The tour arrived back in South Africa from India at Jan Smuts Airport. Several couples, members of the group from the Reef, left the tour there. The others, continuing on to Cape Town, made their way to the transit lounge. James lingered with those departing the group, shaking hands and assuring them that Toke Tours hoped to see them again down the line.
Entering the transit lounge he thought: One more over. Six weeks off. Hooray.
There was nothing more to do beyond getting the rest of the tour back to the Cape and on their way home. Nothing except that one thing. He wondered if he really could do it. He looked over to where his tourists stood, saw the lovely Sue and her travel pal Barbara, and walked over to say hello. “Almost home,” he said.
“Oh, I wish it weren’t so,” gushed Barbara. She put her hand on his arm. “I could go on for another month.”
“How about you, James?” Sue asked. “I’ll bet you’re ready to sit in a quiet room some place and hope no one knows where you are.”
“Not at all,” said James.
“You’re the consummate diplomat,” remarked Sue. “It’s been a pleasure to watch you slide through crises.” She laughed because there had been a crisis or two from which he had been required to deliver the group.
He smiled at her and thought: For a woman her age she’s remarkably attractive. But because he was a diplomat he said nothing. Best to hide his thoughts.
They were called to the plane and boarded it. When they got settled, Sue was surprised to find herself separated from Barbara. Her travel pal was eight or ten rows behind her. As the stewardesses prepared to make their announcements, James slid into the seat beside her.
“There must be some mistake,” Sue said. “Aren’t I supposed to be with Barbara?”
James smiled, but said nothing. He placed his briefcase – “the brains of the tour” he called it – under the seat and tightened his seat belt.
Watching him pay no attention to her, it occurred to Sue that this was not the kind of mix-up that James allowed. She smiled. “This isn’t a mistake, is it?” she said. “You put me here on purpose.”
“I thought we might chat,” he said. “After we’re aloft.”
She tilted her head to observe him, uncertain. What had they to talk about?
“We might talk about the trip,” he explained. “Or whatever.”
“You’re going to debrief me?”
“Why not?” He shrugged, laughed lightly, and gazed at her as if seeing her for the first time, memorizing her features, and linking them with a name so he would remember on the tour. “When I first led these tours,” he said, “we gave out survey forms. The responses weren’t very informative. If people weren’t happy, I already knew it.”
“So now you pick someone and debrief them – or her – on the flight home.” Sue chuckled. “It’s usually a her, isn’t it?”
“Often,” James admitted. She was flirting with him although she didn’t know it. Good, he thought. “Women are more forthcoming than men.” He pointed to the window beside her. “We’re about to take off,” he said. “You can see the slag heaps of the gold mines as we rise in the air.”
She peered out the window and, sure enough, there were the great, blond heaps rising out of the plains like the backs of golden elephants. She turned to James. “Quite something!”
He leaned across his seat, his head beside hers, his chest against her shoulder. She moved away to make room and then didn’t. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “It comes with the tour.” She laughed full-throatedly and pushed against him.
Once the slag heaps were out of sight they leaned back in their seats. James took out the in-flight magazine and thumbed through it. Sue reviewed the trip – the sunrise at the Taj Mahal, the afternoon at Fatehpur Sikri – in order to give him her reactions. Finally she said, “I’m ready to be debriefed.”
He laid the magazine aside and turned toward her. Once again he gazed at her as if he were memorizing her features.
“Are you going to take notes?” she asked.
“Just talk. I’ll remember.”
She began to go through the tour, day by day. He continued to watch her in a strangely intense way that made her feel as self-conscious as a grammar school child reciting in class. She looked away in order to avoid his gaze. When she looked back, he was still watching her. She realized he hadn’t heard anything she’d said. She began to blush. In a sort of panic she thought: What’s the matter? Why am I blushing? She was furious with herself. He would see it. What would he think? She stopped speaking.
After a beat he realized that she had stopped. He regarded her curiously. “Go on,” he urged.
“You haven’t heard a word I said.”
“But I did.” She shook her head, inclined to call him a liar, but she did not know him that well. “You’re blushing,” he said.
“I should hope so! Because you’re not looking at me the way a tour guide looks at a client.”
“No?” he said.
“No. You’re looking at me the way a man looks at a woman.”
James smiled, caught out. He shrugged. “I guess I am. You’re very beautiful.”
“Oh, please.” She turned away from him and looked out the window. The easy compliment made her angry. The blush faded. She turned back to him. “That’s uncalled for.”
