by Pat Jourdan
tea with sugarMargo turned up early at her father’s house at the edge of Johannesburg without much luggage. Stan was surprised how much she had changed after her divorce, but then it was quite a while ago. They sat outside on the veranda in the evenings planning his visit to his brother in Montreal, a last chance to meet as they were both in their late seventies. Margo had persuaded him and even suggested going with him as encouragement.
“It’ll be a wonderful thing to do, meeting after twenty years! You’ll both be so glad and you’ll wonder why it took so long – Uncle Oscar will be really pleased you made the effort!” Margo cheered him up. She set to work on her laptop, finding out flight times, connections, printing out tickets and boarding passes, comparing currency dealers, travel insurance, looking for somewhere to stay overnight in Montreal and ordering new suitcases. “At least you’ve got a ten-year passport already, or we’d be stuck here waiting,” she added.
“It’s a good job you went to that conference in Canberra after you retired. We’ll need visas for Canada too.”
Stan was impressed how business-like his daughter was, how capable. She even organised new clothes for him, taking him with her and seeing that he bought outfits that would impress his brother.
“I’ll just dash off to the travel agents now about the visas while you try on something warm for Canada wear.” Margo was like a whirlwind.
They managed to get through Johannesburg airport with the least trouble.
“We’re on our way at last!” Stan said, a bit relieved it was really happening.
In Stansted airport Stan sat watching the people opposite, sitting in the brightly lit café that served real meals. He could see families sitting down to large plates with hot dinners, set next to desserts and drinks. Drifts of assorted food aromas reached him. Perhaps later he could go across and manage to have something to eat, but he had to ration out his money to last until tomorrow. All the other outlets were coffee bars, sandwich shops, newsagents, money-changers and boutiques selling all kinds of luxury goods. The never-ending stream of passengers entertained him; or at least they had at first. Now it was getting later, five in the afternoon here, something like eight o’clock in the morning in his jet-lagged bloodstream.
He still could not work out how Margo had happened to go off with his passport and his tickets. She also had most of his money as he had packed his jacket and only had a little space in his waistcoat pockets.
“I’ll take care of all that, Dad,” Margo had said. “I’ve got this handbag, after all it’s more convenient if I carry the lot together. And you shouldn’t be carrying so much loose cash, you might lose it. She kept pointing out how forgetful he was these days, and she was right. Ever since she had come to stay she was pointing out how often he could not remember where he put things and how his memory was really befuddled. Often he was puzzled at this; living alone, he had not noticed it until Margo had come to stay. Suddenly he was losing keys, forgetting to lock doors, mistaking the right time, it was a catalogue of mishaps. As she pointed out,all the more reason to go and visit his only brother while he could still manage the journey.
It had taken some courage to go and contact the enquiry desk and ask about the two o’clock flight to Montreal. But the check-in clerk could not help.
“That’s gone several minutes ago. It’s up on the board, you can see it on the Departures section,” the assistant pointed out. “If you did not turn up on time there would have been a public announcement. Didn’t you hear it?”
Stan was sure he had not heard his own name called but these days he was becoming more doubtful day by day.
“I’ve been here in the departures hall all the time, heard nothing at all. You say the flight has gone? My daughter’s on it, she has my passport and the tickets too.” He did not mention the money, the precious rands changed into Canadian dollars.
“Her mobile won’t be working while she’s on the flight, I suppose, so it’s useless trying to get into contact until they land.” The enquiry assistant looked at him carefully and being both kindly and efficient, made a call to Montreal arrivals hall that Ms Margo Naidoo, flying from Johannesburg via Stansted, should be contacted as soon as possible to come to their passenger counter and produce her father’s passport and tickets to the authorities in Canada.
“Well, that’s all we can do so far, you’ll be able to do something about that tomorrow morning. I’m sorry, that’s as much as we can do at present. You see, right now you have no confirmed travel identity and you cannot buy another ticket without your passport or credit card. We have to wait until we have confirmation.”
She looked over the passenger details of the flight again, but could find no entry for any Stan Govender. “Are you sure this was the right flight? There is another one later this evening. It has to have a changeover in Reykjavic 19.30 and arrives at Pierre Trudeau International the next day – you’ll have quite a wait, unfortunately” But that flight was also without any trace of his name. While Stan waited for any news he had time to think and wonder. How had Margo been separated from him in the luggage hall?
He had been waiting for her at the carousel for their suitcases and she had been lost in the crowd. He wheeled the overladen trolley into the airport hall, thinking Margo had probably gone off to the toilets but she had not reappeared. Stan loitered at the arrivals concourse along with all the taxi drivers and tour representatives. Nearly an hour had gone by before he accepted that something had gone seriously wrong. He did not have enough money to go off to a nearby hotel now, either – Stansted had several in the grounds. Margo had taken his wallet, for security, she said. “I’ll keep all the important things together, Dad, so you don’t lose anything.”
He sat with the trolley piled up with Margo’s and his own suitcases, sure that the mess would all be settled in the morning.
Getting into conversation with a middle-aged woman at the next table as they sat outside a café, Stan told her he was stranded here because his daughter had gone off to Montreal with his ticket and passport. He was stuck overnight with nowhere to stay. “I’m just going to sit here, have to sleep in a chair, she’ll be getting in touch as soon as they land and the mix-up can be settled. Just got to last the night here,” he said.
The woman was worried, though, and went across to a security attendant nearby, telling him of the old man’s plight. “He’s not a youngster and he can’t be left alone in an airport all night sitting in a plastic seat. In fact he doesn’t look at all healthy to me. I’d help, but my own flight to Vienna is due soon and I’ve got to be off.”
“I’ll have a word with him. You mean that old guy over there by Pret-á-manger with the gigantic luggage trolley? We have little overnight cabins for situations like this, anyone ill or overnight staff having to stay. Don’t worry, we’ll look after him.”
She went off to the take-away café and came back with teas and large sandwiches of cheese and tomato in wholemeal bread. “It’s the healthiest version I could find. I don’t know if you take sugar. There’s two sachets here,” she said as she sat down next to him again. “I love these airport sandwiches. I wonder where they get this bread from, is it something special? It tastes so different from any at home.” Stan accepted the tribute of food gratefully.
He had not realised how out-of-pocket he was. A few rand still in his pocket; not enough for a meal in any currency. It occurred to him that in this quickly-moving crowd he could sit here unnoticed as the world walked past. No one would see him.
The attendant showed Stan into a cabin, explaining he would be called for at first light. He would be safe in the forest of cabins until the morning. “Yes, this one is called ‘Larch.’ They’re all called after trees, Birch, Oak, Ash, Fir, Holly, Rowan, Willow and so on - they’re all here.” He helped Stan wheel the luggage into the little cabin and left Stan sitting on the bed. He was worn out and beginning to be far more worried now than he had been earlier. Bits of questions were falling into a strange jigsaw. Opening one of Margo’s three large cases, he found it full of old books; another was full of shoes. In her other case there were no clothes, no toiletries, just newspapers and magazines. It was the luggage of a woman who was going to disappear.