Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Mixed Doubles by Michael McCarthy

When a passenger plane disappears over the ocean, Susan is captivated by a man hopelessly waiting in the airport for his wife to return from the flight - but Susan's partner thinks she is being foolish; by Mike McCarthy.

'It's amazing how your life can change or end just like that. Pure luck.' Susan waited, knowing the response, if any, would not be immediately forthcoming. 'Ian, do you realise how lucky we are?'

'Umm.'

'I'm talking about that plane that disappeared over the ocean.'

She looked at him, his eyes riveted to the screen of his tablet as he played yet another round of his favourite game, something to do with kidnapping and escape. That set the scene for the journey home from work. In fact it didn't so much set the scene as continued it. But she tried.

'You know, Ian. There must be people at the airport, waiting hopelessly in vain for their loved ones. Maybe we could just help. Offer a shoulder.'

'Umm.'

'Ian!' She jabbed him in the ribs.

'Ouch! That hurt. Can't you see I'm busy?'

'It would be lovely if you'd just listen to me. For a change.'

'Of course, I'm listening.'

She shook her head wearily. We're going to the airport.'

'Umm.'



She caught him just as he fell. He was heavy, of course, and she struggled to retain her balance, slipping uncomfortably to the ground while still supporting him.

They were quickly surrounded by a mixture of those eager to help, those only interested in gawping, and her partner, Ian, who, with a pained expression on his face and abrupt jerking movements, was clearly signalling her to leave the man to his fate.

The man's beautiful blue eyes glazed over and his head flopped onto her chest.

Their eyes had met as he'd threaded his way anxiously through the masses of travellers in the direction of the besieged information desk. It was everywhere on news screens all over the airport; still no news on the missing aircraft.

She'd felt an instant connection. He emanated a melancholic charisma.

His head cradled in her arms, he'd come to almost immediately and stared into her eyes, confusion and pain transforming his face as he remembered.

He'd tried to get up.

'No. Please. You may need medical attention.' Susan cautioned him as, with her help, he slowly and awkwardly struggled to his feet.

He was tall, slim, paternal, grey haired and at least thirty years older than her and Ian.

'I'm so sorry, my dear,' he croaked.

He had a soft, refined voice, clearly a man not given to shouting.

Susan looked into his pale blue eyes and swallowed heavily.

'Please. At least sit down for a moment.' She gestured to a row of chairs behind them.

She took his elbow and slowly steered him towards the seating, through the withdrawing group of onlookers, aware that Ian was following her and indicating she should leave the man on a chair and escape, while fiddling with his tablet at the same time.

'I'm so sorry, my dear,' he repeated.

'You've no need to be. Let me get you a glass of water or something.'

'It's my wife, you see...'

Susan was distracted by Ian standing behind the man and holding up his tablet for her to see. There was a breaking news band running across the bottom of the screen, 'Missing Texas flight found in ocean. All feared dead.'

'She was coming in from Texas after visiting an old school friend and... today is our anniversary. We've been married thirty eight years.' His gaze strayed to an overhead monitor broadcasting the news headlines and his head slumped back.

'I'm so sorry.' She could feel the tears stinging her eyes.

He patted her arm. She couldn't look into his eyes.

'You've been so kind... I'm sorry, I didn't catch your...'

'Of course. Susan Hinton, and this is my partner Ian Houseman.' As she spoke she saw Ian was edging slowly towards a crowd of people engrossed in their phones and tablets as though being sucked in by their collective energy.

'John McCreadie.' He said and took her hand in his. His hand was big and rough and hairy. A real man's hand. She shivered slightly.

'Mr. McCreadie...'

'John. Please. And may I call you Susan?'

'Of course.'

'Susan, you've been more than kind. Now I really must let you get on with your own life.'

'But where are you going?'

'Please don't worry about me Susan, I'll be alright.' He bent and kissed her lightly on the cheek. He wasn't wearing aftershave, she noticed. He didn't need it.

But in those eyes she could see the undying devotion for his loved one. Like the pathetic devotion for its master in an old dog's eyes.

This was a man of patience, kindness and decency. A man who'd literally fallen into her arms. She luxuriated in the idea.

She touched her cheek and looked around for Ian, but he was now firmly absorbed in his tablet, subsumed by the crowd of similarly preoccupied people.

