The white fluorescent tube above the mirror produced a light so harsh it had blanched her normally healthy complexion to a shade reminiscent of church candles. She sighed heavily, wondering just what it was about airport restrooms that invariably made their occupants look like walking corpses.
She reached into her purse for the overpriced and much-hyped little pot of pink cream, which, if its publicity was to be believed, would perform a miracle of restoration. ‘Smoothes and hydrates the skin to restore your inner radiance’ the box stated optimistically. It would have its work cut out; in reflection she looked about as radiant as a month-old jar of dandelions.
Still, paying careful attention to her appearance bought her a little time and a longed-for limbo of the mind in which her purpose for being here might be briefly suspended. For some unnecessary reason, she’d felt the need to bring the letter with her and it was burning a hole in her handbag. Ridiculous, of course. She would never need to read it again to know what it said; she’d memorised the lines as thoroughly as a well-rehearsed actress embarking on a new play.
Please visit us, his father had written. It would mean so much to his mother and me. She’s ill – she may not have much longer. It’s Christmas and we understand what a busy time this must be for you, but we want to meet his friends and colleagues, the people who cared about him. Please come.
A bit late, she thought bitterly. They hadn’t bothered with any of that before he died, when he was still the person who was their son. He’d been virtually disowned over his refusal to follow in the family footsteps. Making it clear that he wasn’t prepared to walk the path chosen for him had led to more than fifteen years of estrangement; anger and disappointment ruling out the possibility of forgiveness. In fairness, it hadn’t been a one-way street. There’d been no forgiveness on his part, either, despite opportunities over the years. Invitations, supplications, had all been dismissed with typical implacability.
If she was brutally honest, she had to admit how tempting it would have been to simply continue down the road of rejection. After all, they were nothing to her; she didn’t owe them anything. It had been months since she’d returned his few remaining possessions to them and they hadn’t acknowledged receipt. For all she knew, they might have burned the lot.
They hadn’t even attended his funeral. She’d been unimpressed with the feeble excuse that his mother was too ill to travel. Lost in heartbreak, it hadn’t occurred to her then that his legally expressed wish to be buried in a location as far removed from his birthplace as possible was a final act of cruelty towards his family. Enlightenment and compassion had finally arrived two weeks ago, preceded by their pathetic little plea. His mother, looking for respite from the disease ravaging her body, had sought distraction in sorting through the remnants of her son’s life. With that had come the inescapable truth. Her child, lost to her for most of his adult life, was now lost to her forever. It seemed the only comfort left was in seeking contact with the people who had understood him best.
We didn’t know about you, the letter continued. He never mentioned your relationship. But we realise now how important you were to him, how he must have loved you. We want to meet you; there’s so much to talk about. You can tell us how he lived, how he died.
Of course she could; in theory, anyway. The biography of his life would end with the fictionalised last chapter that had been devised by Spectrum. All she had to do was deliver it with Oscar-worthy aplomb. But it was too much; he’d been gone less than six months. She wasn’t ready to pick over any aspects of their relationship for the delectation of others, let alone lie convincingly about the horror of his ultimate fate.
Naturally, it was Scarlet who’d nailed the metaphorical coffin. He’d read the last line of the letter – Please, talk to us – and said flatly, “You have to go. I know you don’t want to, but you must. It’s the right thing to do.”
And so, on the 18th December, this is what it had all come down to – putting on her lipstick, putting on her brave face, putting off the inevitable in a ladies’ loo in John F Kennedy Airport. She blotted her mouth with a tissue and turned to toss it into the waste bin. Of course, it would be full – the blasted things always were. As she lifted the lid to push down the paper, her eye caught the inscription on the underside; ‘Property of Idlewild’.
She’d forgotten that was the name of the airport before it had changed its identity in homage to a long-dead American president. Idlewild somehow reminded her of edelweiss; a pretty, flowery, alpine name. Nicer than JFK, she thought. Maybe one day they’d go back to it.
Reluctantly, she picked up her overnight bag and slowly made her way towards the baggage carousels where refugees from later flights now stood, wearily waiting to be reunited with their luggage. The spirit of Christmas hadn’t pervaded this part of the airport, it seemed. She wondered why ‘Arrivals’ were always so eerily depressing, holding none of the bustling, brightly lit festive promise of ‘Departures’. It was as if, between the going and the coming, passengers had the life-blood sucked out of them.
Scarlet was standing where she’d left him, arms folded in impatient resignation. The carousel behind him was now empty; they seemed to be the last remaining passengers from British Airways flight BA1516 from Heathrow.
“You’ve been so long I was beginning to think you’d bottled it,” he said with a look of exasperation. “I was about to have you paged on the off chance you were actually still in the airport.”
“Sorry. I’m really sorry, I just.....” Her voice trailed off helplessly as she looked past him towards the Exit sign. What lay beyond that door, she wondered? Redemption? Hardly likely. She said, yet again, “What are we doing here, Paul?”
“For God’s sake,” he muttered, raking his fingers through his hair in a typical gesture of frustration. “Sim, you know what we’re doing; how many more times do we have to go over this?”
“But I don’t know what to say to them.”
“Yes, you do. You just tell them what we’ve agreed on and that’s to give them as much of the truth as we possibly can. Come on, honey, we’ve rehearsed this. We’re word perfect. It’ll be okay.”
She sighed and reached out to squeeze his hand. “You’re right, I know. Thanks for coming with me, Paul. I’m not sure I could have done it on my own.”
“I wouldn’t have let you. Besides, they did say they wanted to see me, too. And, I must admit, I’m curious. In all the years of knowing him, there was always an element missing; something I didn’t quite get. Maybe they hold the last pieces of the jigsaw.”
“They don’t deserve this,” she replied fiercely. “He doesn’t deserve it; not after everything he’s done. How can I look them straight in the eye and tell them their son was killed in action, that he’ll be remembered as a hero and they should be filled with pride? How can I feed them such rubbish? How?”
Scarlet put down his rucksack and placed his hands squarely on her shoulders. “Because it’s the truth,” he said, quietly. “They didn’t deserve to have their son die and he didn’t deserve what happened to him. He wasn’t wholly responsible for Mars. We all missed something that day, but he paid the price for it. We’re doing this because of the man he was, not the monster he’s become. That thing out there is not the person we loved. You have to separate them in your mind, Sim, otherwise you’ll go mad.”
She shook her head. “Everyone’s paying the price, Paul. It’s cost us all in one way or another - look at you. My mind isn’t the problem; it’s my heart that can’t seem to get the message.”
“It will,” he replied reassuringly. “Eventually. You just have to take it one day at a time.”
“You and the bloody shrinks,” she muttered. “Next you’ll be quoting the 12-Step Program at me.”
“I was,” he said with mock solemnity. “That’s Step 4 – or is it 5? I can’t remember. Anyway, the point is, we’re here to do a job and we have to get on with it. So, courage, mon brave. Avanti!”
“French and Italian in one sentence? You’re unbelievable,” she said with a fond smile as he picked up both of their bags and propelled them towards the canyon that lay beyond the double doors.
Once they were through, there was no turning back. She recognised their hosts immediately and not just because they were practically the only couple left in the Arrivals Hall. The man was an older, greyer, burlier version of Conrad, who stood stiffly and awkwardly beside a frail-looking woman in a wheelchair. She was dressed completely in black, her adornments consisting only of a wool blanket covering her legs and a bouquet of red roses lying across her lap. The hand-written sign her husband held up said simply, ‘Lefkon ’. Their fixed, tremulous smiles did little to negate the pleading anxiety in their eyes.
How odd, she thought. Why Lefkon? That was their name, not hers. For a split second she wondered if they believed she’d actually married their son. Beside her, Scarlet raised his hand in a wave and she watched their fear distil and evaporate into relief. She realised then what the placard meant. They’d been terrified she wouldn’t come; frightened that even if she did, she wouldn’t know them without a proclamation of their identity. She might sweep straight past them, out of the airport, away from Idlewild, to smash the olive branch to smithereens and break their hearts all over again.
It had been the right decision, she thought, suddenly understanding that in point of fact, her conscience would have allowed no other option. Whatever she could offer these people would never be enough, but the gratitude etched on the drawn, jaundiced face of his mother carried its own reward. This is one last thing, Con, she said silently. One last thing for you. No more hiding behind excuses. We’re doing what you should have done years ago.
And with that, she stepped forward, her hand outstretched. “Mr and Mrs Lefkon? I’m Simone Giraudoux and this is Paul Metcalfe; Conrad’s best friends. We’re very pleased to meet you at last.”
The idea for this little vignette has been floating around for a long time now, but the inspiration to bring it to fruition came from Gretchen Peters who also provided the title.
Hazel Köhler beta-read in double quick time which is much appreciated at this busy time of year.
The usual nod of gratitude and respect goes to everyone involved with the production of ‘New Captain Scarlet’ and, as always, huge thanks to Chris Bishop for all she does in posting the stories so beautifully.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did writing it. Merry Christmas, everyone and all the best for 2013.
December 6th 2012