The big man at the end of the bar is sweating. He holds his head low over his double Scotch, but every few minutes he glances up and out, behind him, towards the door. A fine sheen of perspiration glistens under the strip-lights. He lets out a long, shaky breath, disguised as a sigh, and turns back to his drink.
‘Hey. Excuse me?’
I look up from polishing glasses.
‘Can I get another one here?’
I want to tell him it’s really not a good idea, it won’t help, it might even put him over the limit. But he’s a big guy and it’s fifteen minutes till closing time and, according to company guidelines, I have no reason to tell him no, so I walk over, take his glass and hold it up to the optic. He nods at the bottle. ‘Double,’ he says, and slides a fat hand down his damp face.
‘That’ll be seven pounds twenty, please.’
It’s a quarter to eleven on a Tuesday night and the Shamrock and Clover, East City Airport’s Irish-themed pub, which is as Irish as Mahatma Gandhi, is winding down for the night. The bar closes ten minutes after the last plane takes off, and right now it’s just me, an intense young man with a laptop, the cackling women at table two and the man nursing a double Jameson’s waiting for either the SC107 to Stockholm or the DB224 to Munich – the latter has been delayed for forty minutes.
I’ve been on since midday, as Carly has a stomach-ache and went home. I don’t mind. I never mind staying late. Humming softly to Celtic Pipes of the Emerald Isle, Vol. III, I walk over and collect the glasses from the two women, who are peering intently at some video footage on a phone. They laugh the easy laugh of the well lubricated.
‘My granddaughter. Five days old,’ says the blonde woman, as I reach over the table for her glass.
‘Lovely.’ I smile. All babies look like currant buns to me.
‘She lives in Sweden. I’ve never been. But I have to go and see my first grandchild, don’t I?’
‘We’re wetting the baby’s head.’ They burst out laughing again. ‘Join us in a toast? Go on, take a load off for five minutes. We’ll never finish this bottle in time.’
‘Oops! Here we go. Come on, Dor.’ Alerted by a screen, they gather up their belongings, and perhaps it’s only me who notices a slight stagger as they brace themselves for the walk towards security. I place their glasses on the bar, scan the room for anything else that needs washing.
‘You never tempted, then?’ The smaller woman has turned back for her scarf.
‘To just walk down there, at the end of a shift. Hop on a plane. I would.’ She laughs again. ‘Every bloody day.’
I smile, the kind of professional smile that might convey anything at all, and turn back towards the bar.
Around me the concession stores are closing up for the night, steel shutters clattering down over the overpriced handbags and emergency-gift Toblerones. The lights flicker off at gates three, five, eleven, the last of the day’s travellers winking their way into the night sky. Violet, the Congolese cleaner, pushes her trolley towards me, her walk a slow sway, her rubber-soled shoes squeaking on the shiny Marmoleum. ‘Evening, darling.’
‘You shouldn’t be here this late, sweetheart. You should be home with your loved ones.’
She says exactly the same thing to me every night. ‘Not long now.’ I respond with these exact words every night. Satisfied, she nods and continues on her way.
Intense Young Laptop Man and Sweaty Scotch Drinker have gone. I finish stacking the glasses, and cash up, checking twice until the till roll matches what is in the drawer. I note everything in the ledger, check the pumps, jot down what we need to reorder. It is then that I notice the big man’s coat is still over his bar stool. I walk over, and glance up at the monitor. The flight to Munich would be just boarding, if I felt inclined to run his coat down to him. I look again, then walk slowly to the Gents.
‘Hello? Anyone in here?’
The voice that emerges is strangled, bears a faint edge of hysteria. I push the door.
The Scotch Drinker is bent low over the sinks, splashing his face. His skin is chalk-white. ‘Are they calling my flight?’
‘It’s only just gone up. You’ve probably got a few minutes.’ I make to leave, but something stops me. The man is staring at me, his eyes two tight little buttons of anxiety. ‘I can’t do it.’ He grabs a paper towel and pats at his face. ‘I can’t get on the plane.’
‘I’m meant to be travelling over to meet my new boss, and I can’t. I haven’t had the guts to tell him I’m scared of flying.’ He shakes his head. ‘Not scared. Terrified.’
I let the door close behind me. ‘What’s your new job?’
He blinks. ‘Uh … car parts. I’m the new Senior Regional Manager, bracket Spares close bracket, for Hunt Motors.’
‘Sounds like a big job,’ I say. ‘You have … brackets.’
‘I’ve been working for it a long time.’ He swallows hard. ‘Which is why I don’t want to die in a ball of flame. I really don’t want to die in an airborne ball of flame.’
I am tempted to point out that it wouldn’t actually be an airborne ball of flame, more a rapidly descending one, but suspect it wouldn’t really help. He splashes his face again and I hand him another paper towel.
‘Thank you.’ He lets out a shaky breath, and straightens, attempting to pull himself together. ‘I bet you never saw a grown man behave like an idiot before, huh?’
‘About four times a day.’
His tiny eyes widen.
‘About four times a day I have to fish someone out of the men’s loos. And it’s usually down to fear of flying.’
He blinks at me.
‘But, you know, like I say to everyone else, no planes have ever gone down from this airport.’
His neck shoots back in his collar. ‘Really?’
‘Not even … a little crash on the runway?’
I shrug. ‘It’s actually pretty boring here. People fly off, go to where they’re going, come back again a few days later.’ I lean against the door to prop it open. These lavatories never smell any better by the evening. ‘And anyway, personally, I think there are worse things that can happen to you.’