This is chapter one of a novel I have written. Feedback is welcome.
I woke up stiff and achy. I was pretty sure I had the beginnings of jetlag even though I was still in the air. It was that wretched mixture of queasiness and exhaustion. I hate flying long-haul. Let me correct that. I hate flying long-haul in economy. Flying across the world when I’ve been upgraded to business class is awesome. I can highly recommend it. But this wasn’t one of those times.
I checked my watch. I had slept – if you want to call it that – for five hours. That may sound like a lot on a plane, but I’d started counting when I left Sydney 26 hours before. There was still two hours to go before we landed in London, but I knew I had no more sleeping in me. I was annoyingly wide awake. I yawned a big, ugly yawn, the kind I usually reserve for solitary moments. It was one of the few benefits of sitting in a cabin full of people I’d never see again once we landed.
I stretched my neck from side to side and pushed my palms into my eye sockets. My eyes felt like they wanted to be anywhere but inside my head. I dug around in my seat pocket for eye-drops, tipped my head back, and irrigated the poor things with soothing coolness. Resting my head back on the seat I longed to be in a bed – any bed – even a camp cot, and I hate camping. I just wanted to be lying flat so I could stretch out my aching muscles. I certainly did not want to be cooped up with all those strangers in a ridiculously uncomfortable seat, breathing that stale, nasty air.
Yup, I’d definitely woken up on the wrong side of the plane.
Still, crankiness was easier to deal with than the other thing on my mind. I was anxious and I had been for the past few weeks. Not about the flying. I’d flown enough times to treat a patch of turbulence with indifference, but when it came to the thousand and one other things that could go wrong while travelling, I was in full-blown neurotic mode.
To be fair, I had a reason to be anxious. Those thousand and one things – I’d experienced every single one of them – a flight delayed so long I’d had to sleep on the airport floor; flights cancelled altogether; missing hotel reservations; a stolen wallet; a suitcase that disappeared in transit; a suitcase that showed up a mangled mess and spilling its contents on the baggage carousel; malaria! Okay, so it wasn’t actually malaria. It was a slightly less insidious parasite, but it still knocked me on my ass for five days when I was supposed to be hiking the Inca Trail.
I looked out the window at the passing clouds. Whatever was going on, I should have been excited about the amazing trip I was about to embark on. I was on holiday! After an overnight stay in London, I was going to Santorini. That’s right, the Santorini of Greek island fame. So you see, in the big scheme of things, I had very little reason to feel so sucky.
Thank the Greek gods that my sister lived in London. I was thrilled I’d get to see her before I went to Santorini. I’d missed her like crazy. Plus, she’d tell me not to be such a drama queen, which I desperately needed to hear. I really didn’t want to start my holiday with a rash of nervous hives.
Catherine – or Cat, as I called her – had moved to England fifteen years before, aged nineteen. We only saw each other in the flesh every couple of years when she came home to Sydney or I went over to London. I knew that she would ease my worries – real or imagined – with a good hard dose of tough love. It was one of the many, many reasons she was my best friend.
The rest of the flight was uneventful and within a couple of hours of waking up, I’d had my breakfast of congealed eggs and cold toast, washed my face with a moist towelette, cleared immigration, and was waiting at baggage claim for my backpack. I was normally a suitcase kind of a girl, but I’d brought a backpack because the brochure had said to. Apparently, there wasn’t much space inside a yacht.
Oh, did I forget to mention that? The trip would start in Santorini, and then I was sailing around the Greek Islands for nine days. Not by myself – I don’t actually know how to sail a boat. The skipper would be doing the sailing, and there’d be some other people on the boat, but most importantly there would be me – on a yacht!
As I watched bag after bag pop out of the baggage shoot and tumble down onto the carousel, my nerves were replaced by something much better, excitement. I felt it bubble up inside me, as it really hit me that I was going to Santorini! In Greece! And then to a bunch of other Greek islands that I couldn’t remember the names of!
I could see myself on the bow of the yacht wearing my tangerine bikini and duty-free Prada sunglasses – which both looked fantastic on me, by the way – the wind whipping through my hair. I’d be like Leonardo DiCaprio – the king of the world! Well, queen anyway. Princess, at the very least.
Finally after a millennium, my bag appeared. Good thing too, as my yacht fantasy was devolving into something out of an 80s video clip. I grabbed for the handle, fumbled with it a bit, and then lugged it off the carousel. It wasn’t very big, but it was filled to the brim with the perfect Greek Island adventure trousseau: the obligatory summer dresses, the obligatory bikinis, and the obligatory Bermuda shorts, flowing skirts, cute tops, sunhat – all of the obligatories. I was a travelling cliché and I didn’t care. Did I mention I was going to Greece?
I dragged the bag over to one of the airport trolleys, swung it aboard, stacked my handbag on top and headed for the ‘Nothing to Declare’ exit. The only think I had to declare was that I was going sailing in the Aegean, and I didn’t think that the Customs agents gave a crap about that.
Cat was waiting on the other side of the door behind the silver railing. She and I look almost exactly alike, except that I am 5’6” and she’s five foot. She’ll say she’s 5’ ¾” but she’s not. And she got the good hair. Bitch. It’s the only thing I hate about her. While I’m stuck with masses of curls – the really curly ones – she has thick cascading, chestnut waves. Like I said, bitch.
She ducked under the railing, even though I don’t think you’re supposed to do that. “You’re here!” she declared, throwing her little arms around my neck. I stopped pushing the trolley and returned the hug. We stepped back and regarded each other.
“You look fab!” I declared, tears in my eyes.
“You too!” she lied.
“Like hell I do. I just got off a 28-hour flight. I look like crap.”
“You’re right, but that’s nothing a shower and a good night’s sleep won’t cure. Come on.” Then she took over pushing my trolley, which was probably a good thing because Heathrow is busy even at the slowest of times and I wasn’t up to running the gauntlet. I followed obediently as she parted the crowd with a series of slightly-rude, “Excuse me’s.”
Back in her flat, my hair wet from the best shower I’d ever had, a cup of tea in one hand and a chocolate biscuit in the other, I sat on one end of her couch while we caught each other up on the previous two years. Of course, we’d emailed and Facetimed – we weren’t estranged or anything – but those things are just not the same as actually being together.
It was a new flat since the last time I’d last been there. She lived with a guy and a girl, and apparently the guy was never there, always away on business or something. I was immensely grateful for this arrangement, because it meant I could sleep in his bed rather than on the couch. Still, even the couch was better than sleeping in an airplane seat.
The girl, Jane, would be home later, and Cat had planned for the three of us to have dinner in. She said she was cooking and I pretended to be excited about it. Beggars cannot be choosers. Still, after four meals of airplane food, I would have been happy with baked beans on toast, or even just the rest of the chocolate biscuits.
“So, tomorrow you fly to Athens and then what?”
“I pretty much fly straight to Santorini. The lay-over in Athens is a few hours and I thought about sightseeing, but knowing me if I left the airport I’d get caught in a Greek traffic jam on the way back and miss my island-hopper.”
“Thank you so very much,” I replied my voice thick with sisterly sarcasm.
“I’m just agreeing with you. Sometimes you have shitty luck when you travel.” Sometimes. Understatement of the century. Still the excitement won out.
“Cat, can you believe I’m totally going to Santorini tomorrow?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jealous.
“But listen, when I first decided to go, I read all the brochures and about a zillion online reviews and then I booked it. And I was really excited for a while, but it’s been months since then, so after a while it stopped feeling real, until now, until today. I can’t believe I’m really going!” I grinned at her, and then I stopped. “I’m not being too obnoxious, am I?”
She smiled. “No, I’m happy for you. Really.” Not so jealous after all.
“I wish you could come too.”
“So do I, but there’s no way I could have gotten time off.” Cat was a teacher like me, but while I was on holidays, her school year had just started.
“Probably for the best. As you said, I have shitty luck with this stuff. Maybe you’re escaping a huge disaster of a trip.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, every time I travel somewhere, things go wrong. Look at last time in Peru! Plus I won’t know anyone, and…”
“Sarah, a little bad luck does not a disaster make. And besides, you used to run tours – long ones – for fifty people. You know how to make friends.”
“I know, but…”
“But nothing. The occasional bad luck aside, you’re you. You always manage to come out of whatever life throws at you. You’re a very capable traveller, and you’ve been around –” I threw her a stern look. “You know what I mean, I mean you’ve literally been around. You’ve been practically everywhere. You’ll be fine.”
See? Tough love. Plus, everything she said made sense, but still…
“That’s true, but what if it’s just completely horrible?”
She laughed at me. I probably deserved it. “It’s not going to be horrible. It’s going to be amazing, and you’ll probably meet some really cool people.” Then she hit me with the one thing I didn’t want to hear. “You know, you might just meet someone.” And then she gave me that look.
