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Heathrow, 2002

More than a thousand planes will arrive and depart today. One of them will be carrying Iris.

I have my instructions. I am looking for an eleven-year-old girl in jeans and pink basketball shoes. She will be carrying a red suitcase. Her black hair will be tied back. She has been told to look for a light-brown–skinned man wearing an old-fashioned hat.

Two nights ago the phone rang. It was Kiyomi, calling from New York. She was a sobbing wreck. Something had happened. There had been a car accident in Mallorca. Her mother was in critical condition in a Palma hospital and she needed a favour.

I pulled a chair back from the kitchen table and sat down, trying to take in the news and this voice speaking from the most distant reaches of my life, my childhood. Yes, I said, I understood she had to go to Palma immediately. Yes, of course I would take care of her daughter. Yes, I would pick her up when they stopped over at Heathrow. A week, yes, yes, she could stay, ten days, two weeks, fine.

So, here I am, waiting for Iris, trying to look undaunted, as if this is the kind of thing I do all the time, when I spot a small figure scanning the crowd, a yellow Post-it note stuck to the front of her grey windbreaker, pink basketball shoes on her feet. I take my hands out of my pockets and call her name. When she turns I lift my brown trilby in the air, waving it like a man greeting a transatlantic ship in another era. Salut and Benvenuti!

It is a full minute before Iris reaches me at the Arrivals waiting area, tugging her red suitcase across the polished floor, dodging a porter rattling by with a load of broken carts. She drops her suitcase right beside a No Unattended Luggage placard, and strides the last few yards towards me. I watch an echo of her mother move through her body and it’s all I can do not to gasp. For an instant, I am no longer a man ten days away from turning fifty, I am an eleven-year-old boy who has come to meet my best friend.

I step forward and shake her hand. “You must be Iris,” I say.

“And you’re Marcel,” she says, with her New York accent.

For a moment, we are very civilized, smiling at each other.

She peels the Post-it note off her chest and hands it over. I read aloud: “Marcel. Here is Iris. I am sorry I couldn’t come out to see you. Quick connection. Will call tonight. —K”

That’s it? I crumple up the note and look at Iris to gauge how she’s feeling about all this. Abandoned? Wary? Excited? Indifferent?

Watch the trailer for Stray Love
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