Inside the airport, it is cool and pleasant with a constant murmur of voices accompanied with the usual hustle and bustle of regular fliers. Frank and Pete join the queue for their designated check-in desk and wait patiently in the long line of passengers. Behind them, a young couple try to control their children and snap exhaustedly at each other and, like many other passengers, Frank can’t help but notice their distress.
“Charlie! Stop hitting your sister. Oh God. Jeff, would you please help me out here?” The woman said as she readjusted her handbag on her shoulder and pulled her son away from her daughter.
“Claire, would you please relax. Kids, be good. Last warning or we’ll leave you here and go without you.” Jeff gave the children a firm stare and his wife scowled and rolled her eyes as the children immediately stood up straight and stopped hitting and poking each other. “Happy now?”
“Mummy, would you and Daddy leave us here?” The little girl whimpered as she began to start crying softly.
“No, sweetie. Of course we wouldn’t.” Claire said as she knelt down and embraced her daughter. “For the love of God, Jeff. You never help at all.”
Jeff threw his hands up in the air. “You said to help. I tried. Jesus, Claire. Give me a break.”
“Give you a break? Why would you need a break? You never help with anything at all. How about you look after the kids once in a while whilst I play Angry Birds on my phone in an office and go out drinking three times a week? Mm?” She shot daggers to her husband. If looks could kill, he would have been dead and buried.
They stood glaring at each other in silence for seconds, though Frank knew that right now those seconds would feel like eternity to Claire and Jeff. He knew. He had been in that glare before. He wanted to tell Jeff that he should spend more time with his family; that he was so lucky to have them and that all the work in the world could wait but time with his children could not. He wanted to tell Jeff all the things he had missed due to him working late hours like Callum’s first steps or Emily’s first words. Perhaps a birthday or two. Or three. The consequences he had paid, such as the loss of his marriage. He wanted to tell Claire to be a little more understanding; that it is as hard to adjust to family life for him as it was for her.
The couple break their angry glare and Jeff walks off somewhere, leaving a deflated and miserable Claire to sigh and attend once again to her two children as she always does. And once again, because he has overthought the situation, Frank’s chance to intervene and save the moment has passed.
Pete nudges him with an elbow and causes Frank to tear his eyes away from the all too familiar situation that was unfolding behind him. “Aren’t you glad that you got out of that when you still could?” Peter whispered, apparently having also witnessed the commotion.
Frank frowned and looked at his work colleague, who was now eyeing up the upset lady who is trying to cheer up her daughter. “No.” Frank whispered quietly. “I wish I could have it back.” Frank opened his laptop bag and knelt down beside Claire and handed her a tissue.
She looked at him, puzzled by his act of kindness, before realising that half the queue is probably now aware of her unstable marriage. Sniffing, she took a tissue. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Frank smiled at her and waited for her to dry her eyes and blow her nose. “Hey girlie!” Frank said to the little girl who was eyeing him apprehensively. “Aren’t you pretty? What’s your name, sweetheart?”
The little girl pulled her thumb out of her mouth. “Sarah,” she said, replacing her thumb.
“It’s nice to meet you Sarah, I’m Frank.” The little girl didn’t say anything in reply, but walked off and sat down next to her brother to watch him play on a handheld game device.
Claire giggled as she saw Frank’s pouting lip. “Nice to meet you Frank, I’m Claire.”
She held out a hand and Frank shook it politely. “Nice to meet you Claire. You’ve got good kids, there. I know sometimes it doesn’t seem like they’re particularly good, but trust me, they are.”
She frowned slightly, trying to subtly look at his hand for a ring. “Do you have kids of your own?”
“Yes. Two. A little boy and girl about the same age as yours.”
“Are you married or engaged or with a partner or something?” Claire asked, obviously confused by the lack of gold around his finger.
“I was married. Recently divorced.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Frank met her eyes. “Honestly, me too. I know I’ve never met you before and you don’t know me; I’m just some stranger so you can either take this advice or leave it, but if you’re smart, you’ll listen. I’ve been in your position; my marriage was falling apart because we argued a lot over stupidly small things. I know sometimes it feels like there’s no reason to carry on and divorce is the answer; but really it isn’t. I miss my wife. I miss my kids. I miss my marriage. Your husband loves you and I can tell by how upset you are that you love him too. Please don’t throw that away.”
Claire’s eyes filled with tears as she nodded her head. Clearly what Frank had said had hit home with her; she just wanted her husband to be the loving man that she had met and fell in love with. Frank hoped that she would give Jeff time and the understanding he needed so that they could make their marriage work.
Unexpectedly, Claire threw herself at Frank and wrapped her arms around him, sobbing quietly on his shoulder; a scene so strange that two perfect strangers should be bonded by their failing marriages. As Frank returned the hug and comforted her by patting her back, he became acutely aware of the growing attention that they were attracting and that he was also becoming the man that had stolen his wife away from him. He dropped his arms and tried to push her away but she was clinging onto him.
“Claire, enough. Let go, come on. You’ll be okay.” Frank said quietly into her ear as she began to slowly loosen her grip on him.
“I’m sorry.” She sniffed, letting go completely. “It’s just been so long since a guy has been so kind to me.”
Frank frowned. So this is how Rose must have felt. “Your husband loves you. Just because he might not show you as often as he used to that he loves you, doesn’t mean that his feelings have just vanished.” Frank stood up and helped her up. “Stay with him Claire. Never leave him. He’s a good man.”
She sniffed, wiping her sore red eyes with his tissue and nodded. “Thank you.”
Peter tapped Frank’s shoulder. “Frank? Sorry to interrupt. We need to check in.”
Frank smiled sadly at Claire, nodded and walked to check in with his colleague.
“What the fuck, Frank? Hitting on married women now? I really didn’t think you were the type.” Peter said quietly as they heaved their suitcases onto the conveyor belt.
Frank said nothing. It wasn’t like that at all, but right now he couldn’t bring himself to reply to his colleague. He just hoped that what he had said to Claire had been enough.
“It’s just been so long since a guy has been so kind to me,” repeated Claire’s voice in the back of Frank’s mind. His mind started to delve into some of the last conversations he had had with Rose before they divorced; how full of spite and how bitter they had been towards each other, silently blaming each other with suspicions that the other one hated them, when really, they never hated each other. Not for one second. They just never said otherwise.
As they walked away from check in, Frank spied Jeff re-emerge from the men’s toilets and head back to his wife. He watched for a moment as Claire animatedly said something to him with wild arm movements before she stopped and they contemplated each other mutely. Slowly he reached out and held her face before embracing her in his arms. Gently stroking her hair, he whispered in her ear.
Frank smiled sadly. He didn’t need to know what he was saying for Frank already knew what he would say himself. Everything is going to be alright. He turned to Peter and they walked to their terminal.