It might not quite be on a par with “The cheque’s in the post” or “You look lovely in that outfit”, but it’s fair to say that the phrase “You have nothing to prove” is not always uttered with a surfeit of sincerity.
Still, I don’t have anything to prove, thought Joan Hayden, as she sat in the little lounge that was so carefully designed to stop people feeling nervous and uneasy that it had the opposite effect. All of the soft grey furnishing and rounded corners and pictures of not quite abstract autumn landscapes made her want to surreptitiously feel the walls to see if they were padded, and she was sure there must be a fish tank somewhere.
This is quite ridiculous, she told herself. I am not being held here against my will, and can walk out any second, and forget I ever agreed to this.
But it wasn’t quite that simple. She gave one of those theatrical sighs that feel as if there’s a sob lurking in them somewhere, and attracted glances, some expressing fellow-feeling, others seeming to say, “You’re not the only one, you know, don’t make such a show about it.”
Her cousin Stella had invited her over to Canada to her wedding. She and Stella had always embodied the cliché of being more like sisters, though Stella was nine years older. Joan was an only child, and Stella had been her mentor, defender, soulmate, and sometimes partner in crime, for as long as she could remember. It had been a hard blow when she went over to Canada, though Joan was genuinely delighted she had done so well for herself and was now one of the most valued employees of the electronics firm she worked for. Still, Skype was a wonderful invention, and she had already met Stella’s fiancé Ian through that very means.
But cosy on-screen chats were one thing, and a wedding was another. And Stella had planned a very special role for her. She explained that the bridesmaids were to be Ian’s little half-sisters, the eight year old twins Flora and Christy, but she wanted Joan to be her Best Woman.
The problem was this. Joan could afford the flight, but there was no way she could afford a sea passage, even if she’d been able to have enough time off and find a convenient ship (which was no mean feat nowadays) and she didn’t fly. Or rather, she corrected herself finding no ease in pedantry, she didn’t get in an aircraft.
Though she was concerned for the environment, she couldn’t pretend it was for the same reasons as that remarkable Swedish teenager. She pragmatically accepted that at least for the time being, that plane, and others, were going to make their journeys, and they wouldn’t do the environment any more harm for her being on them.
She was, quite simply, scared. Scared witless, or whatever rhymed with it, she admitted to herself.
It hadn’t always been that way. When she’d been a little girl she’d happily clambered up the portable staircase onto the planes taking a group of holidaymakers to Tenerife or Rimini, and less happily clambered down them, comforted by the straw donkey she was carrying or the brightly dressed doll in her miniature pink holdall when the holiday was over. She was old enough to remember (and to have rather enjoyed!) meals on little trays that pulled down from the back of the seat in front, and discovered that parents were not omniscient when they couldn’t tell her how the people in the front seat managed.
She was on the verge of passing from being a little girl into that stage that’s not quite an adolescent either; a precocious but protected ten year old, when it all started to go wrong. It started to go wrong, because although she could pinpoint the moment it was the start of a process. Their flight back from Barcelona (they had stayed in one of the Costa Brava resort towns but she had taken a fancy to Barcelona, and been enchanted by the illuminated fountains) wasn’t the smoothest, but wasn’t wildly dramatic either. The in-flight seatbelt lights hadn’t come on. And then, as her mother explained to her, they hit an air pocket. For a few seconds there was panic on the charter plane full of homeward bound holidaymakers. Joan was reminded of those dreams when you have the sickening feeling that you are falling until you jerk awake. To the infinite credit of Joan’s parents, unlike some adults on the plane, they entirely kept their calm, told their daughter it would be fine, and it was. The seatbelt light did come on, and stayed on as a precaution, but the rest of the flight went, if not entirely smoothly, without incident until they landed safely at East Midlands Airport – that was before its name was changed to Robin Hood Airport!
Joan did not forget how scared she had been when they hit the air pocket, but was still not averse to regaling her friends with the tale of her adventure, though she crossed her fingers behind her back when she said she wouldn’t mind experiencing the same thing again, because she would. She started to have those dreams about falling a lot more than she had before. Stella knew about it and acted in a typically Stella way. She told Joan it was completely understandable that she still had those dreams, and she was sure she would too, in the circumstances, but told her she had never been in any real danger and it happened hundreds of times a year to various planes, and all of them landed safely.
