Twenty minutes later than scheduled, the blinking seat belt signs suggests they are about to leave. Juliette watches silently as bullets of hail bounce on the airplane’s wing. The early morning’s offering of sunshine that she’d been so relieved to wake up to, is now hidden behind scribbles of charcoal clouds and a heavy sky. She grumbles obscenities under her breath, Meanwhile, Isobel sleeps silently.
There are murmurs around the cabin; clicking of belts and rustling of newspapers. Juliette turns her head toward Isobel, whose flickering eyelids border between sleep and awake. She shushes her back to sleep. Isobel shivers, and her pale hand slides from a gap in her tartan shawl and pulls the garment up to her neck; she purses her lips, frowns, then rests her head on the back of seat.
As soon as the airplane is in the sky, the cabin fills with chitter-chatter and the smell of fresh coffee. Juliette sucks on a mint imperial, clattering it around her dentures until her ears pop. The tea trolley rattles past with a chorus of, “Any hot drinks or snacks? Anything from the bar?”
A middle-aged woman in PVC trousers and a pink poncho leans across the aisle toward Juliette. “I think Sleeping Beauty there is needing a wee espresso.”
“I’m sorry?” Juliette says.
“Well, it’s such a short flight. We’re hardly up before we’re back down again.” She flicks her hair over her shoulder. “Besides, the sun’s splitting the trees down there in Dublin. You don’t want your woman there to be missing out on a beautiful landing, now do you?”
“Your friend, your sister, your missus, whatever, I’m just saying, there’s a spectacle to behold down there in the autumn.”
And doesn’t Juliette know it. Autumn, as it happens, is a precious time of year. She rests her head on Isobel’s shoulder and closes her eyes.
She’d met Isobel in autumn of 1989. Juliette was on a return flight from Glasgow following four days at a horticultural course in the botanic gardens. She felt tired and her muscles ached from digging and stretching. Isobel had been sitting across the aisle with a group of friends, some of which were being loud and obnoxious. Juliette had noticed the young woman immediately and thought she must have the celtic blood in her veins to be blessed with hair of the color of fire. She caught Red Head’s eye and gave her an appreciative nod. The woman flashed her a quizzical look and turned back to her group. Juliette picked up her battered copy of Orlando and turned away from the hubbub.
Fifteen minutes before landing, her reading was disturbed by the sound of raised voices. She lowered her book and sat up straight to see what was going on. A man in a pinstriped suit four seats in front her was jabbing a finger toward the group of friends. His face was red and twisted in anger. From among the jumble of words being thrown back and forth across the aisle, she managed to pick out “queer” and “gay boys.” Her shoulders tightened, and she dropped Orlando onto the empty seat. She unclipped her seat belt with trembling fingers and was about to rush to the boy’s defense when two cabin crew swept down the aisle to defuse the situation. Juliette sat back in her seat, closed her eyes, and blew out a breath. Her heart was racing.
“Are you alright?” Red Head tapped Juliette on the shoulder.
“I will be,” Juliette replied.
“Do you mind?” She nodded toward the empty seat.
Juliette lifted her book. “Be my guest.”
The seat belt sign lit up, and both women fiddled with their straps until they were locked in.
“I can’t believe people still act like that,” Juliette said, still stiff with anger.
“I know. I’m so embarrassed,” Red Head said. “I told them not to be so, you know, out there in front of other people.” She shook her head.
“Oh no.” Juliette blushed. “I was referring to him there,” she said in a raised voice, pointing at the man in the suit, who was now arguing with his wife.
Red Head cowered into her seat. “I guess I’m just envious. I wish I had the courage to be so bold.”
They sat in silence for the next ten minutes. Juliette fidgeted in her seat, while Red Head twirled a strand of hair around her finger and whistled under her breath.
“I’m Isobel, by the way.” Red Head turned so that their faces were close; Juliette felt her warm breath.
“Juliette,” she answered; the skin of their arms brushed slightly. “Are you Scottish?”
“Can’t you tell?” Isobel smirked.
