The traffic was bad. Of course the traffic was bad – a Friday on the M4 – what had she expected? Louise gripped the steering wheel. Max, tired from his business trip, would be irritated if she was late; no, worse, he would be disappointed. So didn’t you miss me? He would murmur, with enough hurt in his eyes to make her feel really bad.
Of course she had missed him. With the door finally closed on their baby hopes and the horrible timing of her redundancy, Max was all she had. She had told him so too, clinging and whimpering while the taxi honked. Alone, the hopelessness had thickened as relentlessly as the dust on the window sills. It was only that morning that she had got her act together, stocking up the fridge, firing aerosols like some armed lunatic, doing her hair and putting on a skirt and heels. Neglect of anything – her included - Max took personally. It was what one did that counted he always said, words were just so much hot air.
The plane was late. Breathless after the run from the car park, Louise traipsed to the nearest Ladies to re-do her lipstick and sort her hair – kinking as it always did when she rushed the hair-dryer. She was tugging at it despairingly when an elegant blonde in tight white jeans suddenly bounced over to her.
‘Louise Berkley! I don’t believe it! Louise Berkley! It must be ten years!’
Louise blinked, while a slideshow of images – pigtails, freckles, cigarettes, cotton-wool stuffed bras – merged with the expensively manicured woman standing in front of her. ‘Sally Rylance,’ she gasped. ‘Your family moved – to Malaysia ohmygod, Sally!’ She flung out her arms, noting that the freckles were still there, glimmering through the foundation. ‘And now it’s Alicante,’ whooped her companion, ‘villa-hunting thanks to the generosity of my ex’s lawyers. But I’ve time for a coffee - what about you?’
‘I’m meeting my husband,’ Louise murmured, still dazed, ‘but his flight is late so yes, I’d love one…but how come you’re in Arrivals?’
‘Fate?’ suggested Sally, adding gleefully, ‘Unless you count taking a wrong turn and needing a pee!’
A few minutes later they were seated across steaming cappuccinos, Sally’s a skinny because, as she claimed merrily, every calorie made straight for her bum. ‘But you’re still a rake, Lu…in fact you look like you could just do with a holiday…hey, come to Alicante,’ she cried, ‘girls together - we’d have such a laugh. Just tell your husband, sorry, you’ve had a better offer.’ She sat back in her chair, pulling a face, ‘I couldn’t stomach it myself – being a wife though I got my Kimberley and I can’t regret her. She’s with my Mum this week, bless…but what about you - and this husband – what’s he like?’
‘It’s Max, actually.’
‘No…’ Sally flung herself back in her chair. ‘Max?’ she gasped as Louise nodded. ‘So you met Mr Right at sixteen – that’s amazing.’
Louise blinked slowly, hearing again the doctor’s careful explanation that it wasn’t the teenage abortion as such that had done the damage, but the infection afterwards. She could have done with a friend then, a friend like Sally; but Max had always discouraged keeping in touch with the old gang, insisting that the strongest couples needed nothing but each other.
Sally was on her feet. ‘Lu, I’ve simply got to make tracks. Say hi to Max for me, won’t you? Ask if he remembers when I sliced his ear with those hair scissors. And that snog in the back of Liam Daley’s car…ask him if he remembers that.’ And with a final peel of laughter and a kiss she was gone.
Standing alone on the swarming concourse, Louise put her arms out for balance. She felt as if she had stepped out of her life and seen it clearly for the first time – seen it as Sally would: Still with Max after ten years…Max who, in the year after Sally’s departure, had got her pregnant, insisted on a termination and then - when she was still reeling - got down on bended knee.
And he had kissed Sally. A tiny new detail perhaps, but it had mattered so much at the time. Insecure, suspicious, her only challenge to Max on the subject had resulted in a fist landing on her face – wham! – like something from a comic. The next moment he had been rocking her in his arms, sobbing that it was the hurt of her distrust that had provoked him, that the only person capable of making him happy was her.
Standing by the barrier now, Louise found her thoughts drifting to the clean flat, the stew in the slow-cooker, the cans of favourite beer cooling in the fridge, the crisp bedroom sheets. And she was looking as good as she could too, with her shining almost-straight hair, her high, uncomfortable heels and the sexy skirt that was really a size too small. Her quest had always been Max’s happiness rather than her own, she realised; a hopeless quest, for being never-ending and for having started with a punch to an eye-socket; a punch based upon a lie.
As Max emerged from baggage reclaim, Louise took a step back. He waved, not in greeting, but to indicate – with visible irritation - that she should move to where there was a break in the barrier.
Louise began to walk, but then stopped and slipped off her shoes. A moment later she was running, towards the large sign saying, Departures. Sally might have been joking about Fate, but Louise had remembered her passport – still in an inner pocket of her handbag thanks to a recent hoo-ha with ID at the bank. When Max called her name she accelerated. It was only later that she regretted not looking back, not seeing whether her husband – so forceful an advocate of action over debate – had managed a glimmer of admiration at the irrefutability of her final farewell.