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connectionsbooks by Paul Stuart

Your entry to the Connections series

Which Room Did You Stay In?

Which Room Did You Stay In?

Paul's brilliant 4th novel takes us to The Exmoor White Horse Inn. Have you ever wondered who has stayed in your hotel room before as you check in? In the same way that hotel rooms have histories, so the people who stay in them have their own personal baggage as well as their luggage. Have you ever thought that you became part of that history from the moment you make the booking and then check in? Each and every visitor has histories, but most prefer them not to be told. What about you? Which room did you stay in? If only it could speak! 


Immerse yourself in the magic and mysteries of Exmoor, Come face to face with the legend of Faggus. Experience the 50th running of the Golden Horseshoe Endurance Ride.


ALL MY BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE FROM AMAZON AND KINDLE OR

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Let me take you there now........


THE EXMOOR WHITE HORSE INN

-2-

My wife and I take a short break here about twice each year. We discovered this oasis of calm purely by chance on the way back from a journey further north.  I was too tired to complete the drive and we dropped into a Tourist Information Centre, searching for a place to stay for one night.  We were directed to The Exmoor White Horse Inn at Exford. I am certain it was meant to be. We have found a place that we would rather keep for ourselves, but it seems far too many people are already party to the secret. 

Located in the village of Exford, not far as the crow flies from Dunkery Beacon, The Exmoor White Horse Inn may be found. This jewel is 26 miles from junction 25 of the M5 motorway. It can be found by following the A358 from Taunton towards Minehead for about 3 miles and then turning left along the B3224. After about 10 miles, at Raleighs Cross (pub) the route takes a right turn, following the B3224 which changes course here. After about 6 miles Wheddon Cross appears and the signs to Exford are picked up.  They take the traveller straight across the crossroads and onward for the final 5 miles to Exford. 

The inn nestles by the bridge on the River Exe, and is a traditional 16th century building, festooned in Virginia Creeper. Inside there are log fires and a fine restaurant which uses locally sourced produce.  The Head Chef produces a menu replete with meats from rare breed cattle, west-country seafood and moorland game. Another compelling feature is the bar, which boasts over 150 malt whiskies. So much to do; so little time!   There are 28 bedrooms, each with its own plethora of stories and anecdotes.  Have you ever wondered who has stayed in your hotel room whenever you check in?  Which room did you stay in? If only it could speak!  

In the same way that rooms have histories, so the people who stay in them also carry personal baggage as well as their luggage. Have you ever thought that you become part of that history from the moment you make the booking? Each and every visitor has tales to be told, but most prefer to keep them to themselves. What about you?


HAYLEY THE RECEPTIONIST

-3-

Haley, Receptionist at The Exmoor White Horse Inn, was well liked both by customers and staff. She was petite, pretty and had a certain way about her; perfect credentials for the job. She had been there for a few years and was efficient and friendly.  Although not originally from the area, she had grown to love and become part of it.  Her boyfriend, a local man, doted upon her and would move heaven and earth to grant her every wish. They had been together for about two years and had reached the stage of their relationship when decisions would soon need to be made. Marriage? Babies? See the world? Start a business of their own? Carry on, happy as they undoubtedly were?

Haley’s main love, apart from her boyfriend, was her horse. She had inherited him from her sister when she decided to go travelling abroad. His name was Hal, or to give him his full title, Prince Halberad theThird of somewhere or other. He was a thoroughbred Arab stallion, had a glossy pitch black coat and stood proud and tall, as if he knew of his lineage. His manner was haughty and he could also be temperamental. Hayley wished she could have ridden him in The Golden Horseshoe, but he wasn’t an endurance horse. He was, to put it simply, just a magnificent specimen.  

 Her boyfriend did not share her love of the magnificent animal. He resented the time required to look after him and the love she invested in him. In short, he was jealous.  He knew it was stupid to be jealous of a horse, but he couldn’t help it. He was a rival; there was no other way to dress it up. He was also afraid of the beast. In his mind it was decision time about the horse as well as anything else.

 They say that you should be careful what you wish for. Hayley tested that maxim one evening as she indulged her other love: fast cars. She had treated herself to a hot car, and loved giving it the beans and testing her driving skills. She still had the metal pins in her right arm as evidence of the passion. The accident happened on the A396 near Bampton at the Black Cat junction. They were returning to Exford at the end of a good night out and Hayley was showing off her skills to her new boyfriend. The road was wet and muddy. Landslips were common there and works were in progress to construct a wall, with rod insertions, at the junction. Three-way traffic lights were in place to control the flow of vehicles bound for Bampton and Dulverton. The lights, however, failed that night and Hayley ploughed her speeding pride and joy straight into the partly constructed wall, in order to avoid an oncoming heavy lorry. The thought flashed through her mind that it was the lesser of two evils. She was probably correct, even though she broke her arm in two places and suffered some nasty cuts and bruises. Her boyfriend was luckier and escaped with a cut to his left leg, badly torn jeans and heavy bruising to his gentleman’s private area. She needed surgery, whilst he needed tender loving care and plenty of ice. Thankfully, she had not been drinking that night, even though the police suspected she had. They argued that there was no reason for her to have gone through a red light unless she had been influenced by drink or was otherwise distracted. It didn’t take long to prove the lights were faulty, but the argument about admission of guilt by the contractor or local authority was an entirely different matter. In fact, it still hasn’t been resolved after two years.

