“What I don’t understand is why you’d want to go out with someone who looked like a man?” Hannah was absorbed in a magazine article about sexuality.
Airlie shrugged, feigning disinterest, and continued reading the travel pages. If she had a chance, when Hannah wasn’t looking, she’d check it out later. Not that she needed to hide reading the piece, Hannah was practically reading it aloud in the terminal.
“I just don’t get it. Surely lesbians fancy hot looking chicks,” Hannah said.
“Yes, exactly like me.” Airlie rolled her eyes. “But seriously, all lesbians don’t have to look like men, do they?”
Airlie glanced over the top of her reading glasses. “I don’t know, Hannah. How would I know?” She felt heat redden her neck. Her reaction to the topic of homosexuality, and the subsequent effort to quell the thought, was becoming exhausting.
Hannah continued. “Logically, if you were attracted to women, and not men, surely you’d want to be with someone who looked like a woman, not a man. Am I right?”
“Maybe.” Airlie sipped her coffee. “Can’t you just be attracted to a person?”
Hannah unfolded her lanky legs. “Wouldn’t that make us all bisexual?”
“I don’t know, Hannah. We’re not attracted to women, so how would we know?”
Just as Hannah was poised to impart additional wisdom, the waiter appeared, as if on cue, to deliver lunch. It was a welcome distraction, anything to steer the subject elsewhere.
It was an emotional day. Traveling to Europe together was a dream they shared and had promised to fulfill before turning thirty. Now both twenty-eight, after two long years of planning, they were at the airport, bags checked in, and booked on the five p.m. flight to Dublin. Twenty-six hours of flight time ahead of them.
Airlie despised flying. It was a long way to fall if all the engines failed. Regardless of the length of flight, her pale skin inevitably became dehydrated, and her ankles would swell to the size of footballs. She remembered the last time she had been at the airport preparing to take an international flight. It was four years ago and she’d been traveling to Thailand with her then fiancé, Sam. It had now been three and a half years since she last saw him.
Airlie strode purposefully from the trendy, overpriced airport café, thankful the focus had shifted from sexuality to the all-important duty-free shopping. Laden with perfume, electronic gadgets, and the maximum limit of vodka, they waited patiently at gate three for boarding. Airlie slouched in the poo-green modular chairs. Typically energized, Hannah wandered through shops searching for a hat.
“What about this one?”
Airlie shook her head.
It was worse than the first. She frowned and shrugged, wondering if she had to suffer this until boarding.
Airlie shoved her hands into the pockets of her favorite faded jeans and watched as Hannah left the store empty-handed before wandering into a bookshop.
Her mind again wandered back to her time with Sam. In her early twenties, and completely naive, Airlie had convinced herself that life was okay. Hers appeared to be no more or less exciting than anyone else’s was. She had great friends—not too many—an easy job at the hotel, a boyfriend who was nice enough, and if someone had asked her if she was happy, the answer would have been a resounding yes. But in the back of Airlie’s mind was the niggling notion there had to be more. In her misguided wisdom, she determined that more love would dissolve her sense of incompleteness. Barely registering that she was possibly only a quarter of the way through her life, she agreed to accept Sam’s proposal of marriage.
Sam was a catch, or so her friends used to say. Even her mum thought he was a lovely young man, a sure sign you’ve got it wrong. Above all, he truly loved Airlie, and no matter how appallingly she began to behave, he appeared determined to ignore her insolence.
Little confrontations soon took over from civil conversation, and they fought incessantly. Airlie had commenced a journey of self-destruction, but she needed to destroy their relationship first. Pushing Sam away to concentrate on her own demise was a priority. A priority she couldn’t explain, but nevertheless, one she would fulfill with relentless determination.
Predictably, the hostility became unbearable, and one day Airlie snapped. “What the fuck is your problem?” She’d never spoken to Sam so harshly. The tone and the words were foreign to her.
They were in the middle of yet another heated discussion. This time, the topic was saving for the wedding, honeymoon, and a deposit for a house. Sam had moved back home to save, but Airlie refused to stop renting with Hannah. It was an unexpected revelation, but suddenly Airlie’s life seemed mapped out. Marriage, house, kids, and then death.
The atmosphere at dinner had been strained. It was one of the few occasions Airlie had given in to his rather reasonable demands to come over. She’d tried not to show her increasing agitation with him in front of his parents, but now, in the isolation of his bedroom, Airlie was a different person.
“What is my problem? You’re asking me what my problem is. Are you blind?” His face portrayed confusion, but he remained calm. “We never have any time alone, and we’re supposed to be getting married next year, although God only knows when.”
Airlie walked to the window, peering through the blinds at cars passing by. Each of those cars carried at least one person who had their own problems. She wanted to be one of those people, lucky enough to be driving past the storm gathering momentum in Sam’s room.
