The plane’s tail sails past the long panel of windows. I clasp my ticket tighter as the baggage cart hurtles down the runway towards our plane. Of all the days for a plane to be on time, it had to be today. A tiny part of me hopes a suitcase falls and spills its contents. Shirts and socks and jocks would dot the tarmac and blow in the breeze. Airport staff would struggle to collect the runaway clothing. The owner of the suitcase would be immensely embarrassed, but it would give me time. That’s all I need. Time. Just a few more minutes.

‘Stop stressing, Adele.’ Jenny looks up at me with that adorable lopsided smile.

‘I’m not stressed.’ Even I can detect the transparency of my lie. I know she hears it too.

Jenny picks our two wedding dresses off her lap where she’s been cradling them for the last hour and places them on the adjacent seat. ‘You always fidget when you’re stressed. Stop scrunching it.’ She takes the ticket from me and places it on the seat. ‘Here,’ she says, grabbing both my hands. ‘Squeeze these instead.’ Her grasp is firm and comforting.

I glance over my shoulder at the bustle of colour and commotion in the terminal.

‘Don’t worry. She’ll be here.’ Jenny’s voice is so confident, but there is no sign of Mama and she hasn’t called. Why couldn’t she at least call us?

Tears threaten to emerge. My cheeks ache from trying to hold them back. I run my finger under the rim of my eye catching a stray drop, no doubt giving myself mascara panda eyes.

Jenny giggles. “And you didn’t think we needed to bring our make-up case.”

The laughter is so soothing. I kiss her and wrap my arms around her neck. For the briefest of seconds my stress melts, the commotion around me lulls and all I hear is her sweet breaths.

‘Ahem.’ A middle age woman coughs as if she has a tiny tadpole in her throat.

‘Mummy, plane!’ a young girl squeals, running past us to the woman. The mother turns her daughter from our direction and coughs louder: the tadpole transforms into a bullfrog. The croaking cough is so loud that others in seats nearby look in our direction.

There is a shake of the mother’s head and a raised eyebrow: the non-verbal ‘tsk tsk’.

Not today. I can deal with this any day, but not today. I close my eyes and nuzzle my nose in Jenny’s neck trying to block out the scrutiny surrounding us.

‘This is a pre-boarding call for QANTAS flight QF246 to Vancouver. We invite passengers requiring special assistance and parents with small children to begin boarding.’

‘No, no, no. They can’t be boarding yet.’ I scan the flurry of activity. A business man runs to his boarding gate; a stewardess tries to run while fixing her slick-gelled bun with bobby pins. Nowhere among the chaos is Mama racing towards us.

Business suits, turbans, old, young, wheelchairs: the terminal is a sea of colours blending together, but Mama is not among them.

Jenny squeezes my hand.

‘Ahem!’ coughs the mother.

Anyone could blend in at the airport and go unnoticed, but my simple sign of affection arouses a chorus of coughs that would drown out a pond full of frogs.

‘Oh! Are you okay, love?’ Jenny asks the mother, with a voice like butter. ‘I think I have some cough lollies in my travel bag.’ She begins rummaging through her bag, but I know she hasn’t packed any.

‘There are families here.’ The mother hauls a bag on her shoulder, grabs her daughter’s hand and strides to the window.

‘Don’t go. I know I have some cough lollies in here somewhere,’ Jenny calls out to her, the sincerity seeping away ever so slightly.

I feel the heat burning in my cheeks. How Jenny manages to stay to calm and not get embarrassed always perplexes me. Nothing could faze her. She is the complete opposite to me. Yin and yang – as they say.

‘I’m going to get a coffee. You want one?’ Jenny asks.

I shake my head. Caffeine won’t help my nerves right now. ‘Do you have time?’

‘Sure. Besides we still have to wait for your Mum.’ She strolls back towards the cafes as if she has all the time in the world and so confident that Mama will suddenly appear.

The mother and little girl have retreated to the airport windows. Her tiny hand and face press against the glass as another plane coasts along the tarmac. I wonder how long it takes to clean all those little fingerprints from the glass. One day, Jenny and I will have a proper family. Maybe a boy and a girl.

A man walks up to the mother, kisses her on the cheek and holds her hand. The girl turns to look at me. I grab the inside of my cheeks with my fingers and make a face. She giggles and mimics me, until the mother notices and ushers her back to plane watching.

Planes are much safer.

