Monday, 15th November 2010
20,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico.
Perhaps it was the reassuring monotony of the Boeing 777’s two whistling jet engines, or maybe it was the trans-Atlantic flight time, but almost all of the 300 passengers were asleep.
Pete was awake and seated in J12, a comfort-economy seat on the starboard side. Being situated over the leading edge of the wing meant he had an unobstructed view of a grey and damp Amsterdam on take-off. He’d had a similar seat and view on the 737 from London Heathrow to Amsterdam’s Schiphol, so things could only improve weather-wise.
Whilst waiting in the departure lounge at Amsterdam, he’d received a call which brightened his day. Pete’s writing agent was obviously eager to start earning commission and had found a suitable publisher for the debut novel. Negotiations would continue with regard to the international rights, but it was great news.
In the silence, the passenger area of the aircraft flooded with light, and there was a sharp ‘ping-pong’ from the intercom.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen – this is Captain Laurenzo,” the pilot said. The voice was bright and cheerful and had a Hispanic accent, “I hope you’ve enjoyed a pleasant flight so far. It is now 11:30am, local time. The cabin crew will be supplying you with light refreshment before we start our final approach to Tocumen Airport, Panama.” The message was repeated fluently in French and Spanish before ending with another ‘ping-pong’.
A quick check confirmed that Pete hadn’t altered his watch. He slipped off his slim-line Skagen and adjusted it back five hours from 4:30pm. It was only in doing so that he was reminded that he hadn’t bothered with it on the one-hour difference on his shuttle flight to Amsterdam. He realised how lightly he treated international travel sometimes.
It was only at the end of the message that Pete’s neighbour awoke from her deep sleep.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. She lifted her head from his left shoulder and sat up. “I was so comfortable-, I mean-,”
“Don’t worry about it,” Pete said and smiled. In return, he received a beaming smile from the pretty, 20-something as she rubbed her eyes.
Pete slid the window blind up to be greeted by a bright blue, cloudless sky. His lips curled as he considered the difference in climate. He adjusted his seat to the upright position as the flight attendants started to pass the tea, coffee, and snacks to each passenger.
Almost as if she was reading his thoughts, the girl beside him leaned forward to look out of the window.
“Not like England, is it?” she said.
“No, it is not,” he said. They sat in silence then with their own thoughts, drinking coffee from their small paper cups. It occurred to him that an airline coffee always tasted the same, no matter the airline or the journey. He sipped his drink, looked out at the blue sky, and felt a hint of excitement at the thought of his imminent meeting.
He stared down at the ocean far below and smiled as he considered his scientific liaison. She had been due back to base on 18th September, but there had been an accident. It caused complications which she would explain later. The expedition sounded interesting.
Pete had to give credit where it was due. Since Gloria had established contact with him by email when she got back to civilization, they had been in contact at least twice a week. He still didn’t know her age, but he knew she had a sense of humour.
Following his first few tentative enquiries, he had respectfully asked her age. She sent a reply suggesting he told his age first, which he did. In her next email, she said he shouldn’t have asked the lady’s age, and he would just have to wait.
It was while searching for information that it struck him. The only pictures he’d seen of her were taken at a distance, or she was among other members of a team in the jungle, or in a boat. She must have known he would check and knew he wouldn’t find any clues there.
As he gazed out at the approaching coastline, he summarised what he knew of the woman he was about to meet. She had written several papers on her subject, was at the top of her game, professional, respected, and intelligent.
From her emails, he knew she was a team player, considerate, sincere, and humorous. If she were easy on the eye, he would be in for an enjoyable assignment, but he had never seen a woman who had all that going for her and looks too. He prepared himself for meeting a worldly and wise woman of 60 plus. Being an older woman would account for all the things he did know about her and she had to be physically fit. Regular jungle treks?
Pete was surprised at how quickly he was able to progress through the passport and baggage control points. It was busy, but the officials seemed efficient, so it wasn’t the headache he remembered from his last trip to New York – the city that doesn’t sleep, except when you’re queuing in an airport. A place where every passenger is considered a terrorist until they’re back in their own country. He thought back to 9/11 and forgave them their concerns.
It was when he stepped through the Arrivals doors that he realised he was at a loss. Gloria had suggested that because of the crowds, it would be easier for her to spot him – and like a fool, he’d fallen for it. She was going to be a handful. He had sent a message saying his bags were both dark green; leather holdalls and both had a pair of bright yellow elastic straps clipped around them. At least she’d recognise his bags.
As Pete walked along the concourse, his ears were hammered by the Public Address system. They were also pounded by the cries of joy, as friends; lovers and relatives met again after a variety of absences. He surveyed the sea of faces and realised that she could be looking straight at him, and he wouldn’t know it.
He walked quickly toward the nearest exit, knowing that unless she walked fast, she wasn’t going to catch him. He smiled to himself as he cleared the end of the crowded Arrivals area. More than one woman had smiled at him, so he kept walking. So she wants to play games, he thought, well I’m happy to oblige. He opened his stride.
“Pete,” a female voice called. “Pete.”
He heard it clearly but kept walking. The voice was a pleasant sound and the person didn’t sound out of breath, although he could hear rapid footsteps. He walked on a few paces. The next time the tone sounded like a reprimand but with a hint of humour.
He stopped and turned. When he saw the smiling woman striding toward him, he hoped she hadn’t noticed his eyes widen and lips part. He tried to control himself. She may be more; he thought, but she looks about 30 and she is beautiful.
In her left hand was a large wide-brimmed straw hat, which he was pleased about, because it allowed his eyes to feast on her features. Her long dark hair hung loose over her shoulders and swished out from a long way down her back. A small, brown leather bag hung over her left shoulder. She was a vision in a white trouser suit which contrasted with her tan. Her brown high heels lifted her to his height, so he imagined her to be maybe 5 ft 9 ins or close to it.
Inwardly Pete said, Thank you, Lord.
“Okay,” she said, flashing a smile, “no more fun and games.” She outstretched her slender right hand, which was soon held by the Englishman after he had dropped his large bag. She felt warmth in his firm, gentle grip. As they shook hands, she leaned forward and kissed him on both cheeks. She sensed his intake of breath and was glad she had decided on a subtle, natural fragrance.
“Doctor Banderas, I presume,” he said. He inclined his head as he roughly imitated the line supposedly used when Henry Stanley met Doctor David Livingstone.
“Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you,” she responded, proving equal to the challenge.
“I’m impressed,” he said with sincerity.
“Thank you,” she said and again displayed her disarming smile. “Their meeting was on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the 19th century. We don’t have a lake nearby, but I think I could find a nice place to buy you a coffee.”
On the way through the terminal, they maintained a pleasant flow of conversation.
He said: “I’m pleased to see the modernisation. I read about it recently.”
“Yes it’s good. It was renovated in 2006. They’ve done a good job, but apparently by 2012 it will be improved again. It will be just like other international airports.”
The excitement Pete felt a while earlier increased as he realised that he couldn’t stop smiling. He felt he could listen to her faint Latin accent all day and wondered if their instant easy rapport was due to them being in touch by email regularly before the meeting. As they chatted he asked about the drive to the airport, and she asked about the overnight flight.
“I found it strange,” he admitted, “that I couldn’t fly direct. It was a choice of London to Madrid, London to Amsterdam, or London to New York, or Atlanta for a connection.”
“For me,” she said, “not having a flight landing early in the morning is strange.”
Pete nodded. “I suppose, in our modern world we become accustomed to everything operating for our personal convenience.”
“Is that how you feel?” she asked. She glanced at him as they were passed by a group of noisy young Italian men who were travelling together. “Do you think you’ve become accustomed to everything operating for your personal convenience?”
“Good heavens no,” he said and laughed. “That’s just an observation of our wonderful human race.” He turned to watch an airport luggage buggy being driven as though there were no pedestrians around. “I feel privileged that we’ve been allowed to occupy our planet for as long as we have, and I don’t mean that in any religious sense.”
She didn’t respond by speaking, but Gloria’s lips curled into a smile. They arrived at a pedestrian crossing in a short-stay car park. “Just there,” she said, pointing to her car, “the dark blue Toyota Land Cruiser.”
He said: “You’ve managed to park this close, so I’m now thinking you will know where to get a decent cup of coffee and not just run of the mill stuff.”
“You better believe it,” she said. “You’re in a part of the world that produces the best.” She squeezed the button on her key fob. The flashers operated on all four corners of the large 4 x 4 and Gloria went to the back and lifted the tailgate.
“I’m not a fan of these things because of the fuel they use,” Gloria said. “Sometimes there is little choice. As you’ll soon see, I live in a remote area where this beast is necessary.” Before climbing in, she removed her jacket and hung it on a hook in the back.
He took a long look at her minus the jacket and noted her athletic figure and pert breasts pressing against the light material of her sleeveless blouse.
“Don’t be so apologetic,” Pete said. “I think if you were to measure the good that your work does against whatever fuel you use, you’re still doing your bit.”
It was 15 minutes from the airport when they found themselves in heavy traffic. They stopped at a crossroads, and Pete watched in wonder as an old blue Vespa motor scooter sped past and zipped between the other vehicles.
Gloria turned left onto a narrow road. She seemed at home taking short cuts through the city’s streets. Another turn took them onto a quiet road, and she drove for 10 minutes still taking the occasional turn. When they arrived in the old Canal Zone, she pulled into the car park of a B & B hotel called La Estancia.
“I’ve stayed here many times before,” she said. “I think you’ll like it.”
“If you’re staying here, I’ll like it,” he said. He smiled as she turned to look at him. He hoped he wasn’t coming across as a complete idiot, but he already felt she brought out the teenager in him. Her smile made him feel warm inside.
Gloria was shaking her head and grinning.
Pete climbed out of the vehicle, looked at the building and the seclusion that the surrounding trees gave it.
“I’m impressed,” he said as he turned around to look at the general area.
Apart from her choice of a place to stop, he was also pleased with her performance behind the wheel. That was unusual because he was known to scoff woman drivers. He’d seen few that were capable, but she had made the trip through heavy traffic look effortless, and he respected that in anybody. He had enjoyed the view within the vehicle when she was concentrating on traffic.
Following registration and quick change from his travelling clothes, Pete came back out to meet Gloria in the foyer.
“Do I pass muster?” he asked and stood still to be inspected. His hands were on his hips, and his head held high, looking every inch of his 6 foot height. He stood in front of her, dressed in a pale green T-shirt, navy shorts, and brown leather sandals.
He watched as her eyes lingered on his broad shoulders and bronzed arms and then her gaze fell on the close-fitting T-shirt. Pete liked shorts to be short, and it gave him a strange feeling deep down when he saw her gaze linger on his shorts and thighs. He had worn his Italian-made sandals many times before, but they looked new.
She said: “You just about reach the acceptable standard around here.”
Her scrutiny and light tone gave a hint that if not bowled over, she was at least pleased. She had changed into a pale blue blouse, white shorts, and white sandals, and was still looking a million dollars.
Gloria said: “I know a good cafe a short walk from here. Would you like a snack to tide you over until this evening?”
“A coffee would be fine for me,”
They strolled along the quiet streets, once again chatting as if they’d known each other much longer than they had.
“Here we are,” she said when they arrived at the cafe. “What would you like?”
“An Americano would be nice,” he said. “I’ll still have an appetite for my evening meal.” There was a strong aroma of coffee, but it was pleasant.
They both sipped at their coffee and for a few minutes didn’t say much as they looked around at the other customers. There was Latin American music being piped through the place, so it sounded as if it was issuing from every corner. Pete felt comfortable and was unaware he was still appraising his companion.
She said: “Should I go to the powder room and wipe my mouth?”
“I beg your pardon?” his brow furrowed and he half-smiled.
“Is there something wrong with my face?” she asked. “Should I go check a mirror?”
“The only thing wrong with your face,” he said, “is that I’ve never seen it before today.”
She had just started to sip her Latte and hurried to put it on the table as she was caught in a fit of giggles. She regained her composure.
She said: “I hope you’re not going to be like this all the time. We’ll get nothing done if you keep me laughing.”
“I was serious,” Pete said. He smiled with his eyes as he lifted his coffee. He continued to gaze at her over the rim as he sipped. His comment had been sincere, but he sensed he’d overstepped the mark and caught this lovely woman off guard. He could see her beautiful brown eyes flit from left to right as she made an effort to concentrate on her drink. He felt he had embarrassed her.
“So,” he said, trying to introduce a hint of humour, “what’s the plan, Doc?”
Gloria smiled at the epithet and put down her drink. She clasped her fingers together as she pressed her forearms on the table. When she started talking, she looked directly into his pale blue eyes for the first time.
“Well I thought we would-,” her voice faded and she swallowed. She felt herself looking into his eyes. She composed her thoughts before speaking again.
“I thought,” she said, “that it would be a good idea to take a ride around the city with a taxi driver I know. He could take us on a guided tour, and then afterwards; I’ll take you to a restaurant for a meal. It will be a short walk back to the hotel for a night’s rest before we travel across country.”
“I can’t fault your planning ability. That sounds great.”
“We could go back to the hotel from here and let you get unpacked,” she said. “I’ll give Pablo a call from there. He knows I’m here so he’ll be expecting to hear from me.”
“Sounds good so far-,” Pete was interrupted by a young man who without reason, bumped into his shoulder as he went past. It was a casual, but intentional assault. Pete’s fists clenched rapidly, and his lips formed a thin line, his brow furrowing. He looked over his shoulder at the man swaggering as he joined his two laughing friends.
Gloria reached out and covered the balled right fist with her fingers. “Let it go, please,”
Pete released the tension in his body and his expression softened. He looked at her hand as it retreated across the table. Her fingers had felt warm and soft.
“Sorry,” he said. “A bit of reflex action.” He painted on a smile, not realising it wasn’t fooling his companion.
She said: “There are three of them back there.”
“Only three,” he said as he placed his palms flat on the table as if ready to stand up.
Gloria’s eyes widened, and her lips parted.
Pete relaxed again, and dimples appeared in his cheeks. “Only kidding,” he said and picked up his coffee.
Gloria scowled at him and raised an eyebrow. When she saw his cheeky grin, she smiled. He was already proving to be a handful, but she felt comfortable with him.
They stayed and enjoyed the atmosphere of the cafe for half an hour, continuing to chat, mentally sparring with each other. Pete felt that they were getting on well when Gloria nodded and suggested it was time to go. They sauntered back to the hotel, and while he went to his room and unpacked, she stayed at reception and contacted her friend, the taxi driver.
When they went out to the hotel car park, the eager-to-please driver stood by the back door and opened it as they approached.
“Good evening, Doctor,” he said. “Is this another fine scientist colleague?”
“Good evening, Pablo,” she said. “No. This gentleman is Pete Harris, a writer.”
“Good evening Pablo,” Pete said and stretched out a hand. It was met and clasped by the driver who nodded and smiled in appreciation of the introduction.
“I am pleased to meet you Mr. Harris. You are English, no?”
“Yes, and please call me Pete,” which made Pablo’s grin even wider.
Pablo had been a taxi driver in Panama City for 12 years and knew every corner, the good areas, bad areas, picturesque sights, and dumps. “So,” he said, “where to my friends?”
