Standing in the huge queue to go through security at Gatwick, Nell felt she was in a bubble. The noise of crying babies seemed muted, the relentless announcements about putting creams, gels and liquids into plastic bags washed over her. The lighting hurt her eyes and her back ached. These past few weeks had been really tough. Her mother had fought cancer with gritted teeth and a will of iron, only to deflate like a leftover party balloon when she was told it was terminal. She had appeared to shrink before Nell’s eyes, growing introverted and bitter that life had defeated her.
Nell had only just paid the funeral director when her dad started to fade. He had suffered from dementia for several years and for the last 2 had been in a nursing home, unable to sit up, not sure if it was day or night, nor who was speaking to him. He had become a biblical figure, his beard and his hair were long and white. The nurses had wanted to trim his hair but Nell had told them not to when she saw how much it distressed him. When the woman he loved died, he seemed to know that he no longer had to hang on. Within 48 hours he had slipped into a coma and died.
Nell was an only child and organising both funerals had been awful. She had longed for a sister or brother when she was young; now she felt the gap even more keenly. There would be no-one else who had shared her parents, no-one who had any understanding of what had made Nell who she was. She had gone to the Co-Op to organise the funeral. Everyone went to the Co-Op. Her mother had wanted a cardboard coffin but on this one thing Nell had asserted herself; she could not bear the thought of her mother slipping out if it gave way. Her mother had been a staunch atheist and Nell had found herself having to conduct the service before her cremation. It wasn't something she had given a thought to, who packaged up the souls of the unbelievers. Nell discovered afterwards that the Humanist Society would have dealt with the service for her. She wished she had known this. Standing up and speaking about her dead mother, without lingering over the complex relationship they had, was the hardest thing she had ever done. Her voice sounded like someone had their hands round her throat.
Her father’s funeral had been easier. He was a lapsed Methodist and the minister was kindness itself. He was a round man with a grey beard who bore a startling resemblance to Father Christmas. On his wrist was a bracelet made from knotted twine which hinted at another life. He told Nell that he had been a keen caver until arthritis had put an end to it. Nell could not help dwelling, somewhat incongruously, while sitting in his sitting-room discussing hymns, how someone so rotund could squeeze through crevasses underground.
Contracts had now been exchanged on the house where she had grown up, where she had swung under the apple tree, sat with her friends on the back step, snogged boys behind the garden shed and where she had come back to lick her wounds after beatings from the man she had planned to marry. In the end he had found someone else to hit, relieving her of the need to make a decision about leaving him. Her parents house had been left to Nell.
She was not sorry to be selling the house; without her parents it was like an shell. They were what had made it home. She could not imagine looking into the garden without seeing her dad tying in his beans, or sniffing a rose. Or the kitchen without her mum putting the kettle on. Places seemed to soak up the essence of people, but they leached out of the walls all too quickly. When she had packed up her parents things she had been surprised at what her mother had kept. Little letters that Nell had written her when she was small, bits of embroidery. Nell's photos were all over the house, in clip-frames, in folders.
Nell had been taking pictures since she was very young. She had saved up 4 shillings to buy a tiny plastic camera from the local shop when she was about 6. She still remembered the day she got it, and the telling-off from her mum for crossing the main road to the shop without an adult. Nell had grown up using film and enjoyed the solitary hours in the darkroom, burning and dodging. Nowadays everyone used digital and Nell had to admit that for weddings it proved much more practical. But nothing compared with the texture of a really good film shot and Nell had no intention of giving up on it . She had decided to spend the summer taking pictures and sitting in the sun. The spell at the health spa would hopefully to put her back into a frame of mind where she could work properly. It would be odd not having to spend her weekends photographing weddings to pay for her real work; bleak parched shots of sand dunes, fabric, wood, light and shade and texture.
She felt empty and rootless; no longer safe. She was now the oldest member of her family. She was also the youngest.
- o -
On the plane Nell stirred her hot chocolate with the strange plastic tool handed to her by the flight attendant. Somehow being in the air made her feel lighter. She shivered in the air conditioning and felt glad that she had brought her angora cardigan. Across the aisle sat an older woman, wearing pale green stretchy mesh shoes. By her feet was a bag made of a fabric which was supposed to look like tapestry. It had a pattern of road signs, interspersed with the words “Route 66” and “Flyer”. The optimism of the bag was in sharp contrast to the woman’s demeanour. Nell sneaked a look at her face. It was a face that must once have been beautiful; large grey eyes, ringed with shiny grey eye shadow, black mascara that in days gone by might have enhanced them but which now served only to emphasise how much they had faded. The woman’s hair was an unlikely blond, back-combed to conceal how thin it now was. Next to her was a man with a reddish face, a large purple nose and patches of flaking skin. His hair was covered by a pale blue baseball cap. He seemed older than the woman and had a tetchy air about him, as though life had not quite measured up to his expectations.
