It starts well enough. The flight is on time. We get through security without mishap. On board, we strap ourselves in and yield to the ritual of the pre-flight safety demonstration: confirmation that ordinary life has been put into abeyance. The two attendants clip and unclip their seatbelts, don their life jackets and oxygen masks, indicate the emergency exits, all with synchronised smiles and such fluid choreography that part of you thinks perhaps the coming disaster will be quite a benign business after all, or at least impeccably tasteful.
The take-off disrupts our camaraderie. I say, ‘Seems calm enough today.’ Clare closes her eyes, clenches her fists. We all become tight-lipped during the brief but desperate tug-of-war between the aircraft and the runway’s clinging asphalt; at the judders, creaks and whinnies; at the sheer improbability of it all. But then we rise through the clouds and emerge into the bright blue skyscape. Up here we are weightless, detached, tugged along gently by the sun’s golden cord. The earth, once dark and heavy, has become just a smudge between clouds. Gravity has been vanquished. The wings’ confident arrow tells us we know where we are going.
‘Italy,’ she said. ‘Italy would be nice.’
‘The lakes?’ I suggested.
It seemed the right thing to say at the time. Lying there, after sex, which was still tentative, too much calculation, not enough letting go. I hadn’t realised letting go would be so hard to learn. Then looking out through the window, at the thickening dusk, the dark red brick of the terrace opposite. Hearing the train crossing the viaduct, heading for the city we’d left behind.
‘Garda,’ she said. ‘Is that one?’
‘And Maggiore. Lake Maggiore.’
Something to say, to fill the gap. To conjure up a sunny but far-away place that couldn’t easily be put to the test and found wanting. More than that, might just be worth the effort. I repeated it, like a seduction. ‘Mm, Lake Maggiore.’ To try to convince us both.
We lay there, thinking the same thoughts. Here and now might be a disappointment, given the build-up, the expectations, the fall-out. But perhaps it wasn’t our fault, not deep down. We’d surely find our real selves over there, freed from this confinement, the weight of dark brick and guilt. We made mental pictures of ourselves standing together by the blue waters, feeling the warm stones under our feet, looking over to the green slopes, the crags and peaks beyond. As though our better selves had already taken up residence at the villa behind us (dazzling white, colonnaded, the bougainvillea tumbling over its terraces) and would be there, at the entrance, to welcome us, to show us how it was done.
‘They do flights from Cardiff,’ I said.
‘I’ll find out.’
Pause. ‘I wouldn’t want to chance it.’
‘There’ll be packages,’ I said. ‘All in. Flight, transfer, hotel. The lot.’
‘It would spoil it . . . If I had to worry about . . .’
We lay there and made our pictures again. I turned to Clare and put my hand on her hip, pretended that the ‘all in’ had already begun, that the decision was as good as the act. I kissed her. Stroked her belly. Then kissed her belly, too, its skin soft and silky on my lips. Smelt our sex.
‘You’ll get the brochures?’ she said.
‘Tomorrow. Lunch-time. I’ll call in at Thomas Cook’s.’
Then quiet again. We lay back and felt the dusk gather around us.
‘Not too early, though.’
‘The flight. I wouldn’t want a flight too early in the morning.’
‘No, of course.’ I thought about this. ‘What’s too early?’
‘You know. They say ten. But you’ve got to be there two hours before. And then there’s the drive over. So you’ve got to be up at five. That sort of thing.’
I felt like saying, ‘It was your idea, not mine.’ But I just nodded. By then I didn’t know whose idea it had been. I knew only that the gap had been filled, we had found a serviceable decoy for the thing that was missing.
I am still reading my complimentary copy of The Times, glancing occasionally through the window to pick out the features which the pilot identifies. The English Channel. Paris. And now, the foothills of the Alps.
I have brought a copy of Lampedusa’s The Leopard with me in my hand luggage, thinking I might start it during the journey, to get me into the mood. Instead, I read the Sammy Davis Jr obituary, then browse vacantly through the sports section, follow the build-up to the World Cup semi-final, which I have reconciled myself to missing. I wonder whether I might catch it after all, if I play my cards right. Then, unaccountably, I turn to the business section. For a few minutes I ponder the rise in inflation, the changes in insurance regulations, the economic impact of BSE. And I think to myself, what the hell? What else is a holiday but this? To read, for no reason, the business section of The Times, and to know that it is of no matter. Nothing matters because all obligation has been deferred.
I collected the Thomas Cook brochures from town. In addition, feeling that such an important vacation ought not to be chosen on a whim, I got information through the post from more specialist operators like Collett’s and Waymark. This was also, to my way of thinking, part of the fun. Clare seemed happy to indulge my boyish enthusiasm. For the next fortnight we spent whole evenings considering the options, drawing up shortlists, trying to inhabit the increasingly indistinguishable photographs of lakes, mountains and villas.
Clare rejected the specialist operators early on as being too prescriptive and too strenuous. For my part, I gave the thumbs down to Salo and Riva and the other major resorts. If we didn’t want strenuous then surely we didn’t want busy either. We neither agreed nor disagreed, but we understood there were boundaries and moved on more cautiously.
‘Or Stresa, for the cable car . . .’
‘Mm . . . and the Alpine Gardens.’
‘Let me see.’
‘Look. The islands.’
‘ ”…the three beautiful Borromean islands of Bella, Madre and dei Piscatori . . .” ‘
Perhaps anxious that Stresa, although far away and beautiful, might still not be far enough away, we imagined ourselves sailing to Isola Madre, disembarking, walking its shores, making it our own.
‘How big, would you say?’
‘Don’t know. Barry Island?’
‘No, smaller. More like Sully.’
‘But you can walk . . . I mean, right round?’
I shrugged. We paused to consider what we would do next, after we’d circumambulated our final retreat.
‘It looks quite built up.’
‘Gives us a choice, though.’
In this way we mapped out our possible days: a mountain, a cathedral, an island, a longer boat trip, then perhaps the marble quarries at Baveno. And in between our excursions, a glimpse of the two of us at a small round table, a bottle of wine already half empty, the waters lapping nearby. And the words, too, beginning to flow as we found something, at last, to talk about, without having to think, What next? What now?
The planning filled a gap. It didn’t take the place of sex but it made it less important. Our gaze now firmly fixed on some other place far beyond our drab room and its brick horizon, the sex probably got better, or at least our preoccupation with its deficiencies receded. We were talking, breaking the bread of our words, anticipating that round table by the lake. No matter that the words were scripted by others, feeding our fantasies for their own gain. In the absence of something better, something more truly our own, it was a kind of affirmation.
In the end, we discarded the islands and the cathedrals and settled for Bardolino. It was cheaper. The hotel – small, uncollonaded – seemed pleasantly situated on the hillside above the lake, away from the hustle and bustle. And there was availability in May. This suited our work arrangements. It also promised more tolerable temperatures. It seemed meant to be.
Mont Blanc draws into view: a flattened, pocket-sized version of itself, over which one could confidently step then stride off to the Mediterranean for a quick dip. But white and cold. And if cold down there, how much colder up here, despite the sun. Bone-breaking cold, just beyond that thin, bolted outer skin.
I see water. The sky is a great blue dome, empty and pure, but there are drops of water on the wing all the same. Little rivulets. Perhaps even the bluest sky is awash. No, not quite rivulets. The drops on the wing are more like strings of beads. Ice? It’s hard to tell. But that would make sense, up here, in the cold. And then, a few inches to one side, on the lip of the engine casing, I notice something darker: an oval patch, about the size of an egg. At first I think it is merely discoloration of the metal: rust, perhaps; or else the site of some minor repair. I cast a glance through the window opposite, hoping to find its partner, confirmation that this is in fact how things are meant to be, but I can see only the tip of the starboard wing. When I look through my own window again, the dark patch has changed shape. The egg has elongated and spread.
I consider asking Clare’s opinion, but she is still asleep, or at least her eyes are shut. And in any case, what would be gained? I wonder whether anyone else has noticed. I think the man in the aisle seat is probably at the wrong angle. He would have to lean over Clare before he saw anything. I tilt my head. The woman in front is immersed in her guidebook; her partner chuckles quietly at the in-flight entertainment. I consider looking behind but I’m unsure whether I can successfully finesse such an intrusive gesture. They are a young couple, judging by their voices. They have a small child with them who is beginning to whine. Perhaps I could turn and ask, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, ‘What time are we due to land again? Sorry, I’ve mislaid . . .’ And then venture a little supplementary, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve noticed . . . It’s probably nothing . . .’ The presence of the child dissuades me from this course of action.
The aeroplane changes course, just fractionally. The sun now catches the inside edge of the engine casing. The oval patch acquires a coppery sheen. It is no longer a patch but a viscous bulb. Am I looking at petrol or oil? I rummage in the pocket on the back of the seat. The safety instructions make no mention of engines or oil. The in-flight magazine carries a profile of the new Boeing 737-500, which may or may not be the aircraft I am now occupying. It boasts the model’s fuel efficiency, its worldwide popularity, from Russia to Argentina. This is not the place to mention oil leaks. And an engine is just a means to an end.
An attendant passes by with a tray of refreshments. I shall tell her. I shall catch her eye on her way back to the galley and say, ‘Excuse me . . . Can you see . . . ? It’s just a little dark patch . . .’ She will have to lean over then and I’m not sure whether that will be possible. Clare will have to get up. The man in the aisle seat, too. And with what effect upon the other passengers? ‘What was that, sir? On the engine, did you say?’ I shall have to avoid saying ‘engine’. ‘Oil’, too. I shall perhaps just make a discrete ‘come here’ gesture with my index figure, then point. The others might think I’m merely enquiring about some topographical feature. And then, when she’s leaning over, I shall whisper in her ear, calmly. ‘Can you see the little dark patch?’ And wait. They will divert us to another airport. Geneva, perhaps. Or Milan.
The attendant walks back. I say nothing. Fearing I might, despite myself, catch her eye, I tidy the in-flight literature in its pouch, I check the time, I look through the window again. The bulb has thickened and spread. It is beginning to break into little eddies. Can I see spray? A faint mist? Yes, they will divert us to Milan, more than likely. But wherever, there will be procedures to follow. Emergency measures. Safety precautions. Perhaps there’ll even be a minor incident. The viscous coppery bulb, now eddying and spraying around the engine casing, will catch fire on descent. We will have to make an emergency exit. Down the chute, ambulances waiting, just in case. Touch and go for a while. But then the all clear. Deep intakes of breath. Smiles of relief. Tears, even. Then they’ll commission special buses and we’ll be on our way, grateful for our second chance and not too disappointed that something of a cloud now hangs over our holiday, dulls the lakes’ brilliance. Perhaps, beneath it all, content simply to mark time until we return and reclaim the ghosts we left behind. We shall brace ourselves for the flight back, reminding each other that lightning doesn’t strike twice . . . And that will be its own escape. Back to a lesser folly, without islands or cathedrals or tables with glasses of wine, standing expectantly, futilely, at the waterside.
Clare opens her eyes.
‘Are we almost there yet?’ As though I’m her Dad, it’s the summer holidays, we’re driving to Butlin’s. It can’t be far, I say. There are mountains beneath, without snow. A glimpse of sea in the distance.
Or the engine might, of course, burst into flames right here, in mid-air. That must be possible, too. A spark, even just the heat by itself, and the little slick will carry the flame back to the engine, and from the engine to the fuel tank. There will surely be a mechanised response. The engine will cut out. Sensors will tell the valves to shut. The tank will be smothered in foam. Something of that sort, anyway, because it must have happened before, and they will have learned their lesson. Nothing in the in-flight magazine, of course, but it will be there, no doubt about it, in the specification, in the user’s manual. Then we shall limp along on one engine, tilt a little on descent, scrape the tip of a wing against the asphalt. A good story. We could live on that for a week.
She leans over me and has a look for herself. Will she see? And if she sees, will she say?
Copyright © Tony Bianchi, 2015.
Tony Bianchi is from Tyneside and now lives in Cardiff. Most of his fiction has been written in Welsh. Pryfeta (Y Lolfa, 2007) won the Daniel Owen Memorial Prize. His other novels are Esgyrn Bach (Y Lolfa, 2006), Chwilio am Sebastian Pierce (Gomer, 2009), Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn (Gomer, 2012) and, in English, Bumping (Alcemi, 2010) and Daniel’s Beetles (Seren 2011). He has also published a volume of short stories, Cyffesion Geordie Oddi Cartref (Gomer, 2010).