11. In Plain Air (III)

It came to a halt close enough that I could see a door pop off and a yellow tongue unroll towards the ground. The plane was mostly intact. Several massive tears were present across its nose and a handful of small fires enveloped the wreckage in an ochre shroud. I jogged as figures leapt from the emergency exit and assembled nearby, trembling with their arms crossed. None came from the back door and nowhere near enough were gathered to account for all the passengers.

As the survivors began to look my way I noticed just how precariously the plane was positioned. Its tail section was almost completely shredded, and what remained balanced on the crest of a hill. The mid section was suspended above ground and looked ready to spill passengers and debris like a bloated artery. The fuselage already showed a noticeable buckle and was capped with white stress marks that spread like make-up on a clown’s grin.

The air was thick this close, and the chaos leagues from the tranquillity of my earlier vantage point on the hill. Pieces of jet, cargo and passenger were scattered across the landscape, obfuscated by clouds of black smoke and the constant orange hum of fire.

I called to survivors but they would only shuffle amongst the wreckage, hidden by the fumes, never close enough that I could see their faces.

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10. In Plain Air (II)

The plane that hit the ground before me followed this pattern. It approached through the cloudless sky as gracefully as a bumblebee, until its left wing clipped the hillside and broke the spell.

I was out walking through the countryside when it happened. The air was an azure blue bleached with bright, hot light from the sun directly overhead. At first I could only see a glint bobbing delicately above the horizon. It was framed by tapered streaks of glare in such a way that the mystery object appeared like a dancing Star of Bethlehem. In time the glare receded and from it came a cockpit, fuselage and wings that listed from side to side as if swimming a gentle front crawl.

I couldn’t see any smoke or visual signs of a problem aside from this exaggerated roll, but the plane was clearly on the descent. It was also almost completely silent. I considered it could be engine failure, or the pilot shutting them off in preparation for an emergency landing, but these were assumptions. All I knew was that this aircraft was quickly falling to earth.

Now I could see its shape more clearly: a large jet, the type used for international flight. It pulled away from a copse of trees a few miles ahead of where I stood and changed it’s path so I could once again see it straight on. Now I could see the the British Airways insignia on its flank, and for the first time fear flushed my thoughts.

But I was slow to react. As the urgency of my condition dawned the behemoth’s wing clipped a hillside, barely five kilometres away, and what grace it had managed to retain fled instantly. In another heartbeat the sound of torn metal resonated through the landscape as the plane hit the ground. Joints and materials, rubber and earth, screamed in different pitches as they were stretched, thumped and cut past their limits.

It came to a halt close enough that I could see a door pop off and a yellow tongue unroll towards the ground.

9. In Plain Air (I)

It is said no-one fully understands how a plane is able to stay in the sky.

I once sat in a classroom at the end of a school day. My backside was numb and my legs tingled from a lack of movement. Sunlight, filtered through blinds already half-drawn in preparation for the final bell, drooped over benches filled with students in heavy felt blazers. Near the front of the class a teacher droned on about the relationship between thrust, gravity, lift and drag, occasionally turning to a poorly sketched diagram of a plane cut with arrows representing each force. As he spoke my eyes drifted to one of the many threads of dust hanging lazily in the late day sun, and I absently wondered how the same natural laws the teacher described worked to keep it afloat.

That was my intial experience of aviation physics, and I would imagine this is as much as most people ever learn. However, I have since spoken to a number of engineers who tell me that these forces alone don’t explain how a plane is able to stay airborne.

Anyone who has seen a plane land knows exactly what I mean: it drifts so casually to earth it makes the sky seem viscous, thick and able to support its massive bulk. As effortlessly as a whale plunging through fathoms of water it yaws belly up, and only betrays its true mass when its wheels bounce and groan as they touch the runway. Until this moment movement is guided gently from underneath and free of the the familiar rules that bind us to our clumsy terrestrial sphere.

The plane that hit the ground before me followed this pattern. It approached through the cloudless sky as gracefully as a bumblebee, until its left wing clipped the hillside and broke the spell.

8. A Socialist Rises

At 12minutes to 4 on a Monday afternoon, 5th of May 2012, Alex Chistiakov finally arrived at a set of traffic lights near a terminal that would see his bus arrive in just under five minutes, and see him home in another forty. He had muttered obscenities under his breath every step of the way from a job interview that ended ten minutes ago. His feet ached from his quick pace and his jaw was stiff from scowling at young children, pets or anything else that caught his downcast ire as he went.

Never before in his working career had Alex encountered such an extreme level of buffoonery as he had experienced that afternoon. This man had easily spent an hour and a half talking about himself and, when Alex was finally invited to speak, sat there with the contemptuous gaze of a man who genuinely considered himself to be the voice of fourteen million pounds. His attitude smacked of arrogance and the subtext was that only arse-kissers need apply.

“Prick,” spat Alex, for what felt like the hundredth time this afternoon. The mood at the traffic lights was equally as restless. Commuters eager to return home after a long working day vied for space on either side of the road, advancing and retreating in platoons to view the volume of oncoming traffic. Invariably they would decide against a dash for freedom: the distance was too great and the cars too many.

“This,” thought Alex, “is the true face of Capitalism. A man who has no objectives in life beyond earning more money. He will work the hours, he will earn you millions, but he will barely pass the Turing test. Didn’t he ask me about my relationships and goals, only to scoff at them but give no clear answers himself? Say that because I have a loving relationship I am somehow a second-tier citizen, as I can never find the hours to compete in his workplace? That he accused my five-year plan as trite fantasy, whereas his could have been an advert for Google SEOs? This man has no idea what he wants, yet he is the type of man that will decide my future for me. He will ruin my prospects and own my soul.”

The crowd’s eyes collectively widened as a renegade cautiously stepped a few feet beyond the pavement and then walked quickly, but coolly, across the road. Our Lenin took the form of a tall, thin commuter dressed in a slate-grey suit, with black thick-rimmed glasses and a crop of curly black hair. People fell silent as they watched him step gracefully around oncoming vehicles, neither cheering nor condemning his behaviour. Some waited for that first car horn to sound: a signal to other drivers that their prey, no matter how bold, was only human. The rest would then inevitably follow and in a horrendous cacophony of noise chase the revolutionary from the road in a humiliating display of supremacy. Remarkably this didn’t happen. Instead, with a little under halfway to go, he deftly skirted the final approaching vehicle and, dignity still in tact, lightly trotted to our side of the street.

“It wont be long before people decide they’ve had enough of this. On the one hand we have a society tricked into believing the problem is the idleness of our poorest, whereas in fact it’s the Cronyism amongst out richest. This is a recession, yet our leaders have shown more than ever they want to push the same culture that caused this disaster. If they push any harder, it wont be long before people unite, and hit back.”

A man sporting a shell-suit two sizes too small spat a lump of phlegm the size of a golf ball at Alex’s feet. Alex looked up, and was greeted with a vapid, crooked grin.

“That’s it!” He declared out loud. “I’ve had enough! All of you,” he turned to the crowd accusingly, “all of you, as far as I’m concerned, can go to hell! God knows you’ve earned it.” A few people blinked and the rest stared blankly; this type of behaviour isn’t unusual for London. His parthian shot complete Alex turned towards the road, looked once each way, then sprinted to the other side; past the traffic lights, past the bus stop and towards home.

7. Event Horizon

“Take me to the edge of my garden, then leave me there. Or you can stay if you like.”

We walked together so I could see the tranquil city below. Violet and blue hues of public landmarks lay among pale yellow lights of commercial chatter, all filtered through a screen of trees that spread down into the valley. Sound was numbed but vision acute on such a cold night. Impurities in the air seemed to grow leaden with ice quickly and drift to earth, forming a muted crunch of frost beneath our feet.

“Twenty minutes ago I lost everything, so now I suppose this land isn’t even mine. That’s why I don’t want you to feel responsible for me, because I’m not your problem. I could fall backwards from here or forwards and it wouldn’t make a difference: I stand on an edge that’s no longer sharp.”

His left hand took a cigarette to his lips as his right fumbled for a lighter.  A thumb brushed the striker with such little strength it produced just a few sparks that quickly vanished into the night air. When he found his stride the flame showed a tired face, wearisome and cracked with streak of old tears. He puffed twice, inhaled, then gave the evening fresh vapour to consume.

“I couldn’t even dig a grave in this earth. It’s cold, and hard. Cheap pistachio ice-cream that’s refrozen: ice crystals over something green. There’s nowhere to go.”

His face quivered momentarily and it looked as if he would cry again, but instead he turned on his feet and threw his lighter against the house. It smashed against the wall and flared briefly, a gout of flame that was over before it began.

“There’s nothing for me any more. I’ll just lie here, with the snow, and nothing else.”

Stiff and empty, he levered himself onto the ground, where he tucked his body into itself, and did nothing.

6. A Blogger’s Manifesto

The day I realised my soul wasn’t mine was the day I changed my mind. 

It was a cold, winters morning in a North London Starbucks, so chill that everyone slunk deep into their coats when the doors swung open. I sat in one of the few plush, leather chairs all coffee chains seem to have and suffered the jealous eyes of other customers standing in the queue. They coveted my territory like animals denied mating rights,  visibly wounded by my success and desperate to see me usurped. With my laptop on and coffee in hand it was clear I intended to stay, blogging, as I had been for the last twenty minutes:

Lazy Sunday Thoughts

Is there anything better than a venti mocha, with cream, on a Sunday? Just sitting in Starbucks thinking about the worthy cause of Fairtrade coffee that’s advertised everywhere in here – a perfect way to combat the guilt of a full-fat drink. It means all growers worldwide are ensured a good price for their product,which means no-one is left in poverty. I wasn’t even aware of this cause until *$s [Starbucks] brought it to my attention

I took a sip of said guilt-free drink and felt guilty anyway. The  stamp on the back of my cup conjured images of wearisome plantation workers haggling with corrupt businessmen, jubilant when the Fair Trade Labelling Organisation arrived with UN Bluecaps and offered them bags of money. In reality I didn’t have a clue on whether this was the case or not. Starbucks told me it was true, I believed it, then wrote it.

I took another sip, this one colder than the last. There was a powdery residue of cocoa on my tongue.

This place, not necessarily just Starbucks, but similar venues, was everything it meant to be a writer. Coffee kept me stimulated and the words flowing. The atmosphere was quiet so I could concentrate. The staff were friendly, the food locally and ethically sourced – it was an achievement of modern society that such a place existed to cater for the creative. But I was supposed to be a writer, so then for what was I writing? Most of my topics involved coffee in some way, and a lot of my “musings” were painfully contrived. In this case I admitted to myself that what I wrote could have originated from a Starbucks training pamphlet.

Like the plantation workers, my identity was difficult to sift from the company that informed me of their very existence. They weren’t farmers, but Fairtrade farmers, a logo on a cup and a warm feeling that I was helping the world’s poor whenever I drank. These weren’t people: they were a brand, an identity, and didn’t that make me the same thing? A blogger, like so many others, that formed part of Starbucks’ image as the creative person’s haven?

More cold cocoa. Some cream clung to the side of my lip and was quickly removed with a tongue swipe.

I deleted my initial post, and started again:

A Blogger’s Manifesto

1. A writer of any type has a purpose, whether they want to or not.  If they don’t think they have a purpose, their purpose belongs to somebody else.

2. Writers have a duty to create their own purpose.

3. Writers are obsolete until they prove otherwise, and are of no benefit to anyone unless they do something no-one else can do. This is essential if writing is to be a serious profession and not just a hobby.

Pause. Another sip. Posted.

Now, time for something else. I spent the next two hours writing a job application for Starbucks, citing my gushing praise for the chain over my blogging history as evidence of my enthusiasm. From there, I watch other writers enter the store daily and spend my time observing them. Then I write what I see, each time expanding the Blogger’s Manifesto. 

My aim is to give other people purpose, and I still maintain that my job application is the best post I have made to date.

5. Why Match.Com Fail At Romance

A scruffily dressed man armed with a small guitar stands across a station platform, gawping at an attractive blonde on the other side of the tracks reading her book. Before long our bard slaps out a few chords and breaks into an awkward freestyle, describing the girl’s smile, age, nice skin and hair. The girl, charmed by his admittedly nice voice, confidence and carefree attitude crosses to the other side of the station and we assume they’re off to Wigan, “the home of pies”, together. Sounds nice! The sound fades out, the Match.Com logo fades in, and we’re back to our scheduled programme.

What could I possibly have against this advert? The man showed initiative. In a too-often dreary world he made a young lady happy. His trendy wit and comfort in his own skin smashes old British stereotypes and ushers in a new era of romantics. This is great, right? This is beautiful in fact, we need more of this?

Well yes, OK then, that’s all fair enough, but this little still life does have some creepy undertones.

Firstly, why did this man have a guitar in the first place?

If we were generous, we could say he was part of a band, on his way to or from rehearsal. If we aren’t, this means he specifically took this guitar with him so he could woo young maidens. This lad isn’t anywhere near as innocent, or unique, as he looks: just like every other man out there he was on the lookout for a girl, any girl. For all we know he could have tried this stunt all day with several women and she was the first who fell for it.

If true then this doesn’t make him a terrible person, but this isn’t something that should warm our hearts – it’s no different to a guy in a bar hitting on every girl he sees and eventually getting lucky. All he’s done is read the zeitgeist well and, instead of giving her a chat up line, has just given her an equally generic rendition on a novelty-shop guitar and read out bland statements about her appearance. Ladies, how many times has a man said to you “you have nice eyes/skin/hair/hands”? It can be nice, sometimes, and sometimes people genuinely mean it too, but does that really count as romantic, or even anything particularly special? In a couple of weeks time everyone in Wigan might be walking around doing it,

“Pretty young brunette walking out the shop, and flipping me the bird. Says she’s going to the po-lice, if I don’t leave her alone, but “I like you” is all I heard.”

So what if he knew the girl he wanted, knew she’d be at the train station at that time, and bought his guitar specifically to win her over? That doesn’t make him an opportunistic lady thief. This is a girl he cares for. Well all I can say is that if he did, he knew terrifically little about her. Takes this for instance:

“Girl on the platform smiles. Comes here everyday, ’round about 9 for a while. She reads a C.S. Lewis book as she waits for her train. Tomorrow I’ll bring her new one, if she keeps back again.”

I know it isn’t great, but that to me is far more romantic. This is a girl he’s seen a few times and likes. One day he builds up the courage to do something he thinks she’ll enjoy and  goes for it. Instead, it’s just a guy who sees a pretty girl, stumbling through a few features about her that anyone could mention like a sleazy drunk.

To me, it would be romantic if he either happened to have his guitar with him for whatever reason, saw a girl he thought was beautiful and just couldn’t help himself but sing her a song. Or, this was a girl he’d seen before, and he’d bought the guitar as he intended to do some serenading. If however he was just walking around with his guitar singing to girls, then that’s lecherous. Most people however fail to consider this distinction, and don’t seem to care.

Alright, so why bother to mention this at all and smash something that may cheer a few people up. Well, people would eventually resort to a website like Match.Com because they behaved as naively as the girl in this video, when they feel they can identify more with a moment that feels cinematic than one that feels true. Eventually, when the cheeky boy has run out of songs or someone else comes along with a cooler xylophone, he’s gone, and we hop between relationships with no substance at all. One day, our man or woman decide they actually want someone who genuinely cares about them, that they connect with, and then they consider the dating site.

A couple of other ironic notes about the advert as well:

1) The people in the advert didn’t need the website at all. If people did behave like these two, we wouldn’t need dating agencies and so match.com would go bust (that’s assuming this guy wasn’t just a sleaze, which appears very unlikely), and;

2) Match.com is about pairing people based on things their personalities and forming connections. This guy doesn’t even know her age or natural hair colour; the encounter is about as shallow as it comes.