The aeroplane bucked and writhed underneath Anton as he clung to the arms of his seat. Every violent jolt upwards channelled through his spine and danced around his ribcage. He could feel pain in his shoulders, as if his bones were being gradually dislocated with every shove. Screaming voices all around him cascaded up and down like decorative fountains, some shrill and some already broken; men, women and children crying out in a terrible choir. Another vicious kick lifted him clear of his seat, the belt pinching into his stomach and groin. Hand luggage shuffled and rolled down the central aisle looking for the emergency exits. A smell of piss hung in the air; he wasn’t sure if it was his.
The aircraft, with suicidal determination, now plunged into a dive. The bucking gave way to a feeling of intense bondage and claustrophobia as the passengers were pinned to their seats by the g-forces. The staccato cries and shouts now became a steady wail, a constant unbroken arc of human terror and misery like a cascading ocean wave. Anton realised he couldn’t lift his head from the rest behind him. In that moment his fear which had been stretched like an elastic band now snapped. He experienced total serenity, like the hypothermia victim who feels warmth as their organs shut down.
Anton surveyed the scene with a calm detachment. As if removing sunglasses in front of a winter sun, he became more aware of the glaring white of the interior lights. Before the plane experienced trouble, the cabin bathed in the autumnal dimness of a September dusk, the only noise coming from the engines and the soft snores of dozing passengers. Now, lines of strip lights flooded everyone, accentuating their stiff, jerky spasms as they tried to fight against their seats, to allow themselves one final piece of freedom; movement.
The plane began to shake – no longer bucking but now like pushing a bed over a cobbled street. The interior lights blinked once and went out. The cabin filled with a red glare, the only illumination now coming from both engines ablaze. Whether it was psychological or literal, Anton could suddenly feel heat on his face for the first time. The serenity washed away again, the elastic repaired and wound tight. He realised he was too scared to even close his eyes. He wanted to see the end coming.
On a wide common, bordered by hedgerows and sliding into a shallow valley, two figures were prone. The air still had a taste of salt from the coast and on a clear day the sea would be visible, a thin strip of darker blue against the sky. Afternoon had long passed over to evening. At the side of the nearest road, a few hundred yards away, a car snapped and cracked itself cool from a thrashing on the winding country lanes.
“I never wanted to be a ballerina.” Alex, lying on her back in the long grass, picked a stem from between her stubby toes and lifted her leg high. The end of the stem tickled her face and she wrinkled her nose. Jack, lying alongside her top to toes, leaned underneath her upraised thigh and gave it a gentle bite through her jeans.
‘You’d only be interested in ballet, now, if you could perform in boots.’ Alex dropped her leg, sending it crashing down on Jack’s head. Propping himself up on one elbow, Jack examined her feet – probably a size smaller than nature had intended for her.
‘Does every little girl dream of being a ballerina?’
Alex shrugged. “I think so. Much like every little boy dreams of being a fireman I suppose. Except we get to have a go at it. Whereas you just run around the playground pretending to rescue cats from trees.”
‘You don’t think much of our imaginations do you…?’
Alex stared up and chewed the end of the grass stem.
“I thought ballet would be about freedom. Everything about the movement of a ballerina suggests freedom. The ability to fly, to leap, to float. But it’s all a sham. The shoes are restrictive. The outfit is restrictive. Everything is tight.”
‘I’m sure someone somewhere does ballet in baggy pants and a basketball shirt.’
Jack stared up at a murky sky. The cloud cover was thin this evening, but the transition from light to dark always produced an impenetrable darkness, between the sun disappearing and the moon rising to full power. A few of the brightest stars twinkled faintly and patiently, waiting for the moment to unleash themselves upon the sky. Jack kissed her foot as it pinched to grasp another stem of grass.
‘You haven’t been a ballerina since you were a teenager. What made you think of it?’
