The unpredictability of fate saw me factor punctures, toilet breaks and tantrums into our journey time to the airport, so we arrive far too early – but better to sit in the car for an hour than risk being late. Whispering, we decide to park for a while in the lay-by opposite the runway. Minutes pass in silence, but the relentless parade of planes is hypnotic to watch and I savour the calm, knowing that it won’t last much longer. I glance back, between our seats, to check on Anna. She needs to wake soon so we can tackle the post-nap whimpers in privacy, but the coming day will be long and I can’t bring myself to disturb her peace.
‘You did great, getting her into that dress,’ says Simon, softly. ‘I was ready to give in and let her wear leggings. But she looks perfect, not that it matters. I mean…’ His voice trails off but I don’t press him to continue. Instead I take his hand in mine and hold it tight, only letting go when Anna finally stirs.
‘Si?’ Her small voice is doubtful, verging on scared, and we both twist around. She frowns at Simon’s suit – the unfamiliar outfit that transforms him from uncle to stranger.
‘Hey, sweetheart,’ he says.
When recognition replaces drowsiness and her frown fades, I gently rub her arm. ‘Wow – that was some nap. My turn now.’ I pretend to yawn and fake a noisy snore.
There’s a pause when the mood could go either way, but then she giggles. ‘I’m hungry.’
That’s one problem I can solve. ‘Me too! So, we have crackers, bananas and raisins.’
‘Hate bananas.’ A frown accompanies the statement but she doesn’t hesitate before adding, ‘I’ll give them to Daddy.’
The words shoot from her mouth like flares, and I look to Simon for help.
‘Anna, remember what Mum said before she left?’ He speaks very slowly, as if his throat is sore, but his eyes never leave her face. ‘Last night, she told you about it again when she rang to say goodnight. Remember – she’s bringing Dad home?’
A plane taxiing along the runway is more interesting than us and she ignores the question. Further delicate probing fails to elicit any reaction, although she’s been told everything – in simple terms.
I stare at Simon, unsure whether to spell things out or leave that job for his sister.
‘What’s that?’ squeals Anna. She kicks the back of my seat while squirming for a better view.
The burst of excitement is startling, but we follow her eye-line and see movement on the grassy strip beyond the wire fence.
‘Hares,’ replies Simon, ‘like superhero rabbits. They love this place.’
She watches them, and we watch her. She makes up stories about them, and we listen. These empty minutes could be filled with something more substantial than raisins and nonsense talk, but that’s how we pass the time.
And then Simon starts the engine, shaking his head expressively as we fall in with the traffic.
We travel in silence but at a red light Anna mumbles to herself. On the second attempt she speaks with more confidence. ‘Cat.’
I expect to see a stray animal outside, but quickly realise she’s sounding out the slogan on the van beside us. ‘Well done. Longer than cat though.’ I spell out catering and explain what it means.
It doesn’t take long to reach the main airport junction, where another red light makes us wait to turn left. The first word on the signpost pointing down the side road is cargo, so when she says car, I repeat the process – spell and explain.
Then my eyes begin to swim; I clamp them shut, blocking out the next word on the board.
‘Mor,’ she says, enjoying her new game. The fragment is repeated when I fail to play along, and a wobble enters her voice. ‘You have to finish it!’
Simon answers for me, but only when the signpost is no longer visible. His tone is flat and low as he works through the letters, but mortuary is a hard word to spell at any age.
N.K. Woods lives in Kildare and has recently completed a Masters in Creative Writing.