303 – The Flight

For centuries the sky was domain of birds, bats and stars alone and our hominid ancestors regarded it in wonder. What was this blanket above us? What lurked its depths? What were the objects hanging in it–if objects they were?

We spun stories explaining the sun, the moon and stars as gods; as jewel-stone fragments scattered by a supreme being; as the burning souls of those who went before us; as angels soaring in the heavens.

And we spun other stories as well, of men who flew among them. The story of Icarus, his wings crafted by his father Daedalus, was a cautionary tale for all those who longed to play in high atmosphere: some things were not meant for mankind. Ours was a lowly place; bound to the ground throughout history, we were surely destined to remain anchored forever. Dreadful things would befall those who reached too high for the sun.

But we are a nation of poets, artists and dreamers, and still we wondered what if?

We invented flying machines that hopped streams, then ponds, then rivers, then lakes, until finally we had flocks of our own silvered birds zipping hither and thither across the planet. Even then, with every part of the globe within our reach we weren’t happy. Supersonic flight took us to far away places in times once unimaginable. We left Earth’s gravity well, walked on the Moon, and flung probes into deep space to touch the face of God.

Spoiled, ungrateful, with the same breed of childishness that saw Icarus fly too high and plunge to his doom these wonders–these miracles–still weren’t good enough.

And so we find our hero sitting in a miraculous contraption surely forged by a modern day Hephaestus, waiting en route to a foreign land, stuck for the moment in a place so close to his destination, so far from his home and complaining: I’ve just about had enough of fucking aeroplanes.

Our story starts shortly outside the ancient city of Londinium–in Heathrow airport, to be precise.

I hate Heathrow. It’s not through any fault of the airport itself; it’s an international airport and therefore has every right to be as crowded and confusing as it is, its elevators smelling as much like latrines as they do, and so on and so forth. I’m reasonable enough to understand that; I just hate London because in comparison to Bristol airport it’s a noisy, smelly nightmare.

Bristol was always my airport of choice. If you don’t live in the West Country you mightn’t realise that as far as amenities are concerned, England ends with Bristol. The country and cities beyond are a Here be dragons affair. Exeter airport is useless, Plymouth’s airport is perpetually on the brink of closure and in Cornwall powered flight is still viewed with awe and suspicion, to the point where the county’s most popular theme park–Flambards–is little more than a collection of disused aircraft grounded where they can be gawped at.

It’s tough, having a loved one who lives overseas. It’s expensive as well. My wife and I have done very well from generous Christmas gifts and relatives with spare air miles, and have accordingly seen each other far more often than strictly we should have done. When Lindsay stopped visiting me in the United Kingdom I travelled to her, taking the ‘plane at Bristol airport and departing at Newark. Though not exactly close to Plymouth, Bristol was at least more convenient than either of London’s airports–or Cardiff’s, for that matter. Alas, at some point in the past year Continental, the only airline with affordable non-stop flights to the US, merged with United Airlines. The merger spelled the end of flights from Bristol–unless I wanted to pay a hell of a lot more for a longer journey which would take in multiple stops and swaps at various airports across Europe, which I didn’t. With London Heathrow being the only viable option left, it was the option I chose.

Like I said, it’s not Heathrow’s fault that I hate it, I’m just bitter that a journey to the airport that once took three hours or so now takes so much longer.

Not that that’s a problem for me anymore.

I’ve never been particularly afraid of flying; if anything it’s the queuing, the security procedures and–especially–the waiting that bothers me. Interacting with airport and airline staff is always a lucky dip. They’re understandably humourless given acts of terrorism in our recent history, that are still very much in mind. Still, when I’m at the airport and at my most genial–and social, for that matter–I’d appreciate it if they met my smile with something other than a look of boredom or disdain. I’m griping, I know; it’s just so rare that I try to hold a person’s gaze. Most of the time I’m a shifty looking motherfucker, eyes eternally twitching somewhere away from the face of whoever I’m murmuring too. At airports I make a concerted effort to appear at least partly competent and partially human. I know I’m not a terrorist or a mental case likely to try to open the aeroplane’s emergency exit mid-flight but my usual twitchy, wild-eyed demeanour isn’t exactly something that sells me as a perfect non-problematic passenger.

This is only exacerbated by security measures that require I remove coats, sweatshirts, hats, shoes and belts. Always as heavily-clad as I can possibly get away with, when placing my personal effects and a mountainous amount of clothing onto the conveyor belt I always end up feeling naked–it’s tantamount to a striptease performed in front of a crowd too far in the throes of tedium to slip dollar bills into my underpants.

Ah, and then the wait. Varying from half-an-hour to many times that, sitting in an airport lounge watching everyone’s flight except yours leave is a soul-crushing experience. It gets even worse when the rest of the passengers show up and all pointedly ignore one another as anything other than competitors for prime seating. Leaving one’s seat to check the schedule screens is strongly ill-advised; a split second after you vacate it some rosy-faced man with a bulbous nose and a broadsheet newspaper will slip into it as if to steal an residual warmth imprinted upon it by your buttocks.

When the flight’s finally called, as one the passengers rush the counter regardless of whoever’s actually being called–business class passengers, passengers in rows thirty-three to forty. Never the best at queuing, Americans returning home tend to cluster about the gate, barricading those rightfully allowed onto the ‘plane in hope the staff might forget all about who they’ve called onto the craft and allow those closest onto it instead.

A flurry of activity in which you’re intermittently held up by people hanging out in the aisles like they have nothing better to do, then belt up, settle in with a book, browse the in-flight entertainment system (a selection of recent movie releases, reality TV shows, Disney Channel sitcoms and episodes of The Big Bang Theory) and we’re up, up and away.

As nerve-wracking as it might be for first time flyers it’s undeniably beautiful seeing the ground peel away, the patchwork fabric of farms and hedgerows rushing underneath, then clouds–wisps at first, then swelling and conglomerating until they form fresh, fluffy terrain: an endless snowfield at which to marvel. It’s one of mankind’s greatest triumphs–machines that take us where no living being has any right to be–yet eight hours later and you too might be more than a little fed up of flying. I won’t insult your intelligence by talking about the many clichés of flying in an aeroplane–though I will say that as wretched as in-flight cuisine is in the main, the hot turkey and cheese sandwiches Continental supply as a snack are surprisingly enjoyable–but every single one of them from the food to cramped leg room is true. After eight hours even the most sane of passengers might start wonder if it’d be worth suffering the consequences for pulling the emergency escape handle.

So imagine my dismay when an hour out from Newark my constant companion the flight map started reporting that we were suddenly ten minutes from our destination, and that our destination was now Montreal.

I’d seen warnings of an unseasonal snowstorm that might have hit Jersey and New York on Friday or Saturday but being away from the Internet and out of communication with anyone who might know the facts regarding it, I had no idea the storm had swept down and incapacitated Newark airport until it was announced over the aeroplane tannoy. A piece of vital equipment had failed in the freezing weather and the airport had been shut down; we’d land at Montreal to refuel and wait in the hope it might reopen soon.

As it happened, mine was the last flight of the day allowed into Newark, though our stay at Montreal–during which we were cooped up for approaching six hours–meant we arrived tremendously late, especially after we taxied for another hour waiting for the backlog of flights queuing to be let into the terminals to clear. Given I’d already spent so much of the preceding day travelling it’s safe to say by the point I entered customs and immigration I was flagging, and flagging hard.

In fact even as I type this, at gone ten at night on November the first I still haven’t recovered from all the travelling I’ve done over the past few days.

But even though my eyelids are drooping and I’ve started to hallucinate a tiny imp named Steven who wants me to cook my own foot, I’m buoyant, upbeat even, because this was the last flight I’ll catch at least for a while.

I did book a return flight from my current stay in New Jersey, but I won’t be taking it; I only booked it because bafflingly it made the outgoing trip a hell of a lot cheaper. No, I won’t be taking the return flight home–I don’t have to.

I’m already home. This is where I live now. And that’s a miracle even modern aircraft cannot match.

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