Two men meet in an airport departure lounge. One, travelling West, wears a white shirt and a dark charcoal suit, and even in the airport thinks he represents his company, as he has not even loosened his thin, neutrally coloured tie.
The other wears loose fitting trousers and a pair of shoes that would be turned away at most night clubs. He carries a canvas backpack that looks like it has been round the world a few times.
There is little reason for the two of them to converse, except that the lounge is otherwise empty. It is between planes – the man in the suit arrived an hour earlier than he needed to, worried about missing his flight, but now that he has navigated check-in, now he has passed security, he is calm. The man with the canvas bag cut his departure customarily fine, and – the airline having over-booked – has waived his seat in return for an upgrade on a later flight. And yet his eyes dart around the room, with the look of a man who is ... well, what? Hunted? Or haunted?
“You’re going to Milan?” he asks the suit.
The suit... no. Let’s call him Mr West, and the other, Mr East, these men – like all men in departure lounges, have no names.
West, then, looks as his interlocutor with surprise. “Well yes. How did you know?”
“MXP” East says, pointing at the baggage sticker on the back of the other’s flight ticket. “Malpensa. I know all the airport codes.”
West takes this in. He blinks. But he is polite, and a conversation has been started. “And you? Where are you heading?”
“East”. Says East. “I’m heading... East.” An odd comment, and West thinks that this probably concludes his obligation, but East has one more variation to add. “Always East.”
“Always East?” echoes West, and at this East‘s eyes light up and he nods fervently.
“Always East” he says with emphasis.
West shifts uncomfortably in his seat, and can’t think what to say. “Never West?”
“Never.” affirms East.
“But how do you get home?” West asks.
East shrugs. “I don’t. I’ve been heading East for ... what? 17 years.”
West is confused. “But ...”
“It’s my fortune you see.” says East, but no, West does not see, and the blank look he gives is answer enough.
East quickly glances around the still quiet room. A few other passengers have wandered in, but they spread themselves to the points of the compass. “When I was young,” he says, “A fortune teller told me to go East. ‘Go East’, she said, ‘and you will become a millionaire.’ So I did.” He rubs his neck. “The problem is, you carry East and West around with you. Even now, you are on my East side, and I, on your West – and I can chase East forever, but never catch it. I can go East until I’m back where I started, and then keep on going. And I have. East without end.”
West sits up straighter. He thinks of himself as rational man, and he doesn’t believe in fortune tellers any more than he believes in the tooth fairy, or in Father Christmas. “How do you know that this is not a false fortune?” he asks.
East holds his eye for a long moment, and then nods firmly. “I know.” And this is enough for both of them, because it is obviously a matter of faith, and you don’t question a man’s faith.
West turns instead, to matters of a more practical nature. “How do you afford it?” he asks.
East smiles. “I work. I travel as far East as I can, then I stop, work until I’m certain that this employment will not lead to riches, until I have enough to move on. Then I do – I move on.”
West smiles in return. “You know,” he says gently, “the average person earns around a million dollars in their lifetime. More perhaps. Much more, if it’s in Hong Kong dollars say, or Yen. Have you never thought of just staying where you land, of settling?”
East twitches. His wrings his hands together to still their betrayal. “How can I?” he says, a hint of mournful despair in his voice. “Once you start... once you have invested so much... it’s like waiting for a bus, when you could have walked. When no bus comes, you wait longer, because surely it will come soon; the longer you wait, the sooner it must come. After a while, you can’t walk it anymore – you’d be late. So you wait, and wait, and wait, getting later and later until... until your destiny is out of your hands.”
West sits in respectful silence for a moment, interrupted by a garbled tannoy announcement. “My flight.” East says, though he makes no immediate move to stand. Then he speaks again, a rush of words - “And... and that was only half of the future she told me! If it was only about money!” he says, wild-eyed. “But no. The rest ... and I have not told this to many people ... the rest was ‘and there you will find love, and happiness, and peace.’”
There is little West can say. He is sceptical, of course. How could an itinerant traveller, who never stays anywhere long enough to do more than scrape together an air ticket, ever hope to find his fortune? What a miracle it would require! But he nods, and says “I do hope you find what you are looking for.” They shake hands, warmly, and as East hefts his bag, a half dozen business cards rain down from the front pocket. West stoops to pick them up, but East shakes his head. “They are of no use to me anymore. Leave them be.” And then he is striding towards the gate.
After he has gone, West sits staring at nothing awhile, before he checks his watch, and – seeing he just has enough time - hurriedly pulls out his laptop, and a folder. Emblazoned with the name of the travel company he works for, he opens it to find the login details he requires. He enters the name from one of the spilled business cards and there it is, confirmation – page after page of entries from check-in desks in every country on every continent mark the ever eastward journey, circling the globe over and over and over.
And something more as well; a dozen different loyalty card schemes with a dozen different airlines. He sucks at the tip of a pen, and quickly jots numbers down on the back of the business card – BA, Virgin Flying club, Flyer plus, before adding them all up.
He leans back in his chair and grins, catching the eye of a matronly lady who has just sat down and who looks initially scandalised, and then scowls back, but that just makes West grin even more. Because there it is.
Whatever his next flight, whoever it is with, it will take him over that magic seven digit number. By the time he lands, Mr East will be a million-air-miler.
West sends him all of the joy he can muster, and snaps his laptop shut.