In honour of me hopefully being in mid-flight right now, here’s a story about literally and metaphorically taking flight. When I wrote it earlier this week, I was consciously trying to write something relatively light-hearted, but I think my subconscious took over half-way through and screwed it up again.
So Jerry hates flying, right? And he’s stuck on a super-super-budget plane next to this windbag of a woman in a cramped Economy seat that somehow seems even smaller than usual, maybe because of the oppressive floral pattern that’s stretched crazy tight over the cushions like the skin on a skeletal old man.
Jerry hates flying so much that he took a night bus and a train when he had a business trip to Zurich. He hates flying so much that he once faked being out of Annual Leave so he didn’t have to go on holiday. He hates flying so much that every time he does it he gets blind drunk on tiny bottles of gin and lines them all up and pretends they’re a family.
The only thing Jerry hates more than flying is when people won’t shut up, and this woman won’t shut up. She’s sitting between him and another poor soul who’s currently being sucked up by her tractor beam of a monologue.
My husband believes one should never own a gun, as if the mere act of owning one somehow translates to a surrendering of moral ground. What do you think? Preposterous, I say! You cannot impose a value judgement without context. Are there contexts in which guns are ‘bad’? (Her fingers draw angry quotation marks in the air.) But of course! Ah, but now the question that my husband hates: are there contexts in which guns are ‘good’? (More fingers.) And again, the answer is – of course! One could use a gun to stop a rapist or a murderer or a genocidal maniac, in a situation where no other instrument would affect a similar outcome. So now that we have disposed of the moral absolute, we must apply common sense and draw a line in the murky grey. I do not doubt that people draw that line in different places with good reason, but to deny the grey entirely, well. A liberal madness, and nothing more!
Jerry tunes out. His gaze drifts past the woman and her victim and out the mockingly tiny window. He can see sky. He closes his eyes. All he wants is to hear the pilot say those magic words: We are ready to land.
How do planes even get it up? Can some planes stay up longer than others? Do some have confidence issues in taking flight? When planes crash, is that just premature landing? Jerry wishes he knew the first thing about what kept him in the sky. His world is full of prefabricated metal boxes that perform magic. The magic computer box lets him write to anyone, and the magic phone box lets him call anyone, and the magic car box lets him drive to anyone, but by far the worst magic box is the cylindrical one that lets him fly to anyone.
The magic aeroplane box is an abomination to Jerry: it suspends itself in mid-air for hours at a time, without having the decency to pretend it isn’t magic. It doesn’t even flap its wings, as if its half-arsed attempt to look like it’s obeying the laws of nature only extended to looking at pictures of birds, and not actually bothering to research what wings do.
Jerry hates flying. All he wants to hear, from the moment he’s confronted by the awful taste of sterilised air, is the pilot telling him that he’s just realised the madness of trying to drive a sausage-shaped tube of metal through the sky and he’s decided to put it back on the ground where it and Jerry so clearly belong. We are ready to land. We are ready to land.
The woman next to him doesn’t seem to understand armrest etiquette. To be fair, neither does Jerry, but the rule can’t be that the person on the left gets the whole armrest just because they got there first. Jerry is exasperated by this encroachment, but he can’t exactly say anything, because the woman hasn’t stopped speaking.
My husband and I have been wedded for – ohhhhhhhh – almost eleven years now. Over a decade, can you believe it? Tin when it’s ten years, isn’t it? Tin for ten, ha. We foraged gifts for each other of course but I don’t recall tin being an integral concern. We love each other dearly but there were more pragmatic reasons for our marriage if you sense the thrust of my meaning. Children do have a way of forcing themselves upon you at their appointed time, and contraception be damned! So now we’re together, till the end, till the very end. That could be today, of course, one never knows when one takes flight! Haha, a little joke, I apologise, I am ever so confident we’ll be quite safe.
Jerry tunes out and imagines the end. Even after landing, the torture isn’t fully over. Stepping off the plane means finding yourself in a war zone. You’re dirty and smelly, and you stagger from the metal box on shaky legs. Your eyes squint uncertainly into the sudden brightness and your ears ring dully as if you’ve just survived an explosion. You keep on walking even though you have no idea where you are, and chaos swarms around you, fuzzy and indistinct. The planes above you are bombers and the beeping mobility carts are shit tanks. The luggage carousel is where you mourn your dead. Don’t know that one, don’t know that one, oh that one’s my best friend, better drag him off the revolving corpse line, check his tag (yes, it’s definitely him and not just someone else’s similar looking best friend) and go give him a fitting burial.
Jerry remembers his first ever flight. He’s seven and everything is screaming. His aunt is screaming because she can’t find her glasses and his cousin is screaming because she can’t find her sweets and the aeroplane is screaming because that’s what aeroplanes do. Jerry isn’t screaming because he’s worried that his screams won’t be any good. Just for a moment, he really is seven years old again, and he really wishes he’d screamed at the injustice of being dragged half-way around the world just because his parents both died at the same time. At the very least, it’s a better reason to scream than lost sweets.
It’s almost forty years later now and Jerry still wishes he could scream.
He wishes it could all be over. We are ready to land. We are ready to land.
The woman next to him has now mostly been consumed by the maelstrom of her own voice. It accelerates towards a crescendo of theme and noise.
My husband detests flying, would you believe it? Absolutely abhors it! Such a marvel of modern engineering, such a testament to the limitless capacity of our neurological ingenuity, such unrecognised luxury to be chauffeured through the skies themselves and clear over the horizon! But no! Not for my husband, the grandeur of reclining in the clouds. For him, it’s a clear affront to human nature, a spiritual rebellion against our intended cave-dwelling destiny. Here again he confuses the moral with the mere physical. To build, to explore, to test the very boundaries of possibility, this is what we do. It is neither good nor bad. It simply is, do you see? It simply is!
I tell you, sometimes my husband’s only business is hurrying along to his grave, determined not to look left nor right for fear of angering the god who told him to look straight on. No time to pause and experience the world, just a simple sprint to the finish line.
These are harsh words. I apologise. I must strive for a more empathic perspective. We all approach our lives shaped by our past. He’s had a hard life, bless him, and he did agree to fly with me today. Now if only I could procure his attention, ha!
Mercifully, miraculously, she lapses into silence, like a ship’s foghorn receding into the mist.
Jerry looks over at her, puts his arm on the armrest and squeezes her hand tight.
Just like that, the tannoy squeaks into life, and the part of Jerry’s brain responsible for anticipation starts blowing up party balloons.
The pilot says: This is your pilot speaking.
The pilot continues: We are ready to take off.
Jerry smiles and gestures for celebratory gin. And why not, right? He’s one step closer to the end.