Frank’s knees would be giving him trouble by the time they landed. Ryanair was great—it had allowed the last two generations of Ireland to travel far and wide, explore a rake of new opportunities and cultures at a pittance… but nevertheless you got what you paid for, and they were always stingy with their leg room. He could feel his joints groaning in anticipation at the hour ahead. He placed The Independent across his knees and tried to distract himself from what was going on around him with the assurances that the economy was on the up, but we were all still justified in being cross with the people that had allowed it to fall in the first place. The trouble was, nobody was exactly sure who those people were.
This was not the first time Frank had travelled alone—he flew at least once a year, and this would be the sixth year (he couldn’t quite believe it) that he’d be making the trip, as he now did everything, without Margaret. His elderly posterior in fact spent much more than its fair share in the blue and yellow plasticky seat now that Amanda was in England with her job, her husband, a grandchild Frank had vowed to see at least twice a year, and another on the way. He didn’t know how she’d cope with it, especially abroad. Margaret hadn’t worked once they’d started a family, yet had always seemed so busy with one thing and another. He mused that the only good thing about it was that Amanda had stayed relatively close to home. Her friend Laura from up the road was now a year in Sydney, and her parents were still worrying about what dangers might befall her “Down Under”, even at thirty years of age.
As the plane began to move rather too audibly on the runway, Frank placed a hand on his St. Christopher medal. He wasn’t backward, was no stranger to modern life—the iPad Amanda had given him for Christmas actually got a fair bit of use now and again—but there was still something about a plane that made him wary… it all still seemed a little unnatural, and every time he flew the medal under his shirt served almost as a talisman to reassure him. Some people asked why didn’t he have St. Francis instead, his namesake. He’d never really thought about it.
As the overtly cheerful cabin crew members went over the safety procedures for the flight, Frank tuned out. Partly because he knew it so well by heart he probably could have performed the thing by himself for anyone who cared to watch, and partly because hearing the words “unlikely event of landing in water” always made that sort of thing spring to the forefront of the mind and appear just a small bit too likely.
Allowing his eyes to wander away from the morning’s headlines, Frank caught sight of a cheerful couple across the aisle. They must have been off on a special trip somewhere: one perused the alcoholic drinks on the in-flight menu while the other was cheerfully blathering on about the hotel they were staying in having a pool and would it even stretch to a sauna? Frank could be desperately nosy, and longed to ask whether they were off on a honeymoon or simply a romantic weekend, and where would their trip take them once they’d landed at East Midlands? Would they be anywhere near where his daughter and her family were based, by any chance? If so, he’d be able to recommend them a few nice restaurants he’d been to, and some Irish pubs which weren’t really very Irish, but still nice enough establishments.
Every word was on the tip of his tongue, but Frank couldn’t bring himself to say it. It would be interrupting, and they’d turn and chat to him, when he wanted them to stay talking inanely to one another, sharing kisses on jawlines and the odd squeeze of a hand, touch of an arm. He didn’t want to disturb their peace: it reminded him so of the way he and Margaret used to look at one another.
When you’ve been married forty-five, Frank thought, six years is really nothing at all. It wasn’t as though he thought of Maggie constantly as he had done for months on end when he’d met her, but she was always there: her presence in the back of his mind, the empty space on the electric blanket beside him, her cooking he could no longer taste and just the general assumption that if he could ask her a question when he wasn’t sure of something, she’d know exactly what to do. She’d always had an answer or a way round whatever Frank was struggling with. She was very… resourceful, he supposed. Clever. Quick.
He realised he was still staring at the couple as hot, babyish tears threatened to spill past his glasses and give the game away to everyone that he would never look at anyone again the way that couple were looking at each other. The tears would reveal to anyone who cared to watch that no, he couldn’t cope, no, he wasn’t moving along so nicely and enjoying an active social life, and that no… time didn’t completely heal all. Whoever had told him that at the newsagent’s three weeks after Maggie’s death had perhaps been under the impression that she wasn’t his wife, but rather a beloved family pet.
The plane gave a small, unfriendly jolt as it began to shift into take-off. Frank blinked hard and the tears left him, thank God. The journey did seem a little shorter and safer if he could visualise Amanda, Tom and their daughter Sinead waiting at the airport. It always brightened a journey knowing you were going to be met at the other end. Frank would swing cheerfully through Arrivals with his cabin-sized bag and raincoat over his arm. Tom would take the bag so Frank could pick Sinead up—now seven and getting fairly big—and Amanda would kiss his cheek, her hands proudly folded over the swell of her pregnant belly, stages of which he had only seen thus far on the iPad.
The thought of the cup of tea, the boisterous family home, the warm bed and the chat gave him a much more settled feeling for the journey ahead. Somewhere behind him a voice like chalk was whispering “What is that aul’ fella starin’ at?”
Frank wrinkled his brow. Dublin South, talking about… him?
He glanced round, craning his neck slightly, and a young woman with poorly-dyed red hair and several pieces of metal attached at various points to her ears was sitting back in her seat across the aisle and eyeing him beadily. Quickly, Frank turned, not wanting to engage the screechy voice in conversation. She called out to him anyway:
“What’s the problem, haven’t seen people in love before? It’s natural, nothing to stare at, no matter who they are.”
Another voice replied to her, slightly less harsh but just as obvious: “The older generation don’t understand. Leave him be. They don’t see many gay couples out and about probably.”
It was only then that Frank realised why he’d caused such a ruckus. It wasn’t because he’d been staring—though, granted, that was a rather stupidly rude thing to be doing at a pair of strangers on a plane—but because the couple he’d been staring at were two men.
He wondered that it hadn’t occurred to him before. Perhaps because his neighbours were two men who had recently become civil partners and Frank often called round for some tea… perhaps spending so long in the company of that particular couple, and not having Maggie around for so many years, had made him forget that two men on a romantic trip together wasn’t what the world might call “the norm”. Or maybe it was because, in Frank’s defence, neither of the men had looked especially masculine or feminine one way or the other. But Frank thought that the overriding element in the whole sorry saga was perhaps that he hadn’t bothered to look at the couple properly, wholly… he’d been looking at their eyes as they gazed at one another, their lips as they smiled secretively, and their hands as they touched one other with such gentleness they might have been handling Maggie’s willow pattern tea set.
If he’d looked at the wider picture, rather than just the love element, of course he’d have seen straight away. And he’d have realised his staring might have been deemed offensive. He wanted to correct his fellow passengers, explain what he’d really been looking at, even perhaps mention, though he didn’t want to be that sort of person and always kept politics to himself, that he had of course voted “Yes” in the referendum. But in the end, he kept his mouth shut. Unlike his wife of forty-five years (fifty-one if you counted the last six, and he did count them), Frank was sometimes at a loss of what to say and worried it might all come out wrong and make the situation worse.
In any case, he thought with relief, the couple hadn’t noticed. They were too wrapped up in each other with all the wonder and excitement of first love he remembered himself over fifty years later.