erence, what’s on your mind? You seem a little preoccupied.”
“Nothing.” Everything. Your mother! “I was just running through everything in my head, making sure we’d left nothing behind or forgotten to do anything. Don’t want any upsets for our fortnight away.”
Terence hoped the reassuring smile he offered Jenette was both reassuring and a smile. He glanced at the time.
Another hour and a half.
The motorway. At least in name. The long series of roadworks strung together with brief stretches of road served a slow route to the airport. Terence had, of course, accounted for the extra time it would take. But he found little comfort in his planning. The contingency gave him longer to mull and stew.
He did not consider himself awkward or shy, just particular. Particular about social situations and particularly about physical contact. Intimacy wasn’t public and it didn’t come in degrees.
They crawled past traffic cones and through contraflows. Jenette leafed through a holiday guide. Janie slept in the back in her car seat. Scenarios and evasive manoeuvres raced through Terence’s mind. Roadworks only gave him more time at the wheel to contemplate the possibility of having to hug — and perhaps kiss — his mother-in-law goodbye at the airport.
Joan was half French. She hadn’t grown up in France. She didn’t have any trace of a French accent. She didn’t seem particularly French. She was, nonetheless, half French. No matter how peripheral, all factors had to be considered relevant: as well as a hug she might expect a kiss on each cheek.
Or is it three kisses? Right, left, right again? Or is it left, right, left again? Can’t remember. And if it is two, is it right then left or left then right? Or is she English about this, settling for just one? In which case, which side? Starting on her right doesn’t feel quite right… but then again, is that because I’m left handed? Or in spite of it? Contact with the cheek or air kisses? Who leads…?
His father-in-law was a no-nonsense sort of person. Terence liked him because he knew precisely where he stood. And precisely how he left. First across the threshold, framed in the doorway, Terence would bid Joan a verbal farewell as he offered John a firm but brief handshake. Following an exchange of pleasantries about the motorway, the weather or work, Terence would retreat to a safe distance outside, exuding departure while Janie hugged her grandmother goodbye. He would seem suitably parental, taking Janie to the car, fussing over her car seat, arranging her entourage of teddies, toys and snacks. This simple, effective and practised exit strategy ensured Terence could be in the car waiting for Jenette under the guise of preparedness. And he didn’t have to hug, kiss or otherwise physically engage Joan.
When his in-laws visited, Terence would use John as a human shield, standing in the hallway shaking hands and discussing matters of inconsequence while Janie, Jenette and Joan huddled and cuddled their farewells by the door.
Terence had sidestepped the mechanics of a parting embrace for years.
The pride he had taken in his own creativity and execution was, today, all for nothing. Joan was seeing the three of them off at the airport without John.
Every possibility had to be imagined, every contingency considered, every risk mitigated. Take, for example, Joan’s height: Terence’s mother-in-law was petite. If he had to kiss her he must remember not to give her the fatherly peck on the forehead he gave Janie.
Miles passed. Anxiety did not. Arrival, parking the car, securing a baggage trolley and the general busyness of the terminal granted Terence a temporary stay of fixation.
Joan had not been delayed. She was waiting for them exactly as planned. She gave her daughter a hug, mouthing Terence an over-shoulder hello, before taking her granddaughter’s hand. Terence assumed a rearguard behind the protection of the baggage trolley as they drifted, chatting, through the aisles and isles of holidaymakers, business travellers and farewell bidders.
Terence found sanctuary in the order of the check-in queue, disturbed only by the odd uninvited thought.
Yes, just these three suitcases to check in…. Yes, I did pack them myself…. No, I haven’t been given anything to take on board…. No, I definitely have no issues with giving my mother-in-law a farewell hug. None. None at all.
Downsized to the buckler of his hand baggage, the surrender of suitcases left Terence exposed. Taking offence to be the best defence, he suggested they get a coffee before going through to departures.
As they approached a free table Terence slowed to let Joan take the first seat, and then quickly secured the place opposite with his shoulder bag. He busied himself with the logistics of the order before joining the volley of chatter. The table offered some peace of mind and a sturdy shield; drinking a diuretic upper less so.
It was time.
They stood up. Joan knelt down and gave Janie a big hug. She straightened herself and turned towards Terence.
OK, she’s definitely expecting something… maybe only a hug.
“Come here, Terry. How about a goodbye kiss?”
Oh… K…. OK. It’s OK. It’s not a problem. I can do this and then it’s done and we can go through to departures and we can catch our flight and spend two weeks in Spain and don’t kiss her on the forehead.
Hesitantly, he bent down towards her and —
Oh no! Oh God!! Oh shit!!!
— the affection brought forth, spontaneous and automatic, was not the fatherly touch Terence had sought to avoid. His left hand cupped then squeezed her breast. By the time he became fully aware of what was happening, reflex was brushing his lips against hers. Shock realisation panicked to clumsy intervention. He veered awkwardly and upwardly to his right, his lips grazing her cheek then her ear, his chest against hers. Overbalancing, his right arm pulled her closer to him.
NO, NO, NO! How did that happen?! Shitshitshit!!!
Fumbling, stumbling, he withdrew. Surprised, tousled, Joan wore a tilted smile with a raised eyebrow.
Lurching off to the security of the queue, the metal detector and departures, he grabbed hand baggage and Janie by the hand. Jenette kissed her mother goodbye and joined them a long minute later.
Divorce? Too messy. Separation? No, would still cause problems for Janie. Besides, I still love Jenette. And we should be together… if she’ll forgive me. Emigrate? Keeps the family together while putting some distance between us and Joan. Perhaps we shouldn’t bother with the return flight? Strike while the iron is hot! But what about if she comes to stay? She will come to stay. And she will stay that much longer to make the journey worthwhile. Perhaps I could arrange to be away when she visits? Maybe if we moved somewhere remote or somewhere Joan doesn’t like? She likes Spain, but I think she once said she had no wish to visit Iceland… or was it Indonesia? Wherever, the question of extended visits — or any visits — would simply unask itself—
“She’s rather flattered, you know. I think you made Mum’s day.”
Two weeks of holiday. Fourteen days to put all this out of his mind. Over three hundred hours and a thousand miles between him, Joan and the incident.
Yes, I think that should be OK. Then fly back, go home, return to work. Return to normal. Yes, everything will be OK. Good…. Yes…. Good.
“By the way, Mum says she’ll meet us in arrivals when we fly back.”