She felt McCreadie's absence before she confirmed it with her eyes. As mysteriously as he'd appeared in her life, John McCreadie had disappeared from it.

'Keep out of it Susan!' It was Ian.

'Why?'

'It's too personal.'

'No, Ian! It's not!' She looked around the cavernous terminal in vain for McCreadie.

'You can't just interrogate a complete stranger at a time like this.'

'I don't want to interrogate him. I want to help him. Especially at a time like this. He's completely on his own.'

'Susan. It really is none of your business.'

'I care. It's my business. I'm going to look for him. And you're coming with me.' She ploughed ahead while Ian shuffled after her prodding his tablet.

Susan and Ian, early thirties, short dark hair, painfully thin, dark suited and professional looking, negotiated their way through the milling throngs of passengers.

'Susan. We've had a hard day...' Ian whined after several minutes.

'He's lost his wife, Ian.'

'He's probably got a bit on the side anyway. She can comfort him.'

'He's too refined to engage in such sordid behaviour.'

'Come off it!'

'I don't know where to begin'. She felt the tiredness envelope her.

'Sleep on it. It'll all look different in the morning.' Ian counselled, vaguely.

Reluctantly, she agreed. They were being buffeted by people moving in all directions. She was exhausted. She needed sleep. She would need a clear head to look for John McCreadie.



Susan sipped her breakfast coffee. Opposite her sat Ian totally involved in some juvenile game on his tablet.

Why had she agreed to live with him? They hardly seemed to speak these days.

His face was always stuck in that stupid tablet.

He'd persuaded her, that was why.

'We're not getting any younger, us two.' He'd said. 'Just for companionship.'

It hadn't seemed a bad idea at the time. They were both loners, number crunchers at a leading European bank, who lived to work, with next to no social life, except for each other.

'Ian, I can't get that man out of my mind. I'm going to the airport to see if I can find out anything about him. I'd like you to come with me.'

There was no response. It was like speaking to the wall.

'Ian. Would you please listen when I'm talking to you?' She raised her voice.

'Or at least pretend to.' That got his attention.

'Yes I heard you. I just want to get to the next level...'

'Ian! I said... never mind.'

'I know. Like I said yesterday, I don't think you should get involved. Anyway the chances of him being there are nil.'

That was delivered with a trace of petulance, or could it have been jealousy?

He managed to tear his eyes away from his game. Now she was going to go on about this 'connection' thing again and tell him off for trying to talk her out of seeing how the old bloke was.

'I'm convinced we had a connection. I should have pursued it, but I let you talk me out of it. What did you have against him?' Susan demanded.

'I just didn't want you setting off on some fool's errand. I was only thinking of you.'

She dismissed that with the contempt it deserved. She knew how he thought, he was so transparent. He had all he wanted, her. And anybody else, anybody, he saw as a threat.

In fact, all Ian wanted, all he had ever wanted, all he would ever want was to get his leg over at the weekend. Nothing more. She could live with that.

But why should she?

'He needs me. I'm going to the airport.' She stood up, sparing the top of Ian's head a withering glance.

'But why would he be there?'

'I've read about such things. At a time like this, after such an accident, the bereaved need somewhere to gather.'

She spent the best part of the day tramping through the airport, from terminal to terminal; from shop to shop; visiting caf├ęs and restaurants; walking down endless corridors. She stuck her nose into the chapel several times.

She saw groups of people she took to be relatives of the missing but couldn't bring herself to disturb them.

She hovered around queues and flocks of people; even followed men of a similar build into the gents' toilet on two occasions, but to no avail.

Disheartened, worn out, but still determined, she resolved to go home and come back the next day.

That was when she saw him, standing at the top of an escalator looking down at her. It was almost as though he was waiting.

She lifted her arm and waved, tentatively.

He raised his hand and stepped on to the escalator.

She felt a tremor seize her body and a light sweat break out on her forehead.

It felt like destiny. She could see Ian for what he was, immature, fickle, boring, a cipher.

Here was a real man. Urbane, experienced, intellectual.

And then he was standing in front of her. Those incredible blue eyes. She shivered.

'How lovely to see you my dear. I'm sorry, I've forgotten your...'

'Susan Hinton. Mr. McCreadie...'