Nell hoped she would not end up like these people. She was by nature lacking in confidence, although outwardly articulate. She had made a resolution to take the opportunities life presented to her from now on. She had nothing to lose, no longer anyone who would judge her. She had spent most of her adult life trying to get close to her mother. But everything she said or did seemed to be not quite right. She had been seeing a counsellor since the break-up with her fiance and she was just beginning to realise that the problem was not that she was failing but that her mother was searching for something else altogether.
When she had finished her hot chocolate she got up and went along to the toilet at the front of the plane. There was a queue. Nell stood patiently, dreaming. She became aware that someone was stroking her back. It was a long time since Nell had been stroked by anyone and she had an overwhelming desire to burst into tears. Kindness could be crippling when you were vulnerable. She swallowed hard and turned round. She found herself nose to nose with a girl with a mane of long blond hair and a wide smile, showing crooked teeth.
“I love soft things!” the girl said, loudly, “I have a burping yellow pineapple with the most amazing soft fur!” Nell usually found people in her personal space made her uncomfortable but something about the girl’s warmth prevented her stepping back.
“I have a huge furry throw on my sofa at home, she said, “it’s printed like leopard skin.”
“I’m Frances,” said the girl, “I’m from New Zealand. will you be my friend?”
“I’m Nell,” said Nell, “I’m from England. I’d love to be your friend.” Friends had been a bit thin on the ground recently. Somehow when people died you had a glut of people around at the funeral and immediately afterwards. Then they drifted away, not sure what to say to you. Something told her that Frances was never short of something to say.
A large red-faced man with a pink polo shirt that clashed with his face came out of the toilet and Nell went in, smiling at Frances as she closed the door. She looked in the mirror. The orange light did not help. She looked horrible. Her shoulder length hair, which was prone to dryness and split ends, looked like straw. Her skin, pale and freckly, looked green. She had rings round her eyes like a panda. She was tiny and slim but lately she had gone over the edge and looked gaunt. Life had certainly taken its toll.
- o -
“I’ll just check the gas is off” said Alex. Ginny pulled a face and turned off the engine. Alex was a man who liked to make sure the gas was off. His uncertainty about things like this was in sharp contrast to his public face - a blindingly intelligent academic; a proper intellectual, rather than someone simply clawing their way up the slippery pole by impressing the right people.
“You’ve already checked it twice!”
“Better safe than sorry!”.
He disappeared indoors. The house was the same age as Ginny - it had been built in 1959. There was something about being born of the 1950s - a period on the cusp. Ginny had a copy of a drawing of a 1950s housewife with an hourglass waist, welcoming her man home from work and handing him his slippers. The text said that a woman should "refresh her make-up" before her husband came home and should "not object if he decided to stay out all night". It seemed like another planet.
They had lived in this house since the kids were young. The move up from Sussex was a wrench – they had put down roots there. But it had turned out well. Ginny looked at the squirrels rushing round the garden. The house had not particularly attracted her. It was just a house. But the majestic oak tree had done a better job than the agent and they had made an offer. You never owned an oak tree; you were merely a custodian. It had been there before they were born and would be there long after they had gone. Over 300 species of creatures lived in a oak. In May odd bugs flew into the house. They had eyebrows like Dennis Healy and sounded like First World War bombers. In some areas they were known as Maybugs and in some Junebugs. Ginny had looked them up on the internet after a particularly boozy dinner party when one had roared around the kitchen, forcing the more nervous guests to dive under the table.
Over the road was a house with a neglected air. Weeds grew in the tarmacked drive. The man was in prison and his wife lived there alone. He had filled the house to the brim with explosives from the place where he worked. He had stolen them a bit at a time, over a long period. It was not clear why he had done this, nor indeed how the wife had not noticed. Or indeed if she had noticed why she had not objected.
The car seats smelt strongly of leather, an oily, brown, luxuriant smell that always made Ginny want to stretch like a cat. The TT had been a bit of an extravagance but she loved it. It was impossible to make is skid; it held the road like glue. Young men in souped-up Fords tried to burn her off at lights. She took great pleasure in driving off slowly, watching them disappear in a pyrrhic cloud of exhaust fumes. She had looked at various fast cars but the TT had the most accommodating seats. Ginny was not fat but she was solidly built. She had a healthy outdoor look, with rosy cheeks and thick shiny black hair. Her mother's hair was still not grey even though she was in her 70s. Ginny joked that she had grey bits put in her hair to convince people that the rest of it was natural. Although at first she had dismissed a TT as a hairdressers car, she had concluded that hairdressers knew their cars.
“I knew I had forgotten something!” called Alex as he emerged from the house, banging the door and then giving it a tug to make sure it was really shut. He slid into the passenger seat and triumphantly slapped a map on the dashboard. “We’d have been a bit lost without this.” Ginny had a degree in geography but her map-reading skills left a lot to be desired. She gave Alex a friendly squeeze and started the car. He was a good-looking man, tall, with grey hair and blue eyes. She had got used to the goatee beard, the result of a mid-life crisis a couple of years ago.
