“Due to unexpected technical difficulties, Delta flight DL617 to Singapore has been delayed. The flight will now depart at 19:45 from gate F7. Please proceed to gate F7 in order to pass through the security check again. We are sorry for any inconvenience this has caused” the announcement, scratchy and hollow, echoed out across the hall at Heathrow.
Paul’s stomach turned. This means he would miss his connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur and be stuck in the Singapore airport overnight, at least. Luckily they have sleep cabins at Singapore in the airport, he thought to himself. He slipped his Clark’s back on, stowed his laptop, pulled his blue blazer off the back of his chair at the cramped airport table in the gate’s holding area, folding it neatly on his knee, and slugged the remainder of his espresso down in one shot; the bitterness reflected in his grimace. Paul was already feeling beat from his flight from Logan and long layover in Heathrow, a layover which was only becoming longer.
“You missing your connection too, hey chap?” he heard a raspy voice thick with a UK accent from over his shoulder.
“Well, it could always be worse I guess”. Christ, I’m becoming an optimist suddenly, Paul now thinking to himself. How the hell did that happen? He turned to see an older white haired man sitting catty-corned across from him at the tiny table near the huge green tinted plate glass window facing one of the many runways.
An image of his father the last time Paul had ever seen him some 20 odd years earlier passed through his mind, his dad’s white head and thick bifocals staring out at him with a confused fearful look in them.
“Ian’s the name, governor. Where you headed anyways?” Paul’s flashback broken off in midstream.
“Oh, just a quick business trip to Kuala Lumpur, not the first by a long shot. Paul here” his right hand stuck out, hanging in mid-air. Ian’s white capped head rested on a lean fit man, obviously well past retirement age. An old bomber jacket circa 1960-something wrapped his thin frame as a liver spotted hand shot out to meet his.
“Nice to meet you, sir. You’re Irish?”
“English, mate” a dry look in Ian’s eyes as he replied.
“Oh sorry, sorry. I know that it’s sort of a cardinal sin to mistake an English person for Irish. Please don’t hit me” Paul said only half kidding, both men chuckling.
“Staying in Singapore then, are you mate?” Odd for a stranger to speak these days, Paul thought. Most people are too lost in their electronic devices to reach out to another real live person.
“I hadn’t planned on it but with this delay I’ll probably have to. You’ve been there before I take it?” Paul’s curiosity piqued. He was normally quite reserved with strangers but something about this guy had him opening up, exposing himself more than usual.
“Oh yeah, I live in Thailand now most of the year, now that I’m retired. Lots of flights connect through Singapore”
Paul thought again about his dad and wondered to himself if retirement had given him any relief, any peace. If it had, it sure hadn’t shown in his erratic reclusive behavior. After his second wife died from lymphoid cancer he and Paul had barely spoken. In fact his dad had spoken less and less in general, shutting everyone out. All this culminating in a total silence between Paul and his father, a cold dead silence which had lasted many years before his dad had also passed away. It was not a choice Paul had made, but his father’s decision. His father had become obviously depressed which had been clear to everyone, everyone except his dad who had sunk deep in the depths of lonely old age like a battered antique submarine from a war most people had never known or had forgotten long ago. Since the birth of his son, and the advent and rapid advance of the internet, it seemed to Paul that things changed so fast that even he had forgotten, until now anyway. Now suddenly, unanswered questions churned and welled up inside him.
“How long have you been retired, sir...I mean Ian? You don’t look that old” Paul smiled at his newfound companion. In reality, Ian looked quite old but Paul knew better than to say something negative to the older man; a man whose vulnerability showed like the frayed sleeves of his old bomber jacket.
“Thanks mate. I’ve been out of it for a few years now, officially retired last year. I’m 66 now.” The same age my dad died Paul thought, flashing back again. This guy is quickly becoming my own version of Proust’s ‘Madeleine’ he thought.
“Wow, retired and living much of the year in Thailand, not bad. Thai wife there?” he had heard of lots of older men like this going to Thailand and marrying young 20-something Thai girls. ‘Tropical fruit’ his office manager had called them. Paul didn’t think too much of it, it seemed to bear a close resemblance to prostitution considering just how poor and vulnerable many young Thai women were.
