December 2016 – Heathrow Airport
After seven hours in a packed aeroplane, I need to stretch my legs. The week before Christmas isn’t an ideal time to travel and I was lucky to get a flight at all. It’s early morning here in London, not yet seven o’clock. Now I have five-and-a-half hours to idle away before my connection to Paris and Bordeaux. Plenty time to consider my future.
The concourse is crowded and not everyone seems to be headed in the same direction. I shoulder my cabin bag, check the overhead displays and then, ignoring the moving walkway, stride out in the direction of the baggage claim. Alongside, countless trolley wheels go clackety-clack on the metal strips. My body is still on Eastern Standard Time and I’m going to need litres of coffee to keep awake for the rest of the day. We left New York in the evening and I couldn’t sleep on the plane, what with the grunts and snores from fellow passengers and the occasional yells from excited kids.
I’m not exactly looking forward to a fortnight at home. After the way my father and I tiptoed round one another last New Year, I nearly decided not to go at all. If Nicole wasn’t going to be back in France, I probably wouldn’t bother. For the past year and a half, she has been the one bit of stability in my life. Even my mother, usually a rock of tolerance and reliability, has been acting weird. She can sense the tension, I guess, and is still trying to protect me from the consequences of my actions.
At least my father did come to my graduation. However, we didn’t have much to say to one another and the two days I spent in his company dragged like a prison sentence. I don’t think either of us knew what to say.
The American trip has given me a lot to think about. The universities have made attractive offers. Until recently, I had no thought of a career in the United States. However, since the UK voted to leave the EU, I’m worried British universities like Oxford will lose valuable research funding. With other pressures on the government here, like the health service, I don’t see it being replaced.
With a second, clipped pardon I force my way through a group of travellers – four adults with five kids in tow – who seem intent on having a family meeting in the middle of the concourse and stubbornly decide not to move at my first, polite excuse me. I’m in no hurry but I’m jet-lagged and in need of that caffeine shot.
Two flights are unloading and I have to wait. I find a quiet spot near the toilets and dig my phone from my pocket. I take it off flight mode and dial Nicole’s number. She’s an early riser so I risk it. It goes straight to voice-mail and I get her welcome message. At least it’s her voice and not one of those recordings provided by the phone company.
‘You have reached Nicole Durand. I’m sorry I can’t speak now, but please leave a message and I’ll call back.’
‘In London now. Will call again later,’ I say, press the red button and return the instrument to my pocket. The carousel, moving now, has already attracted a crowd of passengers and trolleys. I move closer to the belt and take up position where I can easily snatch my luggage without causing havoc.
To my left and about three metres away is a woman with a bulky bag slung over her shoulder and a baby in the crook of her arm. She has brought her trolley to the edge of the belt, near the point of arrival of the luggage. The infant’s yells, shrill and pained, are audible above the buzz of conversation and the chug of the mechanism. It’s probably about a year old but I can’t tell whether it’s a boy or a girl.
‘Dick. Mimm,’ it screeches in competition with the airport tannoy. ‘Dick!’
Whatever the sounds mean, the mother seems to understand and is doing her best to soothe her offspring with kisses and soft words. I can’t hear what she is saying, but he – or she – quietens.
Her suitcase is one of the first to be tossed on. She tightens her grip on her baby and reaches down with her free hand to drag the item off the carousel, a brown case with wheels and a rainbow strap round the middle.
‘Mimm . . . Dick . . . Mimm!’ The infant wails. The trolley spins round and two other passengers have to leap back to avoid it. The case is huge. The woman clutches at it but she’s never going to make it on her own.
I lunge towards her.
‘Here, allow me!’ I reach across, grab the suitcase and park it on the trolley for her.
‘Thanks. There’s another item coming . . . the brown buggy with the red straps. Would you . . . ?’ She leaves the sentence unfinished.
Until now, her back has been toward me. She is wearing a short raincoat and a beret from which spill wisps of dark brown hair. Now, as she turns, I see her face for the first time. My mouth forms an expletive but she beats me with one of her own.
‘Jesus Christ – Andy Ravel!’
The intended Fucking Hell on my lips fizzles out into a tame French expression of astonishment.
‘Douce Vierge,’ I hiss. ‘Dr Chapman!’
As if on cue, the infant miraculously stops howling. In the relative quiet, a few other heads turn in my direction.
The woman tucks a handful of hair under the rim of the beret and smiles seductively. She moves the baby to her other arm and dumps the shoulder bag on the trolley. It’s hot in Baggage Reclaim and her forehead glistens with perspiration.
‘I’m most definitely not one of those, Ravel,’ she exclaims, ‘as you well know. Douce or otherwise!’