“You don’t belong to Glasgow, that’s for sure.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Student accent, I guess.”
“I see. What are you studying, Isobel?”
“I was studying public health. Just finished.”
The airplane dipped its left wing to turn and then begin its descent.
“Have you been to Dublin before?” Juliette asked.
“First time, but I’ve been told if the weather’s clear it’s a beautiful landing.”
“That it is.” She sat back. “Take a look.”
Isobel leaned over Juliette’s lap. A ringlet of red hair fell on Juliette’s bottle-green blouse, and the contrast was striking.
“You’ll be seeing Killiney Bay about now,” Juliette said, “and beyond that, the glorious Wicklow Mountains.”
“Wow. Would you look at the colors of those trees.” Isobel turned to face Juliette with wild blue eyes. “Do you want to see?”
“I’ve seen them a hundred times.”
“It’s like the mountains have captured a rainbow.”
“I like to imagine that every tree and every bush, and all the grass and flowers hold the entire summer inside of them, then in the autumn it all spills out.”
For a second, their eyes locked. Juliette held her breath, and although the blood rushed through her veins, there was a feeling of familiarity, like she’d been reunited with a long-lost lover.
“Thank you for this.” Isobel squeezed Juliette’s hand gently before reaching forward one last time and filling the window with hair the color of fire.
Juliette could see in her mind’s eye the Japanese larch, the pines and the spruce, stretched up to the sky and swaying from side to side, back and forth, sweeping brush strokes in the clouds. From up here, she could almost see the forest breathe.
“I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, but can I see you again?” Isobel asked as the airplane bumped to the ground. “I’m here for a week and I just thought, seeing as you’re local . . . ”
“What gave you the impression I’m local?”
“It’s the accent, I just . . . ”
“You’re right, I’m just playing around with you.”
“So, do you fancy . . . ”
“I’m free on Wednesday evening if you are.” Juliette laughed and felt giddy.
“I’ll make myself free.” Isobel grinned.
“Okay. Meet me in John Kavanagh’s on Prospect Square. Is seven o’clock okay?”
Juliette wore a pair of pin tuck trousers and a black polo neck. She waited at the bar, sipping Malibu and pineapple through a straw and tapping her feet to “Never Too Late” by Kylie Minogue. A few minutes later, the young doctor arrived. She looked younger than Juliette remembered and dressed casually in double denim with green Doc Martens and matching earrings. The long red curls that had first caught Juliette’s eye were tied into a ponytail. Juliette immediately felt her age. But later that night, as they stood in an alleyway to avoid the rain, Isobel leaned forward and kissed Juliette. It was the first time she’d been kissed like that.
Juliette pulls the inflight magazine from the seat pocket and flicks through its glossy pages; adverts, adverts, and more of the same.
“Excuse me, dear.” A voice interrupts her thoughts. A heavily made-up face leans toward her with red lips pulled into a smile revealing straight white teeth.
Juliette raises her eyes.
“Would you like a hot beverage? Tea, coffee . . . ”
“Someone was here just ten minutes ago,” Juliette says. “No thank you.”
“And for your daughter?” Juliette feels a stab in her chest.
“Yes. But . . . ”
“Nothing for either of us. Thank you.”
“If you change your mind, dear . . . ” She points at a button above the seat. “Just press this one.”
Juliette nods and raises the magazine to cover her flushed cheeks. If it isn’t bad enough being insulted with the title of “dear,” being mistaken for Isobel’s mother is deplorable.
The age gap hadn’t been so obvious at the start; Juliette had just turned forty and her premenopausal body was still trim with a flicker of youthfulness. Isobel on the other hand was twenty-one and glowed. Since their first encounter, they’d kept in contact with each other by telephone at least once a day, if not twice. Juliette was completely consumed with love, and according to Isobel, the feeling was mutual. Yet Juliette was reluctant to commit to a relationship, never mind that type of relationship. She assumed, as one would, that Isobel was just dipping her toes in the water and would soon get bored with the lifestyle of a middle-aged woman, never mind the gossip. But Isobel didn’t refrain from trying. Nevertheless, Juliette kept her lover at a distance for ten whole years, meaning both women would travel between Glasgow and Dublin at the weekends, birthdays, and holidays.
