Friday, 28 February 2014

The Principles of Flight by Amber Dodd

“It's better to be on the ground wishing you were in the sky, then up in the air wishing you were on the ground,” Oliver says.

We stand on the tarmac of the little airfield outside Brighton and I reflect on the fact that I’ve heard him say this before, and wonder if all pilots say this to all women. I try not to think about it too hard because I have decided on him. I know he decided on me when he was up in the air. He does all his thinking up high. It started like that when he was a boy; he would go missing during arguments or temper tantrums and be found hours later hiding at the tops of bookcases or trees. He likes to get a view of things before he can settle on what to do next. He decided to marry me on a flight to Dubai. It’s a long flight; there must have been a lot of thinking.

Oliver nudges me. As an engagement present he is teaching me to fly and requires me to pay attention to everything he says before I am allowed in a cockpit. I watch him trace the flight path of a small plane with his finger. The plane makes a jerky arc in the air before streaming away, like a kite cut from its tethers. Oliver sighs and looks up at the sky.

“Cumulus clouds; bet everyone will be grounded in an hour,” he says, laying a firm hand on my shoulder.

I like this about him, his certainty. His world is full of yes and no, do and don’t, will and won’t and he treats his promises as statements of fact.

In spring, he promises, when we are married, I will be flying.                                                                                  

My mother is sceptical. Scepticism is where she has lived since I moved out to live with Oliver.

“It's been eight months, why are you marrying him?”                                                                     

I feel obligated to say something about love, but the truth is I am twenty four and I want to have a life.

My mother looks drawn. She pulls herself into an odd angle on the kitchen chair to hide the weight loss. She needs to go to the doctor, but this is an argument that’s easier to have.

“He’s a nice enough man; I just imagined something different for you. All that time studying design.”

“Architecture,” I correct.

She is always making these indistinctions. After the move, she gave my project model home to the next door neighbours as a dolls house. Some days, at my part time dental receptionist job, I imagine their seven year old girl, rolling toy cars over the manicured Astroturf. Pushing Lego men over the herringbone wooden floor, that took me two days to lay with a pair of tweezers.

My mother sighs and shakes out a cigarette from the packet in her cardigan pocket and lets it lay lazily in the corner of her mouth while she searches for the lighter.

“Good choice Mum,” I say, flicking my gaze damningly to her lips.

“Look: why don’t you get a job, stand on your own two feet, have a career first, then get married.”

“No one has careers and hardly anyone’s got jobs at the moment,” I reply

“It’s tough; we lived through this too in the eighties. It passes. So do the hairdos,” she replies, pulling her chair towards me.

“Marriage doesn’t solve all your problems you know. Just look at me and your father.  You can always move back here until you figure out...” And she pauses to wave her cigarette in the air to illustrate ‘life’. She rests her amber eyes on me and for an instant I have an overwhelming urge to hug her but she stretches and gets up to put the kettle on and the moment is gone.

We used to be closer, me and Mum. The first time she had cancer, I was fifteen. We had huddled together in an oncology waiting room reading outdated beauty guides buried under copies of Closer and Scientific America. The kind of magazines with advice to bleach elbows with lemon juice, or to avoid soft chairs that spread the hips and to set one’s hair properly with spray before lovemaking. When it had come to chemo, I had started following all the magazine’s recommendations. Favouring advice apparently followed by such stars as Elizabeth Taylor; from making her home-made face creams to covering my mother’s remaining hair in her recommended mayonnaise mask. I think we felt at the time that if we could immerse ourselves in these rituals, somehow we could control what was happening. 

All that time spent on survival, we had never really figured out what came after.

Oliver has it all planned out; whilst the weather is bad I am to study, he says, from the book ‘Principles of Flight’. It’s an old yellow manual given to him by his dad. It is, as far as I know, the sole connection he has to the man. The book has been hidden, hidden away under other books and papers and models of aircraft. The whole flat is filled with these things. Really the whole flat is Oliver’s. I try not to resent him on this because he is older than me and has acquired more things.

The little yellow book has diagrams: sketchily drawn aircraft with arrows pointing to them. Figure one says:

Forces acting on an aircraft:




And Drag

I turn on the bedroom light and lean back onto the bed, the book hovers over my face and I read the text under the picture.

While in steady-state flight, the attitude, direction, and speed of the airplane will remain constant until one or more of the basic forces changes in magnitude. In unaccelerated flight (steady flight) the opposing forces are in equilibrium. Lift and thrust are considered as positive forces, while weight and drag are considered as negative forces, and the sum of the opposing forces is zero.

I don’t understand. That line that Oliver hates appears on my forehead. I read it again slowly, trying to imagine myself in the pencil-drawn plane.

“It means,” Oliver says impatiently, “that once you’re in the air, everything is in balance. It’s the whole getting up there and getting down bit that’s a fucker.” And he laughs, throws the book over his shoulder and pulls me to him.

I push all my uncertainties to the back of my mind; even the ones that keep me up late at night and have me wandering naked from room to room, touching all the things that don’t belong to me, making little spaces for myself between books and mugs, because I tell myself now, everything will be fine when our feet leave the ground.

I wrap his long limbs around me. Cover myself in him like a coat. And we kiss and listen to the rain beat against the bedroom window.

“Don’t you worry about the weather. Trust me, you’ll be up there before you know it,” he whispers in my ear.

But the rain falls harder and I feel sure there is worse to come.

The day Mum tells me the cancer’s back an Alaskan Airlines passenger jet hits the Pacific Ocean, killing ninety six people. The crash is put down to ‘Unknown Mechanical Failure’. The unknown part bothers me, it doesn’t seem like an explanation but just another question. It’s not like terminal or metastasised. These words are final. They end conversations with heavy exhales and phones being hung up.

I should have said something.

I try to not to think about this and close my eyes until I can see colours swim across the lids. Instead I wonder about the ninety six people of flight 3671. How of the ninety six people, only one person was bound for its final destination. Only one person. I think about the other ninety five people all expecting this to just be a connecting flight, a long time in the air to get to somewhere else they didn’t want to go.

I look around at the people on my bus and wonder how many people are heading somewhere they don’t really want to be. To jobs and lives that weren’t entirely their own choosing.

The mother taking up the disabled space in front has that glassy overworked stare. She looks straight through her toddler as he flies a toy plane into the mouth of her baby.

“Zooooom!” the toddler groans before gliding the plane into his brother’s mouth.

The baby gurgles, the plane is removed and taken higher for a more dramatic decent.

The mother looks out the window as the plane is stuffed into the baby’s mouth again. The baby spits and cries, the toddler pulls the plane out and swings back his arm.

Me and the other twenty eight other people in the bus watch in relative silence as the plane is brought down again, and the baby begins to choke as the toy is worked further between his blood red lips.

Nobody says anything until there is a scream.

It’s a scream that you could drown in and I wish to God it would stop and we could go back to silently watching the little boy choke his brother.

I wish it would stop even when the bus pulls over, when the driver takes me by the arm, when the mother stands gesturing with the plane and sighs.

“Kids just playing love.”

And she blinks at me with these big horse lashes and then I’m out on the pavement, the cold seeping up into my feet and even as the scream is falling away as if it had plummeted through me, I don’t recognize it’s mine.

When Oliver arrives I am shivering. He wraps his jacket around me as if I have been pulled out of freezing waters.

In the car I wait for him to say something. He likes to measure the silence before he talks.

“So you OK now?” he finally says and I nod.

“OK then, let’s go home, we can pick up a takeaway, I'll finally let you try that Indian, even though I’ve seen them throw out what looked suspiciously like a dead pigeon.”

For a moment it looks like we can just go on with our lives but then I do something stupid and start crying and he waits for me to start explaining but I can’t get my brain to order things right. Everything from this afternoon floods together.

All I can blurt out is “An Alaskan airliner crashed.”

Oliver wrinkles his nose and leans an arm over the back of my seat.

“Someone said you were screaming?” he says in almost accusatory tones and flicks an imaginary piece of lint from my headrest.

“Planes drop out of the sky for no reason, everyone should be screaming,” I say and feel the edge of hysteria start to creep back in.

