1,599 words – approx. 6 minutes
It’s too early on a Friday morning, and it’s cold, and you don’t know which entrance to the plane to take. The other passengers carrying their baggage walk untroubled to either the front or back steps, and you wonder if you missed an announcement.
“Excuse me,” you say to one of the baggage handlers. He stops, cradling a stuffed sports bag as he looks at the sheet of paper you’ve hopefully thrust in his direction. “Should I be at the front, or the back?”
It’s a question he can answer. He resumes his methodical movements as he answers: lift, turn, throw.
“Doesn’t matter really.” He’s not looking at you now. You thank him absently; you wish he had just told you an entrance to take, any entrance.
You take the nearest stairs, behind a boy of about three who is struggling up the metal steps. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter that his mother is indulging him, that the flight won’t be delayed because of his staggering, tentative steps, but you’re still frustrated by the gap that has opened up between them and the air hostess with the plastered-on smile at the plane door. She’s willing him towards her like a mountaineer pulling up a team-mate, but your combined wills do nothing to hasten his ascent.
Eventually he reaches the summit and his mother fumbles for her boarding pass.
“It’s okay,” smiles the attendant when she pulls out the third irrelevant sheet (who keeps paper in their handbag? A scriptwriter? A lawyer?). “Enjoy your flight.”
Your seat is towards the rear of the plane – of course – but the aisle is clear. The delay seems to have given the passengers the chance to settle. You’ve been allocated a window seat, but when you reach your row the two nearest the window are taken by a couple: only the aisle is free. Your irritation at their blithe imposition is soon replaced by the cool relief of not needing to awkwardly work your way past them (sorry – your smile rueful but resolute – sorry, excuse me, sorry, thanks, thank you, sorry, there we are).
You are a comfortable, regular flier – a childhood of moving from base to base, Germany, Cyprus, Kosovo, will do that. So when the cabin crew begin the safety demonstration you ignore their monotone pleas for attention and look around the aircraft.
The couple next to you are German, older, in their fifties perhaps, and he has a moustache like a clean paintbrush. You can’t understand them, but every now and again you catch a familiar phrase – ‘spaghetti bolognaise’ – from the sandpaper sounds of their language, and you stiffen like someone has called your name.
Across the aisle from you, to your left, are another couple. They are young and taking nothing seriously: he is making her laugh. When the air hostess says “Remember the nearest exit may be behind you,” he nods solemnly, lips out, eyebrows raised, as though this conveys a great wisdom.
The plane lurches clockwise, unexpectedly, and you close your eyes and feel sweat sudden on your neck, queasy as though hungover. It is rattling more than it seems it should. You open your eyes briefly and in the corner of your vision you see the young man across the aisle check the safety information.
The air host(ess) continues, unperturbed, conducting his arms while the safety recording plays on. “Adopt the brace position if you hear ‘Brace! Brace!’.” A child’s high voice echoes “Brace! Brace!” No-one laughs. The climate outside, its roiling grey, has charged the air in the cabin.
What an irony it would be if the plane were to crash, this plane, with you on board. The headline scrolls fully-formed through your mind: Man dies on father’s funeral flight. A sidebar to the main story, with its images of flaming destruction, something to be clicked on and tutted over, perhaps shared later in conversation.
Is that irony? your mind insists, and you grapple with the question for a few moments; when your attention returns to your surroundings, the internal debate unresolved but quieted, the plane has steadied. The metallic chirrups of 140 seatbelts unlocking signals a return to normality.
It is a short flight to Edinburgh, a little over an hour, but that poses no difficulty for the carrier’s commercial ambitions. There is a constant stream of welcoming messages, announcements about coffee, sweet and sour chicken, magazines, and scratchcards (a cash prize of one million Euros – imagine all the party you could have with that, says Miguel, your chief cabin steward. He’s older than you’d expect, in his late 30s – he somehow should be younger and it seems sad, like an aging actress’s doomed comeback attempt).
