by Kate Mahony

The flight attendant greets us, rattles off the safety instructions, switches off the intercom phone, and turns to her much younger co-worker. They sit facing the passengers as the plane lifts off into the air. The younger one has sleek hair and a freshly made-up face. The older flight attendant looks tired, her foundation caked on. I haven’t seen her before even though I fly on this airline regularly.

The couple in the front row are kissing. Or, you could say it is she who is kissing him in between stopping to giggle. The flight attendant says, ‘Young love,’ and then smiles broadly so I can see a glimmer of bright red lipstick on her teeth. She holds up an instruction sheet. I know the front row people get special instructions on how to open the door in an emergency. The rest of us are relying on them to know how to open the safety doors if we must land suddenly on the ground or in the sea.

I don’t choose a seat in the row by the emergency exit because I don’t trust myself to remember all the instructions. Am I even strong enough to push the door open, I wonder? I know this phobia is ridiculous. At work where I manage the sales department, they think I am a hard-nosed manager. No one would know I never sit by the emergency exit. That’s why I am in the second row.

The woman explains to her boyfriend that she used to work with the older woman. ‘We flew the same route when I first started,’ she says to her partner. ‘Ages ago, now.’ So she is an off-duty flight attendant.

The older woman says after this flight she is having a fortnight in Spain. ‘Time for a break.’

I turn back to the novel I brought with me.  When I tune into them again, I hear the older one saying something. ‘Yes, ended my marriage after 32 years.’

This nugget of information seems marginally more interesting than the novel I am reading. My partner and I broke up last year after 15 years together. It happens.

‘A big fat chain holding me down,’ the woman says.

The man with the younger woman takes a sudden interest. ‘Was he fat?’

‘No,’ the attendant says. She sighs a little. ‘He wasn’t fat. The chain was.’

The man’s girlfriend quickly interjects. ‘Thirty-two years. When we worked together, I thought you were happy.’

‘Yes,’ the older woman responds. ‘It can look like that, I guess.’

The younger woman asks her a question I don’t hear. The boyfriend has picked up the airline refreshment brochure and is perusing it carefully. I wonder if he is considering the drink and food combos that come at a reduced price.

‘He worked overseas, three months at a time,’ the woman says now. ‘We began to sleep in separate beds and hardly saw each. I dreaded going home. That’s when I realised.’

‘Of course,’ the younger woman says sympathetically. She nudges her boyfriend. He doesn’t look up from the brochure.

For me, it was when my husband began having so many urgent meetings after work. And other things. You’d have to be stupid to not realise. But no one is asking me to comment here.

‘He thought I’d never leave. He thought I couldn’t manage without him,’ the attendant says. ‘But I did leave. Last year.’ She smiles broadly. ‘And now I live in a rented fisherman’s cottage. It’s basic. A bathtub in the living area, and an outside loo. But I’m happy.’

The younger one gives a little shudder. ‘Of course you are,’ she says. ‘Of course you are.’

She nudges her boyfriend again. Harder this time. He snaps the brochure shut. ‘Of course you are,’ he repeats.

I turn back to my novel. These days I travel often for work. There’s nobody to come home to, nobody to say they’re missing me. Or even to be suspicious. But I’m not sure happy is the right word to describe how I am. The plane moves forward through the clouds in a burst.

oOo

Kate Mahony’s short stories and flash fiction have been published in literary journals and anthologies both in New Zealand and internationally. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University.