Alex grunted as she raised her leg again, keeping it at a right angle. Jack could see her looking at her foot with one eye, as though blocking out the few clusters of stars with her big toe.
“Just when we were tiptoeing across the river this morning, over the stepping stones. Whenever I have to watch my step, I start pointing my feet again. Like I’m performing a tendu.” She smiled at his blank expression. “It’s a move, don’t worry about it.”
Jack crawled up between her legs, she opened them giggling. ‘You know what your problem is?’
“I have a draught excluder between my legs”
‘Is it large and wide?’
“No.” She smiled and tweaked his nipples through his shirt. “It’s soft and lifeless.”
He rolled off in mock indignation.
“So what’s my problem?”
‘Too many regrets. You seem to have lived…’ He paused for a moment and then considered his words carefully like someone reading aloud ‘…as some sort of leaf floating through a delta, always wondering about the other tributaries.’
“Really?” She arched an eyebrow, and rolled onto her side to face him. “You never told me you’d started reading books…”
‘Actually, that came from me.’
“Did it really?”
‘No’ he grinned. ‘It was on a leaflet someone handed to me. Something about paths to righteousness.’ Alex looked at him confused.
‘Christians’ he shrugged. ‘I walked into a group of them trying to sidestep a Big Issue guy.’
“Serves you right” Alex snorted.
‘It’s not my fault! I’d already bought one from the woman outside the bakers.’ Jack rolled on his front and started ripping out fistfuls of grass, letting the blades slip between his fingers.
“A man of principles and yet financially responsible…what a lucky girl I am.” He poked his tongue out at her.
“What did you want to be when you were a little Jack anyway?”
‘I wanted to be what I am now; your sex slave’
“At six? That’s very strange Jack…”
He pulled a face at her. Luminous green eyes, rife with mischief, surveyed him carefully. Curling red locks tumbled around her pale face.
‘Nah. I can’t remember. Probably a fireman.’
“What was your favourite game in the playground?”
‘Are you psychologically assessing me again?’
Alex laughed. “I have no desire to get too deep into that…” She pressed a finger into his forehead. “I might not escape. I might get lost in the…”
‘…emptiness.’ Jack talked over her. ‘Yeah, saw that one coming.’
“Come on.” Alex softened her tone. “What did you used to play? Football?”
‘In a way, I suppose.’
“That’s very cryptic. Were you a secret agent footballer?”
“Did you swap sides at random when you could see who was going to win?”
‘I wasn’t very good at football, let’s just put it that way.’
“Poor baby. Were you the last one picked when you all lined up against the wall?”
Jack shifted onto his back and clasped his hands across his chest.
‘Actually, I was usually one of the first. Not because I was good. I had a…’ he started chuckling to himself ‘…a claim to fame. I hardly touched the ball most days, but on this one occasion I found myself standing near the opposition goal. And the ball came towards me. And I knew this was my moment.’
Alex’s eyes twinkled wide. “And?”
‘I just swung a foot at it. It was like a ballet move. Is there a ballet move where you just swing your foot?’
“I think you’re describing a roundhouse kick, but you won’t see it in ballet unless the dancers fall out…”
‘Anyway’ continued Jack, ignoring her. ‘I just flung my foot at it. Missed the ball completely.’
“Oh no! So you missed the goal?”
‘Missed the goal. But my shoe flew off and went straight through the headmaster’s window. I can’t believe I haven’t told you this already?’
Alex put a hand to her mouth.
‘Seriously.’ Jack cocked an eye towards her. ‘Straight through the window. He was in the middle of bollocking this real tough kid, used to bully everyone. Except, after that day, little me. The headmaster had to go to hospital. Some of the broken glass cut his face. I was a hero.’
“Did you get told off as well, Cinderella? Did they march you all into his office to see if the slipper fitted?”
‘Oh I owned up. It was an accident though. Playground full of witnesses.’
“So… you missed a goal and put your headmaster in hospital, and as a result they always picked you for the football team.”
