by Sue Pearce
She has shed her identity like a snake skin. All that distinguishes her now is her name, Gina Barlow, and a number on a passport. She opens the little maroon book for the official at the desk. The photograph shows a confident young woman with a broad nose and arching eyebrows half hidden by a heavy fringe. It was taken eight years ago, a few months before the twins were born. The man scans her face, cropped hair and tired eyes. His own are expressionless. He hands her passport back, waves her through. Airside. It was done.
Gina settles into a window seat on the packed plane, fastens her seat belt and closes her eyes, disconnecting herself from the passengers and crew fussing over bags and children. The plane climbs steeply, the thrust throwing her against the seat. It is as if the force of the ascent sucks any remaining tension out of her, leaving her light, empty. Looking down at grey ribbons of road and the densely-packed rows of identical homes — each one a setting for the predictable dramas of everyday life — she feels vindicated. Not that she needs such reassurance. As in every situation, it had been left to her to do the logical thing, but, to her surprise, Mick acted as if it was a huge shock. She had heard him crying in the bathroom. She took the girls to her parents. Her mother hustled them into the kitchen. Her father stood at the French windows staring at the garden.
‘I am only doing this so that we can all be happy and fulfilled,’ she told them.
The plane circles and banks, piercing the clouds and the scene below disappears. It’s a short flight. Francois should be leaving for Charles de Gaulle right now. She hasn’t seen his flat but he told her it was in a fashionable suburb in the seventeenth arrondissement.
The hum of conversation and the drumming of the engines are as relaxing as a massage. A free spirit at last, the clouds outside the window are cushions on which she floats, finally released from the ballast of arguments over finance and the children, interminable meetings with solicitors, the sorting and packing.
The sound of the engines changes as the plane begins its descent, thrusting back through the cloud. Below, a panorama of tiny fields, farms and houses appears. Threads of grey road dissect the flat farmland. As they near the airport the fields give way to suburbs. Gina can make out shopping centres and industrial units, then schools, churches and rows of houses. The plane is very low now, banking round. Cars and lorries string out along the major highways like beads on a necklace, the sun occasionally glinting off their metalwork. Francois may be among them in his pale blue Renault.
But what if he isn’t? Since she met him at the Book Fair they have only seen each other three times though they text most days. She knows so little about him. What if the new life he described to her that night in the hotel was a fiction too? Gina presses her hands to her temples in an effort to focus on what was said.
Then a second scenario occurs to her, so intolerable as to be unthinkable. What if Francois really is waiting at Charles de Gaulle expecting her to live the rest of her life in a flat in the Paris suburbs?
Sue Pearce is older than she’d like to be. She writes often and paints sometimes and lives in Gloucestershire.