As the plane flew low on its descent into Los Angeles airport, the passenger in seat 35A looked out of the window at the rows of ugly houses beneath, single storey mainly with air conditioning units on their roofs. He had grown up in an ordinary suburb like this, under the flight path, and his friend Phil had lived in a place not unlike these, with his mum and his sister. That too had been near the airport and was also single storey – a bungalow – but Phil’s mum never let anyone refer to her home like that and she would always correct them, insisting it was a house. There was that one small room in the eaves with its solitary window overlooking the front path, he recalled, but that hadn’t made it a house, had it? The long flight had left David numb and he took his glasses off to rub his eyes. He had meant to get new glasses before he left London but had never got round to it and was now away from home for three weeks with ones that didn’t seem to quite work for him any more.
He had always adored Phil, although the way in which that adoring manifested itself had changed and in the latter years coloured their friendship with a dark hue of rejection. “Phil and David – they’re joined at the hip – like two peas in a pod – you’d think they were brothers,” people had said when they were little and if he’d known at fifteen that within ten years he and his very best friend wouldn’t have seen each other for six of them he would have laughed and said, “don’t be stupid.” And yet this outlandish prospect is what had transpired. Phil’s bungalow had previously been a place he had liked very much not least because Phil’s mum was rarely in it, it seemed, and time there was their own. His friend Jess had said to him as they walked home from school one day, “you fancy Phil, don’t you?” He had blushed at the accusation and denied it in his faltering voice which was taking far longer than the other boys’ to break and Jess had rolled her eyes and changed the subject. He hadn’t strictly been lying; ‘fancying’ was too simplistic and harsh a notion and that is what had stopped him saying yes to Jess, he tried to persuade himself. If she’d enunciated his emotions more clearly he’d have taken it on the chin. He twisted awkwardly in his seat knowing this wasn’t really true and even all these years later he was dissembling in the way he had back then. Pitying that teenage boy and accepting him for what he’d been was the right way to feel but he couldn’t and instead he disliked his earlier self intensely. Recalling all this, he crossed his left leg over his right one and curled his foot behind his leg in a corkscrewing, squirming action and he wondered why although he might not redden at the memory of it all any more there was still a corporeal response. He pictured Jess rolling her eyes when he’d said, “where do you get that idea?” and he rolled his eyes now to see how it felt and then rubbed them again before trying to look more concertedly out of the window to make them focus.
The bungalows here were brightly lit by the late afternoon sun and from this height it was hard to tell if they were desirable or not. Their suburban neatness belied something shabby he could detect from even this height but they were lent a exotic languid hue by the palm trees and like everywhere in this city, even amongst the ugly places, there were swimming pools at the back. As you approached Heathrow, he thought, how transforming would palm trees be and swimming pools in the gardens of the drab houses of Feltham or Hounslow. He smiled as he imagined Phil’s mum being the owner of such things. “At the back of the house,” he could hear her say, “there’s the pool and the palm, the children adore the water and it’s all so welcome on a day like today.” She would never have spoken like this he knew but it wasn’t hard to imagine her as one of those leathery, thin women you met in LA, slapping wet feet between pool and kitchen. The first drink of the day consumed at some point before noon, enjoyed with a white filtered cigarette working with the sun to turn skin on hands and face leathery and sallow.
Something in the pressure of the cabin changed and a noisy silence descended. The end must surely be close now and all the passengers were strapped in and thankfully even the cries of the baby across the aisle were stifled. All the cabin crew had departed into their secret areas and he found their absence inappropriate, as if they had fled ahead of some impending disaster. The woman sitting next to him in 35B had been awoken by the stewardess for the final stretch of the journey. She’d been asked to put her table in its upright position and now she was sighing and repeatedly checking her watch. Beyond saying a courteous but blocking hello to whomever he was sat next to on a plane, David didn’t like committing to conversation with people, especially when he knew that their proximity was an unchangeable fact for the next ten hours or so. In this way, he was like his own father. Mum had once complained about Dad on their return from a coach trip to the Alps. The holiday had not, it transpired, been a great success not least because of Dad’s reluctance to chat with people.
“We were on that bus for hours and hours and your father didn’t want to talk to anyone. It was very awkward for me, I can tell you.”
