Her irritation with him, as he’d finished his packing, seemed quaintly old fashioned. He’d countered, “You know I don’t like looking at photos. Makes me sad.”
“Don’t you think you might like one, at least? For your wallet?”
“When have I ever carried a wallet?”
For years she’d washed his jeans separately from the children’s clothes for fear of disease emanating form his coin-blackened pockets. Had she forgotten?
“I’ll ring you when I get there.”
“Thanks,” his wife had replied, in that too polite, volcanic voice, “How kind.”
When the taxi came she didn’t wave him off – that courtesy was gone then. She’d long dispensed with driving him out to the airport and sitting in traffic all the way home. This morning all she’d allowed him was a muttered goodbye, her face turned away and the offered photo still in her hand - the kids and the dog one sunny afternoon on the deck. The kids looked pale – perhaps they were mid-exams – they looked the right age for it and the dog had been dead for three years. Maybe four. He couldn’t remember Ella ever looking like that – studious, her hair clean and shining to her waist. They’d had such high hopes for her then. Max hadn’t changed much – last time they’d skyped he looked exactly the same, his floppy hair over one eye, the Dunedin flat behind him as chaotic as his room in Auckland ever was.
“Congratulations on the job Dad,” he’d said, the only member of the family to do so. He knew how hard it had been for his father, all these years of commuting until they offered him a permanent position.
“It’s not forever.”
“Then what?” his wife had replied belligerently, “After forever?”
“You’ll be able to visit.”
“It’s not the same as living together day to day.”
He’d shouted at her then, “Lots of people are in this situation. You could have married someone in the navy.”
“With my politics?”
More belligerence. He wished she would just put her arms around him and wish him well. The job was a coup, a feather in his cap.
“People travel all over the world for work. Look at Imelda.”
Imelda was their Filipino cleaner, whose husband and children had stayed behind in Manila – but when everything went bottom up they’d had to let her go.
“Look at Gerard.”
This was a business colleague who’d been promoted to New York while his children were at a vital stage of their educations and couldn’t be moved.
Not a good example, he realised, as he stood to let a large woman into the window seat beside him. They’d parted, Gerard and his wife, swiftly and efficiently, the most sterile divorce he’d ever witnessed. He’d forgotten that. If Fee had remembered she hadn’t said anything.
The plane he sat on was the new A350, an airbus similar to the one that crashed not so long ago in the Mediterranean. Boarding it was like moving into a stadium for a rock concert, or marching up Queen Street in the protests of his youth. Disembarking would be like the evacuation of a small town. How many people did it carry, he wondered. A thousand?
It was a fact he could find out right now from the seatback guff, commit to memory and forget. And if he should ever wonder again, while he was on the ground, the information could be found in a nanosecond on the web. And then forgotten. And found again.
It seemed that a secret to successful middle-life was to administer your storage space carefully. It was at a premium worldwide – and not just among his generation. Humanity was in no danger of ever forgetting anything again – or not permanently. It was a kind of paradigm shift. For centuries a good memory was considered a valuable character trait; it would lead to success in business or profession; it was catalyst to empathy because its possessor remembered small and salient facts about other people. It lent a talent for friendship.
Now memory was a floppy muscle.
Settling in, the fat woman smiled at him – or was she fat by today’s standards? The change had happened just as it became the norm to be overweight, statistically speaking – just as it was the norm to divorce, the norm to live alone, the norm not to hold dinner parties, the norm to experience chaotic weather.
“Are you stopping in Sydney?” she asked. There was a tattoo on her shoulder, a flying bird, showing through the thin gauze of her blouse. She had freshly styled hair and shiny synthetic talons.
He hoped she wouldn’t be a talker and cursed himself for not being plugged into the entertainment system already.
“No, I’m going to Dubai. To meet someone. A man I met on the internet.”
His heart sank. He was going to hear details he’d rather not. He tugged at the membrane that encased his headset.
“He’s an American in oil,” she said, “Quite high up.”
The stewardesses were banging the overhead compartments closed, which like everything else were half as big again as they would be on an old DC10 or 747 or more ordinary plane. Maybe the day would come when these great lumbering city blocks were the norm, hundreds of them in the air at any one time carrying concentrations of ever-weightier people.
By her lowered tone and compression of chins the woman was telling him something confidential. He heard the words ‘photo’ and ‘divorce’ – but he wouldn’t give her any encouragement. He let his head fall back, closed his eyes. She would soon see he had no room for her.
Last night, for the first time in months, he and Fee had made love – at her initiation. He’d read somewhere that men, unless they have a particular perversion, do not find old women arousing. Why had he stored that fact? He must have taken it in at a time of his life when it was just a curiosity, not a disturbingly familiar condition. Fee was fifty-two and refused to dye her hair or have the injections other women did. Once, he’d loved her naturalness, loved her brash lippy mouth and gardener’s dirt under her fingernails. Through their forties he’d admired her refusal to take HRT or visit surgeons – now he wasn’t so sure. All that stuff, for women, was renewal. It was a form of starting again, like this move was for him. Fee was nothing if not a continuum.
He wondered what had brought her mood on. She’d been loving, gentle, and clung to him afterwards like a teenager. Did she think he’d stray? Surely she knew he couldn’t be bothered. No room, he thought again, no room. No room at the inn.
