Love is in the Air – By Tabetha Rogers Beggs
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” – Ernest Hemingway
‘Go on, go on… what have you got to lose?’ my cheer squad of girlfriends cried in unison. ‘Hit send!’ Fuelled with too many glasses of chardonnay and a crazy idea he might feel the same, my thumb lingered momentarily over the green tick on my mobile phone. I shut my eyes, as if making a wish, and pressed down on the screen. No turning back now, the message was gone.
I departed my hometown of Perth, Australia en route to the city where the tugboats on the Thames and the chime of Big Ben would welcome me back with open arms. The trip had been six months in the planning and I couldn’t wait to get there to see old friends and celebrate my ‘once’ flatmate Sarah’s wedding. I sent one last Facebook post before I switched my phone to flight mode, and slipped it into the seat pocket in front of me. My status update read:
I hope you’ve got the kettle on, because I’m finally on my way. Yippee!
I was eager to get to Bec’s little flat in Hampstead to loll around in flannelette pajamas, eating crisps and drinking cider, reminiscing about the times when London was my home and Bec, Sarah and Katie were my family. A time when we enjoyed going to parties, eating midnight kebabs and snogging boys.
Now, seven years on, Sarah was getting married, Katie was expecting her second child, which left only Bec and me in the eternal race to true love.
My love life has been non-existent of late. My last boyfriend, Robert, was smart but dull. His predecessor Daniel was apt in the bedroom, but not gifted in the intellect department. All I wanted was a happy medium, but it seemed no such man existed in the world I lived in. So, the odds of Bec marrying Robbie Williams, her ultimate fantasy man, were probably higher than me ever meeting someone that fitted my not too much to ask for criteria. I blame my wild red hair for my inability to attract the perfect mate. In fact, I use my fiery locks as an excuse for many of my failings. It feels better having something to blame.
The flurry of passengers stowing their hand luggage and duty-free booze into the overhead lockers had died down, replaced by the sound of seat belts fastening and parents shushing excited children—thankfully none of which were seated near me. The overpowering waft of perfume coming from the row in front was making me light-headed. The woman must have sprayed every free sample available on the cosmetics counter.
I was expecting to hear the captain instruct the flight stewards to cross check the doors at any moment when I saw a guy glowing with perspiration heading towards me. He stopped next to my row, observed the seat numbers above, then looked down at me.
‘Sorry, but I’m about to kill your plans to stretch out.’
‘That’s okay.’ Although, I’d been secretly praying I’d have the row to myself.
‘And, I’m a bit of an armrest hog too, so let’s hope nobody parks themselves in the middle seat.’
I smiled at his attempt to break the ice, and tucked a wayward strand of hair behind my ear. While he grabbed a few items from his backpack and slipped them into the seat pocket, I turned my attention to the action outside the window. Little carts and emergency vehicles snaked across the tarmac, guided by workers in reflective jackets waving paddle pops around, looking very much like a real life Lego village.
When I turned back, my row-crasher was stretching up to close the overhead locker revealing a taut tanned stomach. A trail of dark hair sprouted from the waistband of his jeans. Had they suddenly turned the heating up in the cabin, or was I going through early menopause? I slipped off my cardigan without breaking my gaze from the alluring view, and licked my parched lips.
As he sat down in the aisle seat, he started up a conversation as if he needed to explain why he was running late.
‘I thought I wasn’t going to make it. Bloody taxis are so unreliable, aren’t they?’ He buckled up his seatbelt, and ran his hands through his windswept curls. ‘Anyway, I’m here now.’ He reached out his hand and introduced himself. ‘I’m Michael by the way.’
‘Rachel.’ I shook his hand.
‘So, where you headed?’
‘For anything special?’
I could feel the heat in my cheeks. ‘Yeah, I’m going to a friend’s wedding just outside of London.’
‘That’ll be nice. Do you know London well?’
‘Yes, I lived there for a few years, back in the late 90s.’