They had been together for years, since she was a student and he was a lecturer. In those days it had felt a bit naughty. She was pregnant with their son when they married; warding off morning sickness by munching Marmite sandwiches which she concealed in the pocket of her coat. They had grown into each other, knew what each other was thinking, finishing each other's sentences.
Now the kids were grown up and making their way in the world they could kiss without their daughter shrieking “that’s disgusting!” They had got into the habit of going for long afternoon walks when they were on holiday, stopping in remote valleys or on mountains. There was something odd about sitting on a mountain; you had the feeling that all the people in the tiny cottages in the distance were watching you.
The plan was to drive down to Portugal and meet their friends in Faro. They hadn’t been to the villa since the kids were young. Since they moved up north they had somehow forgotten to go back.
- o -
Dan marveled at the plumbing in the airport. You didn’t have to touch anything. You had a pee and then swung your hand across an infra red ray to make it flush; you washed your hands and passed them under another ray to make the tap come on. How germ free was that? Bit of a problem if you were a refugee who had been in a camp for years with no access to running water. Even a normal tap would present a challenge. But airports were not designed with refugees in mind. Nomads, yes, but rich nomads, who traveled in search of the meaning of life rather than simply to find somewhere to live where they would not get killed.
He was a compassionate person. He hated the inequities of the world and felt keenly the isolation of outsiders. Somehow, in spite of growing up in a family which cherished him and nurtured his talents, he remained outside of the circle. He put this down to having been adopted. He had no memory of his birth mother. All he knew was that he had been taken from her because she was not able to look after him. His adoptive family loved him to bits. Two years after he had come to live with them his parents had conceived naturally and had his sister Beth, who Dan adored. Beth was a sunny character; she seemed to live a charmed life.
Dan was on the way to find where he came from. His father had died when he was a teenager. While his mother Laura was alive something had prevented him making enquiries about his roots. Laura had died a year ago. Dan had grieved hard and long for her. She had smelt of lavender and had skin so soft you hardly knew you were touching her. She had cool hands when you were ill and talked sense when you were deluded. No-one could have wanted a better mother. But Dan wanted to know about his genes. Why he hated vinegar so much. Why he adored dogs, when his family were cat people. Why he could never learn to ride a bicycle when his family were avid cyclists. Why he adored heat while they preferred to holiday in Scandinavia.
As Dan had been adopted in 1975 he had to see an adoption advisor. The woman had been nice. She had told him his birth name, which was Orlando Martins, and that he had been born in southern Portugal, in a place called Lagoa. His mother's name was Sandra Martins and his father was Roberto Silva. He could apply for a copy of his birth certificate from Lagoa. He had tried to get hold of his adoption file but the Catholic organisation that had dealt with things had closed down.
Beth had loved helping him research his past. She saw it as a bit of an adventure. She worked in a posh café bar in Brighton, looking the part with a white shirt, black tie and a long white apron over black trousers. He had called in for a coffee after the meeting with the adoption adviser, feeling the need for a familiar face.
“Go and visit the place!” Beth had said, “it’ll be a blast! You'll find out much more there on the ground.” When they found he came from Portugal it had been a surprise. Although he had dark hair and eyes, he was tall and lanky and clumsy. All the Portuguese people he had met had been small; compact and muscular. With Beth’s persuasion he had bought a ticket, told his dog-walking clients and his carpentry clients that he would be back in a couple of weeks and made arrangements to stay with the brother of Anna, the owner of his local paper shop.
“You’ll love it there!” said Anna, “Paulo and Cacilda have a bakery and every morning you wake to the smell of lovely fresh bread and cakes! It’ll put some meat on you!”
Dan had been sorry to say goodbye to Smiler, his favourite of his charges. Smiler was a grey, black and white rough haired lurcher with one blue eye and one brown, which made him look as though he was winking at you. Smiler lifted Dan’s spirits every time he saw him. The dog was an optimist about life; he wrung every ounce of fun from it. If only people had that secret. Smiler's owner Kerry was a nice woman. She worked long hours as an Army Welfare Officer, travelling backwards and forwards to Germany. Smiler often went with her and had his own passport. Kerry was married to a roofer called Darren who Dan was convinced was messing around. Several times when Darren was supposed to have taken Smiler out in the morning, the dog was like a mad thing, racing around like he hadn't seen grass for a week. Dan suspected he had been left in the car outside some fancy flat while Darren got his rocks off. Dan hated deceit.
He bought a Peter James book to read on the plane and wondered what was in store in the weeks to come. He suspected he had an interesting time ahead of him. He only hoped it would not be like the Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’.
- o -
Ginny pressed the button to shut the roof on the TT as Alex pulled their bag out of the tiny boot. They had traveled from Portsmouth on the car ferry and rather than spend the night in St Malo, with its crowds of tourists and street vendors, they had driven for an hour to Lamballe, a pretty town with a castle.
