Authors: Hanif Kureishi
Stories and Essays
to Sachin Kureishi
The stewardess brought Daniel a glass of champagne and some roasted nuts. The champagne wasn’t good, but it would lighten his heavy head and reduce his irritability. Standing, he drank it back at once and was relieved to hand his jacket to the smiling stewardess and remove his shoes, settling into his seat not long before the plane was due to leave the gate. He was aware that people with real money went private. Still, you didn’t get this service on a bus. He would enjoy a temporary, restful passivity. It had taken him years to reach this condition of ease; he’d make the most of it – particularly after what he’d just endured.
He had been late getting to the airport from his hotel. He travelled often, and it had become his habit, on the flight home, to loiter with several drinks, food and the newspapers in the aimless area of the First Class Lounge. But he’d been stuck in a terrible meeting, his driver was delayed and the road to the airport was blocked. Airport security – or ‘insecurity’, as his teenage children called it – had been obtrusive and slow. Although he always checked the news at least twice an hour, he wondered
if there’d been an incident he hadn’t heard about. In the security hall – a sweaty shed of crawling conveyor belts carrying luggage, clothes and shoes past monitors – he’d had to watch strangers undress, before removing his own clothes, apart from trousers and T-shirt. He was made to stand inside an X-ray machine so security personnel could inspect his organs, for fear he was concealing toxic material in his heart or kidneys.
At last he could relax. Soon he would eat. There’d be more to drink. He’d watch a movie, but he had to sleep. To be certain, he’d brought his pills. At the end of the working day, two hours after the seven-hour flight landed in his home city, he was due at a meeting which at least ten people would attend. He’d need to check his notes and prepare himself. He was keen to feel fresh. There would be a driver at the airport holding up a sign with his name on it. He hoped the car was quiet, with darkened windows. He would sink into himself, wearing headphones to block out the street noise. If his latest documentary project was green-lit, he and his company could survive another two years. Otherwise he might have to close it, lay off the employees and find something else to do, if, indeed, there was anything out there. In his mid-fifties, he could be facing a long idleness. Many of his friends were beginning to slow down, moving to the country and working less, but his situation could never be as comfortable.
At the gate he’d been informed that the flight would
be packed. When he boarded, before turning to the front of the plane, he’d glanced into the economy section and seen that, sure enough, all the seats appeared to be taken. Gazing at the rows of faces, he felt a surge of claustrophobia: hundreds of strangers forced together – unwittingly smelling, touching and looking at one another – as they sat in a narrow pipe flung through the air at fantastic speed. Why would he worry? He’d flown hundreds of times; it was no different to travelling on the subway and, on arrival, he’d never think of it again.
The place he’d booked was in the second row. His section of the plane was more sedate, but it wasn’t paradise. In the seat ahead of him sat a young woman feeding a baby. Across the aisle was a man in his early thirties reading the newspaper, presumably the child’s father. At present the baby was chuckling and gurgling. With two children himself, Daniel was aware how rapidly moods could switch in a child.
The air stewardess refilled his glass. To his left sat a smart woman in her early forties. Wearing black, she had expensive hair: tinted, streaked and highlighted. At her feet was a box. He watched as she opened it and pulled out a wrinkly faced, snub-nosed dog which sneezed and looked at him. He was surprised and a little agitated. He’d never seen a dog on a plane before. Was it allowed? Suppose it barked and tried to bite him? Suppose the animal shat?
He glanced at other passengers to see whether they’d noticed. Behind the dog woman was a slim but wide-chested, possibly Spanish or Italian man in sports clothes, with a baseball cap pulled down over his forehead and white headphone buds in his ears, looking like someone who didn’t want to be recognised. Daniel stared hard and could make him out: he was a well-known footballer. Daniel was pleased; he’d be able to impress his kids and their friends if, when the man was asleep, he got a photograph.
The dog woman now had the animal on her lap and appeared to be talking to it. When the stewardess passed Daniel, he indicated the dog, but she only shrugged and brought him another drink. If there was anything she could get him, he just had to ask.
