I have always dreamed I would die in an aeroplane crash.
It will be a big plane. A commercial flight. I will be seated in economy as normal, I have never had an upgrade and I have never expected to deserve one. On this flight, the dice will have rolled against me and I will be trapped in the middle of a row. There will be a businessman on my left: he will be portly, balding, busy with a briefcase. His tie will have been loosened with a nervous tug of a crooked finger, and beads of sweat will have started pebbling his forehead before the cabin doors have even closed.To my right, there will be an elderly woman who will spend the majority of the flight tottering up and down the aisle to the bathroom and chewing the teeth that do not quite fit. Reading her complimentary tabloid, she will tut over the stories of benefit frauds and immigrants; she will linger over the nudity with a mournful fascination.
We will attend to the ritual incantations of the air stewardesses as they perform the hallowed sign of the emergency exits and direct our wandering attention to the airline safety catechism located in the rear pocket of the seats in front of us.
In the unlikely event of loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall from the overhead compartments. You use them like this, like this, like this.
It will be too late for all of us, and I’d like to think that somehow, we will know all of this in advance. Terrible events don’t need portents, we retrofit them afterwards as though by making them inevitable, we can make them digestible. Accidents have always been a part of the world, we will tell each other. This is unavoidable. This is written.
As we fall, we will see the engines blossom into fire, lighting the cabin with a private sunset. Our heads will be pressed deep into the foam of the seats and even without looking through the windows we will know the plane is pointing downwards. We will give ourselves to gravity and the rush of it will be delicious. Together, we will cast ourselves at the brittle sea with such a force, it will make salt of us all.
A dream, then. One I have had many times during my life, since before I ever stepped foot on an aeroplane in person. As a child, I would cast my toys down the stairs or into the bath, until they fell apart and were confiscated from me. It was not because I was tired of them, as my parents believed, but because it seemed like a more fitting conclusion to the games I played. It would end with fire, with twisted metal, with broken parts skittering across the kitchen floor.
Through my dream, I have always known how to fly. Because I knew it would be the end of me, there was peace in that understanding.
My wife always promised me she understood.
“Sometimes we only appreciate the places we are,” she said, “once we’ve determined the manner by which we can escape them.”
My first flight was a shuttle from London to Edinburgh, barely an hour in the air. I was fifteen and we could have taken the train, but I had begged for the opportunity to fly for the very first time. My father had had agreed, because he believed he might be the one to show me something new.
I let him pretend the experience was his to teach. Even at that young age, it felt known and unsurprising. The ritual of it reassured me while my father tried to mask his fear. He had been born soon after the war and had grown up amongst the ruins of the cities the enemy’s aircraft had razed. He flew infrequently if at all.
For me, the plane was as warm and familiar as the womb. The dip in the gut as the plane lifted its nose from the runway, the thick, granular roar in the ears, the sharp and sinus-scratching coolness of the processed air. I had dreamed all of it, and even as the plane bucked in turbulence prior to landing, making my father clutch at the arms of his chair, I was never afraid.
I should be clear. My dream has never been a nightmare.
There is comfort in the perception of five hundred people enacting the exact same emotions at the exact same time. There is comfort in being part of something greater than yourself. There is comfort in dying in company rather than alone.
Those who die in aeroplane accidents are granted famous deaths, but also anonymous ones. For a brief time, your flight number will be on the front page of every newspaper back home, and there won’t be one member of the informed public who will not have been touched by the news. But your face will be lost in a grid of casualties and no-one will see it unless they are looking. No-one will see you unless they know who they’re looking for. Tracing their fingers over the matrix of blurry portraits like an old woman working her way through the Sunday wordsearch. There you’d be, surrounded by strangers. A smile intended for someone else, a photograph you’d have been too embarrassed to share when you had been alive, but one that someone, somewhere, thinks represents you in the way they want to remember. Perhaps there’ll be a memorial? That must be a consolation. Who hasn’t dreamed of leaving their name carved in stone in a public square, open letters weathering the human years, outlasting us all?
I grew up and flew up as much as I could. Business and pleasure, long weekends away. My wife was first flattered by my extravagance, then frustrated by my excess. We flew too much, she would tell me. Think of how much its costing us. Think of the environmental impact.
She was a patient flyer. She would sit in the light of the cabin window and read one her paperbacks, unmoved by the alien tilt of the horizon beyond the glass. She would smile flintily at the security staff and avoid eye-contact with the passport officials. She would sigh with impatience by the baggage carousel and check her watch as though it might hasten our belongings. Air flight was never more than transport to her. For a time she would humour me, but that did not last.
“Perhaps we should take the ferry next time,” she would say, or, “How about the train?”
This was after she had read the newspapers, covers blackened with the photographs of remains. She would cluck her tongue at the outrage and when she had gone to bed, I would find the grid of casualties within the paper, and using scissors and glue, add myself to their number. Just so I could see.
I followed the exploits of terrorists in the news with an enthusiast’s interest. Please don’t misunderstand, I did not support their causes. For the most part, I didn’t quite understand them, but their appreciation of the aeroplane as a form of sacrifice, a burning Viking vessel to bring down an empire? Well there, perhaps I admired their invention.
It was never about ethos. I mourned those they murdered as everyone did, but somewhere deep and private and buried, their atrocities excited me at a personal level. By making air travel more dangerous, they made my dream more achievable. I could remain apathetic to their wars and their casualties, because their atrocities glimmered with a self-serving light.
“You’re more likely to die in the home than in an aeroplane accident,” my wife told me once, while outside in the world, other people’s crusades fought to redress the balance.
A bomb would be no good. There would be no beauty there, because a bomb would be too quick to know. How would any of us appreciate our final moments in the sulphurous seconds between trigger and release? I longed instead for the cruel longueur of an accident. A crack in the hubris of rocket science, the laws of physics snatching us from the air.
A bomb was a fruit plucked too soon, an accident had ripened on the vine. It deserved to be relished.
Nevertheless, as the bombs sang their baritone chorus, and the airports darkened one-by-one, I flew more than I ever had. Seeking out the remaining flights that criss-crossed the globe, intersecting with the news feeds and column inches with spots of brilliant light.
When the news cycle quietened, I learned that budget airlines often fly with only limited fuel. Enough to get them from one location to another and no reserve to keep them in a holding pattern. It’s a dangerous practice but it means they have to land on time or risk the safety of the passengers and the ground crews. I mortgaged the house when I learned that, I booked every flight I could find. It felt like a promise.
My wife flew less frequently. I would call her before each flight I took and told her I loved her. I did this because it was true, but also so that after the accident, she would have a story to tell the paper when they called.
“My husband called me before he boarded the flight,” she would say. “It was almost as though he knew.”
The media adored that sort of thing. Love stories cut short, last words delivered in tears before the final curtain. A perfect bittersweet ending. They weren’t interested in sequels. They didn’t care how the loved ones were left behind at the departure gates, playing their messages over and over again.
I was spending more and more of my time in the air, wondering each time if the next flight would be the one that would take me. I would reserve seats in the middle of rows and wait for the businessman and the old woman to join me. Every time I landed, the plane thump-thumping onto the tarmac, the shriek and holler of shredded atmosphere outside, I felt disappointment that the flight had done only what was supposed to do. It was upsetting that the pilots had done their job; that the journey had been routine. Amongst the clatter of released seat-belts and the whistle of mobile phones returning from blackout, I would sit back in my seat, dejected until the plane had cleared. This time, at least, the journey had not transcended its purpose.
My wife left me somewhere between flights. One moment she was by my side by the check-in desk, the next she was gone. I don’t remember where that was. I don’t remember when.
The phone rang and rang and rang. The papers wanted to know if she’d told me she loved me.
“Do you know why they make you wear seatbelts on planes?” I told them instead. “They won’t save your life. It’s so they can identify the bodies if something goes wrong.”
I won’t bore you with the particulars of how I died. Only that it wasn’t what I had in mind. There was no aeroplane crash for me. No glorious company, no memorials or front pages. My death was an embarrassment. It was rushed and incomplete, and if you’ll forgive me, I intend to leave it at that.
My days are now spent in transit, hurriedly moving westwards down the concourse, my hand luggage rattling behind me on its tiny little wheels, my coat draped over my arm, my passport in my hand.
The airport is familiar as all airports are. An international space, culture shaved down to the basics so it has become something bland and palatable. The signs are written in international glyphs. Stick men and symbols, yellows and blacks. The windows to my right show a tarmac ground and a matching tarmac sky, each punctured with red and yellow lights moving in preordained lines.
I don’t remember landing here. I don’t really know where I’m going, but I know I should head westerly, always westerly. The signage indicating the boarding gates clocks upwards one by one as I walk. Double figures, treble figures. More. I know that despite the fact I have been walking for days, months, years, I have a flight I must not miss under any circumstance.
The concourse stretches onwards to a distant point, my bag clatters behind me. I feel the tug of the weight it at my shoulder, a roughly drawn stress line, thick across the muscles of my back.
Everyone is rushing to go somewhere else, I have the sense that no-one really sees each other. We are all trapped within the borders of our discrete groups. There are businessmen, families, couples linked arm-in-arm. Sometimes they jog past me, sometimes they’re heading the opposite way, sometimes they’re lingering by the concession stalls and the duty free. They talk idly in languages I don’t recognise, let alone understand. This too, is comforting in a way.
Sometimes the gates I pass are full, with great crowds of people sitting together under storm clouds of impatience and exhaustion. I know it’s impossible to get comfortable on those seats and my heart goes out to them. People pace back and forth. They lie on the cold thin carpet as though it might let them sleep.
I see the way they look at the information boards for updates about their progress. A child cries, a couple argue. I walk on.
Every now and then, I see someone I recognise, sitting alone in the ranks of seating beside an otherwise empty gate. I never remember their names, I don’t seem to remember anyone’s names and they don’t look up as I pass by, they stare into the middle distance instead, preoccupied by something private I have no wish to interrupt.
There is one woman in particular. I have seen her before, but I couldn’t tell you where from. She always sits at the end of the row of seats, closest to the aisle. Her coat is arranged neatly on the chair beside her and her small cabin bag is tucked between her feet. She has a paperback open in her lap before her which she reads intermittently as though she is saving it for the journey ahead. She seems to know I’m coming because she always looks up from her book as I approach and she smiles at me.
I don’t know how she moves from one gate to another. She’s always getting there before me. I have come to look forward to seeing her again. I look forward to her smile lighting the path as I go on my way.
I have spoken to her only once. She smiled at me as she always did and this time I stopped beside her. She lifted her coat and set it on her lap, her hand touching the seat beside her, inviting me to join her.
We talked mostly about air travel, but I have always found it remarkable how it’s a subject that can connect to nearly everything else. Politics, culture, love. It’s roots stretch broad and deep, it touches all of us in some way.
We talked for hours as though we had only just met. There was so much we had missed.
She told me how she had always dreamed she might have a family, and I told her about my dream in turn. I told her how I always expected to die in an aeroplane collision but how I was disappointed.
“I died in an aeroplane crash.” She said this simply as though it was a fact of little or no consequence. It meant nothing to her. Not anymore.
“Was it beautiful?” I said.
She smiled at me again and there wasn’t judgement there, nor pity, nor anger.
“I don’t remember,” she said.
She glanced at my luggage.
“They’re not going to allow all of that on your flight,” she said. “They have restrictions.”
I told her I wasn’t ready to leave any of it behind and she nodded as though she understood. I checked my watch, even though I couldn’t read the time on it. I told her I should be on my way if I was going to catch my flight.
I haven’t spoken to her again but she still smiles at me when I pass. She lowers her paperback and moves the coat from the chair beside her and I smile back, I wave and pass by.
Some time ago, I thought I saw the businessman. The portly gentleman I dreamed sat to my left as our plane crashed into the sea.
I saw him disappear into the lavatories outside one of the gates, and I waited outside for three days expecting him to come out again.
I haven’t seen him since. I haven’t seen the old woman at all, but I find it reassuring to think that they’re both here somewhere. It gives me a certain purpose I might otherwise have lacked. It was my first sense that things were moving forward, the first time I understood I wasn’t simply going round in circles after all.
I hurry down the concourse, my luggage skittering and skuttering behind me. The gate numbers clock up but now I know they’re converging to a point. The woman with the paperback smiles at me and I salute her as I pass. My flight is ahead of me. They will call my name and I will be there.
We will take off, launching expansively into the night. How arrogant it is to fly! How beautiful! How absurd! And when it is time, we will all fall together, unified and exhilarated and finally complete.
About the Contributor
Malcolm Devlin’s stories have appeared in the likes of Interzone, Black Static and Shadows And Tall Trees. His collection, You Will Grow Into Them, is published by Unsung Stories
The Heart and The Bottle - Oliver Jeffers
It's a children's picture book I found it when I was looking for a Christmas present for my niece after my father died. It addresses loss side-on but it cuts deep and almost reduced me to a blubbering wreck in the bookshop.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals