Time difference

30 December 2003 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Kalliisti ostetut päivät (Dearly bought days, Otava, 2003)

She arrived at the airport too early, as always. The reason was not that connections from the small town in which she lived were slow and difficult, or even that she liked the airport’s atmosphere of swift departures and long waits. No; she wanted to spend time at the airport to see that the planes took off and landed without anything awful happening. She wanted to see that a departing plane’s acceleration was rapid, that the plane left the asphalt of the runway elegantly, that its tail did not hit the ground as it rose, break, the plane explode, catch fire, but that, like an arrow fired into the air, following its flight path, it curved upward and, sunlight glancing off the metal of the body, disappeared from view. She wanted to see that the landing gear of a descending plane was out, as it should be, that a tyre did not burst as it hit the ground, at that there was no ice or oil on the runway; that the brakes worked, and that the fire engines at the edge of the airfield stayed in place as a sign that all was well.

She set on a blue moulded plastic chair and saw that all was as it should be: little tractors pulled chains of trolleys behind them, on the trolleys were suitcases and rucksacks and ski-bags, and the travellers walked through a lighted, transparent tunnel, all of them in the same direction, and the airport buses halted before the stop line before they continued their journeys. The tractors pulled the planes, helpless now they were on the ground, out of the way, and new planes landed and took off into the air. It seemed that order ruled in the world, and everyone had his own task there: the men who sprayed aniline-coloured de-icing fluid on to the wings of the aircraft, and the men who filled the tanks, and also the cleaning teams who were climbing into a plane that had been pulled in front of the terminal, and the air traffic control tower, and the blue lights that marked the edge of the runway. And at all the world’s airports, at this moment, at this very moment, she knew businessmen would be negotiating in quick meetings between two flights over white tablecloths and empty glasses of mineral water, in order that the world should be even more like it already was.

The setting sun had coloured the clouds purplish-red, and a moment later the snowy peaks of the Alps, when she had, with her husband, her then husband, flown toward a new, different kind of life, toward a winter season in the south of France. That year, which she had imagined as wandering through vegetable markets, motor trips to vineyards, the scent of the dark sun of autumn on her skin; that year had after all been chilly, afterwards she remembered it only by the cold that seeped through the floor tiles and the draught from the windows; yes, that year had been one of the saddest of her life so far. Had this flight, or its memory perhaps, provoked the fear in her mind: she had squeezed her husband’s hand quite unintentionally, and as hard as she could: What if we fall now?

What had he replied? If we do we do, perhaps, or: It will only hurt for a moment, or maybe even: According to the figures this is one of the world’s safest airlines, calm down, many people fly almost every day. The sharp summits of the mountains, after the sun had set, the village lights on their slopes, how can they see to fly in the dark, she had asked, even though she new: radar, and probably satellite navigation too. She had been unable to eat the small aeroplane meal, she had thought about the plane that had gone down in the Andes and how the survivors had eaten the dead, and that some of them had gone mad. When the plane bumped in a patch of turbulence, she had screamed and then burst into tears. Her husband, she remembered, had ordered her a glass of calvados, it’ll calm you down, he had said, directing a smile of shared understanding, perhaps even pity, at the stewardess. Is this what it’s like. I’ll never fly again, never. And in a voice quite different from the one he had used to the stewardess he had said: Calm down now. It’s much more dangerous on the roads.

It was a long time since then, as it seemed it was from everything these days. It was still a long time to her flight’s departure; she rose and fetched a glass of beer, a hard plastic glass, she gazed at it with loathing but sipped it as she returned to her seat. An old man had sat down two benches away. He sat with his head thrown back, his eyes closed, his hands crossed on his stomach. Was he praying, or afraid; but no, the man was not a Finn, he looked well-travelled, the case at his feet was worn, the shoes the sturdy footwear of someone who walks a lot, suede.

She sat, drank her beer, looked at people, and all of them looked somehow the same, even though they were dressed differently and although it was clear who was going on holiday to the north or the south, and who was travelling on business; nevertheless, mysteriously, they all resembled each other. It must be the atmosphere of departure, she thought, the rush, although there was no hurry, except for the person who was at that moment being summoned to gate 21: This is the last call.

Last call; and now she, gazing at how gate 21 opened and how the people were now able to walk along the plastic jetway to the aircraft, Air France, indeed; gazing at them she thought about how the departing passengers resembled each other, just like all new-borns, and how little those who return resembled one another: as little as the dying. De Gaulle airport, and it was years since then too, and an African man who had sat beside her in the plane and from whose posture and motionlessness she had decided that he was going to a congress, was an expert in some field, perhaps medicine; this man had waited for his luggage near her, and she had seen a little bundle woven from African scarves come along the carousel. The man had taken it, and only then had she realised that he was wearing sandals even though it was February, winter.

Where had she been going then, and why? A small town on the French-Italian border, letters sent from there to which no answer came; on that flight she had no longer been afraid, or only a little afraid, and bad weather, drizzle, sleet and constantly wet shoes, all this had comforted her, for emptiness, she had noticed it then, weighed more than the burden of fear.

Air France taxied to the head of the runway and stopped to wait for permission to take off. They had, in fact, returned by car from the south of France, not by air, but this had not been because of her fear of flying but because her husband had wished to buy a tax-free car, and had bought it. A large proportion of their travel budget had gone on the car: they could not, after all, afford to make the little trips that they had planned, first together and later she by herself, as it would have been necessary to stay overnight, and of course eat, and her husband had proved to her incontrovertibly that this really was not possible. In the evenings, sitting at a table, before her a large map covering the entire country, she had imagined mountains and mountain streams and old mills beside them, the serpentine roads of the Pyrenees and the cave of Lourdes, the lavender of Grasse and the slopes of flowering herbs, everything she had come here to see.

Air France got its permission and began to pack air under its wings and rose, it left quite ordinarily and soon disappeared from view. Perhaps there was a hijacker on board, or a bomb, but even that she could not bring herself to believe now. The plane would land at Charles de Gaulle airport as neatly as it had left, people would leave it with the expression of a well-worn traveller on their faces, a little tired, perhaps even bored. And in Paris a thin, wintry drizzle would be falling, or there would be a fog like the last time she had flown there, thin but all-pervasive, drop-filled fog that glittered under the street-lamps. In the plane she had sat next to a married couple, the husband wearing the dark glasses of a blind man, in his hand a white stick, which he grasped even in the plane. Conversation had flowed as it often does when circumstances are exceptional, slowly, but then, when it was understood that they would be sitting next to each other like this for four hours, it had continued fragmentarily. The blind man did not like flying, he had made quite long trips in his car in Europe, before, of course it wasn’t possible now. Yes, she did not like flying either, she had said, in fact she had tried to buy a boat and train ticket for this trip, but permission had not been forthcoming, and now she hinted at the meeting that was called a seminar or symposium at which she was to give a twenty-minute talk. I saw you at the airport, the man had said. And she herself had seen this couple, the man whose white stick felt the slippery parquet, and the wife, who with one hand guided her husband and with the other pushed the luggage trolley. Saw, said the wife, who had not said anything up to this point. Saw? Well, you know, I do sometimes still actually see, said the man. Something. Degeneration of the retina, the man had explained to her, there’s nothing to be done. Now they were on their way to Nantes, to see friends there, and she had thought: To see, and said: Nantes, I’ve never been there. It’s very beautiful, the man said, particularly now, in autumn, and he had told her about the meadows and the mist above them and trees that had room to grow, and spread their branches to the light. His wife, she had noticed, had pulled the plastic curtain over the window, but nevertheless looked in the direction of the window as if she could see out.

The little meals had arrived, and she had not wanted to look at how the wife helped her husband to eat. Omelette, sloppy tinned beans: she had eaten only a little, ordered a calvados with her coffee, and the man had ordered a calvados too, why not when you are going to France. The wife had ordered a cognac, calvados will not do your eyes any good, she had said, but her voice was not gentle, it was caring in a way which she knew well; and the man drank his calvados quickly and ordered another one straight away. Neither is cog-nac for your stomach ulcer, he said.

During the rest of the flight the couple drank many more cognacs and calvadoses, and their conversation took on a tone which reminded her of her departure from home. But this is a work trip, for heaven’s sake, and a week, is it such a long time. But her husband seemed to think Paris belonged to him alone, and the whole of France in fact, and how she remembered the year in the south of France again, the fact that her husband’s former wife and their two sons had lived seventy kilometres away, in a town she had visited only twice, the town was famous for its Roman viaducts and its old medical faculty, Europe’s oldest perhaps, her husband had gone there once a fortnight to meet his children, by car, which otherwise stood in front of the house covered in the dust of the street.

In Paris she had shared a taxi with the couple: their hotels lay in the same direction, and it was hard to find a taxi. The street-lamps had hung in clusters above them, and the blind man had said in a fervent voice, So this is the Arc de Triomphe. No, they’re street-lamps, his wife had said, and the blind man had sat in silence for the rest of the journey. With relief, she had left them in front of their hotel bickering about whether they had paid too much for the taxi or not, and as she drove toward the Seine and her own hotel she had noticed that she had not been very much afraid at all, perhaps because of the blind man, but in the end also because she had been relieved to get away from home, where her husband, angrily and wordlessly, read something French or a book about France and did not answer her questions about what kind of outfit, what colour would be suitable for the occasion at which she was to speak.

She heard a light snoring from beside her; the old man had fallen asleep. His hands were still clasped on his belly-mound, and there was something glistening on his cheek: a tear. She averted her eyes. Was the tear a tear of grief, or just some kind of reflex, a blocked tear-duct perhaps? Where was the man going with his much-walked-in shoes, or where was he coming from, what kind of dreams did he have; but behind all this lay the memory of another man, much younger, from the corner of whose left eye there rolled, at the moment of his death, a bright tear, a riddle which she would be unable to solve until her own death.

Paris was full of a wintry calm, the tourist crowds must belong to summer or then they were in the museums, at all events she did not see them in the area in which she moved: the alleys behind the Sorbonne, antiquarian bookshops, a small street that functioned as a market in the mornings, with geese, chickens, turkeys, rabbits hung by their feet, their eyes glazed over at the moment of death, and vegetables in heaps. She moved only in a narrow area, the hotel in which she had been put up was expensive, and she refused to think about everything she knew about this city and this country: the stray dogs, the summer traffic jams and the incessant hooting of car horns, the Algerian slums. Delighted, she thought that after this trip she could tell her husband that she had found something the travel guides wrote about, they had already argued too much about France over the good French food her husband had made. But at home it turned out that her husband was now critical of this country, workmen, for example, did not arrive at the agreed time, they had not turned up at all to his wife’s house, and in addition his wife’s car had been stolen, although it had soon bee found, but his wife had been late for work, and had had to use public transport. It seemed that her husband had spent long periods on the telephone listening to his wife’s troubles. And the children, yes, they wanted skis for Christmas. Yes, but there’s no snow there, she said. Well of course not, they’ll go to the Alps to ski, of course. The wife wanted a rug, apparently there were none there, and: Could you look for one a bit, you understand these things better.

She glanced at the old man again. The tear had run into his beard, or it had dried on his skin. The man was still in the same position as he had adopted when he had sat down in his seat, and its restfulness brought to mind another airport: Valetta, and the women she had watched there. An old man’s harem, women of different ages but all dressed in the same way in white caftans, burkas, she remembered, folds above the eyes. The women had sat with the same restful motionlessness as the old man, who was now snoring quietly again, and looked at her, and suddenly she had felt herself to be lacking, vulnerable in her trousers, her sleeveless shirt, her hair made brittle by the salty wind. The happy gaze of the illiterate, she had thought, and the thought had followed her for a long time, as the women’s intent gaze had seemed to follow her, even after the man and his harem had set out toward passport control. Only the man had had a passport, she remembered. Were all of those women registered on the man’s passport, as children on a mother’s elsewhere? With clumsy, trembling hands she had opened her bag, checked that her passport was there in the zipped inner compartment where she had put it, taken a book out of the bag and, reading it, not raising her eyes, waited for the announcement of the departure of her own flight.

Lufthansa was already taking off when she turned her gaze away from the old man. From another plane, it had apparently landed without her noticing, people began to board a waiting airport bus; luggage was already being unloaded. Everything was so ordinary, so familiar, that she began to feel that she worked here; fear remained absent. She began to think about her return journey from Bombay, the long nocturnal flight through the thunderstorm: she remembered how the blue lightning had danced on the plane’s wings in the darkness, the body of the plane had shaken, it had fallen with a thump into a patch of turbulence. On that flight she had seen two sunrises: one in India, there the sun had risen big and red over the dry, rugged mountains; and then it had suddenly been dark again, only a large, dark yellow moon had lit the sky. Above Rome, the sun had risen again, now white, and the city through whose streets she had once wandered, as yet knowing nothing about her future life, had been merely a cluster of lights going out. She had not been afraid. Who cares, she had remembered her husband’s words; who cares.

The old man beside her had woken up. Now he stretched his legs, took his glasses from his nose and put them back, looked for his air ticket and checked the time. Gate 21, the man said to her in English, sorry, but where might gate 21 be? She pointed to the gate, which was right in front of them, now closed: the officials’ desk was closed, the monitor dark. The man looked at his watch again. But, he said, and then: The time difference.

The time difference, she thought as she watched the man approach the empty gate, quite in vain, and then turn, walking past her first in one direction, then in the other. The time difference, and for a moment the globe rotated blue and brown before her eyes, and the light of the sun progressed along its surface, white, and always on the other side it was dark, it was night. Yes, it was late, much too late, the man from whose left eye a large and bright tear had rolled was already far away. It was no use thinking about the Japanese woman who had, in a patch of turbulence, been thrown against the ceiling of the plane and died, or even the towers of Manhattan, and only dimly did she remember the name of the city to which she was travelling, and even more dimly why: for the fear would never return; and was that not a sign that the worst had already happened?

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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