Ellen focused hard on the sound of metal bolts unlatching at the back of the cabin to distract her from the unsettling roar of the engines. She stared out of the window at the skyline below, which was exactly how she imagined Manhattan at dusk would look from four thousand feet in the air – a glittering mass of light and steel, reflected against the East River, mirroring a dark underworld beneath the surface. She felt a swell of emotion deep in her chest as the aeroplane climbed in altitude, away from the city she had made her home for six months; away from him.

‘Are you alright, dear?’

Ellen turned her head sharply to the left, blinking suddenly and dislodging a tear which began to roll luminously down her cheek.

‘I’m sorry, I’m fine, thank you.’

‘Would you like one?’

A woman in 48C held out a small packet of Kleenex across the empty middle seat. Ellen hesitated for a second before taking one and pressing the smooth edge against her eyelid.

‘Sad to be going home? Did you have a nice vacation?’

‘I’ve been in the States for a while actually. Six months.’

‘That’s some holiday,’ the woman replied.

‘My work visa expired today, so I had to leave.’

‘And you weren’t ready to go?’

‘No. Not at all.’

The woman rested back against the headrest, blinking behind her horn-rimmed glasses. Ellen thought her eyes looked unusually large, magnified behind the thick lenses. She was perhaps in her late sixties, maybe older.

‘Six months is a long time. I suppose you made friends?’

‘I did.’

‘I’m sure you’ll keep in touch. It’s certainly easier than in my day, now you have the internet. Not that I have any idea how that all works.’

Ellen was trying not to think about him. Their last dinner together at their favourite Italian trattoria in the Village, the way he held her tightly as her gate number was called. The look on his face as she turned back to smile a final goodbye. She knew it was over. Their relationship had an identical expiry date to the document stuck inside her passport. That was what they had agreed at the beginning of the summer. But that was before she fell in love.

‘Would you like anything from the trolley?’ A cheerful steward in a cherry-red uniform appeared at the end of their row.

‘I think this young lady needs a drink.’

‘Red wine, please.’

‘Good choice. I’ll take a gin.’

The steward smiled and passed over two small plastic bottles and tumblers. Ellen scrunched the tissue into a ball and pushed it under the sleeve of her sweater.

‘Thank you.’ Ellen decanted the Merlot and turned back to the passenger. She wanted to be alone, but for the next seven hours, she had no choice but to be polite. ‘Are you heading to the UK for a visit?’

‘I’m visiting my sister-in-law in Surrey. She has grown-up children about your age and her first grandchild on the way in the spring.’

‘Were you originally from England?’

‘No, I’m a New Yorker to my bones. My husband’s parents were British scientists who emigrated to the US after the war. His sister was interested in her heritage and went to college in London, then met her husband and never came back.’

‘Is he… is your husband travelling with you?’

‘You could say that.’ The woman reached into her handbag and pulled out a small metal box, inscribed with the initials G. E. S.

‘Oh, I’m sorry, I should never have asked.’ Ellen felt her cheeks reddening. She was uncomfortable in the presence of a dead man’s ashes, suddenly aware of her own mortality. They had climbed to thirty thousand feet and were at a level cruise.

‘Don’t apologise, it’s good to talk about him. He died two months ago. Frances felt I was spending too much time alone, so asked me to stay with her for a few weeks. She’s a wonderful person. George loved her a great deal, despite the distance.’

Ellen dug her fingernails into her palms, staring at the laminated safety card in the seat pocket in front of her.

‘You must have been married a long time?’ Ellen hoped she wasn’t asking questions that would offend. Something told her this woman wanted to talk.

‘Fifteen years. He was my second husband, I was married to some schmuck for thirty years before I met George. Thirty years I won’t get back!’ The woman laughed softly, shaking her head.

Ellen smiled, keen to show she was in on the joke, despite the hollow warning.

‘The thing about marriage is,’ the woman continued, ‘when you’re young and idealistic you think you’ll ride off into the sunset with this gorgeous man who makes you feel as if you’re floating on air. Then you both grow older and fatter and start fighting over silly things like the fact he never remembers your mother’s birthday, or the way he leaves challah crumbs all over the rug you just spent an hour vacuuming. One day you wake up and realise it won’t get any better. Though I can’t say that about George; he was the most wonderful man in the world.’

‘Where did you meet?’

‘Oh, it’s a great story. Our eyes met across a pyramid of rugelach at Zabar’s on West 80th and Broadway. I was buying pastries for the ladies at my book group and he was looking for something to take to his grand-daughter’s high school graduation ceremony so that he didn’t go hungry. I loved that about George. He always thought ahead and was prepared for every eventuality. He took his own urn to be engraved so that I didn’t have to worry about it.’

The woman pushed her glasses up her nose and sighed. Ellen held her plastic wine glass tighly.

‘He sounds wonderful. I hope I meet my George one day.’

‘Thank you, my dear. I take it this young man in Manhattan isn’t the one?’

‘He’s… it’s impossible. We live on opposite sides of the sea.’ Ellen turned to look out of the window again, catching the last of the sunset before it slipped under the horizon.

‘Love across borders. It would make a good novel, wouldn’t it? British girl and American boy stick two fingers up at our lousy President and create a bridge across the Atlantic, connecting each other’s hearts. I’m sure we’d be happy to read it in book group.’

‘I’m not quite sure it works like that, much as I’d like it to. I have a job to go back to, rent to pay. Plus, I’m not even sure if that’s what he wants! We never really spoke about how we felt. It would’ve made it all too real.’

‘That’s the problem with young people, you’re all too cagey about your feelings. Being in love with someone is the most wonderful thing you could possibly experience. I’ll never understand why anyone would keep that information to themselves. George told me he was crazy about me four hours after we met in Zabar’s, and we have been inseparable ever since.’

