Juliet had the window seat. The whole group was in Economy class, Cynthia having tried and failed to get an upgrade for herself. But while most of the others were nearer the back of the plane, Juliet and Mr Spencer had seats in a small section just behind Business class. Cynthia gave her a hideous scowl as she pushed past to her own seat far to the rear.
“Let me give you a hand.” Mr Spencer helped Juliet haul her carry-on into the overhead compartment, after which she squeezed into her seat - there was barely enough leg-room to fit - and figured out how to clip together her seat belt.
Then she sat there, looking out of the window. She was gripping the two arm rests out of nerves which meant that Mr Spencer’s elbow bumped hers as he sat down.
“Sorry.” She apologised and moved her left arm to her lap, letting him have the arm rest, though he didn’t take it.
“It’s fine, I have plenty of space.”
The seats had their own entertainment systems though for now they were all playing some promotional video from the airline. Juliet flicked through the various magazines. It seemed an eternity before all the passengers were loaded onto the plane and she heard the crew announce “doors armed”.
She watched the safety demonstration as the plane started taxiing. It did nothing to reassure her: merely putting the prospect of crashing into the ocean or needing an oxygen mask into her mind.
Juliet bit her lip when the plane started accelerating down the runway. She had planned to look out of the window but her stomach was suddenly a ball of nerves. She gripped both arm rests and closed her eyes feeling a growing sense of dread.
“Are you okay, Juliet?” Mr Spencer’s voice held concern.
“I’m fine,” she managed to say, not reopening her eyes.
“You don’t enjoy flying?”
“It’s not that, I haven’t…” She was too embarrassed to tell him. She must have been the only person in the whole of St Gillian’s - probably the only person on the flight except for a couple of babies and infants - who had never flown before.
“It’s your first flight, isn’t it?”
Juliet opened her eyes to look at him. On anyone else’s face there would have been disbelief and even derision, but Mr Spencer just looked sympathetic and a little bit amused.
“Yes. I know that must sound so dumb.”
“It’s not dumb at all…” Before he could continue the plane’s wheels left the ground with a slight weightless lurch and Juliet gave a small cry of alarm.
“It’s okay.” Mr Spencer put his hand on the arm rest over hers to calm her as the plane took off.
Oh God. It was like he was holding her hand again. Now she was freaking out in a totally different way. It distracted her from being thousands of feet up in the air at least.
Juliet met his gaze and he looked back at her, keeping his hand on hers for some time longer before removing it. She felt the imprint of it even after it was gone, the tingle and the warmth on her skin. “Thanks,” she said.
He smiled. “I wasn’t much help. You should have told me you were a first-time flyer.”
“I thought people might laugh,” Juliet told him. The contemptuous face of Cynthia came into her head.
“If you prefer not to tell anyone, I’ll keep your secret,” Mr Spencer said. He was joking but nonetheless Juliet knew she could trust him.
He fell silent and there was an awkward feeling of tension between them. Juliet was supposed to be in disgrace so perhaps he felt he couldn’t keep chatting to her.
Or perhaps, like her, he couldn’t stop thinking of all their previous very inappropriate conversations.
Juliet would have felt more relaxed once they were airborne were it not for his presence beside her. Every fibre of her being was conscious of him.
To distract herself she played around with the in flight entertainment system. It was frustratingly unresponsive compared to a regular touchscreen, you had to keep jabbing it to get the menu options to change. She scrolled through the choices and ended up on Classic Favourites and The Sound of Music. It was a guilty pleasure: Margot and Fhemie would have totally teased her for choosing such an old movie.
Just as she put her headphones on and panoramic scenes of mountains began playing she cast a glance at Mr Spencer’s screen. Only to see the exact images on his player. They were nearly in sync.
She caught his eye and he looked at her screen and back at his, and laughed. “I guess we’ll be watching a movie together,” he said.
“If only there was some popcorn.”
The tension was broken and the two of them sat there, both watching Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and assorted children sing and dance their way around Salzburg. Juliet particularly loved the nuns.
She didn’t dare look at Mr Spencer when the gazebo scene came on with the romantic declaration between Captain Von Trapp and Maria. Julie Andrews was singing about how she must have done something good in her childhood to deserve such perfect love.
If that was what it took to find happiness, Juliet was going to be out of luck, considering her own past.
As often happened with this and other ridiculously schmaltzy movies Juliet found her eyes brimming with tears. She was mortified. She tried to surreptitiously brush them away but Mr Spencer saw her.
“Is something wrong?”
Juliet wanted to die of embarrassment. She could hardly blame it on onions or hay fever at ten thousand feet. “Nothing.”
He frowned and then he guessed and his expression turned to amusement. He looked at her questioningly and her fiery blush gave it away. It wasn’t just the romance. It was the family, everything. All the things she had never had: siblings, a loving if stern father, a wonderful, kind young mother. A beautiful home.
“It’s all so perfect,” she told him, trying to explain. Except for the war and Liesl’s heartbreak and having to flee their homeland, of course. But none of these things mattered because they were all together. Juliet would have lived in a one room hovel with a leaking roof if she could have had a family life like that.
