She stared hard at the mirror. The hair was the same; the eyes were the same, although a little more tired than normal and the circles below had grown darker and more pronounced. The wrinkles across her brow and around her mouth had deepened. The usual glow of her skin had faded - its texture coarser, slightly looser. The face she recognised, but the person beneath? She wasn’t so sure.
It was there; it always had been – she knew that. No matter how may times she tried to deny or forget it, it would always be there; festering just below the surface, biding its time until it was able to break free. But why now? Why like this? Okay, so her life may not have been a fairy tale up to now but it hadn’t all been bad. There had been good times, great times. Why spoil it now? She desperately wanted to stop it but she was powerless. It was forcing her to do it. It was controlling her. Over time its power had grown and grown until it overwhelmed her. She and all around her were at its mercy now.
Bill’s aging car groaned under the weight of its passengers as it pulled out onto the road. The rattles masked the straining engine noise, radio and most of the conversation. But it was a good car, or at least that’s what Bill wanted them to believe. As far as he was concerned it had managed ten years and would easily go ten more. Isabel wasn’t as sure as a sickening crunch indicated that the gearbox had finally discovered fourth gear.
‘You have got your passport haven’t you?’ Rose broke the silence first as they swayed to the right as the car lurched round yet another roundabout.
‘Of course I have mum. Stop fussing.’
They had already gone through Rose’s comprehensive check list several times before leaving. They had checked and double-checked that she had all necessary documents, potions and lotions and plenty of underwear in case of accidents. It had been like that from the moment Isabel announced her decision to travel.
Isabel had risen early to find the kitchen empty, even the yellow gingham curtains were still drawn. In one sweeping movement they swooshed back to let in the early morning sun allowing its golden rays to bathe the normally shabby walls creating a homely air as the light reflected from every appliance and utensil.
By the time Rose and Bill had reached the bottom of the stairs the tea was brewing and the toast was popping.
‘Isabel!’ exclaimed her mother, mouth agog. ‘Did you do all this?’
‘Of course I did.’ The joy given by this simple gesture radiated from her mother’s face, no matter how selfish the underlying reason may be.
‘What’s all this in aid of then?’ Her father wasn’t so easily taken in. He knew his daughter well enough to realise when she was after something. After all there was no such thing as a free lunch, or breakfast for that matter. As his only child had voluntarily risen early, without the aid of a nuclear explosion to make breakfast, he knew there had to be a hidden agenda – and more than likely a fairly lengthy one. The odds about there being money involved were exceptionally short – what else would a twenty one year old be after at this time in the morning?
‘How much do you need then?’
‘Don’t be daft dad, I don’t want any money,’ she lied unconvincingly. ‘Can’t I make breakfast for a change?’
‘Of course you can. But it normally means you’ve either done something or want something,’ he teased.
‘Stop it Bill,’ protested Rose. ‘It was a very kind thought of Isabel’s and is very much appreciated, despite whatever your father may say.’ Her scolding look was heeded without further comment.
‘Tea?’ Isabel held out the steaming pot. Both her parents pushed their mugs forward as they took their seats at the table. Silence reined as they ate. Isabel watched them through her fringe. The same piece of toast churned round and round her mouth as she prepared her speech. With a deep breath she began – it was now or never.
‘Mum, dad. I’ve been thinking.’
‘There you go,’ interrupted Bill as he slammed his buttery knife on the table in triumph. ‘I told you she was after something.’
‘Bill, please,’ snapped Rose. ‘Go on, love. Don’t mind your father.’
‘Well, it’s just that now I have finished my studies, I have decided that I want to do a bit of travelling. So I’m going to Israel to work on a Kibbutz.’ Her words flew from her mouth in one garbled torrent not daring to draw breath in case her father tried to shout her down.
She watched their faces for the sudden explosive reaction that she’d expected.
‘Well? Aren’t you going to say anything?’
Rose looked shocked. Surely she wasn’t old enough to embark on such a perilous journey alone? There were so many horror stories banded around about lone females being attacked, kidnapped, hijacked even. She shuddered at the thought of what might happen. But before she was able to voice her concerns, Bill rose to his feet.
Here we go, Isabel thought. Batten down the hatches the hurricane is about to hit!
‘Provided you’ve thought it through carefully and you’re sure that it is what you want. I don’t see any problem with that.’
Isabel was shocked.
Rose was horrified.
‘Do you mean that dad?’
‘Of course I do. There is just one condition though.’ Her heart sank. She knew there had to be a catch. ‘You must promise to call your mother and me every week to let us know you’re all right.’
‘Yes, of course I will.’
Was that all?
‘And, you must let me pay for your flights.’
‘No dad. I can’t let you do that. This is something I want to do for myself. I’ve got money.’
‘I’m sure you have. But you’ll need that for when you get back. Now I insist, so don’t argue.’
Isabel wept as she flung her arms around them both.
‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’
Rose hugged her daughter still unable to comprehend Bill’s reasoning. He’d always been against such ideas in the past. What had made him change? Concussion? Had aliens taken over his body? There had to be something, this just wasn’t like him.
‘I’ll go and get dressed. I’ve got so much to do.’
Rose stared at Bill for some sort of explanation. But there was none. He merely sat back at the table and poured himself another cup of tea. Rose’s trance was temporarily interrupted by a thunderous sound emanating from the hall as Isabel flew down the stairs.
‘See you later,’ she yelled grabbing her coat and slamming the door behind her.
Bill looked confused.
‘You’ve always been so against her doing anything like this in the past. What’s made you change your mind?’
‘But back then she was too young. Besides that was a long time ago. I’ve simply realised that she isn’t our little girl anymore. She’s a grown woman Rose. It’s time to let her go.’
‘But she’s our only child. My baby. What if something should happen to her? I’d never forgive myself.’
‘For God’s sake woman, nothing is going to happen to her. You can’t keep her a prisoner forever. She has a right to be able to live her own life.’
‘But what of all those stories you hear about young girls travelling alone?’
‘Enough!’ shouted Bill. ‘You’re driving me mad! Of course I am going to miss her too but if you try and stop her like this the only thing you’ll succeed in doing is to alienate her from us. Can’t you see that? If we send her off with our blessing she will love us for it – do things your way and, well... She needs her independence.’
Bill watched his wife’s eyes as they began to shine. Her tears reflected the artificial strip lights that traversed the yellowed ceiling of the kitchen. The silence was punctuated only by her sniffs.
‘Don’t start crying.’
‘I can’t help it.’
‘Look. She has to grow up sometime. It wouldn’t surprise me if she wanted to leave home soon anyway.’ He instantly regretted that little outburst.
‘Don’t say that.’ The words were just audible as she placed her hankie to her mouth shocked that Isabel should even contemplate such a thought.
‘Why not? She’s been living away at university for the past few years. She’s hardly likely to want to live back home after that, is she? You can’t keep her at home forever. What’s got into you?’
‘Nothing,’ she snapped. ‘I just can’t bear the thought of not having her around.’
‘Come on, love. It happens to every parent sooner or later,’ his voice lowered as he tried to comfort her. ‘It’s time to let go. She needs to lead her own life now. It’s not as if we’ll never see her again, is it? Let go now, before you push her away.’
‘I know, I know. It’s just that my whole life has been devoted to caring for her and now she doesn’t need me anymore.’
‘She’ll always need her mother.’
‘It’s all right for you. You have a life outside these walls. You have other friends and interests. What do I have? Nothing, absolutely nothing.’
Finally the terminal came into view as the car wheezed its way toward the car park. As Bill pulled on the hand brake Isabel could have sworn she heard a sigh of relief from the engine – maybe not, probably just a bit of steam from the rather overheated radiator.
The airport was packed. Suddenly it all became real for Rose. They had spoken about it enough but she had dared to let herself believe that Isabel wouldn’t really go through with it. She had been sure that one look at the airport would send Isabel running into her mother’s arms beginning her to take her back to the home she never wanted to leave. But unfortunately for her it fuelled Isabel’s excitement. And unfortunately for Isabel this fuelled Rose’s imagination which once again began to go into overdrive as she began to list every possible disaster that would befall her daughter as she travelled alone. Within half an hour she had crashed landed, lost her passport, and worse still kidnapped upon arrival and sold to some wealthy sheik. Isabel had joked ’well at least you haven’t lost my luggage.’ Rose hadn’t foreseen that problem and it promptly sent her into a frenzy. Thankfully much of Rose’s ranting was lost within the noise of the crowds.
Isabel began to pick at the straps of her rucksack, with Rose’s every audible utterance the stray thread grew longer and longer. Bill watched Isabel’s growing exasperation.
‘Look, why don’t you go and find something to read for the journey. I saw a kiosk over there.’
‘What if she misses her plane? She may not hear the announcement from over there.’
‘For heaven’s sake, stop it. She isn’t going to miss her flight, lose her passport or luggage, and she certainly won’t be kidnapped when she gets there. Just let the girl go and enjoy her trip. It’s not every one that gets an opportunity like this.’
‘Of course I want her to enjoy herself. I’m just worried, that’s all,’ her voice trembled. She wrapped her arms around herself gripping each arm.
‘I know you are, darling,’ Bill tried to sound compassionate and understanding. ‘But airing your worries in front of her like this isn’t helping anyone. Just let the poor girl be.’
Deep down Rose knew he was (probably) right but she just couldn’t bear the thought of being on her own. In a normal evening, the only words she and Bill would exchange were to decide whose turn it was to make the tea.
Isabel continued to browse amongst the glossy magazines as Rose watched her. What ever happened to the little girl who would hide behind her mothers skirt whenever strangers came to the house? or that teenager who would constantly ask her mother for advice about make-up and boys. Admittedly Rose hadn’t been of much use on those particular matters but it was the fact that Isabel had wanted her opinion that meant so much. She had felt wanted. Suddenly the tannoy system burst into life announcing Isabel’s flight.
‘She hasn’t heard,’ Rose shrieked as she watched Isabel calmly queuing, waiting to pay. ‘Bill, go and get her. She’ll miss her flight.’
