Everyone knows something is up when the flight attendant comes around again with the drink cart and more little bags of salted snacks. Three rounds of drinks now and the plane hasn’t even taken off the ground yet.
‘Give people an extra bag of peanuts and they’ll forgive anything,’ my friend Cassie once told me. She worked as a flight attendant after university and had loads of stories. The passenger who threatened to sue her and the airline because they didn’t have his kosher meal. The freaked out woman who made Cassie hold her hand the entire way from Düsseldorf to Heathrow. And the guy with the body piercings she fucked in the lavatory en route to Milan.
‘He was one of the Chili Peppers,’ Cassie said. ‘You know how I love musicians.’
I close my eyes when I hear the drink cart approach, hoping the flight attendant will skip me.
‘Would you like another mineral water?’ she says, chirpy as can be. But when I open my eyes it’s obvious from the look on her face that something is wrong. Before I can reply, the older woman across from me pokes her head out. She has overly-bronzed skin that’s tight around the eyes from too much plastic surgery, the kind of woman my boyfriend Charlie refers to as a Cat Lady.
‘We boarded two hours ago,’ Cat Lady says. ‘When will we be taking off exactly?’
‘In just a few moments,’ the flight attendant says with her best satisfaction-guaranteed smile. But Cat Lady’s not having it.
‘You said that an hour ago. Do you think we’re—’
‘We all just have to be a little patient,’ the flight attendant says and then turns back to me. ‘Now, what can I get you, love?’
‘Nothing for me.’ I turn away and look out the window, thankful the seat next to me is empty. As I watch the luggage handlers loading suitcases on a nearby plane, I wonder if I remembered to pack my degree. Mum said she and Dad want to see it.
‘It will make us happy.’
I think about that conversation—all the many things that were said—and then about my mother and how long it’s been since I’ve seen her. Four years? Five? I can’t be sure. Dad visited last summer but Mum stayed behind. It wasn’t until a few months ago that she finally told me why. As I think about going home and seeing my family, my eyelids grow heavy and I begin to zone out. It isn’t until the guy behind me pushes into my seat that I’m jolted back. A moment later the flight attendant whizzes by, ignoring the many raised fingers trying to catch her attention.
Cat Lady gets up and looks around. ‘This is outrageous,’ she says. ‘They won’t even give me my brandy until we’re off the ground!’
I give her a sympathetic nod and just then the loudspeaker crackles.
‘Ladies and gentleman, this is your Captain, Tony Lally, and I want to apologise for the delay.’ He goes on, giving an explanation about unexpected runway traffic. But I’m not listening. I’m thinking about his last name and wondering if he could be related to my first boyfriend, Dara Lally. But then I wonder if Lally was Dara’s last name and not O’Malley. And then I think about how strange it is that I can’t remember. I run through a quick slideshow in my head of our relationship. When I giggled when he asked me if I wanted to date. Getting it on with him in the cinema during Michael Collins, knowing my best friend Maeve was sitting two rows back and had to watch our little spectacle. And when he crumpled the love letter I’d written to him in his fist and threw it at me as hard as he could when I broke it off.
‘I knew you were only playing me along,’ he yelled.
I take a sip of my drink and think about his last name again and why it is that I can’t remember for certain what it was and why I can never seem to remember these things. These details in my life, like moments in a dream you can remember when you wake up but vanish from your memory soon after. I’m still thinking about it when the flight attendant stands at the front of the plane with the intercom.
‘I wonder what they’ve got for us now,’ Cat Lady says. ‘I knew I should’ve flown Delta.’ But when the flight attendant makes her announcement even Cat Lady smiles and it’s then that the whole thing begins.
‘Don’t be shy, ladies and gentleman,’ the flight attendant says. ‘Whoever wins the talent contest will win two complimentary tickets to anywhere in Europe.’ She takes a breath and continues. ‘We need ten contestants. Let’s see some hands!’ Heads turn forwards and backwards, side to side. But no hand is raised. The flight attendant grips the intercom like a microphone and starts to cheer, the twang in her American accent stronger with each syllable. ‘You’ve got talent, yes you do! You’ve got talent, I know it’s true!’ She looks around again but still nobody volunteers. She motions to the other flight attendants who reluctantly join in. ‘You’ve got talent, yes you do! You’ve got talent, we know it’s true!’ Then suddenly her eyes widen and she claps her hands. ‘Yes, the man in the yellow shirt, come on up!’ she says, pointing somewhere behind me. I turn around and see everyone else turned around too and then I see a guy in a bright yellow shirt and frizzy orange hair making his way up the aisle. ‘Who else?’ she says and then suddenly—scattered around the plane like popcorn in a pan—hands bolt high into the air.