They were staying in a rather eccentric hotel which had a reputation for good food. The interior was gloomy and smelt musty, with odd artifacts on the walls. The woman behind the desk took chic to new heights. She had a sleek black bob and a neat little suit that looked like Chanel. Even her perfume smelt chic. Ginny always felt huge next to people like this. Luckily Alex never looked at another woman, however gorgeous.
After they had put their things in their room, a dark panelled place with a huge lumpy old bed, they went down for a bite to eat. The stairs were worn down in the middle from centuries of people tripping up and down them; illicit couples, businessmen, aristocrats; servants. The banister was worn smooth as silk. There was a window half way down the stairs with very old glass; it made the world outside look like it was underwater.
“I can feel my neck unzipping already” said Alex. His job was pressurised and all-consuming and Ginny made a point of getting him away regularly to keep the pair of them sane. She entertained dreams of him retiring but somehow these seemed as though they were dreams about someone else; Alex would still be writing books when he was 90.
They settled down to moules marinerres followed by pork with calvados sauce, which was accompanied by a neat little pile of rice in the shape of an upturned flower pot. After they had eaten a chocolate mousse, with so much chocolate that it tasted almost savoury, they decided to have look around the town. The main square was cobbled and looked as though nothing had changed since medieval time. Somewhere in the distance horses were neighing.
They wandered through the square, over a bridge and through a park full of flowers so gaudy they looked plastic. They turned the corner past a music shop, the outside of which was covered with posters for a long-gone election. A battered camper van was parked in the road with a pair of legs protruding from one side. Alex had long dreamed of owning a camper van. There was something of the surfer buried beneath the veneer of academia.
“Anything we can do to help?” he asked. A muffled grunt came from underneath. Then a stocky, sandy haired man, with kind eyes, slid out.
“Its the spare battery,” he said, in a broad antipodean accent, “its not charging up. I think there is a loose wire somewhere. I’m hoping it will make it to Portugal – I’m picking the wife and kids up from there on Thursday.”
He introduced himself as Jack and explained that he and his family were travelling round Europe before going back to new Zealand. Ginny was relieved that she hadn’t asked him which part of Australia he was from. She had been over there a couple of times in recent years to visit her old English teacher who had moved back there. In her experience it was not the done thing to ask a Kiwi which part of Australia they came from.
- o -
Bron changed down as she pulled up to the roundabout. They had made good time getting ready. Flights were always a bit stressy, but they had become much easier as Kenny had got older.
Nowadays the most stressed member of the family was Andy. He seemed to have lost the ability to look at things objectively since his breakdown. She looked over at him. Unlike most football commentators he did not have what was known in the trade as a radio face, which was ironic given that most of his work was on radio. It had become a family tradition to watch Jimmy Hill’s Sunday Supplement and laugh at the odd faces of the reporters.
Andy's face was kind, if nowadays rather baggy. He had a soft beard which was going grey. Old ladies took to him straight away, no doubt because of his curls, which Bron had thought were a footballers perm when she first met him. His health had not been great lately. His kidneys were packing up and he would soon have to go onto dialysis. Andy was tired a lot of the time and his temper had got much worse with all the poisons in his system.
Kenny was in his element.
“I love the sky at night!” he said “this is the best day of my life!” Kenny was autistic and given to extremes. He was obsessed with things. At the moment it was wrestling. He would often interject in a conversation, “a tombstone is where you appear to pick someone up by the neck but behind the crowd’s sight you are supporting him. Its all staged!” or something equally opaque.
Previous obsessions had been DAF lorries, guns, planes, strip lights, street lamps, lifts and canal boats. They had spent a happy afternoon being shown round the DAF factory in Eindhoven, watching the enormous lorries being assembled. The executives had been impressed with Kenny’s detailed knowledge of the finer points of DAF engineering and had treated him as well as someone who was spending a million pounds on a fleet of trucks. During the street lamp phase Bron had also managed to obtain a street lamp, luckily without its pole, from a work colleague who had a relative who installed them. Kenny had been over the moon.
Kenny was good at travelling. Because airports are full of striplights, planes and these days guns, Kenny was happy as a lark. On one holiday, when the flight back from Cyprus had been delayed and most of the children in the airport were screaming the place down, Kenny had peacefully lain on his back on the orange plastic seats, watching a fluorescent light for 4 hours.
“I forgot my translator!” cried Kenny. This was a gadget which could translate phrases into a number of languages.
“That’s a relief” said Bron. Sometimes it could cause problems. Kenny was fond of saying things like “ich bin ein diabetica” which in German means “I am a diabetic”. Kenny was not diabetic, nor indeed German.
Bron lived life at a run, leaving a trail of chaos behind her. She sounded as though every sentence she uttered should have an exclamation mark after it. Her appearance did not go with her personality; She had become positively matronly over the years. Her plumpness, or Rubenesque quality, as she preferred to call it, was largely due to the quantity of red wine she consumed and a diet high in olive oil and cheese. She sometimes regretted having lost her looks; when she was young she had turned heads with her bright blue eyes fringed with black lashes and eyebrows, and her red hair. But people took more notice of what she said now, rather than just gazing into her eyes. Bron worked in a team in Brighton, dealing with anti-social behaviour. She saw way too much of the seedier side of life. She and her colleagues often sat outside court, wishing they could take some little horror home and give him a bath and a good meal.