The German couple next to you are asleep: he leans backwards like he’s at dinner and the host is placing a plate in front of him; she leans forward, her head pressed against the seat in front. In the row ahead of you a man stands and fiddles with the overhead locker. He is medium height, with unshaven specks dotting his jaw. He wears a navy polo shirt and you can see the hair on his dark arms like anemone fronds when he reaches up.
You wonder, briefly, how it would feel to have your cock in his arse.
Over the years you’ve learnt not to be appalled by these thoughts. But now, as when you were 14, you wonder whether this is how other people think – their minds constantly invaded by sex. You couldn’t ask then and you can’t ask now, so you distract your lustful self by estimating the number of seats on the flight. Five per row, maybe thirty rows? So one hundred and fifty.
If these seem unusual or inappropriate thoughts to think in the air between home – the home you have made – and Edinburgh, the site of your childhood and your father’s heart attack a week and a half ago, it does not register. The plane is insulated, and for the hour and twenty minutes of the journey (1.3 recurring hours, your brain calculates unbidden) you are suspended, tantalisingly between one reality and the next.
“Brace! Brace!” shrieks a voice, and there’s a momentary tautening then slackening of people’s alertness as they realise it’s a child repeating the ominous call. The mother hushes (him? her? It’s young enough to still be androgynous in voice).
“Brace, that’s right. That’s what you’ll get if you eat too much sugar.” You resist the urge to correct her, to tell her that orthodontic braces are primarily used to correct genetic features such as misalignment or non-eruption of teeth.
Instead you look out of the window, as best you can past the sleeping Germans. Above the ice-floe clouds it’s blue. It’s always blue here, you suppose, and you want to hold on to that thought but already it has calcified into something trite.
The air hostesses wheel their trolley along the aisle, offering perfumes, drinks, and scratchcards you’ll never win on to their captive audience with their caffeinated, gritted, washed-out consciousness. Swindlers in the air; piracy in the skies. You wonder who buys these things.
You listen to the hostesses quietly arguing about who had ordered the New York Deli sandwich. One of them, the older one, walks past you and you hear her say “I should smile more, I know.” She says it in a jolly tone, but you wonder why she says it at all. Was she answering a passenger, or some regular criticism of her conduct, or just musing to herself?
The trolley passes you and stops just ahead, where the man you’d seen before buys a selection pack of women’s fragrances. You feel disappointed, in him and his decision, like noticing the lone man at the bar’s wedding ring.
There’s a snort of alarm from the seat opposite you – the girl in the young couple has woken up with a start.
“I’ve just woken up,” she mumbles in response to something you don’t catch.
“We need to get a drink in you,” urges the man. He sounds playful but you can’t help but wonder. She takes a gin and tonic that he pays for. You consider one yourself, and get to the point of starting to raise your arm, but remember where you are, where you will be.
A song starts behind you. Ten or so football supporters intone, although you can’t make out the words. It rumbles and swells, and soon the low gurgle of their voices fills the plane. At one point one of them stands to orchestrate their singing, his foam-spattered plastic cup his baton.
Your father taught you the virtue of patience, of endurance. You can do that for him, at least now.
It lasts for six or seven minutes, during which time you all sit, faces fixed to the front. And then the announcement comes that your destination is close, and Miguel and the cabin crew are patrolling the aisle, checking for loose seatbelts and unstowed table trays.
The plane scrapes along the tarmac and as it circles to a stop celebratory music plays from the speakers overhead. Miguel bids you farewell at the door: “Enjoy your stay,” he says, eyes already on the next passenger. Like a doctor saying how good it is to see you.
At the bottom of the metal ringing steps you stop and reach into your bag. A superstition. Shirt, trousers, thin black tie, speaking notes. The sign ahead says EXIT in bold yellow. It wasn’t like that last time.
You start towards it. The church is 20 minutes away, and you have to be done by midday.