“Do you remember that first flight?” Isobel asked her on one of those sleepless rainy nights as they lay in bed together.
“Of course, I do,” Juliette said, stretching her tired limbs.
“I think about it every time I fly here,” Isobel said. “I almost kissed you on that flight. I’d never felt so drawn to anyone like that before.”
“I felt like I’d found you after years of looking,” Juliette breathed into her ear.
“You old romantic.” Isobel kissed her. “But isn’t it about time we began making new memories? Besides, I’m exhausted.”
The flights to and from Glasgow stopped in the first autumn of the millennium. And when Isobel moved in, not a word of gossip passed from the lips of the villagers. Assuming that unlucky-in-love Juliette was past her mothering years and was now a spinster, what else could the young Isobel be but the spinster’s lodger. After all, she’d been visiting as a “friend” for ten years. This suited Isobel well, although it irritated Juliette, but Isobel’s new career as a family practitioner and the sole female doctor in the practice meant absolute discretion. They set up separate bedrooms in Juliette’s two-bed bungalow, in case, as Isobel pointed out, of a surprise visitor or people passing by the back window. But Juliette corrected her, saying that whenever they were in bed together, the curtains were firmly closed. And as for the people passing the back window, that would only be the village gardener, Juliette herself.
For most of the time, their fabricated life wasn’t an issue; the back-room door stayed closed, the room gathering dust, and their relationship shone. Then one afternoon, Juliette was pruning Mrs. Candleberry’s Arthur Bell roses, when the lady herself appeared in the garden with a tray carrying two glasses of Pimm’s.
“So, tell me about your young doctor friend,” Mrs. Candleberry said, putting the tray on the table. She pulled out a chair and patted it. “Join me for a refreshment.”
“Isobel.” Juliette took a handkerchief from the pocket of her shirt and mopped her brow. “What about her?”
“Well, what’s she like to live with? Has she got a man-friend?” She put her hand to the side of her mouth and whispered, “I hear she’s friendly with Doctor Luton.”
“He’s new to the practice. A handsome young Australian man.”
“She hasn’t mentioned him.” Juliette dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand, leaving a line of half-moons.
“Well, I’m sure two attractive doctors don’t need any help from us old hens, but it wouldn’t hurt to give your little friend a nudge?”
Juliette almost choked on an ice cube.
“Although,” she continued, “I’m sure you don’t want to lose a good lodger. It must be nice to have the company of a younger woman in the house.”
“And the rent, of course. Such a shame to have to manage on your own without a . . . ”
“I manage just fine, Mrs. Candleberry.”
“I was just saying to Hilda and Betty at the church hall this morning that Isobel could almost be mistaken for your daughter.”
“My . . . ”
“There’s such a likeness, dear,” she went on, “over the mouth and . . . ” Her voice was drowned out by the scraping of Juliette’s chair on the concrete. She marched back to the roses.
“I’ve got to get on, Mrs. Candleberry,” she shouted over her shoulder. “Mr. Dingle is expecting me in half an hour.” But she raced home that afternoon, stripped off her grubby clothes, and stood in front of the mirror. Then she cried, all the feelings of doubt returning to her mind.
Isobel shrugged it off later that evening. “There’s hardly a line on your face,” she said, tucking a stand of brown hair behind Juliette’s ear and brushing her lips over her earlobe. “And besides, I would be lucky to look anything like you. You’re stunning.”
“But one day soon I’m going to be an old lady and you, you’ll be in your prime.” Juliette shrugged. “And then you’ll leave me.”
“Why would I leave you?”
And for the next decade their flights remained grounded, and together they celebrated each new wrinkle, cried over ailments, and watched each other grow. But sometimes, on a dark and rainy night, Juliette would lie awake wondering when it would all end.
