“Traffic wasn’t bad for once,” I trill. “You’ve got plenty of time before your flight. Shall we go in the café and grab a bite to eat? My treat.”
“OK, ta.” A flicker of surprise. Usually, I drop him and drive away, leaving him hefting the portfolio of art, and the hard-shell suitcase. He never could travel light. We are in my car, not his. Yes, it belongs to the chocolate manufacturer I work for but, for all that, it is mine, not his.
When he drives it instead of his, to save petrol, I tell myself it is because I permit it, not because I dare not refuse. Just as I dared not refuse when he instructed me to order a manual car through the fleet manager, not an automatic. “You know I won’t drive automatics,” he says matter-of-factly, end of story. I tell the fleet manager I would prefer a manual gearbox. “Are you sure?” he asks in some surprise. “The automatic is more expensive, but your grade entitles you to one.”
“No, really. I always drive manual cars,” I mumble. He shrugs his shoulders.
“Your choice.” If only it was.
Driving it home for the first time, I was bursting with pride, revelling in the new-car smell, the handful of miles on the clock. It was one of my perks as a new manager. “Pile of crap, Ford,” Humphrey said dismissively walking around it. Not an Audi like his car, which I was rarely permitted to drive.
The boot is compact, but adequate for the weekend case I take on my own short business trips – to Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol. I play Madonna and Michael Jackson on the CD player. My choices, at least when he is away.
There is a single terminal at our local airport. “International” the name proclaims proudly for there are flights to Europe – Corfu, Malaga, Tenerife. One café and a small shop selling newspapers, sweets, crisps, cigarettes. The car park is half empty on the warm, mid-week summer evening. Weekends are busy with charter flights. One-week or two-week package holidays, Cosmos or Thomas Cook, departing and returning on the weekend. Everyone, the tour operators, the hotels, the tourists know that Saturday is “changeover” day, when clean sheets and towels go into the guest rooms. Sunday is the “welcome evening” in the hotels when everyone books their day trips by coach. By Tuesday, the tour desks in the hotels are empty but for panicked last-minute queries. “Where can I change money? Is lunch included? Will there be a stop for shopping? Toilet breaks?”
I park near the terminal. As usual he brushes aside my offers of further assistance, fishing in his man-bag for passport, tickets. His travel-wear is somewhere between Don Johnson in Miami Vice and a young Robert de Niro. A crumpled linen jacket over a white tshirt. His long legs are encased in drain-pipe jeans. Sneakers, no socks. A watch on his wrist but no wedding ring. It inhibits his cultivating female clients, he claims. He endured it for six months then it vanished into a drawer, never to be seen again.
As we trundle towards the terminal I bask in the unaccustomed warmth, the feeling of the sun on my bared arms and legs. He glances uneasily at my short sundress and I twitch the hem lower, apologetically. He likes me dressing modestly. Perhaps it is unsuitable for a woman of my age, a woman of 35, entering middle age as he frequently reminds me. He prides himself on never lying. In his hands, truth is a weapon.
“How many travelling?”
“Just me,” he replies to the woman on the check-in desk, flashing her the charming trademark smile he reserves for the outside world. “Unless you’d like to come too?”
I stand a few feet away, waiting for him to finish flirting. He will summon me with a jerk of the head when he is ready. He deposits the heavy suitcase on the scales, lifting it one-handed with ease. I remember admiring that strength, feeling protected by it.
Bag checked in, we traipse towards the café side by side, him clutching the man-bag, boarding pass and portfolio which mark him as a traveller, me the handbag and car keys of the woman heading home to suburbia in preparation for another early-morning commute.
A sprinkling of people in the café, holiday makers heading for southern Europe, the men in shorts, the women carefully made up, earrings dangling towards shoulders already bared in expectation of A Tan. Floor to ceiling windows give a view of the runway, the setting sun glinting off aircraft wings marked with the logos of “package” operators Monarch Airlines and British Airtours. A small boy with his parents kneels up on a chair, making “vroom” noises.
“Ssh, Gareth,” his mother urges. I look away. Even after so many years the hurt remains. No children in our lives taking my attention away from him, not now, not ever. “He’ll come round to the idea,” friends had comforted me. “Never thought we’d have two and another on the way.” They were wrong.
“What’ll you have? Chili? Something with chips?” I ask him. We take 2 trays and approach the self-service counter, sliding them along the rails in tandem, him leading, me following. Sparkling water for him, tea for me. I have – what do I have? I don’t recall, but he has the “special”, Cumberland sausage, egg and chips, though we are far from Cumberland, now part of the northern English county of Cumbria. Despite it being the “special”, his sausage is not ready, must be cooked. We stand at the counter while the server disappears kitchen-wards. “How long for the Cumberland?” I hear her shout. The reply is indistinguishable.
He glares at the logo-covered back of her beige uniform. I clutch the ends of the tray until my knuckles turn white, hoping he will not make a scene, hurl the tray to the ground. Wary of the presence of security and police, he usually keeps his temper under control at airports, but I cannot be sure. At first, he stands motionless but after a minute or so his foot begins to tap, and I hold my breath. Should I suggest he asks for something different or keep silent? Thankfully, his impatience level has risen no higher than clenched fists when I see the woman returning, tea towel wrapped about the hot plate. “There you are, love.” The long, fat, brown sausage glistens with grease as it curls about itself, squeezing the heaped chips and the perfectly circular fried egg to the side of the plate.