“Look,” Sam said. “This is madness. I just want to be with you. We’re never close anymore.”
Airlie stared at him. She knew what was coming.
“We hardly have sex anymore.”
She inhaled deeply. “So that’s what this is all about?” Of course it wasn’t. Sam had never demanded sex, and it was the truth, she couldn’t remember the last time they were intimate. Still, something in her refused to let it go. Sex with Sam was a chore. She loathed the routine foreplay, the sweaty thrusting, groaning, and the faked orgasm that would thankfully end it. There was no spark, no passion, nothing.
She was treading on dangerous ground. From deep inside, something began to stir. It was an unexplainable feeling, a rising of frustration and rage, and it was poised to explode. While she wasn’t exactly angry with him, he was to be her source of relief. She was intent on pushing this argument until something broke, until he broke, and her torture finally ended.
“That’s not what this is about and you know it.”
“You might want to rethink, because this is as good as it gets.”
Sam was hurt. “So you mean this nonexistent sex life is as good as our sex life will get?”
“Well, you can just forget it. I’m not signing up for that. I didn’t sign up for that.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Jesus, Air-Bear, I can’t talk to you anymore. I’m beginning to wonder if I ever could. When was the last time we made love?”
“Fuck off, Sam.” She hated that pet name, and she hated the fact that she couldn’t recall one time she made love to Sam. Sex, yes. Making love, never.
“When did you become so selfish? I don’t know why I’m even bothering. By the way, while we’re on the subject, we haven’t had sex in eleven weeks. Don’t you think that’s just a little too long between drinks?”
“Do you want to know why we haven’t had sex in eleven weeks, since you’re counting?” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re a lousy shag, Sam, that’s why!”
Airlie could feel her temples pulse, and her entire body trembled. “You say you don’t know why you’re even bothering? Then don’t. Let’s not fucking bother? Clearly, you’d be happier if we didn’t.”
“Fucking bother, huh? I should be so lucky.” His vicious tone suggested he might pick her up and throw her across the room like an old rag doll. He wouldn’t, though; he was a good man. He turned toward the window, his grimacing face in his hands. “For God’s sake, Air-Bear, calling it quits isn’t what I want.”
It was what she wanted, and it became glaringly apparent Sam wasn’t going to be the one to end this. Nevertheless, ending it was all Airlie could think of. It consumed her.
She stepped back and stared long and hard at the back of his head. She thought he might be crying. “I don’t want this anymore, Sam.”
The words sparked a wave of relief that tingled through her entire being. This nightmare would end here, tonight, now. Her calmness was frightening, and the enormous relief intoxicating.
“I think it would be a huge mistake for us to get married.” His sobbing grew as she began collecting her things.
“Airlie, c’mon.” Sam spun around, his eyes willing her to stay. “This is stupid. We can work this out.”
Airlie grabbed her keys and ran from the bedroom, down the dark hall, out the front door, taking the steps two at a time, before jumping in her car. She slammed and locked the door. Not once did she look at Sam as he hammered the windows begging her to stop. Airlie sped off, bravely chancing a glance in her rearview mirror at the sobbing heap of Sam’s body on the side of the road. Cars drove past him, probably with at least one person in each thanking their lucky stars their problems weren’t as bad as that poor young man’s.
When she arrived home, Airlie thought she could stop running.
Her running had just begun.
Despite how little one actually accomplished during an international flight, it was surprising to discover how exhausting that journey could be. With a spare seat between them, Hannah and Airlie graciously took turns attempting sleep with their head in the other’s lap.
The flight was long, extremely long.
“No,” said Hannah.
“Sex?” Airlie was desperate and on the verge of quitting.
“No. What? Where?”
“Nowhere, I was just checking.” She sighed heavily to evoke sympathy. “Can I have a hint?”
“It’s inside the plane.”
I spy wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “I know. Sandwiches?”
“No.” Hannah smiled. “But good one.”
“Can you see shit? I don’t think so.”
“I can’t see it.” Airlie pulled a face. “But I can sure smell it. That’s rotten.”
Hannah recoiled. “Who would do that on a plane?”
They tucked their noses down their tops. When Airlie eventually surfaced for air, the smell lingered.
“Let’s see how far we can get past the flight attendant into first class,” said Hannah.
It was nearly midnight, Australian time, and they had been flying for a little under six hours. So far, sleep had eluded them. They wandered about the cabin, passing other bored passengers. A commotion at the toilet to the rear was gaining attention. Attendants darted in and out, clad to the armpits with latex, managing the source of the stench that was slowly seeping through the cabin. Strangers shot accusing glances at other passengers and promptly either stood up or adjusted themselves in their seat to turn away from the possible culprit.
