She dragged the suitcase at her heels with one arm, as you would a naughty tantrum-throwing child past an ice-cream bar. Mid-stride, she bent down and spoke to it through her teeth: “Get me to Gate 56 and you can have a long 12-hour sleep”. But the case refused to yield and the ear-bashing squeals coming from both wheels turned heads in the perfume shop. She cast her scarf over her left shoulder then darted towards Gate 56 to find a space to mollify her suitcase.
A family marched past her towards the spare row of seats on her left and dotted themselves like lumps of decorating cream next to the window, beyond which planes were swarming like flies on the tarmac.
“Excuse me,” said one little miss, who pushed her small, pink suitcase delicately in front of her like a pram. Contrary to this was a small boy with a blue suitcase who stared in awe of the planes, wondering, possibly like she was, what was so tasty about the tarmac in Auckland.
“Sorry about the tribe,” the father said as he manoeuvered around her case. She tried to pull her suitcase in towards her feet to give the family more room to pass, but it wouldn’t budge.
She rattled it awake, each wheel squealing in protest. How could a family of 10 be so courteous in their travels while her one and only lifeline, her suitcase, was acting up to the point of humiliation?
The idea almost made her chuck it all in and give her ovaries a taste of what they had been calling for over the past decade. The possibility of her travelling for work and raising a child did seem appealing since seeing the large family beside her. But to her, the reality of loss was stark.
There’s the loss of business skills, like the lingo and keeping updated with the latest trends in marketing or technology, or the evolving jargon; and the loss of the network – people move on from roles and they don’t recognise you when you knock on their door; there’s the income loss; there’s the loss of charm, looks, image – these all fade away behind crawling wrinkles and sagging skin; there’s the loss of respect because your martyrdom is redirected, you can’t afford to take risks on behalf of the company when a human life becomes your priority and is always at the back of your mind.
At least with the suitcase, she could stow it and forget about it until she needed it. It could be a good listener, too. With these thoughts, she almost forgave its attention-seeking squeals, feeling sorry to neglect it on such a long flight. Until this quiet moment sitting next to the sensible and polite family, it had never occurred to her just how much she had nurtured her baggage, to the point where she relied on it, to the point where she wasn’t sure if she could live without it. Something pulled at her chest and she breathed heavily, shaking her head to release the thought and feeling.
He, on the other hand, carried the small backpack with all the care and confidence of a newborn baby. With tan- coloured canvas and blue trimmings, the way it allowed him to care for it made him smile, and in return, he enjoyed the way it hugged his laptop – his work, his home, his life – inside, snug as a bug. He lolloped up to Gate 56 and sat to the right of a tall and attractive woman who sported a dark ponytail which spilled balayage blonde like a chemical water fountain over her brown shoulders. To his right sat an elderly couple: the gentleman had short white spiky hair, the woman had a grey perm resembling a poodle’s crop.
The elderly lady nudged him like an old friend and said, “I’m glad I’m done with those days!” She eyed in the direction of the family and the attractive woman nearby.
“Yeah, eight children – I haven’t even started yet!” he replied, courteously.
“No, son,” interrupted the elderly man. “She means the days of corporate travel.” He gestured towards the woman with brown skin and blue eyes on their left.
“I remember the days of squeaky suitcases, broken heels, broken hearts and smudged lipstick. She carries her whole life in her suitcase; the world is her office – the hotel, her bedroom and the airport, her lunch room,” the elderly woman said.
“Oh, right.” He stared down at his own simple baggage with melancholy.
He turned to his left again. She had one eyebrow raised in a smarmy wave and he thought he saw her talking to herself. Or her suitcase perhaps. She looked like a mother with a naughty child, reprimanding it for being noisy in the airport. One strand of her hair stuck to her eyelash and it moved up and down as she blinked, but she didn’t seem to notice it. He thought that getting to know her might be likened to reading a good book on the plane, but like any good book, the fear of having read it and it changing him loomed, so he satisfied himself with the cover instead.
She felt the man beside her staring but she was afraid to look right away. When she felt the burn of his eyes fade she chanced a peek at him. He was tall, taller than her, which was rare with her father’s Māori genes and her mother’s Dutch heritage. He was holding a small, ugly backpack close to his chest with his chin resting on top and his arms hugging it, like a baby. He was good-looking but his thin lips that crinkled pulling his smiling blue eyes made her feel he was too nice for her. She used to be quiet and conscientious, even nerdy herself. She used to wear reading glasses and floral printed skirts. Now she indulges in weekend flings with no-cling gentlemen and wears pantyhose and bras with wire that make her tits hug her chin.
The man glanced at her and she dropped her purse, sending money and an array of coffee cards frisbee-ing through the air. He bent down immediately and collected the many currencies from the grotty carpet.
“Bit of a gopher, aren’t you?” she said, as she accepted her belongings.
“Always be kind to the nerds at school, you might be working for them one day!” he smiled.
She didn’t get her chance to return a smirk; a metallic voice called for passengers to begin boarding Flight NZ6 and the next thing she knew she was waiting in anticipation, watching the black rubber mats slide before her eyes, hoping, just hoping, that despite the anguish her suitcase caused her, it was there and not in Guatemala or Jakarta or Dublin.
Arriving at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, she asked for the conference room, pausing briefly by the window framing the big white letters on the hillside. They seemed to mean so little to her now, and she felt that thing inside her pull again at the loss of excitement, at the numbness she now felt compared to how a younger version of herself had beamed with gratefulness at those very letters. She used to skive up Runyon Canyon with no fear each time she visited the city of angels as though it were her maunga.
Thankfully the doorman had placed her suitcase on a trolley and wheeled it to her room. She felt the satisfaction of a mother whose child has just been handed over to a trustworthy relative. Maybe sometime soon, she could feel brave enough to let it all go. The job had been her life. Her family. She had long ago lost contact with friends who were now chin-deep in children and investment properties. She had neglected her whanau for her career, something her family felt indicated a mental health issue of some sort. She considered her whanau the members of the international company she worked for, who were dotted all around the world.
They spun before her like bags on a carousel and she jumped on and off at will, enjoying their company and conversation, but like an ’80s haircut, the party may be at the back but business was always going on at the front. She was not scared of being alone, she was scared of being still. And the job helped her do this – the job helped her move. Her boss didn’t hesitate to point out her late arrival amidst his address to the company – however, not in the way she had expected.
“Ah, Janie, all the way from En Zed – you are just in time.” Janie joined the table, her head bowed in apology for her lateness. She took a mint from the bowl and watched her boss perform to the room.
“And so it goes, I am retiring from Friends of Tea Company. I know that in our small FOT family this will have some impact, especially on the lunch bill,” his stomach wobbled as he chuckled, “but from every ugly pot plant blooms a gorgeous, budding director … well, in this case, directors! Roger, get up here! Roger is from Gedder and Co. but decided to make the step up in the business world. We can safely say ‘up’ now, because working with him, I’ll refrain from saying under him because we all know who the real boss is when you work with Janie Delbon. Congratulations, Janie and Roger on your promotions!”
Janie shook hands with her former director, but her eyes locked on Roger.
“Roger, as the new director of FOT, do you have any words you would like to say?”
To Janie, everything suddenly seemed so clichéd. She had battled a room of men for over a decade now and had finally made it to the top of the business world. She knew she could do it, she knew she could continue to ride the carousel, but she wasn’t sure if she still wanted to. The only thought that kept her going this whole time was the fact that the company, although a capitalist venture with long lunches and Bloody Mary brunches, was small and familiar and actively strived to be a humanitarian and environmentally friendly company. The tea leaves were grown in New Zealand, providing work to Kiwis, the marketing team was located in rural New South Wales, organised digitally. Suddenly, Janie realised that it wasn’t just her ovaries and her suitcase seeking her attention, it was her heart; she yearned to make a stand, to make a difference from the traditionally accepted way of modern business. She knew what she had to do, she could have everything she wanted.
Roger responded to Bruce’s introduction. “Yes, thanks Bruce. I am delighted to join such a strong and passionate team of not just business people but environmentalists. I must say, when I heard I was working with Janie Delbon, I knew I was in for a good gig. As an apology in advance for all of the marriage proposals I will be offering her,’ everyone laughed politely, “I wish to present Janie with this offer of a gift.”
He got down on one knee at the front of the room and extended his hand.
“Janie Delbon, will you let me buy you a new suitcase?”
The room shuddered with laughter but Janie made her way carefully to the front of the room and held a stare of intention with Roger, ignoring Bruce bustling in her peripheral vision.
“Thank you for the offer Roger, but I will be working from home, in New Zealand, from now on. We live in a digital age and I apologise for my abrupt honesty on the occasion of your retirement, Bruce, but if we really want to move forward to reach our goals, we should be fostering a work-life balance that matches the expectation of our mindful tea we grow and market.”
Roger stepped in front of Bruce and shook Janie’s hand, accepting the feeling that he was in this moment, becoming brave enough to open the book that is Janie. “I’m glad we are both on the same page then.”
She finally found a moment to return that smirk.
Author Tracie Lark
Tracie Lark is a secondary school teacher who also writes poetic musings, short stories and microfiction tales on her blog, The Literary Gangster. Her story ‘Jean’ was produced as a radio podcast with ABC Australia and her monologue, ‘Love Smoulders’ was performed in ‘Love Kills 2017’ at the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Her story, ‘Grit’ was a finalist in the NZ National Flash Fiction Day competition 2019. She enjoys reading and hiking when she isn’t teaching her students, as well as writing novels in her home amongst the native bushland of Whangarei, Northland.