Read an exclusive extract of Sunrise with the Silver Surfers by Maddie Please below!
That morning I entered Heathrow, Terminal 5 with a thrill of excitement. I’d made it this far without anything going wrong; now all I needed was to get on the right plane. With all the security and checks, was it actually possible to get on the wrong plane? Knowing my luck, I probably could.
This time I could enjoy the bustle of people, the sound of the announcements, I could check the departures board as often as I liked without Tom at my elbow, tutting and sighing and telling me to keep a close eye on my case otherwise it would be taken away and blown up.
I know people complain about queues and delays but I love airports. They always make me feel optimistic. Go through those gates and anything could be possible. A week in the South of France. A fortnight in the Greek Islands. A road trip around New England. I particularly liked the sound of that; I’d always wanted to do one.
I hadn’t actually travelled very much since coming to England all those years ago. There were school holidays for us all to consider and the resulting and very unfair increase in the price of flights. And of course, worse than that, Tom never fancied the places I suggested we might visit.
We’d managed to take a few package holidays over the years; Tom thought it was important our son Dan should be able to brag to his classmates about visiting Disney or Paris or Venice. But we never explored the places I wanted to see: picturesque French villages with adorable boulangeries, or the soaring beauty of the Italian lakes, or the twinkling Christmas markets of Germany.
Having watched my ex-husband on our last budget flight together to Jersey to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary, it confirmed my belief that the real reason was he was terrified of flying but wouldn’t admit it. Even when he almost pulled the arms off the seat when we took off. I swear he was doing little running movements with his feet although he denied that too.
This time it was going to be different. For one thing, I was traveling alone. Without Tom sweating or complaining about the size of the airline seats and couldn’t I budge over a bit. Without Dan wanting crayons (aged 8), snacks (aged 14) or more leg room (aged 18).
That morning I was of course far too early; that’s just me. I was even early thirty four years ago when Tom and I were married, and I had to sit in the car behind the village hall until my bridesmaid – my younger sister Rowan pretty in Liberty print – told me he had arrived. He’d insisted we were married in Gloucestershire because his mother was ‘too frail’ to travel to Australia. Sylvia always was ‘too frail’ to do anything that didn’t suit her.
In hindsight I should have done things very differently, but I had been in love with a handsome man who seemed mature, stable, and confident while I was none of those things. Thinking back, I didn’t seem to have much of a say in anything. He always claimed to have swept me off my feet. It was only later that I realised this isn’t always a good thing.
I wasn’t going to think about that, not today. I was single again, back out in the world, and this holiday was going to be different. Slightly scary but very exciting at the same time. I was going on a proper adventure.
After all those years, I was going back to Australia to see my family.
* * *
Joyce was an elderly lady who used to walk her dog in the park next to the house Tom owned, and after my divorce I’d moved to live just down the road from her. My new neighbour Lizzie and I had kept a special watch on her in her last months when she was house bound, doing her shopping, taking her meals, and helping her put her photos into some sort of order.
She had literally thousands, many of them still in the paper envelopes from Timothy Whites or Boots. Black and white pictures of her smiling in front of the pyramids or Machu Pichu or various statues of Buddha in Thailand. And later, colourful snaps of her in Hawaii, Hong Kong and New York. How wonderful to have seen so many places.
‘There’s a lot of world out there Elin,’ she’d said, ‘you must see it. And so should Dan. You’re a young, healthy, attractive woman in your prime. Make the most of it. Before it’s too late.’
Fat chance of that, when my husband hadn’t even bothered to renew his passport.
But then, exactly a year after the ink was dry on my divorce from Tom, Joyce died. And much to Tom’s frustration, she had left me a considerable amount of money that he couldn’t get his hands on. And she left the same for Lizzie so she could get her leaking roof fixed.
Along with my bequest was a letter of wishes from her with the strict instruction that I must use some of it for travel. So that’s what I was doing, standing on a bright June morning having got rid of my big suitcases, hanging on to my cabin bag, reading the notice about things I was not allowed to take on board with me (swords, stews, shaving foam or pepper spray) and plucking up the courage to go through security.
* * *
Evidently I passed the ‘looking dangerous and requiring a strip search’ test and was allowed through to departures without incident. Then I made my way, heart thumping, to the business class lounge because for the first time in my life I had upgraded my seat. Tom would never have allowed it, not in a million years. When he did travel, he preferred to go for the cheapest airline in the cheapest seats and then complain all the way there and back about the discomfort. I mean it wasn’t as though we couldn’t have afforded to upgrade to perhaps premium economy, but we never had.