The plane judders and the seat belt sign lights up again. Juliette gently lifts Isobel’s shawl and checks that her belt is firmly in place, then checks her own. She looks at her watch; they’ve been in the air for twenty minutes now, which means there are only thirty-seven minutes to go. She listens to Isobel breathe while all around her teacups rattle on saucers and a couple shout at a child. At the back of the airplane someone is crying. The cabin girl that earlier called her dear staggers from left to right as she makes her way to her own seat by the door. Juliette considers pushing the little button above her head, then scolds herself for thinking bad thoughts. Suddenly the airplane dips. There are wide eyes and a collective gasp, and someone screams for God. Juliette swings her arm toward Isobel, searching for her hand, and Isobel wakes. She struggles to free her arms from her shawl but, of course, she’s held tightly by her seat belt.
The airplane settles, followed by an apology over the intercom.
“It’s okay.” Juliette twists to face Isobel, who is thrashing around, red-faced. She puts her two hands on Isobel’s face and turns it toward her own. Isobel stops writhing and looks at Juliette. Their eyes lock. Juliette breathes sharply and holds her breath. She searches those familiar eyes, still as blue as the sky after a storm. Isobel smiles; a dimple that’s grown deeper with age bends as her lips stretch.
“Hey, my love.” Juliette’s heart quickens. “It’s me, Juliette.” She reaches out and takes Isobel’s hands.
Isobel clears her throat. “Do you have an appointment, dear?” She shakes Juliette’s hands away and starts pulling things from the seat pocket and dropping them on the floor. “I can’t seem to find my diary. What did you say your name was?”
Juliette feels a familiar gnawing of disappointment, but she blinks it away. “I’m not here to see a doctor, I’m here to see you.”
Isobel frowns and sits back in her seat. “Are we on a bus?”
Juliette pulls the shade down. “We’re on an airplane to Dublin.”
“Where’s Juliette? What have you done with Juliette?” She begins tugging on her seat belt.
“Stop this bus!” Isobel shouts at the top of her voice.
“Isobel . . . ”
“Help! I’m being held hostage!”
Juliette unclips her seat belt and stands up. She holds Isobel by the shoulders.
“Is everything alright?” A bald head pops up from the seat in front.
“Ma’am.” Juliette’s favorite steward stands in the aisle. “Is everything alright?”
“Everything is fine.” Juliette puts her arm out to warn the steward to stay back. “She’s . . . ”
“Are you here for an appointment, dear?” Isobel smiles at the steward.
“She’s radio rental.” A little blonde girl with pretend tattoos drapes her arms over Juliette’s head rest.
“Don’t be so rude,” Juliette snaps, then turns to the steward. “She’s just confused.”
They thought it was fatigue at first, what with the extra shifts she’d been covering due to Dr. O’Brian’s pregnancy.
“You can’t just diagnose yourself with exhaustion, then go in to work on a Saturday,” Juliette snapped after finding an egg bouncing in a dry saucepan on the kitchen hob. “You need to take time off.”
“I can’t. Deloris is as sick as a dog with this wee one, and besides, there’s no one else to cover for her.”
“Fair enough, but remember you’ll have to finish early on Monday, you’ve got a hospital appointment to get that left leg looked at again.”
“My left leg?” Isobel looked puzzled.
“The trapped nerve . . . ”
“Aye, right enough,” she said, limping out of the room.
But Isobel didn’t finish early that Monday, or the following Monday, and as the weeks went by, Juliette lost count of the times she’d canceled and rearranged appointments. But it was six months later when things came to a head.
Juliette was in the kitchen organizing sandwiches onto serving trays. They were expecting a dozen friends over in the evening to celebrate their upcoming twentieth anniversary.
Isobel burst into the kitchen with arms full of shopping bags.
“Is the cake in the car?” Juliette asked.
“Cake?” Isobel dropped the bags at her feet.
“The anniversary . . . ” Juliette began.
A tin of dog food rolled from one of the bags and landed near Juliette’s feet. She picked it up and looked at Isobel. The confusion on her face sent shivers down Juliette’s spine.
