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LGW – MAD

On the way home from the hospital, she asked him if he wanted her to stay. ‘No, I’ll be fine,’ he said.

She asked him again later that afternoon. ‘I’ll be fine,’ he said. ‘You should go home. I’ll look at flights.’

‘Are you sure, Jamie?’

‘Yes, I’m sure. I’ll look at flights,’ he said again, and he already had his laptop open.

She stood at the window, unhappily eyeing the street. The view of semi-detached Notting Hill villas and leafless little trees was very familiar to her now. She had been there for more than a month, living in her son’s flat while he was in hospital. In January he had been told he had prostate cancer – hence the weeks of radiotherapy in St Mary’s. The doctor had said they would now wait a month and then do some scans to see if the treatment had been successful.

‘There’s one tomorrow afternoon, at fiveish,’ he told her. ‘Iberia. From Gatwick to Barajas. Is that okay?’

She had been privately wondering whether to make the journey by train and ferry. She told herself not to be silly. She knew it was silly, her fear of flying. The statistics spoke for themselves. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That’s okay.’

She turned to face the living room again. Jamie was on the sofa, twisted sideways over the laptop, tapping at it. He had lived in this flat for decades, since his early twenties, all his adult life. There was something neurotic, she thought, about his unwillingness to move. He was in his fifties now, which was strange. She still thought of him as someone young.

‘Okay,’ he said, shutting the laptop, ‘that’s sorted,’ and she thought how easy it was, these days, to do that – to acquire a plane ticket, to travel around.

He insisted on accompanying her to the airport. They took the Gatwick Express, didn’t speak much, and parted when she went through security. She was tearful, which wasn’t like her. A minute later, in the snaking security queue, she turned, hoping to find him still there. He wasn’t there, and she had the feeling, as if seeing the future, that he was going to die of his illness, that he would be dead within a year. She was still trembling with the force of the sensation as she struggled with the large plastic tub and took off her shoes.

Once she was through security, she went straight into one of the fake pubs in the departure lounge for a Bloody Mary.

She had a second Bloody Mary and then, when her flight was announced, walked to the gate. It turned out to be a significant distance. When she arrived there were a large number of people already queuing there – more, she thought, than the plane would be able to hold. She wondered if they would need volunteers to stay behind. They didn’t. She was in a window seat. She looked out at the low sunlight on the grey tarmac. The plane started to move.

Then it stopped.

It seemed to be in some sort of queue itself – in regular sequence, the rumble of jets arrived faintly from somewhere she couldn’t see.

The tedium of all this had almost succeeded in sedating her when the pilot’s voice, momentarily present in the cabin, muttered, ‘Prepare for take-off.’

She felt the fear then, even through the vodka, surging up like the sound of the engines in a series of well-defined stages – first one kind of loudness, then another, as she was pressed into her seat and the safe world went past in the window. She never quite believed, at this point in the process, that the plane would take off. She always found herself thinking: Surely it should have happened by now, something must have gone wrong – and so it always took her by surprise, it was always somehow a profoundly surprising moment when the plane’s nose lifted, when the plane pulled itself free of the earth – or the feeling was actually more like the earth was falling away.

Sussex was already quite far down, a bluish patchwork of fields in the dusk.

There was, from somewhere, a quiet ping.

She did not know whether it soothed her or not, that ping. She wondered what it meant. Though it seemed to say that everything was happening normally, it probably meant nothing.

She looked around, as if surprised that she was still alive, and for the first time she noticed the man in the seat next to her.

He was sitting very still with his hands knitted loosely in his lap, staring straight ahead. Perhaps he too was trying to master his fear.

She was going to have to ask him to move at some point.

As soon as the fasten-seatbelts sign went off, she turned to him and said, ‘Excuse me.’ She pitched her voice nice and loud – it was surprising how loudly you had to speak to be heard over the noise.

Sure enough, the man looked at her in momentary incomprehension, as if he had no idea what she wanted. ‘Excuse me,’ she said again.

It was awkward, the way he had to move past the empty aisle seat to let her through. And she wondered, making the same move herself, why he didn’t simply take the aisle seat, since there was no one there – they would both have more space that way.

When he eventually sat down in the middle seat again, she found herself irritated by his obtuseness. She even wondered whether to suggest to him that he move, and a form of words came to her: It might be more comfortable for both of us if you sat there? It was the sort of thing she normally would have said, with an encouraging smile. In this case, however, she worried that the man might infer some sort of prejudice in the suggestion – some sort of racial prejudice – and that was enough on its own to hold her back. She didn’t think she was racist but she found it difficult to be sure, which made her self-conscious in situations like this. She wondered whether to speak to the man. He didn’t seem to be English. The handful of words he had said to her as they shuffled around each other in the aisle had had what sounded like a French accent.

And anyway, he seemed preoccupied himself, absorbed in his own thoughts, whatever they might be.

With small tinkling noises, like tiny scratches on the underlying roar, a trolley was approaching in the aisle.

She stirred airline Bloody Mary with a little plastic baton. The engines purred in slow rhythmic waves. She felt the vodka work on her. The tightly packed fabric of the world seemed to loosen. Her mind had more primacy over it – her thoughts started to seem like things that were actually happening. Her son’s death, for instance, presented itself in a series of images that felt so true they made her silently tearful. She turned to the window and found only her own face in the dark plastic now, first one kind of loudness, then another, as she was pressed into her seat and the safe world went past in the window. She never quite believed, at this point in the process, that the plane would take off. She always found herself thinking: Surely it should have happened by now, something must have gone wrong – and so it always took her by surprise, it was always somehow a profoundly surprising moment when the plane’s nose lifted, when the plane pulled itself free of the earth – or the feeling was actually more like the earth was falling away.

