I understand how Christopher Columbus’s crew felt as they sailed towards the edge of their world. I picture them clutching the tall masts of their galleon, looking down at the endless and heaving ocean, trying not to think of the abyss which, they believed, lay just over the horizon.
“Here we are, Wendy," says Margaret, as we roll up at the passenger drop-off point at Gatwick.
“Yes." I grope around for door handle, as if I haven’t ridden in her car a thousand times before. I need to get out. The so- called " natural’ air freshener, dangling from her mirror, is making me feel sick; green and shaped like a Christmas tree, it smells like toilet-cleaner. “Thanks for the lift."
“That’s all right."
As I haul my suitcase out of Margaret"s boot, hotel courtesy buses roar past, bustling with importance, and seeming to say, " We’re nothing to do with you. We carry proper passengers only.’ A black taxi draws up in front of us, its engine rattling as it disgorges heaps of luggage and people in that order, the humans too wrapped up in themselves to notice a sixty-four year old woman hovering by the kerbside and looking clueless. Perhaps as well.
“I"d better go," says Margaret, nodding at the sign overhead warning us that waiting is restricted to five minutes only. I long to tell her everything. Standing here on the kerb at Gatwick, I can"t understand why I haven’t done so, during the preceding days, or weeks, when I had the opportunity.
She raises her eyebrows in that way of hers and I wonder how much my oldest friend, who I"ve known since schooldays, has worked out for herself. “You’ll be all right. You’ve flown before."
“Only once. With Bertram."
“He’ll be there at the other end."
“Yes." My knuckles tighten on the handles of my case, forming hard white, bloodless knobs.
“You’ll have a wonderful time."
I force my mouth into a smile. “I"d better go."
Unable to bear watching the last link with my reality disappear into the traffic, I turn away, and after a moment I follow the other passengers through an unpromising-looking doorway and up the precipitous slope to Departures. More corridors at the top. Now what do I do? For the thousandth time that morning, I look inside my handbag for my crimson passport and flimsy internet-printed e-ticket with the green Eastern Airways logo on it. Yes, I have them both.
A family stride ahead of me, the mother clutching several passports in the same hand as she’s using to eat a sandwich. She calls to her children, who are kicking up their little legs like frisky ponies as they hurtle along the walkway pushing miniature pink trolley-bags. “Jade. Hayley. Come here."
I run my eye up and down the rows of desks in the Departure hall... orange Easyjet... blue Ryanair. Keep walking, Wendy. So many Ryanair desks displaying their harp logo. I quicken my step; I don"t want to see harps, not today, not any day. Dark blue British Airways... red Virgin Atlantic... Keep walking. This is South Terminal, isn't it? Green... yes.
“Pardon me, ma’am," says the man logging on to the computer at the Eastern Airways desk, as I plonk myself and my luggage in front of him. “We’re not open yet."
I scuttle backwards to the cordon, held in place by two insubstantial metal posts. My mind flits back to Margaret driving back to the village and to her house, which is as familiar to me as my own. My dear friend, Margaret; I haven’t spent as much time with her of late, although she doesn"t complain. When I return, I will do better by her. I will, really.
The display at the check-in desk reads " Philadelphia’. I’m in the right place, although I can"t believe that I, Wendy, am about to fly to the United States. Still I wait. At last I am called over to the Eastern Airways desk. When the check-in clerk asks for my e-ticket and passport, I hand over the whole wodge of papers in my handbag, including a dentist’s appointment card which drops on to his keyboard. “Sorry, sorry," I mutter.
“No problem," said the clerk, handing it back. “Your passport, ma’am?"
“How many bags are you checking in, Mrs Woodier?"
My gleaming new wedding ring cuts into my finger as I haul my suitcase on to the conveyor belt. I don"t feel like Mrs Woodier. I’m still Wendy from the garden centre, Wendy who doesn"t do aeroplanes.
“We recommend you go through security straightway."
Security? Yes, of course. I join a long, snaking queue, and, because it’s so slow, I’m able to watch what everyone else does. You put your liquids in a plastic bag, take off your belts, your shoes and jewellery, and put them, with your handbag, into a tray which goes through the thing with flapping rubber slats. Then you walk under the arch and, if it lights up, you’re in trouble. Bit by bit, I edge to the front. Without deigning to speak to me, the female security official beckons me forward, in front of a man carrying a musical instrument in a case. I go through the arch on the nod. "Even though I"m a cheat,’ I think, as I slip my feet back into my shoes. “I"ve taken advantage of a good man, a grieving widower." I look back. The security officials are still talking to the musical instrument man, scrutinising parts of a clarinet, pressing levers and watching pads open and shut. Losing interest, they stuff everything back into the case any old how, and now it won"t shut. At least it isn"t a harp.
I was hosing down the tomato plants at the garden centre but I watered him instead. “I"m so sorry," I said, slapping my hand in front of my mouth. “Really, I am. I"m so sorry." But, when I saw him laughing, I dared to smile.
“These trousers needed a wash anyway," he said, lifting the wet patch from his knee.
Next day he returned to buy a shed and, when he said his name was Bertram Woodier, I realised he was the famous conductor, not just because Margaret, who was musical, talked of him, but because, with his high forehead and quiff of white swept-back hair, he looked like one. He kept coming back, again and again, to buy plants, a barbecue, fuel for the barbecue, more plants.
“He fancies you," the other garden centre sta ff said. “No, he doesn"t. He’s just lost his wife. He talks about her all the time."
Besides, I was too old to be fancied. Wasn"t I?
