By Elodie Barnes
Twenty hours. She lifts her forearm to her nose, and sniffs the staleness of airports and aeroplanes. Plastic seats and plastic food and recycled cabin air, and a hundred other bodies packed in around hers. The twenty hours were unnecessary; she’s stretched the journey out the awkward way because it’s slower and cheaper, and her body is churning with the motion. The soles of her feet don’t feel like they’re touching the floor. When she presses her nose into her armpit, burrowing into the bare folds of flesh, she can still smell spice.
Her phone vibrates in her jeans pocket. When she answers it, an image of her mother’s bedroom engulfs her on a cool tide, and her sister’s voice sounds as though it’s swimming.
‘Where are you now?’
‘Paris.’ She drags her rucksack over to an empty chair and perches, her throat catching with the strong mix of perfumes coming from the duty-free shops across the walkway. ‘At least, I think so. Kind of hard to tell at this point.’
‘Your fault. I said I’d pay for a direct ticket.’
Bridget doesn’t answer. Luggage labels hang limp from the straps on her rucksack, and she starts to fiddle, rolling the paper of one between her fingers. The tannoy bursts and crackles with something she doesn’t understand. A baby cries. People all around her are hurrying, sitting, talking into phones, talking to each other. Her tiredness is making her feel drunk.
‘How is she?’ she asks at last. Ceri’s voice dips, and Bridget imagines her mother watching, trying to grasp the phone with bloodshot eyes that haven’t slept in weeks.
‘Asleep. Dosed up. They increased the morphine yesterday.’
‘Oh.’ Her mother’s eyes recede back into their sockets. Eyelids close, thin and blue-veined like new-hatched birds. ‘Good.’ She catches herself. ‘I mean, not good that they’ve increased the morphine, obviously, but - ’
‘Good that she’s asleep, yeah, I know.’ Ceri’s voice breaks into pieces like a toppling wave. ‘Look, I should go. Call me when you know what train you’re getting from the airport…and Brid? Is Meghan with you?’
Bridget lifts her arm to her face again, but all she can smell now is the stale air of the plane.
‘No. She decided to stay.’
‘Okay. Speak later then.’ Ceri’s voice cuts abruptly, as if a hand has squeezed the phone too tight, strangling the connection, and Bridget is left adrift with two hours still to wait.
Behind the shops, the terminal is quieter. She buys a bottle of diet Coke, her fingers hesitating over coins that she hasn’t used in months, and her tongue jumps and startles with the fizz. Seating stretches ahead of her. Beyond it is a wall of glass; sunlight glints off it, a sharp slick of it like rain. Planes crouch like great metal birds, and vivid orange flies fuss around them, bug-eyed and bug-eared with sunglasses and noise-cancelling headphones. Tarmac ripples like a lake. Runways flow into the distance. Even through the glass she can hear her mother’s voice, a faint call from the bedroom with its drifting curtains and cool washes of blue perfume. Was that Bridget? Is she coming home? A whale call, billowing in the distance, still reaching her from a turbulent sea of painkillers and sedatives and the brief moments of sharp, glimmering light in between.
Her phone buzzes again, this time with a message.
I feel really bad. Let me know how the journey is?
You don’t need to feel bad, Bridget immediately wants to say, but she doesn’t. Meghan wouldn’t want to be placated with the same kind of soothing that Bridget always used to give her mother. It annoys Meghan when she does that. It’s not fine, Bridget, she’d say, just admit you’re pissed off, all right? And she’d tried to do what Meghan wanted her to do. When the messages from Ceri had flashed up on her phone - Mum collapsed. It’s the cancer back. Think you’d better come home - she’d tried to carry on pretending that her mother wasn’t wrapping around her in waves and tides that were impossible to resist. But she feels too shaky to do that now; like some parts of her are only just disembarking the last plane, and she isn’t quite in one piece. She doesn’t reply.
Her stomach gurgles and bubbles with the Coke, and she dumps the bottle in the nearest rubbish bin. The smell of coffee burns through her, pungent as the perfume. She joins the end of the queue that winds around tables laid out on a forecourt. One screen on the wall loops around news headlines, advertisements, the weather in six different time zones, while another flickers with departures and gate numbers. Hers isn’t showing. Her phone vibrates again, but this time she doesn’t even look.
The chai is disappointing. She can tell straightaway by the pallid steam that rises as she lifts the styrofoam lid; there’s nothing of the thick, spicy comfort she’s become used to. But she drinks anyway, and watches the queue. Flat whites, peppermint teas, only one other chai. A man about her own age. Tanned, flip flops, faded t-shirt. A flapping luggage label printed DEL, just like her own. He picks up his cup and blows ineffectually across the little hole in the lid, and looks around for somewhere to sit. When he sees her rucksack, her luggage label, her half-drunk chai, he smiles and gestures to the seat opposite. Is it free?
She hesitates. Soon she will get on another plane, and her mother’s bedroom will be there when she lands. Thin, wrinkled hands will reach for her. I knew you’d come home. Meghan will vanish. Meghan had always complained that Bridget’s mother made her feel like she was drowning. But Bridget is in between, floating, her feet still not quite touching the ground, and he looks friendly. Lost, even though he too must be on his way home.
‘Take it,’ she says. ‘It’s free for now.’
Elodie Barnes is a writer and editor. Her writing is born at the edges of nature, memory, trauma and the body, and is published regularly in online and print journals including the Best Small Fictions anthology of 2022. Find her online at elodierosebarnes.weebly.com, or on Instagram @elodierosebarnes.