The throaty blatt of Les’s MG. I’ve just finished tidying up the bar after the big night.
‘Where to, Tiger?’ Les says. ‘The usual?’ I climb in and we’re off, hood down, shirts ballooning, hair swept back, the slip stream catching at the words we fling at each other. The usual idle banter.
Missus keep you home last night?
More brownie points to earn yet.
Les bought the MG last year when he turned fifty. Cost him a fortune to have it shipped out to the island. He has five kids, so his missus wasn’t impressed. Mind you she’s a bit of a petrol head herself. Likes to take the indulgence out for a spin.
The Cessna’s already landed. Les always times our arrival carefully. I squint in the bright sunshine. A tourist in a bright red dress poses for a photo. Vivid red beside the perfect white plane, wide red stripe along its belly, neat as a freshly painted model. The couple are probably newly weds. A family’s crossing the tarmac now, two kids jostling each other, shouting, racing ahead. Scenic flights around the island are popular.
We watch the little plane take off again. The wind sock billows. South westerly today.
The lift off sensation in my belly. Floating over the ground. Climbing, the town shrinking to toy size. Soaring into the empty sky. Freedom.
Les turns the key in the ignition. We never wait for the Cessna’s return.
My chin sinks onto my chest. Les whistles a tune I can’t place.
Everything is too white. Blinding. I close my eyes again. A beeping sound. Women talking. The smell of disinfectant. Pine-scented. A green sponge in my mother’s hand, wiping tiles in the bathroom.
A woman’s voice says: ‘It’s alright. You’re in hospital.’
I open my eyes. A watch pinned to a white bosom swings in front of me, a beam of sunlight striking the metal, dazzling. I shut my eyes again. Despite my nostrils feeling blocked I can smell something synthetic. I lift my right arm. It won’t move, as if it’s strapped to my body. It hurts. I lift my other arm instead, stretching my fingers towards my face. I raise it about six inches before it flops back. Plastic crackles under the coarse fitted sheet as my arm strikes the bed. I try again. This time I reach high enough to wrench off the mask. A hand grips my shoulder. ‘No. You need oxygen. Do you remember the crash?’
The island below me, like a misshapen Tasmania, only five kilometres by eight. Fringed with white sand, as clichéd as a tourist brochure. We are low enough to see the Norfolk pines, tall, dark, forest green, reaching up into the sky like hairy lighthouses. The sky is cloudless, the sea almost navy. Everything as perfect as a picture postcard. My co-pilot winks at me. ‘Like paradise,’ he says. He’s never been to Norfolk Island. The airstrip is a brown cross etched into the greenness, reminding me of pristine land scarred by mining companies, the devil in paradise. Air traffic control signals approval to land. We never have to wait here. I swing the plane around, my co-pilot rubbing his hands together, exclaiming that he can’t wait to explore the place. I cut back the throttle. We swoop towards the runway.
‘Your heart stopped beating. We had to revive you.’ My heart’s revving now, like an engine in overdrive. The nurse replaces my mask. My nostrils twitch as she inserts the thin plastic tubes. I want to pull them out again.
A clanging din seemed to shatter my eardrums, a juddering sensation as if a tornado had struck the plane, the smell of burning oil and smoke, sharp stabs of pain.
Did I climb from the cockpit, dragging, or pushing the passengers through a jagged hole? The poor metal bird, its wings crumpled as if made of paper. My head rolls on the pillow.
No, I don’t remember crumpled wings. Or a jagged hole. Or sliding from the plane down the emergency chute.
All I remember is movement, slow motion, like walking in space, like those pictures of astronauts floating around the swollen balloon of a space ship. Attached by ropes. Umbilical cords. No, I don’t remember ropes or cords, but we were attached. We. I wasn’t alone. A crowd of us hovered together, like birds trapped in a loose net. Were we still in the plane? No sense of being in a confined space. No aisle or seats. No windows. Simply space. And light. Not sunlight. Not electric light. More translucent.
How did we escape? The sound of screaming in the distance. It seemed to be coming from another room, behind closed doors. We weren’t in a room. We were in outer space, like astronauts. People crying too. We weren’t crying, not the hovering throng around me. Hovering, that’s what we were doing, not making any noise, not crying, not screaming, not even speaking. Although we could hear each other. No. Something finer, more subtle than hearing. It was like we were in each other’s minds, like we were one great mind.
Then something seemed to be slipping away. We were being squeezed, or pulled, by an invisible force. Like a baby sucked from its mother’s belly. Maintain calm, like a mantra in my head. But I, all of us, became more and more frenzied.
I stare at the nurse. She’s adjusting something under the sheet. I can’t see what she’s doing. She looks up. ‘Any pain?’ she asks. ‘I thought you were asleep again.’
‘I was remembering what happened.’
Now she stares at me. ‘I don’t think you’ll remember much. You were officially dead when the airport crew pulled you from the plane. Dead on impact, they judged. They got everyone off before the fire started.’
She smiles. ‘Your heart stopped beating. The paramedics had to shock you, like jump starting a car with a flat battery. They revived several passengers.’ Her lips press together.
A chill seeps through my body. I want to fold my arms across my chest, but I can’t move my right arm. A wave of nausea follows the chill.
‘Take deep breaths. The oxygen will help,’ the nurse says.
‘Did…did anyone die?’
She hesitates, then she nods. ‘The passengers at the back were luckier.’ A tapping sound. Something metal. ‘Keep breathing. Deeply.’
‘What happened?’ I whisper. ‘Why did we crash?’
More hesitation. She sighs. ‘Nobody knows. The nose of the plane hit the tarmac.’
My head hits the pillow. A bitter dry taste in my mouth. ‘The other…’ The word evaporates. The nurse’s eyes are big, watchful. ‘The other…the other…the other pilot?’ The nurse squeezes my hand. She shakes her head.
His girlfriend, my co-pilot’s girlfriend has red hair. She’s always laughing. I suck oxygen into my lungs. My head’s swimming. Woozy.
I know I heard voices. When I was scarcely awake. Blinded by the light. The ambulance blokes said they’d never heard such screaming. And crying. A sob. Murmuring.
‘Your parents are waiting to see you,’ the nurse says.
I try to shake my head. I don’t want to see Mum and Dad.
‘It’ll help,’ the nurse says. I can hear my mother’s voice, high pitched, tearful, my father’s deep mumble. Footsteps coming closer.
I close my eyes. A routine return to my tiny island airport, everything too easy, too familiar.
I wish the ambulance blokes hadn’t jump started my heart.
I’m standing behind the bar, my useless sleeve tucked into my trouser belt. Why don’t you cut it off? ‘Are you offering to hem the raw edges?’ I reply, especially if it’s a woman. I wipe the spotless surface with a damp cloth. Rows of glasses glitter in their racks. I polish the shiny chrome taps ready to pull the beer. By the end of the night my arm will ache. The flight from Sydney landed thirty minutes ago. The boys will be here soon. The football club on their end of the year spree. Lock up your wives and daughters, the locals joke. Through the open doors I watch the hire cars screeching into the car park, windows down, heads poking out, arms waving, raucous voices shouting and swearing. Too many crammed into each vehicle. I want to yell at them. Treasure your lives, lads. Take care. Of course they won’t. They’re young.