“He was married to Clarissa Bell, the harpist," Margaret informed me.
“Yes," I said. “He told me how she was driving home from a concert, very late. She fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a tree."
“I remember reading about it in the paper. Very sad. I've got her on CD, playing the Matthias Harp Concerto. Lovely piece." When she took it from the shelf, I saw the photo on the sleeve, of a diminutive woman, sitting astride a concert harp taller than she was, and caressing the strings with her small fingers. “Would you like to hear it?"
I listened, although Margaret"s music never did anything for me. One afternoon when she called in on me at work, I introduced her to Bertram, because I thought she’d like to meet a proper conductor. They talked about the Proms for a couple of minutes, then he went o ff searching for ericaceous compost.
“I"m going to be away for a week or two," he said, as he paid for it at the checkout. “I"m directing a concert in Houston."
When he returned, I had a streaming cold. He took me into the garden centre cafe, which was supposed to be off-limits to staff, but Joyce at the servery was not going to say No to Bertram Woodier. As he poured out our steaming mahogany brew, he told me about American tea. “They give you a pot of hand-hot water, with no lid, and a
plate of herbal teabags. Absolutely useless." He handed me my cup. “There. Get that down you."
“I’ve decided I"m going to retire, Wendy. What about you?"
“I can"t afford to yet."
“Marry me and retire now. I"m not rolling in it, but we’d get by."
Nobody had proposed to me ever before. In fact, even when I was younger, I hadn’t had a proper boyfriend. “Are you sure?"
“Yes, obviously. But what about you?"
We had a quiet wedding, with just three guests, Margaret and Bertram’s daughters; one was a cellist and the other a violinist, tight-lipped, younger replicas of their beautiful mother, who talked about music continuously until Bertram told them to stop. During the service, Margaret read 1 Ephesians Chapter 13, which is all about love. The words of the Bible lesson went round and round in my head. Like Prince Charles, I didn"t know what " being in love’ meant and, for a dreadful half hour or so, I hated what I had just done. For our honeymoon, we flew to Italy. This was the first time I"d been abroad, and the airport thing was quite exciting when he was there with me.
I recall Bertram saying you have to keep an eye on the destination board, so I sit right underneath it. One coffee. Two coffees. A trip to W H Smiths to buy a couple of magazines, which I intend to read and dispose of on the plane, that is, before Bertram. He mustn’t see me with women’s magazines. When at last the board flashes up "Gate 27’, I leap out of my seat and rush off, because, according to the notice on the pillar, it takes twenty minutes to walk there from the departure lounge. I manage it in fifteen. Seconds after sitting down on one of the red plastic bucket seats, I’m desperate to get up and check the gate number, but I can"t, because more and more people are pouring in. They hover around by the wall, including the family with the two little girls and their pink trolley-bags. This is Gate 27, isn"t it A gulf of heat wells up inside me, effervescing as beads of hot sweat on the small of my back, then coursing up into my head. I picture steam billowing through my hair. Some people are afraid of flying itself. They can"t make themselves believe that a metal machine can stay up in the air, but for me it’s more complicated.
Inside the plane at last, the voice over the tannoy announces, “Welcome aboard this Eastern Airways flight to Philadelphia," I sink back into my seat. I’m going to be all right. Until Philadelphia and Bertram. Ten hours to think.
After we returned home from Italy, we pottered around and did up Bertram’s garden, with very frequent tea breaks on his patio. Marriage and retirement was proving to be leisurely and relaxing, although he did have one concert outstanding, in Philadelphia. To start with, he didn’t mention it, but, as time crept up on him, and as more and more phone calls and emails winged their way over the Atlantic from Sam, the orchestra administrator, he grew irritable. “I need a cup of tea," he kept saying. “Please." Then, a few minutes later, it would be “Too hot, dear," or “Too weak, dear" or “I think I’d prefer coffee." We always called each other "dear’, not "darling’.
“You don"t want to come, do you, dear?" he asked, as he booked his flight online.
“No... I... I suppose not."
“I"ll be working all the time. You’d be by yourself."
My eye fell on to a copy of the Philadelphia concert programme in the printer: the first item listed was "Harp Concerto opus 50 by William Matthias’.
“Margaret"s got that on CD," I said, picking it up. “With Clarissa, your Clarissa, playing."
“Yes," he said, getting up and walking out the room.
When I joined him downstairs, he was on the phone to Brian, his agent. “Have you spoken to Sam about the Matthias yet? ... Yes, I know what she’s saying, but she can just stop saying it. Who’s directing this show? Sam or me?... Maybe we did agree it two years ago, but can"t they be reasonable? I"m a widower."
He wasn"t mine either. At that moment, and in pain, I realised that I loved him.
I put my hand on his shoulder but he shook me off. “Are you sure you don"t want me to come with you?"
“What would you do there all by yourself? You’re not used to American cities."
Clarissa could’ve done it. In fact, according to Margaret"s CD sleeve-notes, Clarissa had toured the globe giving harp recitals. If she could do it, so could I. “Can’t I come later, for the performance?"
He shrugged. “If you want."
As the words left my mouth, the abyss opened up in my mind, swelling in its enormity. My ordeal was self-inflicted.
Ten hours in an aeroplane, with nothing to see but clouds and water. Some of the passengers have to complete US immigration forms, but not me because, as a British citizen, I have already applied for, and received, a visa waiver. It asked me, amongst other things, whether I have ever committed a crime of moral turpitude. Have I? Haven’t I stolen another woman’s man? Stevie Wonder’s song floods, unwelcome, into my mind: "I Believe When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever."