SPOILER ALERT - PLEASE READ 'MAKING TEA' FIRST
Maureen sat at the kitchen table sipping her tea. She noticed the wind had died down, it was growing dark and the street lights were coming on. Soon the men – in her street they were all men – would be returning home to their wives from work. The lamp above the stove cast a cosy yellow glow over the table where she was sitting. Earlier, she’d folded up the newspaper and piled it carefully on the corner.
The glossy supplement was spread open to the page where, next to cinema times, community information was displayed. The public was kept up to date with prayer times, the opening hours of the zoo, consumer advice contacts, a helpline for drug and alcohol abuse, hospital visiting hours and a range of other telephone numbers. Maureen scanned the variety of services on offer which included the usual suspects – police, fire and ambulance – and less common ones: the number for the seaport, for one of the museums, for the ship-shore phone bureau and for the post office. She pondered what an anthropologist might learn from the listings a hundred years hence, where the secrets of a nation’s obsessions were laid out. There were separate lines for capital security – the place, she wondered, or the punishment – and criminal information, which she considered ringing up to ask for ideas and advice. Below that were telephone numbers for the directorates of boundaries and coastlines, civil defence, and rescue. Well, thought Maureen picking up the handset, any of these could help.
She imagined ringing the police. In a parallel universe she would quietly give herself up, as law-abiding habits took over in a crisis. But that place was filled with scenes from old Western movies such as swinging doors sagging with torn fly-screen, and blowing sand half-burying fence posts; none of which were relevant. It was the persistent image of a sheep’s fleece caught on barbed wire that finally arrested her hovering hand and brought her back to her kitchen.
She put the phone back on its cradle and finished her cup of tea. Instead of ringing the police, she dialled the number for flight inquiries, and listened to current aircraft arrivals from a recording. No, she wanted flight information as in departures, not landing reports. She looked up the number for the national airline. Usually she booked on-line, harnessing frequent flyer points and saving five percent of the price. Making a telephone reservation was a new experience. She wanted a seat, any seat and any destination would do – but to sound so eager might attract the wrong kind of attention. A busy airport was her ideal destination with multiple airlines and international connections: a transport hub.
Yes, there was a flight to Heathrow, leaving that evening at 9.20. No economy seats were available but she wasn’t going to quibble and the later check-in time for business class would give her some valuable breathing space. Satisfied, Maureen hung up.
She rinsed her tea cup, the red Parisian souvenir they had bought together in the rain, and left it upside down beside the sink to dry. She rang Mutu and booked him to pick her up at 8 o’clock, glancing around the kitchen as she was speaking. She frowned at the thin layer of greasy dust she spied above the extractor fan. She never liked to go away unless the house was clean and tidy. This time she felt her housekeeping really would be scrutinised. She wanted to write a note, apologising for her lapse and inviting future visitors to make themselves a drink, and somehow explaining herself, all the while knowing the rules of the perfect hostess no longer applied. She had passed outside the realm where manners and civilisation had any meaning.
Upstairs she found a small suitcase in the box room. She would need to retrieve enough clothes to manage for a few days as too much or too little luggage would invite questions; and she wanted to be comfortable. The thought of wearing the same shirt or socks for two days made her wince. She tip-toed into the bedroom, sidling past the bed with her back turned and flung the cupboard open. It was as if she didn’t want to disturb Tim, stretched out on the bed, exactly as he’d been before her shower. Maureen avoided looking at him and didn’t step any closer than she needed to. She scooped up a few tops and a pair of woollen trousers and then scurried out of the room dangling coat hangers. She pushed the clothes into the case, kicked the coat hangers across the hall, and went back for some underwear and her toothbrush.
Maureen dragged the trolley case down the steps to the front door. She checked her watch and went to the bookcase to pull a couple of new novels down to read on the plane – anonymous ones that Tim had not yet marked with his ex libris stamp. She tucked them under her arm and scanned her library. Her hand fluttered over the shelves as if choosing a volume of poetry was indeed her final act as a free woman. Should it be one of her favourites: Seamus Heaney? the mad Plath? John Donne? She fingered their spines, tapped a valedictory post and settled on her high school anthology, full of familiar phrases, famous and rare samples of her past.
