Somewhere over France a bank of rain cloud, an inverted anvil of grey vapour, rises suddenly and singularly from the otherwise uninterrupted expanse of undulating whiteness below us. It throws a long, blue-grey shadow over the cloud canopy it defies, climbing vertically and coming to an end in a straight line that exactly describes a higher altitude, its upper limit a razor sharp edge, defying not just that lower strata but also expectations. It’s a surprise, an inexplicable shape, a visual shock.
Of course it only appears inexplicable. If I was sitting beside a meteorologist I might have it explained to me. The pressures at work, the anomalies, the weather fronts and the barometrics at play. I might be left (assuming it was a patient meteorologist) with a sound understanding, not only less mystified by what I was seeing but able, perhaps, to predict the next, capable of reading the conditions and spotting those that produce such a phenomenon. Assimilating the information, eliminating the surprise.
See it coming next time, in other words.
I’m not though. I’m sitting beside K and neither of us has a clue, so we crane our necks – her leaning over me – and stare at the funny thing till it goes past. We sit back and she returns to her book. Not a word. Sometimes it’s enough to look at something strange, then let it slip away without explanation.
Further on the cloud cover breaks up and diversifies: horse tails here and cumulus fluffs there as the crew tramp up and down the aisle in an incessant sales frenzy – nicotine substitutes and lottery tickets available with our tea, coffee, cologne, hot chocolate. There is nowhere on the back of my seat to put anything so my lap is a mess, as is the floor at my feet. For lack of pockets they’ve done away with the safety leaflets – instead the information is emblazoned on the yellow seat top, ten inches from my tired eyes. This permanent visual reminder of violent death gives the occasional bout of turbulence we rumble through a certain je-ne-sais-quoi.
I wish someone would explain turbulence to me. Again. In a way I’d find reassuring. But I suspect it’s impossible. I ask K to pass the lip balm, then chuckle to myself as I contemplate the ridiculousness of attempting to sooth a chapped lip as we hurtle helplessly towards the distant Earth, then stop chuckling as the turbulence starts up again. Right now, I’d probably tell a meteorologist to shut it. Happy-go-lucky P, our Irish pilot, comes on the tannoy to tell us, accompanied by the worst bumps yet, that we’ll be landing in twenty-five minutes. I hope he’s right.
Twenty-six minutes later it turns out that P’s native optimism is, at least on this occasion, well placed. Nine days after that it’s some other guy at the controls, though due to a quick turnaround at Nuremburg he doesn’t have time to chirp at us. K and I have a row of seats to ourselves; the one between us is vacant but I ask her to move into it for take-off, being superstitious about these things.
We rise steeply through the lower reaches of a cloudy sky, the ever-so-German houses beneath us shrinking rapidly, as do the spaces between them – a patchwork of brown tilled fields and the odd rhomboid of rapeseed yellow. For a brief, magical moment we skim along the upper boundary of the clouds, our wing tips picking up wisps of vapour as we go, then we rise again into the blue to leave them behind.
It’s the sharp climb from the runway that makes me most nervous and I generally stay that way until I can watch the relaxed crew share private jokes over the trolley they trundle out. The intervening minutes seem to me to be the bit when control is at its least optimal, when the pilot would have the least time to react to surprises. When I feel at my most helpless.
Helplessness and superstition are close cousins. What a week we’ve had; an exhausted K closes her eyes beside me having spent time with a family navigating their way through serious illness and near death, hanging on to the their seats with white knuckles, hoping to remain airborne. I’ve lost count of how many times this week we’ve crossed fingers or touched wood. For those of us who don’t pray what else is there to do but tend to each other with these old gestures, appealing to something, some hopeful connection between people and things that would mean our wishing might constitute something beyond our own comfort? That we might with our most intangible, inner impulses have some outer, tangible effect.
We zoom home at altitude, having stayed on for some sort of resolution and not had it. We have a life to go back to, reminded very powerfully of its worth by the events of the week. Everything remains – for the moment, literally – up in the air. We will wait, braced for impact but hoping for a safe landing. We’ll wait for daily dispatches from an old man asleep in a bed, a young boy who found his way home in the Albanian mist by holding on to a donkey’s tail, who stuck his fingers in his friend’s bullet wound, to save him as they hid in a bush, who developed an affection for the English as a prisoner of theirs in the desert.
Wait for news from his bedside. Doctor words, kind but careful- the levels of this and that, the rates, the changes. The explanations, the forecasts and tentative prognoses, the meteorology of hope: donkey’s tails, tools for navigation, that we might have a better understanding.
He’s back in the mist now, finding his way home. We’ll keep a light on and wait, illuminating his way and ours, trying to read the signs, to not be so helpless, to do what we usually fail to do.
Know what’s going to happen next.
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