“Is it? It’s a pre-feminist compliment. Sorry. In fact, you’re quite plain.”
This remark so surprised her that she burst out laughing. As punishment she sharply struck his shoulder. That made him laugh. She realized they were flirting. She thought: What’s gotten into you?
She added, “That’s 20th century talk. No man’s said that to me in twenty-five years.” She added punctuation. “And if he did, I questioned his intentions.”
James did not want to discuss his intentions. Not yet.
“Your husband didn’t tell you you were beautiful?” he asked. “Shame on him.”
“He may have now and then.”
They fell silent, staring forward. Sue reached for the in-flight magazine and began to look through it. James watched her with peripheral vision, without seeming to.
“What happened to your husband?” he asked. He did not want her to get lost in the magazine.
She glanced at him, wondering if he really wanted to know. He regarded her so compassionately that she looked away, down at the magazine. She closed it and folded her hands on top of it. She shrugged, not looking at James. “He believed in exercise,” she began. “Often on his way to work he stopped at a gym. One morning–” She shrugged again.
‘What was his work?”
“He was the principal in an accounting firm.” A hesitation, then: “One morning he– He overdid things. Why I have no idea. He finished the workout, showered, dressed for work and leaving the gym collapsed. He was probably dead when he hit the floor.”
“I am so sorry!” James realized how inadequate that sounded.
She continued to stare at the magazine. “The gym called his office. They called me. I went. It was horrible.”
James reached out and took her hand. She allowed him to hold it, but did not look at him. “It was horrible,” she repeated. “And I was so angry.” For a moment she said nothing. “Too many pushups or whatever. What a stupid way to throw away a life. He didn’t see his kids graduate from university. He could have done that for them.” She stared forward. “Forgive me. I sound like a monster. I loved him so much. And I was worried for him. We had done everything together. And now he was going on this journey alone.”
“I am terribly sorry.”
She realized that James was holding her hand. She had not felt it in his. She withdrew it and folded her hands together, away from him. She turned to him and tried to smile. “It’s been three years. I can usually talk about this.”
After a moment she said, “Barbara, my travel pal, is convinced that she gets messages from her husband from ‘the other side.’” Her emotion had passed. She laughed. “Her maid put her in touch with a medium. “
Sue laughed. “It turns out some of your best friends have crazy ideas.”
A stewardess arrived, pushing a cart beside their seats. She offered them drinks. Sue had apple juice. James took water. They drank in silence for several moments.
Finally James said, “Colette – my wife – was leading one of Toke’s tours. Toke was her business. I was a manufacturer’s rep. The tour was in Amsterdam. In the hotel at breakfast she had a heart attack. I have visions of her, looking surprised at what was happening, then thinking not of me or our children, but of the tour.” He shrugged. “She was thinking, “What about the tour? And then she was gone.” James threw up his hands.
“My turn to say I’m sorry. Those inadequate words.”
James gave a curious laugh and shook his head. “And I thought that same thing. That poor tour group! People take tours because they don’t know how to do anything themselves. Or don’t want to. And the tour leader suddenly dies.” They smiled together. She reached over and took his hand. He was happy to have her hold it. He said, “Fortunately the hotel knew what to do. That’s the advantage of staying in decent hotels.”
“Our hotels have been more than decent. I’ve been quite impressed.”
“We’ve returned to feedback.”
“I guess. What happened?”
“A member of the tour called Toke. Immediately. A family firm. I was the only one of us who could go. I packed a bag and rushed to the airport. Caught the first flight leaving for Europe – it was Berlin – and got a flight to Amsterdam from there. I arrived an hour before dinner.”
“No time for mourning.”
“Not till I got back home. Then I realized how empty I felt. I finished leading that tour and have been leading them for Toke ever since. Colette ran the business. Our daughter Andrea – three kids – was the Number Two. I’ve been leading tours to keep it afloat.” He did not want to release her hand, but felt self-conscious holding it. He squeezed it and let it go. “Thank you,” he said.
“We’ve both been through midlife crises.”
“How do you find widowhood?”
“Not nearly so much fun as this tour we’ve been on.”
He smiled quietly.
“It gets lonely,” Sue acknowledged. “I have two children – I did get them through university – but they have their own families, their own lives. Finally you realize half your life may still be ahead of you. You mustn’t think the game’s over. But what exactly do you do?”
“You really want to know?” They looked at one another. “I’d like to fall in love again.”
“Would you?” She laughed. “Who wouldn’t?”
