Gravity of the situation

Gravity of the situation

Thunder roar and dancing flames,
Gravity regained.
Cosmonaut Major Pavel,
Youthful,
hero of the
Red age
Braces in his helmet
For the crush of atmosphere . . .

Another frosty morning on the Steppes. The flat landscape is a faded sepia nothing. Her cottage is nowhere near a main road, little more than a wooden shack surrounded by a wooden fence which demarcated her territory from the endless nothing. A few flowers in pots had not yet had the chance to bloom, though they had shown green roots and signs of growth. She hung out the washing. Her breath turned to vapour, but she was used to the cold. Her scarf, her shawl, her dress, bright primary colours against the dull landscape, the dark wood panelling, the peeling paint, the overcast sky.
She hears a whistling sound. She pauses for a while, her lips clamped on clothes pegs as she hangs a pair of flowery bloomers. The whistling spins gets loud, pronounced, sustained, and she looks up just in time to see a parachute open, and suspended beneath it a Soyuz re-entry capsule. The whistling stops, and the capsule, grey and defined against the overcast sky, swings back and forth, then lands with a heavy thud in the field next to her cottage.
‘Not again’, she whispers.
She finishes hanging up her bloomers, spits out the remaining pegs into her laundry basket, then ambles over to the gate, just in time to see the hatch of the capsule open.
‘Another couple of metres and you’d have crushed my bluebells!’, she yells.
Major Pavel squeezes himself out of the capsule. Like toothpaste from a tube.
‘Olga?’, he says.
‘Pavel!’
The gravity is too much. He’s been on the International Space Station for almost a year. He kind of slumps down on to the side of the capsule.
‘How are the kids?’, he asks, as he takes off his helmet.
‘Fine, no thanks to you’.
‘I had to make sacrifices. For the good of the space programme, and for Mother Russia’.
‘Don’t give me none of that’.
‘How I’ve longed for your supple arms, capturing me, plucking my Sputnik from the sky, my sexy Soyuz so charred and beaten . . .’.
‘You just left me one morning. Gone . . ‘.
He seems dazed. He looks over at her cottage.
‘What . . . What are the chances?!’
Her dainty touch, skin so soft as new year snow.
‘Hugging my metal machine to your chest . . . You dainty flower . . ‘.
‘Don’t you go on about dainty flowers. Another five feet and you’d have crushed my dainty flowers with your fancy spacecraft. Bluebells are just coming up . . .’.
‘Did you miss me?’
‘I’m certainly glad you missed me!’
‘But did you . . Miss me?’
Her features relax, somewhat.
‘Yes’, she whispers.
‘They’ll be here soon’, he says. ‘To pick me up. Begin the debrief. Add my knowledge to the needs of the Motherland ‘. He looks at her and smiles.
‘They might not be’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Social distancing’.
‘Olga!’
He takes a step forwards. She takes a step back.
‘Two metres!’, she says.
They stare at each other across her bluebells.
The night before he’d seen lightning over the Brazilian rainforest. He’d never felt further from home.
‘The sky’, she whispers, ‘is the same as it’s always been. But we’re all cosmonauts, now’.

Music of the moment

‘Weren’t you here before?’, the waitress asks.
‘A while ago’.
He’s conscious that his English accent makes him stick out. Outside the diner windows, tall firs capture the early evening darkness, while trucks thunder past on the old highway. Bright neon reflects on the wet tarmac.
‘There’s really nothing special about me’, he insists, as he sits at a table near the plate glass window. He picks up the laminated menu. ‘It must have been over ten years ago. . .’.
Probably longer.
‘But I sure as hell remember you’, she says.
And he feels a strange connection inside. Sadness mixed with nostalgia. A hint of shame. Some jubilation.
‘I was a different man back then’.
‘You were on some tour, right? You and your . . Your uncle, right? Driving around the country. And you’d just come down from Canada’.
‘Yes’.
‘Oh, I sure remember you!’
So much had changed in the previous ten years. He looks around at the other customers in the diner. Truck drivers, a family in one corner, some lone drivers, a young couple. The rain intensifies and it starts to roll down the plate glass window.
‘You were young’, she says. ‘Mind you, so was I. The world was a different place back then, wasn’t it? Weren’t you drunk?’
‘I probably was’.
‘And we’d never had a Brit in here. Do you remember? We danced . . .’.
Oh, no.
‘Oh, I remember you, honey’.
She stands next to him and taps her long, painted nails on his shoulder.
‘You swept me off my feet. We glided across this very floor, the music was just the same but it was the music of the moment. You treated me like a proper lady for the first time in years. The bums at the counter, oh sure, they were laughing like hyenas. I said to the guys, this here is a real gentleman . Remember that? This here is a real gentleman ‘.
‘As I say, I was . . Different back then’.
‘Oh, I can’t forget someone like you. I really can’t, sugar. So, what brings you back? What brings you back here, to this crummy diner in the middle of nowhere?’
He wants to tell her that he’s retracing his steps, finding himself, doing something in memory of his late uncle, doing something in memory of his self, but it all sounds so trite.
‘I just felt like something to eat’, he lies.
And everywhere he’d been so far, nobody had remembered him at all. And it looked so different, everything looked like it had changed. It was quite dispiriting. Nobody had remembered him.
‘You staying here? For the night? In our little town? There’s a motel next door. Yes sir, you really did treat me like a proper lady’.
He and his uncle had adjoining rooms, and whisky. It was probably one of the very first times he’d even had whisky.
‘I don’t think it was me’, he says.
He gets up from his table by the window.
‘Oh, hon. I always remember a face’.
‘It wasn’t me’, he says.
And he walks away, back to the car, runs across the parking lot in the rain, through the puddles and the neon.

A Little Faith in the Moment

(This short story was adapted into a song by the music / spoken word collective Croydon Tourist Office).

A sultry midsummer evening and the clammy village is an unwarranted hug, all honeysuckle smells and foliage, sticky pine needles and fervent deciduous shade. Cottages crowd in on to the single-carriage road as if wanting to know all the gossip. The steep valley sides seem to funnel the heat, ever-present mounds of arable greenery, the low sun throwing long shadows from the flanks of the grazing sheep. How on earth did I end up here?

          I’d been to the pub, but the pub was a disappointment. I’d had a warm lager but the bare-brick furnishings and low hanging ceilings had made me feel even hotter. And I’d hit my head on a copper-bottomed pan that had been hanging from a rafter. There was laughter. I’d never felt dafter.

          But I didn’t want to go back to my rented cottage just yet. I had a desk of half-completed work waiting for me, and it was too, too hot. 

          ‘Come in for a bit of a pray, have we?’, the vicar asked.

          I’d been lingering in the porch of the village church. Stone brick, solid, a stunted tower a modest graveyard of slanting headstones. I caught a glimpse of pews.

          ‘Not really’.

          ‘Not a believer?’

          ‘To be honest, no’.

          ‘Me neither’.

          He had a long beard and a strange expression on his face, as if the top part of his face was profoundly disappointed that the bottom half of his face had grown a beard.

          ‘Really?’

          ‘Come in’, he said. ‘It’s cooler in here. Take a pew’.

          He laughed. His moustache was stained brown by nicotine. I entered the church and felt a certain coolness envelope me. A flagstone floor led to a simple altar, while the low evening sun threw stained glass colour across the aisle.

          ‘How are you a vicar if you don’t believe?’, I asked.

          ‘Nobody checks on these things’, he replied.

          ‘And don’t the audience suspect anything?’

          ‘Congregation, my son. That’s what we call them in the biz. They may have their suspicions, but they’ve not said anything’.

          He was tall and thin and he moved like a crow. There was a pile of hymn books on a side table. The air was infused with the smells of mothballs and summer fruits, furniture polish, and the merest hint of whisky. The vicar picked up a feather duster and fluffed it over the window sill.

          ‘It’s not like the congregation is very large’, he continued. ‘Six at the most. I do funerals, mostly. There weren’t any weddings at all last year. And I haven’t christened anyone in such a long time. The font is now where the wifi transmitter is kept. I use it to go on Wikipedia. It’s a font of all knowledge’.

          He laughed again. A series of slow, halting huffs.

          ‘Sorry. Just some vicar humour’.

          ‘Did you ever believe? I mean . . Did you have a faith, and then stop?’

          He sits on a pew and dangles the feather duster between his legs, kind of sways it back and forth. 

          ‘I had a total failure of faith when I was a teenager. I was on a bouncy castle at the time. The sun shone through the trees, and I wanted to bounce higher and higher, and touch the air. I wanted to stroke the face of god!’, he said, almost triumphantly. But then he lowered his voice. ‘I thought . . If I were a god, I’d not want some snotty nosed teenager touching my face and spreading his germs. Of course, god would have made the germs, too. He would have loved those germs. And the air, it was all atmosphere. Pure science! We can bounce as much as we like, but the sky will always be out of reach’.

          ‘So it was nothing to do with human suffering and unjust luck?’

          ‘No. Bouncy castles’.

          ‘Then why did you want to become a vicar?’

          He waved a nicotine stained forefinger in my face.

          ‘The uniform’, he replied. ‘Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and I tell you, it’s more practical than it looks. That, and the chance to spend time in beautiful buildings such as this’.

          He squinted at me.

          ‘You’ve got a bruise. Have you been to the pub?’

          ‘Yes’.

          ‘I’ve been meaning to tell them about that copper bottomed pan for years’.

          The shadows begin to lengthen and all of a sudden a shard of sunlight illuminated the tip of the bronze cross on the altar as if afire with a sudden majesty, ethereal and life-affirming,

          ‘Best get home’, he said, ‘my soaps will be on’.

          I turned to the altar and watched flecks of dust curl in the air, moving on unseen currents. I turned back to the vicar, but all trace of him had gone.

          ‘What on earth?!’

          It was as if a spectre had made himself apparent only by his leaving, as if common sense had mutated, spun on a golden moment into the sublime, a supernatural hand reached out and plucked a miracle from the ether, and my heart began to race.

‘Sorry’, he said, as his head popped up from between the pews. ‘I was picking up a sweet wrapper’.

Stuck in a sleeper service corridor with some other people

Stuck in a sleeper service corridor with some other people

The corridors of the sleeper train were very narrow and I kept getting wedged.
‘The doors to the cabins are all numbered’, the attendant pointed out.
He was wearing a cap, just like he was a policeman.
‘I spilled coffee on my ticket’, I explained. ‘Right on the part where my cabin number was printed’.
‘Can I just get past?’
‘I’m trying’.
‘Just turn to the left a bit’.
‘OK’.
‘No, my left’.
‘Damn’.
He tried to squeeze through the very small gap.
‘Are you wearing CK One?’, I asked.
‘What?’
‘Nothing’.
I didn’t really need such a big backpack. The only reason I was wearing such a big backpack was because my sister had asked if I could bring over her big backpack.
‘I’ve never seen such a big backpack’, the attendant said.
The train began to move out from the grand city terminus. It did so with something of a jolt. I fell sideways and my cheek rubbed against the abrasive carpeted wall of the narrow corridor.
‘For god’s sake!’, I said.
‘What?’
‘Nothing’.
Halfway along the corridor of the next carriage we came across another attendant leading another man in a big backpack.
‘We’re going to have to back up’, my attendant said.
‘Is there anyone behind me?’
‘I can’t see, your big backpack is in the way’.
I started walking backwards.
‘Hey! Watch it!’, a young lady said.
‘Sorry, I’m a little . . .’.
‘You’re not a little anything, buster!’
‘Can you back up?’, the attendant asked.
‘I’m trying!’
‘There’s someone behind me, now’, the young lady said. The young lady who had called me ‘buster’.
‘Why can’t the other guy back up?’, I asked.
‘We’re almost at his cabin’, the other attendant pointed out. ‘He’s got his ticket but he had spilled tea on the part where his room number was printed. So he came to me and asked if I could help him find his cabin’.
‘Hey!’, the other man said, ‘I’m right here, you know?’
‘Tea, eh?’ I asked.
‘Yeah’.
‘It was coffee on mine’.
‘What?’
‘Never mind’.
‘If everyone could just back up five metres . . .’.
‘What’s that in feet?’, the young lady asked.
‘Haven’t you gone metric, yet?’, I asked.
‘What’s that?’
We back up.
‘Hey! Watch it with that backpack!’
‘It’s a big backpack’
‘I can see that! You almost took my nose off! Why has it got so many pockets and sticky-out bits? I’ve never seen a backpack with so many protuberances’.
‘Well, I don’t really . . .’.
‘And what’s happened to your cheek?’
‘It’s carpet burn’.
‘Ohhhh-kayyyy’.
We all back up a bit.
‘You know what? It’s my mistake’, the other attendant says. ‘Sorry about that’.
He and the other man with the big backpack try to turn around in the narrow confines of the corridor but now they have someone behind them, a man and a lady.
‘Hey, are we going in the right direction for the buffet car?”
‘We just need to back up a bit’.
‘Do we still need to back up, here?’ the young lady behind me asks.
‘I don’t know at the moment’.
‘The website said there would be bacon baps’, the man behind the other man with the big backpack says.
‘The website makes all kinds of promises’, the young lady behind me calls out.
‘Oh yeah? Like what?’
‘I took this train last year and went to the buffet, which they said would be open all night. And I fancied a sausage roll. The only thing they had left was lemon drizzle cake’.
‘I could just go some lemon drizzle cake right now’, the lady with the man the other side of the other man with the other big backpack says.
‘And it was expensive, too’ the young lady behind me says.
‘How much?’
‘I didn’t get much change from six quid’.g
‘You know, you’re talking right over the top of us!’, I say. It’s true to say that I was getting slightly peeved at this moment.
‘How far away is the buffet?’, the other lady asked,
‘It’s a long train. It’s about half a kilometre’.
‘Oh, so all of a sudden you’ve gone metric?’ I ask.
‘Butt out of it, buster!’
‘What’s the hold up, here?’ the man with the other lady asks.
‘Backpackers’, the young lady replies.
‘I’m not a backpacker!” I say, by way of protest. ‘I’m just delivering a backpack’.
‘But you’re wearing a backpack’.
‘Yes’.
‘So you’re a backpacker’.
‘A backpacker implies someone who travels a lot with a backpack, so much so that it becomes an intrinsic part of their identity. I’m merely travelling with a backpack . . But it’s just . . You know . . A one off’.
‘Don’t get all semantic with me!’
‘I’m a backpacker’, the other man with a backpack says.
‘Oh, where have you been?’, the young lady asks.
‘All over. The Far East. Australia. Jungle. Desert. You name it’.
‘Right’, the attendant says. ‘Are we backing up, or not?”
At this point, the door next to me opened and a young lady looked out into the corridor.
‘What’s all the fuss about?’ she asked.
‘Just a traffic jam’.
‘Oo, how exciting! Mind if I film it?’
‘What for?’
‘I make YouTube videos of my travel adventures’.
‘I’d rather you didnt’, I explained.
‘I wouldn’t mind’, the other man the other side of the other man with the backpack said.
‘Me neither’, the young day behind me added.
‘Let me get my camera’.
‘I’m making a YouTube travel documentary too!’, the other man with the backpack said. ‘How crazy is that!’
‘Boom!’, the young lady in the cabin said.
‘Boom indeed’, the other man with the backpack said. ‘And I must say . . Have I seen you somewhere before?’
‘Yes, I think I’ve seen some of your videos, aren’t you Tim Travels Light?’
‘That’s me!’
‘Travels light? With that huge backpack?’ I say.
‘You’re a fine one to talk!’
‘I’m just delivering this to my sister’.
‘So you keep saying. I reckon you’re a closet backpacker’.
‘Is that a euphemism?’ the young lady behind me said.
‘Listen, can everyone just back up to the end of this carriage, where there’s a vestibule?’, the attendant asked. ‘This is becoming a health and safety issue’.
‘I’ll see you later, Tim’, the lady in the cabin says.
‘You too’.
‘We’ll meet in the buffet tonight, they’ve got a cracking array of lemon drizzle cakes’.
She slides her door closed. We all shuffle a bit backwards and it is at this moment that I realise that one of the many toggles dangling down from my big backpack has got shut in her door.
‘Can we all just move?’, the attendant says.
‘I can’t!’
‘Just take three steps . . ‘.
‘I can’t! I’m trapped in her door’.
‘Did someone mention the buffet?’ the woman with the man the other side of the man with the other backpack says.
The train rattles over some points and wobbles a bit. I stumble sideways, which puts extra strain on the toggle caught in the cabin door. The toggle suddenly pings out and, on its elasticated string, whacks me straight in the nose.
‘Bloody hell!”
‘What?’
‘My nose!’
‘Carpet burn?’, the lady behind me asked.
‘It just pinged out!’
‘What’s going on here?’ the attendant asked.
‘Hi viewers! One of the many downsides of travelling by sleeper train is the fact that you occasionally get traffic jams in the narrow corridors’, the other man with the backpack says.
He’s filming himself with his camera.
‘But what I’m absolutely stoked about – Boom! – is that World Weary Wendy is also on this very train! Catch up with us tonight in the buffet where we shall be live streaming a midnight drink. Meanwhile . . . Just look at this!”
He turns the camera around and then begins filming the rest of us.
‘For goodness sake!’ I say, putting a hand over my face.
‘This really is one of the drawbacks of travel. But at least you meet such wonderful people . . ‘.
‘Hi!’, the lady behind me says, poking her head in the gap between me and the wall. ‘It’s such an honour to meet Tim Travels Lightly!’
At this moment a chef in a white uniform carrying a dish arrives behind the lady behind me.
‘Can everyone please move up to the far end of the corridor! I’ve got a beef stew and dumplings to deliver to the next carriage!’
Everyone groans and we all begin shuffling in the opposite direction. The other man in the backpack has to walk backwards because he can’t see where he’s going.
‘I don’t see why we should have to move just because someone’s ordered their dinner!’, the other man is saying,
But at least I’m now moving in a direction that suits the way that I’m facing. I look down at my ticket one last time to see if I can make out which cabin I am meant to be in.
‘Hang on’, I say to the attendant, ‘this is the 2145, isn’t it’.

A lockdown Skype conversation (from March 2020)

March seems such a long time ago and the world has already changed so much. Glad that the rush on toilet rolls has calmed down.

A and B are speaking to each other over Skype.

A
So he says, he says, he can’t understand why there are so many cars parked outside people’s houses when they’re all meant to be at home. So I say, well, people are at home, aren’t they? That’s where there’s all these cars parked outside. But he still doesn’t get it. They’ve got to be visiting people, haven’t they?, he says, I’ve never seen so many cars parked in the road. So I says, where else are these cars gonna go? They belong to the people in the houses and usually they’re at work and stuff, and he says, yeah, but they all had to go out and get the cars from somewhere.

B
What a nob.

A
And he’s still going on about it. Cars, he keeps saying, look at them all parked out there! He’s standing at the window. And all these people are meant to be at home. And I lost it, I said to him, we’ve just been through this!

B
Heh-heh.

A
And then he’s in the supermarket, right? This is before it all kicked off, he’s in the supermarket and he phones me and he says, all the bread’s gone! The vultures have bought up all the bread and now there’s none! And I need bread! I’m desperate for it! And I says to him, I says, go to the bakery, I was in there just now and they had loads, and he says, what? The bakery? I’m not paying their prices!

B
Your brother is such an idiot.

A
So what have you been up to?

B
Not a lot. I went to the bins, earlier. And then I thought afterwards, oh, does that count as my one exercise for the day?

A
Ha ha.

B
Am I not allowed out now for a walk because I’ve gone to the bins? Mind you, it was further than I went yesterday.

A
I tell you what I don’t get.

B
This isn’t that thing again is it? The helicopter thing? I told you that was fake news.

A
Debs sent it to me.

B
Oh so it must be true! Helicopters coming over at night to disinfect everything. Don’t leave your windows open. Never heard such nonsense! What about all the wildlife? And farm animals, and crops, and every other living thing on the planet?

A
All right, all right, so it wasn’t true.

B
And where are we suddenly going to get all these helicopters from? And how are they going to carry all that disinfectant? And why would the government announce it over Instagram?

A
Yeah, yeah.

B
How many people did you send it to?

A
Everyone. Anyway, I tell you what I don’t get.

B
Hang on a minute.

A
What?

B
Bogey.

A
What?

B
You’ve got a bogey.

A wipes his nose several times on his sleeve.

B

So what don’t you get?

A
I tell you.

B
Go on.

A
They say you’re not meant to touch hands, right? And someone suggested doing that elbow bump thing. Well that’s ok, isn’t it. But aren’t these the same elbows that we’re meant to be closing toilet doors with? Aren’t these the same elbows that we’re meant to be sneezing into? Can’t be hygienic, can it?

B
You’ve got a point.

A
It’s true though, isn’t it?

B
You think we’re all spreading elbow germs, now?

A
We’ll survive the flu and we’ll all die to some new elbow disease.

B
There’ll be some government advice, we will all have to wash our elbows. Boil our elbows. And it will be just like a night club, the hottest joint in town.

A
What’s that? I don’t get it.

B
Never mind. Hey, do you know Justin?

A
Justin who?

B
Berwell. Justin Berwell. Actually you might not know him because we went to different schools. Berwell. Emigrated to Australia, they got the same rules over there about staying at home as we have. Anyway, he’s got this company selling these miracle diet pills. It’s all a scam. These shoddy airbrushed before and after pictures. He’s flogging these dodgy diet pills. And he has the cheek to change his profile picture to the words I deserve respect, I’m a health worker!

A
I suppose he is, in a way.

B
Diet pills, though?

A
It’s healthy.

B
It can’t be, I’ve seen the adverts.

A
Makes people feel good about themselves, though.

B
It can’t be good if he’s involved. I remember him at school. He was so obnoxious. The geography teacher once asked us if we knew where the Great Plains were and he said the airport.

A
Admittedly, that’s quite funny.

B
Diet pills, though. It’s not the sort of thing you hear about, though, is it? On a train or something, the conductor comes over the intercom and says, ladies and gentlemen, this is an emergency, is there a miracle weight loss pill salesman on board?

A
Is this a bit?

B
A what?

A
A bit for one or your shows?

B
No, it’s real.

A
Haven’t they all been cancelled?

B
Most of them.

A
Even the fringe?

B
I don’t know, yet. Mind you, if gatherings of more than two people are banned, then at least my fringe show can still go ahead.

Silence for a bit.

A
I don’t get it.

B
Things have, er, they’ve kind of . .

A
Yeah.

B
It’s all about . . Carrying on, isn’t if? Because otherwise . .

A
The way I see it, as long as we keep this up.

Silence for a short white.

B
Listen, I’m going to need some hair clippers.

A
What for?

B
For making a meringue. For my hair! What else?

A
You gonna shave it all off?

B
No! I’m just going to trim it a bit.

A
Cut your own hair?

B
I watched a YouTube video showing how it’s done, I’ll be fine.

A
Funny you should say that. I was in the hairdressers the other day.

B
You’re bald!

A
I was waiting for my brother! Anyway, this yoot comes in, big hair, huge chin. I mean it. Never seen such a big chin. I thought, now there’s someone who could do with a chin-ectomy. Anyway, the yoot comes in.

B
Get to the point.

A
Says to the hairdresser, here, can you cut my hair so that it’s curly? And she says, I can’t do that! It’s impossible! And he said no, I saw this YouTube video showing how you can cut someone’s hair and it ends up curly, so can you do it with mine.

B
Heh heh.

A
And he wasn’t having it, he kept arguing about this video, and the hairdresser was saying that it can’t be done, and then my brother had a hair cut, she did a good job.

B
Well that just kind of fizzled out there, didn’t it?

A
Massive chin.

B
So what are you up to today?

A sneezes violently into the webcam camera and the screen becomes obscured with mucus leaving just a vague outline.

B
Oh for heaven’s sake!

A tries to wipe the camera to no avail and just makes it worse.

B
Try to use some kitchen towel.

A
I haven’t got any!

B
You haven’t got any kitchen towel?

A
I used it all as toilet paper!

B
Didn’t that . . Chafe a bit?

A
Like hell!

B
For goodness sake, what are you using?

A
Pants!

B
Pants?

A
Boxers.

B
Gross!

A
Boxer briefs, to be precise.

B
Yewww!

A
It’s not like you’re actually here.

B
Why have you got boxer briefs just lying round in your living room?

A
It’s hot in here, I just took them off.

B
I’m logging off, now.

A
Log off! Log off!

B logs off. The screen goes blank.

B whispers wistfully
Bye.

The Approach

The approach

I could feel the engines throbbing through the joystick, the plane itself skimming the tops of the clouds throwing down a shadow of our outline, the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus hiding within their fluffy exterior hail, thunderstorms, bad weather. It’s a position I’ve been in more times than I can remember, the pulsating turbofans of my craft a comfort, the juddering engines, the pulsating jets, the oscillating power units, all of them at my control.
Bing bong.
I speak into the cabin intercom using that practised drawl.
‘Aaaaaaaaand ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, Captain O. Captain. Yes, I know my surname is Captain, you could say I was destined for this job. We’re about seventy miles from Westbury International. If you look out the port side windows, you’ll see a lovely view of the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus. So we should begin our descent any time soon. Until then, please feel free to be lulled by the pulsating, oscillating, throbbing, juddering of the engines as they soothe us through the sky . . . You know . . . I might even sing to you’.
‘Don’t’, the First Officer suggested.
‘Cabin crew, prepare for . . .’.
‘Landing?’
‘Yes . . Yes . . .’.
Instinctively, I reached out a hand and stroked the topside of the cockpit controls.
‘Bring us home safely, old girl . .’, I whispered.
‘Captain O. Captain’, the First Officer, Ben, said. ‘You really are somewhat eccentric ‘.
I could feel the engines quaking and gibbering through the controls.
‘Ben . . .if that is your name . . . Flying is instinctive. It’s a relationship between not only the captain and their machine, but also solid metal and the laws of physics. It’s like an affirmation of . . I say, are you okay?’
The sweat was rolling down Ben’s face. His upper lip was glistening. He stared straight ahead as if not even noticing the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus,
‘You see . . . The quivering engines . . .’.
All of a sudden Ben yelled, ‘Can’t you see it? Don’t you understand? You’re my father!’
I was silent for a couple of seconds.
‘But . . .’.
‘Don’t try to deny it. You know it’s true. I’ve been waiting years for us to be scheduled on the same flight, just so I could tell you this!’
‘But Brad, we have our pre-landing checklist . . ‘.
‘It’s Ben. Sod the pre-landing checklist! I rose up through the ranks just for this one day, and then the moment . . . The moment I’m with you . . I . . .’. Ben let out a sign, his head silhouetted against the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus clouds. ‘I realise that I can never come between the love you have for aircraft’.
I could feel the vibrations and the trundling of the engines through the controls.
‘So your mother must be Sophie’, I whisper, ‘that winsome mechanic whose coquettish charms lit up the engineering hangar all those years ago, resulting in our tryst in the starboard fan cowling assembly . . .’.
‘That was twenty four years ago’.
‘Jeez, they’re letting you fly planes at twenty three years old, now?!’
‘Captain O. Captain. I mean . . Dad’.
The sun shines brightly on the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus.
‘No time to talk, we’ve got to concentrate. Let’s get this baby on the ground ‘.
‘That’s what she said’.
‘Brad!’
‘Ben’.
We began our descent. The white fluffy clouds of the cumulonimbus gave way to a deep grey and the cockpit window was spotted with rain. A slight turbulence flexed our wings as the engines grinded and rattled through the controls. After a while we were out of the base of the clouds and the runway lights were in view.
‘Every landing’, I whisper, as we levelled and lined up, ‘is a controlled calamity’.
And the runway itself seemed to beckon us in. In much the same way that Sophie had beckoned me up into the starboard fan cowling assembly to show me an interesting leak. And then before we know it we’re down on the ground, wheels touching the runway, reverse thrust applied throwing us ever so gently into our harnesses.
‘You really only ever get one shot at this’, I tell him.
We taxi to the terminal building.
‘You really do . . ‘, I continue, my mind wandering.

Thoughts from a Cambridge hotel

Cambridge.

I was sitting in the hotel reception area this morning waiting for the man behind the desk to stop pretending to be busy. I knew that he was pretending to be busy because he was tapping away on a computer keyboard and huffing. And this is exactly what I do whenever I don’t want to be interrupted, or if I’m on a train and I don’t want anyone to sit next to me. He had very prominent eyebrows, in fact you might even call them purposeful. The left one looked like it knew what it was doing, the right one looked like it was doing its own thing, but the cumulative effect was that they were making a statement. His eyebrows were saying, we go to places you can never imagine.

From where I was sitting I had a good view into the adjacent breakfast room. It was a buffet style breakfast and I could see other guests loading their plates and bowls and filling cups from a coffee machine. They’d tried to sell me a breakfast when I’d booked in, even though the room had already been paid for. They were quite insistent that I bought a breakfast but at nine pounds I thought it somewhat exorbitant.

My parents always used to stay in places where you had a buffet breakfast. My dad would always eat too much but he would be too embarrassed to be seen getting so much food, so he used to get my mother to pile extra food on her plate, too.

A very middle class looking white couple come in with their son. They’re all smiley and looking well to do, all pastel clothing and beige chinos, while their son is an emo goth, looking very sullen, with his trendy long hair and glum expression. He lurks behind them, scowling, fed up with the world and he injustice of it all. Or maybe he was still seething over the price of the buffet breakfast. And I think, what have you possibly got to be miserable about? Your parents look nice and they’re wearing nice clothes. And the sun is shining. And you’re young and you’ve got the whole of the rest of your life in front of you. He stands behind them at the self service buffet, then gets to the front, fills up a bowl of cornflakes, goes to put milk on, and the canister has run out. And I thought, there, that’s given you something to be miserable about.

So I go to the desk to book out once Eyebrows has looked up from his keyboard and let out a sigh.
‘Room 111. It’s all paid for, I believe’.
‘Yes, it was prepaid’.
He takes my room card.
‘You haven’t paid for your breakfast’, he says.
‘But I haven’t had a breakfast’.
‘Yes, but you haven’t paid for it’.
‘I didn’t want a breakfast’.
‘My colleague has put you down for a breakfast’.
‘I said I would think about having a breakfast. And now I’ve thought about it, and I don’t want one’.
‘But you haven’t paid for if’.
‘Just as well, then’.
‘So you need to pay for the breakfast’.
‘But I haven’t had one, and I’m not having one’.
‘Anyway, you need to pay for it’.
‘Why should I pay for it when I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t want it?’
‘Because my colleague says that you wanted one’.
‘But I didn’t want one then, and I don’t want one now’.
‘So how are you going to pay for it?’
‘I’m not going to.’
He lets out a huff and slams the printed receipt on the desk.
‘Good bye’, he says.
I take the receipt and I leave. And as he door closes behind me I do begin to feel a little bit peckish.

Gravity of the situation

Thunder roar and dancing flames,
Gravity regained.
Cosmonaut Major Pavel,
Youthful hero of the
Red age
Braces in his helmet
For the crush of atmosphere . . .

Another frosty morning on the Steppes. The flat landscape is a faded sepia nothing. Her cottage is nowhere near a main road, little more than a wooden shack surrounded by a wooden fence which demarcated her territory from the endless nothing. A few flowers in pots had not yet had the chance to bloom, though they had shown green roots and signs of growth. She hung out the washing. Her breath turned to vapour, but she was used to the cold. Her scarf, her shawl, her dress, bright primary colours against the dull landscape, the dark wood panelling, the peeling paint, the overcast sky.
She hears a whistling sound. She pauses for a while, her lips clamped on clothes pegs as she hangs a pair of flowery bloomers. The whistling spins gets loud, pronounced, sustained, and she looks up just in time to see a parachute open, and suspended beneath it a Soyuz re-entry capsule. The whistling stops, and the capsule, grey and defined against the overcast sky, swings back and forth, then lands with a heavy thud in the field next to her cottage.
‘Not again’, she whispers.
She finishes hanging up her bloomers, spits out the remaining pegs into her laundry basket, then ambles over to the gate, just in time to see the hatch of the capsule open.
‘Another couple of metres and you’d have crushed my bluebells!’, she yells.
Major Pavel squeezes himself out of the capsule. Like toothpaste from a tube.
‘Olga?’, he says.
‘Pavel!’
The gravity is too much. He’s been on the International Space Station for almost a year. He kind of slumps down on to the side of the capsule.
‘How are the kids?’, he asks, as he takes off his helmet.
‘Fine, no thanks to you’.
‘I had to make sacrifices. For the good of the space programme, and for Mother Russia’.
‘Don’t give me none of that’.
‘How I’ve longed for your supple arms, capturing me, plucking my Sputnik from the sky, my sexy Soyuz so charred and beaten . . .’.
‘You just left me one morning. Gone . . ‘.
He seems dazed. He looks over at her cottage.
‘What . . . What are the chances?!’
Her dainty touch, skin so soft as new year snow.
‘Hugging my metal machine to your chest . . . You dainty flower . . ‘.
‘Don’t you go on about dainty flowers. Another five feet and you’d have crushed my dainty flowers with your fancy spacecraft. Bluebells are just coming up . . .’.
‘Did you miss me?’
‘I’m certainly glad you missed me!’
‘But did you . . Miss me?’
Her features relax, somewhat.
‘Yes’, she whispers.
‘They’ll be here soon’, he says. ‘To pick me up. Begin the debrief. Add my knowledge to the needs of the Motherland ‘. He looks at her and smiles.
‘They might not be’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Social distancing’.
‘Olga!’
He takes a step forwards. She takes a step back.
‘Two metres!’, she says.
They stare at each other across her bluebells.
The night before he’d seen lightning over the Brazilian rainforest. He’d never felt further from home.
‘The sky’, she whispers, ‘is the same as it’s always been. But we’re all cosmonauts, now’.

A lockdown Skype conversation

(This was written right at the very start of the lockdown, so in some senses it’s an interesting historical document. It’s an imagined conversation over Skype. Because back in the old days of march 2020 I didn’t know about the existence of Zoom.)

A and B are speaking to each other over Skype.

A
So he says, he says, he can’t understand why there are so many cars parked outside people’s houses when they’re all meant to be at home. So I say, well, people are at home, aren’t they? That’s where there’s all these cars parked outside. But he still doesn’t get it. They’ve got to be visiting people, haven’t they?, he says, I’ve never seen so many cars parked in the road. So I says, where else are these cars gonna go? They belong to the people in the houses and usually they’re at work and stuff, and he says, yeah, but they all had to go out and get the cars from somewhere.

B
What a nob.

A
And he’s still going on about it. Cars, he keeps saying, look at them all parked out there! He’s standing at the window. And all these people are meant to be at home. And I lost it, I said to him, we’ve just been through this!

B
Heh-heh.

A
And then he’s in the supermarket, right? This is before it all kicked off, he’s in the supermarket and he phones me and he says, all the bread’s gone! The vultures have bought up all the bread and now there’s none! And I need bread! I’m desperate for it! And I says to him, I says, go to the bakery, I was in there just now and they had loads, and he says, what? The bakery? I’m not paying their prices!

B
Your brother is such an idiot.

A
So what have you been up to?

B
Not a lot. I went to the bins, earlier. And then I thought afterwards, oh, does that count as my one exercise for the day?

A
Ha ha.

B
Am I not allowed out now for a walk because I’ve gone to the bins? Mind you, it was further than I went yesterday.

A
I tell you what I don’t get.

B
This isn’t that thing again is it? The helicopter thing? I told you that was fake news.

A
Debs sent it to me.

B
Oh so it must be true! Helicopters coming over at night to disinfect everything. Don’t leave your windows open. Never heard such nonsense! What about all the wildlife? And farm animals, and crops, and every other living thing on the planet?

A
All right, all right, so it wasn’t true.

B
And where are we suddenly going to get all these helicopters from? And how are they going to carry all that disinfectant? And why would the government announce it over Instagram?

A
Yeah, yeah.

B
How many people did you send it to?

A
Everyone. Anyway, I tell you what I don’t get.

B
Hang on a minute.

A
What?

B
Bogey.

A
What?

B
You’ve got a bogey.

A wipes his nose several times on his sleeve.

B

So what don’t you get?

A
I tell you.

B
Go on.

A
They say you’re not meant to touch hands, right? And someone suggested doing that elbow bump thing. Well that’s ok, isn’t it. But aren’t these the same elbows that we’re meant to be closing toilet doors with? Aren’t these the same elbows that we’re meant to be sneezing into? Can’t be hygienic, can it?

B
You’ve got a point.

A
It’s true though, isn’t it?

B
You think we’re all spreading elbow germs, now?

A
We’ll survive the flu and we’ll all die to some new elbow disease.

B
There’ll be some government advice, we will all have to wash our elbows. Boil our elbows. And it will be just like a night club, the hottest joint in town.

A
What’s that? I don’t get it.

B
Never mind. Hey, do you know Justin?

A
Justin who?

B
Berwell. Justin Berwell. Actually you might not know him because we went to different schools. Berwell. Emigrated to Australia, they got the same rules over there about staying at home as we have. Anyway, he’s got this company selling these miracle diet pills. It’s all a scam. These shoddy airbrushed before and after pictures. He’s flogging these dodgy diet pills. And he has the cheek to change his profile picture to the words I deserve respect, I’m a health worker!

A
I suppose he is, in a way.

B
Diet pills, though?

A
It’s healthy.

B
It can’t be, I’ve seen the adverts.

A
Makes people feel good about themselves, though.

B
It can’t be good if he’s involved. I remember him at school. He was so obnoxious. The geography teacher once asked us if we knew where the Great Plains were and he said the airport.

A
Admittedly, that’s quite funny.

B
Diet pills, though. It’s not the sort of thing you hear about, though, is it? On a train or something, the conductor comes over the intercom and says, ladies and gentlemen, this is an emergency, is there a miracle weight loss pill salesman on board?

A
Is this a bit?

B
A what?

A
A bit for one or your shows?

B
No, it’s real.

A
Haven’t they all been cancelled?

B
Most of them.

A
Even the fringe?

B
I don’t know, yet. Mind you, if gatherings of more than two people are banned, then at least my fringe show can still go ahead.

Silence for a bit.

A
I don’t get it.

B
Things have, er, they’ve kind of . .

A
Yeah.

B
It’s all about . . Carrying on, isn’t if? Because otherwise . .

A
The way I see it, as long as we keep this up.

Silence for a short white.

B
Listen, I’m going to need some hair clippers.

A
What for?

B
For making a meringue. For my hair! What else?

A
You gonna shave it all off?

B
No! I’m just going to trim it a bit.

A
Cut your own hair?

B
I watched a YouTube video showing how it’s done, I’ll be fine.

A
Funny you should say that. I was in the hairdressers the other day.

B
You’re bald!

A
I was waiting for my brother! Anyway, this yoot comes in, big hair, huge chin. I mean it. Never seen such a big chin. I thought, now there’s someone who could do with a chin-ectomy. Anyway, the yoot comes in.

B
Get to the point.

A
Says to the hairdresser, here, can you cut my hair so that it’s curly? And she says, I can’t do that! It’s impossible! And he said no, I saw this YouTube video showing how you can cut someone’s hair and it ends up curly, so can you do it with mine.

B
Heh heh.

A
And he wasn’t having it, he kept arguing about this video, and the hairdresser was saying that it can’t be done, and then my brother had a hair cut, she did a good job.

B
Well that just kind of fizzled out there, didn’t it?

A
Massive chin.

B
So what are you up to today?

A sneezes violently into the webcam camera and the screen becomes obscured with mucus leaving just a vague outline.

B
Oh for heaven’s sake!

A tries to wipe the camera to no avail and just makes it worse.

B
Try to use some kitchen towel.

A
I haven’t got any!

B
You haven’t got any kitchen towel?

A
I used it all as toilet paper!

B
Didn’t that . . Chafe a bit?

A
Like hell!

B
For goodness sake, what are you using?

A
Pants!

B
Pants?

A
Boxers.

B
Gross!

A
Boxer briefs, to be precise.

B
Yewww!

A
It’s not like you’re actually here.

B
Why have you got boxer briefs just lying round in your living room?

A
It’s hot in here, I just took them off.

B
I’m logging off, now.

A
Log off! Log off!

B logs off. The screen goes blank.

B whispers wistfully
Bye.