This week’s excerpt comes from In My House, by Alex Hourston, and published this spring by Faber & Faber in England. The book focuses on the orderly single life of one Maggie Benson and how it is turned upside down by a chance but ultimately heroic encounter with a young woman in the ladies’ room at Gatwick airport. The novel, Hourston’s first, was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2013. It can be purchased here.
THE FLIGHT WENT ON, a long two hours. There was somebody famous a few rows back I should have recognised, but didn’t. I bought a small bottle of white and a tube of Pringles and enjoyed them despite the hour. Chose a pack of sample-sized perfumes for the woman watching my dog and looked at all the places the airline flew to in the last pages of the magazine. I remembered my back and thought of the moment I’d have to stand.
Then we were there, and the descent into Gatwick was bumpy but so close to home that disaster seemed implausible. I looked down and noticed the same things as always: England cut up into tidy squares, the occasional blue of a Home Counties pool, the car parks that appeared about now, each vehicle a tab of blistering colour, curved and reflective like a beetle’s back. I wondered if my own was down there; a Volvo, ten years old. More likely somewhere dodgier, tucked away on cheaper land. I’d left the mileage written on a strip of paper Sellotaped to the dash; a warning or deterrent against advantage not yet taken. A sense of aggravation took root, and I knew from experience that it would be hard to shift.
It was still there as I waited to get off. Aimed briefly at those people who stood too early and were left in a low squat above their chairs; nowhere to go. Then a thick slot of day at the end of the plane and we were moving. I started up the aisle but my case seemed suddenly too wide. It caught and tipped, forcing me to attend to it. My chest and neck were hot and the wool of my jumper itched where it met my skin. I was stomping, no doubt, by the time I hit the body of the airport, overtaking the more leisured passenger idling by on one of those stupid flat escalators. Slamming around in an inherited response that I hated but had never tried to change. I stood out, that’s for sure, trying to put distance between me and something back there, most likely my earlier self.
I wondered, later, if it was then that she saw me. Assuming she had planned her move. She would have known that the whole thing hinged upon one person, a stranger. What a punt. And how best to choose? When I’d huffed into view, at odds, out of step, I might have looked like her best chance. But at this point I was headed for customs. That was no good.
I walked down the final ramp and saw the passport desks stretched out on my right. Already people were backed up before the three manned stations, the rest digitised; my own passport yet to be chipped. I took my place in the line and reached for my phone to let the car people know that I’d landed. Or the loo first? I looked up and down the stretch of queue, the very picture of indecision.
Maybe it was this gesture she read. Held her breath. Felt it as her first piece of luck in a long time. But I am overstating my role. I headed for the Ladies.
The sight of my face in a public-lavatory mirror is always a surprise, something I put down to the lighting, but a distraction nonetheless. There was a moment or two spent glancing at myself in each new panel as the line moved forwards. Still ten or so people ahead. I watched the other women look at themselves, pull special faces for their own reflections. Their lack of self-consciousness startled me, their absorption in the task. They couldn’t all have someone meeting them off their planes. Some, surely, would merely return to whoever it was they’d left outside, an everyday person holding their spot. I wondered if the effort would be noticed, warrant a mention. I felt my own dislocation from that, and was fine with it.
Then my attention was free and almost instantly I had a sense of the person behind me. It was her breathing; short, hard and pulsed. She was panting almost, giving off an animal panic that I felt in an answering surge of adrenalin. My first thought was some kind of anxiety attack, and then that she’d done something bad. Left a bomb. I looked back to the mirror and found her there.
It was clear that she meant to tell me something. Her face was locked, its lack of response in breach of every protocol of civility. It was like standing in front of a painting knowing that there is meaning, hidden but suggested, if you only knew the language of the thing. A few seconds of this blank exchange and she turned, the girl, twisted her upper body round, deliberate eyes on me till the last, and whispered close and brief behind her. The woman she spoke to gave a flick of a nod. The girl left the line and walked past me, close enough that I smelt new sweat.
She went to a sink, bent deep at the waist and looked up at her face. She viewed herself differently from the previous women. Up close and frank, something brutal in it. She filled cupped hands with cold water and threw it at herself, darkening the roots of her hair, somehow shocking. Behind me the older woman watched.
The two were dressed the same. Clothes near to typical if you squinted–blue jeans, bright tops with zips and hoods–but look again and you could spot the differences. Colour and cut slightly off; I surprised myself with that acknowledgement. No branding or logos. Cheap. Not high-street cheap. Cheaper than that.
There was a similarity in their colouring. A thin milky paleness of skin. A shared ethnicity perhaps. Their hair was dyed a matching red. Family even? Surely not friends. Behind me the woman’s phone pinged and the girl’s eyes were back to mine. In that second they flared and I saw her fear, unmistakable.
The keys of the woman’s mobile clicked and she hissed as she typed, the noise of air sucked hard through her teeth. She was still tapping when the phone rang in her hand and she answered in a language I didn’t recognise. In the mirror, the girl mouthed: ‘Help.’
She moved from the sink and slotted back in behind me and it took everything not to respond, to give her some sign that I had seen. There were three people to go; two, one, and the pressure to act grew huge and it was time to either take my turn or not, and I didn’t; instead I said behind me: ‘Sorry, I’ve just got to. Sorry. You go,’ with a sort of smile.
I felt she knew I had understood. She stepped forward and shut the door behind her, eyes low. I left the queue, fumbled in my handbag, trying to explain away my actions with a show of fluster, but no one cared. For what seemed like ages, nothing happened and we all watched the front of the toilets.
There was a rustle of resentment up and down but at last a door opened, a good way along, and a mother and child came out. The other woman, the older woman, went inside.
Straight away I moved to the young girl’s door. While I’d been waiting I’d been thinking of her age. Maybe eighteen? Early twenties? And that a best guess. I tapped gently with the pads of my fingers, tried to listen, and whispered: ‘I’m here, be quick.’
The lock went and she was out, grabbed a handful of my jacket, and we were moving. She pushed open the first heavy door into a short corridor studded with vending machines selling condoms, tampons and toothbrushes in balls. We were alone, the exit sign was green ahead but she stopped and pushed me back against the wall. It wasn’t rough, more intimate. She didn’t speak, but looked that long look at me and I saw a change in the aspect of her face. The stress dropped out of it and I tried to do the same. She took my arm.
We walked back into the hall, and its noise and movement flipped my stomach. I started, unthinking, towards the desks, but she applied a gentle pressure and we banked smoothly.
We got maybe six or ten paces and he was there. Slim and still, violence pouring off him. He stood in front of us and let his physical presence do its work. I simply started to scream. No, that sounds too defenceless. There was nothing womanly about it. Yell. Shout. I’m not sure what. Generic abuse that a woman can use against a man. And lunge at him too.
At first they thought it was me. The airport police, or whoever, were there instantly; took the top of my arms, tried to move me away. But anger was pounding in my head and I couldn’t claw back control enough to explain. The girl stood apart, like an onlooker, saying nothing. He started to back away, hands up in surrender, suggesting I was mad, I think. It seemed he was willing to let her go. But she began to move, stealthily; circling the rim of the drama. Then stepped in, and it was when she spoke that her story began to assume its true shape. I may have looked like a crumpled old crazy but there was authority in her words, although we couldn’t understand them. She was cold and focused and undeniable as she spoke into his face. I was frightened by her, and at what it was he had done. We were all moved off into a room.
Excerpted from In My House by Alex Hourston. Copyright © 2015 by Alex Hourston. Excerpted by permission of Faber & Faber. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Editor’s Note: MyLittleBird is flying off for the long weekend. We hope you have a great last gasp of summer! See you next Tuesday, Sept. 8.