But of course, the sad truth was that despite all the rock-solid statistics of air being the safest mode of travel, there were planes that didn’t land safely. Nine months later, just as people were beginning to prepare for Christmas, and the dreams had started to abate, there was a tragic air crash where everyone on board perished. It made all the headlines, of course, and as Joan’s parents realised, you couldn’t shield a bright child who would be starting secondary school the next year from every sad news story. The thing was, it had happened near enough to land for there to be eye-witnesses, and more than one of them referred to the plane seeming to “plunge and lose height suddenly” before its final fatal plummet. It was the first time she had ever questioned Stella’s judgement, but that still sounded suspiciously like an air pocket.
The nightmares started – oddly, not right away, but once they had started, it seemed as if the would never stop. Joan’s mum was later to regret her words, but said them for all the right reasons when she said, holding her shaking and sobbing daughter in her arms, “Listen, love, I know what happened was horrible, but you need never worry about it happening to you. Nobody will ever make you get into a plane!”
It was, in fact, pure coincidence that the family moved house early the next year – her dad had been transferred – but they were now living near an East Coast ferry terminal. She had mixed feelings. She didn’t like living further away from Stella – but they had never lived in the same town anyway, and she knew for “positive certain” as she still sometimes said when she was forgetting to be grown-up – that they would keep in touch. And it was exciting to be moving to a new house and a new school (she wasn’t unhappy at school, but hadn’t been at her secondary school long enough to develop a strong attachment to it and wasn’t a shy child) and, especially, to be living near the sea, though her parents, whilst not trying to deflate her and glad she was becoming more like her old self again, gently reminded her that it would not be like a perpetual holiday and there would still be chores and homework!
She settled in well at her new school, and this was when the family began to take a different sort of holiday. After all, they were practically within walking distance of the ferry terminal, and though southern Europe was lovely, there was no harm at all in a change. Joan looked forward to holidays again, and got to know the Netherlands and Germany and Belgium and Northern France. She was a good sailor, to her parents’ relief, and the North Sea was mercifully free of icebergs, wasn’t it?
As she moved into adolescence and edged towards adulthood, as she ceased to be a pupil and became a student, and then became a teacher herself, it was just one of those things, if people even discussed it at all, that Joan didn’t fly. She told herself she could manage perfectly well without it and she had no cause to be defensive, but was quite pleased to discover that a famous soccer goalkeeper called Denis Bergkamp shared her phobia (not that she liked to call it a phobia) and always travelled to international matches by sea. Joan wasn’t a massive soccer fan, but if an eminent sportsperson felt the same way, then it was proof anyone could. She convinced herself (and not entirely erroneously) that her holidays were far more interesting than those of many of her friends and colleagues who dutifully took their seats on the budget airlines that had now sprung up like weeds and, some said, treated you like dirt.
And then Stella told her she wanted her so much to be Best Woman at her wedding, and travelling by sea just wasn’t going to happen.
She found out about these courses offered by the local airport and aimed at what they rather tweely, but rather comfortingly, called “Nervous Fliers”. They weren’t free, of course, but were very reasonably priced, and she decided it would be money extremely well spent. But now, sitting in the too tasteful grey-furnished lounge with the not quite abstract autumnal pictures on the wall, she wasn’t so sure.
“If you’re ready, ladies and gentlemen,” a tall, quietly spoken woman who wasn’t wearing a uniform but whose well-cut grey trousers and powder blue linen blouse would have made most uniforms look scruffy, came into the room. “Let’s walk over to the plane.” Joan had half expected they’d be told to take a few deep breaths, which might not have been wise as she felt horribly close to hyperventilating anyway. Like some suave Pied Piper, reassurance personified, the tall woman led them out to the plane.
You would have thought it was specially designed for such purposes. It was larger than a private plane, smaller than a commercial airliner. Trying to distract herself, Joan thought of her taste for medieval literature, though she was the first to admit that the quality of it had probably deteriorated since her university days! Would it be helpful to think of this as some kind of quest? The thought lodged for a couple of seconds as she clambered up the stairs, but turned sour on her when she suddenly thought of the story of the boy (or Siegfried, if you were into Wagner, which she was) who set out to learn the meaning of fear. That was one quest she had no need whatsoever to embark on. I can still turn back, she thought, seeing the stairs were still on the runway. I can still turn back, she thought, as others were still boarding. The doors closed, silently and hermetically sealing them in the strangely-sized aircraft. The engines started. The plane started moving. I can’t still turn back, she thought. The tall woman was doing the rounds, her voice so reassuring it made Joan even more uneasy. She told them that she had once been more terrified than any of the passengers. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she, thought Joan, in full Christine Keeler mode. Yet something told her it was probably true.