Carl had been on edge ever since Anne Mead had put Juliet in his charge. Of all the awkward situations it was the absolute worst.
He was trying to pretend to himself that at least a part of him didn’t feel secretly very glad, as conflicted as he was. He was supposed to be keeping her at arm’s length, but what could he do if she was thrust upon him?
Help me, Lord, he prayed. Give me your strength to cope with this and not think in the wrong way about her.
He spent the whole of The Sound of Music trying to take his mind off the girl sitting next to him. It didn’t work. The fact that Juliet was watching the exact same movie as him didn’t help either since it turned it into a shared activity. A movie date on a plane.
Carl was touched to see her crying at the end of the film and trying to hide it. He was surprised that the musical’s ending was her idea of “perfect”, he had imagined one of the teen movies where the heroine became a model or a popstar might be more her thing.
“I’m afraid the reality wasn’t quite so perfect. Hollywood changed a lot of their story,” he told her.
“I know.” There was no need to tell Juliet anything about the Sound of Music. She was so steeped in its trivia that she could wipe the floor with anyone if it came up as a quiz topic, even Margot with her Anne of Green Gables obsession. If you could major in Maria Von Trapp Juliet would have been a PhD.
“It’s the ‘something good’ thing that gets to me,” she confessed, trying to explain.
Carl was confused. “Why?”
“If happiness only comes as a reward like that. Because what if it’s too late?”
He wasn’t sure what she was getting at. “It’s never too late, for anything.”
But Juliet’s own youth and childhood were a complete mess. There would be no handsome Austrian naval captain wrapped up in a gift box for her.
Carl remembered the spiteful student Cynthia’s words to Juliet. She had mentioned “juvie”, not for the first time in his earshot. He hadn’t seen Juliet’s file and no one had mentioned anything so he had initially assumed it was just an insult. Now he wondered but he didn’t want to pry.
But she volunteered the information. “Things got kind of messed up for me after my parents died. I ended up in juvenile detention.” She wanted to explain because she knew Mr Spencer had heard what Cynthia had said.
He was shocked, but sorry for her.. “That can’t have been easy.”
Juliet told him about it. How her parents had died when she was seven, with no near relatives and no one to look after her, and she had ended up shifted from foster family to foster family, as well as intermittent stays in children’s homes.
Later on she had been caught shoplifting, more than once. It hadn’t even been for clothes or anything. It was because her foster family at that time didn’t provide for her properly and she had no way of getting things she needed. She was too embarrassed to say exactly what but Carl guessed that she meant items such as hygiene products. “It wasn’t even twenty bucks worth but I got caught a second time, and then they don’t give you a second chance. I’m the world’s most useless thief,” she joked, to try and lighten the mood.
Carl felt a sudden rage against these people who had been so uncaring of an orphaned girl. “Your foster family should have been prosecuted for neglect.”
“No one cares about that stuff. They were what they were. They gave me a roof and that’s all that CPS cared about.” He looked so horrified that she tried to explain. “There are some really good foster parents out there. But you never get to stay with them for long, the older you get. Little kids get priority with the better ones. Then a lot of others that take in older kids are just in it for the money. Often they didn’t even let me eat what they ate,” she told him.
Then there were other things that she didn’t want to talk about, the dark things. She never spoke of those.
She didn’t even know why she was telling him all these things, but somehow it just came pouring out.
“So it got worse and I was in a mess and I had nowhere to go. And then my Aunt Mary - she’s a distant cousin of my father’s - somehow tracked me down.” Looking back it had been a bit of miracle, though it hadn’t felt like it at the time. Leaving the relative freedom of the streets for a strict household and a strict school had felt like going back to jail.
She and Aunt Mary had fought some fierce battles in the early days, though Juliet didn’t tell Carl this. Her aunt’s provision of a home had been conditional on Juliet attending Catholic school, maintaining her grades and not getting into any more trouble. She had rebelled because it was all too much to cope with.
“You know I even hated her at first,” Juliet confessed. “I know that’s awful as I should have been so grateful to her. I am now, of course.” As she had grown up she had realised what Aunt Mary had done for her, the sacrifices she had made. Her aunt wasn’t a wealthy woman but she had provided properly for Juliet. The compassionate scholarship to St Gillian’s only went so far. Clothes, shoes, school books: that was all thanks to her aunt.
“It’s understandable,” Carl told her. He was moved by what she had suffered, and the way she had confided in him.
Juliet smiled at him apologetically. “I’m sorry, you probably didn’t want to hear all that. I’m not sure what came over me. I don’t usually talk about it.”
Against his better judgement, Carl found himself offering to be there if she ever needed to talk to someone. He should have directed her to speak with the school counsellor but he didn’t want her to think he was turning her away. Not after she had put her trust in him like that.
The lights had long been dimmed on the plane and those lucky enough to be able to sleep in-flight were doing so. Juliet was one of them. Without being aware of it she had ended up leaning against Carl, her blonde head resting on his shoulder. He had to stop himself from brushing an escaped strand of hair off her forehead.
There was no way he would sleep now. The gentle pressure of her head against him was too distracting. Through the hours of the night it felt almost as though they were the only two people in the world. Carl found himself daring to wish that they actually were.