“I don’t go on holiday to talk to people,” said Dad.
“Well then we shouldn’t have gone on a coach trip, should we?”
On that they were agreed and never did such a thing again. Unusually David had actually fallen into conversation with this woman next to him; it was a crumb of the mini-pretzel dropping into his drink in its sparkling plastic glass that had started it all. Amongst the ice cubes, the crumb had moved about under its own volition like a small insect trapped in setting amber. Just at the point of prising it from the depths with his coffee stirrer some tiny imperceptible jolt would set it off again. After a while, bored by this David simply knocked back the drink in one and the woman in 35B (whose name he had now awkwardly forgotten) said, “I’d have done the same – ages ago,” and then swallowed a sleeping pill with her white wine. From then on during their meal and through some of the film afterwards they had talked amiably enough about his work in both London and California and her husband who had just started a new job as director of a large gallery and gardens in some smart district in Los Angeles, but then she slept for nearly seven hours.
When they had been fourteen David and Phil had come home from school one day and were watching television. Debbie, Phil’s younger sister, had put up a fight for a short while that she wanted to watch something on the other side but Phil had had his way, as he tended to. Phil’s mum came and stood awkwardly in the doorway and said, “there’s someone I’d like you two to meet.” David knew this was his cue to leave but didn’t really how to do so or what to say so instead didn’t say or do anything. “This is Andy,” she went on, and as if introducing someone onto a stage a wiry, tall man suddenly appeared in the doorway with her. They giggled awkwardly at the narrowness of the space and David cast a look from Phil to Debbie and back to Phil to see the effect this was having on them whilst the siblings simply stared at their mother and this man. “Hi kids,” said Andy and Debbie said hello back and then so did David even though he knew he shouldn’t be there. Phil shot him an admonishing glance and didn’t say anything.
“Your mum thought it would be nice for us to meet.”
“Andy’s a magician. He plays all the hotels,” Phil’s mum said through a sharp-cornered smile. Her eyes were glassy. There had been an awkward conversation for a while and David finally found a way of saying he should go home. “Don’t,” said Phil and David looked to Phil’s mum for instruction. None seemed forthcoming so he sat down again, and immediately regretted not taking his chance. In all the years since, David had never been certain when it was Andy had started performing tricks. He remembered feeling sorry for Phil’s mum who kept letting out whelps of delight and mock surprise which sounded rehearsed and uncomfortable. Debbie was interested, and although it made him feel disloyal so was he but Phil had his arms folded and surveyed the scene with an angry disappointment. Andy was good at this magic though. There were tricks with cards and ping pong balls in glasses and then best of all he made things disappear from one place and turn up in another. Debbie laughed as this man took items from her pencil case and did the impossible; but it was when he produced a ten pence piece from Phil’s shoulder the boil finally burst. Phil had thrown the coin at his mother and it had hit her hard on her collar bone. He got up, rushed out and David heard him thundering down the hall to his room. Finally, David found the words to say he should go and collecting his coat and bag he looked towards his friend’s bedroom but the door was shut, in a way that David interpreted as meaning even he wouldn’t be welcome. On the bus back to his own house, he hated Phil for shutting his door before he could reach him.
The pressure popped in his right ear as the plane violently shuddered when its wheels hit the runway and he had the disconcerting sensation that a little warm liquid was oozing out. He could hear that child crying again now. He still wondered how different things might have been if he hadn’t concentrated on his own rejection rather than the hurt and anger his best friend was experiencing. But maybe their friendship had started disintegrating long before Andy arrived that November afternoon? From then their bond had imperceptibly loosened and by the time they left school they each existed in different orbits.
Whilst doing their A’ levels they had seen each other in the college canteen and they had said ‘hi’ but that was it. Phil went to university and David drifted in and out of jobs before finally applying for drama school and moving to the north. Late at night, he still sometimes looked for Phil on the Internet and on Facebook and although he was there to be glimpsed the experience was hollow and the facts of his family life only made this Phil seem a different person from the one he had cared for. He unbuckled his seatbelt and awkwardly stood up, making his way past seats B and C into the aisle. Collecting his hand luggage he anticipated dinner with his clients that evening and wondered what they would eat. He put on his glasses, realised that only made things worse, and took them off again.