FICTION: A Terminal Christmas by Phil Charter

A terminal Christmas in an unknown city
Wishing you had more than baggage to reclaim
The queues are comprised of furrowed brows
And the tickets invalid for the date today.

Thinly veiled fury, of a passenger mob
Looking for somewhere to place the blame
In an airport terminal at Christmas time
Nobody knows your name.

***

“What’s in the case?” She hoped for something interesting, her eyes wide. “Is it a machine gun?”
Graeme was sitting on the floor with his back resting against a pillar. “No no. It’s drugs. Lots of drugs.”
“Ha ha, right”, Shari smiled, tapping the side of her nose. “What is it really, a violin?”
He looked around and raised a hand to the opposite side of his mouth. “Don’t tell anyone”, he whispered, “but it’s a ukulele.”
“OK then”, she whispered back. “We’re supposed to follow the staff to Baggage Area 1 apparently. I’m Shari by the way.”
“Graeme. Nice to meet you”, he said unfolding his body in installments. He towered over her, not knowing whether to go for a kiss on the cheek or not. Eventually, he settled on an awkward handshake.
“Bloody nightmare getting all the way here before they cancelled it”, she said, “No text, or email or anything. I really needed to get back to London tonight. Somehow my family are going to make all of this my fault.”
“Yeah . . . families eh?”
Shari was pushing thirty, with bright eyes and smooth dark skin. She looked back at a flight attendant handing out paperwork and listening to passengers’ complaints. “What a joke eh? I’m supposed to be going to the theatre with my niece tonight – panto.”
“. . . Oh no you weren’t.”
She sighed, “Hey, not funny. I’m meeting someone important there.”
“Have you got a date with Peter Pan?”
“I’m meeting a new talent agent actually.”
“Oh, you tread the boards do you?” he said stroking his beard.
She straightened a loose strand of hair, “Mmm, sort of, I’ve had a few acting jobs.”
Actually, she’d had more than a few acting jobs – fringe theatre, a recurring role on a soap, and her big break, the role of nurse Sanya Shah on a medical drama. Just her luck that the show had been cancelled six months after she joined, ending an eight year run. Her relationship with Dr. Ross had ended at about the same time too. With no job and no husband, there was sure to be a full investigation when the relatives arrived from India.
Graeme and Shari trudged back down the escalators with the other passengers, past the shops, and back through passport control. It was like playing a computer game in reverse, going back to level one. They finally arrived in the baggage hall, vending machines standing guard around the perimeter.
“It looks like someone has bought a few too many bottles of brandy”, Graeme pointed at a young redhead with stick thin legs. She was struggling to liberate two large roller bags from the baggage carousel. Shari nodded, already looking around for a baggage trolley for her big bags. Graeme spotted his tatty green backpack and grabbed it in one swift motion. He helped Shari haul her cases onto a trolley.
“Jesus, what’s in this one, a complete nativity scene, cast in bronze?”
They watched the others collecting their luggage – low cost airline passengers, stranded in Spain on Christmas Eve. Couples stood with arms folded, tapping away on their phones, tired of the arguments. Near the customs exit a smartly dressed businesswoman looked at her watch, tutting every thirty seconds like an angry kitchen timer. The young father next to Shari made bad jokes whilst his wife tried to ignore him. Shari gave him an encouraging glance. The young daughter with a pudding basin bob yawned.
The weary passengers marched outside and boarded the bus, scrambling for the last remaining free double seats.
“Saved you a seat”, Graeme said, and tapped the place next to him.
Shari scooted up into the aisle seat and swung her legs over her duty free bag.
“So come on then, I’ll bite. What the bloody hell are you doing in Spain on Christmas Eve?” she asked.
“I’m coming back from Colombia, just flew in today. I’ve been working there for a while.
“Ooh, sounds mysterious”
“Not really, I take whatever work is going, hostel barman, farm work, a bit of web design. The visas run out eventually.”
“Back home to see the family once a year, is that it?”
“I don’t have much family. But, yeah, something like that.”
“My family would go bananas if I didn’t come back at Christmas. We’ve got all of these relatives to show off to. You know, businesses to brag about, and marriages to arrange.”
Graeme looked sheepish, “Sounds uncomfortable. What about you? Why are you in Spain?”
“Well, now my story’s gonna seem pathetic. First I lost my job, then I got dumped and decided to do a bit of retail therapy and stay in nice hotel. I’ve spent a shit-load here. To be honest, most of the stuff I got was for me.” Shari looked down, “I shouldn’t be spending all the money really, but I’ve put off thinking about credit cards until January.”
“What about this lot?” he said looking at the other maroonees, “So many Brits coming back from Madrid on Christmas eve. I reckon they must be English teachers or something.”
He nodded towards an angular blond wearing a peacoat. “Definitely a teacher. I bet she gave those airline reps a good telling off.”
“I’m going to notify Martin Lewis and Money Saving Expert team”, he mocked in a high pitched voice.
Shari laughed and leaned back in her seat.
They started to move and she soon drifted into a catatonic state, not really asleep, but not fully aware of the sights of the city passing by. Shops closed their shutters for the holiday, leaving the city in a half lit dusk. The bus wound its way around the inner highways of Madrid as its prisoners kept a lookout for any landmarks – Motel California, Carrefour, Bar Tropicana. A ripple of excitement spread as they saw the large neon sign for Hotel Real. Three stars.
“Like they’re going to put us up there”, Shari murmured.
The bus turned into the hotel drop off point.
“They bloody are.”
The chattering increased.

