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Thursday, June 16, 2005

to the airport - short story

‘Doors closing.’ Bi..bi..bi..bi…beep.
Emma jumped in, just making it through the closing doors. She held onto central pole, trying not to look like she’d had to run for the train, and so drawing attention to herself. It didn’t really matter though, because people always stared at her in this country, whatever she did. It was the blond hair and very fair skin that did it. Many of the women here wanted fair skin; they often looked at her jealously and the ones she knew at work had asked her how she got her skin so white. It wasn’t anything she actually did, she’d explained. And no, she didn’t use any of those whitening, lightening products she’d been shocked to find in the chemists when she arrived. Basically bleach masquerading as a skin refining elixir. It made a change for people not to find her strange for not wanting to go in the sun.

She didn’t tell them about the endless times at school when she’d been teased for being too white. People would make a joke of it, standing next to her to make their tan look better. It wasn’t trendy then to be pale. Her friends would spend all their summers lying on the beach while she sat, fully clothed, under an umbrella. They’d pay for it later, she told herself, when they’ve got hide like leather and deep, sun-etched wrinkles. It was only recently that this made her feel better.

Luke loved the sun though. He always had a gorgeous tan.

She found a space on the orange, plastic seat running the length of each carriage. A bum-sized indentation indicated the space you were to take. Her spine dug into the back of the hard seat forcing her to either sit up really straight, or slouch. She opted for the straight back. She could feel her shirt sticking damply to her back despite the air-conditioning. It was these seats. The plastic. Whoever designed them had obviously never actually sat on them. She fidgeted to unstick herself and get some air flowing around her thighs and back.

She looked around. It wasn’t too busy, for a change. Old people sleeping, young mothers with all the requisite baby paraphernalia trying to keep baby interested without drawing too much attention to themselves, and strange-looking people; (why were there always strange looking people on public transport, she wondered) but then it wasn’t rush-hour. God, she really hated that. Hurrying to the MRT station with hundreds of others in the ever-present humidity, just about bearable in the mornings, but enough to leave you damp and uncomfortable under your suit, wondering what damage has been done to the make-up you’d so carefully applied twenty minutes before. Crowded into the air-conditioned hell of the MRT. Kept at a temperature that’s comfortable for the five minutes it takes to cool down to something like normal temperature but freezing if you have to stay there for any length of time. MRT; mass rapid transport, and at that time in the morning it was mass. Mobile phones ringing every two seconds with their irritating tinny tunes. Nowhere to sit. She often felt that she wouldn’t be able to get out in time due to the immovable weight of the other passengers, missing her stop and being late for work. Imagine trying to explain that.

‘Sorry I’m late, I couldn’t get off the train. There were too many people.’

Still, she thought trying to be positive, it wasn’t too bad now, and she’d got a seat. And it was still much better that the Tube. At least it was new and modern and clean, very clean, and you didn’t feel that the whole system was going to collapse in on you one day.

She mustn’t be too jaded yet, she thought. It’s Singapore. The exotic, tropical Far East. After all, she’d only been here two months and had been on her own the whole time. Things often feel worse when you’re on your own. But Luke was coming. Was perhaps already here, she realised. She looked at her watch: 10.47. No, he wasn’t here yet. Probably still somewhere over Malaysia. She smiled to herself as the odd image of Luke 38000 feet in the air came into her mind. The man opposite looked at her and smiled very slightly.

Oh God, he thought I was smiling at him. Once you’ve made eye-contact that’s it, you find your eyes drawn to them the whole trip, especially if they were good-looking like this one was. He could be a model. He had a lovely smile. She looked away quickly up at the route map and counted seven more stations until Changi Airport and Luke.

Bi..bi..bi..bi…beep. ‘Next stop Kallang’ said the well-spoken, disembodied voice of the announcer. Recorded. There were some interesting names here, a change from the ones she was used to in London. She especially liked Sembawang and Paya Lebar, not that she’d been to either of those places, but she found it amusing the way the female voice intoned the names… sensual, yet dispassionate. ‘Paya Lebar’

The train moved off and she felt a rush of air which smelt musty; recycled but cold. She didn’t feel quite as sticky now. Still half an hour or so to go, so she’d probably start getting cold soon; air-conditioning. She opened her handbag and rummaged inside then realised, bugger, she’d forgotten to bring her book. Well, she probably wouldn’t be able to concentrate on it much anyway. Not with Luke coming. Her stomach twisted a little. She hadn’t seen him for five months. Not since she’d left him at Heathrow. That had been horrible. Their first real time apart after two years. She’d tried not to cry, and had managed, until she’d seen another couple in what looked like the same situation, tears flooding down both their faces. That had started her off. Luke had been calm, saying encouraging things like ‘It’s only a few of months. It’ll fly by.’ But then had stood by passport control right until she walked behind the screens, even though he said he wouldn’t.

