The flight from Heathrow to Hong Kong International takes twelve hours, twelve hours where Esther had the opportunity to sit and stare at the back of the seat in front of her and wonder what had happened with her life. Promising start, disappointing middle, unclear finale. Things had seemed to go effortlessly through university, into her first job in a top-tier bank, headhunted into her second job further up in a different bank, married to childhood sweetheart at twenty-five to mark the quarter century, never having to work hard enough to need to care about anything too much …
And then everything seemed to drift for a while, aimlessly while a fog of disastisfaction seeped into their flat in Notting Hill, along with the chilly feeling that maybe moving large amounts of money from place to place wasn’t how she wanted to change the world. Working at least twelve hours every day of the week didn’t leave much time to spend the money she made, didn’t give her much time to see her husband.
It was a prawn sandwich that marked the start of the descent; out of date, providing food poisoning that sent her home mid-afternoon for the first time in ten years. Everyone had been surprised, with Esther’s famed robust constitution. Dennis had been surprised that she came home early, and she’d been surprised to find that he spent the afternoons with whores in the marital bed.
She threw him out, still in the throes of sickness, kept vomitting as she threw his clothes into refuse bags, and then found a hammer in the toolbox they never used, and smashed all the things they’d ever bought together.
Then she was sitting in a flat full of refuse bags and broken crockery, stomach aching, weeping, unable to see her way back to working another seventy hour week making rich people richer.
She didn’t return. She sat there for a day, and another day, and then she changed the locks on the flat, threw away her mobile phone and her Blackberry, and took a taxi to Heathrow.
Esther’s parents died three years ago. Helicopter crash in the French Alps, no survivors. She should have gone to the funeral, but there was an important deal to finalise. At the time, she wrote it off as not having to worry about the feelings of the dead, only later realised it was her feelings and her brothers’ feelings that she should have been concerned with.
Mark had never forgiven her for that; they’d never spoken again, but then they’d never spoken much before. Still, her twin, tucked away in Hong Kong, somehow closer because he was further away, had never put as much distance between them. So it was simple to book the flight with BA, not as if there was a shortage of money to pay for that, paid for first class without flinching.
Twelve hours later, wheels skidding as the plane touched down at Chep Lap Kok, the plane lurching and for a moment Jane thinking that was it, the plane was about to turn into a spinning mess of flames and torn metal, that her life would end out in a city she had never seen, and that this prospect was not as bad as it could have been – and then the plane shifted and stabilised and smoothly came to rest, just like every other uneventful landing that day.
So as the plane taxied to the gate and she looked out the window at the haze, there was a moment where she wondered if that would have been preferable to whatever would come next.
And then she pulled herself together and told herself that this was weakness, and weaker than her, and she was going to survive this, survive Dennis, become something stronger than she was before.
* * *
Gray spent the same flight at the back of the plane, next to the toilet and a fat drunk with an England rugby shirt. He found himself nostalgic for the old styles of rugby shirt, when they were baggy and cotton, rather than a technical fabric designed to wick sweat away from the body and up his nose as efficiently as possible.
This was the furthest the Service had sent him; he’d mostly been working out of London, occasionally the odd trip to Lisbon or down to Gibraltar, but those were few and far between. Mainly he’d been in at a desk in an anonymous building behind Oxford Street, reading reports or writing reports or inhaling the exhaust fumes from the extractor fans of the steak house beneath him.
Then this assignment: out to the East to rendezvous with a contact, transfer the package to them, and then clear off back to England again. Miles, his manager, had intimated to him that there was a mole, or moles, somewhere in the department. That was why they hadn’t used any operational staff; just told him to book a week’s holiday, book a flight to Hong Kong, report to the classified hospital in Middlesex, then go catch a plane, and not spend too much of the taxpayers’ money while he was out there.
Gray wasn’t sure if that was because this was part of the cover, or Miles was just intent on controlling the size of the departmental expenses as they approached the end of the financial year.
Not that he felt like spending lots of money on anything at the moment. He felt like finding a quiet room somewhere and lying down for a week, until the pain went away.
It had started shortly after take-off. First, a grinding feeling in his stomach. He timed the spasms; about five minutes apart. To begin with, he thought it was because he had eaten nothing in the last day, instructed to fast before the visit to the medical facility. But when the meal came round and eating a cheese roll didn’t abate his symptoms, he began to think it was something worse.
The headache had come on about two hours in; like a hot metal band around his head, slowly tightening, while red dots danced before his eyes. He’d been sweating, alternately hot and cold, quivering under the thin British Airways blanket and then clammy with the soaking wet fibres of his t-shirt clinging to his body. The drunk next to him slept with his mouth hanging open, occasionally farting.
When he managed to climb over his alcoholic companion’s supine form and get to the toilet, he was dismayed but at the same time not exactly surprised to see blood, a steady trickle of dark red liquid that he mopped away with harsh toilet paper. He had to pad the inside of his underpants with more paper, to absorb any further emission. Miles had made it clear that this was a covert mission; he couldn’t be stopped because they noticed suspicious bleeding from his trousers.
