Alison Moore's short stories have been published as chapbooks by Nightjar Press and in various magazines and anthologies including Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra. The title story of her debut collection The Pre-War House and Other Stories won the New Writer novella prize. Her first novel, The Lighthouse (Salt, 2012), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Her second novel, He Wants (Salt, 2014), was an Observer Book of the Year. Born in Manchester in 1971, Alison lives in a village on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border with her husband and son.
Monica is approaching the check-in desk when her phone begins vibrating in the pocket of her shorts. She takes the call, rolling her eyes at Michael. “Dad,” she says, “stop worrying. We’ll be fine.” She listens briefly before saying, “I’ve got to go.”
She and her dad watched Lost last night, watched Flight 815 break apart in his darkened living room. After switching off the television, he said to her, “What time’s your flight?”
He is worried about the engines failing, the wings falling off, about terrorists and aggressive passengers, about pilots having heart attacks or falling asleep in the cockpit.
Monica has spent this afternoon sweating into her wedding dress. Now in her holiday clothes, she’s a bit cold, and there are hours of in-flight air conditioning which must be endured before reaching the honeymoon destination.
On the far side of check-in, they find somewhere to sit and Monica tries not to think about the wings coming off. Her dad’s anxiety seems to be catching, like something she has just discovered growing in her skin, like the itchy ringworm she picked up after scrubbing an infected cage at the veterinary surgery. Her arm, bare between her rubber glove and the sleeve of her bottle-green uniform, must have touched the cage, or perhaps the invading fungal spores were airborne.
“What’s wrong with your legs?” says Michael, and Monica stands to look at the backs of her knees where she has been absent-mindedly scratching.
“What the hell?” she says, still raking her nails over the rash which has broken out.
“It could be the new car seat covers,” says Michael. “Some people are allergic to neoprene. I’ll see if I can get some antihistamines.” He wanders away. When he returns with a bag from the pharmacy, he says, “Our flight’s delayed.”
Monica swallows a tablet. Five minutes later, she says to Michael, “It’s not working.” After another five, she says, “If anything, it’s getting worse.” She is agitated.
Michael is restless too, impatient to be crossing the tarmac and strapping himself into his seat on the plane, to be accelerating down the runway, to be tens of thousands of feet in the air.
They listen to announcements they can’t decipher, and Michael goes to investigate. When he comes back and says to Monica that they won’t be flying out until the morning, she feels herself relaxing. But then, she thinks, if something dreadful is going to happen, it has only been postponed.
They are going to be put up overnight, says Michael, in an airport hotel.
“Oh well,” says Monica, “that might be nice.”
They pick up their hand luggage and make their way to the assembly point, from where they and dozens of others will be taken by bus to the hotel.
Walking into the softly lit lobby, looking around at the sofas and potted plants, Monica says to Michael, “Let’s just stay here. We’ll stay in our room until it’s time to go home. We’ll order room service.”
She stops to have a good go at her rash while Michael goes to reception. Hearing the receptionist say, “Mr and Mrs Porter,” Monica glances up, looking around for Michael’s parents before realising that the receptionist is talking about Michael and her. She meets the eye of a thin man with a shaved head who is waiting in line with the other passengers, and then Michael steps away from the desk with keycards in his hand and Monica follows him.
As they walk together to the stairs, Monica is aware of the loudness of her wooden wedges on the tiled floor. She wishes she had worn something quieter, and that she had put overnight essentials in her hand luggage. She could do with a toothbrush and a change of underwear, things that are packed in her suitcase along with her bikinis, her evening wear, a beach towel that says ‘OCEANIC TRANQUILLITY’ in big, red capital letters, and an alarm clock that will go off in the morning and might be thought to be a bomb. She would like a magazine to read.
When Monica reaches the foot of the stairs, she glances back at the thin man who has now reached the front of the queue and is talking to the receptionist.
I know him, she suddenly thinks, and stares for a moment longer before turning away and carrying on up the stairs.
When Monica sees their room, she says again, “Let’s just stay here.” She closes the curtains and lies down on the double bed, discovering that it is two twin beds pushed together, with an unclosable gap between the mattresses. The bedspread irritates her rash.
Michael helps himself to a Malibu from the mini-bar. “Tomorrow evening,” he says, “we’ll be eating red snapper from the Caribbean.”
“Unless there’s still a problem with the flight,” says Monica.
“Twelve hours from now,” he insists, “we’ll be on the plane, strapped into our seats, awaiting take-off.”
Monica goes for a bath. She sits in hot water scrubbing at her rash with a complimentary flannel. She washes her stomach. Her pregnancy is beginning to show. When she gets out, she puts her dirty clothes back on and goes to see if she can get a toothbrush from reception.
The receptionist produces a dental kit and a list of other items the hotel can provide – combs, shaving kits, deodorant, sanitary products, manicure kits, condoms, slippers, shoe polishing kits. Glancing at Monica’s clothes, she also mentions the laundry service, and Monica enjoys the thought that she really could manage here for weeks without her luggage.