She supposed it was what was still rather quaintly called a copybook take-off. With your eyes closed (and some of the passengers had) it would have been impossible to say exactly at what point the plane left the runway and took to the air. She could have lived without noticing that the woman next to her, who she’d have guessed was about ten or fifteen years older than she was, was clutching a rosary, though she supposed that Calmair (as the organisation was called) would have been treading on dangerous territory forbidding passengers from bringing items of a religious matter onboard. Not that we’re treading at all, she thought, we’re flying, and this can’t be territory because it’s not on the ground. Joan was the first to admit she was a bit of a pedant when it came to words, and often such thoughts calmed her down. This time she had the horrible suspicion it was going to have the opposite effect.
Her neighbour obviously realised she had seen the beads, and gave a rather embarrassed nervous smile. “The daft thing is, I’m not really that religious. Not conventionally, anyway. They were my Gran’s – they have sentimental value. But she swore they kept Granddad safe, and whether they had anything to do with it or not, he came home safely every time.” Despite herself, Joan was curious, and something about the way the other woman’s eyes glowed when talking about her obviously beloved grandparents was endearing. She’d have said they were that pale blue that suits sledge-dogs better than people, but now they took on a glow. “He left school when he was fifteen,” she said, “But he was determined he was going to be a pilot. Sorry – other people’s family stories can be a bit tedious,” though it was plain that she would not be well-disposed, not inside, to anyone who thought this particular story was remotely tedious!
“No – go on,” she said, and meant it.
“But he went to night school, and had two jobs to help him save some money, and he got his private pilot’s license. He still couldn’t do it for his “day job” as we’d say nowadays, but he gave exhibition flights at fairgrounds, and took people up for spins, and the like. He was always at pains to say that no tiny part of him was glad when war broke out, and he told me over and over, and just as seriously and vehemently every time that war is always a horrible and ghastly thing. But it did finally give him a chance to fulfil his dream and be a full-time pilot. “ She paused. “He never seemed quite easy talking about it, in a way, and there was none of this boy’s big adventure, Biggles type stuff. But he was good at it. Damned good. He got the DFC.”
“Did he stay in the RAF after the war?”
“For a while. But then he was a commercial airline pilot, and relatively late in life he learnt how to pilot a helicopter – though he admitted that he was quite scared about that at first and thought there was something unnatural about them – and worked for mountain rescue. At one point I thought I’d follow in his footsteps, skipping a generation, so to speak. I decided – or it was decided for me – to get my degree first, and I had a spell as a teacher,”
“I’m a teacher!”
“Small world and all that, eh? I treated myself to a holiday – my first one for a while, and I’d thoroughly enjoyed it, too.” She paused to gather her thoughts, and Joan, who had the window seat – the porthole seat, she supposed she should call it – glanced outwards and downwards. The old simile was, surprisingly, true. The scene below did look like a patchwork quilt, though they were at relatively low altitude, and it wasn’t too hard to pick out an over-sized scarecrow in a wheatfield, or the familiar sight of children in a school playground. And – not too far away – the small aerodrome where they were going to land. To her amazement, she was almost sorry, though only because she was interested in her neighbour’s story.
“We were coming back from Barcelona, and the flight had been a bit choppy, but nothing too wild and hairy. But then we hit an air pocket – it felt for all the world as if we were going to crash, and people were screaming, and I wanted someone to hold my hand, but I wasn’t a little girl any more. Does that sound ridiculous?”
“No,” said Joan, as the plane began to lose height and circle round the aerodrome gently and almost soporifically. “It doesn’t sound ridiculous at all.”
They made a copybook landing, too. The passengers were offered the option of returning by minibus or taking the flight back. Joan, and her neighbour (they had exchanged names by now, and she’d discovered she was called Lynda) opted for the plane.
After all, the quest wasn’t complete until you had come home and checked on the way that the dragons were really slain and the spell was finally broken!