Shallow Mind, Small World
In the first week of every November I decamp to Barbados. I winter there. We – sorry, I – own a house just a short distance up the coast from Bridgetown. It’s a modest place, with only two en-suites and a five by seven metre pool, but its location more than makes up for these inadequacies.
The chore is getting there. And that means enduring Hideous Heathrow. Over the years I’ve learned that, while there’s never an ideal day to be in an airport, Wednesday is the optimum day. You avoid the hordes departing to short weekends, and avoid those returning from them. So why am I enduring a Friday departure – the worst day of the week to be in an airport? That would be because of my daughter Ellie, and the hysterical Roberta, ex wife number one. Ellie and her mates were arrested for possession of Ecstasy, and yes, this ‘crisis’ was enough to force me to reschedule the flight. I’d be more concerned if a sixteen-year-old wasn’t experimenting. I was, at that age, and Roberta surely did too, even if she certainly won’t admit to it now. Parenthood creates hypocrites, and hypocrites often overreact, and because of this needless overreaction I’m the one who has to suffer a Friday departure.
A Friday departure that transforms me into a sardine: tinned in a long and pungent queue, all for the privilege of flying economy class. For one of the few times in my life it occurs to me that I do genuinely have something in common with the common. I can empathise with their desire to escape, as quickly as possible, from a form of mediocrity that threatens to overwhelm. Like them I feel I deserve this. I’ve earned it. There is only one person ahead of me in the queue now, and I can finally revel in being delivered to my paradise of exemption. Just let there be no further delays.
But there is a delay, caused by the incompetence of the hideously fat woman directly in front of me. I just can’t help but look at the disconcertingly large bulges on her hips. It quickly becomes an exercise in futility trying not to focus on them, as choice and preference become irrelevant in the face of redoubtable intrigue. There is the inevitable question of how she came to be this way? Her poor posture and drab attire tells me that she’s middle-aged, or at least I hope so, as a woman shaped like that in her twenties shouldn’t be allowed to breed. I’m completely engrossed and mesmerised when her body starts to wobble frantically as she searches through her purse.
‘Sorry, I…I thought I had it in here.’
‘Please take your time.’ The ticket checker accompanies this with a smile which is flagrant in its fraudulence, knowing that the woman is too preoccupied with embarrassment to see it.
‘Do you remember packing it?’
She rechecks all the compartments of her handbag with more composure.
‘Ah, yaah, here it is. There.’
‘Sorry,’ she says half turning to address me. The split second glimpse of her profile arrests me. I am frozen as I replay an incident from my past that I have striven for years to expunge from my memory.
‘Here you go, enjoy your flight.’ This time the ticket checker’s smile is genuine, doubtless relieved that this lumbering, sloth-like monstrosity will now remove itself from his line of sight. She picks up her luggage and faces me unexpectedly.
I can offer no response. Her meagre smile dissipates as she studies my frozen features.
And her accent is Southern African! It fucking can’t be, surely? Her body language transmits slatternly dejection, as she turns away and heads towards the cafe. I’m glad that her unattractiveness is so obvious and that I’m engrossed by it, as its existence is the only thing that is preventing a fear rooted in my past becoming the reality of my present.
‘Ticket and passport, please sir.’
‘Yes, yes, sorry. Here you go.’
I remain fixated on her as she meanders to the cafe.
‘That’s fine, sir…sir…hello, sir, your passport please, sir.’
‘Yes, oh yes. Sorry old chap.’
‘Already thinking about the holiday, sir?’
‘Ah yes, something like that.’
‘Enjoy your flight.’
Walking away it hits me; she’s on the same flight.
Entering the plane I see my seat. The good news is that the row of seats is empty, but I can’t see her seated elsewhere on the plane. I turn around to notice a diminutive Oriental woman behind me. I can’t tell what kind. They all look the same. She is irritated at my holding everything up to seemingly look around. My head swivels around once more to face the diminutive Oriental woman. Now she’s scowling. Perhaps she’s afraid to say anything due my height. Perhaps she doesn’t speak English, though don’t they all these days? Perhaps she feels the contemptuous look on her face is enough? She’s right, it is. I quickly move to my row and instinctively sit down in the aisle seat. There are three empty seats between me and the window. I check my ticket. I know I booked the one nearest the window for myself. I prefer the window seat. But this time I want the fucking aisle seat. Whoever comes along will just have to agree to swap. I keep my teeth gritted and my eyes fixed on the cabin entrance. Minutes pass, and still she hasn’t appeared. I slump back, exhale and I begin to relax, thinking of lounging by my meagre pool in the Bajan sun…
‘Ahh, yahh, this is it.’
My heart empties.
She taps me on the shoulder and I flinch into the next seat.
I focus on the back of the seat in front of me, just stay quiet. Don’t initiate conver…
‘Sorry, but I need you to shift over, yah. I’m in the seat next to you.’
Reluctantly I look up at her. She seems even more grotesquely fat than before. The skin on her face is rutted and covered in an assortment of moles and warts. Resigned, I slowly shuffle myself over to the window seat. There is no escape. I’m hemmed in. She sits down next to me – squashing me in – making any attack she has planned easier to execute.
I nod without looking at her.
‘Do you speak English?’
‘Yes,’ I blurt, as my fear responds.
‘Looking forward to Barbados, eh. You?’ That means I won’t be. I won’t get that far.
‘You go often?’
‘So you live out there?’
‘No…Yes, in a way.’
‘I winter there.’
‘Oh yah, sensible.’
She stops talking to rummage through her handbag again, maybe now she’ll strike. The banal small talk was just a ploy to keep me occupied? A woman looking through her handbag now seems innocuous after such an opening salvo. My body shivers as I feel my neck muscles constrict then contract as they remember the sensation from when she last had her hands round it.
‘Look out the window. See the wing.’
It’s a peculiar thing to say. This must be it, she’s making her move.
‘What if that was to fall off, how would you react?’
Now she’s telling me how she’s going to sabotage me and everyone else. She’s evolved over the last twenty years into something more psychotic and devilish. Maintain calm, calm, good god, man, don’t show her any sign of weakness. Think.
‘Well, I wouldn’t be too worried as we’re still on the tarmac.’ There, defeated her with logic.
‘Yah, yah, of course, I mean when we’re up in the air. Try to imagine it.’
‘That’s not the sort of thing you say to someone just before taking off.’
‘I was just trying…you said you fly out there every winter, I know you’re not afraid to fly.’
‘Please, please, just get on with it.’
‘On with what?…Are you okay? You look exhausted, sweetie.’
‘I am exhausted.’
‘I couldn’t get to sleep last night?’
‘It was only a neighbour…heart attack. I barely knew him.’
‘But it affected you?’
‘No…yes…no, no, not like that. The commotion in the street kept me awake.’
‘Oh well, you can sleep on the flight then.’
‘No, I don’t think I will.’
‘So where do you live – when you’re not Wintering, ha ha.’ The benevolent façade has been cracked with that laugh. I put my hand in my pocket. The pen I was using to do the crossword is in there. I click it to reveal the tip and then clasp it tightly, primed, just in case. I’ll need several stabs to puncture the fat layers in her neck.
She’s distracted as the two seats next to us are filled. I decide that it’s time to stop fucking about, and find out. The plane hasn’t taken off yet. If it is a coincidence, and I’ve gotten this horribly wrong, well, there’ll only be temporary embarrassment, but if not, I need to seize the opportunity to get off while I can.
‘But I’m from Suffolk originally.’
‘Oh really, I’ve lived in Suffolk for years.’
‘Nooit, how did you guess? Amazing.’
‘It’s the same year I left South Africa to come back home.’
‘You were in South Africa? What a coincidence.’
‘I don’t think it is.’
She looks perplexed now, eyes wide, mouth sitting slightly open.
‘Do you want to know why I was in South Africa?’
She nods vigorously, which wasn’t pleasant to watch.
‘I was doing missionary work in Malawi, mostly to impress father, he was ex army, World War II. He wasn’t shy in regaling everyone with his stories of bravery, mostly apocryphal, I bet. Anyway, I thought a little trip would do me good, would get him off my back, show him that I could cut it, you know? It seemed a good idea, but once I was there. The smell, the poverty, the heat: it was bloody unbearable. Nice people, though, just wanted to get on with it really. I left after only five weeks. I was supposed to do six months. I couldn’t go back straight away, the embarrassment, so I asked if I could stay with my uncle Peter, he owns a safari lodge in Natal.’
‘I’m from Natal!’
‘Oh I bet.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I knew a woman when I was there, well, I didn’t know her. I saw her.’
‘Yes, she used to loiter about. I asked Byron, Peter’s son, who spent most of the year there about her, said he’d never seen her.’
‘Strange.’ That was said with such satisfaction. She’s obviously basking in the glory of watching me squirm at the recounting of her original attempt to finish me.
‘Anyway, one night, I was having difficultly sleeping, too bloody warm, even with the fan on full. This woman crept in, jumped on top of me and tried to strangle me.’
‘I fought her off. She was frail. Thin.’
‘She got away. It was pitch black outside. Byron got a few of the boys to help him search the area the next morning. They found nothing, no trace of her.’
‘So why now, and more to the point how?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘It’s you, I fucking know it.’
‘I don’t like the way you’re talking.’
She angrily jolts her head away and starts fiddling with her mobile phone. Out of the window I see the motorised stairway being driven away. The announcement is made that the plane is heading for the runway and takeoff. I want to be in Barbados, but I don’t want to be on this plane with her. Everything starts to shake slightly. Too late, my fate is sealed, one way or the other. My head tilts back to rest on the seat, giving me a perfect view of the world as it shrinks rapidly.
‘Look, I’m Sorry about before, I’ve been-’
‘Apology not accepted.’
She holds up her mobile phone, and turns the screen side to my face, and presses number five. A huge bang from outside the window rocks the cabin. I am disoriented until a woman several rows behind us starts to scream, and then many others follow her lead as the plane tilts to the left and starts to sink rapidly. The woman grabs my neck as we fall against the window which is now acting as the floor. She laughs demonically as her double chin triples with effort. Even though her weight pins me down, my right arm is free to grab the pen from my pocket and I stab her several times. But the skin on her face is impenetrable, and her stranglehold seems to gain strength the more I try to resist.
‘Die scum, die!’
I rock forward in my seat, almost hitting my head against the back of the one in front.
‘Are you alright mate?’
‘Where the fuck is she?’
‘That fat bitch who was sitting next to me?’
‘Sir, please, you have to calm down. We’re about to land.’
‘Where is she?’
‘The seat’s empty, sir.’
The flight attendant and the other passengers in my row look at me as if I’m demented. I think I might be. I hope I’m awake now.
The phone is ringing as I enter. As I throw down my luggage to catch it in time I notice that the French window leading out onto the balcony is open.
I walk onto the balcony and look out at the ocean’s horizon. As I turn to head back inside I look down and see her, she’s standing on the beach below up to her ankles in the surf.
‘Sorry, Ellie, sorry… yes, it’s dad.’
She waves at me. She’s younger and has lost a significant amount of weight. I hold up my hand in preparation to wave back, but she turns around before I start waving.
‘How was the trip?’
‘Bit bumpy this time, but I’m here, safe and sound.’
‘Let me guess. It’s sunny?’
‘Wish I was there, it’s pissing down and mum’s being a real cow.’
‘Now listen. Your mum had good reasons for-’
I stare at her, and something occurs to me.
‘Why don’t you come here for Christmas?’
She wades in up to her waist.
‘Of course. I’ll speak to mum. She’ll have calmed down by then…probably.’
All of her body except her head is now submerged.
‘There’s no way she’ll let me come.’
‘I’ll insist. I promise.’
And I mean it. Now she’s floating, face down, drifting slowly out into the ocean. I hope she reaches the horizon.
© Niall Cullen (2013)