The following is from David Szalay's novel Turbulence. Twelve strangers on different flights across the world make minor decisions that create ripple effects throughout each others' lives as they briefly cross paths. David Szalay is the author of Turbulence, Spring, The Innocent, London and the South-East, and All That Man Is. He’s been awarded the Gordon Burn Prize and The Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
“My gardener,” Ursula said. “You remember my gardener—Shamgar?”
“Yes,” Miri said. “Sort of.”
“I think he might be gay.”
Ursula laughed. “I think he might be having some sort of affair with the man who works next door.”
“Good for him,” Miri said. She didn’t seem very interested—her mind seemed elsewhere. Still, Ursula went on with it. “Once I saw the man from next door coming out of Shamgar’s room very early in the morning. I hadn’t been able to sleep and I was up before dawn and I’d just stepped outside when the door of Shamgar’s room opened—and I expected it to be Shamgar of course, but it wasn’t. It was this guy from next door. I don’t even know his name. ‘Oh, hello,’ I said. And he just nodded and hurried off. And when I mentioned it to Shamgar later he was very embarrassed. I didn’t pursue it.”
“It’s none of your business,” Miri said.
“I know. Of course it isn’t. He is married though. Shamgar. He has two kids back in India. I think the other guy’s married as well.”
“I’m getting married,” Miri said. “What do you feel like?” she asked, picking up the menu. “What’s the special today?”
They were in Menza, a popular restaurant near her at in Budapest. Ursula had arrived on the early flight from Doha and had taken a taxi straight there. She said, “No, Miranda, what do you mean you’re getting married?”
“To someone I know?”
“Who d’you think?”
Miranda, when her mother said nothing else, finally put down the menu. “You could at least pretend to be pleased.”
“I’m pleased,” Ursula said. “I’m surprised.”
“I can see that. Why?”
“It just seems sudden. You and . . . and Moussa have been seeing each other for how long? Not that long.”
“More than a year,” Miri said.
“Is it that long?”
“Well,” Ursula said, “still.”
“What do you mean? Is that not long enough? How long do you think is enough? Two years? Five? Ten? How long had you and Dad known each other before you decided to get married? Twenty minutes?”
“About four months. And look how that worked out.”
“I know how it worked out. I did the therapy. Let’s face it,” Miri said. “You’re surprised because of who he is.”
“No,” Ursula immediately insisted. And then, “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“The fact that he’s a Muslim,” Ursula said, “has nothing to do with it.”
“To do with what?”
At that moment the waiter asked them what they wanted to drink. They ordered some fizzy water and asked for a few more minutes to look at the menus.
Which they did, making suggestions to each other over the tops of them, and narrowing down the possibilities, until the waiter was there again and they ordered.
“Look,” Ursula said, in German again—they had spoken English to the waiter—“if this is what you want to do, of course I’m pleased. Of course I am.”
“But,” Miri prompted.
“But nothing. When did he ask you to marry him?” She made the question sound like a matter of minor interest, and as if she had already accepted the major fact, and took a sip of water as she waited for the answer.
“He didn’t,” Miri said. “It was my idea.”
Ursula tried to sound unfazed. “Okay.”
“He would never ask me,” Miri said. “He’d understand how that might look.”
“How might it look?”
“Like he wanted something. Like it might help him stay in Europe. I don’t know.”
“Well it might,” Ursula pointed out.
“Yes, it might. So? Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Is that what this is about?” Ursula asked.
“No,” Miri said. “That’s not what it’s about.”
After lunch they took Ursula’s suitcase to Miri’s flat, which was in a quiet, dirty street on the other side of the avenue. The buildings of the street looked ominously fortified. They stopped at a huge wooden door, in which there was a smaller door. A row of plaster faces, caked with smut, alternately laughed and cried on the building’s façade, one under each of the windows of the first floor. The façade itself might once have been turquoise. Now it was a sickly gray. Miri punched some numbers into a keypad and they went through the smaller door and into a tall courtyard under a distant square of sky.
“This is where you live now, is it?” Ursula asked, taking in their surroundings—the silo of silent doors and windows above them, and only a pigeon or two in evidence.
“It’s where we live,” Miri said.
“He lives here too?”
“Oh,” Ursula said. The last thing she had heard, Moussa lived in a precarious semilegal flat-share with some other Syrians. “Is he here now?” she asked.
“Don’t think so,” Miri said.
Ursula had only met Moussa twice. He was quite handsome, obviously intelligent, humorous, sweet—there was nothing to object to. Except that his very pleasantness seemed suspect, somehow. It seemed implausible that such an appealing person had no existing ties in life. He was in his early thirties, about ten years older than Miri. Ursula wanted to ask her daughter how she could be sure that he didn’t have a family back in Syria—a wife, kids, whatever. There was no way of knowing. Ursula had thought about it just that morning on the plane from Doha. There used to be a time when flights from the Gulf to Europe flew over Iraq and Syria—that was the shortest way—only now they had to avoid the sky over those places and fly over Iran and Turkey instead.
