An airplane flying above the clouds, towards a setting sun. Credit: Shutterstock / Jag_cz


We’ve all had holidays go wrong – but none so much, and with such alarming regularity, as Alison.

Saga Exceptional short story competition

This story is one of the shortlist for Saga Exceptional’s inaugural short story competition – there are four to choose from, and the winner will be the one that gets the most votes from our readers.

See all the stories and submit your vote.

Alison turned the key and wearily pushed open the door to her flat. She transferred the suitcase, holdall and carrier bags from the doorstep to the hall, stepping over the small landslide of unwanted post on the mat.

She also noticed that there was no milk on the landing as there should have been. Typical.

She bent and scraped together the two weeks’ worth of advertising leaflets garnished with several ominous window envelopes (no good news ever came in a window envelope), which were littering the hall, then, kicking off her shoes (which had rubbed her heels red raw), she trudged into the kitchen.

The post was, as she expected, from a conspiracy of people either wanting money or trying to get her to spend it on things she didn’t want (where did they think she could put a conservatory on a third floor flat!). She tossed the paper junk on to the worktop and reached for the kettle. As the water rattled into her well-used yellow kettle, she noted idly that the pot plant Melissa had given her had passed away in her absence.

Still, she hadn’t liked it much anyway. Next to the deceased plant was a milk bottle containing the note she had hastily scribbled with a blotchy Biro and then evidently forgotten to put out for the milkman.

So where were the nine or ten pintas which should have been by the door? Well, somebody else has had those, she surmised, so I won’t be paying for them.

Snapping down the kettle switch she opened the cupboard above and selected her favourite mug; the one with the thatched cottage, which she had bought in Devon last year. While the kettle began to gently rumble, she popped a teabag into the thatched mug and considered why it was that the most advanced nation on earth seemed completely incapable of providing a decent cup of tea. After her first few days in the States she gave up hopefully ordering ‘English Tea’ in hotel dining rooms and roadside diners when it became quite apparent that nobody at that side of the Atlantic had the remotest idea what ‘English Tea’ should taste like. So for the remainder of the holiday she had been drinking variations on the theme of coffee, which came with or without milk, cream, froth, cinnamon or chocolate sprinkles – but never a digestive biscuit, it seemed. This cup of tea was going to be good, even without a splash of milk. She took the kettle, which was now doing a fairly good impression of the geysers she saw in Yellowstone Park, and drowned the tea bag, feeling a little better with the anticipation of a proper cuppa. As she prodded at the bag with a teaspoon, she thought back ruefully over the last few days. Really, it should have come as no surprise that the holiday had been an unmitigated catalogue of bad luck; after all, wasn’t she the unluckiest person alive when it came to holidays? Food poisoning in Paris (scrummy cuisine capital of the world). Sprained ankle in Majorca just two days into the holiday (couldn’t even hobble as far as the beach). Bags lost by incompetent airline coming back from Turkey (she had consoled herself with the thought that at least she didn’t have to do all the washing when she got home). And now this.

It should have been obvious that it was going to be one of those holidays when she and Debs turned up at the Hertz place to collect the car. How was she supposed to know that ‘Auto’ in the brochure meant the car would only have two pedals and a mysterious gear stick that just went backwards and forwards. She’d thought ‘auto’ was American speak for car. You know, automobile. After 15 minutes lurching around the car park like a hesitant frog, she had worked out that the gear stick thing seemed to work if it was next to ‘D’ or ‘1,2,3’ (and R was backwards, as the woman she nearly ran over would testify), but ‘P’ and ‘N’, whatever they were, did nothing? Debs suggested that Alison should use just one foot for either of the two pedals, since one seemed to be the brake and the other the accelerator. As Alison was now in quite a tizzy, and had visions of them spending the rest of the holiday in the airport car park, she prickled. “Shut up, Debs! What do you know? You can’t even drive a proper English car!” Experimentally she’d tried the one foot technique and found, to her mild annoyance, that it was easier. Throughout the holiday she never did find out what ‘P’ and ‘N’ were for, although they were useful if you didn’t want to move. She plopped the teabag carelessly into the pedal bin, sprinkling tea down the side of the fridge. The other bit of fun they had with the car of course was finding somewhere to put the

petrol in (or gas as they call it there). The pair of them had spent five frustrating minutes circling the car on a garage forecourt trying to find something that looked like it might be the filler. Mercifully the garage wasn’t self-service and after he’d finished putting ‘gas’ in a couple of other cars the elderly pump attendant smilingly reached into their car and tugged something under the steering wheel. The back number plate flipped down and there was the filler cap. As they drove out of the garage Alison saw, in her mirror, the old attendant guy gazing after them, hands on hips, slowly shaking his head. The next few days of the holiday went more or less according to plan. There was the embarrassing incident in the shopping mall of course. She had been getting a bit anxious about Debs’ whereabouts but her phone battery was dead. Alison wasn’t best pleased at being paged on the public address system, especially as she was described as “a visitor from England” (why was that relevant?) and told to go to the lost children office where her friend was waiting for her. Oh, and she could have done without the sunburn. And snapping the heel off one of her new red shoes. But all this was only the warm-up for the main disaster, which began the day they flew home. Despite having to buy a new suitcase, because the zip broke on her trusty old one, they were out of the hotel and on their way to the airport to catch the internal flight to New York right on time.

