The man in seat 16F was a very unattractive man. Sheila could see why he’d had to turn to the internet to find love. His belly spilled out onto the armrests and he had one of those big veiny noses you couldn’t help but stare at. She was only being polite when she asked him why he was visiting Amsterdam. She didn’t expect to hear a love story that would last the entire feature-length flight from Aberdeen.
At first, she thought Andy – that was his name – she thought he was making the whole thing up to try and hide the fact he was visiting Amsterdam for other, far more unsavoury reasons. Sheila had accidentally stumbled through those red light zones before. She’d seen the type that milled around the windows: podgy middle-aged men like Andy who gawked at the young girls on display. But Andy made his Mila sound so real the way he revelled in describing her. So real, that at least to him, his story must have been true.
A woman fifteen years younger than him, Mila worked as a cleaner in Zaandam, a city a few miles north of Amsterdam. She had dark blonde hair and grey-blue eyes, and she was quite short, which was fine for Andy because he’d struggled to meet women smaller than him back in the Granite City. Mila had lived in Zaandam all her life, but loved visiting Amsterdam whenever she could. Zaandam didn’t have the same glamorous appeal, she’d said. Most of the tourists got off at the train stop as near as possible to the old windmills on the river Zaan and only wandered about the traditional Dutch houses there. They rarely ventured along the murky river by the factories, where the smell of the air would change from hops to biscuits and then, best of all, to chocolate!
Mila smelt all three on every walk to and from the offices she cleaned in the city centre. She said if she walked home wearing a blindfold, she would know how far away her flat was, just from the smell alone. Andy was looking forward to experiencing this all for himself when they strolled along the old narrow streets together, or hopped onto a river cruise to learn about the mills of the past, and the gleaming factories that now stood in their place.
But first they’d meet in Schiphol, Andy’s favourite airport. He worked on a Dutch rig offshore, so he was forever passing through the long boomerang of a building. He’d eaten in every restaurant, had visited its museum and library, and had even gone along to the prayer room one time, not that he believed in any of that spiritual muck. But he did believe in love! If he hadn’t come across his Dutch beauty on cupidstrikes.com, he was sure they’d have met in person some day in the airport – bumped into each other by accident as they skimmed through the magazines in the newsagent, or got chatting in the queue at the electronics store. Fate always had its way; the internet had only helped speed up the inevitability of Andy and Mila finding each other.
He was desperate to hear her voice for the first time, he gushed. He’d read all her words, all her thoughts and her jokes in their messages, but he couldn’t wait to hear how they sounded in her accent. They hadn’t been able to speak over the phone because Mila’s mobile was broken the whole month they’d known each other. And they couldn’t videochat because her webcam would never work properly! But she’d sent him lots of pictures of her with her friends, their nights out in the capital, and a trip to Brussels the year before. Her pictures were almost as beautiful as her words. She’d written things – as best as she could in English – that no one had ever said to him before. And he’d never been happier!
And with that, Andy stopped talking and seemed to dwell in those memories, his eyes glazing over.
During his silence, Sheila felt like she could see right inside of him, could see that this was love. Had she ever felt this strongly for any of the men she’d been with?
But then she thought of Mila herself, of a woman in her twenties – a girl really – and whether she could actually love this man back. Did this Mila really exist at all?
And what about you? Andy had resurfaced out of his dwam.
Me? Sheila was confused.
Aye. Are you with anyone?
Oh, she laughed. Twice divorced. And let’s just say I’m not looking for third time lucky.
He leant away from her, seemed shocked to hear that someone wouldn’t be interested in having what he had with Mila. His Mila. His beautiful Dutch girl who lived in a city where the air smelt of chocolate.
As he rambled on, Sheila looked past him and out through the window. She squinted a little to make out the thin moats that snaked through the fields nearby Schiphol.
When they landed, she had to wait for him to get all of his hand luggage out the holdall, put on his jacket, and pack away the magazines he hadn’t looked at once the whole flight. She could see the eye rolls of the passengers trapped behind him, some who’d had to endure his love story like her, and others who’d been lucky enough to plug their ears with music.
Once they got into the airport, she spied a toilet sign.
I’m going to have to pop into the ladies, but it’s been lovely chatting to you. I’m sure you and Mila will have a brilliant weekend. Good luck!
I’m sure we will. Thank you! Without any warning, he wrapped his thick arms around her and hugged her. His sweatshirt felt warm and wet against her skin – she couldn’t help but wince. He let go and headed on towards the Arrivals Hall, one hand gripping his battered holdall, the spare one trembling.