As they approached the front of the plane, everything certainly appeared more impressive; the food smelled better, there wasn’t a hint of poo in the air, and the ambient light gave the impression of an expensive hotel. More impressive than the cramped, gloomy old hostel in the rear.
Hannah straightened, and in her best posh Australian accent said, “Eton’s first on the list. I’ll have to choose a school sooner rather than later.”
Eton, the posh, boys-only, private school near Windsor Castle, was sure to impress, except that was the sum total of Airlie’s knowledge. Prince William or Harry or someone royal had attended. She improvised. “You’d be an asset. They’d be lucky to have you. Latin teachers are difficult to come by, I’m sure.”
Hannah lowered her head. “Latin? How fucking boring.”
Airlie grinned, and they advanced deeper toward first class territory.
They progressed past one checkpoint and were nearly five rows in when a lovely young flight attendant, with a voice higher in octaves than a soprano, spoke from behind. “Perhaps, ladies, you could discuss your appointment at Eton on the way back to your seats in economy.”
“Damn,” muttered Hannah.
“So close,” whispered Airlie.
“It was the Latin, wasn’t it?” asked Hannah. “Too much?”
The flight attendant smiled. He passed them two bottles of gin from the galley. “In future, you might appear more convincing if you remember to re-button your jeans and replace your shoes.”
They looked each other up and down. Defeated, they turned and smiled curtly before making their way back to the stinky, crowded rear end of the plane.
All that remained was a thorough investigation of the in-flight entertainment. Airlie eventually declared there was nothing to watch. They squirmed until a nice lady from the row in front took pity on them, feeding them licorice allsorts while they moaned all the way to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong airport was vast. Airlie had an urge to remove her shoes and slide along the gleaming polished floor. There were shops, restaurants, boutiques, cafés, and bars everywhere. It was possible to spend a fortune in Hong Kong airport if anything had been open.
“McDonald’s is open,” said Airlie.
“Macca’s is always open.”
“It’s not special, is it?”
“No, it’s very normal.”
Airlie knew all this sitting around was a struggle for Hannah. “If I go and steal some napkins and salt and pepper and straws and stuff, will that cheer you up?”
“We’re not twelve.”
“No, but will it cheer you up?”
“It might if you get in trouble,” said Hannah.
“Okay, here goes.”
As she turned to give Hannah a cheeky wink just beyond the threshold of McDonald’s, the lady from the row in front strolled down the gleaming terminal and stopped next to Hannah. Airlie waved at them. She knew Hannah would be explaining her mission but was too tired to feel embarrassed; she’d never see any of these people again.
At the counter, a rather short man lunged from behind the ice cream machine to greet her with a bag of food and a beaming, toothy smile. Without giving him a second thought, she continued to gather salt and pepper, until the little man thrust the bag at her chest.
“Okay, sorry, thank you. All there. Sorry ’bout wait. You go now, okay, thank you.”
“I think you’ve made a mistake,” Airlie said.
“No, no. No mistake now.” The tiny man’s eyes lit up. “But extra fries for long wait. Okay? Bye.”
Airlie looked left then right, but no one was interested in claiming the food. Perhaps someone had ordered but couldn’t wait any longer before rushing off to catch their flight. She shrugged and triumphantly swaggered out to rowdy applause. Hannah and the other lady were in stitches. On the off chance that Ronald McDonald himself might come chasing after them, they darted down the nearest escalator and out of sight.
Airlie peered into the bag. “We have nuggets, chips, and cheeseburgers. Who wants what?”
Delighting in their misappropriated goods, they ate enthusiastically. The lady from the row in front introduced herself as Olivia. She was smartly dressed, traveling on her own, and probably only a few years older than Airlie. Besides her warm, wide smile and perfectly straight teeth, her expensive jeans and olive green blazer were impressive. Although her dark hair was short, simple, and stylish, Airlie guessed she probably paid a couple hundred dollars for the privilege.
“So are you traveling onward from London, or is that your final stop?” asked Olivia.
“No, we’re heading on to Ireland.” Airlie dumped the empty McDonald’s bag into a bin on the way back to the departure lounge.
“Really? I live in Ireland—on the west. I’ve just been home visiting for a month.”
“Have you lived there long then?” asked Airlie.
“Sixteen years this July. So yes, long enough. How long are you planning to stay?”
“We have working visas, so a year at the least,” said Hannah.
“That is,” Airlie crossed her fingers and winked at Hannah, “if all goes to plan.”
“If it all goes belly up, hopefully we’ll at least have a good time before we have to pull the plug,” Hannah added optimistically.
As they waited to board the plane, Airlie marveled at the spectacular lightning show and the crashes of thunder rolling in the distance while sheets of rain lashed against the mass of glass that separated them from the wild weather. Tropical storms in Hong Kong weren’t unusual.
