Authors: Madeleine Wickham
'I'm Jenna.' The girl's face broke into a broad grin and she extended a hand. 'Good to meet you!'
Hugh felt his throat constrict in shock.
'You're . . . Jenna?' He was aware that his voice had come out as an incredulous squawk; thankfully Jenna didn't seem to notice.
'Yes! Sorry I'm late. Got caught up shopping, you know how it is.'
'That . . . that's quite all right,' said Hugh, forcing himself to smile pleasantly at her. As though he'd been quite expecting a nanny who looked more like Swampy than Mary Pop-pins. 'Don't you worry about it.'
Far from worrying, Jenna wasn't even listening. She had slung her backpack onto the floor and perched on the seat between Octavia and Beatrice.
'Hi, girls! Octavia and Beatrice, right?' She didn't wait for an answer. 'Now you know what?
I've got a problem. A bi-ig problem.'
'What?' said Octavia reluctantly.
'Too many Smarties,' said Jenna, shaking her head solemnly. 'My backpack's full of 'em.
Think you can help me out?'
From nowhere, she produced two tubes of Smarties and handed them to the girls, who emitted small squeals of delight. At the sound, Amanda swivelled back round on her stool, still talking into her mobile phone, and stopped dead as she saw the lurid packets.
'What—' Her eyes fell on Jenna, taking in her dyed hair, eyebrow rings, a tattooed flower on her shoulder, Hugh suddenly noticed. 'Who on earth—'
'Darling,' interrupted Hugh hastily, 'darling—this is Jenna.'
'Jenna?' Amanda met his eyes disbelievingly. 'This is . . . Jenna?'
'Yes!' said Hugh with a false heartiness. 'So now we're all here. Isn't that splendid?'
'Pleased to meet you,' said Jenna, holding out her hand to Amanda.
There was a pause—then, rather gingerly, Amanda took it.
'How do you do?'
'I'm smashing, thanks.' Jenna beamed. 'Lovely girls you've got here. Great kids. I can always tell the good ones.'
'Oh,' said Amanda, taken aback. 'Well . . . thank you.' A sound from her mobile phone jolted her. 'Oh sorry, Penny! I've got to go. Yes, everything's fine. I . . . I think.' She switched off her mobile phone and put it in her bag, all the while gazing at Jenna as though at a rare breed of octopus.
'I was just telling your husband here, I got caught up in the duty-free shop,' said Jenna, and patted her carrier bag. 'Stocking up on the old cigarettes and booze.'
There was a sharp silence. Amanda's eyes darted to Hugh's; her jaw began to tighten.
'Joke!' said Jenna and nudged Octavia, who began to giggle.
'Oh,' said Amanda, disconcerted. She attempted a laugh. 'Well, of course—'
'Actually it was condoms, for my night off.' Jenna nodded seriously. Then her eyes twinkled. 'Joke!'
Hugh opened his mouth and closed it again. He didn't dare look at Amanda.
'So we're off to Spain,' continued Jenna blithely, producing a couple of lollipops for the girls. 'I've never been to Spain. Is it near the sea, where we're going?'
'I gather the place is up in the hills,' said Hugh. 'We've never been there before.'
'An old friend of Hugh's has very kindly lent us his house for a week,' said Amanda stiffly, and cleared her throat. 'The wine reviewer, Gerard Lowe. He's quite well known, I expect you've seen him on television.'
'Can't say I have,' said Jenna, shrugging. 'Mind you, I'm not really into wine. Beer's more my drink. And tequila when I'm in the mood.' She looked at Hugh. 'You'll have to watch me, mister—when the sun's shining and I've got a Tequila Sunrise in my hand, I'm anyone's.' She unwrapped a lollipop, put it in her mouth and winked. 'Joke!'
Hugh glanced at Amanda and stifled a smile. In eight years of marriage, he had never seen her look at quite such a loss.
The traffic approaching the airport had been terrible: solid tailbacks of holidaymakers in cars and coaches and taxis just like theirs. As they'd sat in the chugging, fume-clogged silence, Philip had felt acid begin to churn at the lining of his stomach. Every thirty seconds he had glanced at his watch and felt another spasm of alarm. What would they do if they missed the flight? Were the tickets transferable? Would airport staff be helpful or scathing? Should he have taken out some kind of insurance against this happening?
In the event, they had arrived just in time. The Regent Airways check-in girl had quickly issued them their boarding cards and told them to proceed straight to the gate for boarding. No time to check the luggage, she'd said—they'd have to take it with them.