And in that instant, my sister, my best friend in the entire world, joined the ‘poor Sarah needs a mate’ pity party.
“Did you really just say that?” I asked, shooting what I hoped were fiery daggers from my eyes.
“What?” She feigned innocence.
“You know exactly what!” I didn’t think it was possible, but her eyes got even bigger. “Do you know how many people have said that to me since I booked this bloody trip?”
She shook her head, her eyes like saucers.
“A bazillion!” Okay, so sometimes I tend towards the hyperbole. It was probably more like twelve, but in my world, that’s a lot.
“Oh-kay!” she retaliated. “I didn’t realise it was such a sore point. I hope you don’t meet anyone, especially not anyone who’s good looking and makes you laugh – especially not an all-round great guy. I hope all the men you meet are old and fat and ugly. No! Better yet, I hope there are no men. I hope you sail around the Greek islands with a bunch of middle-aged lesbians! I hope you go to Lesbos, and are surrounded with lesbians!!” She pinned me down with a so-there stare, and after a beat we both fell about laughing. My laughter then turned into a yawn.
“How’re you doing over there?” she asked.
“Good!” I replied with more enthusiasm than I felt. She looked dubious. “Okay, I’m shattered, but I need to stay up and get on European time. I’ll be fine. The tea’s kicking in.”
“Okay, so how about some more tea then?”
“Yes! Definitely more tea.” I drained the last of my mug and handed it to her. She took it into the kitchen and put the kettle on.
With her back to me, she asked “So, as long as you’re staying up for a while, do you want to talk about it now?” She turned to face me, looking mildly uncomfortable, like she was holding in a fart or something.
“About what?” I asked, not really wanting to know.
“Neil.” I was right. I didn’t want to know. Neil was literally the last person on the planet I wanted to talk about. I would have put having a lively conversation about Hitler, or Stalin, or even Idi Amin over talking about the sack of shit I had called my boyfriend for the better part of a year.
“Oh. Okay.” I could see the disappointment registered on her face. I could also see her mind working. “It’s just that…well, we never talked about it.”
She was right. I hadn’t wanted to talk to anybody about what happened with Neil – not my closest friends – not even Cat. It was just so humiliating.
“True, but…” I hesitated. But what, Sarah? But, please don’t make me relive it all now when I am so exhausted that I would rather stick a fork in my eye? I thought that, but what I said was, “Okay.”
She brought fresh cups of tea back to the couch and pushed the plate of chocolate biscuits towards me. She knew me so well. “So, what happened?” She folded her legs under her and looked at me expectantly.
“Well, Neil was a dickhead and it took me far too long to do anything about it.” I took a bite of a chocolate biscuit.
“But why did you stay with him?” That was a question I’d asked myself a thousand times. I swallowed the hard lump of biscuit.
“I really don’t know. Pretty much from the beginning, there were all these alarm bells going off in my head. And I dismissed them – time and time again. I pretended that it wasn’t weird that he wouldn’t see me during the week, or that he refused to meet my friends, or that he hated me telling him anything good that happened to me.” Cat’s brow furrowed. “You know when I got promoted to head of department?” She nodded. “Well, I told him about it and he said – and I quote – ‘Well, thanks for telling me. Now I feel like shit about myself. Nice one, Sarah.’”
“He did not!”
“He bloody did. And I still didn’t leave him.”
“Jesus. And who was this slapper that he cheated on you with?”
“Hardly. Do I know her?”
“No, she was a new friend – from yoga – or at least, I thought she was my friend.”
“But, how did they meet?”
“They were both at a barbecue at my place. And I didn’t think anything of them talking to each other most of the night. I was just happy that he was finally meeting my friends. Apparently, it started right after that.”
“How did you find out?”
“I suspected something was up, because he was acting way weirder than usual, so I did something I never thought I would do – something awful.”
“What?” I could see the suspense was killing her, but I had never revealed this detail to anyone before. I sucked in my breath through my teeth. “I hacked into his email account.”
“Oh my God! That’s brilliant. How did you do that?” I laughed. I loved that rather than judging me, she was impressed that I’d done something so sneaky.
“Well, it wasn’t exactly hacking. I tried guessing his password. And I got in.”
“Yep. Second try. It was his footy team.”
“What a stupid idiot.”
“Yep. And there was an email trail of the whole thing. Months it had been going on – and get this, the whole time she was telling me to my face all about this new guy she was seeing.”
“I know!” I bit into the biscuit and chewed furiously; Cat was literally on the edge of her seat. “So, I confronted him about it, and he lied to my face and told me not to be ridiculous. I just looked at him – straight in the eye – and said, ‘I know for a fact that you’ve been fucking her, you lying cheat. That little slut can’t keep her legs or her mouth shut. So, this is over. Never contact me again. Oh, and I hope you catch her chlamydia.’ Then I left his place and that was it.” I shoved the rest of the biscuit in my mouth.
“That’s like something out of a movie.”
I nodded and swallowed. “Well, I did practice it a few times before I went over there. I knew he would deny it. Some of their emails to each even said how dumb I was for not knowing what was going on.”
I started to tear up. I chanced a glance at Cat and she was looking at me as though I was a wounded puppy. I looked away and blinked the tears from my eyes. I wasn’t shedding any more tears for fucking Neil.
“He’s a stupid bastard!” she declared.
“Yes, he is. But I haven’t told you the best part. After I broke up with him, I kept logging into his email so I could watch the aftermath. And boy did it get ugly. He accused her of telling me and she denied it, he asked if she had chlamydia, and she was outraged. He called her names, she called him names back and eventually she told him to fuck right off. So in the end he lost both of us. So, yes, a stupid bastard.”
“And you were with him for what, a year?”
“Close – it was about ten months, but I still can’t believe I stayed as long as I did. I haven’t seen him since, though, so it’s all good. I booked this trip the week we broke up.”
“Well, I’m glad you booked this trip – no matter what drove you to it.” She paused, “Sez, you deserve way better, you know that, right?”
I smiled. I did know that, yes. I knew that I deserved far better than to be cheated on by every man who I had ever called my boyfriend, starting with my high school sweetheart and ending with Neil the dickhead.
“Anyway, I’ve kind of sworn off men since then. I just want to be on my own for a while. I’m not sure how long ‘a while’ is, but for right now, I think that’s best.”
“Oh.” She looked surprised, which after everything I had just told her, surprised me.
“I’m happily single.” I wasn’t sure if I was trying to convince her or me.
“I’m sorry about what I said before – about you meeting someone on the boat.”
“It’s cool. I know that you’re just looking out for me.”
“And your vagina.”
“And my vagina? Well, that’s disturbing.”
“I don’t need my sister worrying about my vagina. I may have sworn off men, but my lady parts are just fine, thank you.”
“You’ve sworn off men? Entirely?”
“Well, not forever, but just until…” Until what, Sarah?
“Until what?” See? Even Cat wanted to know.
The thing was, I didn’t know myself what I was waiting for. I only knew that I wasn’t interested in meeting anyone. In fact, the thought of meeting someone new was utterly exhausting. And I had no idea when I’d be ready – or if I ever would.
A wave of fatigue hit me, sucking up my last ounce of energy. “Hey, would you hate me if I went and laid down for a bit? I can barely keep my eyes open.” I could see Cat mentally noting that I’d dodged her question.
“Of course not,” she said, letting me off the hook for the second time in as many minutes. “I changed the sheets in Justin’s room, so you’re all set. What time’s your flight in the morning?”
“Pft. Stupid o’clock. Six, I think.”
“Well, I’m a hundred percent sure that I’ll still be asleep when you take off, so it’s highly unlikely I’ll be up when you have to leave here. Want me to order you a car to Heathrow?”
“Sure. If I leave here at 4:15, will that give me enough time?”
“Should do. I’ll book it for you. I’m sooooo glad it’s not me.”
“You know, I’m just going to go lie down for an hour or so. I still want to meet Jane and have dinner with you guys.”
She looked at me with a knowing smile. “Sure, Sez.”
And that was the last thing I remembered when my horrid travel alarm intruded on my coma-like sleep at 3:30am London time. It was a good thing that when I went to lie down, I’d set it just in case. I tried to figure out how long I had slept, but I knew it didn’t matter. I felt even worse than when I woke up on the plane the morning before. I needed a hot shower, then a bucket of tea, and I only had forty-five – make that forty-three – minutes until my car arrived. Crap.
I only made the driver wait for five minutes, which I thought was pretty good considering how disoriented I was and how horrendous I felt. We made it to Heathrow in record time, as it seems that sometimes London does sleep and it’s at 4:30 in the morning. The sun was just lightening the sky as I forked over a small fortune in pounds to the cabbie. Then it was just me and my backpack and the behemoth that is terminal one of Heathrow. The nerves were back. I don’t know why on earth people refer to them as butterflies. They felt more like baby elephants to me.