“I had a Thai wife” Ian’s facial expression changing noticeably, his slumped shoulders slumping down even further, “ she contracted a rare form of cancer and died quite suddenly, 11 years ago. The doctors told her she had 3 months, she died 3 months and one day later” small wet spots forming in his table companion’s eyes now. “I was 55 and she only 45, the best thing that ever happened to me really. She was so beautiful, so very kind and beautiful”
“Must have been a very difficult time for you, back then” Paul stuttered for something to say, something real, something compassionate, something analogue.
“Thanks Paul. That was a long time ago; I’ve a new bird now. She’s retired like me, life goes on you know” the tears giving way to a yellow broken toothed smile.
I wonder what it was like for my father, when his second wife had suffered and died from cancer so long ago, he thought. Paul hadn’t ever met his dad’s second wife making the whole history, partly his own history, even more vague, disturbing and mysterious. It was a huge haunting unanswered question, one of many that Paul unconsciously lived with on a daily basis. These questions now rose up from someplace deep inside and fell down on him like a tremendous weight. He fought back the tears he felt welling up in his own eyes now.
Jack, Paul’s dad, had died about 15 years ago without having spoken a word to Paul for many years before that. He’d left no note, no will, no apology, not even a ‘fuck you son’ scribbled on a scrap of paper for him to be able to draw some conclusions about why he’d been silent or what might have caused his depression. He struggled to get back to the present moment as Ian looked him straight in his eyes and began to speak.
“Time, that’s all we have mate - time. You can make money, and you can lose it, you can make friends and lose them too, houses, jobs, cars, investments, lovers, parents, children, all come and go. But you cannot make more time, if you get my meaning.” Normally taciturn with strangers, Paul nodded, listening intently now to each word.
“Our lives start when we are born and our time runs out from that point, like sand in an hourglass. The tricky thing is, you never know when it all might end, if you get my meaning mate. Could be 5 minutes from now or 30 years from now, but time that is the most precious thing in life. That’s what I think anyway. You married, governor? Got kids, family, parents in the states?”
Paul smiled broadly, “Oh yes, my wife Mary and my son, John; we all live in Boston, well nearby anyway” he answered, understanding the partial redundancy of stating that he and his small family lived in the Boston area considering his thick accent and Ian’s sharp international intuition. “I had some troubles with my parents when I was much younger, but they are both dead now. Somehow I made it through” Paul heard himself say; ‘making it through’ and being happy were, of course, two very different things he thought in the tiny millisecond just after the words had left his mouth.
“We’re very happy together” he added convincingly, obviously trying to convince himself every bit as much as this stranger he felt a growing kinship with.
Paul wondered if his own father had ever managed to really feel happy, yet another dangling unanswered question, one which dangled like a noose in his dreams, and yet another that would never be answered. Yeah, ‘life goes on’ he thought cynically to himself. He wondered if his son John had any unanswered questions of his own. Perhaps now is the time to do something about that, before it was too late.
“Delta flight DL617 to Singapore is now boarding at gate F7. First class, business class and all passengers traveling with small children please proceed to boarding. All others will be called shortly. Again we apologize for any inconvenience this has caused and on behalf of Delta airlines we wish you all a pleasant flight” one of the lovely female flight attendants announced.
“Well, that’s good then mate” Ian shot back with one eyebrow raised as he glanced at Paul, not looking very convinced, “we’re off then” a slightly shaky frail hand, the thick green veins exposed, sliding out of the creased worn old leather jacket sleeve.
“Very nice speaking with you, sir” Paul’s steady right hand joining them briefly in a firm friendly grip, “Thank you very much for sharing your life experiences with me. I’d better get in line now, business class looks like its boarding” Ian gave him one last look, eye to eye, and then went back to reading his paper, yesterday’s edition of The Daily Mail.
I really should give Mary and John a quick call, the thought crisscrossing a thousand other thoughts, mostly about work, as he eased his way to the last security check - just to check in and let them know I love them.
Paul was a bit taken aback by the compassion of this thought, his thought which was something he hadn’t allowed himself to feel in a very long time. But it was too late now as he unbuckled his belt, and threw it in the plastic tray together with his phone and watch. Funny, my watch must have stopped he thought, noticing the hands were stuck on the time which the original flight should have left.
Later that evening Mary and young John watched the evening news as they ate a quiet dinner.
“This just in, a Delta flight to Singapore, flight DL617, has apparently disappeared somewhere over the Arabian Sea. Flight DL617 has 286 passengers on board with a final destination of Singapore. The plane disappeared from the radar at approximately 11:59pm IST. No further details are available at this time.”
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Bill Piccolo.
Published on e-Stories.org on 02.11.2015.