Looking out at the night sky, he caught sight of his reflection in the glass. Tightening his stomach muscles and pushing his chin out, he tried to convince himself not so many years had passed. The reflection flattered; wrinkles were ironed, lines disappeared.
The reflection came from the window of the bus that carried the inbound passengers the short distance to the terminal building. One of the low cost airlines would have expected people to have walked two or three times the distance across the tarmac, whatever the weather. He felt himself too old for unnecessary discomforts; travelling light, he had no desire to risk spending the following day in a damp suit. The extra cost of the European airline seemed reasonable for the assurance of arriving dry.
Stern border agency men stood at the immigration control, were they given special training in assuming grim airs? He remembered the first time he had flown to San Francisco and the United States immigration official had talked about the newest Star Wars movie and had welcomed him to the country. Perhaps working late in the evening made them feel a sense of resentment towards those who chose to travel at such an hour.
Catching a train to the city centre, he pondered those who sat in the carriage. A handful from the airport had joined the company of those who might be found travelling by rail late at night, long distance passengers, returning weekenders, tired workers.
Stepping out of the station, there was a bite in the spring night air. Eschewing the offer of a taxi, he walked toward the hotel. English city centres at night time seemed strange when compared with many of their European counterparts. The streets were mostly deserted. Beneath a covering of cardboard, a man lay in an office doorway. Across the street, a couple walked with their dog. A cluster of youths stood outside a takeaway.
The hotel was locked. He rang the bell and a receptionist opened the door. “Are you paying cash or credit card?”
He hesitated to point out that in most hotels guests paid on their departure, not on their arrival; more significantly, he had paid in advance. He took a receipt from his pocket. The woman looked at him dubiously and took the receipt. A young man appeared from the office and apologized at the confusion.
Exhausted, he collapsed onto the bed. The decor of the room was circa 1979, the ceiling might not have been painted since. Hanging up his clothes, hastily brushing his teeth, he climbed beneath the thin duvet and contemplated the anaglypta wallpaper.
The day to come would bring its own anxieties. A working meeting followed by a meeting with a friend from decades past, from a time when there was no need to tighten stomach muscles or attempt to conceal double chins.
The night was passed uneasily, the room was cold and the duvet seemed to lack the length to cover both his shoulders and his feet. Waking early, he shaved and showered and put on a candy striped shirt with the dark suit.
The smell of greasy food from the kitchen persuaded him to pass on the opportunity of a hotel breakfast. The city centre was little busier than it had been the previous night. A pavement was filled with children crowding into a school. Stepping into the road to pass them, he realised some were the age he had been when he had first known his lunch date. In forty years’ time, would any of them walk the street of a strange city, apprehensive about meeting someone with whom they had been at school?
Drinking tea in a cafe, he looked over the papers for the morning meeting. His mind wasn’t on what lay before him, whatever fear might have been attached to the meeting was insignificant compared with the flood of thoughts about what lay beyond it.
Meeting his superior at the railway station, he shook hands and they adjourned to a coffee shop to go over his submission. The superior seemed to detect a sense of detachment and said, “I think you have another meeting to attend.” The superior handed him notes on what was expected and he muttered a quick “thank you,” before rushing for the railway platform.
He had two minutes to spare and gasped to recover his breath. Boarding the train, every stop seemed an eternity. The journey was to take an hour and forty minutes – one hundred minutes – how long could that be? Every minute was one per cent of the time. That was the way he would count the journey, by percentage points.
Did trains out of cities always go so slowly? Did time always lag so? He felt like a child waiting for Christmas. After a journey lasting ages, the train arrived.
“Fool”, he thought, he had arranged no meeting place. Dozens of people left the train and he hurried toward the exit, where would she be? Please, please, don’t let me miss her.
A voice called from behind him and he turned and opened his arms and there was a moment of magic, years, decades fell away. Foolish he might have looked, but he did not care, he reached out and took her hand and with irrepressible joy they walked out onto the street. There is no love like first love.