I shouldn’t judge. Twenty years ago, Mama would’ve acted the same. If turning me from my current direction was as easy as distracting me with planes, I would’ve spent my life at the airport.

I look around the hordes of passengers making their way to the gate. Where is she? When I was five, she promised she would be here. At our preschool play, she’d sworn on her life she wouldn’t let me down.

‘I don’t wanna marry John,’ I had bawled as our teacher started playing the wedding march on the school piano. ‘I’m gonna marry Marco. He has a Play Station. If I marry him that means I own it too.’ The chuckle from the audience probably should’ve told me I was speaking too loud from the wings, but I didn’t care. ‘Mummy, I’m not marrying John!’ I threw the bouquet of flowers onto the floor and stomped on them until the plastic petals had fallen off. ‘John doesn’t even like video games. He sucks.’

‘Oh, mia bambina. It is just play. Make-believe.’ Mama took my hand. ‘You take Fred’s hand. He walk you onto the stage and down the aisle and then you pretend to marry John. It not real.’

‘Why do I have to walk with Fred?’ I crossed my arms and pouted.

‘Because he play the part of the Daddy. That is what the Daddy does.’

‘Can Daddy walk me down the aisle when I marry Marco?’

‘Oh, mia bambina.’ Mama had squatted so that she could peer into my eyes. ‘We speak of this. You know he cannot come back.’

‘Why does a Daddy have to walk the girl down the aisle?’

‘Because that how it done. He giving her away.’

‘A way to do what?’

There was another subdued chuckle from the audience as if they were uncertain whether they should laugh at the drama unfolding off stage. Mama had laughed a genuine laugh though. She crackled like a hearty Italian breakfast frying in the pan. A comforting laugh.

‘It’s a Daddy’s job to give girl to husband. It tradition.’

‘So how will I get to play Marco’s Play Station if Daddy can’t walk me down the aisle.’ The tears began to resurface.

‘Maybe if good, Santa bring Play Station for you at Christmas.’

‘But Santa doesn’t know what one Marco has. He has to get the right console and games.’

‘Santa is magic. He get anything you want.’

‘Can he get Daddy to walk me down the aisle?’

Mama kissed my forehead. ‘Sometimes we can break tradition. When ready, I walk you down aisle.’

‘Really. Is that allowed?’

‘Yes. I promise sweet mia bambina.’

‘Hurry up!’ Fred stood with arms crossed and a frown as peaked as Mt Kosciusko. ‘You’re messing up my chance to be a star.’ He held out his sweaty hand.

‘I’m not holding that!’ I picked up my decrepit bunch of flowers, shoved them under my arm and then stormed onto the stage before Fred could say any more. Amid the audience’s laughter and applause, I heard Fred sobbing back in the wings and complaining I’d gone on stage without him.

One day. One day, Jenny and I would have to calm our crying children during school plays.

Someone taps me on the shoulder bringing me back to the present. I turn expecting Mama to be standing there, but instead look up at the husband of the coughing lady.

‘Stop staring at my child,’ he says.

‘Sorry?’

‘Perv,’ he whispers as he turns on his heel and walks back to his perfectly acceptable family.

‘What was that about?’ asks Jenny as she returns with her coffee.

‘Nothing.’ This is her day too, there’s no need to get her worked up as well.

‘This is the final boarding call for flight QF246. We now invite all passengers to proceed to the gate.’

There’s still no sign of Mama among the crowds.

Jenny sits back down in the uncomfortable plastic chairs. ‘I don’t know why everyone rushes. Look at that line. They’re just going to be standing and waiting for ages.’

I know Jenny is trying to reassure me, trying to convince me that we still have time to wait for Mama.

‘You know Maria’s just running late,’ she says.

Late? Mama is never late. In high school, she’d grilled our limo driver for arriving ten minutes late to take me to the prom.

‘This is no seven o’clock.’ Mama had leant through the driver’s side window and tapped her watch impatiently, and then the poor sod had to sit there and listen to her grill him about punctuality for another twenty minutes. Not that I minded the delay. Mum’d set me up with Jack, the class jock. All the girls in our class loved him, so why did I think he looked like a Fairy Penguin in his suit and bowtie?

‘Mama, let the limo go without me. Chris and I really wanted to go together. I’ll get a lift with her.’

‘Chris?

‘You know Chris. Chrissie. You met her during the school holidays. We were going to dress up in costumes. We were thinking…’

‘Costume? Do not be daft, mia bambina. This your formal. Once in a lifetime event. Make it perfect.’ She had handed me a pink flower with a loop of elastic.

‘What’s this?’

‘Corsage.’

‘That’s so daggy, Mama.’

‘It’s traditional. It’s the way it’s done.’

‘Says who?’

‘Says everybody.’

I wanted to tell her then but she hadn’t been ready. Looking at the dwindling line of airport passengers, absent Mama, I know she still wasn’t ready to hear the truth. Maybe she never will be.

The tail of the line finishes boarding. Jenny runs his finger around the rim of my engagement ring and squeezes my hand. ‘We should go.’ The confidence has faded from her voice.

I shake my head. I can’t speak. If I do I know my voice will crack. I swallow hard trying to remove the lump in my throat.

Jenny slings our wedding dresses over her arm and holds out her free hand. My body obeys. I can’t let Jenny down. But my mind is still sitting in the plastic chair, cursing the gods and the whole world. This isn’t how my special day is meant to happen. All my friends were meant to be sitting in chairs, adorned with sashes and flowers, staring at me with admiration as I walked down the aisle as the Wedding March echoes around the room. And Mama would be by my side, with tears welling in her eyes. And at the reception, she would be trying to make everyone to eat more than they could stomach because she would have over-catered for the event. It would have been spectacularly extravagant.

Instead, the scanner beeps abruptly as Jenny hands over her ticket. As she waits for me, her eyes glance to the crowds behind us. She knows how much it meant for Mama to come with us.

Reluctantly, I hand over my ticket. The stewardess runs it under the scanner, but it doesn’t beep and validate my ticket. It must be a sign.

‘It’s just a bit crinkled.’ The stewardess straightens out my printed receipt and the scanner beeps with a flash of red.

‘It’s no wonder,’ says Jenny trying to sound cheerful. ‘You’ve been scrunching that thing all day.’

Just like Mama did when I handed her the ticket to come with us.

‘This not right, Adele,’ she’d said. Even when I got in trouble with the police in college, I was still her baby, her mia bambina. Hearing Mama call me by my name stung even more so than watching her scrunch up the ticket.

‘Enjoy your flight,’ the stewardess chirps oblivious to my pain.

As we make our way onto the plane, there are the usual smiles plastered across cheeks and cheerful welcomes as I show my boarding pass.

But an impatient stewardess walks me down the aisle. The chairs are decorated with suits, magazines and evacuation instructions. The seats are filled with the faces of frustrated business men tapping fingers as they wait for take-off. And the painful song of the stewardess’s voice chimes over the intercom as I take step after step down the aisle towards my seat.

‘This is the final boarding call for Maria Cavinato booked on flight QF246 to Vancouver. Your flight is awaiting you for departure.’

Up ahead, Jenny tries to rearrange baggage in the overhead lockers so she can lay our wedding dresses flat.

‘Don’t move that. It’s fragile,’ says a man from across the aisle. He looks at Jenny and then up at me.

‘Sorry.’ Jenny doesn’t seem to notice the jibe and searches the next compartment. She is still so happy. I should be sharing her excitement. This is meant to be the happiest day of my life.

‘C’e spazio qui, mia bambina,’ an Italian accent resonates from behind me. Never has Mama’s voice sounded so beautiful. The tears I’d been so desperately trying to keep in, spill over, no doubt smearing my makeup. But I don’t care. The day couldn’t be any more perfect. The two most important people in the world are here to for my wedding day.

Mama stands a few seats down from us, pointing to an empty overhead locker. ‘There room here,’ she repeats.

‘Maria!’ Jenny runs up and kisses her on the cheek. Mama smiles meekly, takes the dresses and lays them in the overhead compartment.

‘Sorry I come late, mia bambina. I take too long in Duty Free store.’

She hands me a plastic bag. Inside is a gift wrapped in a page from today’s paper. Apparently, storms are brewing in Sydney’s sky and there is another headline about a political scandal or some such nonsense. I don’t care about today’s news. Where I’m heading the summer skies are a blissful thirty plus degrees.

I look to Mama for a clue. ‘What is it?’

‘Belated engagement present.’

I tear the corner. A coloured triangle, circle, square, x on the Play Station box peek at me from the newspaper.

Mama manages a smile, but I can tell it is still a struggle. At least she is here. But I don’t know why I ever doubted her. Keeping promises is one of her most cherished traditions of all.

Melanie Rees

Melanie Rees is an Australian writer. She has published over 60 short stories and poems in markets such as The School Magazine, Apex and Cosmos.

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