Stage Fright

“Will David Tucker meeting Alice Springer off the London Heathrow flight please contact the Information Desk in the Arrivals Hall.”
Of course there must be lots of Alice Springers. I sipped my beer and watched the Departures Board. Thirty minutes before my flight would be called. It was ten years since I had last seen Alice. This had to be a different woman.
“Will David Tucker meeting Alice Springer off the London Heathrow flight please contact the Information Desk in the Arrivals Hall”. Come on, David Tucker, collect the woman. Keep her out of my life. Except that this could not be my Alice Springer. A walk through the Arrivals Hall would easily establish that.
“Will David Tucker meeting Alice Springer off the London Heathrow flight please contact the Information Desk in the Arrivals Hall.”
Would he? I hadn’t, when the crunch had come. I drained my beer. If I bought another I could never check the Arrivals Hall. One more beer and it would be time to go to the gate, pass through, board my flight. Drive home. Be safe. There was no queue at the bar. I stood up.
Mary would expect me in two hours. Dinner would be ready, some recipe culled from the magazine articles that told how to retain the wandering husband by methods culinary and other. We would talk about her day, a half hour debriefing on everything that anyone had said or done in her presence. The conduct of each of our offspring would get its regulation hearing. It was to Mary’s credit that she never discriminated between the children although she knew that Joe, the youngest, was my favourite. If that bothered her she never mentioned it.

The escalator to the Arrivals Hall was out of action. Walking down the steps I felt utterly exposed, the eyes of every incoming passenger upon me. At the foot I hesitated, standing back against the wall. The clock said there was still time to turn and go, but in my heart there was no time at all.
Seeing her brought back in one unnerving moment the most powerful passion I had ever known. Before I saw her I could be as cynical as I liked. The sight of that once-loved face put cynicism to flight.
“Will David Tucker meeting Alice Springer off the London Heathrow flight please contact the Information Desk in the Arrivals Hall.” No, it looks as though he won’t. But I will.

The brown eyes took a moment to focus; I was not what she expected. Then, “John,” she said. “What a lovely surprise. But what are you doing here?”
What indeed? Agonising over ten lost years? I said, “I heard your name. I couldn’t believe … I had to check.”
Her hand was on my arm. “It’s marvellous to see you.” She looked around. “David is meeting me.”
“I’d never have guessed.”
She did not return my smile. Perhaps doubt showed in my face because she said, “You wouldn’t know David. He’s very reliable. He will be here.”
“That’s good,” I said.
She nodded. “Yes, reliability in a man is good. Rare, but good.”
“Let’s have a drink,” I said, ignoring the jibe. I told the girl on the Information Desk to send David Tucker, if he ever arrived, to the bar on the Departure level.
Alice smiled. “If we can’t have reliability,” she said, “forcefulness will have to do.”
I let that go. Alice had always been good at picking fights, and even better at winning them.
“How is Mary?”, she asked when we were settled.
“Mary is well, thank you. Thriving.”
“I’m glad,” she said. “A good wife? A good mother?”
Her attitude was hard to read. I said, “I have nothing to complain about. And neither do the children. You haven’t married?”
“David isn’t the marrying kind,” she said. “Or I’m not.” She shrugged. “Like you, I have no complaints.”
If only that were true.
“You’re very forgiving,” I said.
She raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“I’ve often wished it could have been different.”
“We all do that, John.”
It was strange to think how well I had once known this woman. Between us now was a wall of unfamiliarity. My flight was called and something in my expression must have given me away for she said, “Is that yours?”
When I nodded she sipped her orange juice in silence.
“There’ll be another,” I said.
“I hope you think I’m worth it”.
“Old times,” I said with the vagueness I felt. “Where will you stay tonight?”
“With David.”
“What if …”
“If he’s been held up? If he doesn’t come? If he’s scuttled home to his wife? Well, I don’t know, John. Perhaps I’ll pass the night in some anonymous airport hotel with an old flame. And perhaps I won’t. But he will come. I know about reliability. I learned my lesson. And he doesn’t have a wife. I learned that lesson, too.”
The public address system announced that my flight was closing at gate six. Alice watched me in silence. I was unable to move.
“I’ve thought about you a lot, Alice,” I said. “I think about you all the time.”
Still she said nothing.
I said, “I made a wrong decision when I let you go. You don’t know how many times I’ve regretted it.”
She put her hand on mine. “Don’t, John.” Her eyes were soft. “I think about you, too. But there isn’t anything to be done.”
“We have to perpetuate the mistake? Alice. I use a dozen airports in a year. More. Out of all the people and all the days, you and I came together here, today. Can you figure those odds? If we part now there’ll never be another chance like this. Life isn’t that kind. I don’t think I can face separation. Not now that I’ve seen you again.”
I had said the words without thinking what I was going to say; now, when I looked at them in the air between us I knew them to be true. Something I had missed for ten years, savagely at first and then with a despairing numbness, was back in my life. I did not want to see it go again.
“It’s after seven,” she said. “Are you sure you can get another flight tonight?”
“Who cares? I’ll go tomorrow. Why are you ignoring what I say? Are you committed to David Tucker?”
Without rancour she said, “That’s not your business. I like David.”
“You loved me,” I said.
“Yes,” she said after a pause, “I think I did.”
“You think?”
She smiled. “I loved you”.
“You could again,” I said. “Alice, you don’t know what it’s done to me to see you again like this. I feel … I feel like a kid, I feel…in love. I love you, Alice. I think now I always did.”
“That’s good,” she said. She was speaking almost to herself. “It’s good to be loved. But it isn’t enough.”
“You used to think that love was the only thing that mattered.”
She smiled. “I didn’t know then what you were capable of.”
“My unreliability, you mean.”
“That was unkind of me,” she said. “I always knew why you made your decision. I understood. But you made it, John. I can’t help you change it now.”
“Alice,” I said, “I will not let you go”.
Her hand was still on mine. “You’re being silly. You have no control at all over what I do. I am not the person you once knew.”
Deflated, I took my hand away.
“Then let me ask for another chance.”
She shook her head. “That isn’t mine to give.”
“It can’t be the late David Tucker,” I said. “You said yourself you don’t love him.”
“I don’t remember you as boring, John. What do you think you have to offer that David doesn’t? Apart from an obvious assumption that I must still be in love with you after ten years?”
I gulped. “I can offer a ready-made family to a person who never had one. I can bring little Joe with me. In fact, I couldn’t come without him.”
“Is he well?”
“He’s an angel. The other two know he’s my favourite, but I don’t think they mind. They sense he is different.”
She looked at her watch. “David must be here soon.”
“For goodness sake,” I said, “Forget David. I’m here. I’m offering you a home life, a family life, a son. Alice, I know I was wrong, I’m sorry, people make mistakes. Do I have to go on paying for ever?”
“I said another chance wasn’t mine to give,” she said. “People have made sacrifices for you, my love.”
“You mean Mary?”
She frowned. “You think only Mary made sacrifices? What about me? What about what I gave up?”
There was nothing to say to that.
“I gave up a lover,” Alice said. “But lovers are easy to come by. I gave up much more than that.”
“I wondered at the time,” I said, “whether Mary wrote to an agony aunt about us.”
Alice smiled. “You don’t really mean that?”
“It would be in character. Dear Auntie, my husband’s girlfriend is pregnant and he wants to leave me. What shall I do? Yours, endangered wife. Dear endangered wife, buy a negligee, learn to cook, forgive hubby and offer to take the little bâtard to your heart.”
She was silent for a while. “It’s funny,” she said at last, “how things can sound better in French.”
“I’ve never stopped thinking about you.”
“How could you? You’ve got a reminder permanently with you.”
“And you?”
She said, “Joe is the only child I ever had. I know now I’ll never have another. I miss him. I miss you.”
The announcer cut into our thoughts. “Will Alice Springer recently arrived from London Heathrow please go to the Information Desk in the Arrivals Hall.”
She looked up.
“Good old David. Late but reliable. It couldn’t work, John,” she said. “And I wouldn’t have gone to that airport hotel, David or no David.” She stood up. “What will you do now?”
“Tonight? I’ll call Mary and say I’ve missed the ‘plane. Then I’ll find a bed for the night. Perhaps someone to share it.”
She smiled. “You don’t mean that. No hard feelings?”
I shook my head.
“I really do admire your nerve,” she said, and she was right; the last person entitled to hard feelings was me. She had given up her baby to another man’s wife and Mary had loved Alice’s son like her own. And me? I had solaced myself for the loss of the woman I loved and let my wife turn a blind eye.
Alice was turning away now and I knew I would never see her again. She said, “I made sacrifices, and so did you. I’ve missed my little Joe. Every year on his birthday, the pain…it’s intense. But Mary made sacrifices too. She deserves your love, John. In the absence of other candidates.”
I grimaced.
“You know what I remember about us? I never seemed to get the last word. Give it to me now?”
I nodded. She raised a hand in farewell, then walked away. There was a painful feeling in the pit of my stomach, but not all of it was sadness. Alice’s raised hand had perhaps not been the only theatrical moment of the encounter. She was right, of course; love alone was not enough. I had refused to go with her once – would I really have gone this time? We are never wholly free; the sacrifices of others bind us as surely as themselves.
I looked around. There was a telephone to call Mary, but first I needed a brandy. And after I had talked to Mary, perhaps I could have a little word with Joe. It would be good to be home, tomorrow, with those who loved me.

Note from the Author

Hi. I hope you enjoyed my story. There are other free stories of mine here; if you’d like to read something more substantial, please take a look at this page where you’ll find my books listed.

Feel free to leave a comment here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s