On our ill-fated trip to Jersey, he had complained about having sciatica, a bad back, and possibly a deep vein thrombosis after an hour’s flight. And yes, it did rather ruin the mood for the rest of the week as we both anticipated the return trip.
It was absolutely miles to the business class lounge. Perhaps really rich people had the use of the electric carts or perhaps there were special secret entrances somewhere? I had a good look around to see who was coming with me and didn’t see anyone remotely famous.
At least the moving pavements were working, and I could stride briskly out, feeling a silly sense of triumph as I passed the people who had chosen to just walk. I resisted the impulse to walk backwards on it, or pretend to be swimming, something I’d seen on social media once. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so amusing if I fell over and got my clothes tangled up in the slats.
Heathrow airport declares incident as woman eaten by travelator.
I eventually found myself in a calm, quiet, armchair-strewn lounge with a wonderful view of the runway and the ground crew.
There is always one man in a high-viz jacket and ear defenders standing around next to the plane apparently not doing anything. I was delighted to see he was still there, still apparently doing nothing.
There were free meals. And drinks. Okay, it was only eleven thirty in the morning but would madam like some champagne? Yes, indeed madam jolly well would.
I collected a glass and went and sat in one of the squishy leather armchairs overlooking the runway. I looked around. Had anyone noticed I was travelling alone? Did they wonder about me in the same way I wondered about other people? Or had I just disappeared into the background as a lone, middle aged woman? Everyone else seemed to have someone to talk to, there were even a few children rushing about, seemingly used to this sort of thing. I wondered what Dan would think if he could see me. But then I began to enjoy myself. No one needed anything from me or couldn’t find their car keys or wanted to know where I was. Until I was half way down the glass of bubbly and my mobile pinged.
Tom. Of course it was Tom. The reality of our divorce didn’t seem to make any difference to him now he was dissatisfied with his new life and sleep deprived. Ashley had smugly announced her pregnancy with astonishing speed after their wedding. Considering it had taken me six years to get pregnant, I didn’t know Tom had it in him. Nor did he, I suspect. Starting again at the age of sixty with a new baby, a thirty-five year old wife and with a twenty-eight-year-old son to explain himself to can’t have been easy.
Where are you? I was hoping to catch up.
I ignored him; recently I’ve decided it’s the best way. Why my ex-husband still thought I wanted anything to do with him after the way he behaved is a mystery. It was like I was some sort of comfort blanket for him.
Elin, I need to speak to you.
Are you at home, I might pop in?
I sighed and replied. I think like most women my age, I’m a people-pleaser. It can be a real problem, but in a strange kind of way I wanted him to know that I was doing something. Something exciting.
I’m at Heathrow drinking champagne.
Very funny. So is five thirty ok? Maybe closer to six.
I won’t be in.
So when will you be in?
I went to look at the food displays and was suddenly hungry. It was nearly three hours until the flight and I had been up since before dawn, so I might as well have a little something. Rude not to really when they’d gone to all that trouble.
I decided on a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, (low-fat – I do need to keep an eye on my cholesterol) and a chocolate brownie, washed down with more champagne. Outside I could see the white and gold bulk of a huge plane being loaded with suitcases and pallets of stuff. Food perhaps? Sparkly, exciting things?
Elin, what time will you be home?
Foolishly – perhaps it was the champagne – I relented and replied again.
No idea. What exactly do you want Tom?
You see, my impulse to show off was backfiring on me. I was opening up a conversation with him when I didn’t want one.
I’m in the middle of some really serious stuff here and I’ve had about ten minutes sleep in the last week. I think Josie is teething or something. I don’t remember Daniel making such a song and dance about it. Or about sleeping. I could do with a bit of sympathy and a strong gin and tonic.
Then have one.
I shouldn’t have replied. I should have turned my phone off. I should have blocked his number months ago. But I’ll admit occasionally seeing his increasing dissatisfaction with his new ‘soulmate’ gave me a certain schadenfreude. Perhaps that’s not very kind of me?
I don’t suppose you’d make lasagne for me this evening would you? Extra special pretty please? Ashley is having a go at being a vegan and it’s killing me. She says its healthy but I feel quite faint half the time.
I smiled to myself, how simply frightful. Tom had always said a meal without a chunk of meat on his place was merely a starter. Perhaps Ashley wasn’t quite as amenable as I had been.
What are you doing Elin?
I told you. I’m at Heathrow. I’m going to Australia for two months. I’m in the Business Class Lounge at Terminal 5 drinking champagne.
Tom assumed radio silence. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had fainted. I raised my glass in a silent toast to myself and my adventure.
* * *
The room was busier now with people sitting by the window, drinking coffee and chatting. A few were working on their laptops; a couple were on their mobiles, a tiny Japanese woman at a nearby table was eating noodles with chopsticks as though her life depended on it, some people were dozing. It was all very pleasant. No one was shouting or pacing about, or asking me for anything.
