Short fiction by Simon Holloway
And you, what do you want?
In the garden the bonfire smouldered gracefully, the last leaves drying and crisping in the afternoon sun. A handful of twigs glowed an occasional orange, a flare or two of thin flame around the edge. In the centre ash limped down, like a dormant crater.
The suitcases were packed and ready near the front door, each carefully tagged with names and addresses in case of loss. You’d laid out both passports on the hall table. Tickets, print-outs of reservations, bookings, transfers, pre-paid parking at the airport. The cat was already at your brother’s, with a list of instructions and emergency contacts. An hour to spare. A change of shoes.
You watched the fire through the kitchen window, wondering whether or not to pour water on it, knowing it would go out on its own. For four days you’d been getting rid of the rubbish, chopping and slicing and burning. There were three other circles of burnt soil, each a different shade of grey-black. The garden was clear. You could decide what to plant when you got back. Some grass, yes, but perhaps a couple of fruit trees. Cherry blossom in the spring. Jasmine and mock orange for their scents in the evening. Meadow flowers for butterflies. Honeysuckle and climbing roses. Peonies and violets. Nothing to harvest, you knew that much, at least for a while.
There would be time for coffee and emergency shopping at the airport. You loaded the car, sprayed around the rim of the last fire with the hosepipe, and locked the house. It had been so long since you’d left the country that you could barely remember how to fly.
The traffic was heavier than you thought it would be, but for once you’d had the sense to plan ahead, checked online, left extra minutes to negotiate the roadworks and diversion. In the shuttle bus from the long-stay car park you gave up your chance of a seat to a couple with three small children, and they sat lap-filled and sun-blind while you balanced two sets of hand luggage between your feet.
You reached the security of the terminal a handful of minutes early. It was as you remembered it, except perhaps for fewer clothes stores, more coffee shops, a sushi bar. Crowds swushed and swept like those starlings you’d both seen in Rome. Breaking the murmur, or waving above it, calls for flights and check-ins guided and controlled. You made your way across the non-slip floor towards the further edge, hoping he wouldn’t be late. In Rome he’d named the starlings ink spots. Eight fifteen, by the newspaper kiosk. Same as before. Not that you’d considered it so precisely, so definitively. There were times when you thought you’d never be on a plane again as a couple, many of them. And certainly not heading back to the west end of Crete, to the villages punctuating the map near Chania, beneath the White Mountains.
You wondered how they’d changed. More tourists, more villas, more cars, for sure. But the bays themselves, the straggled fishing boats, the cafés with beach mats for roofs over their terraces, red and white plastic clips holding stale-patterned plastic tablecloths in place. Olives in bowls. Beer that tasted so cold it crackled against the back of your throat. Would you both know where to go, remember the secret alleyways and hidden doors, after so long?
‘Can I help? You look lost.’ A man with a soft smile and a stab-proof vest leaned in to guard you.
‘No thanks, I’m fine,’ you answered, trying to appear relaxed. ‘Our trip,’ as if that might explain everything.
He stood upright and hooked his thumbs expectantly into the gap between his armpits and the dark vest.
‘I’m waiting for someone. We’ve arranged to meet here,’ you added, your gaze skirting the edge of the fluttering crowd behind him.
He returned your glances, in turn looking past you to the trolley a distance away. ‘Is that your luggage?’
You’d stepped further away from it than you’d realised. The torn trim on the smaller red suitcase made you think of the weekend you’d had to pack for in a hurry, how you’d got the edge of the case caught in a train’s storage rack. ‘The things we take with us, how many of them do we actually need?’ you asked, once you’d apologised again and retrieved your trolley.
‘If you could keep your belongings with you at all times, please.’
‘Yes, of course. Sorry.’ You held tightly to the handle.
He nodded, briefly. ‘Travel safe.’
You watched as he merged into the shawl of those departing and those delivering. How easy it is to disappear, to make yourself unseen, if that’s what you need to do. You wondered if everybody did, at some time. A way to hide from disappointments.
