The Birthday Wish

She leaned forward to look at the map Peter was studying. Even upside down, she could see that Foix was less than half the distance they needed to cover before stopping for the night. Her heart sank. It felt as if they had been on the road for ages, but in reality they had only been travelling for a little over three hours. “Only another two hundred or so kilometres to Pau,” Peter said, too cheerily. “And then we’ll have about two hundred and sixty to do tomorrow….but most of that will be on the motorway.”

Emma hated being on motorways on the bike. They would be going faster, and there would be less variety in the journey. She would be stuck in one position, hunkered down trying to keep her head out of the wind-blast, and dreading the sudden changes in side wind that so often came with the overtaking of large flat-sided lorries. Peter studied the map intently. “I suppose we could stop somewhere nearer tonight, if we feel like it. We don’t have to be at the port till one thirty”. Emma thought that it would be great if they could just stop now. She was pleased to be off the bike and sitting inside on a comfortable seat. She was beginning to feel sleepy, and thought that after eating she would find it even harder to stir herself. She rested her head on her arms on the table and closed her eyes. A little nap would be so lovely.

“Here comes grub!” Peter said, hurriedly trying to refold the outspread map, interrupting her doze with a fluster of flapping paper and curses. They ate the pizza in companionable silence, listening to the conversation going on between the men at the bar. Emma could only make out odd words and phrases, and concluded that they were talking about football, which amused and depressed her at the same time. The strong coffee and the cigarette after the food woke Emma up a little, and feeling full and a bit bored, she was ready to set off again. Now she just wanted to get on with it, and get to a hotel as soon as possible. “C’mon then…let’s hit the road Jack”.

“Okay..okay…” Peter stood up, still squinting at the semi-folded map, awkwardly trying to look at the relevant bit, without opening it all the way out again. “Just checking the best route from here…” He left three twenty-franc notes on the dish with the bill, and mumbled a barely audible au revoir to the assembled group at the bar as they left. The men turned round and nodded, and the barman smiled broadly. “Merci monsieur-dame, et bonne route.”

Out on the street, Emma noticed that the sky was looking more threatening, and back at the bike, they contemplated putting on their waterproofs. But even though the sun was hidden by rolling grey clouds, it was still hot and sticky. “It’ll probably only be a shower anyway”, Peter said. Emma had heard that many times before and wanted to respond with a ‘famous last words’ remark. But she knew it would result in a detailed explanation of the weather conditions, and of why this wouldn’t turn into a prolonged downpour, like the ones that had drenched them on many a previous bike trip. As they headed out of town, Emma craned her stiff neck for one last look at the castle, which seemed to be monitoring their departure with its eerie window-hole eyes.