It will be quiet, she said.
Apparently I should not take advice from a woman who hadn’t been on an airplane in four years. But she seemed like a wizened sage compared to me: it had been six years since I’d flown; I never traveled for work. I took the train northwest to Oxford to see Ruby, and I took the train southeast to Paris—or had—with Mark, when we wanted a mini-holiday and to gorge ourselves on food and wine, a wild sexual excursion with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
But there were more pressing things on my mind, and I had to wonder whether there were more people in Heathrow right then, at nine on a Friday, than there were in the entire city of London.
Don’t people go to work anymore? I thought. Clearly I’m not the only one out here who’s flying off before the end of the workweek, on a random non-holiday in October, escaping the boring tedium of my job and the cheating, thrusting—
“Get on, then,” a woman snarled behind me.
I startled, having been caught lost in my thoughts in the security line.
I took three steps forward and looked at her over my shoulder. “Better?” I asked flatly now that we were standing in the exact same order and only a few feet closer to the agent checking passports.
Thirty minutes later, I was at my gate. And I needed . . . an activity. Nerves gnawed at my stomach, the kind of anxiety I wasn’t sure whether to feed or starve. It wasn’t as though I’d never flown before . . . I just hadn’t flown much. To be clear, I felt worldly in my everyday life. I had a favorite shop in Mallorca I would visit for new skirts. I had a list of cafés in Rome I could offer to anyone traveling there for the first time. Of course I was a seasoned Tube traveler—routinely managing the mass of aggresively impatient commuters—but somehow I assumed the airport would be more welcoming: a gateway to adventure.
Apparently not. It seemed enormous, and even so, the crowds were surprisingly thick. Our gate attendant was calling out information at the same time that another gate attendant across the way was making similar announcements. People were boarding, and it felt like chaos, but when I glanced around, no one but me seemed to find this at all jarring. I looked down at my ticket, clutched in my fist. Mums had bought me a first-class fare—a treat, they said—and I knew how much it had cost them. Surely the plane wouldn’t leave without me?
A man stepped up to my side, dressed smartly in a navy suit with polished shoes. He looked far more sure of himself than I felt.
Stick by this one, I thought. If he’s not on the plane, surely it’s not time for me, either.
I let my eyes travel up his smooth neck to his face and felt just the slightest bit dizzy. Obviously, I was viewing the world through rebound-colored glasses, but he was gorgeous. A head of thick, sunny hair; deep green eyes focused on the mobile in his hand; and a lovely jawline ripe for nibbling.
“Excuse me,” I said, putting my hand on his arm. “Could you help me?”
He looked down at where I touched him, and then slowly over to me, and smiled.
His eyes crinkled at the corners, and a single dimple dug into his left cheek. He had perfect, American teeth. And I was sweaty and breathless.
“Could you tell me how this works?” I asked. “I’ve not flown in many years. Do I board now?”
He followed my attention to the ticket clutched in my hand and tilted it slightly so he could see.
“Oh,” he said, laughing a little. “You’re right next to me.” Glancing up at the boarding door, he added, “They’re pre-boarding now—that’s for parents with small children or people who need a little extra time—first class comes next. Want to follow me on?”
I’d follow you past the gates of hell, sir.
He nodded and turned back to face the gate attendant.
“The last time I flew was to India, six years ago,” I told him, and he looked back at me. “I was twenty, and visiting Bangalore with my friend Molly, whose cousin works at a hospital there. Molly is lovely, but we are both quite daft when we travel, and we nearly boarded a plane to Hong Kong by mistake.”
He laughed a little. I knew I was babbling nervously and he was just being polite, but I couldn’t stop myself from finishing the pointless story anyway.
“A sweet woman at the gate redirected us, and we sprinted to the next terminal, where our plane had been moved—we’d missed the announcements because we’d been fetching beers at the restaurant—and we made it onto the flight just before it pulled back from the gate.”
“Lucky,” he murmured. Lifting his chin to the jetway when our attendant announced first class could board, he told me, “That’s us. Let’s go.”
He was tall, and as he walked his ass made me nostalgic for Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing. Looking down his body, I wondered how long it took a man to get shoes that perfectly polished. If I searched for a stray thread on his suit, a bit of lint, surely I would come back empty-handed. He was meticulous, yet not stiff.
What does he do? I wondered as we finally stepped aboard the plane. Businessman. Probably here for work, has a mistress in some fancy Chelsea apartment. He left her this morning, pouting on the bed in the lingerie he got her yesterday in apology after his meeting went late. She fed him takeaway on satin sheets, and then loved him all night long until he rose from the bed at four in the morning to begin polishing his shoes—