R E J E C T I O N A N T H O L O G Y
The airport is hollow. Forced air sweeps people through its chambers and away, up and across. Always away. There is, amongst the urgency and patience, a thrill of promise, of somewhere else and movement, hiding the faces which are there everyday pouring coffee or stamping passports. These faces are not important, they are not why airports exist, only how.
Parking her car, Vinciane pulls out her pass from the glove box to display in the window. She sits for a moment, still, adjusting to her latest position in the car park. She is three spaces and one row to the left of the space she parked in yesterday. It is a different time of day, an afternoon flight she is meeting, and so the air is thicker, hazed with a murmur of dust from the runways. She reaches into her soft, leather briefcase to consult her diary and view the client’s flight details and name, checks the spelling against the printed card she will hold up as the passengers surge towards her, and then glances at her watch.
The flight is not due to land for an hour. There is time for a Coke, the slow walk to the gate. She will not be needed for about an hour and a half, maybe more. She reaches up and pulls out the bands and clips which hold her dark hair in place. They slide away and let her hair fall from office propriety to relax around her shirted shoulders. Her hands rise again automatically to ruffle through the strands, a subconscious habit creating a tousled hood around her face, and she puts the clips into her bag. When the flight is announced she will unfold a small comb and tether herself into work, clean sweeps and high crown, revealing a slant to her eyes, a focus of attention. Professional.
At home their toothbrushes lean together in a glass, heads touching. Vinciane’s husband will come home from work to find her still absent, the breakfast dishes cradling each other in the drainer. He will sigh and accept late flights and paperwork and think about food. He cooks most nights, selecting clean flavours and lean meats to sustain them. He is inspired by recent cookbooks, Countryfile and Saturday Kitchen, and is prone to wandering around markets. He sees the health it brings to their skin, clear eyes to talk through. Tonight he will not cook. Instead he will eat a sandwich late afternoon, and when his wife finally gets home they will order takeaway.
Yesterday, due to strong headwinds, Vinciane sat for three hours at Gate Four. She sipped Diet Coke from the can, each taste a warmer brown buzz on her tongue until the last tilt brought tepid flat sweetener to her lips and throat. She carried the vibrations with her for hours, was still thrumming on the inside as she drove the woman to the hotel and handed over the paperwork for the meeting. Her hands had barely shaken. Diet Coke went straight through her.
There is a man who works the early shift at Terminal One. His name is Gary and he makes coffee and heats croissants from six am till three. Vinciane calls him Rupert, though not to his face. She has never spoken more than a few words to him, “Diet Coke please, no glass,” and “thank you,” but she sees him as a Rupert. He is younger than her by maybe six years, five at most, and his eyes are calm and long lashed. Sometimes Vinciane imagines Rupert’s hands on her, resting on her shoulders, but her thoughts travel no lower. She has only ever slept with her husband and sees infidelity as a dangerous crime. Sometimes she imagines fantasising, and is intrigued by the notion.
Gary turns from where he is cleaning out the coffee machine and considering what to buy his mother for her birthday. Fifty years is a milestone, it had better be good. There is the woman with the smart suit and messy hair again, leaning into the counter like a tired child against its mother’s knee. He smiles his work smile and asks her what she would like, simultaneously deciding on a painting, something with doves in it to remind his mother of the cote from her childhood. He is a good son, thoughtful.
“Diet Coke please, no glass.”
Rupert turns from her and reaches into the cooler under the shelves of cups and saucers. Vinciane chooses not to look at the fabric tightening across his thighs. She leans her head sideways, rests her cheek against her smooth cold hand and watches the lights flashing on the currency machine against the wall.
“Close your eyes.”
“Close your eyes while I pee.”
“Oh, come on girlfriend….”
“Go on, you know I can’t pee if I’m being watched.”
A sigh, and the Magic Marker eyes on the back of the cubicle door flutter shut.
“And I just thought you’d come to talk,”
“I did, but I also need to pee.” Vinciane hitches up her skirt and pulls her panties to her knees.
“Keep them closed,” she snaps, then relaxes in relief. She can smell the Coke in her urine, caffeine maybe, but a different smell to coffee. Chemicals.
“The wings are budding now,” she says to the eyes on the back of the door, “do you want to see?” Her skirt is back in place and she is standing and unbuttoning her shirt. She pulls it off her shoulders revealing the top half of her back, twisting to expose her flexing scapulae to the door.
“I don’t see nothing honey, you sure?”
