So far as Jenna could remember, nobody had said, “You must be mad,” or “You’re joking!” – or at least, not to her face, when she had announced that she was going to take flying lessons and hoped to gain her private pilot’s license. But nor had anyone told her she was a natural and they weren’t remotely surprised and it was a wonder she hadn’t done it before. Her older sister Kaye had pointed out, in the way older sisters do, even when both sisters are in their fifties, that Jenna had needed three attempts to pass her driving test (though she conceded that she was now a good driver) and that she had once had a bad bout of vertigo on a hotel balcony. “I didn’t even know you were interested in things like that,” she said, and whilst her tone wasn’t exactly critical, nor was it complimentary.
Jenna couldn’t blame her for that. She hadn’t known herself that she was interested, or at least not consciously. When she was a child, if asked to name her heroines, she would have been more likely to say Margot Fonteyn or Joan Baez or even Barbara Castle (she went through a very political phase) rather than Amy Johnson or Amelia Earhart or Bessie Coleman. She wasn’t ever scared of flying and was unaffected by airsickness or any kind of motion sickness, but would still have said she preferred travelling by rail or sea.
Phrases she did hear, whether she was meant to or not, included mid-life crisis and bucket list, and she reflected that those two were in direct contradiction as one implied that she would live to 106, and the other that she was on the point of popping her clogs.
Her instructor was a pleasant young (ish) man called Ian. He informed her that she was by no means his oldest pupil, and that all his pupils had successfully got their pilot’s license. The latter could have been showing off, but was said in a purely matter of fact way. She trusted him at once and he was the first person to whom she said openly, “To tell you the truth I’m not sure why I feel this urge to do it!”
“You don’t have to be, Jenna,” he said, “The urge is there, and that’s enough. And I promise you you won’t regret it. Once you can, once you have, it literally does become impossible to imagine how you managed beforehand, and I don’t mean practically!”
She realised that though he was brisk and quiet in his ways, there was still a glint in his eyes. And she wanted that same glint to be in her eyes.
He was an excellent teacher. He didn’t try to be charismatic or inspirational, just to explain things quietly and logically, to intervene with advice and instruction when necessary, and to leave her to her own devices when it was not. “It’s a shame you weren’t my driving instructor,” she said one, “Or I might not have taken 3 attempts!”
“I didn’t pass until my 3rd try either,” he said.
Ian instilled her with confidence, but she was still taken aback when he said she was ready for her first solo flight. “Trust me, you’re ready,” he said. “I’ve never lost a pupil nor a plane yet!”
“I could wish you hadn’t added that yet,” she said, but had to chuckle.
She started up the Cessna at the small airport near her home where the flying school was also based. She never ceased to feel a nervous thrill at the moment of leaving the ground, and hoped she never would. There was something about defying the laws of gravity that felt both utterly wrong and utterly right.
It was an ideal flying day. Early March, bright, but not too much sun glare, and with just a slight breeze. He’s right, she thought. I’m ready. She had realised the strange duel nature of flight. It required your intense concentration, even in a small aircraft on a perfect flying day, and yet at the same time, it allowed you to daydream and to think, and to put things into perspective.
She had been able to do that, especially when she was past the very initial stages, with Ian by her side, but it was easier when she was alone. She saw two rectangular buildings forming an “L” shape, difficult to recognise from the ground, but entirely obvious from the air. A bit like the Nascar lines, she thought, though she decided perhaps you couldn’t push that comparison too far. Anyway, she knew that the building in question had been constructed neither by a remarkably advanced Mayan civilisation nor by ancient astronauts, but in the 1960s as a school, to educate “Baby Boomers” – like her! It wasn’t her old primary school – she had lived in a different area then – but was still remarkably similar. There was probably some national blueprint for them, she thought. It hadn’t been a school for decades, but unlike some of its ilk, had escaped either demolition or just falling into disuse and dereliction – it was a local museum. Feeling rather guilty about the fact, she realised she had never visited it, but had to admit that though she did like history, she could have a limited concentration span on potsherds and fading photographs of people on ploughs. She was thinking about the more recent past, though it was decades ago now, and no point to denying it. How things mattered to you when you were at primary school. She could still feel the flushed cheeks and the pricking tears that came when she had hit a wrong note playing Lord of the Dance on the xylophone at the school concert. Her parents and her teachers had assured her it was nothing at all to worry about and everyone had enjoyed it, but some of her less kind schoolfellows had other ideas, and so did she. To this day she didn’t like that tune!
She was flying over the outskirts of town now, and over the call centre on the little industrial estate where she used to work. You heard horror stories about call centres, but she had been happy there, the conditions had been good and she and her workmates all got on. But this was the time when more and more firms were basing their call centres overseas, and it had to close. It was the first time in her life that she had claimed unemployment benefit, and though they had been kind enough at the Job Centre, she had hated it. Still, it hadn’t turned out too badly. She had managed to get a job at the library, and though the call centre had been fine, for a book lover like her, this had been better. The irony was that it was now a call centre again, and the library had closed. Life was strange. She was quite glad she was working for herself now.
She took the plane out over the countryside, looking down at the patchwork of fields manifesting the bareness and bounty of early spring. Though she had always lived in towns (though small ones) herself, she was from farming stock on her father’s side, and remembered childhood holidays on the caravan at her Uncle’s farm. Uncle Larry had been quite ahead of his time in seeing the potential of farms for holidays, and managed to combine the two rather nicely, though she did remember him not knowing whether he was irritated or highly amused by one guest who had complained about the smell of cow muck. Just when she thought she was growing out of holidays on the farm, when she was in her mid-teens, she had met one of her cousin Pete’s schoolmates, a boy called Alec, and decided she was glad she had come at least once more. She still thought of him as her first real boyfriend, though they had never gone much beyond a peck on the cheek and a walk out at sunset. They wrote each other long letters for a while, but it petered out. Still, she was so sad when she learnt (he had joined the army) that he had been killed in the First Gulf War. Through Uncle Larry she found out the address of his family – he’d married and had 2 little girls – and wrote them a letter, expressing her consolation, and his wife Edwina wrote a very sweet letter back.
Would they always have been so happy, wondered Jenna, or would it have gone wrong, like it did with Bill and me? She would never know. It was as well. Uncle Larry had sold the farm (he was still very much in the land of the living and had found a lady friend in the sheltered housing where he lived) but the seasons of the year were unchanged, and crops were still planted, and grew, and were harvested, and then the whole cycle began again.
She turned the plane round, and brought it back towards the airport over the little boating lake in the park where real boats, the splashing plashing pedaloes and rowing boats looked like toy ones, and she knew that some of the little white dots and squares she could see were toy boats. There had been talk of draining the lake in the park last year, after some kind of algae was found there, but Jenna had been part of the campaign to save it, and was glad they had succeeded. Perhaps my next mission should be to learn how to sail, she thought, but she doubted she ever would. Then again, she would never have thought she would learn how to fly.
Ian was waiting for her at the airport, as proud as any teacher when their pupil does well. As she climbed down from the plane she realised that she was unconsciously whistling, and she recognised the tune that she was whistling. It was Lord of the Dance.