I can never relax until we’re in the air. I have the same routine every time: fasten my seatbelt as soon as I sit down, place my handbag under the seat in front of me, flick through the in-flight magazine, suck a mint. I listen carefully to the safety announcements. I follow the rules.
I always pre-book a window seat because I like to be able to tuck myself away and know that once I’m sitting down, belted in, I won’t be disturbed.
A couple across the aisle from me are holding hands and exchanging excited whispers. The girl has a guidebook in her lap with those tiny coloured post-its marking pages. Must be first timers. The thing about New York is, although there’s infinitely more to discover than you could ever hope to, once you’ve been once you sort of feel as though you know it.
I’ve been twenty-seven times.
A young man drops into the seat next to me. He’s all arms and legs, dishevelled hair and white teeth. He’s carrying only his passport, which he shoves into the back pocket of his jeans, and a white phone with headphones attached.
How lightly the young travel, I think, as everything they need comes to be contained in something smaller and smaller. He wears a T-shirt and no jacket. It’s only April and the plane has fierce air-conditioning. I wonder if he’s cold.
‘Hi, I’m Tom,’ he says with a grin, and I must look startled because his face falls into concern and he adds, ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to freak you out there. I just think it’s a bit weird to sit next to someone for 8 hours and not be introduced. Don’t you?’ That grin again: slightly lopsided; disarming.
‘I suppose so. I’m Gillian,’ I offer my hand and he tries to take it, but the way we’re sitting makes it a bit awkward and we both laugh.
‘Business or pleasure, Gillian?’
‘What takes you to New York? Business or pleasure?’ I realise I’m dressed quite formally – pencil skirt, blouse – especially compared to Tom in his flip flops and ripped jeans. I could conceivably be going on business but I decide to tell the truth.
‘I’m going to visit my son.’ I turn towards the window to try to indicate that this part of the conversation is over. It’s possible Tom says something else but the roar of the plane’s engines as it starts its takeoff gives me the excuse not to hear.
I stare out of the window as the plane ascends and I watch the lights of the runway recede. I’m always amazed by how quickly everything turns toytown-small. I watch houses and cars turn to dots and wonder how the people in them can rest, can go about their lives, knowing this huge piece of metal is coursing through the air above them, followed by another, and another; thousands of them a day. I think about the horror that would be inflicted on all those lives if we just dropped out of the air. I can’t remember a time I didn’t have these thoughts, although there was a time, once. Are we all condemned, these days, to think of aeroplanes as weapons?
I turn to glance at Tom; his eyes are closed and his headphones are in so I study his profile for a moment, the curve of his cheek, his stubble. I mentally catalogue the ways in which he reminds me of you. I do this with all boys – toddlers, children, teenagers, young men – try to find your face in them, your gestures, a turn of phrase you might have used and I might have missed. This boy is at least five years older than you but I can see a future you…everything in the world, in my world, exists only in relation to you.
I breathed your newborn scent, stroked your tiny fingers one by one.
Your father believed in putting babies in their own room from the start, so I dragged a single mattress down from the loft and lay curled on it that first night, my arm outstretched at an awkward angle so that I could reach your basket, touch your hand, feel your chest rise and fall. My other hand cradled my tummy, which now felt loose and useless.
I started to see danger everywhere. Roads, kettles, stairs were terrifying.
He took you away from me on the fifth day, ‘just for an hour,’ he said, ‘you need a break.’ I didn’t think I did. I wrapped you up, layer after layer.
I counted the minutes while you were gone. Thirty-seven, thirty-eight. I was tired, so tired, but I couldn’t rest.
‘Does he live there?’
‘I’m sorry, what?’
‘Your son. Does he live in New York?’
‘Oh. Yes, he does.’
‘You must miss him terribly.’
‘How long has he been over there?’
‘Look, I’m sorry Tom, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t really feel like talking. I might try to grab some sleep actually.’ I grapple with the inflight pillow, wedging it between the window and my shoulder.
‘That’s cool. Want me to nudge you when they bring the food round?’
I wasn’t very good at all the things I was supposed to be good at.
I didn’t want to go to baby groups, to coffee mornings, to the library for bloody Rhythm & Rhyme. I couldn’t cope as these other mothers could, I could barely comb my own hair. Getting you dressed before noon was an achievement.
I was particularly not good at leaving you alone, leaving you to cry. Your father would berate me for it.
‘I don’t know why you can’t just leave him,’ he’d say, ‘No wonder you’re knackered. You’re up half the night pacing up and down with him. All you’re teaching him is that when he cries, he’ll get attention.’
I looked at him blankly.
What was the alternative? To teach you that when you cry, you won’t get attention? Won’t get cuddles, won’t get love? Will just cry and cry in the night until, finally realising no-one is coming, you collapse into exhausted sleep?
With hindsight, this is exactly what I should have taught you. This is exactly how life is.
As promised, Tom nudges me awake just in time for a plastic tray of chicken and vegetables in a half-congealed beige sauce to be placed in front of me. I toy with the bread roll; it crumbles under the knife when I try to spread butter on it.
‘Are you OK?’ he asks, spearing a bundle of green beans with his fork.
‘I’m fine.’ Trying not to think of the vast Atlantic below us. Not helping myself, watching the tiny plane that represents us on the screen, beneath it only blue. I never watch in-flight movies; I only ever watch the plane.
As if reading my mind, he says,
‘You know, we’d be better off crashing into the sea than on land.’
‘Must we talk about crashing at all?’
‘Well, no. What would you like to talk about?’
I smile in spite of myself and half turn in my seat to face him.
‘What takes you to New York?’
‘Love,’ he says simply. Me too, I think, and he goes on, ‘My girlfriend lives there.’
‘Well, there are worse places she could live.’
‘And closer ones, too.’
‘True, but it means we really appreciate the time we do have together.’
‘Are you always so positive?’
‘Well, I’m a realist, I think. Life is the way it is and you just make the best of it.’
‘Not that convenient for you either, I suppose – your son being in New York, I mean.’
‘No, it’s not ideal.’
‘How old is he?’
I hesitate; I don’t talk about you, not really, not even to friends. Not any more. But something in Tom’s open expression persuades me there’s no harm in answering this simple question.
I watch this register, a slight frown flickering across his features, see the inevitable next question (‘what’s a 16-year-old boy doing living in New York, without his mother?’) start to form on his lips, and before it can materialise into words, I babble,
‘So, yes, it’s very inconvenient. Particularly as I hate flying! I’m a dreadful flyer. Really bad. Probably why I was a bit jumpy when you first spoke to me. Sorry about that.’
Tom tries to speak again but I point out of the window and continue quickly,
‘I especially hate this part, over the ocean. Unfortunately there’s a lot of it, going to America. I’m afraid of water, you see. It’s funny, really. My son, he’s a swimmer, now. A good swimmer.’
‘Yes. He swims in the Hudson, most days.’
Tom makes a face and I laugh.
‘It’s clean now,’ I say, ‘or so he tells me. Cleaner than it was, at least. And safe. Again, so he tells me, anyway.’
‘I was afraid of water too, as a kid.’
‘Yep. My mum sent me to a hypnotherapist and they did this regression thing on me,’ he laughs, ‘apparently it’s all because I was born with a caul.’
‘That’s supposed to mean you’re lucky.’
‘Do you believe that?’
‘No. I think you make your own luck.’
‘Unfortunately, I’ve made myself some very bad luck.’
‘Well, I also believe I made myself not scared of water, and I think you could do the same.’
The simplicity of his words startles me and I’m quiet for a few minutes before saying,
‘I think he took it up almost to spite me.’
‘Yes. To distance himself, make himself as different from me as he could be.’
‘Why would he want to do that?’ Confusion flickers across his young face and I smile.
‘You’re very inquisitive, you know that?’
‘I love my mum,’ he says.
‘Then she’s very lucky.’
He’d been offered a fantastic job, he said.
‘You’ve already got a fantastic job,’ I mumbled.
This one was more fantastic: more money; on the Board. Then he told me it was in America. It didn’t hit me at first; I was in a fog. He was taking you with him, of course. ‘No court in the land would let him stay with you,’ he said. You would have a nanny in New York.
‘Stay,’ I said. But he was already gone.
I didn’t have the strength to fight. I wish I’d fought.
The cabin staff clear away the plastic trays, bring us coffee.
‘He’ll be looking forward to seeing you,’ Tom is smiling.
‘Oh, I doubt that.’
