"Ladies and gentlemen. As you will be aware, we are encountering some turbulence as a result of the thunderstorm. I have to advise you that this is likely to become rather worse. The pilot is, of course, in full control. However, you may wish to remind yourself of the safety instructions and familiarise yourself with the brace position."
In the sing-song cadence that seems to characterise all public announcements, the stewardess issued her muted warning and unsettling advice to the startled passengers of the summertime budget airline flight from London's Gatwick airport to Nicosia on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
Mike Ramsden took the news as the occasion to stop reading his book "The Black Swan". It was irritating him anyway. He was finding it one of the most over-hyped and badly written works of non-fiction that it had ever been his misfortune to read: rambling, repetitive and indulgent, with an author who was immensely pretentious and flaunting his erudition at every opportunity. If he hadn't been on an aircraft, he'd have abandoned it and gone and bought another book. On the other hand, he had to admit that there were some really insightful ideas in the work and – let's find some immediate relevance here – if this plane was to crash in the next few minutes then, for him and the other passengers, that would be a very black swan indeed.
He was in his late 30s, an intense-looking individual with rimless glasses and a prematurely receding forehead that emphasised his intellectual appearance. He glanced over at the attractive young Afro-Caribbean woman in the next door seat. He admired the smooth complexion and the gleaming white teeth and he could imagine a warm and bubbly personality. But, despite a couple of efforts on his part, she'd been totally unwilling to enter into conversation, seeming to be preoccupied and even a little distressed. She had been reading a novel "White Teeth" but had kept putting it down after a few pages. He couldn't understand it: he had read the book himself years ago and found the style immensely lively and humorous, making it a compelling read. Something was obviously on her mind – and not just this bucking and thrashing jet.
It seemed the time to try conversation again.
"Hi, I'm Mike Ramsden. I'm on my way to a European Commission conference. How about you?"
She looked startled and then anxious.
"Oh, yeh. Gloria. Goin' on holiday." Was that it, he thought. So he ploughed on – but, as a researcher at a London think tank on social policy, small talk did not come naturally to him.
"It's a conference on the regulation of the energy sector. I'm giving a presentation."
"Really?" she responded without a hint of real interest.
"Yes, I'm talking about the energy trilemma."
"The what?" she spluttered.
"Oh - it's reliable supplies, affordable prices, low carbon sources. A real challenge."
"I'm sorry, er, Mike. I've no idea what you're talking about - and, right now, I've got one or two other things on my mind. Like being terrified by this flight. I don't like flying at the best of times - and a summer thunderstorm ain't the best of times."
This was the most she'd said to him throughout the flight, which was encouraging. But, given her evident lack of interest in the energy trilemma, he was at something of a loss as to how to take forward the conversation.
Fate lent a hand – in a fashion.
The aircraft suddenly lost a great deal of height, every passenger was pushed hard into their seat, and everything loose went spinning. The jet engines moaned with effort and whined in complaint as the plane bounced and weaved like a wounded animal. Mike became aware that, simultaneous with the loss of height, Gloria's hand had shot out to hold his and stayed there. She was shaking and her grip on his hand tightened.
He had no idea what to say but she broke the silence: "Oh, my God! I HATE this!!"
Mike decided that a rehearsal of the themes in his presentation might not be quite what was needed in all the circumstances and, in a notable exercise of empathy, suggested: "You need to take your mind off the situation. You just need to talk. Tell me about yourself."
She was looking out of the window now. The rain was lashing the glass and, in spite of it being only late afternoon, the fearsome sky was dark as graphite, except for the odd brilliant flash of lightning in the near distance.
"I can't talk ... I don't know what to say ..."
"Well, tell me where's you're from. Tell me what you do."
"OK. I'm from Leicester ..." She clearly needed an act of will to keep speaking: "My parents are from the Caribbean but I was born and brought up in the city."
"That's great. Keep going."