‘Do you have any family in the UK?’
‘Not anymore. Just a few good friends.’
‘So, where are you staying?’
‘At my friend Bec’s house in Hampstead. Her apartment backs onto Hampstead Heath.’
‘Yeah, I love going up there and looking out over the London skyline.’
‘Yeah,’ I sighed, ‘it is.’
The Captain’s voice came over the PA inviting passengers to turn their attention to the cabin crew, as they ran through the safety procedures, cutting our conversation short. I’d seen the demonstration so many times before I could recite it in my sleep, and assumed my rugged new travel companion had too. However, when my eyes wandered across to him, his gaze was fixated on the stewardess dangling an oxygen mask above her head. It took me by surprise to see him watching the display with great intent, as I’d pegged him a seasoned traveller. Obviously not.
When the scare tactics were over, I made an attempt at a joke.
‘So, is it a granny knot or a half hitch you’re supposed to tie the life jacket with? I’m never quite sure.’
‘It’s a granny knot,’ he said, deadpan. ‘And, do you know how I know?
‘No, but I get a feeling you’re about to tell me.’
‘You have to promise not to judge me.’
Judge him, over a granny knot? Really?
‘Seriously, I’ve never disclosed this to anyone before, but maybe if I say it out loud it will break my superstition.’
‘You have a superstition about granny knots?’
‘No, about not watching the safety demonstration. I have this thing where I think if I don’t watch the full safety demo, the plane will crash.’
‘What about if I didn’t watch it? Will the plane still crash?’
‘You’re just mocking me now.’ He grinned.
I couldn’t help it. I let out a giggle. ‘You just don’t look like the sort of guy who would worry about those sorts of things.’
‘Well, I’m not normally. I’m just not a great flyer.’
At that moment, the engines revved and we powered skyward. Michael’s hands cupped both armrests, and he stared straight ahead, as the g-force pinned him to his chair. Small droplets of perspiration shimmered on his forehead and his knuckles grew whiter, as he tightened his grip.
When the seat belt sign went off, I turned towards my stubble-faced neighbour and continued our conversation in the hope it may help him relax. Poor guy, must be awful to fear something like flying.
‘So, you didn’t tell me where you were headed?’
‘England,’ he mimicked, and I gave him my best don’t be a smartarse look.
‘No, I’m actually attending a funeral.’
‘Oh, someone close?’
‘We used to be. It’s my girlfriend’s father.’
‘I see.’ My sympathy was a little mixed with disappointment upon hearing the word girlfriend.
‘Actually,’ he stumbled, ‘she’s my ex-girlfriend now, but anyway, it’s her father who passed away.’
‘So, you’re going to your ex-girlfriends father’s funeral?’
‘Yeah, I know it sounds strange, but he was good to me, and I feel like I owe it to the family to be there. Plus without sounding callous, it’s an opportunity to catch up with some mates too. So it won’t be all black suits and drowning sorrows in pints of lager.’
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound unsympathetic. I just couldn’t imagine any of my ex-boyfriends coming to my dad’s funeral. My dad just scares them off.’
Michael laughed. ‘I’m sure he’s not that bad. He’s probably just protective of his girl.’
‘So, how long are you staying for?’ I enquired, eager to steer the subject away from my doting dad and the ex- girlfriend, whom I’d already built a police profile of in my head — an English version of Gwyneth Paltrow, with a cute English accent like the Royals, and a body to die for.
‘A couple of weeks. How about you?’
‘Same, but I’m having a stopover in Singapore on the way back. A little birthday present to myself. My Singapore Fling.’
‘When’s your birthday?’
‘Third of October. The day I fly into Singapore.’
‘Well, happy birthday for then. Are you meeting friends there?’
‘No. I thought I’d get adventurous and learn how to holiday by myself. I’m twenty-seven this year, about time I pulled up my big girl pants.’
‘Twenty-seven hey? Me too. Well, I think it’s very brave of you. I love travelling alone. No matter where I am, I feel like I owe it to the place to get out and explore. I love discovering new cultures—and food, and people. Singapore is a pretty safe place for exploring alone.’
‘Well, I’ll see how I go.’ Knowing that I’d probably sit in a hotel room alone, ordering room service and watching movies the entire time.
I watched him reach into his seat pocket and pull out a copy of the inflight magazine. For a moment I thought he was about to study the safety card until he said.
‘Are you any good at crosswords?’
Yes. Now he was talking my language. ‘Crosswords and board games are my secret passion.’
‘Yeah? What other secret passions do you have?’
I responded with my best wouldn’t you like to know? smirk, bringing out a taste of my flirtatious side.
We killed the next hour completing the crossword and other trivia quizzes. Surprising what you can learn about another person by the random things they know. Once we’d exhausted that avenue of entertainment, Michael pulled out a pack of cards from his stash in the seat in front.
‘Have you ever played euchre?’ he asked.
A quipped ‘No’ was my reply.
He pulled down the fold-up table from the middle seat, shuffled the cards and started dealing.
The next couple of hours melted away while I learned a new card game. He had the patience of angels with me, as it took me quite some time to grasp the rules. But, I got there in the end.
When the meals were served, we called it quits and dined on something resembling beef stew with mash potatoes. We seemed to share an equal excitement of the chocolate mousse dessert, and scoffed it down before ordering a glass of red wine each with our dinner. We clunked our plastic glasses in a toast.
‘Here’s to new friendships,’ said Michael.
‘Here’s to whipping your arse at euchre someday.’
He raised his glass to mine. ‘Challenge accepted.’
When the food and wine made me sleepy, and the lights were dimmed in the cabin, we rested back into our respective seats and fell into a momentary lapse of silence.
‘I was going to catch up on some reading on this flight.’ I said in a lowish voice, as a courtesy to the passengers nearby who were attempting to sleep.
‘Me too. What are you reading?’
I pulled out my doorstep-sized copy of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.
‘Well…it’s a sign.’ And, out came his copy of the same book.
‘Which bit are you up to?’
‘The part where Walter Moody has discovered Crosbie Well’s letters to Alistair Lauderback.’
‘Okay, I haven’t got to that bit yet, so don’t tell me anymore.’
I slipped my bookmark out of the centre pages and attempted to read. But I couldn’t. I was just staring at words on a page. I didn’t really feel like reading. I wanted to keep talking to him. To know more about him. Where he lived? What he did? Where he grew up? Where he’d travelled? What his passions and loathings were? I felt like a forest of dry leaves that a bright ember had fallen upon, and he was the wind fanning the fire.
A sudden jerk of turbulence woke me. I’d obviously dozed off with The Luminaries lying open on my lap. Michael was wearing headphones and watching Seinfeld on the comedy channel.
He pulled his earphones out and gestured toward my face.
‘What is it?’ I enquired.
‘You might want to wipe that bit of dribble off your chin.’
Nonchalantly I obliged, embarrassed.
He laughed out loud. ‘I was only joking. There’s nothing there really.’
‘That was mean. Anyway, can I get past to go to the loo?’
‘You’re going to check for dribble aren’t you? You don’t trust me now.’
‘Actually I’m going for a wee, but yes, I may just check for dried dribble patches and panda eyes while I’m there.’
‘I like your honesty,’ he said, as I shuffled my way past him from the window seat. At the exact moment my knees brushed past his, the man in the front aisle seat chose to reclined his chair. It sent me surging forward, comedy skit style, at force into Michael. My hands lurched forward to break my fall, but slipped on the napkin thing velcroed to the top of Michael’s chair, leaving me uncomfortably eyeballing the guy in the seat behind, while Michael’s nose lodged deep into my cleavage.