‘Sounds like you’re being a bit hard on yourself, Gill.’
‘We…we didn’t have the best start, he and I. Josh and I. That’s my son’s name, Josh. I – I wasn’t the best mum.’
‘But, you love him now.’
‘Very much. Well, I always did, of course. I always loved him. More than anything.’
‘And all the travelling over to see him – he must appreciate that?’
‘He doesn’t,’ I sigh.
‘Oh, I’m sure he does,’ something in Tom’s grin, something just on the cocksure edge of optimism, irritates me, ‘teenage boys, you know – they’re just not that good at expressing themselves. He really – ’
‘What is it you want from me? What do you want to know?
‘How since he was thirteen, he hasn’t even called me Mum, he calls me Gillian? How all these years it’s been a nanny, then a step-mother, taking him to school, and not me?
‘How we don’t know each other, don’t have anything to say to one another? And every time it gets harder.
‘How all I want to do is take him in my arms but I can’t, I can’t even do that, the last time I did he was a little boy, 4 or 5, and then I stopped, I just stopped hugging and kissing him because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to let go.
‘How every day, every minute of my stupid life is a countdown to the next time I see him, how my entire existence is just the never-ending rise and fall of hope and disappointment, because then I see him and all my dreams, all my beliefs that this time will be different, this time we’ll connect, this time he’ll look at me and feel love, or something like love.
‘And all those dreams crash into the dirt because we’ve nothing to say to one another, it’s awkward, it’s painful, for both of us. He hates me. No. It’s worse than that. He’s indifferent to me.’
There is a long silence.
‘Tom,’ I say his name as though it’s the most ridiculous word I’ve ever heard, ‘don’t. Just don’t.’
I can feel something rising in me, a wave of something like fear, and heat, and my chest is tightening. But he persists; he’s shaking his head.
‘I just don’t get why a boy would – how he could – feel like that towards his – ’
‘I hurt him, alright?’
It comes from me in a burst. A couple of passengers in the row in front shift in their seats.
‘I hurt him. I hurt my son. This makes me a terrible person, probably not a person you want to be talking to. A person who hurt her son, her baby son. And terrible people get what they deserve. In fact, considering what I did, I’ve been lucky.’
‘Gillian, I -’
‘Look, don’t talk to me. Please. Don’t say anything. You can’t say anything worse to me than has already been said. So save your breath.’
‘I wasn’t going to -’
‘And I don’t want your pity, either. I don’t need or deserve anyone’s forgiveness for what I’ve done or pity for what I’ve been through. So you see, you can’t win. Just leave me alone, please.’
There is such a long pause that I think he isn’t going to speak again, but after a few minutes he whispers,
I stare straight ahead and in time feel the seat beside me shift as he gets up and walks up the aisle, stopping when he meets a stewardess. I peer through the gap in the seats in front. I can see her lips move, see her shaking her head and gesturing vaguely around the packed cabin.
He’s asked to move seats, I suppose.
People quite often move away from me. Awkward pauses, conversations cut short, looking down at shuffling feet; this has been the stuff of my social life. As a consequence I’ve become better at being on my own, grown cool and cautious, especially towards strangers, and this in turn has sent more of them away.
I close my eyes, pretend to be asleep, to save Tom the embarrassment of having to acknowledge me when he sits back down. I’m suddenly aware of just how close together aeroplane seats are. I feel the gentle weight of him beside me and within a few moments, drift into sleep for real.
As usual, I did everything wrong. Put them safely in the cot, the leaflet said, and leave the room. ‘Struggling to cope?’ the leaflet was called, a sickly green colour with the silhouette of a woman on the front.
Your screams that morning were incessant. Maybe they were no worse than usual, but I was crumpled up inside.
You were screaming yourself hoarse, red-faced, and I was holding you, over my arm as I’d done a hundred times before to wind you. But this time I raised my other arm and brought my hand down so fast, it was like it belonged to someone else, and your nappy was soft, of course, padded, so my arm kind of bounced back and I had a split second to realise what I was doing. I don’t believe in hitting children, I’d never hit a child, and a baby, who would hit a baby? And yet this hand of mine did it again, and this time the edge of it caught the back of your legs.
