I was flying back from Malaga with a friend. We’d booked our tickets separately so were sitting a few aisles apart. I think we both liked this arrangement, although we didn’t say it. We’d spent a fairly intense week together with her mother who had made certain demands on us. She had this great nameless need, and time spent with her – although she herself was often host – felt like a period of continual and necessary giving. And because no one, least of all the mother, could name this need my friend and I could never be sure if what we were giving was the right sort of giving, or if it was ever going to be enough. So we were feeling a bit drained, and relieved, I think, to assume the silence and anonymity that travelling alone can bring.
My seat was near the back, hers at the front. If I stretched up in my seat I could see the smooth brown helmet of her hair with the odd strand wavering in the sunlight that came in through the cabin window. I could tell she was reading from the way her head was bowed and still. And I knew what book she was reading because I’d shared a bed with her and on the first night, while she was brushing her teeth in the bathroom, I’d picked it up from where she’d placed it on the pillow and turned it over in my hands to see if I could feel what kind of book it was, and maybe, by extension, how or where she was in her life.
Because our seats were at opposite ends of the plane we disembarked via different exits. As I made my way down the steps at the back I looked towards the cockpit and saw that a tunnel had been attached through which the passengers at the front were being led to the Terminus Building.
The wind blew in my face as I walked across the tarmac. I could feel in the gusts a sharp rain. I pushed open a glass door and climbed two flights of stairs, dragging my case behind me.
I’ll see her at the baggage carousel, I thought, then remembered we’d only brought hand luggage. I’ll see her at Border Control, I thought, and when I got there everyone had slowed to a long shuffling queue so there was a good chance I would. I looked along the queue as I approached it, in front and behind me as I joined it. I stood on tiptoe and craned my neck to look all around, but she wasn’t there.
I’ll see her at the Arrivals barrier, I thought, that’ll be where she’ll stop and wait. Or I’ll stop and wait. Which I did but still she wasn’t there. Maybe she’s at the train station, maybe she’s buying a ticket from the machine. Maybe I’ll see her there.
And I began to realise that the further I walked away from the plane, and with it the last sighting of my friend, the lighter I felt. And as the possibility of not seeing her again grew so did the relief at being separated or, more particularly, at having managed to avoid, quite naturally, the ritual of separation I knew we’d feel bound to perform.
I’d always dreaded saying goodbye. It wasn’t sadness at leaving the person so much as reluctance at having to enter the ritual. I wondered why it made me feel so uncomfortable. Was it because I felt forced to an awareness of the present while at the same time having to acknowledge both the past which I’d recently shared with that person and a future into which they were just about to disappear?
I thought about Malaga. There’d been a lot of talk.
That chapel, when was it built, who was that saint?
Oh, we must do this again – shall we come back in winter, what’s it like in winter?
This need of yours (not that we spoke about it like that), when did it start, and why?
And I realised that we hadn’t once spoken about what was happening to us at the moment of speaking, which made me feel suddenly as if all the time I’d been in Malaga I hadn’t really been there at all.
So my friend and I parted. We simply walked away from each other without saying a word. There was no sense of loss or regret, we were just two people walking in different directions. And as we did time seemed to open up and grow wider and wider the further away from each other we moved.
I stood on the train platform, eager now to get away. I felt anxious. The last thing I wanted to do now was see her. Not because of any bad feeling I had towards her but because I didn’t want to stop this silent radiating space we had created. It had attained a certain quality, like a spell, that I didn’t want broken.
But, even then, a part of me thought I had to be seen to be still looking out for her (what if she were looking at me? what if all this was some sort of test of our friendship?) so I moved my head vaguely this way and that, making sure my eyes didn’t settle, didn’t actually see anything.
I stood like a stranger watching the train pull in. I took a seat in a far corner. A thin rain was spitting at the window. And as the train began to move – slowly at first, reluctantly – then gather speed and with it a sense of purpose, joy almost, my phone lit up.
I love you so much, it read.
I looked out of the window. The train was speeding past trees and houses and then a field in which a girl stood holding a woman’s hand. She was waving wildly at the train with such a smile as if she really did love us all even though she couldn’t possibly – with the speed we were going and all the reflection – have seen a single one of us. In fact the train might have been empty for all she cared.
Shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Award 2021 judged by Robert McCrum.
Longlisted for the BBC Short Story Competition 2022