‘This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,’ Cat Lady says. ‘I wonder what the fat guy in the beret is going to do.’
I shake my head in amazement. ‘I guess we’ll see.’
A small group is gathered at the front when the flight attendant brings on the guy in the yellow shirt. ‘Ladies and gentleman, would you please give a big hand to Jared Peters from East London.’ A few people clap, but most don’t, and then we watch as Jared from East London takes the intercom and does a bad imitation of Margaret Thatcher being interviewed by Kermit the Frog. When he’s done the plane roars in applause. Cat Lady jumps to her feet.
But Jared is done and is followed by a boy who juggles bags of pretzels and then a teenage girl, who ties the ends of her shirt together so her midriff is exposed and does her best Miley Cyrus.
‘Who’s she kidding?’ Cat Lady says. ‘Even I can do better than that!’ And just like that she runs into the aisle and joins the queue. I watch the rest in a daze, wondering how I could possibly explain this to Charlie. How I could explain this to anyone. When the competition is finally over, Cat Lady—who did her best ‘Copacabana’—comes back in a huff.
‘I can’t believe I didn’t win,’ she says. ‘No one can do Barry like I do Barry!’
‘A pity,’ I say.
After a few minutes people start checking their watches again. Thankfully it’s not too long before we get going. The moment we get settled in the air, the flight attendant comes around with complimentary bottles of wine and spirits. I stare at my bottle of whiskey for a moment before sticking it inside my purse.
‘Don’t you drink, honey?’ Cat Lady says.
‘I’m saving it,’ I say, waiting for her to turn back around. But she doesn’t. I press the thumb of my right hand into the palm of my left and scratch my nail against my skin. ‘I have a two-hour layover and then another flight.’
‘That’s exactly why you should drink,’ she says and asks where I’m from.
‘Oh, that’s a lovely city,’ she says. ‘With that Spanish Arch and everything. But the weather’s disastrous and I’ve been through some bad weather, believe you me!’
I curl my lips in a half-smile.
‘So, what were you doing in New York?’ she says.
I press my nail into my skin. ‘I got a job at Harper-Collins after university.’
‘How wonderful. Your parents must be so proud.’
‘I guess so,’ I say and press harder. Then I ask her about herself, which she is more than happy to do, telling me about her three kids, four Chihuahuas and five ex-husbands.
‘Men are worthless,’ she says, ‘except for taking out the garbage. But they can’t even do that right half the time, spilling coffee grinds and lubricant all over the floor.’ She takes a drink and then continues. ‘Believe me honey, you’ll do better to stay on your own.’
‘I’ll try and remember that,’ I say and look out the window. I stare at the clouds, the fluffiness disintegrating into thin white breaths of air as we pass through. For a moment—just long enough for my heart to skip a panicked beat—I forget where I’m going. But then I remember. It comes back in a rush. Home. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, thinking about how tired I am, how I’ve hardly slept in days.
* * * * * * *
Cat Lady was out of her seat the moment we touched ground in Amsterdam. I stay seated, watching as people push and shove their way up the aisle. After I get off the plane, I check the screen for my next flight and then go to the closest airport restaurant, where I order tea and pull out my book, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
‘Are you sure you want to take that one?’ Charlie said to me earlier this morning when I grabbed it from his shelf.
‘You said it was good.’
‘It is,’ he said with a concerned expression, the one he gets sometimes even when there’s nothing to be concerned about. ‘But it’s a bit dark. Maybe not the best thing for—’
‘I’ll take a different one,’ I said. But when he left the room, I shoved the book into my bag. I’m only on page three when a woman approaches. She stares at me with a smile like I’m supposed to know who she is. But I don’t. I press my nail back into my palm.
‘I was one of the flight attendants on the flight from New York,’ she says.
I nod. ‘Oh, right.’
‘I changed out of my uniform,’ she says and squats into a curtsy. ‘Ta-dah!’ She laughs and sits down on the chair next to me. ‘Can I join you? I hate sitting alone and I’m all high on caffeine and everything. I’m Katie, by the way.’
‘Molly,’ I say, telling myself that maybe the company will do me good.
‘I had a babysitter named Molly once,’ she says. ‘In the summertime she used to lock me and my little sister outside for hours while she watched her soaps. Emmerdale, she was totally hooked on that one! She wouldn’t even let us in to use the loo so we had to pee in the bushes. I hated that cunt.’ She takes a breath and smiles. ‘But you seem nice.’
I look down at my book. ‘Thanks.’
The waiter comes around and Katie orders a vodka tonic. I listen to her voice as she speaks, thinking how strange it is that British accents annoy me now the way American accents did before I moved to New York. My brother Peter still can’t believe I live there.
‘You never liked Americans,’ he said, my first Christmas away from home. ‘You’d go on about how loud they are.’
‘Well, things change,’ I said.
The waiter brings Katie’s vodka tonic and she has half it down in seconds flat. ‘We’re not supposed to drink between flights but today’s one of those days,’ she says, ‘especially with that whole talent show thing. I mean W.T.F. — what was that all about?’ She gulps down the rest of her drink and goes to the bar to order another. ‘Can I get you one?’
I’m about to say yes but I stop myself. ‘No, I’m grand, thanks.’
As I watch her go to the bar, my mind drifts back to the night before, giving Peter my flight information over the phone, thinking about how he is always the one who takes down flight times, always the one who picks people up from the airport. Always the good son.
‘I have to warn you,’ he said. ‘Mum’s not doing very well.’ I’m still thinking about it—seeing a picture of myself walking through the front door of my parent’s house—when Katie comes back, a drink in each hand.
‘The best thing about vodka is that you can’t smell it,’ she says and takes a drink. ‘So, where are you flying to now?’
‘Ireland. I have a 4:15 flight.’
‘O.M.G.!’ she says, ‘that’s my flight. Shannon with a Dublin stopover!’
‘We’ll have the best time ever!’ she says, but then suddenly her eyes go all big and before I know it she’s telling me about how she’s having an affair with her boyfriend’s brother—a street mime artist who calls himself ‘Zeppie’—but that she suspects him, her boyfriend’s brother, of cheating on her with his wife Ulrika, an East German who was born with an extra finger on her right hand. ‘They’re not divorced yet,’ Katie says, ‘but they’ve been separated for six months. I know he’s fucking her. I can smell her on him! Why else would he suddenly want them to be like friends?’ Just as I start getting my head around it all, her eyes begin to fill with tears and then she tells me that she loves him, her boyfriend’s brother.
‘What do you think?’ she says, wiping her eyes. ‘Do you think he’s cheating on me with his wife?’
I bite my lip. ‘I don’t—’
‘I’m so bored with my life,’ she interrupts, all traces of sadness dissolved into thin air. ‘And this route—this Boston-New York-Amsterdam-Dublin-Shannon-Amsterdam route is the worst of it. It’s the third time in two weeks. Do you believe that?’
I smile but don’t say anything and then she asks if I’m going home.
‘Yes,’ I say, but with hesitation, the question of where home is slightly confused in my head, not sure if I’m spread too thin in each place or not thin enough. ‘I live in New York now.’
‘For how long?’
‘Six years,’ I say, pressing my thumbnail so hard into my skin that I have to bite my tongue to keep from crying out. ‘Since university.’
‘When was the last time you were back?’
‘This will be the first time.’ I pull my thumb away and take a look at the print formed in the skin.
‘It will be a sort of homecoming then.’
‘I suppose,’ I say and then excuse myself to the loo. I stare at myself in the mirror, taking note of how stiff I look in my navy blue dress suit. Charlie had warned me.
‘Are you sure you want to wear that?’ he said. ‘You’ll be miserable after an hour.’
‘But it will make Mum happy.’
When I come back, Katie is fixing her make up. She presses her freshly-painted pink lips onto a paper napkin and tells me that she has to change back into her uniform.
‘See you on the next flight,’ she says. ‘We’ll have a ball!’
I watch her as she walks away in her small quick steps and remember that I told Charlie that I would call him when I got to Amsterdam. I pull out my mobile and find his name in the contact list. But then I click the phone shut. Something in me can’t do it. I look down at my book, still opened to the third page, and turn back to page one. When I get to the bottom, there’s a boarding announcement for my flight.
* * * * * * *
I’ve been sitting in my seat only five minutes when Katie comes over. ‘Guess what? I got you moved up to first class, that’s what! Get your stuff.’
I grab my bag and follow her to the front, where she introduces me to Jane, who shows me to my new seat, where I put my things away and take out my book. I turn to the first page and begin reading again. When I get to page four, a guy approaches.
‘Excuse me,’ he says and motions to the seat next to me, where my jumper is. He is my age, maybe a few years older, and good-looking with a marked air of money.
‘Of course,’ I say and grab my jumper.
‘I know this sounds strange,’ he says some time later when the plane takes off, ‘but I was hoping the flight would be delayed.’
‘Oh,’ I say with a laugh, wishing I had something more to say. Something better. Just then Jane the flight attendant comes around with champagne.
‘This will help a little,’ he says. ‘Cheers.’
I watch him as he gulps his down and then finally I take a drink. I drink and drink until the glass is empty.
‘I guess you needed it too,’ he says and motions to Jane, who comes back over. ‘Another round, please.’ He watches her as she uncorks a new bottle and refills our glasses. ‘You can leave that here,’ he says, catching her eye with a wink.
She smiles and hands him the bottle.
‘I’m Niall,’ he says to me when she leaves.
‘What are you reading, Molly?’
I hold up the book.
He looks at the cover and shakes his head with a grin. ‘That will keep you up nights.’
I feel myself smile. ‘You’ve read it?’
‘A thousand years ago,’ he says and pauses as if remembering. He has a small scar above his right eye that looks like a small tree. I think about telling him that but I don’t. ‘How do you like the book?’ he says.
‘I’ve only just started really.’
His leg touches mine. ‘I should stop blathering on and let you read then.’
‘I don’t really seem to be in a reading mood.’
‘What kind of mood are you in then?’
I bite my lip. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, I seem to be in a drinking mood,’ he says and tops us up.
We clink glasses and gulp it down. It’s not long after—while Niall is telling me a story about his fiancé Sarah, who is afraid of flying—that I realise how drunk I’m quickly getting.
‘I told her that she has to get over it,’ he says. ‘Hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, whatever it takes.’
‘Shock therapy,’ I say, perhaps a bit too loud.
Niall laughs. ‘I knew I liked you.’
We continue talking for a while as he pours us more champagne and suddenly I find myself telling him about the talent contest and then about the layover with Katie. I listen to my voice as I speak, but it’s like someone else is talking.
‘Let me get this straight,’ he laughs when I finish. ‘She’s having an affair with her boyfriend’s brother, a mime named Pezzie, and she’s worried he’s cheating on her with his wife?’
‘Zeppie!’ I laugh. ‘The street mime’s name is Zeppie!’
‘Zeppie it is!’ he says, laughing harder.
‘It’s funny,’ I say and take a moment to catch my breath, the voice coming out of my mouth sounding more like me again. ‘All I wanted was a nice boring trip so I could arrange my thoughts.’
He nudges my arm. ‘And now you have me to deal with.’
I nudge him back. ‘You’re not so bad.’
We continue talking all through the stop over in Dublin. Just as we settle back into the air with glasses of wine, he leans over.
‘I killed somebody.’
‘I’m serious,’ he says and pulls me close, letting his hand rest on my shoulder. ‘I’ve never told anyone before. But I want to tell you, now.’ I feel his lips brush against my ear. He pulls away and stares at me. And then part of me—that part that sometimes likes to take things a step further—leans over and whispers in his ear.
‘So, tell me,’ I say and flick my tongue on the tip of his ear. I pull away and he looks at me for a second as if contemplating a reaction, his or mine, I’m not sure. He leans in close again and starts telling me the story.
‘We were best friends growing up in Clontarf,’ he says. ‘Kevin and I. We went to school together and then he went off to university in the States. I went to Trinity. We’d see each other when he came home for holidays. And then I got a job in London.’ He stops for a moment and takes a drink. I take one too, swirling it around in my mouth for a moment before swallowing, all the while thinking again about how I want to tell him that the scar above his eye looks like a tiny tree, that I bet no one has ever told him that before and that I wanted to tell him now. But he continues.
‘I hadn’t seen him in years when I ran into him at a ski resort in Switzerland last Christmas,’ he continues, his story playing like a movie in my head, everyone good looking and saying the right things. ‘I was with Sarah; Kevin was alone. He’d just broken up with his wife and the ski trip was his way of getting over it. Sarah felt bad for him. Sarah always feels bad for people that way. But she genuinely liked Kevin, I could tell, and so the three of us spent the week together. Sarah and I would meet him on the slopes and we’d spend the mornings skiing and take a noon break for tea. Then Sarah would have a spa and Kevin and I would take to the steep slopes. Later we’d all have this massive five-course dinner and get smashed.’ He picks up his glass but it’s empty.
I reach into my purse and pull out the bottle from the earlier flight and hand it to him, my fingers touching his.
‘Whiskey,’ he says. ‘That’s perfect.’ He pours it into our glasses and takes a long drink before going back to his story. ‘It was one of the best weeks of my life,’ he continues, telling me about the last day, when he and Kevin lost track of time. ‘It was getting dark and I told him that we’d better head back, that the park was closing. But Kevin didn’t want to. It surprised me because he had always been the cautious one. I thought maybe the sudden personality shift had to do with his divorce, you know?’
