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A Perfect Sentence
Airports, I hate them.
To be fair this wasn't always the case, but I've rather gone off airports now that any Tom, Dick and Ali with a mail-order AK-47, hate in their hearts, and right on their side, can and do make shooting galleries out of arrival and departure lounges. Which isn't to say that I don't use them because I do, but not without considerable trepidation that I'll end up one of those stunned saps clutching a bleeding head on tomorrow's newscast or front page or, come to think of it, in a body-bag.
So, picture Gatwick's North Terminal on a brain-meltingly hot and humid Friday in August 2013. The Buchan family is going on holiday to the Italian Lakes, Riva del Garda to be precise. As with many of our holidays the planning per se is cursory and consequently we'll be paying far too much at the chichi Hotel du Lac et du Parc (why the French name in an Italian resort some two hundred kilometres from the border?) in Riva. Actually, this time there are mitigating circumstances for the frantic last minuteness of the whole operation. Sixteen-year-old Catherine was supposed to go camping in the Auvergne with a school group but got sick and had to cancel, which was fine by her as camping is not apparently her thing. And twenty-one-year-old Charlie, who has fallen like a ton of cosmically humourless bricks for an American girl improbably named Cassandra Laporte, wasn't going to take any time away from wrapping up at Imperial College before going off to MIT on a full scholarship. Nevertheless, we prevailed upon him to come with us with the bribe of asking the girl along for the ride. Riva is chosen because Fran - my long-suffering family-counsellor wife of some twenty-five years - and I have vaguely pleasant memories of a holiday spent there when we were at university.
Long before my fear of impending death or dismemberment, I've never been able to sit still in airports. I'm forever dashing off to change money, buy books, newspapers, iPods, duty free booze, lozenges, have a pee, down a sharpener, or simply wander around gawking at the passing cavalcade. Fran, who is congenitally incapable of wasting time, takes the opposite approach and has probably got through more work waiting in check-in queues, sitting in airport lounges, or dentists waiting rooms than I have in my entire lifetime.
Coming back from one such sortie I stop and observe my family - still a long way from the check-in counter - from across the crowded concourse. Fran is of course reading a report, wielding a yellow fluorescent Stabilo Boss like a lancet. At forty-six Fran is in very good nick. Pretty and petite, she has short brown hair and is encased in her habitual airspace of quiet, thoughtful reserve. She's wearing a linen jacket, a bottle-green blouse, oatmeal slacks, expensive looking sling backs, and she looks what she is: an attractive, successful professional and mère de famille for whom life so far has held few unpleasant surprises. This is not a criticism, simply a fact. For the record the quiet, thoughtful reserve does not extend to the sack where she's an enthusiastic and inventive partner.
Perhaps one of Fran's few surprises to date is standing next to her in the person of Catherine, our bolshie anarcho-nihilist daughter. Slouched in an attitude of ineffable boredom, Cat is staring sullenly at nothing in particular. She's plugged into her phone and from time to time her head bobs up and down like a turkey's. Her hair is brutally avant-garde, vanilla coloured and gelled. The ring in her nostril glitters malevolently. She's wearing Doc Martens, tight black jeans and a creased black T-shirt short enough to show off the paste diamond in her bellybutton and her ghostly white, slightly puffy midriff. Can this be the forever smiling child of recent memory? Wistfully I fantasise that the dapper Manager of the Hotel du Lac etc. will refuse our daughter entry into his elegant establishment unless she dresses and acts like a human being.
Behind, the lovers are as ever entwined around each other in a deeply irritating embrace. Charlie is fairly standard issue: wraith thin, a tad under six feet, long blondish hair forever falling over his tortoiseshell bespectacled blue eyes, regular features, the odd pimple, engaging, slightly loopy laugh. He's wearing tan chinos, brass buckled rep belt, pink Ralph Lauren button-down, and sockless Sebago Docksides. In fact he looks more like what he's shortly to become, a graduate student in America, than what he is, the product of the grossly over-priced private English educational system.
The girl (who in their right mind would call a child Cassandra?) is far from standard issue, at least not to look at she isn't. Since April when he met her, Charlie's kept her pretty much to himself - or rather she has kept him to herself as she has a lair somewhere down by Covent Garden - so I've little idea what she's like as a person, other than that she's direct to the point of rudeness and like many of her generation (not, thank God, our children) peppers her conversation with the word 'like'. She seems to be fond enough of Charlie but both Fran and I fear for our emotionally and sexually immature (we're pretty sure he was a virgin until April) son. Gold medal and scholarship winning biochemist Charlie Buchan may be, but doughty womaniser he isn't, or at least wasn't.
Cassie has what can only be described as a truly astonishing head of shoulder length, Irish setter-coloured hair. Even if she were unattractive (which she's far from being) this extravagant, almost meretricious mane, would attract plenty. Not surprisingly, Charlie can't keep his paws off this gift of colour and texture and is constantly running his hands through it like some Klondike pan handler.
She's a few years older than Charlie and is a divorcée who works as a bartender in the student union at Imperial College. Charlie says her father, who's dead, was in charge of security at various nuclear installations around the States, so she was brought up at a bewildering succession of places like Diablo Canyon California, and Scriba New York. Apparently the mother ran off with a truck driver when Cassie was fourteen and hasn't been heard from since. She was a sophomore at SUNY, Albany, when her father died of asbestosis, and as there was a handsome insurance pay off, she dropped out of college to travel and ended up marrying an Old Etonian con artist she met on some Greek island, only he turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. Apparently she dumped him after six months or so, but not before he'd absconded with a fair portion of her patrimony. She hasn't had an easy life, as Charlie remarked owlishly one morning when he appeared at breakfast after sleeping in his own bed for the first time in a more than a week.
Cassie's got the slightly freckled complexion you'd imagine would accompany her burnished hair. She's about the same height as Charlie and is slim (virtually anorexic according to Cat, living up to her moniker) but with surprisingly large breasts and legs that don't give up. I haven't the faintest idea what colour her eyes are.
I don't think I much like Ms. Laporte. Right now she's in a deep clinch with my son with one hand pulling his head onto hers and the other flirting with his crotch. I'll have to have a word with young Charles. Fran looks up from her report, sees me and smiles. The queue accordions forward and the lovers disengage reluctantly.
In the departure lounge, Fran settles down with Amis fils' latest. I think about this for a while and conclude that as far as she's concerned, once through passport control and the laughable security precautions, she must see herself as officially on hols and therefore permitted to read something other than the soul numbing, work-related crap she devours like a garburator.
Cat picks at a scab on her chin to the accompaniment of whatever brain damaged group is the flavour of the week, but - and this is a big and profoundly consoling but - she's reading The Return of the Native. Christ alone knows how she can attend to Hardy's darkly fraught novel with the depressing caterwauling that I can just hear leaking from her ear buds barnstorming through her head, but what do I know? She's always been a reader and even at her sullen anti-social worst (right now) good books have been an integral part of her life. Also, unlike most of the pack she runs with, her marks are consistently excellent although I suspect that's more because she's quick and the work comes easily to her than because she gives a brass farthing about where she's headed.
Our flight to Milan is delayed.
I flick through the newspaper with scant interest. But then it's some time since I've paid much attention to the political, social, or commercial lurchings of our tired planet. Mercifully, I still find people interesting. Non-people also, it seems, as I always read the obits and for some mysterious reason also the royal court things even though I'm a not-so-crypto-republican.
Charlie and his moll have wandered off, she with a hand in his back pocket, he with one of his cupped around a tight buttock. The tiny black (what's with all this black?) skirt she's wearing simply can't be classified as such. It's really little more than a cummerbund. Still, at least she's got the figure for it; I've seen many who shouldn't be out in public in full length Barbours let alone the micro skirts they affect.
I'm showing my age (fifty last month) with all this red-necked tut-tutting and head shaking. Oh, well. Fran snickers at one of Martin's sallies. The faint crackling from Cat's phone grates. Bored, I cruise the shops.
Harrods. Bally. Louis Vuitton. The House of Caviar. Timberland. Swatch. I confess to a curious weakness for Swatches. I must have three or four of them in my bureau drawer, and Fran has made me promise not to buy her another one until she gives me the all-clear. There's something about the bold colours and designs, the innards exposed like miniature Richard Rogers structures that I find reassuring. Oddly, I don't wear a watch. I spot a swarthy man wearing dark glasses and assume the worst: imminent mayhem.
I order a lager at a bar which I don't think was in existence the last time I was in the North Terminal. That was in May when Fran and I went to Villefranche-sur-mer to gaze at the sea and think about my having been made redundant by the Open University, my employers of the last ten years. "Last in, first out," as the Head of the Department of English quipped bleakly when he broke the news to me. Well, I haven't been having a great deal of fun recently, at the OU or anywhere else for that matter, but being remaindered at fifty certainly makes you think.
Next to me an Irishman who was born to haunt airport bars the world over, orders a Caffrey's and fiddles with an unlit cigarette. The hands are huge and mottled; the poor cigarette looks innocent, unfairly done by, and for some reason I think of Fay Wray in King Kong's leathery grasp. Paddy clears his throat, and, sensing a well-oiled Irish overture than which there can be nothing remotely more tedious, I skedaddle leaving half my beer softly burping on the counter.
BA 566 to Milan is still delayed. Take your time guys, take all the time you need to check every moving part on the 737 ... 57 ... or whatever it is. No rush, just get it right.
THE ST. ALOYIUS ECUMENICAL CHAPEL
ALL ARE WELCOME
OPEN 7:30 A.M. TO 10:00 P.M. SEVEN DAYS A WEEK
I've seen such chapels in many airports and have often wondered if anyone ever uses them. Feeling like an ecclesiastical voyeur (curiosity not reverence being my fuel) I gently push open the blond wood door and step into a dimly lit room with rows of officey looking chairs facing an altar spotlit from above. There's a simple wooden cross on the alter, and piped organ music, doubtless ecumenically correct, drones mournfully reminding me, with the swift directness of such instants, of my love (hopeless because of her sixteen to my fourteen) for Becky Ritchie who used to sit with her parents in the pew ahead of us in church.
Then, above the sound of the organ I identify another sound, unmistakably that of love making. In the deeper gloom to my left I can make out the back of a pink shirt and tan trousers and long pale legs locked at the ankles around the shirt's waist.
Charlie's fucking his doxy in church.
Transfixed, I dare not move. My son is humping Cassie with short little thrusts like interconnected electrical jolts. He's sob-moaning. The girl's riding over Charlie's blond mop, her head caught in the edge of the arc of light pinioning the altar and her opulent hair is spread like a teepee around his shoulders. She is silent but her mouth is open in a rictus of happening pleasure. Her eyes too are open, and she stares straight through me and keeps on riding him, and I see now that her eyes are colleen green, which would be right. I mean, given the hair and the freckles and all.
I turn and flee.
Later, staring at the Alps miles below, snow topped and peaked like whipped egg whites, I see again the scene in the chapel in my mind's eye and am assailed by yet another wave of pure, lava-hot anger. I haven't told Fran yet and I'm not sure I shall. God, the silly little bastard probably thinks he was doing something savage and free. And the girl. What a nasty bit of goods Cassandra Laporte turns out to be. Cool though, cool as a mint julep. She just went on riding her wave for all the world as though she hadn't been caught OTJ by her boyfriend's father in a chapel in one of the world's busiest airports, for Christ's sake. Well, we must have done something wrong old Frances Ann and I, we must have screwed up somewhere around the toilet training stage. Our son's got the judgement of a microchip and the morals of an alley cat. His sister walks around looking and acting like some kind of superannuated Druid. No wonder I feel down.
Fran takes my hot hand in her cool dry one.
She's immediately attentive, concerned. The Amis is filed with the High Life and the other useless information on offer.
"Dunno, really," I say, "just a bout of the wobblies."
Fran presses close to me. She puts a slim hand (I sometimes think I married her to ensure that those beautifully shaped, precise hands would remain in my life) on my thigh, high up and inside her thumbnail brushing my parts. To her right, I can see Cat's not-so-dainty hand smothered in African trinkets thrumming out some tribal beat.
"Did you remember to take your pill?" Fran queries.
Long before I was made redundant by the Open University I'd been experiencing debilitating bouts of depression, some lengthy, others shorter-lived but no less alarming. For the longest time, like the unimaginative stone-age great-grandson of the manse that I am, I did nothing. But the jags of the blues didn't go away - in fact they got worse and some days simply getting out of bed was a titanic effort - and finally Fran convinced me to get help. So I've been in therapy with one Harvey Grosz for eighteen months with so-so results, and on friend Prozac with better ones although there are still times when a melancholy as thick as a Grand Banks fog rolls in and I flirt with the all too imaginable thought of simply deleting myself from the scene. In short, I'm in the throes of what appears to be a barely manageable mid-life crisis. Turning fifty and losing my job within a few months of each other didn't help, but not having immediate financial worries has certainly made it easier to try to sort out the way forward. Fran's practice is healthy, there was a reasonably generous Open University golden handshake and the pseudonymous Chester Dillon line of detective books I've been churning out for more than a decade still sells surprisingly well. So we'll manage, but I'll have to find something if we're going to continue frequenting the Hotels du Lac etc. of this world.
Fran kisses me. Her mouth tastes of peanuts and the New Zealand Chardonnay she's drinking. Cat mutters "Oh, for God's sake" and turns away to distance herself from her vulgar parents. She's on record as saying that sex between people over-twenty-five is gross.
"A stretch of sun-'n-fun' is what the doctor ordered, just what you need." Fran declares brightly.
Maybe, but surely what I really need is the sense - gone missing these last few years - that my life might amount to something more than a series of more or less knee-jerk reactions to situations I seem increasingly unable to decode. Oh, I've no illusions (I'm not looking for Meaning, just the reverse of the unease I mostly feel), not a single delusion of grandeur, and anyway I'm aware that your Mozarts and Shakespeares are every bit as prey to the blahs as are we humble spear-carriers. No, what I crave is the feeling of magic as the Hydra bound ferry noses out into the dark night leaving the twinkling lights of Piraeus behind, or the quickening of pulse as gloaming settles over a large autumnal city and men and women hurry toward dark trysts.