Airport

You smile a lot but when you sleep your face is sad.  You light a cigarette from the stub of the last, flicking ash onto the floor. You eat the sugar lumps from my coffee saucer then lick your fingers. You sit on the edge of your chair and swing your legs like a child.

      You tear up bits of paper into intricate lace patterns. Then we play chess on your little travel set with its fiddly magnetic pieces and your smile turns to a frown. When your smile returns, I know I am beaten.

      "How's Milan?"

      "I'm in Geneva."

      "I thought you were going to Milan."

      "We got diverted. I think maybe I'll take the train."

      "When will you be back?"

      "In a couple of days. I love you."

      "I love you too. Hurry back. It's lonely here on my own."

Geoff from Flexijet says the plane will be ready in two hours. He's been saying the same thing all day but we still half believe him. Geoff carries a clipboard and says confidently, "Don't worry, we'll have this sorted in a jiffy."

      The gentle sway and shuffle of a Strauss waltz provides a pleasing backdrop to the airport bustle. Everything speaks efficiency: the airline staff with their crisp uniforms and excellent English, the spotless carpet tiles and shining chrome columns supporting the ceiling, even the travellers - well planned families, with quiet, solemn children, businessmen with natty briefcases and expensive ties, serious-looking men with spectacles reading German newspapers.

      And then there's us, a planeload of stranded English tourists, a distressing and inexplicable reminder of the impossibility of ever fully eliminating incompetence and failure.

      It is coming up for one in the afternoon and we have been sitting here in the International Zone since breakfast time. Passengers aren't expected to linger here so there's not much in the way of services: a duty free shop, a small store well supplied with cuckoo clocks, Swiss Army knives, Swatches, chocolates and other last-minute gifts. There's also a Euroburger and a restaurant.

      All day I have been toying with the idea of going out. The International Zone allows access to Switzerland on one side and France on the other. But I am afraid I might get held up in passport control or lose my way outside and miss my flight.

      Most of the passengers are holidaymakers on their way, I suppose, to some Italian beach resort. A group of dads have defied regulations and opened some of the bottles they bought from the duty free shop. Their wives cast angry looks in their direction and yell at their bored children to behave.

      A few of us are clearly not tourists. There's a middle aged businessman in a blue suit, a middle manager in a privatised utility, on his way to cast his dim light on a meeting of Italian water-treaters. I know this because he's been talking to someone in an office in Harlow all day on his mobile phone. About half an hour ago, to everyone's relief, the battery went flat. He is accompanied by a young woman with a set-upon expression to whom he constantly barks instructions: "Pass me my briefcase! Where are my travel documents?" Now he's haranguing Geoff about the delay, as if poor Geoff could do anything about it.

      There are a group of very tall youths wearing suits and carrying sports bags. I have come to the conclusion they must be a baseball team. They speak a language which sounds eastern European but I can't say for sure where they are from.

      Then there are the two young men wearing matching outfits: tight black jeans, bumbag and shirts buttoned up to the collar but no ties. I would hazard a guess that they work in the fashion industry and are on their way to some clothes show in Milan. One of them is losing his hair on top but has cunningly concealed this fact with some skilful coiffuring. He's very solicitous towards his companion. Want some gum Adrian? Here, go and get yourself some fags. But to everything Adrian replies, no, I'm fine thanks mate.  They're both reading paper back books. Every now and then they put them down and look around them with sharp, intelligent eyes.

      And then there is you. You're looking as if you didn't sleep very well last night. Not bedraggled but strained. We still haven't met so I don't know that that's your habitual expression. You are smoking in a non-smoking area. The businessman coughs pointedly but doesn't attempt to make you put it out, as if he felt one battle at a time were enough.

      Geoff distributes tokens that we can exchange for food in the Euroburger. I take a look at the Euroburger wares and decide to eat in the restaurant. I'm tempted to ask you to join me but feel too shy. From my table I can just see you perched at a Formica table, surrounded by children. You pick up a doughnut in both hands, take a big bite then suck hard on a straw sticking out of a plastic beaker.

      Later, we are put up in the Hotel Hilton. They give us tokens to eat too but the restaurant is closed by the time I come down from my room. I order a club sandwich in the bar. Three of the dads are slouched around a tableful of beer bottles. Several of the basket ball players are quietly sipping soft drinks. The secretary is alone at my elbow and I sense she would like me to engage her in conversation. I finish my sandwich quickly and go to my room.

      In the morning, there is no sign of the holidaymakers. When I ask Geoff about this he tells me they have been put on a bus for Rimini. The good news is that Flexijet has done a deal with Al Italia and we're being put on a flight to Milan at ten o'clock.

