Authors: Richard Blanchard
Chris and Juliet stand up to follow them but can only walk two paces.
“How are your children Chris?” Juliet tries to tempt Chris into his first words in her company.
“Great, all five of them.”
“Wow, you must have wanted a lot of kids,” Juliet says jovially.
Chris looks puzzled as if there was some family planning involved.
“You got any?” he hoped.
“Yes, Ethan, he's sixteen. I am so proud of him. He should be going into sixth form in September toâ¦” Juliet tails off as she realises the detail means nothing to him and Chris has stopped listening to what he perceives as middle-class babble.
“You must be proud of your brother getting married at last.” Juliet over emphasises her statement to Chris whilst turning towards me with a collusive smile to acknowledge that this is really her addressing me.
“Suppose.” Chris looks puzzled. In his eyes marrying someone two years after you had a child with them doesn't seem that admirable.
From my seated position I detect a faint smell of iron from her, maybe indicating a fading period. Unfortunately from Chris I receive the pungent sweaty aroma of someone who doesn't change his socks regularly enough.
“We are now boarding rows fifteen to thirty,” the steward announces.
Johnny, Max, Steve and Robert stand to attention as Chris and Juliet walk forward at last.
The crowd pushes Johnny and Max into a pair. Johnny is ill at ease, he knows the many lies that this particular hypocritical Christian has foisted on me over the years.
“Look what I have got.” Max shows Johnny a bag crammed with pornography. Johnny recoils from the partially open mouths and legs spilling from their front covers.
“Where are you working now?” Max enquires, knowing the answer.
“Just doing guitar lessons from home.”
“How can you earn a decent living at that?”
“Just something I can do and feel rewarded for.” Johnny is undaunted by their different values. However Max seems to be threatened by this worthy world, presumably hoping it would stay away from his.
“What do you think of the new Killers album?” Johnny thinks he is moving the conversation on by generously inviting dialogue, instead Max is privately seething that he doesn't have the ability to comment on something he should.
I stand as the final rows are called. Steve and Robert are another imbalanced pairing.
“Suppose you have been to Chamonix before,” Steve gives the floor to Robert.
“Skied it from top to bottom. I climbed Mont Blanc and then skied off-piste down the VallÃ©e Blanche in one day. It's the toughest resort I know. Why do you think I wanted to come here?” Robert doesn't skip a beat in offering his selfish perspective on my weekend.
“Suppose you have a few air miles now.” Steve is trying to make it onto Robert's social radar by constantly giving Robert the chance to speak.
“I'm a director at BA, I don't need them. Just what do you do again?” Robert finally asks with clear disdain.
“I work with Dan as part of a creative team. He writes words for my creative visualisation.”
“You paint pretty pictures then?” Robert dismisses Steve's work.
“I will be Creative Director before long.”
“Oh!” Robert is bored and tries to end his participation in the conversation.
“Where's the stag sitting then?” I tell Robert 32C, gained after my request for an aisle seat. He looks even less interested in me than Steve, but he is trying to shake him off.
“I've got some Charlie for later if you want some,” Steve offers.
“I gave it up years ago, it's for losers.” Steve's social coffin is nailed with a hammer blow.
“Hi gorgeous, the picture doesn't do me justice does it?” Robert reaches the desk four people ahead of me and glows at the dark-haired flight attendant who lingers over his boarding pass. The world is suspended around him as he makes advances to her; the presence of the queue behind them disappears. Their private amusement is all that matters.
I tail my stags out onto the puddle-ridden tarmac. I cannot carry their collective behaviour for five days; they will all have to work out a way to co-exist. The rush of spring air sears through my heart again. I relive the sheer relief I felt earlier at Bepe's return. Maybe I can just enjoy the fact I have a son re-born to me after this mangled start.
I am the last of the party to clank onto the spongy passenger stairs; my trip is confirmed. I pass the final security checkpoint at the airplane door and am ushered humourlessly down the aisle by the flighty flight attendant that was so attentive to Robert.
A mild “Wooorrrâ¦” greets my approach to my seat, a noise cast from different sides of the plane. My height means I always feel restricted on a plane, I keep my head and eyes down hoping the noise will fade away.
“Hello there sexy.” Steve, who I now see has an aisle seat behind me, pinches my bottom. I grin and move on, completely non-plussed by his out of character inanity. I work with this man daily, but my stag status gives added piquancy to everything I say and do.
The “Wooorrrâ¦” sound grows as I arrive at my seat to find it already occupied by a partially re-inflated rubber Juliet. The passengers around me are infected by the ridicule this brings. A large man in a dark suit sits next to her and offers me his hand either as congratulations or to show approval of the way I am holding together under this abuse. My mood collapses further under every attack.
“Your girlfriend left these behind.” Robert appears from the back of the plane holding up a red lace bra and knickers' set to the rest of the plane.
“Danny is a tranny!” he half sings, using the props as mock evidence. Some others unite behind this anthem.
“Come on, put them on Staggie.” I am pressured to put the knickers over my trousers whilst I am torn with rage. I am at the centre point of the whole plane's ridicule now; please let this stop. I cannot risk not responding to these early challenges; for fear of being branded a spoilsport, which will elicit disappointment and the wolf pack will grow hungry for more. If they really knew what I was going through, they would double their efforts.
“Please, back to your seats now.” A stewardess firmly points Robert away from me.
“We are going to do you good you know,” Robert says menacingly as he walks backwards down the aisle. His eyes dance at the prospect of my future embarrassment.
I settle alone on my needed aisle seat, escaping handicapped kneecaps and the sweaty claustrophobia of a central one. Due to our separate online check-ins and seat preferences this less than magnificent seven are scattered throughout the plane. I retrieve my iPhone from my pocket and attach my earphones, scrolling anxiously through artists, ABC, Associates, Beck, Costello. I click The Clash into action.
Bepe haunts me; he never sensed danger, naively following his nose across the road. An electric shock pulses through me; the power of “what if ” makes me squirm in my seat. I would never have recovered from today; never again would I have been at ease. I would have failed in abject manner to discharge my basic duty as a parent. These thoughts make me nauseous; I feel a need to see him to prove to myself he is still alive, but won't see him for five days now. I see a vision of a pregnant church altar awaiting a wedding day couple, but it fades quickly.
My world is in motion, bringing promise of pleasure and pain. Something's coming, something good, is it my fate?
The man in the centre seat next to me stands up and nudges my legs to allow his exit. I tut privately and judge him to have the bladder control of an incontinent ninety-five year old. I stay seated and twist my legs into the aisle.
I smell her perfumed presence before I see her.
“Let me in then,” Juliet nudges my knee, toppling my iPhone towards the floor. It dangles painfully from one ear.
“That's awfully kind of you to move,” I hear her now and realise that this is her new seat arrangement.
“I had an aisle seat way up at the front so I thought I would let that guy have it. I have never enjoyed flying as you know.” I could tell she was making this up.
“That's great.” I am happy to give up my flight of solitude.
Max is with Steve a few seats up on the left. Having returned Rubber Juliet to them I see her under-inflated head peeking from above their seats to boyish giggles.
The pilot announces a ten-minute delay to access our runway slot. “While we wait I would just like to congratulate a Stag and Hen that are travelling with us today. Danny and Karen are both getting married next weekend, but not to each other!”
I cringe again in the spotlight. “Danny is in 32Câ¦” A toothy stewardess with a black bun approaches and pushes my reading light on and off. “Karen is inâ¦” He tails off confused by her absence from the flight manifest.
“Like fuck she is,” one of the brooding hens shouts towards the flight deck. The brooding Hens are all together on the right side of the plane. The announcement must be more of Robert's work. He is out of sight knowing precisely its effect on both parties.
“Anyway 32C is Danny's bra size,” guffaws Steve from up ahead. I have never greeted an in-flight security briefing before; I use the distraction to sneak out of the knickers.
At six minutes past three we are pinned to our seat backs and shoot up the runway: our journey commences, there is no way out. Flight anxiety causes Juliet's left hand to press firmly on my right; I sense the familiar delicacy of each finger. She closes her eyes in prayer for the minutes that the plane climbs steeply. I freeze, not wanting to break this personal space. Does her hand hold anything other than friendship now?