As they accelerated down the entry ramp on to the out-of-town motorway (sorry, freeway) Alison was quite glad the holiday was almost over. She looked forward to dumping this thirsty, charmless Chrysler Compact (Ha! Compact! It was bigger than the

van she’d used to move to the flat) with its mysterious gearstick and huge brake pedal and….. Lost in her cosy thoughts of small cars and roads with fewer lanes than an Olympic swimming pool, Alison suddenly realised that the massive lorry in the lane to her right was coming over into her lane. His indicator was flashing. In fact there were four red lights winking at her but, as she was already at home switching on EastEnders, she hadn’t noticed them. Unfortunately her instincts had also gone back into British mode and, as there was a solid concrete wall to her left, she jumped on the brake and clutch pedals. Only there was no clutch pedal and so both of Alison’s trainers planted themselves on the oversize brake pedal bringing her charmless, but powerfully braked, Chrysler to a very abrupt stop. As the two women grunted the same four-letter expletive into their airbags in unison, the car behind, which was not so much a car as a small bus (it was one of those big four-by-four Jeep things), tried to mount their hire car. The driver was unaware that he was following the unluckiest holidaymaker alive and was completely taken by surprise when she decided to turn four new tyres into a pair of black stripes on the entry ramp. His four-letter expletive was similar to theirs, but drowned out by the sound of $4700 worth of damage being caused to the front of his Jeep.

Debs had been amazed at how quickly a freeway can become a horn-blowing, clogged-up-way when drivers start slowing down to look at a little accident.

Alison sipped her black tea and remembered the little traffic policeman who took their details. He’d turned up on a ridiculously big motorbike, with more flashing lights than a Blackpool tram, and threatened to ‘ticket’ the chap in the Jeep if he didn’t ‘simmer down’. It worked. Mr Jeep walked away and began talking animatedly into his phone. Probably asking his insurers if he was covered for two crazy English women, Alison thought. It was while all this was going on, and she was trying to remember if she herself had paid the Hertz ‘damage waiver’ supplement, that some low-life had the nerve to stop their car and swipe hers and Debs’ handbags out of the crumpled Chrysler. An hour went by as police and recovery vehicles came and went (although that was only a guess as Alison’s watch had stopped) while she and Debs tried to remember what was in their handbags; well, the stuff they could tell a traffic policeman about anyway. It might not have taken quite so long if they’d realised that his obsession with their ‘purses’, and their insistence that it wasn’t just their purses that had been nicked – it was their handbags too, was a language problem. A fruitless search in the pantry reminded Alison that she’d taken the last digestives with her to eat on the tube to Heathrow. Oh, what she’d give for a chocolate digestive right now! She frowned as she remembered the scene at the airline desk when they’d turned up bang on departure time. How the heavily made-up woman behind the desk had flashed them a smile with her impossibly white teeth and asked, “How may I help you today?”.

Alison noticed the woman’s name badge – she was called Candy and she was “Happy to Help”. It didn’t seem like it. The smile slowly evaporated as Alison and Debs related the story of their eventful journey to the airport. By the time they got to the bit where they had no tickets her orange face was expressionless. The flight had now gone, of course. Alison would have been amazed if her luck had changed and the plane had been delayed 20 minutes…

After recounting the whole story again for Candy and her Supervisor, and showing them the copy of the little cop’s accident report, the Supervisor, who, Alison thought, must also spend half her wages on cosmetics, condescended to press a few keys on her computer to confirm that, yes, they had bought tickets for the flight just missed. Under the circumstances she would book them on another Eastbound flight so that they could make their British Airways connection at JFK. “That would be $120, please – each”. Alison had just opened her mouth to say they had no money either when Debs said, “I’ll pay”. Ali had forgotten that her friend took the precaution of keeping her credit card in her bra! She plunged her hand into her cleavage and flourished the magic piece of plastic, offering it to the two startled women behind the desk. They were quite scandalised but Alison was delighted! Candy reluctantly took the card between finger and thumb, handling it as if it were radioactive. She did the transaction, printed the tickets and passed them, and the still warm credit card, over. “TransAm Air, leaves in 40 minutes. Gate 24”. That was it. No smile. Candy just regarded them impassively until they turned away and set off to find gate 24.

Alison wandered into her living room shrugging off her crumpled linen jacket, slumped onto the rumpled black leather sofa and noticed without interest that the message light was flashing on her phone answering machine. Anyone who didn’t know she was away wasn’t worth listening to, she thought. On the way to gate 24 they popped into a shop and bought magazines, sweets and a plastic hairbrush. Debs’ card was a lifesaver. The flight was okay, but they didn’t get the little bottles of Chardonnay they’d asked for and boiled sweets were no substitute.

