LAST CALL TO ASTANA

It was over a year and a half since they had last spoken. But there she was, over by the make-up stand, Terminal 2 air-side, only an hour and a half later than agreed. She looked wondrous, if a little surprised.

She was just touching down in Heathrow to get a connecting flight home. Going back for a family wedding. Funny route, not exactly direct, but cheaper or more convenient, no doubt.

He’d found it weird to have to go through security, and have his rucksack searched and everything, especially when he wasn’t flying anywhere. He’d explained to her that he had a mate who worked at the airport and could get him into the departure lounge. Anyway, now they were together, they had by his calculations an hour and 42 minutes till her flight would be called.

Ordering coffees took seven-and-a-half minutes, but trying to chat in the busy queue was awkward, and they soon fell silent. After sitting down at last they talked of mutual friends, and she shared news of the family he had never met. She said she was well, and that her croissant was not too flaky; her coffee, however, was a little disappointing. They sat by a big window overlooking the runway where her cruel plane was being readied for take-off.

As she got up to go to the loo – another 4 minutes lost! – she smiled towards him, and he felt the earth slide again. Behind him, a coffee machine hissed and grated, and a barista banged and whistled. He felt he would never get over the poignant beauty of her face, that gaze at once shrewd and kind, the very shape and colour and aroma of her.

She had left a lipstick on the table. He fingered it with reverence, while a server fussed about him, scooping up saucers and wiping surfaces unnecessarily. He picked up a paper napkin and began to scrawl his message with this crayon of rouge that her kissed her actual mouth: 

 I will always love you 

Seeing her making her way back, he folded the napkin and tucked it away on his lap. They tried to talk some more. But the coffee machine was too noisy and the second hand of the clock raced round too fast; somehow, the conversation never took off.

As soon as her plane was called, she got up to leave. As she stood, he went to drop his secret message into her bag. In his mind the gesture would be romantic, powerful, inevitable. But instinctively she put up a fierce arm, and there was a moment’s awkward scuffle.

After they parted, he slipped behind a pillar and watched her pull out the napkin, glance quickly at the words, roughly stuff it into a coat pocket.

Back in the café, as he sat staring at her half-drunk coffee with the miraculous imprint of her lip on its rim, he was disturbed to hear his name being urgently announced over the PA. It was the final call for the last remaining passenger on his flight to Astana.

++

After talking his way out of the Terminal – and resisting the surprisingly strong urge to use his one-way ticket to Kazakhstan – he wandered among the taxi ranks and horizontal escalators of the airport. He tried hard not to look up, fearing (quite without foundation) that he had the power to make planes explode just by looking at them.

Out here, in the post-Her world, the very air stung. People went about their indifferent business, scraping clunky suitcases along gum-spattered pavements and chasing awkwardly after errant toddlers and fucking vaping. They looked mad, every last one of them.

A sign attracted his attention: Chapel.

It took a while to find. The signs seemed always on the verge of turning up a dead end and, as he trawled under flyovers, across bus concourses and through narrow concrete passageways, it was as if the chapel did not want to be found, or not by someone who was not prepared to seek a little.

But here at last it was. A circular concrete tomb-like thing, submerged in a traffic-lashed roundabout and overlooked by a bland multi-storey car park. Down the steps he went, down past the plaques to dead people, and into the central chamber. Here, under glass, a prayerbook stood open at the anniversary of a fatal air crash from 1972.

A mass was just winding up, and soon the sky-pilot was telling his little congregation of passengers and airport workers to ‘go in peace, to love and serve the Lord’. Out they all filed, leaving him alone in this strange, overlooked citadel to the Lord of the Heavens.

‘You only love an idea of me,’ she always said.

Candles. At least there were always candles. He lit one for her now, saying a prayer for her safe return. It seemed the most he could do.

Back on the Tube, and heading into work though the morning rush hour, he beheld a poignant scene. A couple separated by cruel circumstance — she with a seat, he forced to stand in the vestibule, the pair edged ever further apart by the rabble, unable even to say a proper goodbye when it came time for the man to get off. Mutely they exchanged farewells across the uncaring carriage, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the day ahead as each swallowed the great grief of separation with mute dignity.

He had a lump in his throat. The couple would not see each other till perhaps 7.30 tonight now. Or later still, if the woman didn’t finish that presentation on post-Covid business drivers in the cloud-based e-payment space.

As he got off, the man’s eyes sought out hers one last time, but she was already busy touching up her plum pout with a lip pencil.


Dan’s first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone. He is also co-author of a comic novel with Unbound, Kitten on a Fatberg. Two of his stories have recently received Pushcart nominations.

He won the 2019 Riptide Journal short story competition, was runner-up in the 2019 Leicester Writes contest, and was highly commended in the Manchester Writing School competition 2018. He has words in places like Slackjaw, Pithead Chapel, X-RAY, Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, The Esthetic Apostle, Spelk, Ginger Collect and Fiction Pool

Categories: Fiction

Daily Drunk

Shawn Berman runs The Daily Drunk. You can follow him on Twitter @Sbb_writer.

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