Gloria said: “Would you tour the main points of interest for us please?”
“Of course I will,” he said, then let his passengers get comfortable before he closed the doors. When he got behind the wheel, he spent a few seconds looking in the rear-view mirror. It was obvious to any observer that this man was in awe of his woman passenger. He was so genuinely happy. They set off, and Pablo began his running commentary immediately.
“On the left as we leave the La Estancia we have … .” Pablo’s tone was cheerful.
In any other company after the journey he’d just made, Pete would have suggested an early night, but when he glanced at his companion and thought of an early night, it was for entirely different reasons. Even so, he couldn’t stop himself yawning and apologised.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “those flights are catching up with me now.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “we’ll get to bed as soon as we’re back at the hotel.”
“Mmmm,” he murmured, unable to stop himself, “I don’t know if I’ll b-,”
“Behave yourself,” she said and slapped his thigh. Pablo glanced in his mirror.
Pete saw the broad smile as Gloria turned to look out of the window. He hoped that she enjoyed the momentary tingle of flesh on flesh even a fraction as much as he had.
Pablo took the pair around many places of interest. He was able to show the Englishman things he would remember for a long time, like the massive difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, which is pronounced in developing countries.
Here, more than anywhere in the country, was seen the distinction partly caused by the oligarchy. In Panama, Pete was seeing first hand that there were a select few who had, by virtue of their family or business connections, become wealthy. In contrast, according to statistics, Pete had read from a national survey; in 2008: 60% of the rural population, and 33% of the national population were on the poverty line.
Panama City was a place where the divide was massive. Skyscrapers huddled together in the centre; their assorted profiles, heights, and big business names lit up for all to see. Pete wondered, about entire sections of the city, being given over to these large, expensive buildings.
Not far away, he would see primitive housing, which, in some other countries, would be demolished for health and safety reasons. There were apparently full families in these areas; in their tattered clothing, known to get by on the minimum of food. Holding on to life itself was their claim to fame. Pete had seen much worse when in the Philippines.
They went for a drive through the ‘old’ district, which the visitor found quaint and attractive and so much prettier than the modern dwellings. Most of the modern buildings were apparently owned by foreigners or tendrils of the oligarchy. Pete saw the local fishermen, working from their lightweight craft. These men had to eke a living from the remaining fish stocks as best they could by using traditional methods.
The unofficial tour ended and the pair walked to a restaurant not far from the hotel. Pete was tired but still asked many questions about the city and the country.
Gloria explained that the U.S. enjoyed retaining a certain hold over the famous canal. The super-power claimed that local people who had jobs related to the international gateway, were better paid than they might be otherwise. Pete had seen the extremes that evolved for a city’s inhabitants before, but it still tore at his heartstrings.
By the end of the evening, they agreed that they had enjoyed the meal and each other’s company. For a few seconds before leaving the table they stared into each other’s eyes and then broke the spell simultaneously, both of looking around the room.
They strolled back to the hotel. When they went along the corridor in La Estancia and stopped at their room doors, they faced each other in the narrow space and for a moment both were silent.
“Thank you for a lovely evening Pete,” Gloria said.
“It was a pleasure,” he said. “The company was as breathtaking as the scenery around here.” He looked into her eyes. “Will you give me a knock in the morning?”
“Of course I will,” she said. “Good night,” and then she disappeared into her room.
Pete went into his room and turned to stand facing his door, then let his forehead fall forward to rest against the surface. He considered how utterly beautiful and charming his scientific liaison was.
For a nanosecond, a vision of Alice came to mind, smiling and saying, ‘Go on Pete, you can do it.’ He closed his eyes and hoped that, by breakfast time, he would be able to think straight. He also hoped the subliminal message from Alice was right.
He couldn’t know that Gloria stood in her room with her back to her door, with a beaming smile on her lovely face.