Monday, April 29, 2013

Fiction #43: Ellen Brooker

30, 000 Feet

At 30, 000 feet, everything is life or death.
                                                            -Captain Riley

You are to take this job as seriously as you would your own life, they tell them. You may never falter. Then they proceed to demonstrate the correct procedure for tying the perfect neck handkerchief. Right over left, pull taught, and complete the loop. Do not cinch too tightly. Avoid puckering. This speech is delivered with the same gravity allotted to drills concerning emergency procedures. Of course, nobody will plummet to a windy, cheek-flapping death if John Doe gets only one olive in his martini, but that too is treated with the utmost seriousness. Your actions must be precise and efficient. It’s all part of the procedure: the drink tray rattling down the aisle, the synthetic blanket, hostile with static electricity, the definitive click as the seatbelt closes around little Claire’s small hips. She will twist her way free and peer over her seat back once her mother has nodded off. Remain pleasant, but be stern with children.

* * *

Annette pursed her lips into her compact mirror, frowning at the spidery offshoots that breached the lipstick parameter.  You are a symbol of poise and elegance, she told herself, wetting a tissue to dab at the stray rouge. Maintain a polished exterior. If you appear in control, so too does the rest of the crew, and, most importantly, the plane. This is crucial. She closed her eyes, drew in a slow, steady breath, and relaxed into a smile as she exhaled. She was to meet an elderly couple at the gate in five minutes, the first special task she had been allotted since the catastrophic spill of Week Four.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hughes?”

Morrie Hughes turned towards the pert stewardess and did his best to straighten, despite his groaning back. He resented the fact that Grace had requested assistance, and was determined to show the young woman in front of him that a grave mistake had been made. Morrie, once a regal six foot two, now stooped a painful foot below, a reduction made at the expense of his protesting spine. Still, he took a deep breath, stuck out his chest, and produced an arm for the young lady to take. He would be escorting her back to her post. Not the other way around. Annette craned her neck, twisting her face away from the man’s putrid breath as she reached for his outstretched arm. What is it about old people that makes their breath smell so bad, she thought. Are they just starting to rot?  

Grace Hughes saw the stewardess flinch as Morrie leaned heavily on her arm, and felt a hot splash of guilt. Her husband, fiercely proud, looked gutted at his staggering walk next to the woman in sensible heels, and yet resolutely set on impressing her with his remaining agility. Morrie had wanted to drive the distance, but for the greater good, Grace had persuaded him to fly. When the stewardess spoke, her words were breathless:

“What’s the purpose of your trip today, sir? Business or pleasure?”

“Pleasure of course,” huffed Morrie. Keeping up with the stewardess’s long strides was beginning to wind him, but he’d be damned if it showed. The result resembled a rag-tag three-legged race, both participants flailing towards the end in a simultaneous attempt to work as a team and win for himself. “My son’s just had his first child!”

“Well that’s lovely, sir. Congratulations.” In an attempt to slow Morrie’s lurching progress, she turned to Grace. “May I take your bag ma’am?” Annette hesitated before taking the handles, unsure of the correct procedures. Never touch a passenger’s personal items without consent. The woman’s cavernous bag threw Annette off of her balance as she tried to take it. This is the world’s heaviest knitting. What the hell is she making, chain mail? Annette heaved the bag over her shoulder, all the while trying to keep her smile intact and a steady hold on Morrie. He seemed to be trying to lead the way, though he was pulling her towards the flight to Turkey. Discretion is essential to your guest’s comfort. If you are flustered, it will show. Do not fuss, and do not be presumptuous.

Grace chuckled to herself, accustomed to her husband’s headstrong ways. The poor girl seemed to be struggling to balance the knitting and her husband, something Grace had spent the last forty-four years perfecting. Still, the stewardess had set her jaw and was marching dutifully alongside Morrie’s deliberate charge towards the gate. Grace trailed, quietly reminiscing about her own days as a young, working girl. Keep the men happy, she recited under her breath. And, with a smile, let them think they’re in charge.

