Runner-up of The Six Feet Writing Competition

by Allen Gibson

The information board says your flight landed ten minutes ago. Right now your plane should be taxiing to the end of a light-stippled runway. I’m pacing along the expanses of glass at Arrivals, swerving clear of occasional travellers and pairs of patrolling officers, while trying to look like a man with an essential reason to be out and about. I’ve arrived back from trips myself many times, passing other people’s loved ones gathered to greet them. Nobody’s gathered here this evening.

I’m cursing myself for failing to bring a gift. On my way to Schiphol I stopped at a deserted newsagent’s and lifted a heart-shaped Valentine’s balloon from a bargain bin, wondering if I could edit its message with a marker pen. But I put the balloon back with the other unsold stock. Instead, all I’m carrying is an assortment of breakfast items thrown together at the airport supermarket. I don’t even know if you eat breakfast.

The grocery bag hangs heavily against my hip. I wish I’d had a chance to go shopping earlier, but from the moment I snapped shut my laptop till I dashed out the door, I was giving my studio flat its first big clean of 2020. Every inch swept and scrubbed. Book piles straightened, takeaway menus tossed in a drawer. Unironed shirts scooped up and hung up. ‘He can take you as he finds you,’ my Mam might have said. But if I’d listened to her, I’d still be drifting from one temping gig to another in the arse-end of Dublin, not living my best life in Amsterdam.

This morning I took part in an emergency video conference with the rest of the call centre team. Nina, our Customer Journey Manager, peered through ruby-rimmed glasses and assured us that ICT was giving 110% to get everyone operational from home ASAP. Going forward we’ll have to focus on deliverables and embody our core values to synergise into a well-oiled customer-facing engine – or something along those lines. It was hard to stay focused while she was sapping the oxygen from the session with every new acronym.

I glance back up at the Arrivals board. Seventeen minutes since touchdown. Your plane should be standing at its gate, waiting for the air bridge to be attached.

If any workmates ask where we met, I’ll have the official account prepared. Facebook photos of Pride parades are as close to my best life as I want them to get. ‘We bumped into each other on a staircase at a New Year’s party.’ Well that’s a safe enough start. I could add that I only went clubbing because I’d resolved to get off the apps, but not that I’d sampled and spat out several dozen online matches up until then. I might admit to hatching this resolution after a skinful of vodka, but I’d omit the little friend I washed down with it. And I might mention that it was your questioning brown eyes that brought me to a halt on that staircase, but not that I tasted the sweat-salted skin of the back of your neck before I felt inclined to ask your name and where you came from.

By now the engines will have fallen silent and seatbelts will be springing open. Maybe you leapt straight into the aisle to retrieve your luggage from the overhead locker the second the plane came to a standstill. Or perhaps you’re waiting in a window seat, hands in your lap, letting other passengers scramble into a queue that you’ll join when good and ready.

We didn’t stay at the club for the New Year countdown. You’d had enough of the clammy crush of flesh and wanted us to go somewhere quiet, somewhere we could talk without a sound system scrambling every sentence. Once we’d collected our outerwear from a coat checker sporting just a festive dicky bow and a smile, you smuggled me into your hotel room.

As we lay there cooling on a starch-stiff sheet, my paperlike skin nudging the tanned fuzz of yours, we heard an abrupt crescendo in the fireworks outside.

‘That’ll be midnight now,’ I said.

‘Shit,’ you cried and flipped onto your stomach, your curving hips and thighs wiggling as you stretched down to prize open the minibar without losing your grip on the bed. You clambered back up beside me, clutching an icy glass bottle and a brown paper bag packed with waxy grapes.

‘In Spain we have a New Year tradition,’ you said. ‘Twelve grapes as the clock strikes.’

One by one you stuffed the grapes into our mouths until our cheeks were bulging. Then we washed down the fruit with long gulps of prosecco as the fireworks raged and smoke began seeping in through the open window.

‘The grapes will bring you good luck,’ you said.

‘Don’t need it,’ I smirked. ‘Never heard of the luck of the Irish?’

You turned to face me on the pillow and trailed a finger over my cheek. ‘Well why did you look so sad then, out hunting alone on New Year’s Eve?’

My phone buzzes in my coat pocket. ‘Just got off the plane.’ You could be striding along an empty pier now, trailing a trolley suitcase behind you. Or maybe you’re letting a conveyer belt take the strain.

As I got dressed on New Year’s morning, you keyed your number into my phone. ‘Mateo,’ you reminded me, one sculpted eyebrow arching ever so slightly. You said I should come and visit you in Madrid. I said that I’d travelled there solo last July but got scalded by the sun and frustrated by my inability to read shop signs and menus. You told me to come back in spring; you’d give me a personal guided tour.

I didn’t go out clubbing again after that, but I didn’t return to the apps either. Messages from you began to fill the lulls in my days. Sometimes just ‘hey, how are you?’, ‘sweet dreams’ or a filthy reminder of New Year’s Eve. I’d unload my latest corporate horror stories on you, and you’d bitch when you’d had a bollocking from your boss for mixing up hot chocolate and churro orders at his tourist-trap café.

By mid-February I was pricing flights and you were drawing up a list of must-sees. You’d take me drinking and dancing in Chueca. We’d lie on a blanket in Retiro Park, sipping horchatas and watching the sky shade to crimson. But with April only a month away, the world began to pitch and roll.

Last night I called you on FaceTime. You were just out of the shower and towelling your spiky black hair, surprised that I’d contacted you so late. You had to whisper because your landlady was asleep in the next room.

I told you we’d been ordered to work from home indefinitely. You said there were troops on the streets of your parents’ village and you expected the same in Madrid any day now. You’d barely served a customer all day. The café might be closing for a while.

The question escaped from my mouth before I felt my lips move.

‘Why not come over and stay with me?’

You kept towelling as if you hadn’t heard.

‘Take any flight you can get,’ I said. ‘All you need is clothes. I’ll lend you the rest.’

You stopped, laid your towel on your bed and fingered the tiny silver stud in your left earlobe.

‘We could be each other’s quarantines.’

‘I need to think about it,’ was all you would say.

Once we’d said goodnight, I kicked my wastepaper basket from one end of my studio to the other, spraying torn scraps all over the floor, and swore loudly enough to bring my neighbour out into our shared hallway to investigate. But just after midnight your flight details flashed up on my phone. After that I lay awake till 2am, listening to the last bicycles rattle along the cobbled street below.

Another text. ‘Just waiting for my luggage. See you in a few minutes.’

At the end of this morning’s video conference, Nina took off her glasses, rubbed the bridge of her nose and said she knew that we must all be frightened right now. Whether we’re worried for ourselves or our families or wondering how to get through lockdown alone. I caught myself trying to evade eye contact with the screen.

The Arrivals doors slide open and I watch you walk towards me. You’re wearing a beanie hat tugged down tight and a pale fabric mask over your nose and mouth. You’re carrying a rucksack and a worn leather guitar case decorated with a smattering of stickers. You’ve never mentioned that you play. I’ve never asked.

Just six feet of space separates us now. You lower your rucksack and guitar case to the ground and I drop my shopping. We begin handshaking and shoulder-patting like old acquaintances, then pause as you unhook your mask, before pulling one another into a tightening embrace.

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