      "You woke me up."

      "It's two in the afternoon."

      "I know. Jack came over last night and . . ."

      "Oh. Jack came over?"

      "Yes. We had a few drinks and went down to the river. Jack's so funny, he really makes me laugh."

      "What are you doing going out with Jack?"

      "Well, what am I supposed to do when you go away and leave me on my own? I get lonely. You sound close. Where are you?"

      "Copenhagen."

      "What?"

      "Don't ask. It's a long story. Listen, can you get on to Visa? There's something wrong with my card."

      "Sure."

      "I'll be back soon. I love you.

      "Sure."

My temper is decidedly frayed at the extraordinary mess Flexijet has got us in to. The worst of it is that they don't operate here so there's no one we can complain to. Al Italia has reluctantly agreed to fly us on to Milan, but won't say when.

      The only good thing about all this is that it's given us the opportunity to meet. Your smile has grown wider as our predicament gets more exasperating. You make me see the funny side of being here when we thought we were on our way to Milan. I assume you're going to Milan too. You speak a few words of English but when I try and find out where you're from and where you're going you don't seem to understand me. I don't even know your name.

      I have started smoking cigarettes again, five years after I gave up. We were sitting next to each other and you offered me one. I hesitated an instant, then accepted. Now we sit behind a screen of smoke and watch the others.

      The businessman seems deflated. He hasn't opened his briefcase all day. He tried to recharge his mobile in the Al Italia office but came back grumbling about incompatible sockets. He's bought himself a copy of the Financial Times and has folded it one way and another but doesn't seem to be able to settle down to read it.

      His secretary is no longer as attentive as yesterday. I'm glad to say she seems to have lost interest in talking to me and has transferred her attention to the basketball players. Her eyes are constantly stealing over to where they are huddled round a television tuned to MTV. Finally, she wanders over and hovers a little way behind them with a rather silly smile on her face.

      Adrian and his friend have swapped books. But Adrian's thoughts don't seem to be on Jane Austen. He too seems fascinated by the tall young men watching pop videos.

      I invite you to accompany me to the restaurant. It is large empty and rather cold and our knives squeak alarmingly on the plates. We eat quickly and ask for the bill. There is some problem with my credit card so I pay with one of my travellers cheques.

      Later, I try to make a withdrawal from a cash machine. A message comes up on the screen: Invalid card. Please contact your branch. It's seven o'clock in the evening and the bank on the other side of the wall closed hours ago so I'm trying to be philosophical about the loss of my card. Now I have just a pocket full of kroner and a fifty dollar traveller's check.

      The others seem to be having difficulty with their cards too and when Al Italia announces there won't be a flight out until the morning there's nothing for it but to make ourselves as comfortable as we can in the terminal. I console myself with thoughts of the terrible revenge I will take against Flexijet. I'm concentrating my ire onto the person of Geoff. I imagine punching him in the face and feel a little better.

      You and I lay claim to two rows of seats facing inwards. I enjoy the feeling of intimacy this arrangement creates. Also, it reminds me of my footloose student days, riding the railways of Europe over the summer holidays and sleeping in station terminals at night.

      On one side are the basketball players and beyond them the businessman and his secretary. She, I notice, has edged away from her boss towards the area where the young athletes are sleeping.

      In the morning we are looking decidedly worse for wear. The businessman is clutching his back, his secretary runs off to the bathroom and comes back with a raw, scrubbed face and you have a coughing fit. Your smile has been temporarily extinguished but returns promptly after you light your first cigarette. I would dearly like to clean my teeth but my toothbrush is in my suitcase and my suitcase, I understand, is in Milan.

      Adrian and his friend arrive looking well-rested, wearing freshly ironed shirts and creased jeans. Adrian's carrying a carrier bag saying Copenhagen Intercontinental. We all stare at them enviously.

      "Where the fuck are you?"

      "Geneva."

      "Geneva? Are you nuts? We've got a meeting!"

      "I know, I know. I'm trying to get there but this bloody airline . . .first they divert us to Geneva, then Copenhagen, then  . . ."

      "Look, sort yourself out for Christ sake. Geneva! When can you get here?"

      "There's meant to be a flight this afternoon."

      "Well get on it. The Italians are getting nervous. The whole thing looks like it could go pear-shaped."

Al Italia told us this was the best they could do for us: send us back and get Flexijet to sort out our difficulty. Geoff is still here. We'll have this sorted in a jiffy, he says, but not quite as perkily as before. So far I have resisted the temptation to give him a bloody nose. Actually, the whole crisis has had rather a dramatic effect on him. He's not looking as chipper as before; his hair is greasy, he needs a shave and he doesn't smell very good.

      I hold my breath while Geoff tells me the problem is caused by striking air traffic controllers in France. I say, but we're in Switzerland. He says, yes but there's a knock-on effect. He assures us there will be a flight to Milan this afternoon. We'll see.

      I overhear Adrian's friend saying he's heard the food is better on the French zone. We are waved through three security checks only to discover there's only a Euroburger on the other side. We order meals - a doughnut and coke for you, an all-day Continental breakfast for me - but the cashier examines the coupons Geoff gave us suspiciously, then hands them back to us. We argue long enough for my cappuccino to go cold, then the manager arrives and agrees to allow me to pay in Danish kroner.

      You cover the Formica table top with photographs from your bag: a man, a child, yourself - different combinations of the three. I'm surprised and a little disappointed. You seem too young to have children. The man has a moustache, a swarthy course face. He looks like a bully. I hadn't intended to show you any pictures of my own but you look at me as if you expect me some reciprocal gesture. I find I have a passport photo of Alison. It is an unflattering picture but you seem impressed. Perhaps you think I am even less attractive than Alison appears in the photo and figure I have made a good match.

      Afterwards, you disappear briefly and return with a small package. Givenchy perfume.

      "For your beautiful wife," you say.

      "Where did you get it?" What I mean is how did you get it? You won't say.

      Then they won't let you back in. The French immigration officer waves me through but shakes his head at you. I begin to panic; we're going to miss our flight. Then I see Adrian - at least I think it is him - ducking down a passageway marked "location de voitures". We follow, because following Adrian seems better than standing where we are worrying about missing our flight. We press on past a crowd of lost-looking pensioners pushing trolleys laden with suitcases and emerge into an area where a team of labourers wearing hard hats are sitting around drinking tea from a thermos. A sign indicates the International Zone is back the way we came but my curiosity has now been awakened. Yards farther on the passage twists to the right and we emerge back into . . . the International Zone.

      I don't trouble myself wondering why there's such tight security between the French and international zones when there's a completely unguarded back route.

      "We'll be out of here in two hours, I promise," says Geoff. But that's all we can get out of him because Adrian and his friend are standing by wringing their hands. They have lost a thousand Deutsche Marks.

      "Are you sure you didn't leave it somewhere?" asks Geoff reasonably.

      "Of course I'm sure. It's been stolen," says Adrian's friend.

      The airport police arrive and force everyone to empty their bags. All our possessions are laid out on the floor. The police hold up some women's underwear among the businessman's belongings. Everyone smiles. The businessman blushes and mutters something about a gift for his wife.

      That evening, I notice Geoff too is sleeping in the airport. He keeps saying, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." He says Flexijet has gone broke.

      The baseball players are singing and laughing. They've bought several bottles of vodka and seem to be celebrating something. They offer them around but conspicuously leave out Adrian and his friend. Adrian casts frequent looks in their direction, his expression registering an odd mixture of fascination and suspicion.

      "Oh, it's you. Let me guess, you're in Sun City. No . . . Timbuktu."

      "I'm in Moscow, as a matter of fact."

      "Moscow. How nice. And I'm in Baghdad."

      "Seriously. You don't know what a nightmare this whole thing's been. What was that?"

      "What was what?"

      "I thought I heard a man's voice."

      "Oh that. That was Jack.

      "Jack? What's Jack doing there?"

      "Well, before you called Jack was about to come."

      "What do you mean come? Come where?"

      "Come where! Where do you think he was going to come? Ask him yourself. Jack, tell him what fun things we've been doing."

      "Don't pay any attention."

      "Jack?"

      "She's just winding you up."

      "Jack! Now you just listen here . . ."

      "Keep your cool, man."

      ". . . if I find you've so much as laid a finger on Alison . . ."

      "Laid. Laid is the operative word, I'm afraid."

      "Alison. It had better not be true."

      "Don't threaten me, baby. I won't be here by the time you're back. Jack's taking me away to his pleasure dome."

Flexijet have been bought out by Aeroflot. Or at least Aeroflot seem to be taking responsibility for the mess Flexijet have left behind them.  But Aeroflot don't have any direct flights from Geneva to London so they've brought us all to Moscow. Tomorrow morning we fly to London. That's what they're saying, anyway; if I've learned anything on this trip it's to treat claims by airline staff with extreme scepticism.

