By that time, she had flown from Dublin to New York, then over to Milan, for a disastrous day followed by a long trot down to Gate D09, where nothing was happening. There were no passengers, just a lone, slightly accusatory woman in uniform, who said that the flight had been cancelled since yesterday and she would have to route through—and here her mind went blank, the way you blank on the name of a person at a party—although some part of her brain must have known, because she turned and walked back the way she had come, past the Segafredo franchise, the Swatch counter, past two Italian men shopping for sunglasses at a little spinning stand, down to the new gate, the number of which was circled on her new boarding pass. And it must have been noted somewhere, this layover in Germany, or Switzerland, or Austria (the signs, when she arrived, were all in German), she just forgot it—she must have forgotten it several times, she was too busy hating Italian airlines, and maybe all Italians, her mind kept snagging on that cancelled flight, those two handsome men, each turning to admire his own reflection in the other’s dark glasses.
When the plane landed, she followed the other passengers along the jet bridge, up an escalator, and down a glass-walled corridor, and zigzagged over and back through an empty baffle, with no queue to contain. She showed her passport to a tired official sitting high in a cubicle, who did not ask if she knew what country she was trying to get into so late at night. There should be a sign, she thought. A few bags circled on the carrousel, but she left them to it, and walked between bare steel tables, out through sliding doors into this new place.
The last few passengers veered around her toward the big revolving doors: men, mostly, going home to warm beds while she stood looking at a hotel voucher and a boarding pass for a flight that would leave in four hours. Or in five hours. Sometimes her smartphone took a little while to catch up with the time zone, but she was pretty sure the flight would leave in five hours, minus one hour’s check-in time. Boarding 05:55 at Gate 19. She would need to be back here, in the airport, in four hours exactly.
When she looked up from her calculations, the exit door had stopped revolving. The far lights were switched off—you could not see the edges of the huge hall, and there was no one to ask which way to go. No cleaners, no security, no passengers pulling luggage or pushing trolleys in hijabs or shorts or travelling shawls. No announcements were being made. The airport was closed. Even the voice of the revolving door was silent, the one that told you in alternating—in revolving—languages not to push the door. She checked the signs in turn until she came to the one she was looking for: a stick figure lying in a narrow bed, with “Hotel” written underneath, then repeated in another language, which must have been French—“Hôtel.”
“O.K., O.K., O.K.,” she said under her breath as she obeyed the sign and pulled her faithful roller bag past a row of deserted car-rental counters. “O.K., O.K., O.K.,” as she overtook a stilled walkway, wondering in which direction it moved when it went. After a gap, there was another walkway, and then another; they continued into the distance in a broken line. Far ahead, a churning sound signalled one of them obstinately rolling past its bedtime. As she got closer, she could see the stainless-steel pathway moving, and the black rubber handrail moving, but they seemed to be sliding in different directions and her foot was almost on the thing before she realized that it was coming against her. She jinked to the side and made her way upstream toward another sign, pointing left, and another corridor, with a curved roof, like the fuselage of a plane, and this one was so long she could not see the end of it. There were moving walkways on both sides of her now, and none of them moved. She could hear the rasp of her coat sleeve against her coat and the regular clicking of her faithful bag over the floor tiles: ka-thock ka-thock ka-thock. There were no more signs.
In the distance, a motor lurched into action and she started, so the click of her wheels went out of synch. It was like a key change. Ka-thick ka-thick ka-thick, against the low hum of the walkway that was slowly rolling toward her. The darkness at the end of the corridor yielded two men, jolting a little as they were conveyed along like toy men—or toy soldiers, indeed, because they wore peaked caps and one of them had a large gun, which he held across his front with both hands. The men stepped off the walkway and went to the next, which came to life as the one behind them slowed. Perhaps she could do the same. She could fire one of these things up and sail past the soldiers as they sailed along on the other side. But there was a gun. And she was not sure that the machine would start for her. The soldiers proceeded from one to the next. Their hats were white and they had light-green shirts under dark-green flak jackets. When they got onto the walkway beside her, she stopped on the motionless floor and waited for them to pass. The men turned slightly as they were carried beyond her.
“Hotel?” she said.
One of them laughed a little, the one with the gun. The other indicated over his shoulder, in the direction they had come.
“Ein bisschen weiter. You must go a little fuurthher.”
“Thank you,” she said, thinking the accent was so soft that she must be somewhere southern. Perhaps she had landed in Switzerland.
At the end of the corridor, there was a set of glass doors and, beyond them, bold orange street lamps lighting starkly shadowed bushes, a deserted blue road, and, on the other side of it, a big, beautiful hotel. She could imagine it: the feel of carpet under her roller wheels, dark wood, huge flowers scenting the air, a receptionist to say, “There will be a shuttle to departures at 4:45 a.m.” A shower. A bed.
Or not a hotel. The building was a warehouse, or a kind of hangar. That was also possible.
She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again, ka-thick ka-thick ka-thick, putting one foot in front of the other on the solid-seeming floor. The doors were in front of her now. They would open when she was very near. She would pass through them into the night air and, across the road, a smiling woman behind a counter, a key card to press against a numbered door, a little light that clicked green.
Or no hotel. Outside, across the road, was just another queue she had to join, a straggling line of people with their bags. Some of them were sitting down on the concrete of the street, where weeds grew out of the cracks, and men in green uniforms walked two by two, tapping the stocks of their guns, as if to reassure their HK416Cs, as if to remind their HK416Cs that they were still here. And the people in this line were wearing too many clothes: they had overcoats and cheap parkas, cardigans on top of cardigans; they had bits of cloth dangling off them, scarves and shawls, and one of them was wearing a blanket, which was not clean.