She had watched, on the seat-back screen, her own flight do just that this morning, divert around Syria and Iraq, and she had thought of Moussa, of course, and of his unknown life down there, in that secret place—a place so secret that it wasn’t even possible to fly over it and look at it from ten thousand meters up. What had he left behind there? What ties did he still have? Impossible to say. Look at Shamgar, she had thought, picking at her Qatar Airways breakfast. People were able to live multiple lives.
There seemed no way of putting this to Miri, though.
She did ask her, as they walked through the streets after leaving her luggage at the flat, what she knew about his life in Syria.
“Quite a lot actually,” Miri said.
“He’s a vet?” Ursula asked.
The question seemed to irritate Miranda. “You know that,” she said.
Yes, Ursula knew that.
He wasn’t working as a vet in Hungary, of course—his asylum-seeker status prevented him from working officially and what he actually did was teach private Arabic lessons, mostly to postgrad students at CEU, who mostly took them as an act of solidarity. That was how Miri had met him.
They had arrived at the Danube. Ursula stopped for a moment to take in the view—the hills piled up on the far side of the water with their spires and turrets. Overhead the sun was breaking whitely through clouds.
They set off across the windy bridge. In the middle a subsidiary section swung down to one side, providing access to Margaret Island. The trees of the island were still more or less leafless, but massed together they displayed a sort of green haze that dwindled down the river to another large bridge just visible in the distance.
“What else do you know about him?” Ursula asked.
“How much do you ever know about somebody?” Miri said.
Ursula wasn’t having that. “Plenty, after a while. Has he been married before?” she asked.
“No,” Miri said.
Ursula had not taken all that much interest in the man previously—she had assumed that Miri’s thing with him—and that was how she had thought of it, as an undefined “thing”—wouldn’t last long. With that safely assumed, she had in fact found herself feeling cautiously proud of it. That her daughter was involved with a Syrian refugee did no harm to Ursula’s liberal bonafides, and she had on occasion more or less shown off about it to a particular section of her friends, though she had always been careful, she now saw, to describe the attachment in ways that made it seem fundamentally unserious and ephemeral.
The whole of Margaret Island was a park, and large enough to forget at times that you were on an island at all. They wandered along its winding asphalt paths. There was an open-air theater and farther on a sort of miniature zoo—delicate-footed deer in a shabby enclosure. Some kids were feeding them through the fence. On all the trees hung limp sprigs of green that would soon be leaves. Spring was unstoppably on its way.
At one point Ursula asked, “You’re not pregnant, are you?”
And Miri said, “No.”
There was a tension between them. It was difficult to say when exactly it had started but it was there and it was increasingly inhibiting. They were talking less and less.
“Have you told your father?” Ursula asked a few minutes later.
“Not yet,” Miri said. “I’m going to London on Wednesday. I’ll tell him then. He’s got other things to worry about.”
“I know. What’s the news with that?” Ursula asked. Miri’s father had prostate cancer.
“He’s finished the radiotherapy,” Miri told her. “That was a few weeks ago. On Thursday he has to go into the hospital to do some scans.”
And then Ursula said, “I think I need to sit down for a moment.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing. I just feel a bit dizzy.”
They sat down on the nearest bench, which was under a tree. In turbulent surges the tree made a hissing sound when the wind went through it.
Ursula felt her blood pressure normalize. She felt securely situated again. Miranda was sitting next to her looking the other way across a wide lawn on which numerous games of football were in progress. She looked so young, Ursula thought. She had one of those stud things in her nose, and the skin around it seemed slightly inflamed. The sight of the inflamed skin made Ursula’s eyes fill with tears. She asked herself what it was about the situation—what exactly it was—that made her feel so uneasy about it, that made her feel that it was a threat to her daughter’s happiness, and therefore to her own. She tried to sort out the things that didn’t trouble her from the things that did—they seemed all mixed up together and it was hard to separate them out. Why do you need to marry him? she wanted to ask. Why marry him? People don’t just automatically do that anymore—why do you need to? It seemed so absurdly old-fashioned. What was the point?
The extremities of the tree strained in the wind. Ursula sighed.
“Are you all right?” Miri asked.
“Think so.” Ursula dabbed her eyes with a paper tissue. “So am I going to see him, Moussa, while I’m here?”
“Of course,” Miri said. “He wants to see you.”
“Now?” Miri suggested.
“Is he around?”
“Probably.” She laughed. “It’s not like he has loads to do.”
She spoke to him on the phone and then said, “He’ll meet us in half an hour.”
They walked back through the park to the bridge and took a tram to the place where Moussa had said he would meet them, a Starbucks. “He likes Starbucks,” Miri explained.
“Does he?” Ursula asked, unsure what to make of that.
The tram slid along an avenue, making a loud electric hum every time it sped up.
They left it at a noisy intersection and waited at some traffic lights. The Starbucks was on the other side of the road.
He was already there. Ursula spotted him immediately. It was extraordinary, she thought, how differently she saw him now, and in that moment of seeing him, as he stood up to meet them in the Starbucks, she understood that, in some way, that must have been Miri’s purpose in taking the unexpected, the almost melodramatic step of announcing her intention to marry him: to make her see him differently.
Excerpted from Turbulence. Used with permission of Scribner. Copyright © 2019 by David Szalay. Audio excerpt courtesy of Simon & Schuster Audio.