The Observer in the Champagne Lounge
He had 93 minutes to wait.
Larry wouldn’t wait anywhere for that long unless he was in casualty or in a departure lounge. This time it was the latter. Keeping his inflight case on wheels with strap of his laptop bag wrapped securely around the handle, he’s wandered through Dixons and Boots and the fashion and perfumery outlets weren’t for him at the age of 64. He had all the gadgets he needed and having stocked up on valerian and ibuprofen he’d eventually found himself tempted by the Champagne Bar. It would be a day of contrasts: on the ground and then up to 28,000 feet, Stanstead to Limoges, a smoked salmon bagel and champagne to a Ryan Air seat.
The champagne seems like a sensible idea, even at 10am.
The Champagne Bar sat like a small bright island of glass and mirrors, of tasteful wood and expensive bottles in the middle of a swirl of faces with cases. Passengers experiencing varying levels of anxiety and displaying varying degrees of pretended nonchalance or perhaps genuine levels of boredom, clutching mobiles, passports and tickets, duty-free shopping, their children or elderly relations stood or sat watching the electronic departure boards or walked with their varying gaits the coffee shops, cafes and toilets before straightening to one extent or another and finding renewed purpose in hurrying to their numbered gate and another barrier around another corner.
Larry sat on a stool and ordered his indulgence from a slim, tidy waiter sporting a slim and tidy black beard. Larry liked the way the waiter called him “Sir” and didn’t ask him if he was “all right” as an alternative to “can I help you”. Larry noticed that the waiter brought the flute of champagne immediately whilst passing the food order on to an older woman in a headscarf who worked behind a decorated glass barrier towards the rear.
Breaking the habit of maybe forty years, Larry sipped his drink and looked quickly at his fellow customers. There were two: the amateur pilot and the woman who ran a small company at opposite ends of the bar. Observing them in turn without the minor embarrassment of turning to stare was difficult initially but the amateur pilot had a departure board behind him and she had the route to the gates behind her.
The amateur pilot identified himself as such by wearing a black bomber jacket with a small round flying club badge in white and red on the left breast. He had white earbuds in, with a white lead that ran to an inside pocket. He didn’t stare at his phone like the woman at the other end of the bar. He was a white man aged around 50 and the strained white cotton around the buttonholes of his open-necked shirt betrayed the weight of his middle-aged disappointment. He still had his own hair but it was looking increasingly like a wig, being a wavy dull brown with a little grey and brushed back over his large round head. His skin was tired. He stared blankly ahead without any enthusiasm in his life or for his life. He rarely met anyone else who could talk light aircraft , even at the airport but he thought the badge impressed. Larry realised the pilot was drinking black coffee at the Champagne bar. Larry guessed he’d been there for some time and was about to leave, a more wide-awake drunk than he would otherwise have been.
The slim white business woman was probably about 45. She gave the impression of being a serious person travelling with all efficiency and without drawing any attention to herself. She was not tall. She presented quietly. She wore dark brown jeans and a light brown woollen top. Larry guessed that she would speak more loudly than her clothes and that her staff would probably listen. She also had a small coffee before her which she sipped whilst responding to messages on her iPhone and writing in a small notebook which rested on the counter.
Larry was careful not to be caught watching her. He knew women found unwanted attention dull or irritating. And these days he was always polite and appropriate as well very happily married. He was genuinely an innocent observer.
She was very busy.
And then she stopped, checked the departure board behind the pilot and joined him in staring without focus at the swirling humanity behind Larry, the older, academic-looking man with a beard, wearing black jeans, black v-neck sweater and a brown tweed sports jacket, eating a smoked salmon bagel and sipping at a flute of champagne whilst he read the Observer news section. He was, after all, an observer and he was beginning to be comfortable with the invisibility his age gave him.
Idly, between sips, Larry found her quietly interesting and wondered what kind of company she ran, whether she had a teenage son or daughter or two with their issues, aged parents with care issues and a tiresome, golfing husband doing whatever he was doing whilst she was away. She was here at the champagne bar at the airport holding the company and her family together. All lines of care, responsibility, ambition, initiative, detail, stress and frustration ran through that phone. He wondered if she had passion for anything anymore or whether she had learnt to be distrustful of the passion that had brought her so many burdens. She might have been thankful that the free wifi was so bad. Fewer people could get to her. He stare was also blank and disappointed.
Larry realised that he wasn’t reading his newspaper but also watching the departure board without a trace of animation. The woman put her notebook in her neutral brown leather bag and ordered another coffee. It arrived swiftly and then she called the waiter back. She ordered a double shot of cognac. Her eyes met Larry’s as she did so. She’s caught his observation and assumed his judgement. Her micro-expressions flipped at lightning speed from immobile through fear of exposure as an alcohol dependent, guilt at her order, shame at her stress and then a rebellious petit-fuckyou…”I’m having a drink, mind your own fucking business, drink your own champagne at 10.30 in the morning”.
Larry knew they were both members of the same club.
Looking away with studied unhurriedness Larry went back to his untidy newspaper, this time occupying himself fully by weeding out the sports section and the glossy magazine with its fall-out adverts and putting them into a nearby bin before returning to his seat to read the News Review section.
The small businesswoman had gone and the amateur pilot had flown.
The waiter asked if he’d like another drink. He ordered a double espresso. There was still an hour to go and he had a departure board to watch.