It was a combination of circumstances, not all related, but coming at me out of left field, circumstances that would prevent me from going home when I said I would.
I had every intention of getting there and as a testament to that, I had got to the airport with baggage two hours before departure time and had reached the departure gate with 20 minutes to spare, ready to board the plane.
I’d even got a business class ticket so I could travel in style.
What precipitated the set of circumstances? A simple phone call. I should have turned it off five minutes before boarding, but I didn’t but because I’d forgotten to, simply because I’d been distracted.
The call was from Penelope, my hard-working and self-sacrificing personal assistant. I had offered to take her with me so we could work on a business plan that had to be presented the day after I was scheduled to return, but she had declined, which when I thought about it, if she hadn’t it might have created problems for both of us.
With a huge restructure going on, I was running behind in getting it completed and had promised to finish it while at home.
The call: to tell me I had left a folder with vital research back on my desk, and she came to the airport to deliver it, and she was, in fact, was in the terminal building when the boarding call came.
When I met her at the gate, only a few passengers had to be loaded. Being business class had afforded me a few extra minutes. File delivered, I left her looking exasperated and headed down the boarding ramp.
I was last aboard, and seconds after being seated, the door was closed.
I quickly typed and sent a message to tell everyone I was on the plane, eliciting two responses. My mother was glad that I was finally coming, the other from my elder brother, saying he would believe it when he saw me.
It was not without reason; I’d been in this situation before; on the plane ready to go.
Last time the plane didn’t leave the gate, a small problem that caused a big delay, so much so, I couldn’t get home.
Not this time. There was a slight lurch as the push tractor started pushing the plane back from the gate. A minute or so later the pilot fired up the engines, a sure sign of a definite departure. Nothing could stop us now.
It was a reassuring vibration that ran through the plane before the engines settled into a steady whine, a sign of an older plane that had flown many miles in the past and would into the future.
We stopped while the push tractor was disengaged and then the engines picked up speed and we lurched forward, heading towards the runway for take-off. In some airports, this could take a long time, and tonight it seemed to take forever.
I looked out the window and saw a backdrop of lights against the darkness, but no indication of where we were. It didn’t look like the end of the runway because I could not see any other planes waiting to take off.
Then the engines revved louder and for a pronged period. We didn’t move but remained where we were until the engines returned to what might be called idling speed
It was followed by an announcement from the pilot, “This is the captain speaking. We have encountered an anomaly with one of the engines, so to be on the safe side, we are returning to the gate and will have the engineers have a look at it. I do not anticipate this should take longer than 30 minutes.”
A collective groan went through the airplane. Those savvy with these problems would know that the odds were we would not be leaving tonight. The airport curfew would see to that.
But a miracle could still occur.
The plane then started back to the terminal. Another message from the pilot told us we would not be going back to the gate, but to a holding area. Time to have a glass of champagne the steward was offering before going back to the terminal for what, an interminable wait.
It seemed the gods did not want me to go back home.
When we got back to the parking spot, three buses and four delays later, I headed for one of the several bars to get a drink, and perhaps something decent to eat.
Then I saw Penelope, sitting by herself, a glass of champagne sitting half drunk in front of her.
“What are you doing here?” I said as I slid onto the stool beside her.
She started, as if she had been somewhere else, and turned to see who it was. The faraway look turned into a smile when she recognized me. “Getting drunk.”
“I thought you were going home.” A nod in the direction of the bartender, followed by pointing to her glass and indicating I wanted two, got instant service.
“I saw an ex heading to a plane with his latest squeeze. Made me feel depressed. I heard your plane was returning so I decided to wait. Better to get drunk with someone you know than drink by yourself or someone you don’t. I’ve had three offers already.”
I wasn’t surprised. She was very attractive, the sort of woman who was the most popular at any of the work functions but was equally surprising was that she was not with any of those potential suitors. In fact, as far as I knew, she was not in a relationship.
“No one at home to amuse you?” It was not the sort of question I should be asking, because it was really none of my business.
It elicited a sideways glance as if I stepped over an invisible line.
“Sorry, none of my business.”
She finished off the glass in front of her, just as the new round arrived in front of her. I gave the bartender my credit card and asked him to start a tab. I’d just heard that the plane was going to be another two hours before we’d be leaving.
“I live with two other girls, but they are more interested in finding stray men and getting wasted, not necessarily in that order, and that’s not what I want to do.”
“Get wasted or find stray men?”
I was not sure how anyone had the time and inclination to do that, but a few weeks back I spent two evenings with a friend of mine whose marriage had fallen apart. The people there seemed either desperate or looking for a one-night stand. It had amused me to discover most of them were married, and not divorced, and that the girls knew what to expect.