I can’t remember what happened next, not really, but it’s there in some black part of my brain, of course. It must be. And the evidence in front of me meant I could see what I’d done. All of a sudden you were back in your cot, and I was shaking my head as though to shake off a bad dream, and I remember thinking, he’s in his cot, that’s good, walk away, but then I saw the blood. You were lying at a funny angle, I hadn’t placed you there carefully, safely, anyone could see that. There was blood on your face, streak of red on the bars of the cot, billowing scarlet bloom on the sheet.
You were whimpering.
I cleaned you up, it was a split lip, only a split lip, but there’s always a lot of blood from the mouth, looks worse than it is, they say. I washed your sheets and soon you’d stopped crying and were smiling and babbling at me, and I rocked you until your father came home.
When I wake up, something feels not quite right.
I glance at my watch, already set to New York time, and frown. We should be there by now – in my post-sleep blur I am not sure whether I say this aloud or to myself, but it doesn’t matter, I don’t suppose anyone is listening.
As is my habit, I switch the mini-screen in front of me to ‘your route’ and stare, hard, at the mini-plane in the picture. It doesn’t seem to be moving. It hovers over the recognizable outline of Manhattan island. Then, every few moments, the screen flickers and the picture-plane seems to turn around. Essentially though, it’s not moving.
I look out of the window to see the real Manhattan island. The sun glinting on its towers, a forest of concrete, glass and steel with splashes of green. I try to summon every other visit: had we always flown so low, so close to the buildings? Had we even come in this way before, had I seen this view, this angle before? I squint and pull the blind down halfway.
There are whispers and then there’s a preternatural quiet across the cabin. It falls gradually, a blanket of silence.
In a measured, slow-motion move, wordlessly, Tom takes my hand and squeezes it.
I’ve experienced turbulence before, many times, sick, lurching moments when my brain, in a frenzy, has tried to process the possibility that I might die, we might plummet to earth and that will be the end. But this stillness, this silence, is worse.
Pictures spring into my mind, then fade. You, aged five, eating ice-cream, the last time I held you – a spontaneous hug, you wrapped your arms around me as I tried to wipe your face. You left a splodge of vanilla in my hair. You, aged twelve, too tall for your clothes, awkward and lolloping towards your teens. And the last time I saw you, almost six months ago, growing handsome now, almost a man, calling me Gillian and oh so politely wishing me safe home, but you touched my hand as I left, that time. You did that, at least.
Tom’s hand warm around mine in this terrible static present.
A bristling sound from the intercom and the pilot’s voice, at last, smooth with control.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. You’ll have noticed we’ve been circling Manhattan for a while now. There’s no cause for concern, we’ve been advised there is a cross wind on the runway which makes it unsafe for us to land just yet.
‘Apologies for the delay, I expect to have landed us safely at JFK within half an hour but I’ll keep you updated.’
Gradually, people start to talk again, a relieved murmur escalating into an excited hubbub as the tiny plane on the screen in front of me turns and points itself in the right direction, and moves, at last.
Tom lets go of my hand.
The sudden freedom to move after being confined on a plane for several hours puts bounce and purpose into the stride of all those around me, but I don’t hurry. At the baggage claim, surrounded by the chatter of excited voices, bodies jostling for space near the conveyor, I hang back and somehow find myself standing next to Tom.
We smile politely at one another.
‘I’m sorry I upset you, Gillian.’
‘You didn’t upset me. I’ve been upset for fifteen years.’
‘Well, I’m sorry for that. There’s something I was wondering though.’
‘Go on.’ I rummage in my bag for my car hire documents, to avoid meeting his eye.
‘Well, it was a long time ago…in all that time…’
‘You never wanted to fight? To try to get him back?’
I close the bag and I’m quiet for a long time, just looking at him. His searching brown eyes, like yours but more almond-shaped. His face, untroubled by lines or any of the sagging imperfections of age.
‘I believed he was better off where he was,’ I say and, brushing away a tear I hadn’t realised was there, ‘Have a wonderful time with your girlfriend, Tom. It was lovely meeting you.’
He grins and pulls me into a hug so sudden it almost knocks the wind out of me. When after a couple of seconds it becomes apparent he won’t let go, I let myself relax. Feel his smile in my hair, breathe in his young man scent. Maybe this time, things will be alright.
‘Learn to swim!’ he whispers. Then he pulls away, picks up his bag and with an energetic wave, slips into the crowds and is gone.