They tell her it will be almost painless. And they’re almost right.
Later, when the sky’s a milky violet colour, Ailbhe sits in seat 19A, next to the window. She shrinks further into her clothes, wishes she had another layer on. She could grab one from the duffel bag that’s been stuffed into the compartment above her head, but that would mean squeezing into the space of the person next to her, and if she touches Samuel, she’ll never recover.
She certainly won’t make it back to Belfast. Back to work, to their apartment, to their friends, to their life. If, for even a second, Samuel’s skin touches hers, if he offers his hand to hold or strokes a strand of loose hair from her eyes, it will be the end of Ailbhe.
She’s held it together for the whole weekend - through dinner with his father, through a West End cabaret she didn’t much go on, through sleeping in Samuel’s childhood bed, duvet freshly washed and crisp from years of not being used.
But now, after, the slightest of brushes or grazes or nudges would ruin her, despite how much she knows, deep down, that she wants to feel his warmth, wants to know that he still loves her like he did before.
Ailbhe distracts herself, focusses on the apple Samuel bought in a dazed hurry before boarding the plane. He never eats fruit, hates it.
It sits on the fold-down table, next to a book that he’s been trying to read for six months and not yet finished. It goes everywhere with him, on the bus to the office, into the toilet. He had been trying to read it when Ailbhe had told him, hungover from a night out with friends, one of his pale hands nursing a cup of coffee. It had been a simple conversation.
I thought we were being careful.
So did I.
Do you want this?
I don’t think so.
What do we do?
“You can have it,” Samuel murmurs. He rolls the apple until it drops straight into Ailbhe’s cupped hands. She takes a bite, slowly.
“Are you feeling ok?” He asks. What a stupid question. She nods, turns her head to look at the view again.
The aisle seat is empty; they are alone, cocooned in the row together, their minds the furthest apart they have ever been.
A lowly “sorry” crackles in Samuel’s mouth, like eroding enamel, threatening to damage everything. Sorry for putting a child in you, sorry for not being with you to take it out.
Ailbhe’s refusal to let Samuel into the room had stumped him. In all things, they were progressive, or so he’d assumed.
He wondered if the feeling was residual. Had an unnecessary sense of shame petered its way through the years down into the small bones of Ailbhe’s spine? Had it settled there, dense and insidious? Had something of the spirit of other women who’d journeyed to England in search of getting their own lives back rooted itself in her body, shaken its way into her? Was that why she didn’t want him there, because she wasn’t truly alone?
He wants to ask her, even on the flight home, even when all has been done. He wants to know how he can make this day better, just needs a single word from her, to tell him she’s ok, that she doesn’t wish again for the morning before it happened, that they can move through and on from this.
“Do you want to call your Mum when we land?” Samuel asks.
Ailbhe’s still looking through the window, watches the lights of houses flicker like little oil lamps in the distance.
Samuel frowns. She doesn’t notice.
Samuel has always stuffed the jealousy back down his throat any time it threatened to surface. Ailbhe had a mother, had always had one, and he only had fractions of memories of a woman that might have been poached from old family video tapes. He doesn’t feel jealousy now, not of her pain.
He thinks if she just looked at him once, she’d see right through him, like cellophane. She’d see the teenager he was when they first met, new to Queen’s, textbook weighing down his rucksack, cheeky smile despite being nervous, with the glint of an estuary accent in his voice.
“Al?” He’s nervous again now. “Will you talk to me?”
She looks at him, finally, twists the core between her fingertips.
“You know, my aunt went to Liverpool in the 90s, said it was all over in ten minutes.” Albhie tells him softly, “I think she regrets it now.”
Samuel’s heart pounds, threatens to burst his chest wide open right there in the middle of the sky, let it smash down into the depths of the Irish sea never to be found again. He goes to hold Ailbhie’s hand, to comfort her, but she pulls it back.
“Sorry, sir, can you close your table, please?” An air steward interrupts them. “We’ll be landing shortly.”
Samuel does as he says, flips the table up and clips it in, buckles his seatbelt too. Ailbhie watches him, brown eyes open and wide, like a child’s.
Over the sound system the pilot announces it’s time to begin the descent. Ailbhe imagines it as flashing red, the only way out of this skull-crunching, guilt-inducing moment of life. But if the plane crashes, where will she end up? She pictures some sort of limbo, not unlike the one she’s already living in. If they fall from the sky, a tornado of shortened breaths and aluminium and inferno and tiny bottles of duty free alcohol, Ailbhe won’t have to tell Samuel, she won’t have to say anything at all.
For the briefest of seconds, Samuel’s elbow collides with Ailbhie’s.
Her body deflates right in front of him as they land, a life jacket once thought necessary in the panic but no longer required. They screech onto concrete. She shudders a breath, perhaps her last one.
“I didn’t go through with it.”