Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Triple Scoop (story 2)

This is the second installment of the 'appendix' to my post Shadows of Science: finding a new voice ...

His eyes had long-since given up the struggle to focus on reading, and staring at the screen hanging from the ceiling in front of him brought no relief to this bored weariness. John had never been able to sleep in a chair, and after five hours in the air – more than nine since dragging himself out of bed – his envy of those who could was almost palpable. It didn’t help that Zoë, his boss, had been out for the count for a while now. Even when she was still awake the conversation hadn’t actually flowed. He’d never had to travel with her before, and the fact that she was coming to review his progress made it all feel a little awkward. John turned back from the tiny oval window and glanced in her direction: in fairness, she had at least made an effort and it occurred to him that he could try a little harder to help build their relationship. She wasn’t a bad boss he conceded to himself. There were some advantages in having a career-manager running the team rather than another scientist like himself: at least she understood the system and could use it to good effect. In truth, the entire project might have remained a pipe-dream had she not known exactly how to negotiate through both the UK’s bureaucracy and the analogous American maze. Her use of the cringingly cosy relationship between Reagan and Mrs T. in side-stepping some of the security objections had actually been quite impressive. This internal discussion, one of so many conducted within his borderline-depressive head, concluded with the thought that it was, on balance, reasonable that she might want to see how things were going. This was his third extended trip back to the facility after all. 

He turned back to the window, focusing first on the scratches in the acrylic inner layer and then through his own weary face and out into the big blue. He couldn’t remember when the Atlantic had given way to solid land below; it had all become a bit of a blur, boringly familiar for all its foreignness. The background noise from the aircraft, a DC10-34 of the sort he had come to know far too well, seemed to dissolve all the individual conversations he knew must be taking place around him. He was in that trance-like introspective zone defined only by present tiredness and the rest that refuses to come. 

“What’s the time; how long have I been dozing?” Zoë had stirred, breaking the bubble.

“I’m not sure really; only half an hour or so. We ought to be getting something to eat and drink soon; I hope so anyway.”

Zoë leaned out sideways, craning her neck. “Oh yes, good guess – I can see the cabin crew shuffling around each other in their little station. I’m quite peckish. You OK?”

John never got the chance reply.

The bang coincided with a feeling of being shoved, but from nowhere in particular: whilst the sound came vaguely from below, the jolt seemed to come from everywhere – through his feet, his backside, the elbow resting on the narrow window frame; everywhere. This was not good. That much would have been obvious to everyone, but what really surprised him was the silence. No-one made a sound; even the aircraft seemed quieter. The conversations habitually going on in his head seemed also to diffuse away, making way for something deeper and darker, beyond language. For the few tens of seconds it lasted, this was surreal. 

It was the seat belt sign repeatedly pinging its way into their consciousness that initiated the change. Now, even as buckles clicked and straps were pulled, everyone turned to look at their neighbours as if to discern answers to their voiceless questions. Following Zoë’s eyes, John strained upward against his own seat belt and could just about make out the cabin crew leaving their catering tasks and strapping themselves in; one of them held a handset against her ear. He sat back down hard and re-tightened his belt as the plane banked and rapidly lost altitude. Neither John, with his semi-detached analytical mind, nor Zoë out of her added years of maturity, could accurately have told anyone how long these phases lasted. In all likelihood, barely a minute would have elapsed thus far – if that – but ones perception of time is subjective; it seemed longer. 

Out of this time-dilated state, focus gradually began to creep back in to John’s thoughts. The sound of the engines was still there, although their tone had been altered from the constant drone that travelled with them across the ocean. If he craned his neck he could tell that the wing on his side was apparently intact. Presumably the other side of the aircraft was in a similar state as the descent, although very rapid, seemed to be taking place in a controlled fashion; they were a long way from falling out of the sky. More than that, the oxygen masks hadn’t dropped from overhead so there was unlikely to have been a serious breach to the aircraft’s skin. Zoë looked reasonably calm as she stared forward and towards the cabin crew, although she was avoiding eye contact and had her hands firmly pushed down onto her legs. John found himself praying. Not for himself so much as for his wife and kids and then for the rest of his family – even for Zoë – that they’d be OK no matter what. Still no-one spoke. Shouldn’t there be screaming or something? Had he looked towards the window at this point John would have seen much the same face gazing back at him as before, apparently dispassionate although perhaps now with a clearer hint of the lines and furrows that become etched on us all eventually.