Annette was covered in a sticky mist of sweat by the time the Hughes’ were seated. He, broad shoulders and overcoat wedged next to the window. She, neatly tucked under a lap blanket which grew as she knitted. Annette stationed herself in the aircraft’s small galley, smoothed her blouse, and prepared to greet the other passengers now boarding. She stole a quick glance back at the couple, whose heads bobbed in conversation. When they settled back against their seats, Annette let out a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding.

* * *

Little Claire bounced her feet rhythmically, intently watching her mother’s fluttering eyelashes. She was a well-behaved child, with delicate ruffles on her white socks and shiny black Sunday shoes. But she was restless. The seatbelt dug into her soft stomach, reminding her of the Animal Crackers in her mother’s handbag. Claire weighed her options: waking and angering her mother for a packet of yummy cookies, or a peek into the cockpit if she used her manners. Her mother nearly always slept after a scotch or two, leaving Claire to roam up and down the aisles and peer into the lives of the other grown-ups. Adults were always so stiff and neat, like somebody was going to take their picture. But on planes, everybody got wrinkly. The men in suits near the front with not enough leg room, the lady in the pretty red dress who had taken her shoes off, the Grandma and Grandad who smelled like the attic. She knew they would all start to stir and straighten once dinner was served, but for now, they were all spread out over the seats, arranged like Claire’s joint-less dolls.

Dinner on this particular flight came just late enough that most everyone had fallen asleep. Grace had been intently knitting and took the liberty of ordering for the still sleeping Morrie. The meal was a choice between beef stew, a watery broth that coated the mouth in an oily residue; and a vegetable stir-fry of flaccid carrots and clumped noodles. Morrie hated carrots, and besides, the stew came with a bread pudding.

“Oh! My goodness!” Annette was so intent on delivering the steaming plastic container safely to the flimsy tray in front of Grace, she didn’t notice the small child’s face that appeared next to her elbow. When she caught young Claire’s curious gaze out of the corner of her eye, she started violently, splashing the stew into Morrie’s lap. She fumbled for a napkin and pawed at the pile of stringy beef cubes for a moment before realizing that Grace was laughing heartily.

“He’s asleep dear, nothing will wake him. And besides,” she motioned to Annette’s hands, “I think he ought to buy you a proper dinner before anything of that sort goes on.”

“Oh!” Annette gasped, a crimson bloom spreading from the base of her neck. “I am so sorry ma’am, please excuse me!”

Grace chuckled to herself, “Poor girl. Not so bad for you though, eh Morrie?”

You are a picture of poise and elegance, poise and elegance, poise and elegance! Annette whispered to herself, trying to keep tears at bay as she rushed to the back of the plane. Thank God he didn’t wake up! Annette decided that the least she could do was find the poor man a blanket. Her hand had brushed his when she reached to clean up the mess, and it had shocked her with its iciness.

A short while later, Annette crept to Grace’s arm, blanket in hand and a perplexed expression on her face. Well this is going to be difficult. Morrie was still asleep, face turned towards the closed window, and his wife was now snoring gently beside him, his bread pudding settling in her stomach. Annette leaned as far forward as she could in an attempt to drape the blanket over Morrie’s broad frame. As she did so, a strand of Grace’s hair tickled her nose, triggering a violent sneeze. She leapt backwards, hand over her mouth. Grace sighed in her sleep, but still no movement from her husband. Annette frowned as an unnerving thought entered her mind. She folded the blanket over Morrie’s knees and walked slowly to the back of the plane, chewing on the inside of her cheek.

He was so cold. That can’t be normal, can it? Maybe…

Well Grandma’s heat is always cranked, and she wears sweatsuits in the summer for God’s sake. Annette fiddled with the kettle in the cramped galley.  Maybe old people are always that cold. It probably has something to do with their blood slowing down. Yes, that would make sense. But he was just so cold! Maybe he’s sick or something. Or…

Annette froze, then dismissed the idea. Still, I should go check. She finished stocking her beverage cart and headed down the aisle.

* * *

“Coffee, tea, or juice?”

Grace, awake after briefly nodding off, accepted a steaming tea from the young stewardess, and placed it on Morrie’s tray for when he awoke.

“If you’re not going to eat your dinner, dear,” she chided in her husband’s direction, “at least have a sweetie from my bag. You know how you get when your blood sugar dips.”

