The flight was late. Somewhere over the Atlantic Rose's body began to rebel. The local time was three in the afternoon but her body was in another time zone, arguing with the clock, disputing her work schedule.
"The fellow in 35C wants another vodka and orange. Should I serve him?" Shalini interrupted her misery. Shalini was Anglo- Indian and looked more Indian than English, with her air of Oriental calm and placid ways. The unflappability was superficial, Rose knew, because she had seen the bottle of antacid Shalini carried in her overnight case.
"Give it to him. We've another four hours to New York. Maybe he'll sleep after that."
"No such luck. They've got a game of poker going there, 35A, B and C, wide awake and having a great time."
"Are they travelling together?"
"No. I'm positive not. They have a language problem, struggling to speak English, each of them with a different accent, but they understand each other somehow."
"Boozers usually do," said Rose dryly, shifting her weight from one aching leg to another. Rose was proud of her legs, but lately they ached after every shift and faint bluish venous bumps were beginning to show after hours of standing. God, it was time for a change of profession. Her mother had varicose veins: great, ugly, big, knotted rivers whose very sight repelled Rose. Imagine the fate! What good the prettiest face in a swimsuit (or without) on the Riviera when you had legs like that?
"Rose, you look awful," said Shalini conversationally as she bent down to get a tiny bottle of vodka from a cupboard. "Is anything the matter?"
"Thanks. Tired, that's all."
"Problems? Can I help?
"I'm fine. Don't worry about me." Piss off, you bitch. Go deliver your vodka and leave me alone. Rose regretted the thought an instant later as Shalini sighed and set the vodka and orange juice on a small tray. She wasn't too bad, old Shalu wasn't. A very nice girl and pretty in a mousy, self-effacing kind of way. But she did get on Rose's nerves sometimes with her maternal solicitude and eternal calm. Rose never knew half the time what Shalu was thinking. That was the real problem with her. God, she wanted to move out of this cramped galley, just had to. On an impulse she took the tray from Shalini's unresisting hands.
"Here, let me. I need a walk. I'll give it to him. 35C, did you say?"
"Thank you." Shalu sounded absurdly grateful. The poor kid was tired too. "And don't forget to collect three dollars from him. He's one of those who forgets to pay, you know."
The lighting was dim and exhausted passengers sprawled in their narrow seats, trying to find a position that eased the cramps in their legs. These long flights were a bugger, Rose thought. She and the rest of the crew had boarded in London, but by then some of these people had already been in the plane for fifteen hours.
She walked down the aisle. It was good to walk and she carried her slim body erect, suddenly proud. The airline had long ago discovered the secret of really captivating hostesses; not elaborate uniforms, but healthy bodies and happy faces.
Shalini was right: the fellows in row 35 were not about to go to sleep. Their reading lights were on and the man in the middle had his dining tray folded down as a card table. A real mixed trio.
"Your vodka and orange."
Rose had been working at this job for seven years and out of habit automatically appraised and categorized her passengers. 35A, by the window, was a muscular young fellow with close-cropped hair and prominent, twitching jaw muscles which indicated a hair- trigger temper and an inclination to physical violence when frustrated. He unsmilingly clutched his cards close to his face. 35B was plump, the edge of the dining tray pressing into his belly. He was voluble, waving his arms animatedly, speaking with a thick Russian accent and smiling. She noted though that the smile never reached his eyes.
35C was a surprise, the man who'd ordered his third vodka. She expected an unshaven wino, but instead met a pair of steady brown eyes. In contrast to 35B, the mouth did not smile at all, but the eyes were warm and friendly with a humorous glint to them, so that he looked as though he were smiling at her.
"Thank you." He was lean and his distinguished features carried the slightly bored expression that sometimes went with refinement, but he seemed to be on the best of terms with the other two. He was dressed in a plain gray business suit; expensive, very expensive, Rose decided at a glance. However, she remembered Shalu's warning.
"Three dollars, please."
The man smiled faintly and held out a hundred dollar bill.
"Don't you have something smaller?"
Rose bit her lip in annoyance. "I'll see if my colleague has change. Back in a minute."
"I'll come with you. I need to stretch my legs." He put down his cards and excused himself for a minute with words and gestures. 35B waved a hand and began to deal the next round for two. Rose was aware of his eyes on her back as she walked down the aisle to the kitchen area. She pushed aside the curtain but Shalu was not there, probably gone to take a cup of coffee into the cockpit. Rose was sure Shalu had a wee bit of a crush on the copilot although she never talked about such things.
"My colleague's not here at the moment. I'll bring you the change in a few minutes."
"I'd like to stand for a while. I'll wait." He leaned an elbow against the small working surface in an attitude of settling down.
"Win much?" She was instantly angry with herself for asking. She didn't want to start a conversation with this man, but his self-assured manner prompted the question.
"Three vodkas." He rolled his eyes. "And they insisted on paying right away."
"You could have said no."
"That would have been very bad form. You don't gamble, do you?"
"No," after a slight pause, "don't play cards," she qualified. He smiled at her, looking her up and down.
"I thought as much."
"Can't explain it. Simply a strong hunch."
"But why? There has to be a reason. You look like the sort of person who has a reason for everything?"
"Yes, and don't duck my question."
"I felt your disapproval in the small of my back when you walked up that aisle bringing me that vodka and orange. The other girl warned you, didn't she, said this was my third?"
Rose did not reply.
"Didn't she?" he repeated.
"Something like that," she admitted, annoyed that she had been so transparent to him.
"And do you know why I didn't pay? Because the other two don't have a cent on them and they're too proud to admit it. I tried desperately to let them win, but the harder I tried, the more they lost." The man took a deep breath and looked back down the aisle. "Will you tell me how I'm going to get out of this jam?"
"That's not my problem."
"Tell you what. Why don't you come and say to me in front of those two that you made a mistake. Vodka and orange is free on transatlantic flights, something like that."
"I couldn't do that. What if the other passengers heard?"
"All right. I'll tell them it's free and you don't contradict me. Bring them whatever they want and I'll come back here to pay for it. Okay?"
"I suppose I could do that," she said doubtfully.
"Good." He slapped the hundred dollar bill in her palm before she could refuse and went back to his poker game.
Rose clued Shalu in on her deal with the man in the gray suit. Shalu was surprised.
"Who is he?"
"I don't know."
"You agreed to his harebrained scheme without knowing anything about him? What's the matter with you, Rose? This is not like you."
"What's wrong? I'll return his change before the plane comes in to land."
The man did not come back to the galley for the rest of the flight. Rose tried to return the ninety-one dollars change just before the plane began its descent to land at Kennedy airport. He looked dismayed and imploringly motioned her not to give him money in front of his two poker companions. She backed away and had so much to do after the plane landed that she forgot about the man and his money.
Shalu and Rose were talking and laughing together as they made their way to main entrance of the terminal building. There was the usual crush of cabs, buses and private cars trying to ease along the front and pick up people and they kept an eye open for the van with the airline's logo on its side. Rose suddenly came to a dead stop.
"Oh my God, I forgot to give the man his change."
"What? Oh, the ninety-one dollars. Serves him right for being careless."
"I can't do that, Shalu. I have to give him his money. Besides, he might complain."
"What will you do?"
"Find out his name first."
She zipped away and found a ground hostess with a clipboard in her hand. The passenger list! Rose unceremoniously snatched the clipboard and checked the name of the man in 35C. Dr. Laszlo Nemeth. So he was a doctor! "Well, Dr. Nemeth, you're going to get your money back," she said.
"What?" asked the ground hostess, totally mystified by Rose's behavior.
"Nothing," said Rose as she hurried off to the public address system next to the information desk.
Half an hour later, paged and repaid, Dr. Nemeth offered Rose a taxi ride into the city, a ride she accepted because she had missed the airline's shuttle.
"Will you go out with me for dinner tomorrow evening?" he asked directly when they were seated in the taxi. "Good food and conversation."
"I don't know," she began doubtfully.
"No hanky-panky," he promised.
"Well, yes then," she laughed.
He called for her at her Fifth Avenue hotel at six the next evening and they went to an off-Broadway show called Slippers which she would never have thought of going to see, but it was great fun and she laughed so much during some of the scenes that she cried. When they came out it was raining heavily, a miserable night for man or beast to be out of doors, remarked Rose.
"Let's go to my place," Laszlo suggested. "I'll cook something for us."
"Do you like to cook?"
"No," he admitted.
Laszlo's apartment was large by New York standards, with split levels, two bedrooms, fully automated kitchen and a well-appointed living room.
"Ah, let's see what we have," said Laszlo, peering reluctantly into the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. Rose took pity on him then and thrust him aside.
"I love to cook. Let's see what you've got." She nodded in satisfaction. "Who does your shopping?"
"My housekeeper. She comes in three times a week."
"Now you go away." She shooed him out of the kitchen. "Come back here in an hour and help me with the table."
Nemeth looked at her with gratitude and tiptoed out of the kitchen as she commanded.
The crisper compartment was filled with enormous green sweet peppers so Rose had no problem deciding what to cook. She rummaged quickly through the cupboards until she found the ingredients she wanted, then set to work. While the green peppers steamed lightly, she cooked some rice and minced beef, opened a can of peeled tomatoes and finely chopped a mound of fresh mushrooms. Laszlo diffidently entered the kitchen an hour later and she set him to work opening a bottle of wine and laying the table. She did not allow him to see what was cooking.
"You'll see when it's served," she said and shooed him away again.
He had prepared the table very nicely and she set down the covered dish in the middle of the table.
Laszlo gingerly raised the lid and feasted on the vision that met his sight. Peppers stuffed to bursting with a mixture of cooked rice, minced beef and mushrooms, their green contrasting beautifully with the simmering pale red of the spicy tomato sauce.
Laszlo Nemeth's eyes filled with tears. They looked up to meet hers. "This is a recipe from my old country you know."
"Yes, I know."
"My mother was from Budapest. She died last month in Austria. I've just come back from the funeral."
"Let's eat before it gets cold," said Rose, who didn't like the melancholy turn the conversation was taking.
Laszlo Nemeth ate well and spoke entertainingly throughout the meal. Rose laughed at his jokes and together they drank two bottles of wine. Rose was feeling slightly tipsy after the meal but sobered in a second when Laszlo suddenly turned solemn and proposed marriage to her.
Bells tinkled faintly at the back of Rose's head; whether wedding chords or warning chimes was not clear. She lowered her head and the stuffed peppers swam before her eyes, melted and reformed with knotted blue veins on their surface. She determinedly thrust aside the image and all concomitant forebodings of doom, raising her eyes and her glass to his.
"Yes," she said. "Yes."
Aviott John (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a science writer and science reference librarian at an international research institute in Austria. He has written over fifty short stories and nine novel- length manuscripts, one of which won a Sinclair Fiction Award (London, 1982). He has published articles in science journals as well as fiction magazines in Austria, England and the U.S.
InterText stories written by Aviott John: "Sweet Peppers" (v3n1), "Cosmically Connected" (v3n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Aviott John.