There was a few minutes’ panic at JFK when they couldn’t find where they had to pick up their luggage. Debs waylaid a big guy in blue airport overalls who she thought he might be a baggage handler. He listened interestedly to where they’d come from, where they were going and what their bags looked like before informing them, “I don’t know where your bags are, Ma’am, I’m just a cleaner…”. It turned out, once they found someone who wasn’t a cleaner, that the bags were already being loaded onto their aircraft and that they’d better join them ‘right now!’ They scurried to the BA ticket desk where they had to go through the whole rigmarole again – crash, bag snatch, little cop, Candy white teeth, etc. but then they were eventually up and away heading back towards PG Tips and EastEnders. There had been a bit of delay before take-off owing to ‘a problem with another flight’, but the sexy-sounding First Officer (called Rupert! Shame) didn’t elaborate.

The flight was fine. They’d even got their vino, although for the price Debs paid Alison thought she might now own a small vineyard somewhere in France. It was raining when they landed, of course. The tube was suspended because of a problem at Hatton Cross (probably some poor devil jumped under a train). Debs just patted her bosom and announced they would get a cab. The taxi driver did nothing but moan all the way into London. He moaned about cyclists, buses, tourists, cyclists, the police, motorcycle couriers, traffic in general and cyclists, again. Alison thought, “Shut up! At least the traffic’s on the proper side of the road and you’ve got a real gearstick”. He was having a go at the weather when he dragged Alison’s bags out onto the wet pavement outside her flats in Hammersmith. Debs was pulling a funny face out of the back window, with her fingers in her ears, as the cab roared off into the traffic, heading for Fulham.

With a sigh, Alison put the empty mug down on the carpet and leaned over to press the ‘play’ button on her answerphone.

Two messages from Mum – unintelligible. A long, rambling, one-sided chat from Melissa and a puzzling, breathless message from Tim. “Was she alright? He knew it was against the odds but…? Saw it on the telly. Give him a ring as soon as she was back.” Tim was a bore. Alison found it difficult to be nice to him, but something in his voice on the fuzzy tape bothered her. He was very concerned. ‘Against the odds’, what did that mean? What had he seen on the telly?

She glanced at her watch and made a mental note to get a new battery fitted. By leaning back, she could just see the clock on the oven. 17:55. She groped for the TV remote down the side of the sofa cushion, where it always seemed to live. It was a moment or two before she realised that crushing the ‘on’ button was doing no good because the TV wasn’t plugged in.

She slipped off the sofa, crawled across to the plug and jammed it into the socket, reminding herself that she should really try not to swear so much. Alison watched with renewed interest a few adverts she’d seen thousands of times before without realising how entertaining they were, compared to the American equivalents, until the six o’clock news began. It was about the fifth item on the news, after some politics stuff, a flood in Pakistan and other things she couldn’t remember afterwards.

A Star Liner flight (257 from San Francisco to New York) had crashed near somewhere called Carson City. All 137 passengers and crew were ‘presumed lost’. Alison shuddered. Then she replayed in her head what she’d heard. Star Liner? But wasn’t her flight on ‘Trans’ something or other? She remembered that she had her eastbound flight boarding pass in the duty-free carrier bag. A keepsake. She rushed past the TV, not dwelling on the pictures of the charred and tangled wreckage which had been carrying over a hundred people who might have been smiled at by Happy to Help Candy. In the hall she tipped out the contents of the gold-coloured plastic bag onto the hall floor.

Scrabbling through the magazines, theatre tickets, napkins, a plastic hairbrush and sweet wrappers she found the credit-card sized piece of blue and white cardboard bearing the TransAm Air logo and the TA299E (Transfer) flight number. She laughed with relief. “God, now that would have been really unlucky.”

Alison fetched her Post Office debit card from her knicker drawer in the bedroom (Tim had told her she couldn’t use it in the States) and stepping over the jumble of stuff on the hallway floor, headed for the phone to ring the Chinese takeaway.

At the back of the McDonalds Drive-Thru off the airport freeway, in the outskirts of San Francisco, is a line of large aluminium waste bins on wheels. In the second one from the end a pair of cheap purses (from BHS, England) lay among the waste food and polystyrene packaging. There was no money or credit cards in them, but in one there was, amongst other things, a wrapper containing two crumbled digestive biscuits and two airline tickets. Star Liner Airways, SFO – JFK, Flight SL257E.


Saga Exceptional short story competition

This story is one of the shortlist for Saga Exceptional’s inaugural short story competition – there are four to choose from, and the winner will be the one that gets the most votes from our readers.

See all the stories and submit your vote.


Written by Richard Aitken


Richard’s previous writing (& drawing foray) was a book entitled “York, the first 2000 years”. It was self published it in 2014, and stopped after a few successful years of sales in outlets in York, Museums, the Minster etc. He wrote the short story ‘Unlucky’ some years ago, but forgot about it until his wife Teresa saw Saga Exceptional’s short story competition.