• Sue Curran

Building Bridges


I came across this short story I wrote a good few years ago... I hope you enjoy it.

The wind is bitter, but then it always is out here, especially at this time of year. Climbing the metal steps, the steel rail is icy to touch. The heels of the woman in front click-clack as she ascends. All I can see is her dark heavy fur coat, flapping in the wind. It touches my face, soft, warm. Finally, I reach the top, welcoming the blast of warm air that embraces me.

The young girl with her carefully made-up face and glossy red lips smiles, showing perfectly even white teeth. ‘Welcome, third row from the front on the left,’ she says.

Slowly, patiently I follow the fur coat, waiting as jackets, rucksacks and carrier bags filled with clinking bottles, are placed in the overhead lockers. They bang shut. Seatbelts are clicking into place, newspapers and magazines rustling. Still waiting, I study the fur coat. I want to touch it, sink my hands into its warmth and softness, remembering another time, another place.

The coat moves forward, slowly, we’re almost at row three. She takes off the coat. I step back, resisting the urge. I so want to take it, wrap the fur around my body, feeling it’s warmth against my cold sallow skin.

I sit down beside the fur coat woman, averting my eyes, fastening the seatbelt with a reassuring click, carefully arranging my novel, newspaper, bottle of water and boiled sweets into the pouch in front. The big guy, ahead of me at check-in, probably a rugby player I’d decided, sat down in the seat in front. I was now nervous about fiddling with my belongings, for fear of disturbing him.

I steal a look to my left. Her nails fiery red against the magazine she holds, fingers long and elegant, although starting to show wrinkles. I become braver, turning my head slightly, she has her eyes closed.

We’re gathering speed, the noise of the engines drowning out all thought. With eyes squeezed tightly shut, I let the sound and sense of speed engulf me, blocking out the panic of recognition.

As the plane climbs above the London skyline, I let my mind unlock the hidden corner where my last images of that face are buried under a mountain of memories. A furtive sideways glance confirms it, the fine-boned nose, high cheekbones, and that small scar at the corner of her top lip where she cut it on a chipped glass one Christmas.

The memories spill down the mountain like an avalanche as I remember that day over twenty years ago...

I arrived home from work to find Cathy sat on the stairs with a suitcase beside her. ‘What’s going on? Are you going somewhere?’ I ask, half-joking, she often told me she couldn’t hack it any more.

‘I have to go, Doug. I’m sorry, but I can’t do this, I need more,’ Cathy stands up straightening the red wool coat with a black fur collar that I had bought her that Christmas. ‘Kiss the girls for me,’ she opens the front door.

‘Wait. Cathy. We need to talk about this, I can’t look after the girls on my own.’ I try to block her path. She looks at me with a steely resolve in those blue eyes, and I stand aside. ‘I love you, Cathy.’

‘I know you do and I love you,’ she kisses me gently on the lips. ‘But I need to live life for me, follow my dreams. You and the girls will be better off without me, I know it.’

‘Where will you go,’ I call out as she opens the garden gate.

‘America. My flight leaves in the morning.’

It’s hard the next morning, I feel numb inside. Having to tell those five sleepy-eyed little girls that mummy had to go away for a while. Seeing their faces crumple and the tears fall was heartbreaking.

‘Will she be back for my birthday, daddy?’ Catherine, our oldest, was seven.

‘I really don’t know, but I hope so,’ I hold them all to me, burying my face amongst them so they can’t see my tears.

Every night, for years, I waited to hear her key turn in the lock. It didn’t happen. Eventually, the girls and I fell into a routine and the years continued to slip by, with not a letter or a telephone call from Cathy.

I open my eyes as the smiling stewardess taps me on the shoulder, ‘Would you like anything to drink Sir?’

‘No, thank you.’

‘Madam,’ she leans across me slightly, and I can smell the citrus, vibrant fragrance of her perfume.

‘Tonic water please.’ Her American accent sounds nothing like his Cathy. ‘Good book?’ she asks, looking down at his Wilbour Smith novel.

‘Not sure yet, early days,’ I look directly into her eyes, willing her to recognise me but at the same time dreading the thought of it.

‘You’re English?’ she shows no signs that he looks or sounds even vaguely familiar.

‘You’re American?’

‘No, I’m English too,’ she laughs, in true Hollywood style, ‘but I have lived in the US for a long time.’

‘Do you get home often?’ I’m curious; she obviously doesn’t recognise me at all. I relax slightly hoping for a glimpse of her life since she’s been gone.

‘I’ve never been back, until now. I was a despicable wife and mother. I left my husband and abandoned my five beautiful daughters to follow my selfish dreams.’ She looks at him, her eyes misted with unshed tears, taking a sip of her drink.

I say nothing, and she continues.

‘When I was growing up, I always wanted to go to America, Hollywood. I wanted to be a famous actress, or marry a hunky actor. Then at eighteen, I fell in love. Not with a Hollywood actor, an electrician from Leeds. Before I knew it, I had five children under seven, my dreams of fame and fortune in America buried amongst the nappies, washing and children’s toys. One evening, while putting the house back together after the kids had gone to bed, I picked up Barbie, in her princess dress, placed her in her convertible. That’s when I knew, I had to go. I wanted to live my dream. I would destroy them and myself if I stayed.’

I shuffle in my seat, fighting the urge to shout out. It’s me, Doug. How can you not know me?’

‘It was hard, at first, I missed my family, and Hollywood isn’t great when you’re not famous, you have no money and can’t get a job. I got work in a beauty parlour, it was only cleaning, to begin with, and then I had the opportunity to train as a beautician. I worked hard at it. Now I have a chain of Beauty Salons around California.’

‘If life is so perfect now, why come back?’

‘I want to find my daughters, build some bridges. Try to make them understand why I had to do it and to share my good fortune with them.’

‘Do you really think they’ll welcome you with open arms? You abandoned them.’ I’m angry now. ‘What about your husband? How do you think he’ll feel?’

She looks at me, eyebrows raised at my outburst.

‘Excuse me, I’m tired.’ I close my eyes, furious that she thinks she can just come back into their lives on a whim.

When I wake, the plane is dimly lit, people are sleeping. Cathy is sleeping beside me. I study her face again. Maybe, just maybe she genuinely cares. I don’t know how much time I will have I muse. I consider the greyish skin of my hands then run a hand over my head, feeling the downy hair beginning to grow again. The doctors said anything from three months to a year. If the girls knew their mother back... well it might help ease their pain.

I look out at the sparse lights of Inverness and the darkness of the mountains that guard the city as we circle for our decent. Cathy stirs beside me, I watch her knowing that she doesn’t know me at all and that hurt. But I feel nothing anymore, I tell myself, she is like a stranger sitting next to me. I have decided, while I’m not going to make it easy for her by revealing who I am, I will encourage the girls to get to know her and build bridges when she seeks them out.

The plane is fast approaching the runway and once again as on takeoff, I close my eyes tight my whole body is tense until I feel the gentle bump of the wheels hitting the tarmac, the noise invading my ears and the force of the breaks pushing me back into my seat.

‘Thanks for listening to me, I know you didn’t approve of my story.’ For a moment, she looks sad.

‘Good luck with your bridge building,’ I say before gathering up my bits and pieces from the pocket in front.

I stand aside as she puts on the fur coat. Following her once again we descend the cold steel steps then cross the tarmac, with the snow and wind biting at my face, towards the terminal building where the temperature is only marginally higher than the air outside.

The girls are all there, grinning and waving madly as I enter the arrivals area, Catherine the image of her mother twenty years ago. I drop my bags and hold open my arms as they crowd around me hugging and kissing and fussing like girls do.

Hearing the click-clack of heels, I look up as Cathy walks past, her fur coat flapping behind her. She is smiling at me without so much as a glimmer of recognition as she passes her five beautiful daughters.


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