When Clare wakes, she’s tingling at the extremities, her ring finger completely numb. She turns and finds a man sleeping on the pillow beside hers. He is barely breathing and doesn’t seem to be the man she picked up last night. Perhaps it’s his bare shoulders, his face exposed without the angles of his designer glasses. They spent the evening buying each other drinks and talking about Manchester, a city in which they’d both lived. With her tongue loosened, she told him about her loss, though she didn’t say it had only just happened. When he put his hand on hers she understood she had inadvertently given him an easy way to take advantage.
Through the window, the sky beyond the strip of the runway is pale grey. Clare is paying extra for the view. The room number swayed her – thirty-three has been lucky throughout her life – and now she can watch planes lift into the sky, a miracle that replays for her again and again. There is an empty bottle on the carpet. The man picked the wine but she put it on her tab. Everything is on her credit card, for her to worry about later.
When the man lifted her onto her front, having only unzipped himself far enough to pull out his erection, she watched planes disappear from the frame of her window and listened to the rhythmic clink of loose coins in his pocket. She thought he said his flight to Geneva was early, in which case he’s missed it.
Clare first checked in to the airport hotel after she herself had missed her plane. Her father had called to tell her the news of her mother, and Clare immediately booked a ticket to a random city on a whim, though she knows whimsical is not the word that will be used. She packed a small case and turned off her phone, then fell asleep with the thought that this was the first time in her life she was truly sleeping alone.
The sleep was deeper than she expected and in her dreams she was already in the sky, looking from the airplane window at the thick spread of cloud below. On waking she remembered her flight, due to depart in an hour and a half, and called a taxi, but the queues at security were too long. Her name was called on the tannoy – Would Clare Larkin please make her way to Gate 17. Clare Larkin to Gate 17 – and when she missed her flight, she wondered if this was her mother intervening from beyond the grave.
Clare rolled her suitcase around the smooth airport floor and watched the spectacle of travellers coming and going beneath the Departures Board, their lives zipped into cases of varying sizes. Now that she was here, there was nothing to do but wait for another sign from the universe. Her mother always said that when things were chaotic or unclear you needed to be quiet and listen to what the universe was trying to tell you. The airport gave Clare simple directive instructions, which were an unspeakable relief to follow. She saw the arrow on the sign for the Airport Hotel. Had she ended up abroad, she would have had to pay for accommodation anyway, so she didn’t see what difference it made that the hotel was right here.
Clare leaves the man asleep in her bed and calls her father from the payphone in the lobby. There is a funny taste in her mouth she can’t seem to brush away and she compulsively chews a piece of gum. He picks up almost immediately.
Hi dad, she says.
Clare? Where are you? I’ve been trying to reach you.
I’m sorry. My phone… It’s turned off somewhere. I’m at the airport.
The airport? Doing what?
I’m going to stay with a friend in Italy.
Well, in Sicily. She has a room for me there.
Are you drunk?
Clare doesn’t say anything.
And you’re coming back when?
In a week.
In a week, he repeats. You do know the funeral is on Wednesday.
She doesn’t respond immediately, just leaves silence, knowing he won’t be able to put the phone down on her even if he wants to.
I’m sorry, she says.
Well, Clare, he says. I do hope for you it’s sunny.
The line clicks.
Clare walks to the airport for a coffee. She stands on the conveyor belt of the skylink walkway taking her to all terminals and looks out at the grey. The cafe is packed with people and she sits in a corner with her steaming cup, watching them and trying to guess where they’re heading. No doubt there are people here taking their first trip, others their last. She enjoys sitting and watching these strangers whose lives brush hers only in the overlap of their shadows. She listens in to conversations about everything and nothing and finds people unexpectedly transparent, just as she finds them endlessly opaque in the real world. The traces they carry in from the outside world – the shaving foam behind a man’s ear; the smudge of chocolate around a child’s mouth – lead her to imagine their existence beyond the airport, and in this way she wonders what life people envisage for her. To them she is just another traveller. What does her loss matter in the scope of any of their lives?
When her cup is empty, she takes the walkway back to the hotel, where she sits at the bar and orders a Bloody Mary. She watches sleet beat against the windows and the planes moving languidly towards the runway, slow out of the gate before soaring into the open sky. With the man, the night before, the thought constant in her mind was that she was having sex only one day after her mother’s death. Had it even been twenty-four hours?
