After they recategorised Clarence from a tropical storm to a category five hurricane, air travel was understandably advised against. More than half of the north Atlantic coast was being battered with 100mph winds as the cyclone drew closer to the American continent. The kind of winds that could pull a plane straight out of the sky and directly into the ocean, yielding a futile search only to find shrapnel and luggage bits. So all the flights out of New York, Boston and the likes were cancelled, usually just minutes before the boarding call, stranding commuters and holidaymakers alike. I watched their faces drop as countless plans were ruined at the terminal gates, waiting for my own flight to drop from the departures board.
A week in New York pitching my stage play to producers, each turning me down less politely than the last, a foreboding “We should talk when you get back.” text from Carla and now this, an act of god was going to cancel my flight home. In the space of an hour, the departures board was cleared, all except for the 20:15 Palm Air to Edinburgh. My flight. I figured I’d earned a stroke of luck, especially since there was nothing waiting for me on the other side of the ocean, other than a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. I just wanted my own bed and some peace and quiet. So I felt a sort of unique pride as I walked past those heartbroken travellers as one of the chosen few to be given passage, saved from what would be a four day stand still. I was airport royalty, leaving on the last lifeboat to freedom.
My fellow passengers and I filed onto the ark, quickly filling it after the scramble for tickets brought it to capacity in a flash. Like stowaways, cramming a ship’s lower decks full, each of us took to our seats and stuck to them, hoping for a hasty take-off before our fearless captain could be called to stop the flight. He spoke briefly on the PA, with no mention of the storm hurtling towards us, only a quick reminder that the journey would be eight hours with meals available throughout. Then he backed the enormous 757 out of the terminal in the pouring rain, to the foot of the runway and with a rapid push, along the strip and up into the sky.
I watched through the window as we lifted off and noticed raindrops as they streaked, spreading diagonally down under the immense change in G force which was pulling me into my seat, creating a pit in my stomach. I realised I was going to die. It was in an instant, it didn’t come slowly. I looked around to see if anyone was feeling the same. Bored, tired faces, none with such dread as mine. We were still climbing and the Gs continued to drag stinging sweat from my brow into my eyes. Frantic. Why would I get on the only flight reckless enough to head straight for the eye of a hurricane? I was panting. No going back now. What could I do, ask them to land? I’d be condemning 200 angry passengers to airport purgatory.
“Are you alright?” The lady next to me asked.
“Yeah. I’m, fine.” I laughed, drenched in perspiration. “Not a fan of take-off.” I said with a squeak. She returned to her book, unsure if I was a flight risk or just a wimp. The plane levelled out, but remained in the thick black cloud layer that was coating the evening sky on my window. I spent two minutes weighing up my options and checking for similarly distressed passengers. No luck. The glee of getting the last flight was enough to blind them to their impending doom. A gentle ding of the speakers and the seatbelt light was doused. My cue to spring past the woman next to me and promptly find the toilet.
Soundtracked by the mechanical hum that was vibrating through the monstrous flying machine anf into the tiny chamber, I sat on the toilet thinking of Storm Clarence. Flashes of newsreel footage as the plane is yanked from the air and torn into pieces, casting a spray of passengers out to plummet and die. Why couldn’t I have waited? Why couldn’t I have flown back yesterday or never taken this trip in the first place. There was a knock on the door followed by a plea for the lavatory. I flushed and returned to my seat where the woman was eyeing me, both suspicious and concerned.
We were an hour into the flight and my mind raced around the imminent disaster. Never seeing Carla or my family again. Never running a 25k, reading the Lord of the Rings or eating a lobster. Around me, people clutched at complimentary Palm Air blankets and let the swaying of the plane rock them to gentle sleep. I considered messaging Carla, just to say I loved her and that everything is fine. It would have been 2AM back home, so by the time she would read it, I’d already be strewn across the ocean floor. Ought to be enough to replace her “We should talk” with "What have I done?". Perhaps I would email all the producers who turned me down, so they'd get a hearty pang of regret too. Maybe they’d reconsider the show when I was dead. I didn’t want to go home anymore, what was the point?
The light rocking movements gradually picked up into thrashes which began to pull people from their sleep, finally finding the concern in their faces that I had spent so long searching for. Murmurs of worry spread across the cabin as what was once the whisper of wind on the window was replaced by the tumultuous rattling of hail hitting the portholes. Dim sleeping lights lifted into full beam as people were ushered back to their seats under the return of the seatbelt sign. Now I saw it. The dread and the panic as they surmised their doom, just as I did hours before them. The captain spoke again, this time to inform us that Storm Clarence had shifted considerably due north, bringing him closer to our flight path. That was it. No encouragement, only facts. Beside me, the woman glanced around anxiously before landing a fearful look at me, who was expressionlessly smug. I nodded a silent “I told you so.”
We soared further on at however many miles per hour, until the storm was upon us. People screamed and cried out as the oxygen masks dropped from above. Tears streamed down faces, leaving wet trails on cheeks while people clung to their dearest and said their goodbyes. The plane was lurching sideways and twisting as the yaw was offset by gale force winds.
I was over it. Crashing, painful death, it was a new thought to everyone else but I'd had about two hours to come to terms with it. Having pictured my demise so many times, it started to seem natural to me. I’d lived a good life, wrote some mediocre stage work. Plus, I figured if I die, I’d be unappreciated in my time and not technically wouldn't die alone, since Carla never officially ended things. I had to stop myself from smiling. I wasn’t enjoying it, but this thought of “Quit while you’re ahead.” wouldn’t stop swirling around my mind. With a terrible week behind me and a probably worse one ahead of me, it really seemed like a good time to clock out. With that, the lights started to flicker, backed by the flashing of lightning and applause of thunder. I sent a message to Carla,
“Yeah, whatever.” I was free.
Silent chaos around me ensued as we waited for the final moment. Perhaps a bolt of lighting would kill the power and drop us from the clouds like a stone. Or the cabin would depressurise, launching our unsuspecting bodies into the night sky. On the window, sheets of rain pelted the glass, blocking any view of the hurricane outside. There were only the flashes and the shaking of the transatlantic liner.
Any moment now. Any moment now. Any moment now.
I kept a cool composure for some time, arms crossed and prepared to meet my maker. Until, without warning, we escaped the thick clouds, revealing clear sky for the first time since long before take-off. The lights returned to normal and in the distance, an orange sun began to rise over the ocean on a new day. A cheer was followed by clapping and hollering as each passenger redeemed a new lease on life and respect for this grand tapestry which sees us so close to our end, only to emerge a new.
Bloody typical. Just when I’m happy. Just when I’ve come to terms with life and found peace, I’m taken straight back to square one. What a joke. I was distraught. Carla, the play, the producers, it all came rushing back to me. The only thing worse than dying was not dying at all. We passed the Scottish coast when the captain took an opportunity to explain that Storm Clarence had dissipated, giving us safe passage. I tried to formulate an excuse for my abrupt message to Carla and seethed. I really do get nothing my way.
“Nobody move!” A yell split the sleepy relieved silence in the cabin’s golden glow. A man revealed a complex of wires strapped to his chest as he stood up on the front row, detonator in hand. Finally, a stroke of good luck.