‘Yeah. They wanted to see if I did it again. I think most of the kids were convinced I’d done it on purpose.’
Jack closed his eyes and felt the breeze drift like hands beneath his shirt. He and Alex had dated for just over a year. Far enough from the initial flushes of lust and exaggerated truth, they were now a well-oiled gearbox clicking away together. He’d helped her through her first tattoo. She’d helped him to curb his gambling, to endure and then desire an evening spent with nature rather than staring up at small TV screens in a dingy bookies surrounded by the smell of alcohol and artificially fresh air, screaming blue murder at a the name of a horse he’d never seen.
“So what else was there, apart from your violent football career?”
‘I’m trying to think now. There was another game we played, but I can’t remember why…’
“What’d you mean, ‘why?’”
‘I mean, I can’t remember what the point was. We all had to try and climb this tree, but we all sat on different branches at different heights and pretended… something. I dunno. Maybe we were astronauts.’
“It’d make sense” Alex nodded. “I wanted to be an astronaut for a while. There was a group of boys who’d pretend to be space heroes, but I couldn’t play unless I was the princess to be rescued. I wanted to be in the spaceships pressing the laser guns.”
‘You could’ve, you know… If you joined the boys game as a princess, you could’ve allowed yourself to be rescued, then overpowered the crew one by one until you had command of the ship.’
“Well gee” deadpanned Alex. “I didn’t think about revolution much when I was seven. I bet you refused to let the girls play.”
‘Probably. It was just an unwritten rule. Girls were weird. Some of them still are.’ Alex looked across to him, lying prone with his eyes closed and sprinkled loose grass over his eyes.
‘I think there’s a market for a ballerina astronaut. You should write a comic book. The Adventures of…’ There was a long pause.
“You’re trying to think of a ballerina’s name aren’t you…”
“Ballet in space would be amazing. Shame I’ll never get to do it.”
‘….there you go again with the regrets.’
“Oh really? You think NASA are headhunting at Opera Houses for their next mission?”
‘They’ve taken up dogs, ants, spiders, monkeys… It’s not so strange to imagine ballerinas.’
“What lovely company you’ve put us in” Alex laughed. She lay on her back, the pair of them invisible in the swaying grass, flattened into an oval around them.
‘You’ll work it out one day’ murmured Jack, almost to himself.
“Work what out?”
‘What you want to do. That’s what it’s about isn’t it? You’re searching for clues in your past for a direction for the future…’
“Okay Jack, I’m serious now, what have you been reading besides faith leaflets…”
He laughed and brushed the loose grass from his eyes, keeping them closed. ‘It’s not profound. It’s as obvious as a ballerina astronaut. You’ll find the clue one day. Just don’t discount the future that’s all. You’ll be spending so much time in the past, the clue might be in the future whilst your back is turned.’
“And what do I owe for all this amazing advice?”
‘A good fucking when we get back to the flat.’
‘Take it or leave it.’
Alex leaned over and kissed his cheek, resting her head on his chest. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, bringing her tight. “I’ll think about it…”
She closed her eyes for a moment until she felt herself hypnotised by the hiss of the wind through the grass. The weightlessness of sleep threatened to take over. She felt a trickle of saliva emerging from the corner of her mouth onto Jack’s gently rising chest, his breathing now a soft snore. Raising herself upright, she rubbed her eyes and let out a yawn, looking up to the dark sky above, stars now twinkling gleefully as though let out to play at last. Instantly, she felt herself jolted out of lethargy, all senses tingling to the unnatural orange light in front of her.
“Holy shit” she whispered softly, jabbing a finger into Jack’s ribs. “Jack. Look at this.”
‘If it’s a shooting star, make a wish’ he mumbled.
“Look” she hissed.
Jack opened his eyes, irritably and looked up. Slowly, and in a serene, almost graceful silence, an elongated ball of fire sunk towards the distant horizon.