A state of emergency begins in the stomach and pulses outwards in waves, contaminating others without contact. No one believed it at first. I mean, they believed it, because the evidence was right there; but nobody wanted to believe it. ‘People are burning’ he’d said. We would have thought it a joke if it weren’t for the panic on his face or the other people in the street rushing to get away. Without thinking we were already on our way, but to where? It was a survival thing; like being chased by a pack of wolves or a bear – you know you’re not going to out run them, but you try anyway.
We had been in Malta for just a few days. I’d been badgered into taking a holiday during half term by my wife who was always on at me to make the most of our free time, even though it cost triple to travel in the summer. My dad, who had seen half the world already had agreed to meet us there. We had hardly left the vicinity of the hotel before everything changed. Our plan that morning was to go and see whatever was around the far corner of the street, which is why we were leaving the hotel at that time. The crowd expanded and contracted, right out of the populated areas and into the hills. People were saying the cities weren’t safe. Something had happened in Valetta.
When one half of the sky had blued, though the majority of people were still on the move, we made the unanimous decision to stop. Neither of us had said anything, it was just understood; we had walked for half a day, without food or water or rest, and all of us were out of shape. The sun in the red half of the sky was escaping quickly. I wanted to go with it, to hide on the other side of the Earth.
We made a small fire from dry grass and old pieces of broken fences and sat down right on top of a small hill as our stomachs made conversation. Not far away was a shack with some signage above. Assuming it was a shop I walked the ten minute distance and found that it was indeed a shop, and that it was still open. It had been nearly emptied. There was no water, no bread, and no chocolate. Bits of onion peel and cabbage leaves littered the floor. A wiry, bronzed slip of a man came out from his tiny back room. I could see the blue strobe of a TV screen illuminate the back wall. Seeing that the shop was bare, save a few packets of pasta, I asked him if he had any tinned food. He bent down and pulled out a tin of Heinz Beans from behind the counter. It reminded me of a story I’d read where a scientist in some jungle somewhere had managed to survive on a single tin of beans for a week after a rogue guerrilla army had decimated his camp
When I opened my eyes Dad was already awake, just like he had been when I was a boy during the school holidays. He’s always believed in waking up when you’re ready. Similarly he has always thought it best to sleep whenever you like, even if that means sleeping during work hours. I guess that’s why he’s always been self-employed. I woke Ceri who was snoring under the cover of her jacket
Having consumed the tin of beans the night before, we made our way back to the shop. Empty. No food. No man behind the counter. Down below there were still hundreds of people walking. It occurred to me then that even though there was an empty road, no one was driving and there weren’t any cars in sight. Except for the sound of flip flops against concrete down below the world was quieter than I had ever experienced. Sliema, which we had left the previous day, was in the East; therefore I reasoned that we must have walked northwest and were somewhere north of San Gwann. The throng of people seemed to be heading south. The airport. They were heading for the airport.
We were on the North side of Birkirkara which meant that there were two options: either go west, around the city, or cut through it, which would probably save us half a day, if not more. Our stomachs resumed their conversation. I kept thinking that if the entire island was looking to escape, we needed to get a move on; God only knew how many people were there already. Were there even any planes? A small group of people were thinking along the same lines and had already begun advancing towards the city. We followed, but with each step, the knot that had been growing since the day before tightened its grip on my stomach, which, even in its empty state felt as heavy as a medicine ball.
The streets were empty and we made good progress. I knew Malta well from previous holidays, so the silence of what had been the islands most populated city put me on edge. I was dehydrated and my shirt was soaked. Ceri was worse off. It seemed as if we had to stop at the end of every street just so she could catch up. She was out of breath constantly, though it was strange not to hear her complain about it.
When I was young my parents were never able to afford the cost of me joining the cub scouts; but my dad, who hated the fact that the human race had become reliant on GPS devices and mobile phone maps, had always spoken to me in terms of compass directions. Consequently, I always kept a small thermometer/compass key ring attached to my house keys, which lived in my left hand jeans pocket. I led us south.
When we reached the centre of the city, there was no going forward. I stood fast. I didn’t notice the heat at first. It was scorching. On approaching the corner of the street I hadn’t noticed the change. I would have walked straight out if it hadn’t been for the car in front of me. It looked as though time and gravity had colluded in some gruesome and terrifying pact.
They were there, motionless, in motionless vehicles. Some were slumped over their steering wheels; others hung out of open doors. Their faces, their hands, all scorched red. Some were caught mid-scream. They had been roasted; were still roasting. What made it worse was that all the cars were a few metres from the ground. Floating. Static. Yet still in perfectly spaced lines of traffic, even as they turned the corner at the opposite end of the street.
Back on the north side of the city, which we arrived at much sooner than we had left, I had to clasp my hands to keep them from shaking. In Birkirkara we hadn’t spoken a word to each other. There had been no need to. What was there to say? As we moved on around the western edge of the city I kept seeing their faces. I couldn’t work out if some of them had been screaming or whether they were gasping for air. Little difference that it made. It did however bring a new sense of urgency to us all. Even Ceri moved at a different pace. We had to get to the airport by nightfall – It was a goal we set ourselves without even discussing it. The tears from our eyes barely had time to well before evaporating in the summer heat.
By late afternoon we had rounded the city and were approaching Zebbug. We would have to snake around it and the neighbouring city of Siggiewi to reach the airport. It was two hours walk at best. We were fatigued, dehydrated and hungry, but our level of adrenalin was at boiling point. The horror of Birkirkara had ignited in us all a sense of immediacy and the urge to flee. I kept wondering: if cars were suspended in the air then maybe all the planes would be too, but it was too awful a thought to hold onto. There were so many questions and not a single hope of answering them.
There were planes, six or seven of them queuing for runway. As soon as one landed, one took off. As the airport’s only two runways crossed each other at the north end, there seemed to be a highly organised sequence of landing and taking off in perfect synchronicity. Some of the planes looked decidedly military. I had to squint my eyes for all the lights, and the roar of the engines inspired a feeling of hope that caused my lips to grin uncontrollably. I was shocked back to life. It felt as if, up until that moment, I had been absent, trapped in the static of a television receiving no signal. It was an evacuation. We were saved
‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is the pilot speaking. In light of recent events we will be taking off very quickly. Please make sure that you secure your seat belts and make sure your seats are in an upright position. We have a limited number of flight attendants on board so we are unable to give you the usual safety demo. You know where the exits are – they’re all illuminated.’ All of the entertainment screens on the backs of the seats displayed the cockpit view. We were taxiing. Then the pilot came back on, this time slightly calmer. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is the pilot speaking. In spite of the fact that we have a limited service capacity, food will be served thirty minutes after take-off, and anyone who requires it, can have alcoholics drinks free of charge. Once again, please make sure you have secured your seat belts’. There was no stopping. We rounded the corner to the runway and the plane immediately began its charge. We were in the air.
I looked at Ceri in the seat next to me and my dad in the interior row. His smile relieved me of some of the terror in Ceri’s face. We still had nothing to say. There was nothing to say. We had seen the impossible. It was impossible, and the higher we flew the harder it was to believe. Gravity pulled everything downwards. Our aircraft would eventually land, with the help of gravity. It was a rule, a golden rule that couldn’t be reversed or disproved. When an apple fell off a tree it hit the ground. If I opened the door of the plane, we would, within minutes, all be soup. This was a rule, one of very few guarantees in life.
The silence was broken by the only two flight attendants attempting to serve food and earphones in long relays. They were clearly rushed off their feet. I was miles away. Sat in the window seat, I looked down on the world, trying to remember my physics lessons from high school. I had failed physics, and maths, and just about everything else, except geography. When our attendant was hurrying past by to refill his empty trolley I called out ‘What airline is this? Where are we going?’ My voice was raspy, like it is after a night out and a hundred cigarettes. ‘KLM, Amsterdam.’ Amsterdam. I immediately thought of my friend, Meic, who I hadn’t seen since he had emigrated there three years before.
The attendant seemed to take ages reaching us. When he did I realised why. We were each given double helpings. There were two silver meal boxes on my tray, one on top of the other, two salads; two mini loafs of bread, two jams. That first taste of hot food was sensational. Ceri even made a long ‘mmmmm’ sound after swallowing her first tomato. She stole my jam and replaced it with butter. My dad traded nothing. Looking across at him he seemed calm. He was even searching through the movies section of the entertainment system. A sense of normality returned to everyone. People started talking. It’s amazing how food calms people. After reminding my dad about Meic, he asked after accommodation at Meic’s apartment. As if I knew. Then he asked about local cafes. I hadn’t a clue. Ceri, who was the only one of us who had been to The Netherlands, began recalling her experiences there. My dad made a slight wink at me. Ceri’s face was no longer distorted by fear. Dad encouraged her story about tasting Dutch cupcakes while she was on a bus tour of Europe.
There was an hour and a half left before we were due to land. My two travelling companions fell asleep quite quickly. Their snoring comforted me, even though they sounded like two pigs taking it in turns to sing a strange rendition of three blind mice. It was then and only then that I felt brave enough to access the news on the entertainment screen. It didn’t work. I thought about calling the flight attendant but changed my mind. There was nothing he could have done and I would have woken everyone who was asleep. I turned the screen off and on again. This time the news came on.
There was nothing. No mention of any floating, or burning people. A fire had broken out in Australia but was under control; Russian Western relations had soured again; and the Euro was facing another crisis. No Malta. No horror scenes. The knot in my stomach, which I hadn’t noticed relax, began to twist once more. If nothing had happened, why were we on the plane? Why were we leaving Malta for Amsterdam? All of us on board were testimony to the fact that something that had happened. Or were we?
Taking the headphones out of their plastic wrap without making too much of a rustling sound wasn’t easy, but not impossible. I plugged the jack into the socket and tapped the touch screen. I needed something that would perk me up. I didn’t want a film because I couldn’t think of one positive enough to lift my spirits. I hit the music section and went for classics. Abba Gold. Dancing Queen came roaring into my ears. I fumbled with the handset, still in its cradle and nudged the volume down a touch. It was wonderful being told that I could dance and jive while having the time of my life. I put my head back, closed my eyes and gave into the magic of Swedish-summer-disco-pop. I tapped my index finger on the arm rest to the beat before dropping off.
A burning sensation started at my feet. Engulfed me in flames. I was burning. My mouth wouldn’t move. It was full of flames. I could feel it, my tongue suspended in my mouth. I couldn’t move. But I could see. I could feel. I wanted to cry but tears wouldn’t form. But worse was the feeling of sadness. My hands clinched the arm rests as everything I had ever done or said wrong came back to me all at once. And I sat there drowning in melancholia under waves of every cruel word I’d ever spoken.
Abba. I could hear Abba. It went and came back again. One minute I was paralysed under the weight of a thousand guilts, the misery of every heartbreak I’d ever known and the boredom of every Monday morning; and the next I was running. Somewhere in my mind I could hear Abba. I tried to follow the lyrics. The music got louder, then quieter, then louder again. In my mind I was running, faster and faster, towards a disco. I woke to a sea of roasted heads. But I was alive. Though I was rigid with fear, glancing left and right I could see that some others were still alive too. And what was more; everyone who wasn’t burned had headphones in their ears.
Petrified, I turned my head to the right. Ceri, still asleep, had headphones in her ears, and my dad, whose snore I could hear through the disco beats, was connected via headphones to a movie on the screen in front of him: Happy Feet. It was the sound. It had something to do with the sound.
A shout rang out, then muffled. Then another. With each one I could see another head scorched. Ceri’s eyes opened; widened. Before I had even thought about it my right hand was on her volume control and my left hand was holding hers. The shock of blaring music stifled her scream, but for a second, just a split second, she felt boiling. I turned the music right up until I could hear the faint sound of Britney Spears over Abba. I exaggerated a smile. I needed her to smile back. I was desperate for her to understand. Poking my tongue out slightly I touched the tip of my nose. It worked.
We both looked over at my dad slouching comfortably in his chair, his mind lost in a happy world of dancing, singing penguins.
Copyright © Michael A Oliver-Semenov, 2015
Michael A Oliver-Semenov singlehandedly invented the apple, which unbeknownst to him was planted in the Garden of Eden and turned the whole world t’shit. Michael’s work has most recently been published in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Mandala Journal (University of Georgia USA) and Cheval 7: the Terry Hetherington Award Anthology. Michael’s non-fiction memoir, Sunbathing in Siberia: A marriage of East and West in Post-Soviet Russia was published last year by Parthian.
Banner Image, Copyright © Jo Mazelis, 2015