She checked her watch again: ten minutes to pick-up time, and Mutu would be religiously prompt. She squeezed the books into the outside pocket of her suitcase, forcing the zip across the pocket. Then in a flurry of panic, she decided that bare feet, jeans and a blouse were not suitable attire for a woman travelling in November to London and beyond.
Maureen pulled a dress and then a trouser suit from the wardrobe but shook her head and ditched them on the floor.
In the end, she chose a short black skirt, tights and tall boots the colour of red wine. Above the skirt she wore a soft grey jumper and a single heavy silver chain. Her hair was scraped up into a knot on her neck and she’d painted her face, her mouth brilliant, almost matching the boots. When Maureen glanced in the mirror she saw a stranger. She nodded at the reflection in approval.
Mutu never rang the door bell. To Maureen, he seemed to operate on the principle that if he was professional and meticulous, his customers would be too. Maureen wondered if he discarded clients who did not fulfil his expectations. In a few minutes she was ready. The trolley case was beside the front door, her coat draped over the extended handle, her handbag nestling at its feet, and the taxi waiting. Her hand was on the knob, ready to pull the door open and call to Mutu, when she stopped herself. She hurried through the kitchen, the sharp heels of her boots stabbing like metal spikes across the tiles, into the pantry. She yanked open the door to the air conditioner controls and lowered the temperature to 18 degrees, which was as cold as she could make it go. She had a vague thought that it would be better for Tim – for his silent, stiffening body – if the house was as cool as possible. Perhaps not for Tim, but for the person who eventually came for him.
The taxi driver helped her put the case in the boot. ‘Mr Tim is not joining you ma’am?’ He tilted his head and nodded at the house.
‘Not this time Mutu, no. He’s busy ... at work.’ Maybe she should have said he was away, but then Mutu would be puzzled because he always drove Tim to the airport, and he might be hurt by a supposed rejection. No need to torture the man with doubts. ‘No Mutu’ she swallowed and flicked her tongue over her lips ‘he’s at the camp. Busy. He won’t be home for a few days.’ She had no illusions that her excuse would confound anyone for long.
Mutu dropped her amongst a crowd of men encumbered with corded boxes and over-size canvas bags, all their treasures from years of labour, going home. She checked in, by-passing the queues with her business class ticket.
At passport control she rejoined the throng of departing workers. Her line was the shortest, but motionless. She stood behind a young man dressed in worn sandals and clothes too big for his slight frame, his shoulders shaking and his dark face streaming with tears. Maureen touched his arm: ‘Are you alright?’ She was sure that he didn’t speak English, but he seemed to understand her tone.
‘Job gone.’ He shook his head and wiped his face with the back of his hand.
Maureen opened her purse and took out four blue notes, folded them tightly and thrust them into his hand. ‘I’m sorry’ she said. ‘Please, take it.’
The queue moved forward and it was his turn at the passport desk. Maureen gave him a nudge with her elbow to turn him, and then a gentle push. He had no time to refuse the money or to thank her, as she planned. She smiled and pointed at the vacant desk. He was open mouthed, his head bobbing, as he took his place.
The official at the next desk waved her forward. Maureen had her passport stamped, whispered ‘shukran’ and passed through the metal detectors and x-rays while the Nepalese worker was still detained with his paperwork. The bored security guards waved her on. She could feel a whoop of excitement bubble to her lips. It escaped as a giggle before Maureen could suppress it. Steady girl, not through the exit yet, she thought.
She pushed into the melee of duty free goods. Maureen and her overnight bag struggled between the queues of shoppers with their baskets, and enormous tubs of orange drink-powder. At the bottom of the escalators beyond the crowds, a car sparkled amongst the last minute designer must-haves. Ignoring these material delights, Maureen glided upwards, glancing at her boarding pass and the time above the eager shoppers. She had thirty minutes to dispense with and no desire for a souvenir, no thought of hostess gifts, only seeking to blend and disappear.
From the top of the escalator, she spotted the young Nepalese emerging amongst the cash desks. She could see he wasn’t crying now; his face glistened with joy, perhaps, and she could see his teeth flashing. Then the risk of being noticed and remembered thrust itself at her like a punch in the abdomen. He mustn’t see and recognise her and confirm her face in his memory. She hurried through the ranks of anchored seats, through the aimless drifts of travellers and strewn baggage towards the business class lounge, knowing he would not be admitted there, even by chance.
The brightly made-up receptionist looked at her boarding pass and assured Maureen that her flight would be called, showed her manicured teeth and instructed her to relax and renew. Maureen forced down another giggle, smiled her sweetest and went off to find a corner seat, away from the traffic around the buffet. She parked her trolley bag beside her, draped the winter coat over its outstretched handle and perched on the armchair. Carrying the coat had made her hot and her feet were sweating in the tall boots. Maureen pulled a tissue from her handbag and patted her face with a trembling hand. Deep breaths, she said to herself, steady, you can do this.
Maureen forced herself to move back in the seat and stretched her feet out, holding them up so that her legs were horizontal, suspended in the air, her boots glowing dully like fresh blood. She closed her eyes and deliberately loosened her grip on the arms of the chair. She could feel her heart thudding in her rib cage and her palms slipping on the leatherette. She took another deep slow breath, willing herself to relax.
Competing versions of the international news broadcast from half a dozen monitors added to the din of voices shouting into mobile phones and the rustle of newspapers. There was a constant rattle of crockery and doors. People were coming in and settling down, squealing the furniture across the floor tiles, while others stomped about responding to flight calls. Maureen tried to focus on her breathing and block out the chaos around her. She released the tension in her shoulders and unclenched her teeth. Her lungs expanded and contracted, her diaphragm lifting and settling. Gradually the roar in her head quietened. She tried to isolate each sound outside her, fold it up and push it away. A trolley wheel squeaked on the tiles and a phone sang You are so beautiful nearby. She heard smart footsteps through the babble, tapping down the aisle, coming nearer and eventually stopping at her feet. She knew then, without opening her eyes that they belonged to officials, uniforms, the police.
A cough. ‘Mrs Armstrong? Excuse me, ma’am, are you Maureen Ann Armstrong?’
She looked first at the black shiny toes and then up at the dark blue trouser legs. Two pairs. She opened her mouth, making no sound.
One of the men was bending forward, smiling, ‘Mrs Armstrong? I think this is yours.’ He had a passport open, comparing her face to the flattened picture on the page. ‘You left it at the emigration desk ma’am. You’ll need it to board.’ He clicked his boots and let his eyes linger on her knees and her thighs emerging from the short black skirt. His lips parted into a broad smile.
Maureen struggled to sit upright. She blinked and seemed to swallow half the desert outside. ‘Than...’ was all that she could choke out. She felt tears spill into her eyes. She wanted to throw herself at their feet, beg for mercy, confess, plead, even bargain.
The officer with her passport dropped it into her lap. ‘Have a good flight ma’am’ he said, bowing.
Maureen shook her head and tried again to speak to their backs. She struggled to breathe, needed the toilet urgently, and then wanted to cartwheel across the tarmac. She was immobilised. Eventually she wrenched her fingers from the depths of the leatherette arms. She clawed the passport open and thrust her boarding pass between its pages.
‘Last and final call for Heathrow. All remaining passengers proceed to gate 12 for immediate boarding.’
Maureen stood up awkwardly, draping her coat over her arm and hitching the handbag onto her shoulder. She clutched the handle of the trolley case. She wriggled her toes in the wine-red boots and stepped forward. Renew she told herself, relax.