“We don’t have a dog, do we?” Isobel said softly.
“We don’t.” Juliette pulled out a kitchen chair and took Isobel’s hand. “Sit down, love.”
Isobel was trembling.
After the diagnosis Isobel took sick leave from work and began reading prolifically. Being a doctor, she had access to the best medical books on early onset dementia. She collected them all and shut herself in the second bedroom and spent weeks poring over them. Then one day, out of the blue, she packed the books into a large cardboard box and took them to the office. Juliette waited in the car.
“Do you want to go on a road trip?” Isobel asked when she returned.
“Today?” Juliette asked.
“Why not. I want to make up for forgetting our . . . ” She held her mouth open, as if waiting for the word to drop out.
“Anniversary?” Juliette lifted her eyebrows.
“Aye, that. I feel so disconnected from everything.” Isobel blushed. “Shall we?”
“Where do you want to go?”
So, approximately three weeks after their twentieth anniversary, they laid their sleeping bags on the ground on top of a thick bed of moss and fallen pine needles at the foot of Wicklow Mountains.
“Who needs a mattress?” Juliette said and breathed deeply. The forest smelled of damp mulch and burning firewood.
Isobel tucked a cushion under her head. “We should have done this years ago,” she said, looking up at the trees swishing in the breeze. “Look”—she pointed—“Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers!”
Juliette looked up to see two Scots pines bent toward one another in a romantic embrace.
Isobel turned to Juliette. “Thank you for twenty years of good memories.”
“And here’s to making new ones,” Juliette replied.
“Memory might not be my strong point though.” Isobel sighed.
“I’m sure it won’t be as bad as you think.”
“Oh, Juliette. We need to talk.”
Isobel sat up and crossed her legs.
“I know you’re worried, my love. I am too.” Juliette brushed the palm of her hand over Isobel’s cheek. “But if things get difficult, I’ll look after you.”
Isobel turned to face Juliette. “Promise me you’ll bring me here every year on our anniversary.”
“Even if I forget you, I think this is the place that will bring it all back.”
Juliette reached over and held her hand. She choked back her tears.
“Will you collect me from Glasgow.” Isobel’s blue eyes were heavy and full.
Juliette sat up. “What?”
“I’m going back to Scotland. Everything’s arranged.”
“No. You can’t.” Juliette felt her body trembling. That familiar feeling that had kept her awake for so many nights. “You’re leaving?”
“I’m setting you free.”
Juliette feels the pressure change in the cabin as the airplane begins its descent. There’s the usual hustle and bustle before landing; bags being stowed in overhead lockers; seats being put back in upright positions; last minute queues at the toilets. Isobel fiddles with the air-conditioning above her head; it blows strands of red hair over her face and she laughs.
“Isobel.” Juliette whispers so as not to alarm her. “Do you want look outside?” She pulls the window blind up fully.
Slowly, Isobel reaches over and looks out. “No, no, no!” she shouts. “I think we’re falling!”
“Oh no, darling, I promise you we’re not.” Juliette takes her hand. “Look, we’re flying over Killiney Bay.”
Isobel edges closer, her eyes widening. Suddenly, she presses her finger on the window. “Aha!” she says. “Can you see that rainbow? That’s where I’ll find my Juliette.”
Juliette smiles and nods.
The forest floor is dappled with sunlight. Long lingering licks of amber coat the leaves and branches. Isobel sits in the car while Juliette unpacks. She tries to ignore the ache in her heart while she sets about re-creating the past. She lays out two sleeping bags on the blanket of thick green moss, and two cushions. Beside each she places a bottle of water and a bag of mixed nuts. Even though they’d returned to this exact spot for the last ten years, she checks for their initials on the bark of the spruce that they’d carved five years ago.
“I’ll never stop trying,” she says, tracing her finger over the rough bark.
Before she fetches Isobel from the car, she stands for a moment and breathes the cool damp air. High above her, Fred and Ginger stand still, like strangers.