'Well!' Chloe had said as they turned away from the check-in desk. 'That was a stroke of luck!' She'd ruffled Nat's hair cheerfully. 'We didn't want to spend our holiday at the airport, did we?'
Philip had stared at her, unable to understand how she could, already, be laughing about it. To him it hadn't felt like a stroke of luck. It had felt like a warning. A reminder that, for all the planning in the world, one could not govern one's own fate. That one might as well give up trying. Even now, sitting safely in his seat, clutching a complimentary orange juice, he still felt a lurking anxiety, a premonition of failure.
He clenched his glass tightly, hating himself; wanting to rid himself of the insecurities which constantly teased him. He wanted to turn back into the person he used to be; the person who was happy in his own skin. The person Chloe had fallen in love with.
'OK?' said Chloe, next to him, and he smiled.
'Look at Nat.'
Philip followed Chloe's gaze. The family had been split up into two pairs of seats, and Nat and Sam were sitting several rows in front of them. Sam was already plugged into his headphones and staring ahead as though in a trance—but Nat had clearly taken the cabin crew's warnings to heart and was solemnly perusing the laminated safety sheet. As they watched, he looked up, glanced anxiously around the cabin—then, as he spotted the emergency exits, subsided in relief.
'I bet he tells Sam where all the emergency doors are,' said Chloe. 'And how to use an oxygen mask.'
She smiled fondly, then reached into her bag for a paperback and opened it. Philip took a swig of orange juice and shuddered at the sharpness against his seething stomach. He could have done with a brandy. Preferably a double.
He opened his complimentary newspaper, then closed it again. They'd agreed no papers on this holiday. In his jacket pocket was a thriller about Russia—but he knew that in the frame of mind he was in, he wouldn't be able to concentrate enough to follow the plot. He raised his glass to his lips again, put it down—and as he did so, met the eye of the man sitting next to him. The man grinned.
'Disgusting stuff.' He pointed to his own glass. 'Get yourself a beer. Only a quid.'
He had a thick south London accent and was wearing a Lacoste polo shirt which stretched over his muscled chest. As he reached for his beer, Philip noticed that his watch was a chunky Rolex.
'On holiday, are you?' he continued.
'Yes,' said Philip. 'And you?'
'Go every year,' said the man. 'Can't beat Spain for sun.'
'Or Britain, at the moment,' pointed out Philip.
'Yeah, well,' rejoined the man. 'Can't count on it, can you? That's the trouble.' He extended a fleshy hand. 'I'm Vic.'
'Good to meet you, Phil.' Vic took a swig of beer and exhaled with noisy satisfaction.
'Christ, it's good to get away. I work in building, myself. New kitchens, extensions . . . We've been crazy. Non-stop.'
'I'm sure you have,' said Philip.
'Doing too bloody well, if you ask me. Mind you, it's paid for our new apartment. The wife's out there already, soaking up the rays.' Vic took another slug of beer and settled back comfortably in his seat. 'So, Phil—what trade are you in?'
'I'm . . .' Philip cleared his throat. 'Banking. Very dull.'
'Oh yeah? Which bank?'
There was an infinitesimal pause.
Perhaps the name would mean nothing to this man. Perhaps he would simply nod and say Oh.
But already he could see the dawn of recognition on Vic's brow.
'National Southern. Haven't you lot just been taken over, or something?'
'That's right.' He forced a smile. 'By PBL. The Internet company.'
'I knew it was something like that.' Vic paused thoughtfully. 'So how's that going to work, then?'
'No-one's quite sure yet,' said Philip, forcing the smile to remain on his face. 'It's early days.' He took a swig of orange juice and exhaled sharply, marvelling at his own relaxed manner.
But then, he was used to it by now. The frowns, the wrinkled brows, the puzzled interrogations. Some asked their questions in all innocence. Others—who had read slightly more than the headlines—veiled their concern in optimism: 'But you'll be OK, won't you?' And always he smiled back, saying reassuringly, 'Me? I'll be fine.' The faces would relax, and he would adroitly change the subject and replenish wine glasses.
Only much later would he allow himself to exchange the briefest of glances with Chloe.
And only when they'd all gone home would he allow his increasingly strained veneer to slip, like a shabby costume, onto the floor.
''Scuse me.' Vic nodded at Philip. 'Call of nature.'
