- Published: 28 September 2021
- ISBN: 9781787303133
- Imprint: Harvill Secker
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 528
- RRP: $32.99
The Jealousy Man
Stories from the Sunday Times no.1 bestselling author of the Harry Hole thrillers
I ’m not afraid of flying. The chances of dying in a plane crash for the average frequent flyer are one in eleven million. To put it another way: your chances of dying of a heart attack in your seat are eight times higher.
I waited until the plane took off and levelled out before leaning to one side and in a low and hopefully reassuring voice passed this statistic on to the sobbing, shaking woman in the window seat.
‘But of course, statistics don’t mean much when you’re afraid,’ I added. ‘I say this because I know exactly how you feel.’
You – who until now had been staring fixedly out of the window – turned slowly and looked at me – as though you had only now discovered someone was sitting in the seat next to yours. The thing about business class is that the extra centimetres between the seats mean that with a slight effort of concentration it’s possible to persuade yourself that you are alone. And there is a common understanding between business-class passengers that one should not break this illusion by exchanging anything beyond brief courtesies and any practical matters that have to be dealt with (‘Is it OK if I pull down the blind?’). And since the extra space in the footwells makes it possible to pass each other if needing to use the toilet, the overhead lockers and so on without requiring a coordinated operation, it is, in practice, quite possible to ignore one another completely, even on a flight that lasts half a day.
From the expression on your face I gathered that you were mildly surprised at my having broken the first rule of travelling business class. Something about the effortless elegance of your outfit – trousers and a pullover in colours which I wasn’t completely convinced were matching but which do so nevertheless, I guess because of the person who is wearing them – told me that it was quite a while since you had travelled economy class, if indeed you had ever done so. And yet you had been crying, so wasn’t it actually you who had broken through that implied wall? On the other hand, you had done your crying turned away from me, clearly showing that this wasn’t something you wanted to share with your fellow passengers.
Well, not to have offered a few words of comfort would have been bordering on the cold, so I could only hope that you would understand the dilemma facing me.
Your face was pale and tear-stained, but still remarkable, with a kind of elvish beauty. Or was it actually the pallor and the tear stains that made you so beautiful? I have always had a weakness for the vulnerable and sensitive. I offered you the serviette the stewardess had placed under our tumblers of water before take-off.
‘Thank you,’ you said, taking the serviette. You managed a smile and pressed the serviette against the mascara running down under one eye. ‘But I don’t believe it.’ Then you turned back to the window, pressed your forehead against the Plexiglas as though to hide yourself, and again the sobs shook your body. You don’t believe what? That I know how you’re feeling? Whatever, I had done my bit and from here on, of course, made up my mind to leave you in peace. I intended to watch half a film and then try to sleep, even though I reckoned I would get an hour at most, I rarely manage to sleep, no matter how long the flight, and especially when I know I need to sleep. I would be spending only six hours in London, and then it was back to New York.
The Fasten your seat belt light went off and a stewardess came up, refreshed the empty glasses that stood on the broad, solid armrest between us. Before take-off the captain had informed us that tonight’s flight from New York to London would take five hours and ten minutes. Some of those around us had already lowered their seatbacks and wrapped blankets around themselves, others sat with faces lit by the video screens in front of them and waited for their meal. Both I and the woman next to me had said no thanks when the stewardess came round with the menu before take-off. I had been pleased to find a film in the Classics section – Strangers on a Train – and was about to put my headphones on when I heard your voice:
‘It’s my husband.’
Still holding the headphones in my hands I turned to her.
The mascara had stopped running and now outlined your eyes like stage make-up. ‘He’s cheating on me with my best friend.’
I don’t know whether you realised yourself that it was strange to be still referring to this person as your best friend, but I couldn’t see that it was any of my business to point it out to you.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said instead. ‘I didn’t intend to pry . . .’
‘Don’t apologise, it’s nice when someone cares. Far too few do. We’re so terrified of anything upsetting and sad.’
‘You’re right there,’ I said, unsure whether to put the headphones aside or not.
‘I expect they’re in bed with each other right now,’ you said. ‘Robert’s always horny. And Melissa too. They’re fucking each other between my silk sheets right at this very moment.’
My brain at once conjured up a picture of a married couple in their thirties. He earned the money, a lot of money, and you got to choose the bedlinen. Our brains are expert at formulating stereotypes. Now and then they’re wrong. Now and then they’re right.
‘That must be terrible,’ I said, trying not to sound too dramatic.
‘I just want to die,’ you said. ‘So you’re mistaken about the plane. I hope it does crash.’
‘But I’ve got so much still left to do,’ I said, putting a worried look on my face.