He smiled at her. “I love the way you laugh.” He looked at her again in that way that took her all in. “I’ve gotten so I can pick your laugh out of the group when it happens.”
She thought, Goodness! He’s been watching me. That thought both warmed her and made a cold shudder sweep down her back.
“Is there a man you see regularly at home?”
She wondered where this was going, wondered if she wanted it to go there, wondered how to answer. Saying that there was a man would be a way to discourage it. “No, there isn’t. There have been, but there aren’t any now.”
“I must say: I find that hard to believe,” he said. “What’s the matter with the men in your town?”
She decided to head this off. “Tell me about falling in love again.”
Was this a call to audition, he wondered. Well, he would treat it as such. “I’d like to feel alive again. I don’t want the rest of my existence to be a mere succession of days that pass one after the other, all meaning nothing. I want to feel the expansion that happens when you care deeply for someone. I want someone to come home to, to have dinner—
“Ready,” she said disapprovingly.
“No, not ready. Someone to have dinner with, someone to say—“ He made a satiric voice. “Tell me about your day.’”
“Oh, groan!” She laughed. “I don’t think I’d want that again.” She made a face, mimicked. “’Honey, I’m home!’ Eek! Save me from that!”
“’Honey, I’m home! I’ve brought you a bouquet!’”
She shrugged. “Well, okay. But that never happened to me. It might make me change my mind.”
“I’d love to walk into a crowded room, see my beloved across the way, and watch a smile light up her face, the smile that she reserves for me. I’m a terrible romantic, I admit it.”
“I’ve got to spend a penny,” she said. “Don’t get lost while I’m gone.”
She went to the loo and slammed the lock shut. She used the toilet, trying to remember as she did, all the times she and James had seemed to be coincidentally thrown together on the trip, walking together, in museum galleries, in shops, at dinner when he took the one free seat at her table. Apparently he spotted her early, watched her for a long time. She washed her hands, stared at herself in the mirror, combed her hair, freshened her lipstick. Where was this going, she wondered. Where did she want it to go?
When she returned to her seat, James looked up from the in-flight magazine and smiled. “Hello,” he said.
“Hello there,” she answered. A flirtation greeting. She settled back down.
“You ran away just then, didn’t you?”
Was it an accusation? She wasn’t sure. “I guess I did,” she admitted. “I needed a breather.” She settled herself, folded her hands in her lap, and felt a little prim as if she were not her mother’s daughter, but her mother. “You are quite dangerous.”
“Me? Shall I take that as a compliment?”
“You tell me I’m beautiful. And I will say the same about you. In your chinos and your white broadcloth shirt, setting off your tan. Your close clipped haircut. That schoolboy grin with its innocence – and mystery. Yet I can see that you’ve been immaculately brought up because you treat everyone with grace and courtesy and interest.”
“Am I all that?” he asked.
“One of the great pleasures of this trip has been to flirt with you. But enough is enough.” He watched her and began to grin. “In a minute you’re going to ask me to come play house with you. I’m not going to do that. So just leave me alone. I’m going to read my magazine.”
She reached for her magazine. As she took it, they looked at one another. An emotional zing passed between them.
James said, “If I were twenty-five and you were eighteen, I’d lean over and kiss you.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” The zings passed faster.
“I may do it anyway.”
“Please don’t,” she said. “We aren’t eighteen and twenty-five. And if you kissed me, all the other women on the tour would be racked with jealousy.” Stop flirting, she told herself. Don’t give him that gotcha look.
“You did run away,” James insisted. “But you’ve misread me. I’m a straight shooter. I’m flirting, yes, but I’m also serious.” She started to open her magazine. He put his hand on it. “Here’s what’s on offer: James Mitchell, born in Nairobi, Kenya, sixty-two years ago, to a British father and a German mother. Came to South Africa forty years ago. I’m 5’ 10.”
“My husband was tall,” she interrupted, flirting again.
“Sorry. I can’t give you tall,” James told her. “Let me finish. About 170 pounds. In good shape, so my doctor tells me. I’d have brought my medical records if I had known I would meet you on this trip. My blood is good; it’s circulating very fast at the moment.”
“So’s mine,” she said and laughed. You’re lost! she told herself.
“Really? I hope so. I’m the father of three kids: Diana and her family live in Canada. Roger and his family are in the UK. Andrea, whom you’ve met at Toke Tours, is in Cape Town. I live in a second story flat, two bedrooms and a den, in Rosebank. I own the building – it has four flats – plus two houses and I have some investments. I want to fall in love again and think I could do it with you.”