As he made his way down the aisle, Philip caught the eye of an air stewardess.
'A double brandy, please,' he said. His hands, he noticed, were shaking, and he buried his head in them.
A moment later, he felt Chloe's cool hand on the back of his neck.
'You promised,' she said in a low firm voice. 'You promised not to think about it. Let alone talk about it.'
'What else can I do?' He lifted his head to look at her, aware that his cheeks were flushed red. 'What can I do, if people start quizzing me about it?'
'You can lie.'
'Lie.' Philip stared at Chloe and felt himself twitch in annoyance. Sometimes she viewed life so ridiculously simplistically, like a child. She turned that milky blue gaze on the world and saw a pattern; a logical order that made sense. Whereas all he could see was a random, chaotic mess. 'You're suggesting I lie about my job.'
'Why not?' Chloe gestured towards Vic's empty place. 'You don't think he cares what you do? He was just making conversation. Well, make the conversation you want to make.'
'You can tell people you're a . . . a postman. Or a farmer. There's no law that says you have to tell the truth all the time. Is there?'
Philip was silent.
'You have to protect yourself,' said Chloe more gently. She squeezed his hand. 'For the whole of this week, you don't work for a bank. You're an . . . airline pilot. OK?'
In spite of himself, Philip felt his mouth twist into a smile. 'OK,' he said at last. 'Airline pilot it is.'
He leaned back in his seat and took a few deep breaths, trying to relax himself. Then he glanced over towards Sam and Nat. To his surprise he saw that they were both getting out of their seats.
'Your double brandy, sir,' came the stewardess's voice above his head. 'That'll be two pounds.'
'Oh thanks,' said Philip, and felt awkwardly in his pocket for some change. 'I wonder what the boys are up to,' he added quietly to Chloe. 'They're on the move.'
'I don't care,' said Chloe, settling down again to her novel. 'They can do what they like.
We're on holiday.'
'As long as they don't get into trouble . . .'
'They won't get into trouble,' said Chloe, and turned a page. 'Their father's an airline pilot.'
'It's called Club Class,' muttered Sam to Nat as they made their way cautiously up the aisle. 'And you get loads of free stuff.'
'They just give you champagne?' Nat looked at Sam sceptically.
'They do if you ask for it.'
'They'll never give it to you.'
'Yeah they will. You just watch.'
They had reached the front of the cabin without being challenged. In front of them was a thick blue curtain which, to Nat, read Turn Back Now.
'OK,' murmured Sam, pulling it aside slightly and squinting through the gap. 'There's a couple of seats free at the back. Just sit down as if you belong—and pretend to be nobby.'
'You know. Like, "darling", kiss kiss.'
'Darling,' murmured Nat experimentally. 'Sam . . .' He stopped.
'I don't know.'
'Well, come on then. There's nobody around.'
Very calmly, Sam unhooked the curtain, ushered Nat through and hooked it up again.
Without speaking, the two boys slid into the two vacant seats Sam had spotted, and glanced at each other with suppressed glee. No-one had looked up. No-one had even noticed them.
'Nice in here, isn't it?' said Sam quietly to Nat, who nodded, eyes wide. It was like a different world in here, he thought: all light and tranquil and spacious. Even the people were different. They weren't snapping at each other or roaring with laughter or complaining loudly about the food. They were all just sitting quietly, even those two little girls over there in their matching blue dresses, drinking what looked like strawberry milkshakes. His eyes stayed on them for a few seconds, then panned over a little further—and stopped in horror.
Someone was looking at them. A girl with dark red dreadlocks, who looked like she knew exactly what they were doing. Who looked, Nat thought, like she didn't really belong in Club Class either. There was a grin on her face, and as Nat met her eyes she gave him the thumbs-up. Nat looked away in horror, feeling his face turn scarlet.
'Sam,' he whispered urgently. 'Sam, someone's seen us.'
'Who cares?' said Sam, and grinned. 'Look, here comes an air hostess.'
Nat looked up and froze. An air hostess was indeed striding down the aisle towards them—and she didn't look pleased.
'Excuse me,' she said as soon as she got within earshot. 'This is the Club Class section.'
'I know,' said Sam, and smiled at her. 'I'd like some champagne, please. And some for my young associate here.' Nat giggled.
'Actually,' he said, 'I'd prefer a milkshake. If that's OK. Like they've got,' he added, pointing to the two little girls in blue dresses. But the air hostess didn't seem to be listening to him.