For a moment you just stared at me. Maybe it was a bad joke, or at the very least bad timing, and under the circumstances maybe too flippant. After all, you had just said you wanted to die, and had even given me a credible reason for saying it. The joke could be taken either as inappropriate and insensitive or as a liberating distraction from the undeniable bleakness of the moment. Comic relief, as people call it. At least when it works. Whatever, I regretted the remark, and was actually holding my breath. And then you smiled. Just a tiny wavelet on a slushy puddle, gone in the same instant; but I breathed out again.
‘Relax,’ you said quietly. ‘I’m the only one who’s going to die.’
I looked quizzically at you, but you avoided my eyes, instead looked past me and into the cabin.
‘There’s a baby over there on the second row,’ you said. ‘A baby in business class that might be crying all night; what d’you think of that?’
‘What is there to think?’
‘You could say that the parents should understand that people who have paid extra to sit here do so because they need the sleep. Maybe they’re going straight to work, or they have a meeting first thing in the morning.’
‘Well, maybe. But as long as the airline doesn’t ban babies in business class then you can’t really expect parents not to take advantage.’
‘Then the airline should be punished for tricking us.’ You dabbed carefully under the other eye, having exchanged the serviette I had handed you for a Kleenex of your own. ‘The business-class
adverts show pictures of the passengers blissfully sleeping.’
‘In the long run the company’ll get its just deserts. We don’t like paying for something we don’t get.’
‘But why do they do it?’
‘The parents or the airline?’
‘I understand the parents do it because they’ve got more money than they have shame. But surely the airline has to be losing money if their business-class offer is being degraded?’
‘But it’ll also damage their reputation if they get publicly shamed for not being child-friendly.’
‘The child doesn’t give a damn if it’s crying in business or economy class.’
‘You’re right, I meant for not being parent-of-small-child-friendly.’ I smiled. ‘The airlines are probably worried it’ll look like a kind of apartheid. Of course, the problem could be solved if anyone crying in the business section was made to sit in the economy section and had to give up their seat to a smiling, easy-going person with a cheap ticket.’
Your laughter was soft and attractive, and this time it got as far as your eyes. It’s easy to think
– and I did think – that it’s incomprehensible how anyone could be unfaithful to a woman as beautiful as you, but that’s how it is: it isn’t about external beauty. Nor inner beauty either.
‘What line of work are you in?’ you asked.
‘I’m a psychologist and researcher.’
‘And what are you researching?’
‘Of course. And what are your findings?’
‘That Freud was right.’
‘That people, with just a few exceptions, are pretty much worthless.’
You laughed. ‘Amen to that, Mr . . .’
‘Call me Shaun.’
‘Maria. But you don’t really believe that, Shaun, do you?’
‘That with a few exceptions people are worthless? Why shouldn’t I believe that?’
‘You’ve shown that you’re compassionate, and to a genuine misanthropist compassion means nothing.’
‘I see. So why should I lie about it?’
‘For the same reason, because you’re a compassionate person. You play up to me discreetly by claiming to be afraid of flying, same as me. When I tell you I’m being betrayed you comfort me by telling me how the world is full of bad people.’
‘Wow. And I thought I was supposed to be the psychologist here.’
‘See, even your choice of career betrays you. You might as well just admit it, you’re the best proof against your own proposition. You’re a worthwhile person.’
‘I wish that were the case, Maria, but I’m afraid my apparent compassion is merely the result of a bourgeois English upbringing, and that I’m not worth much to anyone other than myself.’
You turned your body a couple of almost imperceptible degrees closer to me. ‘Then it’s your upbringing that gives you worth, Shaun. So what? It’s what you do, not what you think and feel, that gives you value.’
‘I think you’re exaggerating. My upbringing means only that I don’t like to break the rules for what is considered acceptable behaviour, I don’t make any genuine sacrifices. I adapt, and I avoid unpleasantness.’
‘Well, at least as a psychologist you have value.’
‘I’m a disappointment there too, I’m afraid. I’m not intelligent or industrious enough ever to discover a cure for schizophrenia. If the plane went down now all the world would lose would be a rather boring article on confirmation bias in a scientific periodical read by a handful of psychologists, that’s all.’
‘Are you being coy?’
‘Yes, I’m coy too. That’s another of my vices.’
By now you were laughing brightly. ‘Not even your wife and children would miss you if you disappeared?’
‘No,’ I answered abruptly. Since I had the aisle seat I couldn’t just end the conversation by turning to the window and pretending to have spotted something interesting in the dead of the night down there in the Atlantic. To pull the magazine out of the seat pocket in front of me would seem too obvious.
‘Sorry,’ you said quietly.
The man hadn’t shown himself for months, but only one person owned that helmet and the red Indian Chief motorbike.
So heavy and unrelenting was the sense of lethargy weighing her down that she felt as if she’d been drugged.
Red and yellow leaves drift down through the sunlight on to the wet asphalt, which cuts through the woods like a dark and glassy river.