“Separate or together?” the girl on the cash desk asks. “Together,” I say, handing over my credit card with relief. He affects not to hear the mundane monetary exchange, picking up his fake-wood tray and stalking towards a window seat. We sit on plastic and metal chairs at the small table fixed to the floor. Like a pair of glass “drinking birds”, we fix our glances on our plates, pecking at them.
He carves away at the coil of sausage, his movements careless, diffident. “I eat because I must, not for pleasure,” they proclaim. “I am a cerebral being and this is part of the animal in me. Ingesting food belongs with shitting and pissing, with fucking.”
He shakes back his ponytail, brushes a morsel of sauce off his pointed beard with a paper napkin and lays down his knife, his meal complete. He dislikes eating in public. Whenever he refuses, I am reminded of King Charles I who dined in public while the great unwashed observed from afar. How would he, my husband, have coped with that?
Sipping his blue glass bottle of water, he frowns at me.
“I’ll call you, maybe tomorrow, maybe another evening. I expect you to be home. And don’t forget my car service tomorrow.”
“Before you go to work. And pick it up in the afternoon. I don’t want it sitting on the forecourt overnight. It might get scratched or vandalised by some lout sitting on the bonnet with metal studs on his jeans.”
“Yes.” I switch to what I hope is a safer subject. “Was it nice? The Cumberland sausage?”
“Fills a gap. Throw it down and throw it up.” As if to emphasise the point he belches into the paper serviette, sitting neatly folded on his plate.
I have finished the small, stainless steel pot of tea, the spout emptying half its contents over the tray as they always do. It is another, small point of difference between us, trivial perhaps. He does not drink tea. He downs the last mouthful of water, pushes his empty plate aside with an air of finality.
“If you’ve finished eating you may as well go,” he says coldly. I check my watch. A sunny evening with plenty of daylight but an hour’s drive nonetheless. I twitch the hem of the skirt again.
“OK, I suppose so, Humphrey. Work tomorrow.”
“Oh yes, work,” he sneers, a heavy emphasis on the last word. In that one syllable he expresses contempt for my mundane office job which pays the bills. He drums his fingers on the table, another sign of impatience. We get to our feet. I sling the bag over my shoulder, place my tray on a rack with other dirty dishes. He takes a packet of pills from the man-bag and dry swallows.
“Wait here. I’m going for a piss.”
I stand near the entrance, not far from the cash desk, holding the portfolio. The little boy has also finished eating. He has curls at the back of his neck. His father swings him into the air and upside down over his shoulder. The child squeals with delight.
“Simon, put him down. He’ll be sick.” Her husband gives her an apologetic grin and they wander off together, the child walking between them, swinging from their hands.
Crisp footsteps in the echoing, empty hall. Humphrey returning, wiping his hands carefully on a cloth handkerchief, one of the many I wash and iron into points. He folds it and returns it to the man-bag, takes the portfolio from me.
“Well then,” I jingle the car keys. “Have a good trip.”
He purses his full lips.
“I’ll see you in a week in Arrivals. Flight lands at 16.45. Tell that bitch you work for you need to leave work early. Don’t keep me waiting like that other time. Remember, actions have fucking consequences.”
Yes, they do, they did, but not anymore.
“Well, what is it?” I am staring at him. I will remember this moment.
“Nothing. Good…luck.” He does not kiss me. I do not kiss him. He shuns public displays of affection. I try to recall when he last kissed me in private.
He marches towards the security gate without a backward glance. Instead of leaving the terminal, I watch as he crosses the metres of shiny vinyl floor tiles towards the security check for departing passengers. He puts the man-bag and his folded jacket in a tray, the portfolio in another, walks through the scanner, one hand on his belt to show the metal buckle in case it beeps. It doesn’t. He collects his belongings from the tray and disappears through the sliding doors. They close behind him, and he is gone.
Feeling suddenly alone in the emptying departures area, I hurry towards the exit, my heels squeaking on the tiles. Only one more flight on the board that evening- to Majorca.
A handful of cars remain in the car park. I quicken my pace, activating the remote when I am a few feet away and the lights glow a warm and welcoming amber in the fading light.
I open the driver’s door and climb in, locking it automatically as he has told me to. Tonight, the air is warm with a heat more familiar from holidays in Spain and Greece than my English county. I can almost hear the cicadas. The vinyl upholstery is hot. My sundress rides up my thighs and I feel my skin sticking to the seat. It doesn’t matter now, for he is not there to see it.
I start the engine and take the new cd from my handbag, peeling off the wrapper and inserting it carefully into the cd player. As I drive towards the exit, I wind down the window. A small aircraft, a regional airline, is taxiing, propeller spinning. It glides out of sight and then emerges onto the runway, gathering speed. The nose lifts, the wheels skim the surface and then it is soaring towards the pink-streaked western sky and freedom.
The first track begins playing, the lyrics plaintive, wistful.
“It must have been love, but it’s over now”.
I indicate, ram the gear stick into third to give me the necessary acceleration, and enter the slip road. A moment later I brake sharply and pull onto the hard shoulder. Hazard lights on, I tug at my hand. I have gained weight in the last ten years and the wedding ring has tightened on my finger, digging into the flesh, loathe to let go of me. A moment of panic and then I force it over the knuckle, rub my finger and drop the gold band into the unused ashtray. I look at the white mark, the indentations from the metal. I switch off the hazard lights and accelerate. My own take off.
There will be one more night at the home I loved, though never was happy in. The long garden stretching down to the stream, the handful of fruit trees which scatter their apple blossom every spring. I can see them from my bedroom. His looks towards the city.
“Good luck,” I had said when I meant “Goodbye”. The bruises on my body would soon be nothing but a memory. Those on my soul would take many years to heal.