You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
She was so familiar that Stephen thought, for a moment, she might even be an ex-girlfriend (the mad or bad one every man has in his closet); moving, as she was, with a kind of carnal hunger through the Toulouse Departure Lounge, catching the eye of every male. Convex cheeks and forehead. Ebony bob over moist dark eyes. Tight jeans advertising a daunting behind. What a drag to meet an old flame after an idyllic week away with Geraldine (who stood happily unaware in the queue beside him), their seven days of solitude in a Pyrenees villa over. He ransacked his mind for a name: Susie, Sybil, Medusa?
Out on the runway sat their waiting plane, stranded-looking, like a fish out of its element. The cloud-cover characteristic of that corner of South Western France blocked any possibility of sunlight. It had oppressed them all morning. Still searching his memory for past encounters, he decided that the sighting of the girl, along with the lowering weather, were hardly good omens for a flight.
But a second glance confirmed she wasn’t anybody he knew, merely one of those faces we feel sure we’ve encountered before. Maybe even the face we spend a lifetime waiting to meet. And this worried and unsettled him even further. Perhaps the beautiful, awkward, predatory woman with the black hair wasn’t his memory speaking, but his future.
That, he prayed, was the end of it. But twenty minutes later she took the vacant seat next to him. Gerri had been squeezing his hand, urging him to take a last look at the mountains when the eternal face swung into his peripheral vision, hauling a rucksack. ‘Oh, no. She really is my future,’ he said to himself, and sank further into the moulded fabric.
The woman settled restlessly into her seat, rifling through her handbag, flipping through the in-flight magazine. She had obviously picked up — as a single woman always will — a male admirer or limpet in Duty Free. Hers was a squashed American, with tiny watchful eyes, old enough to be her father. This man had taken the aisle seat opposite and was talking about the cost of living, a conversation seemingly begun hours before. Stephen felt abundantly glad of this pest, as it would save him from interacting with the mysterious woman.
‘It’s a dog’s life, being self-employed,’ said the American, whose name Stephen had gathered was Chuck. ‘No paid leave or labour rights . . .’
All around swarmed the chaos of families, swooping to their optimum position over the wing, or next to the exit doors. Scuffles and shouts erupted some way behind. ‘Tell me about it . . . ‘The woman, so intimately close, surprised Stephen with her voice. It was unexpectedly homely, modulated, British.
‘Watcha do agin, Carla? For a livin’?’
This question clearly unsettled the woman, who hadn’t looked like a Carla when Stephen first saw her in Departures.
‘I’m a massage therapist. And an actress.’
With great annoyance, Carla repeated her reply, garnering glances from interested married men. Then she added: ‘Self-employed, of course. Can never take a holiday.’
‘So how comes yer in the South a’ France with the rest of us?’
Before she could answer, Stephen became aware his seatbelt was undone. Reaching for its strap, he realised with a strange terror that Carla was sitting on its buckle. He had no choice but to speak to her.
Clearing his throat, he began, ‘Excuse me, but I think you’re . . .’
She turned. All witchy intensity; raven hair; her eyes hot and wet as a pointer’s.
‘Sitting on what’s rightfully yours.’ She said. Then she smiled: ‘I’m so sorry . . .’
‘No problem. Must have been uncomfortable,’ he joked, eliciting a sharp glance from Gerri, who recognised flirtatious banter when she heard it.
‘There’s enough padding!’ smiled Carla, with surprising self-deprecation, and released the belt from under her formidable rump. The buckle was as warm as he had expected – or feared.
Her attention distracted, the bore in the aisle seat now upped the ante. He was unstoppable. Oblivious to (or relishing) the fact that Carla clearly didn’t want any further tittle-tattle, Chuck ploughed on, as the Safety Demonstration commenced. The dual conversation made for a bizarre dialectic – ‘Located under your seat is . . .’, ‘So do you massage more than you act?’ ‘ . . . and can be inflated by . . .’, ‘I’m trying to keep both afloat at the moment . . .’ until a harsh ‘shhh’ from behind silenced them.
‘ . . . Thanks for listening. I hope you have a safe and pleasant flight . . .’
The mountains had been so quiet, Stephen reflected: a wonderful week of reading and sightseeing at a pleasant pace. Now there seemed to be too much teeming life on the plane. Too many humans. He hoped there would be no more from Carla as the plane took off, and indeed, once the plane began its kamikaze hurtle down the runway, the bore dutifully shut up and the woman opened her book. Glancing at its cover, Stephen paused at the title: ‘Writing to your Guardian Angel’. Goodness! Self-help, its cover bearing testimony from important personages with rows of qualifications after their name.
‘I’m scared,’ whispered Geraldine beside him. ‘Don’t be,’ Stephen said, and squeezed her hand harder.