***

 

Shari tapped her foot praying that the chair next to her wouldn’t be filled by another diner. What was taking him so long? The tables were already filling up. Finally she saw Graeme emerge from the foyer looking a shade lighter after his shower.
“Ah, there you are”, said Shari from the first table on the right, “I’m Hank Marvin.”
Graeme looked at her quizzically
“Hank Marvin . . . starving. Come on!”
“Right! Well . . . nice to meet you Hank”, he offered his right hand.
When Graeme sat down and they were finally at eye level. The glint from Shari’s small diamond nose stud caught his eye.
“Hi there, I’m Samantha.” The pretty girl from the baggage carousel beamed at him from across the table. “This place is totes amazing, isn’t it?” she said looking at the buffet. “And we’ve all got our own rooms. It totally makes up for it all.”
Young. Impressed by anything. Shari cast her gaze across the dining room. Everybody introduced themselves she feigned sympathy at their sob stories about how terrible it was to be away from home. She felt like a caged animal back in Crawley.
“How much did you earn in your last job? And how much is unemployment nowadays?” According to her mother, she only had two years to get married or she would be single forever.
“Pass the wine would you?” Shari reached out for the bottle in the middle of the round table. “At least they know how to treat a lady here.” She winked at Graeme. He seemed like the only other one who saw the unexpected stopover as a blessing not a curse.
Graeme reached for the bottle as Shari placed it on the table, “When in Rome . . . or Spain I should say.” Their hands touched for a brief moment.
The room looked like something out of a cheap wedding. Worn red carpet that was loose in places, high backed chairs with white covers, and plastic flowers on each table. A huge stainless steel buffet station, dominated the room. It smelled stale, even with fresh food, and there were smoke stains in the corners of the ceiling.
The food consisted of the usual bizarre mix of cuisines interspersed with platters of rice and bread in the hope that the guests would fill up on the cheap stuff. The desserts came straight out of the 1970s – creme caramels, jellies, and white ice cream with sprinkles.
Shari prodded at her chicken, but found the meat dry and didn’t trust the herbs swimming around in the sauce.
“Look at ‘er royal highness over there”, she said, pointing to a old Spanish lady. She wore riding boots and an olive green jacket with a silk neckerchief. Her grey hair was scraped back into a perfect bun. Shari hoped she wouldn’t turn into someone who dressed up to go to a hotel buffet dinner, even if she did end up with that toothy little Indian dentist that her mum was lining up. The thrill of judging people was the oxygen being pumped into the casino, keeping everyone alert. Shari tore a piece of bread into two so as not to appear too hungry.
Graeme caught the waiter’s attention, “Errr, una botella de vino más por favor?”, he asked rather than ordered. The waiter waltzed off, giving no indication of whether he was going to bring one or not.
“You should learn to beg forgiveness, not ask for permission” Shari said, pointing at the wine on the empty tables across the room. She got up from her seat and set off on her search and rescue mission.