Bron turned into the long stay parking for the South Terminal at Gatwick. As she crawled round looking for a space a large Mercedes estate, driven by a man with a neck as wide as his head nearly crunched into the Audi.
“Any more of that I’ll pull off his fucking head and shit down his neck!” said Andy. They really needed a holiday.
On the plane they managed to get seats together. As soon as the seatbelt sign had gone off Andy stood up. “I’m just going for a pee.” He climbed over Bron’s legs and squeezed past the trolley that was slowly making its way down the aisle.
“There was a rudder hardover on a 737 somewhere near Malaysia.” said Kenny, loudly and authoritatively, “basically it swerved to the right and then went upside-down and then nose-dived into a river.”
“Could you keep you voice down a bit, sweetie,” said Bron, noticing that some people a couple of rows forward were crossing themselves, “ not everyone is as cool about flying as you are”.
“Ok,” said Kenny, in an equally strident tone, “anyway, there were long debates about whether it was pilot suicide or an actual accident.”
Bron exchanged a rueful smile with the woman on the other side of the aisle. The other woman, who had a mass of mahogany curls and twinkly brown eyes, said “I’ve got one like that, he often says things like 'if we don’t hit Mach 1 soon we will overshoot the runway' during takeoff! His dad’s a pilot so he knows all the technical stuff.”
“Kenny’s autistic” explained Bron, “he has Asperger syndrome and ADHD. He doesn’t seem to have a volume control and he finds it impossible to put himself in someone else’s shoes. It makes for some funny moments”
“I wouldn’t want to wear anyone else’s shoes, said Kenny, “it would be unhygienic and if I wore them for too long I could suffer warping of my metatarsals!”
“I thought he might be” smiled the curly-haired woman, “my daughter's autistic - I recognised the signs. She often comes out with things that make me squeal.”
“What, you mean like when I said I had gonorrhoea?” asked the blond girl sitting next to the woman. Several other passengers looked round.
“Just like that, Frannie” said the woman, patiently, turning back to Bron, “she collects furry microbes, they have hideous names like black death and syphilis. Who would have thought it would be possible to market something like that?” She turned away to look at something her son was showing her out of the window. Kenny tapped Bron on the arm.
“Seh feh mal barbe!”
“Whatever does that mean?”
“It means my beard is injured,” explained Kenny.
When Andy had gone into WH Smith in the terminal to buy a book, Kenny had insisted on buying a French phrase book, in spite of the fact that they were going to Portugal. He was learning French at school. Once Kenny got an idea into his head there was little point in trying to divert him. Andy had bought a Portuguese phrasebook too, as well as a book on the Crusades.
“That looks relaxing, “ Bron had said, with heavy irony, when she saw what he planned to read.
“Well, the Doomsday book was too big to bring and the Times Atlas of the Modern World wouldn’t fit in my bag,” explained Andy, completely missing her tone. Sometimes Bron thought he was more autistic than Kenny.
- o -
The sun beat down on their heads as they roared along the motorway. The fields, with their huge automated water sprayers, flew past in a blur.
"You ought to slow down a bit, wouldn't do to get a ticket!"
Ginny reluctantly reduced her speed. She vaguely remembered something about motoring offences being enforceable all over the EC. It wouldn’t look to great in her line of work - “British judge banned from driving after police chase!” She blamed her genes for her heavy right foot. Her dad had been a lorry driver and had kept the family supplied with a swiftly changing succession of cars. In the 1960s they had briefly travelled in style in a Jaguar. This had been replaced by a much less luxurious left-hand drive VW Beetle which had terrified Ginny's mum, who had to contend with cars roaring towards her without even a steering wheel to hang onto.
Ginny was looking forward to seeing Bron. They had been friends since they were newly qualified lawyers and shared the same interest in fast cars, good food and wine. The two families had holidayed together all over the place over the years. Ginny's son Jim was a programmer and helped Kenny download computer games that his parents would have disapproved of. Kenny had learnt not to gloat about how he had won at Max Paine 2.
Alex had spent the past two months trying to balance the budgets at the University in order to meet the HEFCE requirement for a small surplus. He was worn out with the intricacies of internal politics. The most frustrating member of the university council was a retired teacher who lived for most of the year in France. This did not stop him from picking up on every tiny detail and making a meal of it. He had recently had a bout of ill health which had given Alex a bit of respite but just before Alex had finished work he had opened one of the interminable e-mails to find that his bette noir had recovered and was asking about the cost of hand dryers as against paper towels.
