Kate cast her eye down the narrow aisle of the aeroplane. She was wedged behind a tall man in a leather jacket, whose far from small carry-on bag threatened to knock the spectacles from her nose. Behind her an irate woman was pressed against her back, muttering unbecoming comments in a hot breath that crept uncomfortably down Kate’s neck. The holdup appeared to be an elderly woman with a severely coiffured hairstyle, who seemed to be dithering about whether or not she needed her cardigan from her bag before the air hostess stowed it in the overhead locker.
“I hope I don’t end up sitting next to that old bat.” Hot Breath sent more waves of noxious noises down Kate’s neck. She could hear murmurs of agreement from behind and then someone, probably too far back to realise what the problem was, shouted “Can you all get a move on, we haven’t got all day!”
The hostile atmosphere thickened with every grunt and sigh that welled up from the queue. Kate noticed the woman’s eyes turned steadfastly away from the aisle as people passed her by. She wondered if the old lady was aware of the collective irritation her dithering had caused. The passengers inched forward. Kate felt a surge of relief when Hot Breath peeled off, leaving her neck free of curses for a moment. Leather man was the next to bring the flow of passengers to a halt.
She watched as he took his time about moving other luggage in the overhead locker to make space for his own large bag; he removed his leather jacket, folded it and placed it on top of his bag; then he opened a laptop bag and retrieved a notepad, a newspaper and a pen before getting into his seat in front of the old lady. The latter’s eyes bored into the back of his head. Not a murmur had arisen during this delay: was it because he was tall and a man to boot?
As always when she flew, Kate gave a last anxious look at her boarding pass and checked the seat numbers below the lockers. Of all the luck in the world, she was to be in the window seat next to the old lady.
“Excuse me,” she bent down towards the unmoving figure, “I need to get to the seat next to you.”
The old lady gave her a piercing stare and barely moved her knees sideways. Kate turned to Leather Man. “Would you mind putting your seat upright so that I can get into mine?” Leather Man glared at her, sighed audibly and pushed the button on his arm rest.
The old lady barely glanced at Kate for her gaze still seemed to bore into the back of Leather Man’s head. Her only evident movements were in the fingers of her left hand as she played with the beads of her pearl necklace.
After take-off, Kate settled back to watch the play of light on the clouds. At times she leaned forward to get a better view of the network of roads and rivers weaving a pattern through the mountains way below. The old lady remained as rigid as a statue, except for the fingers of her left hand trembling over those pearl beads.
With less than an hour of the short flight left, Kate glanced surreptitiously at her companion. She noted the rigid grey hairstyle, traces of powder in the cracks on the lined face, the bright pink lipstick, and the diamond rings glittering on those trembling fingers. She smiled and leaned towards her. “That is a beautiful necklace you’re wearing.” It was something to say.
The old lady turned her head as if it were on a spring. Her blue eyes focused on Kate for the first time. “Thank you.” Her response sounded automatic, then her look softened. “My husband gave them to me.”
“He has an eye for beautiful things.” Kate didn’t know how else to respond.
“Had. He had a good eye. He’s dead. It’s been a month already.” The old lady’s bottom lip quivered as she looked away.
Having earlier declined a drink, Kate attracted the attention of the air hostess. “I’d like to buy two cups of tea please.”
Kate glanced towards her companion. “Milk please. Perhaps you could bring a sachet of sugar?” She turned down the flaps of their tray tables. Leather Man’s seat was set back as far as it could go, making the tray table awkwardly close for the old lady. At a gesture from the air hostess, he moved it forward ever so slightly when the tea arrived moments later. The old lady gave a tight smile and sipped at her tea. “Thank you. My purse is up there somewhere.” She glanced up at the lockers.
They drank in silence. Kate noticed the trembling left hand never moved from the pearl necklace. Once the tea cups had been removed, she asked carefully, “Is there something wrong with your clasp?”
“Oh my dear, I’m terrified of losing my necklace. I think something caught it when I boarded the plane.”
“Shall I look?” Kate twisted in her seat and felt the iciness of the old lady’s hand as she followed the beads to find and fasten the clasp. “There you are, all done and I’ve closed the safety chain so it won’t fall off.”
An icy, wrinkled hand covered hers and clutched it lightly. The descent had begun. Kate covered the hand with her other one. The old lady’s eyes were tightly closed, her head slightly bowed.
“Are you alright?” Kate tried to sound cheerful. The old lady’s diamond rings were cutting into her hand as the grip tightened.
“I’m frightened. I’ve never flown before. My son insisted I come,” emerged between clenched teeth.
Kate extracted her right hand to pull the old lady closer. “I’ll look after you. We’ll find your son together. I’ll make sure you don’t get lost.”
All that rigidity disappeared. The old lady seemed to melt into Kate as the plane drew to a rapid halt on the runway. Together the two women watched the passengers disembark and waited until the aisle was clear. Kate and the old lady walked together along the wide passages of the airport abuzz with people and their luggage. They waited together at the carousel for the old lady’s black wheelie bag. They faced the sea of people at arrivals, the old lady’s arm firmly tucked into the crook of Kate’s elbow. Kate wasn’t expecting anyone and smiled at the warmth of the hand that had found its way into hers.
“There he is! There’s Oliver!” The old lady waved at the tall figure standing near the front of the crowd. Kate hugged the old lady impulsively.
“Enjoy your time with him. I love your necklace.” With that, she melted into the throng of people hastening towards the parking lot and the pick-up zone. Kate knew that Peter would understand why she had kept him waiting.