What would it be like here, together. Her job had provided her with a flat, in a gorgeous condominium. It was huge. Marble floors, hotel-style en suite bathroom. She’d never have been able to live in anything like that in London. It was about three times the size of her poky-little flat in Balham, which was en suite if you ignored the slight diversion though the kitchen. No, this place was like a palace in comparison, and Luke was going to live there with her. It would be like one of those adverts on TV. Young, professional couple wake up in airy, stylish bedroom. Prepare tropical breakfast in shiny kitchen. She stared out of the window opposite contemplating this, until she realised the model man was looking at her again.
He did have a nice smile…

They’d decided not to move in together London. He shared his flat with his mate, Dan, and didn’t want to let him down by moving out, and hers was too small for her, let alone the both of them . Plus, they’d felt it was better to be independent and have somewhere to go that was their own. But now, here in Singapore, they were going to live together. A professional expat couple living the magazine lifestyle. But…
That word had been creeping into her thoughts recently. A little niggling doubt. Was it really sensible to live together for the first time in a foreign country? Her friends, Karen and Andrea, at work had brought this subject up at lunch the other day.

‘How do you know you’ll get on? And what’ll you do if you don’t? It’s a long way back to the UK,’ Karen had said.

Andrea had told them about her neighbour, an Australian woman who had come out to join her International banking husband, who knew for sure that he was cheating on her. Apparently lots of men did it here. Off on their little business trips to Bangkok or whatever, a few beers and then picking up some pretty little Thai girl with amazing hair and no cellulite at all. ‘It’s always in the papers,’ Andrea had said. ‘And go to any expat bar here and you’ll see Mercedes driving, 50 something’s all with stunning Asian women half their size and age. I feel like a bloody heifer compared to them. You just can’t compete because they’re all too gorgeous and exotic. No, there’s something about being out here, having a bit of cash and being different that seems to do something to their brains.’

‘Dicks more like,’ said Karen, and they’d all laughed.

But in the light of Luke’s imminent arrival she now considered this more seriously. What if he went off with a beautiful Singaporean girl? She looked at her own face in the window opposite, reflective like a mirror in the train tunnel. Her face stared palely back. She was like the negative image of the young woman sitting next to her who had long, blue-black hair, just like out of a shampoo advert. Thick and shiny. Her skin was smooth and a warm cappuccino colour. She, on the other hand, was cold-pale, her skin had a bluey undertone, and was distastefully shiny because of the humidity. Her hair was blonde, normally a good thing, but it was a coarse, wiry nest, he’d always said it was too short. Which would he most want to run his fingers through? Silk or straw? Oh God. Will he still fancy me when he gets here? I should have tried to exercise more, I should have gone to the gym at the condo. Is my face fatter?

She stopped looking at her reflection.

Instead she looked down. Much worse. Her stomach was bulging over the top of her skirt she had big, fat ankles. All these women here are so slim, with perfect, trim waists and obviously no cellulite. He’ll not be able to stop looking at them.

She tried to think of him, but couldn’t see his face at all. Five months and she couldn’t remember him. What if he’s met someone on the plane? she thought. Thirteen hours is a long time when you’re sitting next to one person, you’re bound to get talking, especially if she’s attractive. That was one of the things she always liked about him, she thought, he was great at talking to anyone, really friendly and always knew exactly what to say. You never had to worry about him embarrassing you, not like some of the men she’d been out with. No, Luke had always been perfectly charming; all her girlfriends had said so. ‘You’re so lucky. You can take him anywhere. My boyfriend, however!’ Then followed the horror stories of all the things men were capable of in a variety of social situations provoking cries of ‘Oh my God. What a nightmare!’
She was convinced now. He’d met someone on the plane, and wouldn’t be moving in with her. It was all a horrible mistake. What had she been thinking? She should have stayed in London where they’d been perfectly happy and had seen each other all the time and had had lovely picnics in the park and trips to the country. Singapore. It was too bloody hot here and there were hardly any parks and definitely no countryside and lots of beautiful women wearing tiny clothes that showed off their flawless bodies that were never blued with cold. Luke would love it.
‘Next stop, Changi airport.’

In the arrivals hall, a tall, tanned man was waiting for his bags. Flustered, his hair in chaotic spikes from the plane, shirt creased, he was clutching a clear plastic bag. Duty free: his girlfriend’s favourite perfume, a bottle of gin and three cans of Tiger Classic. He turned and, through the large window, saw a pale, blonde woman looking wildly around. Waving, he blew her a kiss through the glass.

She laughed.

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