‘She has got plenty of time. Will you stop worrying? You’re driving me up the wall,’ he spat through gritted teeth. Rose stared at him, hurt by his bluntness. ‘Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. But if you have that effect on me just think how she must be feeling. I’m going to miss her too you know. You’re not the only one this is going to effect. She is the most precious thing we have in the world. And unless we support her in this we could lose her. Now please, just let her go.’
They stood in silence. Rose, still reeling from his little outburst, knew in her heart that he was right. The time had come to let go, no matter how much it hurt. But it didn’t make it any easier. She slipped her hand into Bill’s and gripped it tightly. They didn’t look at each other, there was no need. They stood, united, watching as Isabel ran over to rejoin them. Bill stooped to retrieve her bags from the floor.
‘Come on,’ cried Isabel excitedly waving her boarding card. ‘I’m leaving from gate four.’
‘Well, I guess this is it,’ she said as they arrived at the departure gate.
‘Come here love.’
Bill flung his arms around her squeezing her tightly.
‘Enjoy yourself, but be careful and don’t forget to phone us when you get to the Kibbutz.’
‘I won’t dad.’
As she turned to face her mother, her tears began to well. ‘Bye mum. I love you.’
Rose wiped a tear from her eye as she stared at her daughter, unable to speak. But words weren’t required. Everything they wanted to say was conveyed by their stares, probably far more eloquently than Rose would ever have been able to express herself.
Hanging onto her hand luggage, Isabel turned to face the gate. The other side of the door way would lead to untold adventures and sights. Filled with a mixture of trepidation and excitement she stepped forward. Just before she disappeared she turned and waved once more and then she was gone.
Rose remained firm, waving until Isabel had vanished into the departure lounge.
‘Do you want to see her plane take off?’
Bill placed his arm around her shoulders, hugging her close to him. She watched in awe as all around her people were hurrying back and forth. The mixture of emotions that swirled in the air was quite overpowering. Everywhere she looked there were scenes of joyous reunions and sad goodbyes.
‘How about a coffee before we head home?’
Rose looked across at the little café. The smell of the freshly ground coffee teased her nostrils.
‘Yes. That would be lovely.’
Bill took her arm. A half smile appeared on her face.
Rose found a seat whilst Bill queued for their beverages. She sat beside the huge window that looked out onto the vast sea of tarmac. The planes moved effortlessly as though performing an exquisite ballet. The air shimmered around the huge wings as the heat from the engines was exhaled as they readied themselves for take-off.
‘Here we are,’ Bill arrived back at the table with a laden tray. ‘I thought we deserved a bit of a treat.’ He pointed to the pastries.
Rose cradled the cup of coffee in her hands. The steam spiralled upward toward her face carrying with it the aroma. The heat trapped within the steam bathed her face. The taste was even more intense than the smell bringing her back to life as the caffeine chased away the sadness she felt.
‘Thanks Bill that was just what I needed.’
He smiled at her as she placed her hand on his. Her fingers wrapped themselves around his large hand squeezing it.
‘How are you feeling now?’
‘Fine,’ she lied.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes really. She’s just gone on a holiday. It’s not as if she won’t be coming back.’ How she wished she could believe that.
‘That’s right. Come on, let’s tuck into these,’ he smiled.
The crisp pastry crumbled deliciously as he took his first bite. The coffee complimented the sweetness perfectly. It was a paradisiacal if not slightly calorific feast.
They sat in silence watching the planes take-off and land. It was strange to think that her daughter was somewhere out there in one of those large metal birds. Rose had never travelled. Well, unless you count day trips to the seaside as a child. It wasn’t that she’d never had the opportunity; it was the inclination that she’d lacked. She’d always been a home bird; happiest in familiar surroundings. She liked to be in control and that wasn’t something she felt that she would be able to be in a strange, alien place.
Change wasn’t something she was comfortable with. She took comfort in the sameness of her life and daily routines. She felt safe. Cooking, cleaning, gardening. These were all things she understood and could cope with. She couldn’t even begin to imagine herself in a foreign land and often thought it quite bizarre that they didn’t even speak English in other countries let their odd little ways and all that foreign food!
‘You know Bill, in a way I am pleased that Isabel had been given this opportunity to experience a broader taste of life,’ Bill looked shocked. ‘It will do her good to see something of a different culture.’
‘Yes my point exactly.’ At last she had seen the light.
‘But I was so looking forward to the day that she finished her degree course and came home. I would finally have my life back. You know, as it had always been. Just the three of us.’
‘Come on love, you know that it could never be like it used to be. Isabel’s all grown up now and wants to start a life of her own.’
‘I know all that, but why Israel? Why so far away?’
Bill smiled. ‘She’ll be back and before you know it.’
The glass beside her juddered as yet another plane soared into the sky taking its passengers to a new world full of excitement. She wondered if that was Isabel’s flight. She watched intently as it roared down the runway. It looked like a child’s toy as it grew smaller and smaller occasionally disappearing and reappearing as it wove its way through the wispy clouds. It looked so fragile.
She silently said a small prayer as she watched it disappear into the distance.
Her daughter was gone.