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In Flight

A short published by Cadaverine Magazine.

http://web.mac.com/thecadaverine/Site/Prose/Entries/2010/2/4_Josh_Russell.html

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In Flight

He leant back in his seat, the highway sucking him along. The dark fug of trees whipping by gave up nothing to the probing curiosity of his headlights. He smoked a cigarette. A tiny rebellion burnt deep in his chest but he smoked anyway, feeding the rage he felt in the base of his stomach. Lights blurred by. Rain pressed against his windscreen. Slow jazz unfolded languorously from the radio; the bright buzz of the brass tones occasionally edged in static. There were only a few cars on the road. One, a black Honda, seemed to be perfectly matching his pace, stalking him through the night. There were a few loose thoughts for them, a few threads that he was unwilling to pick at. He felt no guilt, not yet. Just the exhilarating release of the arsonist who has just burnt his whole life to the ground.

Ten minutes blurred by. The braying of the horns had died away and the DJ announced a new song, a cello line cut down by the shitty tinny speakers to a rough, grating whisper. He passed a hulking, vertical wind turbine awash in scarlet light, the metal already looking lived in; the rough, wrinkled skin of a gentleman aging gracefully. The rain had begun to ease up, his wipers waving in lazy, exaggerated arcs. He felt oddly suspended in a moment in time, the soft hiss of tires on tarmac forming a constant drone beneath the lilting ostinato of his thoughts. Whilst he could see an unhealthy indigo begin to show through the smudged charcoal of the cloudy night, he didn’t feel particularly alarmed. The clock on his dash read 04:32. He still had a few hours yet.

John managed to hold on to the odd blank feeling for most of the rest of the journey. He smoked. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Every time his mind strayed too far off of the road in front of him, he reigned it in, fighting back against the grey threatening to press in from all sides. No matter what he had to keep his focus; he needed to be cold, level-headed. A moment’s weakness and he’d never be able to go through with it.

By the time he turned off at the junction for the airport, the sun was already sneaking above the horizon, the bright red sky an angry warning. He coasted down the narrow slip road, his hands holding the wheel loosely as he took the bend. Up ahead a queue of cars waited at the entrance of the car park. People were picking their way from the rows and rows of cars to the terminal, sleepy, switched-off expressions on their faces. Some were businessman, all sheen worn off the experience with a patina of familiarity. Still more were holidaymakers, pulling suitcases, discussing last minute worries, passports and wallets forgotten. There were families. Children. He felt a blush of shame rise on his cheeks and was relieved when the car in front of him pulled away, bringing him out of his lonely observations. Swinging into a space in section E, he switched the engine off and stared at the backs of the hands resting on the steering wheel. He took a deep breath. Two. Then he flicked the release catch for the boot and opened the driver side door.

Entering through the sliding doors, the terminal opened up in front of him, a wide reverberant space filled with throngs of people like a cathedral packed full of penitent pilgrims. The crowds broiled, a patchwork sea of different hair tones, colours of skin. Air conditioning whispered at the nape of his neck and for a moment he felt he was like at the edge of a precipice. He shuddered, queasy suddenly. Striving forward, he tried his best to weave between the dense pockets of people, his suitcase rebelling and rocking on its casters every time he took a corner too sharp.

Desk fifty-four was on the other side of the terminal building and it seemed to take an age to reach it. The queue was short; only a silver-haired septuagenarian and a young girl with her hair pulled back into a taught, blunt ponytail. She eyed him insolently, pouting and weighing him up as though still unsure whether he was potential threat or potential mate. Before long, he was at the desk. The operator gave him his ticket, checked his baggage, reeled of the usual spiel of security regulations and cautions. The man was still young but something in his demeanour, a dry haughtiness, made him seem more advanced in years. Whilst scanning his eyes over John’s passport, he raised a single brow questioningly. John had the uncomfortable feeling that he could see straight through him.

“Gate thirteen sir,” he said, fixing him with a cement-thick stare. “Enjoy your flight.”

John walked away, trying to shake off the heavy sense of foreboding he felt. The security checks did nothing to ease his nerves. One officer, an eastern European with a thick wiry moustache and deep sunken eyes, had the disconcerting habit of rolling his tongue around his mouth as though savouring the ever-present taste of discomfort and fatigue. John placed his hand-luggage on the conveyor belt, followed by the clear plastic bag full of toiletries, his laptop, his keys, wallet, phone. He watched them disappear into the machine, marvelling at how little he’d managed to accrue over the years, how so few possessions he owned that could be classed as true essentials. The guard, Bulgarian or Romanian maybe, beckoned him over with a slight incline of his head. John walked through the gate. The machine beeped shrilly. He fought against the momentary panic. The watch. The one Charlie had given him. He could still feel the dull weight of it on his wrist. Raising his shirt-sleeve to show the offending time piece, he smiled sheepishly at the guard. The man nodded once, curtly, his fat purple tongue still churning in his mouth. He gestured for John to turn round, assume the position, and began patting him down roughly with hands wide like paddles. John could smell his breath, oddly sweet, as though he’d been sucking a humbug or pastille. The search was cursory, more for form than out of any real concern, and the man soon waved him on without so much as a second glance.

Still time to kill. The departure lounge was calmer than the swirling chaos of the main terminal building and yet he still felt over-exposed. He went and grabbed a decaff Americano from Costa, making only the briefest eye contact with the petite Spanish barista, before heading toward his gate. John took a quick draft of his drink. The coffee tasted inert. Dead. He grimaced at the bland flavour but the warmth of the liquid felt good, beginning to soothe the tangle of knots in the pit of his stomach. A group of Japanese college students chattered excitedly and paused to giggle over an advert featuring an insipid male model in a newsagent window. He skirted neatly around them, pivoting his hips slightly to squeeze between the rearmost member of their group and a stubbled Glaswegian with glassy eyes. A sign hung above a long corridor. Gates 9-16.

Immense glass windows flanked one wall, showing clouds in maroon and crimson, rotting away like autumn leaves. Staff in thick coats ran about down on the tarmac; one huddled down into his fleecy collar as he shouted into the mouthpiece of a walky-talky. A persistent star hung in the blue, looking strangely out of place. Everything reached him in snapshots, like he was watching a film slowed down to still images. Every so often the blankness of the wall would be interrupted by jarring security messages, warnings against smugglers trying to traffic illicit substances and fraudsters taking holidays whilst claiming benefits. He looked at the watch. It was six fourteen. She’d be waking up soon. Rolling over in bed. Noticing his absent body. A brief tremor snapped through him. The enormity of his decision was starting to sink in

Eventually the corridor opened up into a small lounge, two of the four walls punctured occasionally by the gates. Hard white benches ran across the middle of the room, looking lonely in the early morning light. Only one of them was occupied. Dark hair ran down to the woman’s shoulders. The slow S of her spine arched gently into the seat, her careful pose speaking of complete control over her body. She was half-silhouetted in the bright morning light. John was unsure whether it was the beauty of the scene or the mounting panic in his chest, but his feet crawled to a stop. The woman, suddenly becoming aware of his presence, turned suddenly. Dark eyes. A slight face. Charlie.

Everything else was forgotten. His stomach turned to ice. She stared at him for a long time and guilt rushed through his system, unable to move, unable to think of what he could say, how he could explain. Her face was pooled in shadow, her expression incomprehensible. His face burned. Sweat pricked his palms. They were locked in this frieze for maybe ten, twelve seconds, before he started to take in more details. Whilst those were definitely his wife’s eyes, they were far younger, free from the inevitable compromises that came with years of marriage. Her eyebrows were darker, the jut of her lips crueller, less forgiving. She turned her head to one side, not quite breaking eye contact as though still not entirely sure of whether to drop her guard. Then the woman finally returned to reading her novel, leaving him standing there feeling foolish.

At first he was unsure what to do with himself. His heart beat like the clatter of carriage wheels on an old track. He wanted to turn back. He wanted to stand here and rot away to dust. She continued to read, her neck bowed as though once again completely unaware of his presence. Feeling awkward, he padded over to her. The woman looked up at him, her brow furrowed in suspicion.

“Yes,” she asked, her voice dusky and with a hint of a French accent that had almost been entirely eroded by years spent in the country. “Can I help you?”

He stared at her. Her hair was sleek and shiny, held back by a pair of sunglasses pushed back on top of her head. A willowy set of legs crossed above the knee; the split of her skirt ran all the way up her left thigh. She wore a pale blue cotton shirt unbuttoned to reveal a petite pair of breasts. The book in her long, slender fingers was a worn copy of The Old Man and The Sea. A mocking smile seemed to be only inches from the surface of her face. She wasn’t his wife. The similarity was unsettling but it was nothing more sinister than that.

His tongue felt like it was glued to the floor of his mouth.

“Do you know how soon the flight to Geneva boards?”

“It departs at ten to seven,” she responded slowly, looking amused at his discomfort. “So I cannot imagine that it will be more than fifteen minutes.”

John nodded his thanks, chewing the inside of his cheek with irritation. He walked over to the gate to start to queue, wanting to spend no more time in the company of the repellent woman. As minutes dripped by he felt his apprehension build. People started to gather behind him. Looking around him, he saw their faces in all of the polished surfaces, chided by memories of the children’s naïve, unconditional love, Charlie’s unflinching support. It was for the best. The mantra that had propelled him from his bed at two in the morning, that had packed his bags, that had kissed his wife and children on the foreheads. It was definitely for the best. He knew that. And yet he’d never felt lower, never felt more hollow than he did in that moment.