"I work for a firm of accountants. I like it but I want to want to get on a bit more. I'm thinking of studying for a formal qualification."
Her little speech slammed into a barrier of near panic as the metallic tube in which they were temporarily imprisoned rolled one way and then lurched the other. She went silent.
"Keep talking, Gloria" urged Mike. "Tell me about the company. Tell me about your colleagues."
She swallowed, took a deep breath, and continued her narrative, nudged along by gentle questions from her new-found friend who had no knowledge of accounting and even less interest.
After a while, he could take no more and, in the absence of an escape route, made a non too subtle attempt to pilot her conversation in a different direction.
"And you're travelling to Cyprus on holiday?"
"What does that mean?"
"OK. I'm listening. I'm not going anywhere just now."
"I'm engaged. Well, I was. We've broken it off big time. We had a terrible argument. I decided that I needed to get away and think about things. Cyprus seemed as good as anywhere – and hotter than some other places I could think of."
"So – tell me about your fiancé. Sorry, ex-fiancé."
"He's called Sunil. His parents are from India but he's like me - born and brought up in Britain. We've known each other since school - but we didn't start stuff till he came back to Birmingham from university. He's got a job in IT. He's doing really well."
Mike encouraged her to talk about Sunil, asking more about how the relationship had started, how he had proposed, what their plans were for their lives together. Her conversation was now flowing rather more smoothly than the flight on which they were jointly embarked. The aircraft slid to one side for what seemed like an eternity, then to the other, and reluctantly settled into a rhythmic bumping.
"So, what's the problem? A clash of cultures?"
"No. We were both brought up in Birmingham. Our families get along fine."
"So, what is it then? Different religions?"
"Well, I am a Christian - sort of. And Sunil is a Hindu - kind of. But neither of us is particularly religious. We're both a bit spiritual really."
"Sounds like you're very compatible. So what was the argument about?"
Gloria explained: "We rowed about the wedding."
"The wedding?!? What about it?"
"Well, I've always dreamed of a big wedding. I've got two elder brothers who are both living with their partners and have no intention of getting married. I wanted a proper wedding for my mum and my nieces."
"And I take it Sunil doesn't want a big wedding?"
"He sure doesn't. You know what Asian weddings are like. His sister had an amazing thing over a whole weekend. But he doesn't want that. He says that, instead of spending a fortune on a wedding, we should put down a deposit on a flat and save for me to go to college."
"That's my Sunil ..." And the thought of him made her tearful.
There was then an almighty crash, immediately followed by repeated and overlapping screams. For a few seconds, all the cabin lights went out; then they flickered back into life. A nearby passenger groaned; another began to whisper a prayer; several children were crying.
"Ladies and gentlemen. We have been hit by lightning but there is absolutely no cause for alarm. This is not that unusual in these conditions and the aircraft is designed to withstand such eventualities. We are now close to landing, we have clearance from the airport, and the emergency services are on standby as a precaution."
"Such eventualities?" parodied Gloria. "Where do these people learn to speak like that? We're going to crash. We could die."
"No. We'll be fine. Trust me. I'm a doctor."
"Well I've got a PhD anyway."
She smiled weakly at his pathetic attempt to relieve her tension.
But it didn't work and she began to sob: "I wish Sunil was here."
"And, if he was, if it was his hand rather than mine that you were holding, what would you say to him?"
"That I do love him."
"I'm sure he knows that, Gloria. What else would you say to him?"
"That I want us to get back together again. That we can work something out."
"That's the spirit. And when we land and you call him to tell him about the flight, what are you going to say about the wedding?"
"It's not that simple, Mike. It's our whole life we're talking about."
"No. it isn't. The wedding itself is just one day. An important day, for sure. But just one day. Your marriage – now, that could be your whole life. But how you start will shape how long you last. Start by working things out. Start with compromise."
"And what makes you such a wise guy?"
"Maybe my divorced parents. Maybe my own failed marriage. Maybe a lack of oxygen as this plane plunges down to the sea."
She didn't appreciate his further attempt at humour: "Please don't say that!"
"OK. But promise me one thing. As soon as we land, you're going to call Sunil."
"I will" she assured him. "But you have to promise me one thing."
"And what's that?"
"If I put this wedding back together again, you have to come along. And you have to speak. But not about bloody energy!"
"OK. It's a deal. No energy trilemma. No Powerpoint presentation."
Gloria seemed much calmer now, contemplative even.
Eventually she spoke again: "You know, if we could get past this wedding business, I think I could be very happy with Sunil. He is the stability I need. All my life I've felt as if I've been blown this way and that without direction or purpose."
"Perhaps it's time you came in to land."
"I think so. But first we have to get this bugger down in one piece. And us with it."
The aircraft's undercarriage cranked down and locked into position. The jet engines screamed in protest as the wind whipped the plane up and down, left and right, but the pilot held his course and the ground came up to meet them, rather faster than might have been expected or desired. All the passengers were silent now. The tension was palpable. There was a new smell in the cabin – the smell of fear or more prosaically the smell of body odour. As the plane hit the deck, it bounced and then smashed down into the tarmac. The wheels gripped the runway and the course became straighter. The release of the anxiety was almost audible and then the applause and shouting was near hysterical.
Then it happened. The aircraft hit a sheet of water near the end of the runway and skidded sharply left onto the grass where the front wheel promptly dug into the sodden ground and snapped off. The nose collapsed onto the earth and the plane came to a dead halt as all the passengers were flung forwards. An emergency evacuation was announced and yellow chutes ballooned out on either side of the stricken machine. Mike pushed Gloria forwards to the nearest exit, as he helped an elderly man on the other side of the aisle undo his seat belt and negotiate the crowded and darkened corridor.
Then it was his turn. He jumped feet first down the chute and the lashing rain made the descent much smoother – and much faster – than he had expected. He hit the glutinous mud with surprising force, toppled over, jumped up too quickly, and promptly crumpled down again with a sprained ankle. As he struggled to stand and then hobbled towards the nearest emergency vehicle, he noticed the old man that he had assisted sprinting ahead of him.
A body suddenly appeared close by on his left and a hand came under his right arm and offered welcome support.
"Come on, Dr Ramsden. I need you at my wedding." Gloria grinned up at him.
"And what are you doing here? Make the call."
Next morning, Mike Ramsden was grateful that his conference was in the same hotel as his accommodation. His sprain was bandaged up, but it was still very painful and he didn't fancy walking far. He was still rather shaken by the flight and the landing and he was a little anxious about the delivery of his presentation and how it would be received. He was part of the opening panel so, having had some breakfast on the ground floor, he was returning to his room to collect his conference papers and speaking notes.
The first available lift looked small and really crowded. He was slightly claustrophobic and always felt worse when he was anxious, so he let it go. His conversation with Gloria had been as much about keeping his mind occupied as to support her. The next lift was no larger but empty, so he stepped inside that one and was joined by an attractive young woman who, like him, was wearing a delegate's badge for the energy conference. He pressed the button for the seventh floor and stepped back to allow his companion to select her floor. As she leaned in front of him and chose the button for the ninth floor, he caught the smell of her perfume and noted the slim fitting of her suit.
First – second – third ... But then, between floors, the lift juddered to a halt as a screeching sound filled his ears and – so it seemed to him – there was some sort of snapping sound. Buttons were repeatedly pressed but to no avail. He activated the alarm and heard a bell somewhere but nothing seemed to happen. Minutes passed. He knew they were minutes because he kept looking at his watch but it felt like hours. He could feel the sweat dripping down his temples and heard the palpitations in his chest. He felt faint and slumped against the side of the lift. If it wasn't one metallic prison, it was another ...
"I am Toos from der Netherlands. I think you need to take your mind off der situation. Tell me about yourself."
Published on 29 January 2010
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