Figuring It Out – Sean Preston

Sean Preston discusses his new story in Issue Eight, ‘Planes fly at different levels and the devils inside them don’t know it.’

I hate flying. I’m not alone in that of course. But the fear of flying is new to me. It happened a few years ago in my late twenties. Very nothingy flight to a nothingy European airport, but I was flying on my own, and somehow, the routine soft vibrations of take off unsettled something inside of me. The woman next to me, also flying alone, asked if she could read my palm, and keen to distract myself from the stubbornly vague and new sense of terror I obliged. I thought she was mad, or perhaps some sort of answer to teenage me’s prayers, but when the jaundice of the seatbelt light overhead signalled, accompanied by the polite ding to bring our attention to it, I noticed her shoulders contract and when she squeezed my hand it became clear that all she had been seeking was distraction.

“Scared of flying?” I asked her, stupidly, to which she looked at me with eyes affirming both my question and my stupidity, and carried on telling me about riches I would accrue (which, as of this morning at least, I have yet to realise).

This episode still fresh in my mind on the return flight, I cultivated a fear of flying so utterly preposterous that I couldn’t even concentrate on my book. Like a tick, there was something in visiting the fear every few seconds that felt good. There’s no other way of putting it. And so with every flight, every gentle rocking, the itch of fear grew stronger. Bizarre really, considering how often I flew as a child, how I looked forward to it every year, even long haul flights. In fact, long haul flights the most. Movies, Coca-Cola, airports, the smell of each different country. The hot dust in the air. All of these things made flying a real treat. Even in my twenties, it felt like a time I could look forward to. A fresh paperback, a well-packed suitcase, Wetherspoons, impulse Toblerone, and still the smell of each different country. How did I get here? How did I arrive at irrational fear? I remember Dad hated flying. How I mocked him for it. I just couldn’t understand it. And then I find myself forced into flying in a tiny commercial flight from the South Island to North in New Zealand. Ten people on the flight, no more, terrible weather after a ten hour delay due to tree-pulling winds. The fear is more than a tick now. It is abject and unrelenting and not good. My wife pats my hand but I am so tense that I’m pulling muscles in my back. I think she’s scared too and hiding it. The flight attendants look scared. That’s how horrible this flight is. It is impossible to stop imagining what the tiny plane looks like outside in the black of night, rain crashing down on it’s sardine-lid-thin fuselage. The plane tries to land, it cannot. It tries three times before giving in, and has to fly back to an airport with weather not as likely to leave the twenty-or-so souls on board a wreck of burning rubble.

You’re most likely to crash during take off or landing, I think, so it’s odd that the actual fear that seems to hold me hostage, so to speak, is the fear of the plane coming apart mid-air and its passengers (me, most importantly) hurtling towards the middle of an inky Atlantic ocean with only the black of night above it and surviving, somehow, in the ice-cold water before the sharks start to circle and pick me off, taking chunks out of my sides.

Yes, it’s really stupid, and I’m not convinced that I’ll always have this fear. I reckon I can shift it just as easily I contracted it. But for now I have to find distractions of my own. That’s how ‘Planes fly at different levels and the devils inside them don’t know it’ came to be. I was flying to a nothingy European airport and had managed a seat swap that saw me occupying front row seats affording me a legroom that I had no right to expect on a Ryanair flight. This small victory offset the pangs of dread and coupled with a smooth takeoff, I was actually able to enjoy the idea of the two hours of music and guilt-free quiet nothingness ahead of me. Short lived. A hen do, or something like it. Lots of drunk people near me, sitting on each other’s laps, photos, selfies, legs and arms commandeering arm rests, and hoarse bellows when the plane hit turbulence. Turbulence. And I’d left my paperback in my bag, way back where my original seat was. No way was I getting up. I had my phone, 58% battery, and the Notes app, and my seatbelt. Nothing else for it, always some writing or editing that I could get on with, should get on with. Nope. Not really. Not anything I could get in the mindset for, anyway. I pretended that the legs and champagne and lots of hair weren’t at the forefront of my conscious and turned my head to take a look out the window. I noticed a plane, right beneath us, flying in the opposite direction, and I wrote on my phone, “Planes fly at different levels and the devils inside them don’t know it,” and I wondered if this was true, and I wrote some more. And then more, and more. And I wrote about Burger King, about mums, about 9/11, about losers, about nothingy European towns. And more, and when we were landing, more, and then I was thrillingly close to completing a first draft of a short story. A real mess of a thing. But something, and it came from nowhere. Or at least nowhere usual.

Just as easily as it came, of course, it went. That’s what airport security does to a writer. It wasn’t till the flight home that I stumbled across the draft and had something approaching an allergic reaction to it. My skin came out in bumps. My face was red. What a mess. I emailed it to myself. Tomorrow Sean’s problem.

And yet, now I’ve come to think that stories written in a frenzy like this will probably be the better of the stories I write, or at least the more engaging. This story wasn’t quite about fear of flying, and it wasn’t quite about a broken down relationship, and it wasn’t quite about the batshit crazy mum, and although the backdrop of all this was September 11th, 2001, it wasn’t about that either. I couldn’t quite figure out exactly why that backdrop was important. I took it out several times. But every time I did I knew that there was something I wanted to say about the protagonist – an uninterested, wallowing, mixed up twenty-ish year old – that I was losing from the story. He’s self-involved, I realised. He’s twenty-ish after all. His failure to engage with the ongoing atrocity (a word we heard a lot that year) tells us a lot about him, I think. And in that failure to engage with public despair, I saw myself, and then the story winked at me. Is that what it was about? Hmmm. The characters written in to it… the mum, batshit crazy as she is, has her own blithe reality that allows her to be sure of her actions, enjoy them. To not give a fuck about herself enough to give a fuck about life. He’s yet to learn that. Is that it then? He thinks there’s something bigger to be worked out. When I saw myself in that protagonist, it felt right to write the character as a Sean. I gave this idiot my name. I did so with the intention of changing it back. I’ve done this before. But something didn’t feel right in this instance. That felt insincere, somehow. And suddenly sincerity was a major part of what this story was. The edit became easier. The easiest, in fact. The arbitrary format and choices I’d made on that plane, on my iPhone, hiding from that hen do, suddenly made sense. They came from a place of fear, and they told the story of that fear. That irrational fear. The fear of flying. The fear of crashing. The fear of sharks circling in on me, taking out chunks before I’ve had time to figure it all out.

Sean Preston is the editor of Open Pen Magazine, a free short fiction journal based in London. He works in music and writes short fiction, obviously.

© Sean Preston, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.