She was in her sixties and she had a bowl hair cut. Silvery, neat, the type of practical haircut you get at a certain age and think ‘I suppose this will have to do’.
I caught her rifling through the idiotic collection of magazines I had bought at Coolangatta Airport, those brain vacuums you guiltily purchase in order to make a movie-less flight go faster. I always read the ones about UK starlets I never even knew: women named Mylene, Cheryl, Gemma, their divorces, their weight loss successes, their scandalously visible streaks of tanning lotion. I felt dirty when I read them and always tried to cover them up with something worthy like The Age or The Monthly.
Joking with David, I had picked up this particular stack of magazines before we boarded and loudly announced: ‘David, I’ve got your Now and OK magazines. Did you want me to put them with my Monthly?’
She was seated next to us on the plane and she was leaning over as though she had every right in the world to sift through the contents of my seat pocket; like it was a personal entertainment pouch for her to choose from at will. Perhaps she didn’t understand the rules of domestic flying: thou shalt not steal thy neighbour’s glossies without at first making some form of polite, desultory chit-chat about a Kardashian.
I coughed politely. She looked over.
‘Are these yours?’
‘Oh gee, sorry.’
She moved to return them and I assured her they were hers for the taking, she’d be doing me a favour, really, the last thing I needed was to become au fait with the love triangle of some chisel-jawed twits from The Only Way Is Essex. I was under strict instructions from my employer to finish the interminably worthy Middlemarch, and thus far had only chewed through 374 of its endless, doughy pages. She was welcome to the magazines and she took them, flicking through the photographs of bikini bodies and competitive gowns (‘Who wore it best?’) and we sat together in companionable silence.
It was after her trip to the toilet that she started talking. Oh god, I thought, there’s still another forty minutes to go. What were we going to discuss? Places of employment, children, grandchildren? I had a low tolerance for making conversation on airplanes and I was tired. Nevertheless we had formed a borrower/lender relationship via my idiotic cache of magazines and as 7B to her 7A I was in some way beholden to her request for conversation. We spoke mildly about the Gold Coast, where we’d been, what we’d been doing. She had been in a motorhome with her husband, driving up and down without a real plan.
‘We were on a holiday…four weeks. But we’ve had to come back early because my father’s dying.’
I thought I’d misheard her. ‘Sorry?’
She looked out of the window. A cold purple light fanned over the stretch of cloud.
‘I woke up at six this morning and I called the nursing home. I just had a feeling, I suppose. He hasn’t been well for some time, but this morning…they’ve put him on morphine now. And once you’re on morphine it takes two days, doesn’t it? So we packed up everything and I got on a plane. My husband’s driving back.’
She was a retired nurse, her retired husband once a fireman. Her parents had been the same. ‘My mother, grandmother, sister…we’re all nurses. I met my husband when he came to help my dad fix our car.’
The holiday had been designed to put some clean Queensland sunshine in her lungs. She traditionally suffered through Melbourne winters. And now her father lay dying in a Cranbourne nursing home, a morphine drip lulling his suffering into something remotely tolerable, cushioning his passage through to nothingness.
She wanted to get back in time.
‘My sister is with him. My brothers….they can’t make it.’
‘Oh. That’s a pity.’
She tilted her head to one side.
‘Well. They can make it. But they’ve decided they don’t want to be there at that exact moment. That has to be their decision though, doesn’t it? I think it would be too much for them. Men just can’t…they can’t do that.’
The pilot announced our descent into Melbourne. She really started talking then – about anything and everything, nursing, Cranbourne, motorhomes, the weather. There was a wild edge to the way she spoke, a rapid-fire delivery, and I knew she was trying to fill the white space between her time in the air and the moment we touched down and her bubble of painful reality would engulf her. I listened and I responded where necessary, helped colour in the blank spaces so she wouldn’t have to stop and hear herself think. Together we spoke a patchwork quilt that covered us and gave no room for pause.
When we landed I encouraged her to ignore the requests over the PA and to turn on her phone. They wouldn’t care, this was an emergency, those rules were really only made to be broken anyway.
Almost immediately after turning on her burgundy telephone it rang and I felt very still and cold.
‘Hello?….Yes, we’ve just landed. How’s grandpa, has he passed?’
There was a long pause.
‘It’s alright, you can tell me now if something’s happened. Has it happened or hasn’t it?’
I knew it then, and she did too. The weight of it was stifling.
‘He’s passed, has he.’ It was not a question. A small, contained sigh. ‘Oh well. Ah well. What time? Three-thirty?’
Our plane had taken off at 3:25. Five minutes after we had left Queensland her father had died. She had not made it.
‘Oh well. Ah well.’
She ended the call, and turned to me with a confused smile. She was a nurse and she didn’t want to cry.
‘Three-thirty. Ah well.’
I was helpless, an oaf. I wanted to reach for her but instead I pawed clumsily at her forearm.
‘Are you okay?’
She looked out of the window again, watched the lights of Tullamarine as we ambled in, nodded.
‘He’s still there. They’ve still kept him in his bed. At least I’ll get to kiss him goodbye, won’t I?’
She kissed us goodbye once our feet were on the ground, hugged us both. ‘I’ll be okay’ she kept saying. ‘Bless you, now. I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay.’ Looking around for her daughter who was supposed to be waiting for her. Insisting that we go off to our own home, and thank you so much for all those magazines, she’ll be okay, she’ll be okay.
And I cried in the queue waiting for the taxi, and I cried again in the taxi as we drove away. And I wondered about what stranger I might be sitting next to on the day my father dies, and if it might be a boorish type in a floral dress, unable to say the right words, only to offer me colourfully inane magazines, an escape into a world that is not my own, an escape for an hour, a blessed escape.