It’s nice on a plane when your work’s all done. We were already out of land and the big dark swell of the Atlantic was moving under us. I flicked on the flight map and watched our plane, as big as New York State, push its way north-eastward. The flight attendant brought the dinner I’d ordered, but I didn’t feel like eating it. I drank my wine and watched the sky darken. More than an hour of the flight was already gone. The air was so smooth that my drink lay still in its glass.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Willis again,’ came the light Surrey voice that had already told us about the fine weather, the tail wind that would get us to London ahead of schedule, and the fact that he hoped we would enjoy our flight with him, ‘I’m afraid that one of our engines has failed and so we are not able to proceed to Heathrow, but shall be returning to Kennedy instead.’
I was surprised that he didn’t put it better. We have a problem with one of our engines, maybe. A minor problem.
I looked around. The flight attendants, smiling pleasantly, immediately began to collect up the dinner plates. The man behind me protested that he had not even begun on his fillet steak. It’s just a routine procedure, Sir, said the girl, whipping his steak out of sight. A dark-haired, confidential, heartbreakingly handsome steward came and sat beside me.
‘ As you are sitting by the emergency exit, Madam,’ he said, ‘You’ll be aware that we’ll be carrying out certain special procedures on landing, to ensure the safety and well-being of all our passengers.’
‘I’ll be preparing the exit for an emergency landing,’ he said, with a wink. ‘And you’ll be in the front row.’
‘Is that good?’
‘It’s not bad,’ he said consideringly. ‘Not one of the worst places to be sat, I’d say.’
The man behind me leaned around my seat and asked if I thought the engine noise sounded different. I listened but I couldn’t tell. He put his lips together in a smile and asked if I’d like to see a picture of his little girl. He passed me a plump blondey baby with a smiling face and I held out a photo of Ruby, but without letting go of it.
‘ She’s beautiful,’ he said immediately, before he could have had time to take in how beautiful she was. I said that his baby was beautiful too.
‘I’ve never been on a plane when they’ve pulled one like this,’ said the man. I told him I had, and it had all been fine. They had done an emergency landing and everything had worked out.
‘Oh, OK, ‘ said the man, nodding firmly. ‘I’m glad to know that.’ Then he asked me where it had been.
‘Moscow,’ I said, thinking it through.
‘Jesus,’ said the man. ‘You wouldn’t get me on one of those Russian planes. Don’t you know their air traffic control is all shot to hell?’
I shut my eyes. Rocked in the cradle of the deep. Rocked in the cradle of the deep. I could hear a change in the engine noise and I wondered if we were still over the Atlantic ocean. Joe had told me once where the continental shelf began, but I couldn’t remember. If we were over land maybe someone was looking up at this moment. Maybe they could hear the change in our engine sound. They would listen and be glad that their feet were planted on solid earth.
The man behind me tapped my arm again.
‘ I’ve been watching that girl over there.’ He indicated the flight attendant who was checking the overhead lockers. ‘She looks pretty upset to me. When the crew gets scared, I get scared.’ He said it as if this was a rule of life he’d always abided by.
‘She split up with her boyfriend last night,’ I said. ‘She was telling me about it when she brought the wine.’
‘Girl stuff, huh,’ he said. ‘You’d think she’d have something better to worry about than her boyfriend right now.’
The hour passed slowly, but the two times the man tapped my arm again I pretended to be sleeping. I was afraid he’d wake me to say, ‘Sleeping, huh. Think you’d have something better to do than sleep,’ but after a couple of taps he rang for the flight attendant and started telling her that everyone gets bad knocks in life but they are part of growing into the person God means you to be.
‘We’re following a routine procedure for the benefit of customer welfare and safety, Sir,’ she replied. ‘After our landing in Kennedy you will be transferred to the next available flight with the minimum of wait.’
The plane was going down fast. Suddenly the lights of New York shocked into view. My ears hurt, and the handsome steward came to take his seat directly opposite me.
‘ Soon be down,’ he said, and winked again. He leaned forward braced like a runner, with his hand gripping the emergency handle. The plane whooshed upwards, then steadied itself.
‘We’re coming in to land.’
The plane went down with a bang but held steady as it hurtled down the runway. What I hadn’t thought of were the fire-trucks and other emergency vehicles with flashing lights that raced with us parallel to our runway. We were down. We were on the runway. We were not on fire. The handsome steward relaxed his grip on the emergency handle.
‘ You won’t get your chance to go down the chute today,’ he said. The plane slowed until it was a solid thing again on solid land.
‘No way are they getting me up again in one of these things. No way,’ said the man behind me. But I knew they would.