It’s cold when she gets to Tegel Airport, wind slicing her thin fleece, but the sun is trying its best. Hilda drags her bags cautiously into the entrance. She’s never believed in travelling light. She has 10 small blue bags, all filled to bursting, carefully tied together so they look like one enormous knobbly piece of luggage. It was a trick she’d learned early on in India. But in those days she was young and fit and now she is old and arthritic, her hands don’t work properly, and the bags keep falling over. In addition to the mountain of blue bags she has two plastic bags which clink as she walks, and a raffia ‘bag for life’ from the Reichelt supermarket. She’d put wheels on the base of two of the blue bags, a Heath Robinson affair knocked up from the bottom of an old suitcase she’d found abandoned on the Friedrichstrasse. It all threatens to tip over with every step, but she balances the other bags on the top, puts her good arm round the entire lot, and eventually manages to get them onto a baggage trolley. She shuffles to the coffee bar with her improbable load teetering wildly. Once there, she rests it against the table.
She looks for a waitress, but they ignore her. ‘Eine tasse kaffee,’ she says hopefully, in her best English accent. Nobody responds. Hilda has never found it easy to attract people’s attention. A small unremarkable child, she is now an unremarkable old lady, with short grey hair and glasses that threaten to slide off with every step. At this serving counter she always finds that whole planeloads of passengers get served with cheese rolls or croissants whilst she’s continually overlooked, peering over the counter like a tiny indignant bird.
Eventually she grabs the arm of one of the girls.
‘Eine tasse kaffee,’ she repeats, only adding the ‘bitte’ when the girl gives her a look of contempt. But it works this time. The coffee is hot, warming, but she’s still shaking with cold and anger even after half of it is drunk. The anger wins.
‘Bastards,’ she shouts out suddenly, her voice ringing across the café. ‘Fuckers. Who do you think you are?’ A couple of people look at her: most keep their heads bent firmly over their coffee. The manager hurries over.
‘Bitte lassen.’ He looms over her menacingly. Hilda squints at him flirtatiously.
‘Entschuldigung,’ she says apologetically. He repeats his request and starts to move her bags away from the table. Hilda sighs. It’s time she left, in any case. She still hasn’t checked on her flight.
There are no seats left on the 14.55 Lufthansa flight to Zurich. Hilda slams her hand on the desk in frustration. The man behind the desk sighs deeply – Hilda is not an easy customer – and suggests she tries Schonefeld instead: there is, he believes, a late-afternoon flight she could take.
‘And how the hell do you expect me to get all these to Schonefeld?’ Hilda indicates her baggage, which is already wilting off the Tegel trolley like a bunch of dying chrysanthemums. She adds a few more swear words for good measure. The man shrugs and turns to the next customer. Hilda wants to let loose a torrent of the most vivid and comprehensive language she can muster. She wants to cast doubt on this man’s parentage, on the parentage of his children, his ancestry, and his mother’s reputation. But her German is flagging, and she’s not been able to afford breakfast, so instead she snorts, and seats herself near the departure board to consider her options. There’s a flight leaving for Berne at 5 pm, or she can nip onto an internal flight for Munich at 3. But she really wanted to go to Zurich today. Irritation ripples through her. She sizes up the waiting area. A woman in cerise and turquoise striped jumper, with matching cerise-and-gold-earrings; a pretty Chinese girl in a black jacket talking into her phone; a couple of travel-stained English tourists in duffle coats, holdalls bulging with shopping. Two security guards in blue trousers and shirts, pistols in their holsters. She looks away nervously. The sky is clear and flat over the airport, but snow clouds are rolling slowly in from the east. Hilda watches as the 11.30 from Heathrow noses into its docking point at the gate; businessmen and tourists pour off, an untidy rabble of bags, briefcases and rucksacks.
13.00 hours and the plane from Schiphol is delayed. Hilda taps her hand impatiently on the metal bar of her seat. This plane is almost never late. Perhaps a strike, she thinks, a security alert, you never know these days. The scheduled flights from Frankfurt and Madrid have also been delayed, but she sees a big Airbus touching down, rolling itself smoothly onto the runway. Tegel is her favourite airport. Like her it is old, a bit scruffy round the edges, struggling to cope with all its baggage. By rights she should not be here today. None of them should. Tegel should already have closed, to make way for the new Berlin Brandenburg complex. But the work has been delayed, so she sinks back in her seat, grateful that for now, she can sit here and watch planes skimming in and out like dragonflies landing on a pond.
Hilda has a passion for flying. When other people are gripping the seats in terror at take-off and landing, she is glued to the window, loving the acceleration of the plane, waiting for the lift-off that will take them high up into the sky, as if the earth is no longer able to keep the plane fixed to the ground. She remembers the last flight she took; was it last year, the year before, twenty years ago? Her mind wanders these days, plays stupid tricks on her, so that she has no control over her memories, and sometimes, over what she says or does. But the last flight, she remembers that. It was when she came to Berlin, Stockholm to Schonefeld. It was a good journey: no turbulence, and a nice in-flight meal, meatballs with small rounds of potato and vegetables. She’d saved hard to afford the ticket, stashing up kronas one by one until she had enough, not eating for days at a time. But it had been worth it. Sweden had lost its charm; its people were not so generous as Berliners. It’s the clouds she recalls most about that flight. They were like the wraps of fabric laid on the floor to make her sister’s wedding dress, that hot Jaipur summer; big white fluffy clouds, thick, dense and lacy. In places they were ridged, little buttons of cloud imprinted like footprints on the main belt of cumulus, so that you wondered who had walked across them. And later, when the sunset came, they looked like the bolts of silk that were dyed in big vats in Jaipur; and when the sun started to fade from the massive swathe of sky, the colours changed to bruised blues and purples, and Hilda knew those colours, too. That was the best flight of all, she thinks now, and wishes she was already queuing in the departure lounge, boarding pass in hand, the excitement of the journey to come.
Hilda’s father had been something official in India, something colonial. There was an office, with big cooling fans and an ice machine. But exactly what he did, she didn’t know; he never spoke of his work. And then Margaret had married out there, and shortly afterwards, the family returned to England, leaving Margaret with her new husband. That was the last Hilda had seen of her sister. Her father too, because as soon as they got back home – though to Hilda, home had been the hot, vibrant streets of Jaipur, and England a strange, cold, foreign place – he left them. Their mother didn’t mention him again, and Hilda was afraid to ask. India and her father were in the past, and the past was a country they never set foot in again. Hilda was sent to boarding school, where the girls bullied her; she spent her days longing for her old schoolfriends, for the noisy, colourful country she had left, for the animals and insects and suffocating heat. She had been a clever girl, but didn’t complete her schooling, leaving early to work in an office. There had been a marriage – brief, lonely – but no children. Jobs, but no career. Drifting, she thinks now, I was always a drifter. Always wanting to be somewhere else. Over the years she has lived in France and Sweden and Spain, taken bar jobs in Majorca and Tenerife, worked as a cleaner in Italy, a nanny in Greece, paying her way round the world but never making enough to settle down. Not India though. She had never returned there, although Margaret would have been pleased and surprised to see her. She doesn’t even know whether Margaret is still alive. And now, at 79, she’s in Berlin, with a bad arm and hands that don’t work properly and legs that give way on her in the cold. Still drifting.
She loves Berlin at this time of year. The Christmas markets, full of noise and music and the smell of bratwurst and glühwein tourists jostling at the stalls to buy gloves and scarves and decorations, purses shoved carelessly into their pockets for anyone to see. At the Alexanderplatz this year they were roasting a whole pig, his body revolving slowly on the spit, eyes glazed with the reflection of the fire. She’d found enough money for a pork roll and a mug of glühwein, and turned the taste of it round and round in her mouth. Other stalls were selling plates of fried potatoes or cabbage, bowls of goulash soup, and the glühwein mugs were embellished with the name and date of the market. Hilda noticed how many of the tourists slipped the empty mugs into their pockets when they had finished. It was a game between stallholder and customer, a kind of legalised stealing; the stallholders knew the mugs wouldn’t be returned, and put a deposit charge on them. Hilda liked the thought of stealing being legitimised here, provided for, expected from you. It made everything so much easier. But she has no need of pretty glühwein mugs and gave hers carefully back to the stallholder, receiving the precious euros in exchange.
The 13.00 flight from Schiphol is finally announced. There’s a sudden frisson of excitement in the air, as passengers start to gather up bags and children, point to the arrivals board, jabber at each other in Dutch and German. It will be a good while yet, Hilda thinks, before they can board. Nevertheless, a straggle of them head at speed for the departure gate, knocking other passengers out of the way, leaving behind half-eaten sandwiches, newspapers, packets of crisps. Hilda sidles over to one of the tables and removes several of these, along with a glossy magazine. As she goes back to her seat, a red and silver Air Berlin glides to a halt on the runway, sleek and graceful as a shark. She opens the magazine and looks at the pictures: immaculate women posed with expensive handbags, adverts for perfumes and gold jewellery. A different world.
It’s 6 pm and Hilda wakes with a start. She has nodded off, she realizes, for several hours. Panicking, she looks for her bags, and sighs with relief. Everything she owns is in those bags. Her few clothes, some books, reminders of the places she has visited. A small pottery jar from Italy, cheap necklaces and bracelets, a coffee mug, some soap. A woollen blanket bought in Greece, a sleeping bag, torn and faded now, but still warm enough if she wraps herself in the blanket first. A torch without the battery, and some aluminium cooking pots, their sides dented from travelling.
She realises suddenly that a security guard is standing over her, his face screwed up as if there’s a bad smell under his nose. He asks her to leave, in careful, impeccable German. Hilda pretends not to understand and answers him in Swedish. The guard asks her again, not quite so politely this time. His hand hovers casually on his holster. He’s recognised me, Hilda thinks, he knows who I am.
‘Schise!’ she yells at him. She looks through the windows of Tegel, at the snow that is just starting to fall. It’s going to be cold tonight. The security guard waits as she collects her lump of blue bags, her clinking carriers, rearranges the big worn boots with no laces. She’ll have to get the bus back into town now, get off at Hauptbahnhof or Tiergarten. She scrabbles in her pocket for a few remaining euros, but the guard is ahead of her, slips a 10 euro note into her hand. There’s pity in his eyes, pity and kindness. It makes her angry, but she’s too tired to argue. There’s a railway arch at Tiergarten, out of the wind, somewhere the Landespolizei won’t notice her. She can come back to Tegel tomorrow, as she does every day, watching the planes taking off and landing, with their promise of far places, different horizons, some kind of future. One day she will go to Zurich, when she’s saved up enough euros. One day.
Copyright © Kathy Miles, 2015.
Kathy Miles’ work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, and her third poetry collection, Gardening With Deer, will be published by Cinnamon Press in June 2016. She won the 2013 Second Light Poetry Competition and the 2014 Welsh Poetry Competition. She is currently doing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, and is a member of the Red Heron performance group.
Banner image: Copyright © Jo Mazelis, 2015.