The plane was now at a critical speed, the characterless tarmac zipping past the windows. In the back of his mind (and Gerri’s too, judging by the pressure of her soft, damp hand under his knuckles), was the light aircraft they had seen taking off into the cloudy skies above Toulouse half an hour earlier. ‘Just our luck if we hit it on the way up,’ he thought, as the undercarriage left the runway in that terrible moment of gravity-defying suspension. But then, the whole week had been rich in intimations of death, of their own mortality. Stephen had been convinced, for instance, that he would career off a mountain in their hire car. Never having driven on the right before, his initial encounter with the spanking-new, unfamiliar Peugeot had been like his first driving lesson. A sweat-soaked hour later, zig-zagging their way into Foix, Stephen looking the wrong way at roundabouts and turning on the wipers to indicate, he felt traumatised: lucky to be alive.
Then there were the mountain passes that led to many churches, medieval monasteries. Being an academic researching the heretical sects of early Christian Europe, these sacred buildings had provided the raison d’etre of Stephen’s holiday, a trip neither he nor Gerri could really afford. Gerri, a primary school teacher, and his wife of just over a year, had only wanted a suntan. In this she was to be disappointed, as the weather had remained resolutely gloomy for most of August. Even on the high dais that held the cathedral Sainte-Cecile D’Albi, Death kept reminding them of its unstoppable industry. An accident-board declared that a tourist bus had crashed in the mountains, the week before, killing seven German tourists.
In the sanctified space of Sainte-Cecile’s nave, alone with the concentrated dust of centuries, Stephen had been arrested by a ribbon of sunlight that had suddenly shot down from a high stained-glass window. He remembered it falling celestially, providently, on the warm wood of a pew – bluish from its filter of magenta glass. It disappeared before he could touch its enticing band of heat. The incident had flustered him, made him dwell on predictable thoughts of life’s brevity. The shallow warmth we were all afforded before the restoration of what was always there: cold, featureless nullity – stretching before and after.
Something similar had occurred in another church, the eglise Sainte-Martin in Limoux. About to leave, with Gerri holding his arm, oppressed by the huge oil paintings and murky saint’s chapels, he had stopped to light a candle. Touching its wick to another flame and placing the circle of wax on the lead gantry, he watched a peculiar blood-drop swell onto the tight meniscus. Death! So close behind, yet kept at such a distance!
And now their plane was straining to raise its nose above the clouds. In the trophosphere somewhere, was the light aircraft, perhaps his and Geraldine’s unseen fate, awaiting them. He had often conjectured about what would happen on impact during a plane crash: to be atomised, to become particles, when only seconds before you were a sentient being; a living, breathing thing, with a future and a warm hand holding yours. It was unimaginable. The pure compressed violence of it!
He needed to calm down. He was full of silly fears and superstitions; the one about the bad-omen woman, sitting quietly with her book next to him, being the worst.
But now the entire mainframe of the aircraft seemed to be caught in some sort of rictus of vibration. Above his head, the red seat-belt light remained resolutely on. The aircraft was being buffeted by ascending, malevolent winds – ‘Merely some local turbulence,’ the pilot’s crackling voice suddenly informed them calmly, but terrifyingly given Stephen’s over-overworked state.
Above this din, he heard the unmistakable voice of Chuck, the American.
‘Watcha reading . . . ?’ He was addressing Carla. Reluctantly she turned to him without words, and held up the cover of her book.
‘Writing to your Guardian Angel,” said Chuck. ‘Yowsa! What’s that about?’
Gerri’s fingernails were now scoring deep welts in Stephen’s palm; her face lowered, turned away from the window, from fate.
With no hint of irony, Carla hollered back: ‘Well, there’s this theory. You should thank your Guardian Angel when you believe they’ve saved your skin. Otherwise they stop getting in touch.’
‘Like at moments like this?’
‘You could say that!’’
‘And the best way to do that is by writing, huh?’
Stephen stole a glance at Chuck. Despite the tiny, sceptical eyes in the crinkled brow, he could see even the worldly American wasn’t free of the mortal fear that had gripped the plane since the turbulence started up.
‘Yes. A proper pen and paper letter. An email won’t do . . .’
Stephen vaguely remembered that Psychologists always advocated ‘writing’ to the source of either mental vexation or relief. He had always deemed such notions laughable, but now, with the plane still lurching, he was ready to commence his letter immediately. Another memory flashed across his mind: in the villa that morning, about to leave, he had been about to stomp a spider when Gerri (a confirmed, hysterical arachnophobe herself) counselled: ‘Don’t! Let it have its life . . .!’ This had proved remarkably persuasive. Let it have its life. Just as he didn’t want his own life snuffed by a boot, he suddenly saw things from the spider’s point of view. He had allowed the eight-legged fiend to have its short existence. Now he thought: ‘If we ever got out of this plane alive, I will be more careful of other living things, supremely careful.’
Surprising himself, Stephen turned to Carla: ‘Thanks,’ he said earnestly into the woman’s mysterious face. ‘That’s really good advice.’
She looked at him as if he were madder than Chuck.
At that moment the turbulence abated and the plane levelled out. Stephen glanced at the window. Only now had they burst through the blanket of white, into searing Elysian skies. The blue was so bright it hurt his eyes, the sun a marvel. Down below he saw the light plane, safely banking into a turn, like a dove on the floor of a valley.
Gerri’s hand released its vice-like pressure on his. For now, at least, they had been allowed to have their lives, and he was childishly grateful. They were still in the air. They would stay in the air.