Hayley had omitted to include something in her account of the accident, because she couldn’t believe it herself. In the instant before her car had hit the wall she thought she saw a man dressed as a highwayman. By the time she gathered her senses after the smash, she doubted whether she had seen anything at all. She had also omitted something else. She knew she had not swerved to avoid an oncoming heavy lorry. She knew she had swerved to avoid what she now knew was a stagecoach. She had only ever told her boyfriend about these two mysterious facts, and was upset when he dismissed them out of hand.  

As proof of her popularity her boss at The White Horse, Linda, was constantly offering to let her drive her own car. The Scooby was, as far as Hayley was concerned, lightning fast. It was recognised throughout the locality, and Linda’s speed was also well known and feared by all around. Indeed, when Linda declared her intention to take a drive somewhere, most sensible people studiously avoided being anywhere near. This made the roads even clearer for her, apart from unwitting visitors, many of whom had a close shave as they felt the rush of her passing. Linda was becoming a legend on Exmoor. Hayley would have loved to give it a go, but didn’t trust herself with it and now contented herself with adrenalin fuelled rides in the passenger seat from time to time.  

Hayley was a model employee. She was always punctual and stayed late when needed, often without being asked. She was pretty, neat and trim. She had been a hit with the customers from the day she walked into The Exmoor White Horse. In short, she was perfect. 

 Hayley’s boyfriend also understood that the time was coming when they would need to make choices. They had been together for two years and he thought he loved her, but wasn’t sure what love actually is.  He couldn’t define it; he only recognised when it was not there. He knew he had never been so content and in an ideal world, his world, things would stay just as they were. The trouble was that she seemed to be itching for something more. He didn’t mind her love of fast cars, despite the fact that it had almost killed the pair of them. He knew she was happy in her job.  The more he thought about it, the more he realised that the problem was her damn horse. He believed she loved it more than she loved him. It took up a disproportionate amount of her time.

Her daily routine was to get out of bed at five in the morning and make a cup of tea for herself. She tried not to disturb him, so he didn’t warrant a cup of tea in bed. She then took herself off to the stables, where she spent at least two hours doing whatever was needed to make sure the beast was fed, watered and groomed. She may have done other things there, but it was all a mystery to him. He once threatened to accompany her to help, to take an interest, but she flatly refused his offer, saying it was her horse, her responsibility and anyway she knew he hated Hal. It caused tension in the house for over a week, so he withdrew the offer and the climate warmed again. Her routine continued with a rushed breakfast, again without a thought for him, and a rapid exit and fast drive to work. At the end of her shift she went straight to the stables and exercised her beloved Hal for at least an hour before bedding him down for the night. By the time she arrived home, she was already dead beat and usually prepared a hurried meal for the two of them, before collapsing into a chair in front of the TV and promptly falling asleep.  He usually had to rouse her to make sure she went to bed rather than sleeping there all night. He had offered to make the evening meal, to take the pressure off somewhat, but he was a useless cook and it didn’t work. Now whenever she complained of being exhausted, he told her in no uncertain terms that it was her fault because she chose to lead her life like that. He had no sympathy; she could change things but chose not to. 

It was the little things. He assumed it was the same in most relationships; always the little things that were the clues. He knew Hayley was a fast driver and could get home from the stables in about 20 minutes, but now took about an hour. What did she do in the other 40 minutes? Where did she go? Then there were the phone calls. He’d sometimes come home and find her on the phone. Admittedly she’d smile and blow him a kiss, but it seemed that the tone of her voice would change as soon as she saw him and she'd hang up soon after. So he would take a shower and pretend to forget a clean towel and call for her to get one for him, and when she disappeared into the laundry room he'd go into the kitchen and debate for a few seconds but then he'd go ahead and hit redial on the phone. Sometimes it turned out to be a neighbour or her mother; sometimes nobody picked up. He remembered seeing a film about spies or something, in which one person would call somebody else and they'd let it ring twice then call back exactly one minute later and he knew it was safe to pick up. Hayley’s boyfriend tried to work out the numbers she was calling from the sound of the dialling but they went too fast. He'd be embarrassed because he was acting so paranoid, but then there'd be another little thing and he'd get suspicious again. Lately he thought she’d been coming home with the smell of wine on her breath and he tried to snatch an unexpected kiss just to make sure, but she would pull away.  It was as if the spontaneity, the passion, had gone. He tried to put a finger on it but couldn’t explain it. 