A rumble of loudspeakers announced your flight was open. Swiftly a small horde detached itself and headed to a check-in desk to your right. You watched the flight number appear on a screen above them. Moments later, as if in explanation, ‘22.35’, and below that ‘Chania’. Heads leaned and necks stretched. A few stepped out of line to look at the bright display, some then reaching down for suitcases or trolleys to shuffle away to another queue, another destination. Your feet ached from the walking, the standing, the change of shoes.
You felt your partner’s hand on your arm before you heard his voice. You’d always hated that word, partner. It sounded so non-committal, so temporary. But what other options were there for you? You weren’t married or engaged. Co-habitee? Significant other?
‘Am I late? Sorry, I’m late. Am I?’
‘Perfectly on time. Check-in’s just opened.’ You squeezed the handles of the trolley together to release the brake, and slipped to the back of the line.
He followed too closely behind and to the side of you. ‘How long have you been here? Did you get the garden sorted?’
From the café to your right the strong scent of coffee drifted over like an insistence or a command. You could see a line of disconnected faces in the window, each trying to avoid eye contact while they sipped away their private delays. You were only going to be away for five days. You wanted tea, something lighter like Lady Grey or Rose Pouchong, a way to separate the space. He’d asked you about the garden, even though he’s seen it himself that morning.
He’d tried to help scrape the last of the half-burnt sticks together from the other fires, the days before. One had caught in the sleeve of his jacket. Had he forgotten that, or was he checking up? The imprint of easy conversation, perhaps, but speech had to be delicate for a while still, careful and precise. You felt the urge to kiss him and didn’t know whether to turn and do so or let the seconds rest. And then, once you’d noticed the hesitation, that smudge of indecision, you concentrated instead on the smiles of the airline staff as they asked for your name and reservation number.
You asked as graciously as you could for a window seat, remembering even after so many years how his stomach reacted to flying. Or not his stomach, but his ears and brain and sense of balance combining to make him feel sick. You hoped if he could see the movement as well as sense it then perhaps he might not throw up. It worked in cars when he wasn’t driving, like on the way back from the lakes the previous autumn. The curling roads, the stop start towns. You’d enjoyed the motion of the trip more than the break at the hotel, and drove too slowly on purpose. Neither of you had spoken about that weekend though you both knew what had been said, and what hadn’t, and what could have been.
‘Where do you want to wait?’ he asked as he retied his shoes after clearing security.
There were chairs free near the windows, from where he would be able to watch the planes taxiing. You pointed as best you could with armfuls of hand luggage and coats. ‘Why did we bring these? It’ll be too hot to need them, even at night, in October.’
He shrugged. ‘Near the windows? It’s quieter there.’
‘It’s quiet everywhere.’ The airport seemed unnaturally empty. It was getting late and you had little to reference it by apart from what you’d seen on the news. You’d heard all you wanted to about the economy and terrorism, about fuel taxes and refugees. You had your own problems too, like everyone. Not catastrophic or overwhelming, at least not in that sense, but they were enough. Each night you sat together on the sofa for the late bulletin, with the sound ever so silently louder than it needed to be.
‘I’ve been thinking all afternoon,’ he said quietly.
You shifted and smiled. He was looking at you instead of at the blinking lights of wingtips and tails.
‘Are we doing the right thing?’
‘What do you mean?’ you asked, holding on to your smile.
‘Platanias. Do you think we’ll know it when we get there? Of course it won’t be how it was, I know that.’ He paused, resting his chin in his hand in that way that made his fingers curl up over his mouth. ‘Will it be,’ he started again, scratching his top lip, ‘will it be somewhere we recognise?’
You reached into your bag for your phone and held down the button that turned it off. It chimed to show success. ‘Don’t need this now.’
‘Might as well save the battery for when we get back.’
‘Might as well.’
A flight was called. Lufthansa to Munich. You thought of the Black Forest, castles, industry. ‘Apart from the tourists, Crete doesn’t change that much. I expect there’ll be enough there for us to hang on to.
‘I hope so.’ He sat up and breathed in loudly, as if he was preparing himself for something dynamic or demonstrative, then simply turned his head slightly. It was either to hide his face from you or to see the planes, you couldn’t tell which. ‘We need this, you and me. We need Platanias still to be there.’