She wanders over to the lounge area, picks up a magazine and sits down in an armchair.
She is reading a scathing review of a book she liked when she becomes aware of a man standing in front of her. She glances up, expecting to see Michael.
“Hello, Mrs Porter,” says the man.
She recognises him as the one from the queue, the thin man who watched her scratching furiously at her legs while Michael was checking in. She is sure now that she knows him quite well but can’t think where from. He watches her struggling to place him and chooses not to help her. He sits down, and as he is getting comfortable it dawns on her who he is and her stomach sinks.
“Well, Monica,” says Stanley, “Barbados here we come, eh?” He smiles.
He looks different, bared without his long hair and his beard, but he always did smile a lot, although Monica could never decide whether he was friendly or hostile.
She shared a house with a friend of his and never knew if she would return from work to find Stanley on the sofa, drinking milk from the carton, resting it between his thighs after swigs, looking at her in her uniform and saying, “Hello nursey.” Sometimes, she would feel agitated in anticipation of finding Stanley in the house with the milk between his legs, but then, arriving home, she would find the house empty, the milk untouched in the fridge.
Sometimes, she would come home after a night out to find that he had bolted the front door before falling asleep on the sofa, so that she could not let herself in with her key. She remembers hammering on the door with her fist, trying to wake him, furious that he should have the power to shut her out of her own home.
One time, Stanley wasn’t there when she went to sleep, but when she got up at dawn to make coffee, she found him stretched out on the sofa. Sitting up, scratching, he said hello to the man who was coming through the doorway behind her, who then declined coffee after all and left quickly. To the departing back of this man who was old enough to be Monica’s father, Stanley said loudly, “I suppose he has to get home to his wife and kids.”
Now Stanley, reclining, putting his shoes on the hotel’s sofa, says to Monica, “Does Michael know about you and his dad?”
Monica is taken aback. She had no idea Stanley knew the man he saw coming out of her room that morning. Stanley, clearly enjoying her discomfort, keeps her waiting before explaining, “I used to get private tuition from Mr Porter when I was a kid. I went to his house so I always saw his kids too – Michael and his brothers and sisters. There were always loads of kids there. I always imagined I could just sort of stay and no one would notice. But of course I was always sent home.”
“His dad and me, that was years ago,” says Monica. “I didn’t know Michael then.”
“Did you get crabs?”
“Did Mr Porter give you crabs?”
She stares at him.
“He always had crabs,” says Stanley.
She feels as if she is, at this very moment, crawling with lice.
“I have to get back to Michael,” she says, standing, returning her magazine to the table. Stanley reaches over and picks it up, settling down to read what she was reading, without saying goodbye.
She finds Michael asleep. She also finds that she has left the dental kit downstairs and has to get into bed without brushing her teeth. She sleeps badly and is already up when the wake-up call disturbs Michael. “How’s your mange?” he says, which makes her scratch.
They walk down to breakfast and Michael says, “You’re on edge. Antihistamines can do that to you.”
Monica doesn’t have much of an appetite but Michael makes the most of the buffet, eating as if he might never eat again, as if he will not be facing an airline lunch in a few hours.
Afterwards, he goes to pay his mini-bar bill while Monica goes back to their room to collect their things.
She is straightening their bedding when she hears someone knocking on the door. Opening it, she finds Stanley outside. He is holding out the toothbrush she left behind last night. “I used your toothbrush,” he says. “You don’t mind, do you? I’ve nothing catching.” Peering past her, he says, “Nice room. It’s bigger than mine. But then mine’s a single.”
“I was about to leave,” says Monica.
“I saw Michael at the front desk, settling his bill.”
Monica stiffens, although she is relieved to think that this must be how he knows her room number; that he has not been in an adjacent bedroom, on the other side of a thin wall.
“He didn’t remember me,” says Stanley.
His mouth, no longer hidden by facial hair, is quite unpleasant, thinks Monica. He never quite closes it.
He looks suddenly pained. He puts his hand on his crotch. “I have to piss,” he says. Monica finds herself stepping aside so that Stanley can come in. He pushes open the bathroom door and then closes it behind him.
Monica shoulders her bag. She waits, hearing nothing through the bathroom door.
By the time he comes out, she has put the bag down again. It is heavy and the strap – a detachable leather one – digs into her shoulder. Preparing to leave, she picks her bag up again. Stanley, still zipping his fly, goes to the bed and sits down. “I’ve been made redundant,” he says. “I’m blowing my severance pay on two weeks in the Caribbean.”
“I want to go downstairs,” she says.
“Do you find yourself,” he asks, “at our age, seeking out the people you knew when you were younger?” Looking down between his legs, he says, “Your bedspread’s the same as mine, Monica.”
It occurs to her that she could just go, leaving him here. Taking one last look around the room, she says, “You can let yourself out.”
“Don’t you want to know,” says Stanley, as Monica is walking to the door, “what Michael and I talked about?”
Monica pauses with her back to him, frozen like someone with a gun pointed at her, the sight trained on the back of her head. “Not especially,” she says.