His suspicions smacked of midlife crisis, but he knew they were too young for that. Sometimes in life you have to be smart. He hadn't really found any proof. He really thought her commitment to the horse was wearing her out and there was no more to it than that. And yet the doubts would not disappear. If she was straying he wondered where she found the time or energy. Her life revolved around her work and her horse, and it seemed to him that he was no longer an important part in it. He’d always thought of her as absolutely loyal; sin free, but the thought nagged at him that even saints sin sometimes. 

He maintained his checks on her, looking for the little things until one day he found a big thing. 

It was five-thirty and Hayley had phoned to say she was going to be late because she was going shopping after dealing with the horse. He told her not to rush, to take all the time she wanted. He didn’t tell her he was going to go through their bedroom, searching for something that had been bothering him all day. That morning he had walked quietly past the bedroom where she was getting dressed and peered in. He saw her take an object out of her bag and hide it in the bottom drawer of her dresser. After half an hour of ransacking and prowling through every conceivable hiding place in the room he found what he was looking for. It was a sealed red card envelope, but there was no name or address on the front. He didn’t know what to make of it and the more he held it, the heavier it seemed to become, almost like a physical burden. He turned it over and over in his hands and studied it carefully.  She hadn’t licked the flap completely so he could pry most of it open but he couldn’t get at it fully without tearing the paper. He found an old razor blade and spent an age carefully scraping away at the glue on the flap. 

At six-thirty, with the last little bit to go, the phone rang. It was Hayley and, for once, he was relieved to hear her say that she was going to be even later than she thought because she’d met an old school friend and was going to stop for a drink with her on the way home. She asked if he wanted to join them, but he said he was too tired. He hurried back to finish his project. Finally, he scraped off the last of the glue and with shaking hands opened the flap. He pulled the card out. On the front was a picture of a Victorian couple, holding hands and looking out over a snowy backyard as candles glowed around them. He took a deep breath and opened the card. It was blank. He knew at that moment that all his fears were true. There was only one reason to give somebody a blank card and that was the fear of being caught.  

It wasn’t the little things any more. He knew without doubt that she was seeing someone and probably had been for months. He tore the card into little pieces, flung them across the room and fell back on the bed. He stared at the ceiling for a full half an hour trying to calm himself, but the rage would not abate. He knew where she was likely to be for her drink with ‘an old school friend’ so he set out to find them. It didn’t take long. He found them at the first attempt. She was sitting there with her lover and he tasted the familiar metallic flavour of his anger. He wanted to scream. 

He spun away from the window and strode through the front door. There was a man sitting with her at a table. 

Hayley saw him and with a sharp intake of breath, gasped, “what are you doing here?” 

He muttered, “When you cheat on somebody there are consequences.”

“What do you mean, cheat?” she said, aghast at the suggestion. 

There was movement to his left and he spun to meet it. He recognised Hayley’s old school friend immediately as she sat beside the man and kissed him on the cheek. Both wore wedding rings. 

“You didn’t think...?” said Hayley.

Her boyfriend said nothing. He was too embarrassed to speak.  

“You idiot!” Hayley said. “I was out tonight buying you a birthday present. I’ve been rotten to you lately and I wanted to show you I still love you.” She pointed to a shopping bag at her feet.

“Did you buy me a card as well?” he asked. 

“Of course,” Hayley was fighting back tears.

“Is that the one in your drawer at home?”

She blinked. “Yes, it’s for you.”

“Then why is it sealed and blank?”

Her tears stopped and her face blossomed with anger. “I didn’t seal it. The flap got wet in the bathroom and I put it away to sort out later. I didn’t want you to find it.” 

It was as if somebody had flicked a switch. He towered over the table and landed and huge blow on the man sitting there. Twenty minutes later, and after much cursing and a sprawling fight, he was arrested by two burly policemen who had reacted swiftly to the emergency call. There was a good deal of blood on the floor.  

He was charged and found guilty of GBH, Assault and several other lesser offences. Hayley gave evidence and her account of life with him made harrowing listening. His long history of depression, paranoid behaviour and uncontrolled temper came to light. The court sent him to a secure hospital to serve his sentence. 

She only sent him one letter. To be more accurate, it was a card. The only words it contained were “It’s not just the little things.”  

Ironically her boyfriend had been correct. She had been seeing somebody else. His name was Philippe and he worked at the White Horse with her.