Stepping off the plane he couldn’t help shiver, despite the heavy coat, fleece hoodie and heavy jeans he was wearing. The wind was seasonally warm but compared to the glorious sunshine of a Brisbane spring, a warm end to a British autumn was chilly, to say the least. He fished the Oakley’s out of his jacket pocket as he crossed the tarmac, shifting the weight of his laptop as he did so. He liked that he was physically carrying every single thing he owned; it made him feel free to do whatever he wanted, as he’d always dreamed.
He knew that she’d be waiting for him when he reached the terminal, a nervous, almost haunted look in her eyes, probably holding her hands in front of her mouth, nibbling at a fingernail. She’d be dressed well, but not in anything deliberately provocative. Whatever she was wearing he’d find it enchanting; he always did. Just as he knew that he’d probably be within touching distance before she recognised him. Even he had been surprised by the change, and he’d had to look at it in the mirror every day.
The doors slid open as he stepped into air-conditioned Hell. The temperature was even cooler and he almost yelped at the difference. The shades shifted tint in response to the change in light; nothing miraculous, just a well-polarised set of lenses, and as his own vision also adjusted he made his way over to customs. Nothing to declare, he thought, nothing but a head full of memories, a CD full of adventure and a heart full of love. Getting past the Gestapo wannabes that manned the desk he scanned the lounge for the reason he’d bothered to come back at all.
She’d told him she’d be there in her last e-mail. The tone had been subdued but he’d felt that way himself, wanting to know what he’d be returning to but not wanting her to have to think about it. In the end he’d left it open, telling her how much he’d missed her. That was in Singapore.
He stopped looking for her after five minutes. The plane had been delayed on take-off and the rational part of him told him that maybe she’d gone to get a coffee, not knowing when he’d be there. It was the devil inside that told him she’d have memorised the flight number and would have been there five minutes before he touched down in her eagerness to see him again. He knew that even after all this time apart, she still loved him.
Weighing up the situation, he decided a coffee would be a good idea after all. He’d barely touched the stuff down under but now that he was back it was time to reacquaint himself with some bad habits, starting off with something simple. A quick glance around and he was on his way in the direction of the local Starbucks.
Sitting by the window with a cinnamon latte, his mind drifted back to her. He’d expected her to be here and she wasn’t. He knew there were a million possibilities, a multitude of reasons why. He quickly dismissed the too-unlikely or the too-horrific and rolled the remaining probabilities around for a while. All the while, the devil in his kidneys was making trouble, bringing him back to the one dark patch in his six months of light.
She’d met somebody fantastic. When she’d told him about it he’d almost choked. The reason he was in Australia, the reason he’d got on the plane in the first place, was to give her time, to let her focus on her boyfriend. He wanted her to remember how to love the man she was with so that when he got back she’d be able to resist the man she loved. And now she was telling him she’d met somebody fantastic. He’d read through the rest of the e-mail in a haze, every possible emotion taking a turn at playing with his head. Only when he’d got to the end did she finally say something that stopped the fear; the somebody fantastic was somebody she’d met in Egypt, somebody who lived in Canada.
When he’d finally understood the whole picture the darkness had lifted but now, sitting in a coffee shop in an airport, waiting for her to come to him, the devil was reminding him about it.
Half a cup of coffee later he finally managed to silence the devil. There were other, far more plausible reasons for her not to be here, none of which had anything to do with not wanting to. The most likely was car trouble or traffic trouble. He could still remember British traffic and barely managed to suppress the shudder that ran through him at the chaos he was returning to. He hoped that he’d be able to get out of the country fairly quickly and if things went the way he expected it wouldn’t be much more than a year before that happened.
He’d had an offer from an Australian publisher on his first novel thanks to some creative representation from the Australian agent he’d been sharing a bed with for the last three months. He’d had the company of a woman who was both physically and intellectually beautiful for three months and every day he’d felt the pangs of loneliness playing on his heart. When he’d told the agent about the writer, she’d surprised him by sticking by him, no strings. Now all he had to do was tell the writer about the agent.
A quick glance at the clock; half an hour had passed while he’d been thinking and still she wasn’t here. He could see the arrival lounge from where he sat and there was no sign of her. The devil took this and started to play with it, throwing up another possibility. Maybe, the devil told him, maybe there’s been an accident.
Bad move, devil, he thought to himself, I don’t think that way any more. But the devil carried on pushing, waving the idea around in front of his eyes until he started to consider it himself. His heart stopped for a second and then reason woke up and he threw the fear and the devil to the back of his mind.
The coffee was gone and he wanted more. For some reason he also wanted a smoke, something he hadn’t done since he’d left Britain in the first place. Damn, but this country sure as hell was bad for you. Rising to his feet he looked at the tiny, humiliated biscuit that accompanied most cups of coffee these days. Without knowing why, he picked it up and dropped it into his jacket pocket.
A visit to the newsagent, a trip to the gents and a wander outside to where he could light up and he was once again polluting his lungs and the fragile atmosphere. The first drag went straight to his head and he quickly found somewhere to sit. Life was playing games with him as he finished his first cigarette in over six months and he almost laughed when he realised that less than an hour ago he’d still been happy. Now, he wasn’t so sure.
She still wasn’t there when he got back to arrivals so he slowly crawled back into Starbucks idly wondering if Dirk Benedict had ever visited the place. That would have been a perfect photo opportunity; Starbuck drinking at Starbucks. He got himself another coffee and sat at the same table.
She’d spoken to him every week while he’d been away, as promised. The internet had kept them together, even though there was an entire planet between them, and every time he’d done talking to her he’d felt his heart sink. He wanted her more now than he had when he’d left, and in the ideal world he would have been returning to a future with her. They’d even discussed it a few times, when she’d been alone and free to talk. The first time that had happened he’d stopped it himself, insisting that he didn’t want to start dreaming those things. She had to concentrate on her man. That hadn’t stopped her though.
His second coffee was cold before he finished it, his mind pulling each and every possible reason apart until he had dismissed them all but one. He remembered Sherlock Holmes and smiled; having eliminated all the other probabilities, the only other possibility must be the true one, however unlikely. She wasn’t here because she didn’t want to be.
The devil loved this and danced with glee. That was it! That was the only possible explanation. She’d thought about it and decided she didn’t want him in her life any more. Way to go, kiddo. You just came home to nothing, zilch, nada, the big zero. Loser!
The pain flooded through him in an instant. He was surprised by how little there was. Part of him had always known that there was no gold at the end of the rainbow and now he was living the proof of it. Why should she want to be with him; he’d run halfway round the world to get away from her so what right did he have to come back and demand she give him time? The more he thought about it, the more he understood the truth of his thoughts. She had loved him, once. That was the limit for most people.
Fishing the smokes out of his pocket he examined the pack. A carton of coffin nails, each one laden with: Tar 6 mg, nicotine 0.5 mg, carbon monoxide 7 mg. He wondered how much carbon monoxide he’d inhaled sat in an airport arrival lounge for two hours. Nothing really mattered any more. Crushing the pack with nineteen nails still inside, he dropped it on the table and rose to his feet, defeated by his own aspirations.
The car keys that landed next to the smokes weren’t his. He looked up into her eyes in shock, the eyes that told him everything; her guilt at her tardiness, her joy at seeing him, the love that still burned brightly. Barely hearing her apology he dropped back into his seat, the future once more beckoning him on.
S. Naomi Scott (c) 2005