And there it was: her VW Golf, parked next to the elevator. Mel was nowhere to be seen. A sign on a concrete pillar read:
Parking lot for use by patrons of Premier Inn only.
There were no spaces next to her car, so I carried on around the circle and found a space in the row behind, backing in opposite an oversized white SUV that was clearly too big for the space it occupied.
"Can we go and see Mummy now?" William said. He was still clutching his "I'm a Superstar!" certificate in both hands like he was getting ready to present it to the Queen.
"Come on, then. Let's go upstairs and find her. There's an elevator." His eyes lit up. "Can I press the button?"
The hotel lobby had dark shiny floors and anonymous decor, a single waistcoated teenager on reception. William's hot little hand gripped mine tightly as we stood looking for Mel. There was a rumpled man with a suit bag and briefcase, wearily checking out, a woman and a teenage girl behind him. An elderly Japanese couple sat in the reception area, poring over a map. But no sign of my wife.
"Where's Mummy gone?" William said in a loud stage whisper. "Come on. Let's find her."
Reception was L-shaped, with elevators and the restaurant signposted around the corner. We followed the signs, away from reception. The restaurant was mostly empty. Recessed off to the left were the elevators and a raised seating area with large black armchairs facing each other across a handful of low tables.
Mel was there. She had her back to us, but I would have recognized her anywhere, the slender curve of her neck, honey-blond hair.
'Hey, there. Surprise! Wait.'
She was with someone. A man, talking in animated fashion. Something made me stop. I knew the guy she was talking to.
Ben Delaney, married to one of Mel's closest friends. And he wasn't just animated—he was downright angry, his face dark with frustration. He interrupted her, pointing his finger, his voice a barely controlled growl. Mel leaned forward and put a hand on his arm. He sat back, shaking his head.
Something was wrong with this situation.
Instinctively, I moved in front of William to block his view. My first thought was to go over and check Mel was OK, but not with our son in tow. Mel was gesturing with her hands now, Ben staring at her, frowning, shaking his head.
This is not something William should see.
"Come on, Wills," I said. "Mummy's busy. Let's go back downstairs."
"Has she gone?"
"Let's wait for her in the car, matey. We'll be close by."
"Then I can show her my certificate?"
We got the elevator back down to the parking lot level and returned to my car. Mel's number was at the top of the favorites list on my cell phone. It went straight to voice mail.
"Hi, you've reached Mel's cell phone. Please do leave a message, and I promise I'll get back to you as soon as poss." Beep.
I hung up, redialed. Voice mail again. This time I left a message.
"Hi, love, it's me. Give me a call when you get this? Just wanted to make sure you're OK...that everything's OK. Call me."
I sat five minutes more, starting to feel slightly foolish. I was supposed to be at home by now, running my son's bath. Drinking a nice glass of red. Thinking about making a start on tonight's marking. But instead I was here, in an underground parking lot just off the North Circular, trying to work out what the hell was going on upstairs. I wanted to check on her but didn't want to leave William. My suit shirt felt grimy and claustrophobic, a bead of sweat tracing a path down my rib cage.
So what's the plan, Stan? What if Mel isn't OK? What's up with Ben? How long are you going to sit here with one bar of cell phone reception, waiting and wondering?
There wasn't a plan. I wasn't going to do anything, just sit there and wait.
Surprise my wife.
I didn't have a plan. It just happened.