“I hope they just leave you alone now.” Juliet has emerged from her take-off trance. “I thought they were going to make you simulate sex with Juliet for a minute.” I blush and offer a confused grin until I realise she is talking about her rubber namesake. The prospect alarmingly attracts me; my balls stir a little.
“How is the advertising business?” I realise I have been mute since she sat down.
“So so, but I think it will get better soon. It's funny; we are working on an airline account at the moment. It's ByeFly, the budget airline. It's not quite like flying with this BA lot though. Remember when we went to Madeira? They are really tough as a client. Max says they may review the account.” I am gushing. Madeira is an elephant I have let loose on the plane and it is sat on my lap.
“Why didn't you return my calls all those years ago?”
“I can't remember now.” I remember exactly. I got a ripping feeling in my stomach at the thought of her. I was sure she had dumped me to go back with her ex-boyfriend so I just backed off. This precipitated a descent into hell for me. There was nothing I could do to bring us back.
“We never resolved anything; you know, made our peace.” I had resolved never to speak to her again in the bitterly cold days of early 1992. She handled it so well, putting the prospect of us finishing to me like I had won the pools. We were sat in a semi circular seat by the window of the Hand and Flower pub in Hammersmith, where we had got off the bus after an unsatisfactory trip to Habitat. I originally took her rejection of my suggestion to buy a double futon as evidence of her dislike for anything Oriental. I soon realised it was more fundamental than that. Maybe I accepted her rationale too quickly to save her embarrassment; it wasn't me, it was what she needed. I was speechless, nervously scraping green foil from the top of a bottle of Pils lager. The communally split bag of dry roast peanuts sat accumulating smoke from a Dutch couple that were sharing our booth. Their happiness mocked us. Those feelings were so tangible; I struggle to understand where something so solid could have gone. Does it get lost with time or just put on ice for the day that you can ridiculously re-declare your undying love on a plane? I dare not look at her.
“You seem distant. Not letting these guys get you down are you?”
“No, I am just dealing with a lot babe.” The babe is too informal.
The clatter of unclasped metal locks and the hot smell of the first opened meal trolley wafts down the cabin, prompting me to take my leave to go to the toilet at the front of the plane. I shudder at the prospect of more resolution but have decided I must make some. I rise slowly to avoid hurt and turn round to locate my stags; Robert is the only one I can't see but I should keep him in full view from now on.
“Hi mate.” I find Johnny sat opposite the toilet door. He greets me with an over full smile to distance himself from the hard time I am being given by the others.
“Listen mate, I have decided to do something important for Bepe. I want to make a playlist, a Top 10, Top 20 sort of thing.” We share a religious fervour for our music, but with such diverse tastes have always found this sort of thing alarmingly difficult.
“Sounds awesome mate, but too hard surely.” Normally I would agree with him but decide after my day so far I can handle a more selective challenge.
“No, I know, Dan's Magnificent Seven. That's it, I am going to scroll through the tracks on my iPhone and do it this weekend.” This is important to me now.
I shuffle into the toilet where I don't breathe nor touch the surfaces. My urine is sucked and freeze-dried out into the airspace. I slowly return to Juliet resolved to move on.
“Those hens are hammered.” Juliet informs me when I slump back to my seat.
“It's their only reason for being here now.”
“Did Sophia have a hen party?”
“Sort of, she went out with her mum, sister and cousins to the Lowry hotel in Manchester. Just a night out really.”
“Are you excited by next Saturday now?” She seems to have a checklist to get through.
“Yes, sure babe.”
“How did you propose to her?”
“Oh it was a private thing between us.” Not so private if you include her dad. He had asked when the next Saturday night was free at his golf club, where he thought I could marry his daughter at long last. He said I should wake up to my responsibility now that we had a son and it would make a man of me. I smiled at him and Sophia and the deal was done without a single word passing my lips. I have only told Johnny that. I unpeel the cellophane off my rubber looking meal. A shaft of bright warmth pierces the window on my left, illuminating strands of dust which dance and lay germs into my food chain.