Then came the voice. This was not the immediately forgettable guy who cheerily welcomed us all to the flight. No, this person introduced himself as the captain. He spoke slowly, in a controlled fashion and with an intonation John could only describe as reminiscent of ‘Gone with the Wind’. It was a voice that positively exuded calm and confidence; everyone, John included, drank it in as though it was the elixir of the gods. 
“There is no immediate danger. One of our hydraulic compressors developed a fault and is now out of action. This could cause a problem when we come to lower the undercarriage prior to landing, but we have others in the system so it may come to nothing.” 

May? MAY? He stared at the point in the ceiling he thought the voice had emerged from, almost as though it gave him some form of direct contact with the person at the other end.

“Our intended destination remains the best choice for us given our position, and as an international gateway, Dallas–Fort Worth is able to deploy the very best facilities.”

The blindingly obvious question regarding what these ‘facilities’ were for, which presumably took shape in more heads than John’s, wasn’t answered. The captain went on to ask everyone to stay seated with their belts fastened. He must have followed his announcement with another set of instructions for the cabin crew because they soon unbuckled themselves, stowed all their catering stuff away again and then began a studied walk through the cabin. This was ostensibly to check seat belts but was mostly an attempt to follow their leader in calming fears. It occurred to John that the crew’s rate of progress through the cabin was barely interrupted at all; so in need of this token of reason-defying comfort, the overwhelming majority of passengers evidently accepted it without question. So did he.

It is probable that the majority of the conversations that now erupted around the cabin were variants on the one between Zoë and John: mostly at the level of small-talk, or what passes for that in their respective worlds. John spoke of the built-in redundancy within the aircraft’s engineering systems meaning that ‘there’s always a spare’, Zoë of her belief that ‘they’ know what they’re doing; mutually reassuring vacuous statements which brought them a reminder of their former sanity. The important words were left unspoken, echoing within their heads. Whether in deference to this internal caucus, or as an acknowledgement that the great distance between them had hitherto been bridged only by their work, the words faded away. Zoë opened her book and made an effort to read, and John turned again to look out of the window. He could make out features of a size he’d usually expect to see only in the final minutes of descent towards an airport, but the ground was closer now of course. The landscape, framed as it was by this small oval window, looked like a pale brown colour wash his wife might apply as she started another of her watercolours. It was all so typical of the Southwest in summer, and rather pretty in its own way. He guessed they were in Arkansas, although it could be eastern Texas. There were occasional parallel lines created by the ubiquitous pickup truck, and undulations delineated by their shadows; in the distance, he spotted elongated lakes and clumps of pinyon pine. 

When the sun shone up at him it appeared so suddenly that it surprised his eyes and made him recoil for a moment. In a long finger of water, placed there to create exactly the right angle to his window, to his eyes, was the sun. It ran along the surface keeping pace with him until switched off by the wilderness dust before, a few seconds later, demanding to be seen again in the surface of the next lake or pond. John couldn’t help but smile at the thought of schoolboy physics driving a dazzling light show such as this, or was it the other way around? Either way, it was beautiful: too beautiful to leave behind. He turned back to Zoë, determined to make some contact – to hold on to normality. He talked of feeling the warmth of the late afternoon Texas air cocooning their skin when they disembarked; he smiled as he confessed his traditional first task: locating a proper American ice cream parlour the instant he was through immigration and customs. But today was a special. Today he would treat himself to a new flavour and he’d buy one for her. She smiled back, as a parent smiles at a child, but she didn’t speak.

The tone of the engines changed and the plane’s speed dropped as they reduced their altitude further. Unpleasantly loud noises started coming from beneath his feet, like the sound his dad’s car had made all those years back when the clutch and gear box had failed half way through their family holiday – only worse. Muscles re-tensed all around the cabin, Zoë’s hands pushed her book down onto her legs with force and John had to will himself to keep his eyes open as he mentally rehearsed the brace position. The noise continued for several minutes before stopping.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching Dallas–Fort Worth. We have been given priority over other traffic and they confirm their readiness for our arrival.” 
The captain’s announcement signaled the imminent and inevitable arrival of their make-or-break moment; it made the cabin crew’s standard-issue housekeeping announcements regarding tray tables and seat backs seem vaguely light-hearted. John kept his eyes to the window as the ground approached; Zoë closed hers tight. 

A dozen or more red trucks were driving alongside the runway but failing to keep up. 

One way or another they must land, any second now. 

So many breaths being held, held, held. 

John decided that he’d treat himself to three scoops today.

© R.J. Newport, November 2016.

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