Morrie had been asleep for the better part of the evening and Grace, having lost her own dinner, had already finished off his stew, his apple juice, and the end of a crusty roll that butter barely salvaged. “Fine, starve to death. Silly man.”

Grace turned from Morrie and stared absently at the chair in front of her. She had accepted the flimsy headphones from the passing stewardess before she knew what they were and tucked them into the pocket. Now, she fished them out and blindly stabbed at her armrest, searching for the jack to plug them into. She nearly broke Morrie’s hand when she finally succeeded. Grace startled easily, and the decibel of the in-flight audio could have raised the dead. Morrie didn’t even stir.

Annette rushed away from the elderly couple. Oh my god. He didn’t even flinch when she crushed his hand. That can’t be good! He has been asleep for way too long. I don’t even think he’s breathing! At least, it didn’t look like he was…kind of hard to tell with all those chins in the way. How do they check for breathing in the movies? Didn’t they use a mirror in front of someone’s mouth? Well that would look strange. What would I even say? A knife would probably work, but that looks even worse!

"Excuse me ma’am, mind if I hold cutlery in front of your husband’s face? Oh nothing, just checking to see if he’s dead.” God…

Annette snuck a peek at the couple again.

“Morrie dear, listen to this!” Grace jammed one of the headphones into his ear, intently focused on the plastic buttons on her armrest. “I’ve found a classical station. You should hear some of the other rubbish they’ve got on here, though. I’ll just turn it up for you.”

From her spot at the center preparation area, Annette watched Grace interact with her husband, seemingly oblivious to his lack of response. How can she not notice? Maybe he really is sleeping, and I’m just losing it. Wouldn’t that make the other girls laugh!

“There goes Annette again, getting all flustered over nothing.”

Never assume. That’s what they told us. Never panic unnecessarily, and never upset passengers. I’ve got to get another look. But how to get close again? Annette racked her brain for any excuse to approach the couple. You must do everything in your power to ensure a guest’s utmost comfort.  Annette grabbed a pillow from the shelf and slowly, deliberately inched her way towards the pair.

“Hello ma’am. I couldn’t help but notice your husband enjoying his rest, so I thought he might like another pillow.”

Grace pulled the headphones from her ears as the stewardess approached. “Oh, how sweet of you! Morrie can sleep almost anywhere, but I’m sure he’d appreciate it.” She settled back into her seat, replacing the headphones.

Annette leaned awkwardly over Grace and took Morrie’s head gently in her hand. Her stomach lurched, and she resisted the urge to choke on her own bile. His head lolled to the side, leaden and unsupported by Annette’s small hand. She whipped the pillow underneath and propped him up as naturally as possible.

Shit, shit, shit, shit. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t panic! Just stay calm, remember what they said. In the event of an emergency, relate directions as simply as possible to avoid confusion.

 Oxygen masks are located- oh for God’s sake that doesn’t matter! Oxygen doesn’t help you when you’re already dead! Okay, relax. Think. Just carry on normally, go back to your station and continue doing your job.
Annette grabbed an unoccupied drink tray and continued marching up and down the aisles, scarcely turning her head for thirsty guests.

“Coffee, tea, or juice?” How can people think of refreshments at a time like this!?

“Coffee, tea, or juice?” You have to tell the Captain. Never disturb the Captain unless it is absolutely necessary. You have to tell him, Annette. Only enter the cockpit uninvited in the event of an emergency. I think this counts as an emergency!

 “Coffee, tea, or juice?” Do not upset passengers unnecessarily. But you have to tell his wife! I think this is necessary! Okay, breathe. Put the cart away, and just go knock on that door. Don’t stop to think, just do it. Knock.

“Sir, we have a passenger who- no, that’s not right.“

“Excuse me sir, but we have a passenger with a one way ticket.”

“Captain, one of our guests has checked his last baggage.

Reached his final destination.

Stopped collecting Air Miles.

Missed his connecting flight...”

Knock, Annette.


“Excuse me, Captain? I’m sorry to disturb you, but I think we have a problem.”


Ellen Brooker is a second year student at Queen’s University, currently obtaining a BAH (Honours) with a Specialization in Stage and Screen. She writes about the oddities of the world around her, because most of the time, reality is stranger than anything she could possibly make up.

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