Until an hour before landing, he sat in silent agony in his seat, rocking back and forward from time to time in a futile attempt to stop the pain; the pounding headache, the squeezing fist in his guts, the dull ache from his anus as though he was suffering from instant constipation. Then as they settled into the descent, the pain lifted; he found his body relaxing, still aching as though he’d been beaten, but the unbearable pains departed. For the moment.
The lurch as the plane landed disrupted something again, made Gray feel razor blades bouncing in his intestines, almost blacked out, but that passed. It would all pass. He waited until everyone in front of him had filed out, then took his bag from the overhead locker and followed them to the terminal.
* * *
Roger thought he might have trouble sleeping on the flight, but five pints of Stella in the departure lounge handled that. He thought he might have trouble boarding the flight – his mate Bert had miscalculated his alcoholic consumption while waiting for a flight to Manila the year before – but furiously chewing a wad of spearmint chewing gum had been enough to stave off the attentions of the boarding gate Nazi.
The first half of the flight had been good – he’d sat down, ignored the trolley dolly’s safety demonstration and gone straight to sleep – but halfway over Russia or Siberia or god-knows-where-istan the skinny bloke next to him had started wriggling and nudging him, and after that, bleary eyed and dehydrated, Rog couldn’t get back to sleep.
The bloke next to him wasn’t looking too bright: in fact he looked about as happy as if his dog had just died. Typical, really; skinny necked sod wearing his suit like he was flying business class, when he was stuck at the back of the plane in cattle class just like him. But unlike clever old Rog, he didn’t look the sort who knew how to enjoy himself. No, probably the sort of broomstick-up-his-arse guy who’d have a wife with a face like a busted sofa and a job where he tried to make himself feel better by stopping everyone else ever having any fun.
Rog had had to work with a lot of people like that over the years – but now wasn’t the time for work. This was going to be two weeks of fun with the lads – drinking Tsing Tao by the crate in Lan Kwai Fong, dressing up for the Sevens, then after that down to Bali for a week by the beach, more drinks, sitting on the beach shouting at all the birds that went by – they loved a bit of it.
Not like Mary, the wife he was leaving behind in Croydon. He didn’t know what he could have been thinking – well, what he must have been drinking, more like. To get shacked up with her, and the two brats she’d pumped out, had to be the mistake of the century. Not the kind of thing you laughed about down the pub with your mates, like a ride on the local bike. No, more like a hatchet-faced death sentence.
He’d been on death row for years, till him and Bert, both in the marital prison, managed to tunnel out, figure a way to sneak off to Asia for a week or two. Turned out Mary didn’t like the idea of foreign food, she was dead set on a fortnight in Magalluf, eating chips and watching fat white English people get sunburnt; Cathy, Bert’s piece had similar tastes. Well, Rog was fine with that, but while the women went off to Spain, they’d be heading out to Asia, “for the culture”. Yeah, right. Culture, as in Land of the LBFM, birds who didn’t just lie there thinking of England but appreciated a man like him with a proper body. Girlies who didn’t mind him chatting them up in bars, weren’t offended at getting a bit of cash after he’d got his jollies, wouldn’t mind effing off afterwards so he could have a kip.
Of course, there were always differences of opinion. Bert, now Bert always claimed that the ones in Bangkok were best, but Rog had heard too many jokes about ladyboys, and Sid was on about bloody Boro-whatsit, but Rog figured Hong Kong was the place to start. You didn’t just want to dive straight in at the deep end; you wanted somewhere that had got used to being told what to do by the British; a bit more civilised than one of those proper funny countries. He’d get off the plane, scoot down to Lockhart Road, drop off his bag and have a few at the Old China Hand, then go exploring and find whatever fresh delights of the Far East were waiting for him.
The others sometimes looked a bit funny about this: probably worried their wives would find out, but who was going to tell on them? Anyway, sod ’em; he was arriving three days early, get some proper action on, and then when the others turned up he’d be ready to dress up as St George slaying a dragon and let his little soldier have a rest until Bali.
Shame Bert was stuck back in the UK, after that little sort of contretemps at Heathrow the day before Rog flew out. The other lads were alright, but too worried about the Sevens as though the score actually mattered. Not like he didn’t like rugby; he was quite happy to wear the old England shirt, represent Queen and Country, but it wasn’t the be-all and end-all some people made out. Still, he was sure they’d all loosen up after a few days, and when they got down to Bali, they’d be more tuned into his wavelength…
He fell back to sleep again soon after, didn’t wake up again till the pilot almost killed them all landing, then stumbled off the plane, breezed through Customs (not like those sorry-arsed types back in London) and took the train straight into town. Off to the Happy Man Guesthouse, and no happier man than Rog.