Inside the toilet, Sheila hid herself away in a cubicle and connected to the wifi for a free 15 minutes of email reading. Once that was up, she took her time re-applying her lipstick before heading back out. Surely Andy would be long gone by now?
He was the first person she saw in the Arrivals Hall. He took no notice of Sheila though: he was wholly transfixed by the woman before him. As he’d described, Mila was a small girl with blonde hair who was a fair few years younger than him. But she was far more beautiful than Sheila had allowed herself to imagine.
They were holding one another’s hands, staring into each other’s eyes… And it seemed a little bit odd to Sheila, to think that was the first time that these two people, so clearly in love, had ever been in the same country together, never mind the same room. That this was the first time they’d ever heard each other’s voices. She turned away from the glare of their love, and headed for the train to Amsterdam.
Sheila’s backside ached as she made her way back to Schiphol on the Sunday evening. It felt as if she was still sitting on her bike saddle, the outline of it throbbing across her buttocks as she wriggled in her train seat. She’d cycled for far too long on that ancient rented bike.
On the Saturday she’d cycled along the canals, weaving through loved-up couples and other cyclists. On the Sunday morning she’d headed down to the Bos Park where she got lost along its forest trails. In the afternoon she’d headed up to the North Island by ferrying across the river Iy. She’d passed the fancy film museum, and continued along the river until she spotted a sign for Zaandam. Andy’s stories had been enough to make her turn and head back to the centre for a cold beer before her flight.
She was relieved that there was no sign of Andy as she made her way through airport security and into the waiting room. It seemed to be a quieter flight than Friday’s so she thought she might sleep through the whole journey and ignore the pain in her backside.
On board, a young female flight attendant offered her a seat in the emergency exit aisles. A whining child near the front convinced her it would be worthwhile making the move further back. In her new seat, she spread herself out into a comfortable position and began reading a book she’d picked up in the airport.
Hello again, said someone over to her left.
She glanced up – it was him. They’d sat him down in the three empty seats across from hers. Same belly. Same veiny nose. Even the same sweatshirt as Friday.
Oh hi, she said before swiftly returning to her book.
For almost an hour, she fought herself not to look up. She ignored the safety demonstration, the duty free cart, and even passed up on the free snack and drink. She finally caved when she heard deep restrained sobs coming from his direction. From the corner of her eye, she saw that his hands were shaking as tears dripped down on to them. She glanced at the folk in the row behind him – they were just as unsure of what to do with this middle-aged man sat crying on his own.
Are you okay? she asked.
Uninvited, he opened his seatbelt, sidled past the spare seats in their row and sat himself down right next to her.
Did your weekend not go as planned? She pictured Mila locking him out of her flat, throwing his possessions from a balcony, phoning the police to come and take him away…
Andy opened his mouth. All that came out was a shrill whine that made half the folk in front turn and look back the way.
Now now. Don’t get upset. Are you just sad to say goodbye to Mila?
Mila? he sobbed. I’m not sure I met my Mila.
So… that wasn’t her in the airport? I thought I saw you with –
Yes, and she was so kind and thoughtful and caring the whole weekend. He started panting for breaths. B-b-but… she wasn’t my Mila.
He wiped his nose, leaving a line of snot across his hairy forearm.
My Mila – the one in the messages – she didn’t do the things this Mila did. My Mila didn’t laugh like this girl!
Laugh like her?
Like a hyena!
He said it so loud Sheila didn’t know where to look. She busied herself by slotting her book into the pouch in front of her.
Surely that’s not a bad thing. To laugh. She spoke quietly, hoping she could bring down his volume with hers.
The girl found everything I said funny! She couldn’t stop herself. Haha this and haha that. Everything was hilarious!
Part of Sheila wanted to laugh as well.
But it’s okay… He wiped tears off his face and took a deep breath. I still have our messages.
Yes. See. It’s okay, Sheila said. The young flight attendant approached their row, looking a little wary of having to speak to them.
I’m sorry sir, but I’m going to have to ask you to return to your seat. We’ll be landing shortly.
Oh. Okay, Andy sniffled. He turned to Sheila. Thank you for listening. It’s just… He sighed, his shoulders sagging …I’d never been in love before.
Sheila put her arms around him and rubbed his warm back with her hands. He smelt of old sweat… and stale beer… and, somewhere, somehow, in amongst it all, of dark chocolate.
They slowly pulled apart and Andy returned to his seat.
Sheila looked out the window. Down below, the streets of Aberdeen glowed orange in the night, and somewhere beneath those lights, a girl called Mila was waiting, holding back laughter for her love.
Foreground photo one “El avión” by Nyja Morris
Foreground photo two “Schiphol Airport” by A.
Background photo “Midnight Aberdeen” by Robert Payne