'John, please.'

She was standing directly in front of him and he had her hand in both of his.

She felt dwarfed but safe and protected.

'I'm so sorry about your wife. After so many years together...'

He swallowed and nodded.

She led him to a bank of seats and gently encouraged him to sit down. Sitting

beside him she took his hands in hers and looked into his astonishing eyes. They were like well washed denim.

'John, what are you doing here?' she asked softly.

'I'm waiting for Diana. You know that.'

'John. I'm sorry, but you know your wife is dead. She died in that horrible crash.'

'My wife has never broken a promise to me. Never. She said she'd meet me.

And meet me she will.'

She was right about him the first time she saw him; he was a man of unwavering fidelity. With his wife gone, he was falling apart.

'John. Let me help you...'

'You're so very kind Susan. But I have all I need. Except my dear wife of course. I'll just wait till she comes.'

'Why don't you spend the night at my place? Just one night, so I can look after you. Please John.'

'I have everything I need here. Really.'

'Here? You're not sleeping here, John? You can't be.'

'I know what I'm doing.'

'At least come back for a meal.'

He gave her a weary but kind smile.

'In case you change your mind. Here's my address and phone number.' She slipped a business card into his breast pocket.

'I won't. But I'm grateful for your concern, Susan. Really.'

'Well. I'm coming back tomorrow then,' she said.

He allowed Susan to hug him and patted her reassuringly on the shoulder.

She walked slowly away, her mind in a turmoil; when she turned around, just before exiting the terminal, she couldn't see him, then she looked at the escalator and there he was, at the top, surveying the huge hall like a sentinel.



'Well, did you find him then?' Ian asked as she sank onto the sofa. She didn't like the sneer in his tone, but was too tired to pick him up on it.

'Yes. I did.'

That took the wind out of his sails.

'I'm surprised you didn't bring him home.'

'It wasn't for the want of trying.'

Ian had a big mouth but not the confidence to back it up. Why had she settled for a self centred, boring drip like him? That was easy, the same reason he'd settled for her.

They suited each other.

Why couldn't John be just a bit younger? Why? What was she thinking?

She'd trample Ian into the ground for John. Even one night with John would be a damn sight better than the rest of her life with Ian.

'Are you going to see him again?' This time a note of uncertainty had crept into his voice.

'He needs help and a decent night's rest, not to mention a good hot meal.'

'Since when have you been the charity for bereaved old men?'

'Since I met John McCreadie.'



'So you got your way didn't you? You dragged him here from the airport.'

'I didn't drag him. I persuaded him to come. He needs help, support and friendship.'

'Well if he's staying, I'm going to a B&B.'

'Don't be childish.'

'He's already got his feet under the table, I see.'

'What are you talking about?

'He's sitting on my sofa.'

'Behave, Ian.'

'You're having something with him. Aren't you?'

'Grow up, Ian. He's a friend in need.'

'A friend in need is a pain in the arse.'

The slamming of the front door heralded Ian's departure and Susan's arrival in the front room.

'I'm sorry for all the trouble I've caused, Susan. I'll go after him.'

'No, John. It's just his ego that's bruised. Nothing more.'

She took his hand. 'John, you're so cold. Let me get you a hot drink.'

'Susan, to be honest, I'm just so very tired. Would you mind if I had a lie down?'

'Of course not, John.'

He lowered himself slowly onto the double bed.

'Shall I wake you later, John?'

'Would you lie with me, Susan?'

'Of course, John.'

He held out his arms and she nestled into his embrace, her back snuggled against his chest.

'Thank you, Susan.'

'Thank you, John.' Susan couldn't believe it. Lying in this man's arms. She was his. Anything he wanted, he could have it. Anything.



Ian came back the next morning to find Susan at the breakfast table, radiating serenity.

'Is he gone?'

'He's got a name.'

'Is Mr. McCreadie gone then?' He asked sarcastically.

'Yes. For the time being.'

'What's that supposed to mean?'

'You work it out.'

'Let's try and get on with our lives.' He said.

'Yes. Separately. I want you out of here. Now.'

'Susan!'

'Don't argue with me. Just go!'

'Susan. Is it that weirdo?'

'If you mean John, no. I've been thinking about this for a long time.'

'But why?' He pleaded.