***

 

Bar Tropicana turned out to be a strip joint. Shari had tried to cajole half the plane into going out for a nightcap but only Graeme, and Samantha – the peppy redhead, were game. They had helped themselves to a full bottle of wine each at dinner, and both girls needed to steady themselves on the walk, clutching on Graeme’s arms, one either side.
“I don’t suppose you know anywhere else around here.”
“No, the Plaza Mayor was about as far I got”, said Shari.
Samantha looked puzzled, veering slightly, “I’m surprised even this is open, people here take holidays very seriously.”
Graeme looked at his watch – 12:08 AM. “Let’s have a drink anyway, it’s Christmas for God’s sake!”
Shari looked back towards the hotel, the ten minute walk along the dual carriageway was not appealing. A couple of strong cocktails might help her forget about what she’d already spent on the credit card. Ah yes, the card! She could probably claim someone had stolen it and used in a club.
Samantha hung back, not wanting to pass the grumpy bouncer guarding the door. He was heavy set, wearing a dark suit and a floppy Santa hat.
“Come on, drinks are on me”, Shari marched over and dragged Samantha through the entrance. Graeme followed them in obediently, raising his eyebrows to the doorman.
The club was dark and empty. Europop pounded the walls, and coloured lights swept from left to right and from floor to ceiling. A huge banner hung above the stage – Felíz Navidad.
The hostess showed them the way to their booth and Shari opened her purse and pulled out her credit card. She ordered three mojitos, for once she didn’t have to care how much they would be.
Samantha, eyes glazed, stood up to dance in the booth. She showed off her best GoGo moves, raising her arms like a puppet.
Graeme grinned, “At least someone is putting on a show, it’s just us in here.”
The drinks had arrived, all forty five Euros worth of them. Shari laughed at the bill. Samantha took a gulp of hers in between her 1960s dance routines.
“Let’s go up there”, Samantha pointed to the empty stage, lights still sweeping side to side.
“Hmm, not my bag sweetheart. I’ll pass.”
“I need a partner, come on.” Now it was Samantha’s turn to pull at Shari’s wrist.
It felt like a situation from one those ‘choose your own adventure’ books she had read as a child.

Itinerary: Gucci riding boots, two Louis Vuitton suitcases, A cured cheese hamper, Tiffany earrings, a Swarowski crystal iPhone cover, Actors and writers handbook 2016.

Money: –£4,500

Situation: You sit in a deserted tavern club with a chivalrous knight. Do you
a) Use bawdy jokes and promiscuous dance to entertain him? Or
b) Forge a relationship through talk of culture and stately matters?

Turn to page 371 to continue.

Shari pulled hard against Samantha’s grip.
“Don’t be a grumpy goose, come on!”. They remained locked together.
“Just leave it OK. For fuck’s sake!” Shari finally recovered her arm, and smoothed her wrist with her other hand.
Samantha shrugged, “Be like that.” She took another gulp of mojito and headed off to the stage.
Shari looked around to see if anyone would stop her. The bouncer whose head looked like an oversized ball of stuffing had come inside. Samantha writhed up and down against the pole on stage. He just stood there with his arms folded, watching.
“I thought the dancers try to keep the punters off the stage in these kinds places, not get ‘em up there.”
“Yeah,” Shari drew her glass closer to her. “I guess I am still just a bit, well . . .”
Graeme raised his eyebrows again.
“Recent break up. He was seeing a younger woman, a redhead actually.”
“Shit, I’m sorry. Were you going out long?”
“No, not really, but you know” she put on a deep gravelly voice, “I’m getting too old for this shit.”
“Ha ha. Well, you don’t look a day older than you are.”
“I didn’t even tell you how old I am!”
“Busted. You got me”, said Graeme putting his hands up. They both laughed. “Cheers” he said, raising his glass, “Merry Christmas”.
He moved in for a kiss on the cheek, but Shari surprised him by turning and meeting him on the lips. She drew him closer and ran a hand through his thick hair. The pumping music around them faded, and she was finally free of everything – the job centre, the family questions and the credit card bills.
On their way back to the hotel, Shari pulled Samantha aside.
“Sorry about that in there. I’m just going through some, stuff”
“Oh. No worries.” She smiled. “Don’t give it another thought.”
The two girls hugged. Shari rubbed Samantha’s back in a maternal way and they walked on.

