment. "You must think me such a fool", she said, as he held the door open for her.
"Not at all, your mind was obviously on other things. I'm glad to be of service. Now please, after you."
Her face was still flushed as she reached the reception desk to check in. She noticed the man kept his distance while she handled the check in and received her key. She looked back at him as she took her key.
"Thank you, for the door thing. Are you staying long?" What was she doing, asking a strange man how long he was staying? She'd meant it as polite conversation, but it could be taken as an expression of interest.
"Just the one night. I don't expect to be around much after tomorrow."
Just one night, he'd said, that eased her feelings of embarrassment. She didn't fancy him being around all week, imagining she was interested in him. Maria got into the lift, and as she turned around she saw he was looking at her. She smiled and gave him a wave as the doors closed. As the lift started to move, she cursed herself again for that wave.
The hotel was only three stars. She'd chosen it because of its location, so she was relieved to find quite a pleasant, clean room. She lay down on the bed and found it quite comfortable. In no time, she'd unpacked and showered. She sat on the bed and called her mother, who was looking after her children. Tears formed again as she spoke to her children; she missed them so much. She saw the news on TV, and wished she'd brought a book with her. Making a mental note to buy one the following day, she went down for dinner.
In the hotel restaurant, she was shown to a table. She didn't see him come in, but as she lifted her glass of wine she was aware of someone's eyes upon her. She turned, and as she caught his eye he smiled at her and raised his glass. Throughout the meal she would look across and find him watching her. She found herself in a quandary. On the one hand she didn't want to encourage him, on the other she desperately wanted to talk to someone; and he seemed like a nice man. She felt a hint of disappointment when he got up and didn't come over, but left the restaurant and walked out of the hotel.
Finishing her meal and draining her glass of wine, Maria walked out of the restaurant. She noticed the bar across the foyer. Maybe there would be someone there she could talk with, to take her mind off the business of the day to come. She was on her second vodka and tonic when he came in and sat on a stool next but one to her. The barman came over and the man ordered a St Clements.
"Can I buy a girl a drink?"
"It's just a drink", he said. "I need some company, and you seem to be on your own. My name is Paul, by the way."
She smiled at him. "Pleased to meet you, Paul, I'm Maria. I'll have a vodka and tonic, if that's OK?"
Paul took his drink and ordered another for Maria. The barman returned and Paul picked up both drinks. He nodded in the direction of a vacant table.
"Shall we take these over there where it's a bit more private?"
They moved to the table and sat down.
"I thought you'd gone out for the night" she said.
"No, I just went for a walk down by the river. I probably won't be able to do that for some time to come, so I thought I'd make the most of a fine evening."
"I didn't even realise there was a river walk in this town, but that can't be what brought you to Maidstone."
"No, I'm here for what amounts to a final interview. If it goes the way I expect I'll be going away for a few years."
"Hmm, that sounds intriguing. Where will you be going?"
"I don't know, exactly. I don't think that's been decided yet."
"Ooh, you make it sound so mysterious. You're not going to be some kind of James Bond, are you?"
"No, nothing like that, although I will be working for Her Majesty. What about you? What brings a beautiful married lady to a Maidstone hotel to talk to a strange man?"
Maria took a sip of her drink and rubbed her rings. "I'm widowed, actually, and I don't think you really want to know about me."
"Oh, but I do. Besides, you look like you need to talk to someone. I'll get the drinks in, and you can decide if you want to talk to me."
Paul got up and came back with another St Clements and a vodka and tonic. As he put her glass down Maria touched his hand, running her fingers down his ring finger.
"There is a depression where a ring used to be. Was that for my benefit, or is it the reason for the sadness in your eyes?"
"That's not a story you want to hear."
"But I do. I do. I'm a good listener, and you need to tell. Come on, you tell me your story, and I'll tell you mine."
Paul noticed she'd started to slur her words a little and hesitate while she formed her sentences.
"OK, I'll tell, but then it's your turn."
"Right, you first then me." Maria took a sip of Paul's St Clements. "There's no alcohol in that. You're supposed to be keeping me company."
"I need a clear head for the morning, can't go into an interview with a hangover. Now do you want my story?"
"OK. I used to work at the university. I loved it, doing research and helping the students. The problem was the lousy pay. I never earned enough money for Josie, that's my wife. She always needed more. When the two children came along, Alex, he's seven now, and Kate, she's five, money got even tighter."
"Josie started working evenings, and I pushed for an increase in pay. The thing is universities have set pay scales, and you can't progress without having your work published. I needed to publish more but didn't have the time. I couldn't work on papers during the day without neglecting normal work. I would have done it in the evening, but I was looking after the children while Josie was at work."
"Even with both of us working there was still never enough. When Josie's brother told me he made a lot more money as a self employed driver, I thought about it. The trouble was, Josie thought about it, too. To her the increased income meant more that the fact that I loved my job."
"Cut a long story short, she used the children as emotional blackmail to make me quit my job and buy a tractor unit. Her brother gave me all the contacts, and soon I was delivering loads all over the country. Josie got a day time job, and we were OK for a while. Then I found out that while I was away she'd found herself a boy friend."
"Oh, Paul, that's awful. How did you find out?"
"Her boyfriend told me. He sent me a multi media message. Pictures and videos of him screwing her, and her sucking his dick. The thing is, he used her phone to send it. I expected to get a loving message from my wife and I got a gloating message from her lover, and all those pictures. She tried to tell me it was one time only, and that he sent the message because she'd told him never again."
"Didn't you believe her, then?"
.... There is more of this story ...