“Here, by my shoulder blades,” reaching round to point, “under the skin.”
“You feel them? I don’t see nothing.”
“They’re coming, I tell you,” she is angry now, and shrugs her shoulders to bring her shirt back into place. “I can’t sleep on my back anymore, they’re digging in, getting bigger.” She turns to face the eyes, slim dry hands buttoning in flutters. “Soon I won’t be able to hide them under my clothes. They itch.”
“Well honey, you know best, but I don’t see nothing. Maybe they only come out at night?”
“Maybe.” Relief, they are still there, just retreating from the daytime, hiding until it is safe to come out. “Like an owl,” she adds, dropping the toilet lid and sitting on it. “How come you can speak?”
“How come you can talk, you’re just eyes. I’ve only just realised after all these months. I can hear you, but you don’t have a mouth.”
“You don’t need a mouth to speak, honey, you just need someone to listen.”
Vinciane is not French. Her parents imported the name from their honeymoon, along with Felix for a boy. It was a girl. Her parents fell to calling her Annie, and her friends and later her colleagues followed suit, their loose-jawed vowels misunderstanding the pronunciation. Only her Grandmother calls her by her true name. Her husband calls her Vin, pronouncing the word like a breath of wine in a soft and correct abbreviation. Vin. Vin de Table, Vin Sec, Vin Blanc, Vin Rouge. She prefers Annie.
The plane is late. Vinciane sees words flicker on the screen, familiar shapes, easy to find. Another Diet Coke beckons, a quick call to the office: “Delayed. Not sure yet, I’ll keep you informed. Okay.” She leans back into a steel framed seat, stares up into screens which reflect disappointment back to the faces waiting nearby. Around her there is a slow flicker of realisation that materialises into movement, the desire for food, information. She has time to go to Terminal One, to take a walk through the elevated tunnels between the lounges and halls, stepping onto moving floors and calmly watching people dash for the right part of the airport, for the connection they are scared to miss. Coke tastes better from Terminal One, from a can. She rubs her back against the chair, feeling a budding discomfort near her spine. Smiling, she picks up her case and walks light-footed to the lounge doors.
He knows, of course. He sees the soles of her feet as they extend from the bed, a stretch into coolness from the weight of the duvet. The light from their en-suite illuminates the stars in black, spiked freckles, a secret he shares without her knowing. She has never mentioned them, and he has stopped waiting for her to, knowing they must have their secrets and respecting their marriage more for it. But he doesn’t really like them, is grateful they are hidden.
Vinciane has been here for three hours. She likes it when the planes are late, always arrives earlier than necessary anyway to ensure she has some time alone. In the office she is surrounded by people and is barely visible. At work she sits at her desk and makes reservations, checks times, compares prices, writes times and dates and gate numbers in her diary. She eats her lunch in the staff room at the end of the corridor and sometimes says hello to the others sitting there awkwardly on hard easy chairs. There is dried soup splashed on the inside of the microwave. At least at the airport her invisibility is honest, chosen.
Vinciane eats salad. At the office she doesn’t speak to graffiti. Or bins. The airport is hers. She knows its moods and times, has sat in the heavy hours of night arrivals and in its first morning breath. She knows the chair she is sitting on and the plants behind her, their fabric leaves slotted into place and never drooping.
From beside her she hears a low rumble, and then the stout, laughing bin apologises, rolling its round, white eyes towards her.
“You finished with that can yet? I’m so hungry.”
“Nearly done,” she tips the last few bubbles onto her tongue and reaches to drop the can in through the gawping mouth. “You’re always hungry,” she comments, distracted, watching Rupert lean into the front display cabinet to select a pastry for the man at the till.
“Well, they keep on emptying me, huh, huh, huh,” a deep chuckle, amiable and round rings out into the fake foliage.
“Hmmm,” Vinciane replies, observing Rupert’s smile to the next in line, the same smile every time, quick and automatic. Her smile when she greets clients. Or when she gets home and her husband asks her about her day.
The bin beside her is in the shape of a monkey or ape, its plastic features a cartoon parody designed to entice children to tidiness. Parents barely notice it, but children sometimes hear the deep music of digestion if they are quiet enough. Of course, they rarely are. Vinciane speaks to the monkey knowing it will listen.
He never watches the news. Instead he reads yesterday’s papers, sits in the same easy chair after work and flicks through travel and politics, day old words already dead.
Scandal, assault, foreign war, the face of Jesus on a mouldy ceiling.
