The lights in the cabin go out. Then the lights almost immediately come back on again. It might have never happened. The faces of the crew members standing in the aisle register nothing, unglitching. They stand and hold their demonstration life jackets and dummy seatbelts with the vacant stoicism of. Of what. Grecian statues, you want to think, with the eyes like peeled stone plums, but there’s a cruelty in this. Why?
‘Huh,’ says the man two seats to your left.
It might have never happened. And if it did happen then it didn’t matter: you’re still on the ground, in no danger, not even on the runway, just rolling gently up one of the sort of slip roads that feed into the runway. Slip runways. You don’t know any of the terminology. You could Google it but you’d have to squirm to get your phone out of your pocket and take it out of flight mode and risk a scolding from some wearied authority, involving both of you in a mutual debasement. Instead you look around the brief compass of your view, naming the things you can see, the things you know: seatback, armrest, aisle, baggage compartment. You’re not sure which if any of these should be hyphenated. You’re a highly educated adult situating yourself in the world the way a child does as the plane rolls gently on, and you know the word for this kind of movement, at least, taxiing, seeing it in your mind, taxiing, with its tricksy blur of i’s in the middle, like the name of something old and Oriental, the Taxiing Dynasty, a Taxiing vase. This is how Adam got things straight in his head, in the Garden. It comes as a silly relief to remember this. You decide to let the rhythmless pulse of bumps and undulations in the tarmac beneath the wheels connect you to the earth.
‘Arrhythmic,’ the man says.
Now you have to turn to him, and so much for a pleasant flight.
‘Oh, sorry, I thought you just.’
‘Huh. Did I say something? I do that. Just wondering out loud, probably.’
His bald head’s glisten makes you think, automatically, of salt, of what the sweat will become when the moisture has evaporated: a bleached-white rime like ice on tent canvas, imagery so vivid it puts a taste in your mouth. None of this is what you want, the phantom tasting and looming conversation. There’s an unclaimed seat between you and him and you regard each other across its stark and somehow inhuman vacancy. Just past his head, where the lights of the airport transit the window, your own reflected face is an onion-skin satellite in the night outside.
‘My wife says I do that, wonder things out loud. Do I do that? She says I do. But I never hear it myself.’ Damp, white, male, bald, and middle-aged, of course, all men in the world being middle-aged, except you. ‘I wonder things out loud, she says, I give my thoughts spontaneous voice, but I never hear them come out of me, I don’t even feel the thrum in the larynx. But why would she lie to me?’
A window on an aircraft might in fact be a porthole.
‘I think I was just wondering,’ he says, ‘if the lights just went out.’
And how many times does it begin like this: the lights in the cabin going out, the engines following them into sudden silence. For the passengers, the darkness in these final moments must be indistinguishable – texturally, structurally – from the silence, sense-data fused by the alchemy of panic, that sour adrenaline itself a contagion of the sickness in the body of the machine. And then the lurch and tilt and drop. Or maybe it doesn’t happen like this, and maybe it doesn’t happen at all, your most fevered imaginings breaking to nothing against the safety statistics.
Or maybe it doesn’t happen like this, and maybe it doesn’t happen at all, your most fevered imaginings breaking to nothing against the safety statistics.
‘I don’t know,’ you find yourself replying. ‘I think maybe.’ And then, surprising you, like an echo off a wall you can’t see, ‘The lights will be dimmed at take-off and landing. This is standard safety procedure for flying in the hours of darkness.’
‘Oh yeah,’ he laughs. ‘They say that, don’t they.’
‘I fly this route a lot, going home.’
‘But you never get comfortable with it.’
‘I suppose not.’
‘It never gets easier. In fact every time you do it, sit through the same announcements, the same protocols, see the lights of the airport slip by in the same fated channels as you trundle towards the critical moment, you find that it’s that very predictability that gets you, deep down. Because the system is only there by the grace of everything it isn’t, right? The fact of its own inborn collapse. But listen to me, going on! My wife says I do this. I’m probably not helping.’
‘I’m alright,’ you say. ‘I just keep my head down, get through it like that. Do I look nervous to you?’
Before he can answer, the crew begin the safety demonstration. And then he answers anyway, his voice soft beneath the crew’s instructions:
‘You have a young man’s look, haunted poetically by things of grave unimportance. Do you know that’s what people think when they see you? Of course you do, you think of nothing but how people see you. You look younger than you think you are.’
There’s an impression of violence to the seatbelts in the crew members’ hands, a quality intestinal and wounded. The hands go through the practised gestures of catastrophe, wrenching buckles, jerking at toggles, miming death. The audience remains generally uninvolved. Please ensure your own oxygen mask is in place before attending to anyone else’s.
You have a young man’s look, haunted poetically by things of grave unimportance. Do you know that’s what people think when they see you? Of course you do, you think of nothing but how people see you.
‘So yes, you look nervous. But I’m nervous. Who wouldn’t be, strapped into this…crucible of…well, you know.’
‘I know, but the statistics -’
‘Yes, sure, but that’s not the point, is it? And we can’t just quarantine our fears inside the space of a metal tube any more either. The airport itself, the city it serves, these are all corrupted territories now. We no longer race through an airport simply to make a flight. I can’t relax until I’m through security, and even then, you never know.’
A crew member announces over the intercom that the dimming of cabin lights at take-off and landing is standard safety procedure for flying in the hours of darkness.
‘Then again,’ the man goes on, ‘maybe your nerves have as much to do with the going home as anything else. It’s no easy thing for a young man, going home. You’re working over here?’
‘College.’ Then you correct yourself: ‘Uni. Still haven’t got used to saying that.’
‘You don’t say uni, back home?’
‘You say college.’
‘Huh. That’s interesting. Undergrad?’
You tell him, your tongue fumbling as always at the shame of it.
‘Interesting. Any prospects in that?’
‘We’ll see. There’s a whole range of…It’ll give me options.’
‘Home for the holidays, then?’
‘I just needed to get away for a couple of weeks. After what happened, you know.’
‘Because you think home is safe.’
‘I mean, we wouldn’t be considered targets. We’d be far down the list.’
‘There’s no list. There’s only one total atomised condition. “The snow was general upon all the living and the dead.” See, I know your writers.’ You haven’t the heart to correct the quote; on second thought, you’re not certain what it is yourself. ‘It was your people once upon a time, you know. Of course you know. But that’s ignorant of me, isn’t it. Your people. I’m sorry. I speak out of turn sometimes. My wife…’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ you say.
‘She’s one of yours too. My wife. That’s why I’m going.’
The middle seat’s vacancy seems doubly significant now, but you don’t want to press him. You’re not so young as to believe that all regions of adult experience already lie open to you. And anyway you don’t care, you just want all of this over with, check the steady progress of the body count on the Guardian app as soon as you land, meet your mother’s cheek with your lips in the arrivals lounge and your father’s palm with yours outside at the car, deflect their questions, yes things feel a bit tense over there now but or true but they’ve been prepared for something like it and, affecting nonetheless the prodigal mien, the wanderer’s pose, the foreign correspondent carrying the war zone home in silence, before you pet the indifferent dog and eat the dinner from the microwave and lay your head down at last into the silt of your teenage dreaming.
But before all that there are the inescapable facts of armrest and baggage compartment and seatback and aisle. The plane is seeming to speed up, then pull back again, though the bumping from far beneath registers neither adjustment. The man two seats to your left has gone quiet. The crew members walk their final inspection of pinion and electronic divestiture. These are the hinterlands of the zone beyond data. Anything could be happening in the world out there and you wouldn’t know it. Then there is the sensation of a wide and calculated turning. You feel swathed in mathematics, a needlework of equations. The lights of the airport disappear as the night-time countryside unfurls its black velvet across the windows, terrain so inscrutable it could be inside-out, upside-down, foxes riding the upper air and owls lurking in the grass. Fuselage and bodily tissues strain, trembling, poised. Everything is configured now by the latent skyshot. ‘Cabin crew seats for departure,’ comes the captain’s abbreviated order, and you realise that this is the first you’ve heard from him: there’s been no estimation of travel time or weather forecast for your destination, none of the routine broadcasts which, in their absence, this almost patriarchal reticence, strike you now with an incantatory power, and it frightens you though you know it shouldn’t. Baggage compartment, armrest, aisle, seatback. The lights in the cabin go out. This is OK.
The crew members walk their final inspection of pinion and electronic divestiture. These are the hinterlands of the zone beyond data. Anything could be happening in the world out there and you wouldn’t know it. Then there is the sensation of a wide and calculated turning. You feel swathed in mathematics, a needlework of equations.
The plane completes its turn and pauses, gathering. Imagine the runway staved out in fire beyond the bombproof cockpit door. ‘Here we go,’ the man says, and when you glance at him he’s reaching into a pocket, removing a white square that unfolds into a wide linen handkerchief. He brings it to his head as though to mop up the sweat so you’re about to look away, shy of this somehow intimate moment, but instead he drapes the handkerchief carefully over his face and leans back with his arms crossed. He looks like. You don’t know what he looks like. Shrouded. Shrouded prompts the word Turin to rise at you drawing up in quick succession in its wake pietà, marble, mother, lamentation. The linen grows a flaccid mouth to say, ‘You’re probably wondering what this is about, well this is just something I do to get through the -’ but the engines are laying a second white shroud over his voice as your heart spools up to match the thumping of the wheels and even with the plane gone past what you feel very intensely must be the point of no return you press your right hand flat against the seatback in front of you because you know in the barest space before it happens that a great convulsion will yank you forwards, ripping your innards into the future before the present, a second later, takes back over, the plane bucking to a halt, the passengers around you gasping, you gasping as well. The lights come back on. At the edge of your vision, the handkerchief flutters down.
‘Huh,’ the man says.
The cabin crew are quickly unbuckled and upright and you try to read their faces as they hurry along the aisle. ‘Sir,’ you hear from behind you. ‘Sir. What happened? I have scared kids here now. Sir.’ Someone comes over the intercom. ‘Ladies and gentlemen. Ladies and gentlemen. We apologise for this…The captain has elected to perform an emergency stop. Our passengers’ safety is our utmost priority. The captain will shortly announce. Keep you informed as we assess the situation. Thank you for your patience. Please remain seated with your seatbelts on while the seatbelt light is…on. Thank you.’
‘This is a new one,’ the man says, bending into his seatbelt to retrieve the handkerchief. ‘My neck.’
‘I wonder what,’ you say.
‘They’ll have us sitting here hours now, just wait,’ says the voice from behind.
‘You know, I feel calm,’ the man says. ‘You worry about this kind of eventuality, but I feel calm.’
When you begin to answer you find that the air tastes wrong, so you close your mouth. The acoustics of the cabin turn a baby’s distress to the jangling of distant earphones.
‘Lights,’ the man says. He’s looking out the window. ‘Emergency lights, I think. Not sure. Can’t quite make out the airport from here.’ You can’t lean far enough forwards to see anything more than your own face, again, and you’d almost will the lifeblood of strobing red and blue into that bland spectre in the glass.
A moment happens in which nothing happens, the opposite of an aftershock. The baby wails, its sound compressed. The interrupted rise is still inside everyone. Is it trite to think of the scrutiny of the browsing eye of a storm? The intercom speaks with renewed confidence.
‘Ladies and gentlemen. The captain has informed us that air control ordered the emergency stop due to a possible security situation at the airport. As the craft was still in a position to abort the take-off, the authorities judged it to be in the interests of everyone’s safety to do so. The nature of the situation is still unclear but we will endeavour to keep you informed. We regret this unavoidable delay.’ Someone must intuit your urge to check the Guardian app for a breaking story because the intercom adds, ‘As the captain has not turned off the seatbelt lights, we must insist that all electronic devices remain switched off or in flight mode.’
‘Lights.’ The man sits back again. ‘Maybe. I’m afraid our friend back there is probably right. We could be here a while. God, I’m calm.’
You’re thinking of situations, coordinated incidents, live feeds, death feeds, flights grounded across the continent, bad news settling like a digital ash cloud over the cities of Europe.
‘I never asked you why you’re travelling,’ you say, because, because, because.
‘For a funeral. My wife’s gone on ahead.’
He closes his eyes and replaces the handkerchief on his face, subsiding into perfect stillness.
DM Lynch is from Cork, Ireland. He studied English at Trinity College Dublin and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. His writing has previously appeared in Three Monkeys, The Bohemyth, The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times and the anthology The Best Small Fictions 2015, edited by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler.