OK. The truth is, I don’t like this.
I know it’s business class; I know it’s all a lovely luxury. But my stomach is still a tight knot of fear.
It’s about ten minutes into the flight, and they’ve switched off the seat belt signs. While we were taking off, I counted very slowly with my eyes closed, and that kind of worked. But I ran out of steam at three hundred and fifty, so now I’m just sitting, sipping champagne, attempting to read an article called “30 Things to Do Before You’re 30” in Cosmo. I’m trying really hard to look like a relaxed business-class top marketing executive. But every tiny sound makes me start; every vibration makes me catch my breath.
With an outward veneer of calm, I reach for the laminated safety instructions and run my eyes over them for the fifth time. Safety exits. Brace position. If life jackets are required, please assist the elderly and children first. Oh, God—
Why am I even looking at this? How will it help me to gaze at pictures of little stick people jumping into the ocean while their plane explodes behind them? I stuff the safety instructions quickly back in their pocket and take a gulp of champagne.
To distract myself, I look around the cabin. The two elderly women I noticed earlier are both laughing at something. The guy with the laptop is still typing. Behind him is a little blond boy of maybe two, sitting with a beautiful dark girl. As I watch, the boy drops a plastic wheel on the floor. It rolls away, and immediately he starts to wail. The two elderly ladies pause in their laughter, and I’m aware of the man next to me looking up.
“Is everything OK? Can I help?” An air hostess is rushing up to the toddler’s seat.
“Don’t worry.” The dark girl waves her arm. “He’ll calm down.”
“Are you his mum?” The air hostess smiles at her.
“Nanny.” She reaches in her bag and produces a lolly, which she starts to unwrap. “He’ll keep quiet now.”
“Excuse me,” I say. “He dropped his toy.” Everyone turns to look at me and I flush. “That might be why he’s crying,” I explain.
The dark girl looks at me without expression. “It’s just a piece of plastic. He’ll get over it.” She jams the lolly in the boy’s mouth and he starts to suck it, but tears are rolling down his cheeks.
Poor little thing. Isn’t she even going to try to get the toy?
Suddenly my eye is caught by a patch of bright color on the floor. It’s the wheel. It’s rolled under a row of empty seats, right over to the window.
“Oh!” I say. “Look—there it is!”
To my slight disbelief, the nanny shrugs. “He’s not bothered,” she says.
“He is bothered!” I retort. “Don’t worry,” I add to the child, “I’ll help you.”
Telling myself it can make absolutely no difference to the safety of the plane if I stand up, I unbuckle my seat belt. Somehow I force myself to my feet. Then, with everyone’s eyes on me, I bend coolly down to retrieve the wheel.
OK. Now I can’t reach the bloody thing.
Well, I’m not giving up, after I’ve made this big deal about it. Without looking at anyone, I lie right down on the plane floor.
Oh, God. It’s more wobbly than I expected.
What if the floor suddenly collapsed and I fell through the sky?
No. Stop it. Nothing’s going to collapse. I shuffle forward, stretch as far as possible … and at last my fingers close around the plastic wheel. As nonchalantly as I can, I get to my feet, banging my elbow on a seat tray, and hand the plastic wheel to the little boy.
“Here,” I say in my best Superman, all-in-a-day’s-work voice. “I think this is yours.”
He clasps it tightly to his chest, and I glow with pride.
A moment later, he hurls the wheel on the floor, and it rolls away, to almost exactly the same place.
The nanny gives a stifled giggle, and I can see one of the elderly ladies smiling.
“Right,” I say after a pause. “Right. Well … enjoy your flight.”
I get back into my seat, trying to look unfazed, as though this is what I planned all along.
“Nice try,” says the American guy next to me, and I turn, suspicious. But he doesn’t look as if he’s laughing at me.
“Oh.” I hesitate. “Thanks.”
I buckle up my seat belt and reach for my magazine again. That’s it. I’m not moving from this seat again.
“Excuse me, madam.” An air hostess with red curls has appeared by my side. “Are you traveling on business?”
“Yes.” I smooth down my hair. “Yes, I am.”
She hands me a leaflet titled “Executive Facilities,” on which there’s a photo of businesspeople talking animatedly in front of a clipboard with a wavy graph on it.
“This is some information about our new business-class lounge at Gatwick. We provide full conference call facilities and meeting rooms, should you require them. Would you be interested?”
I am a top businesswoman. I am a top high-flying business executive.
“Quite possibly,” I say, looking casually at the leaflet. “Yes, I may well use one of these rooms to … brief my team. I have a large team, and obviously they need a lot of briefing. On business matters.” I clear my throat. “Mostly … multi-logistical.”
“I see.” The hostess looks a little nonplussed.
“Actually, while you’re here,” I add, “I was just wondering. Is that sound normal?”
“What sound?” The air hostess cocks her head.
“That sound. That kind of whining, coming from the wing?”
“I can’t hear anything.” She looks at me sympathetically. “Are you a nervous flyer?”
“No!” I say at once, and give a little laugh. “No, I’m not nervous! I just … was wondering. Just out of interest.”
“I’ll see if I can find out for you,” she says kindly. “Here you are, sir. Some information about our executive facilities at Gatwick.”
The American man takes his leaflet wordlessly and slips it into the seat pocket in front of him without even looking at it. The hostess moves on, staggering a little as the plane gives a bump.
Why is the plane bumping?
Oh, God. An avalanche of fear hits me with no warning. This is madness. Madness! Sitting in this big, heavy box with no way of escape, thousands and thousands of feet above the ground …
I can’t do this on my own. I have an overpowering need to talk to someone. Someone reassuring. Someone safe.
Instinctively I fish out my mobile phone, but immediately the air hostess swoops down on me.
“I’m afraid you can’t use that on board the plane,” she says with a bright smile. “Could you please ensure that it’s switched off?”
“Oh. Er, sorry.”
Of course I can’t use my mobile. They’ve only said it about fifty-five zillion times. I am such a durr-brain.
Shall I use the seat phone?
No. It doesn’t matter. I don’t need to bother Connor. It’s ridiculous. This is just a tiny flight from Glasgow. I’m fine. I put my mobile away in my bag and look at my watch.
Only five minutes have passed since I last looked. Fifty-five to go.
OK, don’t think about that. Just take each minute as it comes. I lean back and try to concentrate on the old episode of Fawlty Towers that is showing on the screen.
Maybe I’ll start counting again. Three hundred and forty-nine. Three hundred and fifty. Three hundred and—
Fuck. My head jerks up. What was that bump? Did we just get hit?
OK, don’t panic. It was just a bump. I’m sure everything’s fine. We probably just flew into a pigeon or something. Where was I?
Three hundred and fifty-one. Three hundred and fifty-two. Three hundred and fifty—
And then I hear the screams like a wave over my head, almost before I realize what’s happening.
Oh, God. Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh … OH … NO. NO. NO.
We’re falling. Oh, God, we’re falling.
The plane’s plummeting through the air like a stone. A man across from me has just shot up through the air and banged his head on the ceiling. He’s bleeding. I’m clutching on to the arms of my seat, but I can feel myself being wrenched upward; it’s like someone’s tugging me, like gravity’s suddenly switched the other way. Bags are flying around, drinks are spilling, one of the cabin crew has fallen over, she’s gripping a seat …
Oh, God. Oh, God. OK, the plane is leveling off now. It’s … it’s better.
I look at the American man, and he’s grasping on to his seat as tightly as I am.
I feel sick. I think I might be sick.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” comes a voice over the intercom, and everyone looks up. “This is your captain speaking.”
My heart is juddering in my chest. I can’t listen. I can’t think.
“We’re currently hitting some clear-air turbulence, and things may be unsteady for a while. I have switched on the seat belt signs and would ask that you all return to your seats as quickly as—”
There’s another huge lurch, and his voice is drowned by screams and cries all around the plane.
It’s like a bad dream. A bad roller-coaster dream.
The cabin crew are all strapping themselves into their seats. One of the hostesses is mopping blood on her face. A minute ago they were happily doling out honey-roasted peanuts.
I always knew something like this was going to happen to me. I just knew. All those people who said flying was perfectly safe—they were lying.
“We have to keep calm!” one of the elderly women is saying. “Everyone, keep calm!”
Keep calm? I can’t breathe, let alone keep calm. What are we going to do? Are we all supposed to just sit here while the plane bucks like an out-of-control horse?
I can hear someone behind me reciting “Hail Mary, full of grace …” and a fresh, choking panic sweeps through me. People are praying. This is real.
We’re going to die.
We’re going to die.
“I’m sorry?” The American man in the next seat looks at me, his face tense and white.
Did I just say that aloud?
“We’re going to die.” I stare into his face. This could be the last person I ever see alive. I take in the lines etched around his dark eyes; his strong jaw, shaded with stubble.
The plane suddenly drops again, and I give an involuntary shriek.
“I don’t think we’re going to die,” he says. “They said it was just turbulence—”
“Of course they did!” I can hear the hysteria in my voice. “They wouldn’t exactly say, ‘OK, folks, that’s it—you’re all goners’!”
The plane gives another terrifying swoop, and I find myself clutching the man’s hand in panic. “We’re not going to make it. I know we’re not. This is it. I’m twenty-five years old, for God’s sake. I’m not ready. I haven’t achieved anything. I’ve never had children. I’ve never saved a life. The one time I tried to do the Heimlich maneuver, the guy thought I was coming on to him.…” I feel myself clutching the magazine in my lap, still open at the “30 Things to Do Before You’re 30” article. “I haven’t ever climbed a mountain, I haven’t got a tattoo, I don’t even know if I’ve got a G spot.…”
“I’m sorry?” says the man, sounding taken aback, but I barely hear him.
“My career’s a complete joke. I’m not a top businesswoman at all.” I gesture half tearfully to my suit. “I haven’t got a team! I’m just a crappy assistant, and I just had my first-ever big meeting and it was a complete disaster. Half the time I haven’t got a clue what people are talking about. I don’t know what multi-logistical means, I’m never going to get promoted, and I owe my dad four thousand quid, and I’ve never really been in love.…”
The plane levels off again, and I draw myself up short with a jolt. “I’m sorry,” I say, and exhale sharply. “You don’t want to hear all this.”
“That’s quite all right,” says the man.
God. I’m completely losing it.
And anyway, what I just said wasn’t true. Because I am in love with Connor. It must be the altitude or something, confusing my mind.
Flustered, I push the hair off my face and try to get hold of myself. OK, let’s try counting once more. Three hundred and fifty … six. Three hundred and—
Oh, God. Oh, God. No. Please. The plane’s lurching again. We’re plummeting.
“I’ve never done anything to make my parents proud of me.” The words come spilling out of my mouth before I can stop them. “Never.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” says the man kindly.
“It’s true. Maybe they used to be proud of me. But then my cousin Kerry came to live with us, and suddenly it was like my parents couldn’t see me anymore. All they could see was her. She was fourteen when she arrived, and I was ten, and I thought it was going to be great, you know. Like having an older sister. But it didn’t work out like that.…”
I can’t stop talking. I just can’t stop.
Every time the plane bumps or jolts, another torrent of words comes rushing out of my mouth. Like a waterfall.
“… she was a swimming champion, and an everything champion, and I was just … nothing in comparison.…”
“… photography course and I honestly thought it was going to change my life.…”
“… eight stone three. But I was planning to go on a diet.…”
“I applied for every single job in the world. I was so desperate, I even applied to …”
“… awful girl called Artemis. This new desk arrived the other day, and she just took it, even though I’ve got this really grotty little desk.…”
“… sometimes I water her stupid spider plant with orange juice, just to serve her right.…”
“… sweet girl Katie, who works in Personnel. We have this secret code where she comes in and says, ‘Can I go through some numbers with you, Emma?’ and we go and get a coffee and have a gossip.…”
“… coffee at work is the most disgusting stuff you’ve ever drunk, absolute poison. So we usually nip out to Starbucks.…”
“… put ‘Maths GCSE grade A’ on my CV, when I really only got a C. I know it was dishonest. I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I so wanted to get the job.…”
What’s happened to me? Normally there’s a kind of filter that stops me from blurting out everything I’m thinking, but the filter’s stopped working. Everything’s piling out in a big, random stream, and I can’t stop it.
