Check in. ©
Jessica Mabel Thorn was seven years old. She wore a white shirt with Mildon Primary emblazoned on the pocket. Short for her age she stood on a stool to better reach the keyboard. Tied around her waist, Jessica’s jumper cushioned her hip as she leant against the desk.
“How many nights?” she said, staring at the man who had asked for a room. She didn’t like his hat. It hid too much of his face and made him look like a stranger, not a guest.
“Not sure.” The man scratched the back of his head, under the brim of his hat, and looked out of the window. The sun was reflecting off the window of a car crossing the bridge outside. Mildon river bridge, in the middle of the village was notorious for scraping off paint. Every one who lived in the village took their time getting to the other side.
“I need a number for this box here.” Jessica extracted a spit glazed finger from her mouth and pointed at the screen. “Mum says I need to put the number first.” She really wished the man would take his hat off. She liked guests. They always smiled at her and joined in her games. This man was a stranger, still. Strangers were no fun. No reward from a stranger.
“Can I say a week and change it later, if I need to stay longer?” the man stepped closer to Jessica’s desk. The stool creaked as she shifted her weight. Looking down at her hands and clenching her fists she began to breathily count the days off on her fingers. Reaching the limit of one hand she looked up at the stranger.
“School week or real week?” Her hand floated above the desk showing the five fingers. The man glanced out of the window again, distracted by the same car; now pulling away from the bridge. Jessica saw a wisp of orange hair under his hat. Sticking out between the brim and the man’s collar. Orange was no good, no good at all. Derek at school had orange hair and he smelt like cheese most of the time.
“Real week.” The man’s voice was quiet and slow. Jessica returned to her hands. Mouthing Saturday and Sunday she stuck two fingers out from her fist. Not the rude ones, her thumb and forefinger. The thumb is a finger when you are counting. Stupid Derek didn’t know that. She stared down at her hands carefully and then at the computer keyboard; checking the number was there.
“Seven days.” She said triumphantly pressing the numbered button. “I don’t know about changing it, you will have to ask my mum.” She showed a collection of teeth to the stranger and yelled over her shoulder. “Mum, guest.”
Smiling to herself she thought, not really guest. Stranger. The man let his bag down onto the floor with a thump. Jessica looked at him, he was breathing noisily through his nose. Following her own protocol she began to sound out some letters on the screen. “Nuh, ah, muh, eh.” She said under her breath.
“Name, I need your name for the next box. You will need to spell it slowly ‘cos I can’t do the letters quickly like my mum.” The man took a deep breath and Jessica moved her hands over the keys.
“My name is Shaw, Michael Shaw.” He said. There was a pause. Jessica waited for the letters. She wondered why the man had two names the same. She had three names like him but hers were all different. Jessica’s hands hovered over the keys and waited.
She waited a little more.
“Listen.” Said Mr Shaw. “Is your mother here?”
Jessica didn’t like that at all. She was quite able to put people’s names into the computer. She was seven after all. This stranger was going to be staying for a real week as well. Twisting on the stool she yelled “Mum, guest.”
As she turned back she saw the man bending to retrieve something from his bag. Jessica leant forward to see. The stool under her feet tilted, a little, then rocked back with a click on the stone tiles. Jessica took in a big lungful of air and bit down on her lower lip. Mr Shaw’s coat had swung and revealed a pair of muddy boots. This stranger, not only wouldn’t let her type his name, but had muddy boots on her mum’s polished floor. She didn’t like that at all.
Jessica heard her mum coming down the stairs. She knew the sound; her mother was wearing her red shoes with the big heels. Mum always walked down the stairs slower in the red shoes. The stranger stood across the desk and didn’t say anything. A nice guest would have asked her age. She was seven years old and had so much to tell new people. Guests always asked nice things like ‘was she a good girl at school?’ or ‘did she like wild flowers?’ If she said yes to that one, many guests would bring her some. She liked that.
This stranger just stayed quiet.
Jessica looked at him and rocked her stool under her feet. She let her bottom lip out with a soggy sound and said “Mum will be here in a minute Mr Shaw.”
The stool was up on one leg and Jessica held the edge of the desk with both hands. The timing had to be just right. Jessica heard her mum reach the bottom of the stairs and begin to open the door. Jessica took her bottom lip between her teeth and kicked the stool out from under her feet. It made a satisfying clatter on the tiles. As she fell she tucked an arm behind her and made sure she bit her lip when she hit the ground. Jessica could taste her blood, the pain in her arm was just right.
Mrs. Thorn entered to find her daughter on the floor with blood all over her chin. Her little girl’s eyes were full of tears as she pointed at the man on the other side of the desk. His face was hidden in the shadow of a wide brimmed hat.
“What happened Jessy darling? How did you fall? Where you tilting your stool again?” She knelt next to her child and began to make her more comfortable.
“No mummy.” Jessica said weakly then sobbed. “That stranger mummy, pushed me.”