The bulky plane soared into the dark night sky, skipping along on the tail of the storm. They ate dinner yet again, and Airlie was convinced sleep couldn’t be far away. She was exhausted. The cabin lights were eventually switched off, almost every seat reclined, and for the rather large gentleman about three rows back, sleep obviously came easily, if his snoring and snorting was any indication. Having been a light sleeper all her life, Airlie was prepared for just that kind of disruption and produced earplugs for them both. Within minutes, they were snuggled down, blankets beneath their chins, plugs in, eye masks on, and settled for a most deserved slumber.
After thirty minutes, Airlie was agitated. Within another five, Hannah was too.
“It’s impossible to get comfortable in these bloody seats.” Hannah’s long legs were no asset on a plane. “I bet they’re all comfortably horizontal in first class.”
“Want me to get some more pillows? Might help?”
“Nah, maybe we should try the TV again.”
They quickly concluded that the television wasn’t the answer.
“Let’s have a drink.” Airlie had spotted a tasty Shiraz on the wine list.
“Why not? Can’t hurt.”
“Press your buzzer then,” said Airlie.
“You press yours. You suggested it.”
“Go on, press it.”
“You’re on the aisle. Best if you press yours.” Hannah released the latch on the tray table in preparation.
“You do realize that regardless of who presses the button in this row, the same light illuminates? They don’t have a map of every seat to tell them who needs assistance.” Airlie hadn’t flown much, but she at least knew that.
“Of course I knew that.”
Olivia turned around, beaming an entertained smile. “I’ll press my buzzer and get us all a drink, eh?”
Upon arrival of the second drink, the flight attendant suggested that for the comfort of other passengers, perhaps Olivia should move if they were going to continue drinking and chatting. As if attending a child’s slumber party, Airlie shuffled into the middle and Olivia, with pillow and blanket in hand, settled into the aisle seat.
Within half an hour, they learned that Olivia was married to Gavin, he was Australian, and they had moved to Ireland before they were married. Back then, Olivia’s profession as a town planner was sought after due to the booming Irish economy and a high demand for infrastructure. Airlie had been way out; Olivia was forty-one and had no children.
To pass the time, they played word games, story games, battleship, number games, connect four, and now they were tackling the jumbo crossword in one of the newspapers.
By this stage, Hannah had turned to rest her pillow on the closed window shutter. Apparently, trying to think of intelligent answers had made her tired. “I’m gonna try to get some sleep, kids. Night night.”
“Night, Han.” Airlie gave her knee a gentle squeeze.
“Sleep well, Hannah,” whispered Olivia.
Fifteen minutes later, Airlie and Olivia were quietly jubilant as they completed the crossword. Hannah was sound asleep. Airlie was ready for lights out, but not quite ready for sleep. Olivia intrigued her. It occurred to her that she’d not met many truly interesting people in her short life. She knew many people who wanted to be interesting, people who thought they were interesting, but they were mostly just wannabes. Olivia didn’t just talk of the things she wanted to do, she talked of the things she had done. The dim cabin felt cozy, and the heating was turned up to induce slumber. Hardly anyone was walking the aisles, there was no line for the toilet, and not a flight attendant was in sight.
“Do you miss Australia?” asked Airlie. “I mean, it must be hard to come home and leave again, emotionally, I mean.” She shrugged. “I reckon that must be hard.”
“Have you ever lived away from home?”
“No. Not in another country. The farthest I’ve lived away from my parents is four hours by car, and to be honest, sometimes that didn’t seem far enough.”
“Not many people understand what it’s like to live away from home. You make a new home, return to your old home, leave your old home, and go back to your new home, which is essentially now just home, and then do it all over again, almost annually.”
“I guess you’re always saying good-bye to someone you care about. That’s got to be difficult.”
Olivia let out a small but kind laugh. “You’ve been in this world before, Airlie; you have wisdom beyond your years.”
Airlie enjoyed the compliment. “What’s it like where you live?”
“Cold. But beautiful. We live near a beach called Roaring Bay. It sounds so cliché, but Gav and I bought our little cottage for next to nothing, and over the years we’ve made it our own.”
“Can you see the beach from your house?”
“You can indeed. It’s a lovely view from the garden.”
Airlie thought how charming it would be to relax on a warm summer’s day, sipping a pint, watching the waves crash on the shore.
As if reading her mind, Olivia said, “It’s a great beach, but it’s not like an Australian one. The best nights are when a storm is rolling in.” She sighed. “But enough about me. What about you? What do you do for a living?”
“I’m in hospitality—hotels. Quite boring really. I’m not convinced I like people enough to care about their accommodation needs.”
“So what do you think you could care about?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it. When I was younger I wanted to be an art teacher, but I was too busy earning money to go to uni.”
“Why not study teaching now?”