Ginny had given up her job in a small solicitor’s firm in Nantwich when she had been appointed as a full time district judge. She had been sitting as a deputy for several years but this new position was a challenge. Life looked very different from the other side of the bench. It never ceased to amaze her what people would litigate about. She had already concluded during her days in practice that anyone who embarked on litigation was unhinged. Sitting as a judge made her realise just how unhinged they were.
She had splashed out on some tailor made suits so she looked the part. They were luxurious but she found the lined trousers too hot so chopped the lining out with nail scissors. This had the unexpected effect of making the back seam come unstitched, resulting in her having to back out of court in what she felt gave an unfortunately obsequious impression.
- o -
Molly lay back in her seat and loosened the belt a bit. Take-off was always the best bit of a flight; the speed was exhilarating. She was glad to be heading back. They had been duty bound to shoot over to the UK for the wedding of one of Jack’s work colleagues but it had been stressful and tiring. Molly never quite got the English. They seemed so extroverted in some ways but hugely uptight in others. She was constantly being wrong-footed in social situations; being too loud when she should have been quiet and too reserved when she could have been loud. The Brits might speak the same language but that was where it stopped.
The feeling of not fitting in was magnified when she saw how people reacted to her kids. Frances was a miracle; Molly had been told when she was pregnant that the baby had lungs full of tumours and that she would die soon after birth. Molly had gone through a hell that would never leave her, sitting for long days in the hospital bed, pumped full of steroids. But Frances had surprised them all; fighting through in spite of invasive surgery that Molly could still hardly bear to think about.
Even more miraculous was the fact that this little fragile scrap had grown into a beautiful tall teenager, with a mass of blond hair down to her waist and a smile that would melt anyone. She always thought the best of everyone, a trait that had more than once left her vulnerable. Frances was autistic; she was brilliant at music and drawing and danced like an angel, but she had trouble reading people and crashed her way around social situations, wondering why things had gone haywire.
Billy was as dark as Frances was fair; he had a cheeky grin and deep brown eyes and freckles. His quick wit and sharp humour sometimes led him into trouble but he had a sunny character that endeared him to people. He was a mine of information about everything under the sun and wanted to be an inventor when he grew up. Just before they packed up and left the UK the head teacher had called Molly and Jack in for a meeting. She had said that they thought perhaps Billy was autistic too.
Molly checked that the kids were asleep and then closed her own eyes. The 737 rumbled over clouds that looked like cotton wool; if the plane were suddenly to plummet down they gave the illusion of a soft landing on candyfloss. Molly was looking forward to seeing Jack in Faro. He had gone back to France by ferry and was going to pick up the van and meet them in Portugal. Jack was a pilot and could not bear travelling in what he called 'the back of the plane'. He was a quiet, shy man - the sort of man you would want around in a crisis. If he hadn’t been a pilot he would have been described as grounded.
Jack’s father had been a drinker and Jack found the drinking culture among his fellow pilots uncomfortable. He was happiest when he was with his family. But he had felt they had to go to his colleague’s wedding, show willing. He knew people at work thought he was stuck-up and if he had refused it would have been frowned on. He hated the false bonhomie and sharp jokes that he never got the point of.
Jack was used to driving long distances in New Zealand so the trip down to Portugal was not a problem. It was a shame that the kids would miss this leg but the wedding had eaten into their schedule a bit. The van was not what you could call fast. It was a Hymer which he had bought for a couple of grand on eBay. It was not very flash but they only needed it for 3 months while they travelled round Europe and then they planned to sell it. It had worked out much cheaper than renting one. It had become a family joke – the van was a Hymer Hypermobil. Both their kids were pretty lively so they pretended it had been named specially for them.
- o -
“Come on matey!” called Jeff up the stairs, “we’re cutting it really fine!” His partner of 24 years came down the stairs smiling.
“I had to find the right hat!” Marcus’s hats were legendary. Today he was sporting a brightly coloured embroidered number from Peru. Marcus would never wear a hat belonging to anyone else and would never lend his hats to anyone. They were his signature. They picked up their luggage from the hallway. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling in tiny paintings on reclaimed wood, Marcus’s work. Jeff was a sculptor and the scale of his work prevented it being shown on a domestic scale. It was more likely to be seen in public spaces, often enhanced by traffic cones placed there by mischievous students. They jumped into the waiting cab and settled back in their seats. Luckily the traffic was light on the way to the airport.
“I’ll get us some coffees” said Jeff after they had checked in their luggage. He felt glad to be leaving the UK for a bit. There was something hostile about how people went on. Even in the queue to check in there had been aggro. A woman in front of them with a sharp, hard face had been standing still when the queue moved on.
“Are you in this queue?” Marcus had asked, in his gentle way.
“Well obviously I am!” snapped the woman.
“There’s no need to snap at me,” said Marcus, “it was a perfectly reasonable question!” The woman looked away, looking as though she had eaten a lemon.
“What was that all about?” Jeff had asked.
“ I just asked if she was in this queue and she got a bit arsey” said Marcus.
“There’s no need to keep going on about it!” snapped the hard-faced woman.