Business Class? Are you completely mad? Why would you want to go back to Australia after all this time? Elin, when are you back?
1) No I’m not completely mad 2) because I want to see my family again. And 3) MYOB.
The little dots at the bottom of the screen to show a reply was on the way appeared and then disappeared. Evidently Tom was offended. Or outraged. Well tough. I might have been ‘swept off my feet’ once, but my size fives were firmly back on the ground now.
* * *
A very nice-looking man who had been standing looking out of the window came to sit opposite me. Not that I usually take notice of these things, but he was tall and tanned and rather lovely. Business Class travellers could certainly be eye catching.
He leaned towards me and I gave him a nervous smile.
‘You don’t mind?’ he said with a broad, white grin.
He had great teeth and a faint Australian accent. What did he want? Perhaps he was going to be on my plane. Maybe he had spotted me across the room and taken a shine to me for some reason. If he was attracted to short sighted (recently acquired contact lenses) fifty eight year old women who perhaps should have fitted in a haircut before their holiday? No, he wanted something didn’t he? Men always use charm and smiles when they want something.
‘Mind what?’ I said, a bit flustered.
He smiled again and pointed to the wall next to me.
‘I hate to disturb you, but I need the power socket. My laptop’s nearly out of charge.’
‘Oh of course not. Help yourself,’ I said flushing a bit and he messed about with cables before he started typing. I wondered what he was doing.
I allowed myself the sort of fantasy that had always irritated Tom when he saw I wasn’t paying proper attention to him but had zoned out.
Perhaps the Australian was a high-powered businessman on his way to an important board meeting. In Sydney, in an office with a fabulous view over the harbour through the floor to ceiling windows. He would have changed out of his chinos and t-shirt obviously. Perhaps he would be outlining some impending business reshuffle, or takeover? The room would be filled with steely eyed men in dark suits, all drinking iced water out of crystal tumblers. He’d have an impressive PowerPoint proposal to go through and the others would nod and make notes in leather…
Mum, I’m thinking of coming over to do my washing this weekend. Our machine has packed up.
Dan, I told you. I’m going to Australia.
Bloody hell. I’d forgotten. Skye is working all weekend at the wine bar. I’ll have to go to dad’s and Ashley has the wrong sort of washing powder. It brings me out in a rash.
God forbid Ashley had the wrong sort of washing powder. Don’t use it, buy your own washing powder. Here’s an idea. Go to a laundrette? Do your washing there?
Are you really going to Australia?
I’m at Heathrow.
Definitely on my way to Australia.
Why didn’t you remind me?
I did. Several times.
The last time was two days ago.
Mum, I haven’t got a key for your house.
No I know.
So how am I going to get in?
You can’t. You don’t actually need to get in.
Tiger mother, that’s me, sending my cub out into the wilds with only a degree in maths, a teaching certificate, and a rudimentary knowledge of domestic appliances.
Flipping heck, Mum. Well have a nice time.
I intended to have a nice time. With any luck I’d have bloody marvellous time.
I gave a snort of laughter and realised the nice-looking man sitting opposite me had stopped typing and was watching me. I felt my face flush. What must he think?
‘Everything okay?’ he said; he was obviously trying hard not to laugh.
‘Fine,’ I said, straightening my face. I have a habit of muttering when I’m texting, and sometimes have a conversation with myself, voicing the things I don’t actually type. What on earth had I been saying?
‘Just a few last-minute things to clear up.’
‘Sounds like it. So where are you off to?’
‘I’m going to Sydney to visit my aunt and uncle and my sister,’ I looked at my watch, and felt a sizzle of anticipation, ‘in an hour and a half.’
‘That sounds exciting. I’ll be on your plane,’ he said, ‘I live on the outskirts of Sydney.’
This was going surprisingly well. Perhaps we would strike up a conversation about Australia and he would tell me something about himself and I would be interesting and engaging and he would find me unexpectedly fascinating, and I would make him laugh. I pushed my fringe out of my eyes and sat up a bit straighter.
‘The washing powder could be a problem though,’ he said thoughtfully.
Bugger. I could feel my face getting hot again. What else had I said?
He typed for a few minutes and then snapped his laptop shut.
‘First trip to Australia?’
‘I was born there. But I haven’t been back for ages. My parents died years ago; we are only a small family, and my sister and I were brought up by my father’s sister. My aunt Maggie. She was ten years younger than my dad. She and my uncle Banjo have been to visit me a couple of times and so has my sister.’
‘Is his name really Banjo?’