“Sometimes I think I believe in God, because how else did we all get here? But then I think, Yes, but what about war.…”
“… wear G-strings because they don’t give you VPL. But they’re so uncomfortable.…”
“… size four, and I didn’t know what to do, so I just said, ‘Wow, those are absolutely fantastic.…’ ”
“… roasted peppers, my complete favorite food …”
“… joined a book group, but I just couldn’t get through Great Expectations. So I just skimmed the back and pretended I’d read it.…”
“… I gave him all his goldfish food. I honestly don’t know what happened.…”
“… just have to hear that Carpenters song ‘Close to You’ and I start crying.…”
“… perfect date would start off with champagne just appearing at the table, as if by magic.…”
I’m unaware of anything around us. The world has narrowed to me and this stranger, and my mouth, spewing out all my innermost thoughts and secrets.
“… name was Danny Nussbaum. Mum and Dad were downstairs watching Ben-Hur, and I remember thinking, If this is what the world gets so excited about, then the world’s mad.…”
“… lie on my side, because that way your cleavage looks bigger.…”
“… works in Market Research. I remember thinking the very first time I saw him, Wow, he’s good-looking. He’s very tall and blond, because he’s half-Swedish, and he has these amazing blue eyes. So he asked me out.…”
“… always have a glass of sweet sherry before a date, to calm my nerves.…”
“He’s wonderful. Connor’s completely wonderful. He’s sweet, and he’s good, and he’s successful, and everyone calls us the perfect couple.…”
“… I’d never tell anyone this in a million years. But sometimes I think he’s almost too good-looking. A bit like one of those dolls? Like Ken. Like a blond Ken.”
And now I’m on the subject of Connor, I’m saying things I’ve never said to anyone. Things I never even realized were in my head.
“… gave him this lovely leather watch for Christmas, but he wears this orange digital thing, because it can tell him the temperature in Poland or something stupid.…”
“… took me to all these jazz concerts and I pretended to enjoy them to be polite, so now he thinks I love jazz.…”
“… every single Woody Allen film off by heart and says each line before it comes, and it drives me crackers.…”
“… determined to find my G spot, so we spent the whole weekend doing it in different positions, and by the end I was just knackered. All I wanted was a pizza and Friends.…”
“… he kept saying, What was it like, what was it like? So I just made some stuff up, I said it was absolutely amazing, and it felt as though my whole body were opening up like a flower, and he said what sort of flower, so I said a begonia.…”
“… can’t expect the initial passion to last. But how do you tell if the passion’s faded in a good, long-term-commitment way or in a crap, we-don’t-fancy-each-other-anymore way.…”
“… knight in shining armor is not a realistic option. But there’s a part of me that wants a huge, amazing romance. I want passion. I want to be swept off my feet. I want an earthquake, or a … I don’t know, a huge whirlwind … something exciting. Sometimes I feel as if there’s this whole new, thrilling life waiting for me out there, and if I can just—”
“Excuse me, miss?”
“What?” I look up dazedly. “What is it?” The air hostess with the French plait is smiling down at me.
How can we have landed? I look around—and glimpse the airport terminal through the window. The plane’s still. We’re on the ground.
I feel like Dorothy. A second ago I was swirling around in Oz, clicking my heels together, and now that I’ve woken up, all is flat and quiet and normal again.
“We aren’t bumping anymore,” I say stupidly.
“We stopped bumping quite a while ago,” says the American man.
“We’re … we’re not going to die.”
“We’re not going to die,” he agrees.