His muscles tightened, willing him to turn back, just walk away but his mind was locking down, hanging on doggedly to the image of the large, open white lettering in front of him. Gate 13. Staff stood behind the desk watching the crowd with a patient indulgence, all platinum hair and unforgiving perfume. One, noticing his agitation, smiled encouragingly, wrongly assuming he was nervous about the coming flight. Beyond it he could already see smiling stewardesses. Full lips. Fixed expressions. Dead air. Stale homogenous food. Yowling babies. And then? What came next? An exit. Relief. Release. Sanctuary. And eternal damnation. There was no way back from here. He knew that. He had a decision to make.

They opened the plexiglass doors behind the counter. John took a deep breath. A second that seemed to last an eternity. He came round to an expectant look, a few passengers behind him already getting restless. His hand shaking slightly, he passed over his boarding card. The woman nodded, handing back the stub. Interminable chatter behind him began to thin as he walked off down the corridor, going down a set of stairs and out of the doorway that led him out into the cold of the runway. Trembling, he barely felt it. He stood stock still, assaulted by sensations. A bitterness on his tongue. The fresh air in his lungs. Blurred shapes of planes taxiing in the distance. People were already winding past him but he stayed where he was, absorbing so many things for the last time.

A few minutes later, he was on board the aircraft. The cabin buzzed, a fever of passengers finding seats, stowing baggage, lonely teens digging out books and mp3 players, stressed parents struggling to control children arguing over window seats and playing with the air-conditioning. Members of the cabin crew bustled around making last minute checks, holding themselves with a well-rehearsed aura of stress. John sank into a seat at the back, feeling far removed from his surroundings. Worrying one lobe roughly, John played with his ears before slipping in his earplugs. The events of the past week seemed vague, translucent. His mind hummed with the low throb of the pylons that strode across the fields behind his house. The doctor’s words haunted him still.

John found himself unable to focus on the thickly made up flight attendant as she half-consciously mouthed along to the safety instructions. Those lips curled coquettishly; the words ripping through him. You have a well-differentiated prostatic adenocarcinoma. She beamed, fluttering her thick black eyelashes. Your Gleason Score is four in the majority… Pausing briefly, she gestured behind her and then directed her hands to the rear of the plane… and five in the minority. He watched the show with bitterness. The woman slipped on a life jacket, tugging uselessly at its non-functioning pull cord. I’m afraid to tell you that the prognosis is not good. She shook her head sadly.

An odour came to him unbidden, the sharp bleachy smell of the doctor’s office underpinned by the far mustier scent of decay. He’d sat there listening to the man’s spiel, dumbstruck. A woman across the aisle spoke to her young boy in a low murmur, pulling his seatbelt tight. I’m sorry John, your options at this stage are rather limited. She ruffled the child’s hair comfortingly. A businessman leaned in to talk to his partner, a thick grin on his face. The level of metastasization is significant, there are multiple nodes in your lungs and bones. They both guffawed heartily. Gritting his teeth, he bit his lip until he tasted blood. Any treatment will be purely palliative, a stall. He dug his nails into the armrest and the middle-aged woman next to him tossed a concerned glance his way before returning to her companion.

There was a jolt as the plane came to the beginning of the runway, swinging sharply to the right. If you want, I can prescribe some hormones, make a referral to the Macmillan team so you and your family the support you need. His face had been pitched perfectly between professional distance and sincerity and yet somehow that made John hate him all the more. He’d barely heard another word, stumbling from the consultant’s office, his mind a swarm of static. Charlie had sensed something wasn’t right, pressing him for answers he felt he was unable to give. Late at night as they lay in bed, she would beg him to tell her what was wrong but he locked her out, refusing to discuss it. You selfish prick, she’d spat at him, her eyes hard-fired. You never fucking share anything. He’d just roll over in the dark, turning his back on her. The arguments had been unimaginable, unlike any fight they’d ever had. But no matter the pain he’d caused her, he felt like he was sparing her something much worse.

Overhead the seatbelt light came on. His thoughts alighted on old conversations, happier days, rose-tinted memories to perfect to have taken place. They were a panacea, cooling the white-hot circuits of his brain. Stewardesses hurried to their place at the front of the plane. There were long drives, slow summer’s evenings of all-consuming lovemaking, family get-togethers. Their first house. Jacob’s birth. They were perfectly lined up with the sides of the runway. Quiet nights. Violent storms. The grass began to crawl by. Images fought each other for precedence. A thousand regrets bit down. There was no changing his course now. The tires bumped along the rough tarmac. He wondered where it would lead. A hush descended throughout the cabin. The engines whined.

The plane began to pick up speed.

John closed his eyes.

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