Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fright in Flight

The plane smells of mothballs.

It is dark, maybe 10 p.m. We are flying south to Chennai, from where we will drive to Vellore, and the plane we’re in smells of mothballs.

Perhaps the fumes wafted on board with us at Delhi airport, where there are mothballs in the drains of all the sinks in all the restrooms. Apparently that’s to discourage cockroaches from coming up out of the plumbing to investigate the greater delights of the airport. Cor blimey, I’d be discouraged; just standing in front of those sinks made my eyes water. Here in the plane it is less noticeable—the merest hint of camphor—as if someone a few rows behind me is rummaging through a trunk full of their grandmother’s clothes. Nevertheless, I feel uneasy.

Of course, “uneasy” is my baseline state during any flight. I’ve already taken note of the worn-looking cabin interior, and the tendency of the lights to flicker every time the engines rev. Now the smell of mothballs has focused my skittering thoughts firmly on the question of just how old this plane might be.

I can picture it clearly: long-forgotten in the shadows of the airport hangar, this old clunker has been hauled out of the mothballs—literally—and pressed into service. A couple of mechanics look her over. “Reckon she can make it after all this time, Joe?” “Sure, Buddy, she may be missin’ a wheel, and that wing there needs a-fixin’, but the old gal’s got a big heart.” (Apparently Joe and Buddy have recently moved to India from Texas.)

I would love this story in a picture book. As a reader, I would root for the plane: “Of course the Old Gal can make it! Her big heart will save the day!” As a passenger, however, I can see that the mechanics’ conversation foreshadows disaster, and I’m appalled by their cavalier manner.

Wow, I really need to think about something else.

I look at my watch. In a couple of hours it will be midnight, and officially my birthday—the last birthday I will celebrate in the 20th century. But the atmosphere here in row 15 feels decidedly under-festive. My mother has nodded off to sleep over the Bible lying open on her tray table. Her face hovers just a few inches above the pages, as if she had just leaned forward to examine the finer points of some text when sleep struck. Whenever the plane dips and lurches—which is more often than some of us would like—her nose bobs down almost to the point of contact and then bobs away again. My father, in the next seat, has fallen asleep with his head back and his mouth open. This is the crowd I’m partying with tonight.

Then again, I am actually flying across India for the first time in my life, so that’s special. Thousands of feet below me in the dark lies the country of my birth, and I am heading for the exact location of my arrival, on the very eve of its anniversary. My immediate surroundings may be drab, but my position relative to planet Earth feels eerily perfect.

I look out of the window. I can see a scattering of lights down there, faint and very few, separated by great oceans of blackness. I think of towns and cities back in England, ablaze with light even in the dead of night, and then I wonder: wait, am I already 42 back home? Which way do the clocks go? Which way does the world turn?

I once saw a film clip showing the movement of nightfall across the face of the planet, as seen from outer space. It was amazing, but somehow the line of darkness looked unreal—too abrupt and sharp, lacking all the shades of twilight. I recall now that it resembled old newsreel images of Communism advancing across Europe, east to west. East to West. Which means that where Mark and the girls are, the sun is still shining and I am still a solid 41. But 42 is coming, rolling inexorably across the time zones. (Is 42 old? Is it old in plane years?)

The thing is, I don’t feel 42 in the slightest, or even 41. From the moment we landed in Delhi I have felt somewhere around 17. Being on holiday with my parents instead of my children, I’m not a wife and mother; I’m a daughter. Woohoo! No responsibilities! No need to organize anyone’s day, or clothes, or meals. Quite the opposite: I am the focus of our hosts’ organizational enthusiasm—eat this, go there, wear that—and I surrender to it happily. To complete the effect, people keep introducing me as Pauline Brand (not Nelson), which is shocking and deeply familiar all at once.

There’s just one problem.

While I have been enjoying my second childhood, my parents have been attending conference meetings, making public appearances, struggling with jet lag and a stomach bug. I look at them now, crumpled in exhaustion, their color poor in this dingy light; they look every one of their 80-plus years.

I feel a pang of guilt at the thought that my presence may actually have added to the stress of their week, even though my coming was their idea. “We want to show you India again,” Dad said back in August, with real excitement. And I was sold. Yes, I knew how old they were technically, but they were as joyful and energetic as ever. They do this trip all the time; I’ll just tag along!

But that was then. Now, in Row 15, things look quite different, and I know what needs to happen. I’ve had my fun. Now I need to be the grownup, and look after my parents.

I look out of the window again. It’s not that I like seeing how high up we are. It’s just that, now we’re up here I want to be sure we’re staying up here, that the ground hasn’t suddenly got closer. Also, I hope I might be able to identify what I am seeing, to know which dim smudge of light might be Vellore, and the hospital where I was born. Could it be that, with a Salman Rushdie-style ironic twist, we will fly over it at the exact hour of my birth?

Just as I think that, the plane takes a sudden stomach-flipping dip, and the engines rev furiously for a few moments. My heart dips and revs as well.

Actually, what would be really ironic is if we crashed into the hospital I was born in, at the exact hour of my birth.

Think about something else…breathe deeply…remember you were born at 7 a.m….we’ll have landed way before then...

Suddenly, everything gets much worse. The plane starts shuddering, dropping, rattling, climbing a little and then falling again, first one wing and then the other pointing at the ground. I grip the armrests, listening hard to the furious racing of the engines, working to interpret every sound for good or ill. (This is one of the ways I help the pilots of planes I am in. It has worked so far.)

Perhaps I wasn’t born at 7 a.m.! My mother was always hazy about the details of my infancy—sixth out of six kids and all that. She probably just chose some random time, to satisfy my curiosity. Perhaps we will crash into the hospital at the exact anniversary of my birth.

The plane sounds as though it is literally rattling apart. I am practically climbing out of my seat with terror, on the verge of tears, mentally bidding farewell to my children. My mother continues to nod over her Bible. We are like a pair of illustrations in a How-to guide for handling stress. My approach would be the one with a red X through it.

Ten minutes after I resolved to look after my parents, I am shaking my mother awake to tell her I am scared.

She looks up at me and blinks, blinks, blinks the blur of sleep away. By the third blink, she knows where she is and who I am, and she smiles the most tender, radiant smile I have ever seen. I don’t know how it is possible in that dim chaos, but her eyes are literally twinkling.

“Hello, precious girl,” she says, and I realize she hasn’t noticed that we are practically definitely about to fall out of the sky. So I explain that.

She takes my hand, and holds it between both of hers, patting and stroking it. Her skin feels cool and papery smooth. She keeps twinkling and smiling, and then she starts to pray.

My mother prays about everything, and for everyone. If she were getting mugged I guarantee she would ask the mugger if she could just take a minute to pray for him. I often joke that God has a red phone on his desk, for my mother’s private line. Right now I’m sort of hoping it isn’t a joke.

Of course, I’ve been sending up my own little “Help! Help!” prayers for the last ten minutes, but it’s hard to pray and monitor engine noises at the same time.

She tells God how thankful we are for our lives, and I agree completely. She says if the plane crashes that’s fine too, because we know our future is in God’s hands. (I offer a private dissenting vote on that one, stating my personal preference for a not-crashing future.) And then she tells God what a joy it is for her to be travelling with me, and my throat aches with the effort of not bursting into tears.

By the time she’s finished praying, I feel better. In fact, the panic started ebbing right about the time she took my hand and called me her precious girl. I think I will wait to start being the grownup until tomorrow.

Mum goes back to sleep, and the rest of the flight is fine—apart from the smell of mothballs —and that decrepit old plane from the back of the hangar with the missing wheel and the broken wing lands smoothly in Chennai around midnight.

Buddy and Joe were right, after all. The old girl might be showing her age, but she's got a big heart.


  1. Oh, I do hope there's a book in this at some point - what a great story. And how I look forward to the next installment. Shades of Dickensian England. Maybe THAT's what blogs are really all about?? Except yours is the only one that really tells a story with a through line. LOVE it.

  2. I'm a follower! I loved the plane story. It made me cry.

  3. Just finished reading this story for the third time. And the great thing about a re-read is that you can anticipate the favorite bits! And they don't disappoint! So here I sit, in a mess of giggles and tears, wondering when I'll read that again.
    -And it should be in a manual for dealing with plane flight phobia.!

  4. Thank you for these encouraging comments! I LOVE that people enjoy reading the stories I enjoy telling. And drgt, I HOPE there's a book in this somewhere! :)