The child screamed throughout the flight and the father refused to meet Daniel’s glare of reproach. The dog slept on the woman’s chest and didn’t bark or shit. The stewardess and her colleagues pushed a trolley through the cabin containing watches, pens, electronic goods and perfumes. They were forgettable fool’s trinkets; he thought of his basement at home, full of discarded things that had cost money. And he was broke, by which he meant that he spent all he earned. But the alcohol made him intelligently reckless. Money came and went; he worried and counted it and fantasised about having more of it, yet nothing much changed. He liked to say that he was secure, yet insecure, like the world.
He considered taking something home for the kids and his wife but fell asleep. Hours later, as they approached the city, he began to gather his books and papers. They were told there would be a fifteen-minute delay due to congestion.
This Daniel had anticipated; he’d made sure his assistant had left time for him to get to the meeting. He hoped it wouldn’t take long for him to pick up his luggage and clear the airport. However, after thirty minutes they were informed there’d be a further delay. They were in a stack and would have to circle the city. He was impatient, yet had to admit the city looked exquisite as they circled: imperious, wealthy and cultured with its banks, churches, galleries and parks, and the glittering diamond-studded snake of the river lying across it. He loved that view, but not so much he wanted to see it four times.
Forty minutes later another announcement: it wasn’t good news. There had been a computer blackout on the ground and planes were unable to land for the time being. A groan went around. People sighed and cursed and drummed their feet. Daniel asked the stewardess how long ‘the time being’ was, receiving a shrug in reply.
As they looped the city he could see it darkening.
air stewardess brought him more drinks, and he didn’t like to refuse for fear it would encourage her to be negative. She told him her name, Bridget, and brought another drink. He couldn’t tell how intoxicated he was, but it
wasn’t enough. He warned himself to be careful. They could still be off this plane in thirty minutes and he had a meeting to attend that would decide important matters. But there was something about being in the impersonal space of an aircraft, like a hotel or a hospital, that could make one irresponsible, if not overexcited.
After one more tour of the city, the seatbelt sign came on and the captain told passengers to return to their seats. Standing passengers hurried as the plane dipped and trembled in the wind. This turbulence made Daniel buoyant. They must have entered another fresh patch of sky. They were descending and all would be fine. He drank some water and shook his head to clear it.
Following another announcement about the ‘ongoing’ delay, Bridget came over to tell him that the malfunction wasn’t quite repaired. And when it was, it would be a while before they got down since scores of flights ahead of them had been circling for hours.
Time passed and other passengers fretted and protested as they missed connections and appointments. He missed his meeting; it would be clear to those waiting how and why. He was not even annoyed now and was able to stop composing angry letters of complaint. How little time, in the actual world, did he put aside for contemplation. So he contemplated: he became moved by his own helplessness, and wept a little at the thought of his children doing their homework at the kitchen table or in
their rooms, and his wife of three years telling her stepchildren not to worry, their father would be back soon. It was important he saw the kids. They’d go to school in the morning; it would be another two weeks before they came again. And loved, at last, he longed for his wife’s frequent kisses; it occurred to him that the loved and the unloved are a different species.
There was a further announcement, this time from the reassuring voice of the captain. Engineers were busy working on the malfunction, which had closed many airports. Passengers were not to worry, the work was proceeding successfully. It would be about ninety minutes before they landed, and meanwhile passengers were encouraged to relax, enjoy the rest of their flight and choose this airline again.
Bridget fetched Daniel a Bloody Mary and, answering his question, laughed and said she had no idea whether it had been a terrorist cyber-attack or not, but she thought it unlikely. Daniel sat through another movie and thought of his friends having supper; he imagined their houses, their talk, their food and their ignorance of the futility he was experiencing. To prevent himself becoming too maudlin, he took another pill, watched the city grow dim and the lights come on, turned over and tried to sleep. When he awoke, they’d be on the ground and he’d go straight home. The meeting would be rearranged. The world was hell itself, but most misfortunes happened to other people.
It was dark when he woke up at three thirty in the morning, parched, hungry and aching. Despite being at the luxury end of the plane, he felt as though he’d slept on a park bench, and crucifixion would have been preferable. Some passengers were moving about the plane but the staff were absent – asleep, he guessed. He drank some water. This was the longest air delay he’d experienced.
He must have dropped off again, because the next thing he was aware of was some sort of commotion. ‘Hey, what d’you think you’re doing?’ someone said. There were other raised voices behind him, and peals of agreement. ‘Stop him, stop him,’ said someone else. ‘Call the captain!’ What was the man doing?
Daniel turned to look and then rose to get closer.
There was no actual resistance to the uprising which appeared to be going on. A huge man with a large head whom Daniel had noticed earlier at the back of the plane had left his place. His torso barely concealed by a sweat-stained T-shirt, and weakly supported on his little legs, the man had abandoned his seat in the centre of a row and was determinedly moving along the aisle, clutching each headrest as he went, before butting through the curtain and into the segregated area of Business Class. He collapsed into the empty seat behind the footballer, snatched at the control which converted the seat into a bed, rolled over and fell asleep noisily.
The passengers in Daniel’s section – apart from the footballer, who looked at no one – caught one another’s eyes. Daniel looked away: he’d realised that what was horrible was the idea that these formerly anonymous people could become real, and might even begin to matter to him a little. He would have to forfeit his superiority, even his contempt, in exchange for sympathetic exchange with strangers.
‘Well, well,’ he said, looking at the snoring huge man. Without the assistance of the rugged midfielder, who would attempt to move or dispute with him? Who had the authority or will? Bridget and her other colleagues, who had appeared at the scene, merely stood and watched, before returning to the galley. Daniel went back to his seat and stared ahead. It was a turning point: the barricades had been stormed, the Berlin Wall had been breached and nothing would be the same in this prison in the sky. ‘Oh God,’ he said. ‘Who will help us!’
‘No one!’ said the dog woman. ‘No one cares! We have been forgotten.’
‘I doubt it,’ said Daniel. ‘How could you forget an airplane?’
Bridget leaned over him and said, ‘If you can, get some sleep. We’re going to be up here for a while. It’s proving difficult to find out what’s going on.’
As she spoke he touched her arm, and she didn’t move hers. Since he had married for a second time he’d been
faithful to his lover, friend and wife as he’d promised he would. But here, perhaps he could make an exception. He laughed to himself: how foolish all this was making them.
He drank a couple of beers, Bridget covered him up and tucked him in, and he managed to pass out. But eventually, despite his efforts, he had no choice but to wake up. Consciousness was no longer a blessing. Then there was more day, and everything in front of him had shifted.
The galley was crowded with passengers from the back of the plane, who were hunched and concentrated. The area resembled the back door of Daniel’s local supermarket, where beggars would gather around the bins to collect unwanted food. The passengers riffled through drawers and cupboards, pulled out bread rolls, grabbed water bottles, scuffled over fruit and secured whatever food they could grab inside their clothes. He was hungry himself, he realised, but he wasn’t ready yet to fight for an apple.
Daniel opened the blind next to him and saw they were flying higher than before and, possibly, still in a circle. In the distance he glimpsed three other planes but he couldn’t see the ground. It was bright daylight, and even colder in the plane now. His mouth stank of burnt things; his stomach was empty. He found beside him a full bottle of water, which he sipped from surreptitiously and then concealed, for fear someone would see.
He had held on for as long as he could, but it was time for him to go to the toilet again. He attempted to walk to the back of the plane to stretch his legs and see what conditions were like. It took him some time; he tried to step carefully. There were heads, hands and feet scattered everywhere, as if someone had flung them on the floor. People were sleeping in the aisles, freeing space for others to lie on the seats. Daniel tripped and fell into someone who punched him in the side; as he tried to get up, they socked him again. ‘Hey!’ he shouted. ‘Look out – I’m a person!’ It was a refugee scene of some despair, a barely living pile of humanity, noisy with groans and complaints. People asked him for food as he passed. Someone lit a cigarette. The ceiling appeared to be dripping but he didn’t understand why.