“Well, because now I’m on a plane to Ireland in desperate need for some adventure.”
“And adventure you shall have, young lady.” Olivia shifted in her seat. “You should think about teaching when you go back home. I think you’d make a good teacher.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“I too have wisdom beyond my years.”
Airlie smiled. They were whispering softly. Sleep wasn’t far away.
“So you like art?” Olivia asked.
“I love it. I can’t paint or sculpt or anything, but I could spend hours in museums and galleries. I can sketch a decent caricature, but the truly talented stuff just isn’t in me. My aim is to decorate my house with all original art when I’m older. Nothing too expensive, but all original.”
“But when you’re older, of course? You must be what, twenty-six?”
“Twenty-eight, actually. It’s depressing to know I’m already old enough. I choose to believe I need to be older still.”
“Where are you staying in Ireland?” Olivia asked.
“We honestly haven’t thought that far ahead.” She and Hannah were keeping an open mind about where to settle. Galway or Dublin were their preferred options.
“You should come and stay with me and Gavin for a while. Only if you want to, of course.” She hesitated. “I know I must sound like a right weirdo asking after I’ve only just met you, and I promise I’m not a psychopath—nor is Gavin, for that matter—but sometimes you just know people are genuine. You connect.” She continued as if to hide embarrassment. “It’s not terribly exciting where we live, no busy cities nearby to rock the night away or anything, although there is a disco every Saturday night in Westport.”
Airlie laughed. “Discos aren’t really my thing.”
“So, you’ll come and stay? Or at least think about it?”
“It’s a kind offer, but I don’t know. We wouldn’t want to impose.”
“It’s no bother, honestly. I’ll leave it up to you. We have plenty of room, and it’s nice to have people in the house for a change. When we first arrived, we had visitors all the time, but not so much anymore now that everyone has settled down.”
“I’d love to, and I reckon Hannah would, too. We’ll discuss it and let you know.” She felt like she had something to lose. “If Hannah doesn’t want to, perhaps I could come on my own when we get settled. I’d love to see your place.”
“Good, I’m pleased. I’d love to show you around.”
Exhaustion washed over her. Olivia must have felt the same because she stopped talking, too. Within minutes, Airlie drifted off, but it was a disjointed sleep. Finding a comfortable position was difficult, and although she awoke to shift her position, she remained sleepy enough to fall back easily.
After what seemed like hours, although in reality she had no idea of the time, Airlie awoke to find Hannah’s head resting heavily on her shoulder. Her left bum cheek had gone to sleep, she was too upright, and she desperately wanted to switch sides. Through a crack in the corner of her eye mask, she could tell that the status of the cabin had remained unchanged and there was hardly a light on. Resigning herself to an awkward, slouched position, she registered a gentle tap on her shoulder before lifting her mask to focus on Olivia patting her lap.
“You won’t be able to sleep at all if I lie there,” Airlie said.
“I’ve slept enough, here.” Olivia shifted to elevate the armrest that separated them. “Pop your pillow there. I’ll be fine. I’ll tell you to move if you get too heavy.” Smiling, she patted her lap again.
Too sleepy to argue, Airlie slowly did as suggested, and Hannah’s limp body adjusted with her movement. She snuggled into a ball, her head in Olivia’s lap.
The last thing she remembered was the soothing, rhythmic stroking of her shoulder by Olivia’s thumb. This time, sleep came easily.
Airlie squeezed Hannah’s hand with a swell of emotion. “We’re nearly there.”
“Yep, Aerobar.” This was Airlie’s least despised nickname. “We are.” Hannah was a little emotional, too. “I think we’re gonna have the time of our lives.”
“I hope so.”
Hannah reached across to mess Airlie’s already scruffy hair. “Ireland, here we come.”
Airlie lowered her voice. “Olivia asked us to her place when we arrive. I didn’t commit, said I’d check with you first. What do you think?”
“To hers to stay?”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know. We could play it by ear, I guess. I think it would be great. Apparently, she has a nice place near a beach on the west. I don’t know.” She shrugged. “It might be a good place to start.”
Hannah’s expression changed. “You don’t think she’s a nutter or anything, do you?”
“No, Hannah, I don’t think she’s a nutter.”
“We hardly know her.”
“True. But I’ve got a good feeling about her.”
“You don’t say? In that case, I reckon it’s a great idea. You two did seem to be getting rather cozy during the flight.”
“I woke and you were cuddling.”
“We were not.” Airlie’s dismissal was too quick. “You’re full of crap.”
“If you say so, but you were pretty close.”
“Hannah, we were just trying to get some sleep. Your bloody head was just about in my lap. I had nowhere else to go.”
“I’m kidding, Aerobar. You’re so easy to wind up. So, we’ll head straight to Olivia’s when we arrive, agreed?”
She hated it when Hannah teased her like that. “Agreed.”
