Authors: Lucie Whitehouse
For Joe, with my love
The rain was beating down, and out here, where the carriageway was exposed, the wind buffeted Hannah’s old VW as if it were trying to push it off the road. Usually on a Heathrow run she watched the planes dip down into the airport one after another, barely a minute between them, but tonight the rhythm was broken and it was two minutes, now three, before a new set of lights struggled through the roiling cloud. She tightened her grip again, checked the mirror and pulled out into the fast lane.
The Holiday Inn loomed up on the left, an ugly concrete tooth in silhouette against the sky, the light from its green neon sign leaching into the wet air. She took the exit for Terminal Three, the buzz in her stomach intensifying. Though they were married now, the trip to the airport was still exciting. She didn’t need to come and meet him; in fact, it would probably be quicker if Mark caught a cab into town, especially on a night like this, but the drive, arrivals, the crush at the barrier – it all reminded them of the time before they got married, when JFK and Heathrow were the poles around which so many of their weekends revolved.
As usual, the first two levels of the car park were full. Reluctantly, she took the ramp up to level three and found a spot by the lobby with the ticket machines. After a quick look in the mirror, she got out of the car and headed for the lifts.
The arrivals hall was busy, even for a Friday night. Beneath the low suspended ceiling, their faces bleached by the harsh strip lighting, hundreds of people were waiting. Three or four deep at the barrier, they clustered around the centre of the hall and outside the row of small concessions: the usual collection of drivers with name cards, a group of backpackers in shorts and T-shirts they would curse the moment they stepped outside, and an entire extended family, twenty-five or thirty people, all wearing traditional African dress, a blaze of colour and pattern.
She wove a path to the overhead monitors where she saw that Mark’s plane had just landed. It would be fifteen or twenty minutes before he came through the doors so she bought a sandwich from the little Marks and Spencer and sat on one of the benches on the other side of the hall. Earlier in the day, she’d been to the delicatessen and bought some French bread and a piece of really good Roquefort, which, with a glass of wine, was all Mark ever wanted after an evening flight, but she was too hungry to wait until then. She’d had nothing to eat since lunchtime: the interview with AVT this afternoon had run on much later than she’d expected, and it had been past seven o’clock by the time she’d got off the Tube at Parsons Green.
From the bench she watched the mechanised doors emit an irregular dribble of people. On the monitor there was a long list of flights with substantial delays. The passengers coming through now were on the plane that had come in from Freetown, she guessed, two before Mark’s; they were an hour and a half late. She watched a lanky, deeply suntanned man in jeans and a khaki shirt emerge and start scanning the crowd. From behind the barrier opposite, a young woman pushed her way forward, her face a picture of joy, and ran into his arms, giving him a kiss that drew a snort of disapproval from an elderly man further along the bench. Hannah felt another buzz in the pit of her stomach.
Come on, Mark
She remembered waiting for him on the other side of the Atlantic, before she moved back to London. Terminal Seven at JFK, the one American Airlines used, was stark; no cafés or shops to kill time in, just a newsstand, a coffee concession and a few rows of hard plastic chairs. She’d always used to take her laptop in case he was late but it had been impossible to work when her head snapped up every time someone came round the barrier. She’d never wanted to miss the moment when Mark first caught sight of her and the smile spread across his face. The first few times, the smile had given way to an exaggerated comic grin, as if he was trying to cover his embarrassment at having revealed himself, but that soon stopped and the regular sequence of events was established: he’d squeeze her until she was afraid he’d crack her ribs then they’d get a cab and go straight to her apartment and bed. Afterwards, they’d get dressed again and walk round to Westville on 10th Street for hotdogs.
The doors were opening more regularly now, releasing a steadier stream of people. A number of the voices had American accents, which suggested they’d been on Mark’s flight; the ones before and after his had come from Egypt and Morocco. She stood up and went to look. A few men in suits with lightweight cases; two couples; a family struggling with a precarious tower of luggage on a trolley whose front wheels wouldn’t cooperate. Spotting his father before his mother did, a toddler slipped out of her grasp and made a fat-legged beeline for him under the barrier, sending a ripple of laughter through the crowd.
After twenty-five minutes, she knew there must be some sort of hold-up. Mark was almost always among the first wave of passengers off a flight, and he’d only taken his small leather bag this time so he would have bypassed baggage reclaim. Perhaps he’d left something on the plane and gone back for it or perhaps he’d been stopped for a random customs check. She pushed back her sleeve and looked at her watch, the Rotary her mother had given her when she’d started university. Five past ten. She brought up Mark’s number on her BlackBerry then changed her mind: ringing him would spoil it. She’d wait another ten minutes and then call, if she had to.
By quarter past, however, the American accents had petered out and most of the people coming through the doors were talking to each other in rapid-fire Spanish. The only other person who’d been waiting as long as she had was a man in his fifties wearing a navy blazer and chinos, and now even his daughter appeared. Hannah wondered whether she’d got her wires crossed, but no, she was sure Mark had said Friday, the usual time.
She dialled his number. The call went straight to voicemail and she hung up without leaving a message. It wasn’t like him to miss a flight but maybe that was what had happened. Maybe he’d missed it and managed to get on a later one instead. He’d done that once before, coming back to New York from Toronto.
She consulted the monitors again. His flight wasn’t even shown any more. Scanning down, however, she saw two more flights from New York; one had just landed, the other was imminent. Perhaps he’d be on one of those. If he were, he’d call or send a text the moment he could turn his phone on.
The crowd was thinner now and this time she got the place at the barrier right opposite the doors – ‘the golden spot’, Mark called it. Checking her phone every couple of minutes, she waited until ten past eleven, almost another full hour. When the last of the second batch of Americans came through the doors, she phoned him and got voicemail again.
Hannah began to feel alarmed. If he was on a different flight, why hadn’t he called her? What if something had happened to his plane? She rang him one more time then gave up her place at the barrier and made her way towards the fire exit. The airlines’ information desks were in the departures hall, and crossing the courtyard between the two buildings was far quicker than schlepping through the network of tunnels and escalators.
Wind was swirling around the courtyard, driving the rain in bursts like shoals of tiny fish, lifting it for a moment then dashing it against the ground. The heavy door was snatched from her hand and slammed shut behind her. Overhead, another plane struggled through the cloud, its engines filling the air with harrowing thunder. Hannah put her head down and ran.
The dash took thirty seconds at most but she was pushing wet hair off her face as she came inside. Compared to the arrivals hall, departures at Terminal Three was the picture of well-lit, high-ceilinged modernity, but when she found the desk for American, the airline he usually used, the woman behind it was putting her jacket on.
‘I’ve already turned off the computer,’ she said, without looking up.
‘I just want to know if my husband was on a flight this evening.’
‘Oh.’ Now the woman looked up, her face brightening. ‘Well, I couldn’t have told you that anyway. Data protection, isn’t it?’
Hannah felt her usual surge of irritation at petty bureaucracy. ‘Seriously?’ she said. ‘He’s my husband.’
‘Sorry.’ The woman shrugged, looking pleased at the opportunity to wield her power, and Hannah’s irritation refocused itself on her. Working in close proximity to the duty-free shops was no excuse for wearing so much bloody make-up. How old was she anyway, under that death mask of foundation?
‘Look,’ said Hannah, laying her hands on the counter, ‘all I really need to know is that my husband’s safe. Can you at least tell me whether there have been any problems with the New York flights tonight?’
The woman sighed. ‘Nothing like that,’ she said. ‘Delays because of the wind, but that’s it.’
Hannah was halfway back across the hall before she thought about where she was going. She tried Mark again. Still nothing. This time she left a message. ‘Hi, it’s me. I’m at Heathrow – where are you? I came to meet you but I don’t think you’re here. If you are, ring me.’ She hesitated. ‘I hope everything’s all right. Call me as soon as you get this – I’m worried about you.’ She laughed a bit, to tell him she knew she was being ridiculous: Mark was the last person to get into a mess, so if the planes were safe, he was.
Hanging up, she thought about whom she could call. Neesha, his assistant? No: it was almost half past eleven. And if Neesha knew there was a problem, she would have been in touch. The same went for David, his business partner. Mark had gone to America on his own this time so there was no one to cross-check with. If she didn’t hear from him tonight, she’d have to wait until the morning before she could start calling around.
Upstairs in the short-stay car park she narrowly mastered an urge to kick the ticket machine. ‘Twelve pounds for two crappy hours?’ Her voice echoed off the walls of the empty ticket-lobby.
The M4 back into London had gone quiet, too, and the streetlamps cast isolated pools of light on the carriageway ahead of her. On the raised section of road above Brentford she looked into offices vacated until Monday, seeing the ghostly shapes of desks and chairs and computers, and she had the sudden alarming idea that she was looking at a vision of her own career – distant, fading and locked away behind glass through which she could see it but no longer reach.