After her drink, she looks around the shops in the lobby of the hotel, brightly lit with shelves of over-packaged items. The price tags have more digits than she is used to and sometimes they seem to be in the wrong order. In the clothing shop she runs her fingers through satin and buttons stiff shirts to the top, enjoying how she becomes a different person in different outfits. She sprays herself with a heady perfume and adds it to her basket. Again and again she inserts her card into the machine and taps in the four digits of her PIN. The numbers mean nothing; it is as though she is play-acting.
When she returns to her room, the man is gone and everything is clean: sheets tucked, a new stack of pressed towels on the rack. This world resets itself with no effort on her part and this makes it easy for her to stay. She empties the bag of clothes onto her bed and tries them all on again. The outfit she likes most suggests she is a businesswoman travelling between capital cities. In the mirror she admires the way the heels give her legs a new shape. If she gets too drunk, she can be coy and take them off, swinging them from her finger by the straps. This is the image she has in mind when she goes back to the hotel bar that evening, in the new suit, her hair up.
From the back she thinks he might be good looking, though it doesn’t matter much what he looks like. Until yesterday, Clare had never had a one-night stand, but now she is thinking about her second. It is seven o’clock but the place is empty aside from the man and the bartender. She joins them at the bar, picking a stool a few seats away from the stranger, who looks up at her before turning back to his phone. He is blandly good looking with a thick silver watch on his wrist. Clare orders a white wine and after the bartender serves her, he cleans glasses and keeps his eyes to the muted football match on the television screen above the bar.
Before coming downstairs, Clare had decided to play at being engaged and moved her mother’s engagement ring to the fourth finger of her left hand. It was the finger her mother always intended it to be on, so she thinks: There, you got what you wanted, raises her glass and drinks. She makes her way swiftly through this first glass, eyeing the neat trim of the man’s hair and the way his leather loafers catch the light in charming crescent moons. When her glass is empty, she asks where he is going.
Milano, he says. But the flight was cancelled. You?
Take a guess, she says.
He takes a moment to look at her, narrows his eyes, then smiles and says, Milano.
A bit further afield, I’m afraid.
Che peccato, he says.
What does that mean?
It’s a pity. Can I get you another drink?
He orders and Clare moves a seat closer, leaving a stool between them. He smells freshly showered and there is a hint of garlic on his breath.
What are you doing in Milan? she asks.
Milan is my town, he says. I had hoped you were going there because I happen to know a place which makes the best spaghetti.
As tempting as that sounds… She lifts her glass and he looks at her ring.
You have a husband, he says.
Clare smiles. Cheers, she says and they toast. Without the pressure of being herself, everything seems easier and, in a way, this is exactly what she’d always hoped for; the ability to steer the course of her own life. When she speaks the man looks intently at her, his eyes wandering around her face, particularly to her mouth.
When their glasses are drained, Clare buys them a bottle and they move to a nook where they sit opposite each other. At some point the man will move around so their legs can touch beneath the table.
I’m sorry for the cliché, he says, but you have beautiful eyes.
These eyes are my mother’s, she says.
Your mother must have been bellissima.
Do you use past tense because you presume an old woman can no longer be beautiful, or because you think she’s dead?
I’m sorry, he says. It is my English.
You know it’s harder than you think to walk around with your mother’s eyes in your head. You have to see everything, including yourself, through them.
But tell me. The man sits up and cocks an eyebrow. Does your mother like what she sees?
Her mother’s funeral is in six days but tonight, here in this bar, that is irrelevant. Perhaps Clare will fuck a different person every day until the coffin is lowered. And then what? Then she expects her mother will be back, in another form perhaps, but still there. Part of her feels she has a few days’ grace, that these might be the only hours she has to live without her mother knowing what she is up to.
The top button of the man’s shirt is undone and as she speaks, she addresses the dip at the hollow of his neck, its delicious curve. She tells him that this is the first part of him she will lick when she takes him to her room.
The airport hotel, particularly the half-light of the bar, supplies Clare with an array of anonymous possibilities. Never before has the world been so full of solitary men and she wonders if this is simply a consequence of what, in life, she had been allowed to see. In one week, she ends up in bed with more men than she’s slept with in her entire life and after every one she experiences the immense wash of relief at the fact her mother will never know.