      I've  made a momentous discovery: you're Russian! For the first time since I met you your smile seems more than skin deep. I expect you to go off and find your loutish husband but I'm flattered to discover you don't appear to be in any hurry to leave me. At the Aeroflot office a middle aged woman with a sour mouth ill disguised with a streak of puce lipstick shakes her head. Whatever you're planning looks hopeless. But you start speaking rapid angry Russian and the gush of your words seem to blast away her objections. She lifts the telephone receiver, says a few words, looks up at you and nods.

      We check into the airport hotel. It's big and draughty and smells of cabbage but it's high luxury after two nights of sleeping rough in airport terminals. My room is grubby with a radiator which clanks and splutters. But it has a bathroom and I haven't washed for three days. I block the plug hole with a cake of soap and soak myself in tepid water.

      Later we wander down to the casino where I cash my last 50 dollar traveller's cheque and we spend the afternoon sipping free glasses of Johnny Walker Red Label, presumably designed to encourage us to gamble recklessly. But you turn out to be an expert Blackjack player and immune to alcohol, though you're drinking at least as much as me. You win steadily and by seven o'clock have doubled my money. We exchange our chips for three thick wads of roubles. This seems a highly satisfactory transaction until we discover that roubles are strictly a symbolic currency in Russia. But it doesn't seem to matter; our bill has been taken care of by Aeroflot.

      In the hotel's draughty restaurant we are served up some of the cabbage that we smelled when we first arrived. You shout at the waiters until they take our plates away and bring us caviar and Russian champagne followed by fillets of grey fish I am unable to identify.

      That evening you follow me into my room and we make love. Afterwards you cry and I don't know if it's because you are happy or sad. We sleep in a tight embrace, and then just moments later, as it seems, you are shaking me awake. It's dark but the clock says ten twenty. My plane leaves at ten thirty-five We run down the concrete causeway linking the hotel to the airport only to confirm that the flight has already left. You seem to have lost your ability to overawe officials. When you raise your voice at the Aeroflot office, the woman there pouts her puce lips and raises her voice. Why were you not here when the plane left, she asks me in English. Sit down here. Perhaps you want to stay in Moscow?

      I assure her I do not want to stay. She leaves us sitting on our bench for almost an hour while she attends to one besuited traveller after another with elaborate courtesy. Finally she pretends to remember us.

      "Why do you wait here? Go to Al Italia office now, please."

      At Al Italia, they eye my grimy cuffs disapprovingly. Yes, they will take me back to London but I'll have to wait until tomorrow morning. No, they won't give me any meal or accommodation tokens. I should have thought of that before missing my flight, shouldn't I?

      We order a Business Breakfast at the Euroburger but when we try and pay in roubles they take the tray away from us. You disappear for a long time and just when I'm convinced you have left me you return with a family packet of Wagon Wheels. You seem to consider that finding Wagon Wheels is a big triumph so I eat one to please you.

      Where did you get them, I ask.

      You point to the duty free store.

      They accept roubles?

      You smile and shake your head.

      I sit around trying to forget my gnawing hunger. The airport is very clean. There's a shiny slippery floor and a team of cleaners constantly at work on it with brushes and mops. They're always banging these against our feet and trying to put our hand luggage in their bins.

      I realise that you consider it is my turn to steal food. I feel uneasy about this; I've never stolen anything before. I've never had to.  If only I looked more respectable. I feel my grubby shirt marks me out as an unlikely duty free patron. There are so many useless things: watches, personal stereos, cashmere scarves, perfumes. My hand hovers over a box of Romeo y Julieta cigars. Come on, something edible. Bottles of vodka, jars of caviar, preserves. I grab a tin at random and almost run out, my heart beating painfully.

      "Foie gras!"

      Your eyebrows arch. It's the first time I've seen you look put out.

      "Well, maybe they'll lend us a tin opener at Al Italia."

      The tin carries a cheerful picture of hot buttered toast and pate. Under the circumstances it seems a cruel image.

      Later, you steal a tin of assorted cheese biscuits. Quite how you managed to smuggle such a bulky object out of the shop I don't know. You are certainly an accomplished thief. I hanker after your biscuits but you don't offer me any and I don't like to ask. Hunger and exhaustion seems to have stripped away the veneer of conviviality that we enjoyed before.

      All night long the guards go round prodding people stretched out across the seats. Apparently it is against the rules to get too comfortable here. You seem to have little difficulty in sleeping upright but I haven't got the knack.

      At the Al Italia desk they hand us two boarding passes. I hadn't realised you were coming with me.

      "Hey, this is a flight to Rome. I'm going to London."

      "You like stay in Moscow?"