I nod, wishing I wasn’t so attracted to him.
‘We stayed until we could barely see two feet in front of us. Then, while I was adjusting my skis, Kevin said he’d race me back. And just like that he bolted off. About thirty seconds later I heard the crash. He’d hit a tree and his head was gushing blood. I can still see it in my head—all that the red snow, the vacant look in his eyes.’
Niall pauses for a moment and finishes his drink. I finish mine too. Then he excuses himself. When he comes back he has two more small bottles of whiskey. He hands one to me and drinks the other straight from the bottle. I do the same. We watch each other as we drink. Sip for sip, swallow for swallow. Half way through, my chest is on fire. But still I keep drinking.
Niall glances at my book for a moment, still resting on my lap. Then he leans over and continues the story, speaking faster now. He’s whispering so closely that I can feel his breath warm on my neck. He tells me about the blood dripping down Kevin’s face and taking off his scarf and wrapping it around Kevin’s head to stop the blood, and about calming Kevin down, telling him to take deep breaths as he stroked his hair and saying that he would be okay. Niall stares at me for a moment before continuing.
‘Then, without even thinking about it, I wrapped my hands around Kevin’s neck for I don’t know how long. At some point the choking stopped.’
I look at him, not knowing what to say.
‘Sometimes you just do things,’ he says. He looks at me and I smile, waiting for the punch line. But there’s something in the way he’s looking at me that’s like disappointment. And then he looks away.
‘They found his body the next morning. Sarah wouldn’t stop crying. I held her in my arms as she sobbed.’ He takes another drink and continues. ‘For weeks, even months after we got back home, I expected to be questioned by the police. I mean people had seen us together. It wouldn’t be that hard to track me down. But no one did. It was the strangest thing.’
He looks at me as if waiting for a response.
‘That’s quite a story,’ I finally say, hearing the slur in my voice.
‘Yeah,’ Niall says and leans back in his seat and looks out the window. I watch him for a while, my eyes opening and closing in waves. I think about his story—about him holding Sarah in his arms as she cried, imagining her with long blonde hair and perfect fingernails—but after a while my mind drifts to my father, to a fight we had just before I moved to New York. He was angry because I had gotten a tattoo. It was nothing really. Just a small crescent moon on the back of my ankle.
‘Don’t you understand that those things are permanent?’ he yelled, angrier than he’d been at me in years, anger gurgling inside him all foamy and hot. But I was angry too.
‘I hope so after what I paid!’
He shook his head, saying over and over that he didn’t understand me, that he never understood me, as if I hadn’t known. The memory fades as my mind slowly drifts back and suddenly I realise I’m sitting all alone. I look up and see Niall talking to Jane, who is laughing, his hand resting on her shoulder. I think about his story again, wondering why he would tell me such a story, what it was all about for him. I’m still thinking about it when he comes back. He leans over and tells me that now it’s my turn to tell him a secret.
‘It’s only fair,’ he says. But then a voice comes on the intercom telling us to prepare for landing. ‘Oh, well. I guess it will have to wait until next time.’
As I make my way off the plane and out to the terminal, one foot slowly in front of the other, I remember to turn on my mobile. A few moments later it rings.
‘I’m trying to find a parking space,’ Peter says, trying to catch his breath. ‘I’ll be there soon. Okay?’
I stop for a moment and lean against a wall. My eyes close.
‘Molly? Are you still there?’
I open my eyes and take a deep breath. ‘How is he?’
‘Hanging in there.’
Just then I tell Peter I’m drunk. ‘I tried not to,’ I say and pinch my nose, trying to keep myself from crying. ‘I didn’t want to make a mess of things this time. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay. I’ll be there soon.’
I make my way to the luggage carousel, where I see my bag go round. But I’m too slow. When I finally get it, I see Niall walk into the lobby and into the arms of a brunette in a long red coat. He looks up through the glass windows to where I’m standing. I smile and raise my hand in a wave goodbye. He stares for a moment and then turns and grabs the woman’s hand. I watch as they walk through the corridor and out to the carpark.
In the lobby I sit on a bench and wait for Peter as people move in circles around me. I close my eyes, the events of the day floating around in blurry bubbles in my head. But then I open my eyes and catch my reflection in the window, looking awkward and stiff in my stupid blue dress suit. I take in a deep breath and press my thumbnail into my palm as hard as I can, wishing to God I weren’t so drunk. Holding the breath tight inside, I close my eyes again and try to prepare myself for seeing my father, how he’ll look so close to death. When I open my eyes I see Peter come through the door.
‘Welcome home,’ he says.