This short story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in July 2000. It was inspired by a story I read in my youth, ‘A Tale of Terror’ by the British writer Thomas Hood, first published in ‘The London Magazine’, 1821
Richard found his seat, opened his briefcase and took out a book. He reached up and placed his briefcase neatly to the right in the overhead locker, followed by his overcoat set carefully to the left and shut the locker. Most passengers had already boarded but there were still a number of vacant seats. At check-in he had tried to get a seat beside the window but had been told they were all taken. He glanced at the passenger occupying that seat, a middle-aged, silver-haired man wearing what appeared to be a lumber-jack shirt. It seems he had been waiting to catch Richard’s eye.
‘Hi! My name’s Mike. How do you do?’
Richard nodded, gave a false smile and hoped that the American would pick up the territorial signal: I may be sitting beside you for the next hour, Buddy, but I am not travelling on your passport, so in your own patois, Give me a break.
‘Do you live in Dublin? Do you work in London? Or is it the other way about?’ asked the unquiet American whose twangy voice, Richard imagined, could be heard in the cockpit.
‘Yes and No,’ he replied, trying to work in a subliminal hint of tetchiness with his ironic answer.
‘Whatch you do? I mean, what business are you in?’
Minding my own, thought Richard, before deciding to ridicule the American.
‘I’m a scientist.’
‘No kiddin’? So am I!’
Richard was stumped, then the American laughed. ‘Wish I was. No, I was in the timber industry. Early retirement, looking forward to a quiet life when my wife up and left me. I guess she was unhappy. So, I thought I’d have me a break and come visit old Ireland. Always meant to. I just love your accent. And your colleens are so pretty…’
‘Excuse me, sir,’ interrupted the stewardess. ‘Could I see your boarding pass?’
Richard produced his from the top of his suit jacket. She checked the number, then asked the American for his. As he stood up to search deep in the pockets of his trousers he gave off the unpleasant odour of an unfamiliar aftershave and unsuppressed perspiration.
‘Here you go,’ he said, handing over the pass.
‘I’m sorry, but you are in the wrong seat,’ she said. ‘You should be two rows up.’
‘I apologise, Miss,’ said the American obediently. ‘I should be wearing my specs… Lovely girl,’ he whispered to Richard. ‘Sorry about this.’
‘No problem,’ said Richard with barely-disguised glee. ‘These things happen.’
Richard breathed a sigh of relief as a three-way swap got underway, involving two passengers to the fore and one across the aisle. He hoped he could reclaim the window seat but the stewardess appeared again.
‘That’s your seat there,’ she indicated to a woman in her mid-twenties. Richard rose and moved into the aisle to allow her past. She was slim and had blonde hair with a curtain fringe that fell right down to the frame of her glasses, giving her a shy, withdrawn aspect. She had no visible hand-baggage.
Everyone settled for take-off and the stewardesses went through the safety routine. Richard fastened his belt, opened his book and began reading. He noticed out the side of his eye that his new companion, mirroring the action of the stewardess, stuck our her hand indicating the emergency exits, checked below her seat for a life-belt and practised strapping on an imaginary oxygen mask in the event of a loss of cabin pressure. It occurred to him that he had seen this young woman somewhere before, then he realised that an hour earlier he had seen her in the tube station and had only noticed her because she appeared to be talking or singing to herself.
During take-off she shut her eyes and gripped the arms of the seat so tightly that her knuckles were white and looked as if they could pop through her skin. In the air she clenched her teeth and swallowed repeatedly until she was relaxed. After a few pages into his book he was certain that she had put back her seat and was inclining her head towards his shoulder. But when he turned around she was staring straight ahead like a soldier on parade. As soon as he returned to his book he felt her eyes back on the pages. He turned quickly and caught her reading. This time there was no pretence.
‘I like that line.’
‘That line there,’ she said, pointing with her finger to a paragraph from which she then quoted. ‘“The world is divided into shower-people and bath-people. Showers are for cleanliness and freshening up. Baths are to make you feel good.” Are you a shower baby or a bath baby?’ she asked.
‘Here, would you like to read this book?’ he said. ‘Have you no magazines?’
