The digital clock next to the display board read 16:53. The main thought on George’s mind was whether he’d be able to buy a regular cappuccino with a raspberry and white chocolate muffin before Judy arrived. The queue at his usual café in the arrivals lounge was slower than he’d expected. A small group of Asian teenagers were conducting a bewildering conversation with the barista in an approximate but complex form of quasi-English. The discussion seemed to be about different types of soya milk.
George sighed, and looked up: 16:54. Judy had been nagging him about his weight. Flying always made her tense, and if she found out that he’d been scoffing, she’d complain, he knew she would. He wasn’t feeling good: he’d rushed to the airport, found a parking space far away from the arrivals lounge, and then marched in quick step to make sure that he wasn’t late. (Judy hated it when he wasn’t there as she emerged from customs). Sometimes he liked waiting for her in the arrivals lounge: he could enjoy its gaudy, shiny, plastic environment, its bustling shops and its buzz of excited, transient people. Some days, just for fun, he strolled through the counters of giant chocolate bars, apparently useful travel aids, unlikely-sounding liqueurs and enormous teddy bears. But today all he wanted to do was sit down.
The Asian teenagers left, white polystyrene cups in hand, and the queue inched forward. He glanced again at the display board: 16.55, flight XY375 from Barcelona on time. In front of him, a tall, olive-skinned woman in a striking blue hijab paid for a large latte with cinnamon and sprinkles, and then George was served. By 16.57 he was sitting down, sipping the rich, hot, frothy liquid. In truth, it wasn’t very pleasant, just a bit bitter, as always, but once he’d added some sugar, and bit into the muffin, all was well.
He sat back and looked again at the display board. Strange. XY375 was now delayed. He sensed, rather than saw, a ripple of concern pulsates across the lounge. Some people in the café near him pointed at the display board. It was strange: he knew from experience that if the Barcelona flight was delayed, then the delay was usually announced before its departure, not five minutes before its arrival. Normally, when this happened, Judy would send him an exasperated text, complaining about how long she’d had to wait. He looked again at the board and noticed something else unusual: there was no revised arrival time. A thought bubbled up in his mind: maybe he could have ordered a tuna melt panini as well. But this bubble burst and sunk away. He chewed at his muffin mechanically, without any real enjoyment.
17:03. He could stay in the café and read his book, but he felt he ought to find out more. He knew the stand for what he thought of as ‘Judy’s airline’: on previous occasions he’d had to call there to check details. He’d just wander over and see…
17:06. A group of worried people were gathered at the stand. There was the blue hijab lady; a few Spaniards talking with each other; an elderly couple hanging on to each other, arm-in-arm; a little cluster of teenage girls; plus a large, red-skinned man in a grey suit. As he approached, he saw the Spaniards eyeing the hijab-lady suspiciously. Knowing that she had just ordered a large latte with cinnamon and sprinkles somehow made him feel affectionate towards her. She was at the front of the crowd, shouting, really shouting at the uniformed woman at the desk, whose badge told them she was Gemma.
‘I want to know where my son is! Where is my son?’
Gemma looked momentarily flustered, and then said: ‘I’ll phone to check for you.’
The little crowd grew closer to the desk and watched as Gemma phoned. ‘Hallo, it’s Gemma at the desk… Yes… Yes, it’s about XY375…’
The crowd stared intently at her. Gemma’s bright, business-like look suddenly changed.
‘What is it?’ asked the hijab lady.
Gemma continued to speak into the phone: ‘Yes… I see… Oh… Okay, I see….’ Then she put the phone down.
‘What’s happened?’ asked the hijab lady.
Gemma looked at the anxious people in front of her, took a deep breath, and then began to speak in slow deliberate terms, like a nervous teacher talking to troublesome schoolchildren.
‘There is no new information about the arrival time of flight XY375. We invite you to gather in the reception room, where we will update you about events.’
Gemma led them to a room at the end of the airline booths that George had never noticed before: it was brightly lit, with plain grey walls, and had three long rows of blue chairs picked out with yellow patterns. There was a metal water fountain in one corner, and no windows. George paused at the entrance. There was something that he didn’t like about this room. He wondered about this, and then realised what it was: outside, he was a man waiting for his girlfriend. Once he entered this room, he’d be re-defined. He’d become a man confronting something serious, something unexpected, something which was starting to frighten him.
He went in, and then looked at his new companions. The blue hijab lady was on her own, and the others were still staring at her suspiciously. Why? Then he understood: they thought that her hijab linked her to terrorism. But that was absurd! After all, why would a terrorist wait for her son at an airport?
George sat down at the end of one of the rows of blue chairs, as far away as possible from everyone else. He wanted to think. How had he got into this situation? It started when Judy’s parents moved to Spain four years ago. At first, the deal was that they flew back to Britain every couple of months and stayed in a nearby B-and-B when they wanted to see Judy. But soon they complained about this arrangement: it tired them out, it was difficult to plan the journey, and Britain was too cold, too wet. On the other hand, Judy seemed more and more willing to travel to them. She worked freelance in web-design, and it was easy for her to find free days. She could pick and choose between flights, avoiding the expensive Friday evenings, travelling at odd times. She enjoyed seeing her parents, and she loved a day or two at the beach. And so, an arrangement was established. Judy flew out almost every month, and George travelled to meet her at the end of each trip, usually on a Sunday. The only drawback was Judy’s nervousness about flying. To George’s surprise, this grew worse the more she flew. He’d try to reassure her by texting funny messages just before she left: this time he’d told her that he’d heard that the pilot was going to play Mozart as they took off. She hadn’t replied: maybe his joke had fallen flat.
George realised that someone was standing close to him. He looked up: it was the blue hijab lady.
‘Do you mind if I join you?’ she asked. She wasn’t shouting anymore.
‘Please do,’ he replied.
She wanted to tell him something, but as she began to talk, Gemma walked into the room with an important-looking man in a dark suit.
‘Can I have your attention please?’ Gemma called.
The room was crowded: more people had come in while George had been thinking.
‘Everybody…’ Gemma called. ‘Can I have your attention?’
The talk subsided. Gemma introduced them to Mr Waddington, an expert employed by the airline. He spoke in a slow, forceful manner, and his words somehow occupied the entire space of the room. While his voice was clear, the meaning of his words was difficult to catch. George strained to listen but was left puzzled. It seemed that XY375 had left Barcelona normally. The plane had recently been inspected and was in good condition. The flight across Spain had also been normal, but then something had happened over the Bay of Biscay. Mr Waddington’s voice grew tighter and more awkward. Radio messages from XY375 had been confused with those of another flight, and Air Traffic Control had lost track of the Barcelona flight.
‘I assure you of the company’s deepest concern,’ Mr Waddington told them.
‘But what’s going to happen?’ called out one of the teenage girls, almost in tears.
Mr Waddington assured her that as soon as there was any news they would be informed. Meanwhile, the company had secured a suite of rooms in one of the airport hotels, and all of them were invited to stay at the company’s expense.