'Because I'm tired of you, Ian. That simple. Just go.'

'Susan...' His voice faltered.

'Ian. It's my flat. Just go.'

'Well if you want to spend the rest of your life with that old fool... He can't have long to live if you ask me...'

'He's more of a man than you'll ever be. You know something Ian? I'd rather spend one night with that old fool, as you call him, than the rest of my life with you.'

'Be careful what you wish for.'

'Don't be so melodramatic.'



After a few days in a cheap B&B reviewing his options, Ian decided to get away for a while; he knew there was no persuading Susan at the moment, she could be a stubborn cow, but she'd come round, he'd only moved in with her because he felt sorry for her and this was how she repaid him. No. When she came crawling back, he'd send her packing. He didn't need her.

Slumped in his seat on the airport train he resorted to his tablet; he didn't feel like playing a game, and instead logged onto his and Susan's local paper. There on the front page was Susan's face, under the headline, 'Local woman missing'.

He'd warned her, 'Be careful what you wish for.'

Ian read carefully, a growing sense of unease spreading over him, it went onto say that police were eager to interview her partner who had not been seen for a number of days.

He obviously had to contact the police, if only to rule himself out of any possible investigation.

At the airport he decided he needed a drink before contacting the police.

He sat in the bar nursing a large brandy.

Something wasn't right.

He could feel eyes on him, he looked around quickly. No. The few people in the bar were either gazing at the banks of monitors suspended above them or in conversation with each other.

But something definitely wasn't right, he could feel it. Or thought he could.

Where was Susan? He was nervous, it was no wonder, what with all that had happened recently.

Susan had gone off with that old fool. That was it, she wanted to make him, Ian, jealous and by apparently disappearing cause him unnecessary trouble with the police. She was with McCreadie now in some hotel, but he'd drop her. She was too clingy. Blokes don't like that.

He went to the bar for a refill. Something in his peripheral vision caught his eye.

He glanced up and saw a figure standing at the top of an escalator, looking around as though he was surveying his domain.

He shuddered and drained his glass.

'For fuck's sake. Get a grip,' he admonished himself loudly.

He ordered another large one.

He was being observed.

'Calm down!'

He sat down.

Leaning back trying to look casual, he glanced up at the figure again.

Was it him, McCreadie?

The figure slowly turned away, Ian reassured himself, he had been mistaken.

He retrieved his tablet and decided to play a game to distract himself.

The screen remained black.

'What's wrong with this stupid thing?'

He poked and cajoled it but the screen remained black.

'Typical!'

Grabbing his luggage he decided to leave his unfinished brandy, maybe it was making him nervous?

He went to the newsagent to buy a newspaper.

He glanced up at the monitor outside the shop and there was Susan's face.

'Missing woman found at home. Dead in bed,' screamed the headline.

'Fuck! No! Poor Susan. It can't be true.' But he'd warned her.

He was distracted by a whiff of a strong and exotic perfume and the presence of a white suited woman in front of him at the till, fumbling in her hand bag. It was hardly surprising she was fumbling, with those massive sunglasses on.

She had slapped a magazine on the counter.

'I'm sorry,' she drawled to the shop assistant, in that unhurried way the arrogant rich have. 'I don't usually carry much cash and I can't find my credit card.'

Ian had always liked older women, from afar. Susan was older than him, three years actually. But he'd brought experience and stability to the relationship.

He was drawn to the woman, in spite of the awful news about Susan.

Maybe it was the alcohol, but doesn't alcohol accentuate your true feelings and desires?

The queue behind them was beginning to get restless, but she was unmoved.

'May I help?' Ian asked.

She turned to face him. She was captivating. She pushed her sun glasses up to nestle in her thatch of thick, dyed, tumbling blonde hair.

She was deeply tanned, a bit too much, he thought, but her hazel eyes were the clincher, he was powerless almost paralysed by them.

'Without a doubt.' She breathed and he felt her cool, fresh breath on his face.

There'd be time to mourn Susan later.



The blonde, tanned, sunglassed, white suited woman entered the airport bar, glided elegantly through the tables and trolleys and made for a secluded table in a corner.

Several people stopped to stare, she had that way about her, like a well preserved and beautifully ageing female icon of the silver screen.

Later, when the search for Ian had spread to the airport - he had bought a plane ticket after all - nobody could recall seeing him, he hadn't even checked in, in fact he was never seen or heard from again.

'I've ordered a bottle of champagne,' McCreadie said.

They waited while the waiter opened the bottle and filled their glasses.

'You're usually a one night stand man. Why did you prolong it with her?' Diana asked.

'I felt sorry for her. I felt she deserved a nice couple of days after wasting her life with that creep. She got to me. I can't explain it any other way.'

'You're getting soft in your old age,' she teased.

'What did you do with him, by the way?' McCreadie asked.

'I haven't started on him yet.'

'You've also changed. You used to dispose of them almost immediately,' he said.

'You were right about him. I took an instant dislike to him as well. I'm going to enjoy myself. How many is that now?'

'I've lost count.'

'Tell me again John, how do you choose them?'

'I just throw myself at their mercy.'

'What shall we drink to?'

'Mixed doubles,' he answered.

'Mixed doubles.'

They clinked glasses.



As he left the shop arm in arm with his glamorous catch something became clear to Ian and he smiled.

He was so wrapped up in his thoughts and his new companion that he didn't notice the figure at the top of the escalator, nodding his head as though in confirmation of something.

'Why are you smiling?' Diana asked him, in that deliciously throaty voice.

'Maybe I'll tell you later.' Ian answered.

What was that Susan had said? Something about one night with McCreadie would be worth more than the rest of her life with him, Ian?

Well, he'd warned her. Hadn't he? 'Be careful what you wish for,' he'd said.

Well she'd had her wish. Now he was having his.

10 comments:

  1. Powerful, dark and playful - all at once. I felt as if I'd been in spinning machine as one reality morphed into another, into another. As Ian said, 'Be careful what you wish for.' 'Chickens coming home to roost,' also came to mind!Many thanks, Mike,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Ha! I'd love to know what inspired this story! I had no idea what was coming. Wonderfully dark. Thank you.

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  3. Greatly entertaining story, with well drawn characters and a masterful redirection of reader expectations. I love it! Thank you, Mike.

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  4. A skillfully woven tale. I imagine that a real missing plane story set the author's imagination on fire! Global news can be a great spark for a story. I also like the way that the narrative toyed with our preconceptions. Well done.
    S.Lucas

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  5. Hi Ceinwen,Louisa and Nancy,
    many thanks for your kind comments.This story took ages to write as I didn't know where it was going! I like spending time at airports just observing people and I think I must have sub conciously absorbed something!
    Thanks again
    Mike

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  6. Another fine story, Mike. Sometimes it's better not to know where the story is going and just let it take the lead. I was suspicious of John, but not in that way. Nice turn. Keep 'um coming.
    Jim

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  7. Hi S. Lucas and Jim,
    It´s obviously true that global news has an enormous impact on us although we may not realise it at the time, so that must have influenced me. As you say Jim, it´s better to follow the story and it usually takes you somewhere interesting!

    Thanks

    Mike

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  8. Gabi: "It`s amazing how your life can change or end just like that. Pure luck. Ian, do you realise how lucky we are?" What a malicious beginning of this brilliant story!
    An unfulfilled, dissatisfying partnership; the woman in need of a "true" man and "true" love, the man filling his inner vaccuum with computer games and in need of some decoration for his miserable self., both of them observing each other with cold eyes. Two other pairs of cold eyes belonging to two human monsters observing their future victims and presenting themselves as tempting baits in the disguise of a "true man" and a very attractive and rich woman.
    And there are two other pairs of cold eyes. One belongs to the reader - me - who thinks about the victims "It serves them damned right! How can they be so foolish?" The other pair of eyes belongs to the author who thinks "All`s well that does n o t end well." Or am I wrong, Mike? If yes, sorry!
    Anyway, may we all be lucky and may the traps awaiting us be harmless1

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  9. When starting reading I first expected a standard love story but it turned out to be a psychological drama ending as a crime story, a brutal one.

    Reading was thrilling. A master piece of yours, Mike. Thanks for giving us another fascinating picture of yourself.
    Norbert.

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  10. I also found this playful and thought the young couple got what they deserved! brutal maybe but compared to the horribly seductive John & Diana, no contest!
    Superbly written story, Mike

    Monika

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