Vanessa frowns, thinking of her mother-in-law, as she sits on a bar stool overlooking the arrivals concourse. Helen always said that she knew she would lose Michael, however much she loved him. His premature birth had made her feel she didn’t deserve to be his mum.
The huge hall absorbs noise, and wheelie cases are pulled silently across the smooth floor by travellers speaking into smartphones, even a cage of milk coming to the coffee bar barely clatters. Allow 25 minutes for passengers without luggage, and an hour for those with. Michael’s flight was 45 minutes delayed, but caught up a little, and would have landed at 1837 instead of 1800. She remembers feeling a sort of nervousness, driving there faster than she needed to, palms and armpits sweaty. The clammy feeling that has haunted her for a year.
The meet-and-greet men slouch with laminated cards, ID badges on lanyards round their necks, phones in shirt pockets, hair close-cropped. An African waits with a card – ‘MBEKE’. Another card, Betterby’s College, is followed by a thin youth in a khaki coloured suit holding a guitar case, a young Spaniard coming to study English perhaps. There is something displaced in the soft features of the youth with the guitar, tired and reposeful, standing with his huge suitcase which has been crammed by a loving Spanish mother with new clothes and treats from home.
The arrivals hall is strangely quiet. You would expect relatives greeting one another, card bearers collecting their clients, but very little happens. A few people filter out from behind the barriers every now and again, and then head for the exits, looking up at the signage to quickly check their direction.Michael was always rushing, sweating, breathless, stressed, frantic. His recurring nightmare was to arrive at an airport check-in to find that everyone else had gone, apart from a distant queue of white-robed Nigerians going to Lagos, morose cleaners wiping down the desks, a floor polisher driven along in the nearly empty building, not even bribery getting him on the flight.
His gait betrayed a slight stiffness of the left leg, his left arm drawn across his body as if carrying an invisible raincoat. It was a weakness caused by his premature birth. His survival had been a miracle. Helen had shown Vanessa an album of blurred incubator photographs, the infant in a Perspex casket, his life being saved, for a time.
Vanessa remembers having to drive Michael to the airport. He had been too slow that morning, clinging to the warmth and intimacy of their bed. He wasn’t looking forward to the meeting in Stockholm, the truck company were pernickety about the two defective parts in a shipment of three thousand. He knew he had to present his root cause analysis, and it wouldn’t be good enough, the fine was stipulated in the contract. His boss would not be impressed. Michael had grumbled all the way to the check-in desk, and Vanessa had kissed him goodbye with relief. Yet she had lingered on at the barrier, watching his tall thin form as he laid his briefcase on the belt, getting a final sight of him as he passed into the security area.
The flight number is on the arrivals board, and Vanessa scans the crowd; they have drifted like shoals of fish from the luggage carousel, out through passports and customs. The meet-and-greet men stand straighter. She answers her phone, but it is not Michael. She knows it can never be Michael.
‘Are you okay, Vanessa?’ says Helen, ‘I know you’ve got to do this, darling, but it must be so painful for you?’
‘I’m okay,’ she replies. Then she is silent, but no tears come in her eyes, she is not waiting for Michael any more, she is just here waiting to remember what it felt like a year ago, when the announcement came over the public address system about the plane crash, and she knew that Michael was never going to come home.