The nearer the plane flew toward England, the cloudier the sky became. It wasn’t until the end of the descent that Heathrow and its surrounds came into view as the plane burst through the white cloud. Determined not to let a little bad weather ruin their arrival, they remained excited beyond the realms of normalcy, until at last the plane taxied to the terminal.
“We’re in England.” Airlie was searching for words. “My God, Han, we’re in the UK, on the other side of the world, in the northern hemisphere. Wahoo, we’re here!”
“Wow, great place.” Airlie unearthed some enthusiasm as they pulled up after negotiating the long gravel driveway that climbed slowly through dense foliage. “Han, wake up. We’re here.”
After checking and double-checking with Olivia that it was no trouble to stay, all three had wearily made their way to Dublin’s Heuston Station and onto a train across the country to Westport. Upon arrival, Gavin had met them on the platform, not at all surprised to see Olivia with two strangers in tow.
Gavin wasn’t much taller than Hannah, and he wore brown cords, a cream T-shirt, and a dark green fleece vest. Airlie guessed his entire wardrobe comprised varying shades of green, brown, blue, and white—colors that legitimized a certain degree of anonymity and camouflage. She gained the strong impression that he preferred to blend into the background, and his gentle, soft voice would hardly command the attention of a fly. In contrast, his short gray hair and muscular physique implied a harsher, sterner type of man. His entire persona was a contradiction.
Earlier that morning in the departure lounge at Heathrow, Hannah and Airlie agreed that should there be even the slightest hint of weirdness at Olivia’s, they would politely leave. After all, they’d only met this woman. She seemed nice enough, but they simply couldn’t be too careful. They swore to stick together, no matter what.
Airlie stretched in salutation, carefully untangling from the confines of the car. Her hair was a tangled mess, and her skin felt grubby in her day-old clothes, but the magnificent view of Roaring Bay Beach, literally a stone’s throw away, was breathtaking. Soaking in her surroundings, she smiled at the little white cottage looking quaint in contrast to the green and brown wooded hill behind. The gardens were immaculate—lush green lawn, as you would expect in Ireland, and neatly trimmed hedges. The smell of freshly cut grass enticed Airlie to inhale deeper.
“Hannah, wake up. We’re here.” Airlie knocked on the car window as Hannah jolted upright. “We’re here.”
“Best you don’t sleep any longer anyway,” Gavin said, unpacking the boot. “The longer you stay awake, the quicker you’ll adjust to the time change.”
Airlie had observed the reunion between Gavin and Olivia at Westport train station. Their embrace was comfortable, but fit for a sibling perhaps, not a lover. Her two brothers had been more animated and affectionate with her when she left Australia. Perhaps that’s what familiarity bred after so many years together.
Despite his deceiving appearance, Gavin was sweet. He’d already prepared the second spare bedroom, and the coffee machine was primed to boost their caffeine intake just enough to help them through to a reasonable bedtime.
There was no doubt the house was a cottage, but to increase its size and comfort, they’d added a spacious conservatory to the far left to capture the sun and take advantage of the water views. Airlie fell instantly in love with Roaring Bay.
“Coffee’s ready, ladies,” called Olivia.
Airlie raised her eyebrows at the travel mugs on the counter.
“I know it seems cruel, but I find the best way to combat jet lag is some good old sea air. Half an hour on the beach with a coffee, and I guarantee you’ll last until at least eight o’clock.” Olivia ushered them out before further protest.
The pathway to the beach was rough and windy, but within minutes, the rocky descent gave way to beautiful, white, coarse sand. The sun’s warmth, while meager, was softly blown away by the crisp breeze, and they all agreed the sensation was heavenly upon their faces and through their limp, oily hair. Within seconds, the sound of a rather excited dog echoed off the rocks, and they turned to watch a little black and white terrier bounce along toward them.
“Ah, my little man, how could I have forgotten about you?” Olivia patted the excited dog. “Ladies, I’d like you to meet Ash.” Olivia looked to the house and waved to Gavin, who must have let him out.
Airlie inhaled deeply. The salty sea air reminded her of home, but the fact that they were in Ireland energized her weary body. Hannah returned to the house complaining the sand was unbearable, and she was unable to cope a moment longer without showering. Airlie and Olivia remained, throwing sticks in the shallow waves for Ash to fetch. She desperately hoped that Olivia and Gavin weren’t weirdos; she liked her too much already to be disappointed.
It took no time, after shepherd’s pie and pudding, for the lounge room to fall silent. Airlie fought the urge to sleep, and when she glanced around, Hannah and Olivia were struggling, too.
It was seven thirty. “I can’t make it until eight.” Airlie stood and stretched. Jet lag after a long haul flight was like nothing she’d experienced before.
Hannah was next to move. “Me either.”