‘Oh, I couldn’t concentrate, thank you all the same. I’m so excited. And I can’t wait to have a bath, to purify my body. But you never said what you preferred.’
At that, the refreshments trolley arrived and Richard evaded the question. ‘I’ll have a double gin and tonic, please,’ he said. Then, ‘Yes, please,’ to the offer of ice and lemon.
‘I’ll have the same,’ said the woman to the stewardess, then she turned and smiled, undaunted, at Richard.
Up close she wasn’t bad looking, he thought. Nice mouth. Lively eyes. Good complexion. Again, his memory stirred. No, he had never met her before but she did resemble someone… And then it came to him. Summer holidays in the country, long ago, when his parents and his Aunt May’s family shared a cottage. For the first few days he and his cousin Sean set out with fishing rods and sandwiches and lemonade, crossing fields and a disused railway track, full of teenage euphoria, as they made their way to the river. Halfway through each afternoon, the trout proving elusive quarry, their mood would die and they’d become irritable and tramp home dispirited.
One evening they were caught in a downpour, took shelter under a tree along the main road and shared its cover with two girls on holiday, staying in a caravan site by the sea with their families. Sean, because he was older and in those days more assertive, had first pick, and the four of them, suddenly discovering an affinity, spent the next week on walks in the forest park or hanging out by the amusements, sharing drinks and chips, enjoying the constant stream of pop music blaring onto the street. Sean’s family had to go home a day earlier than planned and wouldn’t hear of Sean staying on. So Richard walked the four miles into town to see the girls. But only Lisa, Sean’s girlfriend showed up. They talked, they laughed, they felt more daring on their own. In the park Lisa confessed she had preferred Richard to Sean and wished she had been his girl from the first. They held hands, they kissed, they stayed out late. It was a short-lived affair, Richard’s first, and he always cherished those few hours, lying with Lisa in the sand dunes, looking up at the stars, listening to the waves club the shingle and depart in long sighs. They promised to keep in touch but never did. Or rather, she wrote but he never replied. And now this girl beside him somehow reminded him of Lisa.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ she said, interrupting his reverie. ‘You’re thinking, “I’m sitting here beside a raving lunatic.” Isn’t that so?’
‘You’re very forward, aren’t you?’ he replied.
‘Maybe we met before,’ she said.
‘You mean, in another life, or before?’ he said, as he cradled his empty tumbler.
She ignored his question. ‘Is that a wedding ring? Are you married?’ she asked, as she removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes, waiting on his answer. Yes, the misty likeness with Lisa of long ago was startling. Her eyes were bloodshot but there was something attractive about them.
Richard laughed. ‘God, but you are cheeky!’
‘Have you ever heard of the mile-high club?’ she asked.
‘Listen,’ he said. ‘There is an American two seats in front, a middle-aged lumberjack. You’re just what he’s looking for.’
‘So, I’ve frightened you,’ she said. ‘I am sorry. I didn’t mean to. Here, have another drink.’ Before he could stop her, she pored one of the miniatures into his glass. ‘Actually, I’m very nervous,’ she continued. ‘Theoretically, though, if this plane was going to crash and we had three minutes notice would you let me hold your hand if I asked?’
He was completely confused and didn’t know what to make of her bizarre behaviour.
‘You have to admit,’ she said. ‘It would be awful dying alone.’
‘If I thought we were going to crash – by the way, if you don’t mind me asking, what is your name?’
‘I’m Leila. And you?’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said and formally held out her hand. He had to turn around to make the greeting. She held onto his hand. ‘There. That’s not so bad, is it.’ Her hand was very soft, very sensual.
‘Leila, please give me my hand back.’
‘Oh, sorry,’ she said before letting go.
‘What I was going to say was that if we had notice of crashing I would order another double gin.’
Leila stood up. ‘Excuse me!’ she called to the stewardess. ‘Another order, please.’
Richard was irritated. ‘Please, would you take it easy, and keep your voice down.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said again. ‘It’s when I get nervous I say the most stupid things, the first things that come into my head, and I thought if I talked to you it would pass the time and we’d be back on dry land as quick as a flash. I had no right. I apologise… Anyway, here’s the barmaid. Let me get this round by way of apology.’
‘It’s free,’ said Richard. ‘Have you not flown before?’
‘Oh, it’s been a long time,’ she said. ‘Up until quite recently I was in a convent, for many, many years. The worse years of my life. But I made my escape and am going to become a painter, an artist. Perhaps you would like to commission something.’
‘Perhaps I might. By the way, I can’t imagine you with your hair all shaved off.’
‘That’s an old-fashioned view you have of us with our heads shaved, cloistered in some convent with no television or radio… Here’s your drink. Cheers!’
‘Cheers. I have to say, Sister Leila, you can do some drinking,’ said Richard.
‘I know, it’s going to my head. Could you excuse me, Father Richard?’
He rose and let her out. She went up the aisle and queued for the bathroom and made funny faces at a crying baby which then gurgled a laugh. Richard looked at his watch. They would be landing in fifteen minutes. She smiled at him as she made her way back and squeezed his arm affectionately as he let her in.
‘I owe you big time for being so patient with me,’ she said.
‘Not at all. Oddly enough, you remind me of a girl I knew a long time ago, when I was very young.’
‘I am flattered. Thank you. Did you love her?’
‘I can’t believe I am talking about this!’ he said. He then told her the story.
‘You should have answered her letter,’ said Leila, as she ran her finger down his lapel.
‘I was too young to know about love,’ he said.
‘You must know all about it now. Your wife is a very lucky woman,’ said Leila.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘And what about you? Can I ask? Is there a man in your life?’
‘There is, but it’s very, very complicated. It’s one of the reasons I am flying home. That and the recent death of my mother.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said Richard solemnly.
‘Did you know that our ancestors believed that an object which had been in the possession of a person became imbued with that person’s spirit so that after they die that object continues to give off something of the dead person’s substance? Look at this.’ She stretched her legs and took something out of her jean pocket. She handed it to Richard. It was a gold ring, stained with a slightly blood red patina. He didn’t know what to make of it. ‘That’s my mother’s. I carry it around with me. Sort of keeps her immortal.’
Richard handed it back. He didn’t believe in Voodoo or Gods or spirits or ghosts.
‘Can I hold your hand as we land?’ she pleaded. ‘I am really afraid.’
‘I suppose so, but I am a married man,’ he joked.
‘I know, I know,’ she said.
As the plane touched down she closed her eyes and was clearly terrified. She gripped his hand and he felt sorry for her, this eccentric woman who was really no more than a girl and who probably never painted a canvas in her life. She clasped his hand to her chest and he could feel her heart race through the push of her breasts and it evoked an emotion in him that he hadn’t experienced in quite some time. He closed his eyes and imagined saying goodbye to Lisa all those years ago. Of course I will write, of course I’ll be back next summer.
Leila pressed his hand deeper into her fluttering heart, and for one moment he lost himself in a bit of indulgence. But he shook the gin from his head and remembered who he was, what his life was about, and slipped his hand from hers upon landing.
After they disembarked she thanked him again and he thought that they had finally parted when she pecked him on the cheek. But seconds later she appeared empty-handed from baggage-return. He felt embarrassed because at the other end would be his wife with their two girls. Nevertheless, out of compassion, trying to make amends for an old wrong, he would walk Leila through, perhaps even offer her a lift to the railway station.
As they emerged at the other side and his wife and children came into view, Leila linked his arm.
‘We’re gonna have to tell this bitch the truth, Richard. It’s time she knew what’s going on. She needs to know that we’re childhood sweethearts and have been writing to each other for years.’
Richard was astonished. He pulled his arm from hers and violently pushed her away. Suddenly, several police officers and an ambulance team appeared.
‘Take it easy, Leila,’ said a police woman, moving forward cautiously. ‘Everything’s going to be fine. Take it easy.’
Leila slid down the wall, crumpled to the floor and began sobbing. ‘Richard, Richard, my love! Don’t let them take me back to the convent! Richard, please don’t let them take me back! It’s not fair, it’s not fair,’ she cried, as they pinned her to the ground.