Charles leant forwards, hands clasped between us on the table, brittle gold-rimmed spectacles resting on his wide nose. “This airport,” he said, “is not like other airports. This airport is different.” He sat back. His tweed jacket billowed open and a canary yellow shirt burst forth. “In other airports, you see, people are going on holiday, they’re excited. There’s a buzz. The bar is always full. There are always some Irish to drink with.” He leant forwards again, his grey hair a fuzz of pale smoke. “Here, the only people drinking are fucking wankers.”
The epithet felt wrong on his lips. I waited.
“That’s nice cloth,” he said.
He took another sip of his whisky, his eyes meeting mine as his Adam’s apple fluttered. I held his gaze.
“Ha!” he clapped his hand down on the table. A couple of suits around us looked up. His body bubbled with laughter and his throat gave a wheeze that turned into a cough. “I need another whisky. Excuse me, miss, another whisky for me and my friend, doubles – grazie!” The waitress was blonde, short, her skin slightly blotched. As she moved to the bar, he called after her: “You are the most beautiful thing my eyes have seen today!”
He turned back to me. “So, as I was saying, all of this lot” – he swept his arm around – “every last one of them, fucking wankers.”
The waitress returned and set the drinks on the table. Charles looked up at her.
“I mean it. You may not have the figure, but that smile could melt the coldest heart.”
She looked straight at him, steely, strong. Then she smiled, a faint curve that lifted the rest of her body.
“He’s right,” I said. They both turned to look at me, her face returning to steel. “About the smile, I mean.” I took a swig of the whisky and stared down at the table.
“You see, even he agrees with me. You, my lady, have brought a moment of joy to both our days.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
“No, thank you. And thank you for the whisky,” he added, holding his glass up towards me. “A toast. To Anna and her winning smile.”
I raised my glass to meet his.
“Have I met you before?” he asked.
“Do I know your name?”
“Ah,” he interrupted me, “it’s better I don’t know. So, I don’t know your name, I don’t know what you do – and, for the record, I don’t care. I do know that you like whisky and that you have appreciated the joy that is Anna’s smile. I know also that you are a good listener – it’s something here.” He reached forwards and ran a heavy finger over the edge of my left eye. “Curiosity. Not fear. Not despair. Don’t lose it.” His eyes, briefly, seemed to cloud. Then he rushed to his whisky. “Now, I must thank you for your time.” He stood up and slipped his boarding pass into his inside pocket. “Should you ever wish to drink whisky with me again, or are in need of my company for any reason, I urge you to call me. Here is my card.”
Not looking at me he drained his glass, holding it for a moment above his lips to catch the last drop. Then he placed it back on the table as though making a chess move, straightened his jacket and walked off towards the boarding gates.
I looked down at the perfectly blank card in front of me. Anna arrived a moment later with the bill.