Olivia kissed Gavin’s forehead. “And that’s a wrap. You’re on your own tonight, Gav.”
He shrugged and promptly changed the channel to hurling. A sport Airlie knew she had no chance to understand, let alone play.
At exactly 3:23 a.m., Airlie awoke, startled and disoriented, from a bad dream. Drenched with sweat, she floundered until her feet touched the ground. She sat on the edge of the bed, heart pounding as she recalled the final scene of her nightmare. During the flight to Dublin, the plane began to shrink, the walls turning into a jelly-like material that sucked the passengers through if they stepped too close. Airlie held on to Olivia and Hannah until her knuckles ached and she felt sure the bones would pierce her skin. Then, in the chaos, someone bumped Olivia, knocking her askew and causing her left hand to skim the side of the plane. Airlie battled, gripping Olivia’s sweaty hand, to hold on to her, but she was unable to match the strength of the jelly walls. She had to let her go. She watched Olivia float from the plane, screaming for her. Airlie’s chest burned. In desperation, she released her grip on Hannah, looked at her with an apologetic expression, and jumped after Olivia. As the ground drew nearer, Airlie woke.
She changed her T-shirt. There was little chance of falling back to sleep just yet. In the moonlit darkness, she negotiated her way to the kitchen for a drink. The house was quiet, and she listened so intently that the silence became a noise itself. She heard the sound of a distant car speeding on a nearby road, and this somehow reassured her.
Airlie gently eased on the tap, and the trickling water sparked a need for the toilet. A rustling sound beyond the kitchen alarmed her. This isn’t my night. Her eyes were slowly adjusting to the dark, but it was virtually impossible to distinguish any movement in the shadows.
Outside, Ash barked enthusiastically in his kennel. Something, or someone, was setting him off, and the thought chilled her. Their first night with Gavin and Olivia would probably be their last. The silence was more than she could bear. Deafened by the sound of her own pounding heart, she poised to scream the house down when a glimpse of movement caught her eye. The scream froze high in her throat. She watched a silhouette move slowly from behind the antique rocking chair in the conservatory, a loud creak echoing through the kitchen.
“Couldn’t sleep either?”
Airlie jumped before thrusting her hand between her legs for fear of wetting her pants. “Christ all-bloody-mighty.”
With the simple flick of a switch, all the terrifying scenarios evaporated. Olivia stood illuminated in the doorway to the conservatory, smiling, clearly amused, while Airlie, squinting from the sudden bright light, stood stunned with her legs crossed.
“Sorry. I thought you knew I was there. I’d only just gotten up,” said Olivia.
“You frightened last week out of me.”
“Was it a good week?”
Olivia shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. Maybe you should go pee.”
Airlie braced herself against the bench. “I had a bad dream. I came to get a drink and read for a while, but then I heard a noise and the dog started barking, and I was convinced we were all about to suffer at the hands of some homicidal maniac.”
“You know? Are you actually a homicidal maniac?”
“No. I mean, I know you had a bad dream. Obviously, I didn’t know the rest.”
“How did you know?”
“I heard you. But don’t worry about that now. Would you like a hot—”
“What did I say?” The dream had certainly felt real. Even after nearly being scared to death, she could feel her cheeks flush. What had she said aloud?
“You mumbled something. I’m not sure.”
“Is there an echo in here?” Olivia patted Airlie’s shoulder and smiled. “It was only a dream.” She busied herself with hot chocolate. “Go to the loo or you’ll wet yourself.” She eyed Airlie. “Go on.”
When Airlie returned to the conservatory, hot chocolate, a blanket, and candlelight awaited her. Her embarrassment had faded, and Olivia didn’t seem bothered, so she let it go.
“I thought the candlelight might entrance us and send us off to sleep. The blanket is in case that happens,” said Olivia.
Airlie snuggled into one corner of the huge day bed, sinking deep into the cushions, tucking her feet in the blanket. Olivia occupied the other end, and for a long while, the only sound was slurping hot chocolate. They both stared transfixed, into the flickering candle flame.
“Fewer people marry in their twenties these days,” Olivia said.
Airlie wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question. She opted for silence.
“Look at you, nearly thirty and single.”
She didn’t need reminding.
“You are single, aren’t you?”
By four a.m., Airlie had relayed the story of her breakup with Sam. It hadn’t been difficult; talking with Olivia was easy, mostly because she was a good listener. “You probably know more about it than Hannah, now,” she said.
“So why do I get the feeling that you just told me the abridged version?”
“It’s my truth, what I have to live with, I guess.”
“So far as you’re willing to admit?”
Airlie smiled. “Yep. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it. It’s fairly accurate.” The missing bits were the pieces she didn’t yet understand. She knew blanks existed, missing thoughts and feelings she couldn’t yet identify, but her life was too busy and fulfilling to delve into it all yet. Something told her that to dig deeper would be painful. It was easier to pretend it wasn’t there.