I look at him as though for the first time—and suddenly it hits me. I’ve been blabbering nonstop this whole time to a complete stranger. God alone knows what I’ve been saying.
I want to get off this plane right now. “I’m sorry,” I say awkwardly. “You should have stopped me.”
“That would have been a little difficult.” There’s a tiny smile at his lips. “You were on a bit of a roll.”
“I’m so embarrassed!” I try to smile, but I can’t even look this guy in the eye. I mean, I told him about my knickers. I told him about my G spot. My whole face is hot with mortification.
“Don’t worry about it. We were all stressed-out. That was some flight.” He hesitates. “Will you be OK getting back home?”
“Yes!” My voice is shrill. “I’ll be fine, thanks!” I scrabble hurriedly under the seat for my briefcase. I have to get out of here. Now.
“You’re sure you’re OK?”
“Fine! Thanks very much.” I undo my seat belt and get to my feet, stumbling a little. “I hope you have a nice visit.”
“Thanks.” He smiles up at me, and I nod back, then walk away as quickly as I can.
As I step onto the solid ground of the terminal, the relief hits me again. I’m alive. I’m safe. Slowly, trying to keep control of myself, I make my way along the carpeted corridors toward Arrivals. I feel sweaty, my hair’s all over the place, and my head is starting to throb.
The airport seems so bright and calm after the intense atmosphere of the plane. The ground seems so firm. I sit quietly on a plastic chair for a while, trying to get myself together, but as I stand up at last, I still feel dazed. I walk through Customs in a blur, hardly able to believe I’m here.
“Emma!” I hear someone calling as I come out of Arrivals, but I don’t look up. There are loads of Emmas in this world.
“Emma! Over here!”
I raise my head in disbelief. Is that …
No. It can’t be, it can’t—
He looks heartbreakingly handsome. His skin has that Scandinavian tan, and his eyes are bluer than ever, and he’s running toward me. This makes no sense. What’s he doing here? As we reach each other, he grabs me and pulls me tight to his chest.
“Thank God,” he says huskily. “Thank God. Are you OK?”
“Connor, what—what are you doing here?”
“I thought I’d surprise you. When I got here, they told me the plane had hit turbulence.” He closes his eyes briefly. “Emma, I watched your plane land. They sent an ambulance straight out to it. Then you didn’t appear. I thought …” He swallows hard. “I don’t know exactly what I thought.”
“I’m fine. I was just trying to get myself together. Oh, God, Connor, it was terrifying.” My voice is suddenly all shaky, which is ridiculous, because I’m perfectly safe now. “At one point I honestly thought I was going to die.”
“When you didn’t come through the barrier …” Connor breaks off and looks at me silently for a few seconds. “I think I realized for the first time quite how deeply I feel about you.”
“Really?” I falter.
“Emma, I think we should …”
Get married? My heart jumps in fear. Oh, my God. He’s going to ask me to marry him, right here in the airport. What am I going to say? I’m not ready to get married. But if I say no, he’ll stalk off in a huff. Shit. OK. What I’ll say is, Gosh, Connor, I need a little time to …
“… move in together,” he finishes.
Well, of course. Obviously he wasn’t going to ask me to marry him.
“What do you think?” He strokes my hair gently.
“Erm …” I rub my face, playing for time, unable to think straight. Move in with Connor. It kind of makes sense.
All at once, some of the things I said on the plane slide into my head. Something about my never having been properly in love. Something about Connor’s not understanding me properly.
But then … that was just drivel, wasn’t it? I mean, I thought I was about to die. I wasn’t exactly at my most lucid.
“Connor, what about your big meeting?” I say, suddenly recalling.
“I canceled it.”
“You canceled it?” I stare at him. “For me?”
I feel really wobbly now. My legs are barely holding me up. I don’t know if it’s the aftermath of the plane journey, or love.
Oh, God, just look at him. He’s tall and he’s handsome, and he canceled a big meeting, and now he wants to rescue me.
It’s love. It has to be love.
“I’d love to move in with you, Connor,” I whisper, and, to my utter astonishment, burst into tears.