“I told him how I know you,” he says, “told him some stories about the good old days.” He lies down, putting his head on Monica’s pillow, the soles of his shoes on the bedspread. He closes his eyes. “I didn’t mention Mr Porter senior.”
“I’m going,” she says.
“I need to piss again,” moans Stanley. “Or I feel like I do. I’ve got some kind of infection. I keep wanting to piss but nothing comes out. It just hurts.” He scampers to the bathroom and as he shuts himself in he says, “I suppose we’ll see one another on the plane. We should meet up in Barbados, go for a drink, tell Michael some more of our stories.”
Monica stands for a moment outside the closed door. Slowly, she slips the bag off her shoulder and unclips the wide leather strap. Quietly fastening one end around the bathroom door handle, she pulls the strap taut and loops it around the handle of an adjacent cupboard, wrapping it around both handles a couple more times before securing it, with difficulty because her hands are shaking.
Picking up her bag again, she leaves the room, hanging the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door handle. She looks at her watch. She should be on the plane by the time the maid discovers him.
She has to stop herself hurrying down the stairs, rushing into the lobby. She finds Michael sitting in the lounge area, on the sofa where Stanley sat the night before.
“We should get going,” says Monica, “if we don’t want to miss the plane.”
“The bus won’t be here yet,” says Michael, but Monica is already heading for the exit. Michael follows her. They have just got outside when he says, “Oh, I left my book in the bathroom. Did you pick it up?” When Monica hesitates, he says, “I’ll nip up and get it. I’ll get the key back from reception.”
“I’ve got your book,” says Monica, peering down the empty road. “It’s in my bag.”
“I can read the last chapter on the plane,” says Michael. “Oh, I met someone called Stanley. He said he was a friend of yours. You shared a house or something.”
“Not really,” she says.
She keeps glancing at the hotel entrance, and Michael, noticing, eyeing her goosepimples, says, “Do you want to wait inside? Are you cold?”
“No,” she says, “I just want to get going.”
“Me too,” says Michael. “I want to be on the plane.”
Monica says nothing. She looks up at the overcast sky.
From her seat near the back of the bus, Monica watches the door, flinching at every thin body glimpsed through the window, every bald head ducking on entering.
“Are you looking for your friend?” asks Michael. “Is he supposed to be on this bus?”
“He’s not really my friend,” says Monica.
Even when people stop boarding, the bus waits. Eventually, the engine is switched on. The bus idles, spewing fumes, before slowly pulling away from the kerb, and Monica relaxes into her seat.
She pictures Stanley sitting in the bathroom, reading Michael’s blockbuster. She knows she has only delayed him, and that when he is found, he will just take another flight, but Barbados is big enough, although she will no doubt find herself looking over her shoulder, never feeling quite at ease, preferring to stay in the hotel. Their paths won’t cross on the return journey because Stanley will go home after two weeks but they are staying for three. And he doesn’t know where they live. With any luck, she will never see him again.
They head for the airport, picking up speed.
It is raining as they cross the tarmac. They hurry towards the plane, running for cover as if the raindrops were a hail of bullets.
They climb the metal staircase. At the top, a stewardess greets them warmly without making eye contact. The cabin smells peachy. They have sprayed something, thinks Monica, to mask the smell of sick.
They slip into their seats and fasten their seatbelts. Monica turns to the rain-spattered window, peering anxiously out. Michael says, “You’re like the man in The Twilight Zone who sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane. Are you worried?”
Beta blockers, thinks Monica. She would like beta blockers to numb her to this, the awfulness of this flight.
“I’ll be all right,” she says, “once we’re in the air.”
Passengers continue to board and she watches their unhurried search for their seats, their dithering over what to put in the lockers, the aisles clogging.
Michael inspects the contents of the pocket on the back of the seat in front – laminated emergency instructions, cartoons of people dealing calmly with disaster, and an in-flight magazine through which he leafs, browsing photographs of other destinations they might have chosen.
Monica watches another plane taxiing down the wet runway. The backs of her legs are itching against the seat fabric. She is hours away from her next tablet.
Michael reaches for Monica’s bag and hunts through it. “Where’s my book?” he says.
Monica goes through the motions of looking through the bag herself. “I don’t think it’s here.”
“You said you’d picked it up.”
“I thought I did.” She is still searching, although pointlessly, there being barely anything in the bag to hunt through. She doesn’t turn to look at him, knowing that if she does she will find him looking at her as if she is crazy. In the end, she shrugs and apologises. She takes out the magazine she has bought and yesterday’s bottle of water. As she unscrews the lid and lifts the bottle to her mouth, her hand is shaking.
Michael sighs. “We should be going soon,” he says. He looks at his watch. “We should have gone already.” Monica opens her magazine to a centre spread of women with circles around the sweat patches under their arms.
There is a disturbance towards the front of the plane and she looks up to see the faltering smile of the stewardess at the door, and Michael says, “Is that your friend?”
(C) Alison Moore 2015
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.