      "No, but . . . "

      "Okay, you take the flight to Roma. In Roma we see."

      I have never been to Rome before and I felt, naively, rather excited at the prospect of visiting the Eternal City. But Rome airport turns out to be little different from any of the other airports I have visited, albeit a good deal dirtier. The big plate glass windows in the departure lounge look over a stretch of tarmac and part of the tail of a DC-10 but there's not a glimpse of an ancient ruin. The cappuccinos they serve in the Euroburger are every bit as insipid as elsewhere.

      I thought we might get some warmth in Rome but though the sun beats down on the tarmac all day from a perfect blue sky here inside it's always 22 degrees centigrade. At night, however, there is a distinctly Mediterranean atmosphere. Some Yugoslav gypsies have also been stranded here and after dark their accordion music echoes mournfully around the terminal building.

      As soon as I caught sight of  my fellow passengers I surmised I was in for another long wait. The businessman is growing a moustache. His secretary seems to have entirely abandoned him and been adopted as a kind of mascot by the basket ball players. Adrian has a black eye. At first I thought he had been roughed up by one of the young athletes but the reproachful looks he keeps turning towards his friend suggest they've had a tiff. All in all, however, we're looking a little better now, not least because we have been reunited with our luggage. I have even been able to brush my teeth.

      Another person who is smelling sweeter is Geoff. He's working for Air France now and is looking as smart and suave as when I fist met him. I waved at him as he went by he pretended he didn't recognise me.

      Things haven't been the same between you and me since we made love. Is that why you cried that evening in Moscow as I held you? You haven't given me any more gifts since the Wagon Wheels. More than once I've seen you sharing a cappuccino with the businessman in the Euroburger. Perhaps his moustache reminds you of your husband.

      They keep cordoning off parts of the airport. We're being enclosed, separated from the other travellers. They all look so well-groomed and tanned. We, by contrast, have the grey sunken look of those who live under artificial light. Our clean clothes cannot disguise how dirty we are. The real travellers, the ones going actually going somewhere, glance at us with curiosity but look away swiftly when their eyes meet ours.

      Al Italia claim we've been moved into the first class area. We're being upgraded. But then they start sending in people who look like refugees, asylum seekers; mothers with headscarves and shawls carrying snotty-nosed babies. They're all pushing trolleys piled high with mattresses, TV sets, pots and pans. I can't help wondering where their menfolk are: there are only small boys and old men with gummy eyes and knotted hands. They start setting up encampments across the terminal floor.

      Adrian makes a scene in the Al Italia office. How dare they mix us up with these people? He rips up several holiday brochures which for some reason have a picture of the Pope on the front and throws the pieces in the air.

      I don't think this is the correct way of expressing our discontent but Adrian's gesture must have had some effect because shortly afterwards a group of carabinieri march down the centre of the departure lounge stretching out red and white tape as if marking off the scene of a crime. From now onwards we are to stay on the left and the refugees on the right.

      I notice with alarm that you have ended up on the wrong side of the tape barrier. When you try to cross over a large carabiniere blocks your way. You shoot a look of panic at me over his shoulder. I try and convey to you that I will do all I can to get you out.

      While I am wondering how to honour this promise - if promise it was - I notice a hubbub among the travellers. They are all gathered around the tall windows looking over the tarmac.

      "It's a bomb alert," someone whispers.

      "That's my suitcase!" says Adrian. There is a thud and when the smoke clears the case has gone and there are smoking rags strewn over the tarmac. There are tears in Adrian's eyes.

      "My Armani suit!" he sobs.

      The brochures have been replenished on the counter of the Al Italia office. The Pope beams from the cover.

      "Yes?" says a thickset man with a shiny shaved head. I am rather unnerved by his brusque manner.

      "I believe a mistake has been made. A woman has been placed in with the refugees. She should be with us."

      "Her name?"

      "Her name. Uh, I don't know her name, I'm afraid." The man smiles sarcastically. "I'll naturally find out and bring it to you," I say.

      But as I leave the office I see on the departure screen that my flight to London is boarding. I check in my luggage and sprint to the gate. As I take my seat I'm feeling a little sad. I groan inwardly as the businessman wedges himself into the seat beside mine.

      "Let's have a drink to celebrate the end of this nightmare," he says.

      "Are you so certain it's over?"

      "I'll bet you the price of our drinks that it is."

      "Done."

      By the time I have lost the bet I've decided the businessman's not such a bad sort after all. A little woozy and relaxed after the whiskies I've downed, I find I'm clutching a small package in my lap. I wonder vaguely whether a bottle of expensive perfume will be enough to win Alison back.