Sussex was already quite far down, a bluish patchwork of fields in the dusk.

There was, from somewhere, a quiet ping.

She did not know whether it soothed her or not, that ping. She wondered what it meant. Though it seemed to say that everything was happening normally, it probably meant nothing.

She looked around, as if surprised that she was still alive, and for the first time she noticed the man in the seat next to her.

He was sitting very still with his hands knitted loosely in his lap, staring straight ahead. Perhaps he too was trying to master his fear.

She was going to have to ask him to move at some point.

As soon as the fasten-seatbelts sign went off, she turned to him and said, ‘Excuse me.’ She pitched her voice nice and loud – it was surprising how loudly you had to speak to be heard over the noise.

Sure enough, the man looked at her in momentary incomprehension, as if he had no idea what she wanted. ‘Excuse me,’ she said again.

It was awkward, the way he had to move past the empty aisle seat to let her through. And she wondered, making the same move herself, why he didn’t simply take the aisle seat, since there was no one there – they would both have more space that way.

When he eventually sat down in the middle seat again, she found herself irritated by his obtuseness. She even wondered whether to suggest to him that he move, and a form of words came to her: It might be more comfortable for both of us if you sat there? It was the sort of thing she normally would have said, with an encouraging smile. In this case, however, she worried that the man might infer some sort of prejudice in the suggestion – some sort of racial prejudice – and that was enough on its own to hold her back. She didn’t think she was racist but she found it difficult to be sure, which made her self-conscious in situations like this. She wondered whether to speak to the man. He didn’t seem to be English. The handful of words he had said to her as they shuffled around each other in the aisle had had what sounded like a French accent.

And anyway, he seemed preoccupied himself, absorbed in his own thoughts, whatever they might be.

With small tinkling noises, like tiny scratches on the underlying roar, a trolley was approaching in the aisle.

She stirred airline Bloody Mary with a little plastic baton. The engines purred in slow rhythmic waves. She felt the vodka work on her. The tightly packed fabric of the world seemed to loosen. Her mind had more primacy over it – her thoughts started to seem like things that were actually happening. Her son’s death, for instance, presented itself in a series of images that felt so true they made her silently tearful. She turned to the window and found only her own face in the dark plastic now, deeply shadowed like a landscape at sundown. She imagined herself, after his death, emptying his flat – taking everything down from the shelves, all the stuff that he had held onto so tenaciously for so many years. It was then that the first wobble went through the plane. What she hated about even mild turbulence was the way it ended the illusion of security, the way that it made it impossible to pretend that she was somewhere safe. She managed, thanks to the vodka, more or less to ignore that first wobble. The next was less easy to ignore, and the one after that was violent enough to throw her neighbour’s Coke into his lap.

And then the pilot’s voice, suddenly there again, and saying, in a tone of terrifying seriousness, ‘Cabin crew, take your seats.’

In the eerie, provisional stillness when it was over she opened her eyes and they met those of the man sitting next to her. He was shaken too. Now that the worst of the fear was past he was starting to attend to the spilt Coke on his suit trousers. She handed him some paper tissues and he thanked her, and after that they talked a little, about why they were each on that particular flight. The man told her that he had been in London for work. She asked him what he did. She didn’t feel well. The shaken feeling that had followed the fear was turning into something worse, a kind of dizziness. She felt things moving unpleasantly around her and saw in the man’s face that she must look terrible. She felt sick. The man was asking her something she wasn’t able to make out. He said it several times, and then he stood up and went.

When she opened her eyes again her head seemed to be on the man’s seat and she was looking up at a dark-haired woman. The woman was asking her questions in English with a strong Spanish accent. ‘Are you diabetic?’ was one of them, and she managed to nod when she heard it. Then the woman said, ‘I’m a doctor. I’m here to help you.’

‘Thank you,’ she said, not sure if her voice was making any sound, and that was the last thing she was aware of until she was being sick on the poor of the plane. There was a lot of noise and she thought, with her head hanging near the carpet, that the plane must actually be crashing now. Then she understood that it was landing.

They were in an ambulance, she and the Spanish doctor. The paramedics had injected her with something and she felt stronger. She had wanted to go home, and not to the hospital, but apparently that wasn’t an option. As the ambulance went sirening through the streets they were sitting inside it, and she was telling the doctor about the turbulence, perhaps forgetting that she had been there herself. ‘I’ve never been so afraid,’ she said. ‘I shut my eyes and told myself to face the fact that I was about to die. I had no doubt that I was about to die. I was sitting there with my eyes shut, and I was thinking: If I’m going to die, please let Jamie live. Please let him live. Please, please let him live.’ She stopped for a moment, and then said, ‘I don’t normally do things like that. I don’t know who I thought I was talking to.’

‘Maybe it was God?’ the doctor suggested, with a smile.

‘I don’t believe in God. That’s my point.’ Aware that she was being oddly open and talkative, and vaguely wondering what it was that the ambulance men had injected her with, she said, ‘The weird thing is that now I have this hopeful feeling about the whole situation. I was so down about it, and now I have this feeling that it’s going to be okay, that Jamie’s going to be okay.’

The doctor smiled again. The ambulance had stopped. ‘Here we are,’ she said.

Formats & editions

  • Hardback

    9781787331167

    December 3, 2018

    Jonathan Cape

    144 pages

    RRP $24.99

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    9781473561243

    December 6, 2018

    Vintage Digital

    144 pages

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