Oliver rubs his chin and leans back, considering.

“Oh, well, there could be lots of reasons. I mean, firstly there are weather conditions, storms being the most common factor. It’s the wind usually that’s the problem, not lightning like everyone thinks. Unless the plane is directly hit by lightning that is. Then there’s mechanical: flaps failing to open and close, landing gear freezing up, instrument malfunction. I mean there are dozens of things really. But most of it is because of poor maintenance and metal fatigue. Or there’s just plain old pilot error. Does that help? Make you feel better?”

I stare at this person who is supposed to know me and he looks back at me with this uncomprehending smile.

Later, in bed I turn away from him and feel the miles of distance between us in a sea of clean white sheets. When I fall asleep, I dream of Mum. Her head floating weightless, her hair in a thick mayonnaise mask.

Mum looks the same without chemo, but she goes to far-off places in the middle of conversations. She can’t eat, she says, but she drinks and smokes and then complains she’s losing all her senses but smell. Everything smells, she says, of bitter almonds.
All I can smell is morphine and defeat, it beads from her like sweat. Every time I visit now I feel like I have walked into the wrong house, on the wrong street, to find the wrong woman waiting for me. She sits dead-eyed in the living room, barely speaking but to pass complaint, or to pull me towards her with cold curled hands and stare at me with some unnamed accusation. Then briefly she will be there in a smile or half-passed joke, or she will sit up and say how pretty I am, how I must get it all from my father. And I will feel guilt that twists inside me late at night that I could have ever have wished for her to die quicker.

My mum sighs, twists in the hard-backed chair and folds her hands carefully on her lap, waiting impatiently for me to say something.

I sip my tea and try to measure out what I want to tell her. What I have been trying to articulate for the last couple of months.

“You might have been right, about Oliver and me; I think we don’t really know each other. 

Or we know each other, but in the way that we want to know each other. I think I’m making a mistake,” I finish breathless, the blood rushing to my head.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. Tell me what I’m meant to be doing Mum.”

My mother closes her eyes and turns very still. Her body frozen against the armchair.

“Mum,” I say, leaning in, touching her forehead.

Her eyes spring open. “What’s it Elizabeth Taylor said? You have the body of a woman but the emotions of a child.” And she spits the word child and finishes with a cold empty laugh.

She lets the laugh hang there and fixes me with big watery eyes.

“You should have cake, no bullshit cupcakes, a big three-tiered one, he can afford it, white icing.” She licks her lips and falls back into a doze.

In the silence I can feel all the good she ever was rushing from the room.

We are left cold.

Winter is receding and the wedding preparations are being made. Flowers are bought, a church booked, suits prepared.  Groomsmen come over; all these friends of Oliver’s I seem to have never met, and my friends too flutter about in vicarious excitement.  Somewhere in an all-white shop, a dress waits for my measurements.

The weather has turned. Gone is the wind, everything is still again, waiting. And I am with Oliver, as he promised, about to fly. We sit inside a Diamond Star plane, headsets on, me at the controls, my hands in charge of our lives. The engine turns over and I wish, I wish we could just stay here taxiing. Waiting to leave the ground but never meeting the air.

“Remember the take off is the hard part, but trust me; once we are up there and levelled out you’re going to see the whole world anew.”

We gather speed, the wheels bounce, we begin to lift and there is a sickening weightless feeling I feel will never go away.

“This is going to be perfect,” he says, fiddling with his headset, his hand obscuring his face. 
 But I know, even though I can’t see, he will have that look of steady certainty.

As our feet draw far away from the ground, I tell myself to just believe him.

When the drop’s this high, what else am I to do?

About the Author:
Amber Lee Dodd is an American/British dual national writer and playwright. Her work has been performed around the UK and published internationally. Recently she was a writer in residence for The Expansionists and a playwright for the young playwrights programme at Chichester Festival Theatre, where her short play was chosen for performance. Her writing has been selected and shortlisted for national competitions and published in both print and online with Litro Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and many others. As a commissioned writer she recently worked on the largest crowd sourced story project in the UK.

Image: (c) 29cm