Ellen focused hard on the sound of metal bolts unlatching at the back of the cabin to distract her from the unsettling roar of the engines. She stared out of the window at the skyline below, which was exactly how she imagined Manhattan at dusk would look from four thousand feet in the air – a glittering mass of light and steel, reflected against the East River, mirroring a dark underworld beneath the surface. She felt a swell of emotion deep in her chest as the aeroplane climbed in altitude, away from the city she had made her home for six months; away from him.
‘Are you alright, dear?’
Ellen turned her head sharply to the left, blinking suddenly and dislodging a tear which began to roll luminously down her cheek.
‘I’m sorry, I’m fine, thank you.’
‘Would you like one?’
A woman in 48C held out a small packet of Kleenex across the empty middle seat. Ellen hesitated for a second before taking one and pressing the smooth edge against her eyelid.
‘Sad to be going home? Did you have a nice vacation?’
‘I’ve been in the States for a while actually. Six months.’
‘That’s some holiday,’ the woman replied.
‘My work visa expired today, so I had to leave.’
‘And you weren’t ready to go?’
‘No. Not at all.’
The woman rested back against the headrest, blinking behind her horn-rimmed glasses. Ellen thought her eyes looked unusually large, magnified behind the thick lenses. She was perhaps in her late sixties, maybe older.
‘Six months is a long time. I suppose you made friends?’
‘I’m sure you’ll keep in touch. It’s certainly easier than in my day, now you have the internet. Not that I have any idea how that all works.’
Ellen was trying not to think about him. Their last dinner together at their favourite Italian trattoria in the Village, the way he held her tightly as her gate number was called. The look on his face as she turned back to smile a final goodbye. She knew it was over. Their relationship had an identical expiry date to the document stuck inside her passport. That was what they had agreed at the beginning of the summer. But that was before she fell in love.
‘Would you like anything from the trolley?’ A cheerful steward in a cherry-red uniform appeared at the end of their row.
‘I think this young lady needs a drink.’
‘Red wine, please.’
‘Good choice. I’ll take a gin.’
The steward smiled and passed over two small plastic bottles and tumblers. Ellen scrunched the tissue into a ball and pushed it under the sleeve of her sweater.
‘Thank you.’ Ellen decanted the Merlot and turned back to the passenger. She wanted to be alone, but for the next seven hours, she had no choice but to be polite. ‘Are you heading to the UK for a visit?’
‘I’m visiting my sister-in-law in Surrey. She has grown-up children about your age and her first grandchild on the way in the spring.’
‘Were you originally from England?’
‘No, I’m a New Yorker to my bones. My husband’s parents were British scientists who emigrated to the US after the war. His sister was interested in her heritage and went to college in London, then met her husband and never came back.’
‘Is he… is your husband travelling with you?’
‘You could say that.’ The woman reached into her handbag and pulled out a small metal box, inscribed with the initials G. E. S.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, I should never have asked.’ Ellen felt her cheeks reddening. She was uncomfortable in the presence of a dead man’s ashes, suddenly aware of her own mortality. They had climbed to thirty thousand feet and were at a level cruise.
‘Don’t apologise, it’s good to talk about him. He died two months ago. Frances felt I was spending too much time alone, so asked me to stay with her for a few weeks. She’s a wonderful person. George loved her a great deal, despite the distance.’
Ellen dug her fingernails into her palms, staring at the laminated safety card in the seat pocket in front of her.
‘You must have been married a long time?’ Ellen hoped she wasn’t asking questions that would offend. Something told her this woman wanted to talk.
‘Fifteen years. He was my second husband, I was married to some schmuck for thirty years before I met George. Thirty years I won’t get back!’ The woman laughed softly, shaking her head.
Ellen smiled, keen to show she was in on the joke, despite the hollow warning.
‘The thing about marriage is,’ the woman continued, ‘when you’re young and idealistic you think you’ll ride off into the sunset with this gorgeous man who makes you feel as if you’re floating on air. Then you both grow older and fatter and start fighting over silly things like the fact he never remembers your mother’s birthday, or the way he leaves challah crumbs all over the rug you just spent an hour vacuuming. One day you wake up and realise it won’t get any better. Though I can’t say that about George; he was the most wonderful man in the world.’
‘Where did you meet?’
‘Oh, it’s a great story. Our eyes met across a pyramid of rugelach at Zabar’s on West 80th and Broadway. I was buying pastries for the ladies at my book group and he was looking for something to take to his grand-daughter’s high school graduation ceremony so that he didn’t go hungry. I loved that about George. He always thought ahead and was prepared for every eventuality. He took his own urn to be engraved so that I didn’t have to worry about it.’
The woman pushed her glasses up her nose and sighed. Ellen held her plastic wine glass tighly.
‘He sounds wonderful. I hope I meet my George one day.’
‘Thank you, my dear. I take it this young man in Manhattan isn’t the one?’
‘He’s… it’s impossible. We live on opposite sides of the sea.’ Ellen turned to look out of the window again, catching the last of the sunset before it slipped under the horizon.
‘Love across borders. It would make a good novel, wouldn’t it? British girl and American boy stick two fingers up at our lousy President and create a bridge across the Atlantic, connecting each other’s hearts. I’m sure we’d be happy to read it in book group.’
‘I’m not quite sure it works like that, much as I’d like it to. I have a job to go back to, rent to pay. Plus, I’m not even sure if that’s what he wants! We never really spoke about how we felt. It would’ve made it all too real.’
‘That’s the problem with young people, you’re all too cagey about your feelings. Being in love with someone is the most wonderful thing you could possibly experience. I’ll never understand why anyone would keep that information to themselves. George told me he was crazy about me four hours after we met in Zabar’s, and we have been inseparable ever since.’
The cabin lights dimmed, indicating that the passengers should attempt to sleep.
‘He took me to this ‘open mic’ event at an Irish pub about a month after we met, and completely without warning he jumped onstage and started singing a Billy Joel song with total enthusiasm, like he didn’t even care he was out of tune and not keeping in time with the pianist. Everyone was laughing at how bloody awful he was, but not at him, they were just enjoying the way he was holding the stand and growling into the microphone. I was laughing so hard when he sat down after he’d finished I thought I was going to wet myself. That’s when I realised I loved him. It was like, from that moment on I was changed. Like someone had flicked a switch.’
‘I know that feeling. You never forget it, and in some ways it never leaves you. Once you let yourself love someone, you carry it with you forever.’
‘I’ll find that again, though, won’t I?’
‘Of course you will. It’ll hurt for a while but eventually you’ll be able to look at photographs of him without wanting to hurl yourself into the nearest body of water.’
‘God, I’m so sorry, look at me acting like an pathetic teenager when you’ve lost the love of your life.’ Ellen put her hands up to her face and rubbed her eyes.
‘Don’t apologise. We have both lost someone we cared about very much. Better try and get some sleep, dear. It’s a long journey ahead.’