He’d used to love this. Arrivals and departures showed you what you really needed to know about people. He used to pause when he was travelling and notice these hellos and goodbyes around him.
Recently, not so much.
He remembered his own arrival at this airport six years ago, unshaven and covered with mosquito bites, in civilian clothes that didn’t fit him any more, looking for sunshine and quiet, and his brain skipped ahead and his hand automatically reached for the flask again.
He was midway through his sip, the liquor’s bite a welcome taste, when she came through the door.
Ten years had done nothing to her. She was the girl he had seen on the station concourse, the girl he had kissed in the rain, the girl who had said goodbye to him in her father’s car. Robbie’s heart paused and then it thumped two beats at once and happiness rushed through him, a physical presence more than an emotion, grabbing hold of him and stopping his movements and his breathing, the bourbon pooled in his mouth waiting to be swallowed.
Her hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail. Her face was tanned. She had small gold earrings in her ears and she was wearing a white blouse and khaki trousers and flat shoes. The way she moved was the same. Even if he could not have seen her face he would have recognised her from her walk. She emerged whole, from his memory, into the arrivals area of Miami airport, the girl he tried never to think of, the girl he thought about all the time.
His body came unstuck. He gulped down the whiskey, dropped his cigarette and shoved the flask back in his pocket, stepping forward to greet her, to touch her.
She looked in his direction, met his gaze, and stopped. He saw her freeze, as he had done. Her tanned face turned suddenly pale. Her eyes widened and her lips parted.
And then he remembered. He remembered what his body had not remembered, in its explosion of joy at seeing her.
Emily flushed violently. She looked down at the floor. The man next to her touched her arm, said her name, and Robbie noticed him for the first time. He was tall and slender, with horn-rimmed glasses, white shirt, a khaki jacket the same shade as her trousers. He pushed a cart stacked with luggage. The hand that touched Emily’s arm had a gold wedding band on its fourth finger.
Emily looked up at this man as if he’d woken her from a dream. She shook her head, and then nodded, and she made as if to glance in Robbie’s direction again and instead put her hands on the luggage cart next to the man’s. They veered off to the right, in the opposite direction to where Robbie stood.
Robbie pushed through the crowd to follow her. To intercept her before she could disappear from his life again. He had no idea what to say to her; his mind was a mass of emotion, not words – the need to touch her, to look at her, to hear her voice again. The happy grandparents were in his way and he barged past them, not hearing their protests in vehement Spanish. He could see Emily’s back retreating. The man with her placed his hand in the small of her back as they walked. It was a casual gesture of affection and intimacy.
Robbie was through the crowd, now, could catch up with them easily if he ran, but this gesture made him stop.
‘Emily,’ he said instead, the name in his head that he hadn’t said aloud for ten years. It came out rough and unaccustomed, and the second time he shouted it. ‘Emily!’
She paused. Didn’t look around. For an infinite second and a half he watched the back of her head, the neat ponytail, light hair kissed by the sun. Then she started walking again.
The man with her turned around and looked back. He spotted Robbie, frowned, and spoke to Emily. She shook her head vehemently and he walked off with her, glancing once more over his shoulder.
It wasn’t until they’d gone through the glass doors, outside, that Robbie could move again. He ran to the doors and out into the steaming heat in time to see them getting into a cab. Emily first, and then the man shutting her door for her and going around to the other side, while the driver put their bags into the trunk of the car.
Then the driver got in and drove away. He couldn’t even catch another glimpse of Emily before she was gone.
He stood there staring at the space where the cab had been as other cabs pulled up and drove away, as people walked past, as everyone else’s lives moved forwards without him. Remembering ten years before. The way they had said goodbye.
A sharp tap on his shoulder. ‘What are you doing out here? We’ve been looking for you all over the place.’
Marie stood beside him, holding William’s hand. She was frowning. William was wide-eyed under his shock of dark hair, thumb in his mouth.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’ He kissed Marie’s cheek and knelt down to hug William. ‘You’ve grown in a week, buddy. You look about ten years old now.’
‘I’m four,’ said William through his thumb.
‘I know.’ He kissed his son’s head. ‘You’re gonna love what I built for you at home.’
‘Gramps gave me ten dollars for saying my prayers right.’
‘Twenty,’ corrected Marie. ‘What are you doing out here, Bob? I thought you were going to meet us at the gate.’
‘Yeah,’ he said, straightening up. ‘I just saw someone I used to know, that’s all. Walked them to their taxi.’
‘Well, you took a long time of it. We waited half an hour at least before we started looking. I was going to try the airport lounge next.’
‘They said your flight was delayed out of Chicago.’ He picked up their suitcase, a big battered grey thing like an elderly elephant, and began to walk towards the parking lot. Marie didn’t move, though.
‘You’ve been drinking?’ she said.
‘A beer with lunch. Hours ago.’
‘Doesn’t smell like beer.’
With his free hand, he pulled the Life Savers out of his jeans and popped one into his mouth. ‘Want one, buddy?’ he asked, passing the roll to William, who took three.
‘I know what beer smells like, Robert.’
‘How are Gloria and Les? You gave them my love, right?’ Out of habit he slipped his arm around Marie’s waist, his hand on her hip to placate her.
‘Oh, Mom’s sciatica is bothering her again, and Dad gives her no sympathy as usual. He says—’
He walked to where he’d parked the car, family unit, nodding and making noises in the right place, carrying the suitcase, watching the dark head of his child as he walked in front of them.
His mind was in the cab that had driven away, carrying Emily.
Christopher waited until they were alone in their room to ask her. Her parents were in bed, and Polly had gone out with some young people she’d met on the beach the day before. Emily came out of the bathroom in her dressing gown, her hair tucked under a towel, her skin still damp and cooling in the air conditioning, and Christopher, stretched on the bed, looked up from the journal he was reading.
‘Darling,’ he said, sounding carefully nonchalant, ‘who was that man who called your name in the airport this afternoon?’
She couldn’t look at him. Instead she went to the dressing table and sat down, unwinding the towel from her hair. ‘I can’t get used to having so much space. And carpets.’
Christopher didn’t reply. She knew him well; she knew he wouldn’t ask again, but she also knew that he wouldn’t stop thinking about it. Christopher hated confrontation. In all their time together, she had only seen him truly angry once. And that had been ten years ago.