He sighs and turns to the television guide, checking to see what comfort they can lean into later in the evening. A drama would be good, maybe a two-parter to last tomorrow night. He circles likely candidates with a pen, unaware that they will not watch anything tonight but the news, the 24hr news, images looped for their continued shock. He checks his watch and sighs, thinks about his car, its service due soon. He thinks about his wife, her sitting at the airport, perhaps reading a magazine, watching the arrivals board. She is patient, quiet. He respects this in her, her calmness.
On the back of the toilet door a pair of magic marker eyes is watching an elderly lady urinate. They want to close but can’t.
Vinciane walks on stars. Tiny blue stencils tattooed on the soles of her feet, three on the right, four on the left. She hasn’t told anyone about them, walked alone to the tattoo parlour across town one afternoon and instructed the artist to draw, paid cash.
“It’s really gonna hurt like hell,” he said, his colleague nodding behind him like a backing singer, “you sure you want the soles?” Lying face down on the table she barely flinched as he drew, pulled on black socks and weekend sneakers to hide the blood and walked home. She hasn’t told her husband, keeps her socks on in the evening until she climbs into bed. Never could sleep in socks. She doesn’t look at them but knows they are there, feels their sharpness when she needs to.
Feeling hungry Vinciane remembers the lunch her husband packed for her and walks to retrieve it from the car. Real air greets her face with scents of the early evening and she looks up to the sky and its open colours, barely streaked with cloud. Her back itches, her feet tingle, and she pauses to breathe, still catching the smell of the earth, the people, the food and the tarmac, but hoping for a sliver of pure silver sky as well. The sky smells different up there she thinks, thinner, cooler. It enters the head in a pale blue inhalation and clears away all thoughts but those of height and flight.
It is getting colder down here too, and she buttons her jacket and walks to the car with her head bent downwards, remembering, always remembering where the car is parked. Its lights flash a welcome as she squeezes the fob and she reaches in through the passenger door to retrieve a disposable plastic box and fork in a carrier bag. Her husband likes to cook but dislikes the mess it creates. Once she is back inside the airport walls, she sits in a steel framed chair and spears tiny cubes of cucumber coloured love with the brittle white fork. The salad is warm, not at all the temperature to eat cucumber, but then she should have eaten it at lunchtime, kept it in the communal fridge at the office until then. It is her own fault, and so she eats without reproach.
The airport signals a change. Feeling the shift in time, a zone crossed, afternoon into evening in a second, Vinciane reaches into her bag for her phone. The language is simple and the text practical. There is a vagueness about her return as she cannot calculate how long the client’s luggage will turn on the carousel until it is recognised or if the traffic will be particularly bad. The message releases her into the surroundings once more and she walks, tuning in to the hum of the air conditioning and the music from the shops in the main hall. She has never been on an aeroplane, not even an internal flight. A reply to her message gives the standard missing you, and from this she can smell her own home, their laundry both clean and dirty, and the subtle difference in the scent of their pillows. She leans into the sounds around her and heads back to the arrivals lounge.
There is a sudden surge of people towards the information desk as word spreads and phones are answered. The plane has crashed. This is all she knows from the overheard conversations around her. Apparently it is on the news. She waits patiently while people raise their voices and clutch each other. A woman is crying, almost howling, and everyone holds their hands to their mouths in disbelief. The plane has crashed. She will not know the circumstances until she gets home and walks past her husband to put on the news channel. They will then see the plane too low, sliding into the buildings, the plumes of black smoke streaming from windows which used to reflect the sky. She will know then.
But now she waits, doodling with a chew topped biro onto a cardboard coaster. When the information desk clears she will find out if the client was on the flight list, but she will not ask what happened. Everyone around her is keening for their loved ones but she imagines another town in which the grief will gather for the person named on her paperwork. She needs to know for sure the client is on the flight so she can take the fact back to the office, pass on details so that meetings can be changed, new contracts discussed.
She leans into the table and her loose hair falls around her face and brushes the stars she has drawn on the coaster. Her husband doesn’t watch the news. Reads only papers, a day old. She won’t even say hello when she gets home, will walk right past him and press the power button on the TV set. Then they will stand holding hands and staring at the screen, blues and blacks reflecting like bruises on their faces. Right now she needs to pee again, puts the pen back in her bag and turns the coaster doodle-side down.
headliner image: Zürich Aiport, Kloten, Switzerland (fromthegrapevine)
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