“You’ve been watching me a lot on this trip and I didn’t put it together until I was in that loo.”
“I plead guilty.”
“Do you have talks of this kind with women on every tour? Do you pick out a victim and watch her throughout?”
“Do you think I do that?” His charm dropped away. He regarded her seriously. “I find that offensive.”
She made a face to assure him that she didn’t mean to offend. She studied him. “But do you think it doesn’t offend me to have you sit there and bother me with this impossible talk?”
“Oh, get off it.” He smiled at her as if teasing. “If I’ve offended you why did you freshen your lipstick in the bathroom? And comb your hair?”
She should have known he would notice.
“I guess we have to learn how to handle disagreements if this is going to have any staying power,” he said.
“This what? Staying power! You’re impossible.”
He unfastened his seat belt. “I’m going to stand in the back of the plane for a while to show you and the world that I’m not bothering you.” He rose, left his seat, and started down the aisle.
Turning back, Sue saw him stop at Barbara’s seat, lean over and speak to her. She turned around and looked forward, furious and embarrassed and repentant all at once, and wondering what he’d said to Barbara.
After a moment Barbara came up and slid into his seat. “James said you wanted to see me.”
“Did he?” That did offend her. As if she needed Barbara’s help to handle him. “I guess he wanted me to explain how I happen to be sitting here.”
“He likes you. That’s why.”
“He likes us all, silly. That’s why he’s good at his job.” After a moment she explained, “He picks a tour member from every trip and debriefs that person on the flight home. I happen to be the person he picked.”
“I hope you tell him about that awful dinner we had Thursday night.”
“Actually I’m going light on the complaints.”
They talked briefly about the trip. Then Barbara winked and said, “Maybe I should get back. Just in case James wants his seat.” Barbara smirked and moved off down the aisle.
James did not return to his seat until the pilot announced that the plane was preparing to land. He smiled at Sue. The charm came back on, the flirtation. “Things better now?” he asked.
Sue said, “We can’t handle disagreements if you walk off and stay away until we’re about to land.”
He agreed. “Probably not.”
She turned to him, back to where they had left off. “So why me?
“Something about you made me think: Maybe her. Maybe now.”
“No man has expressed any interest—“ This was not quite true, but she let it pass.
“Why not you?” he asked. “Why is a man attracted to a woman?” He shrugged. “He just is. It’s not a matter of your being beautiful, which you are, or of having a splendid, youthful figure—“
“I play a lot of tennis.” She said, flirting again.
“I play some tennis,” James acknowledged. “Or a matter of your having a sense of humor and a great laugh. You also have a stunning walk.”
“I do?”
“Walking behind you, I’ve been tempted to say: ‘Lady, no woman your age should look that good from behind.”
“Heavens! What a compliment!” She laughed.
“Great laugh.”
“You’ll never walk behind me again!”
“We like talking together even if we don’t admit it. I could have dinner every night with that.”
Feeling suddenly embarrassed, she looked at her hands so that she did not have to look at him.
He leaned close to her. “I’ve wanted to find a companion for six months, maybe a year. I’ve been looking, but I’m choosy. You’re the first woman who’s made me feel: This could work. This might be the one.”
Still embarrassed, she said, “Well, well. So this is how it’s done these days.”
“This is how. It’s not your grandmother’s world.”
After a moment she asked, “We aren’t talking marriage, are we?”
“No. You might not even like me after we’ve been together a while.”
“Marriage gets complicated with children.” She added, “And it’s true I may not like you.”
James said, “You’ll have to live with me to find out. In Rosebank. Or your place. When I do a tour, I hope you’ll come with me.” He paused, then: “Can you spend tonight with me in Rosebank?”
She tried to absorb this. “Do I have to decide right now?”
“I’m not pushing you. We can sleep separately if you like.”
“Hey! Don’t get cold feet on me!”
He laughed, relieved.
“Full disclosure,” she said. “I haven’t done any of that for several years.”
“I understand it’s like riding a bicycle. You don’t forget how.” He watched her again as if he were memorizing her face. He asked, “So it’s set?”
A stewardess came by and asked them to tighten their seat belts. They obeyed. Sue grinned at him. “Fasten your seat belt, mister. We may be in for a bumpy landing.”
He reached over for her hand and brought it to his lips. “I think it will be great fun falling in love with you. I’m already half way there.”
As they landed – smoothly, it turned out – Sue leaned over James’s seat, brought his face to hers, and kissed him.