Mackerel Skies

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Chapter 2

‘Sorry.’ He smiled weakly at Isabel as he knocked into her once more attempting to shift his weight to his right buttock. The cramp in his legs was getting worse. No matter how much he fidgeted and squirmed he could not relieve the incessant pain. His arms were held rigidly within the confines of his economy class seat and his legs penned in by the seat in front. He screwed his eyes shut, praying that the person in front of him wouldn’t be tempted to recline their seat and kneecap him in the process.

Isabel’s five feet and four inches used to annoy her intensely. But seeing her neighbours agony she was thankful for being vertical challenged.

It hadn’t taken long for her initial excitement to wane. Boredom had begun to creep. The main topic of conversation was ‘exactly what was that we had for lunch?’ which seemed to be met by scathing looks from the trolley dollies as they passed by with their drinks and peanuts.

The video screen burst into life as the trailers began playing for their in-flight entertainment. Isabel reached for her rather unattractive earphones. Whatever was about to be screened had to be better than listening to her neighbours intermittent snoring and groaning – sleep (however fitful) seemed to be his only escape from his alternate fits of pain and numbness.

Great, The Sound of Music. Here she was, thousands of feet in the air, penned in by strangers, sitting next to a snoring giant and what did she get to watch? – The Vontrapps running around in big open spaces singing their little hearts out whilst wearing false grins. She closed her eyes, praying they would arrive soon.

After a short while – admittedly it could have been hours, Isabel had lost all track of time - as if by divine intervention the, by now, familiar bing-bong signalled yet another announcement from the disembodied well-educated voice of the pilot. It oozed like high-class treacle from the speakers as it announced they would be arriving at Ben Gurion airport in approximately fifteen minutes; the outside temperature was 28°C and the outlook sunny.

Her neighbour, upon hearing the announcement, reluctantly opened his eyes only to be greeted by the realisation that the searing pain in his hips was still there. He sprang to his feet, ostensibly to retrieve his hand luggage from the compartment above his head but his grimace told a different story. Stood in the aisle he performed a little jig in an attempt to shake the pain away. Other passengers took his lead grabbing for their bags in a frantic search for passports. This sudden rush of activity brought the air-stewards running as they tried to persuade their passengers to resume their seats.

But it was the sound of a faint bell that stopped the incessant chatter. It was the bell everyone had longed to hear. They all returned to their seats with eyes raised toward the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign as it lit up. The young man reluctantly returned to the imprisonment of his seat. Isabel obediently clipped the silver buckles together and stared through the window beside her and watched, as through the clouds a model of a city below grew closer. Each building seemed to soar towards them. As the ground rushed toward them her neighbour’s knuckles whitened; she heard him mumble a prayer as nervous anticipation gripped him.

With a screech the plane jerked as its wheels touched the hot tarmac. Objects sped past, as the squealing brakes were applied their urgency faded. Gracefully they stopped. They had arrived.

Almost immediately the chaotic grabbing of hand luggage continued. Passengers leapt to their feet as though competing to see who could touch foreign soil first. One by one they anonymously descended the steps to the shimmering tarmac below. The cabin crew said their complimentary farewells, their airline smiles painted on their faces.

As Isabel stepped into the brilliant sunlight the heat hit her with such a force it fairly took her breath away. At last her adventure was about to begin. She was in Israel.

Her time at Cambridge had been spent reading History, which was a decision her father had never understood.

‘What good is it going to do you?’ he’d bellowed when she told him. ‘I don’t see how that’s going to help you when you get in to the real world. I mean, who cares how Nelson won Waterloo? I certainly don’t.’

‘Wellington.’

‘What?’ he’d snapped.

‘It was Wellington who won Waterloo. Nelson fought at Trafalgar.’

His face reddened. She wasn’t sure whether it was with rage or embarrassment. A tidal wave of mumbling then followed as he’d made a hasty retreat to the kitchen. Her decision was never brought into question again after that.

At times it had seemed as though her entire life had been spent studying: from O’Levels to A’Levels and then straight into her degree course. Her brain was drowning in the data it had absorbed.

But on the whole she had loved her time at university and was sad when the love affair that she had endured for three years had come to an end. It had been unlike any other that she had pursued. Indeed it was no ordinary ‘love affair’ and many would not describe it as such; but to Isabel that is what it had become.

Her whole life; every minute of every day had been spent chasing her obsession. Her behaviour had changed beyond all recognition to that known and loved by her family. Her life had become dominated by her thirst for knowledge. The more she tasted the more she craved until she was unable to absorb any more.

Night after night she caressed the pages of her many textbooks. Their tiny print was scanned for the snippets of information required to complete her latest assignment. She read and read until the letters danced before her; a hypnotic dance to stimulate her tired eyes as they attempted to focus on their hidden meaning.

She would never forget the shabby little room that had been her home for what, at times, had seemed an eternity. It’d had a very individual aroma. Unlike the sweet smelling pot-pourried rooms of her girl friends, hers combined the exotic smells of stale curry, joss sticks and beer, which had created a heady concoction that kept all insect life at bay. Over time she had become immune to its very personal aroma, unfortunately her fellow students had not and as a consequence she was often showered with gifts of plug-in air fresheners and the such like.

It had seemed odd on her final day to see the shelves bare; only a dusty outline to show the earlier presence of her books. The desk had looked bare, stripped of all signs of the knowledge that had been absorbed at it day and night. That was all apart from the small biro doodles that had appeared at times of utmost boredom and frustration. Its bare plaster walls had been witness to her tears, anguish and joy as they shared every inch of her journey through the delicately balanced maze of learning and socialising.

She smiled as she caught sight of the faint stain in the corner above her bed. Thankfully it was only visible in certain light and consequently hadn’t been noticed by any of the patrolling wardens who ruled the accommodation blocks as though they were sets for Cell Block H. What a night that had been. It had been just after the May Ball; one of the few occasions that had dragged her from her studies. Spirits had soared along with the alcohol content of the students resulting in a wet battle – Modern History v English Literature. The actual details of the night still remained a blur, but considering the state of their accommodation block the following morning it must have been one hell of a bash!

To Isabel, her academic achievements had seemed average, no more or less than her peers. Yet in her parents’ eyes she was a genius. No other member of her family had aspired to such a pinnacle of academia. Whenever friends or family were near she was always their sole topic of conversation. Their constant boasting of her superhuman success was a constant source of embarrassment. She knew they meant well; they were understandably proud of her achievements, as any parent would be. But it was their tendency to exaggerate her intellect that grated. A competent use of computers would mutate into the opinion that ‘our Isabel could be the next Bill Gates you know.’ She grew increasingly tired of having to correct her parents to prevent a barrage of friends and neighbours appearing with various incomprehensible IT problems that even Einstein would have had difficulty with. This would inevitably lead to heated confrontations during which her father would argue his point until no one else could be heard above his bellowing voice.

‘Can’t we be proud of you? Your mother and I just want people to know about your achievements. Is that too much to ask?’

No, it wouldn’t be too much to ask if they actually stuck to the truth as opposed to their interpretation of the truth. Especially when most of the people they told had sons or daughters at university as well so it would end up as a battle of who’s child achieved what with the winner being the one who could come out with the most lavish and outrageous boast possible.

Rose on the other hand would sit in silence, nodding in half-hearted agreement with her husband until the discussion turned into a full-blown row. Then tensions would prove too much. The tears would erupt prompting a premature end to the confrontation with the usual remark, ‘Now see what you’ve done! We’re proud of you, that’s all.’

Isabel always found herself backing down in order to keep the peace. It was a continual cycle and one from which she had to escape. It was time to make her way in the world.

**

As usual he was in his favourite armchair, his feet resting on the pouf. Just his hands, legs and feet were visible. The rest remained behind the pages of the broad sheet. Nothing else would do. It was Bill’s way of letting his neighbours know how intellectual he was. He wasn’t of course, but he was always a great believer in image (unfortunately this didn’t apply to material possessions, hence the ageing wreck of a car) even when that portrayed was obviously contrived. Rose watched as he scanned the news of the day. She was convinced he never understood a word that was printed. But it meant everything to him for the neighbours to see the paperboy struggling each morning as he attempted to deliver his highbrow rain forest.

Rose had found it unbearably silent since Isabel had left. Almost without realising it, she and Bill had grown apart. If she was honest with herself, they had merely been existing for the past ten years or more. Bill had been engrossed in his work and Rose with the upbringing of their daughter. They had been living together but following parallel lives. They had simply forgotten how to be together.

‘Do you think she’s all right Bill?’

‘Of course she is,’ he muttered from behind the newspaper.

‘But she’s so far from home.’

‘Stop worrying. She’ll phone soon. You’ll only make yourself ill if you carry on like this.’

There was no passion anymore. When they first met Bill was charming, attentive, generous, even quite good looking. She’d thought he was perfect; she believed it would always be like that. But people change.

There had been a time when he’d take her out just to show her off. Now their only outing was to the supermarket. Even then he’d only go under threat of death. They never went out with friends – they didn’t have any friends.

Isabel’s departure had left a void within her. Isabel was her whole life. She had no other interests. All she had ever wanted was a family of her own that she could love and watch grow. But she had been so wrapped up caring for her little girl she had quite forgotten that there would come a day when her daughter would no longer need her. Without Isabel Rose had no identity of her own; without Isabel she would simply cease to exist.

‘What am I going to do?’

‘What?’ Bill muttered.

‘Now she’s gone. I have to do something.’ Bill remained hidden behind his paper barrier. ‘Bill!’

‘What is it?’ his annoyance was obvious.

‘What am I going to do now she’s not here any more?’

‘I don’t know. Join a club or something,’ he snapped.

‘Bill!’

‘Well, what do you want me to say?’ He tossed the paper to the floor in exasperation.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Look you must have some idea. What did you do before having her?’

‘Worked,’ she said defiantly.

‘There you go then.’

‘Get a job you mean?’

‘Why not? You’re always complaining that you don’t have a life of your own.’

‘You wouldn’t mind?’

‘Why should I?’ He gathered up the paper and neatly placed it on the table beside him. ‘I’m off now. See you later.’ He stooped to kiss her forehead and then was gone.

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