***

They had been waiting at baggage reclaim for nearly half an hour, finally back in London. The pudding bowl haircut girl struck up conversation with the a man who was wearing a cardboard Burger King crown.
“They have to switch it on soon.”
“Yeah, there’s probably not even any fucking baggage handlers on today.” He glanced at the girl’s parents, “Oh, yeah, sorry. Excuse the French.”
The mother had covered her daughter’s ears, but it was too late.
“Don’t worry”, said the girl with the hands still over her ears, “My mum swears too. And she drinks too. A lot.”
The Burger King smiled, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses.
The mum went red and busied herself trying to look through the plastic curtain to see when the bags would arrive.
Samantha turned to Shari, “So, spill the beans. What did you two get up to after the club then?”
Shari paused, “Well, he invited me back to his room and . . . ”, she checked to see if anyone was eavesdropping, “we had fun.”
Samantha’s eyes seemed to glow from the new gossip. “Oooh.” She rubbed her hands together. “Exciting”.
“Keep your hair on. It’s not exactly wedding bells, just a drunken shag.”
“So you don’t really like him then?”
“No, well, he’s nice you know, easy going. He’s definitely a lot lower maintenance than the last one. More trustworthy.”
“Well, how you met will make a good story. Club Tropicana.” Her eyes dimmed a little “Oh God, the dancing. Cringe! Tell me you didn’t take any photos.”
“Your secret is safe with me.”
“Did you manage to get any sleep on the plane?”
Shari squinted against the bright operating theatre lights, “I was out for the count the whole way, missed the food trolley and everything.”
“What about a quick airport selfie with you?”
“Sure, if you want. Merry Christmas.”
Samantha raised the phone up high and the girls pouted in front of the sterile backdrop. They embraced and said their goodbyes, and then parted ways.
Graeme had plonked himself down across the hall and was plucking his ukulele, oblivious to the impatient foot tapping going on around him.
Shari wandered over mulling over her options for a request.
Graeme looked up, “Hello you.”
“What are you playing, ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham?”
“No, I’m writing a little song about the greatest pole dancer in Madrid.”
Shari glared at him, but his smile didn’t break. She reached for a stand of hair to smooth. “She had some moves eh?”
He made another note in his little red book and put the instrument down.
“So where are you doing Christmas today? Got something lined up? I’m virtually a stone’s throw from my lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have given my bed away to some distant relative.”
“Hah. No, I don’t really bother with Christmas. Haven’t been back in years.”
“How come you back this year?”
“Some friends invited me to stay with them. Out of pity.”
“Where do they live?”
“I don’t think I can stomach it. Turning up like a little lost boy on Christmas Day. I haven’t even told them we’ve landed yet.”
“You should go. Don’t worry about being a third wheel, just go.”
“Pfft. I don’t do very well around happy families. Just feel like a weird uncle.”
“A weird uncle with a ukulele.” She smiled, trying to inject to enthusiasm, but his mind was made up.
“I think I’m going to go and have a look at the ticket desks, see if there’s any last minute deals. Thailand is always nice this time of year.”
“I’d join you if I wasn’t so broke. I tossed all of my credit cards in the bin after last night. I shouldn’t be reporting them stolen, just for some bloody mojitos.”
“Good for you. You’ve got the jump on your New Year’s Resolution.”
“Well, you have to face up to your shit sometime right? Facing up to my family is bad enough.”
“Mmm. Watch this will you?” said Graeme pointing at the ukulele, “I’m going to take a leak.”
Shari waited until he was out of sight and picked up the notebook. Above the lines of scrawled lyrics was a title, underlined – ‘A Terminal Christmas’. She picked up the pen lying next to the ukulele and added her name and number under the final line of the song.
Suddenly the baggage carousel sprang into action. The passengers of flight MA351 jostled for position, straining their eyes to see which black roller bag might be theirs. Shari saw the familiar dark brown leather of her Louis Vuitton case making its way down the line. She found a space and set her feet, ready to pull it off the machine.

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Philip Charter is a young British writer who currently lives in Pamplona, Spain. He runs a blog about teaching and travelling and has had work published in Flash Fiction Magazine and other online magazines.

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