“How do you expect to find the man of your dreams if you don’t go looking.”
“I am, this place seems as good as any, but the man of my dreams doesn’t exist.”
The bemused expression and the tone of her voice told me she had had more than one drink before I got there. Even then, judging from several previous parties for work we had attended, she had a much greater capacity for alcohol than I had.
She finished off the glass just brought, and seconds later her eyes seemed glassy. Perhaps it was time for me to put her in a cab and send her home.
“Another,” she said, “and then you can be responsible for me.”
I had no idea what that meant, and I think, judging by the facial expressions, she didn’t really care.
She didn’t let me finish. “Perhaps you should buy me another drink and lighten up.” And the look that came with it told me not to argue the point.
I got the bartender’s attention, and he responded by bringing two fresh glasses and a bottle. I told him to leave it. It gave me a minute or so to contemplate what she meant by ‘lighten up’. I was so used to seeing her work ethic and diligence, this was a different side to her.
I took a sip and could feel her looking at me. A glance took in the near permanent bemused expression.
“Are you going to be alright getting home?” It was probably not the question I should have asked, but in the back of my mind there was a recent briefing given to all of management on the subject of sexual harassment and intraoffice romances.
“I’m fine. It’s not as if I do this a lot, but the last week has been difficult. Not only for me, but for you too. But you have to admit you put yourself under a lot of pressure.”
She was starting to sound like my conscience. It was something I’d been thinking about on the way to the airport but decided it was part of the job, and I knew when I accepted the position what it would involve. My predecessor, much older than I was, had fallen on his sword, the pressure destroying his marriage and almost his life.
“So I said, lamely, It goes with the job, unfortunately.”
She shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. They might think it does, but they don’t care. They sit in their ivory tower and watch their minions crash and burn. There’s always someone else waiting in the wings to take your place, believe me.”
It was an interesting perspective, but where did it come from? I knew she had been at the corporation for a number of years, and I had been lucky enough to draw the long straw when having her assigned to me as my PA when I took the position. One of the other executives had lamented my good fortune, but he had also said she was one of the few who were there to guide that higher management considered were management prospects.
I just thought I was lucky.
“I might end up in that ivory tower one day.”
She turned to look directly at me. It made me uncomfortable now, as it had on other occasions, and I had begun to think it might have something to do with unspoken feelings. I liked her, but I doubted that was reciprocated. And, after the lecture on office romances, I promptly put those feelings in the bottom drawer and locked it.
“Doesn’t everyone aspire to be the best, and climb to the top of the corporate ladder?”
“For that, you have to be devious and ruthless, and from what I’ve seen, you’re neither. You’ve heard the expression ‘good guys come last’. It’s true.”
I was guessing from the people she had worked for, she had firsthand experience. My predecessor was a ‘good guy’ and some said he was eaten alive by the office predators. I knew who they were, and avoided them. Perhaps she knew something I didn’t, but when would she have told me? Not tonight, no one could have predicted the plane would break down.
“You’re telling me this now, why?”
“You’re smarter than all of those above you put together. You don’t need them, but they need you. But, you won’t get any concessions, not until you get near the top. By then you will have had to sell your soul to the devil.”
Good to know, on one hand, I was about to see my soul to the devil, and on the other that I was smart, just not smart enough to see the wolves in sheep’s clothing.
I noticed she hadn’t touched the latest glass of champagne. Nor was she the languid barfly she’d pretended to be earlier.
“You’re advice, if I’m listening correctly, is that I should be looking for another job.”
“Actually, you shouldn’t be listening to me at all. Too many drinks and I pontificate. Some people become happy, I become,” she shrugged, “unhappy. Take no notice.” She swung around to the front and picked up the glass.
“OK.” I turned around to look at the departures board to see my flight had been canceled, and I should go to the check-in counter. “My plane is completely broken, so it looks like I’m staying home.”
“Or you could take me to dinner.” She looked sideways again, the bemused expression back.
“Wouldn’t that be inappropriate?”
“Only if you were in upper management, married, and asking me to have an affair. Last I looked you’re not in upper management, not married, so there’s no hint of an affair. For heaven’s sake, it’s only dinner.”
She was right on all counts, and it was only dinner.
“Why not?” I said, more to myself than to her.
“Good. And you’d better get me on the plane too. We need to get that report done, and it’ll be an excuse to stay at a hotel. I know you wouldn’t want to stay in your old room at your parents’ house.”
She was right about that too, I had long outgrown them, and staying at home would only lead to arguments. “How could you possibly know that?”
She smiled. “You talk in your sleep.”
© Charles Heath 2021