‘It’s Bernard but no one ever calls him that.’
‘We have Zoom calls and WhatsApp and Skype…’
He shook his head. ‘But it’s not the same, is it?’
I smiled and relaxed a bit, glad that he understood.
‘No, it’s not the same. My ex-husband hated flying and just refused. But now I’m single again and my son has his own flat and is reasonably independent, well I can.’
I was talking far too much. And saying the word sister a lot. All those years of keeping my opinions to myself had started to wear off in the time since Tom and I had separated and then divorced. Even so, I was being a bit garrulous, even by my standards. Did he need to know I was divorced? That I had a son? A sister? That my parents had died? That my aunt had been to visit me? No, I was being far too free with my personal details. He could be anyone.
Australian businessman didn’t seem to mind. He appeared to be listening with interest.
‘That’s excellent. Good for you. I hope you have fun. It’s quite a trip, and I warn you the jet lag is just as bad as it ever was.’
‘And you?’ I said, realising we were just talking about me. And I wanted to know more about him; he seemed really nice. And rather handsome. It was a long time since an attractive man like this had noticed me. Or any man for that matter.
He ran one hand over his hair, which was dark, shot through with streaks of silver.
‘I make this trip quite frequently. Far more often than I actually want to. Business. New South Wales is a beautiful part of the world, and Sydney is a wonderful city. Make sure you see the Rocks area and the Opera House. And Darling Harbour. You won’t recognise it. There’s been an incredible amount of development there since you left. Not to mention all the roads that have been built. It’s very impressive.’
‘I will, I certainly will,’ I said eagerly.
He gave me another smile and then he stood up.
‘I’ve just remembered, I have a couple of phone calls I must make, and I tend to shout and pace about. Enjoy your champagne and have a good trip,’ he said.
He unplugged the cable again and loaded up his laptop bag.
‘You too,’ I said.
Had I said something to put him off? Pity, I was actually enjoying talking to him.
I watched him walk away, and then went back to my drink.
Ping. Tom again.
I know we have had our disagreements, but you could at least be civil.
I sent a last text to Lizzie telling her I had got to the airport safely, and then one each to my aunt and sister telling them the same thing, and then I turned my phone off.
* * *
Getting on the plane was very exciting indeed. The cabin crew were all helpful and smiling and there was so much space. I couldn’t believe it. I had my own little pod to sit in, slanted towards the window too, which made a change because on the few other flights I have known, Tom always insisted on sitting in the window seat so he could point out things I couldn’t see and wonder aloud if the wings were strong enough. That sort of thing. Then if Dan was with us, he would insist on the aisle seat, leaving me crushed in the middle between two man-spreaders and no arm rest.
What is the etiquette on arm rests anyway? Surely I should have access to one if not occasionally one and a half in a fair world. This time I had two to myself. And shortly after that, a steward with a pair of tongs brought me a hot face towel in case getting on the plane had made me grubby. I happily wiped it over my face, forgetting I had carefully applied make up that morning. Now the rest of the cool, hip business class travellers would see that my complexion was probably blotchy with the champagne I’d knocked back.
Oh well. I’d never see any of them again. I bet I wasn’t the only one.
I accepted a chilled bottle of mineral water and another glass of champagne while outside, the ground crew disappeared and the corridor connecting the plane to English air was pulled back.
The captain introduced himself over the intercom and told us all about the cabin crew who apparently spoke lots of languages and would attend to all our needs on the flight to Dubai. His voice was smooth and calm, and he sounded tall and capable, and he was probably very handsome too, with a finely chiselled jaw and a noble nose. Marvellous.
For the first time since a school trip to Canberra, I was thoroughly enjoying myself on a plane. I could listen to the safety briefing, appreciate the massive thrust of the wheels on the tarmac, the stomach swooping moment when we took off, and the sight of London disappearing beneath the clouds.
Down there, people were getting on with their lives, their problems, sitting fuming in traffic jams on the M25 while I was soaring away above them with my mobile turned off and about five hundred films to watch on the entertainment system in front of me.
It did feel strange after a while because I had no one to share this with. I hadn’t really thought about that part. I had no companion to turn to and say how excited I was. Discuss the meal choices or the wine we were served, no one to agree on the comfort of the seats, the marvellous amount of leg room, the abundance of arm rests. After so many years, I was going to see my childhood home again. It was seven years since I’d seen my family and I was fizzing with excitement. I had no one with me to share my delight at going back to Australia. That sort of thing.
What time was it anyway? I had no idea. Apart from everything else, the blinds in the cabin had been closed shortly after take-off and the lights were low; perhaps they were hoping we would all go to sleep? Well, there was no chance of that; I wasn’t going to waste a moment.
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