He would have carried on talking, you knew. ‘I’m going shopping,’ you said, before he could continue, and then stood up. ‘You’ll stay here with the bags?’
Even as you walked away to the first racks of sunglasses you regretted leaving him so suddenly, or regretted having to. Your feet ached. Yet you understood his thoughts, and perhaps you always had. You wouldn’t have agreed to the trip unless you too had felt an attachment to the village. When he’d left the photo of that waiter you’d both got along with so well, the one who always looked like he’d borrowed his polo shirts from someone much larger, and who brought you extra salads; there was a message there, alongside the handwritten note on the keyboard, black ink on blue paper. You knew you’d plant asters and irises near the back door in the spring. French marigolds if you could arrange a raised bed and a way to keep the snails off them. Coffee grinds were supposed to work, or crushed garlic, you’d heard. Human hair, too.
You turned to see how far you’d walked and he was barely visible near the other end of the departure lounge. In front of you expensive shops were selling expensive fashion brands. You wandered into an electrical store and gazed blankly around at the cameras, laptops, travel clocks and radios. The departures boards blinked and scrolled as inevitably as the range of available currencies for sale in the kiosks. In the end, because they always made you check in so early, you bought two more books to help cover up the silences you worried might lean too hard on you both.
When your flight was called you stumbled back to where he was already standing and waiting. You’d always balanced each other well: he with his need to be early for everything, you with your readiness to let time slip if it made life easier. So many evenings out beginning with that familiar quarrel that you’d made a game of it. It was part of the ritual, like spare house keys and separate razors. It didn’t have to be Crete, or even overseas. You’d both tried before, over dinners of shop-bought lasagne or home-made lamb kofta. When redecorating the spare room in case it was needed after all. An old weekend walk through older woodland, each pair of shoes needing to be worn. Somewhere, you knew, there might be other reasons too. He must have had his own motivation for speaking.
‘Sorry,’ you said, not because you were but because you knew he’d appreciate it. ‘Stuck in a queue for these.’ You held up the bag with the books in, then immediately regretted the symbolism.
‘You smell nice?’
‘A free squirt, to see what it was like. You know how it is.’
You hesitated. ‘And nothing. We’ll see what it’s like when it starts to wear off.’
‘Everyone smells good in airports. It’s one of their failings.’ He handed one of the travel bags to you, then laughed a little as he bent down to pick up his own. ‘What an odd thing to say.’
You too laughed. It might have been relief. ‘Yes, a bit.’
‘Shall we go? Ready?’
He stepped backwards. The smallest step, but you noticed. You saw him laugh, then pause, then step away to let you pass and lead him towards whichever gate you were supposed to be going to. You’d forgotten what number it was as soon as you’d heard it, and eventually he guided you in the right direction back past the electronics store and between two of the more exclusive jewellery and accessories boutiques. But he’d given that simple touch, a moment of rest and concession, and Platanias was more than an idea. It was almost like that time when your brother and his wife had gone through three cycles of fertility treatment. Days of measuring temperatures, trying to regulate moods and misapprehensions, stepping carefully around on shoeless feet, to be told at last that yes, there was potential. Nothing more certain, but certainly that.
What was it like for him, you wondered, as you waited to slide into your seats on the plane. In front of you he was standing calmly while others stowed their bags and took care of their coats. The bus from the terminal had been cold, the aircraft steps colder. Was there a way to measure how he felt?
You sat down and wriggled. ‘Should we be excited? I don’t know.’
‘Yes.’ He thought. You could see him do it. ‘Yes, I think so. Be silly not to.’
‘Yes,’ you said, and believed it. ‘Or there’s no point. It won’t be the same, but that’s fine, I think. It’ll be something else.’ You smiled and leaned back into the headrest.
His face was half-turned to the window but he must have sensed your expression. ‘I wouldn’t have suggested we went back there if I thought it would be the same.’ He rested his forehead against the window.
Did he smile as well? You thought you saw him smile. Past his face you could see through a small section of the toughened plexiglass. The angle let you look right along to the wingtip, where the navigation light was flashing impassively. Beyond it the taxiways and terminals, full of other promises.