I often find that planes and airports can be interesting places. I’ve long felt that I do some of my best writing while flying. Being removed from my everyday life, having the time to think and being faced with so many people from all over the world put me in a reflective mood. But apart from one story I wrote earlier this year, I haven’t done much writing about flying. I decided to put together a few short stories, one from my granny and two from me, that I think reflect the beauty and weirdness of flying.
What’s the difference?
My granny remembers her first trip to America well. She was on a plane bound for Denver, on her way to visit her eldest daughter – my aunt – who lived there. It had been a long flight and the plane was beginning its descent towards the airport. An American man was sitting in the seat next to her and they struck up a conversation. He was warm and friendly, and asked where she’d come from. South Africa, she said. Suddenly, the man’s demeanour flipped. He launched into a fierce lecture on colonialism. How dare the Europeans invade the land and claim it as their own? How dare they subjugate and repress the native population? My granny listened patiently. As the man went on, she noticed that they were about to fly over a Native American reservation. She pointed it out to him. “How is it any different from that?” she asked. The man fell silent. With a snort, he swivelled in his seat to face the other way. They didn’t talk again for the rest of the flight.
A storm up ahead
On a flight to Italy a few years ago, I saw out the window that the sky was getting considerably darker. We were heading towards a bulbous, grey-black mass of cloud. From inside it I thought I could see little flashes of lightning. I started to get nervous. I’d flown during storms before and it wasn’t my idea of fun. The pilot came over the PA system to tell us that a storm had indeed gathered on our flightpath. But, he reassured us, they’d seen it well in advance and he had no intention of flying through it. He said that he would manoeuvre the plane around it so that we’d get to watch from a safe distance. Suddenly I was excited. The plane tipped gently to the right as the pilot rounded the storm. I watched like a child, both hands clutching the armrest, my nose bumping against the window as I tried to peer further. Rain lashed the windows. The flashes of lightning appeared again, scattered throughout the gigantic cloud. I watched for where the lightning would appear next as if I were peering into a fishbowl, wondering which way the fish would swim. I watched it until we’d flown past and it disappeared out of view behind me. It was the first time I’d seen a storm from above.
Flying back to the UK on a university break to visit my parents, from the corner of my eye I saw something tiny bounce off my shoulder. I looked around to see what it was, but I couldn’t see anything. I shrugged and went back to my thoughts. A little while later it happened again, only there were more of them. To my great bemusement the air conditioning unit above my seat was spitting out tiny droplets of ice – directly onto the head of the teenaged boy sitting next to me. He kept patting his head like he was trying to swat a fly. He tried fiddling with the aircon, but no matter what he did he received the same regular sprinkling of ice. After a while it stopped – the aircon had had its fun and decided to lay off a bit. The boy turned to me and in a startingly posh accent said, “well, I’m glad I’m not being rained on anymore.” I chuckled back, not letting on that I’d secretly been enjoying the show. We got chatting. Mostly small talk – where are you from? where are you going? what do you do? He was a student at a preparatory school not far from where my parents lived, the kind of place where they have to wear blazers and little hats like you see schoolboys wearing in videos from the 1930’s. It certainly explained his accent.
Our interests didn’t seem to overlap much so I let him dictate the flow of conversation, which he steered towards Grexit (this was before Greece’s potential exit from the EU was overshadowed by Britain’s). He began talking at length about geopolitics and border disputes and the economic ramifications of Greece leaving the EU, going all the way back to the conquests of Alexander the Great to put his argument into context. I felt totally out of my depth – this kid was 7 or 8 years younger than me and, although very pleasant, was making me feel like a bit of a pleb. After politics we moved on to literature. I love books but I was fully expecting another schooling. I was actually holding a book as we talked and he asked what it was. I turned it over: “Crime and Punishment,” I said, “by Dostoyevsky.” Bracing myself for a discussion of all the major themes and narrative devices that had flown straight over my head, I was surprised when the boy’s face was blank. “I’ve never read it,” he said. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it but I felt kind of smug, like I’d pulled one back on him. Shortly afterwards the plane landed and we went our separate ways, leaving the score at 1-1.