The cabin lights dimmed, indicating that the passengers should attempt to sleep.

‘He took me to this ‘open mic’ event at an Irish pub about a month after we met, and completely without warning he jumped onstage and started singing a Billy Joel song with total enthusiasm, like he didn’t even care he was out of tune and not keeping in time with the pianist. Everyone was laughing at how bloody awful he was, but not at him, they were just enjoying the way he was holding the stand and growling into the microphone. I was laughing so hard when he sat down after he’d finished I thought I was going to wet myself. That’s when I realised I loved him. It was like, from that moment on I was changed. Like someone had flicked a switch.’

‘I know that feeling. You never forget it, and in some ways it never leaves you. Once you let yourself love someone, you carry it with you forever.’

‘I’ll find that again, though, won’t I?’

‘Of course you will. It’ll hurt for a while but eventually you’ll be able to look at photographs of him without wanting to hurl yourself into the nearest body of water.’

‘God, I’m so sorry, look at me acting like an pathetic teenager when you’ve lost the love of your life.’ Ellen put her hands up to her face and rubbed her eyes.

‘Don’t apologise. We have both lost someone we cared about very much. Better try and get some sleep, dear. It’s a long journey ahead.’


Bad Date Diaries #4: Monologue

It’s strange, this online dating thing, isn’t it, how people just sort of expect to meet the love of their life through a device that didn’t even exist a decade ago. If you’d told me I’d be using a tiny pocket computer to meet women in 2017, I would’ve asked what on earth was wrong with me, but here we are, and you seem nice. You’re very pretty. I haven’t been on too many dates recently, work have me by the bollocks, you know how big corporations can be. They say your job will never love you back but they still keep giving me my Christmas bonus, so I keep turning up every morning. Actually, we need another few minutes, thanks so much… I’ve barely even glanced at the drinks menu, too busy talking. I hope she doesn’t come back too quickly, I’ll need a minute or two to consider my options. I sometimes come here for after-work drinks, they used to do this great Manhattan cocktail but the standard has gone downhill recently, you don’t even get a maraschino, or an olive, if you’re into those. I’ve actually been reading this great novel about the Prohibition and it goes into quite a lot of detail about the sort of drinks that were available, or weren’t available. I’ve got so many books on my bedside table which I haven’t even read yet, but there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day, and of course it’s hard when you’re out running or at the gym, because audiobooks don’t count as reading a book, I don’t care what people say. I’ve got twenty thousand words of my own book written, it’s a sort of coming-of-age novel based on the year I spent working with refugees in Lebanon when I graduated from New College. Someone my father worked with offered me an internship at his corporate bank in Johannesburg but I just didn’t feel like that would be rewarding enough. Who ever wrote a novel about the summer they spent photocopying end of year accounts and making instant fucking coffee for balding investment bankers, precisely nobody. So instead I flew to Beirut and helped these Syrian refugees, which in the end was the right decision for me at the time. This guy called Arwad told me, through a translator obviously, this incredible story about a neighbour who was about a hundred years old, lived through all kinds of shit in the twentieth century, he was a soldier at some point too. Anyway apparently he refused to leave his house, even when the fighting was literally on his doorstep and everyone else had evacuated. Arwad had no clue what happened to him, it’s crazy to think this old man just, like, wouldn’t save himself. Imagine being that stubborn. We’ll have two dry martinis, but can you make one with vodka instead of gin and can I get that with a twist of orange, thanks. I sometimes ask for no vermouth, but then I can’t really claim it’s a martini without the vermouth, though Coward said it didn’t matter. You seem like a really introspective person, it’s strange. From looking at your photos you seemed quite outgoing but perhaps you’re just nervous. I’m usually quite shy too, I find it hard to let my guard down and really talk to people sometimes. When I first downloaded the app last year I found I wasn’t getting many matches, then one of my female friends told me my biography section was too wordy and that all women really care about is that you’re tall and you have a job, so I literally changed it to say this and then I started getting a few more matches. Women in London are so shallow, no wonder they’re all single. I bet you enjoyed my second photo, the one of me standing in front of the colourful buildings in Copenhagen. I went there last year for a stag, one of my oldest friends from school, he’s divorced now which is hilarious. He caught her cheating with his best mate, the marriage only lasted seven months or something. You’ve probably seen him on the app, he’s gone a bit off the rails, poor fuck. Best avoid him if he pops up, really. Thanks very much. Good, she remembered the orange twist. The martini was actually invented in San Francisco. I ordered these because I’m reading this chapter in my book about the Prohibition which said that since gin was relatively easy to distil, it made the martini the most popular drink the US during this time. I really hate gin, hence the vodka substitute. You look deep in thought, I hope I’m not boring you. I spend a lot of time writing, well, thinking about writing. Or thinking about thinking about writing is probably more accurate. I come up with ideas and jot them down in this little notebook. I dabble in poetry, but it’s probably so awful I wouldn’t share it with anyone. Not yet, anyway. I look at my friends in relationships and wonder how they manage it, there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day, not here, not in London at least. I’ve been in love twice, once when I was at university and then my ex, who I broke up with a few months ago. She just hated living in London so much and I didn’t stop her leaving, didn’t make the effort to convince her to stay. I hope it’s not weird me talking about this. They say avoid politics and exes on first dates so I’ve fucked up fifty percent already. The weird thing about love is you often don’t realise you feel it until it isn’t there anymore, like if your right arm suddenly fell off one day, or maybe your left arm if you’re not right-handed. Anyway, I’m talking shit now. So, tell me about yourself?