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.

4. Alex adds nothing to the story

“It’s been hard. Really hard, but I have good news!” Pause. “ A guy with big connections to a record label called last night. He’s agreed to see me and I’m heading to his office this evening!”

The news cracked the girls’ sobriety and replaced it with a rich excitement that leapt between them like St Elmo’s Fire. The gentleman to her right glanced from the corner of his newspaper, then returned to whatever he was doing. Her friend spoke up.

“Good! No-one deserves it as much as you. How long have I had to tell you? You were the best singer in school, you’ve made all the right decisions and now, you’re going to be the best singer in the world!” 

The first girl blushed, clearly pleased with this praise. It was remarkable how this morning the same words would have felt hollow to her but now, after her interview offer, made perfect sense: here were the  irrefutable consequences of her hard work, something to be shown to friends, enemies and herself as proof that  someone important felt she had what it took to become famous. This person’s career depended on finding the next big name, and he had chosen to consider her. Above all else she had achieved something here, even if she wasn’t entirely sure what it was.

“And best of all, you’ve never had to compromise who you are. How do you feel?”

“Good. Well, obviously,” she laughed, “but very nervous. He’s from a company called Mustapha.”

The girls’ attention was briefly stolen by a scruffy looking man sitting on the chairs opposite. He glanced up and down the corridor with the same furtive gestures as a rabbit watching for wolves, peeking from between his dirty, tartan baseball cap and thick, green raincoat. This in itself marked him as suspect, as the weather was balmy, a typical late afternoon in July, and all other passengers wore no more than one thin layer of clothing. Suddenly he stood and walked in determined strides towards an exit, trailed moments later by a security guard. Then he was out of sight, to a different part of the train. 

The two girls looked at each knowingly, they had both tried to ride the train without a ticket before, smiled, then stood themselves as their stop approached.

“But you’re right, I’ve never had to lie to myself. I’m willing to make some changes and be flexible of course, but I have too much self-esteem to say I’ll just be whoever people want me to be, and who’s to say that’s what the public even want?”

The train came to a halt and the two girls disembarked, illuminated by the golden light of a summer day’s close as they disappeared down the platform.  The gentleman opposite placed his paper on the small table to my left, took out his mobile and himself prepared to leave. As he rose from his seat and turned in the opposite direction of the girls, he began to speak.

“Hi, dad? It’s Frank. I just wanted to let you know I’d like to cancel my eight o’clock tonight. I don’t think she’s the right person for us.”

As his voice faded into the muted tones of the commuting crowd I noticed the paper Frank had been reading. An elaborate puzzle was visible, a maze, formed beautifully into the shape of two letter “u”s hiding underneath an umbrella during a rainstorm. Several different inks were present, the remnants of previous challengers that had built upon each others success, with the final solution provided by Frank himself. I pondered his answer briefly, then flipped the paper over and turned to the job vacancies.

 Maze (original design by mazeingpuzzles.wordpress.com)