The interchange had dampened their spirits a bit. They were looking forward to this trip. Life lately had made them sit back and re-assess what they wanted out of life. In the 1980s they had got used to attending the funerals of friends but it had been a while since anyone had succumbed to the virus that seemed to have been sent by fundamentalists to punish people who had the temerity to be gay. But earlier in the year, their friend Nick had announced he had a cough that wouldn’t go away. Nick had been HIV positive for years but had seemed in good health. The cocktail of medication worked a treat for most people. A couple of weeks ago they had been to Nick’s funeral. The pneumonia had taken hold quickly and wasted him almost overnight. Marcus and Jeff had decided as they drove back from the wake that life was too short to be spent saving for retirement.
When Jeff got back to where Marcus was standing, he found him surrounded by women in black t-shirts with pink feather headdresses. On the t-shirts was written “Sarah’s Hen Night – 2007”. Jeff wondered whether Sarah planned a hen night every year. He assumed that Sarah was the plump woman, dressed as Vicki Pollard, with a hideous wig and a frown out of a Dickens novel, who was sitting on the floor of the concourse eating chips out of a cardboard container. He could not imagine her scrubbed up for her wedding photos. Marcus was taking photos of the group, who had been persuaded to line up and jut out their breasts in order to show off their t-shirts. Jeff noticed that one woman’s t-shirt differed from the others. It said “Best Shag at Sarah’s Hen Night”.
“Don’t put these on the Internet!” shrieked the Best Shag, “my husband’s a copper!” The women sounded like they came from South Wales; they had the energy and spark of people whose families remembered tougher times. Jeff’s dad had been a miner in Nottingham. He had never left the house on bad terms with his wife. It was an old mining tradition never to leave an argument in the air in case you didn’t come back from your shift. Jeff’s dad now worked at B&Q, advising young couples on which shade of purple paint would suit their garden fencing.
“I’ve never been so happy!” he would say. “to hell with the noble graft of the working classes, give me patio furniture any day!” He had taken to having a gay son with an alacrity that had left Jeff slightly wrong-footed. It had taken him ages to tell his parents and he had expected a bit of a scene, if only to justify his reticence. His mum had taken a bit longer to get used to it but he knew this was only because it meant there was even less chance of grandchildren. Jeff’s sister Karen was a teacher and all the signs were that she had quite enough of children at work.
“Here you are Prince Charming!” he smiled, handing Marcus his coffee, “we’d better wander down to the gate soon.”
“Love you, babe” said Marcus. Jeff thanked the deity that he had almost ceased to believe in for his good fortune in finding such a gentle spirit to spend the rest of his days with.
- o -
The rain hammered on the corrugated aluminium roof. Giles had taken on the lease of a newly built business unit 6 months ago. They had hooked a big contract with an online betting company. The place was modern and bright but lacked the charm of the old premises. They had been in a warehouse by the river, shared with artists and shady characters who seemed to spend a lot of time on the phone. It still smelt of spices and had smooth areas on its brick walls where generations of workers had leaned while they sneaked a crafty cigarette.
The rain had been crashing down all day. Parvin (entered a final bit of code) and shut down the machine.
“Shit!” she muttered, looking at her black rubber G-shock watch. She had to call in at her flat and pack before going to the airport.
She ran down the stairs and out into the rain. Hurrying up Highgate Hill to the converted school where her flat was, she thought about (code). From the outside the building looked like an interesting place to live but the developers had been determined to squeeze as much income as possible from the place and the flats were poky and faceless. She got wetter still digging in her duffel bag for her keys. Her short black hair stuck to her head. Rivulets ran down her face like tears, pulling her mascara into grotesque clown’s eyes. She wiped her heavy black-rimmed glasses on her shirt. Luckily it was black so the mascara wouldn’t show. There was a pile of post in the entrance hall but Parvin was in too much of a rush to pick hers up. It would only be bills anyway.
Her flat looked like it had been burgled. This was how she had left it that morning. Most mornings were the same - time for a cigarette and a quick shower but no breakfast or coffee. Work was eating her life away, leaving no time for even the most basic existence. She opened her duffel bag and stuffed a t-shirt, undies and cigarettes into it. In the grubby, windowless bathroom she grabbed her toothbrush and face cream. As an afterthought she put on her coat. She checked she had her wallet and her Blackberry and with a quick glance to make sure the windows were locked she ran back down the stairs and out into the rain.
The Northern Line was just as it always was – overcrowded, noisy, dirty and dismal. Since her friend had worked as a temp for a firm of health and safety consultants Parvin felt disquiet every time she travelled on the Tube. It appeared that some parts of the network were so old the only spare parts were in museums, and the only people who knew how to repair those bits were retired. It had always seemed to her unnatural that people hurtled along subterranean passageways in the dark in giant tin cans but now she knew that large parts of it had been condemned as unsafe she felt even more uncomfortable.
