"Let me see what life is like on Jupiter and Mars."
FRANK SINATRA - Fly Me To The Moon
The air hostess was kneeling beside Jack, talking quietly to him, but the words didn't register. All he knew was that the aeroplane was shaking. Yes, of course it was nothing but minor turbulence. He wasn't stupid. He understood that. The problem lay in the fact that all of his understanding was irrelevant. Illogically but inescapably, he was scared to death.
It was the first time that he had flown in twelve years. The last time had been a long trip back from Lagos, Nigeria. Over the Sahara the aeroplane had hit bad weather, which had continued all the way home. Then, because of some perceived problem which must in the end have turned out to be nothing, there had been a period of over twenty minutes when cabin crew had been asked to take their seats and he had registered anxiety in their faces. Fear had overwhelmed him then, just as it did now. When he had set his feet on the ground again, he had promised himself that they would never leave it again. And so true had he stayed to that promise, he had even changed his job when it had looked like overseas travel would again become a necessity. But finally, there had come a time when he'd had no choice.
It was all his girlfriend Sally's fault. She was an air hostess by profession, who got a thrill out of flying. They'd been together nine months, and she understood him well enough not to try to talk him into overcoming the paranoia, but last week she'd had to ask that he board a jumbo whether he could handle it or not.
Her sister, Monica, was to marry in Rhodes. There would be a huge ceremony. All of Sally's family would attend. After that, she would take a week's holiday. And she did not wish to do so alone. So Campbell, browbeaten into being ashamed of his weakness, had agreed. He would fly from Manchester, while Sally would make her way from her last job, the London to Istanbul flight. They would meet at the airport. It would be wonderful. Sally was certain of it.
She'd arranged everything for him, including (and this perhaps with other passengers in mind) the isolation of his fevered pessimism. The scheduled jumbo had a small first class compartment of which he was the only occupant (it was midweek as well as being February and way outside the holiday season). Since takeoff, his only company had been the young lady who was now talking to him so urgently. She had plied him with drink, but had otherwise kept herself to herself. Until the vibration started, he'd thought it possible that he might get through the flight without irreparable trauma. And occasional furtive glances at the girl (Holly, according to her lapel badge) had helped. She was a compact brunette with long legs, a wide sensual pink mouth and breasts big enough to seem out of proportion with the rest of her body. Herded beneath her company issue white blouse, these had attracted his specific admiration on three or four occasions.
He'd reflected upon how much he loved the uniforms which air hostesses wore. It was a relatively new obsession, birthed by seeing Sally for the first time in hers and stoked by the parties she had taken him to, where her friends paraded in their colour co-ordinated outfits like peas taking a night out of the pod. He loved the tight skirts which cut off just below the knee, adored the dark stockings with their visible seam, found himself captivated by exposed, creamy skin which knew the value of cosmetics so well, riveted by the bobbed, tidy hairstyles and pert little caps.
Now, though, the furtive glances and the reflections had ceased. Now, he'd lost his grip, and even the close attentions of the lovely Holly were not helping him. Fear had him by the throat.
Whatever she was saying, he didn't care. He interrupted it. "How long?" he gasped. "How long now?"
"Half an hour, Jack", she told him calmly. "That's all. Just half an hour".
"I can't survive it". He was adamant. "And it sounds like the plane can't survive it. We have to land. Tell the pilot... ". Then he registered her words and was confused. "How do you know my name?" he challenged, this new uncertainty adding to rather than diverting his disquiet.
"I'm a friend of Sally's", the girl replied. "A good friend. And I know all about you. She asked me to look after you".
"It's her fault I'm here," he confided pointlessly, missing the fact that she obviously already knew this. "She knew I couldn't deal with this. And she didn't care".
Holly moved a little, so that she was in front of him, so that he had to look up at her. He caught a line of her perfume, a heady line, and noted even in his misery that she was wearing his favourite fragrance. Vanilla Fields. Momentarily, the realisation and the scent made his head spin.
"She cared enough that she begged me on this trip", Holly said, the words slow and deliberate, as though she were talking to a man who needed to lipread. "I wouldn't be here if not for you. This is supposed to be a day off for me".
He was startled, so much so that he diverted resources in order to respond. "You mean you're here just for me? Just me? You're not down to work this flight?"
Holly shook her head. Vanilla floated again. He surprised himself with a concentrated flare of lust, a visceral thing. She was so bloody attractive, it almost hurt to study her too closely. "Why do you think I've spent all my time in this section of the plane?" she asked. "There are about fifty passengers back there. If I was working normally, don't you think I'd be helping the other girls out?" She touched his knee gently, and it was a shock in more ways than one, because where the fingers rested, his skin tingled. "Look, Jack", she went on, "Sally tried to change her arrangements so that she could be here. You know that. She tried for weeks. But it wasn't possible. So here I am. The next best thing".
The aeroplane shuddered again. His heart heaved, and he dug his fingernails into the palms of his hands. At the same time, Holly's fingers tightened on his knee. "It's okay", she promised. "Really. This happens all the time".
He managed a weak smile. Inside, his stomach was churning. "Look, I'm grateful", he told her. "To you. And to Sally. Particularly to you. But this stuff is ingrained in me. There's nothing you can do. Nothing. Just let me shake here in the corner, and pour me into a bucket when we land. Go back and help your friends, if you want".
Again, Holly shook her head. "No can do. Sorry. I'm going to get you through this. And the first item in my guide for nervous passengers is advice. Look out of the window, Jack. It really helps. You can see how evenly we're flying. How safe and predictable it all is. You could even look out of the front window if you want to. I can get you into the cockpit if you'd like. I know, normally that's just for little boys, but I'll tell Frank you're a big little boy. Frank owes me. He won't mind. Look. We'll start with the window next to you".
The first class area was only four seats wide, rather than seven as in the rest of the aeroplane. A wide aisle separated these seats into pairs, and Jack had situated himself on the left hand side, in the front window seat, where he had more legroom. He had not, however, taken advantage of the window. Instead, he had pulled down the blind. Now, when Holly reached to raise it, he grasped her wrist. Perhaps, he realised too late, a little firmly. The hostess cringed.
Her wrist was so slim that he could entirely enclose it with thumb and forefinger. He felt her pulse beneath the pad of his middle finger. That was pleasant, but the ssensation of her wounded eyes upon him was not. He looked directly into them. They were soft and brown, flecked attractively with grey.
"I'm sorry", he said. "Really sorry. I shouldn't have grabbed you like that". But he only eased the grip. He didn't entirely let go. And she didn't break contact either, her other hand remaining incongruously on his knee. Glancing down at that, he was suddenly aware now of a different, rather more pleasant sort of tension than he had suffered for the last three or four minutes.
"If you don't want to see outside", she told him gently, "then you don't have to. It was only a suggestion.
"Itwould just make me feel worse, I'm sure of it", he told her. "And I don't want to meet the pilot either. Like I told you. It's better if you let me get through this alone".
She studied him for a moment or two. He looked away, a little embarrassed at so exposing his vulnerability. Still she didn't leave him.
Eventually, she broke the short silence. "Sally does care about you, you know" she mentioned. "I'd say that's pretty apparent."
The change of subject disorientated him.
"Oh, sure", he replied desultorily. "That's why I'm here against my will. She's just overflowing with concern about me. I'm so bloody lucky".
.... There is more of this story ...