She changed the subject. “So, I take it you two never wanted children?”
Silence filled the darkness. “I can’t naturally have children. Gav still wants to try.”
“I’m sorry.” Airlie coughed to clear her throat. “It never occurred to me it wasn’t a choice. I just assumed you both didn’t want children. This is awkward. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. There really is no need.”
Airlie waited. She sensed there was more.
“If we speak about this, you must promise never to tell Gav we had this conversation. This is between you and me, okay?”
Airlie felt out of her depth. “Look, it’s okay, you don’t need to explain anything. It was rude and insensitive of me to bring it up. I’m not usually so tactless.” She glanced toward the hall door. “Plus, Gavin could get up at any moment, and I’d hate him to think we were talking about him behind his back.”
Olivia smiled warmly, but with a hint of sadness. “He won’t be awake for at least another hour—you’ll know he’s up because the plumbing from the en suite toilet will rattle. It’s an old house. He always goes to the toilet as soon as he wakes. He has for as long as I can remember, no matter where he is, and besides, we won’t be talking about him. We’ll be talking about me.”
Airlie shifted uncomfortably but nodded.
“I can’t conceive a child naturally. To the outside world, this failing appeared to be the most devastating development for us. And maybe for Gavin it was.”
“But not for you?”
“Initially, yes. As were the first two attempts at IVF. The third failed attempt was…” She stalled. “In all honesty, it was such a relief that it didn’t work. I realized I’d lost any longing for children years ago. All I was left with was an unfulfilled husband and an unrelenting guilt.”
“But it’s not your fault you couldn’t have kids.”
“I wish that was all it was.”
“My guilt wasn’t for my inability to conceive; it was because I didn’t want to, and because Gavin did. I refused further IVF.” She shrugged. “Many marriages wouldn’t survive that.”
“But yours did.”
“It’s not that simple.”
Airlie didn’t understand. “Maybe not. Sorry.” Having children had never really been on her radar. When she was with Sam, she’d tried to imagine their life with children and maybe a dog, but the thought refused to form fully. She was about to suggest another drink when Olivia continued.
“Everyone assumed I was grieving when the last round didn’t take, but I was so happy I made myself ill with guilt. If we’d had children, our sabbatical in Ireland would have ended. I couldn’t bear the thought of that. Gavin would have loved to raise our children in Australia. I didn’t want to go home. All my friends are here. This is a special community, and I love being a part of it. I didn’t want my life to change, and in my mind, having children would have ended the magic, not enhanced it.”
“I’m sure Gavin understands.”
Olivia shook her head. “I watched his heart break a little more with every failed IVF. I watched him cry more than any man should have to. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand how I feel, because he doesn’t know.”
Airlie couldn’t hide her sudden intake of breath. Olivia turned to her. “I’m not a very nice person, am I?”
“It’s not for me to judge, but after knowing you less than two days, even I can tell you would never deliberately hurt Gavin.”
“These days, it’s just easier to tell people that we didn’t want children, and for my part at least, it’s more the truth than a lie.” Her shoulders sank. “For Gavin, not so much.”
Airlie didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing.
The candle flickered, and they both stared at the dancing flame.
“I can’t believe I told you all that.” Even in the dim light, Airlie could see Olivia had blushed. “There aren’t that many people who know. I feel a bit silly saying it aloud really. Please don’t repeat it.”
“You can trust me, I promise.” Airlie shrugged. “Although we’ve only just met, I hope you believe me.”
“It’s weird, isn’t it? We’ve only just met and I told you my darkest secret?” Her eyes fixed on Airlie as if trying to work it out. “I feel like I’ve known you before.” Olivia reached to touch Airlie’s cheek. “I feel like I know you now, like you’re an old soul I’ve met in a past life or something. It’s quite odd really.”
Airlie felt it too. A long silence surrounded them as they both relaxed against the back of the day bed, eyes closed. There was no need to speak.
At nearly seven o’clock, a dull light seeped through the curtains, and the night was over. Exhausted, Airlie suggested they try for another hour or two of sleep, and Olivia didn’t argue.
“Sorry my dream woke you.” Airlie crept through the kitchen door and into the hall.
“That’s okay, no harm done.”
“You said I screamed, but you didn’t say what I said?”
Olivia gently touched her shoulder. “You screamed. Then you called my name, followed by the word no.”
Airlie nodded. It was just as she remembered. The light was too dim to reveal her embarrassment.
The sound of a flushing toilet came from the direction of the en suite. It was followed by the loud groaning of ancient plumbing.
Sleep caught Airlie almost immediately, and by the time she woke hours later, a beautiful crisp sunny Irish day awaited her.