Her main catch is the regular traveller, whom she learns to recognise through the natural economy of their walk, the nonchalance with which they thumb through the papers. In their sitting and queuing they betray an embodied knowledge of international airports, and she thinks they may well be more familiar with the sterile homogeneity of these places than with their own kitchens. Most nights she doesn’t need to communicate her intention in words, though the line about her mother’s death works well as a lubricant. Only once does a man look at her with concern and tell her she should get some sleep. One night, a man rips her shirt trying to get to her and the sound of the cloth tearing and the sight of her own breasts in the dark surface of the window brings her to orgasm.
The strangers quickly become a blur; she cannot picture their faces, nor remember the ways in which they came, which they always do, though, as the week goes on, this becomes less of a certainty for her. The sex, which was at first new and exciting, soon becomes predictable, and it is only the thought of her misbehaviour being unnoticed which drives her on. What Clare loves most, more than seeing the way their pupils grow large with desire as she undresses, is the way the room returns to its original state the day after, every trace of her sins wiped away.
The day of the funeral arrives. In the morning, as the room lightens, Clare studies herself in the full-length mirror. Without her clothes and makeup she is a different woman from the one she pretends to be at night. She has lost weight; there is a small gap at the top of her thighs and the curve of her belly is almost flat. Never has she been able to lose so much, not even when actively forcing herself to diet, and she reads it as a sign of her body becoming unburdened.
One thing in her reflection is alarming: she has started to find her mother in her face. There has always been a likeness, particularly in photographs of her mother when she was young, but it was never more than a resemblance. Now when she catches herself at a specific angle, often by accident, there her mother is, lurking behind her features.
Clare finds herself browsing the shops she has already bought so much from. She thinks of her father at the cemetery, her mother made up in the casket and her sister puffy-eyed with grief. She buys makeup she doesn’t need: eyeliner, mascara, a deep red lipstick she knows doesn’t suit her. In her bathroom, she makes herself up like a Christmas tree, then wipes her face clean to begin again, lost in a compulsive rinse and repeat. There is a ringing in her left ear which she can clearly hear in the silence of her bedroom. Someone trying to tell her something.
She goes down to the restaurant in her new floral playsuit, not something she would wear in real life, and orders poached eggs on a thick slice of sourdough. She is ravenous but eats slowly and deliberately. She slices into the flesh of her egg with a knife and it deflates, oozing a slow yellow spill into the edge of her plate. She takes a bite and imagines the first clod of earth thud onto the coffin. She takes quick gulps of her cappuccino, burning her tongue and leaving a line of white froth on her upper lip. When she is done, she wipes her mouth with her hand. Clare spends the rest of day in bed, watching planes push into the sky, and waiting for the sun to go down over the runway. Her mother will be in the earth now, laid finally to rest and Clare falls asleep, full and perfectly content.
When she wakes, she doesn’t remember her dreams. She dresses for the evening and acknowledges the act feels different. The handful of families at the tables all turn to look at her as she enters the bar, but she does her best not to look back. The bartender recognises her and asks if she is okay. He looks at her as though the question is more than a passing remark.
I’ve been better, she says.
You missed your flight?
A while ago, actually. She orders a martini and sits at the bar. I missed my mother’s funeral, she says.
Because you missed your flight? he asks.
I suppose you would think that.
The bartender pours vodka into the glass and stirs. I’m sorry, he says and places the drink before her on a black serviette.
She looks at the curve of lemon peel resting in the clear liquid. Is your mother still alive? she asks.
He nods, replacing the cap on the vodka.
I’m supposed to say lucky you, she says. And you’re supposed to tell me you’re sorry for my loss.
I am, he says. I’m sorry for your loss.
Clare takes an immodest slug of her drink. The bartender moves to the far end of the bar where there is a fire exit with a sign just above the push bars. The sign is too far away to read but she wonders whether she would know what it was trying to tell her even if she could read it. She stares at the blur of words while she finishes her drink.
When the bartender comes back, her glass is empty.
Do you believe in signs? Clare asks him.
I’m not religious if that’s what you’re asking.