There had been a girl from the Melbourne agency who’d seemed to want to keep him company the last time he’d been over. They’d worked late and she’d come right to the door of his hotel room before he’d managed to shake her off. The abundance of makeup and casual attitude offended him. That and the fact that he knew he’d remember his only adultery for the rest of his life, which for all he knew may not be too much longer – and that she’d probably forget him as one of many shag-starved old men. She seemed too practised, too smooth – her hedonism reminded him uncomfortably of his own daughter.
The giant plane floundered along the runway graceless as a broody turtle and the jazz he was listening to was interrupted yet again by a mundane announcement. He switched it off, hoping his seatmate wouldn’t notice and take it as inspiration to renew contact. He kept his headset on.
The seat to his right was empty. Once the plane was aloft he’d reach down his laptop and refresh his memory for the meeting scheduled for three o’clock. They’d set a long agenda, as he recalled, and he hadn’t had time to peruse it.
By now, Fee would be having her lunch in the school staffroom. She would be wearing her tracksuit and baggy t-shirt and she may well have a whistle around her neck, if the last period was hockey or netball. He pictured her shiny, friendly face and knew she’d be chatting happily to one of her colleagues, bringing into play her immaculate recall of individual students. He doubted she’d think of him – she’d trained herself out of it, so she said.
“I’m too old to miss you like I used to when you first started going away,” she’d said last night, afterwards. “It’s a waste of energy. You have to stop yourself remembering stuff. It’s too painful.”
Five years ago, when his commute began, she’d hated it. Now she had friends he’d never met, she talked about people he doubted he’d find interesting. Fee seemed to know this – she never arranged social occasions when he was home, other than with friends of twenty years standing. She seemed to know whole lists of women who’d washed up alone, whose husbands had left the country permanently, and could describe all shades of loneliness, from relieved solitude to desperate isolation. The women went on hikes together, weekends away, trips to the snow. They seemed to have good memories for jokes – Fee often had a new one for him.
When Fee came to stay she could meet his Sydney connections– he’d be happy to take her along with him to any occasion. Their politics would be anathema to her’s of course; she would despise their sole object of manipulating people into consuming whatever product the current client manufactured – but that fire was dying too. She was better at small talk now. She was better at forgetting irksome, ireful details. Her high horse was put out to pasture.
There was the offer of food and drink – he flipped down his tray and ate everything they gave him. When they’d travelled in their twenties, Fee would refuse the meal because of the plastic waste it proliferated - and would glare at him while he tucked in. It was still a pleasure to eat it unobserved. Most people did the same, he noticed, they happily devoured every morsel. Maybe it was because there were no ingredient lists on any of the parcelled food. Maybe it was because the very act of boarding an aeroplane, the unavoidable foolhardiness of it, made them more reckless, freer with themselves.
Knife and fork tiny in her puffy mitts, his seatmate grew garrulous after her second little bottle of chardonnay.
“Do you live in Sydney?” she asked.
He lifted one earpiece away. “Sorry?”
“Do you live in Sydney?”
“Shifting over, eh?”
He nodded, let the earpiece fall back into place and sipped his wine. The woman was talking again.
“Yes?” he said, a little too sharply.
The plump face, which he saw now was a kind, vulnerable, slow sort of face – she reminded him a little of that woman who won the talent quest in England – Susan someone – looked a little startled. He wondered if there were people at home worried about her, or if she’d qualify as one of the more isolated cases of Fee’s female acquaintance. The alarm may only be raised by the neighbour feeding the cat – the porky owner never returning from her sex tour to Dubai, her bloodied body found stuffed in an air-conditioning shaft.
“Yes I am,” he said, “I’ve been going back and forth for a long time. Now I’m taking the plunge.”
The woman smiled.
“I’m all for taking plunges. Good on you,” she said. She was looking at his wedding ring. “And your wife, too?”
“No,” he said, surprising himself with its emphasis. “No. We have a grandchild and our daughter is on her own with him. My wife feels she has to stay. And our parents are elderly – you know, she’s forever having to help them out.”
“How old is your grandson?” she asked, “I so want to have children.”
“Nearly two. And our daughter is only nineteen, so she still needs us.”
Why was he telling her this? He’d kept it quiet in Sydney – the few mentions he’d heard of offspring were always connected with university scholarships or sporting prowess.
“Us” said the woman, “You said ‘us’. But you’re going away.”
Doubtless she’d done a lot of counselling, due to being fat and ugly, and had learned along the way to assume an intimacy she never deserved. He put his empty tray on the unoccupied seat and struggled out.
There was a queue for the toilets – he was fifth in line. Never mind - next time he’d be able to afford business class.
The meeting was delayed an hour because the boss was stuck in traffic. He had to wait with the others and really, he thought later, he should have guessed. They weren’t their usual happy Aussie selves. They seemed in possession of some piece of bad news, which they weren’t at liberty to discuss with the newcomer until the boss arrived. When he did, eventually, there was no mucking about.
“We only just heard this morning. Sorry mate. I mean, you can still make the move if you like, but I can’t guarantee anything for more than a few months. It’s the recession. Not easy, I know – but I can’t make any assumptions about head office will do next. There’s no institutional memory in New York anymore – it’s like they don’t value me. Christ – I’ve given the company fifteen years.”
They went to a local bar to numb the pain.
The flight back was uneventful. There was no need to make any decisions yet. Besides, even if he wanted to, he couldn’t. His head felt like it was stuffed with wet dunny paper. He’d just have to forget it, forget the chance, forget the fact he got blind drunk and wept on the shoulder of someone he scarcely knew, forget that he rang Fee at four in the morning and howled like a dog. She said she’d take the afternoon off and pick him up from the airport.
She could hardly contain her glee.