Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fixed as Fate

For a few yards either side of the fence a path of flattened grass is visible. People still come here it seems, for a sensation that we discovered half a lifetime ago. The fence itself is new, rising from a shallow ditch ten feet straight up, then returning outwards at forty-five degrees for a further two feet. Someone younger, fitter than us could still climb over, I’d guess, but it wouldn’t be easy. Anyway, that’s not our plan.

The first plane tears overhead while we’re still in the car, a Swiss A330, big enough to shift the suspension. We rock gently to rest, smiling at each other as the plane’s engine noise diminishes.

I get out first. It’s early and the grass is still wet although the day is warm. I catch myself crouching as I approach the fence, like a kid playing a solitary war game. I pull at the mesh where it meets an upright. The bottom wire has been cut already, and the stretcher bar unscrewed. The corner pulls up easily. I turn to summon Mary from the car but she’s already out and without looking around she hurries across the grass, ducks under my arm, under the fence and through. I twist and drop to my knees and I’m after her, pulling the fence back down behind me.


I’d expected the call ten years ago, when I heard about her parents, who by that time had more or less withdrawn from life, from Mary, and from each other. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone carries on after losing a child, and in this case they hadn’t. Instead they drifted blankly from day to day, a suburban marriage in dumb show. There are no photographs of their firstborn, suddenly and immutably gone, anywhere in the house, Mary tells me. They never talk about her. They rarely talk about anything else.

Mary’s elder sister, Catherine, was my first girlfriend. The family went on a skiing holiday, Catherine caught a cold which turned into something else, and she died, aged eighteen. The whole thing happened in less than two months. I got to see her once, after she fell ill. Her skin was curiously grey, but otherwise she seemed herself. I dream about her occasionally, but I stopped crying for her years ago. There didn’t seem any point. You can’t measure how loss affects you. There’s no control, no parallel life you can lead where your loved one doesn’t die, and instead your lives diverge in the normal way: - different colleges, different interests, different partners. Some part of you remains stuck back when you heard the news, however, like the cropped branch of a tree, with all of its potential outcomes and flowerings flatly aborted.

She rings me at work. I don’t recognise her voice. She no longer sounds fifteen and spoiled.

“Dickie? It’s Mary”

And then we fall (oddly, considering the matter which connects us) into an old, dimly remembered pattern of teasing. She suggests I’m pompous. I wonder if she’s still not brushing her hair. It is innocent and reassuring. Then she says: -

“Listen, I want to go back to the runway. I can’t get the idea out of my head.”

I experience a sudden spell of dizziness, as if I’ve stood up too quickly. I am at once surprised that I’ve never thought to do it, and panicked by the prospect of doing it now. It’s stupid, possibly dangerous and certainly illegal. And for all of those reasons it’s exciting.

“Why don’t you go?” I ask her.
“I want to go with you,” she says. “Like we used to.”
“I’ll think about it.”

We meet a week later. We had last seen each other some time after the funeral. Her hair is darker now. I’m a little grey around the temples. She goes to kiss me on the cheek and I’m not expecting it so my lips end up brushing her nose.

“Oh my God, you’re old!” she says.
“We’re practically the same age now,” I tell her.

She is gawky, and she smokes heavily. Her knees and elbows and cigarettes project outwards at unexpected angles. Her hair seems undecided. She has a dreadful laugh. There is, thankfully, nothing about her which calls to mind her dead sister about whom, it turns out, she too is reluctant to talk. On the whole, though, she seems undamaged. And while there remains something unrefined, something adolescent about her, who’s to say she wouldn’t have turned out that way without her family marooning her on the brink of adulthood? We choose a date. It’s important to Mary, obviously, and I don’t feel that it could injure me.

“It’ll have to be a perfect day,” she says, “or we’ll postpone.”

A week before the agreed date I call her to suggest a reconnaissance. She’s against it. “Back then we just used to go, if the weather was right.” I wish that there was someone I could lie to, someone that I could make excuses to, about it. Someone who would wonder where I’d gone, but there is no one. On the chosen Sunday the sky is layered with storm clouds, and hail showers are forecast. Mary calls me at six in the morning. “I don’t think we can do it today,” she says. I’m relieved. A nasty little part of me hopes that the absurd idea will fade now, that she’ll forget about it and that the feeling will go away. Later, when the hail starts I walk out into the garden and lift my face upwards. I stand there with my eyes closed, feeling the hail spring off my face. The experience is more painful than cleansing. I go back inside where the pellets of ice melt in my hair.


There’s a further fence between us and the end of the runway strip, which may also be new. It’s not as high as the chain link but it’s solid and topped with razor wire. We’re close enough. We crawl to where the grass is deepest. Mary is five yards ahead of me. “Is this okay?” she asks, sitting suddenly upright. “It’s fine,” I tell her. She lies down in the grass. I crawl alongside her. We hear the engines approaching, but it’s something small, a 737 perhaps. My skin starts to prickle, nonetheless, as the engine noise increases. The plane is a long way up as it passes over us.


In the short summer between exams we came here, Catherine and I. Someone told her about it. It wasn’t my idea. You lie in the grass, and when a big plane goes over you get a brief feeling of weightlessness. It doesn’t happen every time. Some afternoons we lay there without being lifted once, just staring upwards into nothing. It was an excuse to be together, without having to take action. We just lay there, like an emblem of our future, joined, waiting for whatever hurtled in our direction. Mary followed us one day, and after an exchange of sororal threat and counter-threat she was allowed to stay. The first Jumbo that went over low shifted her a foot off the ground. She was lighter than us, and being younger, was not so attached to the earth.


The four Pratt & Whitney engines on a 747 make an unearthly noise, a noise you’d expect to hear only in a nightmare. The tone shifts sharply as they approach. I look across at Mary. She is crying, but calmly. She notices me looking at her and wipes her face then takes my hand. Her skin is dry, rough almost. She says something I can’t hear over the scream of the jet engines. I wince and she shouts: - “I’m glad you’re here!” The 747 snaps into view, huge and low, its belly almost with reach, seemingly. And then I get it, the pull, moving instantaneously from my shoulders down to my toes. I stay in contact with the grass, but for half a second it feels like I’m cushioned by something else. “Yes,” I hear myself say.

We lie there watching the plane climb and bank out of view. There is only sky then, free from cloud or haze, rinsed clean by a week of heavy rain. There is nothing to focus on, no depth. I feel the dampness of the grass on the back of my neck. Otherwise there is nothing. “Did you get it?” I ask. Mary nods. She is shaking now, and swallowing hard. “Are you cold?” “No,” she says. She looks straight upwards. Tears stutter down her cheek and into her ear. I watch her, propped up one elbow, for several minutes. Another Airbus takes off. “I’m hungry,” I tell her. “Let’s go.” “Okay.” I pull her to her feet and we walk back towards the car.