I mean signs that come to you from who knows where and point you this way or that.
I think there are many different ways to read one sign, he says. He takes her glass and tips the lemon rind into the bin.
What does that sign over there say? she asks. He moves to the end of the bar to read it and says, ‘In case of emergency, phone this number.’
After her drink, Clare decides to take a swim in the hotel pool. It is with a sense of anticipation that she takes the lift from her room in a bikini and towel. As she’d hoped, there is a solitary man in the water, steadily moving up and down the length of the pool. The water makes him graceful and for a while she watches him from a distance, looking at the muscles on his back as he swims.
When she moves to get in to the water, the man stops at the far edge to catch his breath and nods at her. He watches her slip in to her waist, then begins to swim again. The water is not too cold and she parts it with steepled hands. When she kicks her legs behind her, it feels good to extend them as far as possible before pulling them back in. She hasn’t been swimming in years and when she realises she can do one lap after the other fairly comfortably, she becomes lost in a kind of reverie and stops counting lengths. The man swims front crawl and is a much faster swimmer, but at one point they move in sync side by side. Clare pushes herself on for the short length of the pool and they touch the edge at the same time.
That one’s a draw, she says.
I wasn’t racing, he says. His hair is longer than hers, falling above his shoulders in wet curls. They are both breathing heavily. He says, But I suppose it means we both win some time in the sauna.
He hoists himself out at the side. The impulse to follow is so strong but Clare wants to keep him waiting, so she pushes herself on for two more lengths, thinking of what she will say to him. She has a desire to confess her exploits of the past week; to tell him just how wicked she has been.
The sauna is empty aside from the swimmer, who sits on the lower level. When she opens the door he looks at her and smiles. She takes the higher bench and sits with her legs outstretched towards him. For a while there is nothing but the sound of water dripping down behind the walls. Clare starts to sweat almost immediately and the man, by this point, is glistening. Occasionally she watches him stand to pour water onto the coals and they sit and listen to the fiery hiss. The air is hot and close, and when she breathes hard through her nose her nostrils burn.
Clare begins to see the room with a strange clarity. She feels that if she sits here long enough, she will evaporate. She looks at her legs stretched along the length of wood and thinks of how her mother used to say they were her father’s – the only things she didn’t inherit from her mother. Thirteen droplets of sweat glisten on her knee, and though she never thought of thirteen as unlucky, Clare feels a sudden wave of panic.
When she turns to the glass of the door, she is not surprised to find the shadow of a figure waiting outside. Clare tries to say something to the swimmer but can’t seem to open her mouth. He keeps his back to her so she closes her eyes, but she wishes he would reach around and touch her, to let him know he is there. With her eyes closed Clare feels as though she is falling, almost as though she is still in the water and sinking to the bottom. It is not an unpleasant feeling. The ringing in her ears intensifies into a whistle, and when she opens her eyes, the world grows black from the edges until there is no more light.
The last thing she thinks before she faints, when the man stands and turns, the shadow still in the doorway, is that this is her mother’s way of punishing her; that this man will exact the punishment she deserves.
Clare pulls the light cord in the bathroom and appears white-faced in the mirror. Before she has time to feel nauseous, she throws up into the sink, a clear liquid with a putrid smell. The tremor in her legs becomes so violent that she has to sit on the floor, the tiles cold against her skin. The swimmer had carried her out of the sauna and when she came to her skin was clammy and a pain bloomed behind her eyes. She registered he was talking to her and could feel his hand on her arm as he helped her up and back to her room. The lights were off when he opened the door, but as always, everything was neat and in its place.
I’ll make sure… he said, and the light from the hallway vanished as the door clicked shut behind him. There was just the black of the world outside the window and the lights of the runway. In the mirror Clare realised her bikini top was loose, one soft breast exposed.
Yes, she said. Please make sure.
She moved to stand by the window, where a bird was perched on the sill outside. It looked at her through the glass. Her mother was in the ground, but her mother would always be here. The man came to stand behind Clare and she wondered if her mother now would know everything? What could she control from beyond the grave?
In the shower, Clare hangs her head and lets water stream down the back of her neck. There is a bruise on her hip, which hurts when she pushes it with a finger.
When she closes her eyes, her mother’s face swims there in the dark.