The incident would have gone unnoticed if I hadn’t let out an almighty ‘Woooooahhh’ as I flew forward. Every passenger from row 25 backwards flicked up their heads like meerkats, to see what all the commotion was about.
‘Well that was unexpected,’ Michael said, catching his breathe after nearly suffocating under my ample bosom.
The man in the front row reached his head around and said in a polite English accent, ‘I’m sorry about that.’
‘Oh my God,’ I said under my breath, wedged into position, waiting for the man to put his chair back upright again. Our bodies were entangled in a position worthy of a new name in the book of Karma Sutra, of which I was eager to get free.
‘Look, it’s fine. I have women throwing themselves at me all the time.’ Michael joked.
I knew he was being facetious, but I wasn’t seeing the funny side at that moment. I made my way to the loo, cheeks ablaze, avoiding eye contact with anyone. I locked the door behind me, and sat down on the lid of the toilet. I could still feel the warmth of his body pressed against mine in our accidental embrace. The smell of red wine on his breathe. The heat coming off my face instantly misted up the mirror.
In Frankfurt, we got off to stretch our legs. Michael found some Euros in his well-travelled backpack and bought me a coffee. We didn’t mention the incident again.
‘Danke schön,’ I said, wrapping my hands around the cup.
‘Bitte schön,’ he replied.
‘German class at school?’
‘Yep, about all I remember too.’
We passed the time by playing our own invented game of What’s their story? where we took it in turns to make up outlandish stories about the other passengers and their reasons for their journey. I couldn’t help but wonder what people would say our story was. These two strangers, drinking coffee and laughing together in a German airport. Were we lovers, newly weds or just two people who’d randomly met on a plane?
When we arrived at Heathrow airport, we made our way together through the aliens queue at customs, and stood waiting for our luggage to appear. My mood shifted slightly, knowing once we left the airport, all I had was a good story to tell about a great guy I once met on a plane. Was this how it ended?
‘So, should we exchange numbers or something?’ Michael asked.
I struggled to subdue the happiness spread across my face. I scribbled my number down on my boarding pass and handed it over.
‘Well, Miss,’ looking at my boarding pass, ‘Lockett. It’s been an honour and a privilege travelling with you.’
‘Likewise,’ I said. The perfect closing words evaded me, they would appear inevitably in the middle of the night, when the chance to say them had long past.
He bent down and wrapped me in a tight hug that sent electricity running through me. He brushed my cheek with a kiss, before walking off in the direction of a blonde woman who did look vaguely like Gwyneth from a distance. Somewhere close by I could hear the cheers of women whooping and hollering and waving excitedly in my direction. The girls. How I’d missed them.
Just then my phone buzzed and a text message appeared.
Tell your friends to keep it down. 😉
Have a great time. x
I looked around to see him, but he was gone.
We exchanged a few messages during the trip. Nothing too deep and meaningful. Just, how’s it going and what’s the weather like where you are? But the night before I left England, full of good spirits and bravado, surrounded by friends who were sick of hearing about this Michael, I threw caution to the wind and sent him another text message.
I know our meeting was short.
But I think in another time and place
you could have been my soulmate. x
And that’s when his text messages stopped coming.
On the descent into Singapore the following day, I stared out at the perfect blue sky, wondering what might have been, hating myself for sending that message. It was so out of character for me.
But in honour of him and his words, which kept repeating through my head, I vowed to explore Singapore and not sit in a hotel room, letting life pass me by.
I walked through the doors of Changi Airport with my head held high and a new mission in my heart. From now on I would be brave, the way Michael had made me feel.
As I pushed my trolley through the arrivals gate, the scent of the orient and possibility filled the air. A bouquet of Singapore orchids caught my eye, then I recognised those wayward curls and that unforgettable smile. Michael held up a handwritten sign.
Happy Birthday Rachel.
Let’s go discover Singapore, together.
Sometimes it pays to be a little out of character.
(This story is published in the KSP Romance Writers’ Anthologie d’amour. Launched Feb 2015.)