She changed at Euston, through what seemed like a ridiculous number of escalators. The lights on the Victoria line seemed brighter and the people less Gothic. The bulk of the passengers spilled out at Victoria and Parvin wove through the crush, running up the escalators to the Gatwick Express. If there were no more hold-ups she should just make her plane. At least she only had hand luggage.
This trip was important. The former Eastern Bloc countries were the fastest growing market for their products. As a woman, Parvin was acutely aware that she had to do more to prove herself than the men in the company. The guys she worked with were nice enough but in such a male-dominated industry she was still something of a rarity.
On the plane Parvin wished she could have a cigarette. She felt totally wired. She was hungry but didn’t fancy any of the stuff from the trolley. She ordered a vodka and tomato juice from the flight attendant. He handed her a napkin and a plastic cup full of ice, followed by a little bottle of tomato juice and an even smaller bottle of vodka.
She knew she couldn’t carry on working at this pace without getting ill, but each time she thought she would be able to slow down another problem presented itself and she didn't feel she could say no. The trip to Montenegro was to sort out a bug in some software that they had sold to the online betting company. To the ordinary Internet user it would not seem anything special but updating the odds in real time, online, worldwide, was actually a programming nightmare. As usual the developers had been pressurised by the sales people into releasing the software before they were entirely happy with it and as a result it kept screwing up.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain Olaf Pollock speaking. we should be landing in Faro in about 2 hours. We are cruising at 26,000 feet. The weather conditions in Faro are similar to those we left at Gatwick, although slightly warmer. Your cabin crew today are Anna, Hannah and Naomi. They are here for your safety and comfort. If you need anything, please do not hesitate to ask them.”
Parvin sipped her drink, feeling the warmth spread down into her throat. She picked up the Easyjet magazine from the pocket in front and idly flipped through it. There were always interesting articles about gadgets in in-flight magazines. She saw an article about Faro and began to read it. “Faro is the capital of the Algarve” she read, “where some of Portugal’s finest wines are produced.” Parvin read on, then jumped. She re-read the sentence. She was almost certain that the Algarve was where the directors at work took clients to play golf, and that it was indeed in Portugal.
Parvin turned to the large man on her left. He was engrossed in a thick novel in Portuguese.
“Excuse me, but is Faro in Portugal?” the man gave her a look which did nothing for her sense of well-being.
“Of course it is!” he snapped, “where did you think it was?”
“I think I may be on the wrong plane!” she pressed the button above her head to summon the flight attendant.
“Yes madam?” the immaculately groomed dark-haired woman smiled at her pleasantly. She had tiny silver earrings.
“I think I may be on the wrong flight.” Parvin explained, “I am supposed to be going to Montenegro on business. I booked this flight online a couple of days ago. When I entered Montenegro and searched it came up with Faro!”
“Ah madam, “ sighed the attendant, “there is a place called Montenegro in Faro – it is a district near the airport – I have an aunt who lives there.” Parvin felt a rising sense of panic.
“But I have to be in Montenegro tonight! Its really urgent!” The attendant gestured to Parvin to wait a moment, went to the back of the plane and came back with a book of flight times.
“There is no connecting flight from Faro – you will have to go back to London in the morning and then pick up a flight from there. Easyjet don't fly there but I have a friend who works for Lufthansa and I know she flies out there. But its not a direct flight - you have to change at Munich or Dusseldorf and then Belgrade. And they are early morning flights so you would miss tomorrow's one. The earliest you could get there would be the day after tomorrow.”
Parvin felt the blood draining from her head. The prospect of trying to explain this to Giles, her boss, filled her with horror. He had sent her because he was due to be best man at his brother’s wedding on Saturday and could not go himself. If someone did not fix the bug urgently their client could lose millions of pounds. There was no way it could be left for two days. She wished she could use her Blackberry on the plane – the sooner she let them know the sooner they could line someone else up to deal with it. This would do her career no good whatsoever. It might even lose her her job. She felt sick.
Parvin stood on the concourse at Faro airport. She bit her lip and tried not to cry. She had rung Giles as soon as she was through passport control and he had phoned her back straight away.
“You fuckwit! how on earth did you manage to mistake Portugal for Montenegro?” Parvin started to explain but he had cut her off. “I’ll have to send Will over there to sort it out, and if he can’t I’ll have to go myself. and I don’t need to remind you its Alistair’s wedding on Saturday and I am supposed to be the best man! You had better pray that I don’t have to go schlepping off to the back of beyond!”
With that he had hung up. Parvin had already looked at every possible means of getting to Montenegro overnight, from hiring a car to getting a train but none would have been any quicker than the plane. She felt raw. She realised she had not eaten for nearly 24 hours and bought a cheesy pastry from a stall. She ate half before jettisoning it into a bin on the concourse. She strode past the ranks of tour guides, each with a clipboard and a fixed smile, and out of the building. The heat hit her like a hairdryer. The contrast with London’s rain somehow made her feel even worse. She found a cab rank and gave the name of the hotel that she was booked into. She would have to work out what to do in the morning.