I sigh dramatically as another flight status gets updated on the departures board to a flashing red DELAYED duplicating the many others. My internal flight back to Leeds was looking less and less likely as each minute slowly ticked by. Shoving the now well-read glossy magazine into my backpack I collected my case preparing for another lap of the terminal to kill some time. After some aimless wandering and the obligatory visit to sniff and spray some duty-free perfumes, I found myself browsing the drinks menu at one of the overpriced bars and debating with myself whether I wanted to spend my hard-earned money on a second-rate warm glass of plonk. Scanning the bar, I spotted one empty seat amongst the sea of tired and grumpy looking travellers.
“Is this seat taken?” I asked the back of a man’s head; my backpack already having claimed the seat.
“No, please take it.” He replied not looking up.
I thanked the back of his head and plonked myself on the high bar stool. As I was rummaging through my bag for my purse and trying to catch the eye of the busy and obviously frazzled bartender, I could sense my new temporary neighbour was looking at me. I continued to stare at the harassed bartender, avoiding the strangers gaze. The last thing I wanted to have to make polite conversation with a leery businessman in an airport bar.
“Hope?” The stranger said my name, with a note of uncertainty.
I tilted my head to look at who I’d sat next to.
“Ben!” I exclaimed, surprised but not totally. Ben and I have a patchy shared history, and a habit of bumping into each other randomly.
Forty-four years ago, we were born in the same hospital in Leeds on the same day, his arrival in the world a couple of hours before mine. Our Mums were in adjacent beds on the ward and soon became friends. They were close until Ben’s father was offered a new teaching post in Cambridge, when Ben was about three years old, and uprooted his young family to pursue his dreams.
Our first chance meeting took place when we were fourteen years old during our summer holidays. We had just arrived at a campsite in Perpignan in the South of France when the family who were staying on the pitch next to us were returning from a day at the pool. My parents had been bickering for most of the long journey, so I was leaning on the opposite side of the car pretending to read, trying to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
I remember Ben’s very sophisticated mum calling “Bonjou, bienvenue!” to welcome us, as soon as both of our mothers realised who they were camping next to there was lot of screaming and ‘oh my gods’ and hugs and exclamations about how tall Ben had got and pretty I was. They relayed the story of how we’d been born hours apart and that unfortunately Carrie and my mother had lost touch after she and Phillip moved to Cambridge. I still remember how Ben and I eyeballed each other and although we didn’t have a conversation on the first night, I made sure he remained in my eyeline as I helped my parents unpack the car. The first night Carrie made dinner for us all and we ate together outside their campervan, Ben and I remained aloof, but I could tell he was also trying to work me out too. The next morning Ben approached me and asked if I wanted him to show me the on-site waterpark. My parents allowed me, and we pretty much spent the rest of the holiday together, either at the water park or wandering around the woods trying to outdo each other with how unfair our lives were. On the last night of the holiday we’d told our parents we were going to the teen club for the Friday night disco but headed to a secluded part of the riverbank. After a little bit of small talk about O’ levels and the pressure Ben felt from his Dad, and how funny it was our mums has been singing innocently along to white lines by Grandmaster Flash, Ben asked if he could kiss me and I said he could. Neither of us had a clue what we were doing, and it was very wet, not a Mills and Boon worthy kiss, but at the time I thought it was the most romantic night of my life. There was a bit of fumbling and then he made me a daisy chain bracelet, which I lost on the way home and cried about, which caused a lot of confused looks between my parents. We’d swopped addresses and we promised we would write, which we did for a couple of months until Spencer Knightly asked me out and Ben was forgotten.
Our next small world moment took place in 1996 when we were both 21 and were just graduating from Leeds University. Ben was graduating with a first in English Language and Literature and I’d just scraped through with a third in Liberal Arts. Again, it was our mothers who spotted each other through the crowds, they couldn’t believe we’d both lived in Headingley and were both enrolled in the same school, but our paths had never crossed. Ben had grown-up to be a strapping young man, an exceptionally fine physical specimen which I noted and felt a minor annoyance I hadn’t seen him around campus. We politely hugged and afterwards as we made small talk about where we’d both lived and who we both knew, his sparkling and intense blue eyes held my gaze a little too long. We talked about how I planned to stay in Leeds but hadn’t found a job yet but if he was ever in Leeds to call me. He was heading to London to start a graduate journalism scheme with a sports magazine. Ben’s Dad was keen for us to join them for a celebratory meal at one of the high-end eateries which my Dad declined, he was keen to get on the road and get back home. They invited me to tag along but Ben’s six-foot blonde beach babe surfer chick girlfriend didn’t look too thrilled, so I lied and said I had plans with friends. Promises to keep in touch were made but neither of us did.
Then in 2006, just after we both turned 31, we ended up at the same wedding. Mutual friends from university had stayed in the city, met through work, and announced they were getting married six-months later in Charlotte’s hometown near York. I spotted Ben at the bar as soon as Greg as I walked into the venue. He looked fantastic, he had a healthy outdoors look about him, he looked like he spent his weekends cycling up mountains or kayaking in the Lake District. His strawberry blonde hair was much blonder, his suit was sharp and fitted him perfectly, I remember thinking he looked good. Eventually he spotted me and immediately made a beeline for me, he charmed Greg who told me Ben was a ‘good guy’. He was at the wedding alone as his Investment Banker fiancé was in New York working on a corporate merger. I was secretly thrilled when I checked the table and spotted that I’d been seated next to him. We had an amazing night; the conversation flowed as well as the expensive wine he insisted on buying. He talked with such passion about his job as editor-in-chief for an adventure travel publication I found myself genuinely interested and started asking questions. He listened patiently when I talked about my varied career and how I hadn’t settled yet, however I was hoping photography might be the thing for me. Greg had retired to bed early and the morning after we argued about how in his opinion, I’d been flirting all night. Ben and I had moved our reunion into a corner in the hotel bar and we’d reminisced about the holiday in France and how our timing was all wrong, what could have been if we’d met again in Leeds. I had absolutely flirted with him, as he had with me. We entwined our fingers under the table and took every opportunity to touch each other. When we finally made our way upstairs to head to our separate rooms our goodbye kisses were lingering and for a moment, I thought about going to his room. But we didn’t, we went our separate ways again and despite me constantly scanning the room at breakfast I didn’t see him again before Greg and I drove home in silence.
Our next encounter was four years ago and over 5,000 miles away from home in Las Vegas, I was there with Liam who had proposed earlier in the year and whisked me away to show me the sights of his favourite city and to celebrate my 40th birthday. Liam was a session musician and had travelled a lot more than me and was on a mission to educate me musically and broaden my travel experience. Ben was there on a stag night and I bumped into him staggering out of the Flamingo hotel on the strip. He recognised me immediately and to Liam’s horror grabbed my face in his hands and kissed me square on the mouth declaring I was the love of his life and I should have been the one. After I’d introduced a very handsy Ben to a furious Liam explaining Ben was an old family friend, I managed to get Ben’s phone and sent myself a text so I had his number and added mine saying I would call him before I left suggesting we could meet for breakfast when he was sober. A few days after he was the one to send a sheepish text apologising profusely and asking if we could meet before we both left. I convinced Liam to let me go alone and Ben and I had one of the most honest but awkward conversations we’d ever had. Ben was horrified and wouldn’t stop apologising for saying I was the one, he explained he liked me, he said every time we met he’d had intense thoughts he was in love with me but knew it was daft. He asked what an amazing girl like me would want with him. He looked tired and I learnt his fiancé had left him for a much younger man who worked in her firm. Ben was getting tired of the travel and the pressure of working in the media. He looked like a broken man and all I wanted to do was hold him. Although I didn’t hold him, I didn’t really say much to comfort him either. Finally, when the conversation had run dry, we went our separate ways again, this time there weren’t any promises to keep in touch. I returned to Liam and sobbed into my pillow that night, my stomach was churning and my heart hurting, but I wasn’t sure why.
“So, how are you?” I asked, looking for a space to dump my backpack.
“Good thanks, how are you? Is your fiancé here?”
“I’m good thanks and no Liam isn’t with me, we didn’t work out. We split up not long after we got back from Vegas.”
“Oh..” Ben looked down at his drink “I’m sorry, I don’t suppose I helped.”
“Not at all, please don’t think that. We weren’t right together. So how about you?”
“I’m single, still. Not had much time for a relationship I’m afraid, I’ve spent the last few years setting up my own online magazine.”
“That’s brilliant!” I touched his hand and gave him a beaming smile. “I’m so proud of you!”
“And I’m moving back to Leeds. I’ve had enough of London, it’s too busy and noisy and expensive and dirty,” he sighed “I could go on. I’m just renting to start with but now the magazine is established I’ll be house-hunting and making Leeds my home.”
“Oh Ben, I’m so pleased for you. I was really worried about you after I saw you in Vegas.”
“Thanks.” He looked downwards “So, what about you? Actually, hang-on let me get you a drink first, when’s your flight?”
“It was the 6.40pm to Leeds but it’s been delayed.”
“I’m on that one as well, right drinks.” He signalled to the bar tender. As he ordered our drinks, I watched his now lined but youthful face, his eyes sparkled as he laughed at something the bar tender said and the smile remained as he turned to look back at me, he sighed and his face softened.
We sat and talked and talked and caught up on forty-four years, we requested to move seats so we could sit together on the plane and we continued our conversation all the way back to Leeds.
Standing in the arrivals lounge we stopped to face each other.
“Well, hopefully we’ll see each other a bit more now I’m in Leeds, let’s not leave it another ten years eh?” Ben’s expression changed from happy to deadly serious. “Hope, I need to ask you a question.”
He was smiling and looking down at me now, he’d taken a step closer and his face was so close I could see a few freckles on his nose, he took my free hand and intertwined our fingers.
I laughed and replied, “Are you going to ask if you can kiss me again?”
“I won’t be so polite in future.” he shot back at me, smiling as he moved his face even closer to mine.
Then he kissed me, his lips were soft and felt so right, I dropped my bag on the floor and I heard a breathy moan leave my body as he pulled me closer to him. I start to respond frantically as I’m hit with the realisation I’ve never wanted anyone like I wanted Ben.
I abruptly stop and pull away, my hands intertwined with his silky dark hair and our faces remaining so close I can feel his breathe on my lips “Come home with me?” I hear myself say.
“I thought you’d never ask.” Ben replied and kissed my forehead.